Hannah Golightly meets ILL, pt. 2: Ari Up, homophobia at home, and definitely no mandolins
Photo by Greta Buitkute. From left to right: Whitney, Hannah, Harri, Fiona.
Missed part 1? Backtrack here.
Transcribed by Lee Adcock.
The original plan was to interview ILL for ten minutes. But where’s the fun in that when there are four like-minded people gathering together to discuss the things that matter to them musically one night in Manchester? The original plan went out the window and the video camera rolled on to capture some of the most fascinating insights into the world of art punk riot grrrl rocker band of the moment ILL.
”An amalgamation of influences”: ILL on the musicians that inspired them (local ones, too)
HG: You guys sound so unique, who are your influences? And do you want to answer this individually, or –
Harri: Yeah, you’ll laugh because we’re all so disparate. We all come from slighty different – go on, Fiona, you’ve got very eccentric tastes, haven’t you?
Fiona: Yeah…so much love for so much music out there. When you ask me that sort of question, the first three bands that come to mind – and it changes all the time – but thinking about musicians, for me it would be Missy Elliot, Roxy Music, and The Cramps. And these are three completely different artists that bring a very visual aspect, very authentic, and make people really enjoy their stuff. And for me, it’s always been about really enjoying music so much – and it means so much to all of us that we make music – that other people buzz off! And we really, really enjoy it. And thanks so much for your support.
HG: Yeah, I write for Collapse Board, and you’re a new favourite band of theirs, so – [well, not that new, as ET can attest – LA]
Harri: Hey! Thanks, Collapse Board! [thumps up]
HG: As a drummer, I used to take inspiration from the rhythms that people would strum on guitars and put them on the drums…do you get your rhythms from those artists you just mentioned?
Harri: I do hear some glam in your drumming sometimes.
Fiona: Yeah, glam comes through sometimes – and I love drumming in that particular style – but when I think about people that I adore and I listen to a lot, and what we like to bring to music, I think when I’m drumming I play like Billy Elliot now. When I dance, I feel electricity! [laughs]
But when I drum, I literally listen to the band, so I’m not thinking, “oh, it’s going to sound like this now.” I just fill in the gaps a little bit, or what feels –
HG: Yeah, I used to highlight, or play with dynamics, or make an offbeat, and then come back with the rhythm. It broadens that whole sound, doesn’t it?
Fiona: Yeah, that’s what I’m doing, I think.
HG: So, [turns to Whitney] how’s about yourself as a bassist?
Whitney: Oh, well, I think I first started playing bass inspired by – and this is just my voracious appetite of music history – but I just go with the Clash. And I saw videos of them, and I see Paul Simonon being so cool, so I though, “Yeah, I could do this.”
Fiona: And you can!
Whitney: But then, I suppose, my mode is not remotely reggae-ish, because then I got into Joy Division and heard a lot of high-pitched melodic bass, so I thought, “Yeah! Gonna try a bit of this!” So it’s just an amalgamation of influences. I’m also quite partial to krautrock, and those synthy things, and jammy loopy things. And I enjoy doing our mad jams live, like the lizards, where there’s all these different shades and speeds and pitches and notes! And that’s about it. Also, about myself – I ended up in Manchester, but I’m originally from Latvia. I came to Manchester because of Manchester’s music history – I was listening to bands from Factory Records, and the Smiths, and so I thought, “Yeah, this must be a good place to come study music!”
HG: Yeah, Manchester’s a very musical center of the UK, isn’t it?
Fiona: It’s still buzzing and alive.
Whitney: It’s great that it’s not stuck in the past. Obviously, you have all these rehashes of Factory club and the Hacienda nights, but it’s great that it’s moved on.
Harri: Yeah, there’s definitely a thriving underground scene. And Sadie’s in another band that I really like called Ten Mouth Electron, and she plays bass in that band. [rolls eyes, shrugs] She plays everything. And there’s loads of good little bands around – I say little, but they have a big following, I mean underground. There’s just – loads of really good ones.
HG: [turns to Harri] So could you name a few musicians?
