Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: Marina and the Diamonds

I had a chat with Marina Diamandis for Epigram just days before she announced that she’d been wearing a wig for the last 9 months 😦

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In a sea of pop stars stripped down to their bra and knickers, Marina Diamandis stands out, decked in ribbons and prom dresses, a bubblegum brunette living out her teenage fantasies in the twilight years of her twenties. ‘I’m going to be 27 soon,’ says Diamandis, ‘so this is an excuse to be ultra-girly, until I have to really grow up’. It’s not surprising that the singer is trying to hold on to her youth; her teenage years were spent trying to get 10 A* at GCSE to please her father (in the end, she was awarded 5A* and 5A), before embarking on four different university courses in the space of four years.

‘I went to a different one each year, got the student loan, and waitressed and lived off that while I became a better songwriter and started to produce my own stuff. I went to uni mainly just to appease my mum and dad and make them not worry, and not feel totally weird and out of the system.’

Since giving up on university aspirations for good, Diamandis has used her work discipline to claw her way into the music industry, and has at last reached a level of recognition that she is happy with – her second album, Electra Heart, going straight to number one in the UK charts. ‘I feel like I’m playing catch up all the fucking time! In fact it’s only this year that I feel like I don’t have to do it anymore. It’s so stressful because you never enjoy yourself if you’re always playing catch up; you’re always looking ahead, never living in the present.’ It’s hard to avoid comparing Diamandis to other pop stars, and it’s something she does regularly herself. ‘I think “oh how old was she when she made it?” but it doesn’t really matter in the end because some people make it at 27.’ Though Britney Spears, Diamandis’s pop hero, burst onto the scene aged 16, Diamandis is just as likely to look at Katy Perry, who reached international fame at 26, and slightly less obvious idols, such as Shirley Manson who joined Garbage aged 29. ‘I don’t think it’s something you can really control,’ rules Diamandis, ‘it’s either your time or it isn’t, and you’ve either worked hard enough for it, or you haven’t.’

Diamandis is an intriguing character, torn between wanting to be a Hollywood icon and a respected musician. ‘On the first album I felt really bitter that I was writing on my own, and that most pop girls don’t do that, but then at the same time, I didn’t want to go and write with other people, so you can’t really have it both ways’. This quandary led her to creating the character of Electra Heart for her second album. Whereas Diamandis’s debut,The Family Jewels, is a fairly simple display of her songwriting ability, Electra Heart has allowed her to develop her music to sound more stereotypically poppy, which contrasts with some of the darker lyrics on the record. Electra Heart has also enabled her live shows to become more elaborate. After supporting Katy Perry and Coldplay on their arena tours, Diamandis was impressed by the flamboyance of their shows, and plans to bring this to her own tour. The Lonely Hearts Club tour, which rolls into Bristol on October 13th, will see Diamandis’s Electra Heart alter-ego come to life. ‘It’s set in a teen girl’s bedroom slash sleazy motel, and the theme is sort of wedding meets homecoming,’ she giggles. She anticipates that this will be the perfect outing for her fans, who often turn up to gigs in prom dresses. The whole thing sounds so saccharine, it makes your teeth hurt just thinking about it, but it’s intended that you take it in with a pinch of salt. ‘This image is so sweet, it had to be a joke,’ laughs Diamandis.

In a world where rake-thin, half-naked air-brushed women are often heralded as demi-goddesses, Marina Diamandis represents a refreshing change to the status quo. Her Electra Heart persona allows her to have all the fun of dressing up as a quintessential starlet, while being able to laugh at herself. The change from the Marina from Abergavenny to peroxide blonde Electra Heart might suggest that Diamandis was beginning to buckle under peer pressure, but she disagrees: ‘I don’t think that there’s a pressure to use your sexuality to sell songs. If no one was sexual, or if no one pushed the boundaries or posed naked, then I think that would be a bad thing as well, because it would become a total taboo.’ While she supports singers like Rihanna, who she believes is ‘just a really sexual person’, she doesn’t believe it is a pre-requisite for all female singers to take off their clothes, ‘I think we’ve kind of done that in pop and I think that we’re now at a stage where you don’t really need to do that.’ This stance doesn’t seem to be holding Diamandis back – she’s already planning her third album, but is keeping quiet about what it will sound like, saying only, ‘I think every album I do is going to be quite different from the last, sonically speaking’.

Speaking to Diamandis, you get the sense that she has worked hard to get where she is today, and is enjoying every minute of it. Her transformation to becoming a teen idol is nearing completion, with an appearance on the cover of her favourite magazine in the pipeline, as well as the occasional pinch-yourself moments. ‘I’ve met Elton John a few times, and I went to his house. And then last year I met the Queen.’ Who was better? ‘Of the two queens?’ Diamandis laughs again, ‘I’d say Elton was more entertaining’.

