Archive for category: Interviews

Tearing Up Their Map: An Interview with Lamb

Andrew Darley spoke with Lou Rhodes of the long-standing band Lamb about their rebirth, space and their ability to change their own path.


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In 2009, after a five year hiatus Lou Rhodes and Andy Barlow regrouped as their much loved and reverred band, Lamb. With headspace from the project and solo endeavours achieved, they both shared a rejuvenated spirit about where they could take the band next. Once they returned to the studio under their own independent terms, they realised the tension and frustrations which caused the break no longer existed. Under a major label, they found themselves moving away from their initial, intimate aesthetic to more band-led direction. For their fifth album, 5, they stripped their sound back to its bare essentials; Rhodes’ songcraft and Barlow’s intricate production. The result was a record that was instantly recognisable as Lamb in its reflective lyrics and considered compositions, which was inherent to, and so special about their sound on the early releases.

Wasting no time with their renewed passion, Lou and Andy went straight back into the studio after 5, to record a new album. Released in October this year, Backspace Unwind is one of their most accomplished albums so far; featuring a more concentrated electronic sound, the two explore the idea of space (both the physical entity and mental capacity). Its songs question and cherish our existence and love in our lives, as they bring together digital sounds, string arrangements and Lou’s inimitable vocals. Andrew Darley spoke with Lou about the cosmic theme of the album, the early days of the band and the inseparable bond between herself and Andy.

First off, can I just say what a pleasure it is to have you back! Was there a sense of re-energisation between you after making 5, given the quick turnaround between it and Backspace Unwind?

Thank you! It’s great to be back. Yes, I think after the long break we had a kind of rebirth in making 5 and Backspace Unwind took that whole journey a stage further. There was such a flow whilst making this record.

You have both had solo careers and projects during the band’s interim. Do you feel these may have shaped the way you approached Lamb when you regrouped?

I think the split and our various solo experiences were incredibly important in bringing Lamb to the place we’re at right now. Back in 2004 when we split, apart from the fact that we weren’t getting on very well as people, the music we were making had got a little lost and confused. I was really feeling a need to move away from technology and make more stripped back acoustic music and I was trying to pull Lamb in that direction. Whilst writing Between Darkness and Wonder, the last album before the split, we had decided to include the live band in the process and quite often me, Oddur (guitarist) and Jonny (bass) would be jamming ideas and leaving Andy quite excluded. Of course, in retrospect this really didn’t work and in our new work we’ve realised that the essence of Lamb is Andy’s electronica and my songs and voice, in their stark contrast. I’ve been able to indulge my love of acoustic music elsewhere in my solo work and Andy’s had valuable experiences producing other artists which have fed into what we do now in a very positive way.


Space is a major theme that runs through Backspace Unwind; even though it has been a feature of your work before, it stands out more prominently here. What drew you to this theme?

It just seemed to happen. I was experimenting with a much more open-ended, abstract approach to song-writing on this album and, time and again, allusions to stars and planets and space would occur. Several times I worried about this becoming a repetition of these elements and then I just let go and realised that this was a theme that wanted to happen. For me, although the use of outer space imagery is important, the real emphasis is on the idea of space as an expanse or spaciousness in the music and lyrics. Literally the space between words and notes.

The album opens with ‘In Binary’, which has this very hard, almost industrial-like synthline. It’s instantly startling and captivating. How does it feel when you’ve had a creative moment like that in the studio – when you know you’ve captured something great on record?

Yeah, it was clear from early on that ‘In Binary’ had to be the opening track with that synth part as a kind of “clarion call” for the album. That synth part is almost angry-sounding and, in the lyrics and vocal I found myself creating a kind of smoothness to contrast with it. Often we don’t know what we’re onto at the time and then we play back the finished track and think “what the f***?!”.

There are several threads running through your music from classical, electronic, ambient to pop. Have your instruments and recording approach changed over the years? Are there any key pieces in creating your songs or just love playing?

One thing we’ve learned, especially over recent years and the last two albums, is that, although the technology available these days gives you an incredibly large palette of sounds to play with in the studio, it’s important to restrict this to what’s really needed in each track. When we made our first album we had such limited technology and there’s a sparseness to that record because of that which makes it a bit of a classic. With subsequent albums we’d had the chance to invest record company money in all manner of studio equipment and there was a tendency to want to use it all. When we re-formed to make 5 we spoke about how our sound had got over-complicated at times and decided to strip things back and keep it as raw as possible. This has been our ethos ever since. “Less is more” as they say.


You also created a special EP, Transfatty Acid EP, which reworks three very early songs of yours. With all the advancements in technology and digital production, do you ever think about how your previous work would be any different if you were to make them today?

It would definitely be different. I don’t think we’d want to touch our first album but we’ve spoken about re-working tracks from Fear of Fours. It was great fun reinventing ‘B-Line’ and it’s great to play live and ‘Transfatty Acid’ just evolved into that new version over the years of playing it live into a kind of monster.

Was there any song that was particularly tricky to write on this album, either for its content or technicality?

Nothing hugely challenging. There was an incredible flow to the process of making this record on the whole. ‘What Makes Us Human’ was perhaps the only slightly tricky song in that we wrote verses that we loved from the start but couldn’t quite get the chorus right. We nearly gave up several times but our love for the verses kept us returning to it and finally the chorus we have now emerged.

Across all your records, the lyrics have been quite philosophical and deep in observation, one example being ‘What Makes Us Human’. Similar to what I touched on the idea of space, were you trying write an aerial view of people and our humanity on this record?

Many of the space references are more about taking an aerial view; stepping outside of the day to day of our lives and observing it from a different space. Often, when I get really hung up on some problem or other in my life, or I’m struggling with one particular aspect, I love to air-lift my soul out a little and realise how small my life is amongst all lives on our planet and then in the cosmos and so on. It’s a humbling and inspiring thought.


Given that you’re a duo, you obviously have a unique bond that you can still happily create together after all this time. Does it feel like you’re in a great marriage, in that you can do the thing you love together?

I think we’re more like brother and sister than we have ever been. It’s funny, we’ve been through so much in all the years we’ve worked together. We’ve fought and then been each others’ greatest support. We know each others’ secrets and have probably known each other for longer than any romantic relationship either of us has had. It’s a very unique connection. A real blessing for sure.

Since the Internet and social media was in its amoebic stages when you emerged in the mid-’90s, how have you greeted its presence as a band when you regrouped?

It has been essential to our rebirth. When we started to talk about writing together again after the break we wanted to self-release our records but weren’t sure if our fanbase was still out there. Thanks to the wonders of social networking though we were able to tap into our existing fans and also to build from that. We need our fans now more than ever and it feels so much more honest to ask for their help in funding the recording process rather than a multi-national record company where you never know where the money’s coming from.


When recording or writing music, do you ever feel a pressure of what Lamb should sound like? Are you ever cognizant of your long-standing fanbase and their possible expectations?

I think that would be a mistake. We make the music we’re moved to make. Trying to second-guess our fanbase and what they want would be both confusing and somehow soul-destroying. To be honest our creative process is so open-ended that we never know where it’s going to end anyway.

Following on from that, have you ever felt a pressure to make “hits” or score in the charts, either now or in the early days?

It was certainly a big buzz to have the new album enter the UK Top 100 Albums and to be high up in the iTunes Electronic chart but that was because we’ve made music that didn’t compromise to get there. Back when we were signed to Universal/Mercury we were under constant pressure to make radio-friendly songs and hit singles and we fought them all the way. To us, our integrity was what mattered. Now, ironically, without any such pressure, our single ‘We Fall In Love’ is getting regular radio play and that feels really good. Maybe radio has caught up with us, rather than the other way around.

Now that you’re on your sixth album, do you have any personal favourites or songs from your back catalogue which hold a special meaning for you?

Ach, that’s always really difficult. Like choosing one of your children over another. We’ve written so many songs and some fade into the background whilst others stay important; their meaning changing with the ebbs and flows of life.


When you listen back to your debut or even Fear of Fours, is it like looking at an old photo-album of yourselves?

Yeah, that’s a good description. I don’t really listen to those albums much at all but recently Andy and I were doing a photo shoot in a studio in the East of London and we went into the local wholefood store who were playing our first album. It was really lovely to hear it after so long and to listen with a kind of detachment as if it was made by someone else. It was really cool to hear it in that way and the best thing was that it didn’t sound dated or old in the least.

On the expanded edition of Backspace Unwind, you’ve included a piano version of ‘As Satellites Go By’. Can it be difficult to choose between different versions/edits of a song?

That’s a special version and, since the song was written that way, literally with piano and voice, it’s good to have that version available almost as a preliminary sketch. The string version had to be the album choice but we still perform it in that stripped down way and it’s great to have the possibility of doing so.

How do you see Backspace Unwind in relation to your previous records?

Quite simply, the latest chapter. We love it, but then you always love your latest work.

Bands and artists who came out at the same time or after have come and gone, is there a sense of humbleness, or even pride, by the fact you’re still here creating today and that people are interested and invested in what you create?

Absolutely! I feel such a sense of gratitude that, not only are we still here creating music, but that we can still constantly surprise even ourselves and tear up the map at every step.

Backspace Unwind is out now through Strata. For more news about Lamb, visit their official website here

The Aesthetic of Voyeurism: Interview with Antonio Da Silva

The shorts of Antonio Da Silva combine elements of pornography, narrative and the art film. He talks to Michael Langan about poetry, porn and how in touch with his audience he is.


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Antonio Da Silva makes short erotic films combining elements of pornography, narrative and the art film – they could as easily be shown in an art gallery as in the cinema. His work has been shown in film festivals around the world and he has a website dedicated to their dissemination, where people can pay to view them, and contact him with feedback and ideas for future projects. Recently, Fringe! Film Festival presented an evening of his work, as had Queer Lisboa, in his native Portugal, a few months before. His work has attained a certain status that being on the festival circuit affords and the aesthetic of voyeurism, well established in porn, seems to be in all of the films – the eroticism of watching and looking and peeping. Watching the films as a corpus, I began to ask myself certain questions: what the stories are that Antonio da Silva wants to tell, do they have anything to offer beyond the porn element, and do they even need that, what statements might he be trying to make? I got the chance to ask him these questions and more.

How do you categorise your films, or how do you see what you’re doing?

For me it’s a process and a journey. There are connections between the films and it’s a learning process also because they tell me what I should move towards. If they are too pornographic I should maybe try to make them more poetic, because we also need poetry. I want to have these questions that I have with myself, in the work too. My academic background is very mixed – I started in sound design, performance art, then moved on to dance film and fashion film – and now I want to put it all together. You can sense that in the way the films interact. I made a lot of art films before I started making the ones with explicit content. I wanted to put all the different elements together, as well as mixing my Portuguese background with my experience of living in London. It’s very much about myself, the things I desire, the things I want to see. 

And you have a very direct relationship with your audience, because of the website?

Very much so. I get feedback from the audience and they tell me they want to see. I originally put my films online so that people who don’t have access to film festivals can see them. Now, people can support me through paying to view them and it has become a very dynamic, organic, structure because my audience have become my clients, in a way. They communicate with me a lot, and I try to meet their needs. Some of them even offer to be in my films.

When you were making the transition into the kinds of films you’re making at the moment, did that feel like a big step for you? You’re exposing elements of your own sexuality, which seems like a brave thing to do.

For me it was just a part of the longer process and, actually, it was making my very first film that was the big step. I wanted to explore that part of my life, but now everyone is doing it – taking selfies and exposing themselves in a very straightforward way. I still want to protect many things in my life but I’m generally very open. My inner thoughts are in my films, and I don’t feel ashamed of any of them.


In Pix and also in Mates you examine the relationship between technology and sex – how technology enables sexual contact, but also stimulates and influences it too. Do you have a particular statement you want to make about that?

No, how you want to interpret my work is up to you. For me, nothing is bad in that, nothing is wrong. I try to bring positivity, even when there is sadness in my films. I have frustrations about many LGBT films I see, much of the porn I see, and art world mechanisms. There’s a statement, I suppose, about my frustration and desires, but nothing political, nothing judgmental. I’m trying to show some reality.

