You recently released “Life Returns to Normal” as a limited edition 7” single. Tell us more about the track.
The track is originally from our debut album Criminal Art Lovers which we released earlier this year. It’s a lush guitar track with quite a nice guitar theme, which Michael who plays drums in the band has written. The lyrics are pretty straightforward. I don’t know exactly which song it was but the inspiration for the guitar intro came from The Clientele.
On the B-side there’s a cover version of the 80s Cliff Richard hit “Some People” which was recorded for a project called Rewind some time back. The track has been remixed for the 7”. The idea of the Rewind project was that a number of bands including us were asked to record a cover version of our own choice only condition was that it had to be from the 80s. We did consider quite a few different songs, including Blondie’s “Picture This” – but then we found out it was released in ’79 so we settled with Sir Cliff.
You were signed by Matinée just two months after the band formed. That’s pretty impressive, how did it come about?
Well, it happened quite straight forward, actually. We’d recorded three tracks and put them on a MySpace page. When Matinée Recordings contacted us, there had already been some interest from a couple of German labels, but since we hadn’t reached any agreement we went along with Matinée, which we’re of course very pleased with. It’s a remarkable label.
How pleased were you with the critical reaction to The Fallen Aristocracy and Napoleon Sweetheart EPs?
We were really pleased because we hadn’t expected anything. Both EPs got some enormously kind words thrown after them. And when I occasionally get exposed to some of the songs I actually think they sound quite charming. So hopefully the people who liked them when they bought them haven’t grown too tired of them.
How is the song writing divided within the band? Was it an easy process writing and recording Criminal Art Lovers?
I write most of the songs and Michael who plays drums has contributed some nice songs too, amongst others our latest single. Most songs are written during the recording process, I mean, we don’t normally have a complete song with guitar themes, lyrics, even melody when we start recording. The normal thing is just to have some guideline melody parts and then build it from there. This is somewhat different from when I used to write songs earlier where I would write complete songs before doing anything. Recording Criminal Art Lovers, or rather finishing the record was a slightly long and heavy process because it was done on some rather primitive equipment in a bedroom.
What is the rest of the Danish musical landscape like currently? Are there any other standout bands?
The musical landscape in Denmark in general is rubbish. There’s not a single band in the charts that I can even bear listening to. There are however some very nice indiepop bands around; Ampel, Sockpuppets, and the Roadside Poppies. If you’re interested in Danish music, I’d definitely go for something a bit older. My recommendations would be: Kliché, Lars Hug, Gangway, Love Shop, Trains and Boats and Planes, and The Poets.
The designs of your record sleeves are extremely aesthetically pleasing. Is it something that you take great care over?
Thank you. Well, the sleeve for the first single seemed obligatory: The man covering his face is an infamous Danish killer who shot four police officers in the 60s. Apart from that he’s known for being the person in recent Danish history that’s spent the longest time in prison. One day just before forming Northern Portrait I was standing just in front of him in a supermarket line, and I went home and found this photo, which I find quite intriguing. It’s of course no celebration, just a nice photo. For the Napoleon Sweetheart EP we used a face too, this time a local beauty. For the album we thought it would be nice to have a modernistic building because we’re all quite into architecture (actually, two band members are architects and one has two architect parents). For the latest single Jimmy Tassos from Matinée Recordings designed this very nice sleeve based on the Volvo line from “Life Returns to Normal”. So I suppose we do try to make them look nice, yes.
When you DJed for us at the club in September your set was a mixture of 80s indiepop and mid-90s British bands. Is that where your influences lay?
The musical highlight of my life was probably the nineties when it was business as usual to go and see Pulp or some of those other brilliant groups or buying Sleeper’s new album. The whole Britpop thing was probably a bit of an over statement but if I were to take 10 records to a dessert island, I guess more than half would be from that era. So basically the mid-90s British bands are probably my main influence, both musically and aesthetically. And I still regard my first time seeing Pulp as the best concert I’ve ever been to. Indiepop is of course another major influence on me. These days that’s my main musical interest.
Speaking of that occasion, you had just got off the train after playing a solo set at Nottingham Popfest. Had you played in Nottingham before?
It went very well indeed. I’d played a solo set the night before in London too. Unfortunately I didn’t have very much time in Nottingham but we have been there before with Northern Portrait. It’s a really lovely town, and since I’ve now been there four or five times and stayed some days I think I’m beginning to find my way round town.
