Luckless was also on the bill, playing in between the solo/full band incarnations of She Makes War. PJ Harvey with a loop pedal, Luckless is originally from New Zealand but now lives and writes from Berlin – which makes a short jaunt round the UK a little less of a logistical problem.
Birmingham was the first to host ‘An Evening with She Makes War’, with two further events planned in London and Bristol. Having released her third studio album in April this year, Direction of Travel, She Makes War presented a cherry picked set of old and new. And yes, the megaphone came out to play.
Laura Kidd, better known as She Makes War, started her limited run of full-band shows at Birmingham’s Sunflower Lounge to tie in with the release of new single ‘Stargazing’ and to showcase some all-new material.
“I used to play acoustic when I was shit,” Kidd’s opening solo set is relaxed, personal and intimate. Her self-deprecation is not an uncomfortable plea for mercy from the crowd, but a way of showing how confident she is in how far she has come. Songs like‘Delete Myself’ explore the mire of breaking up in the digital age; Kidd layers her sweet voice over itself, creating ethereal gentle rhythms pierced by the siren of a megaphone. It marks a more experimental point in a set of earnest and revealing songwriting.
Luckless is the next act and the stage name for Ivy Rossiter. Coming to us from New Zealand via Berlin, Luckless is a friend and fan of tonight’s headliner. Where Kidd kept picking up and putting down anything with strings on it, Luckless sticks with a single old Japanese guitar with a rich, full tone.
Her sound is based around looping different electric guitar sounds, using different pedals to construct a rich foundation for her warm, powerful voice. Only once did the looping method go wrong and she was fighting against some messy sounds, but that was one misstep in an otherwise slick set.
For the full She Makes War trio, Laura Kidd picks up a bass guitar – the only thing on stage that she hasn’t already made use of – and looks out through glam-rock eye makeup over her mic. Together, the three range from dark and atmospheric to pounding riffs and squealing solos.
This is not what her previous set would lead you to expect at all. This is an altogether different side to She Makes War, something between the grand vision of her recorded output and the intimacy of her solo performance. It has the power and punch of a slick single with the raw edges of a stripped-back live setup.
The sonic landscape is dominated by the heavy guitar sound, “he does have Jonny Greenwood’s hair” says Kidd of her bandmate. He’s got Greenwood’s sound, too; the nasal jangle from ‘My Iron Lung’ features more than once tonight and Radiohead’s influence on the ensemble sound is obvious on songs like ‘Weary Bird’. When things get heavy, they sound like Smashing Pumpkins if they’d had a Riot Grrrl vocalist. In the quieter moments, the sparse guitar makes room for Kidd’s lilt to take the focus.
The main problem with the full trio is that Laura Kidd’s voice – and, in a lot of ways, the songs themselves – get a bit lost amongst the raucous cacophony of chunky riffs and pounding beats. Her sweet and melodic vocals feel better suited to the smaller acoustic singer/songwriter setting, or the Metric-style fusion of trip-hop and indie pop in some of her recorded material. To be fair to Kidd, she did mention she was suffering with a cold and qualified that “[she hates] when singers say ‘oh, I’m sorry, I have a cold’”. Given that fact, she did an excellent job.
When Laura Kidd is alone and in full control – even with limited equipment – it is evident that she is an artist with a grand vision and the technical know how to make it a reality. When she gives up some of that control, the pieces just don’t fit together as well as they should.
It’s not often you see the word ‘polymath’. It’s even less often you see it in an artist’s biography, but I guess when you sing, write, produce, promote and play the ukulele, autoharp, melodica, piano, violin, saxophone and recorder… plus it’s a nice change from ‘multi instrumentalist’. Or even ‘doyenne of gloom pop’, if anyone from the Spotify marketing department is reading.
She Makes War, aka Laura Kidd, is currently based in Bristol (and not born there, as my research – or possibly assumptions – led me to believe). No stranger to travel, Kidd was raised “all over the place, and then London” before settling in the South West four years for “a boy, then not a boy, and now a boy.”
Despite adding playwright and video editor to her list of portable virtuosities (as well as slamming exes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) it’s music that now drives Laura Kidd round the country. And there’s a fair amount to play with. “I started with the recorder,” tells Kidd, “then the violin – but terribly, I don’t play that anymore but I used to. Then I just start picking up stuff.” To a man who’s been pretending to play the piano for years, this sounds impressive. And time consuming. Is it daunting to keep such an arsenal in check?
