It’s a cold Saturday afternoon – the sky is clear and blue, but there’s no heat in the early March sun as yet. I’m wandering the rooms of the Tate Britain, the Thames sparkling outside, constantly chasing after a runaway girlfriend who darts from work to work with the kind of gleeful grin usually reserved for young children come Christmas. I know I should care more about the exhibits; that I should really lean into the vivid colours created by Chris Ofili and Peter Doig and see, if not feel, something beyond the superficial shrug of “S’alright”. But I don’t; it’s not how I work, at least not right now. In a crowd, as I am at the Tate, I like my art spoon-fed: brash, bright, and easily digested without need for isolation, isolation for considered thought and analysis. I guess that’s why I love rock and roll so much more than I do pictures on a wall; why I learn more by shakin’ all over than I do from strolling corridors that lead to near-silent rooms of whispered speculative conceptual pyschobabble. Lessons learned from the Tate today: stick a fisheye lens on a camera and any old footage can look interesting; the line between high art and pornography grows thinner with each passing season; and Napoleonic War painters liked the Bible.
Sole lesson learned from rock and roll, taken to this heart o’ mine all of twenty-odd years ago: it fucking rules. I love it. Giant Drag love it, too. So, I love Giant Drag?
Yes and no: the Los Angeles pair – Annie Hardy on guitar and vocals and Micah Calabrese on drums and keys, simultaneously – certainly know their way around a sweet riff or two, but every interview to date – every article that makes up the band’s press pack that I receive prior to our delayed-from-the-week-before interview (they shot a video instead) – seems utterly preoccupied with Hardy’s mannerisms on stage and off it. Certain adjectives are repeated from review to review: quirky, kooky, eccentric, cute; one live review highlights Hardy’s claim that she’s not cute, in turn only emphasising the point that they are further. Up until a second before my eyes meet hers, 48 hours before my Tate trip, I’m hoping that Hardy’s previously reported actions and reactions are simply part of a performance; however, the tape’s not even rolling and she’s behaving, well, oddly. She’s effortlessly endearing, granted, despite her persistent phlegm spitting, but certifiably odd.
I meet Calabrese just before Hardy waddles into view: neatly bearded and instantly welcoming, the drummer-cum-keyboard player – who’s also in Radio 4 – is a perfect gentleman. During our interview he generally allows Hardy to speak first before clarifying particulars lost in translation from her brain to trim-lipped and cigarette-sucking mouth. He smiles when the camera is directed toward him and proves too polite to specify on record which old tour companions left him cold; he does mouth something, but it simply wouldn’t be professional to put it in here. But any thunder he may possess when we initially shake hands is soon stolen by his colleague: she shuffles closer, slowly, mumbling something through illness and nicotine about the window being open and how it shouldn’t be. We move away from it.
Gaunt under many layers and porcelain of face, eyes like an angel’s, Hardy is very beautiful, strikingly so; when she chooses to smile, the chill in the air vanishes entirely. Even though she’s racked with a cold – she contracts some illness or other every time she leaves California for Britain – she merrily laughs her way through our time together; that said, I still depart wondering exactly how much of herself she reveals with each interview, and what’s simply there for show. The band’s debut album, Hearts And Unicorns, is awash with epic swathes of gloomy sound effects – thanks partially to the involvement of members of fellow LA residents and fans the Icarus Line – echoing their way around songs pierced by the occasional blast of super-amplified guitar; it’s an album that suggests its makers aren’t in an entirely happy place, that they’re not quirky, kooky, or cute. Eccentric? Maybe, but not in the way articles ‘til now have implied. Annie Hardy, to my mind, isn’t some impetuous Polly Jean wannabe prone to outbursts of childlike chatter for no apparent reason; she’s an artist entirely unto herself, with demons enough to do away with the standard girl-with-guitar comparisons. But, questions akin to those that have come before need to be asked regardless. So…
…So I put my tape recorder on the table, microphone pointing upwards. Hardy takes a marker and draws an outline around it, “just in case it moves.”
Annie, you’re here, in Britain, moaning about the weather and feeling ill: why do you keep coming back if it treats you so poorly?
Hardy: Oh, I’m only saying that I don’t like it being cold in here.
But do you like touring Britain? You seem to be here a fair bit…
Calabrese: Yeah, definitely. The drives are a lot shorter than they are in the US…
Hardy: …That’s good.
