This month has seen quite a bit of ink spilled on behalf of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But it’s also a moment to remember the ways that lead singer Kurt Cobain’s reach went beyond the scope of his band and that record—consider one of his most beloved influences, the U.K. postpunks the Raincoats. In the mid-’90s, the Nirvana leader (and Sonic Youth) spearheaded the band’s renaissance, landing them on Geffen for the reissues of their first two albums (1979’s The Raincoats and 1981’s Odyshape) and the release of 1996’s Looking in the Shadows.
The Raincoats remain as avant-garde as any of the British punk groups: they really couldn’t play their instruments; the violin’s screeching din eclipsed that of their guitars; their feminist stance helped shape the Riot Grrrl movement of the ’90s; there was friction between guitarist/singer Ana da Silva and bassist/singer Gina Birch; and they authored one of the greatest punk singles of the era, “Fairytale in the Supermarket.”
Now the Raincoats are touring behind the reissue of Odyshape—complete with Kim Gordon-penned liner notes— on their own label, We ThRee. While their debut was filled with gloriously damaged lo-fi punk propulsions, Odyshape eschews those melodious poptones for fractured, minimalist anti-rock anchored by taut tribal rhythms, slinky bass, primal shrieks, reggae influences and shards of violin. Sound of the City spoke to da Silva by phone.
You are touring behind your reissue of 1981’s Odyshape. What do you remember about that period?
I remember the way we wrote and recorded it because we didn’t have a full-time drummer at that time, so a lot of the songs we wrote were just the three of us together—Gina, Vicky [Aspinall] and me—without drums. Most of the songs were done like that; four songs we had written with our previous drummer [Ingrid Weiss]. She left the band, so the three of us did the rest. When we came to record, [Weiss] had recorded the songs she had done with us. For the other songs we asked different people, people we had worked with, or we had known that we thought would work in particular songs.
Was it much different from recording the first album?
The first one we had just finished a tour, went into the studio and just played it live, pretty much. It took us two weeks to record it—hardly any overdubs and we just did the vocals afterwards, like many people do so it was a very direct thing. [Odyshape] was a much more fluid and abstract situation. We went in and the three of us did our part. We got these other people, different drummers, like Robert Wyatt and Charles Hayward, to come in and play with us.
The two albums sound completely different.
It’s the way we recorded it. We were exploring different things and other areas. We didn’t just want to do another record like the first one; we wanted to try other things. We were all listening to other things and pushing in different directions.
Was there anything in particular you were listening to?
I can’t really remember! At the time, I was listening to Cajun music and you can hear a little of that maybe in “Red Shoes.” It’s nothing direct, but just different things; we weren’t really trying to do this style or that style. Things sort of seeped in more than anything else; not a sort of conscious thing that this song is going to be disco or that one is going to be whatever.
Do you recall playing any memorable shows at that time?
After we finished the album, Charles [Hayward] played with us for a bit because he had This Heat. For a while, he accepted when we asked if he’d do some gigs with us. So we went to some countries in Europe—Portugal, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Charles came with us and I really enjoyed playing with him—such good fun, as well as good company.
The Raincoats have started their own record label, We ThRee. Is having a label something you always wanted to do?
It sounded like a good idea. Obviously, when you do a record with a label, you sort of sell your rights to them for a few years, luckily, or unluckily for the rest of your life [laughing]. So we had the rights again and we thought we’d [start our label]. We just decided to do it like we like them and we just have ourselves to please so it seemed like a good idea. We did both of them on vinyl and CD. We remastered everything also.
DGC reissued your first two albums back in the ’90s, and you had an album of all-new material in 1996 (Looking in the Shadows). What was the major-label experience like?
It was fine. They’re a major label and major labels are different from what we were used to. We kind of found it a bit of a shock at times. You sell your rights [to them] and we can’t re-release [Looking in the Shadows]. Maybe we can ask permission and if we get it, we can. It’s very odd to feel we don’t own our product—that’s the way they work, we knew that and accepted it. But it’s a bit strange in some of the aspects.
