A Colourful Chaos: Clash Meets Goat Girl
“I guess it’s the four of us coming together as the legs of the goat?” says Rosy Jones of Goat Girl’s latest album with a laugh. “A journey through light and dark. Good and bad. A colourful chaos,” follows up Holly Mullineaux.
From across London via Zoom, three-quarters of the South London post-punk band - Clottie Cream, Rosy Bones and Holy Hole, aka Lottie Pendlebury, Rosy Jones and Holly Mullineaux - are telling me what the seemingly euphemistically-titled 'On All Fours' is all about.
Like their music, on the surface the band’s demeanor (as much as it can be construed across a screen) is laid back, irreverent and understated. Yet when we get into it, the sentiments they express about their new record and reflections on the current state of the world are often deeply philosophical and intensely felt. - The genesis of 'On All Fours', they tell me, was more fluid and gradual than with that of their self- titled 2018 debut: more the result of collaborative jamming sessions and the band switching up instruments in L.E.D’s (aka Ellie Rose Davies, not on the call with us sadly) mum’s garage in Deptford, than a dedicated record writing effort.
The shift in gear was partly due to the departure of their bassist, Naima Jelly (aka Naima Redina-Bock), just before the tour of their first album. “It was an unsure period of time,” recalls Jones. “It was all quite emotional.”
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It was when Mullineaux came on board in late 2018 that things started to pick up again. “We really got along,” continues Jones. “We just worked from day one. So then we started writing together without any pressure of like, ‘let's write an album’, but just kind of experimenting and stuff.”
“It started with getting to know each other and jamming a lot,” says Mullineaux. “I mean, obviously, there was the prospect of having to do a second record. It's quite a big thing to take on when you're starting from nothing. But we had set aside a lot of time to write it and it felt like it took a long while to get into the groove of it. It took a lot of practice and hard work but I think it all came together in the end.”
Lead singer Pendlebury shared how the more collaborative approach impacted their sound: “It's starting now from loads of different people's ideas and them all coming together and it feeling like there aren’t really points where there are properly formulated songs. They're constantly developing and evolving. So with that came a lot of freedom to just sort of experiment and play around with different instruments.”
There’s sense of maturation rather than a complete departure from the warped, punk-edged, country-tinged debut: “The same core sort values of the Goat Girl sound - the harmonies and dissonant chords, the rhythms and time signatures - they're all still playing a big role in the second album,” continues Pendlebury. “But I think elements like keys and the instrumentation and more avant-garde style of this new record has also just come from the freedom that was there when we were writing it.”
And that sound is one that can be difficult to categorise. We muse on the new definitions as determined by the increasingly pervasive Spotify. According to her end of year 2020 Spotify Wrapped, Pendlebury’s most listened-to genre last year was art-pop: “That’s a nice-sounding genre. I'd probably describe us as art-pop.” Mullineaux’s was Escape Room: “What the hell does that even mean?” she asks with a laugh.
On a more serious note, she explains: “I think all four of us have different music tastes - I quite like art-pop and alternative stuff. Rosy likes a lot of pop stuff. And Ellie is kind of into more like jazzy and folky stuff - and the record kind of sounds like all four of our individual tastes and influences put into one. They all kind of crossover and come together in quite an interesting way.”
“I felt growing up I had a lot of pop influences,” says Jones. “I loved Rihanna and Gwen Stefani, and just all those iconic femmes. Then I went more into rock and loved, like, Sonic Youth. I was really inspired by Kim Gordon. Now I've gone back to pop. I love Rico Nasty - she’s doing such good bits.” “If I had to pick one, my favourite band of all time is probably Blonde Redhead,” says Mullineaux. “I really like them. They've just been going for so long. And everything they do is amazing.”
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As suggested by Spotify’s invention of a new catch-all term for such genre-bending, it seems it’s an increasing trend for artists of their generation. “Yeah, I think there's lots of people doing that at the moment,” says Jones. “Like Rina Sawayama. Her album that came out this year - I feel like that just goes across so many different genres. And 100 gecs as well. It’s sort of throwing everything in together. It’s like a new genre, but it's just made up of all genres in a way.” “I guess you just take the bits of whatever it is that you like and then kind of fuse it together, whether it's melodies or guitar chords, or beats,” adds Mullineaux.
