Los Angeles: My first contact with Claire L Evans came through a book. Small-press published in 2013, High Frontiers collected essays by Evans on science, science fiction, art, and tech, including reflections on NASA, Philip K Dick, and cyberpunk. When I picked it up, I didn’t know that Evans was well known as a front person of the dance-pop band YACHT, or that she was early enough to Twitter to adopt the handle @TheUniverse. A few years later, when I met her, High Frontiers confirmed itself as a solid teaser; Evans still seems to me, like her writing in that book, level-headed, informed, and unassuming.
Evans has a second book out now. Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet involved years of research, a lot of it firsthand. It’s a popular history that starts in the 19th century with Ada Lovelace—an English mathematician, writer, and daughter of Lord Byron—who recognised the potential of a computing machine, wrote an algorithm for it, and so can be called our first ever programmer. Evans stories two more centuries of women who helped create what’s now the internet; they innovated against the odds and did formative manual labour and maths, but weren’t popularly recognised, until now.
In Evans’ Los Angeles home, books are as prominent as plants, design items, and geek and music paraphernalia; the ratios of these objects to one another parallel their balance in Claire’s career. She lives with her partner in love, life, and music, Jona Bechtolt (they’re in YACHT together). They have two cats and a garden that are cared for by friends whenever they go on tour. When we met for this interview, it was late June and Evans was planning on spending her summer at the city’s best public pools.
The last time we saw each other Broad Band had just come out. How’s the reception been?
I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and nothing bad has happened. I get a really nice note every couple of days from some sweet person who read it and liked stuff. A lot of men actually. Well-meaning men who want to make some exhibition of the fact that they read the book and liked it but are also clearly coming from a nice place of wanting to help and be part of the solution.
I’m like, ‘Buy a copy for a friend’.
I attended a huge tech conference in Las Vegas a couple of months ago. They put me on the list of speakers for the executive luncheon. Everyone at the conference was a CTO or CFO or something.
What’s a CTO?
Chief technical officer. Maybe some CEOs also. All high-level corporate tech people, maybe 150 of them. Afterwards there was a signing. All of them had books, and almost every single one of them was like, ‘Can you make this out to my daughter?’ And I just wanted to say, ‘That’s cool, but fucking read it too’, you know? Listen to the audio book on double speed or whatever, but just do it. It’s so nice that you’re giving this to your kid, but it’s not really the issue here. You are the one in a position to make changes.
I’m thinking: father–daughter book club. If these tech elite were to read one chapter of your book, what would be the most important one for them?
Maybe the early chapters, the foundational stuff. For them to know that the field is built on the bodies and bones of female workers and thinkers. That’s the thing that those kinds of people respond to the most strongly when I get to talk: ‘Women invented programming, wow’.
Are there other fields that were similarly built by women?
Film editing. Editors were always women, for years and years, because it was again the sort of secretarial job that people would do in a closed, dark room after the glamour and glitz of the actual filming was done. It was taping and cutting.
On the drive over, I was thinking about how nice it would be if Google Maps had custom settings where you could pick the most beautiful or safest route or, better yet, if there was AI that could learn your driving preferences and intuitively create a route for you. Do you have any ideas like that, for programming you’d like to see in the world?
I like the idea of the conversational interface. I don’t have an Alexa, and I don’t use my Siri much, but I like that there is now a job in the world that is designing how a robot hears and responds to spoken questions, because you can’t get around nuance with human voice. It’s a way of bringing the human into the machine that’s closer than we’ve ever been; there’s so much intimacy in it. And if you encode certain values into the way that a machine responds, it can really be instructive to young people. We can create tools that require politeness or some kind of inquisitiveness. I like to say ‘thanks’ and ‘please’ to Siri. Just in case she wakes up one day. Then she’ll be like, ‘You, you’re cool, you were very nice to me’.
That’s funny. I like that: the Judgement Day of the AI apocalypse.
I wonder what’s more superficial: saying please to Siri or being nice because you think it’s going to help you go to heaven.
Well, I’ve heard that when you smile, even if it’s forced, it can improve your mood because there’s some sort of positive brain association with that muscle action.
Totally. Positive behaviour turns on something deep inside you. One of my few personal rules in life is that if I think of something nice, I have to do it. I can’t let a passing thought of niceness replace the act. And the more you actually fuel the act, the more it creates this cycle. But sometimes it could be like, ‘Shit, now I have to go freaking buy those shoes!’
Do you partake in any formal belief systems? Gods?
Not really, honestly. I mean, I was raised atheist.
What does it mean to be raised atheist?
It just means the concept of god was never mentioned.
But was the concept of no god ever mentioned?
