We sat down with Leeds quartet Esper Scout (Abbi Phillips (drums), Kirsty Morton (guitar), Rebecca Jane (bass) and Sarah Statham (vocals)) to find out all about them and more besides.
Q. You’ve been together in various guises since 2005. How has the band changed over 10 years on? Do you find the process of writing and recording together easier now?
Rebecca: Well, the addition of Abbi has been a big change; she’s so enthusiastic and up for adventure in the same way us three have always been and that definitely makes things easier in the studio and on the road. It feels like we are all on the same page in terms of our tenacity. I think our style of how we write hasn’t changed too much. It’s pretty equal and none of us are afraid to take direction with our parts from each other. Being a bass player I find working with Abbi as a drummer much more dynamic and fun than I have ever felt before.
Sarah: We were formed in 2011, really. Kirsty, Reb and I we playing together in different things before that. This is the first band I’ve sung in though, after us not finding anyone else I gave it a go and we’ve kept. I’ve always had scraps of lyrics here and there since being a teenager, but without the girls encouraging me forwards they might well have stayed in the books. Songwriting and recording has definitely become easier with time. The studio is one of our favourite places to be. We engage with the process as musicians whilst also having an interest in the more tech side of that environment.
Abbi: Yeah, I totally agree with Reb and Sarah. Ever since joining the band everything we’ve done seems to have evolved really naturally which I absolutely love. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredible engineers and producers over the last few years, which has really sparked my interest in the whole recording process. I really enjoy being in the studio and the last few releases we’ve done have been particularly fun for me, not only playing wise but in terms of experimenting with sounds, mixing and mastering as well.
Q. What bands/music first inspired you? Are they still the same bands that inspire you today?
Sarah: We commonly find that we have varying tastes in music nowadays, but thinking about what got us going we’d have to attribute some of our up-start to a lot of the pop-punk and rock bands around in the early 2000s. Although we sound nothing like them, between me and Kirsty we liked the energy of Billy Talent, The Distillers, At the Drive-In, The Donnas, Auf der Maur. It was a mix of mainstream pop-rock and outside-the-box experimental bands with hooks which nudged us to pick up our instruments in the first place. Moving on a bit into more angular or progressive music like TOOL, Alexisonfire and A Perfect Circle. I used to listen to R.E.M all the time and have found a relevance for them again recently while we’re writing our album – not to say we’re putting out the next Automatic For The People, as much as that’s probably the album I grew up listening to most in the family household. There’s special kind of movement in their music which makes anthemic rock songs into something that bit more fragile and aerated but still so powerful. It’s usually people’s attitude rather than sound which gives us encouragement and inspiration, more than genre, because we listen to so many different styles.
Rebecca: I was really inspired from a young age by people like Eddie Reader, Chaka Kahn and Madonna to name a few, and even though I didn’t know who these people were I knew I wanted to be involved with making music and thought they were super. Sounds dead cheesy but later on when ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls came out when I was twelve my head almost exploded. I thought they were so cool, like a proper girl gang. Me and my best friend at the time used to use her sisters diving sticks like microphones and dream we were in a band. As a teenager, when I started to get into live music bands, I was really focused on women in music, all-female bands and punk. I also loved the idea that you didn’t need to be a music genius to be in a band and you could stick two fingers up to the establishment. When I started to find more punk and rock music I was obsessed by The Smashing Pumpkins and Kittie, and I attribute picking up the bass in particular to D’arcy. I came to find bands like X-Ray Spex, The Slits, L7, Babes In Toyland, Hole, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and others, which stoked the fire. Definitely still inspired by them but not really in the same way because my taste in music has changed and I listen to a wider scope of genres than punk rock.
Q. You released your single ‘Gaps in the Border Fence’ as Split single with Zozo last month. How did it come about? Does this mean there are any more collaborations in the works?
