Escaping The Candy Store: No Bra Interviewed

No Bra's new album Candy is as witty and weird as ever, setting her customary deadpan humour and provocations to sparse instrumental backdrops. She speaks to Bryony Beynon about avoiding capitalist gender stereotypes and fantasising about "having sex with random construction workers in random suburbs of London"

Photo by Hedi Slimane

No Bra. Yes, but, you know, I remember her voice more than her exposed boobs. She’s here, pallid on a platform, entirely unfussed about our presence, absently pushing back her super long Samsonian hair-kini as the set begins. No Bra is standing almost completely still as static pulses surge about us, she’s steadily dishing out a stream of teutonic mantras, limbs now loosened and out of sync, still somehow resolutely in control. No Bra is here, blowing my tiny mind like a monotone anti-Nico for 2006. She is more here than any of the people present, for the most part a legion of terrified Patrick Wolf fans caught off-guard, stunned into a meek, convenient silence that lets her beats fill the big room. No Bra is here.

Eight years on from that live interaction, No Bra – real name Susanne Oberbeck – is still hard at work confounding expectation, still holding a wry mirror to the tortured pomposity that attends to making music, art or anything in any city, as she did on the cult classic ‘Munchausen’ (…if the very tail end of electroclash can be said to fit such categories).

Her new album, entitled Candy, is as warm and weird a collection as you could hope for. Dealing in some pretty mesmerising observational fantasies whilst remaining languidly effortless throughout, each song fits up tense no-wave base lines for stony, awkward interactions with a persistent sequencer, flirting heavily with outrageous rhetoricals, all blunt sex and sharp wit, sparse and spare as a mildly neglected bedsit that would never dream of calling itself ‘minimal’.

Hi Susanne. Your latest record was made in New York, but its stories and its spirit seem unmistakably ‘London’ to me, from the talk of fags and flats to Tescos, Forest gate and Manor Park, and of course your use of deadpan humour…

Susanne Oberbeck: I think this is because some of the lyrics were written while I was still in London. You can go to a different city, but you might not be able to fit into the culture. I think I can fit into British culture but not into American culture, at least not the way it is right now. And I think this aggravates some people.

Thinking back to when I first saw you perform in 2006, one of the biggest changes has been the speeding up of tech and spreading of digital networks, to the point where everything is shared online immediately. As someone known for their live performances, and having toured with camera-averse Savages, what do you make of this impulse to document everything?

SO: I stopped doing photography for that reason. I thought actual experience was more valuable. But I do think people should be able to do what they want, if someone wants to just snap photos during a show, they should. I’m not on a label that can pay for promotion or map out a marketing strategy, so I depend on using the internet. It has helped me, but I feel everything has been getting more superficial, where it becomes more about marketing and hype than the actual music. It’s a mix of overload, indifference and herd mentality.

People don’t take time anymore to listen to a track or really read something, so it’s easier to click

‘Like’ on a picture and just be interested in what you’re told to be interested in. At the same time, people who market these pop icons can surf the internet for any useable ideas, take them out of their context and put them onto one of these pop stars – it’s all gone a bit Philip K. Dick, with these puppets who represent the status quo and distract people from their actual problems.

Ideas related to music shouldn’t be about marketing, it should be about social change or improvement, and it should be for everyone, like with punk music. I think the focus will hopefully go away from the individual and fame and narcissism towards a more collective experience and consciousness. We are moving from the age of Pisces into the age of Aquarius!

Collaboration seems to be a big part of your way of working. Who are some of the people you have been most excited to work with and why?

SO: Actual collaboration on music I haven’t really done much since starting No Bra, although I did do a collaboration with the Raincoats, we did a Velvet Underground cover together. I did a video and a track with Matthew Stone and a performance with Cody from Ssion, and I DJ’d for Bruce la Bruce.

Do you have any dream collaborators? What kind of project would you work on with them?

SO: Working with an actual top-notch producer could be interesting, for example Mike Q or Arca.  If the members of Coil could pop back from the afterlife I would definitely like to collaborate with them too. Or actually all of us together could be a good session.

How have you found the switch to being a full(er) live band, and how much input do the people you play with live have upon your songwriting process, if any?

SO: I write all the songs usually on a guitar or sequencer, so with the band it’s more about figuring out the parts for the different instruments – which probably makes it less fun for the other musicians.

And do you feel more at home working with analogue or digital instruments?

SO: For the electronic tracks I usually record some parts on a sequencer and edit them on the computer, then pick lyrics I already wrote and use them to improvise over the track, then edit and record more until I have a song. Or sometimes I write lyrics and music at the same time. But it would be the same with songs I write on a guitar. I feel at home with both, but electronic music is easier, ’cause I don’t have to go into a studio to record it, I can do everything at home.