“Once you’re not afraid of instruments you can play anything in a rudimentary fashion. I play the tiniest amount of piano; I can write on piano but I would get someone else to play the nice parts. I can play the drums a little bit; I can play the autoharp, the omnichord… a thing I like to call the ‘blow piano’.”Kidd takes a sneaky look at the list of instruments I’m checking off from my research. “…I can’t play the Harp. If that’s on Wikipedia that’s because there’s harp in my music and someone wrote a thing up saying my music’s characterized by blah, blah, blah.” That’s two for two; I begin to question my monthly donation.
“I’m not saying I’m amazing at any of those instruments,” continues Kidd, “it’s just I’m not afraid. When I start writing songs I hear the arrangements in my brain. So I just know how I want things to go and I can write them out or I can demo them myself on keyboards or whatever it is, then get brilliant violinists or cellists in to play the parts. It’s not about me doing all of it, it’s just I can hear the parts and I know how the songs go. I can hear it in arrangements.”
So you’re composing, even beyond your own immediate talents? “Yeah, and I never want to be restricted by the fact mostly I would perform solo. I wouldn’t not put a string section in a song because I can’t bring them on tour. That’s insane.” My mind jumps back to the word polymath.
“Most people who hear my music will never see me play live because they live in other countries,” continues Kidd – who does have an impressively expansive fan base, “or they can’t come out or whatever. So I want my music to be able to go beyond what I can replicate on stage. Then when I do gigs, I think it’s more interesting to perform the songs in a different way to how they are on the record. You can listen to a record anytime you like. You can listen to that version of it, or you can listen to someone perform it to you in a room… and there’s something so moving about live music. People who are really into live music get that.”
It’s a valid point, and probably keeps the She Makes War diehards comfortably on their toes (many of whom I will see later – suitably t-shirt clad, lip syncing and close to the stage). But people are also sticklers for what they know; even Bob Dylan has been booed out the fire exit. Have the solo shows ever been… underappreciated?
“In over seven years performing as She Makes War, maybe three or four people have said ‘oh, I’d love to see that with the band’,” tells Kidd, “and they only meant it nicely, they weren’t saying ‘that was shit, where’s your band?’ They were just saying I’d like to see it with a band. Which is like, ‘cool, but that’s expensive and may never happen.’ When I do rare band shows like this I do try and make sure everybody knows about them because they don’t happen very often.”
I hope Birmingham is as polite; not to worry though, we’re getting both the solo show and the full band tonight. Plus support from Luckless, a solo artist from New Zealand (now Berlin) who could give PJ Harvey a run for her money. Not that we’re complaining but why such a full show?
“Because when you hire a van, you can fit loads of extra stuff in it,” laughs Kidd, “so that’s what I’ve done. I mostly play solo and I play lots of different instruments, so tonight I’m indulging that a bit more than usual. It’s a way to celebrate a really exciting year of gigging, festivals and putting a new album out. So these are the party gigs at the end really.”
It is a bit of a coup for Birmingham too. I’d have expected to see ‘Evening with She Makes War’ in London or Bristol, where the subsequent shows will be held, but for The Sunflower Lounge to snag the only other date generates a certain sense of civic pride. Plus in the last twelve months Ms War has played an ‘intimate show’ at Ort Café and supported Carina Round at the Hare & Hounds; not a bad litany of yam venues there bab. What keeps bringing Laura Kidd back to our city?
“I freakin’ love Birmingham,” declares Kidd. “I have played here numerous times with other bands; I supported The Levellers here at the O2 Academy a few years ago,” Mark Chadwick appears on She Makes War’s latest LP, “and I played in Erica Nockalls’ band, as her bassist and backing vocalist. We played in the Hare & Hounds’ main room with Miles Hunt, and then they let me play a set of my own stuff at the end. They were very generous to give me that platform and since then people in Birmingham have come to my shows.” You can’t get much more of a Midlands endorsement than Miles Hunt. How’s the wider tour been going?
“It’s great, but it’s confusing,” explains Kidd, “because (the tour) is not in a block of dates. I did six gigs supporting The Wave Pictures. I did two tiny, tiny gigs in a cinema screening room in Bristol – unplugged gigs – then these three with band and solo as well. It’s all been leading up to these shows. But the previous tour also went great. It just feels like a really long time ago.” So far my research has confidently failed me; when was your last tour..? “That was last week. My mind moves really quite quickly.”