Because you’ve got a headline tour booked for April now, right?
Hardy: Yeah. I think it’s our only headline tour over here, to date.
And what are your plans between now and then?
Calabrese: Oh, we’ll go back home and have a few weeks off.
Hardy: That’s by default, because our tour with the Cribs, in the US, was cancelled. It was with Nine Black Alps, too. The Cribs got themselves on a tour with Death Cab For Cutie and Franz Ferdinand instead, and tickets weren’t really advertised or on sale.
Have you actually had much time off of late, what with the album coming out in the States last year and now here early this year?
Calabrese: We had a good month and a half, over Christmas.
And does doing what’s essentially the same promotional work all over again, for the album over here, feel like a bit of a drag, no pun intended?
Calabrese: We never quite did a full tour for the album in the US. We did some smaller ones, and then came here.
Hardy: We’ve not done any backbreakers yet, but soon enough, though. We’re going out for five weeks soon. I mean, I’m a wreck right now… that’ll finish me completely.
And how long does it take before you get homesick for the Californian sunshine?
Hardy: About two-and-a-half weeks.
Two-and-a-half weeks is roughly two weeks on top of the standard ‘we miss home’ answer: it’s perhaps needless to say, then, that Giant Drag are a band happy enough on the road. If they weren’t, they surely wouldn’t come to Britain so often. Then again, the domestic press has been very kind to the pair, thus far: although the same comparisons crop up from magazine to magazine – My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey, The Breeders – and certain journalists are rather too keen to prioritise Hardy’s between-song quips in their pieces than the songs themselves, generally the reception’s been warmer than the weather. Surely, though, they must tire of reading the same shit, time after time; those carbon-copy adjectives, cut ‘n’ pasted from critique to critique, must bug the fuck out of them by now.
The common descriptive words that characterise reviews of your gigs – cute, kooky, quirky, et cetera – must get on your nerves, right? You’re a rock band, playing rock music – rock’s not meant to be cute!
Hardy: Fine. Call me whatever you like, but just don’t call me late for dinner.
But do you not think that such summarisations sell you short? If I went solely on some of your reviews to date, I’d never have known that your record is a loud rock and roll record. Sure, it’s got its eccentricities, but mostly it’s about amplification and fuzz-rockin’ fun. Don’t the pieces that concentrate on your behaviour neglect the music, and thereby might put off potential fans?
Hardy: Yeah. I think that, perhaps, my sweet riffs are underestimated. People want to talk about shit that they think will be interesting, and that’s not music, it’s song titles like ‘You Fuck Like My Dad’.
But when that’s repeated from review to review – ‘Giant Drag have songs titles like this, blah blah’ – doesn’t it piss you off?
Hardy: Check out our next album! There’s not gonna be a fucking goddamn funny song title on it, and then we’ll see if people still like us, or if we’re boring and just make music. Look at the bands that do that – they make wonderful music but you don’t know shit about them, and they don’t talk. Who cares about them?
So has the way you’ve been received so far ultimately beneficial? It’s got people talking about you, after all…
Calabrese: If they’re checking out the music, then I guess.
Hardy: It was never intentional, us being this way. I’m just me, being myself, and finding out what happens when you do that.
When Hardy is herself, magazines swoon. Some to date have tackled her well-documented weirdness astutely and intelligently – The Stool Pigeon accurately noted that ‘You Fuck Like My Dad’ isn’t no-brainer retro pop-rock dressed provocatively, but actually an exercise in no-little despondency, tinged with sadness and a hint of domestic violence (“You and your gun,” is repeated, while she adds “I’ll kiss your fist” on ‘Blunt Picket Fence’); they also rightfully pointed out that the pair make a royal racket and no mistake – while others have tagged her onto the end of their cool lists and compared her endlessly to PJ Harvey. Still, coverage is coverage, and right now Giant Drag are enjoying their highest profile since their inception three years ago, even if one magazine ran but a single quote from Hardy in their brief piece, and that was about losing one's anal virginity. Music, again – rock and roll, again – takes a backseat to juicy soundbites.
Giant Drag aren’t just responsible for the music aspect of the complete take-me-home-CD package – the scribbled cartoons that dance about the cover of Hearts And Unicorns were drawn by Hardy. Their website, too (read Hardy’s regular blogs for a laugh), is in tune with the cover art, and the band have control over how they’re presented, visually, to a degree, at least.
