On 20 February 2020, I sat down with musician Rachel Aggs to talk about her three post-punk musical projects/bands: Shopping, Trash Kit, and Sacred Paws. The interview was conducted in Hackney, London—the day after Shopping did a live gig I attended at Rough Trade East to launch their fourth album, “All of Nothing.”
I first heard of Aggs through Shopping in March 2018 while visiting Southern California with DJ Lord Lewis, the Velvet Knight. We had picked up a copy of L.A. Record, which included an interview Emily Twombly did with the members of Shopping. The piece described the band as a “queer post-punk dancey band with a political point of view!”i Twombly went on to say their music “recalls ESG and Delta 5 but with hints of disco and sharp lyrics that are a call to action altogether, it’s something they’re making their own.” We were intrigued by the write-up—especially given the citation of two post-punk bands from the original era, the late 1970s/early 1980s—and immediately went to listen to their LP The Official Body (which had just been released) online at Bandcamp. I was immediately hooked.
A few months later, in June, I saw Shopping play in Brooklyn at Elsewhere as part of the NY Night Train Soul Clap & Dance-Off, hosted by renowned DJ Jonathan Toubin. Three other extraordinary post-punk bands also played that night: Priests, Gauche, and Ziemba. That same month, back in California, I had the fortune of seeing Shopping play again, that time in Oakland at Starline Social Club Ballroom, with another post-punk band, French Vanilla, opening. The following year, while in Montreal, I got to see another band Aggs is part of—Sacred Paws—play at Casa del Popolo. Incredible; clearly influenced by select groups of the original post-punk era, yet fresh and clearly twenty-first century.
Growing up in Southern California in the 1980s, my musical tastes (and by extension my cultural and political orientation) were shaped by alternative radio, music magazines, and my involvement in a subcultural scene. I had access to alternative music through the now famous radio station KROQ, one of few commercial stations in the region at the time that played punk, post-punk and new wave music. Indeed, with DJs such as Rodney Bingenheimer and his show, “Rodney on the ROQ,” the station played a leading role across the entire United States in the development of the new wave and alternative rock genres. In turn, besides collecting records, I was an avid reader of British music magazines, including: NME, Melody Maker, and The Face. I was also involved in the short-lived second-wave mod and ska scene in Orange County, which eventually led me to Rock Against Racism and The Red Wedge. But most importantly, it was the post-punk bands that politicized me as a young person. I learned about the neoliberal economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan, right-wing white nationalism in the UK, nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific, the Pinochet regime in Chile, South African apartheid, and more through the music of that era.
Decades later, once I trained to produce and host two public affairs radio programs (one on Indigenous politics and the other on anarchist activism), I would host a seasonal music program on WESU (the radio station affiliated with Wesleyan University, where I teach, in Middletown, Connecticut). That show was called “Going Underground” (an ode to the song of the same name by The Jam) as DJ Pineapple Krush (a decolonial nod to my Native Hawaiian ancestry), which I hosted each winter from 2007 to 2012 (and since then occasionally doing live gigs and fill-in shows on air). The program traced some of the genealogies of influence of original post-punk on contemporary indie, playing everything from Gang of Four to TV on the Radio; early Arcade Fire to Echo and the Bunnymen, and Siouxsie and the Banshees to Santigold.
The music of all of the bands Aggs is part of is part of why I gravitate toward her—smart sharp lyrics with a political edge infused with playfulness (rather than a heavy hand), while danceable. The other part is Aggs herself as an astounding and prolific talent—her charming vocals and unstoppable polyrhythmic guitar playing—who is also a queer woman of color (still somewhat rare in the indie music scene). The major themes of the following interview include her musical trajectory and creative process as a self-taught guitarist; community and collaboration; racial and gender politics; queer aesthetics; her DIY ethos; early post-punk influences, and the current post-election and post-Brexit period in the UK.ii
I want to start with the current political moment. I arrived in London practically the “morning after” Brexit. What does it feel like in terms of a post-election, post-Brexit UK [for] right now? And what are things like in Glasgow? I noticed your social media posts regarding your vote [for] Labour, and promoting a socialist politic.
