Shrag - Interviews - Soundblab


by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

Are you a Shrag convert? If not, Soundblab isn't too surprised. The Brighton-via-London five-piece has been bubbling under the radar for a few years now. Soundblab first encountered them rocking Ladyfest Leeds waaay back in 2007 (during which Bob, endearingly, managed to fall off the stage). Then, after a bit of a pause, came the band's excellent, frenetic, eponymous debut album in 2009. Although more a collection of a-sides and b-sides than an album proper, it was enough to serve notice that this was a band worth keeping an ear open for.

If you're not a convert yet, the good news is there's never been a better time to discover Shrag, what with release of their flippin' brilliant second album (they feel it's more like their first, but whatevs). Life! Death! Prizes! is full of angular, post-punk guitar, funky bass, arty synth-pop madness, lyrics about life, love and friendship which you'll want to learn off by heart and much joyous shouting. I'm not sure what more you could want from an album, but you're probably looking at the wrong site if that doesn't cover it for you. It certainly ticks all the boxes for Soundblab, since we made it Album of the Week. Praise doesn't come higher.

When Soundblab catches up with the Shraggers (No? OK, we won't use that again.) at Leeds' Royal Park Cellars they've just finished a very noisy sound-check. Crowding round a table in the bar, the five girls and boys who make up the band are immediately and immensely likeable, their enthusiasm for what they do as catchy as flu during the first week of uni.

Shrag are:

Helen: vocals/keyboards, very eloquent, often talks like she has an entire thesis trying to squeeze its way out her head in one go.

Bob: guitar/vocals, defines the word 'urbane', has the kind of voice which could accompany slow-mo shots of luxury puddings on Marks and Sparks adverts.

Steph: keyboards/backing vocals, seems really down-to-earth, seriously great fringe.

Andy: drums, doesn't say too much but is clearly a lovely bloke.

Russell: bass, very funny, very cute (should Soundblab say that? We just did).

As they giggle, joke and gabble their way through the interview, it's clear this is a band loving every minute of the touring experience. If you haven't caught them live yet, do it! They're even better live than they are on record. And on record, they're very, very good indeed.

How's the tour been going?

Steph: It's been going really, really excellent, hasn't it? (Rest of band murmur assent) We did a tour in Europe before Christmas and the drive there was really brutal, especially for our driver, obviously. It was all eight and nine hour trips in the snow and stuff and this has been really easy and lovely. Everything seems to be about an hour away and we just turn up, sit in the pub for ages and then play a show, hang out with nice people. It's been really good.

The new album - how do you feel it's different from your first one? Has there been a progression?

Bob: Yeah, I think so. The thing is, it's our first album really. The first release was a collection of singles and maybe a couple of extra tracks. It feels like a proper album, so really it's our debut and I think we're all really pleased with it. It's been a long time in the making.

Helen: On the last album, all the songs had already been released, albeit on a very small scale, but they'd all been released as seven inch singles. It just feels very different. It feels like there's stuff that people haven't been able to have access to before. We kind of thought of it as an album rather than as a collection of singles, which is what the last one was. I think that's probably reflected in the way that we recorded it and wrote it.

What are your influences and have they changed since the first album?

Bob: The problem with that question is that we've all got very different influences. It's usually other people who tell us what our influences are. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're way off. I think some of our influences are pretty obvious. I come from a post-punk kind of thing, like The Fall and Joy Division.

Andy: The only points where our influences cross over are things like girl punk stuff like The Slits, Au Pairs, Raincoats, Delta 5, ESG, stuff like that. Those are the only areas we can all agree on but beyond that...

Russell: After so long I was really pleased to see an Au Pairs reference, finally, for our last album because when Helen and I used to live together we listened to that stuff all the time and no one really mentioned it, which I thought was really obvious but I guess it's only obvious in the opening bits of 'Ghosts Before Breakfast', actually (laughs).

Helen: I think particularly Andy and I, our musical taste it very different so there's certain points of confluence, you know. For instance, we both have a massive love for the band Prolaspe. But I think that's kind of indicative of the way it works. We all come from different backgrounds.

I saw you guys at Ladyfest Leeds-

Helen: Oh, God! (Laughs)

Bob: Was that the one where I fell over? (Much laughter)

Are riot grrrl and feminism important to you?