Was your signing with Geffen due to Nirvana and Sonic Youth putting in a good word for you?
I think it must have been because DGC had those two bands and Kurt [Cobain] said he really liked the Raincoats. And I think DGC thought, “We’d get a few dollars here” [laughing]. We were releasing [our first two albums] on Rough Trade, so we licensed them to DGC so they didn’t have the rights to them for a period of time because of that. That’s why we have those now, but not Looking in the Shadows.
The Raincoats, “Red Shoes”
Getting back to the early days: was there a certain event or revelation you had—such as discovering punk rock—that made you want to form the Raincoats?
I think it was the whole thing happening. Gina felt very inspired by seeing The Slits, as did I. That made Gina want to be in a band. I already played a little guitar so when people said “you didn’t really have to play amazing to be in a band” I started thinking like we could do it. That’s how we decided. Obviously, there were people I really liked watching but I didn’t feel like I could do the same as them, like Patti Smith and Television. I really liked those bands but I didn’t particularly think I could be like them. I thought of the more English bands because they were rough and on the edges and they seemed to be a bit more raw and spontaneous. So that’s what made me think I could do it.
Did you identify with the Sex Pistols and the Clash?
Ummmmm… more smaller bands than them. For me, I found the Sex Pistols a bit scary [laughs] and the Clash sounded really “together.” I liked watching smaller bands at places like The Roxy. There were bands I liked, like The Slits, who were very inspiring. There were other bands like X-Ray Spex. It was more those bands that made me feel I could do it. Watching Patti Smith, I was completely in awe of the whole thing. So I never thought I could do anything as amazing as that.
So you really paid attention to the American punk scene.
Oh, yeah. Early on, I went to see Talking Heads in a really tiny club, probably one hundred people there or not much more than that. I saw Television. I love those two bands and Patti Smith, obviously. There were other people that came to the U.K. but those were the most important for me.
Was there a backstory to the Clash having song called “Lost in the Supermarket” (off 1979’s London Calling) after the Raincoats had released “Fairytale in the Supermarket”?
We were first then! Maybe they were influenced by us [laughs]. I didn’t really know [The Clash] or anything. But one time I went to a gig—I can’t remember who I went to see—and Joe [Strummer] was coming out, saw me, and he was like “Hey, Raincoats!” He was really friendly and later we found out those people liked our band. We were surprised about that, and also that John Lydon has said we were his favorite band of that period. We just didn’t know that. John was at one of our gigs and we have him on film dancing so we know he enjoyed that gig. This was on tour before we did our first album. A cousin of mine filmed the gig on Super8. We see his head bopping up and down. I remember him at one gig in 1979 but he says he went to quite a few. Recently we presented him with a MOJO Award. There is a picture of him, Gina and me in October’s MOJO.
How did the violin enter into the Raincoats music?
When we started the band it was only me and Gina. At some point, we had Richard Dudanski on drums and Palmolive came up from The Slits. Richard said, “Why don’t you ask her to join you?” So we did and Palmolive joined us but we still needed another person. Palmolive put an ad in a bookshop saying “Violin or Keyboard Player Required. Strength not style.” Vicky snatched the ad, phoned us up and she joined. So that was a good thing. The funny thing is, we saw Palmolive when we were in New York in October 2009. Palmolive told Gina that when she asked for a violin player, she was thinking more of us using a classical way of using the violin. We didn’t go in that direction [laughs]. We loved the Velvet Underground and that’s what we sort of pushed for in that direction.
The Raincoats, “Fairytale In The Supermarket”
It’s been well-known that you and Gina [Birch] haven’t gotten along over the years. Have you put aside your differences now?
[Laughing] We do get along and we are friends. But sometimes, workwise, we clash. I love Gina and I think she loves me [laughing]. We do get a bit…after an album we’re doing, we’ve split up. But we are still doing things together. Occasionally we scream at each other, but not usually.
Are you surprised by the interest the Raincoats still get?
