Raincoats 1978, with Jeremie Frank, Gina, Anna, Richard Dudanski (in front)
PHOTO BY SHIRLEY O'LOUGHLIN
Gina Birch interview, Part II
by David Gavan
(Continued from Part 1 of the article)
PSF: When you came down to London, you didn't seem to be overly intimidated by your new surroundings. I recall hearing on the radio that your father would always exert himself to provide a secure environment. Was it that your stable upbringing left you ready to take risks?
GB: Yeah, I do say that about my home; that it was a safe place from which to fly. I didn't have a sense of danger: in fact, I needed to actually feel a bit of something edgy. If you're wrapped up in cotton wool, sometimes you want to fight your way out of it.
PSF: Cities can be dicey places. Did you have traumatic experiences?
GB: (Laughing ruefully) Oh, all of those experiences had already happened in Nottingham. If I was walking down a London street in an area where I'd need to have all of my faculties about me, I'd walk as if I were larger than I was. I'd put a bounce, and sometimes a lurch, into my step; that way, I felt like I was the monster on the road. And then it was okay...
PSF: I'd like to ask you about the Raincoats' lyrics. "Dancing In My Head" (1981) was written and sung by you, wasn't it? The song's sense of spiritual striving is very affecting, and I'm wondering where this springs from.
GB: There is always a residue of something intangible, but important that resides within us. If you're thinking politically, sometimes you think that there is something missing; something that's fallen out of the bottom of your heart or soul; and you're left wanting something indefinable. I mean, my husband is one of the most amazingly lovely people that I know, and he is not in the slightest bit religious. For me, that sort of goodness has to come from something that I call spirituality. If you're Catholic, from the time you come out of the womb, you're given this stuff about the whiteness of the soul, and sinning, and forgiveness. I don't know how you were brought up, but I spent a lot of time in the confessional box. And there is something terrible about Catholicism, but there's something very pure about it as well.
PSF: People who have been brought up Catholic and lose their faith often seem to have drained souls, which they try to fill with something else.
GB: (Laughing) Interesting. I think there's another song in there somewhere!
PSF: The lyrics of songs such as "Family Treet," "Odyshape," "And Then It's O.K." sound like experimental poetry. "Family Treet" portrays how women "succumb" to the "dumb processions" of "family, class and nation." Such songs hint at the fugitive insights we glimpse in daily life during our unformatted little moments. Say you get the morning off school for a dental appointment as a kid, and can enjoy a sanctioned skiving from your social role. Sloping back to your dreaded school, you see the various functions people perform in order to keep the system going, and clock that life could be more than what we're fobbed off with. The Raincoats specialise in these miniature epiphanies, and that may explain why people respond to your work so keenly. Kids have big thoughts, but not the language to express them, and there's a lot of that in the Raincoats' words. The ineffable thoughts aren't over-intellectualized, so we can latch onto them without feeling overawed.
GB: That's really interesting. Well, Caroline Scott [who did the accounts for Rough Trade, wrote the words to "Family Treet" with Vicki Aspinall] is a great lyricist. She was Vicki's great friend, and she really wrote a lot. Vicki was a bit terrified of writing lyrics-although she was very good at it, but she had a lot of different terrors. Vicki was an extremely clever child. She was moved a year or more ahead of the kids her own age at school, and I think that's really scary, because you're academically able, but not necessarily at that level emotionally. And I think that that eroded some of her confidence. Ana studied languages at university. She's about eight years older than me, so she's amazing, because, when the band started, she didn't say: "I've done all of this intellectual stuff, therefore I can write all of the lyrics..."
PSF: She wasn't a snob.
GB: No! Also, Ana came from a Portuguese island called Madeira, and had watched the birth of rock 'n' roll from afar. She adored the Beatles, and loved the idea of a band in which each member wrote songs. Ana really liked the notion that a band could be four characters, each bringing their creative sensibilities to a group effort. So, I really respect her for having that collaborative spirit; because it would have been easy for her to say to me: "What you've written is shit." The first song that I wrote was "No One's Little Girl," which was a splurge of ideas. And then I wrote "In Love." These songs were made up of thoughts that just crossed my mind; they weren't particularly poetic. They were the blurtings of the thoughts that came into my head when I was on the top of a bus. Mayo Thompson has said that I have an antennae, a good instinct for things. Whereas Ana's words were much more considered and poetic and she'd been writing words and lines in notebooks for some time. She had studied literature and languages, and was much more in the zone! So it was interesting that we had this difference in creative experience. I mean, if I'd have been some great literary scholar - an expert in Lorca's work, say- and we were all competing for the high art accolades, the band would have been a mess. We were in different, but complementary, artistic places, and that's what gives the work its curious character. You're approaching the songwriting from these different perspectives, and kind of understanding yet not understanding one another. And sometimes fighting, as bands do. So, because Ana loved the fact that each of the Beatles had their own identity and wrote and sang, she was keen for each of us to contribute and sing lyrics.
