In honor of the forthcoming Heavenly reissues (Skep Wax will rerelease all the Heavenly LPs on vinyl soon: Heavenly vs Satan is available on pre-order now; Le Jardin de Heavenly will follow next April and the other two will come along at six month intervals)—in addition to the John Peel Sessions on Precious Recordings and the announcement of the band’s forthcoming gigs at Bush Hall in London in May 2023—we asked the band to think back to 30 years ago and tell us about their impressions of the U.S. in the olden days! The very first issue of chickfactor was handed out at a Heavenly / Lois gig in Sept. 1992; I reviewed their second album in SPIN around the same time, and we interviewed them in chickfactor zine (Amelia is on the cover of issue 2).
ROB PURSEY Going to America was overwhelming, partly because we were going to meet loads of people for the first time—people whose records we’d heard, but from a distance of 3500 miles. Two of the encounters I remember most vividly from that first Heavenly trip are Phoebe Summersquash (Small Factory) and Jeffrey Underhill (Honeybunch). Phoebe is one of the select band of people known as ‘girl drummers’. She was the most diminutive person in the band, she wore glasses and she smiled all the time, even while she beating the hell out of a drumkit. I loved that combination of effortless glee and thunderous noise. She was the living antidote to those theatrical drummers (and guitarists) who pretend to be working out in the gym, or summoning Satan, as if that was crucial to making a great sound.
Jeffrey Underhill, we met, I think, in Rhode Island. I don’t really remember the gig very well, but I was a big fan of Honeybunch. Their song ‘Mine Your Own Business’ was in my head all the time, and it still provides the soundtrack for my memories of our first trip to the US. Anyway, what I remember about Jeffrey was the fact that he showed up in a back alley in a really great old blue/green semi-beater of a car. I am a bit of a nut about old cars, and liked this one a lot. Me and Jeffrey didn’t talk much, I imagine we were both somewhat shy, but I do remember sitting on the bonnet thinking ‘this is the best car, and it belongs to the person who played the best song’.
The encounters with all these new people came to a head at the Chickfactor Party, where there was a whole community was assembling. I didn’t really know anyone there, of course, but I somehow felt like I could get to know and like all of them. We were a long way from the UK, but we felt at home. Part of the reason for this was that women were running the Chickfactor show, and these were wry, witty women. There was a lot of intellect behind Chickfactor, and a definite attitude, but there was a lot of humour too. The humour was a sign of confidence—there was nothing apologetic about it. That’s what being in Heavenly felt like. The women in our band were obviously in charge, but they wore it lightly. So New York, or at least this little indie corner of New York, felt more amenable to our band than a lot of places back in the UK. It was a good feeling.
CATHY ROGERS I’m not sure any of my memories are really separable. The synapses which connect Heavenly to America all sit in a viscous bath of coffee and the new kind of cool of the straight edge punks and the smell of wet trees driving through Oregon and Massachusetts and the swooning delight of being in the same venn diagram overlap as the really rioting riot grrrls and gigs not being gigs any more but shows and the sheer heat of new experiences and new loves. America just felt so great. It was like finding a version of us that was just so sure of itself. So certain. Walk around the town like you own it…everyone, all the time.
Compared with that overpowering sense of it all, specific memories feel a bit humble. The drive down from Olympia to play a show with a band who turned out to be Tiger Trap, Calvin saying, classic understatement, ‘I guess you might kinda like this band.’ Meeting them to play a show together in this kind of basement garage, them all wearing roller skates, us being powerless to resist charms on that level. For some reason, having a conversation with a bunch of people about our favourite foods and everyone out-doing each other for eccentricity, then Molly from Bratmobile saying ‘I just want to eat rice’ and that becoming one of those weird things that I think of literally every time I cook rice. The novelty, playing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, of being fed really well before a show. Laughing over-hearing an old guy in the audience, saying – after a whole raft of indie bands – about Lois, ‘Finally someone who can actually sing’. Meeting Ted and Jodi for the first time and being so jealous that Pete was somehow already friends with them, then seeing Jodi’s band (with another girl with a rad American name like Brooklyn or Maddison, I’m pretty sure the band was called The Runways) and thinking these were the most sensational people I’d ever met. Being interviewed for this magazine called Chickfactor and hearing of another wait what cool girls are somehow allowed to be mainstream now magazine called Sassy and realising that culture was an actual thing and the world changes and feeling that we lived in some small backwater but we were so lucky because we were here, for now.
AMELIA FLETCHER – On our first US tour, Pete and I being dropped off by Small Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, in the middle of the night. We were near the place we were all staying with my parents, and figured we’d call a taxi to get us home. But it turned out that the place we stopped at had been robbed the week before, and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by police cars. We were freaked out. It felt like an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Then, when asked where we were heading, we realised we couldn’t remember the address. Not at all suspicious! In the end, though, the police believed the daft English people and gave us a lift home in the police car.
– Meeting Claudia Gonson from Magnetic Fields at Chet’s Last Call in Boston. She asked if I had time to come and record a song for her and Stephin Merritt’s side project, the 6ths, the next day. I said why not. I had heard ‘100,000 Fireflies’ on the ‘One Last Kiss’ compilation and liked it a lot. I remember I sang ‘Hall of Mirrors’ in an especially breathy way, and Stephin commented that I came complete with my own reverb!
– Playing at the Fantagraphics Comics Warehouse in Seattle with Beat Happening and another band who I just remember as being very smelly! It was a great space, and I was excited because I was a big fan of ‘Love and Rockets’. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl both came, which seemed pretty thrilling too. We were easily thrilled!
– Arriving in Olympia at the start of a West Coast tour, meeting Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and discovering Riot Grrrl. There was a visceral buzz around the whole place, and we quickly got very excited about it too. We had always been a feminist band, but in a quiet sort of way. We didn’t really feel part of the UK feminist movement at the time. It was fighting for stuff that was no doubt important but didn’t seem relevant to our concerns. So it was thrilling and empowering to find people discussing the issues that really had affected us. And to discover a whole set of new bands who had found a way of being outspoken and angry but also huge fun. It had a big impact on us, musically and personally.
PETER MOMTCHILOFF I have opened the drawer in which I left my old memories of Heavenly in the USA. There is a lot there, but I can’t fit it together into any kind of story. My colleagues’ reminiscences do what I seem not to be able to. As a kind of coda, I do remember that we were brought down to earth by our first gig back in England after a West Coast tour, feeling rather pleased with ourselves. It was in a pub in Gillingham, to about five men and a dog. I don’t think they even turned the pub TV off while we played.
Coming from the land of Hal Hartley (uh, Long Island), My Favorite was/is a stylish, mod-ish punky pop band that formed in 1993, connected with us via zines and postcards, and played at some of our early shows in NYC. The band has existed in two time periods: 1993-2005, when (according to their Bandcamp) “teenage misfits gather around black mass of water called Lake Ronkonkama, release 7″s, release 2 LPs, go to Sweden, die.” Legend has it Michael Grace Jr. and Darren Amadio formed MF at SUNY Stony Brook, then added Andrea Vaughn, Gil Abad, and Todbot. The ’80s had just ended so it was an influence! They released their first cassette and a few seven-inches between 1993-1995, the latter on Harriet Records. They were quite active between that time and 2003, then called it quits and reemerged in 2014. (Grace was also in the Secret History as well.) We spoke with Michael on the eve of the first release in a series of three EPs via HHBTM and WIAIWYA. Interview by Gail / Images courtesy My Favorite
How are you holding up in the pandemic era? I’m OK! Honestly the pandemic has been instructivein a sense. I was, and still am, worried for myself and my parents and my friends—COVID is serious stuff. But on a different level, the pandemic helped me realize just how isolated I had let myself become in the years priorto COVID. How comfortable I had gotten with my depression, and with being apart from so many things that used to bring me joy. Seeing people on social media freaking out about all the stuff they weren’t doing, all the stuff they were missing, it just shook me out of a certain complacency. Because things hadn’t really changed that much for me. So it encouraged me to take a hard look at my life and recommit to letting people in, to taking chances, to making my art. So seeing this first EP finally released, it means a lot to me. I’m still a bit battered and dazed, but I feel a little like Mad Max (Sad Max?!) emerging from a smoldering wasteland. Onwards! What were you like as a child/teen? Was your family musical? Gail! That’s a novella at least! I was a very awkward and introverted child, prone to daydreaming and getting lost in movies and books and drawing. I was sick a lot, and I didn’t really have many friends. My mother was insanely overprotective and her anxiety both affected and infected me. And those were the best years of my childhood! Becoming a teenager was much, much worse and that period was pitted with incidents of violence and abuse. All of that only pushed me further into my own inventions and fantasies. They became a kind of sanctuary to me. A haunted castle of self (Abandoned Castle of My Soul?!) You come to have a very complicated relationship with trauma when you start to believe that all your gifts have sprung from it. There is no My Favorite without all that darkness. But there was nearly no me, because of it. That takes a long time to sort out. ¶ Eventually music joined books and painting to really save me as a teen—and to help me find people whom I could feel seen by, and safe around. Perhaps that’s why I kept some of the spirit of that era with me in the music I made over the decades that followed. ¶ My grandfather on my mother’s side supposedly played violin, though I never saw or heard him play. He had a violin case, but I used to imagine that it was full of cash or secret ledgers. We were a Sicilian-American family in Queens, and the mythology of the mafia still remained during my early childhood. However, his son—my Uncle Joe—replaced Felix Pappalardi as the bassist in Mountain with Leslie West, and was a really great rock ‘n’ roll musician. He gave me my first guitar, but I couldn’t play it because I was left-handed. On my dad’s side were mainly cops.
Tell us about the Long Island scene from your early days (zines, shows, etc.) As a young teen, there was heavy metal and hardcore—so given those choices I opted for hardcore, but I wasn’t especially suited to it. I was the worst skateboarder in Lake Ronkonkoma. I did find our first drummer in a hardcore group and convinced him to join our 11th grade new wave band, which also included Darren Amadio, who went on to be my guitarist/musical partner for the next 20 years in My Favorite and The Secret History. Long Island was ahead of the curve in terms of radio stations and clubs though. WLIR was one of America’s first commercial stations dedicated to new wave (a decent documentary on it dropped a few years ago). Duran Duran used to fly into JFK, take a limousine out to Long Island to do an interview, and then straight back to play Madison Square Garden. WUSB—the college radio station in Stony Brook—was also great, especially Lister-Hewan Lowe’s reggae show called “Saturday’s A Party.” There were also dance clubs like Malibu and Spyze that were nearly on the level of places like Danceteria and Limelight. This was during my high school years, roughly 1987–1991. ¶ Once college started in the ’90s, it was really a mishmash of scenes and styles as indie and grunge came into prominence. But in the clubs—synthpop, industrial, and the new romantic stuff never really went away. We went to these little strip-mall goth clubs in the suburbs. It was laughable, but also sort of amazing. I listened to my fair share of Britpop—especially Suede, Blur, and Pulp. I was intrigued by techno and house but did not have the stamina necessary for raves. Still, I listened to stuff like 808 State, Future Sound of London, A Guy Called Gerald, and Mr. Fingers. I read the NME every week, but also started to send away for indie pop zines and follow labels like Teenbeat and K, and Kill Rock Stars. I wasn’t entirely sure about the music, but I loved the spirit. I found Riot Grrrl really inspiring. When I got Huggy Bear’s “Weaponry Listens To Love” LP, it really shook me, like an indie pop “Unknown Pleasures.” ¶ So there was really no organized indie pop scene on Long Island then. If we were on punk bills, we skewed our set a little heavy; if we were playing with synthpop or shoegaze bands we went that way. It worked for us. I wasn’t very committed to any sound or scene. I felt like we were doing something that created its own world. I know that sounds arrogant, but in a way—it proved true for many. ¶ There were a lot of zines on Long Island, mostly personal zines, and I did a big one-off with Andrea from MF called “Absolute Beginners,” which connected us to a myriad of people via the P.O. box. It was an innocent time, with the internet in its infancy, and the years peeled away slowly in the ’90s like a sunburn. Few cared about a weirdo pop band from Long Island, and we had no musical careerist aspirations at that time. So we went to school, worked some really menial jobs, and played whatever shows we could. At that time, it felt great to put out a 7” a year on these interesting little labels. What was the indie pop scene like when you started out with MF and how did it change through the decades? Our first single was “Go Kid Go” / “Absolute Beginners Again” in 1994, and then “The Informers” / “Detectives Of Suburbia” in 1995 on Harriet Records— which I was really excited to be on in no small part because of the Magnetic Fields single they had done. It also didn’t hurt that the label was named after my most beloved YA book, Harriet The Spy.In 1996 we did two split singles (“Working Class Jacket” and “Modulate”) and then spent nearly two years trying to make a record that wasn’t very indie pop at all. To be honest, I had been drawn to indie pop due to the leftist politics and “up with kids” energy of scenes and labels in the Pacific Northwest and D.C. Yet having our label run by a Harvard professor, we ended up in this little Northeast cabal of bands and small college shows. And it was, frankly, culture shock. We were legitimate working class and middle-class kids with Long Island accents. We all went to community colleges and state universities. Playing in Cambridge, at MIT, at Bryn Mawr, at Brown. It was wild. No amount of thrift store cardigans and barrettes could conceal a rich kid from us, and vice versa. We were treated as somewhat of a curiosity, playing decade-old synths and wearing the preppy clothes they had themselves self-consciously forgone. It was clear we were up to something with this soul boy/Benetton kid look. But what? It was some Fabulous Mr. Ripley shit and Brideshead wasn’t entirely having it. ¶ That said, I have some amazing memories of those years, especially mini-tours with Go Sailor and the Softies and Holiday and the Push Kings. But there were other nights we were playing with bands whose parents were famous right-wing Texan senators. I’m not saying this was that kid’s fault, but it was just a whole new world from the punk and goth scenes where we had started out on Long Island. A lot of wealth, and a lot of privilege. Occasionally it felt like we were in a kitschy bubble, and I really wanted to pop it. ¶ I also found the shambolic, half-trying aesthetic of some indie pop to reflect how little it all actually matteredto them.Like, was this just some sort of rumspringa before jobs in finance and summer houses in Cape Cod? By this point I really wanted to change pop the way my heroes did. But my depression and anxiety got deeper the more I failed to figure out where we belonged in all of this. We spent half a year doing demos for Minty Fresh, and when that didn’t amount to anything, we made the poor decision to max out our credit cards trying to make a slick, retro-sounding record that would be defiantly anti-grunge and anti-lofi. ¶ The biggest change in the indie scene for us came around the year 2000. The Love at Absolute Zero LP came out in 1999, and while it might have been polarizing, it was also quite acclaimed in certain circles, and solidified our fan base. Then when electroclash started, we had a second scene to not really fit into, but one in which we had some simpatico and overlap. Then with the emergence of the Strokes and the explosion of interest in NYC bands, we were able to hold our own in that scene, as we were a group with both post-punk and art rock influences. We actually headlined a CMJ show at Brownies in the early aughts that featured both the Walkmen and Interpol in probably their first years of existence. Though I continued to live a mainly monk-like existence, I did find the glamour and sleaze of these years exciting on a Warholian level. So between indie pop, electroclash, and the next wave NYC scene we had fashioned a kind of praxis, a Venn diagram for being My Favorite. Those were the best years, and I think it’s reflected in the songs we wrote during them.
You played at a number of chickfactor things back in the day. Any memories or connections made at those? My main memory of chickfactor was how it helped me learn about and get deeper into bands like Belle & Sebastian and the Magnetic Fields (that and being slagged off by Sleater-Kinney in the Jukebox Jury thing). So then to end up being able to eventually play with both those bands and have friendships with certain members (we actually talked Claudia Gonson into managing us for like three months), it was really special. I also remember being exposed to Momus and Nick Drake through chickfactor. I had a real appreciation for the lens through which your crew saw indie. There was just a really high curatorial quality, and whenever we were able to play a CF party or show it was a real thrill.
Do you see it as having a political side to it? Your band always seemed to. It, as in indie pop? I think it could have and should have had an even more political side to it. Considering how important Riot Grrrl was to the formative years of the scene, I think it is disappointing that it didn’t. But I’ve touched upon some of the reasons it may not have. I remember a popular indie pop zine writer who was vocally pro–George W. Bush, and some of the uncomfortable silences that would follow when I challenged him. The vibe was that it was rude of me to take shots at this “nice, harmless bookish guy.” It drove me crazy. And now look where we are! I’m not saying that artists need to write political songs—they are very hard to do well. I had a few like “Working Class Jacket,” “Detectives of Suburbia,” and “The Informers,” but overall, that wasn’t my focus in any didactic way. I tried to write about life, and by doing that I think this dystopia of late capitalism emerged in our songs. However, I always thought that a band should, in their art and interviews and personas make it very clear where they stood. I really admired artists like Billy Bragg and Heaven 17 and the Style Council for doing that. If I couldn’t be in a band that talked about kicking fascists in the balls, I didn’t want to be in one at all.
