debsey wykes is one of the coolest pop girls on earth. when she was a mere teen, she formed the dolly mixture with her mates hester and rachel and they recorded some of the acest songs ever. later she formed birdie with her now-hubby paul kelly, who is a great photographer and makes films with the saint etienne gang. debs has also been singing with saint etienne since 1993; that is her voice you hear on “who do you think you are?“ along with the lovely sarah cracknell. we tried to interview debs back in nyc after a way-too-short birdie gig at fez, but it didn’t seem to work out. but when we got to see the dolly mixture documentary a couple summers ago, we were re-inspired. we caught up with the lady somewhat recently at the phoenix theatre bar in london…
chickfactor: I’ve wanted to interview you for a long tme. I don’t know if you remember this. we had a plan in new york once but it didn’t happen for some reason. after the dolly mixture documentary screening, I realized that it’s only a matter of time before the world discovers the dolly mixture.
debsey wykes: I wonder! it’s taking an awfully long time gail.
cf: when is the dvd coming out?
debs: it might come out at some point in the future. we haven’t been able to get in touch with the person who made it [the dolly mixture documentary]. he’s in hollywood I guess.
cf: would you like to see it come out?
debs: in a way because it makes me squirm a bit and makes me laugh but it’s also quite an unusual record of something that was going on. when you see things that were filmed over 20 years, well, it’s over 25 years ago, it’s amazing to see yourself and what you looked like because you sort of think you look the same and you don’t and also just the surroundings — what the other people looked like and all the cars! the clothes and the gig places and who was around, that’s sort of fascinating. there weren’t that many female bands.
cf: were there any that you were aware of at the time?
debs: we were aware of the slits and the modettes and the raincoats and there were other names whose music we’d never heard. we used to play a lot with a band called the gymslips and they became really good friends of ours. they were a three-piece. we just sort of gigged a lot together. of course there were the go-gos, who were terribly successful as far as we could see.
cf: they were a teenybopper band. they were kind of like the spice girls in the u.s.
debs: you’re kidding!
cf: they had top 40 songs and they did come from that l.a. hipster scene but they were like a mainstream band.
debs: they seemed very hip when we first knew them.
cf: they were hipper than the spice girls.
debs: when they first played in london they were supporting madness for a tour…
cf: what about the bangles? were they on your radar?
debs: not until we finished playing really.
cf: they were really good in their early days.
debs: they were brilliant. I remember hearing “going down to liverpool” on john peel’s show in ’85 or ’86, and I thought it was gorgeous. we had stopped playing by then, as dolly mixture, but there was more to come!
cf: what about the marine girls?
debs: a little bit. they got a lot more press coverage than us. I liked the marine girls, I thought they were really good. of course there was bananarama, but they were a different thing. more like a girl band now.
cf: you formed the dolly mixture when you were teenagers…
debs: yeah, we were at school.
cf: in the old photos you look like you were about 12.
debs: what happened was hester and I had a pretend band. this was before punk. we just play acted it at home and wrote fake newspaper articles and things. and just made up hilarious lyrics and stuff. at school suddenly everybody was forming bands. we were at a sixth form college. everybody was doing it. this girl we knew said “oh I’m singing at the school concert,” and we said “you lucky thing, you’re in a band?” and she said “yeah yeah yeah, you should come along, you can do backing vocals.” so we did backing vocals and it was so appalling that we split up immediately afterwards. and we said, let’s form our own band and we’ll play instruments. so we got rachel in, she was from the road that I lived in, and luckily she had a brother who was in cambridge’s big punk band the users, and they had equipment around their house. so we just went round and played on the equipment at her house and formed. and then somebody said “play at my party” and we said “yeah!” two months after we formed we had a set, and we could barely play but we did it. when we started, everyone loved it — they were just so impressed! probably just so surprised. it was hilarious.
cf: the word ‘indie’ hadn’t been invented yet in those days but that’s kind of what you guys were. what indie is now.
debs: we were sort of what it turned into.
cf: bob said he went to see you and that you guys were having so much fun onstage and just laughing a lot.
debs: we did laugh a lot onstage.
cf: other bands didn’t really do that. other girls in bands were trying to be really cool or something.
cf: what were your fans like?
debs: a real collection of…
cf: all boys?
debs: they weren’t all boys. there were so many different types. mods and punks and just people in sort of straight trousers and winkle pickers, all sorts of people.
cf: rock critics?
debs: a few…
cf: john peel?