Yes, of course. The first surprise was in the ’90s, when we knew that people like Nirvana and the Riot Grrrl [movement] and all these women were influenced and inspired by us—and not just women but Nirvana and other bands. I know Pavement—one of them really liked us, too. It was surprising at that time because our records weren’t even available. We were talking with people about re-releasing them on CD. Then the whole thing happened and we were just so surprised. We went on to MySpace and at the beginning it was really exciting because we’d get all these requests from people—15-year-olds to whatever age—and they were asking us to their friends. I’m really bored with it now but back then people were actually looking for us.
Now, we’re re-releasing these albums and we have to keep re-pressing them. We did a certain quantity and we thought, “We’ll probably sell however many.” Then it sold out really quickly and we had to repress them. When we did Odyshape, we pressed a certain amount and it hasn’t come out yet and we’ve already had to repress them.
Did the Riot Grrrl movement inspire you to do music again?
Completely. It inspired us because we just thought what we did [with the Raincoats] actually did have some kind of effect. The way it seemed was that everybody was creative, doing fanzines and records. It seemed to us there was a lot of a fun side to it, as well—very serious but fun at the same time. Not fun in a superficial way, but there was a joy in all of it. The way people dressed with their hair bunches and colorful clothes but at the same time very serious. We got inspired to actually do more stuff and feel that we could be there, too.
Did you know Nirvana and Sonic Youth’s music?
No, I didn’t. When I met Kurt that one time at the shop, they had just released Nevermind. I remembered seeing the poster because it was something you noticed—a baby floating with a bank note. I hadn’t known about them until then. I found out who they were. When I went to Rough Trade a few days after that visit, I listened to the music and I really liked it. It was after this that I started knowing all about Riot Grrrl and found out about Sonic Youth. I used to go to Rough Trade and ask about new music and they’d say “oh, there’s nothing new.” Then I discovered Sonic Youth, which I really liked.
The story of Kurt Cobain coming to the antique shop where you worked is stuff of legend. What do you recall about that day?
I remember it very well. The shop isn’t mine; I was working there. It was my cousin’s shop. People don’t come in antique shops all the time; you get three or four people a day. Unluckily, I had a client there, so I couldn’t really stop talking to this client. [Kurt and Courtney Love] came in and I didn’t know who they were or anything. They said they really loved our album. I thought it would be nice to talk to them, but I had this other person there so I couldn’t. Meanwhile, they went and it was only later when I went to Rough Trade that I found out what it was all about. I never met Kurt again.
I met Courtney a couple times because she played somewhere near here and I went to see Hole. I heard her saying [on stage[ something that sounded to me like, “Raincoats.” I was thinking I was hearing things. But then Hole started playing one of my songs, “The Void.”
And you were supposed to open up for Nirvana on tour but then Kurt committed suicide?
What happened was we were going to do that tour and Kurt was in Rome and he wasn’t well. So [the tour] got postponed. Then it got canceled. And then he died.
You were asked by Jeff Mangum to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in December. Were you familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel?
No. I do like the music but I didn’t know. There’s so many people out there and I just didn’t have a clue. Obviously, I found out, downloaded their music and been listening to it.
And you’re doing a short tour beforehand.
I’m really happy about it all because I like going to places I’ve never been. I’ve never been to any of the places we’re going, except for New York and Washington. I’ve never been to Chicago, Detroit, Toronto or Montreal, which is where we are finishing [the tour]. In Montreal, we are doing an odd thing. All three of us—Shirley, who does the managing side of things, also has input on the creative side of visuals and stuff; she’s a photography teacher and a photographer—we’re doing an exhibition with her photographs, mainly of the Raincoats and things connected to that. Gina is showing some videos and also has done 12 paintings and each one is a different painting of a pair of shoes that are hers and there is a little story about each pair of shoes connected to the life story of the Raincoats. I’ve made some drawings I am taking. We’re doing this as part of the Pop Montreal Festival and it’s really good fun.