Shrag: The Final Interview
Happy New Year! Or maybe not. On January 2nd, those of us who returned from that first day back at work, dazed and unused to the day being something other than a seemingly non-stop conveyor of Ferrero Rocher and Babycham, were in for a shock. I say ‘shock’. I mean ‘baseball bat to the kidneys’. Shrag, purveyors of artful and uncompromising indie pop for nigh on a decade, were calling it a day. Up yours, 2013. What a way to start the year. They dropped their bombshell on 6Music, where they were in session for Marc Riley's show. So, they played some songs, shared banter with their host (a fan from way back) and explained why it was time to call time. Ultimately, turns out pop music hadn’t done what it said on the form when they applied. They weren’t, believe it or not, taking the yacht down to Nice every fortnight after all. In the real world, being a band, a critically acclaimed but non-arena filling band, had become simply untenable. They uploaded a typically wry summary of their reasoning to their website a couple of weeks later and titled it ‘And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Debt’.
Fast forward. March 15th, 2013. That’s when it all ends. Or ended. Depending on when you read this. When we approach them for one final interview, they seem surprised. “We’re not reconvening for a few weeks,” says Bob Brown, he of tunes and band leadership. “Helen will be happy to talk, though.” Helen King, vocalist and lyricist, ensured Canines, their career best from last year, was a wholly more cerebral affair. Her flinty poetics, coupled with a disarming worldview, helped convince the critics and bolstered an artistic leap way beyond their previous work (2009’s Shrag and 2010’s Life! Death! Prizes!). Read all about it. It seemed that Shrag had arrived. And now they’re leaving.
King is nothing but philosophical. Indeed, as our conversation progresses, it’s clear that, for her, being in a band can sometimes bring as much pain as pleasure. She’s come to terms with it and, to some degree, moved on already. But if it’s a sad day for those of us who simply bought the records, what must it be like for the band? “It’s quite upsetting. I feel kind of strange about it to be honest because it’s... I was wondering why I felt so weird about it but then the band have been the only constant in my life for the past ten years. I haven’t had a stable job or had a relationship for that amount of time, so I do feel a bit adrift. At the same time, I really hate that thing where bands issue a really po-faced announcement about something that, I suspect, not that many people care about. So I was like, Oh come on, I don’t even want us to announce it but the others were like, Oh some people are really gonna give a shit and so we might as well say something about it. And once we’d decided to do it, we were discussing the final statement and we were all agreed that we didn’t want it to be too...emo.”
Read that final statement for an insight into just how seriously Shrag took the complex, pitfall business of not taking themselves too seriously. It’s enough to make grown men cry. (Not me. No.) Helen is sanguine. “The whole thing has just been ridiculous from start to finish in so many ways that I didn’t want to do some big announcement like it’s some tragedy. It’s not like that. I do feel upset about it but I don’t feel like it’s the wrong decision. We don’t feel sorry for ourselves about it. I do want it to be quite light-hearted as well as acknowledging what we did and its importance to us, you know?”
The real shame, of course, is that it comes after the band made their best album by some distance. We should be talking about it as part of that whole cycle. Still, we should probably do that anyway. “Okay, yeah. We should do that.” Lyrics first. “Okay...” They’re accomplished and uncompromising. They almost have no place in popular song with their angular awkwardness and their heightened language. Like Richey Edwards’s lyrics for The Holy Bible, you wonder how on earth they fit, can be sung. And yet they do. “I guess... I mean, the way the dynamics of the band... I’m under no illusions about my technical ability. I can’t really sing. I can’t really play any instruments. The one thing I have any confidence in is that I can write. That’s a very tenuous confidence, in any case. But I kind of made a decision about halfway through the second album that if I was going to do this then I was going to do it in as honest a way possible.”