One consistent between the first and second album was working with friend and producer Dan Carey. “It was sort of a given that we'd work with him,” says Jones. They’d also worked with him on the otherworldly EP Udder Sounds in the interim, which, she notes, was “a good transition from the debut to On All Fours.” They credit Carey with enabling them to experiment further in the electronic realm, bringing a fresh edge to their tracks where grungy guitars and spacey synthetic sounds meet.
“We use a modular synth,” Mullineaux explains. “That was an interesting texture which I think adds a lot. We also made these percussion loops which was quite fun: we actually played the percussion live and but then Dan just picked out parts of it and put it together again, kinda like a sample. I feel like that adds quite a unique layer to the record.”
While irreverence and understatement pervade their sound, the subject matter tackled on the album doesn’t shy away from meaty contemporary themes: social justice, feminist empowerment, climate change, mental health all feature, albeit from offbeat angles via the specificities of their experiences and delivered with a deadpan, wry wit.
Their lyrical material was driven by “anything that created an emotional reaction inside of us,” says Pendlebury. “A lot of stuff on the record was quite personal to the time that it was written. And then there's a lot of stuff that I guess we as people are frustrated about, are kind of aware of, and educating ourselves about. And there are some things in there that are just kind of abstract and weird. So it's just basically what is going on inside the brain of each of us - lots of different things!”
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The album opens with the unapologetic tone it means to continue on in 'Pest', which plays on the problematic phrase “beast from the east” with “pest from the west”, singing: “And I have no shame when I say / Step the fuck away.”
One of my personal highlights, 'Sad Cowboy', captures a feeling of disillusionment or living out a bad dream, one the listener is invited to enter into at the outset: “take my hand let me show you around..."
“It's probably one of our most poppy songs,” explains Pendlebury. “It’s got that anthemic vibe but it goes through quite a few different sounds in the song itself: a twangy kind of country-style guitar section then this kind of euphoric, club ending. It's like going through loads of different states in this chaotic world which is reflected in the lyrics as well: going through different states of being and not feeling good. Feeling isolated, feeling out of control, but feeling like you're watching something quite surreal unfold in front of your eyes all at the same time.”
Meanwhile Badibaba dwells on “parasitic relationships with the Earth” and 'The Crack' makes reference to both the hidden and the visible cracks left by our mistreatment of the planet. The track was developed from a demo Davies had put together: “When we started kind of jamming and writing, we were trying to look back at demos or phone recordings that we had of stuff,” recalls Mullineaux. “And I remember having heard that on Ellie’s SoundCloud. It was quite minimal and electronic, a very different vibe from how it is now. And I just heard it and I really wanted to play the bass line on bass. Then we ended up writing a new chorus for it. “It’s basically about what would happen if we had to leave the planet because it’s just completely fucked. So it’s this absurd but not actually that absurd kind of idea that she was thinking about at the time and we expanded on that as a band.”
The darkly comic P.T.S.Tea recalls Jones being so badly scalded by spilled hot tea on a ferry from Ireland to Wales by an unremorseful man passing by, the band’s tour had to be postponed. It became a “fuck you” to all the entitled men Jones had encountered questioning their sexual orientation and gender identity: "To say what I am, well, I don't have a clue / Ask me again and I'll really show you.”
In 'Closing In', Pendlebury personifies her mental health as a way of coming to terms with depression. Anxiety Feels explores Davies’ experience of panic attacks and learning about self- love. Jones points out that while it has become more normalised to talk about mental health, “we also need to think about why the amount of people it affects has gone up so much. People our age and younger: pretty much everyone suffers in some way. And that wasn't always the case. There's definitely reasons. It's not a phenomenon. It’s because people don't feel stable. The weight given to social media is made to make you feel bad. So while it’s becoming normalised I feel like that's just because it's affecting so many people as well.”