How do we save this country from evil (and idiocy)? I’m really not sure, but it is clear we have to! I think for now, we support and protect all the people the Right wants to erase or harm, and we stay vocal and vigilant about how much peril we are in. Voting is part of it, but it’s also about solidarity. It’s about pushing back at the insane narratives that are poisoning our country. It’s also about expecting more from Democrats in an intelligent and strategic way. We are getting outschemed by Nazis. We just have to keep fighting and not get demoralized, no matter how bad it gets. We need as much Socialism as we can get this Nation to swallow.
You guys seemed to have a very ’80s and very mod style back then. What were some of the things you were into then? Yeah, like I mentioned before, Long Island was really the center of New Wave radio and culture on the East Coast via WLIR, Malibu, My Father’s Place, etc. I was just a kid in the ’80s but I do think some of that culture rubbed off on me. Seeing the punks, mods, and new wavers on the bus, and in the park. They seemed like Star Wars characters to me. These fantastical others that I wanted to know, and eventually—be. At around the age of 14 I experienced certain trauma, and after that I had less desire than ever to “be normal.” So these “freaks” became like saints to me. By the time the ’90s arrived, I was really intent on reclaiming that feeling and (hopefully) reimagining it into something new. As grunge emerged, I gravitated toward the mod/skinhead thing mostly to be contrary. The irony was that I was too poor and too ethnic to be accepted by the preps in the ’80s, but in the ’90s, in the context of a band, I could appropriate that look and try to make it my own. It was my way of saying “I am my own gatekeeper now.” Or actually, my own gatecrasher. I related to the original mods—working class kids who subverted Savile Row, subverted the “respectability” of the middle class, and became an unsettling mirror of it. Like a double agent. That’s what I was trying to do. So I blended ’80s prep/Ivy League (a lot of which you could get cheap in thrift stores as it was no longer trendy during grunge) with skinhead style and a sort of Italian mod thing, like how Marcello Mastroianni or Pasolini dressed. And honestly—I still dress the same way to this day.
Who are your style icons? Aside from the folks I just mentioned—Paul Weller in the Style Council, just fantastic looks one after another. Andy Warhol in the ’70s, with all the tweed and corduroy blazers and school ties and paint-splattered jeans. Jean-Michel Basquiat in the ’80s, making Ivy League look worn and weary in this slyly confrontational way. Lou Reed for just being so immutably “New York.” Bryan Ferry in his rich and bored phase. And of course David Bowie—especially during the period after Ziggy. The apocalyptic soul boy of “Young Americans” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” I’m also a fan of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, though I tend to blend in their influence subtly. Let’s see, who else—James Dean. Marvin Gaye. Peter Murphy and Mick Karn in Dali’s Car. Agent Cooper.
How would you describe your own personal style? I’ve touched on a lot of it already. I’ve always been interested in taking style cues from scenes and circles I never had access to—like Ivy League and European couture and juxtaposing it with suburban and urban street styles. I like to mix in odd things like aristocratic British bog-wear lol—Barbour field coats, plaid caps and black rubber rain loafers. I like to make playful nods at my Sicilian heritage by wearing gold chains and saint medallions. I also love skinhead style and the ’80s/’90s “casuals” look—Burberry macs, Fila and Lacoste, khakis and soccer jerseys. I like to have fun and be ironic and give people a sense that something is just—off. It’s all a kind of performance art to me. Like “Who let this person into our club?” The answer is I let myself in, hit the buffet, scrawled “My Favorite Forever” on the bathroom mirror, and got the fuck out. ¶ I usually dress like an ’80s burnout or beach bum when I’m just hanging out. Especially in the summer. Weird t-shirts and cutoff jeans and sunglasses. Sneakers with holes in them.
As someone who seems as big a Smiths fan as I was, how does it feel listening to their music now that we know what kind of person Morrissey is? He’s definitely a complicated character. It is absolutely one of the strangest and most disenchanting experiences of my life to watch someone who was so important to me in my late teens/early twenties start to fall from grace and just keep falling. There isn’t a thing he says or creates now that contains anything of value. It’s just grievance and narcissism. And it’s gross. He is a deeply reactionary figure, and all he does for me now is serve as a reminder to be vigilant as you get older. Of your biases. Of your blind spots. I don’t even want to give him any more oxygen than that. But at least we still have Johnny.
I feel like “miserablism” was a sort of goth, sort of nerdcore movement that never got explored as a thing. I think you are probably right, but maybe that’s a good thing? Even as someone who has suffered from serious depression for most of his life, I wouldn’t want to be known as an artist who glamorized or commodified that sort of darkness. The world is still imbued with beauty, and each being has value, and none of us was created to suffer. I know my songs deal a lot with shadowy thoughts and feelings, but that’s not all they deal with. I believe in love and I believe we can heal—and help others to.
Why do you think My Favorite were big in Sweden? Well, the boring answer is that one particular magazine and one particular national radio show in Sweden were very influential, and both of them championed us ruthlessly. But why did they? I think that’s the more interesting part of the answer. I’m not really sure. I think I have a certain respect for melody and rhythm, two classical attributes of pop that I think Swedes have a taste for. I also think that despite us using so many European reference points in our music, there was also something brash and reckless about us that owed more to America. Judging by the quasi-riotous crowds we’d draw in places like Gothenburg, I think the Swedish fans tapped into that. Understood that we were some really fucked-up kids, that it wasn’t a put on. I think that quiet storm of feeling in our music felt liberating to them. They tore off the plastic wrap, where other people couldn’t see past their own reflections in it. What was the first record you bought? I think it may have been Judas Priest’s Defenders of The Faith. Satanic Panic was a big thing on Long Island in the early ’80s and I was a textbook case of a 12-year-old really into the devil. At least in a Dungeons & Dragons way. What was your first gig? Hmmm, I think it was INXS! Tour horror stories? Gratefully, we haven’t been robbed or left stranded somewhere. But one time in Norway I remember our rental van getting grazed by a trolley car as we were hurtling the wrong way down a cobblestone street, and we were really close to colliding with it head on and being killed in a ball of fire. What are some of the weirdest events you ever played? In 1994 we played a DIY event called Vulvapalooza at the old Gas Station—the illegal East Village venue where GG Allin died. We sounded like OMD, and the punks and Riot Grrrls were just shaking their heads. We were four boys and Andrea. After we played, a young woman with like 11 safety pins through her face came up to me and simply said, “One vulva was not enough vulvas to play Vulvapoolaza.” Who is your favorite lyricist ever and why? Oh, that’s really hard. There are so many good ones. It’s pretentious to say that I was more influenced by certain writers and poets like Sylvia Plath or—God help me—Bret Easton Ellis, but in my earliest years that was probably true. So instead of discussing the pantheon let me give credit to a couple underrated people. Brett Anderson from Suede had a very distinctive lyrical style. He’s like a pop art vending machine full of apocalyptic pulp sci-fi novels. I remember being really into that. And Bernard Sumner is one of the best “bad lyricists” ever. There is something so awkward and artless about his lyrics, but like—they work, and his imagery feels uniquely idiosyncratic. When is “Blue Monday”? Who are the “Thieves Like Us”? What is “The Perfect Kiss”? I mean, no one wants me to wax on about Donald Fagen or Lou Reed in Chickfactor. (sure we do.—editor)
Do you have pets, kids, hobbies, a day job? Tell us more. I do not have any pets or kids, though I love being an uncle to my amazing five-year-old niece Franny. She is literally my best friend. I think I’m too intense and crazy to have any “hobbies.” Everything I do I get really into, even if it is hitting golf balls at the local dilapidated driving range. I guess watching YouTube videos about every nerdy thing on earth would be my main hobby. Like “Who Was More Powerful: Gandalf or Darth Vader?” I’m not proud of it. I watch a decent amount of baseball and soccer. I have a couple day jobs but being a part-time art professor at the local community college is the one I enjoy the most. I’m working on a trilogy of YA novels set in the My Favorite Extended Cinematic Universe, but I don’t consider that a hobby—more a burden. What are you reading, watching, listening to, cooking? Fiction-wise I’ve been reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and re-reading On Rockaway by Jill Eisenstadt. Nonfiction, I’ve been crawling through Sweet Dreams, a long oral history of the New Romantics. I watch way too much TV. I mean, I’m still watching Westworld long after most replicants jumped ship. I’m most excited for the upcoming final season of Atlanta. I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff—old and new—but Miserable Chillers, Swan Lingo, Holy Wire, and Scam Avenue have all released amazing music over the last few years. Cooking? I’m always trying to re-create my grandmother’s pasta dishes from my youth. Sicilian stuff with fried zucchini and red pepper flakes, Parmigiano Reggiano, fennel and sardines and the like. What are some of your favorite records in 2022? Kristeen Young’s The Beauty Shop. Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind. What song is currently stuck in your head? “To Turn You On,” by Roxy Music, but that’s because I just saw them at Madison Square Garden last night. The first arena show I’ve been to in maybe ten years. Bryan Ferry’s voice isn’t what it once was, but I had chills the entire show nonetheless. Beautiful.
Tell us about the EP. Tender Is the Nightshift: Part 1 is the first in a 3-EP series, and it is a return to My Favorite 17 years later with a skeleton crew of bandmates and a lot of machines and wires. It’s like returning to the city of your youth and finding it a rainy, neon-lit ghetto of ghosts. Which I am aware is pretty much the plot of Blade Runner. It’s a much more dancey/layered and synthetic soul record than anything we’ve done before. A luxury depression product. Or perhaps—a cheap knockoff of a luxury depression product. In all seriousness, doing this now feels like being in the after-hours of your youth. Some sleek steel and glass limbo with a hefty check that is soon to come due. I’m not sure what else to say about it except that we are still doing things in indie pop that others can’t or won’t. We have new stories to tell, and new vantage points from which to tell them, otherwise we wouldn’t bother at all. I have little interest in nostalgia, except as black magic. Anyway Kurt Brondo, Gil Abad and I are very excited and gratified to remake/remodel My Favorite this way. Give a listen! What are your future plans? Well, we have to finish these last two EPs, and there are songs on there that I can’t wait for people to hear. I’m going to try to get my YA published. I’d really like to travel again for the first time in a good while. And I’d love to play live, and we are working toward that. To be honest, I’ve been in survival mode for so long that the future is a really intangible concept to me. Yet—I always seem to find myself there. 10 records Michael cannot live without You have to give me 15 otherwise I’ll have a panic attack. Also I’m not including The Smiths on principle right now—but they belong here. Lists are really difficult for me, but these have really been on my mind and turntable during the making of this EP series. OK! Not (necessarily) in order: David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners Marvin Gaye, In Our Lifetime? New Order, Substance Roxy Music, Stranded Sade, Diamond Life The Style Council, Confessions of a Pop Group Donald Fagen, The Nightfly Patti Smith, Horses Prefab Sprout, Protest Songs Destroyer, Kaputt Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Don’t Stand Me Down Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Welcome To The Pleasuredome Macintosh Plus, Floral Shoppe
Magic Roundabout was a noisy pop band in Manchester (and Nottingham) that existed from 1986 to 1988 and didn’t release any records at the time (apart from a track on a cassette compilation). This past year, Third Man Records released a 7-inch single called “Sneaky Feelin’” and a six-song LP called Up, which are so up our alley. We checked in with two of the six band members, Nick Davidson and Linda Jennings, to find out more about Magic R and the music they’re making now with Thee Objects. Interview by Gail O’Hara / Images courtesy Magic Roundabout (This interview appears in chickfactor 19, available now in print)
chickfactor: How have you been holding up during the pandemic? What have you been doing? Linda: Played my classical guitar, painted and learnt some languages. But gradually stopped that when work started coming in. Nick: During the pandemic I was putting the Magic Roundabout LP together and sorting out the promotion with the band, best to be busy maybe? I’d retired as a mental health nurse in 2019 so had time to do that. How long was Magic Roundabout a band? Linda: We formed around the summer of 1986 but split in early 1988. So not long. How did it come together? Linda: I was attending Art College and met Paul (Chadwick, bass) on the bus. We chatted about music and decided to form the band. Was it named after the TV show? Linda: Yes.
Where all have you lived? And where do you live now? Linda: We all lived in and around Bolton, then the band all moved to Nottingham. Nick lives in Shipley. Myself, Paul and Karrie live in Stockport. Nicola is in Bolton and Maria in Sheffield now. What were you listening to at the time? Did you feel part of a scene, a community? Linda: I loved indie/alternative music, ’60s and local bands. Yes, I liked to go to local gigs and support them. Nick: Shop Assistants and Jesus and Mary Chain were our stepping off points. We’d been passionate about Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, The Fall before them, but I think we were 17/18 in ’86/’87 & we couldn’t play very well. We’d wished we’d been born in the ’60s because everything seemed to be going downhill in the ’80s. To think how it is now. ¶ We were friends with Inspiral Carpets. We recorded at Clint’s studio and they were always supportive of us, there was The Tyme Element, King of the Slums, Dub Sex that we felt an affinity with, at the same level as us, getting nowhere really. Were you playing lots of shows at the time? Linda: We seemed to gig quite regularly in 1987 flitting from city to city. We played some quite interesting gigs alongside well known indie bands at the time.
Were you from musical families? Linda: My mother’s family were musical my Aunt sang professionally for 30 years and appeared on TV. Nick: My maternal granddad had a great voice and I was told he was a great pianist in the pub, but not so much really. What were you like as teenagers? Linda: I was a chatterbox; Nick was precocious the rest of the band were quiet types. First gig? First record you bought with your own money? Linda: I went to see Blancmange with my best friend at Manchester Apollo. I bought “Man With the Child in His Eyes” by Kate Bush. Nick: Toyah at 13 with my mum; “Mickey” Toni Basil. Why was the original LP never released? Nick: There never was an LP. We just had a lot of recordings, actually enough for a double LP. In ’87 we really got the recording bug and it was relatively cheap to record in studios that were appearing in Manchester. We recorded a few longform pieces (as I’d guess they’d be called today) we could only fit one on a single LP. Linda: We seemed to whip through 1987 like a whirlwind and never endeavoured to find a label or promoter at the time.
Did John Peel ever give it attention? Linda: I don’t think we sent him any recordings? But if we did maybe he just had too many to listen to. How did it end up coming out on Third Man? Linda: Originally Ian Masters and Nick fancied releasing it from old cassette copies, but Third Man got to hear it and wanted to sign us. So we all jumped on board. What role did Ian Masters and Warren Defever play in getting the record out? Linda: Originally Ian Masters did a cover of our song “Carol in Your Eyes.” He asked me to pen out the lyrics from an old cassette copy. Then Ian and Nick wanted to release all our best recordings. So through Warren and Third Man our old cassette recordings got cleaned up remastered and pressed onto vinyl to our delight (no tape hiss). Nick: We’d met Ian Masters at one of our gigs in ’87 and, as I did the sorting out bit of the band, he befriended me. Magic Roundabout were booked to headline Pale Saints’ first gig in Leeds in 88 by Ian, but we spit up before that could happen. We stayed in touch and became good friends. We (me and Ian) released stuff as PinkEyeSore in the 2000s, recording by post. ¶ More recently Ian encouraged us to do something with our old recordings. Which we obviously did. What other bands were you guys in? are you in now? Linda: I have been in many bands as well as playing solo and duo over the years. Some covers bands and some original. At the moment I gig as solo, duo/band, playing original/covers.
What are you up to these days? Jobs, pets, kids? Linda: I teach guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards, ukulele and percussion as well as running regular music nights, I do mainly covers gigs. I’ve played most genres. I have one son. No pets as I’m too busy to devote my time to one at the moment. What are you watching, reading, listening to? Linda: I like watching documentaries on music, art and sciences. I don’t watch any terrestrial TV. I like European cinema. I support local writers of prose and poetry. I like reading books on health, diet and psychology. I like a variety of musical styles, most stuff apart from death metal and really dull current pop music. What are Thee Objects up to these days? Linda: I’ve worked with Nick over the years and written and recorded with him. The current lineup doesn’t include me at the moment due to other musical commitments but we are hoping to get to together pretty soon to collaborate once again. Nick: That feels like a whole other story. Recording with Nikki Barr of ’80s UK band Bubblegum Splash! and with Ollie from Evans The Death this year hopefully. Maybe some more 3 Eyed Monkey. ¶ We are looking to release a tape/LP of a couple of Magic Roundabout tracks from ’88, “She’s a Waterfall 2” and “Buildings of Sunshine” and remix/reimaging of MR songs by some pals this year as well, plus part 2 of our comic by Simon Beecroft. Lots of other stuff to be honest.