PSF: When you came to record Odyshape (Mar - June 1980), you had improved your communal compositional powers quite strikingly.
GB: Around the time of our first album, Ana already had the lyrics to "Fairytale in the Supermarket" and "You're a Million," so there's a depth and, to some degree, a darkness to Ana's words. But, then there's the kind of lightness of Palmolive and me. By the time of the Odyshape album, we were beginning to find our feet. Shirley O'Loughlin [the Raincoats' manager and collaborator] says that she always sees Odyshape as being more my album, because by then, I was more musically adept.
PSF: You seem to have great inborn songwriting abilities.
GB: Well, I was always singing tunelessly in the back of the car, as a kid, and my dad would be screaming: "Shut up, Gina!"
PSF: What sort of bands' tunes would you sing?
GB: I'm talking about when I was a child, so not necessarily bands, just songs. We'd sing "How Many Legs Has Daddy Long Legs Got?" Or "We All Live in a Green Jaguar." Just family favourites. But I love music and can rock out to it endlessly. As a child, we had the Beatles, the Searchers, and Herman's Hermits were a big deal to a young girl like me. The first single that I ever bought was "No Milk Today" (October 1966).
PSF: It's a long, zigzaggy progression from the sixties' chirpiness of that tune and the mind-rewiring inventiveness of the Odyshape album. How worked out were the songs before you reached the studio? How much studio improvisation was there? What were the circumstances?
GB: When Palmolive left, Ingrid Weiss played with us as those songs were formed. She brought the beginning melody of "Shouting Out Loud" with her, which was beautiful. So, she played the drums on that, and I had written the title track "Odyshape" around that time. So, that's my guitar riff, and Vicki's playing bass on that. So, Ingrid was there for those two songs before leaving. Then, suddenly, we had no drummer, which seems odd to me. So, it was me, Ana and Vicki, and we'd just make up these tunes and weave them together. By this point, we all had cassette players, so you could record your funny little riffs. Then, if you had two cassette players, you could do overdubs. We'd go down to my dark, damp basement, and knit together these melodies. On "Then It's O.K," Robert Wyatt came and put the drums on after we'd recorded it. That tune stops and starts and wiggles all over the place, but Robert was such an incredible drummer that he chased the song wherever it led, and he did us proud. Then, Charles Hayward from This Heat turned up, and he played on quite a few of the tunes.
PSF: You played guitar on "Only Loved at Night," didn't you? Your riff reminds me of Kaleidoscope-era (1980) John McGeogh [guitarist of the Banshees]. Had you been listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees?
GB: No, I can't say that I had, but I was very interested in drones. Mayo Thompson came to work with us on our first single, "Fairytale in the Supermarket" [he produced the song with Rough Trade's Geoff Travis, and the pair also produced the Raincoats' self-titled first album]. We talked a lot about John Cale, drones and the Velvet Underground. I always thought that it was interesting to have a not moving note in a given chord, so that you get this clanging drone sound going on. Drones still really interest me.
PSF: Sometimes, Aspinall's violin playing reminds me of Urban Blitz's contributions to Doctors of Madness, especially the imperious soaring of "Go Away."
GB: Really? [She sings it to me] That comes from the bassline: I do think that, sometimes, the bassline gets picked up by other band members when songs are being moulded.
PSF: Also, there's a majestically hymnal vocal melody in "Baby Song," which seems to be presaged by the bassline [I sing it].
GB: (laughing) I know the bit you mean.
Raincoats, live at Aklam Hall- Vicki, Palmolive, Ana, Gina
PHOTO BY SHIRLEY O'LOUGHLIN
PSF: Apart from punk giving musical novices permission to be creative, did your art school education embolden you to take a conceptual approach to your music? "I Should Have Known Better," on the art college-educated Wire's album 154 (1979), sounds like aural pencil shading. And John Foxx told one of his art school tutors that he planned to enact his conceptual training by forming a rock band.
