The Long Blondes' Kate Jackson

The Long Blondes' Kate Jackson
Sheffield, England’s the Long Blondes are a band that need to move forward, no matter whether it’s viewed as fashionable or not. First building buzz in 2005 as their country’s "best unsigned band,” the band eventually settled on the fitting label of Rough Trade to release their sky-highly anticipated debut album, Someone to Drive You Home. Immediately praised by all for its stylish nod to Britpop forefathers like Pulp and Suede, and new wave flair à la Blondie and Bow Wow Wow, the Long Blondes’ debut propelled them as models looking to refresh Britiain’s stale pop music scene. Well, 18 months later, the band are back with their difficult second record, "Couples” — a record that so far has both divided the press and raised their musicality and musicianship, exploring realms outside guitars and simple verse-chorus structures. As singer/songwriter Kate Jackson tells Exclaim!, "Couples” was all about reactions the band had to their music, personal lives and bringing in an inexperienced but audacious producer.

Someone to Drive You Home observed relationships from an outsider’s perspective. "Couples” seems to get more involved. Was the album written as an extension or any kind of reaction to the first one?
In some ways… Musically it was definitely a reaction to the first one but lyrically I think the themes became a continuation of the first album but exploring them with more depth and taking into consideration some of the experiences we’ve had since then. Y’know, we’re a bit older now so we look at relationships in a different way. We’ve all been hurt, many, many times [laughs].

After Someone to Drive You Home the two internal couples broke up, as well as your own. The press really seems to be picking up on this and making a big deal. Did that have any effect on the album’s theme and title?
Calling it ”Couples” I guess was our tongue-in-cheek way of laughing at the fact that we’d broken up as couples. There were four couples in the band but now there aren’t, so the couples are incumbent on the album. But they don’t exist anymore. Emotionally, the couples that existed in the band actually broke up when we were making the first record, so it may have affected the writing of this record but not the recording of it. We were all over it and friends when it came time to making the second album; it was so much easier, so much more relaxed.

And how many Fleetwood Mac jokes have you heard? [Laughs] Loads! Most of them were made by us initially.

Do the quotations in the title have any significance?
Oh, yeah, it’s just a bit of homage to Bowie and his album ”Heroes”.

The Long Blondes are very much into storytelling. Is most of what you and Dorian come up with based on fiction or actual real life instances?
It’s a bit of both a lot of the time. No one’s real life is ever that interesting so you just sort of elaborate on the truth. Sometimes there’s a lot of poetic licence. A lot of the stuff on the first album was more fiction in a way; it was more writing these kitchen sink dramas, playing them out in songs and me taking on different character roles when Dorian was writing them for me. The songs that I wrote on the first album were partly based on my personal experiences and also, I wrote about Lee Miller and her relationship with Man Ray.

Yeah, I read that you had a bunch of real life couples in mind to help flesh out the new album…
Oh, yes, the couples wall. They didn't necessarily influence the writing of the album. When we were in the studio sitting around for 12 hours a day, there’s only so much you can do to entertain yourself while you wait to play your part. So we started printing off photos of famous couples from light British entertainment like the Two Ronnies, and also musical couples like Pet Shop Boys and Sparks. It kind of turned into this huge couples wall that covered the entire room in the studio. We thought it was hilarious at the time, but since I’ve talked about it 25 times or so it seems less funny now. But it was funny. [laughs]

You first tried Erol Alkan out as a producer on some b-sides, which I believe was his first attempt. What made you go to someone inexperienced like him to produce the album?
Well, we’ve known him for ages. He’s been a really good friend and helped us along the way. He got in touch with us initially, when we released "Giddy Stratospheres” on Angular Records way back in 2005, and asked us to play at the club night he ran, Trash. So we did, and ever since then we’ve kept in touch. We knew that he wanted to get into producing records and it seemed like such an obvious thing for us to do, to collaborate with him because he got what we were doing from the beginning. We knew he was a fan of the band, but he has such diverse musical tastes and a great knowledge of music that, even if he wasn’t technically a producer’s producer, he would have good ideas, which is what it was about to us. We had this idea of what we wanted to do, and we made sure that we got good enough over time to make that idea happen.