I don’t think so either, we never really talked about it. It was all about food, reading, holidays, and pets: day-to-day things. I was very neurotic about religion when I was young though. I think because there was such a vacuum, I tried to fill it with my own sort of folk consciousness. Like, I would pray all the time, but I had all these unique hand gestures. If I was praying to a dead pet, it would be different combinations of fingers to demarcate which dead pet I was praying to. If I was praying to dead people—god and death and ghosts were all kind of mixed up. It was a whole thing, and eventually I ran out of fingers.
Are you an only child?
Yes. Are you?
No, but a lot of people think I am.
You’re the youngest.
I’m the eldest.
Oh, I don’t know. It throws the whole system out of the way, I think.
I’m the eldest to one highly introverted younger sibling. He’s very sensitive, and probably very emotional, but it almost comes off as a-emotional, because it’s not shared easily. He makes music.
Great, wonderful. It’s the only way out basically.
What do you mean?
Making art of any kind. If you have those tendencies, it’s a cumulative way to have them safely. He sounds like a private person—what we would call a private person.
I wonder if it’s a hard time to be a private person.
It’s a great time because you can be super introverted and seek out the communities that you want online.
Right, I’ve heard that the internet has facilitated ‘the rise of the introvert’.
It used to be that if you wanted to find something out, you would go to the library or ask somebody. You had to make an effort and go out into the world and engage with a person or an institution, whereas now, if you want information, you can just stay where you are.
Sometimes I think of extroversion and introversion as an alpha/beta thing; if you’re physically uncomfortable in the world, or beta, as I can be—I’m not a forceful live presence—then at least I can find confidence of voice and expression online or in writing.
A friend of mine has this concept of ‘alpha number two’. It’s pretty rare, but when you see it you know. For example, the relationship between Picard and Riker on Star Trek: Picard is the captain and Riker is the number two. Riker is also the boss, but he’s still submissive to his alpha, out of respect and a desire to amplify what the alpha is doing.
Interesting. Would that be like the wife of a powerful man who is actually pulling a lot of strings?
Honestly, I’ve only thought about it in the relationship between two Star Trek characters. And then on House of Cards, there’s the character of Doug Stamper; he’s the fixer. Fixers are always solving problems that other people are having, but they’re the masters in that realm.
You love Star Trek.
Don’t get me started talking about Star Trek. Classic. It’s kind of like theatre.
It’s sweet, educational. I’ve been trying to write something like that. It’s almost moralistic.
I’m so sick of dystopias. We’re living in a world of gradient, nuance, and spectrum, can’t we accept that the future could be something a little bit less than perfect, or a little bit better than terrible? Something between the poles of utopia and dystopia?
That just sounds realistic, like having a sense of history basically.
The current political condition is nightmarish, but the world has always been terrible. It feels extra terrible right now probably because of the information diet. Life can also be incredibly pleasant.
I think that’s the stress for a lot of people who would, say, be able to read a magazine like this: the discontinuity between a sense of crisis and your everyday life. I come up against the nightmare of the world when I try to use America’s health system, for instance, but I still have good water, access to resources, and am surrounded by stress.
You almost want there to be a fire in the street, so you can actually react to it. There’s this problem now with our inability to grasp what is real. I think we’ve always had that problem as a species, with the image. For every generation, the image has been given to us in a different way, and different generations have dealt with that in different ways. I’m trying to make a documentary out of the book now; I have some friends of mine who are film makers.
It would be a great documentary miniseries. TV, like Wild Wild Country; did you watch that?
I watched it. I grew up in Oregon, so that was part of it. It all happened before my time, but when I was a teenager there was a thrift store that had a giant bucket of these ‘I am not a Rajneesh’ buttons that had been mass produced.
Rajneesh’s front woman, Ma Anand Sheela, is an alpha number two.
She’s a total alpha two, yes, exactly. She’s a deputy. I love that with the deputy; it’s its own form of power, because, ultimately, she developed her own cult. People started worshiping Sheela. TV does seem like a golden ticket. If you write the pilot for a TV show and it goes on air and it then becomes successful, you get paid every single time that show airs, regardless of whether or not you write another episode in your life.
Wait, wait, wait, back up. Really?
Yes, you get a residual or something.
Whoa. So do a show! What else could you do with the material?
I don’t know. I feel like the stories, or just the larger story of it, need to be in every media, in all time. It should be in children’s books and history broadcasts. There’s been an Ada Lovelace colouring book, but there should be more.
What about a museum show? A science-history museum show.
I like that. It sounds way out of my skill set, but I like it. A podcast series would also be great.
Maybe we should do the basics, biography. You grew up in Oregon?
I was born in Swindon, England. My father is British. We lived there for a very short period of time. We moved to Paris when I was a baby—my mother is French—and we lived there for some time. Then I got pasty, so we went to the suburbs.
You got pasty? As in, you were pale?
