"There was definitely more of a bingo hall vibe to this place, last time we were here."
There’s no shortage of venues that have played pivotal roles for The Cribs over the course of their storied, thirteen-year history, but Manchester’s Ritz certainly feels like one of them. It was here, six years ago to the month, that they played two of their earliest shows with Johnny Marr as an official full-time member; fitting, given that first ever Smiths gig was under this same roof. Since then, they’ve reverted to their classic three-piece lineup, released comfortably their most eccentric and ambitious album in the shape of 2012’s In the Belly of the Brazen Bull and, as Gary Jarman rightly notes, The Ritz has gone from grungy, dilapidated nightclub to shiny, soulless, corporately-operated ‘venue’.
The Cribs are here to wrap up a tour of what, by their own standards, have been intimate rooms; admittedly, this Manchester date, hastily tacked on after the initial announcement, is by a distance the biggest on the run. Not that it matters - the new songs they’re here to debut transcend audience size, plucked as they are from For All My Sisters, the trio’s brightest and best pop moment to date. With Ric Ocasek of The Cars behind the desk, they’ve delivered a record bursting at the seams with soaring melodies, sharp choruses and hooks that are catchy in the extreme, and yet you never get the sense that they’ve lost any of what’s always made them stand out from so many of the landfill indie outfits they were so egregiously lumped in with for so long - as usual, For All My Sisters fizzes with genuine punk vigour, and the result is arguably their most vital full-length so far.
DiS: Did you take any time off before you started on the record? You never seem to be away from the road for very long...
Gary: We kind of did get some time off, for once. It was a really weird time for us, coming into making this album. I know this is going to sound a little bit dramatic, but between the last record and this one, we were going through what was basically a really hard break-up with our label, Wichita. There was just this strange realisation that we weren’t going to be staying with them - we’d fulfilled our contract with Brazen Bull and then Payola, the compilation we put out in 2013, so we needed to renegotiate with them, and that analogy - of it being like a drawn-out break-up - is just the best way of wording it. They wanted us to stay and we wanted to stay with them, but I think we both knew in our heart of hearts that it wasn’t on the cards. Without a deal, we didn’t have a specific purpose to work towards, so we just started writing - with no goal in mind - during the summer of 2013, and then did some crazy touring - the Weezer cruise, and then some really, really gruelling shows in Asia, where everybody was sick for a while. There was a lot of uncertainty to begin with.
What specifically went down with Wichita?
It’s one of those things that’s difficult to really put your finger on. I mean, The Cribs and Wichita basically grew up together; they were two years old when we joined them, and we were the first band they out-and-out signed - they’s put out some American licenses, stuff by Bright Eyes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but we were the first actual band on the label. There was always this sense of mutual pride; we were proud of them, and they were proud of us, and I felt like that was all I ever wanted from being in a band. That was the dream for me, to have a community of bands on a label, and that was what we had; we’d take Los Campesinos! and Sky Larkin on tour, and Bloc Party would take us on tour, and I loved that dynamic. That’s what I miss about it: having those guys be proud of us, and call us up to tell us, you know, “we love your new songs!” or whatever. I was at the NME Awards recently, and it made me realise it had been two years since we’d even spoken to them. I’m such a fish out of water at things like that, because there’s a lot of industry there and I’m always shy in those situations, but Wichita would always very much be like, “we’re here, we’re from your background too.” I miss that.
Did you worry about the implications of signing to a major label?
That bothered me when I was younger, that whole ‘sellout’ thing, but it’s not really a factor any more. If the industry was still what it used to be, then it probably would be selling out, it would be a concern, but this is our sixth record; by now, I think, people know what we’re about. We’re dyed-in-the-wool, at this point; we have a hardcore fanbase, and I think it’d be foolish for anyone to try to subvert that - all you’d be doing would be alienating the core audience we already have. We’ve written over a hundred songs, now; you know what you’re getting. I was a little bit worried about how the fans would react, purely because I knew it’d bum some people out that we’d left Wichita, but as far as the general public are concerned, I really don’t fucking care. If we haven’t done enough to establish our core values by now, then we’re probably never going to change some people’s minds.
How do the writing sessions work logistically these days? You still all live in different cities, right?