Helen: Yeah, that was important to me in the early 90s. Obviously, that feeds into it but I don't see us as I riot grrrl band. It's definitely brought to the table and it's there. I'm sure there're certain intersections of that which come across.

I read that you guys started off doing painting. Is that true or is it an outrageous lie?

Helen: No, no! It's true but it was never done in earnest, it was just some dumb thing. We were just friends, we used to hang out. Bob was DJ-ing a lot. We used to put shows on and we ended up drawing these pictures one night and I think we ended up putting on a gig somewhere. We decided we were going to exhibit these pictures. We needed a name and that's where the name arose. We weren't a real kind of faddy art collective or anything like that (laughter.)

Russell: (They were) quite rudimentary. I think our first interview, which was with a friend anyway, who writing for a local magazine, but we pretended that we'd met at an adult evening class and that the band was our project, you know? That lasted that interview and we've been stuck with it ever since.

How did the band evolve out of that?

Russell: It sounds corny - I wasn't around for the art but I used to put on gigs as well and a friend was desperate to fill a bill. A band had dropped out three weeks ago or something and I was just like "Let's do it ourselves." We actually got a set together of three long songs (laughter).

Helen: There was one song where someone said "You just played that verse and chorus four times, over and over again with the same lyrics" and it lasted about seven or eight minutes (laughs).

Russell: It wasn't until we recorded it that we heard the voice of the guy who was recording us come over the headphones going, "Guys, that's great. You do know that's nine minutes long?" "Oh, alright." (Much laughter)

Is Brighton a good place for a band to start off?

Steph: Yeah, I think so. It's kind of like a party town so there're always people hanging out. Pretty much anybody you meet is in a band or DJ-ing or doing something like that. If you want to meet other people who have a lot of time on their hands and can have a go at an instrument then it is definitely a good place to be.

How does it compare to London?

Helen: We all met in Brighton.

Steph: You can walk everywhere in Brighton.

Helen: Yeah, that is definitely a plus.

Loads of hills though.

Steph: Lazy bastard! (Laughter)

I lived in Sheffield for a while and I hated it. That's why I loved back to Leeds.

Helen: Oh really, because of the hills? (Laughter) I moved to London a couple of years ago. The way I feel about it is, when Brighton's good it's really, really good and it is somewhere where, like Steph said, you can meet like minded people. There tends to be a real creative energy going on but I always think with Brighton - because I grew up down there as well - it goes in three or four year cycles. It seems be really good for about three years and then things just tail off, people leave and there's a slump for another three or four years, and having moved away and back, away and back loads of times, I kind of felt that was what was happening last time I left. Because it is a small place, when things do take a downturn, it really all goes down, whereas in London, just because of the vastness of it, there's a constant. If you're involved with a certain group of people, it's big enough and it's diverse enough that there's always something sustaining it. For Brighton, for it to be good, it has to have that constellation of things happening at the same time.

Andy (who still resides in Brighton): Because all the good musicians end up moving to London! (Laughter)

Bob: Good musicians like me.

Helen: Yeah, and me. (Laughter)

Do you have a favourite place to play?

All: Leeds! (Laughter)

What are you going to say if you're asked that question tomorrow?

Steph: Wherever we are!

Helen: Joking aside, we've played Leeds quite a few times and we've always, always really enjoyed playing here. It's one of our favourite places. The Cribs brought us here a couple of times. We played the Brudenell. We did Ladyfest. People are really kind to us here, it's always been really good. So I really enjoy playing Leeds.

Andy: I'm going to be totally honest and say my favourite place to play is the Albert in Brighton because it's walking distance from my house (laughter).

What was it like touring with The Cribs?

Helen: It was amazing for us, a small little band and they took us on these full UK tours. We didn't have a clue what we were doing the first time we went when we were playing these huge venues. Just extremely exciting. They're just such lovely guys, obviously, and we just had a blast. We were playing these huge, huge places which we'd never get a sniff at otherwise, and the fact that they kept asking us back as well, it was amazing.

Steph: Yeah, ask us back again!

Helen: Yeah, if you're listening! (Laughter)

Do any of have any unusual hobbies which you'd be willing to share with Soundblab?