I think any discussion of your films should be taken out of a moral discourse. But maybe that is quite political in the widest sense because of the kind of activity that you show. In some ways the films are affirming of queer identity because they’re not mainstream and that can also be political in itself. Not to mention just the fact you show men’s bodies in the way you do, erections, ejaculations…

It has a bit of a didactic element, because many young people I know aren’t aware of this reality, so it has an ethnographic element. In pornography they are explicit and try to do narrative, and in cinema they are narrative and want to do explicit, but they can’t. These two worlds are so separate and there’s nothing in between. I want to be in that space.

Is there an aesthetic tension there?

It’s not a tension because they’re different elements I want to play with. I want to have elements of narrative, of pornography, of poetry, to be interested in and enjoy what I’m doing. I have to learn and experience something new with each film I make.


There are films that have more narrative than others – Julian for example, or Cariocas – and sometimes you have a voiced-over narrator, who is not you, so there’s a device there that separates the person holding the camera from the person speaking. It means there’s a character behind the camera, who then becomes a character in the action, and sometimes a participant in the activity. It creates complexity because you’re not just filming what you see, as a result of that comment and participation. How much are people aware of the camera, how much is set up?

Each film has a different approach, a different negotiation; there’s compromise, and respect and I’m also trying to understand that process in each situation. Sometimes things happen and I will say to the person, I have a camera with me and I would like what you just did to happen on camera. It becomes a mix of different layers and levels of observation. For example, Bankers is purely hidden camera. Generally, if you see a face there was consent, but if you don’t then the person allowed me to film them, but not show them. 

The editing in Dancers is so perfectly done that it’s like you’re watching the same solo danced by different people, and yet it was largely improvised.

This is a thing that happens in all my films – it’s a choreography made from editing. I’m very practised at that, I’ve trained myself in it over many years. My aesthetics are clearer so I’ve become very efficient at that editing now. 


You place the viewer, the audience, in the position of the voyeur. It’s not necessarily about being aroused, so the films can work on different levels. You can still be interested in what’s going on and can be as much about the erotic as well as being erotic. I found Cariocas interesting because of the narrative but also how the space changes at night, the people using the outdoor gym, so it takes on a dynamic about class and race. How conscious is that sort of thing in your work? 

Not very much. Again, it’s a process, and sometimes you have surprises like that. It’s my intuition and if I’m persistent enough something can suddenly happen.

There’s a certain amount of trust required because you’re in that space – the outdoor gym, for example – and you have a camera. You’re filming guys working out, in close-up sometimes. You must have to build up trust very quickly.

I explained to the guys that I was interested in their body language, and got their permission to film. Once the camera is set up, anyone who arrives after that knows it’s there, so I don’t have to explicitly ask permission after that point. It happens really naturally, but you have to make yourself one of them. I used that space to exercise myself – and I love that gym. I see the exercise not as a sexual thing but as choreography. I’m transforming their movements into choreography. I studied dance film and became interested in the question of how to make a dance film without using dancers. And now I’m interested in how I can make pornography without using porn actors.


Once you introduce a camera into a space – you said you wanted to show reality – you’re influencing reality. How self-consciously were those guys displaying their bodies, to each other, for themselves?

The moments I select in my editing are the ones where the person forgets the camera is there. If I see ‘acting,’ I won’t use that. That’s why in some of my films I show people leaving the moment after having sex, I’m interested in that afterwards moment. I can sense when the person forgets the camera and often that’s the bit I want. Even in Gingers, they knew the camera was there but they’re not talking to the camera they’re talking to me. It becomes something else.

Nowadays we’re so used to cameras, and quite sophisticated in our approach to technologies. Are you trying to cut through that? To capture authenticity and those moments when a lot of people’s defences are down?

It’s one of my main concerns. I also have issues with a lot of documentary work, in which everything is in place and lit beautifully, almost scripted. They’re pure fictions. I am frustrated by how reality is being presented and perceived. I like people to be authentic. I like most the person who doesn’t know they’re beautiful, but I also need narcissists to appear in my work. I play off both types of people and all these elements.


In both Gingers and Daddies you’re addressing questions around identity. These are quite often identities imposed on the subjects from outside, which are then perhaps embraced in some way. Did you have a particular statement you wanted to make about those specific identities, or are you interested in identity generally?

Well, I do have a bit of a fetish about gingers and I’m also interested in how I might be growing up as a person. I do want to learn about myself from my films. With Gingers I wanted to think about transforming something traditionally seen as negative into something good. With Daddies, I want to feel good about my own ageing, and looking my age, and look forward to being a daddy. It’s about accepting yourself. 

Your films are all relatively short and structurally similar. Do you have plans to extend them, and how do you see your process developing? 

I recently released extras from Bankers and people are loving it. How deep do people want to go into a subject? My audience can be obsessed with my subjects and I want to make films that answer their questions and show the process. I’m interested in making longer works, with more choreography, exposing my archive and how the footage came about. I want to keep improving, be inspired, and respond to people’s demands. My next project is about a cruising ground in Portugal, where I’m mixing up sounds and images that will define the film a lot. I’m also making a film about London and what it means to me. I’m interested in younger people and their use of the internet, the way people are promoting themselves. I want to keep surprising myself in my work and challenging my own life.

You can see the uncensored trailers for Antonio’s films at his website here.

Introducing: Scale Model

Andrew Darley introduces the synthpop outfit, Scale Model.


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The songs on Scale Model’s debut album Star are written out of a love of new wave music and synthpop. Based in Tennessee, the band came together when singer-keyboardist Megan Rox and guitarist Dave Johnson relocated from their hometown of Chicago in 2009 to Nashville and established the current lineup. With a self-titled EP released in 2012, the band quickly got to work on the first full-length, Star. The band point to the likes of Blondie, Metric and The Cardigans as their references, as they mix guitar pop melodies, beats and synthesizers. Andrew Darley chatted with the band to talk about the deluxe version of Star, Megan’s work as a spiritual life coach and how it is not mutually exclusive to the band’s music.

Let’s go back to the start, how did you all meet each other and become Scale Model?

Megan: Dave and I started the band in Chicago where I grew up (we were dating at the time, we’re married now). When we moved to Nashville (5 years ago), I met Steve when we were both volunteers for the Teen Rock camp.

When you started, were there any bands or musicians that you all mutually loved and made you want to make your own?

Steve: I think all of us have always been big fans of The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and New Order. But Meg and Dave formed Scale Model long before I joined. Their influences were a little different at the time.

How did you reach the name Scale Model? Were there any other contender’s for the band’s name?

Megan: Not a very interesting story unfortunately. We couldn’t decide on a name and when we had booked our first show we realized we really needed to come up with a name, so Dave threw out the name Scale Model and we all said, “Yeah, sure, it’s better than anything else we’ve come up with”.

How would you describe the music you make to someone who has never heard your work before?

Megan: Dark synth pop/rock with electro, disco and 80s influence. And a bit of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Metric vibe.

Steve: Thoughtful, yet fun power pop. If Blondie, Metric, and New Order all cross-pollinated, you might get something like Scale Model.

How did you write this album? Did you write collectively or sometimes as individuals?

Steve: Mostly collectively. Dave and Megan come up with the basic chords and melodies, and then bring it to the rest of the band to come up with the rhythm and feel, then we all work on an arrangement and flesh out the parts.

Megan: Writing the lyrics is usually the last thing I do because I’m not very good at it. I come up with the vocal melody first. 


What’s the meaning behind the album’s title, Star?

Megan: It’s based off one of the songs on the album, “You Can Be A Star,” about encouraging people that “you can be a star if you follow who you truly are”. 

Steve: We also share a fascination with space and stars, galaxies, etc. Our bass player at the time just threw it out there and it stuck.

Did you face any challenges making this album? If so, how did you overcome them?

Steve: I’d say the biggest challenge was time commitments of the band members, plus that of Jeremy, our tracking engineer, and Matt, our mix engineer. It caused the process to be pretty slow from start to finish. It was worth it though! To overcome it, we really just had to learn patience on whole new level. 

Are you happy with how the album turned out?

Steve: This album is one of the greatest pieces of creative work that I’ve ever been a part of. In fact, it’s probably THE greatest that I’ve been a part of to date. Megan and Dave feel the same way.

Do you have jobs outside of the band? How do you manage the two?

Megan: Yes. I am an adjunct professor so I can pick my class schedule every semester and be flexible. I’m also working on building a life coaching/motivational speaker career. Needless to say I don’t have much free time. Dave owns a guitar shop here in Nashville called Scale Model Guitars where he builds and repairs guitars for many musicians and bands in our local music scene.

Steve: We all do. I work a regular day job at a large company that’s based in Nashville. For all of us it’s a sacrifice to use a huge part of our vacation time for touring, but it’s something that we’re all ok to do at this point in our lives/careers. But it is a lot more difficult than say, a band of 22-year-olds who can deliver pizzas for a living and then jump in a touring van for months at a time and not have to worry about it. Sometimes it does seem like the system is rigged against normal adults who want to be successful at playing music at least on a part-time level.


What are your live shows like? From the photos on Facebook, they look pretty intense!

Megan: Yeah, Dave and I like to really let loose!

Steve: We put a lot of effort and thought into making our live show memorable. We’ve added lasers, a fog machine, floodlights, and LED light-up guitars built by our guitarist/luthier Dave. But the only real way to know what it’s like is to come see for yourself.

You held a remix competition for the deluxe edition of the album. Was it strange for your work to be interpreted by other people?

Megan: It was awesome for me to hear what other people did with my vocal parts! It’s like a new song.

Steve: I’m a fan of electronic music in general, so the world of remixes is very familiar to me. So it wasn’t strange at all for me to hear other artists’ interpretations. It was really exciting actually!

‘Live It Up’ is obviously a song about being young, having a good time and getting drunk. But I’m wondering, does it also take on the hipster scene that we find ourselves loathing and regrettably sometimes buying into?

Megan: Oh yes, it’s mostly influenced by our neighbourhood, East Nashville. One of the popular hangouts for late-night karaoke is a redneck divebar. The last time I was there some guy was talking about just getting out of jail. Who doesn’t like making fun of hipsters and crazy dive bars?

Steve: I think it does, in a very light-hearted/joking way. It’s really about not taking yourself too seriously in the end. But that’s just my interpretation of Meg’s lyrics. Interestingly enough, Matt Mahaffey (who mixed Star) wrote a song much more directly about the hipster scene with his band Self. Check it out on their new EP Super Fake Nice. It’s called ‘Hey, Hipster!’. 

I’ve read that Megan is a motivational speaker, particularly for young women living in small towns and coming out and being yourself. How and why did you get involved in this?

Megan: Yes, I’m on a spiritual journey. I am a spiritual life coach and in order to get out of a long-term depression I had to do some soul searching. I discovered my true authentic self and have learned to love all parts of myself and found the confidence to express that through performing in my band. I struggled with self-esteem and confidence issues and depression for much of my 20s. Since I’ve been teaching college, I find a soft spot in my heart for those struggling with that tumultuous period between the ages of 18 and 28. I won’t go on a rant about how our culture and media in the U.S. perpetuates negative body image ideals that influence all of us, especially young women. I believe strongly in encouraging people, of any age, to find and follow their true authentic selves, regardless of acceptance or approval of others.


Did you feel a sense of obligation to do this, since your own journey in finding your own voice that could potentially help others?

Megan: I like to think of it as a calling. My spirit is leading me to help other people find their own voice and step outside our culture’s narrow box of what’s considered normal. It’s not surprising that I resonate with LGBT people since that’s exactly what they’ve had to go through. I sing in Nashville’s LGBT choir, Nashville In Harmony. I’m constantly inspired by my colleagues and their confidence and courage as well as acceptance of everyone.

Have you learnt anything about yourself in doing it? Any moments that stand out in your mind?

Megan: I’m always learning about myself because, as an aspiring motivational, spiritual (non-religious) speaker, I am always looking inward and looking to my spirit and soul for guidance, since that’s the basis of what I ask my life coach clients and workshop students to do.

The idea self-empowerment carries over to your music, particularly on a song like ‘Do It Tonight’. It urges not to wait till tomorrow and to do what you want now. Has there ever been instances when you found yourself putting your life on hold?

Megan: Ha, yes. I have had a lot of fear in my life, like most of us, and was afraid to take steps toward what I felt in my heart I should do because society and others say it’s not the “logical” or “realistic” or even “feasible” thing to do. I’ve learned to not let other people be the GPS of my life. And, fear of failure is something that stops many people from even trying something. It’s fear that causes us to procrastinate. I have a blog post that details this theory – 

What do you want Scale Model to become? Have you got any goals you have in mind?

