Different Girls Every Night: the Lemuria interview

There’s a running joke in the office that I don’t actually like music. This is only partly true. No burning desire for novelty or the next new thing, for sure. “More selective,” says I. Happier with those rarer works that mosey into my head, decide they like the feel of the place and decide to camp out for the summer. The ones that define a season; the ones that still count months later. Not to dismiss the flush of the moment, of course. The cheap buzz, the gaudy thrill, they all have their place - but give me a reason to invest. Let me love.

So when I still occasionally fall, I fall hard. I fell so hard for Lemuria that to pretend to objectivity is a charade. But y’know, I have enough miles on the clock to know not to be creepy about it. This year’s J. Robbins [Jawbox, Burning Airlines]-produced Pebble continues their musical journey, their uncommon capacity for being able to articulate the peaks and troughs of this dirt-track we call life. You may wonder what the fuss is about (but not if your collection is heavy on US indie c. 1992-95) but if you do, I will pass on by and wonder if there’s a beating heart there behind those ribs.

A few years back I missed what turned out to be Sleater-Kinney’s last UK show because it was mid-week, I was tired and it was a 200 mile round trip. Regrets? I’ve had a few. Working on the basis that, in the end, the seasons are a series of moments and we should squeeze as many moments in as we can, I vowed never to let such happenstance occur again - at least for bands that matter. So far, only Lemuria have inspired such dedication.

On their third trip to the UK they brought with them Illinois’ Cheap Girls for a double-header that rocked these socks. (An aside: I learn the more I like a band, the duller the questions asked. Apologies in advance. They deserve better.)

Who knew places like Manchester’s Star & Garter still existed? Oh, this sheltered life. There may be Smiths memorabilia on the walls but there’s an inch or two of water in the Gents and the pints come in cans. You know those city-specific true crime books you find at train stations? We’re sure the S&G must make a cameo: “Brownlee was brutally gunned down in the back room of the Star & Garter, revenge for robbing the Whalley Range Post Office - Finnegan turf ...” TMF colleague Gary K arrives just as Cheap Girls are launching into their emotive blend of heavyweight power pop, having only just avoided being mistaken for a punter by some of the street girls outside. Whether this is a common occurrence, I hesitate to ask. Earlier, local support Crash Of Rhinos are fairly bruising in a twin bass, post-Mogwai way. They are taking a sabbatical so that one member can go to India.

Lemuria have been playing some bigger stages back home and you can tell: they’re a bit more confident, a bit more mobile. The crowd, bigger than most mid-week gigs in more established venues are engaged from the outset. Somebody goes solo down the front - not dancing, it’s more a singing / finger pointing affair. Everybody else seems happy enough to just sing along. The next few days are not going to be a chore.

Since your last visit, you’ve been joined by Max on bass. Tell me how you guys hooked up.

Max Gregor (bass): We first met about six years ago in Vermont. I was doing the sound at a club they were playing at. I’ll say it was love at first sight: they played in the middle of a mediocre hardcore show and it was like ‘Holy shit!’ and we kept in touch ever since. And then last summer we were on tour together and we hung out for a couple of months. Then their last bass player ran into some immigration problems and got stuck in Canada, so the guys asked if I could step in and help them out.

Have you recorded as a band yet?

Max: The first practice that we had was actually in the studio while J Robbins was doing the mixing for Pebble.

Sheena Ozzella (vocals, guitar): Ryan, our Canadian bassist had already recorded the bass lines …

Alex Kerns (drums, vocals): But he wasn’t allowed back into the country half-way through the session. He finished his lines, went home to visit his girlfriend and on his way back to play a show he was caught. He can come into the country now for 24 hours. He lives right on the border. We live in Buffalo, NY and he lives not more than half-an-hours’ drive from us. He has a bakery now - he’s doing alright!

Liverpool’s Mello Mello is on the same street as the legendary Jacaranda Club where a pre-Brian Epstein Beatles learned some of their trade. In what’s becoming a trend the facilities are slightly damp underfoot. The bands have some time to kill but plans to visit the likes of Strawberry Fields and John Lennon’s childhood home are sunk by driver Pawel falling asleep after too many hours on the road. We leave him be and head down towards town instead. A guy walks past with a blow-up doll, only half-hidden by a plastic bag. Welcome to England.