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Interview: Emmy the Great

I met up with Emma-Lee Moss aka Emmy the Great before her gig at The Fleece in Bristol for Epigram.

Photo by Alex Lake

Whilst trapped in Sussex last Christmas, Emma-Lee Moss and her boyfriend Tim Wheeler, lead singer of Ash, decided they should make their own Christmas album. ‘I just sent him a text one day saying “But what about Mrs Claus?”, because people always talk about Santa Claus and ignore his wife. Then we talked about writing a song, and when we got snowed-in over Christmas, we started working on a whole album.’ The result is a true Christmas cracker. From the Weezer-inspired ‘Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing)’ to the War of the Worlds style ‘Zombie Christmas’, This is Christmas is the perfect blend of Moss’s humour and Wheeler’s alt-rock background, with plenty of sleigh bells thrown in for good measure. Rather than avoiding the cheese element found in many Christmas favourites, Moss and Wheeler have embraced it, injecting puns and irony into their songs to avoid sounding too twee.  What could so easily have been an album of indie covers of tunes of Christmas past in fact only features one cover, ‘Marshmallow World’, the most famous version by Darlene Love and Phil Spector, which sets the tone for an album which could well become a Christmas classic itself in years to come.  The pair, recently named ‘the indie Posh’n’Becks’ by the Independent, originally called their project ‘Sleigher’, but worried it wouldn’t look as good on paper as it sounded, ‘so we’re saying it’s by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler. If it was the other way round, everyone would read it as Tim Wheeler featuring Emmy the Great, whereas in reality, it’s all about me,’ Moss jokes.

Photo by Pippa Shawley

This is Christmas comes just a few months after the release of Emmy the Great’s second album, Virtue. Moss has not shied away from the fact that much of this album was written in the aftermath of her fiancé leaving her after finding Jesus, shortly before they were about to marry. ‘I wasn’t worried about the personal questions the album would provoke, in fact singing about what happened acted as a sort of therapy. Straight after, I moved back in with my parents, and within a few days I was back to normal, as if it hadn’t happened. It wasn’t until I was writing the second half of the album that it all came out.’ Much has been made of the fact that Virtue is tinged with Christian and biblical imagery, however listening back to Emmy the Great’s debut First Love, you find that it, too, is littered with mentions of god, angels and other religious imagery. ‘I think that’s why he tracked me down, you know. I think he heard all these questions about God on my first album and thought that I must be going through the same existential crisis as him.’ I wonder what Moss means when she says he ‘tracked her down’ and it transpires that her ex pretended to be filming a documentary to meet her. Just nine months later, the couple were engaged. ‘I could tell it was coming. Guys always think it’s going to be this great, romantic surprise, but I’d been expecting it for a while’. Was it going to be a church wedding? Moss rolls her eyes, clearly still frustrated by the situation, ‘eurgh, yes. And then he said he wanted hymns, so I was like “yes, okay, hymns. I want songs by Weezer, The Pixies, Lemonheads, Ash” but he said “no, proper hymns.”’ Moss was raised in an atheist household, but was curious about religion, and Christianity in particular, which was a curiosity she shared with her former beau; ‘I never actually turned to religion though,’ she says dismissively. I tentatively enquire whether he’s now working in a far-flung missionary, ‘who knows,’ sighs Moss again, ‘I hear different things from different people. Besides, he’s done this before. God is like his get-out clause.’

Moss could never be accused of singing about conventional subjects. Topics covered on First Love include a pregnancy scare and a car crash, while Virtue contains references to dinosaur sex and Trellick Tower, one of London’s ugliest tower blocks.  Her hobbies are equally unusual. As well as writing science fiction stories for her own amusement, Moss teams up with Elizabeth Sankey of pop duo Summer Camp to resuscitate teen-fiction legends Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the infamous twins of Francine Pascal’s cult American series Sweet Valley High. ‘We were asked to perform at a word festival, so got brainstorming about teen fiction. Elizabeth mentioned Sweet Valley High so we started to list all the things we knew about the books. Two hours into the conversation, we realised we were basically academics on the subject.’ The pair keep a blog chronicling the escapades of the twins. Recent entries include an audition tape to be the new singer of Bloc Party, which features Moss and Sankey dancing around in animal onesies, and a trip to the Guardian offices. Moss was able to use her quirky talents to fund the recording of Virtue, ‘our record company wasn’t sure if they’d be able to put another one of our albums out, so we decided to use PledgeMusic to finance it.’ Fans could donate as much as they liked, or pledge a specific amount of money for an exclusive experience. Experiences ranged from a signed copy of the album right up to touring with the band for the day and a guitar lesson with Moss and Emmy the Great collaborator Euan Hinshelwood.

