Olympians interview: José and Bret
Olympians (note, no definitive article) are from Hackney, but whether that borough’s status as Olympic village for the 2012 games inspired the name is just one of life’s mysteries left unsolved in this interview. It was hard to get a follow-up word in after asking a question; José and Bret riff off each other like TV show comedians, twisting off on tangents (much of which can’t be published in a family journal like this one). They display an intense sense of joint purpose, completing each others thoughts and mixing high theory with brutal humour.
José Ross (guitars, singing) and Bret Bolton (drums) were two-thirds (with Lucy Drynan) of the Bridge Gang, who released three singles (Pangs of Guilt, Blue Sky Grey and London Sky Tonight on Brille and Sounds Experience Records) and then disbanded in 2007 when their goals were met. They then formed Olympians, with a stripped down sound that still combines garage crunchiness and a lingering pop sweetness. Their debut single ’11 Pieces of Silver’ comes out on Sounds Experience Records soon. We spoke to José and Bret in June 2008 after a gig at the Windmill in Brixton.
SXP: Why did you break up the Bridge Gang?
José: You've only got one question about the Bridge Gang. Choose it carefully!
SXP: Why did you break up the Bridge Gang when you were on the verge of stardom?!
José: *laughs* We ended the Bridge Gang because we’d long planned to end the band after three singles. And when we recorded the last single, we realised it was the best we were going to do. With every band, we like to have a collection of ambitions before we start, and then when they’re achieved the band’s over.
SXP: You’re a band with good musical taste. Who are your inspirations?
Bret: *long pause* Uhhhh. *pause* I don’t know. I don’t really think about it to be honest.
SXP: OK. Who inspires you to get out of bed in the morning?
José: He doesn’t get out of bed in the morning!
Bret: He drags me out of bed! Billy Childish I think. He’s someone I look to. Bruce Brand is a nice chap. And Stephin Merritt. I love everything he does, especially the Magnetic Fields. Love it. Love the early Beach Boys. And Neil [Walsh, band manager]. He makes it all happen.
José: I’d say Mick Collins, Greg Cartwright, Billy Childish. That’s about it. [Later on, he remembers others:] One of the reasons behind not allowing any drum rolls is straight down to the Cramps. So the Cramps must get a nod in the influences list. Also, I’ve got to mention Dickie Pride whose delivery completely inspired the delivery of our band. Not in terms of the “Sheik of Shake” as he was known but just in terms of the boldness of his delivery; that really inspired us to strip everything down and be proud of what we were saying and be proud of the songs we were singing and let them be seen naked – so to speak.
SXP: How do you bring the garage and pop influences together?
José: I don’t know really. There’s no premeditated plan like: I’m going to sit down and write a song that sounds like a girl group or the Sonics or whatever. That’s just the music that we like listening to so it comes out. One of the things that influenced this band was breakbeat music from the late 80s, when the Acid House thing started getting momentum behind it. We really like listening to the actual tunes, turning them into riffs and breaking that down to its most sparse form. But that’s a bit more hidden underneath.
SXP: What about your identity as a two-piece. When writing for just guitar and drums do you feel like you’re missing anything?
Bret: It feels like you’ve got more power with it. Doesn’t hinder you at all. It feels a lot easier and it’s quicker to work.
José: If anything I’d say it was a massive advantage in terms of writing. You can be so much more productive, so much more pacey in terms of turning out material. But the purpose of the band was to be minimalistic. It wasn’t formed as a two-piece out of convenience - it was a two-piece to embrace the minimalism.
SXP: Where do you get the bass kick from without a bass player?
José: We use an octave pedal. In some songs like ‘11 Pieces of Silver’ or whatever, the octave pedal’s there. It still sounds sparse, it still sounds minimalistic - which is good - but it’s still got a lot of low end in there. That’s definitely a necessity. I think it would be too tinny without it.
SXP: Do you get compared to other famous duos much?
José: Of course. People are short-sighted in terms of comparisons. When we were in the Bridge Gang, we got compared to the Mars Volta! It’s just because I had an Afro haircut at the time! The Mars Volta are a prog-punk band and we were a stripped down pop band; we didn’t sound anything like them. People could listen to stuff on record and they wouldn’t compare it with the Black Keys or the White Stripes or the Flat Duo Jets or whatever but then they see there are only two of you and they instantly go to what they’ve visually taken in. Men do it more than women though. Men are more visual than women.
SXP: What are your plans for Olympians – what do you want to achieve?
Bret: We’re splitting up next week! *laughter*
José: We want to do three albums in a fairly short amount of time, and we want to release a lot of records. Beyond that everything else is icing on the cake.
