Interview: Saint Agnes

The London goth/psych rock n’ roll quartet chat about their excellent debut EP The Death Or Glory Gang

Saint Agnes The summit of a year which has seen their fanbase, or in their parlance, coven grow substantially, London rock n’ roll outfit Saint Agnes recently drop-kicked excellent debut EP The Death or Glory Gang into the public sphere. The follow up to glorious standalone single The Witching Hour, the new disc's five tracks take in spooked Spaghetti Western instrumental Death Rides A Black Horse alongside thunderous Zeppelin-esque stompers Move Like A Ghost and Diablo, Take Me Home. Spreading their wings the loud-quiet-deafening dynamism of the title track dovetails nicely meanwhile with the gothic ambience of I Feel Dangerous Around You.

Prior to their gig at The Shipping Forecast in Liverpool co-lead lead singer/guitarist Jon and bassist Ben assemble for the interview. Co-lead singer/keys player Kitty is resting her voice prior to tonight’s show and the remaining dates while drummer Andy appears between setting up in the venue’s basement live room. Something that becomes quickly apparent with The Death or Glory Gang even through laptop speakers is the power of the recording, with the band's production work possessing a depth many modern rock records lack.

"One of the main reasons we did the EP like this is that we wanted to take a big hand in the production ourselves' Jon explains. 'We didn’t just wanna hand it over to someone else, you can end up feeling like a hired musician a little bit. You turn up and these songs you’ve been crafting yourself ends up with someone else taking control. We had really strong ideas on how we wanted it sound, Ben and I come from quite a technical background so we knew what we wanted to achieve and how to get there. By doing it analogue you force yourself to commit to stuff and you don’t have the opportunity to go back and fix things. All those little gem moments which aren’t necessarily mistakes but things that if you had the opportunity to change, you have to leave them in. You grow to love them and they define your sound".

Recorded to 2 inch tape, eschewing the virtually standard all-digital route taken by guitar bands at present, the EP gives the impression of being tracked at about 120 decibels. "It’s to do with the lack of sense of space" Jon says of all-digital recording. "Most modern things are recorded with every microphone up really close then it’s DI-d straight into a computer. In terms of the audio frequencies it’s covering, it’s really effective, it’ll have a huge amount of low end. Your actual conception of how loud something is though, the thing that tells our brain how it reacts to a room is the resonance".

Harking back to an era when musicians would isolate themselves to crack on with recording (Led Zeppelin at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, scores of UK bands in the 1990s at Monnow Valley in Wales), Saint Agnes recorded the disc in seclusion. "We went to Tarhouse Studio and worked with Luke Oldfield who did The Wytches first album" Jon states. "The important thing was that we could stay there and be completely immersed and not have the distraction of going home. We were a little bit marooned. It’s outside of West London in the countryside, we stayed in the flat underneath it. You wake up talking about what you’re doing, you record and then you spend the evening listening to it talking about it again. For us trying to create a vibe and a sound, living and breathing it instead of doing separate chunks and going home makes it more real". "In the studio we weren’t really wearing headphones for it" Ben adds, "So we were tracking as we would do in the rehearsal room. The energy and personality in each of our playing is the core of all of the songs. The more you can remove headphones, doing things separately and just doing it in a familiar environment, in a room, really loud and accept there’s gonna be some feedback and noise and that’s part of the charm of it" Jon emphasizes. "It’s kind of how we play live, with nothing clouding it. From start to finish it was pretty much our baby, so if someone doesn’t like the sound it, it’s our fault!’ he grins.

Led by diaphanous keyboards the atmospheric I Feel Dangerous Around You is vaguely reminiscent of Dummy-era Portishead. "Ben came up with the bassline for it and Kitty and I sang something over it that felt like a conversation, making it up as we went along and the title came out of it" Jon recalls. "Then we spent about three months doing loads of other things to it and then trying to get back to that first idea. The song is kind of an argument between Kitty and I, and we wanted the same kind of thing with the instruments, which is to keep one thing really constant, the keys and then have the bass really raging and dynamic. I think that’s probably one of my favourite songs we’ve ever done and I don’t play guitar in it much either!"

