January 2009

Interview with Gina Birch

How did it all begin? How did you and Ana da Silva first meet?

I met Ana at Hornsey school of Art in September 1976.  I had just arrived in London, from Nottingham.  Ana had been living in London for a year or two already but had been in Portugal for the summer with her family and arrived a little late to start the course.  She had really really long hair and was tanned from the Portuguese summer sun.  I on the other hand was whiter than white, with shoulder length crinkled blonde hair and skinny jeans and  was hoping for a bit more fun that seemed to be on offer at Alexandra Palace. We found that we were living not too far from each other. I had moved into a squat just off Westbourne Grove, and Ana lived just off the Golborne Road, both miles from college.

I felt very lost when I first came to London,  I had been quite at home in Nottingham, I knew tons of people, I knew my way around and suddenly I was this tiny speck and I was lonely and London was quite grim at that time. I first lived near Upper St, and it was really gloomy. I was so glad when I got the chance to move to near Queensway.  It was a sunny day when I came to see the squat, (that a new friend, Neal Brown had invited me to live in above him in his house).  It was a bank holiday and it was really humming and I thought this is more like it.  I walked round to the house, a really crumbling once white old building and loved my two little rooms, plaster falling off the wall, mushrooms growing on the toilet wall, only cold water from the tap.  I then met my neighbours Richard Dudanski and Esperanza (Palmolive's sister), discovered the squat 'Tea room' where I could eat for a few pence and was full of groovy people and soon I was beginning to find my feet!

What kinds of music were you listening to at the time? Did this influence the Raincoats’ early sound? You’ve mentioned elsewhere that the experience of seeing The Slits perform galvanised you into forming a band of yr own…

I had a Bush mono record player and a few records and a tiny radio.  After a few months I bought a bit of new technology, a portable cassette recorder!

At that particular time the most vibrant energy that I could find in London seemed to come from the music scene around the Roxy club, The Sex Pistols, the Clash, Subway Sect, Chelsea, The Cortinas, and then finally the Slits.  Of course we also liked a lot of stuff that was coming from America, particularly Patti Smith, The Ramones, and then Television and many others.  Devo.. all sorts.  Pre punk we had listened to a variety of stuff from ska to Velvet Underground, to Melanie, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Bob Marley.

You moved to London from Nottingham in the late seventies, right? Both period and place have received a fair amount of critical and historical attention, and so much great, interesting music seems to have been produced at the time. Could you tell us a little about yr experience of living in London and why you think place and time seemed to encourage such a high level of creativity?

I dont know really, except for some reason that there was a collision of ideas at that time, people wanting to create something of our own, not something we had to observe, but something we could participate in, skilled or not.  We were welcomed and we welcomed others who had similar desires to make stuff that was not phoney or too wankey, just here and now, and honest and feisty and in our case challenging certain ideas that might have normally kept us as young women, out.

Simon Reynold’s history of post-punk book describes The Raincoats as really having learnt to play in public. If so, how did this influence the kind of music you made? Did this ‘non-technique’ (sorry for poor phrasing) make you more open-minded as musicians? It certainly sounds that way…

Yes.  I always say I learned on stage.  We played our first gig about a couple of weeks after I bought my first bass guitar and tried to learn to play it.  I think we had about 3 or 4 songs.

We didn't try to have double verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge, chorus chorus etc.  We didn't know or even particularly want to know about that.  It made me feel very vulnerable, not the feisty punk attitude I would like to have been able to display, and perhaps that's what set us apart a bit, later linking us to other more 'vulnerable' post punk bands.

You were one of the first bands on Rough Trade. A lot has been written about the early years of the label, but what was it actually like being a band on the label? Geoff Travis even produced some of yr earliest releases, right?

Ana had met Geoff, so through that he took some interest in us, and fairly soon thought we could try to make a single.  Our first effort was abandoned and then when we had Vicky and Palmolive in the band, we were ready to make something a bit more special.  Mayo Thompson and Geoff produced the single and the first album and it was great fun working with them.  We recorded the single in a tiny basement studio in Cambridge where many of those first Rough Trade singles were recorded.  The album though was recorded in London, too crazy to have us commute to Cambridge so, we recorded in Berry St studios in London.  Rough Trade was friendly and trying to tread a different path from the usual business module, but it was therefore fraught with difficulties, arguments and discussions that we were not really party to, but were aware of from time to time. Mostly though it was friendly and supportive and many bands hung out there, in the shop or in the label behind the shop.  Ana worked in the shop for quite a while, as did Epic Soundtracks from Swell Maps.

Vicky Aspinall’s violin is one of the first elements that struck me when I first heard The Raincoats. It’s kind of like a controlled discord, and I really like that thing you said about The Raincoats and The Red Crayola- that both bands ‘take something quite normal and twist it out of alignment’. Could you talk a little more about this?