SXP: You do some very cool cover versions. Why those particular songs?
José: We try and do songs that we think are classic songs but that people might not know. It’d be lovely to do ‘Be My Baby’ because it’s a fantastic song but there’s already a fantastic version that everybody knows so there’s no point. But we like to find songs that sound good played as a two-piece and that maybe we could turn other people onto. Someone might hear a record and think "that’s by the Compulsive Gamblers" or "that’s by the Gories" and dig them out.
SXP: I saw the Dirtbombs last week and they covered ‘I Need You Tonight’ by INXS in an ultra-cool style. Are there any songs that you do that aren’t garage songs – or that you could do something new with?
José: ‘Underwear’ by Magnetic Fields’ and ‘Sign Your Name Across My Heart’ by Terence Trent D’Arby, which is something that we’ve not got around to playing live yet. And also ‘Runaway’, which is a staple but is good fun to play. The first two are probably the ones the furthest removed from our usual style.
SXP: The bands you mention are all of a certain age. But who are the new bands that you’re listening to that you’d recommend?
José: I really like No Cars, who are friends of ours, and a band called Rocket Machine as well. I like Theoretical Girl.
Bret: I like Manic Cough if they’re still together.
José: I think they’ve already broken up.
Bret: It’s a shitter isn’t it? I know they’re not an original band but The Nuns are amazing.
José: What the Nuns do is really interesting actually as it’s a completely different way of approaching being a covers band. I think it’s really cool. The songs sound really different - they make the songs sound like their own.
SXP: We’re really looking forward to the debut single ‘11 Pieces of Silver’. What’s on the B-side?
José: The b-side is ‘Sad Girl Syndrome’.
Bret: I thought we were going to do ‘Only Human’ on the B-side?
José: *stage whisper* Shut up! Not now! *normal tone* And they’re two really different songs. It feels like it could be a double-A. I think it’s a good representation of what we do.
SXP: And the artwork is by Faris from the Horrors. How do you know him?
José: When we were doing the Bridge Gang, Rhys from Good Shoes persuaded me to start up a Myspace page. It was back when not everybody had one. And the second message – the first message is from ‘Tom’ – was from this kid – the Horrors didn’t exist then – and it was Faris and he was saying “I really like what you’re doing, I really like the band, would you come and play at my club night?” And that didn’t actually transpire because I was ill or something but we kept in contact through that. He offered to do it and we thought it was a really good idea. And it’s a portrait of my dog. It’s nice. It kind of feels personal even though we haven’t had anything to do with the artwork.
SXP: What does the ‘XX’ and ‘XY’ on your t-shirts mean?
José: It’s really hard in a band to get away from fashion and trends. Even if someone is consciously going against what might be fashionable at the time they’re still making a decision based on [fashion] and we wanted to have a uniform that completely removed us from that side of things. And so the only thing that was going to be focused on when we were played, whether it’s practice or to record – ‘cause we wear the uniforms whenever we’re doing anything to do with the band – is the music. It’s like extinction of the self. It’s getting rid of who you are, and going wholeheartedly into the music, as opposed to trying to bring elements of your personality into it. It’s quite fascist!
SXP: It’s quite a Kraftwerk or Laibach idea.
José: Yeah, it’s so the identity of the band is just that. It’s not a collection of identities of different people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
SXP: You are allowed separate headgear though, because you were wearing a rather fetching trilby at the Metro a couple of weeks ago.
Bret: Bloody nice trilby that.
José: Actually, a tramp gave that to me! But yeah, sometimes we sway a little bit. I might wear trainers or Bret might wear a hat but the main components of the uniform always stay in place.
SXP: Is it an idea you get from Sir Alex Fergusson? [José is a manic Manchester United fan]
José: Well, maybe. When a football team goes out and crosses the white line, they leave behind the fancy clothes they’ve got in the dressing room and they all look the same.
SXP: With this XY thing, aren’t you just emphasising how very male rock’n’roll really is?
José: No, not at all. Because the band was formed with a female drummer who wore an XX on her shirt. I think some of the best rock’n’roll has been made by women. Memphis Minnie did what Blind Willie Johnson did just as well, and that’s back in the 20s and 30s.
Bret: And Wanda Jackson sings more powerfully than any fucking man I’ve heard. I was listening to a compilation last night. I had no idea what was on it, a 60s compilation or late 50s, and it’s going along all smoothly and suddenly Wanda Jackson burst in and it really woke me up. Fucking unbelievable man! ‘Hard Headed Woman’ Astonishing!
José: It’s not a phallocentric gesture, although I do think we live in a time when it’s more difficult to actually be a man, or at least to be a gentleman.