Gina Birch (The Raincoats) :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview
With their jittery harmonies and bounding rhythmic clangor, their insistence on doing it themselves, and their brash disregard of expectations, The Raincoats didn’t just talk about feminism: they enacted it. Their 1979 self-titled album set a template for everything from the riot grrrl movement to latter day punks like Vivian Girls, Grass Widow, and Palberta.
The band famously caught the ear of Kurt Cobain, who planned to take them on tour when their records were rereleased in the mid-1990s and wrote this about the reissues: “When I listen to The Raincoats I feel as if I’m a stowaway in an attic, violating and in the dark. Rather than listening to them I feel like I’m listening in on them. We’re together in the same old house and I have to be completely still or they will hear me spying from above and, if I get caught – everything will be ruined because it’s their thing.”
Nearly 20 years on after The Raincoats last album, founding member Gina Birch has made a solo album, I Play My Bass Loud, her first in a multi-decade career (unless you count a 1994 album by The Hangovers). We talk about her new record, her early days in squats, her love of reggae and the legacy of The Raincoats.
“[We were] four young girls who dressed really weirdly and sang strange things. Suddenly we were up on the stage and making records and now we’ve become a piece of history,” she said. “We had a bit of courage. We were a bit mischievous. We held our own ground. We knew what we were doing wasn’t what the market wanted. And we didn’t want to be what the market wanted. We wanted to be what we wanted.” | j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: Is this really your first ever solo album?
Gina Birch: It’s the first one that’s [labeled] “Gina Birch.” After the last Raincoats record we made, I did a project called The Hangovers, which were all my songs, and I got lots of people to play them. I don’t think it was a band. It was kind of weird calling yourself Gina Birch. But a lot of these things I did write on my own, so it was legitimately a Gina Birch album.
AD: Why solo, why now?
Gina Birch: Well, I suppose, the thing is I’ve become a painter. I’m a video maker. When I was making videos, I was making them on my own. I was directing, shooting, editing. Then I was a painter, painting on my own. And then I had my computer there, and I was making songs on my own. It felt like I knew how to do it on my own, so that’s what was happening. And when Dave Buick from Third Man Records approached the Raincoats about doing a seven-inch single, Ana didn’t want to do it. I had this song, “Feminist Song” which I had written 15 years before, and I said, “I’d like to do that.” And so, I did it on my own and then Dave said, “Do you want to do more? Do you want to make an album?” and I said, “Yeah.” It just happened. I don’t think I’ve ever really had a world plan. I’ve never had the life planner, the life coach saying, “How do you see yourself in five years?” I go from one thing to another.
AD: I love the title cut. You’ve been playing your bass loud your whole life. The joy of it comes through in that song. What do you remember about the first time you picked up the bass and started playing?
Gina Birch: I remember thinking, what is this piece of wood? I was at art school. I couldn’t play an instrument, but I knew from seeing what was going on around me and particularly from seeing the Slits that I wanted to have a go. I always loved music. I was always singing, and I loved melody. So, I was like, what do I do? I think my friend Simon taught me how to tune it, and then I had to work out how to play it.
I had an old record player and I had a Toots and the Maytals album, and I slowly, slowly, slowly worked out these patterns. It took me ages to do it. But once I’d worked it out, I saw that it was a bit of a pattern, and I could move it up and down the neck and I thought, well, how do I play that tune? And I’m just making melodies on the bass. I didn’t even have a proper amp. I don’t know how I got the sound out. I was living in a squat. I had no money. Life was very frugal. But it was fun, you know. It didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. But I’m sure if the kids today were in that situation, they’d be like “Help!”
AD: Where’s my phone?
Gina Birch: For us, it was liberation. There I was in the middle of London, in a groovy part of town.
AD: It sounds fantastic to me. I had nothing like that. But it’s such a wonderful sound, the bass. I feel like it’s the skeleton of all the great songs. A lot of times, you can’t really hear it, but it’s just so fundamental to the way things come through.
Gina Birch: Well, I think a lot of the time, in rock music, it’s underpinning the guitarist who is, like, more the head honcho. In jazz and in reggae and other music, the bass can be the spine, and there’s a lot of space around it. I like that. But also, a lot of the time, I’d play high up on the neck, so that it sounded more like a guitar. I wasn’t an underpinner. I was a kind of a high bass player.
AD: You mentioned Toots and the Maytals, and I did want to ask you about reggae, which was just coming to England when you were learning how to play the bass and obviously the bass is a huge part of reggae and I can hear that all over your solo record. How did you encounter reggae for the first time, and what did it mean to you?