Yeah, definitely. I think I haven’t been that involved in the Labour campaign because I’ve been in Scotland, and in Scotland, it was a pretty big victory for the Scottish National Party (SNP). And I also haven’t lived in Scotland for that long, so I don’t feel really that I understand politically where people are coming from and the emotional history of it as well. A lot of my friends were knocking on doors for Labour in the run-up to the election, and I didn’t really feel like I could do that in Scotland because as an English person, I felt like it would almost be unhelpful for the Labour campaign to be like, “Hello!” Not that there’s anti-English feeling in Scotland but more just that I’ve only recently moved to Glasgow (it’s cheaper to live there), and I’m from London. And some people in Glasgow have a chip on their shoulder about London as well. I think the SNP victory was kind of a silver lining because potentially we’ll get Scottish independence, which could be just a really good opportunity to start something positive and give people a chance to escape the Tories. But it was a bit disheartening for a lot of people. Election night was really depressing, I’m not going to lie. It’s a hard thing for people, when there’s a defeat that’s that bad; it makes you want to disengage because it’s depressing, you can’t see much hope. I think a lot of people I know were really excited about Corbin’s campaign. His manifesto was great! How do you come back from that? “Yeah, this is an amazing manifesto. Surely people are going to be on board with this!” For the country to vote for Boris Johnson, it’s just…it’s so disappointing.
Now watching [the] U.S. democratic process unfolding right now, I don’t know what you call it.
Yeah, I’m still trying to figure out a name for it! But yeah, the primaries.
Right, when they chose a candidate, I’m just quite detached from that. Bernie’s going to, hopefully. I mean, I hope for you guys. It’s hard when you invest energy in hoping, isn’t it?
Yeah, and that’s what you’re saying: that defeat can morph into disengagement.
It’s really difficult to combat that. I mean, I’m trying to, but I do feel demoralized, I’m not going to lie. But do you then move away from party politics and concentrate more on grassroots activism and trying to help in your community?
Mobilizing differently as an alternative…
But I think as a musician it’s quite hard to do when you’re touring a lot. I feel quite disconnected from my community in Glasgow, when I travel too much. I would like, in the future, to make some time to be in my hometown, doing some volunteering or just even learning more about my local community. Because that’s what went wrong in a lot of the Labour campaign, maybe. I can’t really speak to it, since I’m not a politician. But you need to know what’s going on in your local area, or there’s no point getting involved in politics.
You were based in London, but where did you grow up?
I actually grew up in the countryside about an hour south of London, and nearer to Brighton. A seaside town. I grew up around there, and my family is literally in the middle of nowhere in the countryside.
I know it from the movie Quadrophenia. [Laughs]
Anyhow, so related to why I launched the interview with a question about politics is related to my own interest in your music, and that is because post-punk music is how I initially became politicized. For me that was more the early 80s than the late 70s (because of my age). I wonder how you actually came to that sound and the music. It seems like the bands you’ve been involved in (if I’ve got the genealogies right) started after the aughts proper when there was the revival. And my sense is that post-punk—now we don’t need to say “post-punk revival” because it’s actually crystallized as a genre—it’s still a big tent, there’s still a lot under that umbrella of what counts. But I think of that earlier period as more of an era than a genre, because that was the experimental phase (pre-new wave), and there’s definitely an “after” in the “post,” for “post- punk.”
I just wondered how you think about the genre vs. era question—or the genre now—but also the politics of post-punk music, and also just how you came to the sound. And how does this relate to your musical background—you grew up playing piano and violin from a young age, yes?
So there are many strands here. I wasn’t a punk. I wasn’t into guitar music when I was a kid. It was a period of pop-punk, or whatever, when I was a teenager, which a lot of people were really into. But it was very white, very male, straight, and I wasn’t interested in the Foo Fighters—or whatever, I don’t even know who it was (bands that my friends were listening to). But I was playing more folk music, and was really interested in experimental music—the weirder, the better. And I actually was studying art. I heard the Raincoats first, and I think I was drawn to it because it had violin in it, and I played the violin. And then I started to listen to some sort of no-wave bands like DNA, James Chance, and Bush Tetras. I just loved that quite extreme sound. I’d never heard anything like it even though it was old.
I saw Bush Tetras play in New Haven, Connecticut, just the year before last, and they issued some new material. They’re still phenomenal.
I’ve never seen them, but I would love to!
So you went from folk to experimental, to some of the bands you mentioned that opened things up?
Yeah, The Raincoats was the opening point, but at the same time, I was coming out. I was eighteen or so. I went to a boarding school, so it was quite oppressive. Not too bad, but in the UK there’s a pretty bad history in terms of education and sexuality. I don’t know if you know of the Thatcher years?
Yes, initially through post-punk music, actually.
There was still a legacy of that when I was in school, so as I was leaving school I was discovering Riot Girl, and bands like La Tigre, who were really important to me. It was, like, “Oh God, you find something like that and you can latch onto it.” Not so much musical inspiration as a kind of survival line. So, La Tigre, Sleater Kinney, Electrelane. I later met them when I moved to London, but at the time I didn’t know them (I was a teenager). But the experimental and folk was happening, but also this world of music that is talking about politics, and also identity and empowerment. So I thought, I can play this music, but also if I hang out with these people, maybe I’m going to be okay. [Laughs]
So affiliation, association, and community.
Yeah, definitely community.
