The Greater Times: Electrelane Discuss Their Return
, August 16th, 2011 05:40
As Electrelane prepare to play what might be their last gig at XOYO tonight, Mia Clarke talks to Laura Snapes about their "emotional" return
It feels appropriate that Electrelane's Mia Clarke should answer The Quietus' questions in the back of a van on a three-hour journey between tour dates. The once Brighton-based four-piece's music was often written about in terms of evoking travel and transitional periods, with the band themselves often penning tour diaries for Plan B, and Clarke herself co-curating a tome entitled The Art Of Touring. Their more unleashed, proggier moments careened towards a horizon that would never come, driving limitless and infinite, and strung through with hope.
As history went, however, Electrelane weren't to be infinite, going on indefinite hiatus in 2007 in order to pursue love and academia – after all, Verity, Emma and Mia had been in the band since their teens, with Ros joining shortly after, meaning that school and university were sacrificed for splitter vans and wide-eyed world-trotting. Yet as Mia points out, their four albums and legacy had life beyond the end of that of the band, with fans staying loyal and new converts finding them in between late 2007 and February 2011's announcement that they would be reuniting for a series of summer shows.
I had never heard them until a friend with whom I worked in a record shop in Cornwall played me No Shouts, No Calls, almost exactly to the month that they would announce their hiatus. Their melancholy, impassioned motorik, sexually unambiguous, literate, multi-lingual lyrics and, being 18 at the time, the fact that this music was made by four clearly very intelligent women became something of a guiding light, as it doubtless did for others if recent displays at London's Scala and Field Day Festival were anything to go by. Both performances showed no sign that the band hadn't played together for four years – whistle clean and flourish-free, Verity Susman, Ros Murray, Emma Gaze and Mia were electrifying, the kind of band you wish had never gone out of existence so that bands like Warpaint were less of a remarkable anomaly, so that (as Mia writes) Electrelane's return wouldn't be marked with clod-fisted comparisons to Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls.
It's heartbreaking that their last date will take place tonight, on August 16th at XOYO – but continuing their trademark hopeful streak, below Mia explains that the success of this tour has resulted in the band seriously discussing "how and when [they] might make another album".
What's been the main difference in touring between now and the first time around?
Mia Clarke: The most notable difference, for me, is the way we interact as a band. We are older now and have had the space and time to reflect on how lucky we are to be doing what we're doing, and I think this has really changed the way we work together. When we announced our hiatus in 2007, none of us thought it possible that we'd be playing again four years later. This current tour has been a totally new start for the band, and we are getting along better than we ever have in the past. It's been an incredible amount of fun. This change in attitude, coupled with an overwhelming amount of support from our fans, has made this our best tour yet.
How about the best experience on this tour so far?
MC: Well, we had a full on mosh pit and stage diver in Paris, which was really funny. Our fans in France are always particularly wild. I think every show on this tour has been fun for us for different reasons. One of my favourite things has been the opportunity to catch up with all the friends that we used to see when we were touring more regularly. We also spent a fun day spray-painting t-shirts in Berlin after running out of merchandise. Our friend lent us her apartment in Kreuzberg and we spent a whole afternoon drinking wine, making stencils, and spray-painting on her back porch. We were happily surprised by how quickly they sold!
Have you got out and talked to the crowds much? How's the balance of new versus old fans - have many people been approaching you saying that they came to you after the hiatus?
MC: We always try to hang out in the crowd after we play, and it's been amazing to learn that a fair amount of the audience is comprised of new fans. It has made us so happy to know that Electrelane continued to have a "life" after we went on hiatus, and that younger music fans were discovering the band. It feels great to be here now, playing to people who weren't able to see us the first time around.
How did the decision to go on hiatus come about? Was it something you had been discussing for a while?
MC: When we decided to go on hiatus in 2007, we were pretty exhausted by the demands that the band took on our personal and professional lives. Electrelane had been recording and touring pretty much non-stop since 2000. We weren't really making any money, and had other academic and professional paths that we wanted to pursue. Our heavy touring schedule also prevented us from spending time with our partners, and we were all either just married or just about to be married, so that was another consideration. Also, after spending so many years together, we just needed time apart! I think the discussion to go on hiatus happened in early 2007, with our 'last' show in December of that year.
Electrelane's influence and acclaim seemed pretty widespread, especially at the point when No Shouts, No Calls came out - quitting after that album came out seemed to signal that success never ranked highly amongst your priorities. Is that fair to say? Was it a difficult decision to bow out then?
MC: I definitely wouldn't say that success was never a priority to us but this of course depends on how you quantify success. Being in the position of having any amount of influence and critical acclaim is incredibly lucky, and we have always appreciated and been grateful for that. However, we were barely making enough money to sustain our lives. After ten years, continuing to make the band our professional priority just wasn't feasible. I think this financial stress, combined with having rather unstable home lives due to constant touring, also took its toll on our relationship as a band and there was a point when we just weren't getting on very well.