Harri: Um! Just to name a few, I’ve recently heard Leanne from Warm Widow – [turns to camera] Warm Widow, you should definitely check them out –
Whitney: Breaking Colts.
Harri: Breaking Colts, I heard them. Our friend Steve, he used to write for a very famous punk zine back in the day, but he’s on it.
Fiona: Who, Steve Shy?
Harri: No, I’ve just been at Steve’s for a bath, actually. Ha, he might shout upstairs – “I see you on the camera!” [everyone laughs] He played me some Breaking Colts and I was completely blown away. And that’s just two isn’t it? Yeah, bass and drums. It’s great. And then there’s Lauren Bolger and she does stuff with a band called Locean. She’s a poet, basically, and they make this kind of [turns to Whitney and Fiona] what kind of music do they make, would you say? Kind of post-punky, drony, hypnotic kind of music? And she’s shouting these crazy poems over it.
Whitney: It’s all free jams, as well, so you never know what –
Harri: She’s actually quite an influence, and I’m trying to think of lyrics and stuff and rhythms that I use. I think I definitely rip off Lauren Bolger. She’s great. And then there’s Water, and they’re like Womb, mark 2, but they’re even madder and they have this huge performance element in their band.
HG: How many members are in Water?
Harri: I think there’s…
Whitney: About 6?
Harri: Yeah, it’s a floating membership, it’s between four and eight. But then I went to that – was it the Halloween Séance? – yes, they did a full séance, and they were raising up that lady –
HG: Wait, when did that happen?
Fiona: You got there late, again.
Whitney: Yeah, you missed it, there was a sacrificial table, laid with herbs.
Harri: There was a woman in a mask, with candles…they have a very interesting ritual.
HG: I think I saw some sort of promotional video for it, that was something like that…
Harri: Yeah, some of Water made that video. Louise Woodcock, she’s in Water, she helped guide the direction of it. But she’s a visual artist as well, and she’s very interested in ritual. She got me interested in playing music in the first place – we were in a band before called Infinite Birth, which was prog as fuck. Didn’t last very long.
HG: Ooh, Infinite Birth! Oof! That means infinite labour!
Harri: [raises eyebrow] Yes, it was laborious at times. [collective laughter] Well, not to play with, but to listen to, surely! No, ha, it was good, I certainly enjoyed it. But no, I’m definitely from a more 60s rock beat – the Doors, I like their synths, and the organ, that rock and roll sort of thing. But then I also love that dramatic, classical music. I think that comes out sometimes, a lot of our boom booooom [makes heavy-handed air piano strokes], a bit of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, but obviously I can’t play piano, so it just turns into [single finger strokes]bah baaaah. And Britpop! That’s the other thing. Writing songs as stories, like Pulp did, and like the Kinks did before them. And Blur did, to an extent, and constantly di-na-ni-nah, di-nah-ni-nah. So yeah. It’s a really weird mixture. We’ve got such a huge influence. Sadie likes the alt rock and roll, she likes the Stones and…
Fiona: She loves the Stooges, as well.
Harri: Yeah, she loves these waily guitar sounds. Cos she’s got, what is it –
Whitney: A flanger. One day she just brought this amazing pedal, and it’s just been on everything! [everyone laughs]
Harri: Yeah, she’s like, “I’m struggling to tune it,” and it’s like WAH-OH-WAH-OH.
Whitney: Yeah, she’s gotten some crazy sounds out of it.
”Tape cassettes all over the floor”: ILL’s female icons
HG: Did any of you have any female icons in music that you looked up to, growing up? And who, if anyone, inspired you to become musicians? I think you [points to Harr] mentioned someone already who inspired you…
Harri: Yeah, Louise. She didn’t so much “inspire” me as more physically ring me up and go, “Oi, you coming to have a jam?”
HG: So, motivated you.
Harri: Motivated me, yeah. But I did play piano as a child and stuff, and Dad was really keen that I would do that. But I have an aunt Sue who sings country and western and jazz, and they had a little country and western band, and I used to go to my aunt and uncle’s when they were rehearsing, and they were all cool, and sat around in black jeans and Stetsons, smoking, and sitting on the amps – so, yeah, that was when I was about five or six, when I would go around and listen to them. So country and western is not really what I’m into now, but at the time that was what I knew, and I loved it.
