Winning The Fame Game With No Regrets: Beth Ditto Interviewed

As she prepares to release her new EP with Simian Mobile Disco, Luke Turner sits down with Beth Ditto and finds that, a million record sales down the line from that song, Gossip's singer is still an unreformed Arkansas punk. Just with a better mattress

It was quite a shock to learn that Gossip had sold a million copies of their Standing In The Way Of Control LP. Received wisdom in Britain has them pegged as a one-hit-wonder novelty act, with Beth Ditto derided for appearing naked on the cover of NME and hanging out with Kate Moss. But the truth with Gossip has always been a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting, than that. I first encountered them nearly ten years ago when, along with bands like Erase Errata, they made regular trips across the Atlantic to play underground queer nights like Homocrime.

Even at these tiny gigs in basement venues way off the indie circuit, it was abundantly clear they had an energy and power far beyond the blokey New Rock Revolution then being touted in the mainstream music press. This undoubtedly came from their roots both in Hicksville Arkansas and the riot grrl movement, that saw Ditto, Nathan Howdeshell and Hannah Blilie in the heart of the highly-politicised West Coast underground. But what’s the point of having a message if you don’t have the means to deliver it? And with that unavoidable, Skins-soundtracking hit, Gossip had it, and it, predictably, became an albatross, at least in Britain (across the rest of Europe, tracks like ‘Heavy Cross’ did far better in the charts). It’s not for nothing that Howdeshell will intro it with the first notes of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but if Gossip are arguably the first band since Nirvana to make such a massive breakthrough from underground to mainstream they’ve dealt with it remarkably well.

I’m meeting with Beth Ditto in a posh East London hotel thanks to her excellent EP with Simian Mobile Disco, something that seems to be a fun side project rather than any break with the Gossip. Indeed, with Howdeswell now releasing beautiful vinyl editions of scabrous post-punk on his Fast Weapons label, it seems that for Gossip success hasn’t changed them one bit, just opened doors through which they can continue their mission.

So Beth, what has changed?

Beth Ditto: I don’t think London looks the same as it did when we first played here in 2000. It looks different, and the food is different… it’s better, we discovered Nandos. It changed the way I looked at food. If you come from America, the food is so good, so I’ve had to learn to discover more about British food.

Is there not a correlation between record sales and quality of food?

BD: Yeah. There are more Nandos around! It was more tolerable food, I did learn to like mushy peas, chips and chicken. I like Cornish pasties too. The only thing that I really care about is a nice bed, and my experience of beds in England was that beds were awful.

Bad food, terrible beds, you’ll be going on about our teeth next…

BD: I never thought that, because I grew up in Arkansas.

I did see on Nathan’s facebook there was stuff about his dad pulling his teeth out with pliers.

BD: That is a true story, did you see the picture? His dad is crazy. We have good beds in Arkansas, made of corn husks. I just bought my mum her first new mattress she’s ever had in her entire life. I said ‘mom, we’ve got to get you a new mattress’. I pulled the sheet off, and it was duct taped together. I said ‘mom, next time you duct tape the mattress just tell me, and I’ll get you a mattress’. We went to try out mattresses and she didn’t know how to try them out, I think she felt self-conscious. We never had money, ever.

I read you’ve sold a million copies of the album, which these days is pretty bonkers…

BD: It is bonkers, because it didn’t do shit here [in the UK]. It was Germany, France, it went platinum in Australia, all these places. It was a big deal, because a million people… It was crazy Luke, it was really fucking crazy. We were playing in Paris, and it was the biggest venue you can play there. It never occurred to me that we’d be playing these places, there’s always somewhere bigger, there’s always somewhere better. I am still, believe it or not, am in little shows with Erase Errata and having shitty pub food mindset.

I remember seeing you at underground queer nights, and thinking that to make the beliefs of the underground like that work you have to get out of there and hit the mainstream, and I always felt that Gossip was the band to do it. But I never thought you’d get that big.

BD: But it didn’t happen here.

Britain was the springboard though

BD: Yes, but if we play here we have to play that song. If we went over to Germany we don’t have to play ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’. It’s good to talk to you because you were there back in the day. We never thought it was ever going to get bigger than those shows, for me it was enough to be in England, I never thought I’d get to go to England, I never thought I’d get to go to Europe, everything that happened I never dreamed of, so to sell a million records it was a big deal. I was talking to the head of Sony and was like, I hope this is OK? And he said ‘are you kidding?’ I said, no, to me it’s Jay-Z who sells a lot of records, and I thought if you were on a major label you had to be up there with them. But I guess it’s not the 80s any more.