GB: Yeah, I definitely think that art college had an important role to play in the approach that many of us took to music. But the only time that I can remember consciously enacting an art theory was with systems music, which was happening alongside punk. There was an interest in that at Hornsey College of Art, where Ana and I went. Punk was seen as being pretty hideous, but a couple of guys were doing systems music in the 4D room, and that was highly-praised. Bruce McLean [the sculptor, performance artist and painter] did a show and Michael Nyman did the music. So, while we were recording the first album, I suddenly said: "Come on, let's have a section in here where we do systems music!" So I was standing there going: "Okay, we're gonna go: 1,2; 1,2,3,4,5; 1,2,3; 1, 2; 1,2,3,4,5,6; 1,2; 1,2,3,4..." That way, the emphasis keeps shifting and changing, and you can't work out where the piece is going. But, yeah, in the broader sense, art school had liberated us from trying to fit in with other people's ideas. But after the systems music excursion, we were fairly free-form.
PSF: Which other life experiences fed into the band's creativity?
GB: For me, as far as tune-making goes, a lot of it came from hymns. You know, those hymns you sing every morning at assembly, and on Sundays as well. So, those tunes are very much part of your musical paintbox. In the Raincoats, we didn't compartmentalize hymns, musicals or rock 'n' roll. We just let the music flow and didn't censor ourselves, even if a riff sounded like a hymn or something from The Sound of Music. That wouldn't have worried us; that would have made us laugh. There was a sense of joy in melody that wasn't shackled in any way.
PSF: So you were happy to incorporate ideas, without following rock blueprints or worrying about what was stylish?
GB: The good thing was that Ana said to us: "I don't want to hear about verse, bridge, chorus, middle eight. We'll just play whichever bit comes next." Had Ana not had that attitude, I may well have thought: "Ooh, I think I should put a middle eight in here at this point, so now I have to find some slightly different chords...And then we have a more melodic part, and that must be the chorus." That DID happen sometimes, but it wasn't a conscious decision to conform.
PSF: Many musical novices don't have the confidence to be original.
GB: The vital thing is to find your own voice, and that's one thing that you can't learn from other, older people. But then, if you are trying to scrabble through all of the stuff you've heard and find something that feels like you, that IS very difficult. Really, as a young person, you don't know who you are, what you're capable of, or what your ultimate nature is. So, it's a matter of not editing out your own little obsessions or idiosyncrasies; imperfections are often the best bits. When I first came to London, I'd go and see this performance group called The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes. They were slightly deliberate mistakes, but they had these little patterns where they'd follow the behaviour of the person before. They would have to embrace the mistake and make another mistake, so the performance was in a constant flux. But I always embrace mistakes, because they lead to creativity, I think. And if a tune sounds uncool, then there's got to be something in it.
PSF: One of Brian Eno and Peter schmidt's Oblique Strategies cards reads: "Honour thy error as a hidden intention."
GB: That sounds perfect! Vicki Aspinall and I did do the [new pop-ish] Dorothy album, on which we did a lot of ironing out, and it doesn't make for better, in my view. Apparently, when Polly Harvey recorded her To Bring you My Love (1995) album, the process began with her bringing these incendiary demo tapes for Flood and John Parish to hear. So, they made the studio album, but when they compared the demos with their first attempt at the album, they said: "Oh my God, the demos sound so much better!" So they had to go back and weave in the glory of the original versions. What made them great? The immediacy, the non-ironing out, the space?
PSF: Punk ushered in the experimentation of post-punk, but between 1983 - 85, many of the best bands, such as Orange Juice, the Associates, the Comsat Angels, Magazine, Gang of Four, etc., lost focus or broke up. The early eighties seemed to be the peak of avant-garde rock. Then we had acid house/rave, which could be seen as an MDMA-assisted death disco celebration for the end of manufacturing industry in Britain.
This led to the lockdown of a new retro-loop culture, in which the pop-historical iPod became jammed on shuffle mode. Instead of innovation, we had a constant re-enactment of past cultural moments. Dorothy was your new pop moment. How you feel about that now?
