The four members of Woolf gravitated towards each other from diverse corners of the sprawling art, punk, queer, and do-it-yourself worlds, finding a home in London’s suburban woods via South Wales and New Zealand. Their curious venn diagram is a warped reality that’ll see them soundtracking a contemporary art performance in the UK government HQ with as much forthright confidence as they would burst through the monotony of a midweek hardcore show. Psychic no wave power jams for ambitious witches scratching uncontrollable itches. Unapologetic shrill and atonal catalysm-rhythms hide raw pop power, spiritual descendents of so many and none. Pure punk praxis. This conversation took place in Colette’s flat in Camberwell, South London in the early days of Spring.
Interview by Bryony Beynon. Originally published in Maximum Rocknroll #371.
Georgina: Our first practice was at the Lambeth Women’s Project. The Pixies were playing that night at the Brixton Academy. I didn’t know Sophie but I knew Colette and Irene a little bit and I was really nervous. I had to carry my amp and my guitar all the way from where I was squatting at the time. Sophie had brought rum, that made me less nervous.
Sophie: Oh yeah! I think we wrote two songs before you even got there!
Colette: I remember being scared too. I’d put on a house show where Sophie’s other band ROSEANNE BARRR had played with Irene’s band COREY ORBISON and I was all ‘Oh this is fun, why aren’t I in a band?
Irene: Our first show was at the Windmill with Trash Kit.
MRR: Was there a point when you stopped using tape loops?
Colette: I think I got lazy about using it and our sound had changed a bit, we jigged things around and didn’t need the extra noise between songs where we had improvisation over the top.
Georgina: We’ve been trying recently to get back to that a bit, a return to longer drawn out noises and less ‘this song, that song, another song.’
Colette: Which is hard as we have a lot of forty second songs, ha. I like our longer songs, we don’t ever have ‘verse / chorus / verse’ songs.
Irene: I always aspire to be an improviser and never a musician. Songs can be fun but I don’t really like writing songs that much. Maybe I’m a bit different to the others in the band in that sense, but I’m more interested in the live moment. Why you’d try and perform something to just sound the same as a recording is beyond me, because it never is the same thing, it’s a lie or a fallacy.
Sophie: Saying that, we do try! But what the gig is like as a space or the atmosphere also affects how we play together; what the general feeling is. Like if there’s shitty sound or someone has been mean to us.
Colette: We play a real variety of shows although definitely not everything we get offered.
Sophie: We’ve turned down a few for reasons other than availability but very few.
Georgina: If its something that’s against our politics or that isn’t DIY we’d probably not play it.
Colette: We’d never play with a macho band.
Irene: I think we try not to be that obnoxious about it, I mean we play in a variety of situations.
PARTY FOR FREEDOM
Irene: I am friends with Oreet Ashery, and she’s been really excited about Woolf for a long time. When she decided that music would play a heavy role in a new performance and moving-image piece she was working on, Party for Freedom, she was thinking about this idea of the CD or DVD format, which has a number of ‘tracks’. So a series of short connected video works are conceived as ‘tracks’ which have a sound track, and also each have an ‘intro track’ (like on a commercial DVD) – she commissioned us to write and record all the intro tracks for the piece – which were also going to be performed live at a kind of premiere of the work, at Millbank Tower on 1st May, obviously a symbolic date and choice of venue.
Colette: When this project came along, we had put our 12” on La Vida Es Un Mus and my priority was writing new songs, so I asked every possible cynical question, and was worried about playing inside the Conservative party headquarters. Initially felt a bit grumpy about putting all our band energy into what felt like a separate project to our own stuff, but I soon changed my mind, I found the process was really enjoyable, not many bands would get to try out writing to a brief, right down to song lengths and some of the themes.
Irene: It’s not as though the band has a fixed linear aim and doing this soundtrack was a diversion from it.
Colette: It was just a really different way to work. I had done similar stuff at art college but you don’t usually do it in bands. We started writing for it in Autumn 2012, and recorded in January, and then practiced for the performance fairly intensively. The toughest bit was playing to our cues.
Sop: We initially didn’t see many reviews of the eventual piece, so we didn’t know how were received so it was strange to put so much work into something, writing and recording these songs, and then waking up the next day and freaking out that it was all over.
MRR: How did the other musical groups involved respond to playing with or alongside a punk band?
Sop: Not very well! But I think that was the point!
Irene: The classical composer found the combination quite strange to say the least.
Sop: We were actually so well prepared that we were really spot on with our timings, and in rehearsal we kept cutting off the classical musicians!
