The Big Sound: An Interview With Pregoblin

As they release yet another impeccable single in the form of ‘Snakes And Oranges’, Pregoblin’s Alex Sebley and Jessica Winter speak to Patrick Clarke about their glorious, theatrical music

Alex Sebley and Jessica Winter of Pregoblin grew up a stone’s throw from one another, either side of a hotel’s grounds on Hayling Island, Portsmouth. Both spent teenage years on the local gig circuit. Sebley was the Kurt Cobain in a Nirvana tribute act (who also played Pantera covers) called Brown Bunny, fka Brown Surprise, fka Poor Prince. Winter’s band were called Rotten Luck. For a while Sebley was even the janitor at Winter’s junior school.

The two never crossed paths in Portsmouth, however. It was not until years later, when both had relocated to London, that they met. Sebley was promoting a Harry Merry show. Winter messaged him on Facebook to see if he had any tickets left but he didn’t see it until after the gig had taken place. Nevertheless, they continued speaking online. Their home town came up, as did music and the fact that Winter had a studio in her garden shed, and eventually they arranged to record a track together.

Sebley had recently left The Saudis, the South London band who would later become the Fat White Family, and was feeling disillusioned. “I was pretty down at that time in my life,” he says. “I had left the band and was feeling shit about things. I thought I wasn’t going to make music ever again. I didn’t think I’d find another person to write with, but with Jess it just seemed to click. It felt like we’d done something special.” They recorded their first song together, ‘Love Letters’, within half an hour, setting a template. “It happens really fast,” says Winter. “Within half an hour the whole song’s down and then it just takes loads of finessing. That’s why we thought ‘we must be on to something good here.’”

The version of ‘Love Letters’ that Pregoblin released in February this year contains their very first vocal take. “We’re both into the idea of one recording of something really catching the moment,” he says. “The whole idea of that song was to write the most honest love song, like a postman whistling on their round. In a world that demands perfection, overdubs and takes and false reality, we actually caught that raw moment.” Their name, too, which comes from the painkiller Pregablin, was decided on the fly because they had a gig coming up. “Before that we were called the Michael Gambon Addicts. I just liked how it looked written down,” Sebley continues.

There’s a sense of the DIY to Pregoblin. “I’ve got a studio-cum-shed in my garden, two microphones, a laptop and piano, and most of the songs come from me and Alex making demos,” says Winter. “Because we come from punk bands in Portsmouth, that lives on when it comes to your writing.” Listening to ‘Love Letters’, you can hear that Sebley’s vocals are more off-kilter than usual, owing to the blocked nose he had when they recorded that first take.

Crucially, however, Pregoblin aren’t a scrappy band. A DIY project operating out of a garden shed might conjure images of yet another plucky post-punk revival project, but Pregoblin are anything but. They take the rawness of those quick sessions in Winter’s studio, then add so much finesse that the music becomes luxuriant, like polishing a piece of costume jewellery until it looks like a diamond ring. “When you live in a place like Portsmouth and you dream of better things, you have a big imagination to not just six council estates ona n island. Mabe that does reflect the music, you create a luscious landscape for things.”

There’s a drama to their songs, the plunging piano chords on ‘Combustion’, or the glorious Morricone strings that rush all over ‘Gangsters’, or the entrancing little synth flourishes on ‘Anna (Flowers Won’t Grow)’. “We’re not afraid of the big sound,” says Sebley. “We like that type of thing, Queen or Guns ‘N’ Roses. I really like show music as well.” Their videos are theatrical, like the dusty Western ‘Gangsters’ and the vintage horror themed ‘Snakes And Oranges’, with a histrionic sense of humour and keen attention to detail. The glitzy visuals for ‘Love Letters’ are a perfectly observed parody of Dave Stewart and Vanessa Paradis’ saccharine cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. “Jess and I have a sense of humour,” Sebley continues. “I think music has to have that. Sex and comedy, or one of them. Maybe it’s not particularly fashionable currently, but we’ve moved towards the slightly hammy big sound.”

For their initial live performances they assembled a band, but their chemistry worked better as a duo. They started appearing onstage dressed as spies, in matching trench coats, sunglasses and hats. “When it was a band we didn’t really connect on stage, but by going as a two it forced us to react to each other, keep the audience’s attention without a band,” Winter says. “We’ve really homed in on our performance now. Taking that to the next level is to add a live band and be theatrical with that as well.”

“We are good together on stage, at least I think so,” adds Sebley. “We were really getting there before the lockdown. It was funny and it was fun. People could really see that and feel that. I’d like to do even more theatrical stuff, have weird sets or something or a bit of performance art, when you see something different each show. I also think the live element should be slightly chaotic. I don’t think people want to see this polished piece of work. They want to see something genuine. That’s what I want to see when I see a band, I want to hear something quite different and to see some spontaneity.

“There’s a lot of production on the records and I was never quite happy with the way it sounded as a band, so we did the spy karaoke thing with a backing track,” he continues. “But now I’d like to have two different versions, so when you go see the band it’s grungy synth-pop with a solo heavy metal guitar going on in the front. We will try it at some point, it’s just difficult with money and trying to make rehearsals happen.”

For all their bombast, however, at the core of Pregoblin’s sound is a highly concentrated injection of dancefloor-ready pop. Put simply, they produce bangers. “It’s what we would want to hear if we were us,” Winter says. “It’s ‘What would make people dance at a party?’ That’s the mentality we have when we write a song.”

“But there is a deeper side to it,” Sebley interjects. “We’re not the Scissor Sisters, we’re not just some party band. The themes are quite dark. ‘’Snakes And Oranges’ is all about psychopathic tendencies and killing.” “I’m not saying there isn’t a depth to the lyrics,” retorts Winter. “The Beach Boys have really dark lyrics, but the music makes people feel good. Some of The Human League’s songs are really dark but they’re massive club floor fillers!”

Pregoblin’s music is in fact all of the above. They’re perfect pop songs, gilded with a million sonic flourishes but never over-polished to the point they lose their edge. They’re funny, charismatic and self-deprecating, with a knowledge of their own artifice; against Gangster’s colossal Western sweep, they sing about being skint. At a time like this, where dancefloors seem a million miles away, the augmented worlds they conjure feel more essential than ever.

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