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Escape Velocity

A Breath Of Fresh Air: Tough Tits Interviewed
Tara Joshi , December 7th, 2016 11:07

In a year that feels endlessly suffocating and misogynistic, Newcastle punks Tough Tits provide some much needed catharsis. Tara Joshi speaks to the band about presumptions, pressures and plans. Photo Janina Sabaliauskaite

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Assumptions are constantly made about the legitimacy of females in the music industry. There’s the conflation of female journalists with “groupies” (a la that Rachel Brodsky interview with the Last Shadow Puppets in March), the constant presumption that men know more about music than women do (Kim Kelly’s recent piece on this is fantastic), or, in the case of a band like Tough Tits, the lazy idea that women only make certain types of music.

The point of my writing all this is not to produce another “think piece” on being a woman in the music industry, but rather to serve as a reminder that, in 2016, sexism is very much still rife.

This is a year in which all-female pop group Little Mix were called out for dressing like “strippers and prostitutes” in their X Factor performance, perfectly showcasing how women are still expected to conform to rules about how to dress, how to act, how to be.

Away from pop, women in punk, rock and metal are still rarely taken seriously and, if they are, they’re patronisingly treated as a niche or a novelty or an exception to the rule.

Add to all of this that 2016 is a year when a man who has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault - a misogynist who has boasted about grabbing women “by the pussy” - has been elected as one the most powerful leaders in the world and things start to feel abhorrent and hopeless.

But it’s precisely that overwhelming sense of frustration that makes the music of Tough Tits so bloody glorious. “You told me to look sexy so I puckered my lips and wore a thong,” vocalist Ayesha Linton-Whittle yells on ‘Hairless’, the opening track of their EP of the same name, and it feels incredibly exciting. In a year that has been suffocating, Tough Tits are a breath of fresh air.

The Newcastle trio’s debut EP is outstanding: wryly observed, seductively uninhibited, with a rough crackle of lush, synthy noise running through the exquisite dirge of raging garage-y punk. Here is an all-female band making music that is unapologetically loud, that channels the feeling of aggravation at society, and perfectly challenges every stupid, nauseating preconception there is.

Their track titles and lyrics positively seethe: ‘Hairless’ is a scathing look unrealistic beauty expectations - the protagonist hopelessly plucks and shaves and peels in her attempts to get validation (“I fucking hate myself/ but I’ll always love you”). ‘Fantasy’ is about the odd gender role-reversal of the lap-dancing industry, and ‘Nip Slip’ confronts the jarring double standard that is the censorship of female nipples. It’s worth noting that none of this makes the music of Tough Tits niche: these are problems that concern society as a whole, not just women.

Suffice it to say, everything about Tough Tits is thrilling, beguiling and wonderfully gratifying. For all those feminist frustrations, this music is surely the ultimate catharsis.

I had a chat on the phone with Liz McDade (drums, songwriting), Helen Walkinshaw (bass, synth, vocals), and Ayesha Linton-Whittle (lead vocals, guitar), to find out more about Tough Tits’ beautiful, feedback-laden sound.

Could you tell me a bit about how Tough Tits got started?

Ayesha Linton-Whittle: We basically met in pubs - like, we all drink a lot and Liz works in a pub. I knew Liz wanted to be a drummer in a band so I asked, then a couple months later Helen joined the band cos we thought we needed just a bit more radge.

I read in an interview you did a while ago that you really love when other women tell you that you’ve inspired them to start a band. So what bands inspired you to do it in the first place?

Liz: Probably local bands - the Durham scene is pretty good - like No Ditching, Martha, for example. The Durham scene has got a lot of strong female roles in their bands and they’re all really good mates as well.

ALW: Mika Miko. I would say strong frontwomen as well. Like Karen O who just goes mental on stage and runs around - I really like people like that.

I realise this is probably a bit of a boring question at this point, but in terms of being women in the music industry do you feel it’s important to be strong female role models?

ALW: I think it’d be silly if we were pathetic on stage - you’ve got to have a bit of umph, and a bit of awareness of yourself.

With the EP there’s this whole sense of expectation around women - expectations of appearances, behaviour. Did you feel that was an important discussion to be having?

LM: Definitely. There’s a lot of pressure on women with how they should look and how they should feel about their bodies. Me and Ayesha wrote the lyrics on the EP separately but they kind of tie-in quite well even thought we hadn’t discussed. It came out as a theme though - this idea of pressure.

What was it about hair removal particularly that struck you as a potent symbol for expressing your views?

LM: I am a hairy person. I've grown to feel very comfortable with my body and my body hair, and it's only since I've been in Tough Tits and been exposed to lovely, genuine, clever people that I've met through playing shows. I think ‘Hairless’ is a song that brings to light how some women feel everyday. I've felt pressure to remove my body hair in previous relationships and I'm queer. It's a very broad issue that affects a lot of people. Do what you want with your body, but if you're feeling pressure from society to do it, it's probably not what you want to do. So just be happy in yourself, if you can, I guess.

And is your writing all in a similar vein - would lyrical content outside the EP be similarly themed?

