Hayley Scott spoke to Joanna Gruesome’s Alanna McArdle as she reflects on Weird Sister, talks about sexism in music, and why you should think twice before calling them twee...
It’s been 7 months since the release of your debut album Weird Sister, looking back on the whole process, how was it for you, and what have you learned as a band?
Alanna McArdle: Doing the album was fun more than anything, I think for most of us it was the first time we had recorded anything in a real studio so it felt very ‘real’ in a sense. It’s weird to me that it’s been almost a year. After we recorded it, it took almost a year to come out so it’s actually been a pretty long process and I hadn’t really realised. When it did finally come out I think we were all a little shocked and confused by its reception. We didn’t expect anyone to really listen to it or buy it, so getting the attention we got was very strange. Doing something like CMJ- which was I guess directly linked to the album’s release- was an eye opener for us, basically because we really didn’t like it. We’ve always had a DIY ethic as a band and doing something that industry heavy was overwhelming and confusing and just really gross. So it’s all been a learning process in that we’re learning what we’re comfortable doing as a band, and I think we know more about what we want and what we don’t want. It is strange being suddenly inserted into a different side to music than what we’d previously experienced, no one really teaches you how to navigate all the industry shit and I don’t think it’s something any of us ever expected to have to do.
What do you think of the album now you’ve had time to reflect on it?
To be honest I haven’t really thought about it much. We had to wait so long to release it after we recorded it that I had already moved on. The main thing I can say when I listen back to some of the songs is that I think I’ve personally become more comfortable singing and performing, and when we recorded I was so nervous. If I could I would go back and do all the vocals again; I’m a lot happier with how I sing now and I’m a lot more comfortable with my voice. But I think the main feeling we have collectively is that we just want to release a lot more new stuff now. We’ve been playing basically the same set for over a year, and I really don’t know how people haven’t already gotten sick of it, but everyone in the band lives in different places so we never get to practice and writing new stuff has taken a while. I’m mainly thinking about what we’re going to do next, so I don’t really think aboutWeird Sister too much.
Weird Sister garnered quite a lot of critical praise, but you remain relatively unknown. I get the sense that you are content with that, and that DIY culture is very much in your blood?
Definitely. We are not in this band to get famous and that’s not something we will ever aim for; we just want to make records and play shows, and it’s great if people like what we’re doing and want to buy our records and come to the shows. I think we all felt incredibly honoured to be asked to put the record out with Fortuna Pop! and Slumberland because they are labels whose ethics and backgrounds we really admire- we didn’t want to go with someone who was going to pump a shit load of money into some marketing campaign or anything, we don’t want to have the kind of relationship with a record label where we become just a cog in their machine. Sean and Mike who respectively run the labels are people who get what we do and that’s incredibly important to us. Every band signed to or releasing with both of those labels are bands who have longevity, they aren’t bands who make one record and get famous for one year and disappear, so to be able to say that Sean and Mike trust us to operate and exist in the same way that the other bands on their labels do is incredibly affirming.
There’s a recurring discussion on the 'volatile' state of guitar music - one minute it’s facing demise, the next it’s making a comeback. From my experience in Leeds, we've always had a pretty cohesive DIY scene and that argument has always felt redundant. What are your feelings on this?
I can’t comment so much on the DIY scene in Cardiff because I grew up in London, but ever since I’ve been in bands or going to shows I don’t think I ever once felt like there was a lack of a scene or community; it’s something I’ve always been aware of and something that’s just growing now which is great. There’s some amazing DIY stuff happening in London right now especially with DIY Space For London, which is something we feel really strongly about. I think it’s incredibly important to have safe spaces in music and especially in punk, because unfortunately the genre hasn’t always been inclusive. I love Wharf Chambers in Leeds and the West Hill in Brighton where Owen and I live now, and there’s always been amazing promoters in London and Brighton like Crumb Cabin, Vested Interest, Zine and Not Heard, Riots not Diets, Another Sunny Day and loads more. Another thing that I think has helped cement and expand DIY scenes across the country is the internet. It’s allowed so many small record labels to exist and flourish and so many bands that want to operate on a totally DIY label can do that and still be known about which is really awesome. And yeah, this idea of ‘the death of guitar music’ or whatever has always confused me because we’ve always been surrounded by it.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process behind your song craft? is it a collective process, or do you write the songs and lyrics individually?
We all live in different parts of the UK so it’s really hard for us to come together to write or even practice (so far we’ve had two practices), so writing is harder for us to do all together. Owen and I both live in Brighton and he writes all the songs; the lyrics for the melodic singing bits he writes at the same time, and then we’ll get together and I’ll come up with some stuff to shout in the parts that need shouting.I find writing with other people in a super ‘collaborative’ kind of way really difficult so I’m really comfortable with this process. I think we always have a very similar idea of how we want the songs to sound so when it comes to recording it’s very fuss free, there’s never really much we disagree on.
