Bill Cummings 17/11/2010
"If you're going to try and make emotive, effective records it should always be straining after what's difficult to say and music gives you the perfect way to do that." remarks Helen King lead singer of Brighton based punka-pop quintet Shrag, before continuing "A lot of the most gut wrenching moments in music just hover in the gap between music and the lyric. Taking a skewed look at something or allowing a bit of humour your allowing the stuff you're really saying to hover behind it without being in people's faces." Speaking to her on the eve of a trip to New York's CMJU music marathon showcase, Helen could be outlining a manifesto for the songs that make up Shrag's second wonderful record "Life! Death! Prizes" (so named after a bizarre headline in a glossy woman's magazine) it's what elevates their sound above many of their contemporaries. So whilst its an album that bristles with post punk rhythms and addictive colourful melodies that collide with shouting exclamations each song exudes a feisty personality that pivot on the southern English tone of Helen's lead vocals from sighing melancholic melodies to conversational interludes that unpick her feelings, to the sparring with guitarist Bob whose pointed retorts these are perhaps most memorable moments, his male voice acting as a counter balance to Helen's clever, playful lyrics, at times introspective at others dripping with deep irony this is what makes Shrag a cut above.
But what of Shrag's Influences? Using clunky longhand perhaps one could place their sound between the bittersweet pop of Camera Obscura, bedsit melodrama of early Pulp and the early boy/girl new wave of the B52s but the truth is they don't really sound massively like either act, seemingly following a long tradition of English pop acts that don't really fit in any scene, from the shouty- pop of Shampoo, the DIY synth-indie of Bis and lyrical humour reminiscent of the Fall and Art Brut. Shrag's sound is somewhat redolent of fragments of all of these, but yet somehow it's fresh, individual, and excitingly brave and bold, referencing pop culture, surrealist film and their own diaries it's both anthemic and analytical, yet funny and sad, all of life is here!
2009's debut long player Shrag was a culmination of two or three years work for the band, playing storming live shows, and releasing small independent singles that caught the attention of many for their wonky-shouty DIY pop sound, and brilliantly clever vocal jousting, but given the work they've put into it Helen hopes that this album works more as a piece of art rather than just a collection of songs: “We hope people think that Life! Death! Prizes works more like an album rather than a document (or collection of EPs) like our first one.” She notes “We recorded both in Brighton we did it with a producer called Julian who was absolutely amazing perceptive guy who got what we were about we had a blast really. We've been lucky there was a certain element of when he would tell us if it wasn't working. Also Woody who does the mixing he has an input and an established role in saying 'guys maybe this isn't working maybe we should try it like this.'
It's easy to forget that Shrag are still relative novices technically and musically, but maybe some of that naivety is what gives their songs such vim and vigour? Helen feels like recording “Life! Death! Prizes!” was a bit like going back to school for her: "Personally because I'm the least experienced technically its just been really instructional the mixing the way things can be moulded and changed is really fascinating.” She notes “I don't think I realised how much of an affect that had on the end result of the sound before.”
Since Shrag are such a prolific touring band one would be forgiven for thinking that most of their writing is done at home, but Helen points out that the recording process is still endearingly DIY, which perhaps accounts for the rawness and personality that oozes through each one of their songs: “We tend to do the writing part between me and Bob the guitarist, he will come up with the skeleton of the music and we'll work on that at his flat just on some crappy music programme on his PC and then we'll bring it to the rest of the band and go from there.” Says Helen, before going on to hint at the pressures that are on a small label band like Shrag when recording new material “Everybody has an input but we have to make the most of whatever recording time in the studio available because of financial pressures really.”