Everyone’s nicking records…

BD: Nick it! It’s not like I see much from those million records. I think it was Rick Rubin who said to me the music industry isn’t failing, it’s just like it was in the 60s, a 7" market, 45 records, a singles market.

If I’ve a confession to make it’s that I always thought Gossip was more of a singles and live band rather than making great albums…

BD: I do too. Rick Rubin got a hold of me one day and said ‘you know, it’s hurting people’s feelings around here when you keep saying Gossip is not a band that you’d listen to, you’d just go see’. It never dawned on me that that would bother anybody. I agree with you, singles band, yeah sure we have good singles, but I’d never listen to Gossip, I’d just go see them. I don’t think that’s a bad thing! Nathan is more interesting live, and we never practice so it’s more fun. Will Nathan even bring a guitar?

Coming from the underground like you did, and getting so far as you did, it’s about the biggest jump since Nirvana. And I mean conscious underground, being part of a scene.

BD: I think people miss that we were part of that underground, we had a huge network and we were part of it for a long time. It wasn’t something that just started in 1999 when we were old enough to move away, we were listening to Bikini Kill when we were 14 years old, writing zines and putting on shows in our little town, we brought Dub Narcotic to play. Shit like that. I don’t think people realise what that was like, it was a really big part of our lives, that music and that scene was a really big deal. And I’m still friends with all those kids.

Now you’ve got Gossip, and Nathan’s doing his label, and you’re doing this track with Simian Mobile Disco, which you’ve said is a bit like having an affair…

BD: It’s exactly like having an affair. It’s exciting, and you’re nervous, and it feels a little naughty. I honestly feel that Nathan and I have the relationship of a married couple, we love and ignore each other. At the same time we couldn’t live with each other. He has a party life and DJs and has the label, that whole thing about Nathan that’s really great and really awful, the scenester thing. But that’s beautiful, he’s got that commitment and he can really influence things, that’s great. For me, the older I get the more I want to know myself, where for Nathan the older he gets he wants to know everybody else, he’s trying to share, that’s what it must be like for Tobi [Vail] and Bikini Kill, they’re in their 40s and still working at Kill Rock Stars and doing that shit, it’s so cool, and committed, and important. So it is like an affair, it’s exciting and naughty and we’re doing a tour with SMD and of course Nathan will be coming. I’m really proud of what he’s doing with his label and putting out zines and books.

So let’s talk about the single with SMD. What does disco mean to you?

BD: To me, the resurgence of Disco was when Glass Candy started making music like that, or when people started listening to Gang of Four and Wire again. I remember when I first heard Wire I was about 19 and was like, what’s this Elastica song doing on the radio? When I think of disco I think of Glass Candy and Chromatics, rather than New York club music. My first hand experience of disco was Johnny Jewel style, that’s just honesty. That’s the best part of turning 30, you don’t fucking care any more. When I was 14 I was listening to Tori Amos and Huggy Bear, I didn’t know who the fuck anyone was.

Did you have a good 20s? It’s been pretty mad. Do you regret any of it?

BD: I tell you, the 20s were pretty awesome. Everything that I never thought would happen and I never expected did happen. I met the best people, I’m still really close to those people, I made friends for life, and had the experiences of a lifetime, so I have no regrets. I just bought my mum a house, I bought my house… I mean, they’re not paid for in full, but you know, I’m not high on my hog, you might sell a million records but it’s not a million dollars. I have no complaints, I’m putting out this record Nathan has his label and a girlfriend who I really like, which is a really big deal, I have a girlfriend I really love, Hannah is doing really well. When ‘Standing In The Way Of Control’ came out and all that crazy shit was happening, I never thought it was ever going to happen again.

So you thought fuck it, enjoy it?

BD: Fuck yeah. Move up in the world? OK. Not sleep on a corn husk bed and eat crackers and ketchup? Fine by me. I don’t glamorise poverty, I don’t think it’s fun. Fuck eating one pack of Ramen noodles and splitting it between three days, fuck that. I’m not doing that any more. So I grew up really poor, whatever, but to sell a million records before you turn 30, my 20s were awesome. If it’s all downhill from here, fuck it, that’s fine with me. I’ve already done it all, there’s not much else to do. Learn how to ski? I’m not going to, I hate the snow. It looks pretty from inside.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today