To circle back to the genre/era distinction—and also, I want to come back to the queer politics of the music, especially with Shopping (the queer aesthetics of the music and the vibe, in terms of style and content) but thinking about revival groups. Whether I’m thinking of Franz Ferdinand or Arctic Monkeys (or how, say, early Arcade Fire resonates with early Echo & the Bunnymen), those have a huge range if we think about that whole decade. But there’s so much in the guitar work that you’re doing, and I can hear the African Highlife, the Afrobeat, funk. I wonder what attracts you to that. And I also, if you could say more about your technique, your craft? Because your guitar playing is just killer!
[Laughs] Thanks! I think a lot of that comes from, weirdly, from having a folk upbringing, and I never really thought about it until recently. I do kind of approach the guitar in maybe more of a folk-y way, because I never learned chords, I couldn’t get my head around them. I learned to play guitar on a guitar that only had four strings. I was at school and there was an acoustic guitar lying around the music department. I used to sneak in because it was boarding school and you could get in after hours. I would play this broken guitar. You couldn’t play chords on it because it didn’t have all the strings, so I didn’t even bother. So, I think that maybe has something to do with it! I never really thought about it. I would do a lot of finger picking, which is something that people often learn later. People learn chords first on the guitar, which I think is weird, I don’t get it—because it’s hard to get your hands in these quite unnatural positions. It was really nice that I was able to teach myself and do it in this very intuitive physical way, and do what feels comfortable and just figure it out.
So there was that, but also, I really love fiddle tunes, I love melody and rhythm. And I wanted to do that on guitar, I didn’t want to just be playing a chord in the background, you know? Rhythm guitar: I was, like, “Nah.” The feeling of playing the lead part, I guess is what you call it in rock terms. But in the folk world, it’s just playing a tune. That is a more folk approach to the guitar. Because I was doing that, and because I was also listening to a lot of scratchy no-wave and noisy stuff, what came about was just weird! I didn’t know what I was doing, but then people started to be like, “Oh, this kind of sounds like African music. Have you listened to much?” And I had a bit, but I wasn’t focused and I didn’t know anything about the history of that music.
It was funny because when people started saying that about my playing, after the first record I did with Trash Kit, Rachel (the drummer) and I both started listening to a lot of African music together. We would download music and share it with each other. It was a really cool moment because I was, like, “I love this music and this is how I want to play guitar!” So it was a weird tangled thing, but I was just never interested in playing the guitar in a rock way. That’s why it came out how it came out. I remember thinking, it was 2008 (when I started doing bands), [and] no one really listens to guitar music anyways now. I can’t just play the guitar, I have to play the guitar in myway. It needs to sound like no one else. I need to make it mine. Because otherwise, what’s the point? I should just make music on a computer or something. [Laughs] It needs to feel exciting to me.
It’s so incredible that you’re a self-taught guitarist.
I do teach guitar sometimes, and people often say, “Oh, you’re self-taught!” And I really encourage people to teach themselves because it’s fun and it’s really empowering as well. I was taught musical instruments since I was five years old, so I did have a head start. Maybe it’s like learning a language.
Having an ear for things?
Yeah, if a kid is bilingual since they’re really young, they’re much more likely to turn into a polyglot. And I don’t want to be too cocky about teaching myself because I was taught music when I was very young. I don’t even remember that process.
Are either of your parents musicians, or were they back then?
Yeah, my mom wasn’t, but my dad played the guitar, and he then picked up the banjo. I’ve been playing music with my dad since, well, I can’t remember not doing it. My mom would play the piano really badly. [Laughs] Then, maybe four years ago, me and my dad were playing banjo and fiddle together at a lot at folk festivals. My mom felt left out, so then she learned the bass at age 60. Which is so cool, and she’s really good at it! And we now play all together, we have a little band.
I know; it’s really, really cool! It’s a bit off topic, but I’m so amazed and inspired by it. Like, what instrument am I going to learn when I’m 60? That’s so exciting!
It really is, but it also sounds like you come from a fortifying background, one that was nourishing your creativity from a young age, and cultivating the performative aspect. I get the sense that you might be a bit shy, but when I see you on stage, you’re playful and you look like you’re relishing every moment.
Yeah, I think I’m really lucky in that respect. My family, they’re also artists. My dad’s a painter and my mom draws comic books, and so does my brother. My family is super art-y and weird, so I couldn’t not do something creative. They tried with me and my brother, like, “You should study law or something!”
Was that the push towards art school when you first started?
