Slum of Legs: album review and interview

LP review and interview by Kris Smith.
Photo by David McNamee.

Slum of Legs have just released their debut eponymous album on the Spurge Recordings label. The Brighton sextet formed and issued their remarkable first EP in 2013, followed by the stunning ‘Begin to Dissolve/Razorblade the Tape’ and ‘Doll Like’/’Half Day Closing’ singles in 2014-15, playing select shows in the UK with the likes of Prolapse, Perfect Pussy and Julie Ruin before retreating into the studio to record this unassuming masterpiece of “queer feminist noise-pop”.

The first three tracks alone are unassailable: powerful, evocative, propulsive: the lyrics all steel, glass, pistons, valves and hissing trains. Slum of Legs are also autodidact edutainment incarnate: I knew ‘liminal’ but had to look up ‘lacuna’; I knew about Vladimir Tatlin but I learned about Eero Saarinen. The opening songs on the record seemingly offer an aesthetic collision of early-Slits/Poison Girls vibe, Futurist poetry, long-lost Play For Today-type TV and the kind of hauntology evoked by Scarfolk posters. There are ‘easter eggs’ for observant listeners, intimations of hidden and repressed histories; Tara O’Hara, Wych Elm Bella. They also, be assured, rock. They “calibrate the slum of legs” and Dream of Valves Exploding, while the music doesn’t let up, even during the more measured pace of the closing track. 

What strikes this listener most about Slum of Legs is the voice; not just Tamsin’s vocals tonally (although while I was first playing the album someone came in to ask if it was CRASS’ Eve Libertine singing) or Maria’s violin or Emily’s synths, but the sense of being spoken to, or rather with, with an engaged intelligence that much music simply lacks, either because of the people making it, or perhaps more generously because the musicians concerned have found no way to, or desire to, synthesise content and form in this way. Wisdom from experience; humour from pain.

Also, I like that one of their previous singles credited all the band members on “screaming”.

Everett True has written that Slum of Legs are “like Talulah Gosh if they were the Mekons;” Neil Kulkarni has likened them to The Raincoats. As you’ll read, I fail to avoid the temptation of likening their sound to other Bands With Violins but sensibly they’re not having it and neither were they drawn on musical influences. As an (amateur) interviewer you kind-of have to ask but as a fan I certainly don’t need everything explained. 

Benetint & malevolence

In Debenhams

And tenements

Nurofen and inconsequence

In Peterborough 

In present tense

‘Benetint and Malevolent’ – Slum of Legs

Congratulations on the album. How do you feel about it, did it turn out how you envisaged, and can you tell us something about the process of producing it? How did you hook up with Spurge?

Tamsin: We recorded it at Church Road Studio in Hove, with Julian Tardo. It was really good working with Julian as he’s great at encouraging a good performance without being a dick about it, and never patronised us. We also continued the tradition of communal noise-making for the album that we started with our mass scream-in seance when we recorded our single ‘Begin To Dissolve’. Except this time (for the track ‘White Leather’) we all gathered around in a circle and made sex noises.

It took a long time to get to the finished product but we’re very very happy with it.  Though I find it hard to know what it sounds like to other people.

Re: how we came to work with Spurge. Once the album was mixed we sent it out to various record labels to see if they wanted to release it. We had interest from a few but chose Spurge. Steve Underwood, who is running the label with Paul Horlick also runs Harbinger Sound who has previously put out Nachthexen who we really liked. With Spurge he wants to concentrate mainly on female/queer bands which is cool as there are plenty of other labels that don’t. We met him and liked him and also he has 2 cute dogs.

Emily: We recorded the whole thing a very long time ago, and there were several reasons for the delay in getting it out. For one thing, I had a complete mental breakdown that ultimately led to me having to move back to my hometown, which was fun. Then, I was actually supposed to mix the album myself, but I was learning on the job and after working on it for some time the files got corrupted. It was a massive blow, and for a relative novice to restart work it would have taken so long to get it back to any good state. As I had moved back to Nottingham by this point, it made sense to have the mighty Phil of JT Soar take over the controls, and he polished it up into something amazing that I could never have managed. He’s one of the nicest dudes in music, too, and I highly recommend working with him. On the sad side, though, you have all missed out on some wonderfully obnoxious noise mixes.

It’s been around five years since your last release. Is this album a full stop, a story-so-far, an end-of-Part 1?

