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The Enduring Legacy of The Raincoats

18 October 2019, 09:01

40 years on, post-punk godmothers The Raincoats remain.

With a career that spans over four decades, Gina Birch and Ana da Silva know a thing or two about weathering the elements. They open up to Cheri Amour on the importance of unwavering friendships.

A young pop trio once said you have so many relationships in your life, only one or two will last. For Gina Birch and Ana da Silva, the two founding members of post-punk godmothers The Raincoats, theirs is a friendship that has endured over 40 years. Funnily enough, when the band first formed back in the late 70s, both members were living only a stone’s throw away from where we sit today in leafy Kensington. Back then, of course, it wasn’t all blue bike trails to Notting Hill and posh donut shops. Instead, there were cul-de-sacs of crumbling old townhouses filled with squatters and artists.

When I arrive outside this afternoon’s meeting point, I bump into Birch on my way into the lift. She’s been out to Rough Trade Records and found herself lured in by the extravagant treats of the bougie bakery nearby. The one she’s seen “all the kids buying from the stall in Portobello Road”. So, as we enter da Silva’s flat on the top floor, the kettle is quickly put on and we gather at the dining room table with a plate piled high full of sugary rings. There’s the red velvet one, a more traditional Nutella, oozy caramel topped with fresh popcorn kernels and your traditional creme pat. Each are cut equally into four so we can sample each flavour. All in all, it’s a fairly diplomatic and dignified welcome from a band who built a name for themselves in the West London punk scene resisting idle conformity.

When Birch first came to London, she was fresh from relocating out of her hometown of Nottingham. After feeling frustrated by the “dreary” Upper Street scene of North London, she ventured out to Bayswater on the tube to look at a room in a squat. “It was a sunny day and I came out of the tube into Queensway which was full of life on a Sunday and thought ‘Well, this feels a bit more like London!’” she recalls. But for da Silva, who had relocated from Lisbon, everything in this new country felt like a bit of a novelty to her. “I just thought it was a place. It was England. It was so different from Portugal that I couldn’t even tell the difference if it was a bit run down or posh”.

Birch’s new digs turned out not only to be a great base for the group but also led to a chance meeting with Richard Dudanski of The 101ers - notable for being the band that Joe Strummer left to join The Clash. “In this little cul-de-sac street, there were lots of interesting people; Dudanski and his wife Esperanza (Romero) who was the sister of Palmolive (drummer of The Slits and also the future Clash singer’s girlfriend) and Ana wasn’t far away. It was a lovely place to be,” she remembers fondly. Quite quickly, the pair became ensconced in a creative community which - as it does for any young person leaving home for the first time to study - propelled them into a new dynamic of independence and self-preservation. That feeling of freedom is something da Silva, particularly identified with having re-rooted herself thousands of miles away from her parents back in Madeira. She’s clearly proud when she thinks about taking that leap. “It’s good in life to just go somewhere completely different and experience a different way of thinking”.

Because at the heart of this scene in the late seventies, it was all about free-thinking. The Punk Uprising saw bands and artists aggressively challenging the status quo. Neil Young’s soft rock of the early seventies was steamrolled over by a thrashing, onstage outlandishness. One such group channeling this off-beat approach was proto-riot grrrl types The Slits. Fronted by a then 15-year-old Ari Up, The Slits were known for their confrontational live shows - the interband ruckus, Up’s frenzied dreadlocked hair, and that wild, reggae hybrid sound. For Birch, seeing this in action was particularly transformative.

“For me, it was totally profound. I think Ana had a slightly different halcyon experience when she saw Patti Smith,” she explains. “But for me, while I was very inspired by bands like The Clash and Subway Sect, none of them had ever made me think that it was a girl thing.” da Silva also casts her mind back to the show, “I went to see The Slits live but I don’t remember if we went together…?” to which Birch responds, matter of factly. “Well, it doesn’t matter. We were both there.” This interplay flows throughout our hour-long conversation as the pair clutch at moving memory particles.

