It’s been a stellar twelve months for post-punk all-female three-piece LIINES. From launching their first single in Manchester’s Night & Day Café last November to a homecoming show at AATMA, they’ve been signed, worked with producer Paul Tipler (Idlewild, Stereolab, Placebo, Elastica), and have started work on first full album.
Are We Alive? sat down with Zoe McVeigh (Guitar, vocals) and Leila O’Sullivan (drums) from the band to discuss their upcoming show at AATMA, the highs of the last year and their plans for 2017.
Tell me a little bit about yourselves, the band, how you got together and how you got started making music.
ZM: Steph [Angel, bassist] and I were in a band and we were looking for a drummer, and I knew Leila was a drummer and asked her to join us. We started playing together and it was instant… like, “Oh my god, we’ve got something different here.”
LO: Zoe had been in that previous band, which was called Hooker, for a while, and it had gone through various line-ups. Steph joined after a few years and then me a few years after that. I think once I’d joined and we had this combination of the three of us, we kind of talk about the fact that me and Steph had locked in the bass, drum, rhythm section, and we were enjoying messing around with the different layers of music, and allowing it to be a bit more sparse, whereas the previous stuff was a bit more —
ZM: It was a quite full-on, guitar-y. But I think if you change your drummer it can really change your sound, and it just so happened that… You learn the songs you already have but then you start writing new stuff and it’s like “Oh! Oh, wow. Okay,” and then they start standing out in the set, and you don’t know where to put them, and you start writing more, and you think “actually, I don’t like the old stuff as much –”
LO: The old stuff, you’re just waiting to get rid of it. And I think, three years ago, when we went in to record the next EP for our last band we were like… this is probably a good opportunity to break free from that and… not start from scratch, but rename ourselves and see it as a new start. Because we felt differently and the music was sounding different, and it was a good opportunity to really throw ourselves out there.
It’s funny that you use the word sparse, because that’s the word I used when I reviewed Disappear // Be Here. It’s a really interesting sound. Everyone calls it post-punk. Is that your term for it or is that a press thing?
ZM: I think it’s the closest thing that it is. We haven’t consciously gone “we wanna be a post-punk band and we write post-punk songs,” it’s just the sound we make.
LO: And we’re influenced by [post-punk] too. We’re massive fans of loads of stuff, as well as the obvious stuff like Joy Division. And the difference, where the post-punk comes in, [is that it allows] you that sparseness.
ZM: I think it’s also having confidence to have space in a song, whereas before we were younger and want to fill every space. And now we quite like uncomfortable spaces and we’re confident when we’re playing.
LO: I’ve said this recently, as well: It’s given Zoe more freedom to try stuff on the guitar — it’s not just chords, it’s solo stuff as well. Adding a more melodic layer that we weren’t necessarily having.
ZM: It used to be more one block of noise, whereas now we layer things and even though the songs are still quite basic, we think about when to drop out, when to come in… it’s just more confident.
How has 2016 been for the band then?
ZM: Oh god, it’s been incredible. We got signed, which was huge, by two beautiful people, starting this amazing record label [Reckless Yes] in Derby, and that’s been amazing, just to have that behind us.
LO: Yeah, we kind of … we started the year a bit, I don’t know… We’d kind of become a bit more focused on what we wanted to do. We all work, we’ve all got full-on jobs, and we just wanted to make sure that what were doing with the band was… not necessarily achieving as much as possible, but that our energies were going in the right direction and towards the right stuff. We released our first singles last year, and we came into this year to quite a good response, which we weren’t really expecting, from releasing Never There, so we were a bit unsure about what this year had in store. We met Pete and Sarah [of Reckless Yes] at one of the gigs on the tour for our second release, Blackout, and we kind of had an instant connection with them really, and they followed up quite soon after and were asking if they could work with us in any way. And we’ve been very much doing everything ourselves for so long, and it becomes quite hard to let go of stuff. But we knew that they got our music, that they got our sound, and they knew what we were trying to do with our music as well. And they were giving us ideas in terms of where we could take the band.
ZM: And also, because we’re so protective, we don’t like making decisions without each other, but at this meeting we were all just like “yep, we just want this to happen.” We just knew that we wanted to work with them.
LO: Going from doing everything yourselves — with the press side as well as the booking and all that kind of stuff as well — to having people behind you is an unbelievable feeling and we’ve felt that so much, especially with the campaign for this release. It’s a complete game-changer in terms of your confidence, in terms of going out and speaking to people. We trust their ears: they’re both music journalists and one of them’s a musician and they’re both so knowledgeable and passionate about music. They’ve been doing their thing for years and years. So we started out from a good place when they liked the new single tracks, and we’ve just been blown away by the response from elsewhere.
Does it give you more freedom to be musicians?
