So the women founded the Ladies' Cello Society and called themselves Rasputina. The music world had never encountered such creatures, clad in Victorian lace, corsets and flowing rings of curls, their music menacing and full of twisted humor. Witnesses were heard to mumble "gothic!" under their breath.
"No -- oh, no!" cries Melora Creager, Rasputina's singer and primary cellist. Creager, by phone from her band's tour van, explains that this simply is not so.
"The goth thing is kind of campy, but there are loyal, passionate people involved in it, so it's not something that I want to knock," she says. "It's also a ghetto, where people will pigeonhole you with a strict set of rules, so I'm not really into that side of it. But it's creative. People get all dressed up in crazy costumes, and I'm into seeing them."
Fairy tales and fantastic allegory, she explains, are her true inspiration: The Chronicles of Narnia, not Nosferatu.
"I was really into collecting books," she says of her formative years in Emporia, Kansas, before she moved to New York for college. "I had all the Nancy Drew, all the Little House on the Prairie." When she wasn't reading, Creager learned to play the piano at age five and the cello at age nine, becoming so accomplished with the latter that she traveled over yonder prairie to join the Wichita Youth Symphony.
All well and good. But how comes it, we ask, that Rasputina is such a feminine entity? Cannot the sturdy hand of man conquer the cello with equal force?
"Well," Creager says, "it's the same size as a person, and it looks like a woman's body. When I'm playing, I feel like I'm one with it and it's a part of me. I don't want to diss the guy players -- there are some great ones -- but I think there could be an affinity there with females."
Rasputina's affinity flowered, and the scent reached the lofty castle of Sony Music, where, in 1996, overseers at Columbia Records issued a Rasputina sampler called Thanks for the Ether. It was scary, beautiful, precious and dark, and it sometimes set souls to grieving.
"The cello -- so beautiful, so sad," Creager muses. "Some argue that the violin is sadder, but I think they're mistaken."
The songs -- about supermodels, two-penny salt licks, dead babies, old actresses, Howard Hughes, and roller skates -- charmed many who heard them, including the black prince himself, Marilyn Manson. Not only did the Antichrist Superstar deign to remix the ladies' song "Transylvanian Concubine" for maximum nastiness; he also invited them on the road. But the minions who came to welcome Manson saw fit to pelt Rasputina with rocks, bottles and garbage. Creager, normally pleasant and kind, became an ogress who introduced songs with a serpent's tongue. "I had to be yelling at the audience to get them to pay attention or to put them in their places," she recalls.
Even on its headlining tours, Rasputina occasionally endures treatment fit for a peasant; at a recent Seattle affair, Creager was hit with a wadded shirt in midperformance. Yet even though she commented immediately and incisively about this interruption, Creager says she prefers clubs filled with mischievous knaves to venues packed with refined elders.
"When we get an adult, sophisticated audience, it's kind of a letdown, because we're used to the energy and excitement of the kids," she explains. "We'd love to have a combination of the club attitude with the sound of a recital hall."
Rasputina first summoned that sound on a full-length with 1998's How We Quit the Forest, by which time Agnieska Rybska had replaced third cellist Carpella Parvo. Chris Vrenna, a drummer liberated from Manson's entourage, helped produce the record with a pyre of industrial-roar guitars and pounding percussion. The group toured with more compatible artists, such as the Cranes.
Then Rasputina subsided into slumber. Assistant principal chair Julia Kent left the group. The contract with Columbia Records was rent asunder. And Creager became heavy with child, though she continued lending her talents to traveling troupes such as Belle and Sebastian, as she had previously done with the Pixies and Nirvana.
But mostly Creager spent the intervening years tending her baby, knitting booties, and writing and recording new songs. Two new ladies, K. Cowperthwaite and Nana Bornant, joined Rasputina, along with a new drummer. The recitals began again in earnest, with Creager never failing to introduce songs with jests about Crisco enemas, urine quaffing and uterine plugs.
Celebrities are fair game on 2002's Cabin Fever!, the third Rasputina record, a treacherous and complicated work that lobs unpleasantries at Björk and P.J. Harvey. Still, the scratching, scraping, grating, screaming and oft-disturbing Rasputina sound remains intact. This time, supernatural chamber-rock oddities such as "Gingerbread Coffin" come to the fore. Difficult meters and odd, diaphonous harmonies abound, and mechanized noise creeps insidiously into "Rats." On the gentle "Our Lies," Creager's voice sounds bigger and fuller than ever before, which she attributes to childbirth and corset wearing.
Earlier this year, Rasputina released The Lost and Found, a covers collection that includes Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and Nico's "All Tomorrow's Parties." Rasputina is back on the road, dancing onward, alone. To date, no one has dared to try absconding with the group's secret formula.
"It is so hard, and the rewards are so small to do this group," Creager says. "Just to find three cello-playing girls who are willing to do it is difficult. I think that's why it's never copied."
Andrew Miller contributed to this story.