An interview with Lenie Mets, by Kris Smith
A major motive behind the 'LOUD WOMEN Classic Album' series is the prospect of indie/alternative music becoming forgotten over time unless inducted into an industry/media canon with associated reminders, reissues and reappraisals – and, as we know, the canon mostly ignores female-led bands. Result? People miss out on groups/records/ideas that, like all the best art, might enrich our lives. Music can save your life, therefore music is a life and death matter; it's imperative not to allow it to be lost. Mambo Taxi were part of a heralded new wave of female UK musicians in the alternative/indie/punk scenes of the early 90s; they released three singles, the second of which appeared on their sole album 'In Love With'. All-female bands were then still rare enough to be considered unusual, a situation that has arguably changed only in the last few years, if at all. Contemporaneous with the small, but briefly well-publicised, riot grrrl movement, some musicians – particularly the punkier, more proudly amateur, more defiantly DIY bands – were identified with it; some aligned themselves with it, others resented/rejected it, and many were somewhere in between. Musicians have a natural tendency to reject labels, particularly those foisted on women by the male music media, and the ambiguity over riot grrrl is not dissimilar to the seemingly counter-intuitive refusal of the 'feminist' descriptor by some artists (the Slits, PJ Harvey). However, it is partly in the interest of avoiding further such pontification/projection that this edition of the Classic Album series is a little different and takes the form of an interview with a protagonist, vocalist Lenie Mets. Disclaimer: we only interviewed Lenie, and this is just a taster, not the full story of Mambo Taxi, which like the full herstory of UK riot grrrl is yet to be written.
‘In Love With’ – a few slow-burning songs aside – is an album of wall-to-wall tuneful punk bangers. I’d be tempted to describe it as a perfect split between riot grrrl attitude and garage rock energy. Am I on the right lines, and how did you arrive at your sound?
Lenie: I think in terms of the sound it was just the collective coming together of our cultural backgrounds and the time we were living in, and the musical incompetence combined with boundless enthusiasm, the foolishness of youth and all the millions of great people around us who were doing the same thing. I came from Antwerp where I had been in punk and hardcore scenes, although my tastes in music have always been pretty eclectic; but I realised coming to London in 1990 there was still a lot of stuff that I hadn’t been exposed to. We used to go to Thee Headcoats gigs and some of the first songs we rehearsed were ‘Out Of Limits’ and ‘Have Love Will Travel’ before we started writing our own stuff. I never would have thought to bring a sort of 60s surf and garage vibe but with Mambo Taxi that’s kind of what the other girls brought to it. But equally we would just play ‘A’ and ‘E’ and thrash out something with Ella screaming over the top of it. We experimented and just played together a lot; we had the luxury of a rehearsal room in the squat and all living together. It was just a brilliant place to be; London was a brilliant place to be.
We were technically pretty clueless, some more than others and we just used what we had and could get and borrow. I didn’t contemplate our sound too much by the equipment that we were using. I think we recorded the whole album with a broken snare and no one seemed to notice.
Karin and Andrea sing on their own songs, but were you always intending to be the main singer-songwriter or was it a case of whoever brings a lyric gets to sing? The lyrics seem like snapshots of everyday life, but there are also politics not far beneath the surface; how did the songs come together?
Lenie: I never thought of myself as a songwriter until Andrea asked me “When are you going to write some more songs?” because my lyrics “were good”. I didn’t really think of myself like that, but I liked capturing moods and also bringing some serious topics into the mix. On the album there’s songs about love, but also child abuse and women issues, and my favourite thing: kissing! I would say it was a jamming way of working where there would be maybe a line here and there and then I would flesh the words out later but most of the lyrics on the album are mine. I love ‘Poems on the Underground’ because it was just about us all being in London and enjoying riding the tube, living for the moment and having a good time going out with friends with the faint niggle of the future possibly bringing some unwanted change. For me coming to London and going on the tube was just so exciting, I came from a small town with trams, I mean trams are pretty cool but the tube was just such wonderful thing to discover a city through.
How did the band get together, and what was the scene like at the time?
Lenie: Nothing in Mambo Taxi seemed planned but what we did know was that we wanted to be in a band. We worked hard, especially Delia and Andrea were always super organised getting things together. I remember being desperate to be in a band in my hometown before I came to London and most of the time, I got the answer: ‘but you’re a girl’, just crazy attitudes from punk boys. I had met Jason Cook (drummer with Blaggers ITA) on a tour in Germany, I had managed to join in a band in Belgium at the time called Comrade who were friends of mine from going to punk gigs in Antwerp in the mid-80s and the main guys in Comrade organised a tour in Germany for Blaggers ITA with Comrade supporting. After the tour Jason invited me over to London from Belgium (about summer 1990 or 91) where he lived in a squat with Andrea and Anjali and Ella, I stayed for a while and the girls said to me I must move to London and join in a band they were forming. I went home, packed my guitar and rucksack and I’ve never been back home since (yes for visits). I absolutely adored London and loved the crowd I ended up in – I was very lucky to have met the people I met, I felt so at home from day one. We started rehearsing in the squat. Anjali on drums, Ella & Delia on guitar, Andrea on keyboards, me on bass and everyone did vocals. We started writing songs. I had always been some sort of a songwriter even though I didn’t realise it but I had written songs since I was a child. I would say me and Anjali wrote the bulk of the songs during that time and we jammed the music together. We had a lot of people around us in bands and so there was a lot of collaboration going on so creatively it was a very fertile and supportive and experimental environment. There weren’t just musicians around, but people doing film and photography and art, and we were all just starting out doing creative things. Our first video was filmed by Nick Abrahams and his friend Michael who’s gone on to do a lot of other stuff, apparently our first video cost £25, I don’t know if that’s true! We used to go to a lot of gigs too, everyone we knew seemed to be in a band, London was awash with bands and venues. Just a glorious time.