For Mullineaux, 'Where Do We Go From Here?', written on a write-away at a farm called The Yoghurt Rooms in Sussex, most aptly captures the sentiment of 'On All Fours': “I think it's quite a good representation of the album itself,” she says. “It's quite sad, but quite uplifting, quite electronic. And the lyrics are really intense. So I feel like that one encapsulates all the best bits of the record.”
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Despite their unfiltered anti-establishment and political bent, something they see as rare among all-girl bands, they stop short of fixating on the impact of the social consciousness in their music: “I think it's best not to think about the after-effects of lyrics because that kind of scares me into not being honest with what I'm saying,” says Pendlebury. “But it's definitely cathartic, especially when you're talking about something really personal to you that you feel is isolating you from everything. Like with mental health, you can feel like you're the only person at that moment in time going through something. It's cathartic to write it down, and to talk about, and to engage in conversation about it and make it apparent to you that you aren't alone in those feelings.” I ask if touching on such subjects can seem oddly even more resonant given where we are with the pandemic - not that they could have foreseen our current circumstances when they were laying down the tracks.
“We're prophets!” jokes Jones. “It’s weirdly foreboding, in a way,” adds Mullineaux. “I mean, we wrote it a long time ago, and it was recorded before any of this even happened. Obviously these are universal concerns that don't necessarily go away within a certain period of time. But I feel like the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of issues that were present or lying under the surface before. You can relate a lot of the songs and the lyrics to any time in any context, but it does seem to ring quite true of now as well.”
I wonder if they sense a renewed appetite for change and readiness for people to speak up and become activists, particularly amongst the younger generation. The reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement from last being a case in point. “I guess it's kind of tricky to say,” replies Pendlebury. “Because movements have been happening for centuries before us that have been really effective as well. But we have to see positives within this pandemic because it has been a time for a lot of people who haven't had to before to educate themselves. Especially with BLM, people having to reassess themselves and their privilege and their own racism. And there are also positives in the fact that there is a growing awareness of injustices and people's willingness to put pressure on those who can actually create the change.”
“Yeah, it's kind of crazy,” adds Jones. “Because there were underlying injustices which were very visible to quite a lot of people but also have come to light to the majority of people - and people want to do something about it.”
However, they also intimate that the pandemic has been tough on them both as music artists and on a personal level. Not least because lockdown came on the back of the devastating news Davies had been diagnosed with stage-four cancer, which is thankfully now in remission post-treatment.
They haven’t been able to jam together or write new music. Jones admits the pressure to be achieving something can be challenging: “It's kind of hard when there's expectations that are put on you,” she says. “With everyone talking about how productive this time has been, and how it's nice to have respite, it kind of makes you feel like that's a given for everyone. And if that isn't happening necessarily for you, then you're doing something wrong. But everyone's different in what production means to them. Like, I feel like being productive to literally be waking up and reading a chapter of a book for me, because I don't do it that often.”
One silver lining has been it has allowed time to reflect and thought to be put into other aspects of the new record, such as their press shots and music videos, effort that has paid off big time. Plus not being able to perform their new tracks has “made the songs still feel really fresh. It still feels like a new album,” notes Jones.
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I wonder if the time out of the limelight of festival and gig stages in some respects has also afforded them a freedom of sorts in terms of how they present themselves, something they give a lot of consideration to, often pitched as neither ultra-feminine or ultra-masculine. “You definitely feel aware of what you wear on stage,” says Mullineaux. “That's something that has affected us probably in the past. It does help you feel comfortable, dressing a certain way so that you're either taken seriously or not looked at in a sexualised way while you're performing. And that's kind of shit, obviously, that you even have to think about that. But I think it is something that can add comfort, so that you can just focus on what you're doing.”
“As a woman, I'm quite aware of what I wear in the way that a cis man probably wouldn't be,” adds Pendlebury. “The way I am in society, the way I hold myself in public - those are all probably created by a patriarchy that tells you that there is a power dynamic between genders and things. As long as there's someone that's oppressing, you're going to feel the repercussions of that.”