LM: I think it just comes from our background and a lot of it is just automatically very feminist and very queer, because that’s who we are. We do have some new stuff coming out - we’re planning on recording an EP to release early next year when we do an album tour with Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs so we’ve got a lot of stuff planned. Lyrically I think it’s going down more of a personal route now rather than a political one, even though we still have themes of politics in them. I feel like when we first started the band, we really wanted to say something and this was a platform to do that.

You mentioned that you started the band because you felt you had something to say - is being political something you consider to be important when it comes making music, and if so do you think that's why you were drawn to punk?

HW: Although we can all site influences outside of the punk scene, it is a genre where our music tastes overlap. I think we were drawn to making that style of music, because our main shared influences are punk bands; the political element comes from us having similar ideologies, beliefs and experiences. Hopefully those external and shared influences are what make our interpretation of punk personal to Tough Tits.

LM: Yes definitely, I think if you're privileged to have a platform then say something positive and meaningful with it - or use it to bring to light issues that you feel strongly about.

Punk's funny because at the same time as having an anti-establishment ethos, in my mind it's one of those genres that retains a sense of hyper-masculinity - as a queer, feminist band, have you found it a welcoming scene?

LM: Punk, to me, is more than music. It definitely defines how I try and live my life. We were very warmly welcomed into the UK's DIY punk scene and it's a scene that reflects what punk is about. But, outside of that, it is unfortunately very male dominated. But so is life, we just have to keep pushing a message of equality and create a platform for other people who aren't CIS white men.

HW: I agree with Liz, we’ve found the UK DIY punk community to be very welcoming and open minded. We had one particularly bad experience with a patronising sound engineer, but we called him out on stage and he apologised. Aside from that we’ve received a few questionable emails/ messages, and been on the receiving end of a lot of drunken mansplaining and post-gig critiques, but in general, the feedback has been encouraging and supportive. Aside from the ‘punk community’, I get a lot of stick from blokes because of the nature of our band; for example on Saturday night (in a bar) somebody said “I tried to listen to your band but pubes started growing out of my ears”, The reality is, we get called a ‘dyke band’ a lot, and I am forever getting tit jokes being made at me, but these aren’t people who are part of any creative scene; these are mainly ignorant CIS white men who feel threatened or confused.

And do you find there are any expectations of you as women in a band - do you think people expect you to make a certain type of music?

HW: Yeah, I think we get pigeonholed into riot grrrl and people expect us to make that style of 90’s punk music - or we’ll often get compared to female bands from the 70s, even though we don’t really have that kind of sound either. I think if you’re women not making acoustic soft music…

Then you must be riot grrrl?

HW: Yeah exactly! You couldn’t possibly be just making punk music.

And what’s the music scene like up in Newcastle?

HW: It’s very diverse, but it’s definitely male-dominated.

LM: It’s a boys club!

HW: We have some amazing bands, but you know when we were talking about the Durham scene earlier on? I think they are more diverse in terms of gender. However, promoters like Leave Me Here Presents and The Equestrian Collective keep pushing boundaries for the North East.

ALW: Yeah, I think we fit in more with the Durham scene, and probably the Leeds scene as well. Newcastle’s great and there are some really good bands - all our friends are in bands. So like Ten Sticks and Pigs.

LM: And Drifts.

HW: And Eat Fast and Novyi Leaf.

This one is probably relatively self-explanatory, but why Tough Tits? What was the conversation that led to that?

LM: Me and my mate were just joking around and making up band names and Ayesha approached me wanting to start a band, so I said, ‘Right, well we’re called Tough Tits.' We’re actually on a Billboard list of 20 most unfortunate band names.

I genuinely think it’s a great name! It’s funny, but it kind of sets up a listener for what to expect.

LM: Yeah, it’s like satirical, but it pushes that kind of idea of the feminine.

Is there anything else you’d want our readers to know?

LM: We’ll definitely be going back out on tour. We’re flat out working alongside playing gigs all the time. It’s really hard - last month we had at least two shows every weekend, I work in a bar, so that was hard to juggle. Next year we’ll be releasing a couple singles, and we’re aiming to record an album towards the end of next year too.

Next year will see Trump come into power in the states, and his message hasn’t exactly been female-friendly. Do you think there’s a way to combat the troubling levels of misogyny we're still seeing in society - Trump, women still feeling pressured to dress in certain ways, etc?

HW: Being aware of institutionalised and interpersonal oppression is the first step; so many people still deny gender inequality as an issue. I believe the likes of Donald Trump aren’t consciously oppressive, but consider their own attitudes normal. On a much smaller scale, blokes like Trump vomit their views on bar staff every weekend and aren’t challenged. Misogyny never went away, it’s just back in the spotlight…

LM: I think we need to provide education and options for the people that are scared and need change – they're just looking for change from the wrong people. Speak your mind and support women, LGBTQ people, people of colour, refugees and disabled people. It's a really tough, scary time and we really need to stick together.

HW: Yes, be vocal, open-minded and educate yourself. If you have never experienced something directly, why would you know about it, and why should you even believe it happens? Alternatively, you may have experience, but the behaviour was normalised, you weren’t challenged, defended, made aware or educated! Support communities other than your own, expose yourself to people who will challenge your views, get outside your comfort zone and reach across differences to achieve mutual goals.  

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