In the early days of the band Viv Strachan sang whilst you were on guitar. As the band’s main songwriter, how did the transition to lead singer come about?
It came about because Viv quit the band quite suddenly. She had never been very comfortable singing live and decided that she didn’t want to do it anymore. When it happened we had two gigs in quick succession so I stepped in. I hadn’t ever sung in public before so I pretty much thought that we’d do these two gigs, everyone would hate it and that would be that for me and the band. As it turned out it went better than we expected, I decided to write a whole new bunch of songs that suited me and my voice as opposed to Viv’s and it really went from there.
John Peel was an early supporter of the group. What was it like playing his sessions? I’m particularly interested in the Christmas special you played.
The Christmas special was our third or fourth Peel session. We had played in Berlin a couple of days before and had bumpy flights both ways. We flew back into Stansted late at night and drove through the snow to a hotel near Peel Acres. The next day we drove through snowy countryside to the house where we met up with John and Sheila, their family and friends, Laura Cantrell and her husband and guitarist. We basically convened in John’s study/studio at one end of the house to the record the sessions, and moved along the hall to the front room to record the Christmas carols. It was an incredibly happy night, warm, friendly and filled with good food and drink. It is hard to describe it beyond that, but it was one of the best nights of my life.
How did David Shrigley come to design the artwork for A Guide for the Daylight Hours?
Elizabeth McLean has designed all of the Ballboy albums and we were putting the artwork together, but didn’t have a central image. I’d spoken to a student from the Edinburgh College of Art about using a photo image of the interior of a train, but she wanted over £1,000 for its use and we couldn’t afford that so I wrote to David to ask about the possibility of putting a wee booklet of his drawings inside the album. I’d had no reply and had just about given up when I got an email to say that we could do it. Elizabeth pressed me to cheekily ask whether we could use an image on the cover too and he very kindly agreed. He was incredibly generous.
In 2008 you composed the soundtrack for the Traverse Theatre Company production of Midsummer (A Play with Songs) by David Greig. Was this something you’d always wanted to do?
It’s not something I had planned. The opportunity came up to collaborate with David and we just took it from there. We developed it in small chunks over time alongside the two actors and the stage designer and then it had its premiere in November of 2008. It was a totally different way of working from being in a band and I’m as proud of it as I am of any of my albums. It has gone onto do great things and is about to return to London for two months through December and January at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn.
You put out an album under the name Money Can’t Buy Music with Maja Mångård last year. How did you come to collaborate with her? What were the ideas behind forming the band?
I wanted to explore home-recording and electronic music, but wanted to stay close to what I knew which was songwriting and spoken word and so I started to learn how to use Pro-tools and Reason at home. The Money Can’t Buy Music Project was an extension of that really. It was a case of testing myself to write, record and mix a project from start to finish and I roped in Maja and a couple of other people to help along the way. I would like to do another one, but between Midsummer, Ballboy and everyday life I don’t know when that may be!
You were recently involved in the running of Edinburgh Popfest 2010. How did you come to be involved?
We just decided, after being lucky enough to play at the London, New York and San Francisco Popfests that we would put on our own version and get people to come enjoy our city and put on some great bands. It went really well and we had a great time and both the bands and the crowds seemed to enjoy themselves. Standout moments for me were seeing the Suburban Kids With Biblical Names again and Bobby Baby’s acoustic set on the Sunday. My one regret is seeing less of the bands than I could have because I had to go help out at three Midsummer performances as our lead actor had lost his voice and couldn’t sing the songs.
You play live sporadically. Do you have any upcoming gigs planned?
We are playing a Christmas show in December with the fabulous Kid Canaveral and then we’ll start to plan next year. We are busy writing the new Ballboy album at the moment so that takes priority.
When can we expect a new Ballboy LP?
Next year, but I can’t say when. For the first time since the first Ballboy album I’m not setting a deadline. I am just enjoying writing the songs and thinking through the broad scope of how the album will sound. I know that sounds a bit like I’m saying wait and see, but, well, wait and see I guess!
On your new album Losing Sleep, you collaborated with The Cribs’ Ryan Jarman and Johnny Marr, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy, The Drums and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame. How did that come about?