Maria: This album is a ‘here we are, this is us’. There’s a partially recorded indie pop EP sitting in the vaults too so if this album does well maybe we’ll get around to finishing that one day.

The first three songs on the record are quite densely packed, reference wise.. [redacted ramble about constructivism, hauntology, psychogeography and other stuff I felt the lyrics evoked]… Is there an intention to challenge the listener with disparate elements, or is there a message in there too?

Tamsin: There are definitely messages in all the songs I write and I like to cram them with literary and cultural references (I love it when I’m reading a book and unexpectedly come across a line I recognise from song lyrics) however I also can rarely resist taking the piss. Empathy and cynicism are probably two of my most defining qualities and my brain is usually at war with itself (when it’s not thinking about food or cats). My lyrics are full of contradictions but contradiction is preferable to constipation.

Everybody loves ‘Benetint & Malevolence’ but in my head originally it was a melancholy synth-pop song and so the words were satirising po-faced pretentious 80s lyrics – in fact the line ‘macabre French sensation’ was the title of a spam email I got sent. But the ‘when you’re sad you’re invisible’ bit is deadly serious. But then I felt bad about it because for some people, like those who suffer hate crime, being invisible is a luxury so that’s why in Baader-Meinhof I sing ‘I know there’s far worse states than invisibility’.

Valves is an even more pointed piss-take of artists who appear enigmatic but once you dig, there’s not much meaning or interestingness underneath – and in fact it’s a criticism of the overuse of terms like hauntology and psychogeography [busted – Ed.] – the word “liminal” is in the song in quotation marks. It’s dedicated to people who use the word ‘long form’ when they only need to say ‘long’.

‘Slum of Legs’ is a manifesto song in the tradition of manifesto songs. The word ‘tuttifrutalist’ is a word I invented to mean brutalist architecture with curly bits. And Slum of Legs is the musical equivalent.

Emily: As an ex-wannabe academic who has written and presented papers on psychogeography, I feel personally attacked every time Tamsin sings these songs and that’s why I put horrible noises on them.

The next few songs (‘RUTHE14ME’, ‘In Yr Face’, ‘Love’s Not Enough’ and ‘Baader Meinhof Always look So Good In Photos’) address online life, dating, sexuality, identity, mental health; huge subjects. Your approach reminds me of ILL slightly in that you’re deadly serious but also clearly having a laugh: there are jokes and puns. RUTHE14ME in particular is very funny, while In Yr Face and Love’s Not Enough are furious. Are they rooted in personal experience that you’re ok to discuss?

Tamsin: Yes they are. ‘In Yr Face’ is a co-write/duet with Michelle and is about the futility of online arguments while ‘RUTHE14ME’ and ‘Baader Meinhof’ are both pretty personal and address problems that I have with self image and self esteem – there’s anger in them too though – like the line ‘do you only date them younger’ in RU and ‘I know I’m ugly cos you remind me daily’ in Baader Meinhof. But I feel shame that I’m the age I am and still feeling these things. It isn’t helpful for potential revolutionaries to feel sorry for themselves the whole time and revel in self pitying songs I’ve written about no one fancying me so I felt I needed to write a rallying anthem too. ‘Love’s Not Enough’ came about after the Pulse nightclub attack and the murder of Jo Cox. I broke down at a band practice cos I felt so distraught and scared. The song references the Queer Nation Manifesto of 1990 and the banal think piece responses that said ‘just love each other’. No, you have to punch Nazis. Obviously since I wrote it everything’s got a million times worse though.

Can you tell us about ‘Sasha Fierce’? At first glance it seems to be a kind of Rebel Girl for our times, but there are multiple subjects in the song.

Tamsin: It’s about taking on another or multiple personalities as a coping technique for trauma but also for confidence or to shield yourself – like the idea of the masquerade in feminist film theory. It’s not about Beyoncé, though Sasha Fierce is her alternative persona.

The multiple subjects thing does happen in some of my songs maybe because my starting point is nearly always a cut-up to spark ideas. So sometimes other things get incorporated.

Also these meanings I’ve talked about here are only my own meanings. People listening to the songs are welcome to interpret them however they want as long as they’re not Tories, terfs or dicks – in which case they can fuck off.

Can I ask about the album artwork – is that a doily on the front cover? Is there an intended juxtaposition between its Englishness and the surrounding, more European-influenced pattern?