Megan: I just love writing music and performing it for people. Because I love the energy exchange I feel with the audience when there are a LOT of people, I’d love to be able to play in front of thousands of people some day.

Steve: I want to make music that I personally enjoy both playing and listening to. And I want to play that music for people and experience the awesome energy of playing live in front of a few hundred or more people. And I want this band to become a self-sustaining endeavor that gives us a part-time income. Anything beyond that is a bonus.


Star is available to buy now through their Bandcamp page. For more news and info about the band, visit their website


No Stone Unturned: An Interview with Nils Bech

Andrew Darley spoke with Nils Bech about his new album, One Year, and the startling honesty it contains.


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For his third record, Nils Bech embarked on writing music about the first year together with his partner. Following the accomplishment of his Look Inside record and performance pieces, his new work delves further into his blend of house and classical music. One Year is written based on the emotional “highlights” of that first year, divided into two sections ‘Before’ and ‘After’. The record contains lyrics on both the elation a relationship can bring us and the deepest insecurities it makes us face up to; capturing the momentum and deep impact universal feelings, such as shame and jealousy, can toll on us.

Andrew Darley talks with Nils about the courage it took to make this new record and how he feels that he is at his best when he is most honest.

One Year describes the first year of a relationship in two parts, ‘Before’ and ‘After’. The former explores the excitement and self-consciousness of finding love and the second is about the anxieties that having an intimate relationship can trigger in us. Did you feel you were putting yourself and your relationship under a microscope for this album?

I wouldn’t say a microscope; but something pretty close. I drew out the big lines from the first year of the relationship, but only from my point of view. I think it’s okay for me to put myself out there, that’s what I do as a singer, writing songs from my own life. But my boyfriend never signed up for a public diary.

One of your most recent projects was your performance piece for Look Inside. It incorporated voice, movement, music and text and you held these in museums and galleries around the world. Did you learn anything from this piece that you wanted to bring forward or explore more with this album? 

I realised that I am at my happiest as a performer when I am being completely honest – when I am open about who I am and what I feel. I feel so much stronger in doing that, than putting on an act.

Have you always seen music and dance sitting comfortably with contemporary art?

I never went to art school and ended up in the art scene partly because I have a lot of friends who are artists, who went to art school, and because I have my own conceptual thoughts about how to perform. So I don’t know that much about contemporary art, dance or even music actually.


The music on One Year is playful in its use of silence and space. There are moments of white noise, moments of stillness, sampling such as the sound of brushing your teeth, which are intertwined with your blend of electronic pop. In what way did you write, record and produce this album? 

I have always been drawn to both house music and contemporary music, so on my previous album, Look Inside, I wanted to explore the combination of these two genres, but within a pop context. For that album, I ended up working with the house duo Ost & Kjex and the composers Ole-Henrik Moe and Julian Skar. After Look Inside, I still felt that there was more to explore in this mash-up, so I asked them to join me again for One Year

When I realized that I wanted to make an album about the first year in my relationship I sat down and wrote down all the emotional ‘highlights’. I wanted to talk about all of the things that are difficult to address to other people, even to your partner. So I wrote ‘Shame’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘I Punish You’ and so on. Then I contacted the composers and the house duo asking them for a beat, a sound, a chain of chords and from that I started writing the songs. I met them in the studios and we played with different ideas and sounds; sometimes they worked with the instrumental parts without me and sent it to me. I also sent them examples of music I liked or found interesting. 

The lyrics examine the ugly side of relationships in an honest way; anxiety, paranoia, jealousy, resentment. You don’t sugarcoat them and there’s a directness as though you’re talking to the person in mind. Was making this album an intense experience for you?

It has been extremely difficult, but not because of the emotions in the songs. Those emotions I had worked through already. What was intense and difficult was to work with so many different composers, producers and musicians, and to make it all come together. At the end of the recording I really wished I played in a band.

I’d like to ask you about particular songs on the album. ‘Shame’ questions and imagines how your partner thinks about your performances and creativity. I found it quite brave to be a musician and sing about your uncertainties, almost disbelief, about yourself as an artist. Are you generally concerned about how people respond to your work?

Thank you. For me singing has always been about  believing in what I am singing. And I realised when I started my solo-project that for me that meant making songs about emotions that I found difficult to deal with. I find the part where I have to admit to myself what’s troubling me the most difficult part, then when I write the song I have already in a way moved on and accepted the emotion.  I’m not that concerned about how people react to my albums, much more to how they respond to me as a performer. I found it extremely personal and then also emotional to sing, so I push myself as far as possible when it comes to going back to the emotion in the song, and it’s only until recently that I don’t feel ashamed about how I present myself on stage.


 Photograph © Tove Sivertsen

‘That Girl’ stood out for me too as it exposes your feelings about your partner meeting an old female lover, especially the line “I’ve been through this before and it broke my heart”. Do you think this album may express certain feelings that we typically are afraid or refuse to admit?

Yes, my last album was about a break up, and heartache is in a way an easy emotion to put out there. On One Year, I definitely wanted to sing about emotions that aren’t that easy to talk about. For example, that your boyfriend is friends with his ex-female lover. I’ve dated someone who went back to his girlfriend when I was in my mid 20’s and it broke my heart as I sing in the song. I have never been sexually attracted to girls, and it was very difficult for him to come out – he had a Christian upbringing. So for me this ex lover represented a choice: If you can be turned on by women, why the hell do you want to be with me? And that says a lot about how strongly I felt about being gay. 

Has the person that this album is about heard it? What was his reaction?

Yes he has, we are still together and it’s going really well!  When I told him that I wanted to make an album about the first year in our relationship, we both agreed that it should only be told from my side. It would be terribly wrong if I made a lot of accusations towards him, such as “you said this and you did that and that why I ended up saying and doing this and that“. I also showed him all of the lyrics before I recorded them. I understand why I’ve made this album. He thinks the album is great and that’s extremely important to me.

Going back to your beginning, I read that you started performing at a very young age in a Salvation Army base and would put on shows for your grandmother and her friends. Have you always had a desire or need to perform? 

Yes, as a kid constantly. My happiest childhood memory is when I played in Oliver Twist.


In your interview with Butt Magazine, you mentioned how the gay scene in Oslo was very small with only two bars. What was your experience of growing up gay? Did you feel like an outsider where you grew up? 

Yes, I did. I didn’t even grow up in Oslo. I’m from a small village one and a half hours from Oslo. I got bullied a lot for being feminine. 

Did you ever have any reservations about becoming an artist? Or ever contemplate getting a typical job or stay in education? 

No, I feel that I never had a choice, I’ve always known that I have to sing. But when I realised in my early twenties that I didn’t want to make classical music it took me many years to figure out what kind of a singer and musician I wanted to be.

The album cover is an image of you with your face painted in blue, almost like a tribe-person or in an animalistic way. Can you expand on it’s significance, as I know it follows through into the video for ‘I Punish You’?

The mask is painted by one of my closest friends, the artist Ida Ekblad, and for me it represents how I often felt during the period the album is about. I thought I had to act in a certain way for him to love me, so I tried to put on a mask. Yet every time I got drunk the truth came out in anger.

Acknowledging the layers to your music and performances, would you say that you have a close eye to detail and need to be in control?

In a way, but I also like to be challenged, to step out of my comfort zone. That’s why I work with musicians and artist that are doing things I really like, but at the same time is challenging to me. For example I’ve worked with the house duo Ost & Kjex and the modern composers Julian Skar and Ole-Henrik Moe, but I don’t listen to house music or contemporary music.

With each album and project you’ve made, have you ever felt overwhelmed by a concept or as though a project has become something bigger than you?

Yes, this album started as a commissioned piece for the contemporary music festival Ultima. When I make an album the deadlines get changed all the time, but on this piece the date was set and I knew there where no way back. I found it very stressful to be creative under a deadline.


 Photographs © Tove Sivertsen / Anne Valstad Erichsen

Since your approach is multi-faceted and diverse in combining art, music and dance; has there been any people you look to for assurance about following your own artistic path?

I look to my closest friends and my boyfriend.

There’s a theme running through the album of how we hurt the ones we love out of a fear of rejection or possible future pain. Have you thought about why we do that as people?

I think past experience turns into anger or defence when you are afraid of being hurt. For example, jealousy is an emotion that often is related to another emotion or a past experience, and that you often project without meaning to be unkind or speak unkindly of someone.

What’s the thing that excites you most about this album and its release?

That I feel stronger than I did before making the album. It’s strange maybe, but when I’m open about it, I always have been ashamed of being a feminine man – but I don’t feel that ashamed any more. I have always been attracted by all kinds of men, but because of the bullying in my childhood I never thought it was ok for me to be a feminine man, or it was like my intellect knew it, but my heart didn’t believe it.

One Year is out now through Fysisk Format. For more information and news about Nils Bech, visit his official website here.

Master Storyteller • Sébastien Lifshitz

Sébastien Lifshitz’s films explore a rich and unexpected side of gay life. Michael Langan talks to him about his recent documentary works, Les Invisibles and Bambi.


    Photo © Olivier Roller  (Click images to enlarge)

Sébastien Lifshitz makes highly accomplished films that combine complex storytelling, nuanced performances, and luminous cinematography. In his documentaries and his feature films relationships are at the heart, as they are in so many of our lives. Certain elements recur; sick mothers cared for by their children, absent fathers, the restorative sanctuary of a rural landscape and the curative power of our relationships with animals. Often, the films end with a quiet sense of hope that is affecting and unsentimental.

Lifshitz has won two Teddy Awards at the Berlin Film Festival, one for his documentary Bambi (2013), which tells the story of a famous Parisian transsexual cabaret artiste, and one for his feature film Wild Side (2004), a delicately rendered story of a transgender woman sex-worker who, having made a family for herself with two men, is brought back to her childhood, and her boyhood, when she goes home to look after her dying mother. His breakthrough movie, Presque Rien (2000), combines the well-established trope of teenage holiday romance, with much darker emotional substance, creating a depth and subtlety that so much LGBT film making lacks.

His latest documentary, Les Invisibles, documents queer lives from an older generation and was accompanied by a the publication of a book of photographs taken from the archive Lifshitz has been collecting since he was himself a boy. The photos show people playing with gender identity and sexuality in a way that bucks our received ideas of what gay lives were like in the past. I spoke to him at the Fringe! Film Festival, where he presented Bambi, about his recent documentaries.

You seem to have made a conscious decision to tell the stories of older generations, those who were on the front line of the fight to generate a queer visibility.

For a long time I thought everyone knew all these stories of gay history and what people went through. Then I realised, by speaking with younger people, that they didn’t really know how it was before and I was amazed to discover that they didn’t really care. They live in the present – digital technology and the internet mean that they’re very focused on the now – but memory and history are so important because you need to understand that the way you live today comes from another story. People went through a lot of battles – intimate, private battles too – and these stories need to be told. Nothing is forever. In France we say that we need to be the ‘watchmen’ – les veilleurs – to keep an eye on everything because it can all change, and not for the better.


I wondered how your documentaries fitted into the context of recent debates in France around the gay marriage issue. Lots of people were quite surprised at the extent of the opposition to it.

The process of making Bambi and Les Invisibles began a long time before those debates. When the protests happened I must admit I was not so surprised because when I was doing my research for Les Invisibles I realised that a lot of these people have what I would call a very ‘classical’ education, that’s to say a very Catholic education. Even if they are no longer religious their background comes from something very religious – school, the family, everything around them. It was very difficult to talk about sex, or private things, even within families, and it was certainly impolite to talk about identity. At the same time we are meant to be very liberated, but there’s still a fight between the conservatives and the progressives. In France the protests against gay marriage seemed huge but were not so big in terms of the general population. For me it was interesting because France is a mature, free country and they could say what they think, so it became a kind of Republican debate, which is important – you need to listen to everybody in a democracy. Society is not a simple division between good and bad. Some gay people are very conservative, and homophobic. It’s very complex. 

In Les Invisibles there’s a lovely moment where, in a newsreel showing a demonstration about abortion rights, a journalists asks some older, very conservative looking women in the crowd what they think and they all voice support for the demonstrators. They say the opposite of what you think they’re going to say. In Bambi, you have the generation before that, in the forties and fifties, where in another archive newsreel they’re talked about as monstrosities. It’s shocking and brings home to you the complexity of…

…of the context…

…of the context, yes, but also how people felt in terms of themselves. You can believe yourself to be a monster if you’re told it often enough. You have to fight it, internally, in order to reveal yourself to yourself as something that is not monstrous.