Ryan is in my studio all the time, he’s like family. He did the very first collaboration. The Franz Ferdinand lads, I know them and bumped into them at a festival and we arranged to get together. Roddy is my oldest friend, from Postcard days. Romeo and I know each other. We’re on Heavenly together and The Drums became friends with my son, Will first. They like early Orange Juice and we decided to do a song together. And Johnny was the last thing. He had a song idea up his sleeve and also the title, “Come Tomorrow, Come Today”.
You won an Ivor Novello award last year for your song writing. How did it feel to be recognised in that way?
I loved it. What a day, what an honour. It’s special because it’s for songwriting and comes from other songwriters. I’m proud of my songs.
The Byrds, Chic, Motown and The Velvet Underground were all mentioned as influences on Orange Juice. Who are the influences your song writing these days?
It’s all from my head, from my experience, no particular influences are needed. There is so much music in my brain.
Tell us about the seven-disc Orange Juice box-set Coals to Newcastle. Was it something that you helped put together with the rest of the band?
Mostly it was done by Kris Gillespie of Domino in the US. A labour of love, he had to track down all the masters, piece it all together. We own the recordings, so that makes it easier.
Domino are also re-releasing the Orange Juice back catalogue in 2011. Will the albums be put out in an expanded version?
Not sure, but Domino always do things in a gorgeous way, extra things that people want, all of that.
Do you look back at the bands time on Postcard Records fondly? What was it like alongside Josef K, Aztec Camera and The Go-Betweens?
I do, but it was a long time ago. I love all the records, I have my memories, but I’m not much of a nostalgist. The future is what matters to me, getting on with it.
With such big hits as “Rip It Up” and “A Girl Like You”, which of your records are you most proud of?
Usually the last one, the one I’m promoting. Especially Losing Sleep though, as I thought I couldn’t write or perform again. It’s a miracle record to me. I hear it and I think, “I did it. I’m back.”
After watching the Home Again documentary [which detailed Edwyn’s recovery from illness] illustrating seemed to help you in many ways. You had your first book of illustrations released last year. Tell us more about that. Is it something you do on a daily basis alongside music?
Yes, daily, when I am at home or my life is less busy than it is now. I love to draw, it’s therapy for me. I’m developing and changing all the time. I had to relearn, to teach my left hand.
Looking back on your career, do you have one defining standout moment?
Yes. The night I stepped back onstage at Dingwalls in London, during the BBC Electric Proms, for the first time since my illness. I was scared as hell at first, but the audience was willing me on and by the third song, I could feel it. I can do this, it will be fine.
You’ve just completed a thorough tour of North America including Mexico. How did it go? I see at one point you had en suite Jacuzzis.
The tour went well. It was the longest tour we’ve done as The Vaselines so it was great to travel all around America, Canada and Mexico. Yes, Frances and I had a Jacuzzi in our rooms in Mexico. I don’t know how that happened and it’s never likely to happen again.
You were playing with Teenage Fanclub and Belle and Sebastian. What is it about Glasgow? How different would you sound if you grew up thousands of miles west of the M8?
Over the last twenty years Glasgow has developed as a city for musicians to work in that others in Scotland haven’t. There are a lot of rehearsal spaces and venues. It has had a few bars that have been constants that give musicians a place to hang out and it helps create a buzz that is lacking elsewhere.
With your double and single entendres and sometimes rockabilly rhythms, The Cramps spring to mind. Were they one of the few good things for you about the 1980s?
I loved The Cramps music. It’s all about making rock ‘n’ roll fun and sexy like it was when it first started.
What bands were you playing with in the beginning?
I was in the Famous Monsters and Frances was in the Pretty Flowers. We realised we weren’t getting to do what we wanted to do so we got together and started writing some songs.
There’s a lot of teasing banter on stage. Is it hard to do it with an ex?
It’s easier to banter on stage with Frances. We’ve known each other for over twenty years and we’re very relaxed around one another and that comes across on stage and we use it to get back at one another for any grievances we have with each other. There’s a lot of history that we’re still working through.
When I saw you at the Scala in London I was struck by the affection in the crowd for you. Does that rankle with your inner punk?
The Scala show was amazing, one of our favourite of that tour. It’s the kind of reaction you want from an audience and it make us excited and helps us raise our game to deliver the best gig possible.
What were you doing when you heard Kurt Cobain was covering your stuff?
I was working in a bar on Duke Street in Glasgow. I’d finished college, Frances and I had split, the band had broken up and I was feeling pretty down so to hear our music was being taken up be a band in America was pretty amazing news.