Gina Birch: All through my teens, early teens, there’d be a lot of ska around. From the time I remember, 12 or 13, there’d be ska records. And if you’d go to the local disco or a dance in the local garage, they’d be playing ska records. My brother was a couple of years older than me, and he was at university and he came home with the cigarette lighter version of Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that album cover, but it’s like an old-fashioned cigarette that would open up. I knew all those songs really well. You know, everyone’s got a sibling or someone who introduces them to music that they might not have otherwise come across. So, I was introduced to Bob Marley quite early. The tunes and the bass lines always appealed to me. I can’t remember whether I bought Toots and the Maytals in Nottingham or when I got to London. It was a big part of my life. It’s such a celebratory record.
Reggae was around a lot in the U.K., and then when I moved to Notting Hill, there was a funky reggae kind of party, like All Saints Road was full of Rastafarians and cafes and bars and clubs and where people bought the odd bit of smoke and stuff. There were those in Nottingham, too. It was a multicultural place, London, but I can’t say that the provinces didn’t have a fair amount of multiculturalism if you looked for it. Nottingham High School for Girls wasn’t a hub of multiculturalism. That’s where I went to school.
AD: You mentioned, “Feminist Song” and I just love the way it cuts through the crap and asks, “Why the hell would I not be?” But people define feminism in lots of different ways, and I was wondering how you define it and whether that has changed over time?
Gina Birch: Oh, yeah, I mean, I’m sure it’s changed. I think I’d have to write a long essay on that. It’s hard to say.
I remember when Vicky joined the band, she introduced the term, because we were all women playing. We were writing our own songs. We were doing our own artwork. We were talking about what we were doing. We were taking control, you know. And Vicky said, you may not call yourselves feminists but what you’re doing is a feminist act. You’re doing, rather than being done to. You’re not being told or cajoled or organized. You’re the center of your action.
At that time, I started to try and read certain books on feminism. I think I got the wrong ones because they seemed so depressing. My friend Helen says that when she discovered feminism, everywhere you looked the world was wrong for women. There wasn’t this lovely place you could go to. The world was wrong, and so you had to fight for your space.
Growing up in a patriarchal society, you kind of take a lot of that on as well. You have to shake off some of that, because underneath it, there’s little bits in your head, saying, are you sure? Should you? And then if a woman engineer turns up, how do you feel about that? If somebody suddenly says there’s a woman doing your sound or there’s a woman engineering this DJ, you say, well, okay. You have to process what that means and how that impacts on you. That’s in the late 1970s.
There’s always this kind of adjustment and checking yourself and working out what it’s all about and fighting, and yet trying not to be…You knew that a lot of feminism was being attacked and undermined by the patriarchy. Kind of making it sound bad like, you know, oh my god, hairy legs! Men had hairy legs. And what we wore and how we were and whether we were ugly. And oh, they hate men, and all of that. You’re trying to negotiate all that as a young women. I was a young heterosexual woman, who, of course didn’t want to be hated by boys. There’s so much to negotiate really. It was a daily negotiation.
Nowadays, I’m more bumptious about it. But when you hear about what’s going on in Iran and the backlash for women in so many parts of the world, and it’s like, wow. And the abortion laws in America. Nothing can be taken for granted. Will we all be more oppressed in the next five years? We don’t know.
AD: Well, you know, it’s a very short time period in which women have been treated as equal human beings. You look in history, it’s just a few decades. It could go back.
Gina Birch: I know. We may just have hit the nice period.
AD: Yeah, good for us. I think that “I Would Never Wear Stilettos” is kind of a feminist song, too? I love that message. I wear running shoes most of the time, myself. But even now, and maybe more so in the 1970s, women are often pushed to dress and present themselves sexually. I was wondering if you’d had those experiences, and how you feel about that? It seems pop music is inherently kind of sexy.
Gina Birch: I think the thing is that when we started The Raincoats, I was living in a squat. I had a mirror that was not very big. I was into spots and stripes and hair slides. And I’d wear trousers under my dresses. I’d wear a bit of my mom’s old jewelry and then a big old jumper on top of a spotty dress and then weird shoes. I was a grungy, ragamuffin punk. I was just looking at this photo. I don’t know if you know this photo. I’m wearing trousers under a spotty dress.
AD: Oh, but you were beautiful.
Gina Birch: And I’ve got a funny bit of my mum’s jewelry on. Somebody was asking how we expressed our femininity or whether we leaned into our femininity. And I said, well the thing is, one of the guys in my house was a bit worried for us, because we looked so odd. There we were on stage wearing what we would wear, you know. And being a bit inspired by punks. We’d sometimes wear clothes inside out. Not necessarily on purpose. Some people found us a bit difficult because we made a noise that wasn’t always that friendly. We didn’t dress to please. Some people thought, what are they doing? And, oh they’re feminists. Is that what feminists do? They don’t look right and they don’t sound right. It’d odd. The thing is, I don’t think I got any particular pressure. The thing for a young woman is perhaps from your mom, who wants you to make the best of yourself. So, it’s like, have you got a comb? Why don’t you comb your hair?
