Getting to interview London band Lizzie and The Yes Men (not to be confused with political pranksters and filmmakers The Yes Men), was something to close to a clandestine affair. The original address given for the gig was a lock-up on a back street of Hackney, then the date was changed and the address was given as a set of instructions. Walking up Kingsland Road in the hipster zone that is Dalston, it was hard to believe the country was in the grip of recession. It was amazing to see so many people out on the streets and in the pubs, clubs and restaurants on a cold, damp, autumn Wednesday night.
The instructions to get there were suitably vague, “it’s the red door at the end of the alley next to the chocolate factory”. What would we do without Google? It did feel like going to a speakeasy in Prohibition America. First I had to get past the two burly security men, who gave me further instructions on how to reach my destination, which involved traversing dimly-lit stairwells and corridors before arriving at a makeshift table in front of some toilets, where there was a great deal of haggling, in Italian, over the admission price (£5). There was also an unexpected smell pervading the air (not related to my current position adjacent to the toilets). It was the unmistakable odour of cigarette smoke. This really was a place flaunting the prohibition laws. Apart from regular visits to Greece, the stench of tobacco in clubs was, I thought, a thing of the past.
It turns out that by calling it a private party they could circumvent the laws because there was no paid staff and the drinks were obtained through raffle tickets (everyone’s a winner). Having tracked down Lizzie and her Yes Men, we needed to find somewhere quiet (and hopefully smoke free) to conduct the interview. We found a room, off one of the many corridors, that was relatively impervious to the sound and gently evicted its sleeping occupant.
Lizzie and The Yes Men is a four-piece London-based band made up of Lizzie Holdforth (vocals), Brendan Bailey (guitar), Keir Greenaway (bass) and Andy Goodman (drums) who met “on the circuit” and drinking in local pubs, with alcohol playing as much a deciding factor as musical taste. Lithe, blonde Lizzie is very much the band’s leader (the clue is in the name) and says that she’d already had an idea for the group’s sound before they got together two years back. Lizzie explains the influences, “I was a fan of Tarantino films and that western-Mexican-punky-surfie-atmospheric music, so we’ve always stuck to Tarantino-surf-pop as a description of the band. It works because you can go in many directions under that guise. It’s nice to coin your own genre or they’ll plonk you all over the place.”
The description of their music does not coincide with their appearance. For a start, there are no Hawaiian shirts. In fact their look is decidedly London, from Lizzie’s Jean Shrimpton elegance to Brendan’s suits and Keir’s geek chic they manage to fall outside of the hipster look that permeates London’s East End, and yet they sound like they could come from San Diego or Austin. “It does make us sound quite unique, but there is a Britishness that comes through because we don’t sing with American accents. There’s a bit of Siouxsie Sioux in there. It is an American genre but we’ve adapted it to be our own.”
For a band to work there needs to be a good rapport between the members and this is obviously apparent here, with the males clearly not as dominated as the name suggests. There is plenty of banter throughout the interview, and when Brendan’s phone rings, it is met with all manner of cat calls as he disappears from the room to give directions to his sister who is lost somewhere in London.
With the band’s fascination with Tarantino, the subject of writing for film soundtracks is brought up. “Yeah, that would great.” says Lizzie. “We wouldn’t have to worry about lyrics so much, just backing vocals, soundscapes and atmospheres.” Keir chips in that anything that pays would be good. However, they nixed the idea of making their own films, which bands such as Breton do, citing it was hard enough making videos for their existing songs.
The band have just released their “difficult” second single, Desert. “No bands have ten songs that have the same vibe, so it’s quite scary choosing something, and whether you go for something similar to the first. In the end we went for something quite different, which sounds more like what we are doing now, and I’m happy that we made that choice. We’ve got enough songs for an album, but we throw out songs left, right and centre, and the more we write, the more we sound like a band. For example, tonight we are playing seven songs and three of them are new, and we’ve already chucked four in the bin that we considered good six months ago.”
While this approach seems ruthless, it shows artistic integrity and a clear vision of what they want to achieve that goes beyond chasing success, which is often missing from new bands. Lizzie was very phlegmatic about their approach. “At this stage we have no pressure. We’ve got no labels making us play things, we’re not touring an album and this is probably the only time we get to do this. If you become successful, you have to play certain songs.”
Keir added, “We love our new songs and want to perform them in front of a crowd, but you can only really find out how good it is when other people hear it, and from their reactions.”
Even though the band hasn’t been together for very long they have been gigging a lot over the last year and like many London bands competing in the metropolis’s saturated live scene, they are finding audiences in Europe. “Somehow we’ve done all right in Italy, so we get to go there quite a lot. We did a tour with Iconapop and Vuvuvultures, and we heard our song on the Italian radio, which was quite nice.”
There is a perception that there is something glamorous about the life of a band on the road, but when the conversation turned to toilets on their European tour, that bubble was already starting to burst, but for indie bands there is a harsher reality, as Lizzie explains.
“We’re not rich kids. We have to all work forty hours a week to live in London. We work our fucking arses off to develop our sound, write songs, save up for videos and single releases. On our days off from work we make music. But if we had mum and dad’s money…”
“We’d be Radiohead,” chips in Andy. Keir added that he and Andy tried to do medical testing to get some quick money for recording, but failed the blood test. Lizzie is idealistic about the band remaining independent but knows that the reality is money makes things happen because it is a business. “On the one hand, this is bliss, but on the other hand if we had just ten grand, which isn’t very much in the big scheme of things, we could do wonders with it. We could record an album for five. Anything would fucking help! But we’re careful what we wish for. This could be as good as it gets, with artistic freedom to do what we want. It would be amazing for someone to give us the money to do an album in six weeks, but we are going to owe them something. The creative process is what it’s about.” Keir added that at the moment they are enjoying playing together without any pressure, and if success came along then it would be a bonus.
The band certainly has the talent, perseverance and right attitude to make it, and their songs have made a marked progression from songs that clearly bear the hallmarks of sixties surf pop, to their latest song, which has great hooks and catchy melodies. Now they just need to find an audience amongst the surfing community.