Interview December 12, 1996
The Raincoats: It would be hard to think of another band that has inspired such glowing praise from the major figureheads of both punk and grunge. Confusing the matter is the realization that the Raincoats aren't truly a punk band at all. Their music eludes easy classification and ready imitation. Feminist punk? Post-punk? Folk-jazz-dub-new wave? A bridge between the gentle side of the Velvet Underground and today's riot grrrls? Many take the easy way out, throw up their hands, and just describe them as "quirky" -- an adjective that has never been as overused in rock criticism as it is in Raincoats reviews.
Despite the accolades from both underground fanzines and present-day grunge superstars, the Raincoats have never made music that found a ready home on the charts or the airwaves. That's especially true in the U.S, where two of the three albums they made between 1979 and 1984 were never even released until the mid-'90s; a live set from the same period only came out on cassette. But to their small cult, the group weren't just another weird British indie new wave band. They inspired almost familial feelings of devotion with their unpretentious eclecticism, inspiring scores of unseasoned musicians to record their own idiosyncratic music. Some of those unseasoned musicians, unlike the Raincoats, eventually became stars. Two of them were Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and the late Kurt Cobain, who in the 1990s were instrumental in reviving enough interest in the Raincoats for the group to begin touring and recording again, after a layoff of a decade. Here bassist Gina Birch talks at length about her band.
The Raincoats are often discussed in the context of early British punk bands, but it's obvious from listening to the records that there were other influences as well. What other things were you listening to?
Oh, blimey (laughs). Well, I suppose the thing I listened to was a lot of ska and Prince Buster and people like that. And Melanie, Bob Dylan. There was a kind of odd selection of stuff, really. I remember when I came to London, I had about four albums with me. I had a Prince Buster album, I had Sgt. Pepper, and I had a Melanie album, I think the first one. And I had Toots and the Maytals' Funky Kingston. Ana was pretty passionate about Bob Dylan and a lot of rock'n'roll stuff.
I think basically, though, neither of us would have dreamt in a million years that we would be doing anything like that if it hadn't been for punk. So I think the major kind of focus and kind of landscape in which we operated was really to do with punk. By the time we went to record, I was really into what the Slits were doing. And in a way, one gets secondary influences from that. Ana was totally into what Patti Smith was doing. And I really liked what ATV were doing. I suppose I liked the punk bands that actually had that influence from dub stuff, maybe because I was playing the bass--I was really into the bass carrying the melody.
What do you think made the Raincoats different from other bands at the time you started, both punk/new wave and otherwise?
I think the fact that we let ourselves be very vulnerable in a way. I think we really, really believed in a kind of punk ethos. I think it became quite clear to us quite quickly that lots of people seemed to believe in it, but they didn't really practice it. We didn't realize that so many of those musicians were actually fantastic musicians. We really believed the press, you know, that you just pick up an instrument and learn three chords and see what happens. There's an awful lot of people practicing [that] were already really sharp musicians.
But I think what happened with us was...we really learned in public, and we were never really into a kind of idea of show business. And we were quite shy, really. Groups like the Slits, Ari Upp and Palm Olive, they really liked to show off. I really like that, I'm not saying this is a bad thing. But we were never like that. We were like a kind of...it was like watching a process, which the audience kind of felt they were privileged to kind of spy in on. I don't know--it was odd. I saw Tricky recently, and when he was on the stage, I just felt like there was this kind of invisible wall, and he thought he was in his rehearsal room. He was chatting away to the other members of the band. There's something really kind of unshowbizzy about it.
I suppose the fact that we were women, and the fact that we had some inkling about what we wanted as women, I suppose. We wanted things to be different. We didn't want to have to wear short skirts and have fab legs in order to have people think what we did was great. Not that I've got anything against that either, but we wanted to be what we wanted to be.
It's funny, there was a series of pieces about women in music at that time in glossy magazines. And they'd have pictures of all these all-girl bands, and they all looked terribly glamorous. And there was a picture of us in funny old jumpers, looking like what we'd just got out of bed and hadn't brushed our hair. And actually, it was real kind of, you know, a precursor to what happened some years later, real kind of grungy riot grrl stuff (laughs). I suppose that's the look we had.
