There are no shrinking violets in Shrag. I’ve never heard as much noise and banter from a band as when we met them in December before a SoundsXP gig at the Windmill in Brixton. When it’s not laughter they’re arguing about influences (the cause of their most heated debate), taking the piss out of each other, and showing a band solidarity that survived the departure on health grounds of their much-loved drummer Leigh-Anne. The band line up is now: Andy – drums, Russell – bass, Stephanie – keyboards, vocals, Helen – lead vocals, keyboards and Bob - guitar and vocals. Their initial singles releases were compiled on an eponymous debut album last year and this summer sees the release of their second album, Life! Theft! Prizes! prefaced by the excellent 7” single ‘Rabbit Kids’ which is out now. All are released on indie-impresario John Jervis’ wonderful label, Where It’s At Is Where You Are. We spoke to Shrag in December 2009.
courtesy of www.underexposed.org.uk
SXP: After you play here you’ve got a trip to Europe. Have you played there before?
Helen: We’ve played Paris once, I think. This is our first proper tour.
Russell: We’ve made it as far as Scotland, which will soon be abroad. And we’ve been to America.
Bob: We still get really excited when we go on the road. When we went to Glasgow for the first time we had to stop at the “you are entering Scotland” sign and take a picture with the kilt-wearing bagpiper.
Russell: And on the other side is a “welcome to England” sign but no-one does a song and you don’t get a pearly king or queen or anything. I’ve got mad ambitions [for Shrag]. I’ve often considered that an English band should represent England for people travelling down from Scotland. It’s either that or a Mediterranean cruise band. The indie client group is going to get older and older and eventually get into cruises, and ATP will own a boat, I swear.
Andy: If we don’t make enough money on the European tour, we might actually have to do this on the ferry on the way back! *laughter*
SXP: Does this represent a more ambitious Shrag? I ask that because in some places like Pitchfork there’s a suggestion that you’re a great band that lacks ambition.
Helen: It’s not ambitious in terms of wanting or expecting wider recognition, it’s just ambitious for ourselves. We’ve just recorded our second album and we’re a lot more confident about that than we have been about things for a long time.
Russell: I’d say we’ve always been ambitious to try to make the next song better.
Helen: We’re not careerist though.
Bob: It’s fun doing it. It’s fun to get better – that’s the thing that drives us.
Russell: I’d argue that it’s even harder to work full-time and be in a band, it costs money and effort and we’ve been really dedicated to keeping things together and keeping going. So I think that does show ambition and desire. It’s just that we’re not being looked after by a record label.
Bob: When you talk about a hard working band, we are a hard working band because we work as well! These “hard working bands”, they’re the laziest people in the world! They get driven around everywhere.
Russell: There are essential things where we fall down like getting a picture of Andy. Andy’s been in the band how long? We’re not very good at organising.
Steph: So: ambitious but poorly organised!
Russell: Demoniacally ambitious but lazy! We’re the Stewie Griffin of bands, the toddler who wants to take over the world.
Helen: It’s different this time round. The last album was Jervis saying: “we’ll put out a single”. And then he said: “do you want to put out some more singles?” And then: “shall we collate this into an album?” But there was no masterplan whereas this time, not that there’s a masterplan, we thought: let’s write another album.
Steph: What happened to the masterplan we had?
SXP: Leigh-Anne’s no longer in the band?
Helen: No, she left.
SXP: One of the reasons for asking is that, in another interview, you said that Leigh-Anne had a phobia about beans and I was sure that must be a lie.
Steph: No, it’s totally true! We used to go out for breakfast and because Helen’s vegan, the only protein that she’d be able to eat is beans. So if Helen had beans on toast, Leigh-Anne would have to put a menu around it so she couldn’t see the beans.
Helen: As a child, she didn’t eat her beans or something; her parents did that thing where if you don’t eat it they’d bring it out cold the next day. She got really traumatised by it!
Bob: I used to live with her and I found that in order to stop her stealing my parmesan, I’d form a wall of beans around the parmesan. *laughs*
Andy: You’ve actually hit on the real reason why Leigh-Anne is no longer in the band!
Steph: We’re really bean-crazy!
SXP: Your momentum is building. The first album came out this year (2009).
Helen: I think it feels weird to us that the album came out this year – it feels like it came out 3 years ago because you do it in bits. I’m pleased with that album. I like it. But it doesn’t feel as exciting as the one we’ve just done. We’ve been writing it as an album, not an accidental compilation of stuff we’ve done before.
Russell: That’s the big idea: make pretty good songs at roughly the same time.
SXP: And when is the new album coming out?
Helen: It should be either May or early June.
Russell: It’s frustrating because we’ve done our bit and we’re constantly promoting songs that aren’t available yet. So if anyone is here and has heard the (first) album we’re not playing any of that because we’ve not played that for a year.
Steph: And that’s the good thing as well about not being a proper professional band. If we were in that situation people would be: “it’s an outrage – why aren’t you playing the stuff we know?” We don’t have to.
