As a child, Quinne Rodgers would have — and occasionally still has — violent nightmares in which bloodthirsty monsters would hunt her down and try to devour her. Faced with this recurring dream that she couldn’t escape, she had to develop a way to survive.
“I would pretend to be a monster to blend in so that they wouldn’t eat me,” she tells me during our interview in Volcano Sushi on Hastings Street. The tactic worked: “They just thought I was one of them and I snuck away.”
Rodgers, who makes experimental synth-pop under the name Ivory Towers, a project that began in 2014, brings these nightmares to life on “somnambula / dreamfasting,” a song that uses her dream-world experiences with monsters as an allegory for her attempts at befriending a group of mean, popular girls back in high school.
“I thought the same thing: if I befriended them, maybe they wouldn’t eat me,” she says. “It didn’t work though. It’s a survival mechanism” — befriending those who could harm you — “but maybe not a very good one. But it did work a lot in my dreams!”
“somnambula / dreamfasting” is just one of the many songs about survival from Rodgers’ excellent new EP, Queller. In her previous releases, Rodgers’ music brimmed with political anger against the privileged and the powerful — “eat-the-rich, burn-it-all-down fury,” as she describes it. She’s still angry, but she’s also starting to realize that anger isn’t the healthiest way to cope with the pains of 2018’s political climate.
“This stuff can really cut deep, depending on what rights are being attacked that day or what horrible things are happening in the world,” she says. “We need to survive, but also we need to be able to stop sometimes and make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”
For her stories of survival, Rodgers was inspired by the natural world and all of its peculiarities. She developed a fascination with birds after installing a bird feeder on her patio last year, and she came up with the concept behind her EP’s opening song, “Sand Witches,” while observing chickadees taking seeds from it. “I was imagining them in their little nest when it rains and they’re protecting each other and keeping each other warm,” she says, “that’s what I want, that nice domestic thing of creating that with someone, like a partner or a friend. Having somewhere where you’re protected and safe.”
Likewise, “Marshmallow” developed out of her own personal research into marsh-mallow plants. “I was thinking of your inner self as a little marsh mallow and how you need to make sure that it doesn’t get burned,” she says, “you have to take care of it.”
Then there’s the cover art, where she’s dressed in all-white but bearing the threatening, bright red eyes of a wood duck. Her eyes look like something out of a horror movie rather than the face of a duck, but for Rodgers, the natural world is just as scary and inspiring. “I was reading about these moles [that] have a bite that’s poisonous. They get these grubs and they bite them, and the grubs are paralyzed but still alive […] so they’re getting eaten, and if they wake up they just bite them again. That’s a horror movie!”
Monsters, birds, marshmallows, self-care — there’s a lot going on in these seven songs. Electronic noises and fluorescent keyboards dominate the mix, but Rodgers makes it all sound as organic as possible. A song like “Celaeno” might be driven by a dark, brooding drone, but its horrors are heightened by samples of whale sounds and bird calls permeating the background. Musically, it’s perhaps easiest to compare Queller to Grimes’ work circa Visions and Darkbloom, but its moments of protective warmth amidst electronic experimentation also bring to mind Vespertine, Björk’s 2001 opus of domestic comfort.
Rodgers had her first musical breakthrough as one half of the industrial, feminist post-punk duo MYTHS, whose 2011 self-titled album remains an unsettling, uncompromising and exciting listen. MYTHS even toured with Elite Gymnastics and Grimes herself back in 2012, where they performed as an opening act as well as Grimes’ backing band.
However, Rodgers found MYTHS to be a constraining project. “It was politics and feminism, that’s what the content was and that was it,” she says. Politics are still present throughout her music, but breaking off into her Ivory Towers project in 2015 gave her a chance to make something more personal and experiment with different sounds and song structures.
With her first two EPs, Endling (2014) and Vile (2016), Rodgers began to embrace the left-field pop that she’s always loved but never got to make in MYTHS. Vile’s “Hel’s Belles,” in particular is a stunningly beautiful work of art-pop, but on Queller, she leans further into accessibility and ends up with her strongest release yet.
That’s not to say that Rodgers is no longer interested in challenging her listeners. “Sand Witches” might be filled with pop hooks and cutesy atmospherics, but it also opens with a giant squelch of noise. “The first EP I put out, people were like ‘it’s so experimental, it’s borderline unlistenable.’ But I want to be experimental and listenable.”
Rodgers remains committed to dismantling power abuse as well. She might be in awe of nature, but it’s through this appreciation that she expresses her environmentalist, anti-pipeline politics. While she sings about domestic comfort, it’s for the sake of protection from today’s political horrors. Once again, the personal remains political.