But in the case of Bambi there’s something very important, which is her character – she has such a strong mind and is very free. It is curious and surprising to me because she had a very traditional education in a small village in Algeria, in a poor environment, and still she’s this amazing, free-spirited woman. It’s easy to look back now and say, oh you were so cool, so free, but it was not a cool period at all. Her life was cocooned by the cabaret world, which afforded a kind of protection, though there was not a lot of money and the police would really harass them. But Bambi was always very beautiful and ‘credible’ as woman. When she was in the street she never had a problem from the police because no one imagined she was a man, but that was not the case for all of the transsexuals. For me, the transsexual aspect of her life is not the only thing I love, I love also the freedom she afforded herself to fall in love with a woman. She thought she was going to be a woman living with a man and she ended up with a life that was very different from that.


Both Bambi and Les Invisibles are very ‘classically’ made and beautifully edited. The subjects talk directly to camera, for quite a while at times, and we don’t hear the questions asked but you’re obviously able to draw wonderful stories out of them.

I was looking for what I would call a very pure form, something very minimalist, because I feel simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve. I watched a lot of documentaries before making these two. I don’t like documentaries where the aesthetic is very fragmented, and with fast edits where you use different subjects to say the same thing. That’s a manipulation because it creates the idea that there is only one story, that these people all had the same destiny, the same life – and it’s not true. Each life is unique and you have to show the complexity of history, not just as told by the big figures. If you want to be more precise and accurate you have to go into people’s lives to show that it was more complex, that there was not only one way of thinking. In Les Invisibles, you have a group of people who are telling their stories and each is different, so you can’t talk about a gay destiny, or history, as if they all went through the same thing. This means that, to be yourself, to feel that you’re free, to have a deep relationship with your desires and an understanding of who you are, is different for everyone. It can take a whole life to achieve this.

It still seems to be the case that, with gay narratives, stories are representative, symbolic. We’re still not individuals with individual stories, but have to represent a gay community and a gay history. 

Yes, and the gay community used these dramatic testimonies for political purposes, to protest and say we come suffering and injustice, and it was always built on pain. I’m a collector of old photographs and I found a lot of pictures of gay people in intimate situations and they often look quite happy. Of course people want to look happy in photos but you could suppose from the pictures that it was not such a struggle to be who they were. I started to believe that maybe gay history is much more complex than we had previously thought.


Les Invisibles seems to really work towards this complexity, even within that pure, minimalist formalism, because the subjects are really quite different, with different opinions, different experiences and identities.

The basis of my aesthetic is making one long shot with no cuts, which gives a sense that the people talking, and their words, are not manipulated by the editing. You feel that the words are true and the relationship built with the audience is strong because the words are really respected in a way, by not being cut.

I was very struck by another aspect of your work, which is the relationship to nature and animals in all of your films. Do you think of nature as a potential sanctuary, where people can live how they want? A lot of the people in Les Invisibles find a place in rural communities, and you shoot the pastoral landscape beautifully.

I wanted to avoid the cliché that gay people all live in big cities, places that are supposed to be more tolerant, and the reality is not like that. I love people telling stories but I didn’t want only people talking into the camera. I wanted to use other things to express who these people are, to find a cinematic way to tell their stories – using their homes, interiors, the animals they live with – and nature was something very obvious in their lives. I love the dialogue between people and nature. Nature is essential and fascinating and I feel you have to learn how to look at it. The way you are connected to it, or not, can say a lot about you because it’s about your capacity to look all around you. I lot of gay people live in the countryside, in very isolated places, which surprises many of us, and I was looking also for this kind of person because, in terms of class and location, I wanted diversity.


I know you have a background in art history and that also seems to feed into your work, with your the use of landscape, light and colour.

Yes, I studied history of art and the history of photography and my head is full of images, that’s for sure. I’m not trying to be influenced by, or copy, anyone, but I do like to be fed. Both paintings and photography have helped me to create emotions while trying to find my aesthetic. Cinema has its own language and I’m finding my way of speaking.

Both Bambi, and the subjects in Les Invisibles, have spent their lives either campaigning, or struggling personally, but are all, ultimately, human beings who simply want to love and want to give love.

It really brings home to me that there is not such thing as fate – that you have your destiny in your hands. Even if you come from the worst environment you can save yourself. It’s not easy, it can take a lifetime, but you’re not always suffering, or in pain. A life can be transformed by your own energy, your own desire and volition. Even if everything is against you, you can find the means.

Gravity Of Emotion: An Interview with She Keeps Bees

Andrew Darley spoke with Jess Larrabee of She Keeps Bees about their new album, Eight Houses, and the old-age emotions and history it channels.


 (Click images to enlarge)

She Keeps Bees dig through history on their new record, Eight Houses. The duo, consisting of Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant, have carved out their own blues rock since first joining creative forces and have potentially made their most realised and direct record so far. Eight Houses is executed with a definite, embracive energy. The ten winding songs are distinguished by an air of comprised chaos, which ruptures in anguish from moments of silence. Whilst writing the album they were taken by the injustices of the past. Its music and lyrics parallel personal battles and historical events in a way that explores the sense of self and what happens when its threatened. Andrew Darley spoke with Jessica Larrabee about the balance of rage and restraint that lies at the heart of their new work and the healing powers found in music.

Eight Houses is your fourth album together as a band. Has your trust with each other changed since the first album?

We have always supported each other with our artistic intentions. I think with each year we continue to grow together. A deeper trust allows us to exchange ideas with ease. I feel very blessed to have Andy – he is an incredible musician on all fronts. He supports the song completely with no ego. He also has impeccable taste in music.  

Did you feel a desire challenge or push yourselves on this album?

Yes, when we decided to use a studio many serendipitous things happened. We knew we had found the right place to record when we met Nicolas. He had a very relaxed confident energy that Andy and I responded to right away. He stretched us – helped break down songs and build them back up. We definitely carved this album and took our time assembling the songs for it to speak as a whole. 


The album deals with personal battles and also historical events such as the forced assimilation of Native Americans and other figures and events. Did you go in with the intention of exploring historical moments or did it happen organically?

While driving across the States for a tour I was struck by how long the drives were; it puts you in a meditative state. I started reading different accounts of American history. The more I read, the more I felt it was a universal story of “progress”.  The Western world surrounding indigenous people – taking their natural resources, destroying their sense of self through assimilation.

Did you feel emotionally connected to these historical moments?

Yes, the more we confront our history and the dark truths, the more compassion, understanding and healing can occur. 

Can you tell me about your songwriting process together? I can imagine it’s quite an intimate process. 

I have journals and try to write all the time. I do enjoy being alone when writing with the guitar. I found myself in the laundry room for most of these songs. The emotions are gathered and I try to find the chords that speak with them. It is important for me to be aware of the waves of inspiration. It is all the rhythm of your own personal creative flow. If it’s present, I make time and listen. If it seems like I’m labouring, then it’s not the right time to be creating. I find something else to work on.  

The album artwork is quite a striking and textured image, can you tell me more about it?

We bought an old family photo album at a thrift store in Wisconsin. We love the idea of taking the old and forgotten and giving it a new life. Our dear friend Romain Barbot assembled the artwork for this album. We are so honored to work with him. With each batch of pictures you watch the girl with the bubblegum grow up. It’s really beautiful.  


Sonically, the music plays with the idea of restraint. There are very quiet and muted moments with bursts of emotion and pain. Did you feel an intensity whilst making this record?

Absolutely. We felt very exposed. It has always been just the two of us creating and recording our albums, so to have multiple people there with opinions – at times I didn’t know how to handle the pressure I was putting on myself. Wrestled with a lot of self-doubt.  We were on time constraints as well, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. I’m glad you can hear the intensity – good use of my anxiety!

Also, in terms of vocals, did you want to experiment with your voice or have an idea of how you wanted to communicate the song’s message?

It was different. There was more of a live energy because I had a couple of people to sing in front of. It is a nerve-racking thing if you don’t nail it within a couple of takes. That sends me into a spiral of doubt. Overall this is most open I’ve ever been regarding vocals. We left little squeaks and raw notes to hold the entire take’s energy. Sometimes I can be guilty of nitpicking my vocals which can deaden the way I deliver. 

There’s a lot of pain and anger threading through the whole album. The lyrics in ‘Wasichu’ really stood out for me getting across that feeling of being oppressed or undermined on a very deep level. Were some of the songs difficult to write on a personal level?

I wanted to be a channel for it. I wanted the listener to hear these painful realities spoken to them. So much pain leaves a mark on all our psyches. Release is essential and I find music can be a vessel for that message to resonate and reveal. On a personal level I am hurt by my country’s continued ignorance of this suffering.  I was born in Washington DC and I’m appalled and ashamed that our football team still uses the name it does, it’s totally inappropriate and makes me crazy with anger.  

Was there a feeling of release once you had these songs written or recorded? Is making music cathartic for you?

Yes it was a birth. I want to be a healer so with that comes letting go in the end. The creation should have it’s own life which can be hard to detach after you’ve been so close to it.  I feel singing and playing live is cathartic for sure. I am grateful to connect on that level and release my own toxins and allow the audience to release theirs. Together I hope our energy is heightened.


The album ends in a somewhat unexpected way with ‘Is What It Is’. It has this life-affirming lyric “I am worthy, You are worthy” which feels like an antidote to al the turmoil of the songs before. Can you tell me about that song? Did you know this was how you wanted to close out the album?

We didn’t think that would be the last song but a friend suggested it and it all made sense; when the weight of a situation leads to obsessive actions – do not to give your authority away.  We are all worthy, even if it sounds hokey.  It can feel like society is only interested in keeping us fearful.  Small reminders to see the healing in the trials or the lesson would be lost. Honour the gravity of the emotion but do not be consumed. Be open to receive the message in the moment.

Sharon Van Etten also sings on the song. What was it like working with her? How did the collaboration come about?

She is such a beautiful, supportive friend. Her energy is naturally healing and it gave me strength and confidence as one of the first people to hear the new songs. We used to be neighbors in Brooklyn and would work on songs together. Her voice releases poison, I always feel better after listening to her songs.  

What has it been like to play these new songs live?

We have loved it. We have played our older songs for the last 6 years. It is a lesson in restraint because some of the new songs are not as intense.  I have to work on realigning my energy to keep the mood delicate. Working with our new guitarist Adam has been awesome, he understands what the songs need live.  We feel very blessed to have found him.  

Would you say that the arc of Eight Houses is about the sense of self and the emotions we feel when it’s threatened or under attack?

It is the journey I’ve been on and so I hope it is helpful to others. Some people would have us believe there is no solution; nothing to redeem us. I want to help people to vibrate higher and be immune to the low frequency distractions. Love and music are the true redeemers. 

I know it’s early days yet, but have you considered where you want to musically go next?

We’re pretty open to whatever may come next, but we’re in touring mode right now so it’s hard to say.  

Finally, what is it like to stand over the record now that it’s out in the world and people can hear it? Are you proud of this album?

Yes we are. It’s beautiful to feel proud especially of the collaborations with magical friends, Molly Donahue of Metal Alvin, Adam Schatz of Landlady and of course Sharon.  We’re very grateful for the team of people helping us who have made it available to a wider audience than we’ve every had.  

Eight Houses is out now through BB*Island. To buy the album or for more information about She Keeps Bees, visit their official website here.

Catherine Hall: In Conversation

Catherine Hall’s third novel, The Repercussions, is a brave and ambitious work that examines the legacy of war. Laura Macdougall talks to her about her fascination with writing about times of war, and how queer life is represented in contemporary fiction.


    (Click images to enlarge)

The Repercussions, the third novel from award-winning writer Catherine Hall, is set in Brighton, partly in the present-day and partly during the First World War. When war photographer Jo returns home to England from Afghanistan, she takes up residence in the seaside town because she’s inherited a flat left to her by her Great-Aunt Edith. As Jo tries to recuperate and nurse her wounds – the physical and psychological legacy of the trauma of war – she comes across the diary written by her great-grandmother, Elizabeth, kept while she was working as a nurse in the Brighton Pavilion in 1915. More than a million Indian soldiers fought for Britain during the conflict, and the wounded began arriving in Britain in Christmas 1914. Like Jo, Elizabeth is a young woman trying to make her way in a world torn apart by war and full of tension; between races, classes and sexes. As Jo immerses herself in Elizabeth’s story she is forced to confront her own past, not just the horrors of the many conflicts she’s witnessed, but also her relationship with her ex-girlfriend, Susie.

