London Sistah Punks Big Joanie’s Stephanie Phillips: “I really love The Ronettes, it was quite a big inspiration for the band when we first started”

Original photo: Liz Rose Ridley. Handmade Collage by B.

Big Joanie are a Black Feminist Sistah Punk band from London and one of the newest addition to the Kill Rock Stars label. To celebrate their signing they’re releasing a split 7-inch with on KRS with Charmpit and are working on a new album for release in 2021, following up their acclaimed 2018 record Sistahs. Gimmie’s editor interviewed guitarist-vocalist Stephanie Phillips for her book, Conversations with Punx – featuring in-depth interviews with individuals from bands Ramones, DEVO, X-Ray Spex, Blondie, The Distillers, The Bags, Bikini Kill, The Slits, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Fugazi, Crass, The Slits, Subhumans, Le Butcherettes, The Avengers, Night Birds, X, and more. Coming soon! Follow @gimmiegimmiegimmiezine for updates – we wanted to share some of the interview early here with you.

STEPHANIE PHILLIPS: I remember when I first found Poly Styrne, it was a really opening moment it was so weird to find out there was this Black girl doing all of this stuff in London in the ‘70s. Finding her when I was a teenager was really important for me.

Same! I had that same feeling all the way over here in Australia. You listen to the lyrics that she writes, she’s such an amazing writer and creative person.

SP: Yeah, yeah. I’ve spoken to her daughter [Celeste Bell] at Decolonise Fest. I really enjoy her work, it’s miles ahead of everyone else at that time.

Why is music important to you?

SP: It was always my first mode of expression, it always allowed me to connect emotionally with the world in a way that I couldn’t really get through other outlets. Music allowed me to envision an idea of myself that was based on the people that I really loved. I really loved Yeah Yeah Yeahs so I could imagine myself as Karen O, imagine myself having that kind of confidence. I loved The Distillers and wanted to be Brody Dalle. It was like living my dreams through these different frontwoman.

I think we all have wanted to be Brody Dalle!

SP: Yeah!

Did you grow up in a musical household? Did you always have music around?

SP: No, not really – my dad sometimes had some reggae CDs – it wasn’t really that musical. The only thing is that my brother could sometimes play the keyboard or play trumpet at school but he didn’t really pick those up. It’s really just the kind of thing that I was interested in and wanted to pursue on my own really, it was my own hobby. I would go through music magazines and look at new bands, find new CDs. Eventually I asked my mum to buy me a guitar for my sixteenth birthday and I started learning and playing Riot Grrrl songs on the guitar, that’s how I started.

When you found Riot Grrrl did that open up new stuff for you as well?

SP: Yeah, definitely because I guess that was my first introduction to feminism; that was my first introduction to using music as politics and enacting politics through your art. It was really important to have those kind of role models at that time because even though I was quite a shy teenager it was nice to have some place where I could find that outlet for expression and anger, everything like that. It reminded me that even though the world was a bit weird… growing up there was someone that thought like me somewhere in the world and there were other people that listened to the bands like me, it wasn’t that unusual at all.

What inspired you to start Big Joanie?

SP: When I started Big Joanie I was already in a feminist punk band. I was in the London punk scene but it felt very, very white at that time. There wasn’t really any conversation about race or racism or white privilege or anything around that. I was sick of being in punk spaces and having community there and then going to my Black Feminist meetings, different anti-racist meetings and having a community there but never having them meet up, never having them link up. A lot of what I’ve done over the years is working through finding community and creating community. I knew that there was no way that I was the only Black girl that liked punk, I thought there must be someone else. It was something that I wanted to do, to have a band that was of Black punks. I didn’t really envision how long it would last but I just wanted it to happen at some point.

When I saw an advert for “First Timers” on Facebook, which was a gig where everyone plays their first gig as a band and everyone has to be playing something different to what they’d usually play or playing a new instrument, it’s a great opportunity to start a new band. I put a shout out on social media and found our drummer Chardine [Taylor-Stone] and our original bassist Kiera [Coward-Deyell]. We got playing and we played First Timers and at that gig we got a second gig and we just keep going, that was in 2013, it was a long time ago.

First Timers sounds like a really cool thing. When you’re playing there, everyone is on the same level, like you said, everyone is starting a new band or playing a new instrument. It sounds like a really encouraging kind of space and concept.

