French Punks Mary Bell: “Paris is a tough city to live in: the population density is very high, gentrification is everywhere, the cost of living is skyrocketing”

Original photo by Josephine Fournis. Handmade collage by B.

French band Mary Bell’s music is a combination of classic punk rock, American hardcore, grunge and Riot Grrrl. We spoke to them about what Paris is really like, got some insight into each member’s history of musical discovery, what they do outside of music, how they pulled through a controversy surrounding the band’s name and of new music in the works.

Mary Bell are from Paris; can you tell us a little bit about where you live?

VICTORIA: I’ll start with the positive things: Paris is very beautiful, it’s thriving in culture, you can go to a different gig every night, things to do and to see are really endless. It’s what keeping me here: as a hyperactive person, I constantly need new things to do and things to see, and Paris is the only city in France that has lived up to those needs. Still, Paris is quite small compared to other European capitals, so I think the DIY punk scene is quite small as well. That means that you easily get to know the other bands and that the different music scenes tend to mix with one another, which is a good thing, to my mind. Otherwise, Paris is a tough city to live in: the population density is very high, gentrification is everywhere, the cost of living is skyrocketing… A lot of people, especially young workers or students can’t afford to live in Paris anymore.

TRISTAN: Yes, gentrified, expensive, violent for a lot of people, especially if you have not a lot of money. What you notice the first when you come here is that there is a lot of impolite, not friendly, stressed and aggressive people, because the “everyday life” in this city makes you become this way. Everybody is always running and there’s no room for everyone in the transportations, and if you want to come home after a long day of work you have to walk on other people to do so… It does still shock me after living here for more than 10 years. But I guess it is normal for one of the most crowded place in the world (people per square mile: 55,138…). And it does rain a lot and the sky is almost always grey. Everything here is grey, the sky, the buildings, the pavements, and it makes you become grey too. I guess this is one of the most greyish city in the world too. The good side is that it is not that hard to find a job here compared to somewhere else in France, and there are a lot of shows and exhibitions happening. But forget about the romantic bullshit.

ALICE: I live in the countryside, two hour drive from Paris, in the “Center” region of France. It is beautiful, this is the “King’s region”, there is a lot of castles from the Renaissance area and a lot of forest… But it’s REALLY CALM. I go to Paris when I want to see shows and friends!

What kind of music and bands were you listening to growing up?

VICTORIA: Growing up, I was listening to lots and lots of music, different styles, different eras, and most of it I’m still listening to now. I had the chance to grow up in a musician family: I listened to classical and baroque music (Bach, Marin Marais…), pop, new wave, rock, hard rock… And then, at the beginning of the 90s, grunge exploded and it totally blew my mind. I listened to bands such as Nirvana, Hole, Babes in Toyland, Melvins, Soundgarden on repeat. Those bands still stick with me nowadays. At the same time, I was really into hip hop and French rap. One of my favorite bands at the time was the French band NTM (it stands for “Nique ta mère” which you can translate to “Fuck your mom”, haha). I discovered punk and hardcore music a couple of years later while hanging with some skateboarders at a party. Again, it totally blew my mind. I was already what you can call a music digger, as music has always been the most important thing in my life, and so, started digging into punk and hardcore.

ALICE: I went to music school, I listened and studied classical music, specifically Baroque. At home my parents were listening to Led Zeppelin a lot, The Doors, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, we danced on Madness… Then I took my big sister’s CDs, I mainly remember screaming to Hole and Nirvana, but also dancing on Madonna and Ricky Martin… At 11, I discovered internet and Sum41, Marylin Manson, Avril Lavigne… Hahaha. I was living in the suburbs, at fifteen I went to school in Paris and discovered the Punk scene.

TRISTAN: I feel like I’m still growing up, so I don’t know what you mean exactly in term of period. So, when I grew up the most (in height) I think it might be when I was five to eight or something, the bands I listened the most were AC/DC, The Cure, Helloween, Sex Pistols, Bad Manners, Deep Purple… Just stealing my parents’ old tapes and records in the attic. A lot of “bed jumping” happened for me as a kid on these things.

GAÏLLA: I grew up listening to what my parents were listening to. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Zappa, and a lot of blues and jazz too. And I feel like it really impacted me. But during my adolescence, like a lot of teenagers, I wanted to listen – to try – every kind of music. I listened to rock in general, metal/ heavy, punk, grunge but also Hip-hop/ R’n b etc.

Photo : Céline Non.

How did you start playing music?

