INTERVIEW BY Rachael Clegg
Performance were shattered; they had just recorded a live performance for BBC Radio 6. The band had never recorded anything live on-air before. Signed to Polydor just days before this interview, Rachael Clegg chatted to them in a noisy bar in Manchester about their musical ideas and the pros and cons of being signed to a major label. Electronic they may be, using the hard, cold edges of transistors and digital processing, but here's a band who are pleasant, co-operative and very funny indeed.
Laura Marsden, Guitars, backing vocals;
Billie Marsden, Keys, Synths;
Joe Cross, Electronic Beats;
Joe Stretch, Lead Vocals.
MM: How do you feel about being labelled electro pop?
Joe Stretch: Not too bad. Good. You’ve got to call the band something; you’ve got to start somehow. You could spend so long getting pissed off with what people call you [but] I guess you’ve just got to put up with it and do what you do. We are certainly not ashamed about the ‘pop’ part.
MM: Do you feel that being categorised as ‘electro pop’ imposes constraints on your musical output?
Laura Marsden: Not really, because, in a way, [the electro pop label] is what [Performance is about], so it’s the truth.
Joe Stretch: It’s true enough. I think it’s slightly, possibly, irritating that the phrase ‘electro pop’ is not quite as cutting and as credible as we might think [we are].
Laura Marsden: [The electro- pop label] sounds a bit …
Joe Stretch: (joins in) …quaint…
Laura Marsden: … (adds) mamby pamby, a bit soft.
Joe Stretch: It does, it sounds wet, and we don’t feel that we are very wet at all.
Laura Marsden: We are quite aggressive.
MM: How would you redefine yourselves?
MM: What about being labelled ‘Manctronica’?
Joe Stretch: Well, you know, fair enough, we are from Manchester in the loose sense of the word [though] we certainly don’t showcase the Manchester thing really.
MM: Do you feel affiliated with Manchester’s musical legacy at all? Do you see yourselves as part of a musical lineage that belongs to/is from Manchester? Or is that bollocks and do you just happen to be in Manchester?
Joe Stretch: You can’t deny that Joy Division and New Order are big deals to us, that’s [the] tradition that we see ourselves working in, so in that sense Manchester is quite important to us.
Laura Marsden: I feel glad that I am not part of some sort of London scene because I think that London is always a bit flimsy; it’s better to be part of a Manchester scene than a London scene.
Joe Cross: It doesn’t really mean much to be part of a London thing does it? Manchester [on the other hand] has this tradition.
MM: Do you see yourselves as part of a grand narrative?
Joe Cross: A grand narrative of pop music, yes, certainly.
MM: Do you think that New Order and Joy Division could have come out of any town?
Joe Cross: Maybe it’s pretty arbitrary just that it happens to be Manchester.
Laura Marsden: Bands like Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire, they had a sound that people describe as hard and industrial, these [are the] kinds of words that you would associate with Northern towns. It could just be a construction [of journalists].
MM: It depends on whether you believe there’s something in the actual aesthetic quality of the music that is reflective of the gritty North.
Joe Stretch: Well, we are all Northerners for start, so that means a lot, and I think [this] is reflected in our attitudes and the way in which we approach music, quite seriously I suppose. We approach it in the context of our lives, which are nowadays in Manchester; we are not Southerners, these Southern bands you know…idiots (jokes).
MM: This might sound trivial, but do you think in anyway, your style of music comes through in how you dress and how you project yourselves? You do dress in a very idiosyncratic manner.
Joe Cross: It is part of the music I think. We like to employ that.
Billie Marsden: It’s the pop side of it as well.
Joe Cross: Also, the gender roles are reflected in the music and exaggerated, our dress sense is quite important to gender as an issue. The projection of gender in the music and [the projection] of gender in our appearance is consistent [with] our ideas.
MM: So gender is quite central to your music ?
Joe Cross: Yes, [with] the female punk vocals and the female guitar player, we are trying to subvert and think about gender whilst at the same time playing up to certain expectations of gender with the way we dress. On stage, Joe and I will wear suits, [dressing] in a classically masculine way and the girls wear dresses…[matching] up to of what they are expected to wear.
Joe Stretch: We are interested in sexuality, particularly modern sexuality, [it is] a massive theme in our music and the dictation of lewd visuals of a crude sexual imagination… the kind of myths of sexuality that seem to underpin modern society and have quite a profound impact on the way people live their lives, the thoughts they have and the preoccupations they have. That’s one of our ideas that we have discussed as a four; that we are just saturated in sex.
MM: I was reading some of the lyrics and they seem to be quite cynical towards traditional notions of sexual roles, relationships and romance.
Joe Stretch: Yes, more sceptical than cynical… [But] cynical to the fact that the fact that there are ideas like love, and there are ideas of sexual joy, which are very powerful myths in society and think that if you talk about relationships in a song part of that is to kind of dispel almost the political function of love and the political function of [a] society which is constantly bombarded with images of sexual nirvana.
