Q&A: Cellist Janet Schiff Of NINETEEN THIRTEEN


Illustration by JANET SCHIFF

Evan HundeltBY EVAN HUNDELT NINETEEN THIRTEEN, a Milwaukee-based chamber rock ensemble lead by percussionist Victor DeLorenzo—founding drummer of Violent Femmes—and experimental cellist Janet Schiff, alongside a crew of stellar studio musicians, defy the norm with their genre-bending melodies: ghostly drags of a century-old cello dance with a slew of jazzy undertones and techno riffs to create a moody, neo-noir bricolage of tracks that envelope listeners in the dark, filmy smoke plumes of Sin City. Their EP, The Dream, and subsequent debut album, Music for Time Travel, thrusted NINETEEN THIRTEEN into the spotlight, earning them numerous awards and television features, including a WAMI for Jazz Artist of the Year and segments on Fox News, PBS, and NPR. The classically-trained Janet Schiff takes PHAWKER on a journey through time with stories of a budding musician transmogrifying into an experimental musical visionary—from playing a makeshift cello (guitar and coat hanger) and jamming out to the crackling data of a Commodore 64’s cassette tape, to the founding of NINETEEN THIRTEEN with Victor DeLorenzo.

PHAWKER: I understand that you have classical training as a cellist. Tell me about that: how you became a cellist, where and when you began, Janet Schiffand what you were up to pre-NINETEEN THIRTEEN.

JANET SCHIFF: I started with a guitar and a coat hanger, to be honest. My parents asked me what I’d like—I guess it was a holiday—and so I drew them a picture and, to me it was a cello, to them it was a guitar. And so, it took a long time to actually get a cello—I wanted to play for about three years, which is a really long time for a kid, right? I drew that picture when I was about seven, and I didn’t get to touch my first cello until I was 10. So, I desired the cello a lot, and I was forced to make one on my own, and so I took a metal coat hanger and a guitar that they gave me. And I was taking guitar lessons, you know classical guitar, and I was okay. And then one day my mom said, “I think you want to play the cello,” and I was like: “That’s it!,” because I didn’t even know the name of the instrument that I wanted to play. So I got to play cello for a year at the public school—I lived in a rural town—and then we moved to Milwaukee which was great, because then I could study at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music—it was in a beautiful building and I loved it. I was taught by Roza Borrisova, Julie Hochman, Radu Nagy, and then Wolfgang Laufer, from the Fine Arts Quartet—he passed away a couple years ago—and learned so much from him, and am still learning from him. And so I actually went on to get a degree in psychology—not music—from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But thought that, while teaching cello lessons, I would get my degree in something else to be able to do more than just entertain. I’ve always had the strongest desire to make cello my lifestyle, but I had to be realistic about providing a nice living for myself.

PHAWKER: Did you use your psychology degree at all and take a hiatus from the cello for awhile?

JANET SCHIFF: No, I did everything full steam. As my career in neuroscience, and then histology—namely skin cancer—progressed, so has the cello. So they’re not mutually exclusive. And I’m also in a Masters program for psychology. I’m ready to be able to dedicate more time to the cello, although I feel as though I have three full time jobs right now.

PHAWKER: Before NINETEEN THIRTEEN, did you compose at all as a cellist?

JANET SCHIFF: Sure, from an early age I always liked experimental sounds. My sister, Laura, had a huge influence on my musical tastes—she actually introduced me to the Violent Femmes. And so I took a Commodore 64 computer and somehow there was memory on a cassette tape, so I took that out of a computer and put that into a Califone tape player and listened to it. It was data from the Commodore 64 and it made all these buzzes and weird sounds. So in college, I was able to explore composition in this sort of way, and I was in several experimental music ensembles. They taught me all sort of improvising techniques and sound effects, which got incorporated into my music now, for sure. I’m not in a performing experimental group right now except—actually, how would you classify NINETEEN THIRTEEN’s music?

PHAWKER: I’d say NINETEEN THIRTEEN’s music has a good mix of experimental and classical elements.

