After a few decades of performing—and living a life packed with more legitimately hardcore outsider experiences than any single person has a right to—a good amount of well-earned attention is finally being showered on Susan Dietrich Schneider, a.k.a. Suzy Sounds, a.k.a. the Space Lady. We even gave Night School’s recent reissue of her discography the coveted #45 slot on our best albums of 2013 list, a position known in the industry as “the power slot.”
Susan was born in 1948 in Colorado’s tiny town of Las Animas, whose name is shortened from La Ciudad de Las Animas Perdidos en Purgatorio (which translates to “the city of lost souls in purgatory”). After attending the University of Colorado in the 60s, she drifted into San Francisco and met her future husband, Joel. To dodge the draft, Susan and Joel dropped off the grid entirely, destroying their IDs and moving into a cave on top of Mt. Shasta. They had three children and ended up floating between Boston and San Francisco, supporting themselves through Susan’s street performances.
The Space Lady first came to the attention of record-obsessives through her inclusion on the outsider music compilation Songs In The Key Of Z. She specializes in Casio-driven tunes distorted and amplified through phase-shifters and echo units. Her original songs, most of which were composed by her ex-husband, the late Joel Dunsany, are upbeat and bouncy and altogether pretty damn life affirming. It’s her choice of covers (and her no-fidelity execution of them) that makes me like her: Peter Schilling's “Major Tom” becomes a somber ode as opposed to the original’s cathartic plea; Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” is jittery and anxious and utterly stripped of it's teenage swagger; the crown jewel version of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” strips every shred of its scruffy leather associations and baptizes itself in digital dissolves, whoops, and yelps. Schneider retired from music in 2000 and left her marriage. She moved back to Colorado, became a nurse—a job she's since left—and met her current husband, Eric, in 2009. She began performing again in 2012. Next spring, at 66 years old, she'll undertake her first-ever club tour.
I got to talk to her recently and it was seriously the best interview I've ever done.
VICE: You've mentioned before that you believe you experienced an alien abduction as a child.
The Space Lady: I wasn't a child, I was a young woman of 20 undergoing surgery. The anesthesia lifted me out of my body, but I remained conscious as I floated up and out of Earth's atmosphere, where I was joined by a number of beings who showed me around what I believe was a space ship. More astoundingly, they gave me many answers and secrets to life, and the universe in general, saying things that were so profound I couldn't believe what was happening to me, but I felt no fear. They also took me on a very circuitous ride on that ship, going all over the solar system, as near as I could tell. Then suddenly I felt myself descending back into my body, and with sheer desperation I kept telling myself, "Don’t forget! Don’t forget! Don't forget what you've learned here!" But as soon as I was back in my body, to my bitter disappointment, I couldn't remember any details, except what I've told you here. At any rate, I know that information is still buried deep in my sub-conscious. And ever since, I’ve had an avid interest in UFOs, abduction stories, and out-of-body and near-death experiences.
There seems to be an implicit spirituality in your music. That is, much of it feels received and inspired. Do you believe in God, or hold any religious beliefs?
I was raised in the Methodist church by non-religious parents who liked the music and the socialization of the services. They were musicians, and church was one of the few venues in our small Colorado town. By age 13, I became fervently religious because of the confusion and guilt of my developing sexuality. Then, at age 16, my first boyfriend, Kenny, died as a result of a blow to the head on the football field. I became a devout and angry atheist as a result of that emotional trauma. I held to that mind-set until my first psychedelic experience in college, when I realized I was much more than just my body, and worst of all, there would be no escape in death.
What were some of your influences at this time?
During the early years with Joel, who read voraciously, I became aware of the spiritualism of people like Edgar Cayce, the Theosophists, the “I Am” Society, and various other new age thinkers and groups. This further opened my mind to the possibility that there was more to the universe than the eye could see. But what I was most drawn to was Native American spirituality, and [Carlos Castaneda's] Journey to Ixtlan, a non-fiction book describing the teachings of a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. That really knocked my socks off. Now I’ve come full-circle back to Zen Buddhism as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, that is “engaged Buddhism,” which works in communities to actively help people and animals in need.
Cool. Does this spirituality help your performances?
I don’t believe in what people generally call “God,” but to hear me play you might think I do. I definitely enter a rhapsodic state with my music, especially at Christmastime, because I love the old carols I was brought up on. And that trance-like state is one where creative energy flows through me, seemingly from elsewhere, and I get musical ideas way beyond what I believe my own brain is capable of. In that state, I’m given a gift for reaching people I couldn’t otherwise reach. It’s awesome and humbling.
Is there a common theme running through the songs you choose to cover other than the fact that you like them?