"The way it started originally was me and Kitty coming up with everything cos the band started really with the idea of being a two-piece" Jon explains of Saint Agnes' songwriting process. "Very quickly as we found Ben and Andy and realised we could take really rough ideas to rehearsal than we could then jam. Andy’s role tends to be keeping us on course. I tend to have a thousand ideas, then Andy will say "I thought the idea with this was we were trying to make it a short, sharp blast" and I’ll go, "Yeah, that is the idea’’.

Currently on the band's van stereo are Idles, Pigs X7, Ho99o9 and Anna Calvi (“She can really shred on guitar, there’s a kinda Tom Morello vibe to her playing” Jon enthuses) along with mainstays Metallica, (“So what if Lars Ulrich can’t play a double kick drum at 200bpm?”). Present London comrades meanwhile include garage rock outfit The Sly Persuaders and rising alt. rock types Projector.

Available in a limited edition of 250 on 12" white vinyl, the new EP is released through the quartet’s own Death Or Glory Gang Records. "Fifty of those also come with a book of photos that we took on tour" Jon says. "We thought it would be really nice to share these with the people who are really supporting us. They sold out on the day, so we know that hardcore fans get to see a glimpse of stuff that others don’t, that to us is really important. It’s more of a tangible, exciting experience. We wanna provide something that has more depth for people but at the same time keep it a little bit exclusive so we can know who are real fans are and they know that we appreciate them".

Focusing on music videos, Saint Agnes have become a dab hand at those things MTV used to play. The Witching Hour particularly is a bravura piece of filmmaking, a mini road movie with Kitty at the wheel and references to Russ Meyer and Alfred Hitchcock. "Cos of the level we’re doing it at where’s there not loads of money involved if you say to a director "We’re gonna do this idea", they’re gonna be thinking of keeping costs low and not spend a week making a prop for it, whereas we will put that time in" Jon says.

"We had a list of scenes we wanted to get done, the director Brendan Cleaves is really good. By the end of the day it was "Fuck! Everyone off set, we need to get some bats in!" Film it for twenty seconds, "Right, bats out! Get these people on!" "It took a while to come together, but it was all shot within in a day" Andy nods. "There was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it" Jon recalls. "There was a couple of scenes in there with a dog in the car but you never see it cos it was too small to be seen over the dashboard! Between scenes we hadn’t been able to eat all day so we had boxes of fried chicken hidden. Between takes we were quickly eating cos we were starving then we realised that the dog had been going at all this food as well!" he laughs. The car featured is a classic Oldsmobile, a recurring motif of director Sam (The Evil Dead) Raimi. "We put out a call on Facebook and someone said I know a guy" Jon states. 'He came down and talked about his classic car to anyone who was stood near him. There’s a couple of scenes from The Birds and there a few references to a film Kitty really likes The Love Witch"

The EPs blistering lead single Diablo, Take Me Home echoes the ‘Death or glory/I don’t really care’ sentiment of the set’s title track. "The verse lyrics are about "I don’t wanna be sensible and invest in tomorrow and think about that, I want stuff now, and I’ll sacrifice tomorrow for now" Jon explains. "It’s the same with the band, to make it work, saying "Fuck! I don’t know what I’m gonna do about my day job tomorrow, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow". It’s about temptation, the thing that you really wanna do, take me home, I’m yours. When I wrote that lyric I was just really fed up of normal day shit and thinking "Why am I having to worry about this?" Other people seem free of these worries. Kitty had the chorus for it, we wrote that song together in no time"

Filmed during the searing heatwave that hit over Summer the parched ground looks less like the UK and a deserted border town in Texas. "We had director Steve Glassier for a day, so we said "Right, we’re gonna do two videos" Jon states. "Diablo was really hard work. It was fucking hot, we jumped a fence to get into this waste ground area, in Silvertown, East London. It’s right next to the Tate & Lyle factory. There’s a couple of clips in the background where you can see a giant maple syrup tin down the side of a building" Ben laughs. "There was a thing called the Silvertown Explosion where an ammunition store in WWI caught fire and then exploded, that’s where we filmed the footage. Cos we had to jump the fence to get in, once we were in we couldn’t get out! We didn’t have any drinks or anything, no shade" the singer explains. "Once we’ve started we have to finish in here. We did that as quick as we could then we went back to where I live to cool off. Then we were like, "Right we need to do a second video" and everyone’s knackered!’

