Chamber Music for Us Outsiders: An Interview With Disemballerina

Disemballerina is creating chamber music for queer outsiders.

By M-L

When people first hear Disemballerina, one of the first questions is how to classify the band.  The band is not a traditional metal band, though the genre of “chamber metal” has been used a least once to describe the music. Instead of distorted guitars and pounding drums, Disemballerina relies on a very different repertoire of instruments to communicate the same intensity of emotion. At the forefront are bowed and plucked strings, given the band’s recordings a dark classical sound self-described as “queer outsider chamber music”. These instruments help conjure the eerie ambiance of the pieces which often take a soundtrack-like quality. The music broods with eerie loneliness and isolation enhanced by the ritualistic elements of the band’s performance and the solemn melancholy of the themes referenced in titles and album covers.  Covers recall dark fantasy (or perhaps mythology), dead birds, ravens, and ritual spaces, and communicates melancholia that is even present in the more upbeat tracks.  Disemballerina’s most recent release, Fawn, is no exception to this melancholic beauty.

Here we interview the full band, the trio of Myles Donovan, Ayla Holland, and Jennifer Christensen, about the music, the band’s history, and their new release. In addition, we touch on human nature, antifascism, and the queer experience.  

How did Disemballerina first form and how did you decide on an instrumental project?

MYLES:  I think the goal was always to be instrumental? Even before I moved from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon in 2008, I was a huge fan of both Anon Remora–Ayla’s metal project and Discharge Information System–our original cellist Melissa Collins’ band. Both projects were largely instrumental, influenced by both metal and classical music, and refreshingly, unapologetically queer, which to me was a huge fucking deal. At some point in 2008,  Melissa and I ended up being studio musicians together for a Graves at Sea side project, and around the same time, Ayla and I started playing harp and guitar duets in her basement. Ayla and Melissa had a project called Malice Discordia that had recently disbanded, we all liked the sounds we were creating, we were all the loner queers in the metal scene, and we were all friends. Playing together just made sense. We debuted our first show in an outdoor gazebo in the Summer of 2009. Not long after, Melissa departed for Salt Lake City, and for a period the band was just me and Ayla as a duo, then this violinist Fiona Petra came and left, followed by Celeste Viera on cello, then Marit Schmidt of Vradiazei/Sangre De Muerdago on viola… but we ultimately felt complete when Jennifer became the principal cellist of the trio and joined in 2012. She’s been with us ever since and we fucking love her.

JENNIFER:  I heard Disemballerina’s demo, which a friend shared with me when it came out, and really enjoyed it.  Then, I played a solo cello set with Disemballerina at a tea house called Sizizis in Olympia in 2012.  I spoke to them about collaborating and we started playing together a little while after that. 

Who were the influences towards the development of the Disemballerinas sound? 

MYLES: for me? Classically, Shostakovich, Alan Hovhaness, Bartok, and Penderecki. Also having imposter syndrome as a violist being largely self-taught and a late bloomer lit a fire under my ass, while still carrying the torch of one day being able to play my own form of chamber music somehow with others. The New Bloods were a short-lived Portland punk band with one of my favorite violinists ever, Osa Atoe. Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live was another band with a now-deceased violinist I loved, Michael Griffin. I have a ton of respect for Kris Force of Amber Asylum and all the work she has done as a composer, performer, and sound engineer. There was a viola player in a Norwegian noise band called Noxagt, Nils Erga, who I listened to a lot.

JENNIFER:   I agree with Myles that in terms of writing music, I’m very inspired by Shostakovich, also Stravinsky.  

AYLA: Well early on (for me) definitely Ulver’s early albums as far as “acoustic metal” goes, but also Henryk Gorecki, Philip Glass, stuff like that for me.  Also, for years I’ve been inspired by Low’s early records (the “slowcore” sound), etc. But I’ve been introduced to so much music by friends over the past 15 years as well, including in large part from Myles.

MYLES: Ayla has also turned me onto tons of old country music I otherwise would’ve never checked out.

The band describes itself as “queer outsider chamber music”.   Would you say that queerness is focal to the atmosphere you seek to create with your music?

