Viva Seifert, one-half of grungy, bluesy brother-sister duo Joe Gideon & the Shark, is laughing with implausible glee.
Given her stony-faced stage persona – she is the eponymous Shark, and one of the fiercest, most technically gifted rock ‘n’ roll drummers around – it’s unsettling even to see her crack a smile. She’s just spent a rapid-fire ten minutes telling the story of her life. There was an idyllic-sounding London childhood of piano and ballet lessons, a teenage appearance in the Barcelona Olympics, two albums on Bella Union as part of four-piece Bikini Atoll alongside big brother Gideon, a painful breakup some years ago and a subsequent retreat to a barn in the countryside, where she taught herself every instrument going.
“I could only write awful, heartbroken songs, which obviously no one could hear or play,” she giggles. “So I decided that I had to play every instrument myself. It was really cathartic.” I’d only asked how she picked up the drums.
Gideon, on lead vocals, guitar and sometimes bass, is an enigmatic frontman, clad from head to Chelsea-booted toe in black. He drawls laconically more than he sings, with flat transatlantic vowels, but in tender moments he can croon a soft phrase and rend your heart. Viva, on the other hand, wears leopard-print all-in-ones and plays drums, keyboards, glockenspiel and sometimes guitar, sings backing vocals and runs a loop station – all at the same time, and there is the YouTube footage to prove it – with flamboyant precision, arms flung high into the air and head thrown back.
Her Olympic sport was rhythm gymnastics and she still choreographs every movement with ruthless professionalism. “I could do it in my head,” she says of the band’s early days, when, disillusioned by Bikini Atoll’s demise, she and Gideon decided not to recruit a new band, but to play all the parts themselves. “I’d start practising and I’d get three bars in and go, ‘Stop!’ He was like, ‘I just don’t think you can do it,’ and I’d say, ‘Yes I can! Just give me three more weeks!’ And then six weeks in, it just gelled. The more I danced around the drum kit, the more naturally it came. It’s getting even more flamboyant as we do more and more shows – a bigger audience means higher lifts with the arms and stuff. It’s definitely becoming more over the top.” When it was time to name the band, they agreed on ‘the Shark’ because “it was better than Joe Gideon and the Octopus,” deadpans Gideon.
Their music is stripped-down and unselfconscious, wailing blues guitars and scuzzy bass underpinned by an urgent four-to-the-floor kick drum. ‘Harum Scarum’, the title track from their new album, features a spare, sinister bassline Gideon claims he stole from Alicia Keys, a bizarre lyrical riff on rats fleeing a sinking ship that turns out to be Gideon himself, and a ride cymbal that will not soon recover from the thrashing Viva gives it. In ‘Civilization’, an epic, hallucinatory coming-of-age story that rings like a Birthday Party cover of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Gideon drawls proudly: “I was a writer, musician, fishmonger, politician / I went all spastic, like Lars Von Trier / I wrote a book which was a spectacular success / Spent all my earnings on weed and crystal meth”.
‘Hide & Seek’ is another tale of foolish youth, with a catchy, looped two-chord keyboard phrase that Viva pounds out with the enthusiasm of Linus thumping away at the Peanuts theme tune and lyrics that read like a suburban retelling of Lord of the Flies. ‘Kathy Ray’, the spiritual cousin of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, is both the true story of a woman with a remarkable back story – “That happened two roads down from here,” Gideon offers unexpectedly – and a tribute to a life that, superficially, sounds more broken than triumphant. “Mmm,” he muses, “but with a heart. They all seem to have a bit of a heart in there, don’t they, these characters. There’s some warmth around them. If you listen to Hank Williams and Tom Waits and even Nick Cave, the amount of humour that’s in that stuff… it really is terribly sad, but there’s always a light side to it, and that almost makes it more sad.”
From the raw rockabilly of early Birthday Party to the lyrical sophistication of his work with the Bad Seeds, Cave is a recurring figure in the story of Joe Gideon & the Shark. Jim Sclavunos, when he happened upon Gideon and Viva playing a support slot at the Islington Academy last year, naturally sensed kindred spirits, and said he would suggest them to Cave and Mick Harvey (the “democracy of two”, as he described it to Gideon) as their support act for a forthcoming tour. “We thought it was really flattering and forgot about it,” says Viva. “As far as we were concerned, we’d already won.”
But then the call came. Gideon’s wife Jessica was expecting their first child around the first date of the tour. They took a deep breath and said yes. By the time they should have been loading up their kit and setting the sat-nav for the Manchester Apollo, Jessica was overdue. “We were like,” Viva whispers, “today would be a really good day to go into labour. I went off to think about it and have a cup of tea, and the next day I got a message from Gideon: ‘Holy fuck, I think we’re having a baby!’” Viva was not entirely unsympathetic, having gigged right up until she gave birth to her first child last summer with drummer Mark Cleveland of Archie Bronson Outfit. (‘DOL’, the first single from ‘Harum Scarum’, stands for “daughter of a loony” and is possibly the most sinister, freaked-out song ever composed in honour of a musician’s offspring.)
In the end, they played a triumphant UK tour with the Bad Seeds, although Viva managed to go the entire tour without so much as making eye contact with Cave. “I didn’t meet him,” she sighs. “I couldn’t. I was pathetic when he walked into the room.” “It was definitely easier playing to 3,500 people than hanging backstage,” Gideon agrees. Their record, though, is playing to a capacity crowd of 5,000 at the Hammersmith Apollo, opening for Seasick Steve last year. After the Bikini Atoll days, when they remember headlining in front of a crowd of ten, “just playing to an audience is fabulous!” says Viva sweetly.
Their feet are also kept firmly on the ground by one long-standing fan. “We walked on [at the Apollo] and started tuning,” she continues, “and there are 5,000 people, and we look up and we’re like, there’s mum! She was standing on the balcony right in the middle.”
Your parents must be very proud, I suggest. “I think they’ll always worry,” she sighs, and does her best mum voice: “‘Can’t you get a proper job?’”
– – –
Joe Gideon & The Shark’s album ‘Harum Scarum’ is out now on Bronzerat; find the duo on MySpace HERE.
Words: Jocelyn Kaulks