On stage, Moss has transformed from the slightly awkward, plaid-wearing singer-songwriter that she was in the lead up to the release of her debut album, and become a more polished performer, no longer staring at the floor and mumbling between songs. ‘I think I felt that I had to look that way to be taken seriously, that if I didn’t look like some grungey musician, then I wouldn’t gain people’s respect. Then I realised that I was in my mid-20s and I was still dressing like a teenager, I had an album out so I didn’t need to prove myself anymore.’

 

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Interview: Slow Club

I spoke to Charles Watson, half of Sheffield duo Slow Club, ahead of the band’s October tour for Epigram.

Slow Club are a difficult band to define. Labelled by some as ‘twee’, ‘rockabilly’ and ‘shout-folk’, they have also been compared to other famous duos such as The White Stripes, Summer Camp and, most bizarrely, Same Difference. It was a conscious decision, then, to go in a different direction for their second album, Paradise. ‘We didn’t want to do the same record twice’, says Charles Watson, one half of the Sheffield duo, who are about to embark on a rescheduled UK tour. ‘We’ve seen so many of our favourite bands do that. I suppose we’ve been lucky in the sense that we’ve never been ‘hyped’ in any way, so it’s not like we’re in anyone’s pockets. I think that can happen if you’re plugged by a magazine or something, like NME, I think a lot of people feel obliged to make indie-rock for that reason’. To avoid being pigeonholed as ‘twee’ for another album, the band worked with producer Luke Smith, former guitarist of electro-punk band Clor, to create music that people could dance to. ‘We spent a lot of time on drums, and making sure that the groove was really fun before we put anything else on it,’ Watson tells me, ‘[Smith]’s just got an amazing sense of rhythm and his history is in dance music so he’s very orientated around the beat, but in a really weird shambolic way, where it’s not regimented or Kraftwerk or anything. He’s just got this really strong understanding of how it relates to how you feel. Totally natural.’

I speak to Watson as he nurses his lacerated thumb days after a freak salsa accident, so he is eager to get out on the road and out of the kitchen. ‘We’ve spent so much time in London compared to the year before when we were hardly here, so we just want to get out and travel.’ Watching Slow Club live, they have certainly achieved their aim of making people want to move. Their jangly, punky guitars on songs such as ‘Where I’m Waking’ have an integral infectious rhythm, while Watson and bandmate Rebecca Taylor’s wailing vocals make audience members want to go home and start a band with their best friend.

Building on the two part harmonies that characterised their debut album Yeah, So?, Watson and Taylor recruited Steve Black and Avvon Chambers of their support act, Sweet Baboo, to join them on stage to bring a fuller sound to their live shows. While it could be said that it is the simplicity of a two-part band that define who they are, the pair have always been on the look out for more members. ‘It just got to the point where we were writing songs together, playing them live and it worked really well and we were like, “fuck it”. Watson believes that the first two years on the road were extremely formative, cementing the pair as a band, and if they had had more members at that time, he doubts the band would still be together. ‘It’s so nice to think that now we have four people in the band, there are so many more things we can do that we’ve always wanted to do, like vocal harmonies.’ However the addition of Black and Chambers won’t change the Slow Club writing process, ‘if we ever get more members it will still just be me and Becky writing, so everyone who plays live will probably just be there for the shows, while we’ll still do everything in the studio.’

Watson and Taylor are both very hands on in all aspects of the band. When I speak to Watson, he is in the middle of designing another T-shirt to sell on tour. ‘I find [art] an escape from music, it just numbs your brain a bit. I’ve got a projector and I like projecting stuff and colouring. I find it quite therapeutic, just colouring in really – crayons and that.’ Taylor and Watson also run their own blogs on the band’s website, Taylor’s featuring a ‘woof of the week’, profiling a new hot man every seven days, while Watson uses his blog to show off some of his ‘colouring in.’

Despite the energetic style of Slow Club’s music, the band are unashamedly un-rock ‘n’ roll. ‘We did Secret Garden Party this summer and it was really druggy, everyone was off their faces on K and stuff. I was driving, so I wasn’t drinking, and then we found out that Amy Winehouse had died – there was a really strange atmosphere there.’ Watson also finds it hard to relax after a gig, ‘it’s like going on a night out with your laptop, and getting really pissed and just leaving it on the side. I fucking hate it. My total worst fear on tour is someone nicking all the gear.’ It’s not just equipment that Slow Club worry about being stolen; just days before the release of Paradise, the album was leaked on the internet, with links circulated through Twitter. ‘I had to try really hard not to send some really horrible abusive messages on Twitter to that guy,’ admits Watson. ‘It’s just a shame that that’s part of releasing albums now, you have to anticipate losing a certain percentage of people to illegal downloading.’ Watson’s no stranger to illegal downloading, admitting that he briefly pirated music as a teenager, ‘but I wasn’t making music for a living then. It’s not until you’re relying on people buying records when it’s like ‘shit’. I realised quite quickly that people’s livelihoods are at stake, but it’s good to support the people that you love, the music, otherwise they probably won’t make another record’.