That’s what my mum always says. I was too pale. They thought I needed country air or something, so we moved to a village outside of Paris, and then we went to the US. We lived in Portland, Oregon, which is where my dad worked—he worked for Intel—and then that’s it. I came to LA for college in 2002. I lived here in this neighbourhood, and then I moved back to Portland when I met Jona. We lived there for five years, though we were on tour almost the whole time, and then we came back to LA in 2011.
How did you and Jona meet?
We met here in Los Angeles. I’m embarrassed: I was in a noise band called Weirdo/Begeirdo, which was unlistenable kid-toy instruments and stuff. We played a bunch of shows in LA. We played at this gallery in Silver Lake that doesn’t exist anymore, called Ghettogloss—you can imagine that it sold vintage clothes also.
It sounds like it still exists.
It became an underwear store and then went away. But Jona and I were on a show line-up together. It was just him. He had a laptop and all these objects clustered around him, and he would interact with these individual objects as though they had some bearing on the music, but it was unclear if they did, which I still think is so great. My band had a meeting the next day to talk about how we could be more like him.
Your band wanted to be more performative?
I guess that’s what it was. We were just this very chaotic band. It’s that thing of when you’re young and you’re trying to be out there and creative, and so you just go maximal all the time. It was very maximal. Everyone was freaking out, banging and lying around. It was very fun because we were all 19 or 20, but there was no subtlety to it. I feel like my entire musical career since then has been trying to figure out how much I can scale down from 100. So Jona and I met then and started dating a couple of years later.
When did you start making music together?
In 2009. It took a long time. I’m not a musician at all, and to this day I will tell you that. It’s a joke that my day job is ‘professional singer’, that legally on paper I can say that. I’m the worst at it of all the things that I do. I’m awful at it. I’m basically tone deaf. When we record, I’ll sing the same thing six different times, and I’ll think I’m saying it the same way every time, but they’ll all be different. They’ll all be out of key in a different way.
That’s funny. How did you start singing then?
Jona and I were living together in Marfa in 2008. He was trying to create two albums’ worth of material because we were living in the desert for a few months, and we thought we would get some use of that time. He would tap me in to sing things because I was a human woman’s voice, and it sounded good, so we just kept doing it. Now it’s much more integrated.
Did you like Marfa?
We’ve been going there for 10 years now. We’ve made every record there since See Mystery Lights. It means a lot to me. It’s rare to be in a small town in the US where you can be an artist or a weirdo and not feel too much like an outlier. Marfa is everything you want out of a small town, plus everyone there is great. There are lots of tourists coming through all the time, but the townies in Marfa are the best people. They really have figured out a good life.
But you love Los Angeles?
Like, you would stay here for the rest of your life.
Give me a knock on wood.
That’s what you’re planning on.
Is it just you and Jona in YACHT now?
There’s been five of us, four of us, two of us, there were six of us at one point. Now it’s three, the perfect number for any group creative activity. Either everyone agrees or there’s the tiebreaker.
But isn’t it hard if you’re the couple? Does that intimacy trump everything else?
Yeah, Jona and I have that intimacy, but Jona and Rob ‘Bobby Birdman’ Kieswetter, the third member of YACHT, are better musicians. So there are different kinds of complicity that happen. There’s the musical complicity that happens where they’re like, ‘Come on, Claire, you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Then there’s the intimacy of publicity, where I have some power. And then there’s me and Rob, who often agree on lyrical things. It’s this constantly shifting triad.
When were you last on tour?
We did a couple of weeks on the East Coast before the book came out in March 2018. We all come from punk and so are incredibly industrious about how we tour. We don’t hire anybody, it’s just the three of us. We make our own schedule. We clock in and clock out, drive ourselves, do all our own travel bookings. We get the best deals on hotels and we know how to do it. And then we split everything three ways, pure punk-rock style.
It’s the only way to do it. People go on tour with like 15 people, a lighting guy and a bunch of kids, and you’re just throwing money away. Ultimately, if people want to go see a show, they will, and you can do so much for so little. It’s about the relationship with the audience, what they’re expecting, what they’re getting out of it. You can have all the lights in the world, but if you’re a shitty band, that doesn’t matter.
I think it’s rare for people to have all those skill sets, like for artists and performers to also develop the discipline to book travel and venues and to budget and what not.
A lot of it is based on old-school DIY networks, which is something that I still think about a lot, the way that, when I was younger and used to tour, there were networks of people and places all across the country. There was the house that you slept at, the club that you played at, the coffee shop that gave the bands free coffee; everyone knew some piece of that map, and everyone was constantly sharing information about that map. It’s a beautiful thing, and a lot of that comes from figuring out your own path.
I like that.
It’s an old-school band thing: book your own fucking life. That was the mantra for a long time.