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BETTY at the Stereo Society
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BETTY at the Stereo Society
BETTY in Interview Part 1
Before evolving into the wild and theatrical rock band that they are now, BETTY began as an edgy a capella/spoken word/techno beat trio. Friends since an unfortunate incarceration, fierce Elizabeth Ziff (vocals/guitar), funky Alyson Palmer (vocals, bass) and funny Amy Ziff (vocals, cello) take a trip down memory lane with producer Mike Thorne.
BETTY was interviewed by Mike Thorne at The Stereo Society, New York City on February 15, 2000
Alyson = Pink, Amy = Purple, Elizabeth = Blue, Mike = Black
Why do you play music?
Music. I play music because it’s kind of in my blood. As the saying goes, “The show must go on!”
The “Borscht Belt?”
Amy and I both grew up in a family where everybody sang all the time and basically you had to perform to get attention. Frankly, that’s how it came about. I thought that’s how everybody was until I went to school and almost got expelled in kindergarten. I realized oh, this isn’t the way people act. You aren’t supposed to have a spotlight in first grade.
You either have a trained dog act or you sing. I guess singing just came a little big more naturally because I’m afraid of dogs.
My way was quite the opposite because I grew up in a family where singing was not encouraged. If you sang at the dinner table you were punished. It was not allowed. My family travelled all over the world and I would be alone in my room with my guitar. I write songs to please myself. I would pleasure myself in my room, alone.
In my own room.
I always sang. It’s funny because today I was thinking about the film, The Aristocats and I remember seeing that movie as a very small child. There’s a scene where they talk about musical scales and triads, and being mesmerized by that. It sort of informed my entire musical experience. One Disney film!
So, your life is sort of built around a cartoon.
A cartoon about a cat in France, I believe.
Well, say no more. I never saw The Aristocats.
That’s why you don’t know music theory. If you did, you would…
She knows music theory, Alyson.
I know: “Doe, a deer, a female dear; ray, a drop of golden sun…”
We were living in France and came back to Fairfax, Virginia.
That’s pretty much it.
That’s as low as you can go with a smile on your face.
One tooth missing but a smile on your face.
Back in those days it’s very elegant.
In front of the airstream.
It’s an elegant town. I was miserable beyond miserable.
She had a nervous breakdown in sixth grade.
That’s a record.
One day a traveling string man came to the school.
Really and truly?
Really and truly. He was large, sweaty, and he wore huge glasses. He showed everybody the violin, the viola, the cello and the bass. And, people were throwing spitballs and things at him! Then, he got to sit down and played the cello. I was, like, that’s what I want to do!
Isn’t that exciting! The moment when you connect with your future and see your means of expression.
It’s an incredible thing.
I don’t think I ever had that moment.
You had that moment…
Maybe in a peep show!
Meanwhile, I am going to tell you something that would possibly illustrate that. I remember Amy telling me that you had come home from school when you were a little girl…
You would sit on your bed, rock back and forth and sing at the top of your lungs—singing the entire day.
Now, that’s connecting at a very early age with what you do. I never did that.
We used to tape record her. This was, literally, when she was in first grade, and I was in third. She would come home, wouldn’t say hello to anybody; just a nod. Then, go upstairs sit on the corner of her bed and then begin her song-“Then the teacher said to me come to the beginning of the class and we did math and then we said…”
Isn’t that the sweetest thing?
She would do that the entire day.
You never heard? It is so adorable.
But it wasn’t like that; that’s like semi-horrible. It was cute.
It was cute. She couldn’t pronounce her R’s…
She had rhythm.
And she went on and on and on.
It had rhythm and a sense of tune.
Excuse me; you had “wthyhm,” at the time.
I wish we could find that tape because that would be genius.
I would pay every penny I have.
My point being is that Amy as a later child found her cello, and I found The Aristocrats later on. But, from the very beginning, you already had the gift of music. It was already in you bursting out. So, it’s cool that was your moment.
You had to be free. You had to sing; it just was important to you.
Actually, the epiphany, it just came.