Records Magic Roundabout cannot live without
Linda Larkin Poe, Venom & Faith Jellyfish, Bellybutton John Lennon, Imagine, Melody Gardot, My One And Only Thrill G Love and the Special Sauce, S/T This Mortal Coil, It’ll End In Tears Carpenters, Close To You The Velvet Underground & Nico, S/T David Bowie, Black Star Frank Zappa, Apostrophe
Nick Echo & the Bunnymen, Porcupine The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat Broadcast, Tender Buttons Pefkin, Celestial Lights Severed Heads, Clifford Darling, Please Don’t Live in the Past Leonard Cohen, Songs of Love & Hate The Seeds, “Mr Farmer” Miaow, “Fate” Silver Apples, “Program” Poison Girls, “Persons Unknown”
welcome to our new series on record sellers! first up is: Name: Tracy Wilson Location: Richmond, Virginia Operates: Turntable Report, Courtesy Desk, Record CollectHer Has worked at: Flipside Records (1988-94), Deep Groove in RVA (2010-2016-ish), and has been running Courtesy Desk since Jan. 2021. Bands: Dahlia Seed (1992-’96), Positive No (2012-2020), Outer World
Music lifer Tracy Wilson has been involved in independent music since 1988, starting out as a music-obsessed teenager working at the legendary brick & mortar New Jersey shop Flipside. Many of you know her emo band Dahlia Seed (1992-1996). Then she landed at Caroline Distribution working as a store rep and project manager (1996-2006). When the pandemic hit, Tracy started Turntable Report, a newsletter that does some deep dives to find some of the coolest unheard music out there. As the subscriber base quickly grew, she found her readership was having trouble locating certain titles, so she established the mail order Courtesy Desk. She also does an Insta series called Record CollectHer to correct one massive problem in the music world: the lack of female voices, especially when discussing collecting music. She also does pop-ups in Richmond, Virginia, that offer new records from Courtesy Desk and some used titles, including detailed pricing stickers letting customers know about the record with a description, a RIYL, notes if it might be color vinyl, limited, numbered, or anything else that might help the record find a home. Interview by Mike Turner + Images courtesy Tracy Wilson
This is the first in a new series of interviews with people from independent music retail.
chickfactor: Have you been surprised by the success and growth of Turntable Report? What made you want to launch a newsletter? Tracy Wilson: Absolutely floored. Popular culture carries deep nostalgia and quite honestly, I have heard so much of that music for the bulk of my life, I don’t need to hear these older “classic” records ever again. I’m good—ha! I have had a long-standing obsession with new music and have kept tabs on it for decades—whether I was working in the music industry or not. As our band Positive No was wrapping up in Jan of 2020, I wanted to fill this hole in my life with a new project that meant just as much to me. I had no idea how many people were looking for a newsletter hyper-focused on new, underground music so I released my first report with zero expectations. It went out to fewer than 50 people at first. It has grown to nearly a thousand readers with zero promotion over these past two years and I am so honored to have these subscribers. It gives me hope that there are a lot of people out there who want to discover new voices and open themselves up to new talent. I know there is no shortage of truly remarkable new records out there, so it is really thrilling to be able to share these finds with a community of people who are equally as passionate about taking these paths less traveled. When Covid hit, you and Kenneth were doing lots of Facebook DJ party live streams until they started killing the livestreams due to copyright. Did this help spark the next steps of Turntable Report into Courtesy Desk and then Record CollectHER? What is your goal with Record CollectHER? During the early days of Covid, we had no idea what to do with ourselves. Even though it was only two years ago, it feels like a lifetime ago. The entire world was fumbling through the dark, trying to make sense of things, and find ways to make the days that all blurred together have purpose and meaning. I felt especially desperate to turn my panic into something productive. We went from being very social people who had spent nearly a decade in a busy touring band and spending a lot of time at events centered around art and music. We suddenly found ourselves stripped of all that stimulation and like everyone else, coping with a never-ending parade of never experienced before horrors. Live streaming DJ sets was a way to connect with friends and fellow music fanatics without having to use words we didn’t have yet for what we were all experiencing. The Turntable Report was already happening; however, I now had less distractions to take me away from it. As my discovery of new music grew along with the number of subscribers, I was surprised to learn that this community of readers didn’t just want to read about these records or hear them, they also wanted to own them. Almost as shocking as it was to discover how few media outlets new music fans have to rely upon, was learning that most record shops are not selling these smaller, underground artists either. Courtesy Desk was born out of the necessity to offer readers a place to purchase the music they were reading about. There is power in numbers so rather than just one of us paying to import just one copy of a record which is terribly expensive, if there are 10 of us who all want this record, I can import it in bulk at a much lower cost so not only are we rewarded with the music we want, but at a savings that I get to pass on to my readers who are now also my customers in some cases. I only sell the items I write about so my shop is highly unusual in that sense. ¶ As a woman who has worked at various record stores throughout my life and have also been collecting records since I was a kid, I also know what it feels like to be an outsider in something I have dedicated my life to and am still passionate about. Minorities are often pushed out of these male dominated spaces and in many cases face extreme sexism/toxic masculinity. I created the Instagram account Record CollectHER to highlight and celebrate fellow minority record collectors who deserve to feel respected and cared for. I wanted to steer the conversation away from the flexing of who owns the most records or the rarest, and offer a comfortable place to share their personal stories about what their collection means to them and how it reflects who they are as a person. Record CollectHER is my humble way of bringing us all together and giving this family of music fans a caring home via our mutual love of collecting music.
Did you have a goal to launch Courtesy Desk and then push to open a record booth or physical location? I never dreamed my newsletter would snowball into an online store so for a while I was selling records in the back of a beloved vintage clothing shop in Richmond but a recent rent increase put an end to that. If inflation continues like this, I suspect a lot of labels will not be pressing records in 2023. The overcrowded vinyl making/buying community is being weeded out because of insane costs of everything. While this isn’t exactly the resolve the industry was looking for, I imagine pressing plants will be less backed up as fewer people will be able to afford to run vinyl record labels and move over to other formats. You know what the music industry didn’t need? Another playground for the wealthy. One of the things I really love about record collecting was that it was an affordable way for anyone to own art. I am sad to see this evaporate, but music is such a huge part of being a human being that it will always find a way to carry on. The next generation will decide what that landscape will look like and to me aging gracefully is not only accepting what the future brings, but also learning to appreciate that the world keeps moving forward with or without you. Do you have a goal to open a full record store or store front or have you given it any serious thought? Tracy: It has been scary to think too far off into the future. I am still very much taking things month by month. Like most music industry lifers, I do not have much of a nest egg to expand into a larger business. If I were to dream big, I would want to keep a very curated, highly stylized, tiny shop, and have a larger back room space to house my personal record collection that could double as a private social club that invites DJs from around the world to play records, share stories about the music they play, and offer a space for those who want to learn how to DJ, to do so in a friendly space that is open to all. To be clear though, I am really struggling to make plans for a future that still feels so uncertain. How do you find the stuff you cover in the Turntable Report and stock at Courtesy Desk? Tracy: This is 30-plus years in the making. For decades I have been reading music mags and newspapers, subscribing to record store newsletters, and joining band/label/distro mailing lists. I love talking to shoppers and employees at record stores. In more recent times I follow hundreds of music-related social media pages, belonging to a network of fellow new music fanatics who are always sharing their newest finds. I listen to radio shows from around the world, check out the occasional music podcast, and follow an absurd amount of people via Bandcamp which alone is a seemingly endless supply of inspiration. I try to keep an open mind and keep my ears filled with as much new music as I can nearly all day, every day. My entire life has been dedicated to music so in turn my social circle is also mostly music people. These peers are also a remarkable resource that I am forever learning from. I may not be the world’s best music writer, but people would be hard pressed to find someone more dedicated to finding new music, lifting up new artists, and having a willingness to share it with others. Lastly, I work very hard to ensure I am not reliant on algorithms or people who are paid to pitch records to me. I want the music I share with others to be a pure reflection of my dedication, personal taste, and years of experience from being deeply invested in the DIY music community. People can be strangely competitive about finding the next big thing and like to keep these treasures to themselves. I feel the exact opposite way. This should not be a contest. Human beings are making art, pouring themselves into a craft, and they deserve as many of us putting a spotlight on their music as possible.
What are your thoughts about RSD? Record Store Day started with the best intentions, and I think they believe they continue to do important work to drive customers into record stores. Their problem is that RSD has developed into a complicated beast that desperately needs to be reshaped to give back to the music community that helped realize their vision. I am disappointed that RSD has turned a blind eye to the monster they created IE expensive, non-returnable, insanely limited products that pit small businesses against chain stores, bottleneck supply chains that have been further ravaged during pandemic times, and makes life for struggling independent artists even more difficult because major labels continue to control the market and limited/valuable real estate in these shops. There is an ever-growing laundry list of issues that come along with RSD now. They have morphed into something closer to a mob boss backed by the major label thugs who are helping to turn affordable art for the masses into a cut-throat commodity that is closer to day trading than a celebration of human expression. RSD needs to take the time to listen to their community, hear out the needs of their partners, and make some much needed changes. If the music industry wants to survive and grow, RSD needs to help empower and lift the community that has been there for them since the beginning. Do you find multi-color-vinyl pressings to be a positive or negative to the industry? Ughhhh. I am so completely disinterested in colored vinyl and how it manipulates music fans to focus less on the art and more on obsessive consumerism. The industry has a long history of taking advantage of music fans and catering to big box stores who demand exclusive products. This is not realistic or affordable for most consumers to keep up with nor can independent musicians/labels afford this gross trend that further chokes up already overwhelmed pressing plants.
Do you find it scary to see the big box retailers getting back into stocking vinyl? Having been in the biz long enough, we know what happens when they pull out of it. Seriously, the music industry has the shortest memory in the world and NEVER LEARNS FROM THE PAST. The bubble burst is coming and honestly, I am ready for it. Big box retailers are fair-weather friends who don’t really give a shit about the art at the end of the day. A product is a product is a product to them. I don’t blame them for jumping on the fad to make a quick buck, but the end is near. I am truly scared that the biz seemingly has no idea what the shelf life of their product actually is. Do you think the CD revival has legs and are we getting near peak vinyl? I am so nervous to make any prediction when there are so many wild cards in the universe right now. I am still not convinced that new generations will be as excited to own objects that take up space in a world where living spaces are becoming smaller and more expensive. Records, CDs, tapes, books, and DVDs are admittedly a pain in the ass. They take up a lot of space, are a nightmare to move, and more often than not, do not increase in value. In no normal world do collecting any of things makes sense in a digital world. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled it is still happening, but ultimately, even though I am a collector myself, I care about the art and the people who bring that art to life more. I want music to be affordable yet also allow these makers to survive off of their talents. The whole industry needs to be burned down to the ground and reimagined to be more eco-friendly, artist forward, and welcoming to all kinds of people.
There are so many ways to find records these days: mom & pop shops, box stores, niche curated online shops like yours, mail-orders, direct from bands/labels. Even bigger music sites like Relix and Brooklyn Vegan are selling music now. Do you feel like it’s starting to become over-extended? With this saturation of places to get records, where do you think the taste-maker like yourself fits into the puzzle? Is this over-extended or more niche driven to meet the needs of a customer base that is more diverse than ever? Will it last? No. I hope I live long enough to see how younger generations transform the industry that us old timers beat to death/ recycle the same ideas decade after decade. A reckoning is coming, and it will include a spectrum of voices the industry stupidly left out of the conversation for half a century. Bring on the new and different. I am part of the dumb old guard. I am self-aware enough to know my days in the business are numbered and I am okay with just being a fan again because ultimately, that is who I am to my core. What is next for Courtesy Desk/RecordCollectHer/Turntable Report? I think a great deal about my age and where/if I still belong in a community that has been my second family for my entire adult life. I do not want to overstay my welcome. Aging out of the community that has been my literal everything for decades is really hard. I think music has allowed many of us Gen Xers to live a Peter Pan lifestyle and figuring out what aging gracefully means to me is a constant internal dialogue. A serious case of Covid early on in 2020 stole my lung power so I have already been forced to reconcile the fact that I am not the person I once was. Singing is much more of a struggle for me now, another thing that has been a huge part of who I am for most of my life. Making music is so important to me, my sanity, and it has also been at the heart of my relationship with my husband. We have been making music together for over a decade and while some couples have children, we make records together. I am currently working very hard to take care of myself after a very hard two years of health issues so I can continue to do the things I love: make music, support the music I believe in, write (poetry/memoir in the works), DJ, and travel. My biggest dream at the moment is to feel good first and see what happens from there. I think as the fog of the pandemic lifts, a large number of us will be making some major life changes. We have all been through a really scary, difficult time. For those of us who are lucky enough to still be here, I think many of us might be feeling better equipped to face the unknown and take some bold chances while we can.
What do you think needs to happen more than anything else right now within the music industry? I cannot stress enough how ready I am for a total industry do-over. I want less old, white men running the show in basically all aspects of the planet. With your extensive life within this mess we call indie-rock and so on what advice would you give bands / labels / stores? I wish I had more confidence through my twenties and thirties to trust myself and my instincts. In the end I let my imposter syndrome get the best of me and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I would beg those who are creative makers and doers to listen to their own voices and ignore the static around them. Don’t be scared to fail because this is how we all learn some of the most important lessons and get better/ become better people. Life goes by so fucking fast and regret is the heaviest weight a person can carry.
Your honesty about getting out of the way is refreshing and I’ve been thinking and feeling that same way myself a bit before the pandemic. I have made some big changes and see my place as more of an information desk for people left out or to use my connections to bring some of the next generation up. To me that kinda feels like what you are doing with all of your projects as well. So instead of looking at it as a way to age out gracefully, could you see how your wealth of knowledge and true DIY spirit could be a resource and inspiration for a lot of folks coming up that haven’t made those connections yet? There are a bounty of wildly talented people making music and releasing records right now. I see many of these creatives struggling to find their way and falling into the traps of an industry that likes to take advantage of them at their most vulnerable; vulnerable being that in many cases they are young, naive, and inexperienced. I may not end up in an above the board official music industry position, however as a caring human being, I want to help these people the best I can. The industry is like a hungry vampire always looking for fresh blood. As someone who genuinely wants nothing for these people other than success and happiness, I am dedicated to giving them honest insight and connecting them with the people I know can be trusted. My opinions are not clouded by financial ties to a band or label’s decisions, so when I offer insight to those who come to me, my answers come from a pure place and one based on decades of experience. I don’t have kids, but I am ready to mom tough love anyone in music who might need it. Money and power are of zero interest to me. I want to help nurture these people and their art in a safe and caring way. What are you up to this summer? Our pandemic home recording project Outer World is going to Kansas to record an EP at the relatively new recording studio owned and run by Caulfield from Sweeping Promises. It all came together rather quickly when their European tour was canceled, and they suddenly had some time available. I have been working on strengthening my lungs after two years of long Covid and I honestly wasn’t sure I would ever make another record again. At this point I think my insecurities and nerves after such a rough two years with my voice are my biggest hurdle to overcome, but I can’t imagine a better place or group of people to dive back into the deep end with. I don’t think any of us will ever say we feel like our old selves again, but making music again brings me at least one step closer. CF
Mike Turner is a music industry lifer who founded and runs HHBTM Records and Crashing Through Publicity. Mike also writes for Maggot Brain and God is in the TV, has hosted the Athens Popfest (2004-2018) and worked in independent music retail for decades with time spent in mail-order, corporate stores, and mom & pop brick & mortar.