Are all the best songs written with only three chords?
Three chords work for us on most songs. We like to keep it simple and repetitive, catchy and fun. Not every song has to have three chords only but if you want to write short, snappy, punk, garage songs then it helps. I sent Frances some tunes I’d written, she sent me some and we decided what ones would work. We got together to write the lyrics and we would send new versions with new ideas back and forward to each other as MP3s and we would add our ideas and send it back. The lyric writing was the most fun part.
How were your 1990’s?
The 1990’s were fun for a while. I had an exciting time in Captain America/Eugenius releasing records on Fire Records then Atlantic Records. I got to travel the world and play music. It was all going great but after Kurt killed himself the music industry changed and bands signed on the back of the grunge scene were swiftly dropped. We were about to sign to Nirvana’s management company but that was cancelled by them the week after Kurt died. The second half of the 90s were pretty miserable for Eugenius and we struggled on for a few years until we split. I started writing my solo album and then I found a new direction and inspiration.
Can we start the rumours about a third album yet?
No talk of album three as yet. We’ve no tunes.
Where does all the filthy talk come from?
We grew up in the era of comedy on TV were entendre was King (and Queen). Carry On movies, Dick Emery, Are You Being Served? and Frankie Howard. It must’ve rubbed off on us. We also love Viz and Finbar Saunders.
You’ve recently played with the Dum Dum Girls, how aware are you of your influence on younger bands?
We weren’t aware that there were any bands out there that were fans of ours until we started playing gigs again. It’s a great feeling to think that anybody is listening to your album, but knowing that musicians are listening and wanting to write songs because of your tunes is a very good feeling.
You’ve been called “goofy conceptualists” by The New York Times and “two overgrown schoolboys running riot” by The Fly. Do you embrace these terms wholeheartedly?
Nik: I don’t really understand the meaning of “goofy conceptualists”, but yes I embrace it. Most definitely. With regards to the overgrown schoolboy riot thing, I just hope the reviewer meant “youthful/young at heart” rather than “fat adults behaving like children.”
You’ve self-released two EPs and had a mini-album on WeePOP! Records. Do you have any plans to release new material soon?
Nik: I’m not quite sure. I’d like to and I have quite a few songs written that are ready to be worked on, but there doesn’t really seem to be any time for it.
Bill: As soon as some time frees up I’m sure we’ll get to work on something new. I hope that it’ll be before the end of the year – I know I’ve got a day off in November. I think we tend to do things in bursts, so hopefully we’ll get really creative soon.
Do you enjoy the DIY aspect to self-releasing your songs? The physical copies of the Postcards to Strangers EP looked fantastic.
Nik: I love it. It’s nice to do something different and a bit unusual and I think people in general appreciate handmade things. Sometimes it feels like we’re putting too much effort into it. Like for the WeePOP! EP I made 160+ different badges to go with each copy, which took forever. But, then you get all this nice feedback from people and suddenly it makes it all worth it. Our profit margins are pretty ridiculous though. When we added all the costs I think one Postcards EP cost about £2.40 to make and we sell it for £3.
How is the song writing and music split between the two of you?
Nik: Well, we used to share the duties a bit more than we have recently. Bill is so busy with other things; he doesn’t really have much time to write. On the Knock Knock! Who’s There? EP he wrote two songs (“Cat Chicken” and “Adam Sandler”) and on the WeePOP! EP he wrote three (“Email Song”, “No Bills Club” and “Imagine”). I wrote all the songs on the Postcards EP. But, that’s just when it comes to lyrics. Since my musical skills are VERY limited, the creation of the songs is very much a collaborative effort. In general when I write the lyrics I have an idea of the melody and hum it to him during practise. He’ll figure out the chords for it, come up with some fancy-pants kick-ass guitar parts, do the drum programming and in general also come up with keyboard parts. I then either destroy these parts by simplifying them or just completely ignore them if they’re too difficult.
Bill: I like Nik’s lyrics very much. The best thing about them – as far as I can say – is that they’re unlike anyone else’s I’ve come across. I can’t think of anyone who writes like Nik. I do know loads of guitarists with laptops though.
Have you finally got all of the books on your Amazon wishlist?