GB: My favourite saying has always been a paraphrase of Kierkegaard's: "You live life forwards but understand it backwards." Once we embraced Thatcher and the drum machine, life became really tricky. For us, punk seemed to have withered on the vine, and the whole new romantic thing didn't interest me. Now I kick myself for not finding out more about the Taboo club and Leigh Bowery. It WAS interesting, but I think I was just in mourning for what had been lost. Grieving because the sense of freedom that women had enjoyed during the punk era seemed to have evaporated. Suddenly, there were lovely men being better women than we were. So there was a sense of displacement. And then Green Gartside giving up on the communal idea and saying that he was the leader of Scritti; it felt as though money was suddenly being put on a pedestal. Whereas, before that, money was, not wicked, but irrelevant to our world. So, when yuppieism swept in, we thought: "Am I missing something here?!" Suddenly, the world moves on, and you realize that everyone else owns a mobile phone, and you have a Golden Syrup can and a piece of string. Then you go: "Perhaps I'm wrong, and there is something good about all of this."
PSF: Did these feelings influence the formation of Dorothy with Vicki Aspinall in 1984?
GB: Yeah, they did.
PSF: You're quoted as saying the following in The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era: "I do know that when it (punk) was all over, there was a deathly silence... You know, there was Madonna and Annie Lennox, kind of Cindy Sherman-esque in seeming to say: "I can be what I choose to be, with my leather pants on one day, and my overalls on another day." So, Dorothy was you and Vicki performing that subversive Sherman-esque postmodern pluralism?
GB: Yes. Judith Williamson [cultural studies professor] had written a great piece about Cindy Sherman, which I quote badly by referencing that "I can be what I choose to be, how I choose to dress" idea; so that's what Vicki and I were trying to do. I don't think we were quite smart enough to carry it off, but we liked the theory, and wrote songs that vaguely reflected that. So, yeah, Dorothy was our new pop moment, and we spent aeons in a very expensive recording studio with some very new technology. Not least, a computer, which everyone struggled to get the best out of. So, we sat and ate lovely meals, watching people desperately trying to be creative with that computer."
PSF: Although much is made of punk being a cultural "year zero," there was a mixing together of hippie and punk idea(l)s, wasn't there? Dave Laing wrote that, contra to the majors, the Rough Trade record label owed the most to the head shops and underground magazines of the hippie era. Also, people such as Poly Styrene had been involved in hippie culture before punk. So, there wasn't a clear point of transition between the hippie movement and punk, was there?
GB: I think that's true. I think John Lydon was one of the people who said: "There's a bunch of fuckin' hippies at Rough Trade!" There was definitely an interesting crossover between hippies and punks, and that intermixing was one of the good things about Rough Trade; this also contributed to its longevity. That cultural blend leant an intellectual depth to Rough Trade Records that went beyond the self-destructive, explosive nihilism that Malcolm McLaren was into.
PSF: I know that you were reading about the Dada movement at art college, and hippies and punks both drew on that, as well as Surrealism and Situationism. Also, the Romantics' and Symbolists' ideas seeped into both movements. So there really were interesting crossovers. How do you feel about the Camille Paglia's notion that men with highly developed Jungian animas (female side) - men such as Marcel Proust, David Bowie and Stephane Mallarme - tend to drive civilisation forward. Kathleen Hanna is quoted in the Jenn Pelly book The Raincoats (2017) evoking Helene Cixous' idea of "ecriture feminine" (female writing), in preference to the argued linearity of male writing, which is (apparently) doomed to mirror the progress of the male orgasm. But Cixous also mentioned that certain men, such as Proust and Mallarme, were making better "ecriture feminine" than women.
GB: That does ring true to me. I love Boy George and Marilyn, for example, but their emergence just made me feel that there wasn't any need for women like me anymore. As I say, Annie Lennox and Madonna were there, but they were more mainstream pop stars, so they were very different from us.
PSF: The young Siouxsie reminded me of Ziggy Stardust, with shades of Iggy. So, you had this woman copping the moves of men who looked somewhat feminine. It felt slightly disorientating.
GB: Very like that "Lola" song by the Kinks that we covered! Siouxsie was the only one left standing from our generation, and more power to her. Although it's a shame there weren't some women players in the band, as well as her. The thing that makes the Slits, the Raincoats and the Mo-dettes interesting, I think, is that you can't say that some bloke orchestrated or edited our contribution. We actually did the whole bloody thing ourselves.
Also see The Raincoats website
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