The Repercussions is a brave and ambitious novel that examines the legacy of war, not just on those who fought but also those who were left behind. It also asks important questions about the role of women in society, not just our own, and is an interesting examination of photography, the media, and propaganda. Lastly, The Repercussions is a book about love and the deepest of friendships that can develop in the most unexpected of circumstances.

Having been a fan of Catherine’s writing since her debut novel, Days of Grace, was published in 2010, I was excited to be able to speak to her in more detail about The Repercussions. A week before I had attended an event at Gay’s The Word bookshop in London, where Catherine read an excerpt from her novel and answered some questions about it. Catherine’s comments about being inspired by the past and about her charity work that involved travelling to areas particularly affected by war had stayed with me, and I was keen to find out more about how they have influenced her writing.

Days of Grace was set in the 1970s and your two other novels have a more obviously historical focus. What is it about the past that fascinates you? 

I suppose what I’m really interested in is how the past informs the present. My first book, Days of Grace, and this new one, The Repercussions, both have a split time frame between the present and the past, and explore the theme of consequences. I’m very interested in how human beings fundamentally remain the same as time passes. Human nature doesn’t change even if our surroundings do. I suppose also I like the challenge of writing about the past. I like the research process, I like going into another world. I find it more challenging to write about the present day, partly because I find it harder to make it believable. The present-day sections in Days of Grace and The Repercussions were much more difficult to write because I had to represent a reality that people would recognise and might find quite banal unless I could manage to write about it in a way that would make them want to read about it.

How did you approach the research for your novel? It sounds like quite a daunting task, covering both the First World War and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as well as the life of a contemporary war photographer.

The research for this book was massive. I couldn’t go to Afghanistan because I had a six-month-old baby when I started work on it so I had two challenges: researching World War One and researching Kabul. For both, I read many history books but also went back to original sources. For the World War One sections I read a lot of diaries, written by ordinary people left at home, as well as officers at the Front; letters from the Indian soldiers to their families – because they were censored they were all translated into English, which was helpful; and newspapers from the time. I looked at collections of photographs, including postcards that were made of the Indian soldiers by the Brighton Corporation. I read the private papers of the officer in charge of the Pavilion Hospital. I also read a lot of literature that people would have been reading at the time, to set myself in the language, like the war poets, as well as Kipling and Virginia Woolf. I was very lucky in that the British Library has an enormous India Office collection which was very helpful for researching the Indian sections of the book, and the Imperial War Museum has excellent archives on the war for all the little details that you really have to get right. The Imperial War Museum was also helpful for my research into war photography. There happened to be a series of talks on war photography when I was just at the start of my research, so I went along to try and get a feel for what kind of person might take on that kind of job. The Frontline Club in Paddington was good for that too, with its talks on journalism and war. I watched films about women war photographers and read books on the psychology of people who report on war, and the effect of it on their mental health.

For the parts of the book set in Afghanistan, I began by talking to people. I was amazed at how I could put out a message on Facebook asking, ‘Does anyone know what the airport looks like in Kabul?’ and very quickly be given contacts who could help. I spent hours on Skype talking to people who lived and worked there, asking questions on broader subjects but also tiny details like the menu of a particular café. For a book that questions the veracity of photographs, it was ironic how long I spent on the internet, looking at pictures of Afghanistan taken by professional photographers in books, amateur snaps on Flickr, home videos on YouTube. I read blogs from people stationed there, from soldiers to NGO workers to journalists. And then, of course, I went to Brighton, many times, hanging out and soaking up the atmosphere, going to the memorial service held once a year for the Indian soldiers at their old cremation ground up on the South Downs, visiting a graveyard to get the detail right for when Jo goes to visit Edith’s grave. So yes, you could say the process was exhaustive!


Was The Repercussions difficult to write from a structural point of view? How did you approach negotiating the balance between the past and present narratives?

It wasn’t easy! First there was the question of making sure that each voice was sufficiently distinctive. Then came trying to make sure each narrative was compelling in its own right, and that they informed each other. Trying to make sure that they intertwined without being too obvious was really tricky. It’s a hard one to pull off – you run the risk of people liking one voice more than the other (certainly some of the editors at the many publishers who turned it down felt that way) and of having two flimsy narratives instead of one solid one, but I like the way it turned out in the end. 

While Elizabeth’s sections are told in the form of a diary, Jo’s story unfolds in the form of a letter to her ex-girlfriend, Susie. Was this the way you had envisaged telling the story from the very beginning?

Originally it was much more of an epistolary novel. Jo’s sections were told in the form of emails with times, dates and subject matters. I wanted the immediacy and intimacy that you get from writing to someone directly. But I was steered away from it by various people who thought it didn’t quite work, partly because it raised the question of why Susie never wrote back. The way it’s told now is sort of like a letter but less directly so, which I think is why it works.

At a recent event at Gay’s The Word, you spoke about how your previous career in peace building organisations had informed your writing, and this novel in particular. Can you describe how your experience of travelling to conflict zones has affected your books?

The odd thing is that when I was writing The Repercussions I forgot that I’d already written a book about war (Days of Grace, which was set during World War Two). I hadn’t realised that war was so deeply ingrained in my consciousness It was only when I came to put together talks about the book for various events that I realised why I’d done it.

Looking back, it became clear that I’d been thinking about war for years. I used to make documentaries about developing countries, and there was always the question of how to tell other people’s stories, and whether you could ever get it right. Then later on, I got a job at an international peace building organisation. I was in charge of communications, and that meant trying to work out how to talk about complicated conflict situations in a way that people could understand. This got me interested in how we talk about war, how the messages that we see on the news are never all the story, and the politics of how to get people’s attention. 

In 2003 I took a trip to Rwanda and the Congo with a photographer to talk to people involved in those terrible conflicts and to take photographs that we could use for our communications work. First we went to the Congo and talked to rape victims, from a little girl of six to a grandmother of seventy-five. Then we went to a school in Rwanda where hundreds of people had been massacred, which is now a memorial. I saw twenty-five classrooms full of skeletons and partially preserved bodies, some with the wire that had bound their wrists behind their backs intact, others with babies still tied to their backs with pieces of cloth. 

I was profoundly affected by that trip. For months I felt a sense of nausea, and had terrible nightmares. The photographer I was with had been there last just after the genocide and she was still traumatised. I began to wonder what it must be like for a war photographer, who sees more wars, and even more close up, than most soldiers. And that was where the idea for Jo, my war photographer in The Repercussions, came from. But those experiences fed into the writing of Days of Grace, too. I guess I’m interested in the way that war creates situations that wouldn’t happen in other contexts. Emotions are heightened. Things happen, not only during the war, but after the fighting is over. The consequences last for generations. I think that became clear in my own experience when I went into therapy as a way of dealing with what I saw on that trip to Africa. 

Catherine Hall

You recently mentioned that your novels never really feel ‘finished’, even when they’re published. Do you enjoy the editing process, and do you think you will ever reach a stage where a novel of yours feels ‘done’?

I edit many times, going over drafts again and again. The process is always a bit of a mixed bag. In some ways I love it, because it’s the chance to make the book as good as it can be, really getting down to it and considering every word, and how they flow on the page. Having said that, it’s usually quite painful as the bits that don’t work really jump out at you, and you have to figure out what to keep and what not. I cut 60,000 words from this book. As for knowing when a novel’s finished, I never really think it is – even once it’s published, if I read it again, I start thinking ‘oh no, that bit’s wrong, why did I do it like that, wouldn’t it be much better like this?’ But given that I know that’s going to happen, I’ve got much better at reaching a point where I just think, ‘Ok, that’s enough; it’s got to go to print’. Usually by that point I’m pretty sick of it! Once a novel is published, I sort of let it go, and don’t think about it that much, because I’m usually wanting to get on with the next. 

At the Gay’s The Word event, one of the questions raised was about the author’s own voice, and to what extent that can inform a novel. Are you able to describe what it’s like when you’re writing and whether or not you’re aware or conscious of how your own opinions on such issues as women, feminism, racism and sexuality might be intelligible to the reader?

It’s difficult not to let my own opinions and feelings come through, particularly when that concerns issues that are very important to me, such as sexuality or gender. But a novel isn’t an essay or a speech! I’ve had to learn not to try and make points. You have to always bring things back to the characters and look at it through the lens of how they would feel or behave. They should never be a mouthpiece for your own opinions. If someone makes me aware that I’m doing that, then I’m very happy to cut or edit those parts. The main thing is always the story.

Racism is an important theme in The Repercussions. How far do you feel we’ve come as a society since the First World War? Do you feel we’ve made progress, or have we just exchanged one prejudice for another?

I wanted to look at the complicated history between India and Britain, and the tensions, especially connected with class. Hari, the Indian doctor who’s been studying at Oxford has a tendency to rile the authorities because he won’t be subservient, and is therefore seen as ‘getting above himself’. It was all very well, it seemed, to use uneducated Indians as cannon fodder in the trenches but quite another to have an educated Indian doing the work of a doctor. There was also a deep-seated fear of interracial relationships – the military authorities were terrified of sexual contact between the Indians and white women, and went to great lengths to prevent it. I’m not sure how far we’ve come as a society. On the surface there is much more equality, but there’s still a suspicion of mixed-race relationships, I think, and the politics surrounding immigration are suffused with racist thinking. In some ways, the racism in the book was a metaphor for homophobia, which is another prejudice that on the surface might seem to have abated a bit, but is definitely still alive and kicking in many parts of the UK today.

How do you feel about the term ‘lesbian writer’ and has it ever been applied to you? How do you feel about being asked to use your sexuality to promote your work?

When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer – the sexuality part of things isn’t important at that point. But people, especially when promoting, like to have hooks and things that put people in categories. I don’t mind being called a lesbian writer sometimes, and at others simply as a writer. Partly this is because I think that there still aren’t that many lesbian role models out there. It’s a lot better than it was, but we’re still way behind the men in terms of visibility. And certainly when I was young, I’d have loved to have been able to look at someone in the public eye and know they were gay, and they’d achieved something. I think it’s important to stand up and be counted. 


Is it important to you to represent queer life in your fiction? If so, why, and how do you go about it?

It’s always been important to me to represent queer life in my fiction. That’s partly because when I was growing up (in a very remote valley in the Lake District without television or the Internet, which hadn’t even been invented), books were the only way I could find out about anything gay. I don’t think I was the only one, either. I think fiction has always been a massively important medium for gay people to explore different ways of being, of different possibilities. I also think it’s important to represent queer life for non-queer readers. One of the most interesting developments I’ve noted recently is the change in queer literature, which has gone from mostly coming-out stories to all kinds of stories. The Repercussions isn’t about Jo being gay. It’s about relationships and the challenges of war – she just happens to be a lesbian. I think when queer life becomes part of the mainstream in literature then we’ll have come a long way. Having said that, it’s a lot harder to get published if you’re writing about queer characters. I’m having to think very seriously about whether my main character in the next book will be a lesbian or not. If she isn’t, there’ll still be a queer element to it, that’ll always be part of my books.

You won the Green Carnation Prize for your second novel, The Proof of Love. What is your opinion of literary prizes?

Well, the main point of prizes is publicity – and free publicity. There are thousands of books published every year and it’s really difficult to get them known about. So prizes – any prize – mean that people hear about your book, and are more likely to buy it, and that has to be good for writers. I mention free publicity because that’s important – it costs a lot to get books promoted by the big bookshops and places like Amazon, and publishers have to decide which books to invest in the most. Smaller, less well-known writers are unlikely to get those promotions, and so the free publicity that comes with a prize is really helpful.

Prizes like the Green Carnation bring out books from, for example, the gay and lesbian section of a bookshop and get them onto those main tables, where people who don’t necessarily identify as queer will see them and perhaps pick them up and buy them.

True, it’s a niche. But so are most prizes. They all have their criteria, whether they are gender-based or age-based or genre-based. In a time when ‘gay’ is still one of the worst insults in the playground, a prize where openly LGBT authors are afforded recognition sends a message either to young people – or indeed to anyone – that gay people do good things, and that, I think, is still important.