For me, success as a musician is about creating the best music you can with people you enjoy being around. We decided to go on hiatus as soon as that enjoyment was compromised. We've now had a four-year breather, and are more fulfilled in other areas of our lives, so the difference is massive. I feel like right now is the most successful we have ever been, because we're enjoying it more than ever. It's been a heartening surprise, and has resulted in us having more serious discussions about how and when we might make another album.
I read one interview where you talk about the impact of downloading - did that contribute to the unfeasibility of surviving as a band?
MC: I'm sure it didn't help matters, but I think that even four years ago (when No Shouts, No Calls was released) downloading was less ferocious than it is now. I actually think our main problem was being too naïve and not business-savvy enough when it came to spending record label money on tour support and recording.
Who instigated getting back together for the summer? Who made the first email, the first phone call? Was the idea of reuniting always on the cards? You must have realized that there was a safety net, that having built up such a name for yourselves meant that you could return at some stage.
MC: None of us can remember who originally suggested it. We were emailing about a bunch of different stuff at the time, and I think that suggestion was just kind of thrown in there. Once we figured out that we'd simultaneously have a few weeks free this summer, we e-mailed our booking agent to see what they thought of the idea, and they were really supportive. As I mentioned earlier, the idea of reuniting was definitely not on the cards! I can only speak for myself, but I couldn't have felt more "done" as I did at our Brighton show in 2007. It's amazing how much can change in the space of four years. In the end, we really missed each other, and playing together, and I think we all saw this tour as a chance to turn over a new leaf. We've all been involved in other musical projects, but nothing feels the same as the four of us on stage together.
Were you surprised at the response? Did you expect it?
MC: So surprised! Amazed! I don't think any of us expected the response to be as heartfelt and positive as it has been. It's been rather emotional for us to see.
What attracted you to the places you all individually moved to? Travel was always something commented on with regard to your past work, the idea of journeys conjured by your music - considering Brighton was the starting point for it all, how does it feel returning now?
MC: I wanted to move to Chicago because my husband is from there, and we have great friends there. I also love the architecture, museums, and the food. One of my favourite Chicago quotes is by Nelson Algren, who said that "loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose. You may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real." I think that sums up Chicago perfectly. Verity and Ros live in London because they are both working on their PhDs there, and Emma chose to live in LA to be with her wife. It felt great to be back in Brighton. We all love it there, and as Emma, Verity and I were born there and have family there, it will always be home.
Have you been able to visit all the literary destinations you talked about on the DiS article?
MC: Unfortunately not! I asked a bunch of people in Istanbul if they knew where the Museum of Innocence was, but no dice. I am dying to go there when it finally materializes… I think that might have to be a non-touring related trip.
What were the first rehearsals like? When the reunion was first announced, you said that there were no plans for new material - did anything new come out of those sessions accidentally?
MC: We spent two weeks rehearsing before our first show in Istanbul. The first couple of days were pretty weird, but we quickly snapped out of it and playing together began to feel natural very quickly. We were most concerned with whipping our old songs into shape, and didn't have time for anything new except for our cover of 'Smalltown Boy'.
Over your four albums, you seemed to avoid consistency - The Power Out has vocals, Axes doesn't, No Shouts, No Calls does - was it important to never stick to one style? And had you had discussions about how new material might develop after No Shouts?
MC: We don't really discuss the albums that we want to make before we start writing them. The pattern of our previous records came about naturally, probably just because we wanted a change from what we had done before. All our songs materialize from us sitting in room together and improvising, so the sound develops organically. The most we've said about any new material we might write in the future is that we'd like to do something a bit more psychedelic.
Did you feel part of something bigger (I'm loathe to say a "scene") when you were originally around? Did you feel that you fit in anywhere?
MC: We've never felt ourselves to be part of any "scene" at all. We've always felt like we don't quite fit in anywhere, and we're totally happy with that! Sometimes we get lumped in with other bands with women in them who don't sound anything like us. The first time around it was Sleater-Kinney and now it's the Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls. It's ridiculous! As Emma once said, the only thing that links us to those bands is that we all have vaginas.
I really don't want to bang on about "women in rock" at all - originally, did you feel that anyone ever treated or responded to your band differently because you are four women?
MC: We definitely felt that a bit more in the early days, but much less so in the last few years. Now we just get on with what we do and shake off any stupid comments.
I went to a really disappointing talk recently where Louise Wener from Sleeper said, in so many words, that there are next to no great female bands in music at the moment. It took a lot of effort not to stand up and scream. Do you think we're in a good place regarding that at the moment? On one hand, I love seeing a band like Warpaint do incredibly well, but loathe how much of what's written about them comments on their looks, and their famous mates - as if they couldn't have had this success by themselves.
MC: It's very disappointing to hear that Louise said that! I do think that there are a fair amount of female bands doing well compared to ten years ago, which is wonderful, but you're right— looks are always commented on more with female bands compared to male ones. I recently checked out a video about Kate Nash's Rock'N'Roll for Girls After School Music Club and saw the statistic that only 14% of the 75,000 members of the Performing Rights Society are female, so there's still a long way to go.