Sarah: I first met Come Play With Me’s Tony Ereira when a friend of ours brought him to see Chunk; the venue and practice space we share with ZoZo and other local bands. A keen collaborative spirit himself, he seemed to be really into what we were doing as a forty-plus member co-op who want to connect with the local music community as well as touring bands. I’d consider us to have become friends and keep in touch with him quite regularly. The label’s a positive idea, with its intention to support emerging music which it sees benefitting deservedly from a bit of an exposure boost and opportunity to connect with another band for the split. It’s a nice thing to share and from what I know CPWM have some nice plans lined up. Chunk are always keen to bring music together, so perhaps something with ourselves and CPWM could work well.
Q. ‘Gaps in the Border Fence’ feels like your heaviest song to date. Is this the direction you’re headed in?
Rebecca: I like the heavier direction for sure, but I just like to thrash about on stage and heavier music lends itself to the sweaty hair whipping.
Sarah: We’ve said between us that we usually play best when on a heavier bill. At the same time though I enjoy the challenge of refining the big, bold songs that seem to come most naturally to us. As we’re focusing on writing at the moment, I’d say it’s looking like a balance between pretty direct, weighty impact with use of space and delicacy, which can be such a cool and effective combination. I always remember a piece of paper at our friend Martin’s Strangeways Studio years back. It read: “for something to sound loud, there must be quiet before it.”
Kirsty: I love that quote! I also like describing our sound as quiet/loud. To be able to concentrate on each song as a particular sound, allowing our different influences shine through rather than an overall identifiable style.
Q. You must have an established process now. Who is responsible for songwriting and who has final say on whether a song is finished?
Kirsty: For me, a song is never really finished. I can play different parts (or just make up new ones on the night!) depending on the venue, audience, atmosphere, dynamics of the group that day etc. We like to re-visit old and new songs and experiment; add recent experience and influences. I’m proud that we have such a great relationship where we get to express our individuality through our music and instruments.
Rebecca: Writing’s a collaborative effort, but Sarah writes all of the lyrics. We all help each other out and none of us are afraid to let another member on each other’s instrument. We aren’t a ‘final say’ sorta band, and unless everyone is happy we can’t move forward. We do make compromises with each other though which is part of any healthy relationship.
Abbi: I really love arranging and re-arranging songs. I find revisiting ideas that’ve never been quite right and figuring out something that makes them work really satisfying. Also, similarly to Kirsty, I like to mix things up when I’m playing to keep it fresh. Experimenting with fills when we’re playing every night on a tour for example, keeps it exciting and often pushes me to find new things to play!
Q. As an all female band do you find attitudes to you by venues/promoters/engineers/punters differ to male bands? If so, how do you handle it?
Kirsty: The one thing that really annoys me is when I tell people I’m in a band in conversation and they always, always, always ask me if I’m a singer. Sometimes I wonder the lack of females with instruments being portrayed equally in the media has anything to do with it? I get some surprised reactions when I say I play guitar. And I’m surprised it’s so surprising!!!
Rebecca: Sometimes I feel really annoyed when I feel like I’m being spoken through, but because none of us are men I think the people we work with know that we are unquestionably the band. There were a few times on tour last year when people assumed Tom (our driver and Sarah’s brother) was in the band. That was just funny though because he was literally running round helping out, telling us how many minutes until stage time and buying tampons. I’d say we’ve had more problems from people in the crowds than the professionals we work with. Comments like “I saw you were all girls and I didn’t think you’d be good but you blew me away” or “you’re good for girls” are all meant well but really I wish people would think about what they say before they say it. I hate to say it, because it should be normal and not lucky, but we’ve been fortunate to not really have come across anyone helping us to be disrespectful.
Q. Do you think all female festivals like the The Other Festival in America, or Glastonbury’s The Sisterhood area send out a positive message? Or is more of an overall culture change needed in the music industry?