AD: Could you smile more?
Gina Birch: Yeah, that kind of thing. And so, “Stilettos” was about all those things but particularly about those shoes because they seem so absurd. I think they’re sexy if you’ve got the right legs and you’re up for it, so be it. Personally, I’m too tall, my legs are like sticks. I just feel when I’m walking along the street, I like to be able to feel my feet touching the ground. So yeah, but the pressure comes from society. There was no particular pressure on us as a group.
AD: Do you never had a label person tell you could sell more records if you dressed a certain way?
Gina Birch: I think they’d have got short, sharp hit. Because we were with Rough Trade and Geoff Travis employed a lot of women and believed feminism and Marxism were the big things of the 20th century. He was interested in the way things were moving forward to be fairer to people and women. We were going to make the world so much better in the late 1970s.
AD: I love your song about Pussy Riot. Do you know them?
Gina Birch: No.
AD: You just admire what they’re doing?
Gina Birch: Yeah. Thing is, The Raincoats, we did our thing and then we kind of stopped, and then we heard about riot grrrl, [which] was such an amazing thing to us. We were like, wow, these women, they’re looking at feminism. They’re making feminism very funky and great. It’s a beautiful thing. And then, a few years later, maybe quite a few years later, the whole thing happened with Pussy Riot. They were obviously very inspired by riot grrrl. I just thought the bravery of it was so intense because the consequences…me standing on the stage getting jeered by some bloke in the leather trousers is nothing compared to what they faced. Their bravery got higher and higher.
AD: And these women in Iran, too, are so brave. You see these photos of young girls standing up to the most repressive regime. It’s really inspiring.
Gina Birch: It’s amazing. I really should have contacted them when I was doing the song, but I didn’t. You always think, well, they wouldn’t want to hear from me.
AD: I bet they’d be psyched.
Gina Birch: I don’t know.
AD: Tell me about the process of making these songs. Did they come all at once in a specific period of time?
Gina Birch: Basically, I was making a lot of music videos and as the budgets went down and the technology went up, I could do a lot on my own. I was very au fait with the old computer. And then I went over to Logic 9, which is a music program. I think because I felt at ease with the technology, I began to just start making sounds. There were loops. There were drum loops. I could play a keyboard. I had my bass. I had the guitar. I had the microphone. I started putting things into the computer. Obviously some of it is quite live. You’re recording audio tracks which is just like recording them onto the tape recorder. Then you’ve got the digital stuff. It was really fun. Although I was doing it all myself, I had this digital companion, i.e., the loops and the beats and things. I started telling the stories or making little songs.
I mean, “Stilettos” was quite an early one, but I just had some bits of tune and then I would just sing out, “I will never wear stilettos” and tell little stories about the shoes I would wear. And every now and again—I’d have all these different types of songs floating around, and every now and again, I’d say, well, I’ll have a look at that song. It became a bit like a Greek chorus. I’d come in and look at the song and then I’d be like a response to it. So that song there, and then I’d say, “But can you run in them?” you know. There was a conversation in a way.
A lot of the songs evolved and grew. I think it’s like making a painting. People ask, when do you stop? And you say, when it’s got to go to a show. When you’re painted out. Why did the songs end up like that then. Well, that’s when I was asked to make the record.
AD: It sounds like you were not really intending to make a record when you started. You were just doing it.
Gina Birch: I’m a doer. I am a doer. But I don’t have a plan. But things happen if you’re a doer. If you sit on your ass doing nothing, then nothing can happen. But if you get on with it, things happen. Or someone will say, do you want to do this or do you fancy that? No, I didn’t intend to make a record, but I didn’t intend not to make a record.
AD: You just do the work and see what happens. I think that’s a really good way to proceed.
Gina Birch: Every now and again, I’d think, gosh, I’ve got quite a lot of quite good songs here. But I also have a bunch of songs that I didn’t put on the record. I did a great big epic song about the banking crisis.
AD: I’d like to hear that.
Gina Birch: It’s actually pretty good. I was thinking that I was going to make a history record at some point. Moments in time. They’re going to be dates. I’ve got one about Sarah Everard, the girl that got murdered by the police, and I’ve done something about COVID, but everyone was doing something about COVID…
AD: You know, everybody’s doing COVID records but very few people are actually writing about COVID, because it was so boring. It was just people in their houses.
