The Vatican Cellars
The Vatican Cellars are a five-piece band from Oxford and London. They comprise Simon H (guitar, vocals, songwriting), who has played guitar with Piney Gir; Hannah, a.k.a. The Birthday Girl (guitar, vocals, melodica, harmonium), formerly one of the late and much lamented Schla La Las; Russ W (drums); Tom B (double bass); and Tom A (cello). Named after the novel by Andre Gide, they’re building a gig history and have so far released a three track demo that includes the lustrous ‘My Black Pearl’. Their music is dark and intense, and death is a constant motif, but it's affirming rather than chilling. As we’ve said in reviews, the Cellars combine fragile Nick Drake folkiness with elements of Ray Davies storytelling to make quintessential English pop. Someone called it “folk-noir” in another review, a term we discussed at length with Simon and Hannah in Notting Hill on a cold November Saturday in 2007 before I turned on the tape recorder.
SXP: What sort of music do you make?
Simon: Well, I’d describe it as ‘folk-noir’! *laughs*
Hannah: Whenever people ask me, I always say: it’s like Nick Drake only more depressing but with happier instruments and more drums!
SXP: On your Myspace page you talk about country songs but I wouldn’t say you play country.
Simon: There’s one song that’s broadly a country song. I wrote it because of Angie [Piney]. I said you should have this song that’s got a real clippity cloppity Western rhythm, or a bit like Dirty Old Town, and I ended up going off and writing it. It still sounds fantastically English so maybe it’s not a country song at all!
SXP: When I saw you the other night it was hard to define what you do other than by comparison – everyone else was a singer/songwriter and you were a lot more. I could hear Nick Drake but also Ray Davies.
Simon: Well I love the Kinks so I’m totally happy with that. I really didn’t want to do the singer/songwriter thing, I wanted to have a band and get away from the whole sitting on a stool with a guitar thing. ‘Cause otherwise that was the inevitable path I would end up on.
Hannah: And then you wouldn’t have any friends.
SXP: Have you played in bands before?
Hannah: Yeah, but not in England, but in Orange County in the States. I used to run club nights in high school and I was in loads of Riot Grrl bands since I was 15.
Simon: I stopped playing music for a long time and I started again when I started working with Angie. I’d been playing in indie noisy pop bands before.
SXP: Who writes for the Vatican Cellars?
Simon: At the moment it’s my songs.
Hannah: It’ll probably stay that way ‘cause it has an identity to it. You write very particularly, but I’m trying to get him to write a disco song and it’s really like banging our heads against a brick wall.
Simon: I’m completely in favour of writing a disco song...
Hannah: Yeah, but you have no capability in that area!
SXP: How did you all come together?
Hannah: What happened was I was sick or something and Simon was playing me songs because either he thought I was asleep or I was trying to go to sleep or something and I just turned over and said *pained voice*: please stop! And I was crying! Then the next day I decided I wanted to start a band and I put everyone together. I knew them all separately (I was in a band with Russ called Honeystomach) and I met them individually in the pub and told them that they had to be in my band.
Simon: It was a very odd experience. It was like the effect of playing my songs on Hannah was very much like: you must stop! And I thought you really, really hated them but actually they just made you miserable. That was really quite hilarious! And basically Hannah put the band together. It’s completely Hannah’s.
Hannah: What’s that guy who puts the pop bands together? I’m the Pete Waterman of the band. You’ll notice that they’re all quite attractive and only one of them isn’t single…and they’re all sexually versatile!
SXP: I want to ask you about something else from your Myspace page: do you play in 9/18 time?
Simon: Absolutely not!
Hannah: Everyone in the band is a professional musician (*sotto voce* except me) and they’ll all really good. Then Simon’s got his Christmas song he’s just written; when he played it to the boys they decided that it’s actually not in a time signature and they can’t play it.
Simon: Part of it’s in 7 time but I didn’t think: I’m going to write a song in 7 time. The truth is that some people think that the time signatures are very strange. I mean, Alex wrote that biog and he’s Mr Disco, he thinks in very 4/4, so for him the idea of any different time signatures is weird and that’s why he put that 9/18 [comment in]. But no, none of our songs are in 9/18 time.
SXP: Who chose the name of the band?
Simon: I did. It’s a novel I really like, I like Andre Gide and I just think it sounded cool. But it’s really confused a lot of people, which is one of these weird things you never expect. I just didn’t think anyone would take it that seriously, but people say: is it blasphemous, is it religious? It’s just a name.
Hannah: But later, when we run out of drama, it will obviously be blasphemous and there’ll be some really good stories behind it but we haven’t been a band long enough to make them up!
SXP: You say on Myspace that your influences include ‘death’.
Simon: The music is very much influenced by people dying.
Hannah: It’s kind of how we became friends.
Simon: Hannah had lost friends, and I had, and that’s why I was writing songs. They’re not angsty songs in some non-specific existential angst. They are about something.
Hannah: You could apply any of the existential observations to any situation. They’re all about: “this is my outlook on life which is that it’s kind of pointless and I’m just doing it anyway.”
Simon: I think my philosophy, if there is one, is that it’s pointless but that doesn’t matter either. It’s certainly not supposed to be suicidal, it’s kind of like ‘grin and bear it’.
SXP: It’s not you saying it’s a terrible world and we’re all going to die…
Simon: Though we are! They’re supposed to be pop songs.
Hannah: You’re basically making death accessible!
Simon: I’m trying to bring death to the masses! But yeah, there is a lot of death in there.
SXP: What’s influenced the Vatican Cellars?
Simon: The really weird thing about the Vatican Cellars is that it isn’t influenced by anything very much. I’m not saying it’s not influenced but there’s no conscious influence.
Hannah: And every single person who’s come up and said it sounds like something has said a different thing, and they’re really varied. Everyone in the band does different stuff: Russ is into noisy post-rock, Tom the Bass is Mr Jazz and hip-hop, Tom the Cello is Mr Classical and noisy as well. You [Simon] just read books. *gasp* I know what its influence is. Everything is influenced by ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult! *laughs*
SXP: If you did a cover version, what would you cover?
Hannah: ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’! *laughs*
Simon: I think that’s been done quite a lot.
Hannah: Yeah, but not by us! And have you heard ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ with a cello solo?