So together - albeit from different vantage points of the room - Birch and da Silva observed this very musical, witty but also wildly chaotic Slits show. “They were the things I related to,” Birch shares proudly. “I think probably more so than you (gesticulating at da Silva) because I suppose I was a bit more chaotic and mischievous whereas you were more settled and firmly rooted somehow.

"[The Slits'] madness and chaos spoke to me and released something in me that made me feel like ‘Ah, it’s not just me' and I think lots of women in the audience felt that." - Gina Birch

Their madness and chaos spoke to me and released something in me that made me feel like ‘Ah, it’s not just me, this is talking to a part of me and I really get it’. I felt at that moment, ‘I so wish I was doing that with them there, you know, right now’ and I think lots of women in the audience felt that. There were women doing things. Mostly, they’d been singers – the amazing Poly Styrene, the amazing Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux but it was when you saw all those women together…”

da Silva picks up again. “It was more visible because, for a start, knowing one of two of them made them real people.” Birch counters. “And it was very physical. Like Palmolive said she’d hit the drums and they’d escape, she’d yank them forward again. She didn’t even know that you could put weights in front of them! She thought that was normal. None of us quite knew what the PA was or what the monitors did.

“We didn’t know those kinds of things but in the middle, Ari and Palmolive would have a bit of a fight. She’d throw her sticks and Ari would chastise Palmolive. There was this real kind of chaotic energy on stage. With Palmolive really going for it and Ari really going for it, they created this kind of dynamic that was incredibly powerful.” But for da Silva, there were other elements that led to her picking up the electric guitar for the first time.

“Gina’s experience with The Slits was very different. I really loved seeing them but I didn’t quite feel that was me. I’m a quieter person, I didn’t want to go to a gig and shout and pee on the stage,” she jokes. “I preferred Patti Smith because of the poetry and the way she was but I went to see all the Slits gigs.” As I sit between the pair both sharing their lightning bolt moments with me and quietly considering the balance between the two influences; Smith’s poetic prose and tailored outlook alongside The Slits arresting and challenging caterwaul, you can start to see how these two strands might have forged together to create a band like The Raincoats from its embers.

Birch taps into the same thought. “Your moment was with Patti Smith and my moment was with The Slits and I think those two things kind of come together in the album. They’re both joyful but in different ways and that’s what makes it interesting because if we’d both been coming from the same place…” Birch is cut off by da Silva who provides the punch line. “We’d just be a sub-Slits and what we were, we were ourselves.”

The Raincoats self-titled debut was certainly individualistic. Initially released on vinyl through Rough Trade in 1979, The Raincoats inhabited that primitive post-punk sound that their scene sisters The Slits had opened their eyes to but with a new sense of liberation. Throwing off the shackles of “traditional” chord structures and melody, da Silva on scrappy strings with a clean-cut jangle and Birch pummeling the lucid bass lines. This freedom was granted not just from the squat city rocks culture or their own alternative artistic merits (Birch was working in video and da Silva was interested in three-dimensional painting) but also as a virtue to their basic instrumentation, still figuring things out as they went along. Indeed, they gladly welcomed the additional dynamic of violinist Vicki Aspinall adding a more discordant element into their arrangements.

"They’re both joyful but in different ways and that’s what makes it interesting because if we’d both been coming from the same place…we’d just be a sub-Slits and what we were, was ourselves.” - Ana da Silva

The record was also a product of carving a space for themselves as two young women artists in the height of seventies subcultures. Birch recalls. “When we first came to London, you’d see all this ‘Are you a Marxist or a Trotskyist?’ People were kind of fighting over what seemed like minutiae but felt massive to them.” da Silva felt a similar division back home in Portugal. “Before the revolution, you didn’t know if this person was a Marxist or Trotskyist or a Stalinist, and then suddenly after the revolution, everybody was in a different group. Even in families there would be this divide. It was all these different communists, socialist and right-wing supporters. But it feeds into your mind, this sort of knowledge of all these different ways of seeing things and maybe even taking a bit from here and there, and not just having to follow one of those people.”