Tamsin: All of our covers so far have included my photography of brutalist architecture and a collage element so we wanted to continue that with the album cover. However in the last year or so, brutalism has become a bit of a fashionable cliche and it’s become divorced from its original utopian, socialist context. So for the album I decided to combine some elements of architectural photos with a doily. Doilies are associated with fussy stereotypical femininity – the opposite of the macho clichéd idea of brutalism. But they also symbolise women’s crafts, domesticity, working class industries (like Nottingham lace making) – plus they look a little like snowflakes – so you’ve got another couple of meanings there. After I came up with the basic idea, Emily then manipulated it into a kaleidoscope type design – to bring even more meanings & distortions. It’s once again, Tuttifrutalism.

Emily: Yeah, the collage and kaleidoscoping go with our general sense of fragmentation and fracturing, I think. There were a lot of elements that we wanted to convey, directly or surreptitiously, in the artwork. For me, the doily represented not just work and decor that is coded in our society as feminine, but also a reference to the old-style spiritualism that we also refer to in Begin to Dissolve, middle-aged women in parlours acting as mediums a la Seance on a Wet Afternoon. The banal supernatural resonates strongly with my view of brutalism: a combination of the mundane and the monolithic.

I want to ask about musical influences, while being super-wary of doing so, including about the ‘L’ word, especially as you’re a Brighton band; Maria’s violin is such a prominent, striking element of your sound and does remind me at times of some of the better tracks on the first Levellers album (who I maintain were a good band then – an unpopular opinion – in the Waterboys/Men They Couldn’t Hang tradition) You’ve been likened to the The Ex, Stereolab and the krautrock groups too. Does any of that resonate, does it matter, or is it just an inevitable side-effect of using certain instruments? Was there a particular sound you had in mind when you formed or did it evolve organically from playing together?

Tamsin: All six of us have different things that we’re into and so elements of all of it have probably leaked into our sound. We never had a prior idea of how we wanted to sound we just got together and this is how it turned out.

Maria: I agree with T, our sound is v much just a product of us all playing together and making up parts that fit with the songs. I didn’t consciously bring any particular influences or idea of a sound to my violin playing with Slum of Legs, just made up what felt right for the songs. I remember early on Tamsin asked if I could make some weird noises, so I would try and play weird noises! I’d been playing with a improvised noise-psych outfit for a while before I joined Slum of Legs and using pedals etc. in that and making a lot of weird noises. Also I did a degree in Contemporary Arts an there was a lot of extended technique playing and weird noise making in that too ha ha!

As a teenager in the 90s I danced around a lot to The Levellers and New Model Army etc. It’s funny looking back though, those violin-led songs that I loved most (15 Years, Vagabonds) and were definitely a soundtrack to me growing up didn’t inspire me to play violin in that style and or want to play violin in a band at all, I never made the connection of ‘oh, maybe I could do that too’. At the time I was playing in an orchestra and doing my grades and also learning to play folk tunes, and felt more connected to those expressions in their traditional forms I guess. I loved folk music, but lots of the folk/rock/punk crossovers that sprung up in the wake of the Levellers ubiquity totally turned me off. I’d had a bad experience with a local violinist who played in one of these bands too which didn’t help – a shame because in different circumstances I think it could have been really inspiring for me to watch her play, even if I wasn’t particularly into her band’s music. For a long time it felt like ‘folky violinist’ was the only way to play violin with a band and I really rejected that! Still to this day, when I say I play violin in a band people reply ‘oh, folky stuff then?’, like there’s no other options for a violin! I blame the Levellers for that 😀

To be honest, Warren Ellis has probably been the biggest influence on my playing. I bought a Dirty Three album on a whim after hearing it in a record shop – I liked it well enough and then went to see them live…holy wow! Watching Warren Ellis wring the neck of his violin, making it howl and scream and soar and sing…I came out of that gig thinking, for the first time ever, ‘I want to play violin like that’.

Emily: When I was growing up the Levellers were definitely considered a terrible punchline of a band. Haven’t attempted to listen to them in decades but I can’t imagine I would enjoy it much. People just hear a violin and grab onto whatever a violin connotes for them [busted again – Ed.], whether it’s trad folk or the Levellers or the Velvets or whatever. To me it’s just the sound of Maria being her brilliant self. It doesn’t happen so much with synthesizers, very few people go “oh, a synth, this sounds like Kraftwerk” (I would love it if they did, even though it would be a lie).