Cheap Girls’ Adam complains of a full bladder. Liverpool One shopping centre may have cost in excess of £1 billion, but ‘rest rooms’ seem few and far between. We eventually find somewhere and everyone uses the break to grab an ice cream from a van: ‘That guy has it easy,’ notes Alex. ‘One flavour of ice cream and one flavour of sauce.’ In the UK, we are just glad to have enough sunshine to justify an ice cream, much in the same way we are mostly content with the minor pleasures of a Rich Tea biscuit. Not for us the retail rainbow of the Americas. A Fred Perry store catches Max’s attention (‘We don’t have these in the States’). It’s a last minute equaliser for British commerce: 1-1!

Down by the waterside I mumble something about how the local sailors used to bring back rock ‘n’ roll and early Motown from New York, giving the formative Fab Four and their contemporaries first dibs on the new musics they would take to the provinces and back out and across the North Sea to Hamburg. The bands humour me by pretending to listen before a brief stop at the dockside Beatles shop serves as a reminder that when it comes to unfettered consumerism, nothing sells to Japanese tourists like a Yellow Submarine tea towel or a scale model of the house Ringo was born in. Me, I’m just glad the colonies are still making the music I want to listen to.

Back at the venue, things take a turn for the strange as a group of young women simply appear, intent on bedecking the room as if for a special occasion. The bunting and balloons, although low-tech, add a little colour. There are cakes on the merch stall in aid of a local women’s roller-derby crew. It’s all rather fun, unpretentious and good natured.

How did the hook up with J Robbins come about?

Alex: We just emailed him! We knew we wanted to record with him. We’d been listening to Jawbox a lot …

Sheena: It took a little while to set up but we were still writing for the album in the meantime so it all worked out OK.

Was there something in particular that you wanted him to bring to the recording?

Sheena: I got some amp advice - when we did the first run through with my amp I thought ‘Ahh .. I’m not really diggin’ it so we sat down and tried to work out a sound that we both enjoyed that would ultimately help the sound of the record. He would offer suggestions but he wasn’t pushy - he was like ‘What do you think about this?’

Alex: We listened to a lot of records he’d worked on. It has a real up-front vibe to it; real honest recordings.

You spend so much time on the road - do you use that time to write?

Sheena: Just about everything we’ve written was done at home. Sometimes we’ll run over things at soundchecks but songs mostly come together at practices.

Do you ever have songs that you think ‘This isn’t working’ when it comes to play them in front of an audience?

Sheena: When we finish an album we’d like to think everything could be played live …

Alex: But sometimes you think ‘Oh, this one is a bit long to play …'

Sheena: Or if a song has some keyboard or something, you might re-work it or get someone to come along to play a few shows.

After a few songs, I realise I’ve seen Mieow Mieow’s Vaselines-driven indie pop before - supporting Lemuria no less - in a bar in Sunderland. In another brain-not-what-it-used-to-be moment, I also realise I know Voo too (from a TMF review no less), their well-received emo belying the fact that while they might not win any beauty contests, their music has a prettiness the Kerrang version of the genre has forgotten. After spending so much time cooped up in a van, Cheap Girls seem tired but tunes like ‘Hey Hey, I’m Worn Out’ are, ironically, a boost for the soul.

If anything, the sunshine and fresh air has lifted Lemuria’s heads, because they’re furious. The audience demand more songs and they pull the sweet refrains of ‘Ozzy’ out from the bag, more evidence that they don't lose anything by taking the foot off the pedal. New guy Max, for his part, is left prostrate on the stage, exhausted. It’s a killer set and it’s why they win people over every time they play. They have a long, early crossing to Cork the next day so we leave them to wind down and get packed up.

A few days later, Glasgow is windy but quiet compared to what is happening elsewhere in the country. A notice strapped to a lamppost details that forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster World War Z will be filming in the city centre at the end of the month. As the flames lick England’s suburbs it seems strangely prescient. Word comes through that the shows in Birmingham and London are cancelled: there’s a car on fire outside the promoter’s house and a van full of gear might prove too tempting for the bands of hooded kids roaming the streets. It’s a big blow for a tour where every customer counts and every ticket sold helps keep the van on the road.