 

You can read the rest of Epigram issue 240 here.

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Interview: The Decemberists

Earlier this month, I caught up with Jenny Conlee, keyboardist of The Decemberists, whilst the band were in the midst of their Popes of Pendarvia World Tour, for Epigram

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Looking at The Decemberists, you would think they belong in a high school staff room rather than at the top of the US album chart. But that’s where they found themselves back in February when their latest album, The King Is Dead, exceeded sales expectations, shifting 94,000 copies in the first week of release.  “None of us were expecting this record to be as successful as it has become,” says Jenny Conlee, the band’s keyboardist. “It feels a bit strange because we are going about making music in the same way as we ever have. I guess it was just the right time to release this kind of record.”

The album marries the band’s distinctive folk-rock style, laced with rich vocabulary, to a more country sound than heard on previous albums. Lead singer and principal songwriter Colin Meloy has made no secret of the fact he wanted to make an album that sounded like R.E.M.’s early work. But rather than try and imitate records such as  Reckoning, the band invited R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to collaborate on the album. “Peter’s guitar work has been a big influence to all of us and a lot of the playing on this record reflects that,” says Conlee, something that can certainly be heard on tracks such as ‘Down by the Water’.

Another significant contributor to the album was country singer Gillian Welch, whose tones blend perfectly with Meloy’s to create a wholesome Americana vibe, so it is surprising to learn that Welch’s parts were recorded in Los Angeles, nearly 1000 miles away from the band, who recorded the album in a barn just outside Portland, Oregon. Both guests clearly made a significant impact on the album, as Conlee is keen to relate. “We were definitely looking for their personalities when we decided to have them record with us. Gillian has a very distinct voice that we thought would sound great in a duet with Colin. We did get a chance to play one of the songs with her at a television appearance and it was wonderful.”

Following the example of musicians The Decemberists love, such as The Rolling Stones, the band removed themselves from the hustle and bustle of Portland to a barn on Pendarvis Farm, in the appropriately named Happy Valley, half an hour from the city. Conlee believes that the rural setting was great for focusing on the project and helped set the mood for the record, but “the biggest reason we wanted to record in a barn was that the space was large enough for us to all set up in one room and play together.”

This was not the first time the band had recorded in an unorthodox location; their third album,  Picaresque, was conceived in a former Baptist church, and, as the haunting environment of that location influenced  Picaresque, so too did the bucolic surroundings of Pendarvis Farm help the band realise their country-influenced sound.

In the past, Meloy’s songwriting style has been noted for its dense vocabulary and dark narrative themes, but Conlee is quick to defend Meloy’s lyrics. “Colin is a person with a great vocabulary and to him the words are not obscure. I think it is wonderful that he is exposing these words to a wider audience. Maybe it will help counteract the loss of our proper vocabulary that is happening with texting and other media.”

Speaking to Conlee, it is not surprising that so much of The Decemberists’ work has an archaic feel to it; the band seem to hold a slight disdain for modern society, and are trying to buck the trend by reintroducing complex language to popular music whilst linking their music to traditional works – ‘Rox in the Box’, for example, features the traditional tune of ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’. Past albums were clearly inspired by the British folk revival too, such as  The Hazards of Love, named after an Anne Briggs EP – so can we expect an album of traditional folk songs? “A folk song album is a great idea, but it has not come up yet in conversation. Colin has so many great songs of his own that we can’t help but record them,” says Conlee, although she promises they won’t be rejecting their folk base to work with the likes of Kanye West, as Bon Iver has done on Kanye’s latest album. “I don’t think any hip-hop is in the future for The Decemberists, it is just not where our influences are.”

So who does influence the band? Aside from the impact R.E.M.’s back catalogue had on the album, Neil Young is also a clear favourite, as one could predict from the howling harmonicas that feature on The King Is Dead. The album title itself is a nod towards The Smiths, another rather obvious influence for such a literary band. In terms of Conlee’s own personal preferences, she is moved by sounds and sights of the past. “I love Ireland and Scotland and England very much and I love going there. I love seeing the history in all of these places; just looking at the architecture is an inspiration.” Attached to this is her love of simple, uncomplicated music such as Mountain Man, who supported the band on their US tour, “I really enjoy their music; they are three women who sing mostly traditional style songs with beautiful, eerie harmonies.” Perhaps it is this taste for darkness, from tales of prostitution to unfulfilled love, that binds the band together – does this reflect on the band member’s troubled inner souls? “I think that anyone who is into our music realises that these are stories of fiction and not a firstperson point of view. When you think of the violence in most movies, you realise how tame our lyrics are.”

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