debs: he didn’t come and see us but we played where he was djing so he saw us there. we did a road show with him and he was djing. and bless him he gave us half his money from the night and gently advised us to do fewer cover versions and more of our own stuff, cause we were doing half and half a set at the time. he was so wonderful and so brilliant. we were totally shy of him cause he just seemed so important to everyone’s existence. and then we were invited to do another one of his nights and then we did the session and then we never heard from him again. we did one in norwich and one in northampton somewhere.
cf: were you excitable fangirls about other groups?
debs: at the time we started, we’d been to gigs. we liked x-ray spex and the damned and blondie. blondie were a huge influence on us. when we listened to the first blondie tracks it was as if our band almost materialized. there were always certain songs that made you think, our band really exists. we could have a really good band. we were absolutely mad about the undertones for about three albums. we were obsessed and we supported them. we were keen on the jam too. I think we wanted to be the undertones. we were always listening and we were always being given stuff actually. the minute we started a band and did a gig, people would come up and say “i’ve got this record, maybe you’d like it?” and just give it to us. and say maybe you should listen to such-and-such. it was amazing what it generated with people around us. we were introduced to motown and velvet underground and all sorts of things. it was brilliant. punk was sort of happening alongside.
cf: were your parents worried about you going to gigs?
debs: oh yeah, terribly.
cf: did you go out on the road when you were teenagers?
debs: we did when we were 19 or so. we didn’t tour until a couple of years in, when we had left school and everything. it was when we sort of moved up to london. that’s when they started to get a bit worried! they always thought we were going to take drugs all the time.
cf: so what was the dolly mixture’s flat like?
debs: it was our manager’s flat and it was absolutely dire. he lived in these flats on charing cross road, they’ve been knocked down now, which overlooked soho market and chinatown. there were about two flats left that were occupied because they were gearing up to knock them down and he had one of them and it was basically two rooms and a toilet. there were junkies on the roof and on the stairs, it was a complete shock for us from our comfortable homes and our cats and our pianos.
(photo by gail o)
cf: there’s a thing called the rock & roll camp for girls. have you heard of it?
debs: wow, no.
cf: they’re starting one over here. in portland, oregon, they had one for 8 to 18 year old girls. they get there, they form bands and at the end of a week they have a gig.
debs: that’s crazy. it seems so normal — parents encourage it now. when we did it, it was a bit… not disgusting but there was still an edge of disapproval.
cf: you guys look so young and wholesome and innocent in those old photos, especially the other two, not that you don’t! it’s hard to imagine you in this punk scene where everyone was spitting…
debs: we were always in dirty places and we were always sort of grubby ourselves. we’d stayed in this dirty flat and we’d go home filthy. but we never got that enticed by…
debs: not really. we didn’t really have that much opportunity I suppose. but you see everyone we knew took drugs. it was all around us. but we hardly even drank. and it wasn’t even a conscious decision. I think we were very tunnel-visioned in a way, and a bit self-obsessed. we wanted to have a nice time but not realizing that some people had a nice time by getting completely out of it. I mean, obviously we probably tried the odd thing but it wasn’t what we were there for. we really were into our music, and also we just wanted to be loved.
cf: I wish I had known about bands like yours at the time. I didn’t really find out about any music like that until I went to college. I knew about blondie and patti smith.
debs: I used to love patti smith. it was before punk that I was really into patti smith. I used to listen to lots of heavy music as well — led zeppelin, black sabbath and deep purple and things. patti smith was slightly cooler.
cf: that was the funny thing about music at the time. you were only supposed to be into one or the other, you weren’t supposed to be into both. what’s wrong with liking everything that you like?
debs: it was definitely our sort of thing. it was always the song’s the thing. we didn’t care where it came from. we definitely started with the 60s thing and just got obsessed with anything that sounded like 60s music. it was all so undiscovered as well, there was so much to discover. which isn’t the same nowadays. then things were like gold dust — you hear something for the first time it was magical.
cf: nowadays it’s covers of things that we heard on the radio growing up.
debs: and everything’s an advert as well. paul’s and my favourite song — it was almost like ‘our song’— suddenly was in this advert. really disappointing! I didn’t think anybody had that.
cf: I guess it’s a real money-making temptation for a lot of bands.
debs: oh, I’d do it, especially now. I’ve never made any money out of music, apart from birdie, we got a bit of money from it records.
cf: growing up, was your family musical?