Is how you’re presented, through your album covers et cetera, of importance to you?
Hardy: Every aspect is important, but I don’t think we set out to be a certain package.
So you’ve got control? No designer is taking things away from you without your say so…
Hardy: Yeah. We’re not on, like, a fucking major label that tells us what to do. Basically, the less albums they think you’re going to sell, the more freedom you get. So, from the beginning we’ve had a lot of freedom, at least until we recorded a cover of ‘Wicked Game’, and now people are trying to tell us to do things. Everyone loves a fucking cover song…
Pick up Hearts And Unicorns in the UK and you’ll see the magic, shiny ‘Special Edition’ sticker that so often indicates the presence of ‘bonus’ material, however anything-but-special it usually is. In this case, it’s there because the powers that be decided that that cover, ‘Wicked Game’ (oh you know: Chris Isaak doesn’t want to fall in love), would be a fine ‘n’ dandy way of attracting an audience completely unaware of the duo’s original material. As covers go it’s not bad – Hardy’s guitar cracks like thunder throughout, while her slacker vocals really do suggest that falling in love is the last thing on her mind – but it’s a sore topic of discussion nonetheless.
So, did you have no say on whether or not the cover was to be included on the album over here?
Hardy: Well, we just thought we were making a bonus track for the UK version of the album, and all of a sudden all these people at Interscope that didn’t even know we existed are asking for more copies of it, to send to radio, and now they want to release the American version with that on it. So, it’s like: ‘This band wasn’t selling any records, let’s put this fucking song on it’. But really they didn’t care if we sold any albums in the States. It’s going to come off wrong. I just hope we don’t become the next Alien Ant Farm. Actually, Micah’s not fat enough.
But was the album done before your deal with Interscope come about?
So how did the Lemona EP (a five-tracker released in 2004) get picked up here by Wichita?
Hardy: That was way before the album. We just recorded that for free, put it out in the States on a small label and then Mark Bowen (Wichita boss man) got his hands on it. We never expected it to happen, but I think that’s how we got a US deal, because he knew a girl at Interscope and showed us to her. Then she stole us from him by giving us a worldwide deal. But they’re not paying us any bucks.
When Lemona was released here, that was when these regular comparisons began cropping up. Did you find them, or do you find them, flattering at all?
Calabrese: It seemed like an easy way out…
Hardy: Yeah. The first quotes that were ever printed up about us, and were put into our bio – by whoever made that – most people have just copied that. But, at the same time, I like PJ Harvey and My Bloody Valentine, so they’re not embarrassing comparisons. I hear the My Bloody Valentine, but I’m not sure about the Polly Jean.
Well, you’re a girl with a guitar: it’s either gonna be Polly or Courtney…
Hardy: Oh Polly, definitely!
I guess that, come album number two, a lot of these comparisons will fade away, as critics become accustomed to what you’re doing… is that some kind of goal perhaps?
Hardy: We don’t look at anything as a goal, I don’t anyway. When I’m at home writing a song on an acoustic guitar, I’m not thinking, ‘I’m gonna have Micah add five layers of whammy guitars right here, and it’s gonna sound fuckin’ just like something off Loveless, bro’. All I’m doing is writing a song. Today I realised, in a previous interview, that I started writing songs in the 1990s, and perhaps the similarities to these 90s acts is because of my lack of progression as a song writer.
Well, perhaps, but whatever comes through in your music must also stem from the fact that you like these acts?
Hardy: Well, I do, but I don’t think that… If I were forced, raped into saying my influences, I don’t think it would be any of those bands. But, whatev’s…
In defence of quick-to reference critics, and to paraphrase what Hardy’s already said, there are parts of Hearts And Unicorns that do bear a slight similarity to Loveless: track two, ‘Cordial Invitation’, possesses a brilliantly droning guitar that lurches quite splendidly à la Kevin Shields in full flow for some three minutes (it also features a little vocal help from Icarus Line singer Joe Cardamone). Hardy’s lyrics, even so soon into the album, are already implying that there’s an epic darkness just below the band’s bubbly surface: “Your dream is my nightmare,” she repeats. After our interview, at the band’s headline Camden Barfly show, the crowd reserves its most enthusiastic cheering for the introductions of the pair’s singles to date, album opener ‘Kevin Is Gay’ and the lead track from Lemona, ‘This Isn’t It’. The latter will see a re-release soon enough, but is now feeling particularly old to its makers.
