Hannah Golightly meets ILL, Pt. 1: Naughty nurses and excessive breasts
Photo by Hannah Golightly.
Transcribed by Hannah Golightly and Lee Adcock
I’ve been ill in bed off and on for weeks and I had to be given a lift to the train station which is a ten minute walk from my house, but illness was not going to stop me from interviewing Manchester band of the moment ILL. We were due to meet at a bar called the Northern, in the trendy alternative part of the city called the Northern Quarter. Whitney had told me it would be a good place to do an interview as it’s always quiet. So quiet, it seems, that it closed down since their last visit. So I found myself at a darkened doorway on a dark evening in November, shut out in the street. I went looking for an alternate entrance and bumped into ILL’s singer/bassist Whitney [on left in photo] wandering down a nearby street, equally lost. We roamed the streets, looking for places without music, finding a takeaway shop. The guy behind the counter wasn’t sure his boss would allow us to film there. It had all these gig posters covering the walls, it would have been cool. A drunken customer invited us back to his flat to do it. He was dodgy as fuck and off his head. We declined. We eventually agreed by phone to meet Harri [center] and Fiona [right] at Gulliver’s bar and the barman allowed us to use their small backroom. We sat on the stage, set up the camera and began the interview:
HG: Hi I’m Hannah Golightly and I’m here at Gulliver’s in Manchester with Harri , Whitney, and Fiona, who are three of the four members of ILL.
[To ILL] So ILL, are you well?
Harri: Yes, thank you.
HG: I’m pretty sure you all had some medical conditions five minutes ago! [laughing]
Harri: Ah, yeah…
Fiona: My neck, my back. I’ve also got neckache.
Whitney: Yeah, my neck and my head is pulling together…
Harri: Ah, I’ve been throwing up all day, so we’re how we usually are really.
HG: Yeah, and Sadie’s like?
Harri: Sadie’s perfectly well but can’t make it.
HG: So that’s alright. But I’ve been ill in bed for four weeks off and on mostly.
Harri: It’s this weather.
HG: Yeah, I sort of dragged myself out for this.
Harri: Thank you.
HG: Thank you. Er… so anyway, I discovered your band recently, when you were supporting Jack Off Jill at the Gorilla. I was totally blown away and I bought your t-shirt that night.
Harri and Whitney: Aw thank you.
”And we scare people”: Gigs with Jack Off Jill and Lydia Lunch
HG: How did that gig come about?
Harri: We just got an email.
HG: You got the email?!
Harri: We got an email saying, um –
Whitney: “Spider Touring want you to play a support slot for Jack Off Jill.”
HG: Did you say “Spider Touring”? Is that like a company?
Harri: It seems to be a management company when they come here.
Fiona: But it was Jessica Addams, the frontwoman of Jack Off Jill said that because it’s a very poignant final ever tour, they’ve toured around the US and then it’s the final tour around the UK in Manchester and some London dates. She said for months she was doing her research and wanted to find bands that would be appropriate to support Jack Off Jill, so she found us on the internet.
HG: That’s amazing.
Fiona: Which is incredible.
HG: Actually, is she terminally ill? Or was she…? I couldn’t tell if that was part of the act or whether that was her declaring it. I think the whole audience was a bit concerned/confused. Do you know, or…?
Harri: I think she’s genuinely not well. She’s certainly giving up touring and I believe it’s for health reasons.
HG: She did keep saying that she was dying, but then she kept telling us we were all dying, like in a philosophical way.
Fiona: She’s got a good point.
Whitney: It’s true. [smiling] We know that this is her last ever tour.
HG: It’s the first chance I ever got to actually see them and I’ve been a fan since the nineties so…
Harri: Yeah, me too. [nodding and grinning]
HG: It was really good, wasn’t it. Did you enjoy it from the audience perspective as well?
Harri: Yeah, yeah. I really did, I thought it was incredible, like all of the panache of it, I loved how she came back on the stage for the encore, with the blood.
HG: Oh yes!