Irene: Also the classical players he’d assembled hadn’t played together before, which isn’t unusual, but it meant they didn’t have our kind of group dynamic going on! It was an interesting clash, there were moments when fingers were in ears, but noise is subjective. The conductor was talking about the need for his hearing to stay totally acute so he was pretty wary of listening to us without earplugs.
Sop: I’m a bit deaf from playing in bands so I don’t really blame them! We were given money for rehearsal time that we wouldn’t have had and we were obviously not going to write songs we didn’t like.
POLITICS AND SOUND
Georgina: For me the darker side of Woolf, the rougher stuff is what I like, messing around with sound. It’s just as political as having outright political lyrics or wearing everything on your sleeve. I think it also works in our favour that we’re perhaps a bit darker than some other all-female bands, which maybe means people are less ready to heckle us into submission.
Colette: I feel like Woolf has allowed me to be creative in a DIY way in a way that saying doing a ‘zine didn’t, because being a band can be so much of your life, whereas doing a ‘zine you pick it up as and when you like. This is more full on. Queer Punk or queer DIY is pretty small in London, but we cross over which is cool, and we dip into lots of different spaces.
Sophie: One of the things that I like most about our band is that, we are very obviously very different people with different styles and approaches to music, but our politics are actually the same, that’s the reason we do this. Using Woolf as a way to be present in places: where female visibility feels important.
Colette: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument about politics, whereas we’ve argued about pretty much everything else! I get really cross when you hear bands saying ‘oh I don’t want to play this and be the only girl band playing’ because someone’s got to step up and do it.
Colette: My lyrics are usually a story with a subtext, which is again probably because I went to art school. I think it’s okay to have a bundle of ideas in one song, not everything has to be like ‘Rah rah rah you are sexist,’ and in fact only one Woolf song actually has that as its subtext.
Irene: There has to be some tension within art. An offering. An idea.
Colette: Yes, something for someone to grasp. The music I like always sounds a bit weird or scrapped together, predominantly in queer or feminist bands there’s a desire to get your opinions across in an enthusiastic way, which is maybe why I enjoy those bands the most.
MRR: What about the song you sing, Irene?
Irene: LFS, it’s a cover of a 1970s lesbian separatist folk song by a singer called Alix Dobkin. She’s quite well known as a lesbian separatist who came out of the folk movement. The original song’s called Amazon ABC and it’s quite a didactic but funny song: ‘D you’re so Dykey, how you Excite me, how Fortunate the Female Faculty…’. My friends and I have been struck by Dobkin and by the legacy of lesbian separatism in general, because obviously come the late ‘80s it was deeply unfashionable and seen as deeply problematic. There’s something in there about re-evaluating certain politics that I find interesting, obviously the lyrics could be seen as problematic in a way, plus punk is a male paradigm which a lesbian separatist could possibly never possible condone anyway. I mean, when punk arrived as far as I understand it was not embraced by the lesbian separatists, post-punk feminists like The Raincoats did not have allegiances there at all, for example at Greenham Common [1980s anti-nuclear all-women protest camp] the Queer Punk camp was apparently not friends at all with the lesbian separatist camp because they were, or they felt like, part of a different history. There’s an obvious clash at play.
Irene: I think the greatest power in DIY scenes and probably in cultural production is in individual transformation. It’s completely naïve to think that there’s necessarily any wider political effect, but personal revolutions are still powerful ones. It’s one of the biggest lessons I learnt through the early days of Ladyfest in London, there’s a conceit in believing that you’re all-powerful.
Colette: I think that’s the reason young people are still so obsessed with Riot grrrl because it’s a tangible thing that the mainstream took hold of, which is why we play lots of those shows. They like us. And they LOVE Kathleen Hanna.
Irene: Sooo depressing!
Colette: Why’s it any different to a boy being obsessed with Henry Rollins?
Sophie: In a way it’s depressing that these icons stalled somewhere in the mid 90s, but then maybe someone coming to our gigs might find out about less obvious stusff through it. It’s hard to know if a lot of the people attending these rior grrrl-identifying gigs are having any kind of political experience or if they are there to party, but I don’t know.
Georgina: Personally, I really like Kathleen Hanna and think that the riot grrrl movement was important and cool but things should evolve and it’s not enough to just have heroes.
THE ‘RIGHT’ WAY TO PLAY
Colette: I tried to book a tour, but noone replied to my emails so I got Sophie on it.
Sophie: Excel spreadsheets mate. I’m like a little terrier.
Georgina: I really liked the Newcastle gig. We played at the Star and Shadow a cooperatively-run Cinema.
Irene: We also played a generator gig on the banks of the Clyde River in Glasgow, in the afternoon, right near the shopping area. It was terrifying. There were people above us and below us. I felt really on edge, the police came and looked but didn’t do anything. It sounded amazing for some reason.
