Zen Glasgow: Free Love’s Utopian Ashram Jams

"I want to challenge people. I want people to either love it or hate it..."

Labels can be deceptive.

Take Happy Meals. A throwaway name, with a substantial sound – but now, they’re shedding the novelty cardboard casing. Transitioning to Free Love, they’re celebrating the end of a self-realised cycle and gravitating to a different plane – aligning the candied dance-pop of their earlier work with the trancier, transcendental drones of the meditational sounds they’ve always dabbled in.

But this isn’t a reincarnation, they’re keen to stress – simply another stage in their musical evolution. From Happy Meals’ conception at Glasgow’s Green Door Studios, artists Suzanne Rodden and Lewis Cook – a creative partnership for four years, a personal one for eleven – have grown into a formidable live force, bringing fuck-it-and-see experimentalism and shamanic stage presence to their shows.

In this city, it’s the closest thing we have to a happening. Ahead of the release of 'Synchronicity', their first release under the new name, they settle down to discuss the communion of the dance-floor, the power of performance and how a conga beat can – in the right hands – be elevated to the status of ritual.

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You’ve went from Happy Meals to Free Love. Why?

Lewis: It felt like an important time for transition for us. It felt like a transformative time.

Suzanne: The end of different cycles.

L: We’d been thinking about changing the name for a while, although we’d grown to really love it. There’s something good about being able to take control of something and change it again.

S: And to take meaning back from it. Obviously, Happy Meals has its own connotations, and its own belonging in other places. It was really interesting to take that and invent new associations with it. There’s a really beautiful French word, that I can never remember, but it’s about taking a word that already has associations and then ‘re-setting’ that.

What do you think Free Love gives you that Happy Meals doesn’t any more?

L: They’re two really strong words. Super positive. And they’re also quite trashy too. They’re thrown around in the same way as ‘happy meals’ – a happy meal is this trashy product, it’s the cheapest of the cheap. You’ll see ‘free’ splashed all over advertising, the word ‘love’ itself has been commodified. To combine the two, almost gives it a double-meaning. Then there’s the extended meaning of free love, the concept of sexual liberation and rave culture. It felt like all of these things that were overlapping.

S: It just feels really comfortable. Nowadays, when I walk past McDonalds and see Happy Meals on a poster, my eyes are instantly drawn. But the new name fits a lot more with the aesthetic and type of thing we’re wanting to do. We’ve got the two different sides to the band – side one is what people see most, which is harking back to rave culture, Italo-dance, all that kind of stuff – but the other side is the more meditational side of it all.

We run these events in Glasgow called Third Ear, which combine music and yoga, and ‘Free Love’ sort of encompasses the yin and the yang of that perfectly. And the name arrived to Lewis in savasana (a yoga pose traditionally performed at the end of practice).

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For me, it’s become a total outlet of energy…

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So, is there a new ethos behind the band?

S: I wouldn’t say it was something completely new, it’s more of a graduation from where we were before. This is the end of a cycle of four years.

L: And it’s changed a lot over those four years. When we first started, we’d never made music together. S: We’ve been together for 11 years as a couple, but we started making music about four years ago. And it was totally by accident.

L: We started working with Green Door Studios. And, as usually happens in Glasgow, someone was like ‘oh yeah, you’re a band, do you want to play some shows?’ So we did. We’ve never stopped doing this, and I never want to stop doing this, but it feels like every show is a bit of an experiment. And you try something else new. And sometimes, that’ll maybe fail in a certain way, but you continue that progression on.

With the live show, it’s so different from when we started to play – which was just us with an old four-track tape player. S: We put a call-out recently on our Facebook for any photos, and got photos from our first and second-ever shows. Our first show was when the Art School was on Sauchiehall Street, supporting a band called Yong Yong, who’ve become good friends of ours. And I remember I was petrified, because I was performing. I’d forgotten all of that.