As epiphanies do.
Yes. Eureka! I had it when I was in Israel and I lived on a kibbutz because I was a socialist at the time. When I graduated from high school I wanted to get as far away from Fairfax, Virginia, as I possibly could so I went to…
Sholeihem our chosen Holy Land.
I went to find other Jews in the dessert, and I lived on a kibbutz and I happened to be Dorothy. I played Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. We put on this play for the kibbutz people so they don’t completely hate you, and I was the star. I remember I went out on stage and sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow a cappella and I killed. It was amazing, and then I realized, oh my god, this is what I want to do.
That’s different from finding the quiet music within-that moment of glory when you actually conquer an audience. That’s a completely different moment. That also informs a performer.
I wasn’t even trying to.
Well, of course not, you’re a natural.
Do you remember the first time, Amy, when you completely slew an audience and said, “I must feed off this energy for the rest of my life?”
Yeah, every day.
But that’s very nice.
Every day she’d put on the stereo and act out all of Pippin or Cabaret or Seals & Croft s or Carol King’s Tapestry.
Were you an appreciative audience? Would you cheer?
I loved every minute of it. She came back when she was ten. My dad took her to New York.
No, to London.
Oh, to London.
Oh, excuse me! I am so terribly sorry.
You’re the one who said you travelled all over the world.
Yeah, in a caravan.
Gypsies, tramps and things. At least Alyson has her guitar.
Quiet around the campfire.
Was this an interview or what?
Well, you’ve found yourselves at this point in the interview. How did you find each other?
We have been trying to lose each other for the last thirty years, and we can’t seem to shake each other off.
It’s brilliant though. Elizabeth and I were really, really good chums and buddies when we were smaller children. Then, we hit high school and went our separate ways. She stayed in the smoking lounge and stole cars, and I was a straight-A student. But, we respected each other from a distance, but we didn’t really hang.
We never turned on each other.
Although, we could have.
I wanted to bring her into my fold, and she kind of resisted. Then, later on in life, as I was graduating from college, I went to New York to find fame and fortune. I decided to go back to Fairfax, Virginia, because Elizabeth was actually having a hard time. We just wanted to be together.
I had a complete nervous breakdown. In quotations: “hard time.”
A “hard time”! A re-evaluating period. ZHZHZHZHZHZHZH. That’s the sound of a crack.
In hieroglyphics! That’s a good one! To make a long story longer, what happened was we started doing music together as a form of expression and as a form of therapy for me and for you. I was working…
And, to work off the drugs, frankly.
I was working in a travel agency.
I was eating cheese and nachos all day long and drinking Jack Daniel’s at night, basically.
We decided to form a band because there was another girl.
A really good friend of mine was a drummer, and she was in a band and she wanted to leave.
So we put an ad on the radio. Did you know this? Did you know this at all? We put an ad on the radio for a bass player.
Meanwhile, here’s my life experience at this point: I’ve been in a few bands and I’m playing in college. I’m a theatre major. Somewhere, I wind up in a fifties band, and I don’t know how I got into it.
Crinoline skirt and everything!
I didn’t know how to get out of it because the money was great. It was fun, but it’s not a place you really want to be. You know, a fifties band in the eighties. So, I started auditioning for different bands and there was never one that I really liked. There was an all women R&B band; there was a funk band. Then one day, I happened to come home, put on the radio, and there was this ad for this bank, Lickety Split. They were an all-female punk new wave band. I thought, “that’s interesting.” It was completely providential that I happened to turn on the radio at the time, which I never did. So, I picked up the phone and called. It turns out later, to be Amy. I called her at her job.
He wanted you.
Yeah, he wanted me desperately. Alyson called and we started talking to each other; I was describing the band to her and she was describing what she was doing. We became friends on the phone. We must have talked for a long time. Meanwhile, a co-worker is looking at me and pointing to her watch. I was pretending to sell her a ticket to Bombay. I talked to her afterwards, and I said to Elizabeth that I’d met this really awesome girl on the phone, and she’s going to come over and audition for us.
