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A Quietus Interview

Embracing Imperfection: Sauna Youth On Not Quitting The Day Jobs
Jamie Ryder , September 6th, 2018 08:35

The hard-grafting London punk four-piece all work full-time, they tell Jamie Ryder, but they’ve found the time to record a thrilling new full-length and play Thurston Moore’s birthday, among other things. Sauna Youth portrait by Owen Richards

Back in 2016, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins described punk as “a passionless and immediate dismissal of intimidation”. It might be a little clunky as a definition, but we can see what he’s getting at — the foundation of a genuine punk identity, for Rollins, is an earnest and unwavering belief in and desire for group safety and parity between people. You feel intimidated when you think somebody is capable of hurting you and you have reasonable grounds to suspect that such an event might be imminent. That kind of intimidation is the type produced by hierarchies, be they social, physical, racial, socio-racial, socio-economic, &c, and in holding punk as the antithesis to such intimidation Rollins makes a straightforwardly humanistic point. Bullying’s not welcome. Ditto name calling, unwanted touching, or any other variety of loutish, antisocial behaviour that you can come up with. At least that’s how it is in theory.

But punk is intimidating. Think of the first time you walked into somebody’s basement and saw tens of kids with Xs on their hands windmilling elbows and kicking each other. Your teenage self was a bit alarmed, right? And what about the first time you were sent sprawling in one such pit and somebody stepped on your head by mistake? Let’s pretend for a second that all the collaterally intimidating stuff about punk — the mannerisms, the violence, the gatekeeping, the fact that it, for all its progressivism, remains a largely monoethnic subculture — doesn’t exist, and focus purely on the performance, the sound. Doesn’t so much great punk — Black Flag included — survive precisely because it’s so intimidating? Isn’t a big reason punk appeals is that it scares your parents?

Sauna Youth are a London band named after a joke made by Joe Cole, the friend of Rollins (who was murdered when the pair were robbed together at gunpoint) and a regular touring companion of Black Flag and Sonic Youth. Sauna Youth (or at least the members that I met and spoke with, vocalists Jen Calleja and Richard Phoenix) are sweet and generous people, but they make remarkably intimidating music. Their newest work, Deaths, is released 7 September, and a few listens were enough to convince me that I would be beaten up at the interview. It’s a fast, brash, mean record, and listeners should expect oppressive guitar tones, sudden bursts of choking feedback and ominous spoken-word interludes. One track, ‘Swerve’ features an excerpt from a short story by Calleja, read out over one of the spookiest instrumentals I’ve heard for a good while.

“I write a lot of dark stuff,” Calleja says. “The story’s loosely based on the Chapman brothers, and it’s about two sisters who are this super-famous artist duo. One of them feels like they’ve sold out and she wants to leave, but the other sister, in her ambition, feels that this would ruin the business so she murders her and takes on the legacy of the partnership.” Unsettling as the track might sound, it deals with some pretty universal anxieties. “It’s about moral and ethical standpoints and being true to yourself. You could also say it’s about being in a band — not that anyone would murder anyone — but the idea that you have to be a coherent team. The idea that you can be unique individuals but collaborate.”

Fictional, integrity-maintaining murders aside, there’s certainly an impressively cohesive air to Sauna Youth. Each member of the four-piece (which besides Phoenix and Calleja includes Linsday Corstophine and Christopher Murphy) works a full-time job and moonlights in numerous other bands. But despite the dual and varied pressures of employment and scene citizenry, they still carve out the time to write, record and tour together.

“For the last twelve years I’ve worked within learning disability arts.” Phoenix tells me. “Essentially it’s supporting people who have learning disabilities and neurodiversities to be artists and musicians. And if I’m supporting people to be in bands and be musicians it’s a big thing for me to be doing it myself, too. To be able to remove any of my creative stamp on what they’re doing.” I get the feeling that Rollins would love this. Actively working to boost inclusivity in a musical subculture knotty with genres and full of involved, recherché lingo is definitely a step towards that total “dismissal of intimidation” that he wants punk to constitute.

“All of the things we do as jobs, I think, are in dialogue with the band.” Calleja adds. “I’m a literary translator, and music and performing in bands is just one part in the realm of creative practice. For me they’re all so similar. They’re all about communication and translation.”

The new record, the followup to 2015’s Distractions (also great), was tracked at pace. Keeping sessions brisk is a no-brainer for a band as busy as this one, but the tactic served more than one purpose.