I can forget what day of the week it is when I’m working from home, and put me in a moving vehicle for more than 24 hours… But it’s clear there’s a lot to do when She Makes War hits the road, with Laura Kidd clasping most (if not all) of the reins – on stage and off. How is life as a peripatetic polymath, any highs, lows or fisticuffs on the road so far? “I drive myself around, so when I do my solo shows I’m all alone in the car – there can’t be any shenanigans of the alcoholic variety,” explains Kidd. “I just think it’s a bit too clichéd anyway really, I did all that stuff when I was playing I other people’s bands – now that I actually care about the music I’m playing I’m not really bothered about ruining it with a hangover.”
I think about the backlog of writing I have at home and the half drunk Guinness I have on the table, the latter getting noticed too. “But I want everyone else to have a good time,” smiles Kidd. “I have a good time in different ways, i.e. playing, talking to people, enjoying performing… I love to share my music with people and I don’t need to be drunk for any of that stuff.” …I’d like to thank the Greeks, the feudal system, the good people at Diageo and Pernod Ricard…
But Laura Kidd is carrying more precious cargo; her third studio album, Direction of Travel, came out in April this year and it’s a serious step up. A solid handful of corkers crumbled over a supremely proficient album. And I’m a cynic.
“It’s the first one that I’ve recorded in Bristol,” tells Kidd, “I worked with an engineer called TJ Allen whose works on some really great and amazing things, in a really cool studio called J & J which is owned by Jim Barr from Portishead. Who kept popping in for cups of tea. But this is the first album I’ve produced on my own, so the engineer was incredibly important and he (TJ Allen) did a beautiful job.” The album does feel richer, more rounded. Was it difficult with so much creative control/culpability?
“I’m very proud that it’s the first one I did on my own,” continues Kidd, “in terms of the overview and all the creative choices. All of it. I feel the third one (album – Direction of Travel) does all the things I wanted the first two albums to do. It’s very satisfying to get that feeling… of a job well done, you know?” A personal and professional victory then?
“I recorded a lot of it at home; the ukulele, the keyboards and all the weird little instruments were recorded in my house. Which makes it really meaningful. Everything’s of a high quality but I didn’t want it to be about perfection – I wanted it to feel like something happened. So the fact that I recorded a lot of it in my house means something, to me. So when I listen to it I think of it fondly. The songs are super personal so it made sense to record them at home.” Direction of Travel does feel like a deeply personal endevour, from the caustic chants of ‘Cold Shoulder’ to the dark motivation of ‘Turning to You’. And if we were breaking up I’d probably wait until you finished writing an album. Is there anything on there that’s especially poignant?
“’Please Don’t’ is a song that’s going to make me cry a lot one day, because it’s about my dad,” admits Kidd. “He was quite ill and I was terrified about that. He’s better now. But it’s one of those things – I’ve written a song that’s going to devastate me one day. When the inevitable happens that will be off the set list. But that’s something that other people find meaningful so I like that we can share that feeling.”
“‘Paper Thin’ as well because if I’m feeling blue, and I do feel blue quite a lot, then that does help me to perk myself up a bit.” A beautiful acoustic track in the centre of the album, with guest vocals from Tanya Donelly. “It’s a song about drawing a line under a very bad time and just moving on. Getting personal strength together; saying I can do this, I can get up in the morning, do some exercise, drink some water, have a shower, feel good, feel happy. Eventually. That’s a song that I think resonates with people too. There was a woman who came to one of my tiny cinema shows at the weekend and just burst into tears at the end of that song.”
And how did Tanya Donelly get involved, always good to see her name on an album sleeve? “…Especially mine,” laughs Kidd. “That was very exciting, is very exciting. I heard about Tanya’s Swan Song Series online and began gushing about it on Twitter. Then she replied and followed me, and listened to my stuff. Then she came over to Bristol and invited me to sing backing vocals on two of her songs, which was terrifying and exciting and I practiced for a week. Every day. Then I just emailed her asking if she’d be interested in singing on my next record, and she said yes.”
The powers that sound check are circling and we’re being given the subtle nod; there’s a lot to get ready. Someone comes in and asks Laura Kidd the promoter if she’s got a float. Time for us to leave the building bustle of The Sunflower Lounge’s live room – where She Makes War will soon be stamping hands before opening for her own support act, then joining her full band for the headline set.
Plus she’s working on the merchandise stall. Polymath indeed.
