The Pipettes were a pretty big deal a few years ago, bursting onto the indie club scene with their 50s and 60s-influenced polka-dot pop song album Meet The Pipettes and its hit singles like ‘Pull Shapes‘ and ‘Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me‘. That was half a decade ago, though – since then, they’ve had several members come and go, leaving the band in its current incarnation of sisters Gwenno and Ani [right and left, respectivaly, in the photo above], along with the boys who play the instruments and help write the music. After a long delay they’ve managed to get a second album ready for release, so I caught up with them earlier this week to see how they’ve been coping with all this commotion.
I thought that we’d start with just clarifying something that I’m not entirely sure about, which is the songwriting – who writes what?
Gwenno: It’s the same as it’s always been. How it works is that one person will write the song, and they’ll bring it in, usually in something like a finished form – it might need a few more chords, or a second verse – but they’ll bring it to the band, and we’ll all interpret it in our own way.
Ani: Everyone’s a songwriter in the band.
I’ve been listening to the new album. It’s an interesting change in direction because it’s not as doo-wop any more, is it? There are a couple of songs that still have that Phil Spector kind of sound, like the first album, but there’s a big change towards synths and electronics and stuff. Almost like moving forward through time a bit? That’s kind of what it sounded like to me. It’s called Earth vs The Pipettes which, in my mind, means space and sci-fi and lasers and things like that – futuristic things. Is that roughly what the thinking behind the album title was?
Gwenno: Well, we were going to call it In Colour, but then there was the whole sci-fi thing – there’s this b-movie called Earth vs The Flying Saucers, and there’s a poster for the film, with all these monsters coming down and people on the floor, and we were going to imitate it with the boys all on the floor and us coming down as the monsters. The album is slightly more grown-up and more serious to a certain extent, but there’s still that silliness and that sense of ridiculousness.
There’s a lot less playground-romance in the new songs.
Ani: [whistfully] I think we should be honest that our school days are well and truly gone…
Time to put the photos away in the album?
Ani: Heh, yeah. Although I never liked school much. We were 100% losers.
Gwenno: But now you’re a winner!
Ani: Yeah! Um. A winner all the way.
So there’s the sci-fi influence on the new album, but what else was coming into your heads when you were making it?
Gwenno: Well, everyone had different takes on it, really.
Ani: When I first came into the band…
Sorry, how long have you been in the band now?
Ani: Two years. When I first came into the band I thought, “yay, I’m in a 50s pop band,” and the first songs that I wrote were songs like that, but they’re not now, they’re more disco.
Gwenno: But also there was a natural evolution, if you’re wanting to be pseudo-academic about it, but at the same time it was a natural thing for us to move in that direction. And of course, being in a band together for so many years, you start to think…
Gwenno: Well… Actually, I don’t know.
Ani: It’s not going to be the same, is it?
Gwenno: I know, but I do think that it’s a development anyway, in a way. Everyone can be themselves more.
Ani: Who are you?
Gwenno: [Laughs] I don’t know… Well, I really love a lot of British 80s bands, Bananarama and things like that.
Ani: Which you reference on the first album quite a lot.
Gwenno: Not sonically, though.
Gwenno: Yeah. And I like old Kylie songs and things like that, and I think that you can hear that more.
So are you saying that you weren’t as keen on the Phil Spector-influenced stuff from the first album?
Gwenno: No, it wasn’t that. There was a point to it, and it was a really good point. I remember seeing the band play in Cardiff and thinking it was absolute genius, and that I wanted to be in this band. None of us were massively into 60s pop music or anything like that, but it was about the history of pop music. Like, if this makes sense then we can make our own year zero here. It was a slightly more intelligent approach than just, “oh, I like playing, I like singing.”
And with your new songs you don’t feel tied down to a single aesthetic?
Gwenno: No. I think it feels… The longer you make music with someone, the more that you trust them, and the more you understand, and you can trust their input. It’s not as controlled.
Ani: And also, with this album, everyone in the band now is at the same point. You [gestures to Gwenno] came in later than the start, I came in even later, so everyone could start from the same point and everyone worked together as a unit, wrote it as a unit.
Gwenno: I guess the common thread is Martin [Rushent, producer], apart from the space theme, of course.
