Think intelligent indie-pop. Think the Pixies, Pavement, Breeders, Interpol. Now you can add to that list Electrum from Scotland. A male / female duo formed out of the ashes of the band Slowloris the band have an international fanbase that the new concept of podcasting has given them. A cover of Bjorks "Army Of Me" was played to 25k + listeners as part of the Coverville podcast and their own EP "Like I Said" has just been released on I Wish I Was Unpopular Records
Q: You write, play, produce and master your own releases.
Electrum are just control freaks aren't you?
Caireen: Well I certainly am when it comes to the music. I have a lot to say about guitar and bass parts, and of course no-one but me has any say over the vocals really! That doesn't mean I do everything though! Jamie knows how to mix, produce, master, and he's the drum expert so it's great to be able to leave all that to someone else. Although I mainly deal with the melodic instruments and arrangement, Jamie doesn't really let me near the computer when he's around, and to be honest I prefer just sitting back and telling him what to do.
Of course he might relate the facts somewhat differently.
It's true that we want the minimum number of people working on the music. Given that we can do everything we need ourselves, we aren't wanting anyone else involved. Although it has to be said that a lot of the reason we've ended up being able to do everything ourselves is because we're such control freaks in the first place -. too many cooks and all that. There's fewer arguments that way and the music doesn't suffer as a result of pandering to people's egos. We both find it hard to say what we really feel to other people about their parts, and if all you do is practise rather than demo stuff on a computer as a way of working, it can be hard to concentrate on what you're doing yourself and monitor if everyone else is playing the right thing.
Jamie: I suppose we are control freaks. I'm a real production geek, I read Sound on Sound (which just lies on the coffee table in most studios, ignored by most band members) and Future Music. I listen to records partially to work out the tricks used, and it enhances the listening experience when you work out stuff, like walls of guitars in choruses and so on. Musically, Caireen's classically trained, and knows all about minors and majors and so on, and usually helps me out with my parts by telling me exactly what to play. I'm more of a rhythmic guy, I love programming beats and stuff, which is a real area of weakness for Caireen, much like my melodic weakness, I think, and fortunately they both cover over perfectly, and I think we're both learning a lot from each other about these things.
It all stems from studios, though. Our last band
spent £1500 on three tracks, which we never released, and weren't
done 100% perfectly anyway. I learnt a lot there, and all we needed
to do was buy a music PC, some software, a good mic and headphones, totalling
£1500, funnily enough, and we can make BETTER recordings at home,
and spend as long as we need doing it and not having any outside interference.
Q: You used to be in the band Slowloris. Could you
fill our readers in a little about your previous band and why you decided
to go your separate ways?
Caireen: Slowloris weren't a million miles away from electrum, but a lot of that is because it's the same vocalist in both bands, and Jamie doing bass and drums in both too, but in Slowloris we had a guitarist called Ian who used to be in a band that toured with Idlewild. In my last band I had been finding it a struggle playing keyboards, guitar and singing, (sometimes all in the one song) which meant humphing a lot of equipment about, so I was happy to concentrate on vocals and let someone else play guitar when we started.
However, the way it worked was that Ian came up with most of the initial parts for songs as it's hard to start off just with a melody or bass part. The music had a very post-rocky feel; either quite slow and delicate or fast and heavy and while I would like the ideas, it was hard to write vocals over the top that I felt comfortable singing. My voice doesn't suit battling with loud guitars and drums and I was really struggling to be heard and hear myself live. I wasn't sure though if it was just my feelings or whether we were doing something objectively wrong, so I wanted to get a demo out and see how people reacted. We had interest; people liked the guitars and vocals but thought the songs lacking, and this backed up how I felt. We needed to change or move on.
It wasn't like we fell out with Ian, in fact, it was because we didn't want to fall out with him that we thought it important not to get to the stage where being in the band was becoming a chore and we starting resenting each other. I was finding it hard to shape the music the way I wanted it for my vocals, particularly because I wasn't playing guitar so in rehearsals all I could do was try and tell the other two which bits I liked, which often they would forget. I ended up being more of a vocalist than a songwriter or guitarist, and wanted to get back to being more in control. As a last ditch attempt to keep my interest going I played some songs of my own to Ian, but he wasn't really interested, possibly partly because in writing a song I had already written some kind of guitar part, and one of the unspoken rules in slowloris was that we each wrote our own parts. But it's because we each wrote our own parts that writing songs was so difficult; there was no-one masterminding the operation and making sure that the track worked as a whole.
Jamie: With slowloris, we had a very strange sound.
Ian was wanting to do Kevin Shields guitar over everything, Caireen wanted
to sing proper songs and I was doing hip-hop breaks and funk basslines.
It was very schizophrenic, and we did some stuff I'm really proud of, where
all the things fitted perfectly together. But we spent four years
doing it, and things took a long time to do, which frustrated the hell
out of all three of us. We played a lot of gigs, but it felt no matter
how well you played, people just weren't into it. We had some vague
label interest, but it came to nothing. And that pretty much killed
it all off.
