Songs in the Key of Life
Meet New York's Queen of the Flipper, the Microbrew and the Stompbox

by Evelyn McDonnell

 

This article originally appeared in the July 5th, 1995, issue of the Village Voice


Tara Key moves her whole body into the machine. Bent over a pinball game at the Broadway Arcade near Times Square, her hips swing into each flick of the flippers, pushing torque into the ball's trajectory as much with karma as with gravity. Key handles the ball deftly, catching and cradling it then shooting it up a ramp and into a hole, jerking the machine with small, rapid movements that keep the orb bouncing between bumpers. Demolition Man has her favorite features: multiball ("That's my ideal: balancing eight things at one time") and ramps ("It's like being on a straightaway at 100 miles per hour that feeling you get of no impediments"). The machine tilts just often enough that Key knows she's pushing it to its limits. "The longer you keep the ball in play," she notes philosophically as the counter adds up her bonus points, "the better the world is."


Then we're approaching Nirvana. Weekly practice - Key's in training for a January tournament - is paying off. The previous night, she'd scored her career high on Demolition Man; this night she racks up 2,792,606,740 on World Cup, three times her old record and about, oh, 1000 times this journalist's tops. Earlier, during her customary pregame visit to Beefsteak Charlie's for a lubricating shot of Jack Daniels, Key had described her new "isometric approach" to pinball. Planting both feet firmly on the ground, she'd hugged a bowl of chips as if it were a machine, controlling it with "a strong, contained movement... I'm feeling powerful in caressing it," she'd explained in her Kentucky drawl. "I used to play pinball like I play guitar. Now I've stopped reacting so wildly."


With her long dirt-brown hair, owl-shaped glasses and plain, makeupless features, baggy jeans and a T-shirt draped over her small, pear-shaped body, Key looks more like a librarian - which she is, at Columbia's Butler Library, by day - than a pinball wizard and guitar hero, which she is by night. Even when she's onstage with her band Antietam wrestling electric soliloquies out of her Les Paul, her style is more homespun than flashy - like she's some hillbilly's old lady gone mad on moonshine, or Louisa May Alcott with an axe. And yet for a decade and a half, Key's been developing a playing style - a stop-start strum that erupts into crescendos of distortion - that's made her one of the most acclaimed players in indie rock. She's among a mere handful of women in pop history who've mastered lead guitar. Even at a time when female singers, bassists, and drummers are proliferating, Key remains a rare presence on stage. And at age 37, with a career that spans punk's heartland infiltration via art-school basement bands in the late '70s, the formal experiments of Downtown New York groups in the '80s, and the surge of "alternative" in the '90s, Key's just now hitting her stride. In the last two years she's appeared on a grand slam of records: two solo albums, Bourbon County and Ear and Echo (both on Homestead), that showcase her soulful, meditative side; the Babylon Dance Band's long-awaited first album, Four on One (Matador); and Rope-A-Dope (Homestead), her sixth album with her main group, the New York power trio Antietam. She's also played with Syd Straw, Cobalt, and Eleventh Dream Day, and she guests with Yo La Tengo as the Velvet Underground-style band in the forthcoming film I Shot Andy Warhol. "Activity breeds activity," she says as she downs a Guinness ("good breakfast beer," she explains) at three on a Sunday afternoon at Vazac's, the Tompkins Square bar also called 7B. "I'm in the last half of my fourth decade on earth," she says, "and I feel like I'm developing at a rapidly-increasing rate."


As we hang out in various NYC haunts and explore a few of Key's favorite things (pinball, microbrews, a jukebox with Neil Young), her confidence is palpable. She complements her particularized knowledge of traditional nerdboy subjects with a sense of physical connection, not weirdo alienation. On stage as well, her tantrum style of playing has lost its occasional awkwardness: Key rages now as if in a sublime state of grace. Her conversation is sprinkled with down-to-earth bon mots, a sort of Zen-punk satisfaction. She attributes it all to pinball. "I've been trying to subtract the bad parts of my personality from my game - all the impediments you throw in front of yourself to keep from achieving things," she says. "I'm trying to change my attitude, and then apply what I do in pinball to the rest of my life."