Do the labels riot grrrl and queercore mean anything to the band? As traditions, scenes, or influences? Are they important to you; are they useful now?

Tamsin: They do and they are although it can be a bit tiresome being constantly labelled as riot grrrl and only compared to other female bands. Those bands continue to be inspirations for women to make music and to express themselves artistically and without a doubt they’ve helped us too but I do also feel it can typecast and diminish female musicians if anger always equals riot grrrl.

Are there any other contemporary bands/artists you feel a kinship with? Who else should we be listening to?

Emily: I’m listening to a lot of Black Dresses and related projects. I call it ‘tumblr industrial’ but the name somehow hasn’t caught on. A large part of what I listen to is electronic or experimental music but I feel more at home in DIY spaces. Shout outs to Daphnellc, Witching Waves, Marlo Eggplant, Days Fade Nights Grow, Sniffany & the Nits, Rattle, Yumah and Shopping (in fact all Rachel Aggs bands, really, she’s amazing).

Michelle: I love ILL. Always thought that our bands would be a good line up.

Maria: Dorcha, I was on the same bill as them a while back and they blew my socks off. Kinship-wise I’m really happy to be label mates with GG Allen Partridge, Slagheap and Massicot and I hope we all get to play together at some point. I played violin on Porridge Radio‘s recent album and love them a lot, it’s a thrill to see them doing so well. The last Slum of Legs gig we played together was with them too.

Tatlin’s tower was conceived as a synthesis of the creative and the utilitarian: does the same apply to the band?

Tamsin:Tatlin’s Tower was a utopian, impossible structure and that also applies to Slum of Legs.

What’s your considered opinion on Baader Meinhof? There’s this contradiction – which applies to the Black Panthers too – between activism for liberation on the one hand, while in effect promoting totalitarianism (the RAF-Stasi and BPP-China connections). 

Tamsin: To some extent those groups are now part of the heritage industry and are fetishised in the same way as Che Guevara on a t-shirt. You can’t really look at them in a modern context only in the context of their times. A lot of the problem with revolutionary groups though is that they forget to think about all the detail, which is why intersectionality is so useful. In a revolution, typically fighters are celebrated over administrators but speaking as an ex-administrator who will always feel like an administrator, the biggest dicks at work are the bosses who say ‘I’m not a detail person’ and then forget about actual human beings. Bad planning. The detail is important and humans are important.

We’re now living through a health crisis to add to Brexit, the environmental crisis and obviously Austerity, which for a lot of people never goes away. Is the role of artists one of escapism, or survival, or bearing witness? Slum of Legs has a clear oppositional stance. Are there other things we can and should do to resist?

Tamsin: All of those responses are valid. You can only do what you can do. We’re not going to dictate to anybody what they should be doing however I hope that we can be a help to people. That’s the highest accolade I can think of for our music.

Emily: I’m loathe to suggest all artists should be politically engaged because so many have shit politics and/or shit modes of engagement. On the other hand, we’re all trapped in these systems so we can’t really avoid engaging. Avoidance may be a privilege but everyone needs respite, so I don’t feel like escapism is inherently counter to resistance. To speak up and speak out is in itself a strong form of resistance, but you also have to learn when to quiet yourself and amplify other people’s voices instead.

What’s next for Slum of Legs?

Emily: We’ll definitely be touring this album when the pandemic is over, hopefully in November. But as we’re spread out so much, it might not be possible to be together as a band much more than that, which is honestly pretty devastating, as I never feel more whole than when we’re playing together, really together.

Most of us have other projects on the go, though, with Michelle and Tamsin in Lucky Corpse, and me and Maria both have experimental solo acts, her as YOU&TH and me as The Mysterious Monopole.

Maria: I’m going to read the tarot for this. I asked the question and pulled out The Fool: “Let go of preconceived ideas and remain open to change. The Fool advises that you lighten up. Let yourself be spontaneous enough to stretch beyond the realm of logic. There is no advantage to be gained by thinking you possess the knowledge, power, or control to direct reality. Open and receive without question, instead of trying to manage what’s happening right now. The Fool has no ambition to manipulate a specific outcome. Just be happy to be part of the whole.”

‘Slum of Legs’ is out now on bandcamp.

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