Interview: Lizzie & The Yes Men
Songwriting meets a band with one foot in the pubs of Dalston and Shoreditch, and one in the California surf
hen we first heard Lizzie & The Yes Men’s second single Deserts, which landed on the Songwriting doormat a month ago, we were hypnotised. Think Dick Dale jamming with The Cramps, while Florence does a passable Dusty impression on the mic, and you’re somewhere close.
Then we looked at the hype sheet, where we read that Lizzie and co describe their music as ‘Tarantino pop’. Which actually made perfect sense, but when we stopped to think about it struck us as quite unusual – we’ve never come across a band that described themelves as ‘Kubrick disco’ or ‘Coppola-billy’ for instance. Which seemed as good a reason as any to get frontwoman Lizzie Holdforth on the phone…
Can you give us a little bit of background on the band… the story so far?
I used to be in a band called The Far Cries, who were signed to PIAS and who mutated into Bodies Of Work. We were together for seven years and recorded an album, but we broke up before it was released. I was devastated! So I decided to form a new band, centred on some of the more female things I’ve grown up loving, like The Ronettes and the Banshees. I asked some friends if they wanted to be part of it and that was it, basically. We’ve been together two and a half years now.
We were struck by the ‘Tarantino pop’ tag. Care to explain more about that?
That was something that came about in rehearsals, as a kind of verbal shorthand within the band for defining how far we go, or what we do and don’t do. It sets a frame of reference: it’s quite broad because you can do pop or punk or spaghetti western or whatever else, but there are also things it wouldn’t include, like nothing too heavy or blues-y. And when you mention it to people, they seem to get it: everyone’s seen those movies so you say ‘Tarantino pop’ and they think of Son Of A Preacher Man, Steeler’s Wheel, Dick Dale.
How does the songwriting work within the band – who does what?
It’s actually all very equal. When we started we had some songs that were mine, but as we’ve gone on it’s generally quite collaborative. For instance Brendan [Bailey, guitarist] came in the studio the other day and he’d thought of a really cool bassline, he had a verse and chorus as well and then we worked it up into a song together. Brendan’s the one that’s most likely to come in with a whole song of his own already written – he wrote Deserts, for instance. But everyone joins in, like Andy [Goodman, drums] wrote one of our choruses on his iPhone. We all love our iPhones, and we’re all recording little ideas all the time.
“I don’t see myself as a great lyricist or anything”
When it comes to the lyrics, it’s mostly me. But I certainly don’t see myself as a great lyricist or anything. My lyrics often just come from the mood and sound of the song, and I just try and keep things simple and honest and heartfelt: I don’t spend weeks and months labouring on a lyric, whereas I will with a melody. I don’t really feel like a lyricist – I don’t think it’s really my forte. Whereas the great lyricists write poetry: it’s almost like the difference between being a photographer and a painter.
You’re also responsible for a lot of the production, is that right?
I do a lot of the arrangements and production, yeah. We’ll record something, and then it’s my job to chop it all up and make it make sense. If I left the lads to their own devices, every song would be a 12-minute prog epic, probably! I take those ideas and turn them into pop songs… with a little help from our engineer Adrian Hall of course, in his little studio at the end of the Northern Line.
Sounds like it’s very much ‘your’ band, then…
Well, the whole band was my idea, and I definitely pitched it to the guys as a complete package, you know, it was an “I’m gonna do a Beach Boys-Ramones-Ronettes singing group, with a pop sensibility, and you’re going to wear suits and look sharp, are you in?” kinda thing. So it was my concept, but that’s not to say I’m a dictator. I don’t actually care who does what in terms of the songwriting or the production, what’s more important is the sound of the band. I want the others to get involved with everything – otherwise I’d just have done a solo project.
“We could put our own nights on and all live in a commune”
So where are things at for you and the Yes Men right now?
We’ve had two singles out so far, Deserts which is out now, and The Boardwalk which came out last year. They’ve both been self-released, which can be a struggle, but I think we’re doing okay for a new band without a label behind us. In Italy, we’ve even been on MTV and national radio – I’m not sure how that happened, maybe they just like the suits! But people do seem to hear the records and like them, or want to work with us, which is great – William from Mystery Jets is working with us on our third single, which I’m really excited about.
And then a lot depends on how that does, really. If the third single does well, then it’ll be time to start thinking about an album. I’m not sure yet how we’d do it – whether we’d release it ourselves or try and get a deal for it. Doing it yourself, you have that extra autonomy, but it’s all about money at the end of the day. We’re not rich kids, we all work full-time, so it’s things like, with Desert Song, we all stayed in for two months to save up money for the studio time.
Is that something of a bugbear?
I’d love for us to be out on the scene every night. I’m sure our profile would be higher then: we could put our own nights on and all live in a commune or something! But the reality of life in London is you have to spend 40 hours a week just earning a living. So it can be hard at times… but if I didn’t do it there’d be a hole in my life and I’d be miserable.
Interview: Russell Deeks
You can watch the video to Deserts below. To find out more, visit www.lizzieandtheyesmen.com