New York trio The Ballet aren't exactly new in the most pedantic sense of the word. Having formed in 2005, they released first album Mattachine! some twelve months later. However, it was 2009's follow-up Bear Life! that brought them to the attention of a wider audience on this side of the Atlantic and beyond. Combining the lyrical aesthetics of Stephin Merritt with a lo-fi electronic element reminiscent of The Magnetic Fields or For Keeps era Field Mice, the band's third album I Blame Society came out in June to widespread critical acclaim.
Consisting of singer, songwriter and all-round musician Greg Goldberg, fellow multi-instrumentalist Craig Willse and bass player Marina Miranda - sadly unable to make the UK tour this time around - The Ballet represent a refreshing breath of fresh air in the current musical climate. Presently on tour around the UK to promote the new record, last weekend saw them play to a packed indoor stage at Derbyshire's Indietracks festival. Tonight they're in Nottingham, which is where DiS caught up with Goldberg and Willse post-soundcheck...
DiS: You're halfway through the tour after Indietracks last weekend. What's been your lasting impression of the UK so far?
Craig Willse: We're pleased that one or two people wanna hear our music for sure!
Greg Goldberg: Indietracks was possibly our favourite audience we've played to in a long time.
Craig Willse: It was a really fun show. We played the New York Popfest in May - we've played there a few times - and it's always really fun but it's not the same. Indietracks feels like you're in this whole world of people that are committed to this music. We've played in the UK before, so I think now we're getting a better idea of how the indie scene in the UK works.
Greg Goldberg: And we've started to recognise people! It's like a pretty small world in a way even though Indietracks is a fairly big festival. I guess not compared to other festivals but for the indie pop scene it is.
DiS: One aspect that always stands out about Indietracks for me are the travel details on the website and in the programme. There's as much focus on travelling by plane as there is by road or rail, due to the number of people coming from overseas.
Greg Goldberg: It must be the biggest indie pop festival in the world I guess..?
Craig Willse: Since Indietracks, we've played in Manchester and Glasgow and at both of those shows there were a bunch of people from Germany and Spain who'd seen us at the festival and were hanging around for a bit.
Greg Goldberg: We've probably spoken to as many Spanish and German people since being in the UK as we have Brits!
DiS: How does the indie scene here compare with New York, or America in general even?
Greg Goldberg: There are similarities. It's probably a little more concentrated here just because of the musical lineages. Whereas in America it tends to be more regionalised. For example, the North West coast has K Records and a lot of bands in thrall to that, and then Washington DC has its own sound and so on. I think the UK recognises the history and chronology of the scene as being important but at the same time its focus is more generalized. With the Internet being so prominent as well, it means everyone in the indie scene is exposed to so many bands from all over the world, and if you want to take that as an influence it's just there to take. I guess as a result, it feels like there's something going on all over the world.
DiS: It's interesting comparing a lot of the New York bands who share similar influences, yet don't really sound like. People like Diiv, Wild Nothing, Beach Fossils and Craft Spells as well as yourselves. Do you feel any kind of affinity with those bands?
Craig Willse: We've been on a bit of a break in between records - we only played our first New York show in three years in May - so I don't really think we've got a great sense of what's happening in the New York indie scene. The scene tends to change quite a lot, and very quickly. Once we finished the album, we were able to plug back into the scene and play the Popfest which was cool. New York's scene has always been very friendly and supportive and still is. But at the same time I don't think we have a sense of community with some of the more active bands around New York either.
Greg Goldberg: In some ways, I think the older I get the less new music I listen to. So I'm still working on stuff from years before, so I guess there's probably a different path now. One thing I am noticing more - both Craig and I teach at Universities - is that some of my students, who are aged from 18 to 21, are discovering some of the music that I liked when I was a teenager, only through a different lens. I think people take the same things in different ways. We're not on a shoegaze stream. We're more of an electro pop band with more of a melodic indie pop element. A bit like The Magnetic Fields I guess.
DiS: Having listened to I Blame Society many times and seen your show at Indietracks on Sunday, I'd agree with that and also add parts of the set reminded me a little of Sparks.