MM: With the song ‘Dotted Line’ I was struck by the simplicity of the lyrics, particularly the line: ‘I wear less clothes when the weather is fine’, in comparison to say you song, ID, where the lyrics are far more complex. Is this some kind of ironic simplicity?
Joe Stretch: That’s exactly what it is. Me and Laura and Joe wrote that basically on Joe’s bed one night, and the idea was that it would [possess] an ironic simplicity.
MM: Is that a response to, or something prophetic of people like Polydor, who have asked you to revise lyrics in accordance with society’s unfortunate tendency to impose a ‘dumbing down’ policy on culture?
Joe Stretch: (laughs) I don’t know why they have asked us to revise our lyrics but yes; [Dotted Line] is certainly a poem about pop lyricism.
MM: Do you write with any particular audience in mind?
Laura Marsden: I don’t know if anyone does.
Joe Stretch: We feel, and I think it’s reflected in the way we write songs, that we do trust our own instincts, and our own pop sensibilities massively. We never think we ‘can’t do that’; I think that’s why we come out with such a variety of songs because we never say ‘that’s not Performance’.
Laura: You are not always so self-conscious of what you are doing but certainly, when we’ve been driving back from rehearsals I’ve sometimes reflected on the outcome of a song and have been surprised at the way that it does just [write itself]… I mean, like we wrote a song a while ago where me and Bill[ie] were singing sha la la do do do in the verses.. Things like that I suppose. There is spontaneity.
MM: Do you think you’ll ever venture beyond the equipment you have and introduce more equipment/instruments or do think you’ll always remain a four-piece with a drum machine?
Joe Cross: We’ll definitely invest in new equipment. We’ve toyed with the idea of getting a drummer but as a unit we’re so close that [it] would feel like having an alien or a foreigner in the band.
Billie: It would be unfair on that person.
Joe Stretch: It would, yes.
Laura: Maybe for live shows it would be ace to have a drummer, really good, because I think one thing that has never really happened and it should do is that people never really dance. Maybe it’s something to do with [the lack of drummer] ...but then again people dance to house music…maybe it’s just because people are trying to look too cool.
Joe Cross: Quite often, [with songs that are written to make people move] there’s a kind of puppetry to music that’s meant to make you dance.
Laura Marsden: Like ‘put your hands in the air’…‘aim them high’.
Joe Cross: I think that’s patronising and people can dance to allsorts of music.
Laura Marsden: I think the point is, is that having a drummer [to play live shows] would give it a kind of dynamic vibe, and perhaps on a record. But in terms of who the band are - I can’t imagine that it would ever be anything other than what it is now.
MM: Given that you are such a close group, as friends and as Performance, how do you perceive writing with an ‘alien’ character i.e., a drummer?
Joe Stretch: I think [the extra person] would be very much a detached slave to our ideas.
Performance : [General agreement.]
Joe Cross: I just have to say that I certainly love electronic drums, there is something very geometrical about [them], [and] I like that mathematical certainty with the beats and programmes but sonically, a live acoustic drummer would do exactly as we told them.
Joe Stretch: I just think it’s quite nice that four people can get some fairly basic bits of equipment, start writing songs in a bedroom and then slowly, just graduate quite a long way. It’s two years since we did that and we haven’t actually changed that much in the way we operate, we’ve just got basic equipment and ourselves, and we’ve actually got-nowhere near far enough yet-but we’ve actually got quite far. There’s honesty and brilliance about that that I’m quite proud of.
MM: Other than Joy Division and New Order, what else is feeding your music?
Joe Cross: I really like industrial electro music; I also really like out-and-out pop as well.
Billie: I really like the Human League, and Depeche Mode, of course. I think everything and anything that you listen to; anything that filters through your mind can come out [in the music].
MM: What musical devices do you use and why do you use them?
Joe Stretch: We are using a device, which is melody and beats – pop ideas, but we’re using it because it’s powerful.
MM: Do you start with lyrics or melody or does it change with every song?
Joe Stretch: It does vary; we write our parts then get together and add lyrics later.
MM: When we spoke before the BBC session you mentioned that you have your ideas, and the basis of material for your album, which is due early Summer 2005, how will these ideas compare to what you have done up to now? Is being signed to Polydor going to change the way you write?
Laura: The idea of buying new equipment, there [are] going to be [new] sounds that might carve out a new way of writing…[so] who knows?
Joe Stretch: What we’ve got to [is] we’ve got to make a brilliant record over the next five months of our lives, it can’t be shit; it’s go to be everything we ever dreamt it would be. It’s got to be everything. We are signed to a major record label and we don’t actually know the full extent of what that means but we all kind of suspect that it may end up meaning an awful lot; it may make our lives go a bit strange, and radically different to what they are now.
Laura: It entails an awful lot of hard work and, fortunately, none of us are afraid of that and I think we all crave the hard work and hopefully it will pay off.