‘Paper Thin’ – She Makes War with Tanya Donelly
Direction to Travel by She Makes War is out now, released though The state 51 Conspiracy. For more on She Makes War, including online purchase points for Direction of Travel and Laura Kidd’s wider back catalogue, visit www.shemakeswar.com
As 2016 draws to a close, the future looks pretty bleak. One album chooses to look back to the past for its inspiration. That album is Ruins, the latest record from folk rock academics Wolf People, who kindly managed to squeeze us in for a chat when they came to Birmingham’s Sunflower Lounge on 24th November.
Ruins marks a philosophical departure for the band. “Our last record [Fain from 2013] was more of a folk rock record. We made the arrangements more complex and, when you’re tired, had a couple of drinks to calm the nerves, the stuff from Fain is really hard to play live. We just wanted to have a bit of fun with this one and do some obvious, bigger riffs; shorter songs and simpler arrangements,” says guitarist Joe Hollick. He’s selling Ruins and the current live set very short, it’s a far cry from the ‘big, dumb riffs’ typical of boneheaded, testosterone-fulled, Spinal Tap hard rock. Theirs is a far more studied and sensitive approach.
Speaking of study, one gets the impression from Ruins that Wolf People are a group of clever musicians making smart music, but Hollick says this is them taking it easy. “Having played together so long, there’s stuff that we take for granted that might seem complex to other people. A lot of it has become second nature. ‘When The Fire Is Dead In The Grate’ off Fain is like ‘oh my god, this is like three songs in one with loads of quick changes and stuff’ Once you’ve learned how to do that, it’s fun to unlearn it and try different things. We’ve been listening to a lot of Iron Claw and it’s made us realise that, while we’re still young enough to make big fuzzy rock music, let’s try and just enjoy the power of simple riffs.”
Wolf People have an almost archivist approach to their many and varied influences. “We listen to a lot of gangsta rap in the van,” says Hollick with an expression that acknowledges how little it befits a folk rock band to be trundling down the motorway with a van full of vintage guitar gear, bobbing along to rap. “‘Ninth Night’ was influenced by a hip hop track by Pusha T called ‘Numbers On The Board’. Jack wrote the initial arrangement for that and was trying to copy the kind of pushed rhythm.”
Besides rap, there are some less surprising sources of inspiration for Wolf People’s sound. “Turkish stuff has always loomed large for this band, even going way back to ‘Tiny Circle’,” says bassist Dan Davies. Hollick expands: “Obviously, we’re influenced a lot by UK folk rock bands like Mighty Baby, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span but also – we don’t mention this enough – we’re into a lot of Turkish music. When we initially started, we were on a Finders Keepers offshoot and we got exposed to a lot of Anatolian music [Turkish psych rock from 1960s-70s] and guitarists.
“In particular, Erkin Koray and his fuzz sound and riffs are quite influential for our tracks like ‘Not Me Sir’, ‘Belong’ and ‘All Returns’ off the last record. It’s just the production quality of those records and the way they structure things. They’ll have this little vignette at the start that never really appears that often in the main song. There’s a beautiful melody, it’ll drop into a riff and it’ll break down again. Rather than verse/chorus, it’s a more interesting way to structure stuff.”
Hollick and Davies are very much at home discussing the arcane artists that have left their mark on Wolf People. Davies continues “Similarly, some of the other psych scenes like the Polish band Breakout, Hungarian Band Illés.” This love for the less popular side of 60s/70s psychedelic music is at the very core of the group, says Davies: “I heard that stuff through joining this band, Jack [Sharp, vocals and guitar] and Tom [Watt, drums] were already on the record collector scene from doing the Hip-Hop and sampling thing. Jack sent me this mix in the post that had all the artists we’ve talked about, plus stuff like Captain Beefheart, and I straight away knew this was a band I wanted to be in. Nobody was doing stuff like that. I was a bit jaded about music and then suddenly there was this whole new world out there.”
That was a long time ago, Wolf People in its current form has been going for 10 years so the new album and tour is something of a celebration for the band. Have their attitudes changed during that time? “The new record took three years to make, which is another way it feels different to Fain. We sort of worked at it and crafted it and it became its own thing. We’re proud of the previous albums but they were done with a sense of urgency. We’re all a bit older now, we wanted to get it right,” says Davies.