Harri: Pulling sweets out of her vagina…
HG: Throwing tampons and sweets…
[Harri, Whitney and Fiona nod in agreement]
Harri: Thought we’d better raise our game to be honest after we saw that.
HG: I literally left that gig thinking ‘I have to raise my game as well.’
HG: …like the showmanship. Yeah… So I think I spoke to you, Whitney and also Sadie in the crowd like briefly afterwards, well, while Jack Off Jill were on the stage I think… and I said ‘I’ll definitely come to your next gig’, erm… coz I’m like down the road, in Chester- obviously, Manchester’s not far away. And, um, yeah, then I sort of booked to go and see Lydia Lunch for the Halloween Séance and like you know, just my luck, you were playing at the same gig! And I was like, not expecting that. It was really good. How did that end up coming about?
Harri: I feel like we’ve been friends with people at the Mill for quite a while like – I think we got booked for some shows and then they actually suggested that we go play Supernormal festival and they applied on our behalf and we played Supernormal for them and they’ve just been really backing us up – it’s a promoter called Fat Out Fest – that’s Emma and Verity and they’ll work with us and I think they sort of wanted a female line up for the Lydia Lunch show.
HG: Yeah, as an audience member, I particularly would prefer that, not to be sexist, but y’know, it’s more inspirational as another woman, to be honest. You know, there’s a lot of guys making music out there and I enjoy that plenty but –
Harri: We Are a bit Halloween-y in our videos, as well.
Whitney: There’s an element of witchiness.
Fiona: And we scare people.
[the others nod]
HG: Yeah, yeah. [smiling]
Harri: Yeah yeah yeah.
”We don’t always dress up”: ILL’s live visuals.
HG: I’ve recently got into amping up my image and adding costume to my live shows (coz I actually did that coz I played a cabaret life drawing event.)
HG: I was dressed as Lily Von Shtup who’s a Wild West saloon girl.
[Harri and Whitney laugh]
HG: I do a sort of Patti Smith inspired style cover of like a comedy song all about being tired of being admired… and when my friend was putting this on – I normally go and draw – and I was like ‘You have got to let me perform my ‘Tired of being admired song’ and then I was like ‘It’s gotta be in costume.’ And then since then, I was like, hooked on that. And I noticed obviously, the first thing about you was that your live shows were a bit like sort of live music videos really. You know, your visuals, how you dress and also your –
Harri: – video projection thing?
HG: That’s right!
Harri: We don’t always use that but I do enjoy it when we do.
HG: It’s amazing! It just knocked my socks off, just watching –
Fiona: Harri’s awesome film skills.
[Harri smiles bashfully]
Harri: We wanted to goth it up a bit for Jack Off Jill coz obviously… and Halloween, we were asked to dress up. We don’t always dress up.
HG: Was gonna ask you that. I was really curious coz…
Whitney: For our first ever gig, which actually happened here at Gulliver’s –
HG: Right here!
Fiona: Right here, at Gulliver’s!
HG: On this little stage?
Harri: No, upstairs in the proper room.
Whitney: But yeah, we dressed up as er… sort of doctors and patients all at once.
Fiona: We had lots of –
Whitney: lots of bandages…
HG: Coz you were ILL?
Whitney: [Shrugs] Yeah, because we were ILL and that was our first ever gig.
HG: So you’ve always dressed up since the beginning then?
Harri: Yeah, well we were a bit more conceptually driven at the beginning, had this idea that we were going to include a lot of visuals and stuff like that. And gradually, as it’s gone on, it’s become more like a band and more about music and stuff. Most of us enjoy dressing up, I think. [everyone nods in agreement, including HG] I love making the videos with everybody.
Fiona: We never kind of say ‘oh, what are we gonna wear to the gig?’ and we just all wear the same thing. Sometimes we might say ‘Are we gonna go a bit more sparkly or…?’ For a laugh.
Whitney: We don’t agree on one way to dress and then we all come in in black.
HG: So you’re really in tune with each other.
