Re-reading Electrelane’s past interviews, reviews one repeatedly finds references to encounters, transitions and disruption to describe their music: “the collision of the cerebral and the visceral”, “a point where sadness and happiness meet”. The band itself has a song (“Between the Wolf and the Dog) named after the French expression (“l’heure entre chien et loup”) that describes “the moments after sunset when the sky darkens and vision becomes unclear, making it difficult to distinguish between dogs and wolves, friends and foe”.
From mini-pop masterpieces (“On Parade”, “To the East”) to serenades of longing (“Birds”, “I only Always Think”, “In Berlin”) alternated by dark krautrock (“Axes”, the third album) most Electrelane songs tend to skip the pop-cliché and go for that “in-between” moment/emotion that are profoundly real but almost never touched upon in popular music.
Formed in Brighton in 1998 by Verity Susman (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Emma Gaze (drums), Ros Murray (Bass) and Mia Clarke (guitars) – the band interrupted a four year hiatus in 2011 to play Europe, and most recently played in Australia in March.
Rather than being dragged into obscurity during their off-time, the band (the music) survives (thrives) – re-discovered and traded in mixes, played in DJ sets, and brought up in 3AM conversations by someone who has been listening to nothing but Electrelane for the last three months and still half-cries inside whenever the first line of “The Greater Times” comes (the train between Gdańsk and Berlin, a dandy and a deserter all these motifs).
This is a conversation with Electrelane. It’s long, sometimes confrontational, confessional, full of references worth navigating and as profoundly real as their music. Music that is cinematic, atemporal, and that will not be drained of its meaning after years of auditions.
RIOT OF PERFUME:There’s a New York Times review of your 2004 concert at the Knitting Factory that’s very positive but states at one point that ‘…the four musicians never acknowledged the audience and rarely acknowledged one another; they barely moved and never smiled.’ I saw you playing in London at the end of last year and it couldn’t have been more different. The concert was grand, brilliant, somehow emotionally drenched, and both the band and the audience seemed to have had a very good time. Is this Electrelane now versus 2004?
Verity Susman: I think people have more of a problem with women not smiling on stage than they do with men. Personally I’m not a very smiley person – it’s just the face I was born with – but I look around at other “serious” looking male bands, and they don’t get this kind of critique. There is definitely an expectation that if you’re a woman up on stage you should be smiling, trying to please, and I’m not interested in playing that role. At the same time, we’ve definitely grown in confidence as a band since 2004, and so we’ve gotten a lot better at engaging with the audience, and enjoying ourselves onstage, and I’m sure it was a bit of nerves that contributed to our muted demeanor in the past. But I don’t ever recall not acknowledging an audience, I always make a point of doing this at some point during a gig, however hard I find it as I’m pretty shy. So I think in this case the New York Times reviewer exaggerated a bit, and was probably influenced by the abnormality they perceived in all-female band that wasn’t flashing smiles all over the place. In terms of apparently not acknowledging each other, we’ve always been pretty good at giving each other quick cues and checking in that things are going ok, with a glance and a bit of eye contact at the right moment when we’re moving from one section to another, so I guess the reviewer just didn’t pick up on that. It’s not their fault, they can’t be expected to notice everything.
Emma Gaze: Well, I think that reviews can be quite irritating when they focus on what the band is wearing, or their on stage repartee (or lack, thereof!) etc, etc- I mean, we are there to play music, not to model or put on a comedy show…but that said, I think our earlier shows were perhaps more introspective for us as we were more nervous/less comfortable/less confident/trying to concentrate…. it might be also that before we got back to playing together last year, we had more invested in the band, as in, it was each of our primary jobs, we had a record deal, a publishing deal and all that stuff, so we put pressure on ourselves to not fuck up. We don’t have any of that now, and we have all had a really good break and we are only playing again because all of us want to- so there is a massive shift, towards enjoyment and fun. I think since we’ve started playing again, we have played the best we ever have and had the most fun we have ever had. Now it feels like how I had always imagined being in a band would be.
Ros Murray: I think we’ve all become more relaxed onstage and that’s part of the reason… it’s not really a conscious decision to smile more but also after spending a long time apart we really appreciate being together again, and we’ve been having a lot more fun playing.
RIOT OF PERFUME:…. Additionally, the audience was mostly young and seemed to be obsessed with the band. There are a lot of new artists referencing Electrelane: Romy Madley-Croft from the XX picked a brilliant B-side (“I Only Always Think”) for one of her mixes, and a lot of the new proto-post/kraut rock Brooklyn bands owe a lot to Electrelane…. apparently you’ve became a cult band during your four year hiatus?
Susman: That’s news to me! But it’s really nice to know other musicians get something out of listening to us.
Gaze: I’m not sure about that, but its very nice to imagine being in an influential band…we do have some great fans, quite a few people were flying over from America to see us last summer, and people were getting on a coach and boat from Athens to see us in Istanbul- it means an awful lot to us that people would do that.