SP: Yeah, that’s definitely the idea. They’re still doing them now. The idea is that the crowd is as welcoming for you as you would need them to be on your first gig. It’s trying to get more marginalized people to start bands and get involved in DIY culture. For our gig it was really welcoming and inclusive. People were ready to hear whatever you created because they knew you only just started a few months ago, it was meant to be quite haphazard and rickety, that was the whole point, you don’t really know what you’re going to hear. I still go to First Timers gigs when I can now, it’s always a really fun event and really heart-warming.

I wish we had one of those here.

SP: It’s one of those DIY punk things that someone starts it and then maybe someone will start its somewhere else, there’s no copyright on it.

Last week you were really busy; I’m assuming it was with Decolonise Fest that you do?

SP: Yeah, yeah. We’re part of the Decolonise Fest Collective. We had an online version of our annual festival last week, it was quite a new thing for us. We were busy trying to organise everything, get it all ready, because it was running for a whole week. It went really well and we really enjoyed working in this new format. It’s kind of weird to have a festival online, I guess that’s where we are today.

I imagine it would allow more people to participate in it as well?

SP: Yeah. It was more a global audience. People often have said they can’t always get to London or they’re in a different country but have heard about us but they’ve never been able to get to the UK. Having it online has shown a lot more people that Decolonise Fest exists and shown them what we’re doing.

For people that might not know what Decolonise Fest is; how would you describe it to them?

SP: Decolonise Fest is an annual festival based in London, England and it’s created by and for punks of colour. It’s a festival that’s created to recognise the history of punks of colour, recognise the input that we have made into the genre and to celebrate the punk bands that are around now so we can hopefully inspire more people to create punk bands of tomorrow.

That’s such a great idea. It makes me want to go out and do those kinds of things here in Australia, it would be amazing to have more of that kind of community here. So many times I’d go to a punk show and I’d be the only person of colour there and people would say things like, “It’s so good to have a Black punk or a Brown punk here” meaning me and I’d just be like, what?!

SP: That’s a weird thing to say. The good thing about Decolonise Fest is that we can create a community for punks of colour so you can talk about those weird interactions and create your own space. We want to create the idea that people can set up their own Decolonise Fest, hopefully take our idea and make it their own. Hopefully there could be a Decolonise Fest in Australia and different countries around the world.

I know there must have been many great ideas talked about and experiences shared at this year’s fest; was there anything that stuck with you or something important you learnt from the week?

SP: That people are really open to finding ways to connect and create community. I was worried that having things online would feel too impersonal but it felt like people really wanted to find different ways to chat and connect, and talk in the chat boxes when we stream video on Twitch, be able to start conversations in that way. It’s reaffirmed that what we are doing could create a support network and community for different people.

I wanted to talk about Big Joanie’s songs, your songs; I’ve noticed lyrically a lot of them seemed to talk about love, relationships and the human experience.

SP: Yeah, yeah, I guess so [laughs].

When you write; what’s your process?

SP: It depends, it’s everything in every way. You can start with a guitar riff and then try to find a melody for it and try to mouth words and see what fits. Sometimes I keep lyrics in my phone and sometimes I write them before I write the melody or have the guitar line. It happens in every way possible.

What is writing songs for you?

SP: It’s about the process of writing. I really enjoying not knowing what’s going to happening and surprising yourself—that’s one of the most important things. I don’t set out to write about a particular theme or an idea, you play and see what comes to your mind and circle around the idea and keep going deeper and deeper—you create a stream of consciousness piece of art in a song format.

Do you have any other creative outlets?

SP: No, not really [laughs].

I really love your song ‘How Could You Love Me’ it has a very Ronettes-feeling to it.

SP: Yeah, I was feeling very Ronettes-y.

I love your Ronettes poster on the wall that I can see. It’s the best. They’re the best!

SP: Yeah. I really love The Ronettes, it was quite a big inspiration for the band when we first started, of just really loving those Girl Group harmonies and that feeling and sensation that comes from that era. I guess it’s really hard to recreate because it’s the sensation of people being young and not having any cares really. It so invigorating and interesting, I always want to listen to it and hear what’s going on.

Same! I really love Sister Rosetta Tharpe too! I think people forget or might not even know that she was a pioneer and started playing electric guitar and rock n roll before rock n roll.

