Portland, Ore.—After a recent evening of dinner and drinks with artist/musician Erika Anderson, I was taken to a stranger's apartment, then asked to put on a VR headset and lie on a floor. I did as I was told, without any explanation of what was about to happen. I could hear muffled giggling in the room through my headphones as a VR scene opened up above me.
I had landed in an alternate reality of technicolor skies while laying on what appeared to be a massage table. The VR experience invited me to look to my left, where I saw a mirrored reflection of "myself." I had become a brightly colored naked woman. Then, the ponies appeared. Little pink ponies began slowly prancing in my direction, and once they reached my virtual body, I could feel something in real life—like little hooves—"running" over my arm just as they appeared in VR.
A few hours earlier, I had asked Anderson, better known to indie and experimental music fans as the critically acclaimed EMA, to show me around her current hometown of Portland in whatever way she pleased. I did this in part to talk about her brand-new, well-reviewed album, Exile in the Outer Ring, but also about her dabbling with technology in the public sphere and what her future tech-related plans might be. I should have known that her Portland tour would somehow combine computers, art, discomfort, and insanity. I just didn't think it'd lead me to an impromptu VR animal-massage experience on a dirty apartment floor.
This is a weird situation for me all around—and not just the stranger's-floor bit. My work at Ars Technica does not regularly involve talking with or about avant-garde musicians. But I reached out to Anderson because I am a fan, owing in part to my past career as a full-time music critic who loves abrasive, technology-infused music.
"Breathalyzer" by EMA
EMA's sound fits that bill. She exploded in 2011, during the bygone "music blogger" era, with a discordant album called Past Lives Forgotten Saints. (You may have also heard her chunky, noise-drenched cover of Nirvana's "Endless, Nameless" on a SPIN compilation for Nevermind's 20th anniversary.)
Her follow-up 2014 album, The Future Void, also seriously caught my eye, because it featured something uncommon at the time: a prominent virtual reality headset. For the album's cover photo, Anderson donned an Oculus Rift DK1. Its front helmet face was covered in a colored design, then photographed with an intentional blur effect.
"I feel mixed about it now," Anderson says while lighting a cigarette at a café near her Portland apartment in the Irvington neighborhood. She didn't intend to make a statement about the idea of VR. Instead, the throwaway cover idea was a reaction to indie-level fame.
"I was terrified of being too exposed on the Internet during [the promotion for] Past Lives Modern Saints. I clamped down on my... everything. I put up walls around myself for a number of reasons. One of which was, my label asking, 'be on the cover of your record again!'"
When she complained about this request, her partner and bandmate Leif Shackelford pointed to his own Oculus DK1 headset, which he had recently purchased to play and tinker with. He suggested it as a mask—and one that might connect to themes in the album's lyrics. (Anderson describes one of that album's themes, in part, as "the psychic pain... we feel when we take something 3D and collapse it into 2D.")
She didn't expect VR to take off as a public trend in the following years—"this was before people knew who Palmer Luckey was," she says—and didn't intend to make a sweeping statement about VR. She's cool with one consequence of the lark photo: becoming one of the first musicians to ever launch a VR music-and-art project. (For perspective, she beat Bjork to the punch by over a year.)
The live performance piece, dubbed "I Wanna Destroy," debuted on February 15, 2015 at New York City's MoMA PS1 with a combination of on-stage and in-VR elements. While waiting in line for a turn with a DK1 VR headset, the crowd could watch Anderson read essays and perform a mix of structured songs and experimental sounds. Anderson sat in what looked like a staged, messy living room, and VR viewers saw the same room—and a digital facsimile of Anderson that would do things like transform into a "low-poly snake man" and float into the clouds. VR experimenter and artist Zach Krausnick manipulated the VR contents in real-time based on Anderson's performance. (She describes their preparation as "improv VR practice," which I point out only because I had never heard that term before.)
The one-night-only show took place on a blizzard so bad that New York's mayor warned people to stay home. They came, anyway. "People stood in line on the coldest day of the year!" Anderson remembers, and she blames it in part on people eager to try VR for their first time.