For more information about Catherine Hall and her novels, visit her website at


Interview with Ron Peck

Ron Peck is a legend in this history of queer cinema. Michael Langan talked to him at Queer Lisboa 18, which featured a retrospective of his work, about his diverse body of work.


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Ron Peck has been making films for 40 years. After moving to London he attended the UK’s first film school where he developed his early interest in American independent films and European cinema and the avant-garde, wanting to experiment with cinematic form and narrative technique. Distinctly uninspired by British film and television, wedded as it was then to a social realism that he felt restricted film making, he strove to find his own cinematic voice and style. Nighthawks, from 1978, told the story of a teacher who trawls London’s gay bars and clubs at night. The film was hailed as a landmark gay movie and caused controversy in the British press when it was shown on Channel 4, giving rise to the usual tabloid hysteria.

He has also made a number of documentaries and worked with the documentary essay form in Edward Hopper (1980) and Strip Jack Naked (1991), an experimental, autobiographical film which tells his story about growing up in the ’70s and the ’80s London, as well as the making of Nighthawks. With the feature films Empire State (1987) and Real Money (1995), he explored the criminal world of East London in the context of Britain’s rapidly changing economy, while Fighters (1991) documents the lives and milieu of the East End boxing scene.

Following these films he was involved in setting up a digital production studio in East London, where he has lived since 1974, and there helped the production of some 300 films. With Cross-Channel (2009), he returned to his own filmmaking, using simple new technology. The projects he is currently working on, set in Russia and Ukraine, Switzerland, and once again between England and France, continue his interest in exploring a world beyond the borders of his own country. Unashamedly independent, his films have often been seen as challenging in subject matter, attitude and style and he is particularly known for his work with young non-professionals, his improvisatory method and his uncompromising vision. I spoke to Ron Peck at this year’s Queer Lisboa, which included as part of its programme a substantial retrospective of his work.

Is this your first complete retrospective?

It’s complete in terms of full-length films, which is six in total, and it’s the first time they’ve all played together. Probably the films I’ve done have reached different audiences. There are the films I’ve made around East London, particularly the two on boxing, while Cross Channel is more of an art movie, for want of a better term, because it’s playing with narrative in a more sophisticated way. Nighthawks, Strip Jack Naked and Empire State have generally reached a gay audience, so I’ll be interested to see how the films that have not been presented as gay films, will be read here in a queer film festival.

How do you feel about this idea of a career ‘overview’?

Well it’s quite odd because it has you reflecting on yourself. I’ve just submitted a new script for possible finance and we’ll see if it happens, and I have two other projects on the go, so it’s a point at which to take stock of work so far, but I certainly hope to get more done.


Empire State, 1987

I immediately think of a gay man making a film about boxers and there being an inherent homoeroticism in that, and, to a lesser extent, the way that East End working class culture has been homo-eroticised in the past. Was that in your mind when you were making the movies, or is it just there?

Oddly enough, it wasn’t when I initially started making the movies, because my introduction to boxing came by chance. Empire State was a film that was about a lot of characters, and made at a time when many changes were happening in Britain, after Thatcher, and the original idea was to have a footballer. Then I saw a play – and I don’t go to theatre very much – because I was incredibly taken by this image of a boxer’s face on the poster. I was electrified by the use of real boxers on stage and arranged to meet the main one who had just retired from fighting. He introduced me to boxing and I’d never been to a match before. I’m sure there was a homoerotic element to it but it wasn’t consciously at the forefront of my mind. I think, for me, the image of the fighter, with his fists up, was an image of defiance and standing up for oneself that was very individualistic.

Is that image of individual defiance in the fighter linked to class for you?

Well, my own background was very suburban – my father was working class, my mother more middle class. I went to university – the first in my family to do so – in Swansea, which was then a steel town and it widened my horizons considerably. Then I ended up by chance in East London because I went to the only film school that existed then, in Covent Garden, and four of us decided to form an association together to try to get work. We initially rented a couple of rooms under King’s Cross Station before one of us found an empty shop in Bethnal Green, and once I was there, I never left. I’ve been in East London since 1974 and at that time it felt like a different city. The gay places I went to there were very different from the ones in the centre – in Earl’s Court, which was the gay area then – so I was very aware of being in a different world and being very drawn to it. After Empire State I became much more interested in boxing and went to see boxing, and was introduced to people. It was then I realised what an incredible culture it was – it was the sport of East London and was really its own world.


Fighters, 1991

And when you were meeting these people and you were starting to make films about the boxing world, did they know about your other work and about your being gay?

The people I met initially certainly did and, interestingly, it wasn’t an issue at all. Some had seen Empire State, some had seen Nighthawks and we used to watch films together – I remember they particularly liked Paul Morrissey’s Trash, Fellini, and even Antonioni’s Passenger. I found them very open to trying things and what they got out of me was a curiosity for what there was outside of mainstream cinema.

Taking you right back, I’ve heard you say that, when you were a child, cinema was a real escape for you. So what are your first really vivid memories of films?

I can tell you precisely. My very first memory of the cinema with my family was of the last sequence of The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas – the funeral scene. That made quite an impression on me aged 7, and another film that had a huge impact on me at age 11 was Solomon and Sheba, with Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida. Looking at it again, asking myself what it was about that film, I realised it was this incredible sexual tension – and it was very well done – about whether Solomon should give in to his temptation. Lollobrigida was at her most beautiful and I couldn’t get it out of my head for ages. Up until 14 it was the epics – Ben Hur, Spartacus, all that kind of thing – they really took me out of the suburban world I was living in. At the same time, I was beginning to see, and recognise, certain filmmakers from television, and there was a very good film journal called Movie, which focused on American directors like Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller, and I really responded to those. Their American genre films seemed to be very intelligently put together and I remember seeing Juliette of the Spirits at 16, the first Fellini film I saw, which knocked me sideways and Blow Up, also. So I also began to explore European cinema.


Strip Jack Naked, 1991

And was this unusual at the time, to be so interested in these kind of films?

I often think of my experience – growing up in south London, going to college, teaching in a language school for a while, then, after I made Nighthawks having more opportunities to travel – that the world kept opening up for me, my horizons broadening. I found myself, like a lot of people, getting very impatient with British film, because of what was happening in Italy, France, Fassbender in Germany, and on the American independent scene – Morrissey, Cassavetes – there just wasn’t the equivalent of that. British cinema seemed to be much more regulated and connected to theatre and I wasn’t excited by it. Quite a bit later I saw Michael Powell’s films, and they were a revelation to me. You often forget Hitchcock was British and I also went back to look at his earlier work, which was as interesting as his later American films.

Being in my mid-forties, Channel 4 was incredibly important to me when I was a teenager – the red triangle was a badge telling you to watch something. What Channel 4 was doing when it started, the boundaries it was breaking, the films it was showing and making, all of it was very important. Did it feel as important for you as a filmmaker?

Yes, definitely. The BBC was so stolid – still seems so to me – but Channel 4 was so lively, so relevant. They had a slot called the Independent Film and Video Slot, which part-financed Empire State, which totally funded Fighters and developed a couple of other films that we weren’t able to make. But that was the place to go – it was also less mainstream than Film 4 and it was international. There were so few places that financed this kind of filmmaking that even people like Jean-Luc Godard were applying, so the competition was incredible. Then it was axed at more or less the same time that the BFI’s funding arm went and the Arts Council film department went, which was also quite innovative and supported filmmakers like myself. I made a film on Edward Hopper, funded by the Arts Council, as a result of Nighthawks, but all those places have gone. No one has got a handle yet on what the new BFI is interested in. Within television I don’t think there’s anywhere really, apart from a couple of documentary slots, that’s interested in exploring the medium, in innovating.


Nighthawks, 1978

All the filmmakers who excited me were in one way or another pushing the medium, including someone like Kubrick, who today is seen as quite mainstream but 2001 was so unconventional in how it told its story and I’m not sure you could get a film like that made these days. There must have been more surplus finance around for gambling with projects, and there was also strong state subsidy. Nighthawks was only possible because German television provided the last bit of funding.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how queer cinema might be changing in response to shifts in social attitudes. When you were making Nighthawks, there was a personal and political manifesto involved in that film, which was very much about changing entrenched social attitudes. As we’ve seen a lot of changes, mainstream cinema is assimilating more gay characters and gay storylines into its films. People like yourself, Waters, Jarman et al, were concerned with breaking boundaries in terms of content and form – but all that energy seems to have dissipated.

There seems to be less interest in form, less knowledge of what other people have done with cinematic form. I don’t know what gay audiences today make of some of Jarman’s films, or of an Antonioni film. Is it too difficult, too taxing? I’d read somewhere that there was a showing of the reissue of 2001 in New York recently and the audience started chanting ‘Fast forward.’ I think it’s partly education. I would hope a festival like this one has such a mix to it – so many different films coming from different directions, different cultures, and with a historical sense – that people will try things and welcome being challenged, which is a big part of the pleasure of watching films for me. I want to be engaged by complexity of experience, the truthfulness of things, rather than escapism these days. I’ve been exploring the Greek filmmaker [Theodoros] Angelopoulos, who died a few years ago. His films are an incredible challenge to watch, and I think you’d struggle to find a full audience for them.

How would you describe what it is you have been trying to do with your films?

I suppose I try to find ways of finding a structure to express things that I see and feel, and that other people see and feel. I’m trying to understand different worlds and not just my own world – like the world of boxing, which is certainly not my world – and to explore the medium. I’m really interested in doing different things with narrative. cost. I can’t even really tell you how films begin. I’m learning all the time.

Into The Night: An Interview with Sleep Thieves

Andrew Darley spoke with Sorcha and Wayne of Sleep Thieves about how far they’ve come since their beginning, how they feel like a “new band” and what it means to them to make music.


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Sleep Thieves have released one of the most enchanting albums of this year. Releasing their first EP back in 2009, the Irish synthpop outfit have had a personnel change, in which co-founders Sorcha Brennan and Wayne Fahy recruited Keith Bryne, and have taken their time to develop their sound and identity. You Want The Night pulses with a new energy that showcases their growth as a band, and on which they craft sensual and brooding electronic music. It’s an ambitious debut from a band who are just in the first lap of their career together. Andrew Darley met with Sorcha and Wayne to talk about how far they’ve come since 2009 and the confidence they have found within themselves to make a mark of their own.

I was eager to talk you about this record as I categorically remember the moment I heard ‘City Lights’ single and being floored at how gorgeous it was. How do you feel the band have come along since this time?

Sorcha: I think we’ve had a natural progression in that me and Wayne became more confident in what we were doing and our abilities. After meeting Keith we formed the band as it is now. The three of us came together and we figured out what we wanted for ourselves in terms of what we were interested in and wanted to make.

Wayne: The dynamics of the band changed greatly when Keith joined; we are a different band. We drew a line under what we had done before and decided to have a new vibe, a new beginning. We started again, essentially.

When Keith joined the band, did you have a very unified vision of what you wanted to make as a collective?

Sorcha: To be honest, once he came on board, me and Wayne stepped up our game. If you have a new person, they have no expectations of what you should sound like or what your voice should do. When it came to doing vocals, and even performance-wise, it made us really confident having him as it was almost as if you had an audience. We connected really quickly and started writing soon after with a shared vision.

Where did the name Sleep Thieves come from?

Sorcha: When we chose the name I was reading The Importance of Being Idle because I was finding it really difficult to relax. We were desperately trying to find name at the time and wanted a name that was not of an era since we did not plan on being a short-lived band. We were flicking through books trying to get ideas and I happened to have this in my bag. In the footnotes there was a reference to an essay ‘Sleep Thieves’ by Stanley Coren. It seems to have fit the different types of music we’ve made to date, whether it’s dark and nightmarish or bouncy and pop.


You made a decision to record on your own terms and in your own houses. How did recording in this way shape the record?

Sorcha: Originally, we were going to record with a producer in a studio but there was a clash in our schedules. We were writing all the time – writing three songs over one weekend. We were conscious that we were paying a lot of money for someone’s time so we decided to invest the money in buying our own equipment and figuring out how to record it ourselves. We spent a year developing the sound of the record, working on it and playing it live. Making the album this way gave us room to experiment. We had a lot of room for honesty, therefore, we had a lot of room to grow.

