alisa rodriguez has been building sprawling, droning landscapes under the moniker of apollo vermouth for the better part of a decade now. armed usually with little more than her guitar and a sampler, rodriguez sculpts titanic walls of sound that are often as pensive as they are crushing.
after a rapid-fire succession of releases between 2012 and 2014, apollo vermouth’s output slowed considerably; crashing into nowhere, rodriguez’ first full-length in more than three years, came out last friday via orchid tapes. its seven songs should supply familiar touchstones for long-time followers of the milwaukee-based artist, but a handful of new tracks meander into new territory with wondrous results.
we recently caught up with rodriguez via e-mail to chat about the evolution of songwriting, milwaukee’s experimental music scene, and translating ambient albums into a live setting. check out the transcript below.
to the casual observer, milwaukee seems to have a flourishing music scene, and especially, a vibrant experimental/ambient niche. what’s your perception of the scene? what kind of cog is apollo vermouth within that machine?
i have sort of a love/hate relationship with milwaukee’s music scene. it’s really hard to stand out with the music i make, but i think that can definitely be a good thing. i try not to be afraid of coming off vulnerable. i want people to have a reaction to the music, but it’s tough in milwaukee because it’s such a party city. people have a tendency to turn a show into a social event and treat the music as background sound. most experimental musicians i talk to around here feel the same way, especially at bar venues. it’s sort of a great excuse for us to play louder.
your newest album, crashing into nowhere, is out on orchid tapes. how did you connect with the label for this release?
i’ve known warren for years. i first heard about his project foxes in fiction in the mid-2000s via a deerhunter fan message board. i was a huge fan of his first album, swung from the branches, when it came out and have been following orchid tapes since he started it back in 2010. we finally met in person in chicago when he was on tour opening for owen pallett. warren is one of the most humble and sweetest musicians i’ve ever met. about a year later, he contacted me about putting out an album on his label. i was so flattered and practically jumped out of my chair when he asked.
has your songwriting process changed over time? do you perceive any marked evolution?
definitely, yeah. i took a break from songwriting after putting out fractured youth. even where there were instances where i wanted to make music, i’d try, but i wasn’t making anything worthwhile. i started questioning ending the project, but i didn’t feel comfortable ending apollo with an album like fractured youth. it also feels like apollo vermouth will never really end; it’s sort of something i feel like i’ll always come back to, even when i’m taking a break working on something else.
it took about three months to make crashing into nowhere. i recorded a few tracks at my practice space and the rest of the album was done at my house. i typically use the first take with each track i work on, but this time i wanted to do the best that i could. no more amateur hour.
“always there” and “reflections of” feature prominent vocals, a bit of a departure from this project’s vernacular. “reflections of” in particular feels like a very singular component of your catalogue. what was it like to approach a few apollo vermouth tracks from a collaborative standpoint?
after finishing fractured youth, i thought a lot about collaborating with other musicians i’m good friends with. my boyfriend has always been my number one collaborator, but i wanted to work with friends that i admire a lot.
travis johnson of grooms is someone who i’ve admired for years, even before we became friends. travis has such a distinct voice that feels like you’re listening to your guardian angel singing. he’s a big influence on me, musically and spiritually. i was excited to have him on board to sing on one of my songs.
i got one of my oldest, best friends, eli smith, to work on the song “reflections of.” i gave him my guitar track and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. he came back with something out of this world. i was so pumped on his part and couldn’t get over the orchestral samples. he’s without a doubt the most talented musician i know.
the dense textures of ambient and drone music sometimes necessitate an approximation in a live setting, but i get the sense that your approach to composition is already often pretty minimalistic. does the gear you use to record differ much from the gear you use when performing live?
not at all. the only thing that’s slightly different for the live shows is that sometimes i can’t always emulate the recording due to me not remembering how to play a certain part, or even the whole song. it’s partially my fault for only recording a song on the first take and ending it there. i always admired the idea of certain musicians like william basinski and electronic artists who only play new music live or take songs to another level, like changing the progression.
you were actively plugging the documentary who took johnny” a year or so ago on twitter. it’s an incredibly profound film that i don’t think i would have discovered without your social media connection, and you seem very invested in the issue of missing and exploited children overall. does this advocacy extend to and become intertwined with your music?
yes. it’s something i care a lot about and it can sometimes be emotionally challenging. i won’t get into personal reasons why, but i think it’s important to help people. a month ago, i was driving towards downtown milwaukee and i saw a billboard that read, “wisconsin is the 3rd highest in the nation for sex trafficking.” it made my heart sink.
it’s sickening how big the trafficking industry is. it happens in places you’d never think it would happen; it could happen down the street from your parents’ house. it’s messed up. who took johnny really opened my eyes to this terrible part of society. i have a tendency to even get frustrated with people who don’t open their eyes and look around. it’s like i’m roddy piper from they live, with the sunglasses. no one deserves to be taken advantage of, especially young children.