“It’s about being transparent, embracing imperfection,” explains Phoenix. “You become more creative when you restrict yourself. You can have endless discussions about what things could be, but that doesn’t always give you an answer.” And if they did have unlimited time to obsess and be perfectionists?

“Nothing,” Jen smiles. “There’s the cliche of people moving to Berlin specifically to become artists and writers and then ten years go past and they make nothing. By having such little time to make work it’s meant we’ve been really prolific.”

“We’re essentially all project managers,” Phoenix avers. “There’s so much boring stuff with being in a band — organising diaries, admin… You want to put that effort in when you’re in the recording space and really get something out of it.”

“I need a deadline for everything,” says Calleja. If I get a job and they’re like ‘Don’t worry, you’ve got six months,’ that one will be late. If I’ve got two weeks I’ll get it done.”

“Urgency” as a term applied to punk is as cliche as the rosy youngster with gallery or techno dreams decamping to Neukölln, but it’s hard to avoid when describing music as valve-burstingly tense as this. Case in point is the track ‘No Personal Space’, which begins catchily enough before the introduction of abrupt, clobbering noise sections. It sounds like a car drove through the studio wall mid-recording. It turns out the noise is built from samples, which Calleja handles.

“They’re a mixture of a recording of a band practice, and what else is on there?” She pauses for a moment. “That ‘wheeeeeee’ — is that the amp feedback?”

“We were rehearsing in this arch in Peckham,” Phoenix nods, “underneath the train tracks. What that means is, on the guitar, if you’re not playing there’s this constant ‘weeooweeooweeooweeoo’, produced by the electricity from the tracks. The classic Peckham arch recording sound.”

“You can hear it on other people’s demos that use the same space,” Calleja continues. “The same tone.” “We wanted to capture that,” says Phoenix. “There’s a band called Semi that really incorporated it into their record. Often when you’re recording there’s this desire to capture the voice memo iPhone recording of the song because it has this perfect blown-out tinny sound. It’s kind of a comment on that, this interruption. The moment of conception that’ll never be attained, and it’s constantly interrupting this fairly, what we would deem polished, pop song. That was the hardest thing to mix because the guy who was doing it, Jonah, was thinking of it more in terms of atmosphere or a textural thing. And we were like, ‘No, take all effects off it it, it needs to be really obnoxious, it needs to be louder than everything else.’ ” Both laugh. “I’m happy with that bit.”

What interests me in Sauna Youth beyond their music is the way in which they fly against the established band image that is a group of young people impatient to quit their respective soul-sucking 9-5s in order to pursue music full-time. It’s such a common tale in the music press that it’s essentially an orthodoxy.

“I love my day job,” Phoenix says. “We’ve all forged work which we enjoy. We just have to be selective about what we do.”

“There’s that narrative of, ‘Oh, if only I could quit my job,’” says Calleja. “But that’s not the reality for us. As long as we’ve been in bands we’ve all worked, and loads of people we know have exactly the same role. We know doctors in punk bands, and lecturers, and people that do all kinds of jobs which would seem incompatible with being in a band. But it’s so normal. It’s normal for us to work every night and then maybe have two band practices, and to go and play shows, and then come back and go to work… It just becomes your normal life.”

One such show this summer, and a personal milestone for the band, was a performance at Thurston Moore’s birthday. Sauna Youth donned wigs and leather to become the Ramones for a night, playing for Moore and friends in a church in Stoke Newington.

“I think that was the fifth gig we’ve done as our Ramones cover band,” Calleja says, “We do it it with our former flatmates. We’ve only ever done it for charity events and birthdays, and [a] wedding. Thurston and his partner took my old desk space in a studio in Stoke Newington and that’s how it came about. It just shows how small the world is.”

“It’s a weird moment,” says Phoenix. “Of being dressed us as Johnny Ramone and the one person stood in front of you is Thurston Moore singing along.”

“The singer of Pavement saw the photo,” says Calleja. “And he said ‘Classic Joey Ramone with an iPhone in his back pocket.’”

“For the record,” says Phoenix, “James was very upset by this. He needs it because he’s got type 1 diabetes and it’s constantly recording his sugar levels. So it’s very important for him to know.”

“It’s very important for that to be in the interview.”

It’s plain enough to see why there’s mutual admiration between the Youths (Sonic and Sauna). Both grab you with their ferocity and keep you interested with lyrics as oblique as the guitars are punchy. But although Sauna Youth don’t like to keep things simple in their songwriting or their lives, they’re not averse to the odd direct statement. New track 'Problems' might be the best expression of that — the titular word repeated over and over in Reich-esque phase as the song’s sole lyric, until it barely makes sense.