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Annalibera on opening for Pavement, their latest album 'Moon Bath'

Annaliberas-new-album-moonbath-now-streaming
Nathan Kouri
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The B-side
Annalibera's new album "Moonbath" is now streaming on all digital platforms.

Annalibera is playing Max Ames Music Fest this weekend before setting out for three dates opening for the classic indie-band Pavement.

I interviewed Annalibera’s Anna Gebhardt in Greenwood Park in Des Moines during a hailstorm. Taking sanctuary in the open-air shelter by the pond, we read the graffiti scrawled all over its wooden posts.

“Don’t get good at sumthin u don’t like doing.”

Our conversation that day ranged from Terry Pratchett’s satirical fantasy series Discworld and Olaf Stapledon’s speculative history of the cosmos Star Maker to NBA teams, to silent film music (the subject of her college thesis).

Gebhardt is an adventurous and restless artist who emerged from a classical music background in 2015 with two debuts: the shoegazey Nevermind I Love You, where Annalibera is a simmering alt-rock trio, and the noise cassette loveil, where Annalibera is a screeching bionic animal made up of Gebhardt and her laptop.

Her follow-up, the self-produced Opia (2018), where Annalibera is a flamboyant studio operation, burst out in just about every direction—dream pop, chamber pop, jazz ballads, new wave, drone rock, impressionistic jams—all anchored by Gebhardt’s expressive voice.

Annalibera’s latest album Moon Bath was made in collaboration with producer Philip Rabalais, previously a member of Iowa bands Trouble Lights and Utopia Park.

Moon Bath again plunges Gebhardt into colorful new territory: the world of electronic pop, with detours into sound collage and electronica. Moon Bath was released on CD by vibrant independent label Nova Labs right before the 2020 lockdown. Swallowed by the pandemic and unsupported by a tour, the album didn't receive digital release until now.

This September, Annalibera will play for their biggest crowds yet as the opener for Pavement’s reunion shows in Denver, Kansas City, and Saint Paul. Iowans who want to catch the new iteration of the project can see them at the Maximum Ames Music Festival earlier that week, on Saturday, Sept. 17. The band’s current lineup is Anna Gebhardt, Ryan Stier, Caleb Swank-Ferrara, and Trent Derby, and will feature Gebhardt on sax.

Our conversation follows below, condensed and edited for clarity.

NK: In a way Moon Bath continues the adventures in electronic music that Annalibera began with loveil. Did you know Moon Bath was going to be an electronic pop album when you were writing it? Is that why you started working with producer Philip Rabalais?

AG: I didn’t set out to write it that way specifically. Some ideas just needed that treatment or sort of come like that. […] With Phil, Trouble Lights was playing at Wooly’s, and I chased him down when he was heading to his car after the show. I told him that I had some songs I wanted to record and that, with his style, he would be the perfect person to work with. He said yes. And it was a really nice experience making Moon Bath with him. It’s my favorite [experience making a record] so far.

I actually saw Phil at the first concert I went to when I moved here in 2008. I drove over to Iowa City, to Gabe’s. I went to see Tilly and the Wall and this band opened for them called Porno Galactica which was Phil and his brother Dom. They were doing computer music and hanging from the rafters.

Hanging from the rafters?
Literally. They jumped up there and climbed around on them, hanging down and singing and stuff. It was awesome, I mean, it was really good.

Were you into electronic music at the time?
Yeah, yeah. I grew up listening to late 90s, early 2000s Madonna, for example. I was just listening to the Scissor Sisters driving here. You know the Scissor Sisters?

I don’t think so.
Well, I mean…[plays “Filthy/Gorgeous” from her phone] And I loved Eiffel 65 as a kid. I listened to that album so much, I could sing the whole thing exactly.

Moon Bath is more pop-inspired than your previous albums, with danceable beats and a few big choruses, but it also resists some pop tendencies with musical left turns and traces of Annalibera’s experimental side. What's your relationship to pop music in general?
I like pop music, whenever people ask me what kind of music I play, I mention pop. But it’s hard to get the point across since “pop” means a lot of different styles. […] I really like making stuff that feels very balanced, like it already existed. Almost basic. That’s pop music I think.

"Kikyo II" is one of my favorite songs on the album. Is it a sequel to loveil’s Kikyo”? It interpolates a vocal chant from the earlier song.
Yes, “Kikyo II” is about the same character that I wrote the first one about. We’re doing that one on the tour.

Is there a connection between loveil and your classical music background? You jumped right into the world of noise music with that album but everything in it is well structured and it has the kind of composition you might hear in a 20th-century classical work.
Oh cool. I was actually reading a book about [16th century Italian composer] Gesualdo at the time. He was a noble, a creepy Italian dude in his creepy castle. Killed his wife. He made this insane weird music, very emotional, very intense. I sent loveil to the guy who wrote [the Gesualdo book I was reading] and he was like, “I see no connection between Gesualdo and your music.” But he was nice, he said thanks for sharing.