Q: How would you describe the Electrum sound?
Caireen: catchy, pretty, tuneful pop. With a bit of substance to it.
Jamie: I'd say diverse and honest. there's
a real honesty to the way Caireen sings and what she sings about, too.
We're trying to make the music not too intrusive, but interesting and sympathetic
to what the vocals are doing.
Q: A few years ago their used to be a plethora of strong
independent female singers in bands. Where have they all gone nowadays?
Caireen: Hmm, I know there's PJ Harvey, who's been around for ages, and she's still around . There were a few female singers in the britpop era, but I'm not sure that they were that strong and independent, or that they were successful for the right reasons. I'm not being particularly critical of women here; I would love to hear some women musicians who I really admire, but I'm really picky with the male bands I like and there are so much more of them to choose from. I really liked 'She cries your name' by Beth Orton and quite like Beth Gibbons in Portished, and some of Bjork's stuff is magical, but my record collection is woefully short of the feminine influence. I certainly don't think it's because women aren't as talented, but until I was 21 I had never even thought about being a musician because it just wasn't what women in my circles did. And unconscious sexist attitudes mean that women in music may not get taken seriously. I was advised once to wear a short skirt and low cut top, and the person who suggested it even offered to come shopping with me for these items!
Jamie: Could be they're all taking a break, though I hear there's a new Portishead record out soon. I think following on from what Caireen says, girls aren't encouraged to do non-classical music, the way that boys get their first guitar, that sort of thing. The music aimed at girls is generally stuff from the Beatles and Bay City Rollers through Take That and McFly, and you can't honestly say that a gang of howling harpies like the Spice Girls is any sort of positive role model to anyone other than ladettes or chavettes or whatever. Boys get all the good stuff like the Stones, Bowie, Nirvana and Interpol thrown at them, men doing their own things.
I suppose one thing is that I hope Caireen would be seen as a positive role model to girls, the way that PJ Harvey, Bjork, Beths Gibbon and Orton, Patti Smith and so on have been, but maybe getting the mainstream acceptance these haven't. I think the way she sings is honest and warm, it's not sexual the way that a lot of male-marketed female-fronted stuff is like Blondie or Marianne Faithfull, it tells a story and appeals to the intellect rather than the groin.
I grew up listening to a lot of electronica and trip-hop,
and Alison Goldfrapp sang guest vocals for Tricky and Orbital in the 90s.
I feel a bit dismayed that her solo stuff is so marketed towards men through
what she looks like, as she's got a fantastic voice, and it's kinda wasted
on the Dido stuff that her records are filled with.
Q: How do you feel the equal balance between masculine
and feminine influences affects the band in relation to the traditional
band set up?
Caireen: I think it results in more emotional and honest music. Women are generally more in touch with their feelings than men are, and are less ashamed about admitting how they feel. I'm lucky to have a band-mate who doesn't have any sexist preconceptions and who can appreciate that I know what I'm doing and not try to dominate or belittle me. It shouldn't be the case that I have to be lucky to have that, but there you are. It seems to me from my experience that the more men there are in a band, the more they seem to assume a lowest common denominator mentality where even if on their own they would be quite respectful and inclusive, in a group they become competitive and don't tend to talk as openly and work together. I say what I think and want others to as well.
Jamie: Caireen and I have been in 3 or 4 bands together, depending on how you count it, including Electrum. There's something in what each of us bring to it that makes us still work together. Caireen's got a really creative mind, she can write the best vocal you've ever heard in 20 minutes, she knows her scales and music theory. I've got a more structural, analytical mind - I can fit songs together, fit parts in, build a production round a song, etc.
There are real differences to the way the male and female minds work. Take maps as an example. The common joke by your sexist comedians being how women can't read maps - it's cos their minds don't work like that, they prefer directions. Men can't really deal with directions, they like to see where the route goes, if there any nice beer gardens or takeaways on the way etc. Most route map software you get has both directions and maps cos they realise this.
I think the music we make in Electrum is very distinct
for these differences playing off each other. A solely male band,
I find, usually lacks some emotion, or feeling, it's often a pissing up
the wall contest to see if the bass player can put in more doodles than
the drummer's fills, etc. If you look at the Smiths, Morrissey has
a very much female mindset and sensibilities, and it's offset by Johnny
Marr's masculine guitar lines and mentality.
Q: You've built up a following through something known
as Podcasting. Could you tell us about the concept and where we can find
your favourite podcasts?
Jamie: Well... Podcasting is like this year's blogging. It's a simple concept, but it has changed the way online radio works. Basically, you record you speaking into a microphone, put some "pod safe" MP3s (i.e. copyright free, i.e. mainly unsigned, i.e. and they should ask first! - music.podshow.com is a store of podsafe MP3s for example) in, and you've made a radio show. Then encode it to MP3 and put it on a podcast hosting site like Libsyn, where you pay a monthly fee and they take charge of all the bandwidth hassles (if you put it in normal hosting, it'd cost you hundreds in bandwidth every month). Oh, and it's not restricted to iPods, in fact I listen to mine on my Net MD...