That’s something The Raincoats eponymous debut definitely surmounts. There is no set way of doing things. If you want to tackle an off-kilter version of The Kinks’ ‘Lola’, then why not? Not long after the album came out, Palmolive (who had picked up drums in the line up) left the band and Ingrid Weiss became their new percussionist. This lineup recorded 1981 follow up, Odyshape which included guest appearances from Robert Wyatt and Charles Hayward of experimental rockers, This Heat. There was some light US interest after New York-based cassette-only label ROIR Records released an album drawn from their intimate shows at NYC’s art space The Kitchen, The Kitchen Tapes in 1983. But after the album Moving the following year, the band broke up.

It would be nearly ten years later before the resurgence of The Raincoats began. This time thanks to another constant in the band’s creative career - their long-standing relationship with Rough Trade. After the British indie label put out the band’s debut back in the Spring of 1979, founder and innovator Geoff Travis was already looking at ways to innovate distribution for his artists on a more global scale. da Silva recalls, “Geoff was always interested in the future and new things. We split up and each went our own separate ways and meanwhile, CDs became a thing. We kept saying ‘Oh, we must do some CDs as well’ but I always thought we were kind of forgotten in between Rainbow and…” Birch chips in, quickly. “No, we weren’t even there between Rainbow. You’d look in the racks and we weren’t there”.

da Silva picks up her trail of thought again. “So the CD was pressed for the first time, and DGC Records released it Stateside because it hadn’t been released there. There was no Rough Trade over there at the time. Someone would come to the UK and get the record and then there would be just a few people in America who would make cassettes for people…”

It’s little anecdotes like this that really mark the huge shift in music discovery nowadays. Back then, folks would be ferrying pirated tapes of UK artists home in their suitcases. They might read about them in the National Music Express but they wouldn’t physically hold the records, instead piecing together a journalist's review and references to sound out whether the band might be worth a listen. Something Birch recalls one of their Stateside fans at the time mentioning.

"We weren’t even [in the record shops] between Rainbow. You’d look in the racks and we weren’t there." - Gina Birch

“I remember somebody saying that they walked into a room recently in America and they saw a copy of The Raincoats at the front of their record collection…I’ve heard Thurston [Moore] talk about Odyshape. ‘I’d read this review and be like ‘They’re being compared to Ornette Coleman’, what can that mean!’ It was a whole different world then. In a way, it made us kind of exciting because it was so mysterious.”

Of course, it wasn’t just Sonic Youth who were wooed (Kim Gordon added her own praise for the group in the liner notes for Odyshape) the band’s post-punk sound has influenced entire generations of rock bands. Carrie Brownstein’s Sleater-Kinney enforces the idea of the band’s enigmatic draw in Jenn Pelly’s book, The Raincoats (33 1/3), “There was this mythic quality and a tacit understanding … even though we didn’t know those people.” Kurt Cobain’s passion for the group has become something of a legendary tale. The story goes that in the early 90s, Cobain visited da Silva in the antiques shop where she was working as he was hoping to replace his well-worn copy of the first record. An album Cobain also listed in his top 20 of all time. Suffice to say, although The Raincoats might’ve felt like “little nobodies from nowhere”, their sound was drumming up a storm amongst the indie elite.

With the Riot Grrrl scene kicking off in Olympia and a whole new wave of women thrashing with the fretboard, The Raincoats’ occasionally regroup to create new material; 1994’s Extended Play EP which came out on Smells Like Records, a label founded by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, and 1996’s Looking in the Shadows which was released by DGC in America and Rough Trade in Europe. But for the next two decades, both Birch and da Silva would begin work on their own respective creative projects.

da Silva revelled in the use of new technology to collaborate with Japanese analogue electronic improviser Phew, a coupling that she seems genuinely buoyed up about. “I did a solo album maybe ten years ago but with this, it was more fun than doing it on my own. I used modular synth and Logic software.” Before I leave, she shows me the impressive rig used to create all her analogue sounds tucked snugly against the sofa in the living room. “Each one of us started a song. The ones I started, I sent the files to her and then she would send them back, it was fascinating to see how that evolved.”

