Sigrid Sheie is a peerlessly talented vocalist, pianist, flautist and bassist. She is currently most well known in the heavy metal community for her work with the brilliant, cross-genre experimental band Hammers Of Misfortune. On their most recent album, 17th Street, Sigrid is credited with performing backing vocals, piano, flute and organ. She has also performed with the dark ambient project Amber Asylum. She is an Adjunct Professor in the Music Department at the University of San Francisco. She holds a Master’s degree in piano performance, and in addition to teaching and USF, she also serves there as a resident accompanist. I have long admired Sigrid’s work, which is intelligent, intricate and emotionally authentic. She successfully navigates between the academic and heavy metal scenes, and does so with consistent grace. With so much going on, it’s hard to imagine adding more to her plate, but Sigrid will soon be playing bass in a project involving Mike Scheidt (YOB), Aesop Dekker (Agalloch), and John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune, ex-Ludicra). The group will be putting out a record on Profound Lore in the Spring of 2013. Hammers of Misfortune will be touring this Summer on the East coast, during the last two weeks of July, and are also working on string of dates in the Pacific Northwest for October.
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How did your love affair with heavy music begin? What first attracted you to heavy metal, and what ultimately made you decide to perform in a heavy band?
I grew up on a farm in a small town in Minnesota. It was pretty isolated, so the first heavy bands I listened to were basically whatever was on the radio: Metallica, Van Halen, Aerosmith, etc. In my late teens I got really into L7, Babes in Toyland and 7 Year Bitch, which had a huge impact on me. I had been studying classical piano since I was 3 years old and flute since I was 9 or 10, so I decided I could learn guitar or bass as well. In high school, I had the opportunity to play a jazz piece on bass for the band and then I was hooked.
When I moved to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) to go to college, I played bass in a few bands. I eventually found kindred spirits in two women, Chyna and Selena, and we formed the Menstrual Tramps. We were a fast street punk band, and musically we were about as rebellious from my classical training as I could get. After playing/touring with the Menstrual Tramps for a few years I moved to the Bay Area. I played bass and even flute for a couple bay-area punk bands until I was introduced to John Cobbett. Hammers of Misfortune was looking for a bass player/lead singer, so I auditioned in early 2003. They were the first metal band I had played with since moving to the west coast. I loved that they were great musicians and the music they played was more dynamic and varied than any of the punk rock I was used to playing. I didn’t pass the audition as the lead vocalist but I basically wouldn’t leave. I offered to keep playing bass until they found the right person.
Before long John found out I was a classically trained pianist and asked if I’d be interested in playing the Hammond B3 organ. At that time I had never played a keyboard outside of a classical context. It took a lot of trial and error with gear, figuring out how to play keyboards in a metal band. It was during this time that I started listening to more metal bands, lots of obscure ’70s keyboard-driven rock and metal. I also listened to black metal for the first time. Growing up in the Midwest in the ’90s I was well aware of the Nu-Metal scene and really came to hate the style and the aesthetic (and thus turned to punk rock), so it was wonderful to discover all of this great metal music that had nothing to do with corn-rows, rap and baggy pants.
As a classically trained musician, do you find that your background gives you a different perspective when it comes to writing and performing metal?
I initially had a strong desire to learn bass or guitar as an escape from the orderly, precise demands of classical piano. I feel like I’ve really come full circle in that now I can see that piano or organ can be just as heavy and driving, and doesn’t always have to be so perfect. I don’t need an escape from it anymore. Playing flute and piano in Amber Asylum was also very freeing because there was space to really open up musically and improvise.
I felt very confined by classical music when I was younger, which pushed me outward to heavier and stranger styles, but now I see that metal music and classical music are really not that different. I hear metal riffs all over the place in classical music. I feel like my background in classical, punk and metal all inform each other. Now, when I’m playing a particularly driving section in a Beethoven sonata, for example, I can hear a drummer and bass player, or a symphony behind me propelling the energy forward. Or, when writing a piano part for a Hammers ballad I think, “What would Chopin or Rachmaninoff do?”
In addition to your role as a musician, you teach at the University of San Francisco. How do you reconcile your academic and performance/recording careers?
My job as the accompanist at USF is to work with singers and instrumentalists in various musical styles, which is essentially what I do in Hammers or any other band. My days are filled with different types of rehearsals that all have the same goal. I want the ensemble to work and the music to sound great whether I’m playing “Glitter and Be Gay”, “Die Forelle” or “An Oath Sworn in Hell”. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the amount of music I have to learn, rehearse and perform, but I always feel grateful for how my musical life has evolved.
The teaching aspect of my work is pretty different because of the range of students, but my overall philosophy of music informs my teaching every day. I want students to understand the keyboard on an intuitive level: to feel patterns under their fingers, to understand the basic structure of chords and chord progressions, to read music well and to be able to play whatever style interests them the most. Also, having a teacher’s schedule is great for touring, performing and recording because there is built-in time off and a fair amount of flexibility.
Do you think that heavy metal has more of a place, or a growing acceptance, in an academic setting?
Yes, depending on the institution. The music major/minor where I teach is a Performing Arts and Social Justice degree, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Because it is a pretty open concept, a lot of different ideas are accepted.
I had a great piano teacher right before graduate school that suggested I leave out my “other” musical activities on graduate school applications. I know he had the best intentions and was probably right, but luckily I ended up in a place, both in grad school and my current job, where it is embraced, not something I have to hide.