Yeah, I’m still in Portland, Ross is in Wakefield, and Ryan’s usually in New York. It’s not easy any more, but because of that, the sessions are usually great; by the time they come around, we’re really excited to see each other and work together. We value our time more than we used to. We get together for two weeks at a time, usually. It sounds really decadent, having to fly to get to band practice, but we spend so much time on tour that we accrue a ton of air miles, so once we’re off the road, we can afford to use them to meet up. We all come in with a load of ideas, so it makes for a pretty intense experience; it’s always really cathartic, getting to finally work on the stuff you’ve been keeping to yourself until the next session. When we first started out, we’d spend all day messing around and every idea became a song, but I think I prefer things as they are now.
I think it was NME that reported, early on, that you were working on two separate records - a pop one, and a punk one. For All My Sisters is the former, clearly.
That was kind of made out to be more than it was, really. It was more that we were working on two things simultaneously; we’ve already got about half an album recorded with Steve Albini, dating back to the Brazen Bull sessions, and all that happened was that whilst we were writing For All My Sisters, whenever we came up with something we knew wouldn’t fit with the pop aesthetic we were going for, we put it aside for the Albini record. I think we’ve got enough songs for that one now, but we work so fast with Steve that if we go into the studio with him, we’ll have it done in three days. It’s not a pressing concern at the minute, but the idea behind it is just that we’ve obviously always had a side to our band that’s really raw, really nihilistic, and we want to put out a record where we don’t try and ingratiate that into something else - we’d rather put those songs out in unbridled form.
So it wasn’t ever really the case that you were working on two albums at once?
No. It was just that some songs presented themselves to better served by total spontaneity, no overdubs, and without the level of craft that tends to go into our other songs. We’ll really labour over lyrics, and I spend a lot of time thinking about harmonies. Ryan’s guitar parts are becoming increasingly intricate, and Ross is really into arrangement and that kind of thing. With the Albini tracks, all of that goes out of the window. We jam those songs out - they’re very primal.
Was For All My Sisters always destined to be a pop record?
We knew we wanted to focus on the poppier side of the band, purely because that’s something we haven’t done for a while. That’s not to say that the other records have been totally avant garde, or anything, but we haven’t really self-edited and tried to streamline everything as much as on this record since Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, really. We came into this one off the back of Brazen Bull, and on that album, we just used every idea we had, which is how we ended up recording a mini-rock opera at Abbey Road - every song seemed to have a bunch of sections. I loved writing that stuff, but it was a turbulent time for us personally, and the only time we were really happy was when we were playing - so we played a lot, wrote a lot, and used pretty much everything.
This time, it was a case of discarding anything that was extraneous, and trying to make something really succinct, where the power comes form the hooks and the pure immediacy of it. We’re such a conflicted band, though; I mean, my favourite music is stuff like Daniel Johnston, great, totally unadorned pop songs with brilliant lyrics, but then at the other end of the spectrum, i have a really deep connection with those massive eighties pop tunes, like ‘Toy Soldiers’ by Martika. They really resonate with us, and fascinate us so much that we’ll always want to try and write big pop songs. Obviously, we’ll never go down the route of it being too sterile, but we just wanted to exercise that muscle, I guess.
Was Ric Ocasek your first choice to produce? I know you’ve been chasing him for a while.
Definitely. We’d been after him as far back as The New Fellas, really; he doesn’t just say yes to anyone. We had this preconceived idea that he’d be our perfect producer for this album. He’s a fascinating guy; a lot of my favourite artists, from Nirvana through to Bobby Conn and Jeffrey Lewis, are people who write pop songs, accessible songs, but are pretty weird, too. It’s never truly pop - it’s always a little bit left field, just because of the nature of the personalities behind the songs. Ric is the perfect embodiment of that, because he’s had some huge hits in America, yet he’s fundamentally this subversive, new wave weirdo.
I hadn’t met him, and neither had Ross, before we got to the studio on day one; Ryan had hung out with him in New York a couple of times. I was a little bit worried about whether things were going to play out like I’d imagined, but we hit it off so well - it was like we were all best friends from the very start. He was very generous, very thoughtful, but most importantly, he was totally enthusiastic about the songs. We’d say, “which of these songs should we record?”, and he’s go, “all of them!” That was massive for me - knowing that he really got us. We didn’t want to be our usual, self-sabotaging selves, and he recognised that. We were always very much about that attitude of, you know, “we’re punk, nothing needs to be perfect”, and whilst Ric wasn’t necessarily pushing for everything to be pristine, he saw that there was pop potential in the songs and went about bringing it out in a really precise way. He wanted to make sure we didn’t sell ourselves short.
Given how vocal you’ve been about gender equality in the past, is it safe to assume that there’s some feminist sentiment behind the album’s title?