SP: Yeah, yeah, exactly! She’s such an interesting guitarist, she kicked that all off. People don’t always know the real history of rock and what was actually involved and going on, they think Elvis [Presley] just did something and the Beatles did something and that’s it.

[Laughter] Yeah! That’s why it’s important to have conversations about these people and to look into history. As well as making music you also do music journalism and interview people.

SP: Yeah. I’m a trained journalist, I started off in journalism first, I’ve been working as a journalist for over a decade.

What attracted you to journalism? Was it telling stories?

SP: I guess, yeah. Telling stories and having the ability to create a narrative is very important and interesting to me. Being able to communicate is really interesting, that’s why I centred a lot of things around writing in that way. I wanted to write music journalism because I was interested in music. I wanted to be involved in it in every way, that’s why I’ve done everything [laughs].

I know that feeling. I first had the feeling when I was a teenager and there were so many great bands in my area and all the music papers and magazines weren’t covering them and I got a zine from a friend and had the realisation I can do this! I went straight to my bedroom, started listening to music and started to write my own zine. From there it keep going and I haven’t stopped.

SP: That’s amazing! I haven’t made my own zine yet but I love the idea of zine culture, creating your own platform, surpassing the usual kind of press and publishing industry, it’s really interesting.

The way that the music magazine/publishing industry works, I hate it! I don’t really care for the music industry either. I like existing on the outside of that. I find things to be the most exciting not in there but on the fringes where people can totally just express themselves without censorship or compromise—creating your own community is far more exciting to me.

SP: Yeah, definitely. That’s where things start. There’s so much going on… I think about the scenes that I’ve been involved in in the UK, they’re hardly ever reported about but there’s just so much interesting music being created here, there’s so much interning music being created in what feels like predominately female and queer punk scene as well. If you looked at the average music press or what is being reported as the “band of the moment” you would think its all CIS straight white guys. That isn’t whose making the most forward-thinking music today… it’s not white men [laughs].

I’d love to read a zine made by you and hear all about what’s happening where you are.

SP: It’s a really interesting music industry here and there’s a lot going on. There’s so many different scenes even though it’s a small island, there’s so many different scenes in London; there’s multiple punk scenes that never actually intercept and never really know about each other. It’s hard to cover it all I feel.

What’s Sistah Punk mean to you?

SP: It was a phrase that we came up with to describe ourselves with for our first gig. They asked us what we wanted to describe ourselves as and we said, Black Feminist Sistah Punk, just because it’s a very literal description; we’re Black punk woman, we’re into punk. It can also be something that people can use to find other Black woman that are into punk and other Black Feminist punks. There weren’t too many women in punk bands in London at that time, we felt like we needed to specifically say that we are Black Feminists because it was important to us and we thought it would be to other people.

It’s still something important to you all these years later?

SP: Yeah. It’s still literal because we’re still Black woman and Black Feminists. It’s still important to declare who you are and who your identity in a world where being a Black woman and being a black Feminist and having an opinion is still not the done thing [laughs]. It’s still important, it’s still punk to be Black and female and opinionated!

Whenever I read interviews with Big Joanie you always get asked about feminism and race; do you ever get tired of speaking about these subjects?

SP: It all depends on the context of the interview. It could be from the context of someone not knowing about feminism and race and just wanting to ask the generic; what’s it like to be a woman in music? What’s it like to be a Black woman in music? That’s not really very interesting because the question is aimed at a white male audience in its nature; it’s trying to open up what’s it like to be a Black woman for people that aren’t Black woman. Is it’s discussing the inherent nature as who we are as individuals and why it’s important for us to talk about ourselves in the way that we talk about ourselves then I don’t mind. It’s about us taking the reins of the conversation and taking control, explicitly stating, what we do and why we do it.

You have a new release out ‘Cranes In the Sky’ a Solange song that’s on Third Man Records and I know as a young person you really loved The White Stripes; how did it feel for you to put out something on Jack White’s label?

