When Creager emerges, clad in a long vintage dress, she looks like she’s ready to sit in a rocker next to the fireplace and get out her knitting needles. But before we can unravel Rasputina’s yarn, your music editor first needs to use the facilities. Is there an outhouse in the backyard? “Are you kidding? I wish,” says Creager, the band’s “directress”—not entirely joking, it would seem. Thankfully, however, there’s a water closet near the music/sewing room.
If this all sounds like something out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, well, fans of Creager’s ongoing band likely won’t be surprised. After all, they’ll tell you, Rasputina is almost as well known for its obsessive historical themes and Victorian aesthetic as for its haunting sound and offbeat instrumentation. Started by singer and cellist Creager almost 20 years ago, the group is occasionally augmented by other instruments but currently consists of herself, another cellist, and a drummer. The music, a sort of darkly wistful chamber rock, evokes the Byronic epicisim of Kate Bush and the more whimsical side of T. Rex while peeling away much of the filigree—but not too much.
On the band’s brilliant seventh and newest album, Sister Kinderhook (2010, Filthy Bonnet Recording Co.), the sound is at its wuthering height. Bows skitter robustly across taut cello strings. Banjos are intricately plucked. Harpsichords are tickled deftly. And ankle bells, djembe, and bass drum combine to form the sound of, according to one review, a “Native American drum machine.” In a soaring, mournful voice, Creager weaves tapestries of deep arcana, much of them referencing the Hudson Valley: the plight of female workers in “Kinderhook Hoopskirt Works” (lyric: “There comes an undertone of frantic in their stitchery”); the legend of a sequestered child in “The Snow-Hen of Austerlitz” (“The mother is blind and keeps some birds as pets / That her baby is a human, she forgets”); and the bizarre costumes of rebels during the Anti-Rent Wars in “Calico Indians” (“What do you wear for civil war in 1844 in upstate New York?”). Such scholarly minutiae delivered in song form begs the question: Which interest came first, music or history?
“Hmm, no one’s ever asked me that before,” Creager says, puzzled by the oversight. “It was definitely music, though. My first songs were just normal stuff, about boyfriends and whatever. The historical stuff came much later.” Her own history, though, begins in Emporia, Kansas, where she and two other adopted siblings would often play music together at home with their parents. Her father, a physics professor, had played cello in college and was excited when she wanted to learn the instrument. She set her sights beyond the boundaries of the tornado target of Emporia at an early age. “The biggest employer in town was the slaughterhouse, and that’s where so many of the people around me ended up working,” she recalls. “It gave off quite a stink, too. Everyone called it ‘the Beef.’” The road out was partially mapped by a subscription to Andy Warhol’s Interview. “I’d look at the party pages and see pictures of people at [famed nightspots] the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City,” she says. “I got an asymmetric new-wave haircut.”
A summer program at the Philadelphia College of Art was a way station en route to New York, where Creager came in 1984 to study photography at Parsons School of Design. Before long, she was mixing it up in the club world, playing behind downtown drag performers and with indie unit Ultra Vivid Scene. In 1989 she started the Traveling Ladies Cello Society, a duo with fellow cellist Julia Kent, which, thanks to an ad soliciting additional like-minded female players, eventually blossomed into the six-cello strong Rasputina. With its unique setup and gothy, corseted look, the band stood out even on the colorful Lower East Side rock scene, and was soon being courted by the majors. By 1996 the sextet had pared down to three cellists and added a drummer in time for Thanks for the Ether (Columbia Records), an, er, ethereal debut highlighted by eccentric originals (“My Little Shirtwaist Fire,” “The Donner Party”) and suitably twisted covers (Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” Melanie’s “Brand New Key”). In support of the release the band toured with Bob Mould, Porno for Pyros, and even Marilyn Manson, who remixed several of the album’s tracks for an EP. But after a 1997 sophomore full-length, the techno-tinged How We Quit the Forest (produced by Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna, who also plays on the disc), Rasputina was still having trouble breaking commercially and relations with Columbia were beginning to crack. “Looking back on it now, I can see [the label] didn’t know what to do with us. I guess they thought we were going to be the next Enya or something,” says Creager. “I mean, three chicks in bloomers playing the cello? Come on.”