Some of the songs on Candy feel as though they contain almost no electronic elements, which surprised me – like ‘Minger’, which could almost be a lost Bush Tetras tune! The NY no wave scene seems like one of the natural mothers to your music, in terms of reflective humour, delivery and darkness – do you enjoy that stuff? Any records in particular?

SO: Yeah I listened to it a lot for a while! Mostly James Chance, but also Bush Tetras and Lydia Lunch. I think ‘Minger’ in particular was also influenced by listening to old rock & roll musicians like Screaming Jay Hawkins. Also the musicians who played on this recording, Alex Niemetz and Emil Bognar-Nasdor, grew up in New York and were quite familiar with this sound.

What are you top three favourite records to DJ at the moment and why?

SO: I mostly DJ Soundcloud or various downloads, my favourite producers/artists are Kevin Prodigy, Mike Q, House of Ladosha, and Tigga Calore ’cause they are carrying. They have the best lyrics and best delivery and the production is great as well.

A Suicide cover is always a bold choice. Are they a group you feel a strong affinity with and, if so, can you explain why?

SO: The cover was initially commissioned for a series of records that were released for Alan Vega’s birthday. I got so into performing it I wanted to record it for the album too. It seems relevant now since the recession, ’cause it’s taking the piss out of the so-called American Dream, and it’s about people being really miserable, and this crazy guy telling them they should force themselves to be happy. I think it’s genius.  

Alan Vega is just a character and amazing performer. I liked that apparently for the first ten years of performing they had to physically force people to stay in the room because people were so antagonised and offended they kept wanting to leave! But they stuck with it, of course, and now they are considered this sort of ultimately influential cult band.

You’ve said that ‘Candy Store’ is about people’s desire to conform to stereotyping, and the limits these stereotypes can have upon sexual freedom of expression. What happens if we do choose to ‘cross the line’, and what are the most promising or exciting alternative examples of better ways to think about sex and gender, for you? The ways out of the Candy Store, if you like… or should we maybe stay there and gorge til we puke, just to revel in how artificial it all is?

SO: I just think everybody should be themselves. It’s not about rules or stereotypes that really seem like manipulation. People should stop playing up to these capitalist stereotypes and rethink the way they can relate to others. It’s not all about domination and control, or being basic. I think there are a lot of false assumptions about what a man or woman actually is, that were influenced by capitalism and religion and various propaganda – and other ideas like being gay or straight or transvestism can, in a way, can reinforce those ideas. I’m interested in being honest and I find it can really shock people, or make them react adversely.

On a similar tip, then, ‘Construction Worker’ seems to flip the usual dynamic of unwanted harassment between women and queers on the street and construction workers, and give us back a bit of power/sexuality…

SO: The song started out as a gay male fantasy of having sex with random construction workers in random suburbs of London. It was more about anonymous sex or ‘rough trade’ i.e. having sex with someone from a class that is not your own. But because I’m female the character switches between male and female and then I realised that there was also this possible feminist angle. I think in the UK you get more of a repressed lewd snickering, whereas a lot of guys in New York are more overly confident, delusional. Maybe it’s not that delusional in the context of their sexist culture. But one should not generalise.

Do you find street harassment from strangers different in London to NYC, and do you have any particular ways you’ve dealt with it?

SO: I usually just say "Really?!” If whatever they say involves being condescending or giving unnecessary "advice" I say shut up or try to physically intimidate them, haha!

All cities with art and music scenes that are self-confessedly ‘creative’ are ripe for a pisstake, so if you were to make ‘Munchausen 2013’, and update that song to parody a more contemporary pissing contest, what elements might it include?

SO: New York social "skills" involve a lot of hinting, acting like you are not trying to show off, but then casually mentioning how you were too busy to do something ’cause you were at the Purple Dinner, for example, or maybe just saying "a dinner". Like, you’re not trying to impress at all or you’re too exclusive to even share this information with the other ‘non-exclusive’ person. But then you could casually post pictures on Instagram so people will know anyway. Also calling people a "Boo" and "Boosh" and "The Fam" when it’s really just pretending to be someone’s friend, for purposes of making money. I’m not saying that everyone is like that of course. The insincerity of it would make it less funny than the original ‘Munchausen’, where the characters seem more innocent and genuine.

What is your favourite kind of crowd to play to? Do you think it’s important to make an effort to play outside of certain bubbles in order to try and challenge/win over a tough or hostile audience, or are you more interested in taking open-minded people who already ‘get it’ on a journey with you?

SO: I like both, but it can be a lot of fun to play to an audience of completely unassuming people. I like making people feel uncomfortable or shocked to be honest, or [making them] rethink their assumptions, so that’s ideal. People never get really hostile because of the exposed tits, I think that often wins people over.

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