When I think of royal families, I think of the queens of pop Debsey Wykes, Sarah Cracknell and their partners, Paul and Martin Kelly (from East Village, Heavenly Recordings, Heavenly Films, Birdie). In addition to making excellent music in Birdie and East Village, Paul Kelly has been the ultimate branding wizard (who would probably cringe at the word branding) for Saint Etienne, photographer, graphic designer, pub mate and collaborator on such films as Take Three Girls,Finisterre (with Kieran Evans), What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005), This Is Tomorrow (2007), Lawrence of Belgravia (2011), and How We Used To Live (2013). We interviewed him about music, film, photography, flying, London and all kinds of other stuff. Interview by Gail O’Hara * Images courtesy Paul Kelly
Chickfactor: Let’s talk about Princes Risborough. Is that where you grew up? What was it like? Paul Kelly: Princes Risborough is a very small old fashioned market town that sits midway between High Wycombe and Aylesbury about 40 miles west of London. In the late seventies this was a good place to live if you were into music. Due to its close proximity to London a lot of well known bands would use the local venues as warm up shows or add-ons to national tours. Aylesbury had a venue called Friars which, in the late ’60s and early seventies had hosted groups including the Velvet Underground, MC5, Can, Mott the Hoople and Bowie and in the wake of punk was now putting on The Jam, The Clash and Dexys etc. High Wycombe had The Town Hall, The Nags Head and Bucks College where the Sex Pistols played one of their early shows. From our village just outside Princes Risborough, we could get the bus or train into Wycombe or a lift in my sister’s car to Friars. Between these venues we had at least 4 gigs a week and my sisters could usually blag us into most of them, it was a really exciting time. Punk was a big deal in Wycombe and the big local band were called the Xtraverts. They would play Wycombe Town Hall (about 800 people) on a regular basis and reportedly turned down the chance to sign a major record deal. Although there was a healthy music scene in the area, it never really created any bands that would go on to make it outside the area. By the time we managed to get our band together the musical landscape was very different and High Wycombe had fallen off the map tour wise. I think there had been some trouble at an Adam and the Ants gig at the Town Hall which had led to a ban on live music there and the Nags Head had become more of a blues venue. Anyway, by the mid ’80s we weren’t really interested in hanging around any more, we wanted to be in London. We did a few local gigs there but no one was really interested in us and the place felt out of touch as far as we were concerned. I remember going along to see Pere Ubu in ’78 or ’79 at the Town Hall and there were only about 20 people in the audience, it was a Sunday and there was heavy snow blocking the roads. Even so, I had never seen the hall so empty. Pere Ubu were all over the music papers at the time but High Wycombe clearly wasn’t interested. It was odd like that, strange place.
Was your family musical or creative? How many siblings were/are you? I have four siblings, three sisters and a brother (Martin) and we were all encouraged to draw and be creative, art was important in our family. I think our parents realised early on that none of us were particularly academic. My father had been a fine art student with a dream of becoming a painter, but that would have been the early 1950s and after leaving art school he was called up for National Service where he ended up becoming a pilot flying jet fighters. He loved flying but hated military life and as soon as his air force career ended and he became a civilian again, he kind of rebelled. He began wearing frilly purple shirts with orange corduroy flares and cowboy boots. This was by now the late sixties and I guess he knew he’d missed a massive cultural revolution and wanted to catch up. He painted the walls of our house orange and covered them with giant collages using pictures from Sunday supplements. Much to our embarrassment he also put up a massive landscape poster of a naked hippy chick covered only in psychedelic body paint on the wall above his and our mum’s bed. He did take up portrait painting for a while after leaving the Royal Air Force but couldn’t make a decent living from it and soon returned to flying. We all left school able to draw reasonably well but with terrible exam grades. Two of my sisters went on to art college and the eldest, Celeste, is still a painter today. I was into aeroplanes as a kid and really wanted to become a pilot. I did learn to fly and even went on to get a pilots licence but my interest in guitars and music eventually took precedence.
What was Martin like as a kid/teen? Stories please. Martin is three years younger than me and I suppose he looked up to me when we were children. Our dad was away a lot and being the only boys in a predominantly female household meant that we hung out together quite a lot. We would often play war games and Martin would usually take on the role of the German soldier, this was his choice as he preferred the uniform but also meant that my friends and I could justify his mistreatment. We had some large upturned shipping crates in our back garden and one day, my friend and I decided to turn these into a German tank. Having stacked the smaller crate on top to form a turret we stuffed the bottom one with crunched up balls of newspaper. My friend Mark and I then persuaded Martin to crawl inside telling him that he could be the tank commander facing an attack by the British, whereupon we threw in a match and set the whole thing on fire. Luckily my mother saw the billowing smoke and came out to see what was going on. ¶ On his first day at the middle school which I had already been attending for a couple of years, he came running up to me in the hall to say hello. I was with my friends and trying to remain cool pretended not to know him. Although we were very close at home, I treated him more like a pest when I was with my friends. He always wanted to join in and in retrospect I think I was probably quite cruel to him.
What were you like as teenagers? We were quite small and skinny as teenagers and would often get into fights with other kids. This was probably because we looked like an easy target and so people would take us on, but having had a lot of practice fighting each other, we were quite used to scrapping and I think it took people by surprise when we fought back. High Wycombe could be quite rough on a Saturday night and you really needed your wits about you in those days. There was a strong skinhead presence in the town that has been somewhat glamourised by Gavin Watson in his ’Skins’ photography books. Many of the people we came across however were just racist thugs and I remember Martin being lured out of a pub and getting a severe kicking by about 20 skinheads for no reason at all. I’ve still got a scar on my face after having a beer glass thrown at me by one of their gang. I think that threat of violence and small town mentality is something that helped push us away and towards London. By the ’80s we became more obsessed with all things ’60s and although there was also a strong Mod scene in the town we were more on a psyche mid ’60s tip.
Tell us about the early days of Episode Four/East Village. What kind of band were you wanting to be like? Listening to? In the early 1980s Martin and I used to come into London most weekends to check out the music shops in Denmark Street. We couldn’t afford to buy any guitars but would spend hours studying them. We would also pop along to the secondhand record shops in Hanway Street—again mainly just window shopping. Although we weren’t mods, we must have looked like we were and one of the people who we used to chat to in Hanway Street was Shane McGowan. He had a cockney accent in those days and was always suggesting records he thought we might like. He got us into The Pretty Things, The Action, The (British) Birds and groups like that. So when we started our band, we were mainly playing ‘60s garage and psych covers. We would play obscure songs and pretend they were our own. We had three tracks from The Eyes EP in our set for a while and would tell everyone that we had written them. One day when we were hanging out in Shane’s shop Rock On, he asked if we wanted to come along and watch his new band that night. It meant hanging around all day without any money and so we wandered around until evening before heading along to Gossips in Meard Street to witness what turned out to be one of the first Pogues gigs. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all and I don’t think we thought much of them to be honest. We did however meet Alan McGee that night and I bought a copy of his fanzine CommunicationBlur for 50p. He said “it’s got lots of Rickenbacker guitars in it so you’ll love it!” He also asked us to send a demo of our band as he had a new label that he had started called Creation but unfortunately we never did. Funnily enough—despite it being a fairly empty gig—I’ve later come to know several people who were also there that night including Debsey who was at the time going out with the accordion player from the Pogue Mahone.
What was the total lifespan of the band? Where were you playing shows? Who with? Any John Peel or other interest? We began as Episode Four in 1983 and after a few personnel changes became East Village by 1986 or ’87 eventually splitting up in 1991. Apart from a handful of local gigs in High Wycombe, our early shows as Episode Four were at places like the Clarendon in Hammersmith. We were on the fringes of the garage scene at first along with groups like the Milkshakes and Prisoners playing with mod bands like Small World. It was only when we met Jeff Barrett and signed to Head Records which then became Sub Aqua that we really started to become a part of that mid ’80s indie scene. We had already been playing with bands like McCarthy and the Wolfhounds and would follow bands like Primal Scream and Orange Juice before that but Jeff was really at the heart of that scene and opened a lot of doors for us. He had been tour manager for the Jesus and Mary Chain and worked at Creation. He had also become the promoter of Subterania which was a key venue in west London along with The Black Horse in Camden and then The Falcon where we played a lot. We toured a fair bit with McCarthy and the House of Love and picked up a bit of a following of our own. When Jeff started Heavenly in 1990 we found ourselves on the hippest label in London with Saint Etienne, Flowered Up and the Manic Street Preachers. Although we were beginning to sell records and play bigger shows, those bands were NME cover stars and were actually getting on TV and had records in the charts so it felt like we were falling behind. Our last gig was at the New Cross Venue in south London, It was probably our biggest headline to date, and from the outside things were looking up but it felt like we were losing ground to everyone else and when we walked off stage, we just looked at each other and said ‘fuck this, let’s quit’. It was a bit of a relief to be honest. We were doing the Big Star, Byrds type thing at a time everyone was tripping out to Screamadelica and so we felt very out of step. Things might have been okay if we’d kept going as things swung back to that West Coast influence with groups like Teenage Fanclub becoming popular a couple of years later.
East Village was very un-’80s. Was that intentional? At the time, I felt the ’80s was the worst decade I could have possibly grown up in. That’s obviously not true as we weren’t at war or living through a thirties style depression but it really seemed like everything good had already happened. We had been so obsessed with the sixties and punk had been and gone so everything felt flat. We just didn’t want anything to do with what was going on in the charts and lived in our own little bubble. We would reject anything mainstream or popular which looking back was stupid. When the Stone Roses came along they embraced success and being in the spotlight which is what gave them that great sense of confidence. It made the indie scene feel introspective and defeatist. I find the ‘80s fascinating looking back, I wish I had just embraced being young a lot more than I did. When the ’90s came along things instantly seemed to pick up, we were open to different types of music including dance music and all our friends started having hit records, it just felt so exciting.
You ended up meeting Bob when he saw you play. In what capacity did you play music with Saint Etienne? Is that when you met Debsey? It was at one of our gigs with McCarthy at Portlands in central London that we met Bob. I think he had gone along to review the gig for Melody Maker or something and only caught us by chance. He came over after we had played and asked if we would like to do a flexi single for his fanzine. We arranged to meet him a few days later and have been friends ever since. A few years later we were on a tube train together heading back from a night out when he said, ‘Do you want to hear this song Pete and I have just recorded?’ Although he had an electric guitar in his flat, I had never seen him pick it up and had no idea he had any interest in making music, so it was a complete surprise. I listened on his walkman to ‘Kiss and Make Up’ and couldn’t believe how good it was. We had been plugging away with our band for years and then he and Pete had struck gold at their first attempt! I can’t remember if ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart’ was on the same tape but I’m pretty sure I heard ‘Kiss and Make Up’ first. The early Saint Etienne gigs were basically PAs where they would play about four songs to tape with a different singer for each song. They were quite awkward and I think they must have realised that they needed to settle on one singer. East Village played a couple of gigs with Saint Etienne when they had Stephanie singing. We all travelled together in a mini bus to Paris for a Heavenly Records showcase in 1991 and someone stuck on a tape of ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, I hadn’t heard the song before and I said ‘Wow, Steph, that’s amazing!’ she explained sheepishly that it wasn’t her singing and that was the first time I became aware of Sarah. I felt very sorry for Steph as it was clear her days in the band were numbered but I think getting Sarah in was key to the band’s success. When we arrived in Paris, the first thing we all did was drop off our bags at the hotel and hit the town. I remember knocking on the door of the Manics room on the way out and when I walked in they were all lying in their bunks reading Rimbaud and Nietzsche. They had never been abroad before, but I imagine they felt it would be far too crass to go out and get smashed, they were really sweet guys and we got on well but they had a manifesto to uphold. I think James would have secretly liked to have come along with us though. ¶ By the time I was drafted into the live Saint Etienne set up in 1992 Sarah was already established as the lead singer and the band had two albums out. They were looking to expand the live band and as East Village had by then split up, they asked Spencer (East Village drummer) and me to join. Debsey joined the live set up in December ’92 just in time for a Christmas gig in Victoria. Bob and Pete had been fans of Dolly Mixture and tracked her down to record a single for their own label IceRink. The single was to be a cover of the Candlewick Green song ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ but having recorded it with Debsey they realised it could be a hit and re-recorded it as a duet with Sarah and so it came out as a Saint Etienne single instead – and that’s how I first met Debsey, at a Saint Etienne rehearsal in Leighton Place, Kentish Town. When the band stopped touring at the end of 1994 we got together formed our own band Birdie.
Speaking of Debsey, what’s it like being married to one of the best singers on Earth? We haven’t actually got married yet although we’ve been together for nearly thirty years and our kids have grown up, one has even left home. We keep meaning to get around to it though and I’ll definitely let you know when we do so that you can book your flight.
Also: Will the Dolly Mixture film ever be available widely for all to see? I know I say this every year but I really want to get it out early next year. The hold-up has been obtaining clearances for BBC footage as well as for some of the photographs. We just don’t have any kind of budget so it’s been really slow progress but I’m going to make it happen for sure. We are also planning a photo scrapbook and several record re-issues so there should be quite a lot going on over the next few months.
Tell us a bit about how you got rolling into being the house videographer, photographer, filmmaker and designer for Saint Etienne? (Have I got that right?) By 1993 Saint Etienne had done a couple of big budget promo videos in the US and Japan with large film crews—teams of runners and makeup artists etc, and just wanted to get back to doing something simple again. I was having a drink with Bob one evening and he said, ‘Hey Paul, you’ve got a Super 8 camera, will you make a video for us?” The song they had lined up as the next single was ‘Avenue’ and so of course I jumped at it. I’d helped out making a couple of the East Village videos which we had shot on Super 8 and so I knew a bit about making promos but it was through Sarah that I met an editor called Mikey Tomkins who she suggested I ask to help me out. We ended up doing a few more videos together although every time the budget was half decent, Creation would get in a professional, I always did the cheap ones! Mikey actually went on to work quite a lot with Stereolab and was quite into the UK riot grrrl scene. ¶ Bob and I used to joke that you could probably make a feature length film with the amount of money being ploughed into some videos at that time and eventually that’s exactly what we did. We all met at Pete’s flat in Islington one day and watched Patrick Kieller’s film ‘London’. Bob said ‘Look, we’ve got a new album coming out and the label want three videos, why don’t we just take the money from all three and make a film with the album as the soundtrack’ That was how Finisterre came about. ¶ When East Village split up I had begun to get back into photography and would do the odd session for bands that I knew. I always had a camera with me in those days and most of the photo shoots I did with Saint Etienne would be impromptu. Once we were midway through a European tour in 1994 and Martin (who was by then managing the band) called one morning from England saying we need some new pictures can you do a quick session with the band while you’re in Switzerland? It was an early start after having played a gig the night before and we all had awful hangovers. I shot a few pictures and then got on the bus to the next show. I sent the film reel back to the UK and didn’t think any more about it until about a month later one of the images turned up on a US single sleeve, Sarah looked great but Bob and Pete looked a bit knackered. That was often how my sessions would come about, very last minute and no makeup budget. ¶ After I finished playing with Saint Etienne, I started a small design and photography business called Phantom with Steve Rowland who had been one of the merchandise guys on the Etienne tours. I had already done a fair bit of paste up design and artwork but he taught me how to use Apple Mac computers and so I began doing a bit of graphic design alongside the film and photography work. I learnt how to edit by watching Mikey.
What are some experiences you had touring / working with them? Inside dirt? They’ve been a band now for 30+ years: What is their secret of longevity? Touring with Saint Etienne was absolutely fantastic, it was great fun and quite hedonistic. I think people who encountered us were often quite shocked. I feel sorry for anyone who had to share a flight with us back then. At its peak the touring party consisted of about 16 people and we would all be smoking and drinking and causing all sorts of mayhem, it was more like a rock band on tour and probably didn’t fit people’s pre-conceived image of Saint Etienne. I think things reached a tipping point towards the end of 1994 which is probably why the band took a break and sacked most of the backing band and crew. We were playing Hultsfred Festival in Sweden and all of the acts were being transported by shuttle bus from the hotel to the festival site. There were several bands sharing the bus on the outward journey to the festival site, including Keith Flint and the Prodigy who specifically requested not to be put in the same bus with us on the way back. On the return trip Spencer and a couple of the crew decided to climb up through a skylight at the back of the bus, crawl along the roof and back down through the front skylight. This was while the bus was travelling at about 60mph along a motorway at night. News of their antics spread and it became a talking point back at the hotel. Oasis who were also on the bill, appropriated the story which made the national newspapers back in the UK complete with an artists impression of Liam bus surfing. Everyone generally got on really well and Pete was absolutely hilarious. During gigs he would often give up any attempt to play his keyboard about three songs in and start dancing around the stage. For a while we had a life-size cardboard cutout of Jamiroquai that would be placed at the side of the stage. We were convinced he’d stolen our Melodica from the practice rooms we shared back in London. Pete would generally end up dancing around with this thing until the last night of the tour when he just started kicking it to pieces. Soon afterwards we saw a picture of Björk (who had also shared the same rehearsal rooms) in the NME playing what looked very much like our missing Melodica! I think the fact that Saint Etienne have never had massive success has allowed them to make exactly the kind of records they want to make. This means they are always fresh and not afraid to experiment. If they had had really big hits at the start it could have been a very different story. They came along just ahead of the Britpop thing and were able to sit outside of that whole scene which means they’re not stuck with that label either.