Jones, who is non-binary, has seen some positives for being out of the public's glare for a time: “Over the past year, I've had the confidence and the language to talk about my gender identity more. I’ve been able to find a way to be that feels right for me. Which also has brought out my feminine side more even. I really like just getting dressed up and being at home. I can wear things that I usually wouldn't ever feel comfortable like going out in. I really like exploring that side of myself in a safe environment. It's been really nice.”
The distinctive aesthetic that came out of this record - the quartet often clad in a blaze of reds, oranges and pinks - was as much about the artist they worked with this time round. “We chose to work with an artist that we like and the aesthetic kind of came from that rather than trying to be specifically feminine or not,” Mullineaux explains. - “The On All Fours artwork was done by Toby and Aidan Evans-Jesra,” Jones says. “They painted it while listening to the album. So it's the themes of the album represented visually. Then with the videos we got Jocelyn [Anquetil] to interpret the artwork and then put that into the video. So it's a living thing, in a way, like a chain reaction of everyone's creativity and input, which I think is really nice.”
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Having formed in 2015, the Rough Trade-signed four-piece initially met and cut their teeth at open mic nights in South London venues such as the Brixton Windmill: “I think the Windmill has been really kind of nurturing space for us,” says Pendlebury. “Because its whole ethos is to let anyone take the stage. And there's not necessarily a hierarchy of people playing. It's just an accessible space to be given to anyone that's interested. And that's the same with artists holding exhibitions, or poetry nights, or just people who want to go and watch music. It's a nurturing place for people who are interested in creative arts, and that in itself is inspirational to creatives.”
They look back with fondness at a time when they could connect easily with fans - and of course, play small intimate gigs that seem a world away now...“When you're on tour you're going to these places and meeting these great people,” she continues. “But it feels like there's a disconnect in a way. You're playing these really big venues and you don't get to really hang out with people. There's no time to have a drink there or to go somewhere else. And I think musicians, as well as people who love music, need spaces to be able to actually talk with each other.”
In particular for Mullineaux, who grew up in Portsmouth, the Windmill is not only the venue she met the band in but is also emblematic of why she was drawn to London’s music scene in the first place: ”It was like nowhere I've ever really been before. I think it’s a really special place.” It was at a night at the Windmill they stumbled across their band name. It was a riff off a sketch by comedian Bill Hicks called Goat Boy: “We were most interested by his satirical writing, and felt like we wanted to try and write in a similar vein,” explains Pendlebury. But it was also the name that simply stuck as something they kept calling themselves: “We just kept coming up with really rubbish names, and Goat Girl was the one that kind of sounded a little bit better than the others,” she adds with a self-deprecating laugh.
Are they optimistic for the future and in particular for the fate of the music industry, noting that it’s not only artists’ careers in peril with the performing arts sector being completely stalled but the wider ecosystem? “I think the ecosystem was kind of faulty already,” responds Jones. “Just the chain of money, the flow of money all going up basically. So gigs might start happening again, but there needs to be real changes. That was apparent before all this. The CEO of Spotify’s net worth is crazy. And we get 0.003p per play or something like that. There needs to be real, real changes.”
Plus they share a concern that even when the industry bounces back, there’ll be some for whom the impacts will have just been too great: “A lot of people who work in live events have had to take other jobs just to get by,” says Mullineaux. “A lot of venues were closing even beforehand, and a lot of venues won't make it through it. Then there’ll be bands who might have had to move back home or in with their parents or leave London or something because they can't afford to live here.”
As far as their own future goes, they just can’t wait to play live again - once it’s safe of course. They’d love to collaborate with the likes of Mica Levi, to play Primavera, and to someday hit Latin America: “That'd be sick. I'd really like to go to Mexico,” says Mullineaux wistfully. But as seems indicative of their overall approach, Jones says it’s ultimately about “taking it as it comes really. Being able to grow and experiment. And just sticking to our guns.”
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'On All Fours' is out now.
Words: Sarah Bradbury
Photography: Holly Whitaker
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