Karate Kid crushes, Scott Walker and H&M: DiS steps into the world of Bat For Lashes
Though she doubtless pines nightly for the days when Bat For Lashes was signed to Drowned In Sound Recordings, it has to be said that Natasha Khan has done alright for herself since BFL's debut single 'The Wizard' emerged three years ago. Now a Mercury-nominated former Radiohead tour support, the drum-tastic atmospherics of her second album Two Suns spooked their way into the UK top five at the weekend. Probably this was mostly down to DiS's 8/10 review, though we thought it'd be rude to raise the issue when we spoke to her ahead of her two sold-out shows at the Shepherd's Bush Empire this weekend (Friday and Sunday).
DiS: Okay, so Sean was going to do this interview, but now he can’t, so this is a mix of mine and his questions. Just so you know.
Natasha Khan: Sean's a naughty boy.
DiS: He is. [Adopts best reading voice] It's been a long journey in the past two years since your debut single, what have been your personal landmark moments?
NK: Is that one of Sean’s? I like the way you read that out with such hatred.
DiS: I like Sean!
NK: It’s been a long journey, what have been my personal landmark moments? Erm... I think one of them was moving to New York and then swiftly coming home again with my tail between my legs... that was quite an interesting thing to do. New York’s been thriving so much recently what with TV On The Radio, Gang Gang Dance, MGMT and all these crazy bands, and I was really inspired while I was there, but emotionally it was quite a strange time.
Landmark moments... obviously with the Mercury Prize, being nominated for that was really quite surreal, but I think at the end it was really good to have that affirmation, and I think it afforded me quite a free rein when it came to making this new record, a bit more respect and trust in terms of being creative that way.
DiS:Did you ever lack confidence?
NK: Er, I think you always have some doubts, when you’re doing something creatively that’s challenging you, you obviously have moments of stress and doubts and tears. But if you are feeling worries and you are anxious then so long as it’s not debilitating it’s a good creative sign that it’s pushing your boundaries and you’re developing as an artist.
DiS: Did the Radiohead tour feel like a big deal?
NK: It was so surreal, it never ever hit me, really. I had to audition new band members, rehearse with them, and then get off onto this tour, so I didn't really have time to process what had happened until we were halfway through and I realised how epic the whole thing was. People were responding really well, and getting to chat to Thom Yorke a little bit and meeting with their crew and seeing how they do everything was a big learning experience.
DiS: Do Radiohead exist in a world you recognise?
NK: No... luckily for them they were in music at a time when it was possible to make a lot of money and develop a massive following, and I feel in quite a different position, financially and just in terms of the success that you’re able to get nowadays. They seem to be the last massive band that can have so much artistic integrity; I was looking at them and thinking how wonderful they were, but it seems so far away to ever be able to obtain that sort of thing. But I don’t know if that's true. Maybe it is possible.
DiS: How does it feel to see many of your styles of clothing trickle into the fashion world?
NK: It is quite disconcerting; someone asked me that question a couple of months ago and I said “I don’t really mind”, but I’ve definitely seen a massive increase. I went into H&M the other day and I there was a t-shirt with a girl with a golden headband, long black hair and a black fringe and gold on her face and I was like “fucking hell! That’s so weird!” And my mum was with me and said “is that you Natasha? Are you on an H&M t-shirt?” And I was like “no mum, it’s not me”, but it is a bit disconcerting, especially when it’s just your own natural style that you quite enjoy, because now I’ve been sort of put off it and I’m a bit bummed out... I’m not allowed to be myself without looking like everybody else now, but I don’t know if it came from me originally. I find it hard to believe that it’s to do with me.
DiS: You’re the type of person who gets asked to do the odd photoshoot, though?
NK: Yeah, I’ve done Vogue and those types of things, but I only ever do them if it’s going to be something interesting and artistic. But I think more and more I’m going to try avoid the whole fashion side of things, because it does my head in. It’s a bit sort of, you know, not that fulfilling, really.
DiS: Do you think there's a reason for the rise of the solo female artist? Most of the acts tipped this year were quirkier popstars like La Roux and Little Boots but five years ago there were few 'credible' females to be seen, let alone heard expressing themselves?
NK: Oh, I really hate that question because everybody asks me that and-
NK: Er... I don’t know what to say, especially because I don’t tend to listen to modern music and especially not hyped up stuff. I think it’s great if there are more artists being individuals and breaking boundaries and creating cool music, but I think it should be boys or girls, if anyone’s doing something fucking cool I don’t really mind if they’ve got a banana on their head or are half monkey or whatever it is. But the whole genre of ‘quirky females’ just feels a bit dodgy.
DiS: The first track on your debut album, ‘Horse And I’, was based on a dream you had – that’s sort of how I interpreted ‘Glass’ off this one... am I near the mark at all?
NK: It wasn’t a dream, it was almost... you know at the beginning of Shakespeare plays where you get the narrator coming on and they foretell the story? “Today we find ourselves in fair Verona where Romeo and Juliet will die” or whatever? It was more that, almost like a manifesto or a fabled description of what’s to come, so I wanted that and I wanted it to be quite epic, like the call to arms or the start of a big journey. That fabled story of me and the knight made of glass, living in this glass city was very much linked to my personal life, what happened to me in New York.
DiS: Where does that sort of magical realist imagery come from?
NK: I think it was as a result of an ongoing conversation between me and my artist friends and my ex-boyfriend, we have similar loves of certain symbols and archetypal characters like kings and queens, and a natural attraction to the dark weirdness of stories like Tristan and Isolde. It probably also has some roots in the way that the Bible has these kind of archetypal characters, death and destruction and love and all those types of big themes.
