Q & A: The Raincoats' Ana da Silva On The Riot Grrrl Movement, Kurt And Courtney, And Being Johnny Rotten's Favorite Band
This month has seen quite a bit of ink spilled on behalf of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind. But it's also a moment to remember the ways that lead singer Kurt Cobain's reach went beyond the scope of his band and that recordconsider one of his most beloved influences, the U.K. postpunks the Raincoats. In the mid-'90s, the Nirvana leader (and Sonic Youth) spearheaded the band's renaissance, landing them on Geffen for the reissues of their first two albums (1979's The Raincoats and 1981's Odyshape) and the release of 1996's Looking in the Shadows.
The Raincoats remain as avant-garde as any of the British punk groups: they really couldn't play their instruments; the violin's screeching din eclipsed that of their guitars; their feminist stance helped shape the Riot Grrrl movement of the '90s; there was friction between guitarist/singer Ana da Silva and bassist/singer Gina Birch; and they authored one of the greatest punk singles of the era, "Fairytale in the Supermarket."
Now the Raincoats are touring behind the reissue of Odyshapecomplete with Kim Gordon-penned liner notes on their own label, We ThRee. While their debut was filled with gloriously damaged lo-fi punk propulsions, Odyshape eschews those melodious poptones for fractured, minimalist anti-rock anchored by taut tribal rhythms, slinky bass, primal shrieks, reggae influences and shards of violin. Sound of the City spoke to da Silva by phone.
You are touring behind your reissue of 1981's Odyshape. What do you remember about that period?
I remember the way we wrote and recorded it because we didn't have a full-time drummer at that time, so a lot of the songs we wrote were just the three of us togetherGina, Vicky [Aspinall] and mewithout drums. Most of the songs were done like that; four songs we had written with our previous drummer [Ingrid Weiss]. She left the band, so the three of us did the rest. When we came to record, [Weiss] had recorded the songs she had done with us. For the other songs we asked different people, people we had worked with, or we had known that we thought would work in particular songs.
Was it much different from recording the first album?
The first one we had just finished a tour, went into the studio and just played it live, pretty much. It took us two weeks to record ithardly any overdubs and we just did the vocals afterwards, like many people do so it was a very direct thing. [Odyshape] was a much more fluid and abstract situation. We went in and the three of us did our part. We got these other people, different drummers, like Robert Wyatt and Charles Hayward, to come in and play with us.
The two albums sound completely different.
It's the way we recorded it. We were exploring different things and other areas. We didn't just want to do another record like the first one; we wanted to try other things. We were all listening to other things and pushing in different directions.
Was there anything in particular you were listening to?
I can't really remember! At the time, I was listening to Cajun music and you can hear a little of that maybe in "Red Shoes." It's nothing direct, but just different things; we weren't really trying to do this style or that style. Things sort of seeped in more than anything else; not a sort of conscious thing that this song is going to be disco or that one is going to be whatever.
Do you recall playing any memorable shows at that time?
After we finished the album, Charles [Hayward] played with us for a bit because he had This Heat. For a while, he accepted when we asked if he'd do some gigs with us. So we went to some countries in EuropePortugal, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Charles came with us and I really enjoyed playing with himsuch good fun, as well as good company.
The Raincoats have started their own record label, We ThRee. Is having a label something you always wanted to do?
It sounded like a good idea. Obviously, when you do a record with a label, you sort of sell your rights to them for a few years, luckily, or unluckily for the rest of your life [laughing]. So we had the rights again and we thought we'd [start our label]. We just decided to do it like we like them and we just have ourselves to please so it seemed like a good idea. We did both of them on vinyl and CD. We remastered everything also.
DGC reissued your first two albums back in the '90s, and you had an album of all-new material in 1996 (Looking in the Shadows). What was the major-label experience like?
It was fine. They're a major label and major labels are different from what we were used to. We kind of found it a bit of a shock at times. You sell your rights [to them] and we can't re-release [Looking in the Shadows]. Maybe we can ask permission and if we get it, we can. It's very odd to feel we don't own our productthat's the way they work, we knew that and accepted it. But it's a bit strange in some of the aspects.
Was your signing with Geffen due to Nirvana and Sonic Youth putting in a good word for you?
I think it must have been because DGC had those two bands and Kurt [Cobain] said he really liked the Raincoats. And I think DGC thought, "We'd get a few dollars here" [laughing]. We were releasing [our first two albums] on Rough Trade, so we licensed them to DGC so they didn't have the rights to them for a period of time because of that. That's why we have those now, but not Looking in the Shadows.