Stomping in the '90s
Ed is right: the 808 sounds incredible. Tara and I are at Rogue Music on West 30th Street trying out a selection of guitars, effects pedals and amplifiers. When Key had asked for the early-'80s Ibanez stompbox out of the counter-case, the store manager, whose name, he swears, really is Ed Sullivan, warned that it would make us unable to listen to anything else. Plugging in and turning up, I feel an intense rush at the visceral power of distortion the punk-ugly thrill of making noise. Key shakes her head happily and says, "Oh, man." She'd had a pedal like this once but demolished it somewhere along the line. Key goes through a lot of pedals, losing them to "a mixture of problems that come from stomping and throwing. Sometimes when I break stuff it feels good, it feels inevitable," she says. "And sometimes when I break stuff it feels like a really stupid, bonehead thing to do."


Instrument stores are infamous for making customers, particularly females, feel like idiots. Rogue, today at least, isn't like that. But if it were, Key could handle it. "I didn't come from this tasty licks school of guitar playing," she says. "But now I can go into a guitar store and talk to guys that way. I kind of enjoy it, it's really perverse." She rifles through a box of old magazines, pulls out the April 1995 Guitar Player, and shows Sullivan the full page feature on her. He rips the story out and has Tara autograph it.


That article, by Joe Gore (a journalist who doubles as guitarist for Tom Waits and PJ Harvey), is a point of pride for Key; in it, she finally got to explain her axology: "an early-'80s sunburst Les Paul through a Mesa Boogie Mark III and a Roland JC-120, with both amps running simultaneously," FYI. By contrast, when Guitar World interviewed her a couple of years ago, they treated her as a novelty, not a musician. Key's happy to be identified as a feminist role model and admits that like many women, she didn't learn to play the same way boys did: "I acquired my macho later, I didn't start with macho." Still, she's anxious to disprove cliches about female musicianship: that girls can't play (word to Juliana Hatfield), that girls can't play the same way boys do, that girls don't know their chops and tools because they play by feel. She also likes to be taken as a good player. Gender aside.


A lifetime tomboy, Key's always rebelled against limitations. "When I was between eight and 14, I was the gang leader of the neighborhood," she says. "I was the only girl, bossing around five or six guys: that was a good primer for being in a band." She was born in the working-class west end of Louisville and moved to the middle-class east end when she was 11. Her dad, now retired, was a tile setter. Her mother waitressed when Tara was young, then devoted her time to raising three kids and doing volunteer work. Her work with the PTA led to employment within the school board; Key remembers the household being threatened with cross-burnings when the Louisville schools desegregated in the mid '70s.
Tara was active in sports, wanted to be an astronaut, and beat up guys bigger than her, until she was 15 and diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine). She spent 16 months with a plaster cast wrapped around her torso from chin to hips, and her senior year in a brace - goodbye homecoming, hello homework. The gruesome experience, while undoubtedly shaping Key's inwardness, seems to have also fueled her determination - she became a geek with grit. "With my back I had to spend a lot of time being different," she says. "When I should have been dating I was wearing a walking brace. I spent a lot of time alone painting and playing guitar and really developing a concept of who I was going to be. Then when I started venturing out, I'm sure it was taken as snobbishness or having a huge ego, but I just continued to be who I was."


Like many a teenage Joni Mitchell fan, Key mostly wrote folk songs in her room; to this day, Antietam tunes often begin on Key's acoustic and are thus grounded in simple melodies and pastoral themes (until the band grinds them up). But it was the experience of playing electric guitar in a group jam that convinced her to pursue music. "When I picked up a guitar, it's the only thing I did in my life where there was no question it was the right thing for me to be doing," she says. At the time she was a student at the University of Louisville (later switching to the Louisville School of Art), listening to punk. Her first band, No Fun, was a quintet which played "three-minute, really tight songs with super aggressive guitars." In the fall of '78, she joined the Babylon Dance Band, a raucous party outfit which was featured in a 1980 Voice cover story. She also began a relationship with the band's bassist, Tim Harris. In '83, Key and Harris moved to New York and formed Antietam (the couple married in 1984). That group has gone through a number of permutations, arriving at the current lineup - Key, Harris, and youthful drumming enthusiast Josh Madell - in 1991.