I was watching your video for the first single off the album, ‘Stop The Music’ – you’ve got your dance moves in that, and lots of costumes…
Gwenno: Yeah, and again, it’s quite an organic development, and I don’t think that that song is very ‘Bam! We’re Back!’ – people have been a bit slow to get behind it, and me too. I didn’t write this song and it took me quite a while to actually understand it, to really, really get into it. It’s such a grower.
Ani: It’s a much more confident approach. I don’t want to undermine ourselves, but it doesn’t sound as desperate, like, “hey, we’re in a band.”
So you’re more sure of yourself? The album does sound very cohesive despite the change in direction, I think.
Gwenno: Well, it was a move away from songs like ‘Pull Shapes’, which we ended up feeling quite defined by. Putting ‘Stop The Music’ out first is quite a deliberate thing from us, as in, “here’s a song, we really love it, and it stands on its own and doesn’t need gimmicks.” Which, again, is what this album is about. You have to take it as it is – you like the music, you like the music, if you don’t, you don’t. I think ‘Stop The Music’ confirms that statement, really. The video, too, I don’t think is at all a gimmick, I just think it’s shot very beautifully. It’s probably the proudest I’ve ever felt in making something, visually. I don’t feel like I’m being stupid, jumping around clapping my hands.
You don’t worry at all that the change of direction will alienate some of your fans?
Gwenno: Well, I think that was inevitable. I think, even had it been the same lineup, someone isn’t going to like the new direction anyway. It’s easy to think that we’re alienating fans with a change in direction.
But you’re picking up new ones, too?
Gwenno: I think so, too. To be honest with you, the only reason we’re still here is for the songs. We knew it was going to be difficult with the new lineup, but had we not had so much faith in the songs we just wouldn’t have done it.
Ani: Yeah, and I’m not going to lie – over the past two years it’s not been easy to keep going, at all. There’s been no reason except that we’re making this record.
A labour of love?
Gwenno: Well it is, but having done the first record and having had people respond to it by saying, “it’s a bit gimmicky, it’s a bit throwaway,” it just made us feel that we wanted to do quite a serious thing. Yes, we do dress up and do silly dances, but we feel very passionate about that!
Ani: And then there’s the whole thing that we’re doing it independently, by ourselves, not on a major label or with co-writers forced on us. We would never do that, even though it was an option.
You said that the first album was a bit gimmicky – but surely that’s the point of pop music? To criticise pop for being throwaway and fun is a bit like criticising water for being wet.
Ani: Yep. That’s a thing I find with pop, that it can still be great music, it’s not just throwaway. Someone’s writing it, it’s someone singing someone’s emotions. Just because it’s pop…
Gwenno: I do think it’s completely different, though, when you have artists drawn up in a marketing board meeting.
But that’s still someone’s words that they’re singing, someone’s emotions.
Gwenno: I suppose. I just have a real detachment from modern pop music at the moment.
Ani: I’m not talking about Rihanna – I love Rihanna! I love Girls Aloud! But I’m talking more about…
Straightforwardly manufactured acts who are designed deliberately to make sales?
Gwenno: [To Ani] I don’t get what you’re trying to say…
Ani: I’m trying to say that just because it’s pop music that doesn’t make it less good, or less credible, than indie or whatever. I think that because we clap hands and dance and wear silly things…
Lots of bands wear silly things, mind. You guys seen Of Montreal?
Gwenno: Hah, yes!
Just because pop music might be, as you say, manufactured, doesn’t make it any less worthy, does it? But you guys are clearly not that kind of mainstream pop music, you’ve got that weird twist to it still by bringing in elements of disco and soul and so on.
Gwenno: I do think that it’s important, with this album, that even though it’s four to the floor most of the time it has still be played and written by a real band. I was talking to [former member] Rose about it yesterday – I like that in songs like ‘Stop The Music’ it’s grounded in very good music. It’s not just an electro-dance-slash-hip-hop song, it’s clearly grounded in 60s soul and all of that stuff. We were having a discussion in studio the other day about having a backing track – obviously Martin has done a lot of stuff to make us not really sound like we’re real, which is brilliant, we love that, and you can never recreate that live unless you played along with a backing track, which we would never, ever do. I really dislike bands that play to backing tracks, on the whole, and I have yet to see a band I’ve enjoyed the feeling of who have played along to a backing track. I would rather have less instrumentation, and see what everyone is doing on stage, and have that being what I hear.
Ani: It loses a lot of its soul. The way it feels, when it’s played in a certain way…
Like having an old record where it always skips in a certain place, and when you hear it on the radio and it doesn’t have that little clip in it, it feels less real?