Nik: Hmm… let’s see. From the things mentioned in the song I have bought an Araki book. I do have all films that Larry Clark has made, but none of his photo books yet. I stopped taking French classes, so there’s no need for that French dictionary. I got the David Berman poetry book. I also bought When I Was Five I Killed Myself and have been reading loads of books about cynical adults. So left to get is a book of Soviet propaganda posters, which I will get one day.
You recently returned from touring Denmark and Sweden. How was it?
Nik: Well, I’m in two minds about it. It was a lot of fun spending time with Allo Darlin’ and The Smittens, but I don’t think I would do it like that again. Initially, I decided to come along as a way of getting to spend some time with my girlfriend (Elizabeth of Allo Darlin’). But since both Bill and I would then be at the shows anyway, I just asked the promoters if Moustache could play as well. And of course they said yes. It’s kind of like when you buy something expensive and you get a freebie…like a tie rack. Everyone loves a freebie! And I don’t mind being a tie rack, but you do get a bit tired of it and sometimes it’s nice to be wanted by someone that actually needs a tie rack! Haha. Best analogy ever.
Bill: I enjoyed playing Moustache gigs in Europe very much. It was great because we started making up our setlist as we went along and in some cases were even able to play some requests. I was a bit scared of singing “Kaktus” the cover song we do in which I actually sing in Swedish, but it seemed to go okay.
What does the rest of the year have in store for Moustache of Insanity?
Nik: Well, we have few more shows coming up in the autumn and then we’ll just have to see what happens. I don’t think there’s much point in just playing the same songs over and over again so if we’re gonna keep doing the Moustache thing I would really like to record some new ones, a whole album even. But, it’s up to Bill really. He’s the man with more important responsibilities.
Bill: We’ll definitely record – we’ll find the time. When we were in the America in May, we met a guy who had his whole musical career planned out – from his first to his last album. He said his band was gonna be called The Tijuana Hot Cocks and the last record would be called Last Orders at The Cockbar. I think we’ve got to try and match that.
How the did the band form in the wake of The Manhattan Love Suicides splitting?
The Manhattan Love Suicides split in July last year and for the next couple of months me and Caroline did nothing much at all. Caroline had finished all her vocals on the Ailsa Craig album, I’d contributed a bit of guitar to a handful of tracks on there, but suddenly there was nothing to do. It was actually quite a depressing time. We felt The Manhattan Love Suicides had made its point and it was time to move on, but we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to move on to. So we just started writing some new songs. Next thing we knew we were recording them with Pete from Horowitz, then the debut single came out, then we put a band together, recorded and released some more singles, played a couple of gigs… and here we are today.
Tell us about your track on the Odd Box Records Bless Me Iggy For I Have Sinned EP.
It’s called “Fever Van”. We wrote that just a few weeks ago, and we’ve played it at the three gigs we’ve done so far. It’s got that chugging, pounding feel about it that we really like. It’s just the same three chords over and over, all the way through the song. It’s quite noisy in parts, but it’s also poppy. You can definitely get on the dancefloor and jump about to it.
You recently played your first ever gig in London. How did it go?
It went pretty well. We were actually a bit nervous, mainly because there are six of us in this band, and that creates more opportunity for things to go wrong. But then we reminded ourselves that ramshackle and unpredictable gigs are always a lot more fun anyway, so we suddenly felt more relaxed about everything. It’s good when you see a band and it feels as if it might fall in on itself at any minute. We got a good crowd at that first gig. The sound could have been better, but then again, I personally always think that way.
You’re close friends with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart who you recently supported at the Buffalo Bar. How did that come about?
The gig couldn’t have been simpler. We just got a message from Sean at Fortuna Pop! asking us to play the gig as The Pains had requested us to do it. Me and Caroline said yes to it before we even checked to see if the rest of the band could play it. There was no way we would’ve turned that down. We’ve been good friends with The Pains for about three years now. We’ve played gigs together in the US and the UK, slept on their floors, drank all their beer. We always have a good time when we see them and it’s always great to just hang out with them and catch up on what we’ve all been doing.
You’ve released a few EPs so far rather than a debut album. Why did you take this approach rather than recording a long player?
After we’d recorded the first three tracks that appeared on the debut single, we just decided to get them out there as quick as possible for people to hear, rather than sit about and wait until we had enough material for a debut album. We also really like 7” singles. They’re a great snapshot, and you can get what you’re trying to say across. We’ll actually be starting work on the debut album though pretty soon.
Reverence, Severance and Spite is due out in October on Squirrel Records. What can we expect from the compilation?