SP: I really loved The White Stripes when I was younger, I guess everyone did! I can’t remember what the first record I had was, maybe it was Elephant. The last two years of Big Joanie has been a lot of strange happenings every day, bumping into people that you just read about in magazines and having to be normal people around them because you have to do a job [laughs]. We just bumped into Thurston [Moore] and Eva [Prinz], it was like, oh that’s Thurston from Sonic Youth [laughs] he looks like Thurston, in real life! …which is very strange, I can’t remember the first time I heard Sonic Youth because they were an omnipresent force around all the bands that I liked and listened to, people wrote songs about him. It was weird to imagine that he was a real person.

With Third Man it’s a strange connection between what raised you and what brought you up into the musician that you are today and circling back and meeting those heroes. It’s a really strange experience but we’re really happy that Third Man are interested in putting us out, that they liked the single!

It sounds so amazing! Why did you decide to do the Solange song?

SP: I don’t know if we ever discussed why we’d do it, we all automatically decided to do it one day [laughs]. It was a song that we we’re all listening to and that we loved, everyone we knew was listening to it and connected so deeply to it as an album, because it spoke specifically to the female experience. We thought it would be a fun song for us to cover. It took us a while to figure out what was going on in the song, it’s a weird jazzy song and we don’t do jazz we’re punks [laughs]. When we figured it out I think it became one of our best live songs and people always love it. It’s nice when people recognise it when it gets to the chorus.

Have you been writing new things while at home because of the pandemic and lockdowns?

SP: Yeah. As with most freelancers I didn’t get any furlough, there was a furlough scheme for people who lost their jobs in the UK, I’ve been working all since. I’ve been working on a book on Solange Knowles, I’ve finished that now and it will be out next year. I’ve been writing lots for different places, different music magazines, content writing, those kinds of things.

What’s something that’s really important to you?

SP: My morals [laughs] and sense of self. As you move into different arenas in life I think you can get tested maybe, there are some things that can through you for a loop. I guess it’s one thing that I’d never want to give up on is my idea of right and wrong and doing things for the best. That’s not always a good way to go into industries like the music industry because there’s going to be a lot of being tested and people trying to brand you and make money off of you; staying strong on that is what I would want to do and what I believe in.

That’s why I’ve stayed on the outside of things and why I’m putting my book out myself. So many times people try to change what it is or they’re only interested in the “big name” people or this or this… I’ve interviewed so many bands and it’s been the first interview they’ve ever done, sometimes that can be the most interesting interview and can have the most interesting ideas.

SP: Yeah, that’s true! You can get a lot from people that are just staring out and need that help or need that conversation with someone like you. That’s the thing, people always go up to people once they reach a certain level and they just forget about everyone underneath. The people coming up are the ones that need more help really.

Please check out: BIG JOANIE. BJ on Facebook. BJ on Instagram. Decolonise Fest. Big Joanie on Kill Rock Stars. Big Joanie at Third Man Records. Check out Stephanie’s writing work.

London Post-Punks Girls In Synthesis: “Elation, anxiety, energy, a closeness…”

Original photo: Bea Dewhurst. Handmade collage by B.

A perfect soundtrack for our time of upheaval, Girls In Synthesis, present a fresh approach to noise-punk, going well beyond, with their long-anticipated debut album Now Here’s An Echo From Your Future. Emotionally intense, urgent, relentlessly questioning, thoughtful, self-aware and highly conscious observers of the world around them, GIS put everything they’ve got into this quintessential album of 2020! Gimmie caught up with bassist-vocalist, John Linger.

Why is it important to you to make music?

JOHN LINGER: Partly because it is an outlet that enables us to direct our aggression and focus into our music and lyrics. Maybe it’s just our chosen form of self-expression…? On the surface of it, it isn’t important that we create music at all. For most, music is purely a form of entertainment, but when you connect with an audience who feel they identify with what you’re putting across, it validates your reasons for projecting your emotions and feelings through music.

How did you first discover music?

JL: My dad was very much into music, so I had that around me growing up. He’s not a musician, but he loves music, and took me to see lots of groups during the early-mid 1990s, despite only being about 12/13 years old. They were really important events for me, I remember them like they happened yesterday. The buzz of waiting for a gig to start was incredible.

Nirvana were probably the first band of my generation to speak to me in the early 1990s, then Blur, then a huge amount of obscure 1960s music and 1970s post-punk. It’s led on from there, really. I’ve never stopped discovering music. I think that’s the same for the three of us, it’s a never ending journey.