Yeah, with me they were, like, “Alright, we can’t stop you going to art school.” I remember with my brother they were like, “You’re smart! You should do something. You could get a real job!” C’mon…
Yeah, so, I’m lucky. I don’t know many people that have that: that get to play music with their family. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. I’ve always been aware that I’m lucky. Since I was really young I’ve always loved the feeling of playing with other people as well. I didn’t like to practice that much…my violin. I still don’t, but I know to play with other people, you know? And I think it’s quite like a folk thing, but it’s also a punk thing. People don’t go away and practice their guitar on their own much in the punk scene. I mean, some people do. I did when I was younger, but…
But it’s through the practice and the collaboration…
It’s just much more about collaboration than it is about an individual being, like, “I’m a virtuoso.” Because then it makes it less about the ego, which is political as well.
Yeah, more about sociality. I read about your facilitating workshops for women and non-binary folks to learn to play guitar. And I also read in She Shreds magazine (issue #18 2019), when you guest-edited, about your take on “decolonizing the guitar.” I’d love to hear more about that, and here I’m thinking about the gender milieu you’re in, women of color, queer folks—that DIY ethos, the empowerment model.
Yeah, I think that the DIY ethos is really empowering in terms of that. Like with Shopping for instance, nobody wanted to release our first record, and it sounded kinda crazy. [Laughs] So a big label is not going to put it out. But we were just so excited about it that we did it ourselves. And I still feel really proud of that. I don’t think I could’ve managed the actual organization of it, because I am disorganized as a person. But the fact that they did that, and then we were able to distribute it by hand when we were on tour—it just felt really cool! And if you have that energy behind your band, why not? Why wait for someone to come and give you an opportunity? You know, I don’t feel like I have as much energy as I used to, like, 10 years ago. But like, if you really believe in what you’re doing and you love it, why would you wait for anybody else to give you permission? And I think that is what it’s all about.
But anyway, back to the teaching thing. I suppose that it’s connected because I’m not a teacher in the sense that I was never taught—so I don’t really know how to teach people, there’s still a lot about the guitar that I don’t know, that is, like, considered the right way of doing things. But I think what I can tell people is, is, like, at least try to empower them by saying, “I did this my own, and you don’t really need anyone to tell you how to do this.” Which I suppose is similar to that thing of releasing your own record. It’s like, you don’t need anyone to give you permission to play the guitar. If you make a sound that you like, that’s great! Keep doing that! It’s kind of about trusting your ears, and your body because it is very physical. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I can’t!” or “My hands are too small!” And it’s almost like they’re saying they’re the wrong person. Or like, they’ll never be able to do that, play that instrument, because there’s something wrong with their body or something. It’s never the case! Literally anyone can play this, and you can. Yeah, I don’t know where I’m going with this.
But that idea of access—who can access it? And that embodied part, when you’re saying “trust yourself.”
I just think it’s really interesting…
You said “intuitive” earlier, for yourself when you were learning intuitively.
Yeah, I did a workshop. I was a bit thrown because there were people, like my age, and then there was also someone that brought their ten-year-old, or maybe seven-year-old daughter to the workshop, and I was, like, “Ahh!” Suddenly, different bodies are here. And also different ways of learning. I was, like, “Is this going to be weird?” But at one point, I just told her to put the guitar on the floor. “You could just put it on the floor!” And I put a guitar pedal on it. And she was just hitting it with things. And she was…her face lit up because it was making cool sounds, and she was so into it! And I was, like, “Great!”
The guitar can do whatever you want it to do. You don’t have to even hold it. [Laughs] Yeah, so I don’t know. I’m not a traditional teacher. I’m just interested in exploring different ways of opening up the instrument to people because there’s so much psychological bullshit that people—the barriers that people face exist because of a lot of patriarchal bullshit, and ideas around what is “good” playing. And you just have to get people out of that headspace.
Right. And then there’s the decolonize aspect, like with white “cock-rock.” And yet, the Black roots of so much of that music.
Yeah, it’s really fun to talk to people about that because a lot of people haven’t really thought about the fact that the Rolling Stones stole all their ideas from Black musicians. And so did the Beatles. And you know, that’s really empowering to, sort of, follow that history. But also, when I, as I was saying with African music, when I started to play in my own weird way, and then somebody told me, “Hmm, this kind of reminds me of Zimbabwe music, or, like, Western Saharan guitarists,” it was just so exciting because I was, like, “Oh, there are so many ways of playing the guitar!” And this type of music, this African sort of style, was so natural to me, and I didn’t even know I was doing it, you know? And that to me is really exciting. It’s, like, if you can discover something totally on your own as well, it’s like you’ve made it out. [Laughs] You know?
And it’s cool—I’ve played some chords: if I put my fingers on strings and they make a good sound together, I’m not going to be, like, “Oh, is that a diminished 7th or whatever?” I’m going to be, like, “Oh, that’s a nice sound!” And I came up with it. I didn’t read it in a book, and then, it wasn’t knowledge passed on to me from some white man that wrote the book, you know? I invented it! Yeah, I didn’t invent it, but I feel like I did! [Laughs]
Right! Well it’s because it’s coming out of more, in a sense—I hate to use the word “authentic”—but it has that organic…it’s the process. Experimentation and exploration.