Joe Stretch: Jesus Christ, where we will be in a years’ time scares me slightly, it scares me a lot actually, the idea that the four of us are going to have to go through so much together. That’s quite a scary prospect.
MM: Do you have an idea of a sound you want to achieve?
Joe Cross: There are often electronic sounds of that we are particularly fond of that [we] will repeat in songs but as far as actually structuring songs go I can see us changing, but I think we will always be electronic.
Joe Stretch: We [made] a decision as far as that goes; [an electronic band is] what we wanted to be and that’s what we are. We are not going to make a rock ‘n’ roll album. I won’t learn bass.
MM: Have you got total free reign or have Polydor got a say in the outcome?
Laura Marsden: We’ve got about as much free reign as you can get… I’ll tell you this time next year (laughs).
Billie Marsden: We put ten songs on our album and they choose three of them themselves.
Joe Stretch: They are our songs though.
Laura Marsden: I imagine there will be several instances of us being confronted with a situation that they want, such as: ‘you’ve got to do this…but it is up to you’ and it’s those kind of things that I guess will come up, you know ‘this is a good show for you to do’ when we might not want to do it but it’s. …(Joe joins in)
Joe Stretch:…it is business, and it is big business as well.
MM: Does that make you feel strange ethically in any way? that you have ‘sold out’, as it were?
Joe Cross: No. You write music to be heard, you don’t write it just for yourself, you write it for other people to enjoy it. The fact of the matter is, is that if you make music it becomes a commodity whichever route you go down - independent or major - and the only advantage of being with a major label is that potentially more people can hear it.
MM: Having all the resources of a major label must be amazing?
Joe Cross: We’ll see.
Joe Stretch: To be honest, it only happened four weeks ago.
Laura Marsden: I’m still in shock.
Joe Stretch: I just hope it doesn’t get ugly, I really hope it doesn’t get messy [on] the business side of things but you console yourself in thinking ‘well, they’re our songs, it’s our brain inside each of our heads’. You can put us on the worst TV programme on earth but we couldn’t do anything else but what we always do. There is a sense that we have ‘sold’ the band, we built the band up for two years and then we sold it…It’s still ours but other people have got a say.
MM: Do you think you’ll stay around Manchester, when you’re not touring, of course?
Joe Cross: Undecided.
Billie Marsden: Well, we will do over the next twelve months.
Joe Cross: We are [getting] a little tired of Manchester.
Laura: I don’t know.
Joe Stretch: Once again, that completely boils down to how we find the experience of being a signed band. We [might] find ourselves going round Europe, or going to America, or going to Japan [and] find that Manchester’s a bit of a…
Billie Marsden: …a safe haven.
Joe Stretch: ...a safe haven, exactly.
Laura Marsden: I think part of our boredom and unhappiness though with Manchester at the moment is being completely skint and going to a damp, dilapidated warehouse up in Ancoats (bleak, ex-industrial part of Manchester) three times a week. [That] is enough to make you pretty sick of somewhere. Now, things are probably going to be different; we are going to be away so [our] perceptions of place [will] change.
Joe Stretch: We’ve had a hard year, like Laura says, we’ve been skint and shacked up in a warehouse writing songs. It’s been very, very difficult and a very hard year. So I’ll say it again. Why don’t I repeat exactly what Laura just said? It’s very important, so I’ll say it twice.
Performance and MM: Lots of laughter.
MM: Do you have any ideas about artwork?
Joe Cross: Not as yet but we have got total control.
Laura Marsden: We’ve got plenty of ideas. That’s what’s really exciting. The one thing to be proud of is that [Polydor] know that we’ve got plenty of ideas. We’re not worried that we might get manipulated into doing things that we don’t want to do or [become] packaged in a way that we’re not happy with. I don’t think that that’s going to happen because we know how we want to be sold.
Joe Stretch: We’ve just got to get the album done; that’s the big concern. Once we all feel like we’ve got the album to best that it can sound I think we’ll all feel a lot happier. As it is, it is [unnerving] because we’ve got [to get it right] and if we don’t, we’re fucked. Until we get that ten-track-album done I think we’re going to be pretty on-edge.
MM: What would be your criteria for an amazing album?
Joe Cross: Something that has production values that communicate the kind of glamorous, poppy but edgy idea that we plan our music around. The songs are basically there but with electronic music there’s so much you can do production wise, just pushing it to the place [where] you want it to be, so the perfect album would be the perfectly mixed album.
MM: So production is obviously a big concern for you right now.
Joe Cross: Yes, it’s certainly very important.
MM: Any ideas on producers?
Joe Cross: Yes, well we’re trying out producers in the new year, we’re trying out a guy called Cliff Jones who used to be in Gay Dad and hopefully Stuart Price.
Joe Stretch: It’s important that we find the right guy.....
Performance record their debut album for Polydor for release this year 2005
Rachael Clegg Dec 2005
Performance On ManchesterMusic
(c) Performance / Artist Website
(c)(p) 2005 - mbm 4 msuicdash