Fiona: Whitney always has flowers on her at least one part of her body.
HG: [gestures to Whitney’s jacket] This is a beautiful floral jacket that you’ve got on now.
Harri: Trademarked ties dyes and florals and Whitney brings the colour and yeah, Sadie’s like more monochrome, always wears a hoodie, doesn’t she, [Fiona smiles and nods] and has her back to the audience.
HG: [turns to Harri] So it’s you who does the visuals it is, the projections? [Turns to speak to the camera] Coz they do a sort of live VJ style erm kind of projections. It’s all like vintage clips and like um films of the band and sort of like medical imagery and sort of like feminist sort of historical imagery is what I would call it. I don’t know!
Harri: It’s basically cut up bits from our music videos and bits from my other video art.
HG: So are you a video artist as well?
Harri: Yeah, I’m a filmmaker and I do a bit of art with video, so I just love making videos. It’s a collaborative process and we talk about what ideas we want to bring in and everybody sort of contributes but I do the filming and the editing and y’know and working through there. The last one we did was so much fun. We had these two [gestures to Whitney and Fiona] dressed up as naughty nurses, drinking all the gin.
HG: [Laughs] I watched that vid! Drunk on the job! [Laughs]
Whitney: And Harri’s been amazingly resourceful with making all these things happen, y’know, all this Victorian [imagery]. You wouldn’t believe it’s a composite of still images.
Harri: [waves hands as if to downplay her amazing skills] Loads of crap off Google Images and a green screen.
Whitney: Amazing resourcefulness.
HG: Yeah, I loved it. It definitely like… I walked into the room and you were on stage. Thankfully, I caught most of your set, but um, I just stopped and my jaw dropped and I was like ‘who the fuck is this? They sound amazing, they look amazing, they’ve got stage presence.’ [Harri dances in celebration in her seat] Just like wow, y’know… Obviously that’s lead to this interview coz [HG puts two thumbs up] bit of a fan!
Harri: [drinking a pint] We pulled out all the stops for that show coz we were pleased to be asked… Quite star struck as well. [Harri and Whitney exchange a glance and laugh]
”We carried on jamming”: the creative process for ILL (and their many creative talents).
HG: So, what’s like your creative process musically as a band? Is it like… does somebody write it and everyone else fleshes it out or do you jam it together?
Harri: It’s jammed. It’s pure jam. I mean, we were… Us three were in a womens’ improvising collective before ILL called Womb and at one stage there were 15 or 16 members and we’d just get together –
HG: All in the room at once?
Harri: All in the room at once! [Whitney nods and grins enthusiastically] And not everybody had played music before: Fiona hadn’t been on drums before Womb [Fiona nods] and we just sat her down and she just turned out to be a natural and was stuck on the drumkit forever after.
HG: And how long ago is that now?
Harri: It’s gotta be about five or six years ago that Womb started…?
Fiona: 2011. It was four years ago.
HG: Wow! Coz I’m a classically trained drummer
HG: I kinda threw away (don’t tell my drum teacher) …threw away most of my er… what I was taught and then reinvented my own approach to drumming
Fiona [to HG]: We’ll have to have some more conversations.
HG: Yeah yes, it’s really… I love talking to other drummers, especially female drummers. Sorry! But it is more interesting for me. I am a woman! [Everyone laughs]
Harri: Yeah so we always have jammed together and then we decided we were going to make a new band that was more like a band and less like a huge collective. Yeah, then we sort of carried on jamming.
Whitney: We had to decide to make a new band because my final major project was at stake. Womb split up…
HG: Final major project for what?
Harri and Whitney: Sound engineer.
Whitney: Sound production.
Fiona: Awesome sound engineer.
HG: Very strong team here. So we’ve got a visual artist, a sound engineer/sound production…
Whitney: [interjects gesturing towards Fiona] Media person.
Fiona: I do radio but I’m also training to become a personal trainer and Sadie is a multi-instrumentalist, who does wood carving as well and makes things.
Whitney: She makes her own musical instruments.