LO: Kind of, but I think it’s probably just made our lives more hectic! Because we’ve wanted to make things bigger than we’ve done before. So we’ve done a bigger tour, we’ve done the first physical release with them as well. And so all of that’s come with more things [to do]. But in a very positive way! Because we’ve got their support we’ve wanted to do better; we’ve wanted to make it worth their while.
ZM: It’s given us more direction, but with loads more doors and things-to-do on the way. Which is great, though, because I suppose we don’t feel lost and on our own, just trying things here and there. To be focused and busy is really good, rather than trying to be busy and lost.
You’re currently doing a tour — and we’re seeing this a lot more with small bands — where instead of loading up the van and gigging night after night for week, you’ve spaced them out.
ZM: We’ve had to do that because of work.
LO: I suppose we could do it that way, and we have done it before — mainly when we’ve been lucky enough to do some European stuff. But when it’s so feasible to run down the motorway and back…
And Manchester, a homecoming gig at AATMA… Are you looking forward to it?
ZM: Yeah, I can’t wait. I absolutely love the venue anyway. I love going there on club nights, band nights and what have you as a punter. There’s something really special about it. You feel like you’re somewhere in Berlin or something.
LO: Almost a year to the day [of the gig] we had our release party in Night & Day [Café], and that was kind of our biggest show, in terms of what it signified, and it was pretty much sold out and everything, so… No pressure on this one then! It just marks the end of a really good year for us. We’ve done lots of different things and it’s a nice way to finish off.
And you’ve played the Roadhouse as well, which means that you’ve hit three of the top venues in Manchester: you’re playing AATMA, which is the new hotness, you’ve played the Roadhouse, which was of course well loved…
LO: Sadly it that was near to when it closed but I’m really glad we got to play it.
ZM: Oh god yeah, absolutely! I’ve seen so many bands in there since I’ve been a teenager. It was that and the Night & Day, and that’s all you had!
Looking back on 2016, what has happened that you weren’t expecting?
ZM: The Glastonbury long list. That was one of the big ones for me.
LO: That was for the Glastonbury emerging talent competition… You apply, and a load of bloggers put forward their three favourites. The Quietus put us forward, so that was cool and totally unexpected.
ZM: To have our name associated with the festival in that way was amazing.
LO: Definitely. [Also unexpected was] getting signed, and releasing something on vinyl, and through a label that we really love working with —
ZM: — The vinyl will also be distributed [through Cargo Records] as well, so it will actually go in the shops, which is massive.
LO: Also, working with Paul Tipler on this [Disappear // Be Here] as well. We’ve worked with some brilliant people before but Reckless Yes suggested that our sound might really fit with how Paul works. And as soon as we realised who he’d worked with we were like “oh my god, so many of these are our influences.”
Did that alter the sound of the record from when you wrote the songs to when you recorded them?
ZM: No, but he kind of enhanced it. He didn’t mess around. He knew what we wanted, and we trusted him. He knows what he’s doing and he knew how we wanted it to sound.
LO: It was amazing actually, because we turned up after never having spoken to him other than online. And he obviously knew how we should be sounding, maybe from having heard live stuff. As soon as we started to hear stuff back — unmixed — we could just feel something.
And this time around, on some of the songs, he was layering Zoe’s guitars in a way that we probably wouldn’t have done, and it’s sounding huge.
ZM: But still making us sound like a three-piece. [He was] adding magic.
LO: We’ve also played some fantastic festivals this year. We played Theatron PfingstFestival in Munich through a promoter we’ve worked with before and it was an incredible experience playing outdoors in the Olympic Park with some brilliant bands.
After playing a few gigs through [Manchester promoter] Scruff of the Neck, who we’ve worked with on a few dates of our current tour, they’ve put us forward to play a few festivals — we played Dot to Dot Festival and Ramsbottom Festival, so that was two great festivals we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
ZM: It’s been a good year, we’ve been really lucky! We’re just always grateful for opportunities. We don’t expect anything to happen, so anything that does happen we grab with both hands.
LO: With so many bands out there, it sometimes feels impossible to stand out. There are so many people that are doing it in their spare time, like we are. It does feel amazing when we get these opportunities.
Do you think that’s the new normal now? For bands to be made up of a group of people who all have full-time jobs?
LO: Without a doubt. We’ve seen loads of bands like that.
ZM: It’s the way people have to do it these days.
LO: You see a lot of what we would class as big bands have to stop because [they can’t support themselves]. It does feel like bands that you would see as having made it are having to stop. If you throw everything into it, it’s expensive in terms of both time and money.
ZM: I don’t know if that’s possible anymore, unless you’ve got loads of money.
LO: In the end, [having a regular job] just means that things take longer. You feel like you should be moving faster as a band, but over the last twelve months I’ve learned that you can only do what you can do. Having people to help is amazing, though, because it allows you to do more than you could otherwise. That’s why we lap up every opportunity that we can, because we love playing our music.
ZM: If we could do it full time it would be the best thing ever, but we do it as much as we can.
