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Interview: Catching Up With The Raincoats

By Victoria Capraro

Nov 17, 2017

When you ask me if I’m a feminist 

I say to hell with loneliness

To hell with powerlessness

Yeah there are people in positions of power

But so many more left in drudgery

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Photo Credit: Crosby Harrison. Artists from left to right: Ana da Silva, Anne Wood, Gina Birch.

This November, Ana da Silva and Gina Birch of The Raincoats returned to The Kitchen after creating their first and only live record here in December 1982. Since then, they’ve toured across the world, broken up, gotten back together, been invited to play with Nirvana, switched out band members and worked on solo projects. Though their music inspired a generation of artists at the forefront of punk, they received little recognition during their time in the United States in the 1980s. Broke and stranded in New York City, the band released what became known as The Kitchen Tapes to make the necessary funds for return tickets home to England.

Ana and Gina returned to The Kitchen for our 2015 Gala honoring Dan Graham and Kim Gordon, who together invited them to perform and both cited The Raincoats as an inspiration. The sounds they created in a hunger for artistic freedom became the legacy that shaped a generation of experimental musicians. Jenn Pelly relishes the poetic anarchy of the band in her 33 1/3 book regarding The Raincoats’ first and self-titled album. It was only fitting that they return to The Kitchen to celebrate the release of the book and the impact of their collaboration.

When I learned I would be assisting Katy Dammers and Tim Griffin in organizing The Raincoats’ tribute, which included a video from Angel Olsen and the first reunion of Bikini Kill in two decades, I dug into the archives to learn more about their 1982 performance. I hoped to find evidence of the punk feminist glory, which inspired an entire movement. Instead, I found pictures of the band and a single review of their performance written by a man who complained that they didn’t know how to properly play their instruments. 

For The Raincoats, it was hardly about the instruments. They figured out how to play as they performed. The Kitchen Tapes begins with the first song Gina Birch ever wrote, “No One’s Little Girl,” a fact she proudly announced on the Saturday evening event here at The Kitchen before bursting into a gutty rendition. Forty years after their first show together, The Raincoats still put their whole voices into everything they make. I sat down to interview them because I wanted their perspectives in our archives and because I was curious about how a couple of young women making music in London ended up at The Kitchen to record their only live album.

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The Kitchen Tapes, ROIR 1983, cover photo by Eric Watson.

The performances you did here in 1982 became the lauded as The Kitchen Tapes. Can you talk about how that performance was recorded and how it was received?

Gina: We weren’t in the best shape in a way. We were at a point where the band had expanded and we were all pulling apart a bit, so it wasn’t the most joyful time for all of us, sadly. But, we love being in New York so there were lots of positive things about it and the people were great. And we like The Kitchen. The recording happened as a result of needing to get our plane tickets home. It wasn’t the recording that we would have definitely wanted to be known by. And in fact when all our other recordings went out of print, that one was always the one that was available, so in a way it’s an introduction for a lot of people to us.

There were some live recording issues with the bass and I think we repaired a few other things in the studio. We had a drummer and a percussionist and a sax player who also played a bit of bass, so we were a big band at that time. And, shortly after when we went back, we recorded our last album of that time “Moving,” and then called it a day. So it’s an interesting record of a kind of endgame.

How has the way you approach making music changed since your work with Rough Trade?

Gina: You mean after we got back together post-riot grrrl and stuff?

Ana: In 1993 we were releasing the reissues of our albums with Rough Trade on CD because we had never done CDs. Then Rough Trade licensed the albums to DGC in the USA and Ray Farrell asked us “why don’t you make an album?” We weren’t thinking about that, but we had songs we had been writing separately between 1984 and 1993, and so we started working on them together and decided we would record them. But, after the reissues, we played some shows: we came back to New York, Anne Wood played with us and we got Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth to play those shows with us. After that, we went into the studio and recorded the “Looking in the Shadows” album.

Gina: In the past we’d written more collectively. Someone would bring a song to the rehearsal and we would work on it together. I think with the last album we were a little bit more self-contained. We’d been apart for a while and we didn’t have the same kind of nucleus of a group. There was me and Ana and people coming and going, with Anne on violin and Heather Dunn on drums.

Ana: The songs were different as well. The time was different.

Gina: Everything was different. I’d just been to film school, come out of film school and I was making music videos for bands. I remember I got this phone call when I was just editing a Popes video and they said “how would you like to go on tour with Nirvana?” And I was like “Bloody hell! That’s absolutely ridiculous! I’m just trying to get my film career off the ground!” But we couldn’t say no because it’d be mad to do it but even madder not to. We said yes to the tour and that precipitated an album, which meant that we had a whole new thing going on. All the riot grrrl stuff, and Bikini Kill, and all those young women bands had given us such a good feeling about what we’d done. The history of what’d we’d done was then woven back into the present. We felt part of the present because those people had been inspired by us and had kind of been reflecting back to us.

Photo The Raincoats 1982 Unidentified

Photo Credit: Eric Watson. Artists from left to right Vicky Aspinall, Gina Birch, Ana da Silva. 

You were one of the first punk bands to call yourselves feminists. What prompted you to do that and how would you describe your feminist identities now?

