This is another archival interview from Warped Reality’s first incarnation as a print zine. I’ve reprinted it as-is, so keep in mind that any references to the present are speaking of 1994!
The songs of the Raincoats seem to stem from some collective unconscious: upon first hearing them, one is struck both by their familiarity and their newness —it’s a language you’ve longed to hear although you’ve never heard anything like it before.
There surprise with their complexity, their elasticity, their playfulness that comes (perhaps) from their having built a musical language all their own. The Raincoats threw themselves fearlessly into the musical arena… and were often as surprised and exhilarated as the audience by the sounds that they produced.
The Raincoats formed in London in 1976. Ana DaSilva had recently arrived from her native Portugal. Gina Birch was from Nottingham. Both were attending art school. The atmosphere in London was already altering. Says Gina of that time, “People kept comparing the punk movement to Dada and stuff —which was probably a bit high flown! But, at the same time, there were a lot of interesting ideas going around. The first fanzines started, like Sniffing Glue. People were doing crazy things, interesting things, interesting fashion. “ Adds Ana, “It was really exciting, like you were in the middle of history happening.”
Ana and Gina soon became part of the insular London music scene, generally spending their time at the infamous and short-lived Roxy. “We started going to these gigs at the Roxy, and everyone there was going on about how easy it was and how everyone should do it if they felt like it. Gina and I went for a drink in a pub and just thought, ‘Oh, let’s do it!’” Gina laughs. “I remember when I bought my bass. We were in some political conference at Acme Gallery, which was near Shaftesbury Avenue where they sell guitars. On the lunch break, I went down to Shaftesbury Avenue and bought a bass for £40! And then I had my instrument. I took it home and spray-painted it bright blue!”
More cheeky than punk, really, but the spirit was there. The Raincoats aren’t usually mentioned in the “punk” category; often, they’re not mentioned at all. “We were considered very unhip by some people!” laughs Gina. “I think we were a bit bleak,” adds Ana. Their songs were too subtle for punk —there were no obvious sloganeering anthems or big, aggressive gestures. They weren’t afraid of harnessing the power of quiet moments. They were expert at giving a song added power by shaping it, giving it jolts and starts; alternating the soft with the angular. It is the careful orchestration and accretion of these subtle moments that makes Raincoats songs so alluring.
Now that the Raincoats are being rediscovered, thanks to the reissues of their first three albums, they have resumed recording and touring again. The core of the band remains Gina and Ana (Vicky is running a dance music label, Palmolive is living on the Cape and drums in a Christian rock band that covers Slits songs, albeit radically altered); they have been joined by Anne Wood on violin and bass and Heather Dunn (ex-Tiger Trap) on drums. (Steve Shelley filled in for a little while too.) Although an extensive tour of the US was cut short by the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, the Raincoats nevertheless played a short tour of the East Coast, culminating in a sold-out two-night stint opening for critics’ darling, Liz Phair. (Make that former critics’ darling. —Ed.)
Liz interrupted her set to say, “I don’t know how many of you know who the Raincoats are, but I hope you know what a special thing you just witnessed.” To judge by the exponential amount of applause the Raincoats’ set garnered, they realized all too well. “We’re not leaving yet!” laughed Ana from the glare of the stage after a particularly raucous burst of applause and cheers.
Gina and Ana played a virtual retrospective of the band’s history, from the wry, startling “Fairytale in the Supermarket” and “No Side to Fall In” from their first album, The Raincoats, to later songs like “No-One’s Little Girl,” “Shouting Out Loud,” and “Balloonacy.” They also played two new songs, “Don’t Be Mean” and “Smile” that have since shown up on their Peel Sessions EP. For encores, they played their gender-bending take on the Kinks’ “Lola” and the equally amusing “Love Lies Limp” (an Alternative TV song). They also joined Liz onstage to sing the wonderfully brash chorus of “Flower.”
Most wonderful of all was their version of “You’re A Million,” one of my favorite songs from The Raincoats. Tense violin spirals upwards, momentarily graceful and elegiac, then suddenly taut, sharp. “This is for you, as my love that was for nobody,” sings Ana, whose voice go quiet and regretful. Then, a pause, full of tension, as the violin begins its slow spiral upwards. “Stop here and go away!” she shrieks, as the percussion enters —too fast, unwieldy, awkward. Ana cuts it off with a sharp, “Stop here!” and it does. The inertia of the song is halted, in a moment that truly shatters. When Ana sings again, Gina’s voice joins her in harmony: “We’re a million to go,” as the violin goes quiet again.
Watching them, I think I’d be content if I never saw another concert again. It was rare and joyous in a way that few concerts are. After their set, Ana came down off the stage and was standing next to me. Still speechless from their set, I eked out a quiet, “That was incredible. Absolutely amazing.” “Thank you,” she said, quietly.
The Raincoats’ time has come again. They were ahead of their time in 1976, and now the musical generation that was influenced by them —a select but important number— have created an atmosphere perfect for their return. In 1977, they were pioneers. Now, they are pioneers.
Although the Raincoats haven’t put out another album since 1996‘s Looking In the Shadows, they’ve never really broken up. The duo still perform together and I suspect they’re working on new material as I type. Check their new web-site for news. While there’s not much there at the moment, they promise plenty of lovely goodies soon. (I’m hoping for some of Gina’s lovely videos myself, including clips for “Don’t Be Mean” and “Fairytale in the Supermarket.”)
Gina also performed with Mayo Thompson’s Red Krayola (with Art & Language) —a lineup that featured Epic Soundtracks, Lora Logic, and Allen Ravenstine (Pere Ubu). This song, “Old Man’s Dream,” is taken from their album Kangaroo?