HG: I started with a glockenspiel and recorder at about age 3, at music workshops. But any sort of famous music icons that you can think of?
Harri: Um…ooooooh. I’ll come back to that question, but Kim Gordon has always been a huge hero of mine, and I’ve also got huge respect for Patti Smith, as well. And I used to listen to a lot of Tori Amos and just loads of pianists when I was a teenager, so then I started writing songs that were very piano-based and romantic. And then things just slowly turned into punk noise!
HG: [turns to Whitney] How about yourself?
Whitney: Well, Harri mentioned Patti Smith, and she had a very big influence on me. Even without the recordings, just the way she looks.
Harri: Yeah, how does she wears those braces in that Horses picture, and you can’t wear braces without looking insane.
HG: Damn, yeah, I used to wear braces, and hot pants shorts, and that was my drummer look. I used to have turquoise hair…I used to play drums in bands in Manchester and Liverpool about ten years ago.
Whitney: Oh, and I enjoy the Slits, as well, and them bringing a completely different style to punk.
Fiona: Yeah, they brought dub to punk.
HG: Yeah, I actually sang on stage with Ari Up!
Fiona: I did too, a couple of times…
HG: Did you?! [HG and Fiona high five] Did she ask you to audition as a drummer? Because she asked me, but only cos she needed me one time.
Fiona: No, she said something to me about my dance moves – she said, “You have your own style!”
HG: She would probably love that, though, right? Aww. RIP, Ari Up!
Fiona: Yeah, rest in peace. But yeah, meeting Slits – I interviewed Ari Up for radio – and meeting Honeychild Coleman, who was touring with the Slits – invited me over to New York, [she] had an AMAZING time – Honeychild is a prolific musician, in her own right. [She’s] always collaborating with loads of different people, from Mad Professor to Death Comic Crew – she met Ari Up in New York, she did an audition in Ari Up’s flat. She [Honeychild] said she just saw tape cassettes everywhere in her flat – and the audition went really well, she ended up touring with the Slits for their final Europeon tour, in 2010. She was a guitarist with them.
HG: I think it was before that that I met Ari Up…
Fiona: Yeah, but I met her backstage, and she massively inspired me, on so many levels.
Harri: Yeah, we supported her, didn’t we, and she was so nice to us.
Fiona: Yeah, we met her at the Castle, which is just down the road from here. And she got us into the mixture of ginger wine and lager. So that was an interesting night.
HG: [ponders silently about the drink] I’m trying to imagine this…
Harri: I don’t remember that, there’s probably a reason I don’t remember that!
Fiona: But yeah, also people like Poly Styrene, awareness of people like Poly Styrene at a young age, and what she was doing, unapologetically, as a woman in punk.
”Which ones are the couples?”: ILL on being women in bands
HG: Do you think it’s important for us women to see other female rock musicians, or do you think gender doesn’t matter, as long as the music’s good?
Harri: Ohhh, that’s an interesting question, innit. I sometimes get fed with constantly having to talk about the fact that we’re female before we talk about our music, and it takes up a lot of space –
HG: It’s the dilemma when interviewing you, because I am aware of that –
Harri: But, at the same time, I do think that it’s really important. Like, recently, we played Ladyfest, and it was so nice, and – what happens is, if you grow up and what you’re seeing on the telly (and it’s the same with films) and what you’re hearing is all male, male, male, you’re a little girl, you’re thinking of music as a male thing. It might not encourage you to get into it. It’s the same with films, they’re all about straight white men, and so you don’t get other people going into films or making films. So I do think that it’s really important that people are represented, so it will inspire the next people, because you are more inspired by someone that seems to be more like you, aren’t you?
Fiona: Or someone who you could be.
Harri: Someone who you could be, yeah.
Fiona: I mean, we don’t have to always play line-ups that are all female, or always queer, or always feminist, but that that is really important to us. But we’ve also had many exciting experiences where it’s been a mix, or male bands as well.