SXP: What do we have to look forward to? Is the single representative of the new album?
Helen: Yeah, I’d say so. I think we’re better than we were and there’s a lot more going on and there’s not so much shouty yelping stuff as there was on the first album. But that’s still in there!
Russell: Three quarters of the way through we panicked and thought: it’s a bit too mature, we need more shouting!
Steph: In a way, this is our first album. It’s the first time we tried to create an album. The first one was just a collection of singles really. It’s been really fun to do.
Bob: I think we’re happy with it. It’s hard to say because we haven’t got it back, It hasn’t been mixed yet. It’s all recorded though; I think we’re excited about it.
Russell: The songs were recorded in roughly the same 2-3 months which is an improvement. Some of the songs have existed for longer. Obviously Leigh-Anne leaving meant we had to start again a little bit. We had some stuff recorded, we started from scratch but that happens. Leigh-Anne’s a friend of ours and she left honestly for health reasons and we still know her and we still love her. It was hard [to replace her] because we‘re not a band who are going to recruit people or audition people. *murmurs of assent*
Steph: It was a difficult point: what are we going to do now?
Russell: Andy had been stepping in for gigs that Leigh-Anne wasn’t able to do during the year so it was a natural progression for us. But because we liked the songs so much that helped us to get through the difficult stuff ‘cause they had a bit more depth and there were more peaks and troughs in them rather than 3 minute bursts of ARRRRRRRGGH-AY-AY-AY! Then we thought it was a bit too grown up so we put a few of these in there as well.
SXP: Talking about being grown up, do you like the model of band that you are, releasing records and promoting them on an indiepop circuit?
Helen: We’ve been treated very well. We’ve been invited to a lot of great things so we’re dead happy about that. I think it’s a really healthy – I hesitate to use the word “scene” – at the moment. Everyone is very supportive, there’s a lot going on, and it’s exciting. I think it has a different momentum to other scenes, which suits us as we have no momentum at all!
Russell: Leisurely momentum! We particularly like Twee As Fuck, and Sean at Fortuna Pop! and obviously Jerv. He’s been consistently good to us and we’ve been asked to do things which have been so much fun! So, yeah, absolutely pleased to be part of it: whatever “it” is!
SXP: One of the highspots of Indietracks two years ago was when you did Not Comet Gain. *the band laughs and groans simultaneously*
Steph: I think some people might disagree and say it was one of the low points.
Bob: I think there were people not so into it thinking “what the fuck is going on”! And they don’t normally get that animated!
Russell: I’m always really impressed when people have heard of us. [One punter] was really angry and hated it and I was really happy as he said: “you’re in Comet Gain, but that’s the girl from Shrag, that’s the girl from Shrag AND that’s the girl from Shrag. I’m watching Shrag!”
Steph: David couldn’t make it but he has this theory that Comet Gain should be a franchise. There was a French Comet Gain for a while and he wanted an American Comet Gain. The difference is it normally features David or Rachael – one of the two! But then Rachel and Steve at the last minute couldn’t make it so we thought it’s best to have something than nothing.
SXP: Who are your influences – apart from John Jervis, as your Myspace states?
Bob: It’s his intoxicating presence – you can’t get enough of him! He’s moreish. Not that he’s descended from Moors!
Helen: I don’t know. I think that’s why I’ve always put flippant responses to the link on Myspace.
Bob: If you did a straw poll of the five of us, we’ve got completely different musical influences.
Helen: There are points where we all converge and we absolutely love certain bands. I’m still uncomfortable with a question like that because if I said we all really love the Go-Betweens, there’s no fucking way in hell we sound anything like the Go-Betweens but we do all love them.
Andy: Except for me!
Bob: It always used to be the case, if everyone had no real proper musical background and came together, it would automatically sound like the Fall. We probably sounded like that in the early days but not now.
Steph: There's what you like and what you end up sounding like. And what you end up sounding like is for other people to talk about. Just say the Beatles.
Bob: [to Helen] You did try to describe our influences once in an interview.
Helen: That was a flippant thing. We just tried to do one for each of us: Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein [Steph’s, I think]
Bob: Yours was really highbrow: tudor barns. Mine was the Simpsons. His [i.e. Russell] was world beers. What was Leigh-Anne's?
Steph: Dogs! ‘Cause she really liked dogs. Andy? It's jazz.
Helen: Andy's a free jazz musician.
Russell: You don't have to pay for him!
SXP: Does the new album have the same concentration of carefully crafted lyrics?
Bob: Most of them were written in the last week. So "concentration" is the exact word!
Helen: *slightly embarrassed* I don't know. I think lyrics are really important. It's the main thing that I do so I try to work as hard as I can. I don't like things that have words that rhyme just for the sake of it, I think it's important to try and articulate something interesting if you can. That's what I'm happy about. But you might hear them and think: "what a load of heartbroken bullshit again". *general hilarity ensues*