Greg Goldberg: It's always interesting to hear what other people think we sound like. There's only a couple of Sparks songs that I really know. I don't know, they could be in there somewhere I guess?! It's curious because so many people have said to us the last track on the new record sounds like The Jesus & Mary Chain. That's fantastic, more so because I've never actually listened to The Jesus & Mary Chain! We probably got it through somebody else but it's all in the mix.
DiS: It may be through the eyes of Stephan Merritt? The Magnetic Fields Distortion long player was very influenced by noise pop bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain.
Greg Goldberg: Possibly.
DiS: You also get compared to The Hidden Cameras quite a lot, which personally I can't really hear. Do you think that's just lazy journalism based more on the band's sexuality than the actual music?
Craig Willse: You can say that, we can't say that! I guess when the first album came out in 2006 there might have been a few references to The Hidden Cameras at that moment. We were using strings when we played live, which they were too at the time. I don't have a problem with that, but Greg changed musical direction pretty much straight after that record. If people come to our shows because they've read somewhere that we sound like The Hidden Cameras that's fine, as long as they don't leave once they realise we don't of course!
Greg Goldberg: It's almost like playing a game of musical shorthand. If you like those bands you'll probably like this other band. I'm not sure it tells you enough about what we're doing. I mean, I wouldn't go so far as to say lazy but I think there is a lot more going on.
DiS: Listening back to your first two albums Mattachine! and Bear Life, the band's progression is evident. The first record is almost very primitive and folky in comparison to Bear Life, which seemed to take on a life of its own with Kaki King, Scott Matthew and Linton from The Aislers Set among its many contributors. How did these collaborations come about? Were they involved in the writing process?
Greg Goldberg: Mostly it's just people that we've met. Linton is a friend of Craig's and we just said, "We're recording, do you want to come along?" The song was already arranged and I just said let's do a harmony here and here. Linton was into it and sort of filled in the pieces. Scott Matthew and Kaki King's pieces were similar where the songs were nearly done and there's a part for them to insert themselves. It wasn't like they'd been completely scripted but it was more or less done before they came along so not exactly a collaboration either. I think there is a progression from each album like you said. In some ways the most recent album is too soon for me to really hear how far we've come. I have a take on the first two records and what was going on at the time. They sound to me like documents of those times but I Blame Society is still very new to me.
DiS: Would you say I Blame Society is quite definitive of where The Ballet are at this moment in time?
Greg Goldberg: It's an interesting question?
Craig Willse: The process goes like this. Greg writes and records all the music, and takes his time doing it. Which in turn means each album becomes a snapshot of a couple of years. Or at least that's my take on it looking in from the outside. It's quite representative of the kind of music Greg was listening to and the kind of things we were talking about, or going on in our lives politically or socially. Then I think as the album starts taking shape, the next step is to look at what can be done differently from its predecessor.
Greg Goldberg: You're always reacting against a place where you were before. To me, Bear Life now sounds very urgent. It feels almost tense. I'm fond of the album but I think I Blame Society was us starting to breathe a little bit. It has a certain frenetic energy and is very layered. Just us stripping things apart and taking stock I guess.
DiS: Some of the lyrics and subject matters on I Blame Society are very interesting in so many ways. 'Turn You' in particular really fascinates me. Is that based on a true story?
Craig Willse: No.
Greg Goldberg: I wonder what was happening when I wrote that? I don't know whether this is really true but, you know that Lady GaGa song 'Born This Way'? I remember Craig posted something about it on Facebook. This idea that queerness is natural. That's an idea that a lot of people find comfort in, but from our perspective it's politically conservative because the implication is nobody would choose this. That it's a burden or cross to bare. So it's much more fun to imagine you can turn people gay whenever you want to! It's like that fear. It's our play on the conservative expression that someone could be turned gay. It's like, "Yeah, that would be amazing!" rather than saying it would be ridiculous which is the liberal response. You know, of course you can't turn somebody gay whereas we're saying, "Oh yes you can! It's a great way to be."
Craig Willse: The title of the album is a reference to a film by Gregg Araki called 'The Living End'. It came out in the early 1990s and was part of what was then deemed as this new form of experimental queer cinema. it's about two gay guys who go on a cross country road trip rampage. The film's very aggressive. Some people have commented that they think queerness is a lot less explicit on this album, yet there's something very aggressive behind some of the more suggestive lyrics on I Blame Society.