"Thinkin' 'bout the Dark Web"
A portion of that installation's music was recorded for EMA's new album this week, and it stands out as one of its most obvious-narrative songs. Most of her lyrics tend toward the abstract and demonstrative, but "I Wanna Destroy" is tense and direct, shouting by its end: "We're arbitrary, we're temporary." Anderson points to it as a keystone of the record's primary theme.
"I think of someone in a very bare room, white walls, sitting on a bed," Anderson says about the song's apparent narrator. "The only connection they have to the outside world is through a screen."
In Anderson's case, that's somewhat autobiographical. Anderson eventually takes me to her own apartment and its basement recording studio. An array of recording and musical hardware lines one wall, which is flanked by wood paneling taken from a Francis Ford Coppola winery for free. But Anderson focuses mostly on the computer in the room—a decade old Hackintosh, she says—whose desktop is littered with various Notepad text windows, each littered with words. "Don't look at it yet!" she shouts as she powers the monitor on.
I oblige, but I shamelessly leave my tape recorder on while Anderson selects and plays various music demos and experiments filling her hard drive. She plays an alternate version of the album's aggressive, declarative "33 Nihilistic and Female," then plays a few other trippy noise experiments. Anderson points out moments where singular sound effects and synthesizer tones shine through the entire mix—or, at least, she notices them—then "solos" those tracks on her speakers to point the intricacies out to my untrained ears. She recognizes that this kind of intense scrutiny is pretty rare in her life.
Anderson points out a few pieces of gear she's gotten for free over the years, saying sometimes she uses an instrument because she gets it for free, not because it has particularly great tone.
"I hate spending money on things because I don’t try to make money very hard, I’m not very good at it," she says. "I don’t have a lot of nice things. I don’t take care of things. I’m not attached to this world. Yet my [recording] process, despite all that—I’m very specific about composition, tone, and structure. I make order within this world that doesn’t exist in my other real, physical world in any way."
The rest of her apartment reflects this, with a mix of used furniture and scattered books and records, some put away and others tossed onto tables in uneven stacks. (It honestly looks like the intentionally messy couch scene in her MoMA performance.) Her incredibly unassuming apartment looks like the kinds my friends lived in while trying to save money in college. The fridge is smothered in photos, as well, including tons of Anderson's family members. "There's my mom and dad," Anderson shouts in her native South Dakotan accent, "thinkin' 'bout the Dark Web!"
Anderson had just told a story about her mom calling on the phone and asking pointed, informed questions about web sites only accessible via Tor. She also recalls her mother being an interested advocate for her young musical leanings. When Anderson asked for a four-track as a kid, so that she could start layering solo recordings of vocals, guitars, and other noise by herself (before she eventually moved to the west coast and became involved in the noise-rock scene in a big way), mom obliged, but not without offering advice.
"My mom was like, "Why don’t you try making music on the computer? There’s this thing called Cakewalk!'" At the time, I was like, 'no, mom, that’s laaaame.' Later, I realized, Jesus, I should’ve listened! I could’ve had a leg up on this!" Anderson laughs while saying this and gesturing to an Ableton interface on her Hackintosh.
Hear my words, what they mean, what they say
All of this leads back to a surprising song that Anderson plays for me: her unreleased cover of the solo Glen Danzig song "Mother." Anderson queues the cover matter-of-factly, saying it was an early experiment that combined multi-part harmonies and autotune.
"I'm just playing with it!" she says, but the cover sounds far more composed than that. Despite this only being an a capella version, Anderson's singular, husky vocals turn "Mother" into a far more threatening, poison-tongued call to action.
Danzig keeps coming up in Anderson's stories, because it's a callback to her childhood in small-town South Dakota. She recalls sitting in dirty, low-rent rooms with her town's toughest and most ignorant guys—and the strange desire she had to keep up with them as a cool or tough kid. Anderson later sends me audio of a spoken-word performance about that crowd, and it's an unbelievable story of drugs, crime, and other insanity. It also includes this ode to her circle of friends at the time, who liked to hide in small rooms and talk trash with each other behind closed doors:
That sort of talk was just nobodies in the middle of nowhere going no place. It was easy to talk shit about Jews and black people because in South Dakota, there aren't any. Those things were just abstractions for a larger world that they were never going to be a part of. They were ignorant assholes, but I loved these boys. I never met a capital-A artist of any kind. They were the closest thing to intelligence and art that I'd found in that town, even if the art was mostly the performance variety, that involved pissing in motel refrigerators or throwing TVs off of balconies.
