MEET: Irish queerpunks Strange New Places

Strange New Places, photographed by Ciara McMullan

BUILDING on the solid foundations of the Northern Irish rock of Stiff Little Fingers and their 70s’ contemporaries, the Belfast punk scene has gone from strength to strength in recent years with bold new artists popping up like an anti-establishment game of whack-a-mole.

Strange New Places is one of these groups and just like their predecessors, they’ve got one hell of a system to fight!

Although long-awaited progress has been made in Northern Ireland with the significant step of the introduction of same-sex marriage, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the everyday struggles that LGTBQ + people face; a fact that quintet Strange New Places are painfully aware of. Their music tackles issues surrounding sexuality and gender identity in particular whilst simultaneously exposing and commenting on the capitalist system.

Uncomfortable, the group’s debut 2019 EP, also demonstrated their range as it cruised across the genres, swinging from classic punk to folk rock, emo and back again; whilst the lead single “Mr Gumble” was particularly striking with its poignant description of the struggles of dating as a trans person.

With music like this Strange New Places seem groundbreaking, although whether this pioneer status is a positive step in the right direction or a sad reflection of how far we’ve still got to go is something I’ll leave you to decide. 

Fascinated by the group, we were able to catch up with their lead singer Ash to discuss the group’s music, aims and love of The Simpsons.

Hi Ash. Thanks for talking to us. First of all could you introduce Strange New Places to us – who’s in the band and what do you play?

Heya! The band is made up of myself (Ash, she/her/ash/aer) singing with a guitar, Caleb (he/him) on bass, and Rain (they/them), Rory (he/him), and Michael (he/him) on drums, keyboards, and lead guitar respectively, with all three also singing! And a shoutout to our sinister puppetmaster in the shadows, Emer.

And now for the most obvious and predictable question in all of music journalism, what’s the story behind the name ‘Strange New Places’?

It’s The Simpsons! When Barney tries to push his barbershop quartet in an avant-garde direction, he says he’s “taking the band to strange new places.” Bonus points to ‘Fishbulb,’ which almost became our Simpsons-based band name.

Your songs are also littered with references to The Simpsons. Aside from the show’s eerie ability to predict the future, what’s the Simpsons-obsession about?

It’s a cultural touchstone! We all grew up around the time when the Channel 4 dinnertime slot was golden-age Simpsons, when the show was at its peak, and for a lot of us it affected our comedy stylings. It’s useful to have a bank of references, both comedic and cultural, for how we feel, and the show is really useful for that!

And how did you all meet and first start making music together?

Me and Rory met at an early age, right when I was out of the womb. It took a while longer to meet Michael, a school chum of Rory’s, with whom we played in an acoustic-rock cover band in Fermanagh. Michael and I lived together when we first moved to Belfast, and as Rory was coming over to accompany some songs I’d written, Michael jammed along! He was pretty much immediately part of the band. From there, we picked up Caleb wandering in the woods around Lisburn, and Emer tried to practice her dark sorcery on us from behind the drum kit until she realised she could control our every move from behind the curtain – so she built a robot named Rain, who drums for us now.

You’re a Belfast band. Would you say that the city and your upbringing in Northern Ireland has impacted your music? If so, how?

Oh absolutely! It’s impossible for our locale to not influence the sound and subject of our music. On an organisational level, Belfast has a very welcoming and mutually supportive music community, whether through the Oh Yeah Music Centre, the increasingly active queer punk scene, or our label, Third Bar, which allows us connection to even the runaway local successes of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody – it’s a small but comradely scene with a lot of history. In terms of the subject of our songs, many of them deal with depression and social isolation, which are particular issues for Northern Ireland- the late great Lyra McKee wrote of the ‘Ceasefire Babies,’ post-peace agreement kids who have inherited severe mental health problems from our society. The dissonance between a tight-knit local community and the knowledge that we’ve been left stranded by previous generations is a big influence on us.

You often speak about your experiences with sexuality and how it links with mental health.  What is it like to write and create music about issues that are as personal as these?

Cathartic! I mean, obviously, at some gigs there’s a fear that you’ll face repercussions for being so open about being queer and vulnerable. But for the most part, the process of creating the music helps channel frustration at yourself and the world away from self-destruction. It’s important to me to avoid common platitudes about queerness and mental health, and to speak from experience. And that conviction in the subject matter tends to overpower fears of oversharing – because we recognise that describing our experiences is more important.

And with “Mr Gumble” in particular, the theme of gender dysphoria clearly stands out. How important was it for you to be able to bring this issue to a wider audience and to young people going through similar things in particular? (Have a watch of the video for Mr Gumble, below)

Oh it’s like, that’s our deal! If people going through a rough time, especially for being trans in a transphobic society, can hear our music and be reminded that these experiences aren’t individual to them, that they’re not broken, that there’s a community to support them and fight against injustice – that’s why we’re here. And if we can make them dance at the same time? All the better.

Back in July, Third Bar released The Fight Is Not Over EP, which you featured on, along with Sister Ghost, Gender Chores and Problem Patterns. It was released to raise funds for The 343, which is a feminist-led queer arts space in Belfast. What is your relationship with The 343?

I’d say we’re friends with benefits with The 343. It’s our practice space, we work with the organisers there a lot, go to their events, collaborate on a lot! It’s really great to see the growth of a grassroots radical arts space like it, where we can be confident in trusting the management and feel genuinely safe. It’s also really important that it’s cropped up in the east of the city, where one might not expect a queer arts space – the gays are diversifying!

Who would say Strange New Places’ biggest musical influences are?

This is a fun question, because we tend to have fairly disparate musical tastes! I asked the band about this one; Caleb said MCR [My Chemical Romance], Rain said Antarctigo Vespucci; Rory said John Grant, Michael said Say Anything, and though different bands cycle out in my mind, at the minute I’d have to go for Martha!

What are the weirdest records you own?

I think we all find it pretty weird that we own ourselves on vinyl, that still hasn’t really sunk in. But I also enjoy collecting weird records from charity shops, so I have two sound effects LPs. Apart from that I have the second half of the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar, which I bought for 50p.

And what songs have you got on repeat at the moment? What songs have soundtracked lockdown for you?

Personally, I’ve had the new EP from Worst Party Ever on repeat recently. But over the whole of lockdown, my running theme is Aaron West & the Roaring Twenties – I made a university presentation about them when lockdown started, and just haven’t been able to stop listening since! Around the house we also have a lot of Billie Eilish and Dorian Electra playing, alongside Phoebe Bridgers – it’s an eclectic mix!

And how have you actually found lockdown? Have you been able to use it creatively or are you taking a well-deserved break?

A bit of column A, a bit of column B! Certainly, we’ve been trying to record music, both individually and as a band; Caleb and I have had film projects delayed in various capacities, but there are still some projects going ahead in that regard. Rain has been involved in the Baseball music scene recently and has written and produced a lot for that. But I think generally, a lockdown is not the ideal circumstances in which to be creative. We’ve all been pursuing one art form or another because that’s just who we are, we need to create. But in terms of forcing ourselves to make art that isn’t coming naturally, I don’t think now is the time. So to answer the question: We’ve been having as much of a break as we can while being as creative as we must.

With music venues closed, what do you miss most about live performances?

Oh so many things! Probably the process of performing as a full band, at full volume, to a full room. Just feeling that immediate sense of collaboration, both within the band, and between the band and the audience, is irreplaceable.

And are there any particular past performances that stand out the most for you?

I would say the launch of our EP, Uncomfortable, is the best gig I’ve ever played! I don’t usually get pre-show nerves, but for that performance, with everyone there for us, it was so scary, but we still rocked it, we had a wonderful time! I know others in the band would say playing at the Ulster Hall for the NI Music Prize was the best – it’s certainly the largest, most professional operation we’ve ever been a part of!

I know this is a tricky question to answer currently, but what does the post-pandemic future hold for Strange New Places? Can we expect a new EP or LP?

It’s hard to say! We’d like to get back to playing gigs, but we don’t want to endanger anyone. Currently we’re occupying ourselves with our Patreon; we post a full-band demo of an unreleased track there every month, along with our cyber-zine. Every few months we’ll compile those tracks into an EP for public release, but as far as studio recordings go, we’re keen to do more once we get the funds- which I suppose is a sneaky way to advertise the fact people can support us via our Patreon page!

Ash, thank you so much.

Follow Strange New Places on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; the Uncomfortable EP is available on digital and vinyl formats at their Bandcamp page.

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