debs: my dad’s a musician. by night. he worked in an office in the daytime. he used to go and play music hall. he grew up playing classical piano. I used to play on my own when I was young, and then when I was 12 I started learning the piano. so they were really keen for me to do classical music. rachel’s parents were classical musicians — they were both violinists — so they were really quite surprised by their children who both went into bands. our ears were open.
cf: when did you decide, I want to write a song?
debs: when we started. once we had the band and we had to do something, we were so enthusiastic. it was accidental and then you start to get really serious about it. it’s funny, that transition from where you’re playing other people’s songs, which you love, and then your little stumbling efforts — two chords, three chords — and you’re really pleased you actually wrote a song. then you start to feel you’ve got a knack for it. then we became really, really serious about it.
cf: obviously you’ve been in a band [birdie] with your husband too, what was that like?
debs: kind of the same as not being in a band. we got together after we formed a band together. we’d already started writing things together.
cf: so you must have liked each other enough to form a band in the first place?
debs: oh yes. terribly keen. we’d spent a lot of time together on the road with saint etienne in the live band. we’d spent long hours together, we used to drink together and chat together. then saint etienne took a break, and we decided to form birdie. we had a few names before that. he used to come around and we’d play together and go to the pub. finally we decided to do a recording and jason [reynolds, summershine] put our first single out. I think it’s our best! that encouraged us. then we got signed on the promise that music would be good. so it records put out our first record.
cf: what about your own kids: are they musical at all?
debs: actually they are! sadie [nearly 10] won’t do any formal lessons but she loves picking out tunes. and I think donovan, who’s only just 2, is singing already.
cf: with a name like donovan…
debs: there’s some spirit in there!
cf: sadie will be ready for the girls rock! camp soon.
debs: she’d love it. she loves school of rock.
cf: the u.s. camps teach kids about body image and they learn self-defense as well.
debs: that’s quite good. it is really hard when you don’t have other people doing the same thing as you and people to identify with. I think it’s wonderful. it’s interesting to see what makes them different.
cf: what about rachel and hester? are you pals? do you see them?
debs: they both live in brighton. hester lives in brighton. I don’t see her. rachel I see every few months and we speak every now and then. she’s got a big family. she’s very busy in her village. I don’t know what she does all the time! I just know she’s very busy. she took her cello out again. she and her husband have been playing together a bit, in fields and at little festivals near brighton. we keep in touch and have a laugh about the old days.
cf: are you writing music these days?
debs: I try. I try. I don’t get much time. I’m quite exhausted really with the boy, family life in a cramped flat, it wears me out. I’ve got few little songs that I play on the guitar that are quite folky. three string songs they are, that I’d like to record one day because they’re different to what I’ve done before.
cf: how long have you been in saint etienne?
debs: I met them in 1992. in 1993, we did a duet, “who do you think you are?”, and I toured with them. it was great fun to do. I toured with them for a couple of years, and then it all stopped for years and years and years.
cf: and now you’re married into the same family.
debs: oh, I know I know. we all love each other so much.
cf: those crazy kelly brothers.
debs: it’s wonderful, it’s great. it’s a very close circle. they were going to do a greatest hits show at the palladium and they said “come and do ‘who do you think you are?’” and I said, “fantastic, I’d love to.” and they said, “would you like to do backing vocals for the rest of the set?” and it was great fun. and every time they’ve played since, I’ve been involved. I love it — it’s such fun.
cf: what’s it like going on tour with them? really sedate?
debs: no, it’s not sedate. especially the early gigs, that wasn’t sedate at all! we managed to stay up a lot. we did a lot of drinking. the best thing about it is that everyone is so hilarious. well, you know how funny they are.
cf: you and sarah both have two kids but you haven’t gained a pound. how do you do it?
debs: oh, I have!
debs: I can hide it under my cardigan and smock top. sarah actually is really skinny. after her kids, she’s just gotten skinny.
cf: have you ever had a day job?
debs: unfortunately, yeah. I’m not very well equipped at day jobs. the longest time I’ve ever worked at a day job was 10 months at a china and glass department in this big department store.
cf: sounds scary. did you knock things over?
debs: oh I did. so many near misses! I just looked at things and they fell down. I couldn’t bear it — I was so bored.
cf: so now the filmmaking supports you, is that it?
debs: something supports me, I certainly don’t know.
cf: is there a lot of unreleased dolly mixture stuff laying around?
debs: well, unfortunately, most of it’s been played on the internet. this really nice person in america took it off because we were thinking of re-releasing it ourselves. we said “keep the live gigs.” there are songs we did that I wish we had copies of, really peculiar things, more experimental things or stupid things. I’ve lost our first demo. none of us have it. I’ve lost rehearsal tapes. there’s loads I haven’t got.