Was that a first? “On the first record we did I was very, very conscious about the way I was writing," she admits. "To a certain extent I felt that I had to have a really strong, almost novelty, idea about each of the songs – slightly sort of tongue-in-cheek, slightly...taking the piss out of myself a bit. And then later on I was like, Oh fucking hell, we’re actually doing this! I mean, Bob is the real musician and I’m in awe of what he does and completely dependent on him to be able to do what I do in any shape or form. When it got to the point where I thought, Well this is my part of it, I thought I’d better stop apologising for the way that I write, the way that I like to use words. I don’t know. I wish that I had more technical ability, I wish I could sing. I’d love to be able to actually sing, you know?” That’s exceptionally harsh. “Well, I’m really not under any illusions about that. And so I thought the thing I can do, I want to do it as bravely as I can. Yeah. I guess that’s it.”
How do you prepare a record like Canines? Is there an overarching plan or a defined view of what you want to say? “Yeah. I had a pretty concrete idea about this record. I think it only seemed concrete or defined for me but I knew what it was about. We were writing in a relatively short period. It normally takes us a long, long time but we approached Andy Millar (producer) in January 2011 and we booked to go into the studio with him in August, so we had this really intensive period of writing and it happened to also coincide with a period in my life that was kind of hellish and kind of... a lot of big things. I was having to face a lot of big things that were going to change the course of my life. Career-wise, relationship-wise, that kind of thing. So I was listening to the music we were making and thinking this suggests a certain thing to me and so I feel like Canines has a much more coherent identity than the other two.”
There’s a dialogue. It connects the songs and the stories. “There is a dialogue, of sorts, going on with some of the songs. I was very conscious of wanting to write about certain things but also thinking, How can I write about that from another perspective? Yes, I do think of the songs as being linked up. I’ve got a complex map in my head of the way the songs interact with each other.” Characters, narrator, tone. Setting, even. All too often music is described as ‘cinematic’, which is often lazy and inaccurate but Canines comes to life in scenes, very visually. It’s like Play For Today! “I saw you said that in your review! I didn’t remember it. I did mean to look it up. Tell me again about it.” BBC Drama series from the 70s. Very worthy. It kind of took serious issues of the time and brought them to life through detailed, close-up drama. Even I was only a kid and, to be honest, it all seemed a bit depressing. But it was observational and unflinching and maybe that’s where I’m hanging this tenuous connection. “As far as it goes in my life... I live in London and it felt like what was happening, what I felt was really shit and depressing about the political landscape, seemed to be emanating from London and seemed to be full of this toxicity. It was ugly, what it reflected back to us about how people... how we care for each other and how we look out for each other. It seemed like a very depressing climate and then because I’m kind of self-obsessed it was also worse for someone who wasn’t particularly grounded or anchored in any way.”
Political upheaval, the odd riot thrown in for light relief, it’s all very destabilising. “Within that environment, it makes it especially destabilising, especially unnerving to be right at the heart of what felt like a very unkind place to be, you know? When you don’t have those things that other people grasp onto, which might be a relationship or a marriage or a stable job... you become even more adrift because you’re within a broader political landscape which is unfeeling and uncaring and brutal in some ways. So I thought, well yeah, on the first record I’m singing about being caught shoplifting when I was 14 and I’m thinking that this isn’t the way I’m experiencing things at the moment! It felt like we were taking ourselves seriously for once in a way we hadn’t done before and I thought maybe my lyrics should acknowledge that and reflect it in some way.”
That kind of source material is common currency for any writer, whether a rabble rouser or a scribbler of dark confessionals. But you light it up, re-shape it and that’s through your use of language. You’ve written before, ‘properly’, obviously. “Yeah, yeah. Writing is my thing. I’ve always done that. I’ve been studying literature at post grad level for a long time and that’s my thing.” Is literature more of an influence than music? “I dunno. It’s difficult. I’ve been obsessed with music my whole life, but career-wise I’ve gone down another route... My big thing is reading, my big thing is writing. This thing that happened with this band was just amazing for me that I was enabled, via meeting these other amazing people in the band, to be part of something... You mentioned the Manics. I was actually obsessed with the Manics when I was much younger, and Suede. Because of my lack of ability, because I couldn’t play an instrument very well, I couldn’t sing, I always felt slightly... I was always the audience, you know? I was always the spectator and so for this to happen... fucking hell! I can actually do this. Once we got to this point where we were working with a proper producer and working with a new label who were giving us more money than we’d ever had, now’s the time for me to attempt to take myself seriously and give it a go to a certain extent... But no, you’re right, I definitely come from a background which is far more steeped in text, in literature.”