In a similarly multi-disciplinary vein, Birch returned to her love of video collaborating with The Chefs’ Helen Reddington. Stories from The She Punks, which premiered in 2017 as part of the Doc and Roll Film Festival, stemmed from Reddington’s own academic book as Birch explains. “It’s a document of stories of women who might not have been recognised and that’s what’s really powerful about it. [Playing an instrument] was a mode of expression that was very liberating for young women at the time and it wasn’t necessarily about becoming a musician or even becoming a great musician. It was about being able to.

“Finally people were interested in what we had to say. For years and years, nobody was that interested in what us girls had to say. We were adjuncts and appendages. The film somehow begins to articulate the tip of the iceberg of that feeling, being able to have a voice and that’s really amazing.” It’s interesting to hear Birch articulate the movement in that way as, sitting here sipping from our Penguin Books pastel cups, it’s the very feeling that she and da Silva have managed to instill into a whole new generation of indie artists. Many of whom never even dreamed they might be able to see the pioneering punks live in their lifetime.

So when the band were announced to perform at Rough Trade’s own anniversary celebrations in late 2016, London’s steadfast DIY scene was ready to welcome them back with open arms. Teaming up with US songwriter Angel Olsen, da Silva speaks enthusiastically about the collaboration which continued to push them as a creative force, adding their expression to each other's vision. “We had never done anything like that. It was good for us to play Olsen's music, we have hardly ever done covers but with that, it was really interesting to work on somebody else’s songs”.

“Finally people were interested in what we had to say. For years and years, nobody was that interested in what us girls had to say. We were adjuncts and appendages." - Gina Birch

Birch is noticeably set back from the conversation at this point and then, when prompted, admits the Rough Trade show was less of a push and more of a plummet into a very gruelling time for her health-wise. “I had breast cancer and lymph node cancer. It was a really awful time for me and all the time of Jenn Pelly’s book, I couldn’t even read Jenn Pelly’s book because I was having chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I was in a terrible state but I kept on trucking.

“I kept it ticking over but I’m not quite as gleeful. I feel like I really did do it in spite of it all, which I’m proud of but it was really tough. I didn’t want to tell people at the time because you don’t want ‘Aw’ but now I can feel a bit more like I know how I felt which was quite angry and it’s difficult.”

While it’s heartbreaking to hear of Birch’s diagnosis, her unwavering commitment to the band - and herself as an artist - shines through but it hangs heavy knowing we’ve lost so many other huge talents to the disease. Poly Styrene, best known as the frontwoman with 1970s punk group X-Ray Spex, died from breast cancer in 2011 following The Slits’ frontwoman Ari Up who had passed away from the disease the year before. But Birch, who has two daughters of her own, is optimistic about the cross-generational impact both The Raincoats’ shows and releases continue to bring.

“That’s something to feel really proud of because it’s not just a nostalgia trip. People really value the record. It’s like when people talk about a painting and how it’s always in the ‘now’ – which I find quite curious – in a way, I feel like that record is in the now. I suppose I shouldn’t really drop parallels with The Velvet Underground record…” Ana laughs, “Why not!” so Birch continues, noticeably spurred on. “But there are records that seem to be in the ‘now’ that actually have a real-life at this moment. It might be that our record does grow old at some point but at the moment, it still feels youthful.”

Indeed, The Raincoats is so steeped in the ‘now’ that its anniversary has landed in the midst of a riot grrrl resurgence. In fact, Bikini Kill’s recent reunion hinged from Pelly’s launch for The Raincoats 33 ⅓ in late 2017. Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, and Kathi Wilcox performed one song together at the infamous NYC venue, The Kitchen before announcing their reunion tour earlier this year. The last few years have also seen Portland-based queercore champs Team Dresch plotting an upcoming tour in support of their singles reissue and grunge rockers L7 working on their first new album in 19 years. From those early Slits shows that felt so revolutionary for them, have Birch and da Silva felt a movement towards more women picking up the guitar over the decades?

da Silva responds first. “Sometimes it’s two steps forward and five steps back,” she says exasperated. “But now, musically, a magazine like She Shreds can exist. Whereas when we were around, things weren’t set up to encourage women to play. There’s always somebody inspiring somebody else and it’s great that we come back and we still inspire. It brings us back to the longevity and seminal influence of a debut record like The Raincoats. A defining sound that even forty years on still feels relevant clattering through the rafters of a dingy DIY club. Birch agrees, “It just seems to speak to people of all ages and to a lot of women and, for me, that’s always been an important part of what we do. What inspires me is knowing that we inspire someone in the same way and that’s so gratifying. It’s almost difficult to articulate.”