Do you prefer making music by yourself or with other people? Moon Bath and Nevermind I Love You both had a collaborative process while Opia and loveil seem more self-driven.
I have a choral background, I grew up doing music in church…I don’t know what to call that feeling of community or transcendence when you’re making music with people. I feel good playing piano by myself too;I love doing that. But once I got out in the world, off the farm—as a kid I couldn’t really leave the farm unless my parents let me, so piano was really big for me at that time in my life—[I was more excited about making music with other people than] playing by myself. But I like both.

When I started making music on my own, I was trying to get out of the jail of classical music. Opera didn’t want me. I noticed people don’t seem inspired when I sing that, but they do seem inspired when I sing indie or Americana styles.

Was opera something you wanted to do?
Not really, it was just what the program focused on. I had a great time– I mean, I had an intense time but also a great time with the choral program at Drake. We were making music at a really high level. I had some amazing moments performing, transcendent I-know-everything-about-the-universe moments. Have you had those? It’s like, “why can’t I remember that?” when they’re over. “I knew all the answers! Where’d they go?” I’ve always tried to find that making my own music. Never found it so far really. I still sing with choirs, I’ve pretty consistently sung with choirs since college.

It seems like you're interested in other arts too. You directed a film for loveil which references filmmaker Jean Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her early on. Your song “Sarah Lucas” is dedicated to the artist…

I’m going to make more films; I really like it. I like Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, that’s the kind of thing I’d want to make more of. I’m always writing and planning films and scenes.

The “Renaissance man” isn’t really a thing these days. You have to be such a specialist. I think it’s easy to get in a tunnel vision with whatever your thing is and then be like, “Nothing else matters.” I love visual art, I love film, I try to see live theater as much as I can, I love going to operas, I love sports. I really like watching the NBA. I think sports are an art, I get a lot out of them. […] During the pandemic I decided I have a new big dream. I want to be a comic writer– as in funny, not graphic novels.

That makes sense. There’s a humor to some your songs, especially on Opia. Or “Love In A Recession” which, when I first heard it at one of your shows, I thought was a cover of an old John Prine country song or something. It has that kind of sensibility. It starts out kind of funny and then gets more emotional as it goes on and as the performance becomes more intense.

Thanks. That’s why with Nevermind I Love You…I have a lot of distance from it now and I’m proud of it when I listen to it, but at the time it didn’t turn own how I envisioned it. It’s not funny at all, all of the lightness isn’t there. It’s very serious. But there are a lot of people who like that about it and that’s important to me too, the conversation that happens after you share what you’ve made.

You mentioned going on tour in Europe around the time of Nevermind I Love You.

We had started playing with this woman Anne. She was going to go study in Stockholm and said we should go on a European tour. So we did. We played loveil material pretty much. I booked the tour myself and the routing was really, really bad. We’d be like, “Okay, today we’re driving across Germany and then we’re gonna drive back across Germany again for the next set.” You can’t do that. Whatever, we did it and it was insane. It’s a really long story, I could probably write a book about it. And that’s the only way I can really tell the story, unless we’re in, like, a fifty-hour car ride together. I don’t even like telling stories. There are stories and they could stand alone but it’s like, you don’t understand the effect of what I’m saying because for two weeks straight before this, the same amount of intensity of insane stuff was happening back to back the whole time. So me just telling this standalone part of it doesn’t really get the point across.

But anyway, I got to do this cool last hurrah with her. Her being in the band helped me a lot. Actually the European tour did too. People think the music industry is maybe [half women], and it does kind of seem like that because there are a lot of frontwomen. But the lead singer is just a small part of the music industry. There’s all the players, there’s the bartenders, the promoters—everyone involved is a dude, basically. That tour was the first time I realized that when we do soundchecks and there’s dudes in my band, no one talks to me. So when me and Anne would do soundchecks, the engineers would say, “Who am I supposed to talk to?” Like, one of us! There’s only two of us, and we’re both women so you’ve gotta take your pick, man, sorry!

How do you play loveil songs live?

When I play that material live, I’ll play solo usually or maybe with a guitarist. One time I played a show with Bob [Nastanovich of Pavement, at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn], and he was on drums. I use several pedals and a microphone. It doesn’t really sound like the album; I mess with the sounds and play improvisational versions of the songs. I’m kind of chopping up and mutating the material with a sampler.

What’s your personal history with Pavement?

When I was in high school my friend would put their songs on mix CDs for me. “We Dance” was a really big song for me then. I was listening to “Cut Your Hair” yesterday and was like, "perfect." I never thought I’d get to see them live, let alone open for them.

Nathan Kouri is a writer and filmmaker from Iowa City. His writing has previously appeared in X-R-A-Y, The Iowa Review blog, and Radio Achronie.