November 28, 2006 § 1 Comment
by Cat Pilgrim
KOKO London, November 2006
I rang the doorbell at KOKO in Camden, and it set the tone for the night. Behind me stood Pilgrims all-stars Aida (photography) and Ruth (dictaphone). Together, we were the Tri-fecta of Sound, ready to – somehow – enter the venue and interview our little hearts out. I hadn’t been given a contact phone number, just very cryptic instructions to be at KOKO at 7:00. When no one showed up, we were momentarily stumped – but then, the doorbell solution – maybe we should have been detectives. Someone answered and practically paid us to enter.
“What magazine are you wi…oh, excuse me! Will that be 3 or 6 PBRs?” Gofer #1 asks.
We were led through the empty hall down to the backstage maze. Gofer led us up winding stairs and past empty dressing rooms to a locked door at the end of a dark corridor. She picked the lock with her credit card and kicked it open. Light spilled out, there they were; The Gossip. And the manager. Apparently, there had been some confusion, and no one really knew when interviews were taking place, but this night was being put on by NME and yaknow, hadn’t really been organised very well.
“I am from a legitimate publication,” I declared, swigging my brewski. “Well, you can interview Beth now or the whole band later. I apologise for this, we didn’t get the interview list until an hour ago,” the manager said. Ruth and Aida looked scared, as everyone in the room was cooler than us. I paused, unsure of how to handle this.
“You gotta tell them what you want, girl, if you want to get anywhere in this world!” Beth Ditto encouraged. My face lit up. That’s right! I do!
“So….you want to interview Beth now?” the manager asked.
“Um, as long as it’s not inconveniencing anyone…here, i baked you all muffins!”
We went back into the labyrinth and up to the tallest tower, where we sat in a room the size of a small dog. Beth graciously offered us something to drink as we settled on the couch. Thus situated, the interview commenced.
How does she like touring in Britain?
“It’s vigorous, but not as bad as the US. I could tour Britain standing on my head.” Vigorously, I nod in agreement. EASY! Touring Britain upside-down! She’s brilliant AND funny. This is awesome…
Beth Ditto gives me a strange look as I slip into this awkwardly public daydream. Come on, come on, snap back to journalistic integrity! Next question, next question…how ’bout a nice ice-breaker…
“How old am I?” she gives me another odd look. Clever, Ditto, responding to a question with a question. Aida snapped a picture as I wiped perspiration from my face.
“I’m 25, Nathan is 27 and Hannah is 25.”
Despite my bumbling start, Beth Ditto, lead singer of The Gossip answers each question to the best of her ability. The Gossip is a 3-piece group out of Washington, though 66% of the members knew each other from their Arkansas days. Beth has a slight southern accent and a gregarious personality to match. She met Nathan (also known as Braice Paine), lead guitarist back in Arkansas when she was 14 (he was 16 at the time). They both moved away 4 years later, and started their first band, though with a different drummer. What started as a way to pass time grew into a serious project, gaining significant momentum in the past six months.
“Past six months?!” I interject. “But…but you guys have played with a whole roster of impressive talent, from…THE WHITE STRIPES [editors note: cold shower, table Cat, with the White Stripes and any of their affiliates] to the YEAH YEAH YEAHS and like, didn’t FUGAZI produce your album? And GOD HIMSELF ordained that you should spread the gospel of rock to all corners of the world?” She stopped me as I sputtered out of control and fell off the couch.
“We’ve toured with a lot of people,” she laughs. “Some of them become really popular, and we can’t believe it. We’re like, remember that band that sucked? They’re on MTV now!!”
Despite Beth’s nonchalance, my star-struck rant is not without substance. In addition to the aforementioned artists, The Gossip have toured with Le Tigre, Erase Errata, John Spencer Blues Explosion, Stereo Total, Sonic Youth, Sleater Kinney, Har Mar Superstar, Les Georges Leningrad, the Kills, Tracy & the Plastics, and Glass Candy. Their new LP, Standing In the Way of Control was produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, and Kim Gordon contributed to the album art.
Though they have been playing as The Gossip for 5 years, major labels have failed to pick up on the hot scent thus far. General speculation concludes that The Gossip’s non-conventional image presented a risky investment. Many bands work hard to cultivate a very deliberate insouciance (also, they starve themselves), but The Gossip has no time for such pretence. Nothing about who they are or what they do is calculated; their music and their image are based on very strong personal ethics. They are the champions of the poor, the misfits, the minorities. It is their refreshing refusal to conform that strengthens their cause. They have nothing to prove to anyone (major label or otherwise); thus, their ‘coolness’ is inherent.
A lot has changed for The Gossip in the past year or so. Beth confesses that she chose to be in a band because she “hates to work”. She never really thought it could be a living, but the dream came true 2 years ago. The band’s increased dedication to their growing momentum exposed problems in their line-up. The original drummer, Kathy Mendonca, never really wanted to commit to the same level as the rest. They parted ways, but it was an amicable split. “She’s still number 5 on my speed dial,” Beth says. “She’s still one of my best friends, but she didn’t really want to be in a band and all that goes with it. She’s a midwife now, has a strong feminist group around her, its cool, man”.