Murray: It’s really nice when new bands cite Electrelane as an influence. We’ve definitely had a more positive response to playing again than we anticipated. I don’t know about being a cult band but I think we’ve always had a lot of support from other bands, and that’s really helped us out.
RIOT OF PERFUME: Verity once said in an interview that “were not trying to convey a precise sentiment or idea, [we're] more trying to create a mood that could be interpreted according to the listener’s own experiences.” This happens as well with the band “imagery” (mostly created by Emma) – making the band not very linked with a definitive time/location, not “dated”. Was this intentional? Are there any other artists that have influenced you in this regard?
Susman: I think inevitably with instrumental music – which we’ve made a lot of – there is a wider scope for interpretation than songs with lyrics, which are always directive in some sense. For me, it’s my background as a teenager in classical music that’s made me naturally drawn to instrumental music guided by the emotional resonance it creates, more than by a literal concept or message.
Gaze: I think a lot of record covers I liked as a child/teenager were very timeless or even ‘old-timey’, in that they could be from anytime and still make sense, or I just thought were cool for whatever reason- (Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Neil Young’s Harvest, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Déjà Vu, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 revisited and Freewheelin’, Roxy Music’s Avalon, New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies- and I love Smog’s Knock, Knock). We were quite clear early on that we didn’t want to ever be on a record cover, so it was possible for me to just go and shoot whatever I wanted. I was studying photography then, so I always had a camera with me- I never really shot something for use in that way, it was that I would end up with a pile of photos and then I would pick which ones I liked and then we would look at them as a band and make the final choice, or I would lay it all out and get their approval. I’m influenced by lots of different artists, but I’m not sure that it translates into what I actually do- I love Vija Celmins, Agnes Martin, Lecia Dole-Recio, Paul Fusco’s Robert F.Kennedy funeral train photographs, Andrei Tarkovsky’s polaroids, Louise Bourgeois’ drawings, Lee Friedlander…I’ll stop because I will end up taking up a page… I guess influences come from everywhere. I think the album artwork I am least happy with is the last album we made, ‘No Shouts, No Calls’- it was a reaction against the record companies reaction to ‘Axes’, the album before the last one. They had said that one of the reasons it was hard to sell was that the artwork was so dark (which was hilarious, because they were/are so lax about getting it into the shops, repressing vinyl, re-stocking,etc.), anyway, ‘Axes’ was super dark and fit the feel of the music, and on the vinyl, you opened up this dark cover and the gatefold was really bright, with red and gold, kind of like a jewelry box. It’s my favorite cover that I have done, and they hated it! I really resented them using the artwork as an excuse for it not selling, so for ‘No Shouts, No Calls’, my friend Serban designed the logo with me, which was simple and bright, primary-ish colors- somewhat boring- unmissable! That didn’t sell very well either, so something tells me it has nothing to do with the artwork….
RIOT OF PERFUME: From Springsteen (“I’m on fire”) to Roxy Music (‘More than This’) and now Bronski Beat (‘Small Town Boy’) – your choice of songs to covers are really unexpected and you somehow tend to bend the song to your “format”. What is this process like?
Susman: I’m drawn to male voices as inspiration for singing – in particular Jarvis Cocker, Leonard Cohen and falsetto singers like Jimmy Somerville. I guess that might not be immediately apparent from my singing, but it’s what’s going on in my head, and so I enjoy covering songs that men have sung, and sung in a manner that I love. To me these songs seem like really natural choices but I guess what we expect of ourselves and what other people expect are often quite different things. We choose songs to cover partly because we love them and want to play them, but we don’t choose wildly and I think we have a good instinct for songs that we could do in terms of the singing and instrumentation, and ones we definitely couldn’t however much we might love them. We know our limits, what things we do well and what we can’t really do, so I think a lot of the process of making a song our own is in the initial selection. Then we split up the parts and play/sing them in our own styles, and then maybe fiddle around with the structure so it flows in a way we’re used to from our other songs. We couldn’t do the songs just like the originals even if we wanted to, so it’s partly inevitable that we bend them to our “format”. We couldn’t be a “covers band” if we tried, but I think that’s probably a good thing in the long run.
Gaze: It’s super fun to do covers. It feels good when we can somehow find a way to “electrelane-ize” them. I remember when we first tried doing ‘I’m on fire’ and we were doing it the Bruce slow way, and then tried it super fast and thrashy and it was so much more fun to play. I think Verity suggested the Bronski Beat cover- my choice was Elton John’s “‘I’m Still Standing”, but I stand corrected, her choice was better…though I do still think we could do a funny cover of it…
RIOT OF PERFUME: Electrelane also recorded “The Partisan” (the French resistance song covered by Leonard Cohen, and Joan Baez) in “Axes” (you used to play it live before the 2004 elections). Any thoughts on what’s happening these days – the Occupy movement , Pussy Riot in Moscow (the Russian feminist punk-rock collective that stages illegal protests)?
