16 Oct 2017

BIG BAD INTERVIEW: Madonnatron discuss Voodoo, Pregnancy and South London

Madonnatron are culpable for one of the year's best albums, their self titled debut. Their sound meets somewhere between the ethereal and dreamy, and the intimidating and terrifying, something which gives added kudos to their already incredible band name. However, the road to their debut wasn't plain sailing, and if you add that to the fact that their press release opens with a line like "by their own admission Madonnatron couldn't play their instruments when they formed", it's perhaps baffling that this album is such a brilliant thing.

I had a lengthy conversation with the group to find out just to what extent they channel the supernatural, and let them speak of the hardships that befell the making of their debut.

Could you tell me a bit about the beginnings of the band?
Beth: We all knew each other before the band formed, apart from Stef, who I met during the first ever Madonnatron ‘rehearsal’ where we instantly became wicked companions. Early rehearsals were shambolic but threaded with veins of pure joy and primitive musical genius. Charlotte joined after she realised that she couldn’t keep turning up to our gigs having to watch utter rubbish so stepped in to consolidate our mess into something actually manageable to listen to. Joanie joined at the end of January this year and commands total respect for learning everything within 6 weeks having not previously played.

Stef: We met at a Trashmouth gig. Melary was playing there with her band and I went there to see the gig. I remember frantically digging into my pockets for some cash, hoping to be able to collect enough money to get in, while the two girls at the door impatiently looked at me like I was some kind of weirdo. I didn’t know those two motherfuckers one day would have become two of my best friends. That was my sole interaction with Charlie and Beth on that night. No words, just awkward looks.

Anyways, on that night I saw Melary’s band and I honestly thought that was one of the worst act I ever witnessed. After the gig, she asked me if I knew of any guitarists to start a new band with her and I, in a kind of tipsy kamikaze move, proposed myself. She saw the girl at the door tapping nervously over the table so she inferred she must be a drummer and asked her to join our newly formed band. That was Beth and she was not a drummer, at least not yet.

I spoke to her for the first time during our first rehearsal, we were both trying to mask our nerves cause I had never played in a band before and for her was the first time at the drums. We connected straight away over some cans of JD & coke. After a few months Beth brought Charlie into the band and the Voodoo happened.

Charlie’s energy has been with the band since the very beginning. She chose the band name when I didn’t even know who she was (ignoring she was the girl who gave me the bad look at the doors of the Shacklewell Arms months before). Our first single Headless Children was born during the first rehearsal we had with Charlie and, from that day on, the dynamics within the band changed drastically.

Charlotte: The band was initially a 3 piece - Beth, Steph, and Melary (our former front person), formed at random after a drunken Trashmouth night at the Shackwell Arms. Beth and I were housemates at the time….she tried to get me to join in the early stages, but initially I flatly refused on account of the fact that a), I couldn't play the bass and b) I thought they were musically insufferable. A combination of desperate boredom and morbid fascination made me change my mind. We played our first gig as a 4 piece after 6 weeks of playing (or not playing) together with our arses hanging out in a shop window. None of us knew how the songs went or what we were supposed to be playing. It was challenging for everybody present. Class and integrity have been a strong point from the start.

Your debut record's out now, how did you find the process of making it?
Beth: Tense but exciting. A bit swingy on the bi-polar scale. It was very intense as we all work full-time so it had to be fitted in at weekends and we were up against a tight deadline to finish it before Charlotte had her baby last August. We hadn’t even finished writing all of the songs before going in to record. I am extremely relieved to have finished it but will only believe it is real once I am holding it in my hands.

Stef: Recording the album has been a mixture of joy and pain. We had fun recording but it took a lot of energy and hard work because we were locking ourselves in the studios for entire weekends and then go back to our day jobs. It was intense. We were supposed to release in January but a few weeks before the planned release date, our back then front person left the band, therefore we decided to re-record parts of the album. It was a god send because the whole feel of the moment reflected on our sound, which became more fierce, defined and fresh.

Charlotte: It was a gruelling yet spiritual journey into the unknown, made all the more so as most of it was recorded when I was between 7 and 9 months pregnant.

It was left unmixed for several months while we refined our sound and I absorbed the aftershock of labour. The album was actually due for release much earlier this year, but not long before the release date, Melary quit the band and a lot of the material had to be re-written …in just under 2 weeks. Lucky for us, Joanie, (who Beth and I had lived with in another life) stepped in and learnt the parts in time to re-record. It was verging on the supernatural. I would say that the entire experience was underpinned by what can only be described as a kind of rabid defiance, a kind of surreal mania.

Joanie: For me it was pretty daunting. About a week after I joined we were recording. So being in the studio was how I learnt the songs. It felt like jumping into a shark tank whilst on your period.

What are your favourite tracks Madonnatron?
Beth:  Cat Lady. Violent Denial. Glenn Closer.
Stef: Violent Denial, Tron, Cat Lady.
Charlotte: Cat Lady has a special place in my fibres.
Joanie: Tron, Cat Lady, Wedding Song.

Your music seems to teem with witchy, supernatural vibrations. Could you say a bit more about where this comes from?
Beth: Innate preternatural rhythms? I dunno, I think that obviously there is that aspect to some of the songs and I think it comes across as quite menacing & unnerving. We are still very rough around the edges and this raw energy has more of an aggressive, grounded force, so it’s mixture of this and the ethereal, sometimes holy aspect I suppose. It’s channelling very basic human powers that are traditionally expressed in a male-dominated arena and I am wary of being described too much with this witchy vibe as it very quickly gets constricting and it sets up a certain set of preconceived ideas that people apply before they have even heard you.  It’s just music, however it comes out and some people will pick up on a kind of unearthly quality in it, which is very definitely there, and others will be more into the sometimes raw indelicacy of it’s execution.

