All Her Yesterdays: Rose McDowall Interviewed
, September 15th, 2015 07:19
Ben Graham talks to the Strawberry Switchblade member and Current 93/Psychic TV collaborator about the reissue of her Cut With The Cake Knife album. Colour portraits by Gilbert Blecken
"I was almost murdered two or three times," says Rose McDowall, formerly one half of Strawberry Switchblade, Spell and Sorrow, as well as a recurrent singer with Current 93, Coil, Death in June and Psychic TV, and solo performer. "That sounds insane; I've had this conversation with friends recently, and to say I was almost murdered two or three times - I mean if you were almost murdered, why would you not remember exactly how many times? But I was in a total war zone. Every day you just walked around thinking, anything could happen, at any time."
Rose was born Rose Porter, part of a large, poor Catholic family who, when she was ten years old, were moved to a particularly violent area of late sixties, early seventies Glasgow.
"My dad got hit over the head with an axe, twice, and he was rushed to hospital," she says. "My dad was half deaf, so he thought this guy had said do you know someone, but he actually said, are you someone? My dad said yes, and it was totally mistaken identity, but he hit him over the head with an axe, twice. And this man came into our house while he was in hospital, and stood there in the living room and said to my mum, this is not going to go any further, is it? Now that is just outrage to me. That is just insanely unjust. I just flew at the guy, and I was only about fourteen or something, and I went crazy saying you are not getting away with this, I don't know what's happening to my dad, and I said, 'Mum, tell him.' And she just looked at me, and she looked at him, and she said, 'No, it's not going to go any further.' Two neighbours had pulled me back, and in my rage I hadn't realised what afterwards I knew; that she didn't want to do that. She was protecting her children, because people did get petrol bombs put through their windows."
While Rose's childhood was brutal by any standards- she also witnessed a fatal stabbing and was pursued by the killers, had her pet cat murdered and saw her six-year-old brother die following a beating - she has a remarkable ability to remember mostly the good times and to draw inspiration from those at least as much as the bad. "It was horrendous," she admits. "I am still mentally suffering from those days, although I probably didn't really think that until quite recently, to be honest! Yes, that's where all my songs come from; they come from growing up. But I think I had a brilliant childhood. I can think of bad things happening right back to when I was five years old, but I'm always seeing the good things. I was always saying to my mum when I was too tiny to even properly know what I was talking about: 'Oh Mum, everybody would just be really good if they only knew!' Just because I knew, and I thought that everybody knew what I meant! And it wasn't until after punk or something that I just got so cynical about saving all these people. I flipped a coin and just thought, put them up against a wall and put them out of everybody's misery; these thugs, these people that are ruining everybody's lives. Not literally that, but I just went from everybody can be saved to some people have just got to be beyond it - for a period of time. Those poor little kids that I always thought were born into this, that have no choice, this is all they know; I do know that to be true, but also there was a part of me that thought, well, I grew up in that and I did not turn out like that. So everyone has a choice, and people either stay with the grain or go against it. And the people that go against the grain are the people that change the world."
It was punk rock that gave Rose the impetus to go against the grain and change her world at least.
"When punk happened it just opened the gates for me to go into adulthood," she says. "It happened at just the right time, because I didn't feel like anyone around me. I didn't ever feel like I fitted into that, and it was like the gates of freedom had just been opened on the spot."
The teenage Rose formed her first band the Poems with soon-to-be husband Drew McDowall after they saw the Ramones live. "I just turned round to Drew and said if they can do it, we can do it!" she laughs. "I love the Ramones, they're amazing, but we were a bit more experimental than just punk; it wasn't quite post-punk, it was punk time, but it was a wee bit more rowdy than punk, if you know what I mean. We experimented a bit with instruments and things like that, what we could afford to experiment with. But it was done in a very punky way I guess, because we were little punks."
The Poems - with Rose on drums - recorded an album but the acetates were lost and it was never released. Rose does however still have a copy on cassette, and if the quality is good enough and everyone is in agreement it's possible it could eventually come out on Night School Records, who are beginning an extensive reissue of her back catalogue beginning with her album of immediate post-Strawberry Switchblade recordings, Cut With The Cake Knife .
Rose and her friend Jill Bryson were known on the Glasgow punk scene for their outrageous dress sense - polka dots, beribboned hair - and with friends like Orange Juice and Postcard records in the ascendant, and ideas and originality acknowledged as far more important than musical ability, it was natural that they should form a band. But even by the standards of the times, things happened remarkably fast for Strawberry Switchblade. Their first gig in 1982 was followed within weeks by Radio One sessions for both John Peel and David 'Kid' Jensen, after which Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe came up to Glasgow and offered to manage them. The debut Strawberry Switchblade single, 'Trees And Flowers' (a Balfe/Drummond production, with Roddy Frame on guitar) was released on Will Sergeant's 92 Happy Customers label, before Strawberry Switchblade joined the Bunnymen on Warner's Korova subsidiary in 1983.