MYLES: I would say that queerness was the reason the band formed in the first place; we were all anomalies in the local metal scene and sought camaraderie, we wanted a very specific sound, we wanted to create heaviness without relying on sonic volume, and a friendship formed naturally around that, but also being a group made up of two queer women and a gay man attracted its own queer following in and of itself, which I for one really loved. some of my favorite shows we ever played were with other queer bands, or in front of largely queer audiences, as opposed to the typical straight metal crowd. we played to a few neofolk audiences and it was not my thing at all. 

JENNIFER:   There was a shared sense of isolation that brought the members of Disemballerina together and which sets the sound and atmosphere apart from other groups.   Disemballerina doesn’t perfectly fit in with any genre I can think of but the closest we could get to describing it is “queer outsider chamber music”.

AYLA: I wouldn’t say that being queer is focal to the atmosphere we seek to create, but rather is inextricably linked to our movement through this world on a daily basis so is inevitably involved in who we are/where we are coming from whilst creating the music, the band. 

There are elements of ritual and tradition in your music as well, how do these elements fit into the band’s sound?

MYLES: This is going to sound ridiculous but the most obvious “ritualistic” element of our presentation–playing in a semicircle of lit candles in the dark, actually came out of my own claustrophobia. I didn’t feel comfortable playing so physically close to audiences, so it was a weird protective firewall, for me anyway that made playing live possible. Also playing in the dark made me forget the audience as a player, which allowed me to focus on the music more. We tended to always write in a similar setting.

AYLA: There have always been rituals (whether private or public) surrounding the band, whether it is within practicing, performance, songwriting, or recording.  The candles holding the fire moat of protection have always been wonderful,  I appreciate Myles for that! The samples used, the evoking memory or visions of a theme in song, whole album, etc.  Some are seen by the public,  audience, listener… some are personal, relational within the band yet nevertheless always behind the sounds and moods.

JENNIFER:   I am more comfortable presenting myself in this way and the candlelight helps to set the scene for the music – which is usually composed in relative darkness as well.  I don’t know that I agree that there is much ritual and tradition involved, but this is more just how we show up.

Why is it important to be antifascist in the music scene and how does antifascism inform your creative work?

MYLES: Because the Pacific Northwest in particular has a serious problem with cryptofascism in its underground music subcultures, among other places. The music scene, particularly the genres of black metal, noise, and neofolk are notably problematic in this area.  We’ve never identified as neofolk but eventually stopped playing shows altogether with neofolk projects, because we were tired of learning after performances that there were people in our audiences who did things like host holocaust denier book events and wrote for alt-right publications. [I’m] not saying that’s every neofolk scene–I applaud the efforts of this site to emphasize that distinction– or that you can entirely control who is in your fanbase, but it’s creepy, fucking disturbing shit we never wanted to be around or any part.  We definitely have burned some bridges for speaking out. A member of Blood Axis still has a major problem with me because of this. We’ve also contributed to multiple anarchist black cross benefits and dropped off of bills with sketchball bands, on top of having our song themes and personal activism outside of playing music. the surrounding water is still always murky though. 

JENNIFER:  When I was a naive teenager playing music in the NY/NJ scenes, I had blinders on to making these political distinctions because I was overly focused on just playing as much music as humanly possible.  As a result, I ended up finding out (as Myles said) that people I had been collaborating with were involved in things I would not want to be associated with.  It’s easier to make it clear early on that we’re not interested in aligning ourselves with ideas inconsistent with our own personal beliefs.  

AYLA: I have for a long time now felt that it is terribly important to look to history so that we can spot the signs when it reoccurs, especially in relation to the racism/fascism of the last century. Look at what is happening in this post trump era of pandemic madness even. America is terrifying to me at present. 

The fact that in the pacific NW U.S. (and other places of course)  there is this surging “ecofascism” among neofolk/metal/etc musicians is despicable. Glorifying early fascists and their pastoral idealism which inspired Hitler Youth and the third Reich etc is so dangerously foolish and misguided, to put it very very mildly. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we are antifascist with every fibre of our beings. 

Let’s talk about the new record. Disemballerina’s new release, “Fawn”, is a 7” EP inspired by the human reactions to extreme stress and contains three songs representative of the fight, flight, and freeze response.  How does this fit into the band’s themes?

