As the feverish Britpop love-in continues, with artists and bands from the 90s most, arguably, successful music scene either facing reverent accolades by a music press running out of ideas or are inevitably re-discovered by a new generation, the Monolith Cocktail has refused to get all dewy-eyed and reminisce. Probing and cutting to the core of that period, Sean Bw Parker has interviewed some of the key players and most enduring artists from those heady days, including Danny McNamara of Embrace (in the process we believe, getting the universal exclusive on their return and new album in 2014) and Martin Carr, formerly of The Boo Radleys (another exclusive).
One of the most creative and as Sean puts it, ‘…compelling, incendiary bands’, to be lazily lumped into the Britpop club, Lush formed almost a decade before that genres peak, in the late 80s, a progenitor of the ‘shoegaze’ scene alongside bands such as Slowdive. Sean catches up with the former band’s vocalist/guitarist Emma Anderson, who founded the group with her Queen’s College, London, school friend Miki Berenyi. As a keen music fan she started up the Alphabet Soup music fanzine and featured in numerous band line-ups until Lush took off in 1988. Anderson would go on to start a new band Sing-Sing in 1997 with vocalist Lisa O’Neill, before calling it quits on New Years day 2008. Anderson currently resides in Hastings and spends her time…well, ‘tinkering’.
At close of the 80s and beginning of the nineties, Lush were one of Britain’s most compelling, incendiary bands. What were your thoughts when Nirvana arrived?
Well, that very nice of you to say that about Lush. I am not sure we saw it that way but then you don’t when you are actually the protagonists! Nirvana? I didn’t think very much actually (if you mean…did we see them as some sort of ‘competition’? – which is a ridiculous notion). At first I thought, musically, they were a bit of a follow on from the Pixies, actually though I was aware they had grown out of the Seattle grunge scene (which I wasn’t particularly a massive fan of). I liked Nevermind and used to play it a lot but I never saw Nirvana live. Cobain undoubtedly was a massive talent though and I liked the fact he was very knowledgeable of British underground music (e.g. he was a huge fan of The Vaselines) so it was refreshing to see someone like that achieve such mainstream success. How that success finally affected him was obviously tragic and he died way too soon. Very sad.
What did and do you think of the tags ‘The Scene That Celebrates Itself’ and ‘Shoegaze’?
Well, they’re kind of tiresome, obviously. The Scene That Celebrates itself wasn’t so much of a ‘musical’ term, i.e. invented to describe a genre; it was coined to talk about bands that (in the press’s eyes) allegedly used to hang out at gigs propping up the bar and that ‘all’ went to an indie disco club called Syndrome in Oxford Street every Thursday evening. Of course it was all massively exaggerated and sensationalized. I think I only went to Syndrome twice ever. ’Shoegazing’, on the other hand, was more of a ‘music/genre’ term though it was essentially invented to ridicule bands that supposedly had long fringes and stared at their shoes mainly because they were using so many effects pedals to produce these ‘sonic cathedrals of guitar swathes’ (type stuff). Again, though, like so many of these terms it was lazy. I don’t actually think our music sounded very much like, say, Slowdive’s. ’Shoegazing’ wasn’t a term of endearment, that’s for sure, but it stuck and the irony with that is I think at the time certain sectors of the press, music business and even music fans thought that this ’scene’ would probably be quite short-lived and the music would die away and be forgotten; it wasn’t to be taken seriously. That hasn’t actually turned out to be the case.
In term of Lush’s public image at the time, it seemed that Miki Berenyi was the feisty party girl, while you were more of the mysterious wallflower songwriter (with furious moments). Is that how you see it?
Ha, no! I am not even sure that is what the public image was…did Miki have more of a party girl image purely because she had red hair? In terms of our social lives she certainly wasn’t going out more than I was. Maybe my lyrics were more kind of veiled than hers – some of her lyrics were very direct and mine tended to be more obscure…I don’t know! At the end of the day, she was the lead singer and had red hair but I think it’s very lazy to assume that she was more outgoing than me. For one thing, Miki wrote half the songs for Lush and she was a bloody good songwriter. Also, if anything, in certain aspects it was I that was more driven and outspoken certainly when it came to opinions re the band and what we were doing.
It seems in retrospect that Lush’s most commercially successful period came after the early eighties alternative movements, into the Britpop time of riches. How did that affect the psychology within the band, and between the members?
Ergh, whatever happened to the psychology within the band around the time of Britpop and Lovelife I don’t attribute to the type of music we were playing or what was around musically at the time. I think a lot of the way we were feeling (which, I don’t really need to state, was quite negative) was due to the people that surrounded us, who had been quite important at our inception, were now hardly anywhere to be seen. Ivo wasn’t as present anymore, Tim Carr, who had signed us to Warners in the USA, had left the label. Some of the people we had got on with at 4AD had also gone and we had new management that, I have to say, was not really right for the band. I would blame a lot of the problems on the fact we felt a little at sea as we weren’t really dealing with people who were on our wavelength or understood us as people or as a collective. It led us all the kind of withdrawing into ourselves, I think, and we weren’t really communicating properly with each other anymore. Add to that the massive pressure to ‘break’ America, which had been there from day one and it, was a fairly toxic mix. It was odd because Lovelife was the most commercially successful album we had put out (in the UK anyway – not in the US that was Spooky) and we were enjoying the extra exposure to a certain extent (it didn’t lead to any extra financial benefit, I should state!!) but underneath things weren’t so great. Being in a band wasn’t ‘fun’ anymore and it should be. We weren’t being supported or listened to by anyone. Personally, I felt very alone and was seriously questioning why I was doing this, as it seemed very different to when we had started and had been dealing with some great people who were genuinely fans of what we were doing. That had all changed and we just felt like a commodity that was being marketed – especially in the USA. The human aspect seemed to have long gone. It was not a good time.