Stef: We find it very easy to come up with new ideas and riffs and sometimes it feels like our songs have got a life of their own, independent from us.
There is some form of deep communication and understanding creeping underneath the sounds of our instruments. It really recharges me and makes me feel that I can do whatever I want when I’m with them. I feel powerful and in charge apart from bringing me into another world. Yes, in a way you could call them “witchy, supernatural vibrations”. Songs like Cat Lady and Tron, for example, came out of the same jam and sounded almost exactly as you can hear them on the album.
We figured out the lyrics after but the instrumental part flowed very easily from the first few times we played it.

Charlotte: This is something that keeps resounding from people so I am guessing that in part this is what we are communicating. It is for me above all other things a communication. One that feeds off the afore mentioned defiance and this kind of almost tangible hysteria that grew from the frustration of having all of this noise inside us all that was previously muted and had no channel for escape. Once we realised that we had that innate communication between us, it became animal. The music is entirely written on instinct and we kind of manifested it like some sort of sapphic bowel movement.

The first single you put out to announce the album was Headless Children, could you tell us a bit about that one?
Beth: The music was written almost in one go in one jam. We then refined it and went back to the very basics of actually learning how to play what we had written. We did this with pretty much all of the songs on the album and it was a painstaking process at times - one bar here, two bars there, instrumental bit, etc. Stef wrote the lyrics and only at the end of last year did she realise what the song was actually about. The video, made for us by Trixie Malixie & Bede Trillo (Ravenous Productions), was very funny to make and made especially amusing to observe how many people were threatened by us dressing up and dancing around like dickheads in the freezing cold.

Stef: As I said, Headless Children was born during the first rehearsal we had with Charlie, when we became a four-piece. The songs evolves around this dark bass line, a single drone note on the guitar, creepy organ and several vocal harmonies. It’s a song about a mother who kills her own children in a fit of madness. It’s something in between Scatter Island and the mexican legend of La Llorona. It conveys the idea of the hysteria and precariousness of the mind, the instability associated with the female figure since the beginning of time. La llorona is the woman who is supposed to nurture her children but ends up killing them without any apparent reason. Just like Mother Nature.

What about Tron?
Charlotte: Tron was always a dystopian sounding thing. The lyrics are attempting to fill in any gaps that are left by the music. It’s about the relentlessness of our current condition, as people, as creatures and the way modern behaviours are eroding our humanity and our awareness. I feel as though I am trying to hold onto nature and instinct as though it were a dying religion. That's what this song is to me. Its not supposed to be “dramatic”, it’s about urgency and fear.

What influences you outside of music?
Beth: Books - they are my oldest friend. A good drink. Trees. People outside the sphere of ‘normal’. The delicate line in reality between the harsh, the stark and the terrible, and the ability to cross it into humour and the absurd.

Stef: Movies and images have a big influence. Movies like Death Proof and Planet Terror make me wanna plug in the guitar, turn up the gain and play Be My Bitch.

Charlotte: Nature. In an epic sense. The wonders of the unexplained and the rawness of natural beauty. This stuff is god to me. I also love disco dancing. And food. And sequins.

Joanie: We are influenced by all the best women... people like Mary, Tina Turner, Mae West,  Julia Davis, Elizabeth Taylor… The spunky ones. Also I have a special kind of love for Elvis Presley... Old movies... stuff like Barbarella, Midnight Cowboy, Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, Fatal Attraction and anything by David Lynch.

There's a lot of great, different bands cropping up around the South London area. What is your connection with the place, and what's your favourite venue there?
Beth: I was born here but have only met the people I know now in the last 10 years really. The Windmill is excellent, they have live music there pretty much every night of the week and it is still really just a local bar and not all wanky despite it’s reputation of being home of the South London ‘scene’. Skehan’s in Nunhead is also good. It is the current residence of the Easycome, which is a weekly night run by the inimitable & irreplaceable Hankdog (Andy Allan), which has been happening at various venues for the last 28 years!

Joanie: Within the music scene in South London there is a sense of community not easily attained in a large city. The Windmill is a melting pot for diversity in music with an ‘anything goes’ attitude. It’s one of the few venues that has resisted the temptation to gentrify, making it authentic. They encourage alternative bands who are not obviously commercial. Some of Madonnatron’s first gigs were there so it was the perfect venue to launch our album.

Who are your favourite new bands about at the moment?
Beth: No Friendz. Melt Dunes. Sex Cells. The Honey Hahs. Pregoblin (though we haven’t heard them yet). The Moonlandingz (are they new?), and Meatraffle goes without saying - they are eternally new.

Stef: I like HMLTD. Their sound is bold and they look so sexy and androgynous. When I see them around the Windmill they look like proper glam rockstars from the 70s, with their glittery eye shadows and military hats. I can hear a lot of different influences in their sound, from MGMT to Morricone, with a bit of house and even techno in the mash. Another band I like is NoFriendz, their frontman Angus Steakhouse is a fucking talented musician apart from being a crazy eclectic bitch on stage. We are releasing a split EP with them and hopefully tour together at some point soon. In the US, I like Ron Gallo who’s now touring with Black Angels.

Joanie:  Sex Cells are just amazing. I saw them play at our album launch and was blown away. Loved the dynamic between them on stage.  Then I’d have to second Beth on Honey Hahs. No Friendz.... Angus is a wonderful performer!

Madonnatron is out now. Read our review here!

(Words and questions: Cal Cashin)