Did you think it strange that you were discussed so often within the context of other women bands of the time, like the Slits and the Au Pairs? The impression I've gotten from reading your interview with Amy Raphael is that you thought of yourselves as a band first, and didn't self-consciously define yourselves as an all-woman band.
Well, yeah, I mean, but you know, the press like to categorize and label and factionalize. On the whole, that's what happened. After a while, you begin to kind of see yourself in those terms as well. There were groups like Subway Sect I felt that we were kind of aligned with, maybe the Swell Maps and stuff. There weren't that many groups that we felt really aligned with, male or female.
What are the differences between you and Ana as songwriters?
Ana's stuff is more elliptical and poetic. You can savor it in your mouth, and get different tastes each time. I think what she writes about is very...you can have different feelings or images from it, and you can find your own meanings in it. I think what I write is much more on the nose. I'm more interested in kind of sharp, immediate, concrete, witty--I like tragicomedy a lot. Ana's got a doctorate in languages. I gave up languages far too early. I think that I like things to be fast and immediate and...obviously, more than that. I like things to have a resonance too. It's very important. But that's a very fundamental difference, I suppose, a very cartoon difference [between me and Ana].
What were the most important ways the group's music changed over the first few albums?
The first album is what it is. And then Palmolive left, and we were drummer-less at that point. And we'd also been to America, and we'd started to gather together all these funny instruments. And it was like, well, I've got a balaphone and I'm gonna play it. So we took all our instruments to the studio and finally got there and played it. A lot of the songs were written without drums. So they were quite peculiar and intricately arranged, and funny timings and things. Robert Wyatt, as you may know, played on a couple of those tracks on Odyshape.
On Odyshape,we began to open up and try and find a different way, I suppose. There was lots of stuff going on, kind of world music stuff and more reggae stuff. There was also some different influences that we suddenly discovered. It was better to like an African jazz musician than it was some of the punk bands, like the Stranglers. There began to be more prejudice among certain fellow punk bands. I must say that punk was actually an incredibly bigoted time in many ways. We were really very critical of each other.
Was there ever a feeling that you trying to put in too many influences?
I don't think we realized this at the time, but absolutely. We fell over the influences, like, "get out of my way!" (laughs) And of course, we were all dragging them all into the room. Everyone was dragging in different ones, and people were going, ugh, I don't like that one. But it was still there anyway, because we were all terribly egalitarian. One of the things, I think, that we suffered from was that we all had the same amount of input and power, and we really really tried to be democratic to the last nth degree. So it was actually quite painful a lot of the time.
I remember when Green from Scritti Politti declared, probably about 1980, that he was going to be the leader of the group and the rest would do what he said. We all thought this was the most shocking piece of news ever! (laughs) We really endeavored to be incredibly democratic, which meant as we grew apart, or as our influences grew more and more diverse, that we ended up not really knowing how to censor ourselves. We were a group without any sense of censorship at all. And so by Moving...and we got a drummer in, Richard Dudanski, who was Palmolive's brother-in-law, who played on our first records. And he wrote some songs, and that was like...it went very strange at that point, I think.
What was it like being on Rough Trade when it first started?
It was really good. Again, it was all this thing about democracy. Everybody, if you worked in the shop or in the back packing boxes, you part-owned it, or whatever. Everybody had the same wages and the same input, and the bands would come along to meetings and (starts laughing) it was very funny. Everyone was trying desperately to be right-on. There were moments when it worked really well, and moments where it was completely farcical and comical. I think we were very shy as well, so we didn't really leap into it in the way that, you know, "this is my new family--hey! Hi!" We're like, put your head down and walk. It wasn't walking towards someone with a big smile and your hand outstretched in friendship. People from those days, I still kind of grunt at in a shy way. That's what we did in those days. I'm a little bit more grown-up now. I've learned the American technique.