VICTORIA: I started playing the piano at an early age, and then the viola da gamba, but stopped everything when I became a teenager: the academic way of learning music was becoming a real pain in the ass for me. At that time and since then, most of my friends were musicians, and were playing in bands. And all of them were guys. I could have picked up a guitar, but somehow, being a girl, and having internalized a lot of fucking sexist ideas, I didn’t feel legitimate to do so and even thought, at some point, that it just wasn’t for me. What a bunch of bullshit!! But I guess those crazy ideas kind of stick with you growing up, even when you start to realize that it’s not true and such. While getting deeper into Feminism and meeting more and more female musicians, a lot of them reclaiming from the legacy of riot grrrls, I realized that I could grab an instrument as well and start a band. By the time I realized that, I was 30!! Yes, I guess you can say that it took me some time to get accustomed to the idea… The cool thing about all this is that as soon as I started playing the guitar, I knew exactly what I wanted to play, what I wanted to sound like, and what it was gonna be for me.

ALICE: My big sister was singing in a professional choir, my parents did the same for me and my little brother. I started by learning the piano at 6, then at 10 I went to “half-time teaching music school”, school in the morning and music studies in the afternoon, every day from the age of 10 to 18. Then, at 16, I started screaming. I have to say it was not really good for my lyrical voice, which I gave up on at 18.

TRISTAN: My mom offered me a guitar when I was in primary school. I was too scared and shy to ask to or begin something like this by myself, but was always listening music, so she just bought me the piece of wood and gave it to me. I never stopped playing since…    

GAÏLLA: I tried playing bass when I was +/- 15 because my dad was a prog rock and jazz bassist, but I wasn’t very studious. I liked it but it wasn’t really my thing. And at this time, drums looked out of reach for me, so I put this idea aside. But when I turn 26, it feels like an urge to play music again, especially drums, it feels like it was “now or never”. So I took a few drum lessons, and a few days later, I met Victoria and we started Mary Bell.

How did the Mary Bell get together?

VICTORIA: We started playing with Gaïlla while both learning how to play our instruments. After three or four rehearsals, we decided we wanted to have a band, and started looking for musicians.

ALICE: I saw an announcement Victoria posted on Facebook, “looking for a singer”, I was shy to but I answered because I really wanted to sing in a band and I liked the bands she mentioned as references. I passed an audition, we played “Rebel Girl” from Bikini Kill (which is too high for my voice by the way), and a composition she and Gaïlla made. I also played the bass but it was so, so hard for me to play and sing and the same time!

TRISTAN: Playing guitar, they were searching for a girl to complete the band, I’ve insisted a lot and it finally worked out as a boy and as a bass player. I was like, “let me join you, I can play some really dirty bass, and I can record the band too”, and blablabla… I don’t even know why I wanted that much to be in that band in the first place. I was homeless at the time and searching for an additional band to have fun after a long day of work before sleeping who knows where. But I don’t regret my insistence in joining it at all, for what it gave us in terms of records, tours, and funny times. (Haha…)

Photo: JetLag RocknRoll.

Can you tell me something interesting about everyone in the band?

VICTORIA: Gaïlla is a huge fan of Mariah Carey, Tristan is a highly trained virtual plane pilot and Alice bakes amazing carrot cakes.

ALICE: Ok, this is very interesting: Victoria’s zodiac sign is Scorpio, Tristan had a chicken pet when he was little, Gaïlla has her driving license but don’t let her drive!! Hahaha

TRISTAN: Vicky can tell what your future is with tarot, Alice knows a lot of weird medieval music stuff, and Gaïlla can sleep up to 23 hours a day when we tour!

GAÏLLA: We all love listening to horror/crimes podcasts while on tour but, I don’t really remember because I was sleeping.

Your band is named after a British serial killer from the ‘60s; how did you find out about her?

VICTORIA: I first heard of Mary Bell while reading Crackpot from John Waters, where he cites the Mary Bell case as one of his obsessions. Somehow, Mary Bell being a child at the moment she committed her crimes, it really interested him and I totally can understand why. There really is something striking in the Mary Bell case, her being a child, her murdering two children, her trying to manipulate people in thinking that another girl committed the crime… She was just 11. Children are believed to be innocent at that age. Anyway, I think we all thought it matched well with the idea of our band. 

Mary Bell was forced to cancel a concert in the UK in February last year following outrage from the families of Bell’s victims and other locals; how did this situation impact the band?

VICTORIA: It all started when a lousy so-called journalist wrote a piece about us claiming we were making lots of money from the name ”Mary Bell” + getting fame out of it (uh hello, we’re a DIY punk band, we’re not making any money…) The worst is that she reached out to the families of the victims to have their say about it (I guess otherwise, they would have never heard of us…). They went to their local MP to send a lot of letters to cancel all our shows in the UK… We had no choice but to let go, and take the shitstorm, the insults and the death threats (which we used to receive daily on our Facebook and YouTube pages). What a time…

ALICE: Victoria worked a lot for this tour, I was really sad but really angry for her because of all this work and efforts being ruined because of this sensationalist press. (Who’s really making money out of people sadness?) We still had a great time with our few concerts, meeting amazing people and having very interesting talks about England and safe spaces.