New songs: how are they coming along?
Calabrese: We’ve written a few things. We had a little practice in Newcastle – we rented a little room – and we’ve got some new ideas.
Are you looking to expand on the noise you’re capable of making now? You’re a two-piece, but come across a lot louder, with more layers, than many other duos…
Hardy: If anything, I’d like to simplify it even more.
Calabrese: We seem to be rockin’ harder when we play new songs.
I guess that’s because they still feel fresh, though?
Calabrese: Yeah, that’s probably why we’re more into them.
Hardy: They seem different to me. They’re… I dunno… better, basically. They’re harder. In my opinion some of our songs, like ‘You’re Full Of Shit (Check Out My Sweet Riffs)’ and ‘Kevin Is Gay’, are upbeat and happy, and these new ones, like ‘White Baby’ (which they play that evening), are not that way.
Calabrese: I’m sure we’ll have a few happier ones, too.
Well try not to write too many in the British gloom…
Hardy: Ha ha, we’ll write a Joy Division album like everyone else in LA. What the fuck’s up with that? It’s all sunny and they’re all, ‘I’m depressed now and everybody’s gonna see me cry…’
I suppose you’re lucky insomuch as you’ve not been lumped into any scene, or pigeonholed alongside a series of other bands doing the rounds right now. I mean, you’re from Orange County, originally, but you’re pretty far removed from the emo-pop that soundtracks the show of a very similar name…
Calabrese: That’s good.
An example: I was at Death Cab the other night, and all these new ‘fans’ were talking all the way through their set. I guess if that happened to you you’d get fucked off?
Hardy: I don’t like that shit, it’s rude. I’m into common courtesy. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing up there – reading a book, telling a joke, playing a song – but don’t be rude, anywhere in life.
Calabrese is suddenly distracted: a passing face in the window has caught his eye. “I think I just saw Martin,” he says. “What, Martin from Nine Black Alps? You didn’t… did you?” The bands toured together last year, and quite obviously struck up quite a healthy relationship. They’ve hung out. Hardy likes their music. I tell her I don’t rate it. She laughs: “We’re lucky to have actually toured with bands we like, and have become friends with, and that are pretty hot.”
Being on what is a major label, though, you must know that one day a pairing might come up that you’re not happy with…
Hardy: With real shitters? It’s a possibility…
Calabrese: Or perhaps it’s happened already.
Hardy: What? Wait, who was it?
Calabrese: I’m not saying anything.
Hardy: Whisper it in my ear!
I turn the tape recorder off. The photographer for the evening laughs as Calabrese reveals to her the band that they really didn’t enjoy their time with; without naming names, they’re American, were hyped a little and their second album’s now in stores. That narrows it down, hardly.
Hearts And Unicorns is a wonderful quick-fix of a rock and roll record: lyrics are delivered with bite, and the riffs bristle with aggression and echoes of acts past, without ever coming across as rip-offs. Don’t go thinking they’re a one-trick act, though, based on the singles to date: ‘Smashing’ is an atmospheric slow-burner, while the closing ‘Slayer’ is silky summertime pop let down only by the album’s only pronounced fade out. Fade outs in rock and roll: cheating. The songs grow even louder, mutating and evolving, when served live, Calabrese’s skills at his drum-kit-keyboard set-up becoming absolutely apparent – I make a point of announcing, loudly, my respect for his talents when another in the crowd remarks that Hardy is, well, a bit lovely (there are a few unwise calls for her to get her ‘kit off’; those responsible should feel ashamed). It’s not something I usually do, but that’s beauty and the power of rock and roll: it makes you do things you wouldn’t, usually; it makes you forget yourself, temporarily and fantastically. Hardy, though, remains a mystery: she’s open and seemingly happy to talk about any subject, but there’s a veil to how she presents herself that isn’t quite right, not to a cynical Brit anyway. But… perhaps I’m simply looking for something that’s not there.
Yeah, I know those works on the wall are pretty swell, but these riffs are sweet. You debate the process of assimilating influences to inspire art; I’ll just dance my soles clean through under these skies of blue. Rock and roll: fucking rules, don’t it?Photography by Lucy Johnston