The first single released from the album was “Rabbit Kids” one of the album's standout moments its strutting drum patterns, dappling organ-like keyboards, and bouncing scuzzy riffs are tellingly woven through by Helen's aching vocal and it's truly affecting chorus line that details futile attempts to hang onto the nostalgia of a relationship that's crumbling “When we got the music together it sounded like a pop song so I wanted to write a simple pop lyric but it probably didn't end up like that.” Helen recounts, “It's about my life long fear of goodbyes and departures, the way you try and nullify goodbyes. By trying to pin things down, which you know is kind of futile because they're always going to leave and die. Insisting on the importance of things that are transitory even if they don't last long and leave they mean something to you at a particular period and you can access them through whatever it is you associate with that time whether it be that certain record, place or film. It's just a simple sentiment saying I don't want you to go but if you have to I've got this..."
“Rabbit Kids”(now with a video above) is a skewed take on a break up song then, and perhaps typical of the way Helen's words and voice subverts the way emotion is traditionally tackled in song often through cliché or cheese, indeed she admits that this album whilst dripping in trademark Shrag humour and off kilter angles, is perhaps her most personal work to date “It's I think with the first record I tried to avoid writing relationship songs, It might have been cowardice in a way, I think you just have to give into the fact that to a certain extent you will have to buy into being cliched saying don't go or don't leave is probably one of the most ultimate clichés.” Helen notes “But its also one of the most powerful feelings you'll ever have for me it is. To a certain extent with the first record it was like this is going to be a song about shoplifting or this is going to be a song about people who talk to much during sex or a bully in school I'm not going to write about boys. With this record it like, well what is the stuff that preoccupies me most of the time? What is the stuff that causes me most pain and joy? And it was my relationships, there was a certain element with in these songs that I was going to allow myself to write about that stuff that did matter even if it was straying into clichéd territory."
Musing on how to express emotion in a pop song and how to avoid cliché, Helen is in her element putting her finger expertly upon what makes a lot of songs really cut through and have that ability to affect someone and not just in a lyrical way, but musically, perhaps referencing the idea that sometimes it's the gaps between the music and words that have most impact: “The way I think about it is a lot of what makes really good pop music is the attempt to articulate something that would not otherwise be articulated” reackons Helen “Music gives you the opportunity to do that. Even when you're listening to a record and there will be some kind of chord progression or some kind of interaction of music and lyric it will articulate something that would otherwise be completely ineffable and you can't really explain how it does it you probably couldn't even paraphrase it” Helen observes before going on to talk about how her song writing is often masked in a humour that gives fresh life to clearly personal tales, indeed it's led many to compare Shrag's lyrical and vocal dexterity and use of irony to the likes of Mark E Smith “It's taking a skewed look at something or allowing a bit of humour your allowing the stuff you're really saying to hover behind it without being in people's faces.” She says perceptively “It's the same things with humour or anger it gestures towards more emphatic feelings, when bands employ humour its giving credit to the people who are listening and acknowledging that people are clever enough to decipher it."
'Life Death Prizes' is characterised by tightly wound punk/pop tunes that are liberally splashed with keyboards, spiky punk guitars, and clattering rhythms from the angular insidiousness of opener 'to live favourites like 'Ghosts Before Breakfast' and 'The Habit Creep' through to the aforementioned 'Rabbit Kids' and swooning “Coda” to the commitment phobic anthem 'Tights in August.' Where the push me pull you duelling between Helen and Bob's voices reach their deeply ironic peaks “I love boy/girl vocal exchanges” notes Helen “I just think the possibilities of a song are opened up a lot more when you have that and I like the way our voices sound together.” Tights in August is at times laugh out loud funny but constantly taps on a nerve of truth, a typical story told with real melodrama and feet tapping drums, the girl wants more, the man wants out quick smart: ("Your love is like your August tights/ It looks all right, but they're impractical tonight." Bob)
"(Tights In August) is me taking the piss out of myself in a way. being crazy and being theatrical and using Bob to bounce off" Admits Helen "Its like stepping outside of yourself and taking the piss out of my self a bit. I was getting a bit introspective so I wanted a silly song, so that was it, although its silly because it touches on embarrassing stuff that was true!'"