In support of the 40th-anniversary edition of The Raincoats, the band will again be gathering their guitars and hitting the road for a string of dates including this year’s Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht. No strangers to The Netherlands, the pair begin to reminisce of their former Euro dates on the seventies circuit. Birch begins, “We played Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Eindhoven.” da Silva adds, “Oh yes, I still remember that one. It was really fun because we would go there and they gave us chilli”. Birch continues, “We had such nice times there because people were so generous and made us feel so welcome.”

It’s an event that I reason feels well suited to the band with its commitment to curating eclectic and innovative sounds, with artists like space disco icon, Asha Puthli sidling up alongside producer and musician Cate Le Bon. Le Bon, I explain, is often collecting Raincoats references in her reviews, evident in her inventive pop melodies and post-punk takeoff combos. Something da Silva still finds surprising.

"Recently when I went to dinner with Angel Olsen, she mentioned that Mark Ronson said ‘Hello’. I just thought ‘Does he even know we exist?’" - Ana da Silva

“We never really knew who is a fan of our music until suddenly we hear. You think they don’t even know you exist. I always think people think of us as some little quirky band.” Birch interjects, “We are a little quirky band!” for da Silva to quickly retaliate, “ I know but sometimes I think we’re a bit bigger than little.”

She continues, “When we played one of the gigs in Brooklyn, Carrie Brownstein was there. I saw her, I recognised her face and she recognised me but I didn’t go to speak to her and she didn’t speak to me. I thought she was there just to see Viv Albertine! You’re a bit like that as well, aren't you?” she questions, bringing Birch back into the conversation.

“Yeah, I remember I was at some opening thing at The Serpentine and Paul Cook, the drummer from The Sex Pistols, waved and smiled and I kind of looked round to see who he was waving to and then realised ‘Oh, it is me’. Ana begins another anecdote, “Joe Strummer one time at a gig was all like ‘Hey, Raincoats!’...” although Birch is quick to correct her. “No, he was walking across the street…and we were like ‘Oh you mean these Raincoats!?’”

And it’s not just old punk legends sending their regards, even high-flying, sapiosexual producers want a look in. “Recently when I went to dinner with Angel Olsen, she mentioned that Mark Ronson said ‘Hello’”, da Silva tells me. “I just thought ‘Does he even know we exist?’ So, of course, I said ‘Oh, say hello to him too’.” During da Silva’s story, Birch has been flicking through her Spotify account in an attempt to find Cate Le Bon only to be thwarted by the spelling. Finally, she lands on it and we spend some time zoning out to Reward.

As the soothing horns of ‘Miami’ breeze through the tinny phone speaker, I cast an eye over the colourful Portuguese ceramics that line the two shelves directly opposite. The sides of the same shelves have been lined with tiny lanterns and a big watermelon shaped lamp sits on the dining room table. Outside, all you can see are the green tops of the trees swaying gently in the wind and there’s a certain feeling of calm. This whole encounter could easily be just two old friends catching up over tea and cake.

Birch breaks the silence, in a late response to da Silva’s earlier estimation of their fame and The Netherlands’ response to the band. “You know, we were little nobodies from nowhere but we felt like they really cared about us.” That’s the thing about The Raincoats. They’ve weathered the elements for over four decades and warmed a place in so many people’s hearts. Elusive in one sense and yet completely at home.

The Raincoats play Le Guess Who? festival in Utrecht, Thursday 7 - Sunday 11 November. The Raincoats 40th-anniversary edition is out now on We ThRee Records.
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