HG: When I was in an all-girl band, people would come up to us and ask, “well, why is it all girls?” Does anyone ever ask the guys?
Harri: I always ask all-guy bands: “how is it being an all-guy band? How do you all get on? Why do you choose to be all men?”
Whitney: “How do you match up your shirts? Do you think about what you’re wearing before you perform?”
Harri: “Are you all gay and sleeping with each other? Can you send us a picture of that?”
HG: We had one guy join our previously all-girl band, and I asked him, you know, “Do you get any stick for being in a band with just girls and stuff?” And he’s like, “Oh, no, no, cos I like to make out that I’m sleeping with you all.” And I’m like, ooof, ooof [hurt offended look]. It wasn’t that offensive coz he was fit, but you know –
Harri: Hostile working environment, that would have turned into, if he had said that to me.
Whitney: We’ve had a few people come up to us and ask, “So which ones are the couples?” or “I could just see you two”.
Harri: Ah, well…[makes waffling noises and gestures] There was a point when me and Sadie were together for a little while, so I guess they just assumed that, since me and Sadie were together, that you two would be –
Whitney: But I think that was before Sadie joined.
Harri: Oh, was it before Sadie joined? Ha! Because we used to have Rosanne –
HG: It’s one of those things that comes true after you’ve spoke about it, and chatted about it, sang about it…
Harri: Hopefully, in the future, it will become the rule rather than the exception – that there will be an equal representation of men, women, and other genders in music.
HG: That’s one of the things that Collapse Board excels at – just at, like, intentionally, actively promoting more women, we end up getting a 50/50 balance. And it’s not just the two genders, it’s all genders. We like to be inclusive.
Harri: Good, cos I think there’s going to be a lot more of that. I mean, in the next decade, it’s going to be a big discussion on that, the non-binary gender thing.
Whitney: I’m glad that there’s something that keeps going out on BBC Radio about this.
Harri: Yes, I’m glad it’s something that’s finally being talked about, because it’s a very strange situation to people divide up into these two teams and expect them to behave one of two different ways. It’s daft. But anyway, that’s a whole different story!
HG: Yeah, I do enjoy playing with gender roles in my visuals, especially when I’m inspired by adding a costume. And I’ve noticed that you do that well too, with your Housewives – is that an EP?
Harri: Yeah, for that EP, we’d thought we’d dress up as 50s housewives.
HG: And the husband?
Harri: Yeah, we do it in the videos. For the “Cock in my Pocket” video, me and Whitney had the big lizards with the strap-on dicks, and – [compulsory giggling from everyone else]
HG: Didn’t know they had dicks, much less a big one!
Whitney: It was…an interesting day! I came in and Harri was like, “Wear this,” and I was like, “All right, OK.” And she was also like, “Hold this banana peel with glitter on it between your teeth as a tongue.” OK.
Harri: [turns to Whitney] Eh, you’ve got a good personality for acting, because you don’t go [very pompous voice] “I’m not wearing that!” You go, “Yeah, sure, whatever,” and I appreciate that as a director. [laughs at calling herself “director”]
”It’s alright, she’s a girl drummer”: encounters with sexism
HG: I’ve experienced a lot of sexism in the music industry. [Harri moans] And, most recently, two guys decided to tell me that my success was all down to my fucking looks. I mean – yes, I have looks! – but to me, it’s the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard. First of all, they’re saying I’m not good as an artist – and personally, I believe I am; second of all, they’re saying I’m not good as a businesswoman – which, I believe I am; and, on top of that, I do my own PR, and I believe I’m good at that, and I think I’m good at networking. I’m not trying to arrogant; I’m just trying to say something which I believe isn’t often said about women…so, we should focus on that.
Harri: You should definitely say it! “I am good at something” should be an OK thing to say.
HG: You know, behind the scenes, I do a lot of work, and when that finally pays off – whether [or not] my looks are the reasons I get those opportunities – I’m going to be practicing 11-16 songs every day, writing songs in my bedroom for the last 10 years, so that my looks can just give me those opportunities, if my looks have anything to do with it. But, you know, people haven’t heard my looks when they listen to my records on the internet. They didn’t listen to my looks.