Wayne: Recording from home hugely shaped what the record became. We’ve done the whole fully concentrated recording sessions where it’s all about getting the take down and moving on, with no time to second guess it. In those sessions, an engineer could say “Why don’t you try that with my fancy pedal? It’ll make it sound better”. You’re kind of dazzled by the headlights and then a month later you think to yourself “Oh why did I do that! That’s not what I wanted it to be”. And then the moment is gone. It doesn’t give you room to breathe. Plus, we had a lot of fun making it. We recorded it during the summer so I would literally be recording a synth line with one hand and an ice-cream in the other.

The album opens with ‘City Of Hearts’ which has a contemplative energy and lyric “I want to be lonely and still alone”. When you recorded that song, did you know that was the one to open the record?

Sorcha: In a way it epitomizes the whole sound of what we wanted. It has the feeling of being in a city but also being aware of who you are in your humanity. The experience of both busyness and loneliness at the same time. It’s about relationships and personal space, which runs through all our music. We were really excited and proud of that song when we wrote it. The last line sums up a lot too, “You picked a lonely star” meaning one person is on their own as an individual and someone else chooses to be with them in life.

A standout song on the album is ‘Through A Sea’. It starts off very meditative and then halfway takes this sharp turn into a completely different direction. Over the years, have you learned more or become more confident in composing?

Wayne: With ‘Through A Sea’ there’s no drums until three minutes in. We were conscious about playing it live and what an audience would think of two guys and a singer just swelling some synths around the room. But then we just thought “Let’s do it!”. We’re much more confident now, compared to five years ago, in letting a song be what it’s meant to be.

Sorcha: When we play it, it feels amazing. I feel almost dead when I sing that first part because it’s like a weird, empty nightmare. Its theme is about taking the leap of faith and not knowing if you’re going to make it. When we played it in London, people pushed to get to the front and we were so excited. We used to think that we had to have people dancing and be really fun all the time but we’ve realized if you make good music, people will come for that alone. For me, if I hear how a song is composed, I’ll think it’s shit. The magic in music is when you can’t pin down in a song where an idea started or how the parts come together. We now see that dance music doesn’t have to be about an audience going four to the floor but that we can bewitch them with it. On this album, we thought seriously about the mood and the lyrics we wrote. When people listen to it, we want them to feel as if they have walked into a different space.


The nature of electronic music and synthesizers leaves a musician open to endless possibilities. The slightest tweak of a knob could change the texture and mood of the synth. Did you find yourselves lost in its process at any stage?

Sorcha: You can totally, and it can be really frustrating. We’ve recorded things on our phone before and when we went into the studio to record it properly it’s impossible to recreate unless you’ve written the sequence down. A tiny millimeter out and the synth will sound completely different! But that can be exciting as well because I think a lot of people believe that electronic music is this measured and metered thing. We approach it the way a piano tuner or a shoegaze guitarist would engage with their instrument. It’s about the textures, the layers and the atmosphere so that a millimeter can make a big difference. There’s is a vocal part on the song ‘Tusk’ that is a strange, metallic echo that got caught in something which we could not recreate. Every time we played that song, it had to be there or it didn’t work otherwise. We cut it out of the very rough demo we had at the time and put it in. It’s the magic in the mistake that adds to what you’re creating.

Are there any electronic artists or bands that have either inspired you or impacted how you see music?

Wayne: The great thing is that when myself and Sorcha started out, we were into lots of different bands; The Postal Service, The Knife, Ladytron, Santogold. We went on tour with this great band from Portland called Lovers, which was a huge learning and honing experience. They were just three women on stage, they pulled up to the shows with no frills but yet the power and honesty they delivered on stage was incredible. They weren’t supported by a big promoter, it was 100% off their own bat. They were playing these tiny venue, but they could have been headlining a massive stage in what they gave the performance.

Sorcha: And that in itself was really inspiring. I remember just watching them with my mouth open being drawn in. Not underestimating ourselves and not being overly humble about our performance; it’s about standing there and giving it. They taught us that whether you’re playing to 10 or 3,000 people, you should be singing as if you’re in front of the one most important person in your life. We hope that when we play a gig the audience and ourselves get wrapped up in that one moment.

Given that electronic music has taken off in the last five or so years, do you feel people are more receptive in Ireland to electronic music now than when you first started?

Wayne: In the electronic sphere in Ireland at the moment, there are so many great bands: I Am The Cosmos, Ships, Le Galaxie, Forests, Jape, Solar Bears. I don’t mean that they’re good for an Irish band; they’re great overall across the board.

Sorcha: We’re all doing something very different which is the most interesting thing. I don’t mean this in any negative way but in the past when an indie band came out with guitars, bass player and drums, a lot of them would sound similar. You could see very clearly that these bands were connected by sounding alike in their approach. Same goes for some singer-songwriters. The funny thing about electronic music is that you get that less, even though it is much easier to replicate. All of the electronic bands coming out of Ireland all sound completely different and have their own identity. The music scene in Ireland is so supportive because bands or artists don’t feel threatened by each other since we’re all doing our own thing.


Following on from that, reading reviews of your music, you often get likened to Beach House, Chromatics, Phantogram. Is this a compliment to you or do you think its somewhat lazily being sweeped together on the basis that you play synthesizers and the band is fronted by a female?

Sorcha: I think it’s a nice thing to be compared to bands that are great. For fans as well, it’s good to have a reference point. We are our own band but people need a way into you and if that’s through the music of others, I have no problem being compared to amazing artists. People will go and listen and make their own mind up anyways, but at least they go and listen. That’s the whole point: we get our music to reach people.

Now that you’ve worked together for a number of years, is there an open dialogue between you? Do you ever have moments about being reluctant or embarrassed to share a lyric or song idea?

Sorcha: I think we’re really good at saying it to each other when we don’t like something. When someone else writes something or proposes an idea, we never shoot it down straight away. I’ve never seen myself as being a singer but Keith and Wayne have given me so much and supported me in so many ways. I used to be in choirs when I was in school and I always believed “that’s not how you sing if you’re in a band”. All through my life I was a backing singer and never sang choiry or high. I had this notion that a voice in a band should not sound feminine.

Making this album, I realized that it was all wrong and began singing really high. I came from being a backing vocalist who was afraid of having a voice to fronting these songs experimenting with my voice. Growing up, no-one ever said to me “you’ve got a great voice”. Then when I get a text in the night from these guys saying they couldn’t stop thinking about a melody I sang, it’s really reassuring – I felt apart of something. Even if nothing happens with the band, I’ve taken so much from this experience on a personal level.

The album artwork is a piece by Bennie Reilly. Can you tell me how that came to be the cover?

Sorcha: Bennie Reilly is an amazing artist and I was in a band with her previously. A lot of her art is related to nature, which ties in with the themes in a lot of our songs. When we talked about the artwork, we wanted to have something that looked like a piece of art that you would want to hang on your wall in your home. We approached her because she had these collection of gorgeous paintings. We went through them all and that was the one that stood out. It kind of looks like a cage, a forest and a woman’s skirt – all these different things. It’s difficult to decipher what it actually is. When she told us that it’s an image of a lyrebird, which is a singing bird, it just felt like the perfect fit for the record. It’s a mysterious cover but there’s an element of luminosity to it too.


For Record Store Day this year, you recorded a cover of Eurythmics’ ‘Love Is A Stranger’. What is your connection to that song? Was this an important event for you?

Wayne: I suggested it mainly because I am a big fan of Eurythmics, given that they are leaders of modern electronic pop. They always had a lot more meat in their bones than a lot of electronic ‘80s bands. I fell in love with that song after watching the BBC Four documentary Synth Britannia. They showed a performance of them doing this song. It was quite unusual for her because she wasn’t in her iconic suit or shaved red hair. It was earlier than that, she had this ‘80s-looking evening gown on and elbow gloves. It was such an arresting performance that when it came to doing a cover, it felt right.

Sorcha: As a band, we strongly believe in equality in terms of gender, sexuality and all across the board. A lot of our friends are gay so it meant a lot to us to celebrate it and get behind something we feel is important. We are very much about being yourself and having the right to be accepted. It makes me so sad and angry that there were people in my class in school that couldn’t actually say that they were gay. Nobody should be grow up today feeling the weight of prejudice of just being yourself.

One thing that I really liked about the album, which might spoil the surprise for those who haven’t bought it, is that there is a hidden song at the end. It reminded me of the treat you’d get when you bought a CD and song that’s not listed just starts playing after the record is done. Do you feel that today ‘the album’ as entity is a lost or still very much present? 

Wayne: We had to call it ‘Casiotune Lover (Hidden Track)’ for iTunes but we’re really chuffed to have that on the vinyl version. When the last song ends there’s a bit of a hiss and then this one kicks in about after a minute. It’s unfortunate that we had to name it on the digital version. It’s really lo-fi and we played it through a vintage analogue tape machine to get that really lovely texture.

What does You Want The Night mean to you?

Sorcha: The title from the song on the album, which has this magical quality and I take on a different character. Something took over me when we wrote that song and it’s a little bit angry. I read this book years ago about this famous actress back in 1800’s in Ireland, she had been brought up the Hellfire Club and naughty things happened there and I don’t she had a good end. The persona in the song is genderless but it has a power which is bewitching whilst singing about this very sordid love triangle. As the album’s title, it’s about wanting it all and celebrating the vibrant and dark sides that are in us all. It’s about wanting everything for yourself and not being afraid of that.

You Want The Night is out now through Minty Fresh. To buy the album or for more information about Sleep Thieves, visit their official website here.

Beverley & I: Interview with Beverley Ditsie

Beverley Ditsie is an activist and filmmaker whose work features at Queer Lisboa in 2014. Michael Langan talks to her about the rules of gender, sexual politics in South Africa and why always being yourself is the best form of activism there is.


Beverley Ditsie speaking with Michael Langan    (Click images to enlarge)

Beverley Ditsie is a woman with an extraordinary history. Activist, filmmaker, musician, actor, television producer, she was at the forefront of LGBT rights in South Africa and beyond through the whole of the 1990s. She was instrumental in founding the gay rights organisation GLOW, creating and contributing to public conversations regarding gay rights, women’s rights, human rights, influencing policy and raising awareness. She was amongst those arguing for the inclusion of discrimination against sexual orientation in the new South African constitution, the first in the world to make prejudice against people based on the sexual orientation unconstitutional, and was one of the organisers of South Africa’s first Gay Pride March.

In 2002, Beverley Ditsie (with Nicky Newman) made a film, Simon & I, about her relationship with Simon Nkoli, the leader of the gay rights movement in South Africa. Nkoli had been in prison with many of the anti-apartheid activists who went on to form the first ANC government and, as an activist, Beverley was his de facto deputy. She felt he was her teacher and mentor, but, as her star began to rise, they fell out, not speaking for some years before eventually becoming reconciled. Nkoli died of an AIDS-related illness in 1998. The film tells the remarkable story of that time in history, but it’s also a deeply personal autobiography of Ditsie’s life and experiences, which include her childhood experience of believing herself to be a boy, being the first gay African woman to address a UN conference, and her participation in Big Brother in South Africa, in which she was subjected to bigotry and prejudice from the other housemates.

I interviewed Beverley at the Queer Lisboa festival, during a week of Queer African Cinema, debates around queer identities, representations, and queer experiences in African countries, and the showing of Simon & I, which, for many reasons, she finds too difficult to watch herself. She’s an extremely engaging, articulate, and charismatic figure, which explains why she was so good as an activist, though these days she’s finding new and different ways to carry out that role, ways that are more fulfilling for her.

Tell me about your life as kid. When did you decide you were a boy?

Oh, I didn’t decide, I knew I was a boy. That’s a whole different notion. It was only later on, when I saw how boys were formed, that I realised I wasn’t a boy, and that was hard for me. I grew up in a maternal household with my mum, my gran, lots of aunts and, eventually, my baby sister, so I didn’t even know how I was supposed to look in order to be the way that I felt. It never occurred to me that I was a girl until I got to puberty and men were hitting on me, and my life became miserable because I didn’t understand why that was happening.

There’s a lovely quote from your mum in the movie who said that God started making you before lunch and when he got back he couldn’t remember if he was making a boy a girl. That seems to be such a generous accommodation of your identity, a way of saying to a child, ‘Who you are is okay.’