When you formed Girls In Synthesis I read that the band wanted the music to “be intense because life is intense” and that The Fall were a foundation in the formation of GIS – the attitude and work ethic more so than the sound; can you tell us a little bit more about these ideas?

JL: The Fall made it clear that a strong work ethic was important, and that dedication to the cause is paramount. The days of sitting around waiting for a record deal to drop through the letterbox are well over, and you can’t wait for other people to start the wheels in motion for you. We work fucking hard, if you can’t do that for yourself and think pissing about in rehearsal rooms and playing a show every 6 months is acceptable, then try another outlet.

The Fall were, alongside Swell Maps, Crass, disco, dub etc, a foundational pillar that spurred us on, but I don’t think we really sound like any of those groups. They’ve all been chewed up and spat out as part of the sound and identity that is GIS. That’s the key to having influences, you have to draw out what you like and absorb it into the fabric of your life. Otherwise, you’re just copying someone.

I know that you had a very strong vision for how you wanted GIS to be, an aspect of that was knowing you wanted a female drummer, which you found in Nicole Pinto; why did you specifically want a female drummer?

JL: I’m not sure, really. We didn’t question it, it was just something that felt right. It’s important to use your instinct and we do a lot, it’s rarely wrong. We also wanted to have a different input and to offset some of the masculine edge to the sort of music we play. All in all, I guess it wasn’t really as important as it seemed, as Nicole was the right drummer for us, the first that we tried out, so it fell in our laps.

We love your new album! What is the story behind the title, Now Here’s An Echo From Your Future? It’s a line from your song “They’re Not Listening”, right?

JL: It is, yeah. I think the phrase has a context in the song, which is about the government’s disregard for the general public and also the inability to learn from previous mistakes. In a wider term, and as a title for the album, I guess it could apply to our music which is informed by the past, but sounds nothing like anyone else, really. It’s also about our tendency to repeat the same mistakes in our lives, as people. Aside from that, it just scans amazingly.

How do you feel the album cover represents the title? Where was the photo taken?

JL: The photo was taken just after New Year in January by our photographer Bea Dewhurst. Jim [Cubitt] works on most of the photographic ideas with her, and we knew we wanted a wide shot that we could wrap around the front and back of the LP cover.

It pans across the whole of the Thames at Surrey Quays, so you see the both the North and South bank of London. The fact that its London doesn’t have any great significance, we just knew we wanted an external shot that was visually arresting, and not reliant on a bloody band photo or some abstract pattern.

Photo: Bea Dewhurst.

I think it links in with the title really well, but that was quite circumstantial. On the right of the shot, you’ve got ‘the future’, with the new office buildings and skyscrapers. On the left, you’ve got the older, 1970s/1980s housing and flats. So the bulldozers haven’t quite got to those yet. Most of central London is being decimated of any history and culture, and becoming another faceless city of glass and shops.

Overall, again, the photo is just amazing. There’s that to consider, too.

You wrote the songs for the album over the course of about three to four months; what was happening in your life or what were you observing happening in the world that inspired your writing? I feel like this album feels more introspective than your EPs.

JL: Yeah, I think it is more introspective. I think when you form a band, you’re full of the wrongs and rights of the world, and that energy that you’re an amorphous machine that can tackle anything head on. But when everything ramps up, and you’re playing live more, there’s more people coming to shows, there’s more expectation…. well, I think that can cause some internalisation.

I wouldn’t say our lives changed hugely over that period, not more than anyone else in the world, but I guess it’s us taking the task to hand a bit more seriously, maybe? Realising that the scope has to widen a little to stay fresh and appropriate. Having said that, there are still some songs that are tackling politics and external issues, so I’d say there’s a nice balance.

You released zines of your collected lyrics and poems called Beyond The Noise; how did this come into being? Why was it important for you to get your lyrics down on paper? Do you feel they sometimes get lost in the noise of the music?

JL: I think sometimes, yes. Also, I’ve got quite a slurred, Thames estury-esque accent at times, so maybe it’s tricky for people to latch on to? I think my diction is clear as a bell, though! Haha. I think the meld of mine and Jim’s voices work so well, so we tend to double up on choruses and parts where we want to hammer the point home. I quite like the lyrics being a bit hard to work out, though. It gets people’s brains working. Everything shouldn’t just be on a plate, you need to put some effort in to stick with it.

