When it comes to Sonic Boom Six, it’s definitely the voice of Laila Khan that steals the show for me. Like Yolandi from Die Antwoord, she has that unique combination of sweet and loud that can’t be ignored.
That’s why I’m so surprised when, in the back of their tour van at NASS festival, she admits to me that she doesn’t think she can sing very well. As recently as the first stages of recording their latest album Operation Boom Box, she was convinced that her range was holding her back. It was their producer Dan Weller who started to change her mind, when he admitted that it was her vocals that had attracted him to the band.
As we talk more her self doubt starts to make sense. She’s the only female lead singer for miles in any direction, and she’s been fighting hard to be recognised, along with the rest of the band, for over a decade.
“I’m sorry, I’m going to have to interrupt here”, says Jen, iLivExtreme’s photographer for the weekend, and one of my best friends. “Would you say that you’re a feminist?”
Jen still hasn’t gotten over hugging Caitlin Moran at her recent gig in Bristol. It’s a topic of conversation she’s been itching to get onto.
“Well, I guess I’ve always been hesitant to call myself a feminist, because I don’t really feel like to do enough to deserve the title,” Laila replies.
Laila really takes time to consider her answers. It’s clearly something that she’s thought about before, but I can tell it’s a difficult topic to get into with two strangers in a van. I’d imagine it’s hard to proclaim yourself as a feminist when you already face the challenges of being a female singer in a ska band.
Barney Boom, on the other hand, seems positively charged by the situation. “Saying your not a feminist is like saying that you’re a racist,” he proclaims from beside the van. He’s been hovering for a few minutes, gauging how the interviews going.
Barney and Laila bounce off each other in conversation as much as they do on stage. There’s a real closeness and honesty to the way they interact. I think we all agree with his comment, and Barney’s frank delivery has dispelled any hesitation.
As they talk, we start to uncover some of the experiences that have made her so hesitant . “Some of the things that young girls can say online is just horrible. It’s like they see a girl on stage, and they instantly hate her. The internet has two faces to it; on the one hand you can get all of this really great support from your fans, and on the other you can get really nasty people hiding behind their computer screens”.
Barney and Laila met at school, and started their first band Grimace together, playing small shows in Manchester. “If I were to offer any advice to a band”, says Barney, “it would have to be: start off in a crappy band, and once you’ve got it together start a brand new band with everything you’ve learned, and get it right.”
And so from the ashes of Grimace rose a fully formed, ska/metal/dub-step phoenix called Sonic Boom Six: a band that hit the ground running, and were getting regular bookings within a year.
“So what is it like, touring for so long?” I ask. The answer is a lot more honest than you’d expect of a touring musician. It involves stress, being away from home for too long, and making music with a dream that often seems too big to realize.
“As I’ve got older (and I know it sounds lame) I’ve come to really appreciate being at home. Even on the rubbish days you can go to bed and think ‘today wasn’t great, but my life is good. I have fun, and I’m happy, and tomorrow is going to be another day’”.
Laila’s positive outlook could have stemmed from the recent loss of her uncle, who was one of Grimace’s biggest fans. I think we were all surprised when the conversation went on to her uncle’s final moments. Between apologies, she tells us about how he pointed to his Grimace tee in his final hours. Jen and I sit surprised and empathetic, having just lost a friend to the same terrible disease.
“It used to be very important to me to become successful, to be rich and headline festivals. I used to see other bands on line ups and I’d get jealous. But as I’ve got older, I’ve decided that happiness and success aren’t the same thing, and I’d much rather be happy.”
Laila volunteers, doing admin for a charity every week. “You don’t always have to give money,” she says. “Everyone’s good at something and it can be really valuable to a charity. I like admin, and I’m good at it.”
I ask what would have happened if Sonic Boom Six had never existed. Barney’s convinced that Laila wouldn’t have gone to Uni, and instead would have got married and had a bunch of kids. Laila agrees. It looks as though Sonic Boom Six was a journey that’s taken the whole band to better places, given them better outlooks on life, and rewarded them with a calm confidence in what they do.
I ask if she ever gets nervous before a gig. “Oh, I used to get nervous all the time. I used to throw up and get the runs before every show, but you have to train yourself out of it”. Nowadays she does DDP yoga and a quick, physical warm up before getting on stage. Her confidence when she gets up there is easy: learnt from years of hard graft and very physical performances. When we see her on stage later she epitomises the bands energy.
“Literally, when I’m playing she’ll come up behind me and start gearing up the crowd” Barney explains, lifting his arms in the air and jumping up and down. “It’s like she literally can’t help herself.” She contests but he isn’t having any of it. “You’ve got such a massive ego.”
So, what does the new album have in store for everyone? Laila struggles to describe the themes, but Barney jumps right in, proclaiming it’s a feminist album. He explains that a lot of people have criticised him for writing songs that are performed by a female singer. So, for this album he decided to get inside Laila’s head, and write like a woman. There’s a lot of issues they’ve never covered before, including songs written to empower those put down, and a song dedicated to a friend who survived domestic abuse.
Leila starts laying out her outfit for the show, and I take my last chance for a question. What would you say to your fans?
“Don’t waste time hating. Just enjoy life, live it, don’t hate other people, other girls, other musicians. Just be happy.”