Taking things down a notch or two is 'Their Stats' a delightfully melodic paean to a female friendship replete with aching guitar lines and Helen's confessional tone in the verses that's released by a shouted out promise in its chorus'. It's about forming a close bond, huddling together to see you through tough times, it's a interestingly different take on the love song about a friend rather than a lover: "It was about having romantic feelings about friendships but not in a sexual way, at the time when I wrote it. I was hanging out with Steph our keyboard player a lot we're kind of best friends and things were not going well for either of us we were spending a lot of time hanging around at my flat just talking about stuff.” Helen recalls, “I wanted to write a song that was like a romantic song but that was not about a sexually romantic relationship, it was a romantic thank you.A lot of the reviews we've had keep misquoting one of the lines: 'Maybe we should go to my dirty flat and talk about the things that make us fat' and just for the record its not that its 'talk about things that make us sad!'”
Music journalism is built on the use of influences indeed there are some at the start of this article, most of them are probably quite clunky and stereotypical used as a shorthand to conform to a word count and a lazy generalisation of a band or a scene whilst sometimes rather misfiring, ending upi saying little about the actual music at hand. Indeed many people look at how Shrag dress, look at an enigmatic front lady like Helen at the forefront on stage, hear a shouty girl and then pigeonhole them a Rrriot girrrl band but the truth is Shrag are a pop band they just choose to express themselves in a different way: "People always make assumptions that were a neo Riot Girrrl band or something I don't dismiss the reference and I'm on some level they feed into what we do I just don't think we sound like a Riot girrrl band really.” Reackons Helen “I think we're far more poppy and interested in melody really.” How about the other influences that people try to pin on Shrag? “I can see the Bis thing its probably about the way mine and Bob's voices sound together, It's weird your not conscious when you have referenced something in a song but at the same time I fucking love the B52s and I'm sure on some level that bleeds into what we do."
In this era of digitisation and floundering corporate labels, its warming to know that there are labels out there that still really care about their acts. Perhaps these are the labels that will really thrive as fans seek out music that has real personality and heart. One such is the head of Shrag's label Where's It's at Is Where You Are run by a music lover "He heard our stuff on this American MP3 Blog called Flux and he just got in touch and offered us a single deal then an album and another album, he's one of the best people in the world!" Helen heaps on the praise "he's got a heart of gold, and he's devoted to this record label and none of these bands make any money at all. He's dedicated and he's one of our best friends now we're really lucky. It's extremely rare It's a joy to be working with people who give a shit. He's enabled us to do all of this stuff. "
We've heard a lot about Shrag here, but what bands would Helen recommend to GIITTV readers? “There's this band called Peepholes who I absolutely love its just this one girl and one guy they do that thing where they swap instruments on stage, they're just amazing, just kind of shouty and exciting they remind me of that Kleenex thing going on. I kind of think they're going to do really well because they're getting a lot of attention, definitely ones to look out for. Allo Darlin on Fortuna pop that album they put out is amazing.” But hang on what do Shrag listen to in their tour bus? “It's funny because there's certain points we all agree but we've got different tastes but there are a few we all agree on we really love Prolapse, Love Is All, The Go-Betweens, Sonic Youth. I really like that band Wild Nothing they've got that new one called 'Golden Haze when I first heard it I got all choked up.”
Future plans for Shrag are somewhat hush hush for now, but Helen assures us that: "There's new stuff in the pipeline and also we've got other songs which haven't made it onto anything yet” but she does let slip that “There's been talk of doing an EP early in the New Year, with a new track an album track and one that hasn't been released. Then we'll start work on the next album. There's a big gap between recording an album and it being released so we're itching to record new stuff now!"
But before that 'new' material from Shrag emerges, make sure you get hold of a copy of 'Life! Death! Prizes!” it's one of my albums of the year. An exceptonal long player full of wit, imagination and emotion but most of all great outsider indiepunk tunes that knock most of the male dominated grey manstream alternative bands into touch. These songs will not only get your feet moving and your mouth singing along, but that might make you think about your life in a different way.