So Shrag are no more. You’ll be needing an outlet, surely. “Well that’s the thing. As soon as we announced it, I had a couple of really amazing offers from other people saying, Would you like to work with me on this musical project or that project? It was incredibly flattering but I feel to a certain extent that... what happened with me is when the band really took off as far as it goes, my writing kind of got sublimated into the band... and that’s fine and I’m incredibly thrilled about it. But I’m quite old now and I feel like I need to... I don’t know, I don’t feel that going and working with someone else would really work, musically, because the link between me and Bob was very specific. Me and Bob did most of the writing. He understood my limitations, he catered for them. It was a relationship that worked very well but I’m not sure it would work with other people, so I kind of think now I want to... I used to write a lot more before Shrag and that’s something I want to... I feel like I have to at least give it a go now. I’ve been writing a lot more, which is great, even over the last three months, so that’s what I’m gonna try for now."
Shifting from one form to another with hardly a moment to pause for breath. It’s a brave leap, coming from under the cover of a band. You have to do it, though. You can’t ignore that urge, that need. “It’s difficult. I let myself off the hook easily and I’m lazy and when you’re in a band, you get to galvanize each other. I’m a bit nervous about it because, yes, I have to do it, I have to try at this point. The people who’ve made me offers to make music, I’ve said that’s incredible but I need to give myself a chance to give the writing thing a go. The sad thing is with this last record... your review really was..." She breaks off and considers. "It made me cry, actually, the first time I read your review.” Sorry! “No, it was just such a lovely... you said some things that made me think, okay, I know implicitly it’s coming to an end and so I thought well maybe I need to, I don’t know, I need to try and pursue the stuff I know I can do on my own and that’s writing. That’s the plan.”
So we talk about writing. Writing and not writing, to be specific. We’re all writers, or so it would seem. But we’re not, or so we would hope. Maybe it’s the older truisms that hold: you’re not a writer if you don’t write. Jesus. How scary is that? “I write... like any other fucker, you know.” I’m guessing fiction, short stories, a novel, taut and and slim, perhaps. “Well. Mmm. I write... I write fiction, I write lots of fiction.” A pause. “You know how people are loathe to tell people because it’s one of those things that means fuck all unless you actually come up with the goods?” Tell me about it! “You too?” Well, yeah, but it’s just so hard, isn’t it? When, you know, you think you’ve got something but finding the momentum and the energy and the goddamn time. “I can tell - what do you do, then, what do you write?” This time the pause is mine. “Your review was so elegant and it made a lasting impression on me. I could tell that you’ve got something, some purpose.”
That’s insanely flattering. And it’s on the page not for reasons of critical self-abuse or dubious public display. But simply to confirm a suspicion, a belief. Namely, that the best writers are of a type. They’re hungry seekers, breathing in as much of the world as they possibly can, in the unshakeable belief that knowing more, seeing more, encountering more will only power and feed the hunger their craft demands. They ask more than others dare ask. They know just how little they know. It’s that self-awareness that often drives them to the brink of madness. Try constructing something as unwieldy and unwilling as a novel from inside a silo, removed from all society. Try crafting a record as multi-layered as Canines with little understanding of, and empathy with, the world just outside your window. It’s an album that drips with curiosity, ever-questioning, deeply mindful of the needs and desires and passions and failings, the complex emotional geometry, of the lives it so starkly documents. And that’s why Helen King asking about a virtual stranger’s writing ties in absolutely with Helen King writing a song like ‘You’re The Shout’ and its killer heartbreak hook: “The sadness that wells up in you, I’d like to rip its heart in two.”