How do you look back on the Lovelife album now, and particularly the single ‘Ladykillers’?
To be honest, it’s my least favourite album. There are good songs on there but I am not keen on the production approach (though it’s well produced) which, at the time, was an attempt to try and capture the immediacy of our live sound but I think in that process we lost something. I like all the effects we used on earlier albums and EPs etc. But with Lovelife there was a conscious effort to move away from that. Maybe we were sick of the ‘always the bridesmaid but never the bride’ notion from the press that (we thought) had been directed at us for a while (which was referring to the fact that most of our peers were getting into the Top 40 but could never seemed to achieve that, though ‘For Love’ had charted at 35 in 1992). Therefore, I think when we wrote the songs, Miki and I were moving away from the more languorous feel that was on Split and were aiming for a more ‘upbeat’ feel that fitted more with the times (though I would add there was no ‘masterplan’ behind that – it just happened) but…when I listen to Lush, and I do now and again I actually can’t listen to that album. I would add that that is probably also because of the associations I have with events that occurred at the time too and the way those events made me feel. (I don’t really have an opinion on ‘Ladykillers’ as separate to the rest of the album).
A difficult subject, but Lush split up after drummer Chris Acland committed suicide in 1996. Can you give a deeper insight into how things were at the time, and how you see that moment now?
I have said all I can do re this in earlier answers and don’t want to add to that, Sorry.
Which of your albums, with Lush or Sing-Sing, are you most proud of, and why? And least proud of?
My favourite Lush album is Spooky. I am really fond of the pop, bubblegum sound of it. As you are probably aware, Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins) produced it and, even thought it has its obvious flaws (and a lot of the criticism it received was based upon how our ’sound’ had been drowned out by Robin’s over-effected production), it still appeals to me more a little more than the others. I like its ‘weirdness’ and the kind of space age feel it conveys. It’s a very pop album and I think the most positive one mood wise. It makes me smile.
The Joy of Sing-Sing is my favourite Sing-Sing album I would even go as far as to say that, I think out of every album I have made (including Lush ones), as a body of work it’s the best. It’s the most consistent and one I can listen to as a whole, which I find a little difficult with the Lush ones. It’s a bloody good album and should have received way more attention.
If anything, the one I am probably least proud of is the second Sing-Sing album Sing-Sing and I. It has some really good songs on it but it’s a mish-mash of producers, mixers and it lacks cohesion. I also think that personally I was running out of steam by the time we made it. Sing-Sing was very hard work and by the time we did that album I was working so hard on managing the band and the label I think it affected my songwriting capabilities. I do agree with the argument of let the musicians be the creative people and let other people do the admin (well, to a certain extent!).
I am proud of everything I have done though. I am probably being very picky as you are making me really think about this! None of it is perfect and I would probably go back and change bits if I could but I think everyone that makes records thinks that. They are probably a little weird if they don’t.
At the time that your music became successful, it looked as if with enough hard work and hard partying, an indie band could indeed break through and achieve what they wanted. Then the internet came along and blew everything to smithereens. Do you think Lush would have survived through what was necessary if they were starting out now?
I don’t think Lush would fare very well in 2014. The thing that strikes me the most about bands that start out nowadays is that they are fully formed from day one. The DIY/punk aspect, that I think Lush still benefitted from at the end of the 1980s when we started, has long gone and people now expect bands to be able to play and sing like a professionals from their first recording. Even some singers in ‘alternative’ bands nowadays sound like contestants from mainstream talent competitions on the TV. Miki and I could hardly sing at all! A lot of band members now actually seem to come from fairly well-off backgrounds and have had music lessons from the age of five and maybe even have attended the likes of the Brit School or BIMM. I am not going to lie – most of the members of Lush came from middle-class backgrounds (albeit very unconventional ones) but we still couldn’t play any instruments when we decided to form bands and we just picked them up and taught ourselves in the true DIY manner. We grew up in public with the help of a great label like 4AD and its head, Ivo, who could see our potential early on. That doesn’t happen now. You have to explode onto the scene now fully formed and proficient with a fully made album in the bag, it seems. There is no room for error.
On the subject of the internet and new music distribution, how do you get your new music these days?
I am a single, working mother so don’t have a massive amount of time to keep up with new music, I look on Facebook and Twitter for recommendations and I listen to 6Music and Spotify. I don’t buy many CDs anymore (also because I don’t have a lot of disposable income).
Any new music recommendations for us?
Oh…I like stuff that is quite well known – my favourite artists from the last few years are Tame Impala, Cate Le Bon, John Grant…they are not that new!
What are you working on at the moment?
Can I get you a drink?
Large red wine, please.