As a band you have a really kinetic live presence, is playing live something you enjoy most about being in Joanna Gruesome?
Thanks! I think it’s fair to say that we’re a “live band”, I’m happy for that to be what people think when they think of us. Firstly the music we write is conducive to playing live, it’s pretty straight forward guitar music so what you hear on the record is pretty much exactly what you’ll hear live, so it’s very easy for us to convey our intentions onstage. We also just love playing shows so we will basically tour whenever we have the chance, and maybe that’s given us a bit of a reputation or something. I personally used to feel really uncomfortable playing shows and I found it to be an entirely nerve-wracking thing. It’s really hard not having an instrument to hide behind when you’re up there in front of people, but spending the last year and a bit touring and playing almost constantly has eased me into it. Now I don’t really have stage fright anymore, just utter contempt for having a huge fucking camera flash in my face for the entirety of our set. It’s just rude. I can say that at the moment we’re pretty bored of the set we play; it’s been almost exactly the same for over a year. We’ve got a bunch of new songs we can add to it now so we’re really looking forward to changing it a little bit.
I hear a lot of influences and combining of genres and sub genres in Joanna Gruesome: 80s indiepop and hardcore is perhaps the most obvious coalescing of styles. Is it safe to say that you’re all big collectors of music? what’s the record that you always find yourself going back to?
Yeah, both indiepop and hardcore are really big influences on our music, they’re genres that all of us as a band can agree on, so of course the songs we write are pretty derivative of them. Individually, though, our music taste is totally varied: Dave loves metal and Max is into a lot of EDM type stuff and George fucking loves Shostakovich, so it’s not necessarily hardcore or indiepop or even just guitar music that is the biggest influence on each of us individually. The first album I ever bought was The Writings on the Wall by Destiny’s Child and everything by DC and Beyoncé still gets me totally pumped. The record I always go back to though is Bakesale by Sebadoh. Sebadoh were one of the first bands I ever loved- it was the first vinyl LP I ever owned and my mum bought it for me. Around the time I got that record was when I started teaching myself guitar so it has that significance for me. Also, What Would The Community Think? by Cat Power is an amazing record, and hearing Cat Power was probably the impetus for me to start writing songs.
Your song ‘Secret Surprise’ featured on a Kanine Records compilation, Violent Femmes, for a special Record Store Day release this year. What’s your view on RSD - do you usually participate?
Yeah, Violent Femmes featured songs by loads of amazing female fronted bands that are around right now, that was a Record Store Day release for this year. I’m really for the idea, but I share a lot of other peoples’ reservations about what it’s become, because it’s just been completely co-opted by major labels who are cashing in on an idea that should really help independent labels and record shops thrive. It’s fucked because small indie labels can’t get their Record Store Day releases pressed in time because major labels are creating a big queue at the pressing plant- it’s a massive shame. It’s definitely become something it shouldn’t be but I still really like the idea. And then of course there’s the race on eBay afterwards where people try and get hundreds of pounds for releases they stockpiled on the day and that’s fucked as well. There are some problems with how it’s devolved but I really wish it hadn’t, it’s a great idea that’s unfortunately turned a little sour.
You’re known to be quite genre defiant and you've been called everything from noise-pop to twee. I know you're not particularly fond of the twee label, why is that?
Yeah we’re really not into the ‘twee’ thing. It basically boils down to being a really sexist and dismissive way of defining indiepop by people who are too lazy and elitist to try and perceive the genre as anything that could have the potential to be taken marginally seriously. It’s a label that’s mainly lumped on bands with female singers and it just feeds this notion that there’s some automatically implied fragility and whimsy to anything remotely feminine and that’s just bullshit. We’ve gotten some reviews that describe me as ‘meek’ before and that’s just not true, and honestly the only explanation for that description of me is sexism. So I’m really not into the twee thing. Whenever anyone asks me to define our sound I usually go for noise-pop or just ‘indiepop with shouting’ because that’s probably pretty accurate. I don’t think an exact definition is ever necessary for any band though, because then you get categorised alongside bands or within a scene you may never have identified with. We’re happy to be part of the indiepop thing though, I think it’s a really inclusive scene which you can’t really say about hardcore. But I still think the crossover between hardcore and indiepop influences in our music is great in a selfish kind of way because it means people are willing to book us with bands of either genre, we haven’t suffered too much pigeon-holing in terms of the shows we play which I hope is something we can hold onto.
It annoys me that, despite the abundance of sexism in music, bands seem reluctant to call it out. You’re one of relatively few bands who speak out against it. Why do you think sexism in music and the media is so prevalent at the moment?