All the single tracks released so far, and much louder than they appear on the vinyl. That’s one good thing about CDs – you can release your music without compromising the volume. We like to give people value for money too, so we’re recording a bunch of new songs to sit alongside the single tracks. There’ll be about 16 or 17 tracks on there in total.
You’re supporting The Primitives at the ICA in a few weeks time. Were they an influence on the band?
Definitely. The Primitives have just always been there. They were one of the first bands I really got into when I was about 14 or 15 years old, buying all their albums and singles from a great little second hand record shop in Leeds that’s now sadly closed down. Every band me and Caroline have been in has been compared with The Primitives. In a way, it feels like we finally should be sharing a stage with them. We’re all really looking forward to that gig.
They’ve followed a spate of mid-eighties bands that have recently reformed (The Wake, The Vaselines, Pooh Sticks etc.). Could you ever see either The Blanche Hudson Weekend or The Manhattan Love Suicides reforming in 25 years time?
To be honest, no. I never say never, but both myself and Caroline believe that when a band we’re in splits up, it should always remain that way. I’m not against other bands reforming if it works for them though, as long as they’re not just doing it for the money.
And finally, when will we hear “Grip of Fear” live?
Not sure. We’ll definitely play it at some point, but every time we try to play it when we get together, it sounds a bit… well… crap. I’m starting to think the version we captured in the studio that ended up on the single was a bit of a fluke.
How has your well earned rest been since the release of Flight Paths?
Well it hasn’t been so much of a “rest” as a bit of a hiatus to allow us to work on the other things. Dan, Ian and Jonny all play in other bands, all of which have been busy lately; me, Andy and Dan are involved in the running of the Indietracks festival and Ian in London Popfest and Spiral Scratch, and we’ve generally all had personal stuff going on too, such as buying houses!
With so many of you involved in different bands (I count eight) is it hard to get all of you in the same room to practise and work on new songs?
Is it really eight? Wowsers. It’s not been as hard as you’d think. Our rehearsal dates have clashed on occasion, but it always seems to work out. When we have new songs, Andy, Ian and me usually get together first to work on the melody and guitar, then Dan and Jonny add the rhythm section once that’s all sorted, so the five of us don’t always have to be together. When we do though, we’re usually pretty focused so it all comes together very quickly. Then we reward ourselves with a nice cold pint and a bag of crisps.
I hear you’re working on your second album. Tell us more about it.
News travels fast! We’ve got our collective itchy feet together again with a batch of new songs, some of which we’ve just started to play at our shows. We’re still at rehearsal stage just now but the studio is booked to start recording in November. It’s hard to tell what it’ll sound like at the moment because the songs tend to change as they develop – you might be able to get an idea from the ones we’ve been playing recently though! Simon Trought will be producing again. We loved what he did with our last album and find him a real pleasure to work with – he really seems to understand what we’re looking for. Plus he’s got loads of cool stuff to play with in the studio!
Will the album be released on the How Does It Feel To Be Loved label?
We’ve no idea! I don’t think we’ve got as far as talking about that yet or pitching the idea to anyone, but we’re open to offers from any interested labels! We were so happy to have worked with How Does It Feel To Be Loved on the first album as label owner Ian has been really supportive of Pocketbooks right from the start so it just felt natural, but we’ll have to wait and see! Whatever happens, it would be really nice to find a home for our album in the USA this time round.
You didn’t play at Indietracks this year despite many of you being involved in the running of the festival. Why was that?
I think it was exactly for that reason. We’d performed at every single Indietracks event so far, and with three of our members already represented on this year’s bill in other bands, we just decided it would be a bit much and we didn’t want to monopolise the line-up when there are so many other bands waiting to get on it. If everything goes to plan, we’ll have a new record out by next year so you’ll see us return to our traditional Indietracks slot!
You’re on the bill for the Lets Kiss and Make Up – Indie Pop Days Festival in Berlin in a few weeks time. Will there be an extended European tour?
For the moment, we’re just concentrating on rehearsing and recording our new songs so we’re not booking too many shows. We couldn’t say no to playing a castle in Berlin though – it sounded too good to be true and is one of our favourite cities in the world, plus the line-up is pretty spectacular. Apart from recording the album in November, hopefully we’ll be in a better position to start playing a few more shows towards the end of the year. Watch this space! Chances are though, you can walk into any venue in London and a member of Pocketbooks will be playing in some band or other.