The films you’ve made together with them reflect a deep love of London and they show a desire to endlessly document the city as well. What year did you move to London and how has it changed since then, for better and worse? I guess we were drawn together in part by having a similar aesthetic which had come out of growing up watching the same films and television programmes as each other. We shared a lot of reference points and would spend hours discussing things from our childhood and how it would be great to recreate aspects of the things we love. We also watched a lot of films and old recordings of TV shows on the tour bus and so we got to discover things together. ¶ I had first moved to London in 1980 with my eldest sister. We shared a flat together in Wood Green and signed on the dole. I think she was trying to get into Camberwell art college or something as we spent a lot of time down there in the Student Union bar. She was friends with the actor Tim Roth who was just starting out on his career. No one had any money but we seemed to be there a lot. The first time I went to the Job Centre in London, I was asked what my interests were and when I said art and music they said, ‘Ah, we have a job available as trainee record sleeve designer.’ I went for the interview and got a job with a company called Hills-Archer as a trainee graphic designer working on record sleeves, this was in the days when there was really high unemployment in England and jobs like this were impossible to find, it was such a stroke of luck. We eventually had to move out of the flat and I stupidly gave up the job and went back on the dole. I moved back to London again in 1984 with my girlfriend at the time, she was at North London Polytechnic and we lived in a variety of horrible little studio flats. London seemed really expensive back then but at least you could get somewhere to live even if it was a squat, I don’t know how anyone could afford to move here now without rich parents. I think London was far more accessible then, it was a thing young people could do, even if they were on the dole as most bands or anyone looking for some kind of alternative life usually were.
If you were in charge of your country’s political power right now, what would you do immediately? House prices in this country are ridiculous, which in turn creates unaffordable rents. I think it’s the single biggest issue as it effects every other aspect of life in the UK. ¶ I would impose rent caps, heavily tax second homes and introduce basic universal income. I would also make MPs personally accountable and liable for their actions and lies. ¶ The Royal Family should be abolished and their estate—about 1.5% of land in Britain given back to the country. The only argument anyone seems to put forward to justify their existence is based around tourism! I’m sure far more people come to Britain because of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols.
I was lucky to live in London during what seemed like a golden age of Paul Kelly and Saint Etienne events—fun stuff at the Barbican and your residency at the South Bank. Is there a sense now that the city will return to in-person events post-pandemic? Are we post-pandemic? We aren’t in this country. I imagine the pandemic has only just reached some places and so its effect will probably go on for years. Things do seem to be returning to some kind of normality here in London at least, people are desperate to go out again and see eachother. ¶ I do think the nineties and early 2000s felt very optimistic in the UK, especially in London. It definitely changed after the financial crash in 2008 and I remember going for a drink with a friend just before Christmas in 2011 and we were reflecting on what felt like a really depressing year. We didn’t realise then the horror that lay ahead with Brexit, Trump and Covid. Years of Tory austerity and division has left this country paranoid and vulnerable. It’s really sad to say but I think you did see a real golden period while you were here and that has pretty well disappeared. I really hope it does pick up but while we have such a powerful right wing press and people are being brainwashed and keep voting Conservative I can’t see things changing very soon.
You mentioned in an interview in 2014 that you no longer were able to photograph London with fresh eyes: Do you still take your camera out these days? Or is it more just occasional smartphone camera use? Was just thinking about this earlier today. I find it really difficult to photograph anything these days. Everyone is documenting every aspect of their lives these days. It’s difficult to trust anything you see. ¶ Yes, I don’t really know why that is. Maybe it’s just the volume of images being created now. We are bombarded with film and photography these days and it’s difficult to be enthused or believe what you are looking at sometimes. I used to shoot every day but now I rarely ever take a picture. Like most people these days I tend to use my phone. I do film stuff for work but not really for myself anymore which is a shame as I used to get so much out of it. I hope it’s not just because I’m getting older. I do love scanning old negatives and finding stuff that way but it’s not really creating anything new. My son has just started at a sixth form film school and I think young people have a very different relationship with photography. They have grown up with CGI and photoshop and I don’t think they worry too much about authenticity and maybe that’s good thing. Often, when I visit another city or somewhere I haven’t been before I get that sense of awe and I’m sure it is easier to be inspired by somewhere you are not familiar with. I do still love London and I don’t think you can ever really see enough of the place.
What are some of your favorite books and films and songs about London? Well, I have to include our mutual friends Travis Elborough and Sukhdev Sandhu here who have both written some wonderful books about London that have shaped the way I view the city myself. ¶ One book which is not strictly about London but urban life is Soft City written in 1974 by Jonathan Raban. It still feels incredibly relevant and reminds you that the experience of living in a city is a universal experience. Travis told me once that he re reads it every time he starts a new book. Nairn’s London is essential along with Soho Night & Day by Frank Norman and Jeffrey Bernard. ¶ Musically the Beatles represent London more than anyone else to me. I know a lot of people will disagree but all of their records are recorded here and most of the record sleeves are shot in London. ¶ Rubber Soul sounds like London to me. Also the Kinks of course.
What is missing from London now that you feel it used to have? Most of the pubs seem to have been turned into wine bars or restaurants. ¶ It feels like the very people we would go into pubs to avoid in the 1980s now run them.
What are your favorite parks, pubs, public spaces? Favorite place to get takeaway? I’m practically a vegan now and I’m not really bothered about eating out or restaurants to be honest, although Debsey and I do occasionally go along to Indian Veg on Chapel Market which is still hanging on here in Islington (mainly because it’s cheap but the food is good). Our local pub is the Betsey Trotwood which is run by our great friend Raz. We actually played there as Birdie on a Track and Field night before Raz became the landlord and Patrick who now plays in Birdie is the bar manager. It’s a wonderful pub and something of a cultural hotspot for London as a whole. When Debsey and I were first together we spent a lot of time hanging around the South Bank, including the BFI, National Theatre and especially the Royal Festival Hall, not always for concerts but just to hang out in the foyer. It used to be quite empty during the day and had a wonderful gentle atmosphere, it’s much busier these days as the South Bank has opened up with the Tate Modern etc and we don’t get down there so much anymore. Those large free empty public spaces can be very special though.
Nerd alert: What camera(s) do you have and what films do you prefer? Who are some photographers you most admire? For film work it’s pretty well all digital now and I have a Sony A7s. Unless I’m working on a decent budget I’ll just use that. I haven’t upgraded that camera for ages and I’m not really sure what people are using these days. If I’m taking still pictures for a job, people tend to expect a really fast turnaround and there is no budget for film and processing these days so I just use an old Canon 5D, very basic but does the job. However, I still have a Nikon FE2 and a Pentax K1000 which is my favourite as it’s so easy to use and small. I still shoot Super 8 and have a couple of Braun Nizo cameras, but that’s as expensive as shooting on 16mm these days so I might try going back to that. One of my favourite photographers of all time is Fred Herzog. I love his beautiful colour street photography taken in Canada in the ’50s and ‘60s, amazing! I used to shoot a lot on Ektachrome colour slide film because I thought that had a similar look. Didn’t they stop making Ektachrome for a while, or did they change it somehow?
How did you get started in filmmaking? Seems like you’ve been involved with it from all angles (director, cinematographer, editor, producer, camera operator). Which parts of the process interest you the most? My dad was a keen photographer. He also shot a lot of 8mm movie film which fascinated me. I think my mum must have sensed my interest because she bought me a Kodak Super 8 camera when I was about 10 or something. As well as filming aeroplanes all the time I used to make action films with Martin as the stunt man, I still have a few and they are quite funny. I would edit in camera which meant everything had to be captured in the first take. There was a Children’s TV show in the UK called ‘Screen Test’ and they had a feature on film editing which inspired me to get a splicer and start chopping up my films. My middle sister Frances and I clubbed together to buy a Pentax 35mm camera in about 1979 and that was a revolution. I’m not sure why but we decided to buy black and white Ilford film and suddenly everything looked really professional. It’s funny she would shoot half of the film taking pictures of horses and other animals and I would shoot the other half, talking pictures of derelict cars and aeroplanes. I eventually bought my sister’s share in the camera for about £20 and became more serious about it. I was in a band by this time though and it wasn’t until we split up that I began to get work taking pictures and eventually making videos. I really wish I’d taken it along to gigs more. At the time I just wanted to enjoy the shows and the camera got in the way, also the film was really expensive.
How involved are you with Heavenly Films? Heavenly Films is basically my brother Martin, Travis Elborough and me. One project we are currently trying to finish is a film about Soho which we’ve been working on together for a couple of years but have had to take a break from during Covid. We also ran a monthly film club at Regent Street Cinema opposite BBC Broadcasting House which was great fun and very successful. We would always invite a guest speaker to talk with Travis after the screening and we had some great guests including the legendary masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki and Peter Blake among many others. That also took a break due to Covid but we should have it up and running again before too long.
You also made a film about Lawrence (from Felt): I remember attending a screening at the Curzon and he was supposed to turn up but he didn’t. Tell us about making that film: was it difficult to pin him down to get things shot? Please tell us some funny stories about Lawrence. Is he still making music? Are you friends? I think that was the only scheduled Q&A screening Lawrence didn’t turn up for. I later found out that he had seen the cinema programme in advance and thought that the price of a ticket for the screening and Q&A was £18.30 (about $23). He thought that was extortionate and didn’t want to face any of his fans who might be there as he felt they’d been ripped off by the cinema. The 18.30 in the programme actually referred to the time of the event though which was 6.30pm. I was annoyed at the time as I had to do the Q&A alone in front of a room who had almost all come along to hear Lawrence speak, but when I found out the reason I just thought it was really funny, classic Lawrence. I was actually with Lawrence yesterday, the British Film Institute have just released a Blu Ray edition of the film and we were doing some press together. He has quite a few projects on at the moment and is on great form. I get the feeling he only really tends to get in touch with me if he wants something or needs help but maybe we are all a bit like that really and he’s always good fun to hang out with.
What kind of impact has parenthood had on your creative process? What are the kids like? Do they like your music? Are they musical or photography buffs? Debsey and I had our first child just around the time we started making records as Birdie. It was quite a struggle juggling the band with childcare, especially for Debsey. I think Sadie our daughter saw the guitar as competition and would inevitably start crying as soon as either of us picked it up. Debs would have to hide away in another room to write on the piano whenever Sadie was asleep. It was really rare for us to be able to sit together and play as we had done when we first started. When recording we would take it in turns wheeling Sadie around in the pushchair through the streets of Walthamstow while the other person would work. She is now 25 and I don’t think she has ever actually listened willingly to one of our songs. I think she is quite embarrassed about our own musical endeavours. Occasionally however Debsey will pop up on a rerun of Top Of The Pops singing “Happy Talk” or “Wot” with Captain Sensible which she finds quite amusing. Our son Donovan has just started film school and is gradually accepting a few more of our music and film choices.
What song is stuck in your head? ‘If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’
I read somewhere you are a trained pilot and carpenter. Why? Bloody hell, how did you know that? The carpentry thing came about while I was on the dole. The Tories who were in power at the time came up with a scheme to hide the unemployment figures by pretending that everyone was actually in training. In order to continue receiving benefit you had to take on an apprenticeship. There were about five options, mainly building related and I chose carpentry. I had to juggle playing gigs and rehearsing at night with learning how to make a cut roof and staircase but I did end up with a City and Guilds certificate in carpentry and a free toolbox full of tools so it wasn’t all bad. The flying thing was something I had always loved since I was very small. I guess I wanted to be like my dad and so I started flying when I was 14 and went solo on my 17th birthday, I loved aeroplanes and flying but I couldn’t relate to that culture. There were a lot of people I really liked but the only career option was to join the military or become an airline pilot, neither of which appealed. I had discovered electric guitars and punk at around the same time and the pull was too great. As I get older I do feel drawn back to aeroplanes and I spend much of my spare time visiting old airfields and aircraft museums.
Have you thought about reforming East Village for a few shows? Did you get new fans with the Slumberland reissue? Are you still in touch with the other guys (apart from Martin of course)? Believe me, no one needs to witness an East Village reunion. I must admit I have played with Martin and Spencer fairly recently and it was great fun. It was as though we had never stopped, all very natural and instinctive. Having said that I can’t imagine doing live shows with East Village in front of an audience again. Maybe if there were no mobile phones and it could just exist in the moment I could enjoy it, but the idea that someone might document the event and post it on YouTube would be horrific. John now lives in China and I only see him once every couple of years. I’m not on Facebook but I think Martin and Spence speak with him a fair bit.
Will Birdie play at chickfactor 30? Yes
What films are in the works now? If you had all the time and money in the world, what dream projects would you make? Apart from the Soho film that I mentioned earlier, Martin and I have been working along with Stephen Pastel and Sam Knee of ‘A Scene In Between’ on an archive only project covering the UK ’80s independent music scene. Using archive only it’s a montage of Super 8 home movies, photographs and home video with audio interviews from bands, fanzine writers and journalists etc. who all grew up in that time starting with the Glasgow music scene in the late ’70s and ending up in 1989. ¶ When I was a kid, I had an old magazine with someone building a wooden kayak on the cover, I used to look at that picture for hours. I really like the idea of building a wooden boat in a beautiful old workshop. I’m not really interested in boats but I like the idea of building one.
Any other future plans? A photo book perhaps? Haha that’s what YOU should do, you have an amazing photo archive. ¶ I am thinking of putting together a book of my dad’s paintings and cartoons, just a small run to give to the family and maybe sell a few. They are so beautiful and should be seen by a wider audience. There’s also the Dolly Mixture photography book of course. Thanks, Paul!
for the past 30 years, vocalist-songwriter-trumpeter gary olson has led the brooklyn-based pastoral-pop band the ladybug transistor through seven full-lengths, mostly all released via merge records. he’s also established himself as a go-to engineer, working from his home studio, named marlborough farms, on albums by hamish kilgour, jens lekman, and his very own self-titled solo debut LP, released via tapete records in may 2020. ¶ though billed as a “solo release,” olson was supported by norwegian artists ole and jorn åleskjær (of the band loch ness mouse), and the album was recorded in both brooklyn and hayland, norway. we asked the kind-hearted, soft-spoken singer-songwriter about the trans-atlantic recording experience and how it was to release an album during a pandemic. interview by janice headley
chickfactor: what made you want to release a solo album after decades of being ladybug transistor? I had been thinking about it for a long time, even going back to 2005. and then whenever I’d gather a few songs together, it would just wind up being becoming whatever the next ladybug record was. ¶ I think some of it was just… a clean slate after all this time. also maybe some flexibility as to who I could play with. I haven’t even got to play many live shows, but when I get around to doing it, it could be a duo or a full band or … just not being kind of bound to the strict “band” structure, and just being able to be more flexible with things. cf: so the songs on this new album, how far did they date back or were they written fresh in that 2019 period? we probably started in 2017 or 2018. I got a lot of encouragement from the guys who wound up co-writing all the songs on the whole album, where in 2017 or ’18, they just started sending me scraps of song ideas and we started trading ideas back and forth. and that’s what led to the 7-inch that came out before the record. cf: did you email files back and forth? or is there some website where you can collaborate? I did go over to norway—both the brothers, ole and jorn, they’re old friends of mine from the first time [ladybug] visited, going back to like 1999. we had always talked about doing some projects together. ole, the guitarist, had accompanied me for a little solo tour in norway and sweden and spain, when I wasn’t doing stuff with ladybug. but somehow, we didn’t write that much together. ¶ so we finally got around to doing it, and it was good to get a little bit of a push from them. they’d send me a rough draft—sometimes just a riff of a song or something that’s a little more fully formed—and then I’d start working on it and send it back. then I actually wound up going over to norway to record with the musicians that they put together, probably like four or five times over the process of it. so I did make it over there quite a bit, to work on all the basic tracking and all the things that kind of help to do in person and some arranging. and then from there we were able to send files back and forth to get it done.