JANET SCHIFF: Okay cool, because Victor DeLorenzo [founding drummer of the Violent Femmes] and I are inspired so many by different types of music. We listen to music all the time and are the best of friends, and consider this our life’s work where everything we’ve done is leading us to this. We’re using everything we can come up with, from our music to our history, and inspirations. We’re having a blast. There are times when I’ve collaborated with other visual artists or musicians, where we’re reading the music of a paintbrush that a painter is performing with. We’ve performed a sculpture actually, and paintings. We’ve had the opportunity to share our music in so many different venues, museums, galleries, theaters, art centers. So it’s great to be able to bring those experiences with us. I actually started out writing sonata form, and that was when I was 19. I had a car accident that made it quite hard to read sheet music, so I started kind of jamming on the cello. What I had done previously was take songs from the radio—and I’m influenced by all types of music as I’ve said—but at the time it was some pop and industrial and, and I would kind of Victor DeLorenzowrite my own cello parts to those type of songs. So then once that music was gone, I started composing. So sonata started out as one linear piece all the way through, each section. And then the looping pedals helped me build the layers that you hear, and it took me a long time to go from that linear, solo cello to what you hear today—lots of layers.

PHAWKER: How and when did you and Victor DeLorenzo meet? And why did you two decide to start NINETEEN THIRTEEN?

JANET SCHIFF: He and I were put on an experimental music project together. I was already looping at the time, and performing with the looper and various other drummers—one of which is now actually working with the Violent Femmes.

PHAWKER: Around what year was this?

JANET SCHIFF: Around 2011. And also, since 2007 I was working with other drummers. So we got put on this experimental project and I was really exploring that. And got to have a rehearsal with Victor, and about a year later we were put on another one together. I guess you could say I was in between drummers. So we did a three concert series, and during the third one, I said, “You know I think we’re playing pretty well together, would you want to work with me and my looping pedal sometime?” And he said, “Sure!” So we exchanged numbers and, him and another drummer, all three of us performed at The Circle A in Milwaukee, and had a great show. Both of the percussionists were really understanding what I was doing and so we did that for awhile. And so Victor and I went on to start NINETEEN THIRTEEN and won a couple WAMI’s — the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Awards. I call that the year of the double WAMI’s, and that was in 2014. We won String Player of the Year and Jazz Artist of the Year. We got to perform at the Summer Fest a couple times, once to open for the Avett Brothers, and the other time for REO Speedwagon. A life long goal of mind was to perform at the historic Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, and about two years ago, that dream came true. And we got to collaborate with a modern dance company and we did the soundtrack for a performance of theirs—that’s what got Victor back into sound engineering, for our upcoming releases and Music for Time Travel and The Dream, which was recorded at Victor’s studio a block away from my house.

PHAWKER: It is my understanding that NINETEEN THIRTEEN was named after a cello you received? What’s the story behind that?

JANET SCHIFF: That’s a really cool story. I was at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and I took years and years of cello lessons there with those different instructors I told you about. And there were posters everywhere and photographs all over the walls, and I was waiting for my teacher, and my mom was with me, and I saw this photo of a quartet, and specifically I was drawn to the man holding the cello. So I kept taking the picture down and saying, “Mom check out this cello!” So I never knew if I was ever going to meet this guy with the cello, but sure enough a few weeks later, my teacher left for a PhD program, and a new teacher showed up—I think he was a Masters or PhD student—that was Radu Nagy, the person in the photo with the cello. And when I saw it in its case in the room, when I was having my last lesson with Roza Borrisova, I wanted to pick it up and she told me not to. But anyways, I started lessons with Radu Nagy and completely started over with cello, and learned his technique, which is a very ergonomic method for the body, and I’m holding the instrument in lots of different way. So I started a new technique with the cello because I was only getting to a certain level. So we focused on that method for years, and, all the while, I was thinking, this cello is going to be mine some day. And I mentioned it once in awhile and he was like ‘no, never.’ But after about three years his quartet decided to get matching instruments from the same maker, and in order for him to afford that he had to sell this beautiful, petite cello. So I put mine up for sale right away—it was a German one from the sixties—and was able to eventually buy it. It was actually an even deal with the money, however this 1913 cello needed a lot of updates to make it playable. So I made all those alterations, and it’s just a very strong instrument with a wide-grain wood. So it’s loud—I actually had a hard time playing quietly with this instrument in the orchestra. It’s petite, and I was having a harder time with the larger bodies, so with this one I was able to stretch and make those intonations without too much difficulty—it made a huge difference in my ability to reach certain notes and even my endurance. Sometimes we would be playing extended 90-minute sets and we were playing our hearts out because we wanted to put on the best show possible and have people follow us on the journey we are hoping they’d come with us on. Everyone said that our music would be great for movies and commercials—car commercials—I’d love to have music in one of those. We’re working on all sort of angles like that—how to be commercially successful and artistic, and it’s working for us. There’s a TV program that features us, its called The Art’s Page, and we’re remixing—I’m not sure what they’d call it in visual terms—but we’re remixing their soundtrack and it’ll be coming out on PBS. So we’re doing everything but would really like to take it to the next level.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about Music for Time Travel, your first LP. Where did the inspiration for that come from? What was the creation process like?