It took so long to get together. How did you manage to stay together so much longer? You never even interrupt each other during a sentence. How long did this take to put in place?
You know what? It really took a lot of training because there used to be a really bad problem with that. We would all speak at the same time, but somehow we learned how to find each other’s nooks and crannies and slip in whenever there is a pause.
It’s a part of collaborating. You learn to collaborate while you speaking as well, along with music. You have to pause, then you start to hate each other if you can’t get a word in edgewise.
Or, nobody understands what you are saying or it becomes uninteresting.
You learn to listen. We had to learn to listen to each other. That’s definitely one of the rules of staying together for a long time. You’ve got to be able to hear each other.
Have you ever been on the edge of breaking apart?
Every single day for the last seventeen years.
It’s a conscious choice to stay together. Let’s put it that way.
The weird thing is that, when there are these horrific, horrific, wrenching fights, people that aren’t in a band or don’t do music or don’t collaborate in one very intensive kind of ego thing, are unaware that you have this relationship which is more volatile than a lover relationship, or a husband, or a wife.
It’s just as volatile.
I think it’s more so.
You’re constantly proving yourself.
There’s no one to make up with.
There’s nothing to look forward to after the fights.
Except more fights.
Except for that one time.
Oh, man! I mean, every day you re-evaluate. Personally, I feel horrendous when we fight.
It’s not the fight so much as it is the unspoken things that are hard. It’s like any type of relationship. You get into roles and you get into reading each other’s thoughts even though you don’t know what they are really saying. You get into bad patterns that get worse over time. So we did what any good, thick-blooded American person has had to do if they wanted to retain some sort of value to their long-term relationship. We ended up going to therapy together.
But I think, more than that, or in addition to that the simple wonderful element of having a person or persons believe in you and say, “You know what-what you do is good and it’s worth it to me”-you know, on a simple level it has made a very, very huge profound difference to me personally and I think to the band.
If you don’t have something.
Please finish your thought.
Well, that was my thought. I was addressing him personally and professionally and also in a larger scale.
Yeah. It’s very difficult to be doing some kind of an artistic endeavour in a vacuum, and we’ve always had the great fortune to have a lot of fans and a lot of friends who support us along the way. But, as an independent act first because we wanted to be, and then second because…
We had to be.
What we are doing is so outside the norm of mainstream music, it is very difficult to continue on in an unsupported fashion. I think that’s one of the reasons we turn on each other like we did because the frustration of not having other people understand what our fans did, which was that we were doing good, valid music.
And we should be huge, and that’s all there is to it.
Just the validity of like, “Hey, yes, what you are doing is great. Let’s put you on tour.” Whatever.
Or, you know what, not even that.
It was very difficult, I found personally.
I think it still is.
It is. Maybe what you are doing is great, but that there’s a place for you. You know, there’s a place for what you do; there’s a place for what we do. It’s maybe not as conventional as other people, but there’s a place, and it’s valid.
Yeah, but in this society you really have to find it, especially as an artist because it’s not validated. I mean validation in music is so…
Yeah, it is. How do you validate it? By being on MTV? I mean is that validation? Or by making a lot of money?
Doesn’t it become personal? It becomes personal for every musician.
Exactly, but you have to get to that point.
I think the three of us have pretty much the same goal that, every time we went out on stage, we wanted an audience to be bigger and more rabid every single time we went out, and it’s very hard to do that on your own. You need someone else putting out ads and letting people know what’s going on, and we didn’t have that for a very long time, until the advent of the Internet, and the advent of independent labels rising up. We were right before that happened. That’s when our frustration began. All of a sudden, the idea of independence became really valid and really viable and that’s what we did with The Man from B.E.T.T.Y. We became an independent label and saved our asses in many ways.
And saved our sanity, our creativity and our friendship.
You are now at the point where you have a body of work behind you. You have several albums out there. Does this make it a lot more comfortable or do you have to keep going finding another challenge?