How is the music scene for an all-female three-piece in 2016?
LO: Good question… It’s still very male dominated, in terms of the bands we play with, though it depends on the promoter you work with, and what venue you play at as well.
ZM: We are very often the only girls on the line-up.
LO: We seem to play with very few bands with girls in, never mind all-girl bands — that’s very rare. We played LadyFest Manchester, which we’ve done a few times over the years. Coming back to that this year at Gulliver’s, and knowing about great work happening in scenes across the country, it reinforces the fact that there are so many great female bands out there and more need to be given the platform they deserve.
In terms of big stand-out bands that you’d be able to cite as being massively championed, there are obviously many more male bands, but you do hear some female bands — there just needs to be more! But it makes us play our hearts out.
Do you think that the industry is moving in the right direction — towards equality?
LO: I think what’s happening is that there are more and more promoters and collectives who are creating spaces — not just hidden-away spaces, but in mainstream venues as well. So at the moment it does feel like we’re witnessing an emergence of another wave of female acts.
LadyFest Manchester came at a really good time for us. Gulliver’s was packed, just a room full of really great musicians and everyone enjoying it for what it was — a celebration of music, which just happened to be female-fronted or all-female bands.
What are the roots of your sound, lyrically as well as musically?
ZM: Lyrically, everything I write is really emotional and it’s from the heart, and it’s all about — I suppose it’s all about relationships, though there’s not a specific subject matter. I don’t tell stories; I just open myself up and sing to people. I don’t know any other way of singing or writing; I just lay myself completely bare. It’s probably the only time I feel vulnerable, and the only time I can do that. But also I feel I need it, because if I don’t do it I feel like I’m going to explode. So it’s a huge release of emotion for me.
I kind of feel everything I’m singing. I feel very passionate about it. I don’t frill anything up.
Are you, Zoe, the principle lyricist?
ZM: Yeah. I write all the lyrics and the bases of the songs on my guitar at home, and then we all add everything to them in the studio. I’ll have a basic idea and then Steph and Leila will add drums and bass to it.
It sounds like it’s very collaborative, rather than everyone just sticking to their parts in the song.
ZM: Yeah. The thing is, I get really shy, but I have to sing it to them. I have to play it on my electric guitar, which I’ve never really heard the song on — I play it at home unplugged because I’ve got really thin walls! And [Steph and Leila] will see what they can add to it. I usually have an idea of the song in my head.
LO: We came up with a song in rehearsal the other week, and then we played it live a few nights later. That was scary! But we like doing that. Having played the old band’s songs for so long it’s nice to keep things fresh.
ZM: I remember a David Bowie quote: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” That always kind of sticks with me. You need to get out of your comfort zone and make yourself feel a bit scared. It makes you try harder. It’s nice to have that nervousness between you, and you just push yourself.
LO: It keeps it interesting for people who are watching as well. And when you’re challenging yourself as a band you make it more intense for yourselves on stage.
Have you ever found that songs evolve once you play them on stage, versus how they sounded in the studio?
ZM: Definitely. We never record a new song [straight away]. We have to let them settle.
LO: The speed and style of the songs change. You have to let them grow. But we’ve also come of stage and gone “let’s not do that one again!”
ZM: Yeah, we’ve done that once. That song’s well buried! I can’t remember how it goes, so that shows you that it’s shit. I won’t let [Steph and Leila] hear anything unless I can remember it. Once it’s in rehearsal it’s been filtered.
We’re now in a world where there have been some huge political and social upheavals… Do you think that music, and your music in particular, has a place in helping people get through the shit-show that has been 2016?
LO: I’d like to think so. Our music isn’t political, though we’re massively devastated by both [Brexit and Trump]. But you go back to what you love, and music is what we love — that’s our escape. If other people can find an escape in that, if we help in that way, then that’s the best feeling ever.
ZM: Sometimes you just want to turn a record up loud and be like “aargh…” If someone does that with us then that’s amazing.
LO: Obviously you need your arts to be political, fighting back against the Trumps, and the right-wing agenda that we’re seeing in the UK and across Europe as well. What we’re saying and playing might not represent that directly, but in terms of fighting back and giving a release to people.
ZM: But it’s not half-arsed, so it’s still got a message: it’s fist in the air —
LO: — pure, intense songs. Three minutes of us going “aaargh” about all the shit we’ve just experienced.
What do you want to do in 2017?
ZM: The big thing for me is to release an album, which we’ve already started recording. The main thing is to put out a real solid piece of art. Thinking about putting the tracks in order is really exciting to me.
LO: We signed up to Reckless Yes for a single and an album, and in theory we’re about half way in terms of recordings, but there’s a lot more work to go into it. I don’t know when that’ll be. After the Leeds gig in December we need to regroup and work that out. So far in the last few years we’ve only [released] singles, so it’s huge for us.
And otherwise, more gigs, more festivals, more opportunities — more music!