Russell: This is my unusual hobby! (Much laughter)

Helen: That's the thing, we don't make any money, we don't have any money so we all have day jobs and this is like our unusual hobby (laughs).

Russell: We use up all our usual money! (Laughter)

Recently your profile has gone up a bit, thanks to The Cribs and the album release coming up. Are you happy with where you're at or would you like to be the band on the cover of NME every other week?

Helen: No. Do you know what, I think we'd like to be able spend more money doing this and have more time to record. We love touring, we love playing live, we love all that but I don't think we aspire to be cover stars, you know what I mean? I'd like to get to the point where we can facilitate what we're doing.

Steph: I'd like to do this full time. I don't think I'm bothered about the NME (laughter).

Well you guys have been on Pitchfork -

Helen: Yeah.

And Pitchfork gets loads more traffic than NME.

Helen: Yeah, and of course that stuff is important to us. It would be disingenuous to go "Oh, we're not hoping for any..." Of course that stuff is great. I never go "Oh, I'd rather not" but, you know... There's no kind of Shrag plan. I'd just like things to be so we can carry on doing this as much as possible, basically.

Russell: We wanna be really lo-fi, low key, DIY and break America (laughter).

Steph: And earn lots of money!

Helen: Get loads of adoration, fans, groupies, yeah (more laughter).

Russell: We can boast about this now, because it was finalised this week. We're going to play in New York.

Helen: Yeah, we're going to America!

Russell: And then hopefully go back because we've got a year's visa so we've got a year to break America.

Helen: So it's going to be exciting. We've got lots of new shows lined up in New York.

What inspired the lyrics on the new album? I'm thinking particularly of 'Their Stats'.

(At this point Russell makes a jocular attempt to wrest the mic away from Helen. Evidently, and unsurprisingly, this is a subject on which she'll have a lot of say.)

Helen: It's a song about friendship really. Around the time that song was written, Steph and I were going through things and spending a lot of time together just sitting around, moaning about how things were crap. It's a romantic song, but about a friendship rather than a... Sorry, Steph, I'm not attracted to you.

Steph: What?! (Laughter)

Has that been the whole point of the band for you, Steph?

Steph: Yeah!

Helen: It's just trying to encapsulate that feeling of having romantic feelings about a friend where it's a non-sexual thing but it's just complete love and complete support. When you're trying to distance yourself from standards set by other people and go, "That doesn't apply to us. We're going to be alright and we're doing ok." That's what that song was about.

You mentioned The Slits and The Raincoats. Not to gender stereotype, but it does seem to have that feminine sort of thing which you don't hear in songs that often.

Helen: It was something I felt very strongly and I thought it was an interesting idea because you do have passionate feelings for friends, you know what I mean? There are very important relationships in your life.

So many songs written from a female perspective are just about boys or relationships, not about other women and friendships.

Helen: And the thing is, the 'stats' thing, it's like outside standards don't apply. You don't necessarily have to have boyfriends. We're alright, we support each other.

Bob: (To Helen) We should ask you these questions more often. It's actually nice to what the fuck you're going on about! (Much laughter)

Do you ever ask what the songs mean?

Bob: Occasionally. I'm slightly cautious that they may be about me so I daren't ask.

Helen: Arrogant! (Laughter)

Bob: Not all of them. Just some of them.

The whole album is just a concept album about you.

Bob: No, no, I'm not saying that. (Laughter)

What's next after the tour and going to New York?

Steph: We were talking about this last night, actually. We decided what we want to do is make decisions and, hopefully, record new stuff. It's weird when you have a record out and (there's) that assumption that it's a recent thing, but we recorded these songs about a year ago and we're itching to do new stuff. Not sure exactly what the game plan's going to be but it's going to involve recording new stuff and maybe making another release, maybe an EP. I think we're going to take November off and work on writing stuff. At the moment, the album's out, we're excited and it's enough to promote that and go away to America.

Life! Death! Prizes! is out now. Shrag play the Lexington in London on October 14.

Comments (3)

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This interview has made me a potential Shrag convert...

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Yay! Please do seek Life! Death! Prizes! out. And see em live if you can. You won't regret it.

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Me too! Will keep a lookout for them.

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