Harri: Who said that? Because they’re jealous.
HG: Two jealous guys, I think. I think it is jealously.
Harri: Two jealous guys with no life.
HG: They told me it was easier for a woman in the music industry! [Harri laughs out loud] And it’s just like, uhhhhh, hmm.
Harri: Good one, guys, that’s pretty funny. We see you at, like, every festival.
Whitney: We’ve had a lot of struggles with sound engineers at venues, who are straight away assuming that our driver, who happens to be male, is in charge of us as our manager or the head of the band. So they always go straight to him, saying, “So what do you need for the setup?”
HG: And he’s not even in the band, is he?
Harri: He’s a friend. [everyone nods and agrees] He’s a very nice guy.
HG: But in terms of leadership…no offense to your driver, you know…
Whitney: And also, people going straight to us and saying, “You know, this is a lead for this, and this is a lead for this. And you have to realize, this goes in there.” [throws up hand] We haven’t even opened our mouths, and they already assume that we don’t know what we’re doing.
Harri: It’s something that you kinda have to get used to it, and you rise above it. I have learned to be proactive and go up to people and say, “Hello, my name, your name,” shake hands – [makes hand-shaking gesture, looking straight at the camera] you know, good and firm, to show that I am equal to you, “this is my usual mix and what I require of you, would you like me to write that down?” And then they’re like, “Fuck!”, because you took control. But we’ve had some really good engineers; at Ladyfest, we had a really, really good engineer – she was a female engineer actually – but we’ve had some good ones. Also, there’s this kind of shock when we start playing and we’re pretty loud. Like, what did they think we were going to do? Did they think we were just going to pull out a mandolin and – though there’s nothing wrong with that!
HG: Yeah, it’s not really mandolin music, is it?
Harri: Actually, someone did say to me – and this was before ILL, when we were in Womb and I was supposed to drum, and [looks at Fiona] you were away, I think you were on holiday or something – and I think my kick pedal broke, and I asked if I could borrow one – and he said, “It’s alright, it’s a girl drummer, she won’t kick the shit out of it.”
Harri: He made a lot of assumptions there. I mean, I wasn’t going to break his pedal, but you know what I mean. So yeah, there’s a lot of sexist stuff that gets said, but you just get used to it and carry on.
Fiona: It kinda drives us on to show them.
Harri: Yeah. It gives me something to be sarcastic about.
HG: Whitney, at the last gig I saw you at (the Halloween thing) I noticed that your bass had the word “novelty” on it – is that some sort of comment of how you’ve been treated?
Whitney: [Whitney and Harri laugh out loud] Umm! Well, I suppose, if I’m being completely honest – when I was 16, Paul Simonon had this bass had this bass that was splattered in paint that had the word “positive” on it, so I thought, “Yeah! I’m going to go for a similar design!” But as for the bass – it was an expensive bass, I kinda talked my mom into buying it by saying, “I’m not going on the college trip to have the bass” And I suppose “novelty” was me being cynical about my reason for buying it! You just look at it as a new piece of kit y’know, but I didn’t really need it, I just thought it’d be a nice expensive bass to have.
Harri: There is this kind of feeling, though, that people are saying, y’know, “They’re a girl band, but they’re quite good.” [perplexed, WTF expression] We’re not a girl band, by the way. We’re women, and others. None of us are girls. I’m 33 years old, all right? Not a girl.
Whitney: And I’m 26.
Harri: We’re grown-up human beings, now.
HG: [looks at camera solemnly] I will not reveal my age.
Harri: [crooning] There’s nothing to be ashamed of, getting older…I’m looking forward to being 50.
HG: I know, I love shocking the shit out of people who ID me in the supermarket for booze. My last boyfriend was younger [than me], and he had a beard, and they used to go, “Oh, well, you’re old enough, but we’re going to have to ID you,” and I’m just like, “Um, he’s years younger than me, so?”
Harri: I always make sure I look proper haggard when I go to the supermarket. It’s fine. They’ve stopped asking me now, you know. It’s like, “Oh, it’s that stinking alchy again.”
