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Alone at last in the spotlight

Former bassist for Hole and Smashing Pumpkins emerges on her own.

April 10, 2004|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

The list of bass players stepping from the shadows into the spotlight as lead singers of their own projects is a short one. Restrict the criteria to female bass players and the list becomes even shorter. Among the most prominent: Suzi Quatro, the Go-Go's Kathy Valentine and the Pixies' Kim Deal.

Now there's Melissa Auf der Maur, who played with two of the most celebrated alt-rock acts of the '90s, first as the other woman in Hole, then with the Smashing Pumpkins on the band's farewell tour. The musician is about to make her solo debut with a self-titled release on Capitol Records.

"It's just a natural evolution," said Auf der Maur, 32, a native Canadian who splits her time between New York City and Montreal. "It doesn't feel like one day to the next my life shifted from being the bass player in somebody's band to being lead singer of my band. I'm just a musician that's been playing since I was 6 years old."

Her album, due in stores May 18, leaves no doubt Auf der Maur is a seasoned musician, even if there's little evidence she played with Hole and the Pumpkins.

More metal than rock, it has an almost Viking sensibility. The guitars are heavy as an anvil, the drums primal. Her vocals vacillate from caterwauls to siren songs -- earthy and animalistic or ethereally sweet.

As a singer, Auf der Maur is less self-centeredly charismatic than Hole's Courtney Love or the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. In place of their troubled personalities and anger are friendship and love a result of Auf der Maur's warm spirit and respect for the musicians with whom she collaborated.

That list includes singer-guitarist Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and his former bandmate in Kyuss, drummer Brant Bjork, as well as former Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson, Smashing Pumpkins guitar alumnus James Iha and guitarist Steve Durant from Auf der Maur's first group, Tinker.

"Everyone on the album is from the experience of hearing a record, seeing a show, meeting someone, being on tour with them and them making a special mark in my book of inspiring, sweet people," Auf der Maur said.

The only child of a politician father and rock journalist mother, Auf der Maur had been playing bass little more than a year when she met Corgan in 1990 at a tiny Montreal club, where Tinker was opening for the then-unknown Smashing Pumpkins. The groups drew a meager crowd of two dozen, one of whom threw a bottle and an insult at Corgan, who responded by diving into the audience, fists swinging.

After the show, Auf der Maur approached Corgan to apologize "on behalf of Montreal."

It was a simple gesture, but it made a lasting impression. Three years later, after the Smashing Pumpkins' success with "Siamese Dream," Auf der Maur wrote a letter to the group asking if Tinker could again open for the band in Montreal.

Corgan agreed. Six months after that show, he called to say "You're going to join my friend Courtney's band."

Unprepared to trade in her quiet life as a photography student and bass-playing unknown for the emotionally messy world surrounding Love, who was coping simultaneously with her husband Kurt Cobain's suicide and the growing success of Hole, Auf der Maur declined. But after much lobbying from friends and a phone call from Love, she signed a five-year contract with the band. In 1999, her duties fulfilled, she left the band to pursue a solo project.

Despite the chaos surrounding Hole, Auf der Maur has never spoken publicly of any problems and said Love was "one of the most important people of my young adult life, and she always will have that love and respect from me."

Even so, Auf der Maur hasn't spoken with Love in years. "The only way I can explain it is I was married to Hole and we got a divorce and it's not always easy to be best friends with the people you're married to," she said. "Courtney is somebody that I'm grateful forever that she took this risk on this 22-year-old Canadian bass player out of nowhere."

Auf der Maur said she didn't chafe at Love's personality so much as at "the music industry, the lawyers, the managers, the expectations. I don't like to work in that kind of environment. By the time I got out of Hole, I was ready to break all structure."

She didn't have the chance for a year. The same week she left Hole, D'Arcy Wretzky left the Pumpkins; Auf der Maur filled in for her on a yearlong tour.

By 2000, after six years in bands that gave her little creative input, she had a lot of pent-up musical ideas. She spent a couple of years "doing a lot of strange things," she said, "deconstructing everything."

That included a stint singing in a friend's Black Sabbath tribute band and scoring the film "Luck" with Iha. By 2002, she was ready to devote herself 100% to her solo project.

"In a bizarre way, I felt like I took a vacation into another world and have returned to where I was with all these incredible lessons in life, music, people, travel, everything," she said.

Possibly her greatest lesson: Beware of the music industry.

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