DiS: Does it concern you that a lot of your audience might not get the fact the album is this allegorical telling of your experiences in New York?
NK: Well, I think if people want to bother to delve into that they’ll sense there’s this impending story. I did field recordings of the New York subway, that comes in at the beginning if you listen to it carefully, and at the very start of the album there’s that very quiet passage there where I sing an excerpt from the Song Of Solomon, so there’s all these little clues and secrets in there if you want them, but if you don’t want them and just want to take things at face value and stick on some music then that’s good too, I don’t really mind how people take music.
DiS: There are a lot of big drums on this record... would I be close to the mark if I said the reworked version of 'Prescilla' was the starting point?
NK: Definitely. I started my work on 'Prescilla' when I first arrived in New York and was working with my drummer Steven [Kurtz], and was really inspired by his tribal rolling drumbeats. It was an experiment to try out working with him, absorb those percussive elements, so yeah, that was definitely the start of it.
Video: Bat For Lashes: 'Prescilla'
DiS: Could you put your finger on what you like about drums, exactly?
NK: Yeah, that kind of visceral quality, I love that really heavy sub-bass, and if you listen to this record in speakers in the studio the massive subend really vibrates through your body, I really like that feeling.
I’m fussy about my drums, I spend hours and hours writing drum patterns, taking them out and changing them, trying to find exactly the right sound. 'Two Planets' kind of showcases it – that was all me and David [Kosten, producer], and it ranges from rubbing your fingers together - it sounds like a tiny baby shaker, so if you increase the volume it’s an amazing sound - from that minute percussive sound to gigantic timpani drums, then also bringing in 808 sub-bassy sort of click beat and handclaps, and using my crappy midi machine to make all these terribly midi drum sounds, which I actually really like. The beginning of 'Glass' is like the crappiest, cheapest, cheesiest drum sound ever, but I really like it.
DiS: Did you, Gang Gang Dance and Yeasayer ever sit around New York having three-hour long conversations about drums?
NK: No, not really, we’d all much rather shake our arses and dance, that’s what drums are for!
DiS: Soooooooo apparently the album deals with your blonde alter ego Pearl... was that something you had in mind when making the record, or is it a way of rationalising it to yourself in retrospect?
NK: No, I wouldn’t call her my alter ego, I think people have got very excited about the whole concept and used it as a way of being a bit cynical about the whole thing. I like Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman and David Lynch, these kind of strange subterranean characters that inhabited my idealistic vision of New York, and I was reading Last Exit To Brooklyn and there’s like this Tralala character in it who's really dark and fucked up and I just wanted to experience putting on really garish make up and drawing on really dark black eyebrows, and I bought a blonde wig to see what it did to my face. It was an art project as much as anything, really, it wasn’t anything like “yeah, for this album I’m going to be really fucking cool”. I was in New York and I was with my boyfriend, I just dressed up and he took some pictures of me, I didn’t talk to anyone as Pearl or go out as Pearl or pretend to be this person, but I put the pictures in my little sketch book and wrote a little bit about her. I wanted her to be in there because I she was an important part of some of the lyrics, but she’s definitely not the only character or important theme, the record is more about my ex-lover than anything but Pearl definitely represents New York.
Video: Bat For Lashes: 'Daniel'
DiS: Who or what is Daniel?
NK: Daniel represents teenage crushes and nostalgia and innocence and escapism and a young person rebelling and being in love. People have picked up on the reference to The Karate Kid in the video; that's because I loved Ralph Macchio [who played The Karate Kid's Daniel LaRusso] when I was a teenage girl and when I was thinking about the song I knew I wanted it to be a name, so I called it that because of him, really.
DiS: How did you approach the vocal on 'Daniel'? It sounds incredibly detached, but not un-emotional...
NK: It was my rubbish demo-ing basically. I did this EQ thing which made the sound quite icy and crisp... and I don’t know how I do it but it’s on the very first demo for 'Daniel' that I did in my bedroom. Because David said “you can’t beat that vocal”. I’d done it so badly, but it had this feeling, icy and otherworldly but quite impassioned, it’s strange. We’ve got a last question, I’m being told.
DiS: Er... g’won then – the Scott Walker duet 'The Big Sleep', how did that come about?
NK: [Semi-mock outrage] AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH! Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? No, it’s fine. I wrote 'The Big Sleep' about a year before I played it to Scott Walker, and I thought it needed a male voice on it, so I forced myself to sing on it three octaves lower and it just sounded awful. But I knew that what I was actually missing was that androgynous, slightly masculine, slightly feminine bizarre voice, and I didn’t quite consciously realise who it was 'til the very last minute when I went “fuck, it was Scott Walker’s voice I’ve been hearing”. So I emailed him rather cautiously and I sent him the song and he came back really positively, he said to tell him the story behind the song, what’s the character about, do you have any comments on what you’d like, and he was just really sweet and up for doing it. But I never met him, it was this strange connection and then disconnection, he was like this ghostly voice. Which worked perfectly.
DiS: Very very very finally - you've completely changed your backing band; were they always going to be let go after you'd finished with Fur And Gold?
NK: I think it was always going to be like that. I love those girls and we had the most amazing time, but they were string players, flautists and I knew that the new album I desperately wanted to write something more dancey, beaty, and I knew in my heart that it was the end of an era musically, and I couldn’t justify trying to eke out another album which just fitted with what they played just to keep them on board.
DiS: Okay, thanks for talking, hope you don't have to tell the Scott Walker story too many more times.
NK: Oh, don’t worry, it’s my fault, I shouldn’t have got somebody so bloody interesting to play on the record!