”We need to fight this common thing”: ILL about homophobia
HG: My favourite songs of yours are “ILL Song” and “Kremlin” – it’s [referring to the latter] got that sort of dance-y vibe, especially when you play it live, and – does that have anything to do with Pussy Riot?
HG: Go on. Cos I couldn’t really make out the lyrics, I was just enjoying the song.
Harri: Whitney came up with the opening line. We were all talking about Pussy Riot at the time, cos we were all obviously shocked about this woman being in prison simply for making a musical protest –
Whitney: – and had been in prison, too –
HG: For a long time, wasn’t it?
Harri: And we were thinking about ourselves as musicians, and just imagining if that had been done to us – cos, you know, we say controversial things, imagine being thrown in jail for that – so Whitney just came up with that “what’s big and red and throbbing? / The shadow of the kremlin” line and we just filled it out from there. But it’s actually about how it’s not just happening in Russia, it could easily happen here –
HG: [pleads to camera] Don’t say that, cos everything you say keeps coming true!
Harri: Or all the homophobic laws that were enacted in Russia that were causing so much trouble.
HG: Weren’t people beating up gays in the street?
Harri: Yes, that was happening. And still happening.
Whitney: [nodding] And going unpunished.
Harri: But it’s very similar to the Section 28 law that we used to have.
HG: In this country?
HG: But up until the 70s, right?
Harri: Actually, it wasn’t repealed until the 90s.
Whitney: It was under Margaret Thatcher.
Harri: I’ve actually interviewed some women who abseiled into the House of Lords to protest against this law,
HG: Must’ve been a very kickass protest!
Harri: So I was thinking, if it’s happened in this country before, it could happen again, and it’s not just in these places that we think of as being “abroad, that there is a global increase in surveillance, oppression, and that we need to stop bitching amongst ourselves. We need to fight this common thing. But that’s what it’s all about.
HG: And it’s a cracking song,[turns to speak to the camera] and you need to go check it out!
What’s next for ILL?
HG: Finally, what gigs, releases, and albums have you got coming up as a band?
Harri: Ooooh, we’re playing London, aren’t we?
Whitney: We’re playing London, later this week, on the 27th –
Harri: [turns to Whitney, biting her finger] Is it Friday?
Whitney: It’s Friday.
Harri: Oh shit, I forgot, that’s Friday!
HG: That’s Friday, November the 27th, 2015!
Fiona: We cannot wait.
HG: What venue are you playing?
Harri: Is it Black River Studios?
Fiona: New River Studios.
Harri: In Brixton.
Whitney: [turns to Harri] Is it in Brixton?
Harri: The café was in Brixton.
Fiona: [turns to camera] We’ll definitely find out by Friday.
HG: Find out on their website.
Harri: www.weareill.com. We keep the gig listings very up-to date. Or you can find us at Facebook, at “weareill”. We are ill anything, you’ll always reach us.
HG: [Speaks to the camera] Sounds like they’re always ill!
Fiona: [begins to say something as HG is speaking, so Harri and Whitney turn to Fiona expectantly] We’re working on an ill-bum.
Harri: We’re working on another recording called “Ambulance”, which is supposed to be on a compilation for Dandelion Radio, it’s a local radio station that are really nice to us –
Fiona: – dedicated to John Peel.
HG: I met John Peel, I love him. [general demure acknowledgement of greatness]
Harri: Aww, yeah, my friend did a session for John Peel.
HG [Joking]: This is just a name-dropping opportunity for me…
Harri: But yeah, so I don’t know when that’s coming out, but that will definitely be at some point.
HG: We’ll definitely get it reviewed on Collapse Board.
Whitney: Also, bigger things coming next year, we have – well, Leeds Queer Fest, yes –
Harri: Queers! [solidarity fist bump]
Whitney: And that’s at the end of December, and then Wharf Chambers in Leeds. And then next year, we’re playing in London with Hey Colossus on the 10th of March.
Whitney: And Raw Power –
Harri: Yeah, Raw Power Festival in May, also in London!
Fiona: I can’t wait for that.
Harri: So yeah, we’ve got lots of good stuff coming up.
HG: So thank you very much for speaking to us!