Fiona: From scratch.
Harri: But not for use in our band, but she is gonna do some solo work with them. She made a big sort of chorus guitar out of a sort of squash. Someone gave her an empty butternut squash and said ‘Here you go Sadie make something out of that’ and she made a guitar out of it. [Harri plays air guitar as she says this.]
HG: You’re joking. As in it’s gonna decompose slowly as she plays it type of thing?
Harri: No, she’s dried it out.
Fiona: She knows what she’s doing.
HG: Some very unique skills.
Harri: We live together and quite often I wake up and I can hear her playing like there’s a whole konono band playing in her room. Likes she’s sticking a home made microphone through a sort of weird tin… I dunno. [waves hands about] She’s very talented.
HG: You all are really, yeah.
”What were YOU singing about?”: where lyrics come from.
HG: One thing I love about ILL is that you’re really political or you certainly seem very political. I really liked ILL Song… [Harri laughs] Did one of you suggest you write about the threat to the NHS right now, or did it sort of happen naturally?
Harri: That line – ”you’re putting the stress on the NHS” – that was added in later, and I think it was added as things came in the news. Originally it was more about that interpersonal kind of thing, that we’ve all had at some point, but which I’ve been particularly public about, like I’ve always had problems with mental health (though I’m very well at the moment), and people are often telling me what they think is good for me. “You won’t get better unless you do this, you won’t get better unless you do that. You’ve got to take these meds, you’ve got to do this therapy, you’ve got to do this, that, or the other.” And everyone’s got different opinions. So originally that’s what we were talking about.
Whitney: And just the concept of not even understanding mental health, and people just saying, “Well, why don’t you do this? It’ll make you feel better.”
HG: Ohhh! I love this band even more now! Raising awareness about mental illness!
Fiona: So important.
Harri: But then, of course, when the NHS started to axe all these important services, it became more of a political song rather than just a personal one.
HG: So then did you release that coincidentally around the same time that the NHS was hitting the news and stuff?
Fiona: Well, it’s always in the news, really.
Harri: We just started to play it more because it became more relevant for us – and we were feeling it more, I guess – and then it just naturally seemed like we would release it, so, yeah.
Fiona: It’s one of the first songs that we wrote.
Harri: Yeah, I think it was the first! [everyone nods]
Harri: Yeah. And then we wrote “Breasts”, about the pressure to have plastic surgery, even if you don’t necessarily want it (although it’s fine if you do).
HG: [to herself] If you don’t really want it… [to the band] Oh, I see, if you set yourself to be –
Harri: – this idea, that to be beautiful –
Whitney: – and to be a successful businesswoman. There were actually posters around Manchester, when we first started out –
HG: You’re joking me?
Harri: Yeah, and they’re on the radio now.
Whitney: There was a woman, dressed in a business suit, saying that she had plastic surgery and “it really helped me gain confidence, and now I’m a successful businesswoman!”
Fiona: …when the business has nothing to do with her breasts or her body image.
HG: Yeah, it’s not like burlesque dancing or modelling –
Harri: No, no, no, her business was like some office-type thing, it’s not even relevant.
Whitney: Yeah, so that seemed incredibly dodgy to me, so yeah.
Harri: So Whitney came back with all that. We were just jamming about – at that time, I was messing around on the drums, and Fiona was going on the keys.
HG: Do you swap around a bit?
Harri: Not really. Sometimes, if we’re really bored with a song, we’ll do a little switch-around, and see how we’re getting on, but generally speaking, obviously, we just stick to what we’re good at. Like Fi can do piano, but I can’t do the drums!
Fiona: You can. But we like to swap around – and as we said earlier, organically, all of our tracks come from jams. We usually record them on Whitney’s phone, and then we go back to them, and say, “All right, let’s play that one again.” Sometimes the title comes to us, like “Space Dick” –
[everyone grins and snickers]
Whitney: – and sometimes it starts with the title –
Fiona: – yeah, we think, “We’ll start it again, and these guys start singing…”
Harri: And oftentimes, we say, “Well, what were YOU singing about?”, and sometimes we’re singing about completely different things, and sometimes we’re singing about the exact same thing.