As with most bands, The Gossip didn’t find their name immediately. “We were called Rock ‘n Roll Fakies, it’s a skateboarding term, but that didn’t sound so good on a flyer.”
“Did you ever call yourselves Free Beer?” I ask. Another odd look….was that strike 3? Keep going. “You know, if you call yourselves ‘Free Beer’, the venue sign will say something like, “TONIGHT! FREE BEER!” and everyone comes because they think drinks are free?” Beth gets it and laughs.
“Haha, that’s a good trick to get the crowds in.” I relax. What a n00b, not knowing the Free Beer trick. Pink Floyd’s original name was Free Beer.
“We came up with The Gossip name really fast – we had it by our second date.”
How does she feel about her role as a frontwoman?
“Well, the band understands that we need someone out front, but I don’t feel like a front-person until someone says it,” she declares, crossing her arms. Was that a subtle dig? Is she mad at me? Does she think I’m labelling her? Who are you calling a corporate journalist?! Get off my back, Ditto!
No no, its just modesty, plus that punk-rock philosophy that no member is more important than the rest. She doesn’t seek attention, but her presence exudes a charisma that commands it, both on and off stage.
The show itself was off to a late start; we had time for a few drinks and a few dance moves to the NME Top 40 before the first act took the stage. It was one of the most bizarre-yet-brave things I’ve ever witnessed. One guy got on stage, accompanied only by a piped-in electronica soundtrack, and spun beat poetry over the noise. He made plenty of weird faces and sharp gestures, but the crowd wasn’t buying it. The next band played, and the two female members kissed each other right on stage in front of the WHOLE crowd (and probably someone’s parents), which was hot and everyone knew it. Still, the crowd was plenty restless by the time The Gossip finally made it on.
They took the stage, which is usually a triumphant moment but in this case, the crowd had been waiting too long. Regardless, the show was a dance-crazed bonfire of punk and disco. Despite her reluctance as a front-woman, Beth’s voice is what separates The Gossip from other 3 pieces. It’s huge; operatic in scope, and fizzles into the most delightful whisky-tinged blues growl with a versatility that would make Janis Joplin proud. They thrashed around the stage, each song delivered with a sweet “fuck you” to the establishment. The crowd ate it up; The Gossip whipped up more political awareness with one little show than Green Day did with American Idiot.
The most comforting and accessible trait Beth makes immediately obvious is her unapologetic attitude towards her image. She is anti-waif, anti-intolerance and anti-Bush.
“I’d rather be in Britain than the US,” she says. “The America government is a piece of shit.” Ruth, ever up for a bit of political banter, perks up noticeably. “All I can say is, I didn’t vote for the motherfucker.” Beth goes on to explain that she was playing with a political feminist band in Ohio on the night of the elections. When the news came out that Bush won, no one could say a word. They were too shocked and saddened. “I don’t even think Democrats are cool; just a change.” She concludes.
Their recent full-length release, Standing in the Way of Control, is a rally call against the injustice of the current American government. Like a spoon full of sugar, The Gossip’s strengths lie in their ability to dress turbo-charged, frothy disco-delights in more weighty subject matter. They perfectly marry pop’s energetic fun with raw punk ideals. This synergy makes for an explosive live show; no one in the crowd can stand still, and sweat drips from the ceiling. You can practically see steam rise as Beth’s hellfire vocals sear the walls.
Unfortunately, the album doesn’t quite manage to capture the power of their live show. It is a well-executed effort; the recordings are crisp, the composition is sound, and even the cover art is very nice (co-designed by Kim Gordon and Braice Paine). Perhaps it is this careful execution that mutes the raw power and punk energy that so characterises their live performances. Regardless, I’d buy it again. The band’s social conscience embodies important ideals that demand mainstream exposure. Standing in the Way of Control is a rally against social injustice, defending all victims of discrimination.
As a parting shot, I asked Beth how she measures her success. Is it by critical acclaim, money, friends on MySpace? She thinks for a moment, staring at something in the corner only she can see. “By the number of holes in my pants,” she says, in all seriousness. Aida and Ruth exchanged a confused glance. This Americanism didn’t translate. “Her TROUSERS,” I clarify for the two hopeless Brits.” “Not her underwear.” Beth let out her southern laugh and everyone smiled like on TV. Feel-good theme music rose over the laugh track as we left the room and turned off the light.
Apparently, Beth was speaking more literally than I interpreted. As The Gossip ripped into their big single and title track ‘Standing In the Way of Control’, Beth began to shimmy out of her black leggings. Most of the crowd is dancing insanely; the opening bands and friends rush out from the wings and take over the stage in one big sexy party. Beth is performing at 110% of capacity – without missing a BEAT, she stripped her leggings AND HER UNDERWEAR, pressed the pants (in the British sense of the word) to her fac
e and inhaled deeply before chucking them at some lucky crowd member. DOES IT GET ANY MORE ROCK ‘N ROLL?!?
Any woman who can remove her panties on stage as an act of defiance has more rock ‘n roll in one black-nailpolished finger than Steve Jobs will ever have, even when he’s listening to The Shins on his iPhone.