cf: how do brooklyn and hayland differ? well, in hayland, there’s no town. It’s maybe 90 minutes outside of oslo and it’s real farming, rural country. the closest supermarket is maybe 15 minutes away and there’s a little village that’s maybe half an hour away. cf: that sounds like where I’m living in michigan. ole and his brother, they’re real country boys. they grew up out there. ¶ the things that are similar, though, is we both have operated our little studios outside of our house, and in his case, out of the barn in his backyard. he manages to get a good sound out there and the barn looks awesome. They’re really easy. It’s a real family vibe when I’m out there. they’re always happy to have me stay for a week or however long it takes. so it’s almost become this nice tradition over the years of going out there and visiting them. when I was there a few summers ago, I stayed at a little cabin in their backyard and you could see the moose walking out of the forest at a certain hour, if you were lucky. cf: that must have been really strange for you when the pandemic hit and then you weren’t doing these trips to norway. yeah, I mean, thankfully, I was able to get over there a lot, and airfare to oslo is amazingly inexpensive. It’s as cheap as flying to california or to the west coast. we did have a lot of plans and we were going to try to tour as much as possible and take whatever opportunity came our way. so yeah, the timing couldn’t have been worse. the record came out in may 2020, and that was pretty much the peak of everything: of COVID, of social unrest, political unrest. it was a hard time to find the space for this little record.
cf: a lot of bands delayed their release dates, but you held fast to 2020. why? my record label is in germany, and they were a bit more optimistic about things. the record was already manufactured, it was already going into distribution, and at that time, I think that no one thought we’d be in the same place nearly two years later. maybe it would just be a few months before everything got back to normal. so, it was a little bit of a gamble. I think the worst part of it is that many shops were closed for so long that it didn’t get into the stores at that crucial time. as far as browsing, I don’t think people really got to see it on the shelves very much. cf: now that restrictions are starting to lift, do you think you’ll eventually do a tour? yeah, I have plans that have been canceled twice already. [laughs] there’s a german tour that was supposed to happen in april that looks like it’s happening in november now, and then there’s some little festivals in norway that are coming in the summer, and I’ll probably do at least a few more shows around that. and I did do a show in new york last summer, in that little window right before delta hit. cf: gosh, that’s right. was it an outdoor venue? no, that was indoors. it was a little hectic. no one really knows how to act when you’re in an indoor setting. to have a beer, you have to pull your mask down for a second. especially at that time when things were really coming back strong. it was hard to get the etiquette down, at a show. cf: totally. [ladybug bassist/violinist/vocalist] julia came and visited me when I was in new york for the yo la tengo hanukkah shows. and it was exactly like that: you’d pull your mask down to drink, and then, the music’s so loud, if you want to talk, you kind of have to get up in each other’s faces. yeah, it’s a strange time for a show. yeah, I’m hoping we turn the corner now because I’d really love to get out there and play again. I only did that one show in new york, so I’m just hoping there’ll be more sometime this spring or summer.
cf: that would be so awesome. so, you came up with this very clever idea during the pandemic to deliver album purchases in the new york area via your bike! can you tell us about this brainstorm and what those bike rides were like? well, I really wanted to get the record distributed in new york because all the stores were closed. so I had the label send me a big box of them, and then got the word out that I’d be willing to deliver anywhere within the five boroughs. I’m not normally much of a long-distance cyclist, but I thought it would be an interesting way to see … I lived in new york my whole life, but I saw so many new streets and parts of neighborhoods that I’d never seen before when I was getting all the way out to queens and into manhattan. and it was also really nice to see people, because at that time, a lot of people were just emerging from isolating for a couple of months. I met a lot of people who hadn’t seen their families and hadn’t really left their neighborhood even. after a couple of months of just more or less doing the same, it was that thaw of seeing people face-to-face and having a short conversation and checking in—sometimes a longer one, I’d sit outside and have a beer with people and it was really nice. I even made a couple of new friends along the way that I still hang out with. cf: oh my goodness, that couldn’t be sweeter. so the new album, it definitely sounds kind of ladybuggy, but it also has maybe more of like a ’70s pop thing going on. and I was wondering, what were your influences in the making of this album? I’m trying to think if there is anything in particular. I’m always bad when I’m put on the spot about influences, but it’s OK. I think it’s more about trying to get a natural sounding production, which has always been something that I go for. so it might sound like the ’70s. maybe that’s where I’m wandering around [laughs]. cf: I can’t remember the title of it, but there was one song in particular that reminded me of that bee gees song “massachusetts.” oh yeah, which ladybug covered, oh, a good 20-odd years ago. cf: it just kind of had that sort of hazy, melancholy kind of quality… probably something with a lot of strings, I’d imagine, if it sounded like the bee gees. cf: I don’t know if you still do this, but what cassettes do you currently have in your kitchen? Let’s see. we had our kitchen painted, so there’s only a few dozen in there, but I do have a box that I stored here on this couch. let’s see what we’ve got: the bobby fuller four… cf: oh, I’m not familiar with them. you know, “I fought the law”? cf: oh, yeah!
cf: do two more. the shop assistants… cf: yay! and oh yeah, gail might like this one: the cure’s standing on a beach and side two has all the b-sides and rarities from that time, so it’s a double play cassette. this one is actually what inspired me to do my own little cassette release. I did an edition of the album that’s 50 copies, and the b-side to the cassette is an instrumental version of the whole album, but I replaced the vocals with trumpet melody, so it’s almost like the easy listening version of the record, and that’s only available on the cassette itself. there’s no digital version of it, but maybe I should get around to putting something up. cf: classic chickfactor question: what would be on your rider? our classic one was, we’d always ask for chocolate, especially for san [fadyl] when he was with us, our drummer, and we’d always ask for candy, especially when we were touring in europe, because we just wound up with a lot of local or random stuff or some easter candy. whatever local junk food they had was always interesting. cf: what was your first concert, as a youth? [pause] do I have to say? [laughs] It’s so embarrassing. I could remember my first five, and the contrast is pretty wild. my first one was rush at nassau coliseum on long island, and I think my second was u2 on the unforgettable fire tour at radio city music hall with the waterboys. yeah. and the third was either like depeche mode and the smiths, around that same time.
cf: were they on the same bill? no, but they both played. I went to a lot of shows at the beacon theater and they were both at the beacon. we got really lucky with the smiths tickets because my friend brian and I were waiting on line to buy tickets. you used to be able to get the best seats if you went to the venue the day they went on sale, because they always held the first five or six rows and you could only get those in the box office… cf: wait, when you say “on line,” you mean like a physical queue? yeah, yeah, yeah. these were paper tickets. this was 1985. [laughs] the whole culture of kids my age waiting in line for concert tickets, you know, it was a very social thing you could do. so, we went up to the beacon theater to wait on line to buy smiths tickets. and as we were getting closer and closer to the box office, there was this rumor making its way down the line that after the first show sold out, they’d start selling tickets for a second show. so we just hovered around the box office until they started selling tickets for the second show and we got second row center tickets. cf: oh my god, that is so fortuitous. oh my god, so jealous. [laughs] so, I read that you are a gardener. and I have to ask, like, have you started anything yet? or like, what are you going to plant this year? or, what’s your favorite thing to plant right now? It’s still a little too cold out to do any prep outside, but I think sometime in march or april, we’ll start turning over the soil in the backyard. we grow a lot of tomatoes, and cucumbers do well over here, and like a big variety of peppers. we make the most of our yard in the back. normally, we’ll have at least a dozen tomato plants back there. cf: it must be really sunny? we do what we can. we had to prune a couple of trees to get a little more sunlight back there, but yeah, that does keep us busy.
cf: my partner has a huge backyard. it’s like an acre big and he gardens, which is why when I read that you garden, I was like, “oh, I wonder what he grows?” do you have any pests that come and eat your stuff? any deer or…? cf: yes, but I’m not sure what it is [laughs]… we have deer here. we have wild turkeys and they’re huge and they run in, like, flocks. yeah, they’re exciting when you see them. i see them in pennsylvania sometimes. there’s a grape arbor on the side porch here at the house, and normally you don’t get many pests or animals bothering anything in the back, but they love the grapes, the raccoons and possums. so, in the mornings, in the summer, in the fall, they’ll just come and sneak in in the middle of the night and have a party and the whole porch is just covered with grape skins and like the remains of whatever they’re eating. cf: we have a black walnut tree, they kind of have like this tennis ball casing and then the actual nut is within it. and I think it’s raccoons, squirrels, or one of those guys, but they crack them open and they just leave all the shelling in the yard. we cleaned the yard at some point last year and had bags and bags of shells. wow. cf: well, I only have one more question for you, and it’s another classic chickfactor question: gary olson, what do you have in your fridge right now? [pause] can I go look for you? taking a look really quickly. I just took a picture so I could look at it while I’m on the call with you and it’s like a crime scene. There’s way too much stuff, but let’s see. There are not too many things that are fresh because I’m about to go out of town for a week and I’ve been working for a while. but there are some blueberries, there’s miso, there’s kimchi. there’s a lot of cheese. I make kombucha, so there’s several bottles of kombucha. those are all the interesting things. There’s some beer, but sometimes I’ll have beer in the refrigerator for like two months. I just don’t go through it very quickly. CF
HARD + FAST, a collection of Melanie Nissen’s photographs from the period 1977-1980 in Los Angeles as punk was forming, is the book my OG LA punk friends and I have always wanted to exist. We all knew that we were living in a special time when you could see culture and society changing, and we couldn’t wait to document it ourselves. It was an era rich with samizdat—independently published zines about our scene, shown and told in our own words and pictures. Mainstream media were not covering the epochal change in pop music, art, and fashion, save for the occasional “look at this crazy new teen fad” filler on tv or in print. ¶ Our subculture took it upon themselves to document our own lives, much like a high-school yearbook does. Melanie, together with her then-partner, Steve Samiof, created SLASH, an era and genre-defining magazine with such an imprimatur that it organically grew into an avatar branding first wave punk. Melanie’s book of photographs overflows with the love and friendships that we LA punks shared, and yearbook/time capsule references to this important documentation is a recurring Proustian theme in this 2022 chat between two zine photographers. Intro and interview by Theresa Kereakes (who was also documenting the scene back then) / Photographs by Melanie Nissen
REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST CF: A lot of the things that I like about the book have nothing to do with punk rock, but everything to do with presenting a chapter of our lives that we lived at the same time. There are buildings that you photographed that are no longer there. Melanie Nissen: I have to say that’s what the book has become for me. I look at it the same way. It’s become documentary to me. You don’t see people on the street selling LA Times newspapers anymore [p 98, with Tommy Gear/Screamers]. You don’t see people on phone booths anymore in Hollywood [p 108/Tomata duPlenty/Screamers]. You don’t see old pool halls where you could just go into, or old eating places that were on the street, and old bars that existed that don’t exist anymore. For me, it’s like a time capsule. I think I really appreciate it on that level. And I’m really sentimental about it on that level, because I felt the same way that you did. You just don’t see this stuff anymore. CF: It’s like a yearbook. Melanie: Exactly. That’s how I feel about it now. I can look at the photos and it’s so funny, and you’ll probably relate to this—I can feel when I took that picture. I remember. I remember where I was. I remember how I felt. I remember taking the photo. I remember everybody’s face. I had a hard time with everybody’s name for the book, but I never forgot their faces. Ever. Everybody was, I think, really open to me taking photos and I really appreciate it.
ART FOR ART’S SAKE CF: Did you know when you were in the midst of it, that punk was going to be the transformative movement that it became? Melanie: Not at all. It was a very unusual time. It was like this big art group that all decided to pitch in and work together. It wasn’t really about anything else except the music. It was very unique that way. It’s so seldom that you get to have freedom in art, and that’s what it was to us—to show anything we wanted, say anything we wanted in the magazine. That’s a luxury in art. Those opportunities don’t come around a lot when there really aren’t any politics there, there’s nothing, money’s not involved, it becomes just a real art project. But no, I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t even take very good care of my negatives to be really honest with you. CF: I’ve talked to a couple of other people from the scene who just really put this stuff in the garage and it’s like, “Well, this is my stuff from the ’70s.” Melanie: That’s what it was. Except unfortunately, I had three really bad floods in garages. CF: So have I. Melanie: Did you, too? CF: Yes. I lost a lot of stuff in Hurricane Sandy. I moved to New York in the ’80s. Melanie: Yikes. CF: I was really devastated then I heard an interview with Laurie Anderson on NPR, where she was talking about the album she recorded with the Kronos Quartet, called Landfall, which was about everything that happened in Hurricane Sandy. And she had lost basically, her entire professional life: staging, work, all of her props and a lot of notes and stuff. Melanie: Oh, God. CF: But her voice was so calm. And I thought, “Well, if Laurie Anderson can get past this, then I can.” Melanie: Well, I did too. But at the time, it’s like you think, “Oh, what a bummer.” Then you just get over it and I think, “Well, that’s it.” Because I didn’t even really know if I would be using my photos again. Do you know what I mean? They were in bags. I didn’t really know I would be actively using them. I didn’t want them to get ruined and it was disappointing when I looked at them, but it’s like, okay, well, so this is what I have left. You move on.
CF: Right. In the spirit of that, is it astonishing for you to see the legacy and the influence of Slash, just from the graphic style to the writing style? Melanie: It is. Steve Samiof was my partner at the time and we started it together. I think the very first issue, I really think it was the consciousness that we’re going to do a one-off art magazine. I really didn’t think we thought we would do more issues. I don’t know if we really thought it would go further than that. So it was a big surprise. We had read all about all the punk stuff happening in London and we were fascinated, because there wasn’t much of it here yet. So we went to record stores and bought every single we could possibly buy, and had to come home and listen to everything over and over. ¶ It’s like we both fell in love with the music, with everything about it. Everything about it was appealing; the fashion, the politics, everything. But did I think it was going to go on and on? No, I didn’t. CF: Yeah. We were just not like other people and we didn’t fit in anywhere, but we all fit in with each other. Melanie: Well, it’s funny. I have to say, everybody asks “Oh, what was it like?” And really, everybody for those three years that I worked with, was on the same wavelength. Everybody was generous with their work. Everybody helped everybody else. Every band helped each other. Everybody gave free work away for the bands to use. CF: I read a quote of you saying, “The first three years were magic, but by 1980, Orange County bands started taking the scene in a direction I didn’t love.” I related to that so much because I felt the same way. I don’t know if you doom-scroll Wikipedia, but the entry for Slash in Wikipedia, have you read it? Melanie: No. CF: It’s like a paragraph, but it conjectures that Slash just stopped because punk was considered dead anyway. But I relate to your quote, “the bands started taking the scene in a direction I didn’t love.” That makes sense to me. Melanie: Yeah. I also didn’t know them. I really didn’t know who they were. I can’t think that I have photographed a lot of them. It’s like I had spent three years with the same bands and all the beginning bands. It’s like it becomes a weird family in a weird way. Nobody cared about me with my camera. Everybody was used to seeing it. We would do photo sessions on the street. We’d never get permits or anything like that. It was very spontaneous. I don’t know. I just think after three years, all my favorite bands were going away. They weren’t really playing anymore. They all were off in different directions. ¶ Then you had the Orange County stuff, and I just didn’t know it. I just thought it was time to move on. I had been in it a lot and it was just time to do something else for me. CF: Do you agree with this: Slash as a magazine is a finite set, it’s like it’s a box set of LA punk rock being born, it’s almost like you inadvertently created LA punk. So, your book is its title. It’s just 1977 to 1980. Hard and Fast, in and out. This is a box set of that period. Melanie: Yes. CF: Did you intend to do it, or did you set the book up that way because that’s what you had? Melanie: I only was in it for those three years, so that’s really all I have to talk about. I don’t have anything to really say about punk. Your life moves in a different direction sometimes, and that’s what mine did. I had a full-time job.
CF: I was just going to ask you that. Did you and Steve and everyone else for the core of Slash, did you keep your day jobs? Melanie: Well, I had to. Steve’s day job was Slash, which it needed to be, because it needed one really strong leader that was there every minute. And he was that person. I worked full-time and I have a daughter. It was a lot. I used to go in the dark room and print all my own prints on the weekend. Yeah. It was a lot of work. CF: You bring back all these memories for me, flipping through your book; that image of the envelope from Richard’s Photo Lab [p 217] ! Melanie: I know. Do you love that? CF: I love that because I have boxes full of the same thing. Melanie: It’s like everything was at Richard’s in the beginning. It was all at Richard’s. He’d develop it, and then I had access to a really great darkroom, which I was lucky enough to get on the weekends. So I’d have Richard develop it and then I would go print it. But that is funny, Richard. That’s where you went. CF: One thing I really appreciate about your book that I haven’t seen in too many other punk photo books is that you’ve included Black Randy [p 62], The Screamers [pp 18-31], and The Kipper Kids [pp 112-113]. The Screamers were just so unique. And Tomata, before The Screamers, had quite a track record as a performer. Melanie: Yeah. Yeah. How good was he to photograph? CF: He was a living art project, right? Melanie: He had the best body language and the best space and the best tattoo. I could have just looked at him forever. I could have photographed him forever. Luckily, a lot of that stuff of him didn’t get wrecked, and I’m so glad I have so much of that early stuff. He was really great to work with. ¶ And Black Randy was such an underground star in the scene. He got up and performed in his underwear and a cowboy hat. It’s like, who are you? Then I became one of his backup go-go dancers at one of his live shows with Belinda from the Go-Go’s, Alice Bag from The Bags, Connie. And myself. We all had wigs on and all this makeup somebody did for us and we had dashikis on. We were his backup dancers. ¶ Black Randy was in our bed while Steve and I were designing the magazine in our bedroom. He just got in bed and just talked to us. He was so weird. CF: That’s this unique thing that only other people who were in that scene would understand. If you tried to tell someone Darby Crash was in your dorm, it’s like, well, they don’t understand. He was just a guy who I knew. And I had a TV and he didn’t. It was just that. Melanie: I thought he had a very sweet side to him. Am I right or wrong? CF: Yes, and I just thought he was really smart. Melanie: I thought he was smart and I thought he was always … I don’t know. I thought he seemed like a really kind person to me.¶ Yeah. Everybody asks, “Oh, and what about Darby Crash? What was that like?” And I’m thinking he was really nice.