How did Shrag come into the world?
Helen: Slowly and by surprise. A group of friends who accidentally started making songs together…
Bob: It’s like any kind of birth. It takes you a few years before you realise you exist. After that it was surprisingly easy.
You’ve said that your eponymous debut LP felt more like a collection of material you’d recorded up to that point, rather than a self-contained record. Were you happy with the result?
Helen: Oh yeah of course, you know I NEVER thought we’d actually have a full-length, so I was thrilled and we are proud of those songs, I think some more than others. But I guess because all of those songs had already been released – albeit in tiny runs of 300 – there wasn’t quite that feeling of “What will people think? Do we suck? Are we any good?” Having said that, the fact that WIAIWYA asked us to put them together as an album meant that far more people got to hear them than would have done otherwise, they reached far more people, and it got reviewed as an album by people who wouldn’t have listened to the singles, so it was exciting.
Bob: I’m still not convinced by the album format. A great album is more than a collection of songs. The debut LP is a collection of songs. Good ones though.
You supported The Cribs last year and they’ve been incredibly supportive of the band. How was the experience of playing such large venues?
Helen: Equal parts terrifying and exciting. I tried not to think about it once we were on stage to be honest, though there was one point where we played to what must have been a three quarters full London Astoria, and I looked out and had an actual knee-trembler. The Cribs are the loveliest boys in the world, sweet and funny and gentlemanly and incredibly tolerant of us, we must have been so annoying, we had absolutely NO CLUE about proper big tours like that, their tour manager would ask for things like stage plots and we’d just stare back at them blankly.
Bob: I find the experience strangely comforting. The sound is always good and if you break a string someone you’ve never met before runs on and helps you change guitar. Then they offer to carry things for you. Brilliant!
During your recent gigs you’ve been playing quite a lot of new material. How have the new songs gone down?
Helen: The vast majority of the feedback we’ve had has been good and encouraging. I think we got some criticism because we stopped playing a lot of the older songs a while ago – Sean Price (Fortuna Pop!) told us off for doing that, because I guess they were the only songs people had a chance of knowing – but really we had been playing those songs for ages and we were just excited about the new stuff and wanted to try it out. We do realise this is not particularly astute in terms of good business sense, but then that was never really our forte… (sorry Jervis).
The subject matters in your lyrics on your debut record were based on very specific events. Do the new songs open up to more general themes?
Helen: Yeah you’re right about the first album. I think at that point, I had a certain feeling with the lyrics that they needed to have a concrete idea behind them. I was maybe a bit less confident, I’d never written lyrics for a band that were actually going to record before, it had all been the kind of thing you do with one other friend in your room, that kind of thing. So I think I felt, for some of the songs at least, that I needed to have something solid and sometimes a bit silly to write about. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t care about those things or that they were disingenuous in any way, but I guess this time I think I tried to be a bit braver and write about stuff that was happening to me and the people around me that I care about in a way which at least tried to approximate how these things really felt, and stuff in my life is rarely that defined or immediately coherent, especially the last couple of years. It felt important to not maybe hide so much behind a robust, easily delineated scenario. Saying that, “Tights In August” is pretty silly.
You’re releasing your second album Life! Death! Prizes! on Monday 4th October. Tell us about the record.
Helen: It’s got 12 songs on it, some are louder and faster than others, and it has lots of umber and orange and red and empty chairs on the artwork. I think musically we’re a bit better, have been a bit braver, have had more of a sense of what we might be able to do. Oh and one song has real strings on it! I’m especially excited about that.
Bob: I think the album is structured like a really good live set. It was important to me in case we get asked to do one of those Don’t Look Back shows in years to come. We won’t of course, but it’s always nice to be prepared.
Will you be touring later in the year in support of the album?
Helen: Yes! We’re just finalising everything as I write this. We will be doing a UK tour from the Monday 27th September until Sunday 3rd October, and then we have our album launch show at the Lexington on Thursday 14th October. And then, providing we get our Visas, we’re going to New York to play CMJ and some shows around the East Coast, but we’ll see.
Dansette Dansette has been critically acclaimed by the likes of Pitchfork, The Observer and Drowned in Sound along with heavy rotational play on BBC 6 Music. Is this a golden period for the band?
Amelia: For Tender Trap, definitely! We are very proud of the album but were still surprised by how much attention/praise it got.