I think the challenge is finding a way for us to survive in the climate, that is as an artist. It’s always been difficult. It will always be difficult for people who don’t play by the rules. We don’t play by the rules; we never have, and that’s not by choice. It’s just who we are. We make records that we want to put out, and they don’t necessarily follow a trend, no matter how hard we’ve tried to say.
We tried, but we don’t speak that language.
We don’t speak that language.
We speak our language, and we hope that more people like our lingo.
Or want to take a crash course or Berlitz course at learning it.
The thing about it is that once people do see us or hear our music, they always like us.
Well, not always, but they enjoy it. They understand that there’s validity and talent in what we do. You know, because it’s not like we suck.
It’s just getting out there to the people that has been, for me, the most frustrating thing. Really, the music system has been set up so, before the Internet, that it was impossible for you to reach a mass audience without a record company behind you.
Did changing to a Rock ‘n Roll type of lineup move closer to a norm to get the music out more readily?
No, that was to follow the music that we were personally writing.
That was speaking to a need. Specifically, a need that I had and, I believe, a need that Elizabeth had more so than Amy.
Yeah. I didn’t have it.
She didn’t have it. I’ve always had a passion for passionate music-the whole range, that whole panoply of emotions, and I didn’t feel like we were reaching it when we were doing less fully instrumented music.
Do you think you’re liable to get pigeonholed as a result of switching? Do you think you have anything in common with the Dixie Chicks and with Hole?
I would love to. I respect and admire and like both of those bands a lot, and I have no problems with comparisons to them at all.
But, no one has even been really able to compare us to anybody. Throughout our entire career people have said they are like this or that, like that and there are just as many people who say no they are not like that at all. I really do think that we are kind of unique in our own little niche of whatever caterwauling that we are doing.
For better or worse, really.
It would have been easier, much easier for us if people had been able to pigeonhole us, or say “you are exactly like this band,” and they wanted to. People that had been involved with us in the beginning of our careers always said, “well can’t you be more like this band? Can’t you do this? Can’t you do that?”
We could guarantee you a certain amount of success and that’s where we try. For instance, we had a meeting with a record executive who said, okay, this is what you need to do; this, this and the other thing. And, we were like, okay, and we tried doing something that wasn’t really us, and it just didn’t work out. BETTY has to be about us being truthful to ourselves and how we approach the world and our music. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.
It’s not a revolutionary thing. You know it’s not, like, fuck you, the system. I mean, it’s not like we’re doing this because we are anarchists as far as the music industry are concerned. It’s just a truism. If you are true to what you are doing and somehow it just comes on the other side. I don’t know why.
Well, it’s because we don’t stick to one format. We’ll do a song with just vocals and a cello and then we’ll do a song with a full-instrument band. I mean all three of us write very differently. We have very different influences. The thing that makes us a band is when we come together and we arrange, and we have a certain sound that is three vocals and a harmony that is very different from most people especially in rock ‘n roll. You have one lead vocal usually, maybe two at the most, but you don’t have three, and three harmonies singing all the time together.
Yeah. But even that’s changed even for us. We have a lot of lead vocals now. So it’s different. We don’t really fit into-you can’t put on one of our records and not listen to it. And, I think a lot of things that have happened to music is it has become audio-noise. It’s music…
Like wallpaper, you mean.
You put on a CD so you can relax and you don’t have to think.
You can shop.
You can shop, you can clean your house, which is all well and good, but it’s noise now. You don’t buy a CD now and listen to it and pore over the pages of the booklet.
A lot of people do though.
Not as much as they used to.
I don’t know. I think there’s a whole-
I’m afraid I have to disagree with you-
I do too.
Santana’s album. I listen to every single note.
Santana’s album is totally different. It’s totally different.
But you just said it doesn’t.
Most people don’t do that. I think the mass of people don’t buy records to really pore over and listen to that much anymore. That’s why you have that whole techno thing that has come up.
I disagree, too.
That whole rave thing that has come up.
You lose points, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry. I think there are just as many people that don’t than do.
Look at the Top Forty. And you tell me that the mass of people are sitting there and listening to every single word except for some of the Hip Hop stuff.
