Dirty Trash Talk: An Interview With Cruising

With their debut EP imminent, John Freeman meets up with the all-Ireland indie supergroup to discuss Al Pacino movies, Venn diagrams and writing songs in 20 minutes. Plus, hear new track You Made Me Do That

By the end of the 1970s, Al Pacino was arguably one of the greatest screen actors in the world. Titanic performances in films such as the first two Godfather epics, …And Justice For All, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon had laden Pacino with a glittering reputation and a clutch of Best Actor Oscar nominations.

However, in 1980 Pacino starred in Cruising, a film about a serial killer of homosexual men that courted controversy for its portrayal of the 1970s gay scene in New York. And, while the movie took a critical kicking, it did contain a fabulous soundtrack, and has latterly inspired the name of the gloriously noisy Irish post-punk band, Cruising.

Cruising are a supergroup of sorts, as aside from singer Benni Johnston (once of the now-disbanded Logikparty), the three other band members are moonlighting on this cross-border project. Claire Miskimmin plays bass for Belfast’s Girls Names, Neil Brogan is the singer-cum-guitarist in Sea Pinks, while drummer Sarah Grimes also plays in Dublin-based September Girls. And while Cruising may not have been Pacino’s finest moment, the band’s debut EP is a blast – spiky post-punk, snarly fuzz guitars and meaty hooks suggest instant chemistry and a freedom to follow instinct.

The agit-punk of last year’s single ‘You Made Me Do That, Woman’ (newly re-recorded and with the title taken from a line in Cruising) proves to be a stylishly raw outlier on the six-track self-titled EP. The juddering pop alchemy of ‘The Spectator’, ‘Cutlass’ and lead track ‘Safe Corridor’ all come fully – and fiercely – formed and replete with spleen-venting riffs.

Over a stuttery Skype video link, Johnston and Grimes explain how Cruising fill a gap – a collective desire to make music that is "trashier and dirtier" than their other projects. In 1980, Pacino’s Cruising would have allowed the peerless actor to explore a similar direction, but while the film briefly detracted from his formidable list of film credits, the Cruising EP merely provides further evidence of a joyous bolus of trashy, dirty talent.

Is this first ever Cruising interview?

Sarah Grimes: Not quite. We did one college interview about a year ago.

Damn. Can we pretend you didn’t? I have a self-imposed rule that I can only ask a band about their name if it’s their first ever interview – after that the question is old hat and must never be uttered again. However, I would really like to ask about the genesis of your name, as I believe it was inspired by the dodgy 1980 Al Pacino film, Cruising. What was it about the film that resonated so much?

Benni Johnston: Well, we are named after the movie but there is no concept or anything like that. I don’t think there was a deep-seated meaning behind the name. To be honest, we were chatting about the band early on and we realised that by having a name it would make things more tangible. We couldn’t think of anything and then Claire mentioned "cruising" as she had just seen the film. I love the film as it is terrible and brilliant at the same time and the music is great. It’s a mishmash of everything that is good and bad about music and cinema – and Al Pacino is in it. It’s just a pretty sleazy, scuzzy, dirty little movie.

SG: Which I suppose is a bit like the band, although I haven’t even seen the movie so I don’t fully get it.

How did you meet? I assume you all knew each other from the Dublin-Belfast music scene.

SG: I had wanted a different outlet from September Girls as I wanted to play different styles of music, perhaps thrashier and heavier than I could do with September Girls. I knew Benni and had seen her old band Logikparty and thought she would be a cool person to work with. We decided we wanted to do something and then one night we were at a gig in Dublin with Neil’s band Sea Pinks and September Girls and we were all out afterwards. Benni and I were talking about getting a band together and Neil was like, "What are you talking about?" We told him and he said he’d like to be part of it. We agreed and then a couple of weeks later we were playing in Derry with Sea Pinks again. This time Claire was filling in on bass and heard us talking about having a jam and Claire was like, "What are you talking about?" We told her and she said she’d like to be part of it. And that was that.

Did you have a pre-meditated idea of how you wanted Cruising to sound?

BJ: I don’t think any of us really knew what we wanted it to be. I never go into a room with people and say what type of music I want to make. That would be very artificial. We have different interests but we had some common denominators in music. We wanted to do something trashy and definitely not polished. We didn’t want anything too refined. Cruising is probably closer to my previous band than any of the other bands.

Did the ‘trashy’ aesthetic define the songwriting process?

SG: It was about the four of us being in a room and just seeing what would happen. It was really interesting to be just put on the spot – no one brought anything into the room. It’s about what happens in the room. I don’t know about Sea Pinks or Girls Names, but with September Girls there isn’t much jamming involved. [For September Girls] Jessie [Ward] might record part of a song and then she will bring it to practice and we will develop it, but with Cruising I am not sure we had any plan.

BJ: It’s not as if we have been thinking of a song and working on it. Whatever comes out, comes out – almost like [makes vomiting sound]. It means the songs are trashy and raw and I love those types of songs. I don’t think we have ever spent more than a couple of hours on a song. Ever. Many of our songs are written in, probably, 20 minutes and then get a couple of tweaks. It is really instinctive and it’s not about disrespecting the songwriting process, it’s about the sort of band we want Cruising to be.

That’s risky – what happens if you all get together in the room and nothing happens?

BJ: That can happen to anybody. I have been in bands where we have sectioned off fucking days to do stuff and nothing comes out of it and it is frustrating. However, you can then come back another day and only have two hours, be tired and hungry, and write three songs.

SG: It is almost as if the songs are there and need air. They are waiting to be written. It works for Cruising, as none of us is new to this so it is all very open and everyone is comfortable to try stuff.

I am trying to get a sense of where Cruising sits opposite your other bands. If you drew a Venn diagram of Sea Pinks, September Girls, Logikparty and Girls Names, would Cruising be in the central overlapping part?

BJ: We all have common ground concerning music and I do not think the bands we are in are a million miles apart. It is not like Sarah is in a progressive trance band and Neil is in a jazz orchestra or anything like that (but that would be wicked). I think Cruising has a connection to all the bands for sure – it is a trashier, dirtier version and a place where we can get away with murder.

SG: We cannot do the stuff in other bands. I do not feel like I take anything from September Girls for Cruising. If anything, Cruising has opened a little door for me where, if there is something that might not work for Cruising, I could take it back to September Girls as it may link to a new direction we are going in. Cruising is like the bolder younger sibling. Cruising benefits from a certain level of professionalism, so we don’t have to waste time like we would if it were a new band and we had no experience of how the industry works. That’s what I would put into your Venn diagram.

Where does Cruising sit against the priorities of your other bands? Does it fill a specific need for the four of you?

BJ: Girls Names are incredibly busy, as are September Girls and Sea Pinks. Logikparty have broken up, so Cruising is my only band, but everyone else has other commitments. In the two years we have been together we have probably only over jammed about 12 times, I think. That’s why when we do get together there is no fucking around. There is almost a build-up of a particular cache of music, that we cannot do with the other bands, and is very fast and aggressive and gives us impetus for the whole thing. We hardly ever practice, we haven’t played that many gigs and, to be honest, we are flying by the seat of our pants.

SG: That’s not due to a lack of respect for music, it’s just because we are so restricted with time we have to just do what we can.

And, finally, how about your live shows? What can we expect from a Cruising gig?

SG: Playing live with Cruising is just so fucking trashy and sweaty and exciting. It really is awesome. It’s almost like being in a rehearsal room and it being so close to falling apart, and that makes our gigs almost dangerous in a way.

The Cruising EP is out on August 14 on Tough Love Records

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