DiS: One of the main stories in today's news involves One Direction's Harry Styles supposedly being "outed" - for want of a better word - as being gay. What do you make of the media's fascination with *outing" celebrities? Surely their private life is no one else's business at the end of the day?
Craig Willse: Funnily enough we were just talking about this on the way here this evening! But yeah, this culture of public outing I always feel a little uncomfortable about. More because it's almost as if being called gay is something to be ashamed of so when everybody knows about it, it's seen as a negative attribute for that person.
Greg Goldberg: I think people are more uncomfortable by the idea of a closeted gay person as someone who refuses to identify. That makes people truly uncomfortable. Somebody who won't say I am, like Morrissey for example. That really upsets people, more so because that person might not actually be gay.
DiS: The internet has created this intrusive culture whereby everyone seems to think they have a divine right to know every intimate detail about any celebrity or famous person.
Craig Willse: It's like when we first started we called ourselves Sissy Pop to describe how we sounded. I guess it sounded funny that day so we put it on our MySpace page. The way it gets repeated often in the press always states it as being "self-proclaimed", which I guess is fine as we said it ourselves, but at the same time people seem to focus more on the queer element rather than the actual music or songs themselves. It wasn't a decision to be queer. It's who we are, a major part of our world, but it's been seen as a decision...
Greg Goldberg: But it's also partly a reaction to this common statement gay artists or musicians make about it "not being a part of me." You know, when they say things like, "I'm a musician first and that's my life." That to me is so boring. The musician part is the background. The fact you're really gay isn't.
DiS: I guess you could even call Sissy Pop the total antithesis of Lad Rock? In many ways actually!
Greg Goldberg: I guess so!
DiS: I Blame Society is your first release on Fortuna Pop! How did you become involved with the label?
Greg Goldberg: I don't remember when we first started emailing Sean Price, who runs the label. I do remember first meeting him the last time we came to London in 2009 when he introduced himself at one of our shows. He's just always been enthusiastic about the band. Around the time I was close to finishing the new album I posted a teaser online and Sean messaged me asking if we had something ready to put out. It just kind of grew from there and he asked if we were interested in working with the label. Previously we'd done everything ourselves. The first album especially. We even burned the CDs, silk-screened the covers and xeroxed the inserts! We'd never worked with a label before so I guess now seemed the right time to have that professional input.
Craig Willse: He's been great. He's really supportive and obviously cares about all of the bands he's working with. It made perfect sense for us to be a part of that.
DiS: Do you think working with Fortuna Pop! has helped raise the band's profile in the UK and Europe?
Greg Goldberg: Definitely.
Craig Willse: We're talking to people like you for a start!
DiS: You've already mentioned your day jobs as University lecturers. Is it difficult combining that with being in an internationally touring band?
Greg Goldberg: We both graduated a while ago. 2001 for me and the following year with Craig, and I guess having the security of a full time job comes first. The Ballet has always been like a side project to that, and one of the nice things about doing it that way is being free from the pressures of having to depend on record sales or constantly touring to make a living. It's never been our main source of income or security which means it can really be whatever we want it to be. That to me is really special and important. I couldn't imagine moving into the other zone where it becomes and takes all the stresses of a full time job. And also, academic jobs are pretty flexible in terms of accommodating these types of side projects, so I'm kind of happy with the set up. I'm not sure what the future holds, but I'm not looking to quit academia any time soon. You spend a long time working to get your PhD. But there's also no reason to stop the music either.
DiS: Have you started working on any new songs since finishing I Blame Society?
Greg Goldberg: No, nothing as of yet. I wrote one song after the album was finished which came out as a b-side but that's it.
DiS: And will we see you back in the UK in the not too distant future?
Craig Willse: We'd like to think so. This tour has been amazing for us. We've got to play some great shows with some of our favourite bands, met lots of great people and just had an incredible time.
Greg Goldberg: And I guess in some ways we've been really lucky too. When we came to the UK last time this German promoter contacted us and said he was organising this festival in Munich and asked if we'd let him book a tour for us. So we went over and did a small tour of Germany which helped raise our profile.
Craig Willse: So yeah, if anyone wants us to play for them, make us an offer!
The album I Blame Society is out now on Fortuna Pop! Records.
For more information on The Ballet visit their official website.