HG: So you do that intuitively, without you even knowing it?
Harri: Yeah, we can’t always hear each other –
Whitney: – because the PA is a bit rubbish.
Whitney: But sometimes we’re on about the same thing, so that’s when we say, “Perfect! That’s a new song.”
HG: I sort of feel at the moment that the world’s been crying out for more bands that have something to say, like ILL. [Harri fistpumps] Why do you think that other musicians have shied away from political commentary in recent years – or would you say that’s not the case?
Fiona: I would say that a lot of musicians all over the world are still making a lot of music that’s very political. It’s a shame that within the music industry – and I’m thinking about the big owners in the music industry – who gets to publish their music on a wider scale – usually are the people who have very watered-down, if political at all, lyrics, that’s mild, mediocre –
Harri: – cos that’s radio-friendly, and it’s more saleable, and it’s not going to offend anyone’s nan, and you can use a bland song in an advert…
HG: I’ve come up with a phrase – “Corporate Rock Bores” – you know, kind of like Nirvana but not ironic. And there’s fucking loads of them and I’m fed up with it. It’s boring.
Fiona: – and Nirvana were awesome. [nods and laughter all around]
HG: Yeah, Nirvana’s one of my favourite bands of all time! But they were joking. They were successful, but they weren’t Corporate Rock Whores.
Harri: You look at the lyrics and the content of their songs, and a lot of it was quite feminist.
HG: Exactly! They were at the top of the charts with very political stuff. In the nineties, you had Skunk Anansie with that song “Everything’s Political” and stuff like that –
Harri: Everything is political! As they say in feminism, the personal is political! Well, we start with the personal, and it becomes political. The thing that freaks me out, though, is that our songs keep getting truer.
HG: What do you mean?
Harri: Well, we wrote the “Ill Song”, and then the NHS collapsed –
HG: Ohhh, well, maybe you should stop manifesting this, with your witchy ways of music! [HG says jokingly referring to the Halloween Seance mentioned earlier in the interview.]
Harri: I’m just saying, sometimes we make dire predictions about the future, and actually they’re not as ridiculous as we think.
Whitney: It’s just our intuition about what’s going on in the world.
Harri: We write a song about where it gets all fucked up, and then suddenly – [throws up her hands in exasperation] The world is just getting crazier.
HG: Yeah, it’s getting a bit scary out there.
Harri: But then they’re manufacturing fear, all the time, with the media. There’s so much paranoia around, induced paranoia. And you’re sat wondering who’s sane, because if you pay attention to anything you’re told, you’re going to be constantly watching your back.
HG: I honestly think there should be a mental health warning with the news, I honestly do. For our mental health, and our emotional health – [the band nods]
Fiona: There should be, totally.
HG: It’s not really suitable for everyone to watch the news. [Harri snorts] I don’t really understand how anyone can consume a lot of it.
Harri: And they skew it. And they exaggerate it throughout.
HG: Yeah, it’s not exactly a bunch of facts, is it? It’s a bunch of stories.
[general nodding and agreement for a moment, then Harri shakes her head]
Harri: Sorry, that got a bit out of hand, didn’t it? That’s the problem with us, we think about things a lot.
HG: Hey, that’s a solution with you! Does ILL have an actual manifesto, would you say?
Harri: [looks at Whitney and Fiona] We haven’t really sat down and written one. We’re not riot grrl in that sense, we haven’t said, “ILL is going to be this, and ILL is going to be that”, have we?
Whitney: Just to be, on a whole…noisy, and unapologetic.
Harri: Yes. And honest. And authentic.
Whitney: And tongue-in-cheek.
Harri: And nice to each other. And fair to each other, we said. Democratic. [general consensus]
To be continued… Stay tuned for Part Two of the Epic ILL interview with Hannah Golightly where we will find out where ILL stand on sexism, what influences their rare sound and more!