Susman: I think Pussy Riot are fantastic and I’m hoping to meet them when I go to Moscow later this year. They are really smart and funny in their activism, and that’s a hard thing to pull off. I am also a big supporter of the Occupy movement – it’s extremely important for the excesses and injustices of capitalism to be challenged.
Murray:Pussy riot are great!
The occupy movement is really important and it’s really amazing to see how it’s spread across the world. I was in Madrid when they started the Indignados movement, which I think was what catalyzed the occupy movement in Europe. They were really inspired by the spontaneity and non-hierarchical nature of the Arab Spring, but translated it into the Spanish context, in which there is huge unemployment (nearly 50% youth unemployment), coupled with cuts to public services, limited welfare, tax breaks for the rich and political corruption. At the time the socialist government was still in power, so what is particular about it compared to previous protests is that it was not attached to any political party or group, and it seemed like nobody was trying to claim it as their protest, which I guess is also what people were saying about the Arab spring. This is why it can spread so easily to a transnational context – and because the main target is the international banking system it really needs to be a transnational (rather than simply international) movement, taking into account specific contexts whilst at the same time being a global movement. That is a tricky balance to make, but for me it has to be about refusing arbitrary borders between countries whilst paying attention to cultural factors so as not to reinforce that kind of cultural imperialism that seems to take over so easily (especially coming from the UK and America). It’s not just about the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor – it’s also about the fact that bankers can operate on an international level and do whatever they want, go wherever they want, store their money in tax havens whilst there are people withheld in detention centres all over the world, or being deported, for simply wanting to be able to make enough money to survive. to relate it back to music one of my favourite bands, Humousexual, has just released a no borders concept record (my favourite song from it: ‘Come On In’)
RIOT OF PERFUME: What have you seen recently in music/film/arts/performance that impressed you?
Susman: I’m a huge fan of the Israeli composer and musician Maya Dunietz who I’ve seen perform in various guises over the past year. I saw A Hawk and a Hacksaw at ATP recently playing a live soundtrack to Sergei Parajanov’s film ‘Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors‘, and this was really impressive and inspiring. We’re on tour in Australia at the moment and have played with three great bands – New War, Songs and Feathers.
Gaze: My wife just gave me Marianne Breslauer’s “Photographs” book, and that is really beautiful. especially her portraits of women….
We just played in Melbourne and we played with this band called ‘new war’, they played this song that made me feel like I was on drugs- high, shakey and faint- which sounds really unpleasant, but it was impressive that they could do that with music, I had to go and sit down.
My friend Mary has an amazing website that is a cultural mine. I always find something on there that’s impressive, not least, her own photographs.
Murray: Film – I really love Andrea Arnold’s new version of Wuthering Heights. also I’ve been watching a lot of French queer films recently. I really like Carole Roussopoulos‘ documentaries, particularly one from 1973 called Les prostituées de Lyon parlent (“The Prostitutes of Lyon speak out”), about sex workers in Lyon occupying a cathedral and demanding rights. Also I’ve been watching Celine Sciamma‘s films.
Bands that I’ve been listening to recently are Alligator (from Lyon), halo halo who we went on tour with last summer, a band from Glasgow called golden grrrls, and a band called Sacred Paws who haven’t yet released anything but I’m really excited about them. I also love m’lady’s records and the radio show they do, cease to exist.
Performance-wise, Verity’s solo project (just called verity susman) is awesome – really funny, disconcerting and emotional all at the same time.
RIOT OF PERFUME: Who chose the name Electrelane (and why)? And finally – what are you working on now?
Susman: It’s a made-up name, a mixture of electric and Leenane which is a place in Ireland. We were drinking in an Irish bar below where we used to practice, trying to think up band names, and there was a picture of Leenane on the wall. We’d already decided we wanted to have the word electric in there somewhere, so we just mixed the two up. There were a few other names that never made it, thankfully…
Right now, we’re on tour in Australia, and then on to Hong Kong for a gig. We’re talking about writing a new record at some point, which we’d all love to do, but we’re not sure when this will happen. I’m currently studying studio composition, I have a solo project and I’m planning to write some sort of opera over the next year or so.
Gaze: I don’t know, we came up with it in the pub- I think Verity. We wanted a name that didn’t mean anything.
Right now, I just got back from a little tour, so I’m recovering and relaxing by planting a vegetable garden…then I am going to get to work trying to soundproof the garage because Verity and Ros have said they are coming to stay this Christmas and we’ll work on some new material…then I am going to look for a proper job….
Murray: As for what we’re working on now, we began working on a tiny bit of new stuff in Sydney, but we only had about 30 minutes so we haven’t got very far yet – we are tentatively planning on doing a new record, but we don’t yet know when or how.
Photographs by Monique Easton.
…our post-interview playlist: ELECTRELANE – RIOT OF PERFUME