It’s incredibly disheartening to me how misogyny in music is so prevalent and how few bands actually make the effort to simply tell people to stop. When Joanna Gruesome were a much smaller band that didn’t get any media attention, I suppose I was in a bubble that was away from all of the sexism I get now. We played small shows with other small bands in small venues with mainly our friends watching, so it was always a very comfortable environment to be in for me. I began experiencing it more when I played solo shows for this other project I have where I play guitar, and that’s when I started to see how men view women in music. When you’re a woman with an instrument, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ll never be good enough. And then when Joanna Gruesome started to get more press and more reviews I saw that when I didn’t have an instrument, I was just an ornament or some gimmick for the band to get noticed. This idea that you’re going to have a much easier time getting big as a band if you’re all-female or if you have a woman in the band is so hilariously wrong and backwards it’s insane. No one takes you seriously. You have to work so hard for people to take you seriously, and even when they do you still don’t get the upper hand. I think a lot of people are reluctant to call out the sexism in music because it’s easier for them to ignore it and that really depresses me. People really don’t think it’s important enough to say anything about it, because people don’t take women seriously in music. And then even when I do call people out for the sexist shit they do or say I get scared about it because as a woman you’re taught not to upset men, and someone’s inevitably going to tell you you’re making a big deal out of something that isn’t even there. People are always going to try to invalidate your feelings and experiences and that’s very hard to constantly fight against. But this has always been an issue in music, and I’m not sure if it’s particularly worse or better now that it has been before. I think people just find new ways to be sexist, that’s the only thing that seems to be changing.
I think it comes from all sides of the music industry; I didn't notice it as much as when I started to write about music as I became more aware of how women in bands are perceived by the music press in general, and being a female at a male-majority gig is an altogether different story, so I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for you being up there on stage. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences as a female in a band?
As time goes on it becomes weirder and weirder to me that I’ve never been to a show that has more women than men in the audience, and men just never even think about that, they don’t have to. They never have to worry that they’re out of place and they never have to worry for their safety at a show. There was some article recently on some website, I really wish I could remember what it was, it was about how to get with girls who go to hardcore punk shows, and to me that surmises the whole thing. You’re not supposed to be there, and if you are it’s not to enjoy the music it’s to be looked at. And yeah, a lot of the time I feel the same way when we play shows. If the vibe is very macho or I feel out of place for whatever reason then I have a really hard time being onstage, because it’s hard to forget that a lot of people probably don’t think you deserve to be there, or maybe they don’t mind so much because at least they can look at you for 20 minutes or whatever. I went to see Menace Beach play at the Cockpit in Leeds recently and there was some guy stood behind me, and in between two of the songs he shouted at Liza “get your tits out” and I was just horrified. I couldn’t believe that someone would feel so entitled and so comfortable saying something that offensive, but I was the only person who turned around and told him to go fuck himself. He got away with it because pretty much everyone else in the audience was a guy, and no one really gives a shit, do they? That was fucking depressing. He said sorry but he wasn’t sorry, he was just sorry he got caught. And maybe at the next Joanna Gruesome show someone will shout that at me and maybe there’ll only be one person in the audience who gives enough of a shit to say something about it and that really upsets me.
It’s strange that it comes during a time when there are so many strong female-fronted bands around. Speaking of which, I hear you’re a big fan of Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves, and you've played with them before - how was that?
I could probably write you an essay on why I love Perfect Pussy and Meredith Graves so much. Playing with them was amazing, and it was part of this CMJ showcase that only had female fronted bands playing and that was the first time we’d ever played a show where that’s been the case so it was really cool. But yeah, Perfect Pussy are probably my favourite band right now, if another record comes out this year that’s better than Say Yes To Love I will be very surprised. I just think Meredith’s amazing because of how honest she is; she really takes no shit which I think is really inspiring and important for women and girls who play music or want to play music. I was really intimidated by that band when we played with them, we all were, just because they were so fucking good, and then I heard from someone at the show that they are into our band and I genuinely didn’t believe it! They are way too cool for us. We’re doing a short tour with them around the UK this July which is already the highlight of my year.
You’re part of a feminist collective called Misery Chicks, can you tell us a bit about your involvement and how it came about?
The Misery Chicks happened after a really drawn out argument on Facebook about street harassment, and it basically involved a bunch of guys trying to defend their right to harass women they don’t know. It was one of those things that was incredibly distressing and exasperating, and I think all the girls involved in it just decided that maybe we should turn all the negativity we felt from arguments like that into something more productive.We wanted it to be something that focussed mainly on women in DIY cultures because I don’t think there’s ever been enough of a spotlight there or a means for women artists or musicians who operate on a DIY level to give themselves a voice. We’ve been pretty inactive for a while though, for no other reason than everyone’s so busy right now.
What does the future hold for Joanna Gruesome? can we expect a new release any time soon?
Yeah, we've got two releases coming up really soon. We’re doing a split with Trust Fund that’ll come out on our bassist Max’s label Reeks of Effort (and also Happy Happy Birthday To Me in the States) and another split with Perfect Pussy. I think they’re both gonna be out in the summer but we’re not 100% sure when exactly.
Weird Sister is out now.