JANET SCHIFF: A lot of it was for a performance that I mentioned, for Dance Works, and it’s also called the Milwaukee Cooperative Performance Company, and so they approached me and asked if we would provide the soundtrack for this play. It’s a play that incorporated aerialists, and so there were dancers and aerialists doing beautiful choreography. We had a couple pieces from that album that we had been working on prior to that along with our version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which incorporates some time travel in the sense that it NINETEEN THIRTEEN 3features an organ solo performed by my grandmother that my father recorded in 1961. And so I played that for Victor, and he said that we should take that organ solo and build a whole song around it. And so we got Rob Wassermann on board, a whole bunch of cellos, and vocalist Monia—she’s a mysterious musician. And so I think those are the two songs that weren’t recorded at Victor’s studio. And the rest of the pieces, you’ll notice that some of them are short, but if you put them in context with the dance program the pieces were all suppose to be pretty short, as movements with the dances. There is also another bit of personal history featured on Music for Time Travel: the tranceaphone Victor played on the first Violent Femmes album.

PHAWKER: Speaking of, how did you two come up with the names for “Hot Garbage” and your other single that was released last month, “Trick Zipper”?

JANET SCHIFF: [Laughs] Victor and I, we get really creative and we were making up characters, like one of our other songs was “Mister Panicker” and so it was just a process of our imagination. We have meetings, have tea together during the evenings, and practice and record, but I can’t remember specifically where Trick Zipper came from, but it was just fun. And for Hot Garbage, when I was down in Georgia I was sitting with this woman—back when I smoked cigarettes—we were having a cigarette break and she mentioned something or other suspicious situation, and said, “Something smells like hot garbage,” and I had never heard that saying, and I thought it was hilarious because I knew exactly what she was talking about. Anyway, I saved that and I think once I brought it up and Victor latched onto it. This past year was a rough year, we both lost very important family members, synchronistically, within 10 days of each other, and so recordings had to go on hold for a little while, and “Hot Garbage” was in reaction to some dramatic events in which I had to say goodbye to a couple friends.

PHAWKER: Will “Hot Garbage” and “Trick Zipper” be a part of a new upcoming album?

JANET SCHIFF: For right now they’re just standing on their own. As time has gone by, the term “single” has change, the vernacular, and so we still do consider those an A Side and a B Side, and I would actually love to get those on a 45. So I’m trying to work out the logistics of that and the finances, but we might be putting out some vinyl soon, we still have the discs and everything on iTunes and those digital store. And we put it on Soundcloud because we just want people to hear it. The music industry has changed, artists are releasing more singles and standalone tracks to keep the interest and stay present, and give the people music. I really like it when people tell me that they’ve listened, and I’m still in awe that I’ve been given all these opportunities to work with some amazing musicians, especially Victor, who I met when I was 18 at the restaurant that I worked at.

PHAWKER: Wait, so you two didn’t meet in 2010 for the first time?

JANET SCHIFF: No, that was when we reconnected decades later. The real story is that I was working at a restaurant and one of the waitresses came running into the kitchen, and said, “Victor DeLorenzo from the Violent Femmes is here!” And she was all nervous. So I was like, “Where? Can you show me?” And so I went and sat down. I nearly lost my job, my manager walked past when I was with him, giving me the eye. So, that’s when we originally met, and he remembers that. But you know, he was at the pinnacle of the Femmes stuff then. But I planted that seed, I knew what I did. And then, all these years later we end up meeting, when the time was right. My life has a life of its own. Soon I will have to leave the histology job because I don’t know if you’ve had to chance to look into it but it’s something that’s very very hard on my hands. I know what I’m always going to choose and it’s cello because that’s my life’s work. I can’t see it any other way. Now that my son is getting ready to graduate and begin his own life, I’m going to have this freedom that I haven’t experienced since I was in my mid-20’s. It’s a very exciting time right now.