And, interestingly, it was perfectly okay until I needed to really identify what I was and where I belonged. That for me became the difficulty because once I had found the European words – they came to me from Boy George, incidentally – then translated them and took them home to my family, I became an abomination. I was fine as the ‘boy’ in the household, as this anomaly, the loveable me who fixed everything in the house and played with the other boys in the streets. I was just as shocked that they were shocked because, in my happiness at finding words that identified who I am and gave me some sense of belonging, even though I didn’t know anyone at the time who was like me, I knew that all I had to do was go to find them. Until I identified myself in terms of my sexuality my gran just hoped I was going to grow out of this tomboy business and become a teenage girl who discovers boys and that would become the problem. But my problem was the misery I felt at discovering what I was but that I had no community. So the loneliness of it was quite deep, until the community actually happened.

Did you still feel loved?

No one’s ever asked me that before. I’ve done countless interviews and no one’s ever asked me that before. Look, it begins with the self, right? Just the finding of the words and using them, while hearing and knowing that biblically and traditionally this was an abomination, meant that my own self-love went downhill. I’m deeply spiritual, always have been, and I don’t know any gay person who hasn’t asked themselves, ‘Was I made by God or the Devil?’ To think that I might be sinning against my Maker, who I adore, was hard because then the question was, ‘God, how could you do this to me?’ So the self-loathing began in me before it translated to those out there. Of course I was loved, though I might not have felt it for the longest time simply because there was conflict and tension in the household. No one could understand why I would make the decision I was perceived to be making, when in fact that decision was to be as much me as possible, and not anything else. In whatever way love is expressed for you – in making food for you, by making sure your school shoes are okay, and that you are okay – love was expressed. I could have been kicked out, but I wasn’t.

You’ve said that your experience of South Africa is that the least acceptable thing you can be is a butch lesbian…

…Or an effeminate gay man. Gender roles are very strictly enforced in South Africa. Even though we’re all urbanised and we’re born in cities we all identify with whatever tradition or culture we come from, to a large degree. Even if you don’t you’ll be forced to acknowledge it by those around you.


The violence you’ve described towards lesbians seems to be the most extreme kind of violence currently perpetrated.

Yes, and this is really the challenging thing about feminism. This is the challenge from anything that wants to put women on an equal footing to men. My gay male friends do get insulted or accosted but I don’t hear of the same level of violence directed towards them as lesbians because if you step out of the female role and challenge it just by being yourself, it’s a problem. You hear it all the time: ‘I will fix you. All you need is a dick.’

And we need to keep having these conversations because power will always try to re-establish itself and I feel we’re really talking about circulations of power, in lots of intersecting ways. Watching you in Simon & I you seem so fearless, so powerful, and you probably didn’t feel like that a lot of the time. Maybe you were performing fearlessness?

Ah, the joys of youth! I was untouchable. Yes, I was terrified, but the terror fuelled my anger and it was the anger that then drove what looked like fearlessness, pure anger that one could be treated so badly for absolutely no reason. My sexuality has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever, so how does it affect someone else’s everyday life?

Increases in homophobic attitudes often seem to be responses to advances in gay rights because people feel threatened – people not used to having their own identities challenged in any way, suddenly feeling challenged by people demanding equality…

…or having equality…

…yes. But, also, a lot of the new channels of communication allow for anonymity and you can be homophobic under that cloak. I think of new technologies and social media as being able to facilitate a lot of regressive attitudes.

Yes, across the board. Whether it’s the homophobia, the misogyny, the racism, or the xenophobia, I think the world is regressing. I know I’m generalising but I’ve been to enough countries in the world to know that, once where you thought you were a little freer, not so any more. It’s as if one generation comes up and experiences the need for, and the feeling of, freedom, and the next generation feels the need to reassert roles and prejudices. How that happens is still beyond me.

How do we combat this? What are the possible strategies?

You do realise that’s a very deeply philosophical question? I mean, the state of the world, the shifting of energies, spiritually, physically, in terms of global warming, migration, population explosion – which could be one of the major factors because people feel their space is getting encroached upon – food supply, water is being bought and is now very expensive. I don’t think you can isolate one thing from all the others. In these shifts we might need one particular threat in order to come together, as humanity, to have a singular vision. If you look at history there’s always a major catastrophe before a new renaissance and the more comfortable people get it gives rise to new repressions, new forms of fascism and controls. How do you deal with it? At the moment I don’t know. Everyone’s looking out for themselves, for their immediate families. We’re not a global community, or one humanity. If we were we wouldn’t be treating each other the way that we are. Palestine would not be what it is. Apartheid would not have happened. Women would not be treated the way they are in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in certain countries in Africa. It’s true that some places are better than others in terms of how I am treated as a black woman, but the fact is there are places I simply refuse to go, because I’m not going to change the way I dress, or the way I am.


I was thinking also about story-telling as a form of activism. You’ve paid your dues as an activist at the forefront of things and have earned the right to retire from the front line, but people keep asking you to come back. Activism isn’t just something that you do, it’s a personality type…

…it’s something that you are

…but you can change what form that activism takes. It was very important in the film Simon & I, and in the way Simon himself became an embodiment of an issue, that he became a story.

Absolutely. I don’t think there is any single place I go to where my presence alone is not a threat and the more remote the place the bigger the revolution caused by my presence. One of the things Simon taught me is that, if you personalise, and it’s human to human, and it comes with humour and education, that’s a great strategy for an activist. One might say I have stepped back, but I have only stepped back from the microphone. I haven’t stopped being an activist. Activism means constantly asking, ‘Why?’ Seeing all kinds of abuses and saying, ‘Why?’ I’ve asked that since I was a child. I couldn’t understand why men were treated differently to women and I constantly asked, ‘Why?’ My family is split into many different cultures, all parts of who I am. Some of them expect levels of deference towards men that are quite extreme, women showing respect by lying on the floor, serving tea on your knees. Being asked to do that whenever some family member came to visit, seeing my mum greeting a twelve-year-old boy with total deference. At the same age as that boy I was asking my mum, ‘What the hell is that about!?’ Everything that she’d gone through as a woman – making sure the household was still standing when there were no men around, the life she had lead to be who she was – and to be almost on your knees to a twelve-year-old boy, because tradition dictates! That ‘Why’ always stays with my and will never go away. These days it’s rare not to be accepted in a workplace, but if there is a challenge my reaction is to treat that person as if they are the most ridiculous person on the planet to the extent that they start to question their own attitudes. This is also a form of activism; to be so You that it’s not easy to be challenged.

This reminds me of the scene in Simon & I from your time on Big Brother where you’re being confronted by a straight white guy who confesses to having beaten up gay people, who says he finds it difficult to be at the table with you. As if you are the problem, even though he’s just admitted to being a violent bigot. You start off by looking at him very firmly, then the anger rises, the upset comes, all the emotional reactions that you can imagine…

…That’s one scene that I can’t watch. I don’t even know what I say to him in response because I’ve never watched it. If I’m forced to sit through it, I’ll put my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes tight because it’s not me to explode like that.

Was it a form of activism for you to put yourself in that situation?

Totally. It was 1994-95, right after Mandela became President. It really was a social experiment to see if and how the different races could live together.

You work in television, you know how it works. They’re not going to put people together who they think will love each other. It’s not interesting.

Absolutely, and they had a big debate before putting me on the show about the level of controversy I would cause because I had already been on television a lot and was very loud and outspoken, having live debates with clergy and traditionalists and saying, ‘You have no authority to tell me that I should not exist. The conversation is nullified by the idea that you would say I should not exist, because here I am.’ I was already a firebrand – they were afraid there’d be complaints and the house would be burned down. I wasn’t surprised when I was confronted by the bigotry, but it didn’t take long for me to sit down with him, to break down his own prejudices and have proper conversations. He soon realised that what he thought was bullshit. But there was another guy there who there was no having a conversation with… 

…the guy who describes your sexuality as ‘mentally retarded’?

…yes. He’s still a piece of shit. But I put myself in that position, living under a microscope for 6 months, thinking, ‘You say I’m different from other human beings? Then prove it!’

Did it work as a piece of activism? Did it create conversations?

I think to a large degree it worked. It was very interesting from a black perspective. People admired me a lot more for standing up against the racism in the house. My sexuality became a side issue. It was perfect timing for that kind of show because people were seeing me as me, not as my sexuality. 


You mention in the film Simon’s role in your life as teacher and mentor. And I thought that he was also like an elder brother to you, perhaps even a father figure. As you became more visible and more vocal, more confident also, the tensions in your relationship seemed about a shifting power dynamic.

Oh, it was completely about power.

That must have been hard to cope with.

I wanted him to be proud of me for how I was learning from him. I am a bit naïve like that – I don’t see power play until it’s right there and then it hurts. I expect people to approach things with faith and trust and honesty but I often find myself at the losing end of that. Being Simon’s female counterpart in the activist world was okay up until the point I became a star myself. I can’t presume to know what was going on in his mind and how it translated into his actions, but to a degree he was also my boss.

Did you never have a conversation with him about it?

Never. We never had a conversation about it. As much as we might want to run away from how culturally defined we are, the fact is there are certain things you do not discuss with people you perceive as your elders. His inviting me to GLOW’s 10th birthday party was an apology, a truce, even though it was not stated. It would be an interesting conversation were he alive today to ask him – it would be the conversation of my life, because I gave 10 years of my very being of the movement. I was angry when I left, when I divorced myself from it, there was so much power playing going on with new, international organisations getting involved and all the rest of it. That’s when I realised there is a big difference between being an activist and a politician. Simon was invited into Parliament by those he’d been in prison with and absolutely refused, and I myself was invited to become a Member of Parliament, and I too refused. It didn’t make any sense to me because it meant playing politics, backstabbing people and lying. That’s not me.


The experience you had of going to the UN and speaking there, making history as you did – I’m sure you didn’t think of yourself as making history…

…I didn’t know until I’d walked out and there was all this press attention and cameras clicking and the woman next to me told me I was the first African lesbian to address the UN on the issue of Women’s rights. I didn’t know. I was just doing what I normally do. It was very simple. When deciding who was going to speak I just looked at everyone and said, ‘You’re all European here. If you are going to address these issues with all these African countries sitting here it’s just another European point of view imposing itself.’ I didn’t need to say anything else before the penny dropped. Our President, President Mandela, had explicitly said, ‘Gay Rights is an issue of Human Rights and you will be protected under the Constitution of South Africa’, and it was unheard of.

Do you think there’s still a hierarchy of rights?

I remember going to ANC youth conferences, before Mandela was released, and there would be a category called ‘Women’s Issues’ and it would be the last thing on the agenda. Everything else needed to be discussed before we could approach it, but by the time we got to it everyone was leaving, and we’d been there all day so the only people left in the room were the converted. The hierarchy is still there. The men make the decisions on the shape of the world, even though the world is run by women in our everyday lives. There is not a single forum I have been in where the things that are pertinent to me have been properly addressed. Even within the LGBT movement I would find ‘Lesbian Issues’ at the bottom of the agenda. The hierarchy still exists. I’m sure people who are transgender, or intersex, feel the same way.

You know, you don’t have a page on Wikipedia. You are mentioned on Simon’s page, in relation to having made the film, and it struck me that you should be there, that there’s a gap in the history of LGBT rights. Do you care about that?

From an egotistical and narcissistic point of view, no, but from the point of view of history, it matters, because a lot of information about me on the net is out of date, or very limited. Considering how much I document everything, well, I didn’t even know that I’m not on Wikipedia.

I think it’s particularly important for women, and for black women especially, to know that you were so instrumental and so central in the conversation and in what happened. It really needs to be addressed, I think, because who decides who gets written about? It’s a shocking absence.

The same thing can be seen with the research I do for the TV programmes I’m working on now, which are highlighting South African musicians from the period between 1960-80s who don’t get acknowledged because it was the height of repression at that time. I knew them all through my mum, who was a musician, but when I Google them, they don’t exist. In relation to queer cinema, where are the black made films about the struggle, about Mandela? There are things on TV now, but where is that blockbuster? We have got a long way to go to tell our stories, still, to make sure we are represented. 

And you have to tell your story too – it’s too important for people not to know about it.

I never saw myself as any kind of big deal in any way. I just did what needed to be done. There was Simon, a man, saying, ‘I’m black, I’m gay’ and I thought, I’m black and I’m gay, but where are the women, speaking on my behalf? There were none so I stood up. We need to go back to basics as human beings – you see a vacuum and you fill it. I have great respect for anyone doing that – scientists, doctors, activists, anyone working for humanity – we have to see and treat each other as human beings, acknowledging and respecting who we all are. That’s how I’d like to be treated and I think it’s how I’ve lived my life. Everything I do comes from that place.