'Since Yesterday' was released at the end of 1984 and reached number 5 early the following year; their eponymous LP cracked the top 30, but three further singles failed to find much success, and Strawberry Switchblade broke up acrimoniously early in 1986, their demise hastened by Bryson's agoraphobia and McDowall's own struggles with the psychological pressures of sudden fame.
"The Strawberry Switchblade thing when it happened, it was like from pauper to princess almost," says Rose. "When I was a kid I never thought I'd see myself driving around Japan in a limousine, with people screaming at the car and stuff. It was like, this is mental! But I always wanted to be a singer, ever since I was really small, and it was punk that enabled me to do that. It opened the doors for everyone that was musical but hadn't gone through the right channels.
"I was always a creative person; I always loved singing. But I wouldn't like that amount of fame. I wouldn't mind the comforts that might go with some of it, but believe me it's bloody hard work as well. And not only that, your private life is barely existent. I don't want people inside my life that aren't invited. I love it when people like my music, but I don't belong to people. People have to understand that, and sometimes they don't; they say, 'Oh, you belong to the public now.' Well that is an insane thing to say to anyone. I mean, do you believe in slavery? Are you saying I'm a slave now, to humanity? It's ridiculous, you don't belong to anyone. I will write what I've got to say in a song, and if I wanted to say any more I would've written it in the song. You've got what I am prepared to give, and that's that. Don't make me over-explain things; I don't need to do that."
While this is obviously a warning to the over-analytical music journalist, I tell Rose that 'Since Yesterday' was actually the first single I ever bought, when I was thirteen, and that it's a song that still resonates with me to this day. And also that I often wonder why, at that age, I was drawn to first spend my own money on a record so infused with a sense of regret and nostalgia, when I should have been looking forward to life opening up before me. But at the same time it's a great song to have as your first single precisely because of that built-in nostalgia. There's a magic to that song, to that record, I think.
"Oh thanks," Rose laughs. "It was actually about nuclear war. I never told anybody that because I didn't want to write political songs, and also I'm quite private with what I think, so I just wanted to write a song. I didn't actually want to tell anyone what it was about at the time."
In the years following Strawberry Switchblade's split Rose wrote and recorded the songs that are being reissued this month as Cut With The Cake Knife. Formerly known as the Sunflower demos, after an alias Rose was considering using at the time, some of the tracks were intended for the never-made second Strawberry Switchblade album; others were written as Rose became increasingly involved with the post-industrial underground scene of Current 93 and Psychic TV. Still more were recorded in Iceland, where Rose was working with the young Bjork just as her dark-folk collective Kukl were starting to morph into the unique indie-pop of the Sugarcubes. But although songs like 'Tibet', 'Wings Of Heaven' and 'Crystal Nights' have all the feather-light, bittersweet beauty of the best Strawberry Switchblade material, but with an added depth and darkness, and Rose's dance-pop take on Blue Oyster Cult's 'Don't Fear The Reaper' sounds like an eighties mega-hit that never was, none of this material was properly released at the time.
"I was just tentatively feeling the ground again and getting some songs behind me," Rose admits. "I guess there was just a lot going on in my life at the time, and you don't have a manager on your back; you don't have somebody kicking you up the backside all the time going have you finished that yet? I actually need someone to do that because days fly by and I don't know where time's gone. Deadlines are good for me."
Rose met Bjork and Kukl through Icelandic composer Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, who worked with David Tibet and was in a line-up of Psychic TV, alongside Rose and Soft Cell's Dave Ball, that played at the 'Fabulous Feast Ov Flowering Light' at Hammersmith Palais in May 1985, when Strawberry Switchblade were still at the height of their Smash Hits dominating success. Kukl were among the support acts.
"It was an all-day event that had Micha Bergese with his dance team, which was totally amazing," Rose recalls. "I just loved Bjork's energy. She was like a mad little child and we got on really well. So when I went to Iceland, Bjork and I sang on Megas's album; he's an Icelandic performer, and we both did backing vocals on that. I was just listening to that recently and I'm really surprised that this is still a big secret; not a lot of people know about this."
Given that Rose was still a successful pop star at the time, I wondered if the likes of Genesis P Orridge and David Tibet were reluctant to take her seriously when she began moving in their circles, and whether becoming involved with what was at the time considered a subversive and extreme underground musical movement was a reaction against the vapid hypocrisies of the mainstream pop world of 1985.
"It wasn't a reaction against the pop thing at all," Rose says. "That's where I came from; my husband of the time, Drew McDowall, worked with Coil for many years, and is still working now. And ever since I was a little kid I was completely open-minded about all sorts of things; I was interested in magic when I was really young, I've always been interested in weird stuff that's happened all my life, so none of it phases me. I was walking in a world I knew pretty well when I met those guys, hence loving the name Strawberry Switchblade, because I am both things. I am many things."
It's worth noting too that Psychic TV were also courting pop success with the single 'Godstar,' which Rose sang on in early 1986.