I’ve always meant to project a life-affirming message, but without becoming saccharine. The greatest bands, like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, ELO, Fleetwood Mac, etc., succeeded in doing that. Their music has moved the world, and contributed toward peace in the most powerful way. One of my favorite covers is Melanie Safka’s song “I Don’t Eat Animals,” because our compassion as humans must extend to all sentient beings. For that matter, Thich Nhat Hanh includes compassion for minerals, which makes sense if you think about the earth as a giant living being. I’ve also covered lots of songs that I just plain love, like “Walkin’ on Sunshine,” “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Sultans of Swing,” “Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me,” and “Stray Cat Strut,” simply because I get high singing them.
You're about to go on your very first tour of clubs this coming spring. Clubs tend to be relatively controlled environments whereas performing on the street has its own set of hazards. Is this something you're looking forward to, or does the controlled setting make you apprehensive?
I’m looking forward to playing for people who already love my music, instead of spending hours on end playing to deaf ears on the street. I’m also a little apprehensive about how to structure a set in an impressively building way, and having meaningful and entertaining things to say in between songs. I’ve never really had to do that before!
Recordings exist in a fixed state but it seems that there would be a lot of room for improvisation during a live performance by the Space Lady, especially with regard to your sound effects, vocals, etc. Do you do much improvisation or do you keep things pretty well regulated?
I do arrange my songs in a relatively fixed way, at least until I come to one of those sound-effects passages. On the street I feel I have to keep those parts somewhat brief, or passersby will have no idea of the context of what I’m doing with all those shrieks and screeches. With an audience of open-minded fans I’m sure it will be great fun to expand on those passages for people who totally grok what I’m doing!
Are there any contemporary artists you enjoy? Further, are there any recent songs you're currently covering or plan to cover?
Is KT Tunstall still contemporary? To me she is, and I’m her biggest fan. I’d love to cover contemporary stuff, but I’ve been out of touch over the past decade, and now there is so much out there I don’t know where to begin to look/listen. I need my fans to come to my rescue with their suggestions!
What does the Space Lady do when she's not working as a nurse or playing music?
I don’t work as a nurse at all anymore and may never again. It hasn’t been a good fit for me, because I know too much about having a good nutritional foundation of a plant-based, whole food diet, which most of the medical field turns a blind eye to. For me, futilely treating the symptoms caused by eating a deadly diet was frustrating and disheartening. Thankfully, the Space Lady swooped down to rescue me a year ago this month, and I’ve devoted myself to music exclusively ever since. My main other passion is nature photography, especially of birds, who not only can sing, but also fly!
Would you consider yourself a political person?
For 20 years, Joel and I lived like refugees in our own country, and as a result we learned how to take a quiet stand against the establishment. We never took direct political action, and in fact, shunned politics as a form of insanity. But your question is very astute. Our lifestyle was a political statement of sorts. More recently, in fact shortly after 9/11, I became painfully aware of the deceit we were fed about what really happened that day, and I was outraged! So I got very active in the 9/11 Truth Movement. But the more I read about previous false flag operations, the more I realized that nothing has ever changed, and nothing will ever change as a result of political action. I also realized that I could never be a stand for peace and be as angry as I was.
I was sorry to hear about Joel passing last month. You'd mentioned that he was very excited about the new wave of attention the Space Lady was receiving. Of the compositions of his included on "Greatest Hits," is there one in particular that you're fondest of?
Yes, Joel was thrilled with all the attention the Space Lady has been getting. He was also desperate to record some of the stuff he was creating on guitar through the many effects pedals he had amassed, well knowing his health was failing… but he never pulled it off. I think “Synthesize Me” would have to be his signature song, with all the outer-space references, alliterations, and rhymes. He wrote that song specifically for me shortly after I graduated to the Casio from accordion, and he loved what I did with it. I only wish he had lived to hear that there is a nightclub in Brighton, England named after that song! Then “Slapback Boomerang” would certainly be a close second. Joel was crazy about echo, and used to play his Les Paul copy through an old reel-to-reel Echoplex, even during our “cave days” on Mt. Shasta. He had a Mike Matthews Freedom amp that ran on 40 D-cell batteries lining the entire inner wall of the cabinet, and he would rock out until the wee hours of the night, with coyotes howling along with him in the distance. He called what he was doing “playing cascades of notes,” and it really sounded amazing. Joel attracted people to him like planets around a sun, with his gregarious personality, his intelligence, his great sense of humor, and especially with his futuristic, otherworldly music.
The liner notes of the album mention that you started playing again at the urging of your husband Eric and that you've branched out from Colorado into New Mexico, at least occasionally. Are these street-level gigs like the old days?
No, not really. The cities out here in the Southwest are much smaller and more conservative than Boston/Cambridge or San Francisco/Berkeley. Santa Fe [a.k.a. “The City Different”] is the exception, but there is no place to play outdoors except in the Plaza for tourists, and once a month at the Farmers Market for the locals. Now it’s winter, and I’ve found prospects on the street are even slimmer, but I keep trying. If nothing else, it’s helped me get my chops back. And I got a radio interview and performance with the legendary Travis Parkin at KUNM out of it, which was a triumph. It will be so great to tour the West Coast and then the UK and Europe, all of which are in the works!