MYLES: The song “Pancada”, which starts off our record gets its title from the Portuguese word for hitting and striking. It also, as I was made aware by one of my ex-boyfriends from Portugal, is a term for an animal that bites at anything that comes near it, even people it loves, due to its abused past. My ex used it to describe himself the first time he hit me in the face, which for me caused a deep reflection on the origins of trauma and what every person is reacting off of and how. 

JENNIFER:  “Garnets” touches on the numb, comatose melancholy produced by trauma as the mind struggles to process and make sense of what’s happened.   The sounds attempt to replicate this time loss, grasping for a hold on something solid to pull oneself out of this psychological state.

MYLES: “Somnambulist” just translates roughly to sleepwalker, this idea of mind flight from the conscious world while still going through the motions physically. I built a glass harp out of wine glasses for the ending and used an instrument from 1927 know as the Marxophone. I think the doors used it one song. we’re classic rock now.

AYLA: unfortunately we can all relate to trauma and trauma response and who each of us is.  it is of course made by what we have gone through.  I’m stoked that we are talking about it, even just in thematics and concerning the recent release of the recordings… because healing and self-reflection are so crucial to humans, especially at this harrowing moment in human history. 

How does the songwriting process work in Disemballerina?

JENNIFER:  For the most part, the process comes really organically.  We’ll play a theme and we’ll record what we like so we remember while we build a song to surround it.

MYLES:  Ayla is a riff machine, I’ve also brought songs and parts to the table, as has Jennifer. We also do a lot of improvised writing and play off of loose ideas.

AYLA: yeah a lot of times I would bring a finished guitar song skeleton and we would tweak it and Myles and Jenn would bring their magic to it and deeply fill it out, add epilogues, etc. But generally a joint effort over the years always.

Are there any elements of the record you’d like to draw our attention to?

MYLES: besides our amazing cover artist Jennifer Baker, our new label Riff Merchant is doing a second pressing of the 7″ on picture disc!  there is also currently a small dance company in New York City working on Choreography for these three songs. it’s a dream come true for me, and so wonderfully not metal.

Was the turbulence and stress of the last two years an influence on the album’s development?

MYLES: Actually no, these songs and the album theme were decided upon in 2016, Covid, if anything,  just created an urgency to get everything done. I currently live in NYC with my boyfriend and have worked all of the shutdown as a grocer. If people draw catharsis and associate this record with the pandemic, then wonderful–we all need something after this– although it wasn’t the original intention.

JENNIFER:  I agree with Myles that the album wasn’t inspired by the pandemic but that certain elements of the pandemic inspired us to complete the process so that something good came out of these surreal times.

I like to end interviews with musicians with a list of recommendations. Are there any bands you can recommend to fans of antifascist neofolk music?

MYLES: I play harp in a band in NYC called Narco Medusa with guitarist Jessica Howard from Another Dying Democracy, I used to play viola in a gentrification themed instrumental project from Philly called Forgotten Bottom,  I’m a rotating guest musician in the band Ominous Cloud Ensemble along with members of Sun Ra Arkestra, and I’ve played as a guest on multiple albums by A Stick and a Stone.

I don’t listen to Neofolk, but my favorite projects right now are Show Me The Body, Eartheater, Like a Villain, Reg Bloor, Brandon Lopez, Damiana, Moor Jewelry, Twisted Thing, Ariadne, Human Beast, Weeping Sores, Jupiter Blue, Persephone, Chelsea Bridge, Bob Hatt, and Rakta.

AYLA: I don’t listen much to neofolk either, but I’ve been rekindling the flame of love and affection I have with Jazz music and have even found people I’d never heard of somehow.  Like Ahmad Jamal. Incredible pianist, up there with Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner (two of my favourites). Also, I’ve been listening to lots of modern vocalists I’ve fallen in love with. SZA, Solange, Doja Cat, etc. But also just still listening to everything under the sun! I’ve also been listening to the theatrical readings of the Tolkien MiddleiEarth books on Spotify and they’re incredible. 

We have added Disemballerina tracks to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, so make sure to add that as well and we will be adding a lot more new ones in the coming weeks!