I think that comes back to folk and roots music. I feel, I just don’t know, you can never really know, but I just believe that a lot of folk musicians that were, in the past, more isolated probably worked that way. They didn’t learn, like, received ways of doing things. They just picked up an instrument, and tried to make sound out of it, and went with whatever sounded good. And I think it’s really important not to lose that way of learning, or that way of creating with music. Because you can, if you listen too much to received ideas of ways of doing things because, yeah, it’s you and the instrument at the end of the day.
That’s incredible! I don’t play any instruments, so I’m completely in awe. To jump cut here, I want to ask you about your African diaspora roots, there is an American circuit there, yes?
On my mom’s side.
For the upcoming European tour with Trash Kit, you wrote “Muscogee woman” under one of your art pieces, from the cover of the first Trash Kit LP. I’m familiar with Muscogee (aka Creek Indians) because my research and teaching is grounded in Indigenous studies. Do you have Muscogee ancestry as well? There are a lot of intermixed histories with the southeastern tribes and African descendants.
Yes. So, my grandma lives in San Diego right now.
I grew up an hour from there by the way! I’m a diasporic Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), I grew up in Southern Cal!
Well my grandma is from the South; she’s from Alabama. And she loves ancestry, so we’ve done a lot of digging into that lineage and confirmed our Creek heritage. But I don’t know, I have mixed feelings—I drew that album cover ten years ago. And, I guess, the conversation around issues of cultural appropriation was nonexistent in 2010, at least in my world. I don’t know if I would draw that now. Even though I can claim that heritage, I don’t feel connected to it. Because I’ve never lived in the States. Do you know what I mean?
Part of it may be about proximity, familiarity, and community? A different kind of community question?
Yeah just, I don’t know if I would draw that now. But at the same time it was more important to me when I was, like, twenty-two, or whatever. Because it was a bit isolated and lonely in the UK punk scene to be a person of color, and Rachel, the drummer in Trash Kit, is also half Filipino, so it was a big thing for us starting the band that we bonded over, that we want to make a band where we talk about our heritage. Because also, I think, having that side of my family that lives really far away as well is, like, it’s quite hard to place your sense of, sort of, identity in terms of race. Because you’re like, well that side of my family isn’t even in this country.
So it was really important for us to make a statement even though no one really noticed at the time. [Laughs] Because no one was—in the UK anyway—no one was talking about race in 2010. But we wanted to honor our ancestors, I suppose. I guess it’s weird to think about anything you did ten years ago; you’re, like, “Would I do that now?” Maybe not. But, I mean, it was important for me at the time to do that.
I feel awkward talking about it because I don’t know very much about Creek tradition or anything. But I really loved that; I drew it from a photo that my mum sent me.
It’s an incredible drawing. And it’s got the different material-cultural pieces that she’s wearing. It’s beautiful.
Yeah, I thought she also looked quite androgynous. Or there was a, sort of, a really interesting kind of non-binary type gender presentation that really appealed to me as well.
Incredible—thank you for sharing that with me.
I want to go back to when you said that ten years ago nobody was talking about race. What does it feel like now, a decade later—the queer milieu, a more feminist milieu, and the racial politics of decolonization?
Yeah, it’s so different. It’s really amazing, and weird to be honest. [Laughs]
Yeah, because ten years isn’t that long in the scheme of things, even though it is late, right?
It’s not that long, but it just feels like so much has changed, and I don’t know if it’s the same in the States, because when I, when we started Trash Kit, I did have more of a relationship with, there were people in the States that I knew that I would write and stuff, but I didn’t know any people of color making, like, our kind of music in the UK at all. Really, at all. Until I met Big Joanie and those people that were doing Decolonise Fest [a London-based DIY punk fest created by and for punx of color] fairly recently. So it was really barren for a while.
And yeah, I felt like the album was this…I mean not sure I can say “statement” because no one really heard it, but I feel like when you’re twenty, you think everything is really important. [Laughs] I thought it was more of a statement on race than anyone else picked up on, and no one, like, whenever I’d bring it up in interviews we’d do, I could feel the interviewer, who was always white, tensing up and, you know, wanting to move on to the next subject. And it was, like, “Oh, okay, we can’t talk about this.” I really wanted to talk about it!
Actually, maybe this could be a good segue to discuss the queer sensibilities in the music of Shopping that comes through, and not just because there are queer members; there’s something in there around the aesthetics. And also, I’m not sure how much this is related, but, I love the talking, singing, and the layering that the three of you do together, even just, it really struck me watching you on stage last night, just the layering, “I walked in, you walked out just the three of you kind of sharing a story in a fragmented way that communicates so much. And it felt so queer to me!