We pursue the point, talk some more about what we both might unleash upon an unsuspecting world and how, when the words come and they come right, there’s no greater joy. Which is why, for King, in part, the music’s on hold. Medium term? Perhaps. Maybe it’s just too sore right now. Certainly, there are bills to pay so there’s teaching, a new and “odd” diversion: “I’m still kind of finding my feet with it. One moment there’s a real joy with it, the next I’m thinking what the fuck am I doing?!”
Maybe, once there’s a line drawn under the band, things will make more sense. For now, there’s something of a legacy to draw comfort from. Shrag were never big but to many they were a big deal. King still isn't sure. “I dunno! I find it pretty difficult to gauge. It’s not really translated into anything, really. We went and did a tiny mini tour back in November. There was hardly anyone there.” Really? “Really. Nothing really translated to any kind of assurance that this was a viable option or this is something that has reached people or whatever. It’s very strange. I don’t really know how to get handle on it. When we announced we were splitting up, we were kind of taken aback by the response. We really didn’t expect that many people to care. But from pretty early on it never really became logistically feasible to do, really.” People are such bastards – crying their eyes out now but where the hell were they for the past decade? “Exactly! We’ve got this one last gig in London on March 15th. We put it on sale on the Friday and by the Monday all the tickets had gone. Fuck! We’ve never sold out anything before!”
After that, they go their separate ways. Drummer Andy (“a consummate musician, incredibly talented”) is in half a dozen bands anyway and recently backed Thurston Moore. Steph Goodman has two bands – Summer Hunter (“a kind of garage-y thing with Neil Palmer out of The Fire Dept”) and the sharply monickered British Teeth. Bassist Russell Warrior’s plans are unclear. What about Bob? (Oh come on!) “I don’t know. Bob’s getting married this year. That’s already taken up a lot of his emotional space and everything. I can’t imagine him not doing something musical, though. He’s one of those people whose default setting is to be writing. Me and him talked about doing something else but at the moment it doesn’t seem right to agree to do that but I’m sure we’ll do something. His pop sensibilities know no bounds as far as I’m concerned. Yep, stuff will happen, I’m sure, for everyone.”
So how best to summarise? You’ll miss it but it won’t kill you? “It’s always been a mixed bag for me, really. Obviously I love it, but it’s always been accompanied by a huge degree of anxiety and self-loathing. I’m like, What am I doing? I didn’t really have any dignity to start with and then each time I did it and the older I got...I dunno. That’s why part of me knows implicitly that it’s right thing to stop now. I’m 32 now and you know, I’m not sure I can jump around and yelp in little dresses any more.“ Don’t tell me now that being the singer in a band isn’t the best thing to do in the world! “I know! I hate myself when I do talk like that ‘cos I think what the fuck – why are you doing it if you’re going to be so narcissistic that you’re paranoid about what it means. Don’t get me wrong. The majority of it is absolutely incredible. I will miss it but I also know that if we did carry on, my neuroses about it would gradually overtake what’s valuable and pleasurable about it.”
And that’s where, as a mere fan, you have to put aside all your bleating and hand-wringing, and simply nod, smile and thank god we had Shrag for as long as we did. And it surely takes a special kind of courage to not only recognise the right time to go but to take comfort from going out on a high: Canines is some testament. “I derive a certain amount of peace from that. And it’s just ultimately a very practical thing. The effort of making a record... everybody has full time jobs. The time, the effort. You do something that takes a lot out of you and you think, well, this isn’t actually our job. We’re not doing this full time. I would hate for us to labour on and come up with something underwhelming. I feel good about Canines. I feel good about it. I can listen to it without cringing, which I can’t really do with the other two records! It feels okay. It feels like this is a good point to stop, you know? It feels... it feels alright.”