What do you get from the live performance? Because the way that you approach it is so different from the way that other bands do…

S: For me, it’s become a total outlet of energy. I mean, it’s been a really interesting thing for me. Going from being timid in my performances to breaking through a barrier, where I NEED that aspect of my life now. That sounds ridiculous, but if we go a few weeks without a show, then I can feel that energy getting pent up.

A huge part of the band for us is about connecting with other people. That’s why we do Third Ear, that’s why we do Sleep Garden, and collaborate with other artists. It’s amazing to connect with an audience – people you’ve never seen in your life, coming back again and maybe recognising one or two faces. I absolutely love it.

Could you talk a little bit more about your involvement with the Third Ear/Sleep Garden events?

L: They kind of evolved out of the ashram side of what we do. Everything that we’ve done has been very intuitive. We’ve found these ideas after we’ve done them, in a way. Not like ‘this is what we set out to do’. Someone asked us to record a tape, and we started to. And from there, we acknowledged that this is quite an important part of us. And then we did that Laraaji show.

S: Someone had heard the tape that we made and then asked, do you fancy playing with Laraaji?

L: Straight after that, we put it out really cheap on Bandcamp. And then after a day, Optimo were like ‘Do you want to release this on vinyl? It felt like it unfolded, more than anything else. With Sleep Garden [a round-the-clock gathering, hosted in the Kinning Park complex, which saw musicians play continuously for twelve hours] it was one of those projects where I’d been wanting to do something like that for ten years. But I’d never been fully able to realise what it was, or exactly what form it would take. All these things just clicked into place, and it was like – this is it.

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What had you hoped for it?

S: I don’t know. There were a lot of question marks. We weren’t sure if people would sleep the entire time, or if they would stay up and see the whole thing as a party. It’s one of those things – you put something out, and then other people get involved, and it kind of morphs.

Is it about creating an energy?

S: I hadn’t actually thought of that cross-over before. The losing yourself. For us, it’s so important in our live show. There’s a lot of music, that when you go and see it, you could literally just be listening to the tracks at home. I love going to see music that I can’t help but move to. You’re involved in it. It’s immersive. That’s always been important for us as part of our live set. And actually, that sort of communal ‘losing yourself’.

L: There is a community aspect. When we play live, there’s an aspect of ‘everyone bring a tambourine and jump onstage’. We become the curators of an energy. A lot of the time, it’s about me and Suzi having that energy between the two of us, to feed off of each other. And the important thing about that is about having an element of chaos. Allowing the chaos. Because within that chaos, you have the freedom to see that something is happening and think: ‘I’m going with this’.

S: With something perfectly choreographed, it might be great, but there’s no space for anything else to arrive out of it. We use pretty much all hardware; we don’t use laptops. For us, it’s about always having that spark of ‘this could all go horribly wrong’.

L: And it has gone horribly wrong. But that’s OK. And that’s part of it.

S: It gives you that adrenaline as well, having to stay on it – when you’re having to ride it out.

L: Sometimes when it fucks up, it’s great. Sometimes, it kind of makes the situation. There’s that thing of watching your audience see it’s going wrong, but if they can see that, and they’re still dancing then that’s cool. You can try to remedy it, and have fun with it, and allow that to be part of the performance and the experience.

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There’s always been a meditative aspect to it.

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With your music, it’s always felt like the spiritual and the musical are entwined.

S: We’ve always wanted to have an aspect of… I don’t know if ‘spirituality’ is the right word, but an aspect of something within ourselves. I think it’s just something that’s just happened.

What was the motivation to start describing your live shows as ceremonies?

L: When we first started to make any music at all, it was somewhere between the more energetic stuff and the more meditative stuff. There’s always been a meditative aspect to it. That first show that we did, we sat out on a table with a mixer, a tablecloth, and a bottle of wine. It was an important part of it, to help us create an energy. And that ritual, that ceremony, has always been an important part of the idea. We’ve always recorded this music, and we’ve always taken the recording of it as a ceremony as well.

S: Whenever we’ve improvised together, it’s always really been about what’s come out before we’ve started shaping it and moulding it.