Yeah, people definitely seem to be talking about it that way. A good title is going to make you think. It’s one of Ryan’s lines from ‘Pink Snow’, and I think it represents the overall feeling of the record nicely. Those titles follow you around forever - we still get asked about the old ones now - so you want to make sure it encapsulates the mood of the time you were in when you made the album. It’s cool that it’s open to interpretation. We’ve had some people saying, “oh, is it because you’re a sibling band?”, and the truth is that we have no sisters, so it looks like the record’s dedicated to no one. I kinda like that.
Honestly, it’s not meant to be overtly feminist, but those feelings have defined a lot of my adult life, and they’re still there - I just think we’re a more personally political band these days. Feminism has cropped up a lot in our lyrics in the past, and it still does. Me and my brothers aren’t really the type to go out with the lads, or to need ‘guy time’, or whatever. I’ve always had stronger relationships with the women in my life, for sure, but I don’t want to put too fine a point on anything any more - I don’t think it’s our place. We still feel the same way when it comes to those issues, but we perhaps try to translate that in a way that’s a little bit more considered now.
What’s your take on how male-centric the Reading and Leeds lineup is this year? The Cribs have always had such a strong connection to those festivals.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s difficult to put it down to one specific root cause, I think. I mean, is it indicative of the industry’s attitude, that it’s like an old boys’ club? Ryan made this really flippant remark recently; he was like, “oh, the only reason guys start bands is because they’re trying to get girls.” He said it totally irreverently, but I had a moment where I thought there’s probably some depressing truth in it. In some ways, in our band, we’ve been in a bit of a bubble, because we’ve toured with so many female bands, especially in the early days - Giant Drag, The Chalets, Shrag, even Menace Beach who we’ve played with on this run. In the last few years, we’ve always had girls on tour, and growing up, I didn’t notice it in the bands I was listening to, either. But when you see it like it’s presented on that photoshopped poster, it does look really damning.
There’s probably some accuracy, like you said, of it being indicative of the industry being at fault.
Possibly, yeah. You think, “is it chauvinism at that level?” And again, it’s like I’ve been living in my own little utopian bubble for years, because when we first signed with Chrysalis, we were signed by two women. You wonder whether women aren’t being supported to the same extent in the pursuit of the arts, but in Portland - and in a lot of cities in the States - you’ve got the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, and I wish there’d been something like that when I was a kid, you know? It’s just a different set of issues that women are up against. I mean, even the term ‘female band’ is damaging; I’ve used it here, to make a point, but I certainly wouldn’t in casual conversation. ‘Female-fronted rock band’, too; they’re just fucking gross, those terms.
When I was twenty, I was part of the committee that organised the second British Ladyfest, in London; three days at the Garage, just helping out with technical stuff and setting up, that kind of thing. It was an amazing experience, really empowering and really important to me at the time, but there’s always that tinge of sadness that it’s necessary, too. I felt very much at home there, and I loved that the scene was so supportive and so galvanised, but how much has changed since?
It seemed like macho rock and roll posturing was the big thing again right around the time The Cribs started out, too.
Yeah, it was. Guys in leather jackets, cigarettes, wearing aviators - I was like, “man, this is a step backwards.” There was a lot of that groupie stuff going on as well, and I remember thinking, “what is this, the sixties, the seventies?” All of that definitely helped us to be more staunch in our views. That’s the way it’s always been, though; there’s always been a lot of intangible, old-fashioned fucking bullshit, that old boys’ club stuff I mentioned earlier. That whole idea of fucking ‘rock stars’, you know? Ryan always had this great point: “everyone always looked up to the idea of the sex, drugs and rock and roll rock star, and yet I bet that guy’s a fucking asshole!” And he’s totally right.
Has it been a throwback to that time in your lives to be playing to some of these small rooms again?
Definitely, if only because we haven’t played some of them in ten years. It’s been exciting in some ways, and really hard in others. We’ve definitely absolutely shredded our voices every night. You get a very immediate buzz in those venues; I know it sounds hackneyed, but we’re not the sort of band that doesn’t appreciate seeing people really digging the new songs. It makes the shows more personal between the three of us, when you can recognise that there’s people in the crowd having the same response to the tracks, the same excitement, as we did when we were writing them.
It’s been very hectic, very fun, but ultimately, I want us to be playing in places that are big enough that anybody who wants to come to see us can do. I hate seeing people on Twitter saying they can’t get tickets; it’s a bummer. This band is not an exclusive club, you know? It’s nice to stay in touch with your past, but the biggest shows are always the most celebratory, and that’s where I see our future.
For All My Sisters is available now via Sony RED. Read our 8/10 review.
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