You’ve been playing some shows in the US with the likes of Against Me! and Superchunk. What have those bigger stages been like?

Alex: It’s a little more intimidating. You’re playing to people who don’t know or like you. People will clap at the right places, but often the people in the front few rows are the least interested!

Sheena: They’re bored out of their minds!

Alex: They’re great to play but there’s a different vibe from our own shows. But then that’s the same for any band. When Against Me! opened up for Green Day, they’ll experience the same thing.

Max: Sometimes the bigger stages just give you the chance to move around and not fall over things. I don’t like the barriers though: sometimes the stage is so high and the barriers so far away … and the lighting is so intense. It’s a bit weird … the applause is so far away!

Has it given you a taste for bigger things?

Alex: We’d maybe like to do half-and-half. If a band we like asks, we’ll do it because those kinds of tours can only help our own. Some of the kids might come along to our regular shows.

Sheena: We’ve made a lot of friends and contacts over the years, especially in the States, so you want to keep those people in your life. Half-and-half lets you keep that balance.

Your new label Bridge 9 seem to have been supportive of what you’ve wanted to do so far.

Sheena: They answer your calls and emails!

Alex: Mike at Asian Man was great but when we told him about the Bridge 9 offer he was like ‘You should do it!’ He does the label all by himself, so just having people who can deal with publicity when we're on tour, that kind of thing, is a big help.

Sheena: They’re still small so you know everyone who works there. They come out to see us when we play close to them.

Tell me little bit how this tour came together, because it’s a long one and it includes places you’ve not played before like Italy, Poland and Russia.

Alex: The Russian tour is almost its own thing because Cheap Girls aren’t going on that. The guy who booked the European and UK dates asked us if there was a band we wanted to tour with and we’ve played with Cheap Girls quite a bit so it seemed like an ideal package.

Max: There was something way earlier in the year starting to come together for Europe and that kinda fell through but we were like ‘We really wanna go to Europe!’ so the booker said ‘If you want to come, come!’

You’re about half way through the tour now. What are you still looking forward to?

Sheena: Our driver is from Poland so it’ll be great to have someone to show us around. As for Russia - I never thought I would get to go to Russia.

Alex: We’re not going to have the van in Russia - we’re travelling to all the shows by train, so that’ll be interesting.

What kind of diplomatic hoops did you need to jump through for the Russian leg?

Max: We went online to start the application process and it was like the day they changed the way you apply, so we were like test subjects for the whole process.

Sheena: And the site to even get the application wasn’t even working. I didn’t realise that they take your passport when you apply for a visa!

Alex: And we were leaving for Europe and we needed our passports! We were like ‘We need them now!’

I haven’t been to the 13th Note for a decade. They still have soya sausages on the menu and the basement performance space still smells like sweat and stale air. The toilets are a positive palace compared to earlier dates. Pensioners are from Dundee and play that intricate post-hardcore/emo thing that’s for the young folks. They have a track called ‘Enter Shakira’ (funny) and another called ‘Massey Ferguson’. Who can hate a tractor buff? I spend most of my time watching the drummer and thinking that while the state of manners may be in decline, kids today are pretty phenomenal behind the kit.

It doesn’t bode well for Cheap Girls as Ian’s full pint of Guinness falls onto the floor during the first song but by now the songs are firmly lodged in the brain. It’s tempting to think no-one should be able to do anything fresh with those chord changes, but CG find new melodies and have found new fans on this tour. They have a third album in the wings and it may be the one that finally gets them the notice they deserve.

Most of the t-shirts in the crowd are for punk and hardcore bands: Lemuria aren’t either, but the punx seem to love ‘em. It strikes me that they function as the indie Motorhead, the crossover band that everyone likes no matter what side of the fence they're on. Sheena spends at least half the show with a wide smile across her face - and rightly so. It’s like they finally realised what a totally killer band they are; now the world just needs to play catch up.

Sometimes in these situations, the instinct is to be precious: Don’t ever change! Be my secret! But Lemuria are the only band to have ever made me cry - a reminder that music can still move even the most jaded heart. Instead of playing basements they should be on the late night talk shows - and, in talking to them, you get the sense that they too now believe that to be true.


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