The great thing about it is that like all internet innovations, there's a culture builds up round it. The big shows get 25,000 subscriptions, and it's growing every day. There are more and more shows, and they're doing it more frequently. There're guys getting sponsorship and quitting their jobs to podcast full-time. It's truly international, well, in the English language speaking areas of the world - we've been played by a Canadian show, and there's a US one playing us next week.
Radio 1 are struggling to fill John Peel's shoes, and it's an impossible task for one guy or even three, but maybe thousands of podcasts can bridge it.
One of the podcasts I listen to regularly is Tartanpodcast.com,
which got us into the whole thing in the first place, it's a guy in Glasgow
doing it as a hobby but he's looking like he's gonna be doing it at least
part time soon. There are other great ones like In Over Your Head,
Daily Download, Coverville, etc. There's becoming something for everyone
- one of the strangest things was googling Electrum (er, everyone does
that sort of thing, don't they...?) and finding that Interference had been
played in the background of a news podcast about Formula One!
Q: You covered Bjork's "Army Of Me". Why did you choose
that song specifically and do you have any more covers up your sleeves?
Caireen: To tell the truth I didn't choose it, and in fact was quite reluctant to cover it. We heard about a competition to submit material for a bjork covers cd that would be put out on one little Indian, which would obviously be fantastic, and when Jamie first told me about it I thought we'd do bachelorette, because I love that song. We didn't realise it was a whole cd of army of me covers they were releasing! I actually really hated the song, and it was only because Jamie liked it I considered covering it. He thought it was really good. It took me quite a long time to work out what the tune actually was, and in the process of working it out realised that the tune is quite nice, but that, in my opinion, the music doesn't really go with it. So I reworked all the music on piano to fit under the tune, and really liked the result.
I'm not dreadfully keen on covers; if you can write your own music I don't really see the point, unless you can do it better than the original, but if you like the original I don't see why you'd want to change it! It was really rewarding though, and a real confidence builder because it pushed us to work in a totally different way, and that was the first time I used piano in Electrum. We did the whole thing in three days, for a deadline, and it was because of managing that that we really got on and got a whole batch of songs recorded, including the songs on the EP.
I think I could do another cover in a similar situation,
where it's going on some kind of cd, for charity or something but I'm not
the kind of person who just likes playing other people's songs for the
sake of it.
Q: Tell us about your "Like I Said" EP and the forthcoming
Caireen: We got asked to put out an EP on the I wish I was unpopular label, on 3" cd. We wanted to get something out quickly so we decided on 3 songs and set to work finishing them off. It was good to be able to decide ourselves what we put out. They were all written within the last year and are all quite different, because we're not one-dimensional in what we do. We don't have a formula, each song goes its own way.
I don't think the 7" is going to happen, which we were
really gutted by, when we heard. Lack of funds at the label. Still, it's
pushed us to look for bigger and better things and we've been talking to
other people about releasing a single in the new year. We'd like something
quicker. We want to do an album and like with the bjork cover, it'd be
good to have something concrete to work towards.
Q: Are there any plans to gig and will you draft in
extra members for the live shows?
Caireen: We don't have any plans yet for gigging, though we do plan to do a live session for the tartan podcast. We'd have to work out how to strip the songs down to play live, or we have to use a laptop or yes, get in some extra people. We used a laptop in slowloris, but I don't know yet what we'll do. Still, everything but the girl managed with just two people!
Jamie: It's a question we've been asked a lot now. We consciously decided to not do gigs, we'd done over 100 in previous bands all over the UK to little or no lasting effect, and instead concentrate on writing and recording stuff, and getting radio play and label interest that way. The podcasts are a good way to reach new people, every play we get, the MP3 downloads shoot through the roof, and are arguably more effective than gigging for us anyway. OK, people hear one song instead of 30-40 minutes worth, but you're doing it to a larger audience and largely preaching to the converted, rather than a hall half full of non-music fans seeing their mate's band.
We have been asked to play live, but if we were to do it, it'd have to be a big thing, where a lot of people were wanting to see us, and it was at a semi-professional venue with good sound. If we were to do it, I think we'd have to get people in, largely cos two people using a laptop to sound like a full band wouldn't look or feel right, I dunno. But the parts are written, the songs are right, so we wouldn't have the usual "8 gigs to not sound like complete shite" thing most bands seem to go through. The people we brought in would have to be good musicians, but there are a lot of people graduated from musicianship courses who are great musicians, but are working in sandwich shops or call centres, who'd love to do it if it meant playing to big crowds, I'd imagine. It's not like we'd be the first anyway, as Razorlight's success with session guys building a band round a frontman would attest...
Caireen: Do you mean 'session people' and 'front person'...?
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