We started playing gigs and on our third gig (I remember it was at Euston Rails – what a place, with hideous carpets and these weird Guarana cocktails in neon plastic beakers) we got offered a record deal with Clawfist, Nick Brown was a friend of Delia’s. We released the single ‘Prom Queen / Insecure’. We played with lots of the bands on the Clawfist / Too Pure / Wiiija labels. We probably did millions of gigs I’ve completely forgotten about, some warranted, but it was always fun playing whatever dive we were visiting.
It was clear Anjali was itching to form her own band and she took Ella with her and formed Voodoo Queens. We got Karen in on drums and went on as Mambo Taxi with Delia, Andrea and me and Karen. We then went on to record our album in The Greenhouse in Islington in 1994 with Paul Tipler.
Were you happy with the riot grrrl association at the time, or are you now? Was the female-led/all-female line-up deliberate or circumstantial?
Lenie: We weren’t overly happy with the Riot Grrrl label we were getting, and we were kind of around just before Bikini Kill and others exploded the term into the collective consciousness, and it wafted over from the US. I totally loved the vibe of all of that and it was exciting. But the ‘all women’ thing was always coming up. And we got kind of bored being questioned about it all the time. The way we saw it was that us being women shouldn’t be an issue whether we wanted to be musicians or not and it wasn’t what we wanted to promote. Music was number one, none of us went out being militant feminists and saying we must all be women to prove ourselves and kill all men lol. I think first and foremost we just all loved music and we wanted to make it together, we just happened to be all women – we all played in other bands too, before, during and after Mambo Taxi and those collaborations and bands were with other musicians (men and women). Of course, being women there was attitudes you came across that were so obviously patronising and infuriating – like promoters in venues asking you to your face where the ‘drummer’ or ‘guitarist’ was because they couldn’t possibly imagine that any of us could play any of those instruments. And my lyrics were about some of those issues too.
I think one of my proudest moments was when someone said they had seen us in Chelmsford Army and Navy Club and they described me being on stage shouting out “My period is late, I could be pregnant I’m not sure!!!” and I was bashing my bass against my abdomen to “get rid of it”.. she said I was saying it with such glee and joy on my face and she thought it was just a super cool moment. I have no recollection of this incident, but it was so good to hear her telling me about it. I know it sounds a bit crude and childish but actually in the fight for women’s ownership of our bodies it’s just a moment that expresses that this is exactly how it should be – I should have complete ownership over what I do with my body, and I shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it or to be ashamed that we as women are sexual beings in our own right and not just there for the pleasure of men. Globally that fight is not over by a long shot and it’s a really important issue to me.
It was a mixed bag the Riot Grrrl thing – looking back on it now, I’m proud to have been part of it although we’re not one of the bands in memory in terms of riot grrrl but that really doesn’t bother me. We were not the first to be female musicians and we won’t the last thank God. There were a lot of good bands that we got to play with and got to be friends with. Ultimately that’s what it was all about. I did get a buzz at the Bikini Kill gig at Brixton Academy in 2019 and they did mention Mambo Taxi on stage and I did think; you know what I did do my tiny weeny part in doing what I was doing to stop this ‘men are in the band; the girls are groupies’ kind of vibe. Men didn’t really hassle you after a gig because I think they felt a bit intimidated with you being on stage.
What other bands did you feel an affinity with? Do you have positive memories of the time?
Lenie: We always loved hanging out with all the Wiiija / Too Pure bands and also bands like Pram, Cee Bee Beaumont, Blood Sausage, Faith Healers, Stereolab, Huggy Bear, Cornershop, Prolapse, Sister George, Headbutt, Animals That Swim, TVP’s, Hair & Skin Trading Company, Heavenly, Wat Tyler etc. We also hung out with bands like Transglobal Underground, Senseless Things, etc. I mean the list is probably endless and I’m probably forgetting a lot of them that were important to the other girls. We were just all like a bunch of mates. We would always go and watch each other’s gigs. I think because of having this time it means that all of us have a unique way of still having a large group of people that come together even now and still hang out and still play in bands and to be honest I think that is priceless. It was just a brilliant time to do it and to be in London. I feel a bit sad for my kids they won’t have anything like this because life is made just difficult now by all the rampant capitalism and mobile phones.