Gwenno: Yeah, and I think where we differ, as a pop band, to a producer in a studio just making up something for a hired songwriter, is that we don’t have to justify ourselves by saying, “we’re real.” I think that’s an interesting distinction.
Ani: You always feel like you have to validate why you do something. I feel like we’ve thought a lot about the point of us doing this now.
Gwenno: Yeah, because the point is different now. When we started we were sort dressing up and being all anti- those indie guitar bands that were around, but they’ve all gone now, so where do we stand in the grand scheme of things? [Laughs] You need to know who your enemies are, you know, who the bad man is, fighting against what system. It’s finding out what your context is, sort of doing that all over again, really – and I think the songs are wicked. I genuinely do. I think Martin’s done a really good job.
He’s been around for a while – almost old to enough to have worked on some of the original doo-wop records.
Ani: Yeah he has. There’s just some amazing stuff that he’s done. The thing that I love about Martin is how ridiculously enthusiastic about music he still is. He’s not at all cynical, which is just great, because you’d think that you’d lose enthusiasm by then. He’s kind of done more than anyone I’ve ever met.
So who’s he worked with?
Gwenno: Well, I think his biggest thing was Dare by The Human League. Buzzcocks, Stranglers, Shirley Bassey, Altered Image… I think he turned Madonna down.
Ani: A guy called and said, “I’ve got this girl, Madonna, do you want to make a record with her?” and he said he was too busy because he was doing another Human League album. Even if that’s not true, I think it’s great.
Rehearsals for your tour are going well?
Gwenno: Really good, actually. We’d done a gig as a duo in October at Sŵn Festival, Huw Stephens’ festival… it seemed a bit of a curse, the Sŵn Festival, because we couldn’t do it the year before because a girl left the band, but this year we decided we were definitely going to do it because my mum was there, my dad was there, my friends… And then we hadn’t rehearsed, and rehearsing as a duo has really changed the dynamic of the band which I hadn’t expected so much. There’s a lot more singing in unison – I feel so much more confident about it. Obviously, it’s good because we’re siblings, and if we’re singing out of tune we’re going to be harmonising out of tune, if that makes sense. I remember with Rose and Becky that it wasn’t always in tune, there wasn’t that natural instinct, and we were always counteracting each other, we weren’t really harmonising. This is good, I’m quite excited about this new thing, there’s more of a unified voice.
Ani: And also with the old songs we haven’t found that it massively affects them, and we were worried about the old songs mostly because of the freaky harmonies, but there really weren’t any three-piece harmonies anywhere. I do Rose and Becky’s parts, though – I rock ‘n roll AND I hip-hop, which is great.
Does this mean that you’re not looking to find a third member of the band, to get it back to how it was before?
Gwenno: No, not really. I think it was quite nice realising that we’re not the Sugababes, and you can’t just fill that gap. It feels like an evolution, because obviously having a third person who you don’t know can be really weird. They’re not Rose, they’re not Becky, and that’s just not how it is any more. Getting a randomer doesn’t really work…
Kind of like a session musician?
Gwenno: I think that’s what happened, by the third girl who came in. She ended up being really more of a session singer, really, because they couldn’t join in the writing because we’d already written the album, it was finished, they could only sing along with us. It was kind of a redundant thing, and there was no point in them joining the band if they couldn’t help to create anything. Much more of an urge to get the album out, because it’s been going for the last couple of years, and now it’s finally coming out…
Gwenno: Yeah, actually! I’m just so happy, that we’re not sitting on this album. It was recorded in the spare bits of studio time that Martin had, which is great, we appreciated that so much, but I remember we read a book which mentioned him, talking about when he made Dare. He said it took him more than a year to make it, and were already three months into recording so we were a bit worried because he was comparing our album to Dare – though obviously it’s probably not going to be anywhere near as big! – and in the end it took him, I think, one more day to finish than for Dare.
Ani: It’s just so good to have the album out really. I’m not nervous at all. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have tried our best.
(All images courtesy of the band, taken from the shoot for their latest album)
50s, 60s, 70s, Ani, Bananarama, Becky, Dare, disco, Doo-Wop, Earth vs The Pipettes, Gwenno, Human League, ian steadman, interview, Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Martin Rushent, Meet The Pipettes, pop, Pull Shapes, Rose, Shirley Bassey, soul, Stop The Music, The Human League, The Pipettes, video, Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me
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