So what kinds of ideas did Erol help bring to the table?
All sorts of weird things, really. He had Screech playing the snare drums in "Around the Hairpin” in the shower, he had me singing entire songs outside… it’s like method acting. Y’know, "Where do you see yourself when you sing this song Kate? I’m gonna put you in that environment to get the right take out of you.” And I’d say, "I’m outside, it’s night time.” Right, so we did it at 11:00 at night, put the microphone up a drain pipe, sang it outside on a street in London [laughs]. That was "Guilt,” and that take is on the record.

Sounds like he took a page from Martin Hannett’s guide to producing…
Yes, he’s definitely a method producer. He’s not the sort of person who’ll say, "No, you can’t do that at all.” There’s no rules with Erol.

I think with Erol on board, I was expecting something a bit more aimed towards the dance floor. Was there any talk about that?
No, the music always comes from us, and Erol’s wasn’t interested in making a dance record because he still plays house music at clubs — he wanted to make a Long Blondes record. The music had to come from us writing songs for the studio. If there is a dance-y element to it that’s because we wrote the songs that way. The thing that Erol did bring to it from DJing and remixing was a much bigger beat; he really worked on the drums a lot more, and the bass, made the rhythm section very tight, and we threw loops and samples in there, which we’d never really done before. I think the album kinda hints at a dancier direction, but that was coming from us rather than Erol.

You mentioned that musically the band had a reaction to the first album. When I first "Century” I was thinking, wow, they’re certainly moving in new directions. And then comes "Round the Hairpin.” I hear some early Human League in there. "Too Clever By Half” and "Nostalgia” also stand out. Was it the band’s idea to try such dramatic changes or did Erol suggest it?
It wasn’t something that we discussed, it just happened. I think we were all tired of playing the same songs from the first record because we’d been touring them for a year or longer. This time round we wanted to make music that was refreshing to us, so instead of writing songs with guitar Dorian started writing songs on keyboards, and he’d never played the keyboards so they were bound to sound a bit different. At least 50 percent of the songs on Someone start with a guitar hook, and we didn’t do that on this album. It was discussed, but it was definitely a conscious reaction to the first album. Then when it actually came to making the record, we’d gotten to about six songs that were complete, and then we went into the studio with loads of ideas and wrote them there, sculpted them and molded them, so all of the ones that are quite different and groundbreaking we did in the studio.

Were you at all concerned about the album becoming disjointed?
I don’t think we really worried about it too much, no. [laughs] We’d written an album that we were really happy with, so when it came to the tracklisting we were more thinking of how these songs would work together than people are gonna think this is disjointed in comparison to Someone to Drive You Home. I don’t think the album is disjointed, I think it works really well as a whole because they were all written together, apart from "Guilt.” Thinking about tracklisting, I still think it sounds right like a side a and a side b on vinyl. So we were deciding what the popular song was that we’d put on side a and then dump all of the weird stuff on side b, so it starts with "Here Comes the Serious Bit” and "Round the Hairpin.” All the bands that we love made solid albums and not just three great singles with filler tracks, so we just wanted to do that really.

I’ve got to admit, the first time I heard "Couples”, I was a little surprised. But the more I listen to it, the more I appreciate it.
Yeah, it’s definitely a grower. [laughs]

I noticed the NME has kind of fallen out of love with you guys, which I’m sure you could care less about. However, their review of "Couples accused you guys of putting fashion ahead of the music. How do you respond to a comment like that?
I don't think that’s true… maybe it was initially, but not anymore. We started as a band, which was an idea, rather than five people who knew how to play their instruments really well. I guess we were like an art school band because we wanted to be a bit like Roxy Music, a bit like Blondie, a bit like Pulp, a bit like Suede — bands that had great preconceived ideas of what musicians and pop stars should be like. So we wanted to do that — it is very art school isn’t it? — which I guess made us more about the image, ideas and culture instead of the music because we’d never really played music before. But now I think we’ve made an album that proves we can play our instruments, we do have ideas about music as well as style, culture and image and what pop stars should be. But the NME, they don’t want to say that! [laughs]