Rebecca: It’s a difficult one this question. If I think about me as a 16 year old, I was so inspired and hungry for women in music that I would read reviews, look at write ups, gig listings and pictures in order to see as many acts with women as possible. I wanted to go to Ladyfest so badly but at that time it wasn’t in the UK or accessible to me. Reinforcing the genders of the band was instrumental to me to seek the people out I wanted to see. The thing is, when you’re 16, you don’t necessarily think about the culture of inequality and the negative side of all female events. Yes, they are FANTASTIC and give people who aren’t CIS men a platform to perform and feel confident and not over shadowed, but I also think its rubbish these events still have to exist. It’s rubbish that I by default count how many non-white or non-CIS male faces there are on line ups we share, gigs we go to or in magazines. I literally have no interest in so much music culture because I can’t be bothered with the lack of diversity I see sometimes. The good thing about the non-male events is that over the past 15 years that I’ve been involved in music there has been a huge shift in the amount of diversity I come across, which arguably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for these alternative platforms.
Sarah: I volunteer at a summer school in New York called ‘Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls’, which does really positive things with regards to building up confidence in order to benefit inclusion when people go out and exist in what can be a less immediately accepting world. I feel like we’re still in a place of evolution and likely we will be for some time. It’s important to remember that in most cases these initiatives exist to help minorities find firmer grounding with the intention of finding cohesion in diversity, rather than segregation. They’re facilitating stepping-stones which raise awareness about problems which aren’t visible to all but impact on everyone. Similarly to racially-centred campaigns, if we saw better equality there would be less of a cause for them to exist.
Kirsty: I think if these festivals/areas etc. are celebratory and championing the intended minority group then I’m all for it. As long as there are good intentions, segregation isn’t present and are in no way negative to other people and/or groups.
Q. Your last single got ‘In Foreign’ got great reviews. Is a new album in the works?
Kirsty: Yes! I think an album is something we’ve always been striving towards and our journey so far has been the greatest learning curve. I don’t think we could have done an album, or ourselves, justice a couple of years ago as we still had a lot to experience personally and musically. Making an album is the biggest personal goal we all share. Hopefully, it will be an extensive collection of stories that hopefully a lot of people will want to hear!
Q. In Foreign features a cover of Delta 5s, ‘Anticipation’, that also feature on a compilation tape you released last month. Please tell us a bit more about how the story behind the tape and your work with C.A.L.M.
Rebecca: The tape was initially orchestrated by Sarah and our friend Antonia, and we spoke about making it and releasing it on Bomb The Twist (the modest house label Sarah and I run) with Abbi mastering it. It was inspired by our late friend Kelvin Knight (drummer of Delta 5). We were introduced to Kelvin through our friend Katie Hill who insisted he put us on a gig he was promoting for a West Coast USA band Chaos of Birds. Anyway, we remained friends and Kelvin was always rooting for us and believed in us so much he contacted Kill Rock Stars (the label who puts out some D5) and they immediately got us on board. We aren’t signed with them but we do have a mutual friendship and they co-put out a single with Bomb The Twist in 2014 for us. We went to the USA in 2014 to play some shows and we stayed with Slim Moon and Portia at their home for some of the trip and was made to feel so welcome by them and the rest of the KRS team. Being associated with KRS was a dream of mine for so long and it happened. We wanted to give something back to Kelv as we knew he was terminally ill, and we managed to pull it together and give him a CD version of the release on his last birthday, just a month before he passed away.
Sarah: Katie has been promoting a series of charity gigs in aid of ‘Campaign Against Living Miserably’, along with her boyfriend Stu who wanted to organise tributes to a couple of friends who had passed away. Like too many people we’ve all have had close encounters with the issue of male suicide and depression, like the individuals these gigs have been arranged in memory of. Kelvin being an example of a person whose life was cut short due to mental health issues and linked problems. So we were more than happy to travel to London to play a show for them.
Q. You have your own record label Bomb The Twist. What prompted you to set it up?
Rebecca: Sarah and I were walking back from The Brudenell Social Club a few years ago and we were like: “we can do that; we’ve basically been doing it for years anyway. Let’s just do it.” So we did. It’s also been a really fundamental learning curve for us too and it has given us all so much more confidence in our abilities, learning who has strengths in what areas and what we are capable of doing.