"Exactly! They couldn't get enough of me!" Rose laughs. "Some of those bands everybody knows very well now, but at that time a lot of them weren't that well known. But I'd been on Top Of The Pops and everything, so it wasn't like I was a stray or like Little Red Riding Hood walking into the woods with all the wolves around her; it was probably the other way around! We always got on really well because we were all quite similar in lots of ways. Not in every way of course; nobody is. But we had lots of things and interests in common, and so I felt really comfortable among those people. As they all did with me; we all became really good friends."
Immensely prolific, Rose's profile has nevertheless remained somewhat below the radar as her vocals have generally been on other people's records and shows. While her contributions are often crucial to the overall sound - especially on albums by Coil and Current 93 - to the casual observer Rose's career has been all but invisible. One suspects this may be how she likes it.
"Music is my way of expressing myself, and I don't do music for other people," she says. "It's like an exorcism inside me, it's like I'm getting it out of myself. For me it's not about money, it's not about fame: it's definitely not about that, being in the limelight. I didn't enjoy that as much as it might have seemed. I didn't like the stalkers; I like my privacy. It's funny when people think that if they don't hear about you then you're not doing anything, because as we all know, when people aren't seeing you, you're probably doing more, because you're in the studio, writing songs and doing all sorts of things. But it's a fickle world, which is why I don't want to be part of the pop world."
In the nineties Rose formed Spell with controversial noise musician and author Boyd Rice, exploring their shared love of 1960s bubblegum pop. She also put together her own dark folk project Sorrow, and their debut album, Under The Yew Possessed, is next up in Night School's reissue campaign. Away from the neo-folk / industrial scene, Rose has also sung on records by Felt and the Pastels, and her influence can be felt on contemporary American groups like the Dum Dum Girls and Puro instinct. In the eighties she was also involved with Creation Records, and although she never signed with the label she played some shows as Strawberry Switchblade with a Creation All-Stars backing band.
"We did two gigs, actually," Rose confirms. "Primal Scream were my friends; we're all from the same place so we kind of know each other. They were just mates that I hung about with; them and the Weather Prophets and Lawrence from Felt. So when I arranged these gigs they all volunteered to help, which was brilliant. And it was like a little supergroup. I remember someone reviewed it and said it was the best pop band ever, and I got such a kick out of that. But obviously it wasn't going to be a band because everybody had their own thing. I played live with Felt at one of the Creation nights, too; that was really great fun but I was just in a very strange place at that time in my life. I'd had a close friend who had killed himself, jumping in front of a train, and lots of weird things. I wasn't in the best place at that particular point. I was having a great time, but underneath it all there was a lot of crap going on. I wasn't very settled, let's say. But I would rather my life be like that, be more spontaneous than not, because that's how I feel comfortable."
Although new material written with Canadian composer Shawn Pinchbeck is forthcoming, most recently Rose came full circle by opening for the Jesus And Mary Chain on this year's Psychocandy anniversary tour.
"Supporting the Mary Chain was amazing!" Rose enthuses. "They loved Switchblade, and they're my favourite band ever; no matter how crap I feel, if I put on the Mary Chain it makes me feel happy. It lifts my spirits. And when they asked me to sing backing vocals on 'Just like Honey' with them as well I was like, 'Oh my god', and I came off stage and all of my band were like, 'Wey!' They knew how much it meant to me. And I was like, I could die happy now. That was just brilliant. And they're great guys, I'm glad they're still out there."
On the dates I saw this year and it was great to see a younger generation of kids getting g into it; 14-year-olds in the mosh pit taking songs like 'Never Understand' as their own.
"I know, that's great, because I believe great music never dies anyway. It's rubbish when people say, 'Oh, they look old now.' I'm not talking about the Mary Chain; I'm talking about anybody from our generation. Why should musicians give up their job when they're twenty, instead of whenever they want, like anybody else? It's such an insipid world where everything is all beauty and perfection. Get real! We're all people, we're all personalities, and everybody's body goes through stages of change from birth to death. At what point do you become uncool?"
For Rose it all comes back to punk rock, as an attitude that will see you through life; accepting everyone's flaws and contradictions, while at the same time refusing to take any shit from anyone for being who you are.
"We won't put up with racism, we won't put up with sexism, we won't put up with ageism; we won't put up with any of that crap," she says. "Equality: we are not all the same but we should have the same rights. We're all different and we should embrace our differences, not fight about them. It makes it a lot more colourful jigsaw puzzle.
"When you think of it, all of these people- the Creation people, all of the indie people, all of the dark industrial stuff- all of it came from punk, or just before, maybe going back to the sixties a bit even. But it all came from there. So there's a wee element of anger in a lot of what those people have done, because they've been coming out of that kind of growing up, rebelling against society, focussing on the things that are wrong with society, which is what we all do growing up, as we should. You don't always take what the papers say; you read between the lines. You dig into things you're interested in yourself, whether they be political or art or anything. Whatever you want to do in life, you do it your way. That's what life is."