Key's dense, textured style is the polar opposite of Eddie Van Halen/Pat Metheny-style noodling. "The way I learned to play had as much to do with hearing jackhammers as with hearing the Rolling Stones," she says. Her playing is visceral and athletic: Key literally grapples with her guitar, choking sounds out of it. She has small fingers, but plays with unusually thick strings, 12 to 52 gauge, "for sustain and separation in sound. I need some level of resistance between the object and me to make it work." Her Les Paul, made of two-inch-thick solid maple, is a heavy, heavy instrument. Sullivan, easily twice Key's size, feels her neck and shoulder muscles admiringly, then admits he strained his back playing a Les Paul and had to give up. And he's never seen Key play: the way she whips the guitar around her body as if it were weightless, or throws her head up and down, her long hair flying.


Feeling connected to a material object is often the hardest hurdle for people who spend a lot of time living in their heads - especially for women who've been raised to believe they have no sovereignty over the world, who feel every moment like a watched object, not an active subject. Key seems to have immediately grabbed that self-conscious demon by the throat and never loosed her hold in the sometimes violent dance since. "I really get off on the physical thing. That's a lot of the pleasure for me, to run around, to feel the electric vibration of my guitar through my body. Lately playing is becoming more and more trancelike. I feel it's the ultimate celebration of everything around me, and at the same time it's the ultimate celebration of me."


Control Freakouts

There's a danger to Key's wildness. She's legendary for her tantrums; thrown objects are a running motif in her life story. For example: While recording "Burn" for Ear and Echo at Vortex Studio in Vermont last fall, she became so involved in the emotion of one guitar part - a solo that winds through the track like a wordless elegy - that at the end of the overdub she hurled the instrument and started punching walls. Producers Harris and Jon Williams tried calming her down, but she took off in the middle of the night shouting, "I suck, I suck, I suck." "It was a new moon, so there was no moonlight, and I was just running down the road in my bare feet, running and screaming and running," Key remembers.


The intensity comes through in Key's music, but unlike much lionized emotional work by female artists - whether Anne Sexton or Courtney Love - the songs bring us through a catharsis without leaving us rubbernecking at the car wreck of the artist's life. On record and in person, Key comes across as neither damaged, self-destructive, nor dysfunctional. "I'm not saying the best thing for an artist to do is to puke out everything - some mystery is good," she says. "I'm not interested in being the kind of public figure where everybody knows exactly what happens with me at any given moment. For all my whining about losing my mind sometimes, I do have some kind of lasso on it. One way of having a lasso on it is being able to translate it, to play it, to put it in a song." Key's also fortunate to have a partner who keeps her from falling over the edge. "Tim's been a balance for me," she says. "He has an awareness of my history; he can tell me when I'm doing something stupid."


Harris is Key's number one fan. "I don't think Tara's gotten as much attention as she deserves," he tells me over a Southern-style brunch - cheese, grits, and hickory-smoked bacon that he and Tara have prepared at their East 24th Street one-bedroom apartment. On stage the couple lean against each other back to back -Tim, a head taller than Tara, carefully stooped - and play their hearts out. Gentle and thoughtful, the proverbial mellow bass player, Harris is a good foil for Key's self-described control freak tendencies. Like her propensity to spaz out, bossiness is a part of her personality Key says she's learning to harness. Harris concurs: "Ironically, on her solo records, she was more into not making all the decisions than on an Antietam record," he says. "Having made that first record changed the way we all relate to each other in the studio," Key says. "It's always been a democracy, but I've been capable of having tunnel vision." "On Ear and Echo, all of us in the band were able to look at an idea and develop what went into it, and then it wasn't important if you played on it, or what you played," Harris says. "We weren't caught up in any role, it was a lot more fun."