Due to the quartet's forward planning both clips were completed in the same day within a strict budget. "Steve and Kitty had had a conversation about Death Or Glory and Kitty had talked about people wolf whistling her from cars" Jon explains. "Steve said "Why don’t you re-enact that moment?" and Kitty had this baseball that she’d used for The Witching Hour and we said let’s do something and see what happens. We ended up using the second take. It was Kitty kicking off and going wild. Steve filmed it on really early digital tape, while he was rewinding it, some blokes pulled up in a car next to Kitty and started harassing her. We couldn’t film it cos the tape wasn’t ready. Kitty was like, "This is unbelievable", we were filming that and it’s literally now happening. So then, when we did the next take she fucking raging. It was great that she had that moment of inspiration to deliver the performance, but it’s a shame it comes at the cost of those wankers".

"Because of the nature of the industry, it’s given us the opportunity to be quite selective" Jon says of the band's release schedule. "It's good but it does mean we’ve got a huge stockpile of things that we haven’t had the chance to do. I’m very cautious of taking those ideas too far cos if we don’t get to release them for another year, they’ll feel really old and stale. We can’t really say what next year is going to bring but there will be a lot more stuff released. There’s plenty more music to come".

Road warriors of Mad Max proportions, Saint Agnes’ M.O. of accruing an audience one tour at a time clearly seems to be paying off. "It’s important to us to try and build things up in an authentic, grassroots kind of way" Jon says of the band’s exhaustive, highly impressive gigging schedule. "We’re not blessed with having an of-the-minute Radio One sound, that suddenly is gonna result in us getting airplay that means we can just turn up in Edinburgh and play to a thousand people, that’s just not gonna happen. The way it’s gonna happen is for us to play to increasing numbers of people from no-one then build it up, like we’ve done in London. We just wanna do it, playing live is really fun" Jon shrugs. "You find a way to make it work" Ben states. "Whether that’s calling in sick or getting another credit card" he smiles. "That’s the main reason we wanna be in a band, to play in front of people". Indeed, the group’s persistence has paid dividends as their forthcoming show at the legendary Borderline has sold out in advance. "We’ve started that by doing gigs to 20 people, we just need to do that in the rest of the country" Jon states. "People when they see us they like it, it’s as simple as that really. When we’re in the van, every conversation is about what can we do better than last night with the challenges this venue is gonna give us?”

Admirably, the long hours navigating clogged motorways and prolonged exposure to dodgy service station grub hasn’t dimmed Saint Agnes’ fondness for the stage. As their live performances attest, phoning it in clearly isn’t an option. "We play release music, it's specifically designed to have a tension and release" Jon emphasises. "Because of that its really conducive to physical performance. If you’re a singer-songwriter it’s not, but you can still tell the ones whose heart and soul is in it. The only way to feel like that for us, is to physically throw yourself into it. There was a turning point for us when we did a show in Brighton at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar. It was when Andy had just joined and it was still quite early days for us. Kitty’s guitar broke right at the beginning so for the whole of the set she had no instrument to play other than the keys and so just to cover up her awkwardness I guess she just went fucking crazy! After the gig she said "I loved that, I felt so different not having to concentrate and feel freer". From that moment we’ve been trying to re-create that kind of wildness and freedom. Without having to rely on a guitar breaking to do it!" he laughs.

"For us like so many other people, you have your nine-to-five job and then music is your release. So, to not let it all come out in those moments, I don’t know when those people get to let those emotions out’" Ben says. "We were playing with a band recently, they were perfectly competent but you think "Why are they doing this?’’ Jon puzzles. "It doesn’t look like they’re into it. It’s a fucking expensive hobby to have and a massive effort to make to go and do something where you look about as interested as someone cleaning a table".

"People thought we were a bit mad recording analogue, it’s more expensive, but we said "We’ll just do it really quickly". This is what we wanna do and we’ll find our way". Jon says of Saint Agnes’ penchant for doing things on their own terms as stage time fast approaches. "That sums up everything we’ve done, set a goal and find a way to make it happen. We thought this might be the only thing we get to record together, we might run out of money, people might not buy it, there might not be any longer interest in it. So, OK this is the day we bankrupt ourselves, how do we wanna do it?’ Do you wanna do it in a Ford Cortina or in a DeLorean? Let’s do it in a DeLorean!" he laughs. And with that the stage beckons, as more gigs, more tours and more followers about to be converted lay ahead.

The Death Or Glory Gang is out now available here