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s great! I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s a nice way of saying it. I think it maybe comes back to what I was saying about collaboration. I think collaborating that way is very queer. Kind of a lack of ego, again, but also just letting yourself get really excited by hanging out with your friends. Yeah, before we started Shopping actually, we were in a different band together called Cover Girl, that was very queer, [a] party band, very chaotic, but always so fun. And I feel like we built on that sense of fun with Shopping. I agree; I think it is very queer!
There’s something about sharing lyrics that’s really nice because you forget who had the idea in the first place. It’s, like, “Oh, this is my lyric!” I don’t remember who came up with that. Most Shopping songs, I’m, like, “I don’t remember who wrote what lyric.’ We all write together and it’s weird, because I’m, like, “I don’t think I wrote that, I didn’t come up with that.” But it’s really nice ‘cause you have a sense of pride in it, I think, when it’s a shared thing. Because I’m quite hard on myself when I make music, if I make stuff on my own or whatever. It’s easy to be, like, “Oh God, is this even good? I don’t like it.…” But when you’re making something with other people, it’s much easier to feel proud of it because you’re not just proud of yourself, you’re proud of your friends, and you’re proud of this thing you’ve made together.
Yeah, it’s your crew.
That’s great. Actually, maybe I can ask you a few questions about the new album. Thinking about some of the themes that come through in All or Nothing, a couple [of] things struck me last night. Thinking of initiative, and a neo-liberal, kind of, management, and even the stalker song, “Follow Me,” you’re talking about CCTV, there’s the part about the interpersonal looking at, looking for, but there’s also the surveillance part, and I wonder if you could speak to some of the themes of the LP?
Yeah, it’s all there. [Laughs]
And, last night you all said on stage that it was recorded in just two weeks, right?
Yeah, and it was really collaborative, and actually the lyric writing was particularly collaborative on this record. A lot of the time, when it’s just me singing, it will be me that’s written the lyrics, but we did, I think ‘cause we wrote it quite fast, there were some songs that I didn’t have finished lyrics [for] when we went into the studio, and I was slightly panicking. I was, like, “Guys, you need to help me because I haven’t written these lyrics!” But then what it allowed was a process where we worked together, and it was really fun. I really like some of the stuff that’s come out and, again, it’s that thing of certain lines, I’m, like, “Damn, that’s a good line!” And it’s because I didn’t come up with. I’m able to feel, like, really excited about it. But yeah, I did “Follow Me,” that song. I remember writing that, and I just was singing nonsense. And Andrew said, “Oh, it sounds like you’re saying Follow Me,” and I was, like, “Oh, great!” And we were kind of joking: “Oh, yeah. It can be a song about being followed around a shop.” Which I have been.
Yeah, someone’s profiling you and thinks you’re going to steal something. But then it was, like, kind of a joke because we were, like, imagine if the security guard actually has a crush on you! [Laughs] So then it just spiraled out. We were, like, “Is this a joke anymore? I think this is a song now!” So yeah, I think that is a very queer way of writing songs as well. It’s like making something kind of ridiculous, and kind of sexy, but dumb, but then you’re, like, “But actually—wait—maybe this song is about surveillance!” And actually it’s a really serious song.
In terms of you being in three bands (and how you do it all?), I read in an interview a while back that your music projects are a way of getting your different needs met. I understand that all three bands you’re currently in emerged from other bands you were part of. Can you speak to what it is like to be in several at once—how do you think about the differences? And how does each one feed you?
Yeah, I feel like they’re all really different to me. I mean, someone who hasn’t heard any of my bands might think they sound really similar. But, to me, they have really different personalities. And that does have to do just with the people that are in them. You have different groups of friends that you hang out with, and it can be a totally different vibe, you know? When you hang out with some people as opposed to other people. And it’s just…that’s it to me, really. With Trash Kit, I couldn’t make that music with anyone else. With Shopping, I couldn’t make that music with anyone else. You know? No one’s a replaceable member, you know? Everyone’s integral to each band—the identity and the personality of the band is going to reflect that. I mean, with Trash Kit, we have had two different bass players, but since we changed bass players, we wrote a whole new album with her. And we pretty much only play that album live. There was a point where she was playing somebody else’s part, but we wanted to write with her because that is what the band is meant to be about now—this particular collaboration.
And with Sacred Paws, we do have members. I write parts for other people to play, but the songwriting is about me and the drummer, I guess. It’s that relationship. I don’t know, I think ‘cause when I make music…sometimes, I make music on my own that I never play anymore. [Laughs] And I find it confusing ‘cause I don’t know what kind of music I want to make, and I feel like the options are too overwhelming sometimes. Whereas when I’m responding to someone else, it’s like, it focuses it. If that makes sense!