Yes. Let’s look at Top Forty. Let’s look at all the Pop Teen bands that are up there. Frankly, that’s exactly what I did when I was young. For example, Cat Stevens. I would listen to every word. I guarantee they are doing that for The Back Street Boys, 98 Degrees and Christina Aguilera.
More of what I am talking about now is the whole thing that is happening in Europe. And it is coming over to America so prepare yourself. It’s really going to be it. Especially after the rave thing that’s happening, with that movie that’s coming.
You mean that rave is coming over from Europe and that whole thing is happening?
That movie, Groove. It’s like the Saturday Night Fever of rave music. That’s what it is supposed to do for it. It just won all these awards in Sundance.
She’s saying rave is going to be the next big thing that everybody’s going to be…
It already is, Alyson. Look at all the records that are being sold. I mean that kind of music, the kind of music that’s new, the kind of music, that’s what it is if you listen to it, really listen to it, and that’s what I have been doing. It’s not music you sit down and listen to. You either take drugs to it, which is great and wonderful, and you dance to it, but you don’t sit there and listen to and it doesn’t take you on a ride. You know The Back Street Boys don’t take you on a ride. There are no songs that are going to pull you out of that moment.
The movement towards background music: is this a door closing forever in Pop Music? Is Pop Music invented once and then goes on?
No. I mean they disagree with me. It’s just my opinion. I don’t think it’s bad because I love a lot of that music. I just think it is different.
You know as a student of Pop Music that nothing ever, ever ends. Everything is always revisited. Each trend revisits old trends and keeps on going. It’s completely cyclical.
Look at sampling.
What do you think makes it novel? Where does the freshness come from?
It’s the attitude and the realness of the person who’s performing or writing it.
Yeah, I think I would have to agree with it. It really does come down to the personality of the person delivering the message because so many people are just doing the same thing. Madonna, for instance, did nothing new that anybody else hadn’t done, but her sass, her sauciness was so alive that she really besotted people.
She also did the most important thing you can in this culture: she surrounded herself with people that were as talented or way more talented than she was and helped her create who she was. That’s her great gift, finding the most talented, greatest people to surround herself with, her management.
I completely agree.
Her producers. Everything.
I completely agree, but, without that essential ability to deliver the message in a way that seems ultimately truthful and fresh and new. Even though you are saying the same old thing, without that ability you can surround yourself with everybody and get nowhere.
Yeah. The audience knows what’s real and what’s not. I think that’s why The Spice Girls got to be so big because I think they were real even though they were put together.
It sounds like what you really admire is a growth in somebody, in an individual-and a development.
I admire having the real thing. I want to go see somebody who is really there-whether it’s the best act in the world or not.
But some people are really there and they do the same thing for forty years.
Like Eartha Kitt. I admire both. I admire being able to keep that up and I admire growth. Definitely. Even if you don’t like what people do like Beck. I love his first album. His second album was okay. Third album-eh, maybe better, but I admire the fact that he’s constantly changing and growing. And, I think he’s the real deal.
Where do you think BETTY might go next?
A full-scale opera. That’s my bid.
I think BETTY’s still trying to find her feet. I really do.
Or her water wings.
I think Betty’s trying to find her feet as what really is BETTY and for all three of us.
It could be that BETTY is not a concrete concept. It is like the three of us are constantly shifting and changing. Therefore, even we could never pigeonhole it in any way. For us to say “what is BETTY going to be doing in five years,” Throughout our whole career we have been asked that question. We’ve made various answers, but we’ve never really been able to hit it on the head because, I think, it changes as we do, and there’s certain randomness to what BETTY is. We sort of have to follow behind her as opposed to telling her where she’s going.
She has assumed her own demons. She has assumed her own personality, and she has assumed her own right to do what she wants to do, how she wants to do it, and we’re kind of following behind, like, “okay, here’s some more fire for you.”
Sometimes we fight it and sometimes you just give it up.
We’ll see what happens.
We serve her.
Yeah. She is our vole.