Departing from fixed roles has been crucial to Key's recent productivity. Over the last few years the members of Antietam have branched out into numerous side projects. Madell toured with Codeine a couple of years ago; Key and Harris played with Syd Straw. "That was the break in the gate," Key says, "that blew up the usual expectations, instead of being focused on the corporation, the holy concept, of Antietam." She brought this new openness to her solo debut, recorded with a cast of players including members of Yo La Tengo, Eleventh Dream Day, Cobalt, Run On, and Speedball Baby. "An important thing I learned making these records was that I spent a lot of my life being really telescope-focused on Antietam, or the Babylon Dance Band - like almost a circle-thewagons mentality. That's so obviously bogus to me now, I feel like someone should have hit me over the head with a hammer 10 years ago and told me to jam with people more."


The other catalyst for Key's solo work was her separation from Harris for several months in 1993. Not wanting to turn her private life into public fodder, we carefully avoid discussing the messy details of their split, but she says it was a painful, important period in her life. Bourbon County, for one, was conceived and written during that time. Perhaps the most moving musical evidence of the experience is "Silver Solace," a 10-minute epic about independence and interdependence that winds up Rope-A-Dope. The song opens with Key strumming an acoustic and singing in her affectless alto, "Go look around, see something else." Drums and an electric guitar break in, and eventually Key abandons verbal explanations and lets her guitar do the talking: declaiming, feeding back, screaming, exploding. "I had this real epiphany with `Silver Solace'," Key says. "That was written and performed live for the first time during the absolute implosion moment of that summer. There was a show at Wetlands where I knew I wasn't coming home... and I really thought every molecule just might dissipate. What ended up happening was I got strangely calm and really eventually happy in a way, because I felt that was the first time in my life that I said absolutely what was on my mind, I didn't censor myself, and it might have been the truest song I'd ever written at that point. That made me promise that that was the way it was going to be, no beating around the bush from now on."


"Silver Solace" ends with an acoustic coda and Tara singing, "I've got to have you." Now, Key and Harris' partnership seems stronger and more fruitful than ever. They play and write songs together, brew their own beers (aided by Ear and Echo player Wolf Knapp), read a lot, and make plans for the information service/brew pub/ambient record, et cetera, they would like to do together. "Our relationship is really good in that we're understanding how complex human beings are," Key says. "[With Bourbon County] Tim was producing a record that has some songs on it that might have been upsetting to him. But we both admire each other so much that we give each other permission to be truthful and just run with it." Having opened the floodgates of self-expression, Key and Harris are careful not to censor each other. "We celebrate being able to have impulses and not feel guilty or bad about them. We both know that you can have an emotion and pass though a prism of responses, and the act of creating this artifact, which is a song or a line or a word or something, is just freezing those. And we both accept that the freezing isn't the total truth. We could be singing about these things, but on another level we're connecting, playing with each other, in a way that's primal and true."


Dream Painting
The cover of Ear and Echo is the first painting Key has finished in a decade. It's a Jasper Johns-ish collage of magazine images, fabrics, and thick layers of brightly coloured paint, with several images of faces. "It started with a dream," Key says. "I saw the basic premise as being a real obvious portrayal of me being my own worst enemy, an inner war type of trip." The painting took several years. "It's a slice of my life, it's my journal. There have been a lot of me's from beginning to ending it."


The title, taken from a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, the Russian poet of the 1930s, refers to the delay between action and reaction that has often characterized Key's response to life. "I'm trying to get to where the crisis is no longer overwhelming to me," she says. "As I get older, I do see life more as rings around a tree. I'm trying to move to this point where the time shrinks between when I'm doing something and when I realize what I'm doing. I am often hearing echoes of my behavior."


Copyright © Evelyn McDonnell 1995