Rob: It makes us feel we were right to stop noodling around with electronic stuff and get a proper band together. As soon as we started playing with the new line up it felt right. But even so, we didn’t expect quite so many people (and critics) to like it as much as they did.
You had a line-up change last year, adding Elizabeth from Allo Darlin’ on guitar and Katrina (formerly of Police Cat) on drums. How did this come about?
Amelia: Elizabeth came to us through the magic of “word of mouth”. We just put the word out that we were looking for people and she wrote us an email. We didn’t know her at all – but we couldn’t have been luckier. Katrina, by contrast, was an old mate. We phoned her up and, after a bit of cajoling, she was persuaded that she fancied a trip back behind the drumkit.
Rob: We were lucky that Elizabeth, Katrina and Amelia’s vocals sat so well together. We really wanted girl harmonies to be to the fore.
How was your recent gig at Indietracks stepping in as last minute replacements for Love Is All?
Amelia: It was really great to be able to do it. Really enjoyable. We owe Love Is All a beer or two!
Rob: We felt like Jamie Carragher; officially retired (due to age) but called up at the last minute. Although Indietracks was a lot better than the World Cup.
Tender Trap’s sound has seemingly moved away from synthesisers back towards the jangly guitars of Heavenly and to a greater extent Talulah Gosh. Was this a conscious decision or something that naturally progressed from 6 Billion People?
Amelia: Actually it was pretty conscious. It was inspired by listening to our old Shop Assistants records and realising how much we loved them. Plus a feeling that this is the kind of music we actually know how to play!
Rob: I remember thinking that the sound I liked most after all this time was the combination of simple stand-up drums, fuzzy guitar and vocal harmonies.
You’ve recently been playing the odd Talulah Gosh song in your sets. Do you look back on that phase of your career with pride, given that the band meant an awful lot to so many people?
Amelia: It’s taken us a while to feel comfortable playing songs from back then. And I think it’s actually taken us being really comfortable with how Tender Trap is doing to be brave enough to do it. We don’t want to be a band that lives off our past “glories”. Not to belittle bands that come back to just do their original stuff. That is fine but it’s not what we want to do.
Rob: I would like to belittle the bands that do that. Sorry. But I always feel depressed when I hear those bands.
Tender Trap’s track-by-track guide to Dansette Dansette.
Amelia: This is about listening to records, thinking they will provide the answers you need in your life. And then they don’t. It’s also deliberately about the sixties girl groups, who didn’t write their own songs and therefore weren’t necessarily even purveying their own “wisdom”. I guess the song is cynical of, but also very affectionate about, that whole genre.
Rob: Another variant of the sixties girl group thing, but this time about a boy who’s determined to be culturally “bad” and anti-establishment (rather than wearing leather and crashing motorbikes).
“Do You Want A Boyfriend?”
Amelia: The lyrics to this one were pretty much written through us all singing random nonsense at practice and seeing which words and phrases made the rest of the band laugh.
Amelia: This is possibly my favourite song on the album because I love the guitar so much on it. The words are about suddenly realising you’ve fallen for someone you’ve been friends with forever. With an indie slant. I was glad to get “mixtapes” into the lyric.
“Girls With Guns”
Rob: A feminist fantasy, whereby men who star in pop videos in which women are directed to worship them, suddenly find those same women shooting them in the head.
Amelia: I wrote this for a couple of friends who seemed to be being wilfully blind to the fact they were perfect for each other. I thought it might provide the trigger for love to blossom. It didn’t! C’est la vie.
“2 to the N”
Amelia: “2 to the N” describes the process of tearing something up into 2, then 4, then 8, then 16, etc. It’s about a dramatic falling out of love, which involves tearing up photographs. It was inspired by Adam Ant. I will say no more.
“Counting the Hours”
Rob: This is a nervous love song about the tense period leading up to a second date.
Amelia: Gosh, I never thought there would be a second date. Am I too cynical?
Amelia: We wanted to do a song with a very standard girl group beat. I’m not quite sure how it ended up having lyrics which treat love as a gamble, analogous to betting on the races! But I guess that is how I see it.
Amelia: This is actually an old song, which we first did in Marine Research but never released. I think the Trap version is better though. Good and squelchy.
Rob: And after all this time I still don’t really understand the words.
Amelia: Ah, that’s because they are all about failing to communicate. Clever, eh!