The Raincoats talk The Photographers’ Gallery’s The Punk Weekender and the 70s punk scene, and announce details of their new Rough Trade collaboration. Plus, PLAYLISTS!
The Raincoats’ Gina Birch opens her front door and ushers me in. She’s got bandmate and fellow founding member Ana da Silva over, whose attention is currently being commanded by a mobile phone as she watches the likes stack up on The Photographers’ Gallery’s Instagram account. The Raincoats have taken it over for a week and da Silva, Birch and longstanding manager Shirley O’Loughlin are taking turns to post pictures in the run up to this weekend’s Punk Weekender event (23-26 June) at the central London venue, where The Raincoats will be performing in a sold-out gig on Saturday night.
Da Silva’s most recent post, a picture of a vintage Leica camera given to her by her dad and used to take the photos in her 1976 art-school film Black and White (which will be screened on Saturday), has so far racked up around 500 likes. She’s excited.
It’s 40 years since punk became a thing, and The Photographers’ Gallery is celebrating the London scene of the time with an exhibition of archival photographs alongside events and talks, and this live performance from the influential post-punk band. It’s part of Punk.London, a year-long festival of events in celebration of the movement.
Ana’s brought her guitar round with the intention of rehearsing, but she says they “got too excited with the Instagram thing to rehearse anything.” It doesn’t help that England are playing Slovakia in the Euros on the television in the other room, and the cheerful Shirley is dashing in and out excitedly.
But no matter – their violinist Anne Wood’s coming over on Thursday anyway for a proper rehearsal, and they’ve got Friday too. They’re not worried because they played “recently” at the Stewart Lee-curated ATP festival in April. Plus, they’ve been doing it on and off for so long now, they seem to slip back into easily enough.
“116,” says Birch who’s just posted a picture on Instagram and has taken over ‘like’-monitoring duties. “Anne’s very musical. If she doesn’t remember, she can tell by ear what’s required.”
And Gina and Ana can’t? “Sometimes [Ana and I] have muscle memory so rather than actually knowing what’s going to happen, our fingers either go to it or they don’t. And if they don’t go to it you find yourself going: ‘Where the hell am I?’ and that’s quite embarrassing.”
Their punk roots, and their leaning towards the avant-garde and the experimental, mean it’s presumably okay if not a requisite that they’re unconventional in their approach to music – whether that’s playing, writing, recording or rehearsing. Their attitude and style, and continuing desire to push boundaries means the fact that they’re currently without a drummer isn’t a barrier.
“We have one drummer who moved to America but we’ve worked with another one when this one couldn’t play…” says da Silva.
Birch interrupts. “And he’s also in America so now we have two American drummers,” she says.
“One in New Orleans, one in LA,” adds da Silva.
“Oh, we’re so LA, darling,” Birch laughs. “I mean, we could just go and get another drummer. [Instead], we have three or four songs where we use some pre-recorded stuff, not necessarily drums.”
So what’s this “stuff” then? Da Silva summarises it as a combination of rhythmic and non-rhythmic sounds. Birch says the sounds are made using “saucepans and cardboard boxes”.
“Digital saucepans,” she says, laughing. I can’t tell if she’s joking or deadly serious.
Da Silva jumps in: “It creates a new dynamic. Some songs feel really nice like that and very spacious. So we’ve been doing a bit of a different set than we do if we have a drummer.”
It isn’t the first time one interrupts the other, and it won’t be the last while we’re talking – with Birch diving in to correct da Silva or to finish one of her stories and vice versa. The pair disagree over how their revival in the nineties happened but they eventually leave the discussion and agree to remember it differently. It’s safe to say though that it was around the time that fan Kurt Cobain, along with a pregnant Courtney Love, tracked down da Silva in the shop she was working in that the spark to re-form was ignited.
Da Silva says that it was Cobain’s interest that made them realise that their music was still relevant – and crucially, being listened to.
“I felt we had been forgotten,” she says. “Or maybe some people had our records and never listened to them, and we realised that wasn’t the case.”
Birch clarifies: “We weren’t living in misery because of it, it was just something we had done in the past. We were living our lives. It was just…”
“We just didn’t think it was part of anything because the New Romantics came in, and electronic music…” interjects da Silva.
“They stomped all over us,” adds Birch before Ana picks up the story again.
“Then we found out that actually a lot of people had been exchanging tapes and trying to buy second-hand records [of ours], and stuff like that.”
Da Silva also remembers a pivotal moment at a Hole gig at Acklam Hall, West London.
“Courtney said something garbled,” she says. “I thought she said ‘Raincoats’. But I thought, ‘I’m hearing things now’, because she speaks a bit slurry – the LA accent. But then she started singing and I thought, ‘That’s The Void. That’s one of our songs!’”
However they got to the point of reunion, what transpired was a batch of re-released CDs, which came out in the US on Geffen Records, the label Nirvana were signed to, in 1993.
Cobain wrote liner notes for these releases, which said that The Raincoats’ music brought him moments of peace, and that when he listened to their records he felt he was listening in on them rather than listening to them. I wonder how Birch and da Silva interpreted that.