I wanted to ask about your impressions of Mayo Thompson, who's also in the book.
I want to know what Mayo said! [about the Raincoats]
[After I read quote, which was quite complimentary] He was focused around what was going on in Rough Trade at that time. He produced the first single and the first album. That was an extraordinary time for us. And Mayo really, really helped. When he came to the first rehearsal he came to, he helped Vicki kind of focus on the way of playing violin that kind of opened things up a lot, and got her listening to John Cale and stuff. And that was really good.
I've worked with Mayo on and off for ages, because I was in Red Krayola for quite a while. So we've had a kind of ongoing musical relationship for a long time. But we also made some tapes that he thinks (laughs), he would rather die than came out. I think "over my dead body" was the phrase he used.
How would you compare working with Red Krayola to playing in the Raincoats?
Oh my god...well, I think Mayo is very much somebody that we were terribly in awe of. We all thought he was amazing and we liked to listen to him speak, we liked to listen his lyrics. He was the band, and we were his pupils, really. He was the mentor, and we did what we could to make what he was doing, basically, better, or work at all. I think both Mayo and Robert Wyatt are incredibly special people--really interesting, highly principled, and they really stick to what they believe in. They both have a good sense of humor, and good perspective on stuff, which is what is important.
Working in Red Krayola was incredibly different from working in the Raincoats. Because in the Raincoats, it was much, much more egalitarian in a way. I mean, he wasn't trying for it not to be that way, but it's just the way it worked. We were all very kind of in awe of him, so that's what happened.
For the ten years that the Raincoats were inactive, were you aware of the influence of the band, in some cases with bands that had not been started when the Raincoats were around?
Not really. I mean, I must say I did kind of cut off from it [the music scene] quite a lot at that time. I never thought it would have any repercussions whatsoever. I found it absolutely extraordinary when I found out that people were listening to us, and how much it seemed to have affected them and influenced them. I was absolutely staggered.
Are there any bands that you can definitely detect the Raincoats influence in?
No (laughs). It's very funny, because lots of people say, we were influenced by the Raincoats. But I can't really hear it in very many...in any groups, really. I can hear people who are influenced by Kleenex and stuff like that, but no, I don't...can you? Who do you think it was?
There's Beat Happening, and a lot of the bands that Calvin Johnson's K label works with. Maybe not in the sound per se, but in the attitude, where they're making music pretty spontaneously for the fun of it, and not really concerned with their image or trying to be stars.
That's definitely an element. But sometimes you sit there and they say, oh, this band's like the Raincoats. And you listen, and you go, why do you say that, what is it about it (laughs)? At the moment, I can't think of anything particularly.
Is it a surprise that there are people in the U.S. that know your stuff pretty well? Because only one of your Rough Trade albums was even released here, although you toured here a couple of times.
Yeah, we did a few dates around the East Coast a couple of times. Yeah, it's amazing. Sometimes, the more secret things are, the more people want to find out about them. That's a perverse thing that's happened, isn't it. But yeah, [it's] completely strange that it all came around in that way.
Kurt Cobain and Kim Gordon wrote some liner notes on the CD reissues. Nirvana and Sonic Youth don't have much obvious surface resemblance to the Raincoats. Did it surprise you that you had admirers in those bands?
Yes, very much so. I think it was extraordinary. It's amazing that they saw those things in what we did, and felt so strongly about it. It makes me feel really proud. I don't know what exactly, or why exactly. I suppose with Kim Gordon coming to see the Raincoats when she was just thinking about playing music, as a woman, if you're going to see a woman's band playing, you kind of feel pulled into it. I know, from my own experience, going to see women musicians play, I find it--particularly before I started playing--I found it really enabling, the fact that you might be able to try it after all, whereas you perhaps thought you never could. And I'm sure for Kim we provided a bit of that. Not that she's too backwards in coming forwards!
How do you think the music's changed since the Raincoats started recording again?
Hmm...well, how do you think? (laughs)
The album seems to have more of a straightforward rock feel than any of the Rough Trade albums. I'm not sure if that's because of the production, or because of the way the songs were written or arranged.
Yeah, I think it is a lot to do with the production, actually. You haven't seen any of our live shows, and I think they're quite different from the record. The record is very produced. I think there's much more of a vulnerability, I suppose, or kind of momentary fragility, perhaps more highs and lows in a way, in the live stuff. There was a development in interest in different types of subject matter or different life experiences. I still think we tried to write about what we see around us. I don't really know...the types of instruments that we used were very straightforward, but then, so were they on the first album. We looped a lot of the drums so they kind of steady the songs. They don't kind of speed up and slow down very much. We did program in a few little speed changes, but on the whole...on the first records, they're much more kind of organic, if you like. They kind of sway and lope and fall down and get up again.
We were quite interested, when we first started, to try working with Flood, because we really liked that PJ Harvey record, Bringing You My Love.We really liked that album, which is very kind of demoesque in a way. And I really like that quality. We ended up not working with Flood because he was too busy, and we even asked Polly [PJ Harvey] to do some work with us on the production side. We ended up working with Ed Buller, and we ended up making a record that was so completely opposite from what we had originally thought. But it was something that we really, really enjoyed the process of doing. I don't think when we started out, we realized quite what kind of record we were going to make. But we just went with our instincts. You get a group of people in a room, and you follow through what seems to be the best way of doing it under those circumstances. It kind of evolved in that way. I think we tend to kind of make things up as we go along, if you like.
In how close contact had you and Ana been in the years before the reunion album?
Well, we only live 'round the corner from each other.
Pretty close, then. Was it hard adjusting to working with each other when you decide to make music again?
When we first got back together and played some of the old stuff, it just felt so right, and the stuff felt really fresh still. Then we played a few dates with the old material, and we just began to introduce new material. So it was almost like it never stopped. So it felt fresh. A lot of the stuff we relearnt was from the first album, a little bit from the second album, and one thing from the third album. And then...it just seemed very coherent. Then we just started introducing new material. Obviously, we have our ups and downs, and it's sometimes very painful (laughs). But it kind of evolved fairly easily.
Are you still active with your video work?
I've been doing a few videos. I haven't done that many recently. But yes, I'm still active in principle. I haven't done any drama or anything for a while, but I have something bubbling under that I very much want to do, so we have to see what happens there.
What's the extent of your commitment to the Raincoats since you and Ana reformed the band? Are you thinking of concentrating on music, or balancing it with your film and other projects?
Basically, I would like to be very busy with the Raincoats. But the album did not precipitate all that much attention. I mean, we got a lot of good reviews, but we didn't end up doing a major American tour, which was what was initially talked about. So in a way, the demand for the Raincoats has actually been a lot less than I was prepared to give, and still am prepared to give.
I'm one of those people that likes to be very busy from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed. And if I'm not, I feel terrible (laughs). So I like to keep juggling things, and doing lots of projects. I did some music for a show, like a theater show, and that precipitated another band that I have, and we performed stuff with that. So I have one other music project and various bits and pieces of film projects.
This is a question from my friend Diane. She wanted to know about the songs "In Love" and "Fairytale Supermarket" specifically.
Well, I wrote "In Love" and Ana wrote "Fairytale." "In Love" was, I remember, sitting on top of a bus on the way to some art opening in about 1976 or '77, I don't know. But I still remember where I was. I was listening to some song that had some repeat echo on it. I didn't know if we could ever get repeat echo. So I remember thinking I would go "in...in...in...love...love...love." I would sing my own repeat echoes (laughs). That was how all that kind of stammering, stuttering thing came about.
Ana says that "Fairtytale in the
was two verses [which] were actually two completely separate bits of
that she'd done that one day tried putting together, and came up with
chorus. I really like the words to that song. That's
you want to make of it, I think. I can't pin it down
Ana certainly wouldn't. You have to see the video to find out
it means! I directed it. We made it about a couple of years
ago. Ring up MTV and ask for Raincoats videos. We need
to do that!
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