Hammers of Misfortune is a complex, cerebral, relatively sophisticated band. How do you all balance the visceral energy and aggression of heavy metal with a more intellectual approach?
I think the lyrics are the balancing factor. The lyrics almost always speak to a political, societal or personal darkness. They might be sung over a beautiful three-part vocal harmony with lush guitars and piano, so the initial impression might be one of beauty and complexity. But there is a lot of aggression and even cynicism bubbling beneath the surface. I think on 17th Street the aggression is a bit more up front and the anger is more palpable, both musically and lyrically. If you take a song like “The Day The City Died”, the piano and organ parts are banging out eighth notes for the entirety of the verses. The mixture of piano and organ and the way the rest of the band plays around the keyboards and vocals make it heavy in a totally weird way. It’s a complex production/mixing job, so the balance between all the different elements in that song is key. “Summer Tears” is a bold song for Hammers, or any modern metal band. It is purposefully saccharine musically, but utterly crushing lyrically, so I think it’s a good example of how the two opposing elements can create a uniquely heavy sound.
What is your role in the writing process when it comes to Hammers of Misfortune? Can you tell us about your contributions to 17th Street?
John writes all the music and lyrics for Hammers. He’s driven to do that in a way that doesn’t really interest me as a musician. There seems to be this automatic assumption that everyone wants to write music, or at least contribute their ideas if they play in a band, but I really just want to play. Maybe this comes from being a classical musician and understanding that you can express yourself through performance as well as composition. Interpretation and execution is the aspect of music that inspires me the most. I’m lucky that the music I get to play is so well written and compelling. John and I have a very strong working partnership that has evolved over many years.
I have helped with arrangements and vocal harmonies on the last few records. 17th Street was a little different because I was learning a lot of my parts from printed scores while John was on tour with Ludicra. The basic tracks were already done so the arrangements were mostly set. My contributions involved executing of a fair amount of difficult music, so that I had to plan out specific fingerings and voicings of chords, while researching and practicing with different drawbar settings (on the B3), composing some specific piano parts around the existing chord structure, and stuff like that. I also did some backing vocals on a few of the tracks but Leila [Rauf] did most of the vocal harmonies.
One thing that defines Hammers of Misfortune‘s sound is the layering of male and female vocals. Do you find this makes the band’s identity more open/less gendered?
There was a show we played years ago in Albuquerque NM, I think. The opening band was a bunch of fat guys with naked, or nearly naked, women in chains dancing around. It was bizarre and awful. When we got on stage there were several people in the crowd yelling at me and Jamie (Myers) to take off our shirts. How original, right? John got on the mic and said we were there to play our music and if anyone was there to see tits, they would be disappointed and should leave. So the entire audience walked out except for four girls who put their arms around each other and rocked out the entire set.
Your fans generally seem a progressive and open-minded bunch, but do you still find that you are ever treated differently as a woman in your band?
Honestly, not too much anymore, especially on the west coast or in the bigger cities, and especially with our fans. We’re touring the east coast in July, so maybe I can give you an update. Of course I have a treasure trove of stories throughout the years of stupid shit men, and some women, have said and done at shows (like the story above).
I think I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously when I was younger, but was that youth and inexperience, or being a woman, or a combination of both? I’m far more comfortable in my own abilities and place in life now, which is a very natural part of aging. I still have a long way to go and still get terrified right before going on stage or before an important rehearsal. But music is a lifelong learning process and there is just no way you’re going to know as much in your 20s as in your 30s and beyond. Maybe the best way to combat sexism in music is to know as much as you possibly can and practice as much as you possibly can. If you can play really well, it’s pretty hard for someone to criticize you for any reason. And then when you do encounter blatant sexism you realize that person or group of people are just total shitball idiots and you move on.
What are the similarities and differences between the way you’re treated as a classically trained female musician in an academic setting, and a woman who performs in a metal band?
It’s difficult to speak to how you’re treated at your job versus how you’re treated at your hobby (by hobby I mean the band, in that it doesn’t pay the bills). I think that I’m treated well in both areas. People listen to what I have to say and respect my authority on my area of expertise. I feel fortunate to be in a supportive environment both at my job and in my bands. For example, my boss and colleagues at USF were very encouraging and helpful when I needed to take time off to play Roadburn this spring.
I think in a larger, societal context, I probably get more respect as a professor, but people are a lot more curious about the metal band. I also get a lot of surprised reactions when students find out I play metal.
What advice would you like to pass along to someone who wishes to pursue a career in heavy music?
My advice is to be diverse. You can always play heavy metal if that’s what you love but know how to play a little bit of everything. Know how to play more than one instrument so you are always needed somewhere. Master the fundamentals. Learn how to read and write music. Learn theory and pedagogy. Take every student and every job you can get when you are first starting out. Most of all, practice!
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Sigrid Sheie has been playing with Hammers of Misfortune since 2003 and Amber Asylum since 2007. She is a multi-instrumentalist specializing in piano, Hammond B3, flute and bass guitar. She earned a Master of Music degree in Piano Performance in 2009 from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, CA. Currently an Adjunct Professor of Piano at the University of San Francisco, she is also the resident accompanist for the vocal and instrumental departments there. In addition, Sigrid teaches piano at the non-profit San Francisco Community Music Center which serves students of all ages and economic backgrounds. Follow her on Twitter at @ssheie