“I read somewhere else that he found that we were honest,” says Ana. “We did what we felt had to be done, had to be said, had to be composed. I think maybe that he saw that thing that he calls honesty [in that]. Also, I think the first record especially sounds quite unpolished and he probably liked that. It wasn’t filled with things that producers do, like reverb and everything. In the eighties, there was this fashion for click track, or they would get one bar that the drummer did nearly perfectly and multiply that drum part. I think it made music stale again really. In the late eighties there was this obsession with everything being on time.”
At the time that punk emerged, da Silva and Birch were living in West London in the area that would become Notting Hill. It was nothing like it is today, and Birch found herself living in a squat. Both women remember the time very fondly, even though Birch speaks of no hot water and mushrooms growing on the walls. She remembers trying to stick the plaster back on the cracked walls with paint she’d mixed using pure pigment she’d liberated from her art college: “I just didn’t really have a clue how to be really. I just kind of stumbled along”.
But it was a more liberal time that allowed both women, who met as students, the freedom to create. Birch talks of her student grant which helped her to survive, and eventually she and the people she squatted with were able to form a housing co-op which brought them a grant they used to do the place up.
It was in and around this squat that their “little scene” sprang up.
“Palmolive, the drummer who formed The Slits, was part of it,” says Birch. “And so when I saw them playing… I’d loved all the different bands and everything but when I saw them playing, the scales dropped from my eyes and I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that’.”
She’d also felt disillusioned at college. Arriving in London from Nottingham where she’d fallen in love with performance art, land art and conceptual art, she found all of the things that inspired her lacking. Instead, she found herself drawn to the punk movement and would go on to form the iconic band with da Silva.
For Birch and da Silva, punk was a local scene.
“We used to go to the Roxy and a bit later the Vortex,” says Birch. “I think the Roxy only existed for a hundred days. When the Roxy opened, all the new young bands were playing there and that was an exciting place to go. There was the Acklam Hall, which became Bay 63, and we did our first gig at the Tabernacle. And then there was the Rough Trade shop on Talbot Road.”
The Raincoats started playing together in 1977 and soon became involved with Rough Trade.
“I think there was a sense of being a bit more experimental with some of the Rough Trade bands, says da Silva. “I was thinking the other day – I don’t think I’ve ever said this – but I liked doing something a bit avant garde because my playing wasn’t very on the rhythm and [I made a] sort of scrappy noise, but not really in a very punk way. Punk was very loud but that was kind of a different thing – in the textures, and things like that.”
In other words, The Raincoats were just doing their own thing, working within their own inspirations, talents and limitations, and enabled by a supportive label that championed women in music even then. Da Silva recalls plenty of women in managerial positions at Rough Trade behind the scenes.
So aside from contemporaries like The Slits and American artists like Patti Smith, what were their inpirations?
Birch says, “Well, running in tandem [with the punk scene] was the musician’s collective from the film co-op. They were in Camden and we were in art school, so we were slightly aware of that parallel world going on. Steve Beresford did later join the Slits and he was part of that co-op thing. It was something a bit off the wall. And there were some guys at our college who did systems music.”
For The Raincoats, punk was not about copying The Sex Pistols but about finding their own voice.
Says da Silva, “The punk thing was a bit like somebody pushes you and you stumble and then you go and find your own thing. We just wanted to find our own voice and be open to stuff and not just play songs like the structure that punk songs are, and not shouting all the time and things like that.”
“And [bring] narratives from your own perspective,” adds Birch. “Because you’ve been talked to for all your life mostly through someone else’s narrative that you don’t necessarily relate to. Sometimes it’s nice to hear your own story reflected back to you and with The Slits and certainly Patti Smith, that began to happen.”
Birch also studied film and rejects the notion that was taught by some of her tutors that you need to know all the rules before you break them.
“Actually, you don’t need to know all the rules as an independent filmmaker and you don’t need to know all the rules as a songwriter,” she says. “I think for us and for many of the bands at that time it [was the case that] as long as you’ve got an intention of being creative or trying to make something that’s your own or something you like … [there were no rules].”
Gina Birch has been gathering footage for a film about The Raincoats for 10 years. Called Stories from the She Punks, it got a first-glimpse screening earlier this month at the British Library. A work still in progress, it features interviews with women involved in the scene that The Raincoats were a part of and remembers the time from a uniquely female perspective. But that’s not the only thing in The Raincoats’ future.
They’re also working on an exciting collaboration with an unnamed contemporary female artist through Rough Trade, which will be revealed in August. It’s part of a series of collaborations to celebrate 40 years of punk featuring acts of the time including Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, The Pop Group and Chris and Cosey, and contemporary artists such as John Grant and Savages.
Manager Shirley pops in as the England game draws to a close. “It’s going to be very special,” she says. “And what’s really interesting is that it’s a collaboration. It’s something new.”
40 years on it may be but, frankly, it’s inspiring to see these awesome women continuing to create in 2016. Can’t flippin’ wait.
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Photos: Chris Wiseman (except black and white photography)
Follow Chris on Instagram – CGSwiseman
Ana, Gina and Shirley have created personal playlists for the event at The Photographers’ Gallery. Listen to them here: