Say Psych: Interview: Girls In Synthesis

A few weeks ago I caught the sizzling set from Girls in Synthesis at Rough Trade in Nottingham. This week they were back on my home patch so I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see them at The Deaf Institute supporting The Membranes; yet another perfectly executed set with an intensity that’s hard to match. I had a chat with them after about all things GiS.


Q – Where does the name come from?

John – When we started playing David Bowie had just died so the name comes from the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’, which is not an actually an influence on our music, but we love Bowie. Me and Jim were in a different band at the time and it was a big event and we wanted to not overthink the name, and it sounded really good. It now means more than what it was at the time, a bands name doesn’t mean anything until the band has become something and we feel we have grown into it. It surprises us that not many people know that’s where it comes from, which is good and we like people are shocked when we tell them, because we don’t sound anything like that – which is confusing, and great.

Nicole – Our musical tastes are so broad and probably not what you would think when you listen to our music.

John – But equally – who’s not a Bowie fan? A lot of the English subcultural movements influence us more than music; Blitz, Mod, Soulboy and also the New Romantics to some degree because it’s a lineage of that.


Q – What are your biggest influences?

John – This is the hardest thing to answer because people would assume that because we are a guitar/punk band that we listen to a lot of that, but we don’t really. We met on a lot of soul, disco, reggae, dub and funk; the post punk stuff has come later. It was something I was into when I was younger and it got put to the back of mind when the band was formed so it didn’t become something that was important – even though it undoubtedly is. We’re massive PiL and Wire fans, and you can hear some of that but its not something we sit down and channel into the music. A lot of people have said that we’re like Killing Joke, but we hadn’t actually listened to them until after we were compared to them except the obvious songs. They are way more rock heavy than us, but we can see where the comparison comes in. At a recent gig we were told we sound a bit gothic and its taken on that, which we think is really good because rather than channelling the darkness in the music through the relentlessness within the music, we channel it in a different way and that’s what the new material is doing. ‘Pulling Teeth’, ‘Containment’ and ‘Watch with Mother’ is a different thing for us; there’s a new energy, it’s not just thrashing around.

Nicole – Even drumming wise, now it’s all about precision rather than chaos. Before we were trying to make the most impact we could in the most minimal way, whereas now we are channelling our impact.

Jim – This band has always been drum and bass led, and that ties in all our influences. The guitars are there but they are textural and an afterthought. The majority of the songs are written by John, and so are bass led. So once you have the drums and the bass doing that and that’s the foundation, you see a lot of that in disco and dub. Regardless of it sounds the same musically, it follows the same pattern.

John – One thing I love about what the guitars do, is that they often don’t sound like they are even part of the same song. If Jim was to play the guitar part from a song without the drum and bass, it makes no sense and you can’t even say which song it is, you just say that’s a really cool guitar part. Anyone can pick up a guitar and play chords, everyone has been doing it since The Beatles and Buddy Holly, but there has to be some movement on the roles of instruments in music and we’re not reinventing the wheel and we’re not trying to change the world, but we are trying to think outside the box for a band like us.


Q – Who writes the music? How does an idea end up being a song; is there a formula or process to it?

John – we use two different processes. If I write the music, I tend to write everything from start to finish; there will be lyrics, a demo with drums, bass and guitar. From there it will develop into our own thing dynamically. Whereas Jim and I tend to collaborate in a different way; Jim will either give me a riff and some lyrics or just some lyrics, and I’ll get a vibe off of what he has given me. It’s a way I can’t work myself but it works in collaboration. The way Jim writes lyrics is more direct, but it is so good at setting an immediate tone. He’ll send me something and I’ll listen and know exactly what that needs to be. We’ve never really said to each other that doesn’t work, its always worked. Earlier on there was a musical crossover as well and there sometimes is, but it always takes a spark. Jim’s songs always need to be fucked up, everyone likes Jim’s songs because they are more direct and maybe more pop-y. So you have the dichotomy of me trying to be as weird as I can and Jim trying to be as direct as he is and that’s where the magic happens. But whether or not one of us is writing more material than the other, it doesn’t phase us, it doesn’t work like that.

Jim – what feels great is that the momentum that starts to build off that, that’s the special thing. You start to get one thing, you’ll cite an idea and then suddenly you’re on to a pattern that you didn’t know existed and before you know what you’re five songs in then. John has run away with the idea and come back and said here you go, how about those.

John – With this next album, I’m very critical of our music, but I have to say we listened to the record on the way up to Hull and listened to it, and I’ve never said this before, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. That for me asks, where do you go from there? My point is that that’s the end of that period and we are not gonna do stuff like that anymore, because we’ve done it to the degree where we have done it as well as we can do, so we have to do something else. We’ve started writing the third album and its different. The song writing needs to represent where we are going and has to be from the ground up, now we know we can do something with a longer form, something more experimental, why shouldn’t we do it? Who are we disappointing? Only ourselves.

Jim – If we don’t try it.


Q – How does it feel to be playing live again?

John – It feels amazing. We are a live band really and that’s what we are most known for. A lot of people say the records sometimes doesn’t match up to the live show and we can see why, but we like that because it has to be different. You can’t just have one way of doing things, it would be boring.

Jim – You may as well just listen to the record if that’s the case. The first one back was special, at The Shacklewell Arms, 520 days since the last show. We’ve been lucky because every one since then, there has been a thirst not just from us but everyone out there, it feels like they are ready again and especially now when stuff is still a bit weird out there, people are still making the effort. Look at tonight, people could have easily not committed to it, but they’ve come out and done so. For me it feels like there is an even more special bond between you and the audience, we’re making the effort after two years of not being able to do it and everyone else is too; we’re sharing something amazing.

John – I see it as being that people were desperate, there was a felt desperation at The Shacklewell Arms gig for people to have something to react to. Not to suggest there were reacting to us because they needed something, but there was a massive desire for us to go through this thing together.

Jim – A shared process, it felt different to how shows were before, it felt like we were all a part of something that was special because we’ve all gone through something.

John – And every gig’s been like that. We did Leicester (Wide Eyed Festival), we played at 4pm and there was about 500 people there. We thought with being on so early there was gonna be no one there, it was mad. We couldn’t believe the reception we got, we were shocked. Then we did Nottingham with Big Joanie which was also great. We don’t know how long its gonna last because if the restrictions change and people aren’t gonna have as much choice, so we’ll see. We played Hull which is always good for us because we’ve been playing there for years, and Northampton. We thought if we get a few people along to them then its gonna be great because they are showing they want to be there even in weird times. Both were amazing and its clear people are making the effort.


Q – You’ve just done some European shows, how were you received over there?

Nicole – We’ve just done the first GiS in Europe, and it was amazing, unbelievable.

John – With the European shows, we didn’t know what we were going into because we didn’t know what we had to have to cross the border, we didn’t know if we could bring our guitars without grief because they would say we are working – we had no idea. We tried the best we could to work out what was gonna happen, but there was no way of telling 100% what was gonna happen. It was a lot easier than we were thinking, we are all double vaccinated for a start, so it makes it easier. It was a pleasure to see how differently things are done in Europe. In Europe, they see musicians as artists and you are well looked after and you are treated with a different kind of respect.

Jim – The smaller city culture in Europe is just so different. You don’t need to flock to the big cities to find culture, there is really good government funding to promote and support everywhere. People have stuff to stay in small towns for. The promoter in Kortrijk and she was telling us there is not a lot going on in a small town, but we saw everyone as young, hip, cool and it worked.

John – We had a beer in a medieval square with church bells and it was different. They aren’t worried about the bottom line so much.

Nicole – The governments appreciate the artists unlike in the UK.