Ana: I don’t think we called ourselves feminists at that time. I think people asked “are you a feminist” And for me I didn’t like having a tag. I don’t like tags. We are feminists, but we don’t have to have a t-shirt saying “I’m a feminist.” I already thought that women should be able to do the same things as men, and so I remember thinking it would be good to have a band that was two women and two men because for me that would be the ideal situation. But obviously when Palmolive and Vicky joined we felt a strength. And I was aware of feminism before that, and I thought “if I want to be in a band I’ll be in a band, and if I want to be an artist I’ll try my best to be a good artist. Okay.”

Gina: My Mum and Dad had a quite hierarchal relationship and I feel that my Mum slightly suffered from that, and she kind of did what my dad wanted her to do. I was quite headstrong. And when Vicky joined the band and I started reading about feminism, you know you become aware of it and it shows you what’s going on in the world. The more you look at the world the more you realize the inequality. I think women get quite a good opportunity in school and university, but when you get out into the real world you find out there’s all sorts of prejudices against women.

Ana: Well, women are still not being paid as much as men.

Gina: There are all sorts of things, bad things that happen to women. And also, you know, women weren’t in bands. There were singers and the odd amazing bass player here and there. But it was actually a great moment for women in punk, that we were enabled to do by our circumstance and our own courage and confidence to actually grasp it. And I think we felt when Vicky used the word—I mean at the time, people found it a really unpalatable word. It was thought to be a kind of unpleasant word. Women are dungaree, man-hating, hairy, smelly, awful people, and I always think it was a media conspiracy. You know, male conspiracy. They didn’t want women to find their own voices. They didn’t want women being upstarts, and therefore the word feminism was made quite nasty. It was a difficult label to deal with. It wasn’t like “Hi yes we’re feminists and it’s all lovely.” It was like “Yes we are. But it’s not the first thing about us.” It’s an important issue. And proudly now I think we did kind of forge ahead with something and we used the word.

Ana: When people asked “are you feminist” I used to say “what do you mean by it? What does it mean to you?” Because a word is just a word and it means different things to different people at different times, and I always felt that it was important to know that so I could say “I’m one of those” or “I’m not one of those.” I’m this.

Gina: It means “I don’t shave my legs or my armpits” NOT! I mean, it’s crazy because any woman who wants to be able to fulfil her dreams and ambitions in a way that any person, any human can...It’s about this idea. It’s given this feminist tag or identity, and it’s about equality. We don’t want the hierarchal nature of gender imbalance. We want to feel that there’s a kind of mutual give and take.

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Photo Credit: Crosby Harbison. Artists from left to right: Vice Cooler, Gina Birch, Ana da Silva, Anne Wood.

Photo 1 The Raincoats 1982 Bloom

Photo by Terri Bloom

You two have been making music as The Raincoats for quite a while. What would you say is the most important thing that being in this band together has taught you?

Gina: Tolerance.

Ana: Yeah. Tolerance—(to Gina)—to deal with that one! No, I’m kidding. You learn that with other people as well, you learn how to negotiate all of the time. With a person you try to understand their character and let them have their idiosyncrasies to a certain point. Because there’s you and the other person, you have to find room for the two to survive. Add two or three or four and the more complicated it is to have that space where the two can survive within the limit of what they actually feel. They’re still a person and they still have that identity and it won’t get squashed by somebody else, and that’s the important thing. That’s like all relationships, if you want to live with somebody as well you have to negotiate that as well with their characters and work within that.

Gina: I think that for me when we started and we were all females in the group, mostly we were learning together. We were learning there wasn’t a hierarchy in that relationship. We were working and finding our way similarly rather than someone saying “you play that” and “you play that.” We were all finding our voice on our own instruments, and we helped each other. I feel like we came along as a group, holding hands if you like, and that was very important because it gave everybody a little bit more confidence and courage to feel that they had a voice. Rather than thinking “oh if I play that, what will everybody think?”

Ana: You still think that! You know, when you’re playing something you still think “I hope they like it!”

Gina: Somehow, just us all being women together made that feel easier. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have found some wonderful men to work with, and we have over the years and they’ve always been incredibly encouraging and supportive. But at the same time I think it was very valuable for us at that certain moment, it was certainly very valuable for me that we did it as all women.

Ana: I think it definitely was a valuable thing to do, to find our feet. And then, I think we gained some confidence by doing that and seeing that what we did had some meaning to some people, and so therefore when we work with other people there’s no kind of thinking “oh the man knows everything.”

Gina: Or there’s one bloke in the band and they go “oh well he must have organized it all.”

Ana: Our experience was really different from that with Rough Trade. Rough Trade just embraced us for what we were, accepted our music. There was no talk of image either within us or with the record company. It was just that we’d say “We’ve got an album that we want to do”...“okay.” That’s it.

Gina: Yes, they never said “smarten up” or “lose a bit of weight” or “make your cover this way.

Ana: It was really you just “we like you for who you are.”

When you ask me if I’m a feminist
I say "why the hell would I not be"
Cause I’m a city girl, I’m a warrior
I’m a city girl, I’m a warrior
The city made me this way 

(Lyrics from "Feminist Song" by The Raincoats)

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Photo Credit: Crosby Harbison. Artists from left to right: Anne Wood, Ana da Silva, Gina Birch, Palmolive, Vice Cooler. Anne Wood, Ana da Silva, Gina Birch, Palmolive, Vice Cooler and Jenn Pelly.

Photo Credit for banner image: Tonje Thilesen.

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