‘Dole culture’ was a thing and a lot of us lived in squats, so we could do things without having to get jobs, there was a sense of freedom in that and a way of not having to conform to the norm and I believe it will prove that time to have been a small window in history where that was possible. It’s incredibly sad to see how now mostly only kids from relatively wealthy backgrounds are able to pursue artistic endeavours, be it actors or musicians or visual artists, if you go back in time and research for instance writers and painters in the 19thcentury most of them came from very wealthy backgrounds and that will now become the norm again. Even bands are on the decline, yes people are doing amazing things from their bedrooms and that is great but there is nothing like collaborating with others in the flesh and seeing where that takes you.
How do you recall the experiences of touring/recording/releasing records? Could there have been/do you wish there’d been a second album?
When I landed in London, I started playing with Mambo Taxi within days and literally immediately became part of a huge social scene. We just played gigs all the time and it was so much fun but unfortunately you don’t realise that fully at the time. Supporting Senseless Things on tour for 2 weeks was just so much fun, the audience was brilliant, we didn’t have hotels and we asked to sleep on people’s floors, and we got millions of people fighting to have us to stay over. We stayed in massive mansions as well as total grot holes. I always loved playing in Glasgow, but then there were the venues that you repeatedly visited and almost seemed like second homes, Leicester Charlotte, Hull Adelphi, Chelmsford Army & Navy. A lot of the London gigs were so exciting, we supported Carter USM at the Town & Country Club the whole crowd shouting ‘You fat bastard!!!’ to us – we just told them to fuck off, I think. We did an all-nighter at the Scala Cinema with Stereolab which then turned into a weird film all-nighter after the bands. I remember standing on stage thinking this is probably the best night of my life…I had a few more blinders, but it was super cool to do stuff like that. We did a tour with Cornershop which was fun as hell and the Wiiija/Too Pure/ Clawfist tours and of course the very early MT gigs at the White Horse in Hampstead with Huggy Bear etc.
We had some very young fans that would show up at gigs and then we would have to mother them to make sure that they would be getting home safe and sternly tell them they shouldn’t come to gigs if they didn’t have a way of getting home.
After we did our album, we did one more demo at Chiswick Reach studio where we got to use the Joe Meek Black Box EQ! (whatever that is lol) – I do really like the songs on that demo and it’s a shame really that they have never been released – someone gave me the tape reels of them the other day and he saved them from being wiped. Who knows maybe we should release them for old times’ sake?
I’m very happy with our album, it just reflects a happy time and I got to play with some amazing people and have a brilliant time. We kind of broke up mainly because I was being an ass in some ways but also life just pulls you in different directions. It is what it is. I still see most of the girls of MT in some form or another and I have no regrets about anything.
In Love With Mambo Taxi: the songs
This song was about the freedom to be a girl and go out with boys do whatever you want but for a girl there will always be consequences more so than with boys and I guess I was expressing that.
Kiss Kiss Kiss
It’s about kissing!! The best thing in the world, probably..
I think I was having the time in my life in London when I moved from Belgium and most of the time never thinking of where I was coming from but sometimes ya get the blues ya know.. and it creeps up on you.
2 Nice Boys
Again a song about being a girl and wanting to do whatever you want but worrying about the fact people might call you a slut. That thing still goes on; I see it with my daughter’s friends and it’s a shame women still have to be subjected to that kind of crap.
This song was written by Karen our drummer, it’s about self-harm and feeling so bad about yourself, and it hits home.
(Push That) Pram (Under The Train)
It’s still so much tougher for women to bring up kids in this world, we do so much more, it’s called ‘invisible labour’ and it is women who do it and it robs them of chances to pursue careers, maintain careers and have a sense of fulfilment in life. Men get that, we don’t get that, and the insidious nature of the patriarchy means that those issues are not addressed. It’s shameful and it enrages me more and more as I get older.
Andrea wrote this song about religion being a pile of crap.
Screaming In Public
Is it about narcissists? Who knows.. when I moved to London British people seemed so much more reserved than where I’m from and I think I wanted to capture that in a song.. perhaps.
Reasons To Live
A love song with lovely harmonies by Delia.
Poems On The Underground
My ‘hit’ song, I’m not sure but I think it was number 1 in the Indie Charts for like 1 week or something – maybe.. I absolutely love the sound of this song, the guitars sound amazing; we recorded this in Blackwing Studios in SE1 which was previously a chapel, it’s empty now.
Sitting in your room and daydreaming and fantasising; we don’t really do that stuff no more do we? We’re just scrolling.. I remember loving daydreaming.
Another song being a pretty girl and feeling hunted by men and being dependent on men and needing everything from men and being defined by men and yeah it sucks.. Recorded at Elephant Studios in Wapping.
This song is about sexual abuse which unfortunately I experienced as a child by a step-parent. I was incredibly grateful that the girls let me do this song on the album. I remember we drove all the way to Manchester once to do a live Mark Radcliffe radio session and they were upstairs, and we were in a studio below and we played this song and they just didn’t know what to say after we played it. But you have to do this, people have to know that this shit goes on and what it looks like.
If your collection is lacking a copy of this album, you can grab a physical copy from Rough Trade.