These kids (who, among other things, loved that Danzig song in the '90s) keep coming up for Anderson as she thinks about this record, especially the song "I Wanna Destroy." She imagines modern kids in isolation who do most of their shouting through a computer screen. She thinks about how the hateful speech she saw in grimy rooms as a teen has moved into very different kinds of "rooms" in the decades since. She's obsessed with how information is disseminated, including how artistic tastes, especially for rebellious teens, are curated now compared to the more archaic, pre-Internet methods of her generation.
The record is an open-ended exploration about computer-based isolation—and the trend of underprivileged communities, including everyone from broke artists to disenfranchised cultures, moving out of city centers and into more affordable suburban sprawl. She's quick to distance herself from loaded words like "gentrification."
"It’s not pointing a finger or shaming anybody, saying, 'you ruined [this place]!' It’s just asking, logistically, realistically, what’s happening [to cities and communities] right now?"
More disconnected communities means more staring into screens, Anderson guesses (though not emphatically). To be clear, she spent more time exploring Internet-related anxiety on the lyrics of her 2014 record, The Future's Void. Anderson admits that she feared exposure and harassment online and thus went into hiding—no self-promotion, no major risks—for a few years. This lead in part to her hiding mostly on her computer when she left West Los Angeles a few years ago and set up shop in the more affordable city of Portland.
"Down and Out" by EMA
One casualty, she says, is that she's struggled to make connections and find new collaborators to return to VR-related performance projects. (She has a dream of making a VR experience that looks just like "punk house" of old, the kind where punk rockers, anarchists, and other creative folks would congregate to host concerts, publish zines, and more. Users would be able to walk around a virtual punk house and see documents of punk scenes big and small through the past few decades. It would speak, in part, to that obsession with how art-related discourse has been disseminated over the decades.)
She's cautious to connect dots about types of people who might go online and spew hate or bile towards her or other female artists.
"I get why people would do that," she says without explanation—the way anybody who grows up in the South would shrug off all-too-frequent examples of hate in their own community. "But in 2011, I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that sort of thing in a public space. Anita Sarkeesian said, 'fuck it, I’m going to do it anyway.' But look what happened! Shit gets real."
"Riding the line"
Anderson appears ready to peek out in the form of music and performances—but not in making serious money. She bemoans the fact her experimental, alternative music has been arguably as popular as '90s and '00s bands and artists she's friends with, yet in terms of a sustainable career, "streaming services destroyed that possibility for me."
But she also seems happy "riding the line" between being a known musical name and hiding in plain sight. "I just need to be not famous enough to say what I wanna say without being doxed," she says.
To her, virtual reality projects are an interesting path to doing what she likes to do best: make art that's instantly interesting yet benefits from depth. The VR demos she's liked the most have let users explore stories at their own pace. And this brings us back to VR pony massage.
Erika Anderson gets ready for a VR animal massage, presented by VR game and experiment designer Seanna Musgrave. / Sam Machkovech
This VR demo, I should point out, is not Anderson's, but rather from experimental game and VR designer Seanna Musgrave. It's Musgrave who puts on various gloves and taps fingers on my arm, as if tiny, hallucinatory ponies were actually prancing there. Later, she rubs tiny kitty paws on my face and tickles my nose with a bird's feather. I almost feel violated by this combination of physical touch and virtual sensory manipulation—it's certainly a first for me in a VR experience, at least in terms of sheer intimacy.
Anderson takes her turn trying the demo out later, and she can't help but shriek in delight. She later describes other moving VR experiences, including one in which a 911 call's events are recreated, and essentially uses our interview to make a pretty loud declaration: if anybody out there enjoys her experimental music and has an idea for a VR collaboration, she's interested. Especially if it, like the music on her albums, works on many layers.
"Sometimes a story doesn’t have to be linear," Anderson says. "It can be deep. You could just go into it for two minutes and have an experience, or you go deeper and learn about family, about perception, about socio-economic factors. That’s what the band is good at, in records. You can think a loud part rules, or think about, what effect does tech have on communities not only with individual alienation from other communities but the economic effects of the tech industry on marginalized populations in city centers? Go as deep as you want. Or rock out."