Gina Birch: I had a song called, “I Want to Dance in a Crowd.” It was about, “I want to see art, I want to hear music, I want to dance in a crowd.” It was about the yearning for people. But actually, COVID was fine for me. I think COVID was fine for artists in general.
AD: How much are you going to have to do to these songs to play them live?
Gina Birch: We’re unpacking them at the moment. Just two women are working with me. We’re doing it. We’re having fun. Some of them will be simplified because they have layers of guitar, but they don’t necessarily have to have all that. But I think “Pussy Riot” will be dense and intense, but “Feminist Song” and “Rage” might be quite spacey. I think we’ll have different levels of intensity and fitness of sound, so there’s even more up and down than there is on the record. But we’ve only had a few rehearsals so far.
I’ve played the stuff on my own. Because I wrote lots of the tracks that are recorded, I have them as stems, so I have gone out and played them, just with me playing guitar or bass and singing over some of the tracks. So, we’re just kind of unpacking and repacking.
AD: You’ve collaborated with a lot of interesting people, but I wanted to ask about the stuff you did with Nightingales. How do you know them?
Gina Birch: Well, I knew Rob Lloyd…I probably met him on the very first tour, when he was in The Prefects. And we’ve kind of been fans of each other’s work all along. It’s a little bit of a…it’s a fun friendship.
AD: How’s your other stuff going, your painting and your videography?
Gina Birch: Well, I did a solo painting show in November and it was amazing actually. I’ve been painting now for many years, and very intensely, so it was kind of bizarre, but a solo painting show and a solo album should happen almost simultaneously. What the hell is going on? I’m just ready for it. And I put the work in, you know. I had a show of about 25 to 30 paintings. I’ve got a lot more paintings. I’m doing more paintings. I’ve got a video piece in this show called “Women in Revolt” at the Tate Britain. And I’m hopefully having a little painting show simultaneously with that. That’s in the autumn.
I love painting and painting is similar in a way with what I’m doing with my music, but perhaps even more so. Sometimes when I’m doing a painting, I’ll copy a painting and then I’ve sent in some representatives to change the way the women are in the painting. Like in the Rape of the Sabine Women, I sent the Gorilla Girls in to save them. I make little dramas when I copy paintings and it’s, you know, I’ve turned men into women to be kind of heroes, or I’ve undressed men or put in collaged genitals when there’s a bare breasted woman, things like that.
And I’ve done a lot of painting about the stories that happened to me and my friends when we were teenagers and young women. Because young women are very desirable. Older women, not so much. But young women are very desirable. So, I was making paintings about things that happened to me and my friends when we were young women. Trying to find a way to make sense of it. This is way before #metoo actually. Thinking about how that maître de in that restaurant managed to do what he did to the young women who worked for him, or how those young boys managed to trick girls in the ways that they did. I was trying to make paintings about that. I saw them as kind of making sense of it for me. They haven’t become revenge paintings yet, but someday perhaps. It depends. Whether that’s necessary or not, I don’t know.
I wanted to make stories. I’ve done paintings about Catholicism and me as a young girl and bodies of Christ and angels. I’ve done paintings about films that I’ve loved. So, I can actually do the most interesting things, for me, in painting, things that I wouldn’t necessarily do within music.
AD: I feel like people are starting to write The Raincoats into history. There’s that 33 1/3 book and there’s a documentary. How would you like to be remembered? What do you think young people should know about what you did in The Raincoats?
Gina Birch: Hmmm. I suppose we were fighting a bit against odds. We were fighting our own little battle. It was a minor battle, but it was something that enabled people to do things that they might not have done otherwise. There was something in the air that made us feel we could give it a go. I don’t know how it differed from the hippie times or the new romantics, but for me, punk was very specific to me, about letting in the misfits, the people who shouldn’t have been there. Four young girls who dressed really weirdly and sang strange things. Suddenly we were up on the stage and making records and now we’ve become a piece of history. I’d just like us to remembered as…we had a bit of courage. We were a bit mischievous. We held our own ground. We didn’t try to sell out if you like. There was a big thing about selling out then.
AD: Nobody talks about that anymore.
Gina Birch: No because in the 1970s, money was such a dirty word, really. Art and money weren’t connected. Money became the new god, but when we were starting out, money was not something…some people did really want success. But we just wanted to be true to ourselves. Because we knew what we were doing wasn’t what the market wanted. I think we knew that. And we didn’t want to be what the market wanted. We wanted to be what we wanted. I think that’s the strength of it really and that’s why people are thinking about it a bit more now, because they realize that we were parallel to the world.
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