There has been a lot of debate (complaint) recently about the under-representation (and misrepresentation) of women in the film industry. However, the music industry, seems to be far ahead of its visual cousin, something that it consistently manages to do in so many aspects, from origination to distribution.
While women have always been strong vocal performers in the male-dominated field of indie rock, there is a growing proliferation of female-led bands. In the last year, Savages have risen from relative obscurity to being a hit at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, as well as at SXSW in the US. East London band Bleech, fronted by the O’Neill sisters Jen (guitar/vocals) and Katherine (bass), are getting ready for some of that action. The sisters come from a musical home. Their dad is a drummer, and when Jen was learning the guitar they would play together in the loft, and before long younger sister Katherine was joining them. “They bought me a bass for Christmas one year, giving me the hint to learn it”, she said. Their old school friend Matt Bick came in on drums to form Bleech. “We’ve been around for five years”, said Jen. “In the last three years we’ve done over a hundred gigs each year, just in the UK. One year we did a hundred gigs just in London.” They already have two EPs and album under their belt, with another on the way.
We met at their local pub on the gentile, eastern edges of London. Jen, being the eldest, was clearly the leader, but their familiarity meant they would often all answer at once, happily talking over each other, or finishing each others sentences, without any need to adhere to conventions of politeness, which, after a slightly reticent start, made for a much more relaxed conversation that strayed to all manner of topics such as seventies rock bands, Thatcherite politics and the state of the music industry.
Although the heyday of the power trio was very much during the ’60s and ’70s (Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Grand Funk Railroad) the basic combo of guitar, bass and drums has endured throughout the decades of shifting musical tastes. “What more do you need?” asks Katherine rhetorically. “The less instruments you have in a band, the tighter you’ve go to be”, said Jen. “I like being in a three-piece. It’s old, it’s rock’n’roll, it’s cool.” Matt chips in, “There’s less to hide behind. If one of them disappears, you know about it.” “Besides, there’s no room on stage for any more people”, adds Katherine.
They had recently returned from a tour of France, which they described variously as, “Excellent”, “One of the best tours we’ve had”, “A new challenge every night. One was on a boat and one was a blues festival where we were on at two in the morning”, and “quite, ahem, eye-opening”. They are returning to the Gallic shores later in the summer to play some festivals, including one in October supporting Slade and T-Rex, as well as the 24 hour Le Mans motor bike festival. “We love playing live. We could be on the road all year round for all I care”, said Katherine. “We feel a bit at a loss when we’ve got time off”, added Jen.
While the band has a passion for touring and playing live, they are fully aware of the importance of getting in the studio, especially with the festival season looming. “It was a bit of a hard call”, said Jen. “Do we rush the album out in the chance we get some festival slots? Or do it properly and we get them next year?” They opted for doing the album. In fact, the day we met, the DVD with the final masters had arrived in the post. “We’re very excited about it. It’s sounding wicked”, said Jen, who does most of the songwriting. “But we arrange it all together”, she adds. “They write all their own parts and give their input into the songs. I write the songs, but it wouldn’t be Bleech if we didn’t write them together.”
For many bands, the second album is always considered the “difficult one”, but Bleech were feeling no such trepidations. “This feels like it is our first album and we want the whole world to hear this album” said Jen. “The songs on the first album were great, unfortunately they weren’t portrayed quite the way we wanted them to be. However, we still love playing the tracks.”
The new album was recorded at Courtyard studios in the Oxfordshire countryside, with Ian Davenport (Supergrass) producing. “Ian is quite old fashioned, and new at the same time”, said Matt. “He uses lots of old gear and turns lots of old knobs. It’s analogue, but through a digital medium. Using both in harmony.”
“We do have high hopes for this album because it was recorded exactly how we wanted it to be recorded. It sounds exactly how we wanted it to sound. It sounds exciting. It sounds raw, a lot rawer than the first album. We just had a blast recording it, and you can hear that. This album has also got a completely different side to us, with our first only piano and vocal track. It’s also got our heaviest tracks on this record. It’s got proper meaty, heavy tracks with wicked guitar riffs and massive drum solos”, said Jen, although she may have been exaggerating about the drum solos.
“There’s one track recorded on this album and the HiWatts we’ve got are so loud, and to turn them up the way we did you get this natural distortion out of them. It’s so old fashioned” said Matt. “There was a management company above us and the engineer had to warn them that it was going to be so loud for three or four hours because we were trying to get this desired effect, and for that we had to turn the amps up full blast. The room was shaking!”
“We also use a dead box”, Jen continued. “The head was going through the cab of my HiWatt, but it was also linked to a dead box in the next room. It was a wooden box with a split speaker, like The Kinks. They say that You Really Got Me was recorded through split speakers. It was an old, really amazing speaker but it had a massive rip in it, so we put it in a dead box and it sounded so dirty. Our aim for this record was to make it closer to what we are live. It’s loud and it’s raw, so for most of the tracks that was our approach, but also being a recording. There’s something nice about recording that’s not like playing live. It was just making it sound fucked up really, on some of the tracks. The sound we wanted was a massive T-Rex sound. We’d get a massive guitar sound then put a twinkle of a xylophone over it.”
While they were trying to capture the essence of a live performance there were some constraints of the recording process. “We did the drums in a different studio but we played like in a live situation”, said Jen.
“We were going to take the bass parts but we ended up doing them all again anyway, because we tried different basses”, added Katherine.
Jen continued, “We played live then overdubbed basses and guitar. There were only maybe four tracks that were recorded with a click track. Everything else is without it, which people are so scared of doing now. The next record we want to record on tape to get that old feeling.”
For market reach the new album will have a digital release, but in keeping with its sound it will also be going old school. “This album’s coming out on vinyl, CD, iTunes and Bandcamp, and nothing else. It will NOT be on Spotify”, said Jen vehemently. Matt was even more straight to the point. “We’re fucking off Spotify this time because, number one; you don’t get anything from it. You might as well be on Pirate Bay.” Jen continued, “They’re ripping people off. They think they are doing everyone a favour but actually it’s just shit. It’s just degrading and crap. On iTunes, for every download of a 79p single you get about 50p, which is quite good. On Spotify, for every download you get 0.0002p on every download*. They are like the worst record company in the world.”
Bleech are clearly a band with a plan, and with their dad as their manager, making use of his experience in the industry, they are not going to be easily swayed into signing away their souls to major corporations. For them it is still the thrill of playing live to audiences and winning them over, and they have the goods to make it happen.
To find their latest tour dates visit www.bleech.me.uk/live/
*[According to the Spotify website, “Spotify pays royalties in relation to an artist’s popularity on the service. For example, we will pay out approximately 2% of our gross royalties for an artist whose music represents approximately 2% of what our users stream.”]