Sophie: It felt like a real achievement.
Colette: It’s always a bit scary to play a show but after this particular gig it was the highest feeling. I mean, compared to the high street, any venue is a ‘safe space’, with people who might like a punk sound.
Sophie: Try playing to Glasgow street drinkers at four o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. They loved it though!
Irene: They asked for some Oasis.
Sophie: The worst shows are usually when the sound person doesn’t give a shit, which I know is so boring, but because we play very closely following each other it’s a linked chain and if one persons not audible it makes it impossible.
Georgina: It’s the worst when you can’t hear yourself or anyone else in the band, and after every song it becomes more and more of a guessing game.
Sophie: We played the RatStar squat and we played so late, there was fire, it was terrifying but I played so hard because I was so angry. RIP Ratstar.
Colette: There were a lot of people there on pills ready to dance to absolutely anything.
Colette: When you see a punk band, it looks fun and easy and the songs are short, there’s that feeling that you can step into it. If you don’t see a woman ever doing that when you’re young, it seems like it’s that further jump away. I never went near the punk scene in South Wales growing up because I didn’t think there’d be anything for me.
Georgina: I grew up in a small farming community in New Zealand and there were no bands. Noone even listened to music there. I was listening to music though, The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, L7, and then I found Crass and Conflict and moved to Auckland, one of the biggest cities in the North Island. I was about 17 and I found all these girl bands to be friends with, we were a small group maybe 20 of us but we were all doing radio shows, playing music and hanging out together. We created a little universe in a little city. It flared up and fizzled out. It was strange though, the punks werenít really into making bands but the girl punks were really busy and doing loads of stuff. Meeting other women who were really positive and wanted to stay home and have a dance party was a really good environment. When I came to London I was SO disappointed. I found the punk scene here to be full of men and the women were in the kitchen. Apart from Goz, there were NO women in bands, no queers that I could find. It took me a long time to find my people when I moved here in 2002.
Irene: I grew up here in London, and I have a different story in that all the bands I went to see as a teen had girls in, it was the tail end of riot grrrl, 1996-ish. Even the really big bands I would go and see had women in, Stereolab and stuff like that, or smaller bands like the Slampt bands. I had a theoretical teenage band called Growler, and we had the Elastica songbook with the tabs. I was in my own interior world. I took it for granted that bands had women in so I was more excited about the queercore scene and getting queer records and zines from Rough Trade. That’s what I really craved. I’d go to Sleater-Kinney gigs and pick up flyers for queer discos and wish I could go.
Sophie: I didn’t see bands with female musicians at all when I was growing up. Because I’m a bit older, I wasn’t a kid when riot grrrl was flaring up so I’m always a bit jealous, I felt like I was too old for it at the time. When I did see a girl drummer finally – Caroline Banks from Seafood – I quizzed her so hard about it and was like right, I can do this! She told me that drumming is really easy because if you can dance, you can drum!
THE RIGHT WAY TO PLAY
Sophie: I personally don’t really care what people think about how I play.
Colette: ‘What’s with all these girl bands playing like a total shambles?’ is a variation on something I’ve heard often said about us, always as third hand information. I feel both as the singer and when I play guitar in Frau that its important to reject this idea that women have to play ‘as well as’ men in order to be taken seriously. It makes me personally want to play weirder, queerer, ‘wronger.’
Sophie: Do you feel shambolic? I don’t feel shambolic! It’s so strange to me. Why would you want to sound exactly the same as everything else that’s gone before?
Georgina: It’s because they don’t have the words to describe it. They don’t have any other words other than words they would rather reserve for bands they wish to praise. I totally agree that if there’s anyone in the punk scene dishing out rules they should go and suck it.
Colette: I want to create something new, I want to create something passionate. I want to make a mess and tear my hair out. There’s never enough women playing enough weird experimental music. I’m not sure if the reason you don’t often see women in more straight up punk or even ‘macho’ hardcore bands is because women and queers are drawn to stranger music….
Georgina:….it’s more likely because those scenes are harder to break into as a woman or queer person, even if that’s your favourite type of music.
Irene: To me taking influence from feminist musical practice is always paramount.
Sophie: We meld with each other when we play and when we write.
Colette: Our band is a collective and there’s no one songwriter. I’m always shocked when bands have that.
Irene: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” right? Audre Lorde said that and I think it holds here.
Georgina: The punk scene here is quite conservative in a lot of ways. It’s always about creating boundaries and social rules. Especially in the crustier end of punk, I find.
Colette: If bands like SICK ON THE BUS are allowed to have songs about how women should get back in the kitchen, then there’s always a reason for WOOLF to exist.
Georgina: Hard out mate.