The Cellar Sessions

Basement brainstorming led Lois Maffeo and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty to their first collaboration.

Lois Maffeo, with Tara Jane O'Neil and Fiendish Thingee Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 10 p.m., Friday, April 21. $7, 216-321-5588
Lois Maffeo writes to see if anyone is paying attention.
Lois Maffeo writes to see if anyone is paying attention.
Although on the surface a collaboration between indie-folk-punk-grrrl Lois Maffeo and punk drummer Brendan Canty might seem strangely off-center, their relationship goes back so far that the album they recorded together (The Union Themes) actually seems pretty late in coming.

"Brendan and I have been friends for many, many years," she recalls. "I worked with his sister before I had actually seen Fugazi play. Once I saw them play, that sealed the deal -- they are one of the most amazing bands ever. Over the years, our friendship has gotten better and better, and for some reason he just understands me musically. I had asked him on previous albums to do things, and he'd be in town and buzz by and do something really amazing, and then be on his way. I hadn't really had any plans to make an album, but I'd been visiting him and his wife and son out in D.C., and we'd just kind of go in the basement and throw together some music, and it was so fun that we just kept writing songs. So it just seemed like a good idea to put out a record."

The scheduling acrobatics turned out to be for a good cause, as The Union Themes stands as one of Maffeo's strongest releases in her almost 15-year career.

"The minute that Brendan and I finished, it was like four o'clock in the morning, on the last day of mixing, and we're totally wasted -- tired, not wasted from anything [like drugs] -- and we just looked at each other, and I said, "You know, it's really, really good,'" she says. "I don't really care about anything else that happens, I don't care if it gets bad reviews, it's so good."

In addition to her current recording and touring duties, Maffeo continues to explore her burgeoning writing career. (Apparently she's making so little money in the music business, she's decided to make even less as a writer.) In addition to covering the scene in Olympia, Washington, and writing reviews for several national publications, Maffeo has taken recent stabs at fiction and archival writing as well.

"There are some aspects of writing that I think are pretty gnarly," she says of her other career. "Because of the approach I took, and because I'd been involved in music for so long, a lot of the places that I wanted to write knew who I was from the music, and they were willing to give it a try, to see if I had any chops. So that was good, in a way, that I had a calling card by virtue of being a musician that at least some people had heard about. Once you get a foot in one door, they start opening. Sometimes you just have to hustle. I've done my share of hustling."

As it turns out, The Union Themes might not have happened at all but for Maffeo's sudden passion for writing and music journalism. After a grueling world tour to promote 1996's Infinity Plus, Maffeo needed some downtime, and writing filled the void that music had occupied for a long time. Her official hiatus afforded her the time and freedom to piece together the material that constitutes The Union Themes by writing with Canty off and on for nearly two years without the burden of an official deadline.

"We toured the United States, and then we went to Europe, and then we went to Japan, and it was really fun, but I was like "I could take a break from this,'" she says with a laugh. "When I got back, I thought, "What am I going to do?' So I started doing more music journalism, which I've always sort of done here and there. I had to make some money, so I started freelancing. The more I delved into that and the more I learned, the more I just got really excited by it, and I just wanted to do it all the time. So if I hadn't had this time with Brendan where we just kept writing these songs for fun, I don't know if I would have made a record or not, because I've really enjoyed learning how to be a writer. I became a writer the exact same way I became a musician . . . which is to just try it and see if anybody is paying attention."

Maffeo's project with Canty is just the latest in a series of interesting and diverse releases, going all the way back to her late-'80s stint with the Cradle Robbers (which included then soon-to-be Spinane Rebecca Gates) and the slyly named Courtney Love, a duo consisting of Maffeo and drummer Pat Maley, which resulted in a handful of cool singles before breaking up.

With the end of Courtney Love, Maffeo moved to Washington, D.C., to escape the small-town atmosphere of Olympia and broaden her horizons a little. "I was sort of chomping at the bit at that time in my life," she remembers. "So I needed something new. Actually, Brendan was one of the people that was instrumental in that as well. I wrote to friends in different cities, in Austin and Boston and Los Angeles and D.C., and I said, "Hey, should I move to your town?' Brendan wrote back a great letter that said, "Well, there's a lot of pros and cons, but we're all really good dancers.' That sounded like a good place to move to."

Although the D.C. scene is thriving and healthy, Maffeo never recorded there for the five years that she was in town. "It was funny; the first three Lois albums were made during that time there, and I would always go back to Olympia or Seattle to record them," says Maffeo. "I don't know why, but I never really jibed with the kind of pace of the music in D.C. Even though there were remarkable labels there -- Dischord, Simple Machines, Teenbeat -- everything was totally happening there. But for some reason I needed that security blanket, so I would always go back to the Northwest to record my albums. I finally just realized that it wasn't just a security blanket, it was my home. So I had to move back."

Even with the D.C. influence, Maffeo has never strayed far from her Northwest roots. With all of her travels and all of the players that have impacted her work, her style remains essentially the same, even as it evolves and matures. The Union Themes is merely the latest example of Maffeo's adroit method of personal/universal songwriting, although she has tagged this set of songs as her first "100 percent fictional album" and admits to a conceptual quality to the work.

"Brendan and I took a cross-country trip from Seattle to D.C. -- he was moving a car or something -- and we had this really long discussion through four or five states about the nature of relationships," she recalls. "He, of course, is married and has children, and we talked about the different ways that people do that. Some people can do it, and some can't. Some people's highest aim in life is to get married, and some people are like "Oh, no way.'"

In discussing the "psychology of partnership," Maffeo and Canty decided they had different views, because Maffeo is more cynical.

"I've always written songs about relationships -- love songs, I guess, but this one I wanted to expand a bit," she explains. "So, like "Handwriting' is about victim psychology, possibly a woman in a domestic violence relationship, and she can't summon the courage to leave yet. So I wasn't thinking about my own experiences when I sat down to write the lyrics. I just took it from that conversation and moved out from there. My old songs aren't verbatim taken from my own experiences, but I usually base them on my experiences or others that I've witnessed. This time, I allowed myself to make shit up."

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