INTERVIEW: Girl Sweat | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Russell Gray has been a fixture on the North East music scene for as long as I can remember, in a dazzling variety of bands, all surely leading up to Girl Sweat, who’s debut album (described in the press release as “drugged-out noise swirling through the garage spectrum”, which nails it) is released by the inestimable Box Records this month. Some will recall that Girl Sweat started out as a band so what happened?

“The line I use with people is that I had a full band but I’m an arsehole and they all left.” A last minute cancellation in late 2013 left Gray with no option but to play a Manchester show alone. “Just playing along with a tape deck, because a tape deck is how I recorded my demos. I just set off the keyboard playing the drum beats and recorded the guitar, that’s how I’d work out my songs playing in my bedroom. Because I was in Leeds and the rest of the band were in Teesside, it was a long distance thing anyway. I rocked up to the gig in Manchester, told the promoter, ‘just to let you know, my band have pulled out but I have a plan b – drop me down the bill, pay me less, whatever but I need to do this show.’”

Arsehole or not, Gray has clearly flourished in this one-man band scenario – instead of the standard guitar and bass drum set-up, Gray uses a Yamaha 4-track cassette deck for beats, bass and loops to accompany lap steel, synths and echo-drenched hollering and testifying vocals. “There’s more freedom to do what you want. For instance, in a band with a live drummer there’s lots of restrictions on it. It’s good not having to rely on people coming to band practice, but at the same time I just have to get my shit together and the only person who’s gonna be late for band practice is me! Doing just what I want and having nobody to answer to, that’s great. I think because I don’t really consider myself a musician, I kind of work out of necessity. People will say, ‘That’s really great, you’ve got an amazing sound’, but I’m just doing what I can with what I’ve got. I don’t have to change the idiosyncratic ways that have benefited me in terms of having my own – in inverted commas – sound. I think I’ve managed to stumble onto something that while not entirely unique feels fresh.”

The line I use with people is that I had a full band but I’m an arsehole and they all left

Gray is refreshingly transparent about his influences (listening to the album – which is frankly incredible – there are hints of Blues Explosion, Hazil Adkins, Silver Apples, Butthole Surfers and Suicide). “The good thing about this is that while I’m a big fan of Thee Oh Sees, and the simplicity of the things they do, because of the way I play, and because I’m not as talented a guitarist as John Dwyer, that Oh Sees influence just never came through. Girl Sweat is just a combination of the bands that I like but limited by what my fat hands can actually do – my fat hands can play that lap steel like a caveman beating a rock!  One of my biggest influences actually is The Intelligence, their Boredom & Terror album when it was all electronic, I thought ‘hmmm, maybe I could do that!’ Actually, I’m not the biggest fan of Suicide, and everyone assumes I am. Don’t get me wrong, Ghost Rider is one of the best songs ever…”

It’s fair to say that Bad Happenings had a tricky gestation.  “The weird thing about Bad Happenings is that it’s sort of two albums, the end of ‘garage band’ Girl Sweat and the start of ‘electronic’ Girl Sweat, so some songs were written for a full band, whereas half the album – stuff like Rivers Of Hair – was purely electronic. The album was recorded in October 2014 and was mastered ready for release but it fell through, and it’s only now that Box have picked it up. Matt (Baty, Box Records) saw me play the Tyne Bar with The Cosmic Dead, which was a really fantastic show, and he posted at the end of the set “somebody give me Girl Sweat’s email now!’. He messaged me to talk about making a record and I was, ‘Well it just so happens I have a fully mastered and finalised album here!’ So the album not coming out when it was supposed to was for the greater good, because now I’m with the mighty Box Records!”

The recording process sounds typically haphazard. “It was recorded in three days with Hamish ‘The Record’ Hamer, a previous Girl Sweat member. I had hardly any songs written, some of the lyrics were made up on the spot – I’d got the drums and the bass sorted, but I didn’t know the guitar or steel parts, I made it up as I went along. For my gigs, all the backing tracks are recorded live, and I still do that from scratch for most gigs, and I still don’t practice so they all sound a big unhinged. And that’s half of what the album is – I don’t practice and I’m not a talented musician, but I’ve always known about vibe and knowing when to bring it! Hamish has made it the right end of lo-fi, pushed it to become a proper artefact. A potent document of what Girl Sweat can be, with a bit of polish but without losing the chaos!”

If you’ve been lucky to catch Girl Sweat live, it’s evident that chaos is a key ingredient. “It’s not a real Girl Sweat gig if something doesn’t break! Gimme some bloody money and I’ll get some things that don’t break! Buy the fucking album! The other night in Glasgow the tape deck fell off the table, I yanked it off by mistake – everything stopped but I just carried on screaming while I turned it back on.”

The other key ingredient is obviously the crazed giant that is ‘Sweat’. “The other day someone’s mam said, ‘that Russell, he’s not a real person is he?’ and I totally got what she meant, me walking around, six foot five in Hawaiian shirts with my huge ‘tache. But Sweat is very much developed as a personality now, he’s inextricably linked to me but it’s me at an extreme, it’s ‘Mondo Trasho’, it’s Nicolas Cage in Wild At Heart, it’s Jon Spencer. When I was 14 and starting to go out to gigs in Stockton, I went to the underage gigs, a couple of local bands went wild and I wet ‘that’s what I’ve always wanted’. So the Russell & The Wolves time period was my Cramps rip-off, ‘I’m the frontman, I want to jump around and act crazy’. A beastliness, a wildness, is something I’ve always chased after, an extremity. But after I did that with the Wolves for a few years I realised that if I did it for every single gig it wasn’t wild or crazy any more. Then the Girl Sweat band incarnation moved away from that garage aesthetic, saw me trying to play lap steel. Me as a person, I’m quite quiet and I want it all to work, but I also love lo-fi shitty demos and chaos. Even at that debut gig I was thinking, ‘How are people finding this interesting?’ Being freed from a band, being electronic – a mad scientist twisting all these knobs – has enabled me to properly delve into the extremities I’ve always wanted to. I can just scream and go wild. When I’m in the audience I always want the frontman to shout at me, like, ‘C’MON LET’S GO’, a Blues Explosion thing – I’ve ripped off Jon Spencer so much throughout my career!”

Bad Happenings is released on Box Records on 6th May.


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