L: I think ritual is a really important thing. Not just for us making music, but for life in general. Often, people try to sell ‘ritual’ to people as this thing that we can own or buy. But quite a lot of what we do, even with the disposability of the names, is about taking things that are pretty rudimentary and creating a ceremony out of it. Some of the sounds that we use are super-goofy. It’s about taking the fun aspects of house music and Italo and all these things, and recognising that there’s a ritual to them.

And that they’re so special to so many people – including myself. With a spiritual or religious ritual, people take certain artefacts and those things have a special significance – say sage, or something like that. The conga sound is a ritual as well. You can recognise it. It’s embedded in our memory. You might not be able to identify it for what it is, but just like the smell of incense, it has this ‘trigger’ quality.

The idea is to use some of those things in a fun, funny way. I think the division between ritual and non-ritual is psychological. And part of it is creating a space where people can take the ordinary things that they enjoy and make a ritual out of it.

How do you find it to write together?

S: It’s always really different. There are some tracks that we’ve written together where we’ll take ideas to each other – and someone, usually Lewis, will have come up with the musical ideas, and then I’ll start writing lyrics for it. Then it’ll sort of merge together that way. With the ashram stuff, because there’s less lyrics involved, it’s more about improvising together. We’ll spend maybe an hour playing together, choosing the parts that we like.

L: A lot of it is talking about the music that we like together. Finding things that we both enjoy. It’s about listening and realising that we both get a kick out of the sound. And we think, we need to rip that off. I don’t mean totally rip it off. But you want to capture that, whatever it is.

And sometimes the thing that you come up with can be so different, but it’s inspired by that. Part of that is that both of us are very uninhibited when it comes to our enjoyment of music. You hear something you love; you want to dance.

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When we approach recording, it’s always from this blank slate.

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Do you listen separately, or together?

L: We have the same Spotify, but we’ll just fire tracks between each other.

S: There’s a lot of stuff that we have in common. A lot of Balearic stuff, a lot of Italo, a lot of cold- wave. Whereas, I love a lot of Beyonce and Nicki Minaj.

L: I listen to a lot of shite. Like a LOT of 90s acid techno. So cheesy. But then I also listen to things like Sleep. Doom-metal. Sometimes, people come to our shows expecting one thing or another. But I don’t think there’s been a show where somebody hasn’t come up, who hasn’t heard us before, and said, ‘I wasn’t expecting that’. There are people who’re into the particular tropes, the ideas that we’re playing with, and they just get it.

Then there are people who come along, maybe dragged along or whatever, but it’s not really their music. But when you’re in a live environment, you get the opportunity to connect with an energy that’s going on in that room, that space, that supersedes the genre.

Does it frustrate you, that there’s maybe an inability to ‘properly’ categorise your sound?

S: We’ve talked about this before. I see it as a positive thing. There are a whole number of umbrellas that we could fall under. When someone asks, oh, what do you do? Oh, you’re a musician. What kind of music do you make? And we just look at each other, like…

L: No matter what the music is, there’s usually someone within that genre that did something new, and defined something which was different from other things. Usually, that’s where the magic is. The problem with so much music, is people who hear it go, ‘that’s amazing’, and then they try to make something that sounds exactly like it. And it sounds like a pale imitation.

Genres are very helpful when it comes to things like maintaining scenes. But from quite an early age, I got quite cynical about these things. I would see someone who was fucking incredible, then see someone else playing ‘punk’ music and going through the motions. And being very small c conservative about it. And I found that very, very boring.

With the idea of creating something that doesn’t fit into something obvious to categorisation, but that can still be celebrated across genres – you want to be able to shape people. I want to challenge people. I want people to either love it or hate it. And if they love it, it’s because they’ve experienced it the way we want them to experience it. And if they hate it, it’s because they like shit music! I want that polarisation.

S: When we approach recording, it’s always from this blank slate. And maybe the next recording will sound exactly like Sleep. You never know.

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Catch Free Love at Lovebox in London on July 14th.

Words: Marianne Gallagher

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