CF: You could tell that you were friends in the pictures of him and Pat and Lorna. There’s not a menacing glance. And the young Don Bolles, he looks like a little angel. [pp 12-17] Melanie: I know. I know. I know. No, they’re pretty raw photos. It’s very more documentary than I thought it would be. CF: Is that what got you the most? Is that when you went back 40 years later and you thought “this is a documentary”? Melanie: Yeah. I thought it was a time capsule. I thought here is this one unique period of time in my life and everybody else’s life that was involved in that. And I’ll probably never see it again. This is not going to happen again. And there was that part of me that realized that part, that this was something very unique and wasn’t ordinary. I really appreciate it from that point of view. It was really fun and interesting and creative. ¶ The one thing that I find really interesting, is that it’s true, punk never dies. It never dies. It reincarnates itself. You see it in young bands. You see it in fashion. You see it in hair. You see it in jewelry. You see it in everything. Right now, it’s like hot pink and hot green DAYGLO, and black are the colors of the season. Well, that was punk. Those were the punk colors. And every once in a while, you see photos of chokers with big spikes on them, and then you have Marc Jacobs who’s looking at all the punk stuff. It just gets created over and over and over again, and I don’t really think that time’s ever going to go away, musically or fashion. It’s like Vivienne Westwood. She’s still making clothes. ¶ There’s a little band, a little punk band that was out there… Fidlar. I don’t know if you know them. They’re really good. They remind me a little of The Ramones. They were a very fun little band. You could just see it. And they knew all the people from the punk things. They’re really and they were totally into Slash. And I think, “Wow.” CF: I’m glad to hear things like this, and like you publishing the punk rock yearbook, time capsule. And it brings everyone back together to say hello and wow, wasn’t that something? Melanie: Well, and this is it for me. You know what I mean? I don’t have anymore. I don’t have a lot of punk to show anybody anymore. This is what’s left, or what I have. CF: You know what? It’s still definitive. It’s the foundational visuals of LA punk rock. It really is. Melanie: I don’t know. I hope that people get to see themselves in the book because it’ll be so fun for them.
CF: I think that they will, people will bring it up to them. They’re going to get a call from someone like, “Oh, my God, you’re in this book!”
DIY Melanie: If I never have to go through another box again, I’ll be really happy. I’ll tell you, the hardest part of this whole project was just digging stuff out and editing. It was really, really hard. And getting stuff scanned. Nothing was scanned, at all. ¶ I wound up too, and I hope it’s not boring for people, I put a lot of fan photos in there, fans and people that hung out. They’re not stars or anything. CF: I was so excited when I saw Cheri the Penguin [p 85] ! Melanie: I know. This was so part of the scene that I documented. It wasn’t just the bands. There hardly was anybody that I didn’t take photos of. And I thought, “Well, I’m going to put them in the book, even though nobody is probably going to know who they were unless you were there.” ¶ And is that going to appeal to people? Because basically, a lot of younger people would just be looking at strange people they don’t know. So I was a little concerned about that, but it’s like, how can you do the scene if you don’t do the people in the scene? CF: It’s like you just said earlier. It’s a documentary. It’s how people dressed. Melanie: Yes. CF: What’s so great is that everybody had their own unique style. It wasn’t like they could go to a Hot Topic and say, “I would like the punk uniform for Saturday night.” Melanie: Yeah. But you know what was great? They all made their own outfits. It’s like they had to plan. They had to make something. That was half the fun of looking at everybody, is to see what they came up with and what they created. It was really interesting, and everybody really made an effort for the most part. CF: Yes. Do you think that has anything to do with because it was the analog era? You literally couldn’t phone it in. You had to make a commitment. Melanie: Yeah. You did. There was nothing technical at all, right? CF: Right, there wasn’t. I was envious of people who had motor-driven cameras. Melanie: Yeah. And I was so happy to have access to a darkroom. I thought that was the height of luxury because there was nothing like being in the darkroom and seeing that image first come up. It’s so exciting, whether the photo is good or bad or whatever. It’s just thrilling. CF: The smell of the chemicals. Melanie: Yeah, which people don’t even use anymore. That’s why they really don’t want to develop black and white, because you have to get rid of those chemicals in a certain way now. CF: Oh no, I know. But it’s just they’re gorgeous. And I like the way you printed your photos with the carved out negative carriers. You could see the edges. Melanie: That was fun. I didn’t do that with everything, but I don’t know. I think for me at my age now and everything and from what I have left, this is like doing the last issue of Slash for me. Do you know what I mean? CF: Well, what is the future? What do you want to do? What would you like to do? Melanie: I don’t know. Well, I still take photos. Not a lot of people anymore, but I do a lot of abstracts and landscapes and all that kind of stuff. It’s different now. There are still artists that I work with because I went into the music business for the rest of my career and life. So I always wound up working with musicians, forever, which I felt really well-suited for after Slash. And that I get it and I get them, and they get me.
CF: How did the book come into being, finally? Melanie: I have a friend who designed the book. His name is Mike Lohr. We have been friends for like 20 years, and we have a wonderful friendship and rapport. When we thought about doing this book and was asked to do the book, I said, “There’s only one person who I’ll do this with. And it’s Mike, because he’s such a beautiful designer.” ¶ We did a series of weird punk T-shirts at one point and tote bags. We never did anything big. It was all little and nothing ever made any money, but we liked working together. So when this book came along, we had a chance to do a book together. ¶ Half of the project was that for me, that I got to work with Mike. And we worked together for almost, I don’t know, three, four years on it because he has a full-time job as an art director. We were limited to maybe two weekends a month, one weekend a month, so it took a long time. But I was so happy I got to work with him. It’s like our culmination together, and it’s really nice.
PARTING GIFT Melanie: I’ll tell you one thing that I had to learn that was very interesting for me. I had never shot concerts before. I had never shot music, and I had to learn how to shoot the bands live. I had to learn how to get up front, no matter what was happening or who was shoving who or pushing who. I was very fast. I shoot very fast, and I think you have to if you’re shooting live. I don’t know how else you get it, really. It was really a great challenge for me to have to do something new like that, and learn something new like that, and practice. I got better as time went on, but it’s something that I really valued that I thought, Oh, I have a split second to take a photo up here. Everybody’s shoving me and I have to do this. I have to get a good photo. I have to get something. And I loved learning that. That was a very good learning experience for me. CF: I think it’s all in the learning. Melanie: It is. Everything.
I carried a gun in college (a staple gun, silly!) and I made fliers for everything from my radio show to newspaper meetings and I made collages for fun. We even folded, collated and stapled chickfactor zine during the first few years. Before the internet, you had to use whatever you could find to make fliers: old magazines and newspapers, magic markers and Letraset, paper, staples, gluesticks, clip art. The art of the flier is long lost though we do have a culture that has taken band show posters to a high level. Henry Owings, editor of Chunklet zine, who also makes lots of other stuff, has made a new book called Plus 1 Athens: Show Fliers from a Legendary Scene that collects loads of fliers and ephemera and memories. We asked him a few Qs… (interview by gail / images courtesy Henry/Chunklet)
What time period did you live in Athens? How long have you lived in Atlanta? Where else have you lived? I moved to Athens in the fall of 1991 after a lifetime of being the new guy everywhere I lived. Before I moved to Athens, I was born out on the Maryland coast, then lived there, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Texas, Colorado and Alabama until my mom left my dad and we moved back to her hometown of York, Pennsylvania. I went to college there, then grad school in Pittsburgh, moved to Athens after I graduated. I lived in Athens from 1991 until (vaguely) 1997. I was on tour a lot towards the end. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Atlanta and have been here ever since. How many fliers did you consider for publication in the Athens book? Oh god. I can only say that I currently am holding onto 13,000+ flyers that are primarily from Georgia. As far as how many were specifically from Athens? If I were to guess, it would be a few thousand. How do you even begin the process of selection? I kinda wanted to hit everything, so I just took a lot of mental notes. Clubs, bands. I wanted to make sure everybody of some note were mentioned. I know I missed some bands, but whatever. I did my absolute best.
When did you get the idea for the book and how long did it take? So during the pandemic, which fittingly coincided with my divorce, I decided to try new things. Or perhaps just flex muscles I never flexed before. One of those activities I pursued in earnest was painting my house. Influenced by my dear pal Will Hart from the Olivia Tremor Control and cubist art of the early 20th century, I decided to paint my house. And I had a lot of fun. Like, a LOT of fun. ¶ At some point (May 2021 to be specific), I asked the folks at club called 529 at the end of the street if I could do a painting on the outside of the building. They politely declined, but they offered me the dressing room. Now, anybody that’s been in a backstage dressing room can tell you, it’s covered in more dicks and shitty graffiti than you could imagine, but I thought it would be cool to make a color study in the green room out of old Georgia flyers. ¶ While I was going through flyers I had found on line and was doctoring so they would print correctly, a little voice in my head said “Hey, somebody should do a book of these.” And well, the rest kind of happened quickly. ¶ I tend not to dawdle, and also I just have a lot of friends who opened their collections to me, and it just kinda took off from there. ¶ So yeah, time line hasn’t even been a year yet. ¶ I used to make fliers in college and walk around with a staple gun. Our tools were clip art, collage scraps, magic markers, etc. What are some of the weirdest show fliers you came across in this process? ¶ Oh god, my favorites are always risographs which are early color copies. They’re almost like their own genre of flyers. So beautiful. ¶ I think my favorite flyers have been the most ephemeral. I have a flyer for Athens band Melted Men where it’s written on a cocktail napkin.
You say in the book kiosks were the way people found out what was going on in Athens. Describe how that felt compared with the way we discover shows now. I dunno. I can only speak for myself which is I was, am and will always be a guy that relies on word of mouth. Flyers are fun to do and after Tr*mp won the White House, I mostly stayed off Facebook. I’ve edged back into it exclusively for this project, but yeah, I find most sources of “internet journalism” quite dubious, but then again, so were most magazines back in the 1980s. Tell us about watching the Athens documentary in 1987. I also remember being blown away by the Bar-B-Q Killers when I saw it. What kind of impact did the doc have on you? Athens GA Inside/Out had a profound effect on me. At the time I first saw it, I was living in York, PA, with no friends and just lurking at the local college radio station and just diving into music with all vigor. The scene in Athens just spoke to me. I don’t know how else to put it. The BBQ Killers were the punch in the neck that made me go “I need to move there.” Within a couple years, I had an Athens mailing address. Funny how that stuff works.
I lived in Richmond in the ’80s and it seemed like the SE indie scene had a big LGBTQ element to it (Now Explosion, B52s, etc.). What is the music scene in Athens like now and is that still the case? God, can I just take a second to say that Pen Rollings is probably the coolest queer in Richmond? He and I have been pals for a long time and when I published an interview with him in Chunklet about 20 years ago, it just showed me how silly the fuss over sex/gender politics have become. ¶ As far as the queer scene in Georgia goes, in a word, it’s “fertile.” I love it. Then again, I’m a heteronormative male, so consider the source, am I right? ¶ As far as the contemporary scene goes, I don’t feel like I’m an authority on the subject, but I do love that whoever you want to kiss or fall in love is no more important than the color of your eyes. Life is to live. I love to be in a community where everybody is allowed to just be who they are. Hard stop. Were there particular flier makers or bands that excelled at this art form? Like Ron Liberti in the Triangle, kind of like a signature person behind many? Man, that’s a tricky question to answer succinctly, but I’ll try. I’m cursed with being a designer, so of course I look at the general information hierarchy of a flyer, but I am also very infatuated with Dada and outsider art. If a flyer is good, it’s good. If a flyer sucks, it sucks. I fancy myself a lower case “c” collector of records, and that has afforded me an ability to size up a band or flyer based on their work. ¶ As far as proper designers go, I really tried to avoid using their work as it really fell outside of what was attractive to me. Not a single designer’s work is used seen more than three times in the entire book. That was a challenge, but also an opportunity to show even that much more instead of keeping things somewhat monochromatic. Are there shows or exhibitions that go along with this book? I’d love to, but nobody has asked! Is it true there is another one on the way about Atlanta? How is that progressing? Dude, it’s in proofing! Goes to print next week! Cranking out two books in five months. That’s not too bad.
There are some libraries around the country, such as DCPL, that really take good care of music history, using it in a way that the public can interact with it. What is your goal with these documents, not that you own them? Y’see, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can say definitively that my goal is to have all of this material live eternally. I’ve been in touch with GSU, Emory and UGA about migrating the assets I’ve already scanned. My biggest aversion is that of bureaucracy and Zoom meetings. I just want to do the work. If some grad student wants everything I’ve digitized to make a database or whatever? By all means! I just am finding that to be brass tacks stuff. What are some fliers that you personally own and are prize possessions? God, before this project I had few. Seriously. However, there’s some people that have been unbelievably generous and given me just gem after gem. The stuff I am most attracted to isn’t the big names, but those that I just love. For instance, Athens band Limbo District’s flyers are my favorite and I think I own one! And I cherish it! I have so many folders of this stuff, but my goal for all of this is to have it in museums. Not today, but eventually. Is that your daughter listed as an editor of the book? How did you involve her in the whole process? God damn right! Look, I did Chunklet. I can say anybody is involved. Shit, I am doing this to have fun, and my 10-year-old daughter has been a good sport so yeah, I’m giving her an associate editor credit. Although she doesn’t do much except put books in padded envelopes, I do love involving her in my life.
What’s your favorite Athens band from 1992 and now? From 1992? Oh god, that would be Harvey Milk. Maybe the JackONuts. Synthetic Flying Machine (which became Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control) didn’t figure into my life until 1993, but they’re another top favorite. ¶ From now? God, tough question. So many to choose from. I’m an enormous fan of Linqua Franqa. She’s like the MC5, but a one-person badass. How long has/was Chunklet been around? Chunklet started in 1993. Modestly. And it crept forward until issue 20. Cranked out some books. Kept doing stuff under the Chunklet moniker out of laziness. And so here we are 29 years later and yeah, I’ve put out over 100 records, 20 issues of a magazine, four books, several DVDs, probably put on 1000 shows. What was the question again? What’s going on with your label? I really don’t know. It’s just a hobby that just keeps going forward. I just haven’t met many people who have told me “no” when I ask if I can put out a record with them. I’m like a kid in a candy store.