Sarah: BTT was already working as label in all but name already. Money in and out of the bank, ordering releases to be printed. We also promote gigs so it became a good identifier for our activity. We consider it very much to be in collaborative spirit. Show co-promotions and zine contributions are open to anyone.
Q. You recently helped set up the practice/venue/hangout space Chunk. It looks really exciting, How did the idea come about? Which other bands are involved?
Rebecca: Well this is technically Chunk 2, when they moved to the location they are now we joined. We were asked to be part of Chunk 1 but we had a cosy basement and understanding neighbours. But the move to Chunk 2 coincided with us moving house and we joined. Chunk is really exciting! We are a collective of varied characters, who all love different things and have different strengths. The idea initially came about when Chunk 1 started, that the few members wanted to create a collective and space they could run and use whenever they wanted. Chunk 2 is much bigger in terms of floor size and members and it’s ever growing. I think Chunk embodies ‘Esper Scout’. An ‘esper’ is a creature with extra sensory perception and a ‘scout’ is a person who’s part of a group. Chunk is that. Open minded and free, always wanting to connect and grow.
Sarah: There are so many people involved, on varying levels. Bands include Clenstch, Bearfoot Beware, Irk, New Woman, Unwave and ZoZo who we just released the split 7″ with. They were added at the same time as us when it moved into the new building. We’ve been chuffed to welcome in Cowtown too recently. They’re much loved on the Leeds Music Scene and beyond and productive hands-on people – which a co-op needs! We’re open to externals too. Anyone’s welcome to book a room but bands you might have heard of include Hookworms, Joanna Gruesome and Trust Fund.
Q. Do you think that this kind of DIY set up is the way forward for bands, ie in helping to avoid high rents/studio time costs? Is there scope for other spaces like this in Leeds?
Rebecca: One of Leeds’ strengths is it’s resilience to cuts in the arts and how it nurtures creativity and Chunk is by no means unique in that respect. Other spaces like Blueberry Hill, Rock & Roll Circus, Wharf Chambers, The Music Hub and Eiger Studio all have the same ethic and motivation. All in, all welcome. This DIY approach is happening all over England too, The Audacious Art Experiment and Moor Street Delicatessen in Sheffield, Strangeways Studio, Islington Mill and Partisan Collective in Manchester as well as DIY Space London are all about kicking against the establishment and making art for their own sake. There is nation-wide scope for this, as people realise you don’t need corporate labels to get yourself heard.
Q. What do you think it is about Leeds/this area that inspires people to join bands/make music? What made you want to base yourselves here after starting out in Manchester?
Abbi: Leeds is great, theres a real sense of community and appreciation within the DIY scene. I live in Manchester, I think you have to look a little harder but it still has a diverse music scene. I think its great that i’m discovering new bands, friends and musical connections that I didn’t know existed, even though I grew up here. Events like Swing & Shout, Space Cassette and bands like L//NES and False Advertising have all been great discoveries for me this year.
Rebecca: Leeds is just awesome, we love it here. It’s more open minded and inclusive than Manchester was when we lived there almost a decade ago. I think Abbi can comment more about the scene there because she lives in Manchester.
Q. You’ve had an exciting year so far playing with the Cribs and featured on BBC 6 Music. What plans do you have for rest of 2016? Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Kirsty: We all have a massive love of travel and new experiences so hopefully we’ll always try and wangle a trip into any experience. We are working hard writing new material and the more we can communicate with audiences and other artists is definitely the way forward.
Abbi: There’re always new things happening. I’m already getting really excited by the new material we’re working on, and plans that are taking shape for later in the year. I think its safe to say we all want to get back on the road and tour, making new friends and having new experiences is important to all of us. The future is exciting!
For all things Esper Scout, tour dates, videos, streaming and download links head over to their website.