In The Rainwe hadn't quite heard before but appealed to our sensibilities, something funny or strange, or just copying something and failing and making something of our own.  But I also think I took the notion of not trying to be a virtuoso quite seriously and I loved the concept of the Ting Theatre of Mistakes, that through mistakes all kinds of mysteries are unveiled or revealed. Later I came to like the idea of challenging the 'experts', those experts who hate to be challenged, not the smart ones who embrace a challenge and grow and learn themselves from it.

My little sister grew up on yr cover of ‘Lola’ and only heard the Kinks’ version for the first time this year. She likes The Raincoats’ version much better! What made you decide to cover that particular song? Do you have any idea what Ray Davies thinks of yr version?

I always say it was Ana's idea to cover Lola, but she says it was mine or Vicky's.  Who knows, it was in the air!!  Ray Davies, when asked about our version (jokingly I think, although maybe not), that he preferred someone to take an album track of his, (Chrissie Hynde)  and make it a hit, rather than taking a hit, and making it an album track. No word on the sensibilities of the recording!

I’m a big fan of The Red Crayola in its various incarnations: what was it like working with Mayo Thompson? Did being in that band give you an opportunity to explore other ways of making music that playing in the Raincoats didn’t really allow?

Working with Mayo was very different from The Raincoats, because he doesn't spend hours exploring collectively.  He had already done his 'thinking' and he liked the naivete that we, the young musicians displayed.  It kept him on his toes in a way.  And we continued to twist things out of shape in a very particular way.  We have just done some amazing recordings that hopefully will surface in 2009.

In a Rough Trade information booklet Ana wrote that, ‘Being a woman is both feeling female, expressing female and also (for the time being at least) reacting against what a woman is told she “should” be like.’ What was it like being a young woman making music in the late seventies and eighties? Have you seen any appreciable improvement during yr career in how the music industry treats women? What, in yr opinion, still needs to be done?

I have just been reading Naomi  Wolfe's Promiscuities, a brilliant book about the transition from girlhood to womanhood.  It's all in there, you better read it!

Being a young woman making music at that time was both exhilarating, and hideous because we knew we were upsetting people, by our inability or unwillingness to conform and then also paying a price for swimming against the tide.  I would write more on this but I just don't have the time right now!

The second Raincoats’ album Odyshape is replete with unusual rhythms. I’ve read that you started picking up odd instruments from junk shops, and the album seems particularly influenced by things like Ornette Coleman and non-European music. You even had Robert Wyatt contributing percussive sounds, right? Could you tell us a bit about why the band started moving in that direction? What were you trying to achieve musically?

We were just trying to grow and move on from where we were.  As we found our feet, we tried to expand our horizons but not by becoming brilliant at one instrument, but by finding  new ways to make mistakes!! Joke!

Usually live albums feel like a bit of a con, but I absolutely love the Kitchen Tapes. Could you tell us a bit more about that concert- it was at the Kitchen in New York, right?

Yes, the Kitchen tapes.  We were never that thrilled with them, but they have been the one thing that has never gone out for circulation.  When we went to New York to play, we ran out of money and couldnt afford to get back, so we had to sign a deal to have this live cassette and thus we had little control over it, never thinking it would be the thing, by which more people know us that anything else.

Like a lot of people my age, I discovered The Raincoats through Kurt Cobain’s total reverence for the band. What was it like being revered by a younger generation of musicians? You even toured with Nirvana, right?

It was a total surprise to us.  We never did get to tour with Nirvana, as Kurt killed himself just before the tour happened.

What was it like recording again? Did yr earlier experiences as a musician make you want to do things differently with the Raincoats’ album on Geffen? And indeed when recording as The Hangovers for Kill Rock Stars?

Geffen gave us quite a lot of money and then said we had to spend it on an expensive studio and an expensive producer. We wanted Polly Harvey to produce it, but that didn't work out.  In the end, we worked with Ed Buller and made a great album, but it is quite heavily produced and cost more money than it should have.  Big labels are crazy sometimes.  More money does not make better art/product!

You also make music videos and studied film at the Royal College. Is there a discernible overlap in yr practice as a musician and a filmmaker?

I dont know.  What do you think?  I love Derek Jarman and his approach to work/life.  The boundaries between things are not that strict, usually quite fluid I think in my case.

What are you up to at the moment? Any plans to perform in the near future? Are you currently working on any film or music projects? What can we look forward to in 2009?

I am doing a lot of different projects right now, The Raincoats DVD, several  music videos, a collaboration with Sarah Sarhandi - a dance film with her beautiful viola compositions,

an art piece with film and wall based work, and a bit of teaching at Westminster University.

I am doing a few live shows as well as Gina Birch, and The Raincoats have been invited to play a couple of festivals in spring 2009.

Bye for Now

Gina x

the raincoats

the raincoats