Are you a trained designer or self-taught? Never took a single class. Entirely self-taught. How did the internet help you make the book? I used the internet (and social media specifically) exclusively as a tool. Finding people with the material is the biggest challenge and those people are usually one degree of separation away from somebody on Facebook or whatever. I just fucking loathe looking at Facebook as the final resting place for any of this stuff. Fuck that. I just have been using it to find people. That’s it. Where can we get the book? Either the Chunklet website or my bandcamp site. A few stores carry it, but the vast majority of the 500 copies of Plus 1 Athens’s first printing were sold direct to customers. Any other books you’d like to mention you’re working on? Or future plans? I think the Atlanta book is it. As you’ve become aware of over the past year, I’m a designer of the impending Steve Keene Art Book we both worked on. I’m quite delighted with it. But then again, I’m a working designer. And I work! ¶ As far as future plans…..a lot has kind of been popping up. I’m going to do a book of Georgia flyers once the Atlanta book is done only because I have so goddamned many, and all these podunk towns have one or two flyers and I think it a beautiful love letter to the state I call home. ¶ Otherwise, I’ve been in the preliminary stages of doing similar books on Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Both are cities near and dear to my heart. I’ve also been doing some work on a similar book on Alabama because again, it’s very near and dear to me. Cut me some slack, I started this eight months ago! It’s a work in progress! CF
Our interview with San Francisco songwriter GLENN DONALDSON (currently of the reds, pinks & purples and vacant gardens, formerly of skygreen leopards and art museums, etc.) is long overdue, as he’s been making great jangly music for decades. Of course everyone is still listening to Uncommon Weather, and Summer at Land’s End comes out today/on Feb. 4 but the U.S. vinyl has been delayed thanks to satan, I mean Adele or something. Collector nerds: If you haven’t already preordered the vinyl LP, do it. There are two vinyl editions: a limited-edition double yellow vinyl record with a bonus album of instrumental songs not on the album, which is only available in the U.S. from Slumberland, and a green single vinyl LP version. UK people: the vinyl is actually out today (Feb. 4) on Tough Love. Interview by Kevin Alvir
chickfactor: What is your life like these days in San Francisco? Glenn Donaldson: Pretty simple and hermit-like. I work from home, take walks around the neighborhood, record songs. I’m really into making vegan stews from scratch lately. It’s all about having a base of shiitake mushrooms and fermented bean paste. They are pretty good! cf: This is very chickfactor: What were you like as a teenager? An insecure dork, but maybe most people were like that. I was hung up on girls and moping around. cf: also chickfactor: What is driving you mad? Constantly entering passwords, which is 90% of remote work. cf: What spurred you into making music? Punk was alive in Fullerton when I was a youth, and that was the siren song. It felt like a place where a loser like me could be great. In my hometown we had Adolescents, Agent Orange, Social Distortion, etc. These are world-class bands, so it felt like anything was possible.
cf: Did you always see yourself doing music? If it were not music, what else do you think you’d be doing? I wanted to be an artist of some kind, maybe a poet or a painter or a musician. I wanted to wear striped sweaters and drink espresso in dimly lit cafes. cf: Do you do anything else outside of music? Gardening, visual arts, etc… I’m a crude artist as well, mostly collage, some painting and bad stoner drawings…and now photographing my neighborhood I suppose? I have a book of collage art coming out this year on a micro-press. cf: Your work has a cinematic feel to it. I get a sense you are inspired by movies and books. Are you? Can you elaborate on that? That’s a nice compliment, thanks. My favorite writer is Denton Welch. He had a way of taking everyday events like a walk through a garden and making it epic. Movies sure… but I feel like I’m more directly influenced by comedy, the idea of really opening yourself up as a performer and dealing with raw and personal stuff. cf: Anything that you are watching on tv or (shall I say) streaming? I like that new HBO series Somebody Somewhere. It probably won’t find a huge audience, but I think it’s beautiful. An old favorite is Detectorists. I love small stories.
cf: A great question for our auteurs: Do you prefer to play live or record? Definitely recording. There’s nothing more satisfying that putting the final touch on a song, painting on some bits of feedback or melody lines. I struggle with even wanting to play live, but it is rewarding and helps you move onto the next bit of inspiration. cf: Can you tell us what your first song that you wrote was like? It was definitely a rip-off of a Dischord-type hardcore song. I didn’t play any instruments until much later, so this would be just me imagining hardcore riffs and writing really bad lyrics about “Justice” or something I knew nothing about. cf: Is there a source of inspiration or influence that people who follow your music may find surprising? I love Lana Del Rey. She’s my favorite contemporary songwriter. The more cringey she gets, the more I eat it up. “Arcadia” is the best song out right now. I’m a student of classic songwriting, so my list of favorites would be very long (see below), but I’ll mention Leonard Cohen, Kirsty MacColl and Peter Tosh off the top of my head. cf: Can you describe your worst live music experience? As a performer / audience member. Someone threw a lit cigarette at me at a festival in Belgium and almost set my shirt on fire. For some reason they stuck my band Skygreen Leopards, an acoustic band, on before BORIS, and the Belgian doom metal fans were enraged. It was totally stupid and insane but very memorable!
cf: I’ve asked you this over social media, but what does Astral Projection feel like? Reds, Pinks & Purples have a song called “I’d Rather Astral Project.” Hence, my audacity to ask this… I think I may have experienced this—I do a ton of meditation… but I would love to hear what other people have to say about it. Oh, interesting left turn! That song is a bit tongue-in-cheek about having social anxiety basically, but I do wonder about the power of the mind sometimes, powerful stuff, especially if you get into visualization and meditation. I have taken LSD a few times, and you can definitely arrive without traveling. cf: How do you feel the past two years have changed you? (y’know – the pandemic) I am more comfortably and colorfully dressed with many clashing patterns. Also, I am into colorful sneakers all of sudden after never wearing them at all. I am suddenly more successful as a musician than I have ever been, and yet I barely leave my neighborhood. cf: When things get back to workable normal, what do you want to do with yourself / yr music? I want to tour and play some enormous festivals, really sell out and make big gestures like Bono. Set my shirt on fire with cigarettes and lose my mind permanently while onstage, then crash hard coming back to reality, realizing that it’s all pointless. CF
Records Glenn Cannot Live Without Unrest, Imperial f.f.r.r. Long Fin Killie, Houdini The Magnetic Fields, The House of Tomorrow Tracey Thorn, A Distant Shore Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll Bad Brains, I Against I Colin Newman, A to Z Codeine, Barely Real The Smiths, Meat is Murder Reptile House, Listen to the Powersoul East River Pipe, Shining Hours in a Can Jones Very, Words & Days The Jam, Sound Affects Augustus Pablo, East of the River Nile Galaxie 500, Today Die Kreuzen, Century Days American Music Club, Engine Hüsker Dü, Warehouse: Songs & Stories Go-Betweens, Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express Eyeless in Gaza, Caught in Flux
New Jersey natives Andrew Romano and Alex Naidus met in New York, but they became especially close friends after relocating to LA just six months apart in 2013. A few years later they found themselves playing together—almost accidentally—in Massage. This was an unexpected second act for Alex, who had previously played bass in the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. ¶ Much more low-key by design, Massage started with a single demo that Alex had penned but never shared in his Pains days. Soon there were more members—including bassist David Rager, original drummer Michael Felix and subsequent drummer Natalie de Almeida—and a strikingly melodic debut album in 2018’s Oh Boy. Quietly staking their claim as among the most ardent students of jangle pop in LA’s deeply fragmented music scene, Massage followed up that record with 2021’s Still Life, a dramatic leap ahead in songwriting chops and collective confidence. Showcasing the voices and songs of Andrew and Alex as well as those of keyboardist Gabi Ferrer, the album earned release through labels in Australia and Spain, beyond the band’s US home on Mt. St. Mtn. in Sacramento. ¶ The songs on Still Life feel instantly classic, hitting all the right touchstones while remaining very much their own creations. Following the opening one-two hit of “Half a Feeling” and “Made of Moods,” there’s the lasting sensation that we’re experiencing something special and well worth cherishing. Sung by Gabi with music written by Romano, “10 & 2” is another highlight, as is the Gabi-helmed “The Double.” The more recent Lane Lines EP has followed through on the second album’s dazzling promise, foregrounding a new studio version of the album track “In Gray & Blue” and showing subtle new sides of the band. ¶ We chatted with Andrew and Alex (both journalists), the cofounding songwriters of Massage in early 2022 about starting the band, fine-tuning their round-robin songwriting and the West Coast indie scene.intro and interview by Doug Wallen
chickfactor: Alex, can you talk about following up Pains with Massage? Alex: It was one of those life things where everything happens at once: I left the band, I was in a long relationship that ended, and I started a job at Buzzfeed. I started in New York, but there was a job opening in LA. “Leaving music behind” sounds so dramatic, but I needed to start my new life. I was kinda heartbroken and coming to a city I didn’t know that well. I didn’t have any plans to join a new band, and I purposefully didn’t do that for a while. ¶ The impetus to start again was Michael [Felix], the first drummer in Massage. He played on the first album and half of Still Life. He wanted to start playing drums again and said, “What if we just jam?” I told him I wasn’t really a jammer, and I just had a bass. But there was a rehearsal space where you could rent a guitar by the hour. ¶ It was purely just a way to hang out. I only knew how to play a few songs on guitar, [including] a song I wrote while I was in Pains. It was just a demo I made at home for fun. So we played that and it was a good time. I mentioned it to Andrew at a party and he said, “I want to do that.” And unbeknownst to me, Michael had the same thing happen with his friend David [Rager], who’s [now] the bassist for Massage. We rented the same rehearsal space and there were two guitars, bass, drums and my one song from five years ago. And it was like, “This is fun. We could keep doing this.” Andrew: We both had the experience of writing songs for high school bands when we were younger. I didn’t think I would ever have a band that was a creative outlet again, but then we stumbled onto this thing. It was just friends doing music, with no great ambition beyond that. CF:It sounds so accidental. Did you share a lot of touchstones right away, or how much did it sound like Massage early on? Andrew: Well, that first song, “Kevin’s Coming Over,” is on the first album. CF:So that was sort of the blueprint. Andrew: Yeah. Alex and I were friends in New York but not really close, and then we became really good friends out here. There was a mutual friend of ours named Kevin who was doing night school. [The song] was just ramshackle, really rough indiepop. I think it’s about Kevin, but also an attempt to do that kind of thing. ¶ We like the same bands. I think the first phase of Massage was us writing towards the sound we wanted. The first record is kind of halfway there, and Still Life feels like we’ve gotten to that point, where the songs we write are really the kind of songs we like to listen to. But we do feel like we’re learning this as we go. CF:Again, it seems very organic. I loved the first record but it didn’t get a lot of attention, but Still Life has had a higher profile and is on a few different labels… Alex: I hope so. If it just finds its audience however it does, that’s cool. It blew my mind that a couple people not only didn’t know I used to be in Pains, but didn’t even know who Pains is. That’s rare, in fairness, but it’s neat. It’s just interesting how it flows. CF:So neither of you had properly sang lead before. Did you have to build yourselves up to that? Alex: There are definitely times where I have the singer syndrome that I feel like a lot of people have, especially people who make music like this. There’s an impulse to bury the vocals. But that’s what I sound like, and I’ll just do the best I can. The songs come first: to me the vocals are serving the songs. Andrew: I’ve been on a bit of a New Order kick, and in New Order, when Ian Curtis died, they didn’t know which one of them was going to sing in this new band. It ended up being Bernard Sumner. He’s not a [natural] singer by any stretch of the imagination, but I wouldn’t want anyone else singing in that band. There’s something so perfect about the precision in a lot of their music and then the fragility and vulnerability of his voice. It makes that band work. So having a little imperfection can make it more appealing. CF:And the keyboardist, Gabrielle, sings and writes songs as well. Andrew: Gabi is my sister-in-law. It felt like this big gap [of time] before she joined, but it was only a few weeks after we started.
CF:I love how the new record flows between the three of you. Is it tricky to accommodate three singers and songwriters in one band? Alex: Not at all. It just lays where it lays. Andrew and I have this thing too, where we write a lot of songs and share demos to inspire each other. So we end up with the same amount of songs, and Gabi will have hers too. There’s a symmetry that just happens naturally. Sometimes I think about that band Sloan, who have three main songwriters. Andrew: Teenage Fanclub too. Alex: Right. I always wondered how they do that, [but] it just comes out of us and we look at the [collective] pile. So far it’s been easier than you’d think. Andrew: The Go-Betweens are a total model in that regard too. They worked together really well to [showcase] the best songs. I’ve done a couple songs now where I’ve written the music and the melody and then handed it over to Gabi to sing and write the lyrics. The first one was “Crying Out Loud” on the first record, and then “10 and 2” on this record. It’s amazing to see her come back with lyrics that are a million times more eloquent than anything I could have come up with—and suit her voice so well. ¶ And Gabi is a fantastic harmony singer, both in finding the right harmony and having this unusual tone and tenor to her voice that just melds really well. So the amount of harmonies in the band is a direct result of that. Alex: She [also] does all the visual art for everything we’ve done, and she does music videos and animation.
CF:What does it feel like to be an indie pop band in LA, especially when San Francisco indie pop is having such a moment right now? Have you found your niche? Andrew: So you’ve noticed we’re not from San Francisco? (Laughter) We get lumped in and people say we’re from there. Because the name for the San Francisco scene now is “fog pop,” we were joking that we’re “smog pop.” We’ve got two smog pop bands in LA; we need a third one so you can write the trend piece. ¶ We love everything that’s going on in San Francisco, including bands we’ve played with a bunch of times—Cindy, Flowertown, Telephone Numbers, April Magazine—to the point where we’re envious about what they’ve got going on there. It seems like a really kind and friendly scene. We don’t have that in LA. One band we love and have played a few shows with is Semi Trucks, which used to be Venetian Blinds. They have a record [Vs. California] that just came out on Meritorio in Spain. ¶ Other than that, it’s been pretty [sparse]. But the past two years have been pretty weird [due to the pandemic]. We haven’t played a lot of shows, so there’s been a pause of any scene formation. But I’m not aware of many bands here doing the kind of thing we do. Alex: It has felt ephemeral too, because the last show we played pre-pandemic was with the band Semi Trucks used to be, Venetian Blinds. But also this band Smokescreens, who are on Slumberland and had David Kilgour record their album. But I think that band isn’t a band anymore. Our friend David Stern, who plays as D.A. Stern, also has a record on Slumberland. ¶ This is so much of an enthusiastic friend exercise for us that our version of a scene is when we have band practice every week and go out for beers after. We’ll all go to shows together too, so we can kind of carry our own scene around in a little backpack with us. We are our own scene, and that’s satisfying enough for me. Andrew: It’d be nice to foster that a bit more. Le Pain is another cool band who just formed here. The bass player used to be in Dummy, and they’ve put out a few singles. But LA’s a weird place: whatever the music scene is here, I don’t know what it is. It’s so vast, and then you get close to the Hollywood side and it’s got nothing to do with our lives. There’s a place on our side of town that we play at a lot called Permanent Records Roadhouse, and it’s nice to have a home base. ¶ And you can knock the internet all you want, but there’s a scene that can form virtually. There are all these bands we’ve discovered through Bobo Integral in Spain or Mt. St. Mtn., our label up north [in Sacramento]. And there’s a label in London called Prefect: they put out The Tubs, Mt. Misery and a French band called Eggs. You start finding these little pockets of like-minded bands throughout the world and exchange messages. In these pandemic times, that’s been a nice substitute for not having a tight-knit scene here in LA.
CF:I love how you guys don’t hide your influences from song to song, whether it’s The La’s or the Jesus and Mary Chain. But do you have moments where you worry that something sounds too much like its inspiration? Alex: Only occasionally. It’s literally just the Jesus and Mary Chain [thing], especially coming from Pains. When I wrote “Half a Feeling,” it just came out completely done. It felt really good to do, but I thought it was probably too on the nose. I sent it around and Andrew was like, “This rules. We’ve got to use this.” I’ve dragged my feet to this day about that song: there’s a lot I love about it, but I knew [JAMC] would be the one [big] signifier. ¶ But it goes back to what I said earlier about the song being paramount. It’s helpful to have these references we all share. Just little things that can help shape it into what our ears want to hear. But the songs are still distinctly us. Andrew: We’re not skilled enough to do the karaoke version. We might like how something works, but we can only ever do it in our own way. It ends up coming out sounding like us. Our limitations make it our own. Alex: This is a half-baked metaphor, but if you have a state-of-the-art scanner, you put something in and it comes out perfectly. You’ve made a copy: it looks good, but you have the same thing as you had before. But if you think of a punk show flyer, it’s been xeroxed a hundred times and you’ve cut something extra out and taped it there. It’s like faded and black-and-white. That’s our version: the source material may be there, but we’re just doing our best to paste it together with the tools we have. Andrew: I think we both really are students of how songs work. We’re constantly passing around songs we hear, trying to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. In that sense, we’re always listening to music and trying to unlock its mysteries. ¶ An example would be “In Grey and Blue,” a song there’s two versions of: one done at home for Still Life and one where we got to go do the single version with studio tools. And that came from listening to the Technique album by New Order and asking, “How do these bass lines work? What are they doing with acoustic guitars on these tracks that are otherwise really electronic-sounding? How do those tensions create this sound?” There’s not this great range in the melodies, but there’s something that Sumner does with the range of his syllables that makes it really catchy and memorable. ¶ We went a little overboard with trying to get the sound and the vibe to evoke that, but I don’t think it actually sounds like a New Order song. It just touches on some of the same mechanics. And we’re always thinking about it on that molecular level. That’s what’s interesting to me about writing music. CF