Because it sharpens the focus in a sense?
It becomes more of a conversation, maybe.
Actually, I hear that in three bands, even though they’re different. I do think of them as different, for sure. There are some threads around the influences, but that’s the conversation part too, beyond the lyrics even.
Yeah, definitely. I think, just, in that respect, to me, a conversation is always going to be more fruitful than, like, a monologue. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be more, like, what’s the word? Humane, or something. Does that make sense?
Yeah, and be more sensitive.
I feel that comes through in all the bands, and also there’s an empathy, it’s a different kind of empathy.
Empathy! That’s the word I was looking for.
And I feel like that’s also related to a queer sensibility, that anticipating how someone might—not to essentialize—but that idea of “this happened, that sucks,” or just looking out for people, in the best sense of a queer community.
Sure. Yeah, there’s something quite nice about when you write.…Sometimes I write songs with Eilidh of Sacred Paws, and I’ll be, like, “Ah, I’m singing about this thing, and this song’s kind of about such and such.” She’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I was singing about this thing!” And it just throws your thinking. And either it changes your opinion of the song or you’re just, “Oh, alright. Cool!” You have your internal world going on in this song, and I have mine. And maybe they don’t even connect. I think that’s kind of weird, but there’s something about it I really like. Because I think when anyone listens to a song, you insert yourself into it. But you can’t articulate in what way sometimes. You can’t articulate why you connect with it; it’s all relative to your world and what’s happening with you.
That’s right. What resonates for people and the role of affect.
But I really like being able to respect that, in my bandmates, and be like, cool! I’m not going to impose my problems into your song. And it’s not my song either; it’s both of ours. And, I don’t know. It makes a weird, messy style of songwriting, but I like it. [Laughs]
Shifting gears here, at the Montreal show for Sacred Paws, I was talking with the bassist afterward, and she was explaining that there’s a difference between people that you might include in Sacred Paws for the tour, but that it really is you and the drummer as the anchors. And I wondered about that part, in terms of maintaining a strong relationship, and how, especially now that you’re in Glasgow, how does that work in a way? And not in a way of problematizing it, just more curious about not having a band, a group. Is it easier to negotiate, I imagine, with one person—and then you can kind of cherry-pick people that you vibe with, that you can travel with, who know your work, and also that love the music.
Yeah it kind of is. I don’t know, I felt a bit weird about it because I’d never been in a band that, like, kind of employed people in a way to come on tour with us. But I think it’s ‘cause we started out that way. We started writing just the two of us, and playing, just drums and guitar. And then we added a bunch of stuff; I played all the instruments on the record, still. But it was, like, we don’t want to go back to just doing drums and guitar again ‘cause it’s quite sparse. But the writing process—it being two of us—makes it sound a specific way, I think.
If I could jump cut here, I’m interested in earlier era musicians that have really been drawn to what you do in terms of your music and your craft. I’ve got three questions. What was it like working with Edwin Collins of Orange Juice (post punk OG!) as a producer? Or putting out the record on the Mogwai label. And you know, also having Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth tap you for the “12 guitarists” performance at Barbican. And touring with the ESG! That intergenerational music draw?
Yeah, it’s always really amazing to meet your, kind of, heroes. [Laughs] Although, I don’t know. When I call them heroes, not really, actually. I guess just people whose opinion you respect, you know? That really matters to me. I never imagined I would even meet those people, and the fact that they like my music is always just, like, “What?!” But, I think it comes back to that sense of community, actually. It makes you feel like a big shot, or whatever, but at the same time, I really connect with [them], especially Sonic Youth. You know when you hear a band and you’re just. Like, “These are my people!”? They make weird, noisy music, and it has such energy, and I can just tell that they really care about it. I can tell, and meeting Thurston, I was, like, “Oh, yeah. You’re obsessed with music!” He’s such a music nerd. I don’t know why I was surprised by that. But it was, like, “Oh, yeah, obviously we are going to get on.” These people aren’t just successful musicians; they’re passionate about this weird kind of music that we make, and that is a community in itself. Weirdos! [Laughs] Making the kind of music that I connect with, and there’s a reason I connect with it…I don’t know, it’s validating I guess, because you’re, like, if they like what I do, it means I’m being honest, or something. Because I like to think it comes from the same place.
There are also quite different bands. Mogwai is a band that I really liked when I was getting into playing guitar because it was exciting to hear music that didn’t have any singing on it. I was really like, “Wow! You can do that; that’s an option.” But I wasn’t like a massive fan. I didn’t know that much about them; we just met them through the Glasgow connection. And they’re just the nicest people ever! And again, it was that feeling of, “We are going to get along. You’re just a normal person. And a music nerd.” And I thought it was really cool that they liked what Sacred Paws was doing. Because I really can’t imagine our music sounding more different [from theirs]. I talked to Stewart [Braithwaite] (of Mogwai) about guitar playing. He’s like, “I love your guitar playing.” I’m like, “I love your guitar playing, but I really can’t imagine two people that play guitar more differently than we…!” You know, he has a pedal board like this big. It’s very atmospheric, soundscape work. I feel like what I do is the other end of the spectrum somehow. But yeah, it’s just nice when you connect with someone.