cf: what about coming up roses?
debs: hmmm. the best thing about coming up roses was I met one of my best friends through that. that’s about it. we kept thinking we were going to be successful. we almost got signed to creation. we actually really weren’t that good. it was a bit of a mess. on the rebound from being in dolly mixture, a bit lost. I don’t like coming up roses.
cf: did you ever have to put up with hecklers?
debs: yes, we did, a lot, as dolly mixture.
cf: did you have comebacks ready for them?
debs: we never had any comebacks. we always did on the hoof and it was always either meaningless or luckily hit the spot. the one I remember hitting the spot most was when this boy was waving a condom at me and I was convinced he was saying “it’s too small! it’s too small!” or something — no, it was “it’s too big! it’s too big!” so I said, “oh, is it too big?” so everyone thought I was so brilliant saying is it too big. but in fact he’d given me the line already. the worst time was actually getting spat at.
cf: that is just so wrong.
debs: we did this tour supporting bad manners and they had a huge skinhead following who really hated us. we did over 20 dates on this tour and every night we got showered with spit. one night there was this foot-long thing hanging from the end of my bass for the entire gig, which we just found hilarious by then. they were so horrible, really nasty. we were just really determined to get to the end of the set. you don’t like us but we’re here! my parents came to see us in leicester and they just watched us get spattered. not pleasant. we supported the damned once as well and we got spat at as well but that was a sort of habit because it was a damned gig. that’s what we do.
cf: did you meet some appalling music biz people in those days?
debs: we met loads of appalling people! just about everybody who was in a record company at that point was vile. they were so big-headed!
cf: you say that as though things have changed…
debs: well, I don’t know. I imagine that people are more imaginative now. but there still must be some assholes. the guys were totally out of touch but they sort of assumed that they were in touch. they knew everything and they were sure that girls can’t play. almost everyone who ever wanted to sign us said, “we’ll sign you but you’ve got to have people playing on your record.” we were so angry about that. there were loads of bands who probably couldn’t play much better than us but because they weren’t female it was different. they just couldn’t sort of work out what we were. I suppose we couldn’t really work out what we were either. it was just weird.
cf: you were postpunk.
debs: we were postpunk but we didn’t sound postpunk. to me postpunk was something that certainly didn’t sound like us.
cf: another meaningless genre name, but I love that the term still exists.
debs: I remember reading one of those music magazines that did a whole issue about postpunk and apparently there was this whole ethic about it and they were doing some serious experimenting with sound. I couldn’t bear it!
cf: they couldn’t think of what to call music then.
debs: it’s like “punk” and “new wave.”
cf: who were you swooning over in those days?
debs: well, eventually one of the undertones. we swooned over the captain a bit, captain sensible. we were all a bit taken with him. he was wonderful. so interesting and funny. people like that really.
cf: what about now?
debs: there’s no one I swoon over now! the only band I’ve seen recently are the magic numbers, I love them. I don’t swoon over them, but I do like their music. the first time I saw them I was pregnant with my last child, and I was trembling with tears the whole time. I was blown over. they were doing things that I love, like playing the glockenspiel and singing girl-group harmonies, lovely pauses in the songs, and they just take their time. I love harmonies. that’s what I want to do, I just want to sing harmonies with people.
cf: are you being deprived of that?
cf: is it because your filmmaker husband doesn’t have time for that?
debs: it’s because he’s never home! and because saint etienne don’t do enough. yeah. they’re not busy in a live sense at all. I have no time.
cf: what have you been listening to?
debs: northern soul. I keep harking back to old-school house music. I hear little bits on adverts and I want to have the record, the “I can’t wait for the weekend” sort of thing. some folk compilations that bob made for us that are absolutely magical. I don’t get much chance to hear music. I’m even going back into my past now. I’m addicted to christmas carols. [we go on and on about the ultra-fab phil spector christmas album] sometimes when you don’t get the chance to listen to music that much, especially your favorite songs, you realize how powerful they are. one song that always gets me is “lay lady lay” — every time I hear it I just collapse. I love hearing choral things this time of year.
cf: bob said you guys used to apologise between every song.
debs: we did do a lot of apologizing actually.
cf: thanks debs.
• listen to and learn about the dolly mixture here and here
• it’s easy to find footage of the dolly mixture’s “been teen”, a video for birdie’s “folk singer” and saint etienne performing “who do you think you are?” on youtube.com