We started creating the books early on, though, as we just felt that the aesthetic of them is another part of the puzzle, and it also enabled us to maybe put lyrics and prose out there that didn’t make it into songs. People really seemed to enjoy them, in fact we’ve printed a compendium of them, including the full lyrics of the album, and they look amazing.

Who are the lyricists that you admire? What is it about their words, approach or technique that resonates?

JL: I think Mark E Smith is essentially an unparalleled lyricist, there’s a lot of absurdism and word play in the best of his lyrics, but also lightning-bolt clear realism at times. Lots of room for interpretation, I think, too. I really enjoy the sheer amount of words fit into Crass songs, if not always what they’re saying. Ian Dury’s humour, and again, word play…

On the whole, though, I can’t enjoy lyrics without enjoying the music, too. Probably why I can’t stand Dylan. They go hand in hand for me. I mean, the following is as fucking poetic and important as any cerebral, intellectual nonsense, and set to the music it’s hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff:

When you feel lost and about to give up / ‘Cause your best just ain’t good enough / And you feel the world has grown cold / And you’re drifting out all on your own / And you need a hand to hold: Darling, reach out

The Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

Could you talk a little of your own writing process?

JL: For me, I write at home and I complete demos up to about 80% of being finished, then we add our own elements in the rehearsal room. Ideas might stem from lyrics, or I’ll sit down and try to write music in some form or another. Jim works similarly, although more often he sparks off really exciting ideas which we then complete as a duo.

We don’t write very consistently, but I would say we write 25-30 songs a year, that then gets whittled down for releases. Sometimes the tunes that didn’t make it will be used for something, often not, though. We’re not precious, if something doesn’t work, we discard it. We’re not a ‘jamming’ band, we don’t wait for months and months for something to develop. If it’s not happening in the first 10-15 minutes, we get rid.

There’s a few surprises on your new album; which is your favourite? What influenced it?

JL: I love “Human Frailty” the most. It’s a really, really fucking strange song. And not even just by our standards. I mean by anyone at the moment. The horns on that are incredible, as are the strings (props to funkcutter and Stanley Bad, for those). I also really like “Tirades of Hate and Fear”, that’s a really menacing tune. It’s an amazing album closer, too.

I think broadening the scope of the album, but also making it concise and direct, was at the forefront of our minds when choosing material and getting the arrangements together. We wanted to push the envelope for ourselves a little, and also give some signposts of where we could go in future. We really achieved that, in my opinion. The horns and strings, plus the dub at the end of “Set Up To Fail” have been something nearly everyone who’s listened to the album has mentioned.

The album was recorded over four to five days; do you find it hard to capture the intensity you play the songs live in on recording? How do you capture that spirit? I know you record yourself.

JL: It is difficult. Your immediate thought would be to record live, warts and all, and thrash the living hell out of the songs. But that would kill them stone dead. Although the music is intense and quite confrontational, there’s actually a lot of subtle, but key, things going on UNDER the music. It’s getting that balance right of an aggressive performance but also leaving space for other things underneath.

We do record ourselves, up until now that’s been for time, financial and control reasons, but something will have to change soon. It’s getting too stressful now that the pressure is slightly higher, so it might mean we’ll have to add another outsider to our tiny, creative bubble… perish the thought!

You’ve described your live shows as “unique” and said that doing things the way you do – not playing on a stage and being set-up so you face each other rather than the audience – has “laid some important groundwork”; in what way? What interested you in playing this way?

JL: Really, it was to connect to an audience. We wanted to take the show to them, not drag their attention to us. There’s a good portion of old-fashioned performance and drama to it, too, but on the whole it breaks the barriers down a little and enables the audience to be part of the show. It literally has the opposite effect of the audience you’d think it would. They don’t feel uncomfortable, they loosen up and then THEY want to perform. It’s amazing, really.

What feeling do you get from playing in the crowd?

JL: Elation, anxiety, energy, a closeness I’ve never felt playing music live before… you get every feeling under the sun. There’s always a chance someone will take umbridge and thump you, but they haven’t. I think people know we’re not invading their space, we’re sharing ours with them.

Please check out GIRLS IN SYNTHESIS; GIS on Facebook; GIS on Instagram. Now Here’s An Echo From Your Future out now.