I don’t feel that differently about those people who happen to be famous than I do about friends that I’ve met through music, whose music I love. Like if someone whose band that I love says that they like my band, I’m so happy about it! It makes you feel like you’re doing something right. It doesn’t really matter to me, like, if anyone else has heard it.
Yeah, there’s something there!
It’s something I think about a lot, definitely, if I feel unconfident. I’m honored that this person said they like it. I do care about…I don’t care about what the general public thinks, but I really care about what other musicians think of what I do. It’s that feeling of, if they can connect with what I do the way I connect with what they do, it’s working!
Yep! That’s that mutuality. That’s incredible. Did Edwin Collins approach you all or how did that go?
No, we actually just wrote to him because he has a studio. I mean I’m sure he won’t record just anyone’s record, but you can write to him and ask to work with him. So, we did. We sent him some of our stuff, our past records, and he really liked it. He’s so fun to work with. He’s hilarious. And again, so passionate about music. He just makes you…he’s constantly singing. [Laughs] Just like all day. And telling jokes and stories about bands and people he’s met. And just is really enthusiastic, very infectious. Just, yeah, gets excited about guitar pedals or a tape delay unit. “You have to use this tape delay unit! It’s from the 60s!” Cool, okay!
That’s so awesome.
I wondered if I could ask something a bit more personal, around doing so much and managing so much, and now having an Atlantic transcontinental collaboration with Billy Easter of Shopping living out in LA…What is your self-care practice? I mean, you’re giving me time on your day off when you could easily be lounging in bed listening to tunes or watching Netflix or something! I’m not saying that constitutes self-care. But I just mean your wellness: how do you think about it with all that you manage?
It’s difficult for me, because I do a lot of music stuff, but I don’t do anything else. And I don’t know if I’m just comparing myself to other people. But I know so many people in music that do maybe not as much as I do, but do tons, and have part-time or full-time jobs! Or do activism, or do volunteering. I don’t do any of that. I really respect when…I think I do a lot, but there are people who do a lot more than me. I'm not about to accept the medal of doing shit. [Laughs] Does that make sense? Recently I’ve been feeling like looking out for myself maybe needs to be, like, actually doing something else that isn’t music. It’s a constant thing, isn’t it? We’re all trying to look after ourselves, and figure out how. I don’t think I’ve figured it out, to be honest. For a while, I was feeling very burnt-out and overwhelmed. Because it’s, like, when you’re doing something you love all the time, it becomes…you inevitably love it a little bit less because you’re tired. And I think that’s really hard for me to deal with because music is [my] first love, and if I feel like I’m falling out of love with it ever, I really don’t know what to do with myself, and I feel very disoriented and weird. So yeah, it’s something that I really try to keep on top of. It’s hard! [Laughs]
That makes sense. And also, if you’re now in Glasgow—how long have you been there?
I’ve been living there for almost two years.
So less of a commute for music with Sacred Paws. Is Andrew Milk [of Shopping] based there as well?
Yeah, Andrew’s in Glasgow too. But yeah, I think it’s always shifting. I have had quite a lot of time off recently, but it was really intentional. We were meant to be on tour with Sacred Paws. Our agent kind of fucked up, but then I was not following stuff up. I think I was subconsciously trying to not do things. [Laughs] And take some time off.
But yeah, it’s difficult. I think something I really want to work on is doing some volunteering or some other work that is meaningful but not music. Because, you know, otherwise when it’s all I do, I just lose perspective or something. I think politically as well, especially in the UK—I mean everywhere honestly—feels like kind of dark times. And we were saying at the start of the conversation that it’s hard to be hopeful if you’re not engaged in your community. And when I’m just traveling and doing music stuff, it makes you feel a little self-absorbed. Not self-absorbed, introspective.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
I think I would like to do more to help people, is what I’m trying to say I guess. Instead of just doing my own thing all the time.
This has been amazing. This has been incredible. I mean, I really appreciate it. Is there anything that you want to communicate that you feel like didn’t come through in what I asked you?
I don’t know! I could talk for ages. I’m easy!
Awesome for me!
Emily Twombly, “Shopping: You Can Do This,” L.A. Record, 20 March 2018, https://larecord.com/archive/2018/03/20/shopping-the-official-body-interview.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Thanks to Marshall Hanig for transcribing the audio file.