They’ve achieved a lot in their time together. One of Hollick’s standout moments was when they made it over to Europe for the first time. “We played a café in Brussels on our first European gig and all these people coming to shake your hand, really emotional, thanking you for coming over and we had no idea there was that reach, even in the age of the Internet. It was incredible.”
They’ve also filled some very prestigious support slots, including Tame Impala and Dungen. Davies recalls their first time supporting a major act: “We’d been in the studio for a couple of weeks when we got the call, it was not long after we’d been signed and Dinosaur Jr were on the same label. We pitched up at Koko in Camden after being away in the woods for a few weeks and it was a weird contrast.” Davies recalls it being a nerve-wracking gig that almost went very wrong. “It was quite shambolic, our little band setting up at a gig like that. When you’ve been in the countryside for a few weeks and suddenly you’re in that, it was a big step up for us. We had a terrible soundcheck and fucked up one of the songs we were supposed to be doing. We went backstage and had a sort of conference and we played really well after that and people liked it. It could so easily have gone the other way.”
One final achievement comes to mind for Hollick. “The other thing is that we’ve managed to keep it going. We’ve all got jobs and families and other lives. The fact that we’re still doing it.” So often do broken relationships, external influences and boring old practicality kill off bands but Wolf People have kept it up and are arguably one of the best live acts around today.
Ruins is a part of 2016’s musical landscape and it shares that space with everything else to come out this year. Some of Hollick’s favourite releases from this year include House in the Tall Grass from Kikagaku Moyo, Spagat der Liebe by Germany’s Klaus Johann Grobe and Dungen’s latest release Haxan. The ever-modest Hollick adds “I would say these bands share similar influences to Wolf People, but I would feel insecure regarding them as contemporaries as I think they are better than us.”
We are in the room next to a soundcheck that has just started in full force, so I thank Joe Hollick and Dan Davies for speaking with me and let them prepare for their performance. At this point, I am unaware as to just how good the live set is.
Live music is not the same today as it once was. It’s become unusual to see a Marshall stack truly used in anger; they’ve become more of a stage prop. Wolf People hark back to a time when titans walked the earth, their riffs shook the ground and their guitar solos were long and beautiful.
Throughout the set, Wolf People demonstrate incredible sensitivity and control over their sound. There is a lot of noise happening on stage. Drummer, Tom Watt, is head-down and focused as he thunders away on the skins, while Dan Davies sets the bass groove with a stoic expression.
The Sunflower Lounge barely has room for the band’s incredible backline of authentic vintage equipment. Wolf People’s set focuses on the heavier side of their repertoire but it’s filled with peaks and troughs within the extended tracks. Softer moments precede a pounding fuzzy riff or a squawky wah-wah solo.
Despite sounding ‘classic’, it’s impossible to accuse Wolf People of sounding quite like anybody else. Vocalist Jack Sharp, as well as being one half of a two-guitar assault, contributes to the band’s sonic identity with a softer lilting voice more common to the folk genre. A far cry from the Ozzy-esque wail one expects to accompany such heavy riffs, it’s nearer King Crimson’s Greg Lake.
The interplay of Sharp’s guitar with Joe Hollick’s is the source of the set’s most memorable moments. It’s like the jazz mastery of The Allman Brothers Band in their prime put to use on the intensely innovative folk rock fusion style of Rory Gallagher. If that sounds a bit beard-strokey and self-consciously clever then I’m not doing justice to how powerful, raw and utterly compelling it sounds in person. Wolf People are extremely intelligent songwriters and musicians – channeling various strains of folk and Anatolian rock into their playing – but they never self-indulge to the point of losing the crowd. Their mastery of their craft is obvious, yet they make it feel very spontaneous and alive. Rarely do you get the opportunity to go and see musicians this good up close and personal. It is a privilege.
The dreaded end draws near. Wolf People forgo the pageantry of an encore and announced their last song, inviting support act and solo instrumentalist Dean McPhee to join them. “Try and get it as atmospheric as possible” instructs Hollick. McPhee’s guitar style is the very definition; a gentle howling sound under waves of delay that sits alongside Wolf People surprisingly well. It’s not uncommon for the number of guitarists on a stage to be inversely proportional to the quality of the music they make together, but that’s not the case here.
You get the impression that Wolf People could have gone on stage completely unrehearsed, settled into a groove and just played an incredible off-the-cuff set. It cannot be overstated how seriously good they are live. While their records are equally impressive, the side of themselves that they showcase in the flesh needs to be heard to be believed.