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Escape Velocity

Machine & Voice: An Interview With Muscles Of Joy
Stuart Huggett , December 20th, 2011 07:43

Stuart Huggett meets Glasgow's Muscles Of Joy, a seven-strong band who use vocals and self-built instruments to create songs that are beguiling and jarring in equal measure

Glasgow’s Muscles Of Joy coalesced around a set of friendships that crossed the loose borders of the city’s music and visual arts scenes. The group currently features seven members (Anne-Marie Copestake, Esther Congreave, Katy Dove, Leigh Ferguson, Victoria Morton, Jenny O’Boyle and Ariki Porteous), many of whom are also active in the visual arts, including film making, animation, sculpture, painting and photography.

Most of the band have passed through the ranks of The Parsonage, a 50-strong choir led by Janis Murray, whose repertoire includes songs by Joy Division, Jefferson Airplane and Fun Boy Three. This choral practice filters into the six tracks on Muscles Of Joy’s self-titled debut EP, released on Dep Downie’s (of Monorail Music) Watts Of Goodwill label. The group’s vocals range from gentle lullabies and spoken word pieces to full throated ululations, chants and animal noises, while their multiple instrument swapping sees them take influence from post punk, psychedelia, cut up and folk music.

The Quietus held a speakerphone conversation with Ferguson, O’Boyle and Porteous while they were having their Saturday evening tea. The band were taking a breather between assembling the EP’s complex, laser-cut sleeves and arranging visas for upcoming shows in New York and Boston.

Did you know each other from Glasgow’s art scene or its music one?

Jenny O’Boyle: We’ve all got different friendship histories in the Glasgow art scene, meeting each other at art school as well. We came together musically when we were singing in The Parsonage.

Leigh Ferguson: I knew everybody except Ariki because I did everybody’s hair. I’m a hair stylist, not a visual artist.

Ariki Porteous: I didn’t know any of the others until I joined The Parsonage.

LF: Ariki was at art school. Some people had previously been in bands, and I think most of us were founder members of The Parsonage. I was itching to do something more experimental, I have to say.

Had any of you trained as singers?

JO’B: No, we’re not trained.

LF: I trained in the bath! When I heard the choir I immediately joined. I was in another band at the time and I wanted my voice to improve. I thought if I joined a choir I’d probably get to sing quite loudly with a load of other people. I would say everybody got such a lot out of that choir purely on the basis of singing, because it’s well known that singing releases serotonin. We were doing hilarious things like backing Rod Stewart in front of 70,000 people at Hampden Park.

Did the band come about because you wanted music to perform at your art shows, or was there a separate musical idea there from the start?

LF: For a year we just wanted to make noise and make sounds and explore. Then Katy made a film and used some of our sound on the soundtrack. She did a show, and thought it would be really nice if we played at that.

AP: I’d done a piece as well, it was a sound piece and I needed voices to perform with it. I invited the girls to come along and perform, so things just overlapped along the way.

LF: The piece Ariki made was a huge piece of metal that was connected to speakers. We sang into the piece of metal and it reverberated around the room.

Your hand-built instruments include marching machines [a horizontal frame strung with pegs of wood, which is rocked across a hard surface to make a marching sound]. How many do you have now?

LF: We’ve got two, and we’ll probably half-make another one for Boston [for January’s gigs], just there.

Are they things you can build quickly?

LF: They are. The large one is lovely. A few have us have got a little cabin in the woods outside Glasgow, and there’s a tree that we cut limbs off because they were starting to grow into the hut. They were used as some of the little bits of dowelling. It’s an infinitely more interesting one because it’s got little wonky shapes of wood and stuff like that. But you can just buy dowelling, cut them up, drill holes in them, string them up and go. You can make one in a few hours, a small one.

AP: Someone came up to us after a performance and said if you close your eyes you could imagine you were using different digital effects and things. There’s so many of us with the voices and stuff that it was nice you can actually see how the sounds are made on stage. That’s probably what drives using different instruments and sounds, it enables us to achieve different effects but not necessarily through digital equipment.

On the EP, I can’t tell where the live performance ends and any production effects come in.

LF: I would almost be right in saying there’s no effect on any of the voices. We maybe put some things through on an old cassette player, and then played it back in once, but I don’t think it was voices per se, maybe just bits of tracks. We really did like to work with the dry vocals and let the build up of all the layers make the effects.

Although some of the lyrics are very poetic, are others written just with the sound of the words in mind?

AP: Maybe somebody will bring in something they’ve written, and maybe it’ll be more of a vocalisation thing.

LF: There’s a piece in ‘Coins Across His Hips’ where Anne-Marie had been watching Genesis P-Orridge in a performance, and she was contemplating the difference between how and why he had started to morph into his wife. Whereas ‘Interchangeable Letterset’ is all about the sound of the sound. For ‘Water Break-It’s Neck’ we ended up looking at these Norman MacLaren films. He had writings that Katy had come across. She was researching him because she works in animation quite a lot. We ended up using some lines from his letters, then we put other lines of our own in. So that’s a third way. There doesn’t seem to be a set method.

How does having seven people in the band affect playing live?

LF: Clearly without a manager and some money behind you, the logistics are difficult. Some of us have children. Dogs and children. But where there’s a will there’s a way. When we did The Slits gig we turned up needing 24 inputs and they only had 16. They gave us half an hour to get on, plug in and soundcheck, which in all honesty we can’t really do.

JO’B: It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

LF: Any gig is a challenge! When we did Le Weekend in Stirling, the sound guy was absolutely hideous to us, because he was so bored of us coming out with yet another instrument. One guy did it at the Tenniscoats gig. He was a bit huffy, but then he said after, “As soon as I heard you play, I forgave you.” Haha! So I think in Glasgow there’s a wee bit of that now. People are starting to go, oh it’s alright, it’s worth it. They’re a pain in the arse while they’re plugging in, but it’s worth it.

Muscles Of Joy is available at Monorail Music, Glasgow, or direct from Watts Of Goodwill (email: The group play their first international shows in the USA in January.

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