TRISTAN: Oh yeah, and I get beaten in the middle of the night coming home from one of these shows, by a bunch of crazy guys with knives and no t-shirt in the middle of winter. UK is a very nice place currently, it is really a giant safe space, safe from common sense. I hope it will get quickly better for them and our friends and family there in the future, but it does currently look bad, with clowns at the head, and a lot of racist and violent people. The shows we did were good but when talking to locals, I can see that the country was a mess in the middle of the Brexit thing and it was not an easy time for them at all. So yes, it was a little bit weird sometimes during the tour.   

At the end of 2018 you released EP HISTRION on it there’s a song called ‘I Used To Be Kind To People In Crowds, But That Gave Me Murderous Tendencies’; what sparked the idea to write this song?

ALICE: Within a week, a friend of mine lost her daughter and another one had a stroke. It was so sudden and unfair, my friends and I suffered a lot. I’ve always been the “nice person” holding the door, smiling to people, saying hello to my neighbours, never complains… But the day after the funeral, one of my neighbours screamed at me because of my car. First, it was a nonsense, secondly, the fact she was so concerned about this tiny little shitty thing made me furious, I screamed at her, she didn’t say anything, she thought of me as a little smiling girl and was visibly shocked. I pictured my friend losing her child and people complaining to her about everyday problems, it made me furious… And “gave me murderous tendencies”.

GAÏLLA: It’s a really powerful song, and very intense – overwhelming sometimes – to play. I think Alice put the right words on a feeling mixed with hate, frustration, helplessness that we all felt once in our lives.

Your drummer Gaïlla has done the artwork for all your releases before the latest one which is by artist Stellar Leuna; what made you choose her for the art?

GAÏLLA: I studied graphic design so I started working on MB visual art pretty naturally. We love esoteric-witchy-weird stuff so it fitted well. But we also are big fans of Stellar Leuna’s work, she’s really talented. Her art perfectly reflects our music too: It’s dark and goes straight to the point. So we asked her and sent her our music. She loved it and got inspired by it and… ta-da! She did an amazing job, we were thrilled.

Have you been working on any new music? What can you tell me about it?

VICTORIA: We’ve been working on new material since the release of HISTRION, and we currently have 12 new songs we were supposed to record in April, and release on vinyl later this year… Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all our recording projects are on hold. We’ll see how it goes…

ALICE: New things: donuts, trains, cats.

VICTORIA: Yes, the themes tackled in our new songs are very eclectic!!

What’s your favourite things you’ve been listening to lately? We love finding new music!

VICTORIA: I’ve been listening to lots and lots of music since the beginning of the quarantine… I think you can all find them easily on Bandcamp. Bands like Slush, Gaffer, Cold Meat, Nightmen, Thick, Lizzo, Malaïse, Mr Wrong… Also, please check out my friends Bitpart and Litige who both released records this year on Destructure Records.

ALICE: I mostly listen to podcasts because I need to hear people speaking during this confinement! I really have phases… Today it’s raining so I’m listening to Douche Froide, Traitre, Litige… Yesterday I spent the day listening to rock steady (guess the weather), but sometimes I really can’t bear it. (Apart from Phyllis Dillon I’ll always love).

TRISTAN: a lot of Australian bands actually, I guess you already know them all (Civic, Eastlink, UV Race, Destiny 3000, Cuntz, Venom P Stinger, Gee Tee, the Stroppies…) Aside from that : Destruction Unit, Slippertails, Sun Araw, Pussy Galore, KARP, Part Chimp, Marbled Eye, Lungfish, Red Aunts, Poino, Liquids,… Not new stuff, but these are a lot in my ear currently and I am not in a ‘music searching’ period. 

GAÏLLA: Like Alice, I mostly listen to podcasts lately. And during the confinement I listen to really chill stuff as Julia Jacklin, Angel Olsen, Beat Happening, Hope Tala, Cate Le Bon, Part Time, Charlie Megira, Deerhunter, Homeshake, Los Bitchos, No Name and some jazz/ classic rhythm and blues and some 70’s folk music.

Outside of making music what do you do?

ALICE: I’m a music teacher, I don’t do anything outside of music. Haha. Just kidding, I live for food, we cook a lot with my boyfriend and love to have home-made fancy dinner with a lot of red wine. We’re doing gardening too, crafts activities (I made my own garden furniture and I’m really proud of it! Haha).  I’m still studying musicology, I love to learn and research new things, I read and cuddle with my cat Mystic.

VICTORIA: I’m currently the International Digital Communication manager for a NGO. That sounds really pompous, but really, my job is great!! Also, with a friend, I’m running women and non-binary people empowerment workshops through music, it’s called “Salut les zikettes!” which I guess you can translate to “hello, musicians!”.

TRISTAN: I work as an IT engineer five days a week, aside from that I drink a lot of beers, like to read technical stuff before the beers, and more “artistic” stuff after, with my cats not far from me. I cook a lot too, and like to eat really tasty food. 

GAÏLLA: I’m a graphic designer but I started to study jewellery recently and I hope to do that full time at some point.

Please check out: MARY BELL. MB on Facebook. MB on Instagram.

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