With their new album, Canines, out now, Soundblab catches up with Bob (vocals/guitar) and Helen (vocals) of fantastic London/Brighton indie-rockers Shrag for a chat about playing America, dodging dodgy labels and why they love noise.
Hey guys, last time Soundblab interviewed back in 2010 you were about to play America. How did that go? Any other countries you've played in since?
Bob: 2010? Wow. Time flies. Yes we went to America and played four shows in two days. Hardly Jay-Z, but an experience nonetheless. We heart NY! We've not clocked up many air miles as a band since then. We played Spain for the first time a couple of months ago and that was really great. Other than that we've stayed pretty much on home soil. Unless you count Scotland. We recorded our album there. And Wales... We KILLED IT in Cardiff!
Helen: America was great, we swanned around playing shows and drinking bloody marys and eating lots of food. We wanna go back.
You new album, Canines, sounds noisier, a bit more aggressive than you last album, Life! Death! Prizes! Was that intentional?
Bob: I like noise so yes - intentional. I wanted the album to start noisy. Hopefully the freeloaders and casual listeners will get confused and stop listening. Who needs them!
Helen: We really like making noise. We wanted even the slower songs to be noisy.
How was the recording process this time around?
Bob: Difficult. It's the first time we worked with a producer and the first time we set aside a period of time to record and mix our album in one go. That didn't happen. Andy Miller, our producer is a lovely man and very patient. We're not used to people telling us what to do. Not that we're stubborn or arrogant in any way. We are just sloppy as hell. But we got there in the end. Just a few months later than planned.
Helen: The recording process was completely different, we'd never recorded in the day-in day-out way we did this time, it was kind of grueling but really enjoyable, exciting. We wanted to do things differently this time. Working with Andy was great and really illuminating in terms of our own prior practice in the studio. Having a producer adds a whole new dynamic to the process which is really interesting, and I think lent the recordings a kind of coherence and cohesion which I'm glad about. But yeah, we learned a lot of lessons... Things ALWAYS take longer than you think they will. We had thought this record was gonna be out in February, haha...
You get quite a lot of different labels lobbed your way - riot grrrl, post-punk, indie-pop, twee - any you're unhappy with or think are way off?
Bob: I don't know. We don't encourage any of them. Post-punk is the one I'm most comfortable with, but even then it doesn't tell the whole story. Twee bothers me. There's nothing remotely twee about any of us - musically or personally. Nothing against it but it's not for me... Some of my best friends are twee, etc. The label I most want lobbed our way is an American one!
Helen: When we get called twee it normally comes with a qualifier - two favourites of mine were 'psycho-twee' and 'narcissistic terror-twee' - and as much as I dislike the word 'twee' I'm rather fond of those two.... I don't know, those labels are rarely useful, and often just completely wrong or misleading. We also got called shitgaze.
The song titles on the album are very interesting, and again a little violent or animalistic: 'Show Us Your Canines', 'Tendons of the Night' (with its "muscles of a racehorse" lyric), 'Devastating Bones'. Is there any kind of theme there?
Helen: Yeah, it's definitely a very visceral, physical record; a lot of the songs explore the way emotional or psychological pain and/or pleasure can be manifested in, or transmuted into, physical pain or pleasure; when emotional reactions give you an almost physical ache, either cos of locating extreme beauty, happiness, or extreme sadness, loss, memory... There's a lot of extremes in Canines!
And to that extent, yes, violence... Using the immediacy and physicality of the body was a way of approximating that. There's also a dialogue of sorts going on concerning structures, I was interested in the relationship between internal structures (ways of thinking, belief systems etc) and external ones - structures of the body (bones, muscles, fluids (dirty bastard), and structures of the city (buildings, roads, trains); trying to understand the one by understanding the other, to make sense of things that way.
Lyrically, what were the inspirations for the album's songs?
Helen: See above! The other thing I'd say is that our previous two records were written mostly while I was still living in Brighton, and (for me at least) you can kind of hear or detect that in the songs somehow. Canines is definitely informed by the fact I've been in London for a few years now. It feels a more landlocked record, we're in a pretty grim political situation in this country and of course there's this sensation of the toxicity emanating from London: it sometimes feels like there's something insidiously threatening and indifferent in the air.
I was going through a particularly uncertain time whilst writing Canines, in many ways - relationship-wise, financially, career-wise - and the things that were happening on a political scale seemed to inject that feeling of uncertainty and placelessness with a really sinister, unpleasant, disabling current. I think in Canines there's maybe a register of that and also an implicit protest against it.
'Chasing Consummations' has some strings on it. How did that come about?
Bob: I love strings. We used strings on one track on our last album. They are brilliant. People who play strings are proper musicians. You don't need to spend hours rehearsing. You just print something off your computer that's all dots and lines. Then you show it to them and they just play it. Amazing. Maya, Cat, Ellie and Kat we salute you!
Helen: It was really important to us that those songs had real strings. We use synthesized strings when we demo the songs, obviously, but it's difficult to overestimate the warmth and muscle that a real cello and violin bring to a track. With a song like 'Chasing Consummations' those two qualities were absolutely necessary and yes, we were very lucky to find just the right people to play them for us.
What's going on in the 'Tendons of the Night' video? The end's quite shocking.
Bob: Blood. James Sharpe, the director, worked that dancer really hard.
Helen: That song required blood!
'Tendons of the Night' was released as a split single with Tunabunny. How did that come about? Any other acts you'd recommend we check out?
Bob: Mike Turner, who runs their label, contacted us. He pitched the tour and the split single and we said yes. We didn't think about it too hard. We love Tunabunny.
Helen: Tunabunny released one of my favourite records of last year, Minima Moralia, and everything I'd heard and read about them confirmed them as a singularly exciting, intelligent, impassioned band... So we jumped at the chance. I'd always wanted to do one of those joint tour things too, especially with a US band, it ticked a lot of romantic boxes for me! They were great tourmates, they tore up the UK (toremates?) - we were glad to be there to see it! Oh, and a band who supported us on the last date of the tour, Skinny Girl Diet, are possibly the most exciting thing around at the moment, check them out for sure...
What's next for Shrag?
Bob: Shedbound! We have to write some new songs. We have a one-off single for WIAIWYA coming out in October which isn't written yet. And we need single b-sides because this new record is our 'Thriller'! Everything starts in the shed at the bottom of my garden. That's it on the cover of Canines. That's where the magic happens!
Helen: Playing lots of shows, making videos, and yeah, some writing. I think we're just getting used to the idea that this record is actually coming out - it's been a difficult birth! It's exciting, and we're looking forward to touring it pretty soon.