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Tuesday, June 18, 2002

Ex-Hole/Pumpkins bassist covers Sabbath

By PAUL CANTIN -- JAM! Showbiz

When former Hole/Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur launched her "art-karaoke" project Hand Of Doom, she had no way of knowing that pop culture would overtake her.

The Montreal-born musician says she started Hand Of Doom more than a year ago as a tribute to heavy metal gods Black Sabbath. Auf Der Maur sings, a quartet of her musical friends crank out the band's psychedelic heavy rock -- it was all meant for a laugh.

Then Sabbath's singer Ozzy Osbourne became a multi-media phenomenon, via the ratings-grabbing MTV reality show "The Osbournes." And now, what started as an affectionate tribute to one of her favourite bands suddenly seems like a shrewd career move.

"I can't be reactive like that," Auf Der Maur says via telephone from her photography workspace in New York.

"Last year, Sabbath was Sabbath to me. Ozzy was Ozzy from Sabbath. I don't know what is going on now. But there is definitely some new context, and I'm not sure how it is going to affect my little cover band," she says.

"The truth of the matter is, I love Sabbath no matter what is going on ... I would assume everyone would know my love for Sabbath would be bigger than any love for an MTV cashing-in thing," she says.

"Smart people will know that."

Smart people in Canada will get a chance to assess Hand Of Doom next month when the group arrives there for a brace of shows -- June 29 at Montreal's Cafe Campus, July 1 at the Edgefest Concert at Molson Park in Barrie, Ont., on a bill with Nickelback, Cake, Finger Eleven, Sevendust and others, and a second show that same date at Toronto's Tequila Lounge.

"These Canadian shows, it is purely because it is Canada Day," Auf Der Maur says.

"Celebrating Sabbath and Canada Day in one shot makes total sense to me. It is not like I will be going on tour for months at a time. It is just special occasions: weddings and Canada Day."

So how did Auf Der Maur, who has played the consummate side-woman to erratic, larger-than-life figures such as Courtney Love and Billy Corgan, come to front a just-for-kicks, gender-bending homage to a pioneering metal band?

It all started when she gave her friend, Molly R. Stern, a bass, and encouraged her to learn the instrument.

"Last year, she called me up and said she wanted to go further with her bass playing. And I said the best thing you could do is learn Sabbath. Just play Sabbath all the time and you will become the best bass player of all time," Auf Der Maur says.

Stern took up the challenge and signed on drummer Pedro Yanowitz (Natalie Merchant, Wallflowers), guitarist Guy Stevens, and noise manipulator/turntablist Joey Garfield, and gave Auf Der Maur the nod as lead singer.

"I said I had never been a lead singer in a band. She said it was about time. I started making my own album this year, and I knew I was going to have to get out there sooner or later, so I better start with Ozzy," she says.

"They are pretty authentic," she says of the band's covers. "There is nothing you can do to make them better, and it is not like we are going to make them worse. We try to do them to a T. I think we do a pretty good job."

It started off as a fun sideline, and so far, the group has played only a handful of shows: two in New York and four in Los Angeles. Some of the west coast shows have been recorded for a live album due in mid-September from indie label Idaho Music.

"That in itself was this fun, precious novelty," she says of the album.

"Cover bands don't make albums, let alone live albums. Let alone a female singing Ozzy ... It's kind of an art/Spinal Tap novelty of a cover band making a live album on the Sunset Strip."

Auf Der Maur is mostly associated with what used to be called "alternative rock," so was she always a devotee of Sabbath?

"To be honest, I was definitely a girl who grew up on contemporary music of the moment. I actually probably discovered early-'90s and late-'80s hard rock before I discovered Sabbath," she says.

"As a bass player, rediscovering Sabbath from that angle, I realize that holds all the secret keys to all of rock music," she says.

When asked what she admires about the Sabbath oeuvre, she enthuses: "It is psychedelic -- heavy, but beautiful and melodic. Original. And to me, it is the funnest music to play and listen to. It is the most satisfying. It is a feel thing. Some people might prefer hip-hop or whatever. I prefer heavy, groove-oriented rock music.

She says that even she was taken aback by how well the music suited a female perspective and voice.

"It is emotional. It is men playing with their feminine side. The irony or non-irony of me singing it is, Ozzy wrote those perfectly for a woman. Even his vocal range is perfect for my vocal range. I didn't have to change one key of any song. I can sing it all like it was made for me.

"He is a man, but look at him. He is a unique kind of odd person, not afraid of his own personality, and definitely not afraid of his mystical, spiritual side.

"I've always thought the best rock music -- Smashing Pumpkins or Led Zeppelin -- those guys are always kind of exploring their feminine sides. Look at the way they dress. The lyrical content. The emotion that goes into it. I love it. I love all of it."

While Auf Der Maur's passion for Sabbath predates "The Osbournes" phenomenon, Smashing Pumpkins fans know that there is a tenuous association between the two. For a very brief time late in the band's career, Ozzy's wife and manager Sharon Osbourne was nominally the manager of the Pumpkins, before they parted company in a swirl of acrimony.

During that time, Auf Der Maur did have the occasion to meet Ozzy, Sharon and their children, Jack and Kelly. And she adds that she would love to have Hand Of Doom get Ozzy's stamp of approval; during Hand Of Doom's L.A. run, she came close. Jack Osbourne came backstage to visit with Auf Der Maur after the group's show at the Troubadour.

"He is a real heavy-music lover. He is a good kid who loves heavy music, who is clever and smart and cool," she says of Jack Osbourne.

"After the show, when Jack wanted to come talk to me, there were people holding their breath: Is he going to say bad things?

"He took a moment and said: 'Melissa, I am very impressed. You give my family a good name.'

"That's all I needed to hear. As long as Jack thinks it is okay, I am fine."

Melissa Auf Der Maur


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