Jim – What was cool about Belgium was they are renowned for being open minded, so their programming is so different. You can have a jazz infused ambient artist, followed by GiS, followed by a lo-fi hip hop, followed by thrash metal – all on the same stage on the same day

John – All getting the same amount of respect from the audience. No one is stood there looking bored.

Jim – Everyone found something in their interest to take away, but even if not, they stayed and experienced it regardless.

John – We want to go back next year and we can’t wait because it’s a completely different experience. It’s the foundation of the gigs that’s different, not the love for music because as we said we got great crowds in Hull, Northampton, everywhere we’ve played. People put their heart and soul into gigs in the UK, and it’s not that that’d different, it comes from the system.


Q – New song ‘Pulling Teeth’ came out a few weeks ago, is this taken from an upcoming release or is it a standalone?

John – The weirdest thing was ‘Pulling Teeth’ was a song that was older than all of the stuff on the album, but it was the last song that we finished so that represents what the future is. The new album isn’t quite as far out as that because it was finished before ‘Pulling Teeth’. A nine-minute song gives us a framework, we don’t have to just do three minutes songs, we can do triptychs of audio and we can do a tri-part song. We can push the boundaries for ourselves, and it still works. Live that song is amazing [writer agrees] and I don’t want to ever hold ourselves back so I can see the future as being massively open.

Jim – If we don’t try it.

John – It’s a freestanding release which is something we’ve done quite a lot, like ‘Containment’. We tend to write a lot of material and we have an idea before the album comes along of what’s gonna be on the record, we might end up with stuff that doesn’t fit the album but we can’t leave it, so we do it as a standalone. ‘Pulling Teeth’ has been hanging around for a while now and I spent some months messing about with it. I had this idea of splitting it up into different compartments. Me and Jim had been spending a lot of time sitting around near Cleopatra’s Needle on the embankment in central London. It’s weird having this huge obelisk just sat on the banks of the river – why is it there? We channelled that energy into the middle of the song as its got stories of mystery around it. We wanted to try and capture the hustle and bustle of London to a degree, but also the energy with a section of just noise to take you to another place. Live, even more so, it does that. The end section we wanted to put four to the floor and open things up so we can do whatever we want in it. It’s a signpost to, not the next album, but the thing after that.


Q – What can we expect from the new LP?

John – The next album is weird, but it has got some stuff which is still linked to the past because you can’t just say to people you had an album a year ago, now here’s this and suck it up. Our favourite bands didn’t do that, the first and second PiL albums and the first two Wire albums, there is a step between the two. For me, you have to give people a little bit of what they are used to but I see the next album as the full stop on the thrashy punk band GiS, I see the future as being way more open and I think we all feel that. We are always gonna play some of those tunes and we are always gonna be energetic on stage, but we wanna prove that we can do other stuff.

Nicole – the way that we line up things, like with our first album and even with the second album with ‘To A Fault’ at the end, we are always leading into the next thing. We set the tone, and like John said about The Beatles doing that.

John – Yeah, there is always a tune that leads on to the next level. This album is special, there is some really dark parts, but its not external anymore. We are not shouting at the man and waving our fists, everything has gone internal and there is no outward aggression at all. It’s a lot about internal torment, internal situations which you can’t control.

Nicole – At the same time, the music is so beautiful. Its weird as I questioned how could the lyrics be that, but be so beautiful. It’s a contradiction.

John – Exactly that, the old adage of what bands do. If you want to get a message across you have too try and make it accessible to people, you have to make it so people can absorb it. One thing about this band, I don’t think there is anyone touching us lyrically at the moment, no one is doing what we are doing with lyrics. You have bands who are tackling issues and trying to approach things that are important, but not in the same way. It’s not even poetic, its visceral; its not about the head its about the heart and this album is so much like that. Its more literary but the impact is in those words. However people receive it, we think it’s a great record and we can’t wait to play more of it live and show people that this is what we are about now.


Q – And finally, sum up your sound in three words?

John – Simplicity, intensity, Chaos.

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