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The Madeline Rust Interview

The Madeline Rust are based in Nottingham, England and play music heavily influenced by the ’90s grunge rock scene. Lucy Morrow plays bass and fronts the band, Aly McNab plays guitar, and Martin Syvret plays the drums. The band took some time to tell me about their day jobs, their decision to not promote the band as “female-fronted,” and Aly’s struggles with arthritis. There’s even a bonus question. Learn about their perspectives on music here!

Tessa: Okay, a standard question that I use: why did you all start playing your instruments, singing, or making music?
Martin: We never had a television when I was growing up, so we always had the radio on. My mum was a teddy girl, and I had a diet of rock’n’roll and a little bit of jazz. I just always seemed to be drawn to the drums. My guilty pleasure as a 10-year-old boy was watching the drummers in the military bands that used to come to Jersey every summer. I used to hang out and try and get a go. I joined the school band at the age of 11 and never looked back.
Lucy: Thanks to my parents, there was always music in the house when I was young. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, The Cars and Kate Bush all remind me of my childhood. When I was 12, my uncle won a crappy acoustic guitar at bingo, and so I decided to try and learn songs that I liked. I’ve never been able to read music but learned to play by ear. Inevitably, when I heard Nirvana for the first time, I wanted an electric guitar, and my parents obliged for my 14th birthday. Aly and I went to school together, and we started a band at about this time. In this band, he drummed and I played guitar and sang – though I only sang by default because nobody else in the band wanted to. And actually, that’s the same reason I play bass in The Madeline Rust!
Aly: My parents are folk musicians who play Scottish and Irish stuff, so I grew up in a house with guitars, fiddles, mandolins and stuff all over the place, and my parents would have parties where people would get up and play or sing, and that was important to me. I never really heard pop music as a child, then started to get into punk as a young teenager (of course), and then I heard Nirvana and my life changed.

Tessa: Another standard question: who are your influences? I definitely hear some Nirvana in your music, and some of Lucy’s screaming reminded me of Joan Jett.
Martin: For me it’s classic rock, [Black] Sabbath, Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and more modern(ish) bands like Clutch and Monster Magnet.
Lucy: This is such a hard question. I enjoy most musical genres to some degree, and I guess I’m influenced by everything I enjoy… I suppose if you listen to The Madeline Rust, the ’90s grunge scene obviously influenced us a lot. Though we have been referred to as “’70s rock,” which may also be a fair reflection of some of our other influences.
Aly: I guess musically relevant influences for me would be Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Tool and ZZ Top. I LOVE ZZ Top.

Tessa: Do you have any musical idols?
Lucy: You mean apart from Lemmy?
Aly: Yep, Lemmy, absolutely. Also Duane Allman and George Harrison.
Martin: Bizarrely for a drummer, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy.

Tessa: How does the songwriting process work for your group? Does someone bring in lyrics so you can all add instrumentation? Do you write riffs, then lyrics?
Aly: Basically, I sit at home a lot and noodle on my guitar.
Lucy: Aly will come up with some rough ideas, and we all build around that. Vocals-wise, I play around with different things until I find a melody that fits right… Since we don’t have backing vocals, I tend to harmonise in some way with what’s going on with Aly’s guitar playing. Lyrics seem to come naturally to fit the pattern of the vocals.
Martin: Aly will bring a rough idea of a riff to a rehearsal, and we’ll knock it about for about an hour and record it live. Aly then sends it to us via email, Lucy will write some lyrics and the following week we have a song all ready to go. I tend to come up with the endings. (Well, Aly and Lucy have to let me do something…)

Tessa: All musicians have to balance the fun aspects of their music, like performing and writing, versus the business aspects of music, like distributing their merch and making sure they get paid. How do you all balance the fun and business aspects of being a band?
Lucy: Martin basically deals with everything “business”-wise… I just enjoy the creative aspect of designing flyers and posters, so I usually do that. My husband designed the album artwork – he took all of the Monument Valley pictures we used for the sleeve. Our friend Rich Solaini recorded our album in nine hours, and then mixed the whole thing in a few days.
Martin: A few band meetings in the pub and talking constantly on Facebook. We play for fun and are taking a very DIY approach to the business side of things. When I have a bit of time on my hands I sit in front of my laptop and email radio stations and magazines trying to get some coverage. I have found that we get a much better reception from The USA than we do here in the UK. We have had radio play on stations across America; they seem to be much more receptive to unsigned bands and are willing to take a chance on adding bands like ours to their playlists.
Aly: I stay away from the business side, as I’m hopeless at it.

Tessa: Do you have day jobs? If so, where?
Lucy: I have a full-time job in the clinical research industry. I manage a big diverse team, and I travel around a lot. Having such a demanding work life and so much responsibility means I need to do as much creative stuff outside of work as I can.
Martin: I am a full time student doing an animal biology degree at Nottingham Trent University.
Aly: I retired due to ill health last year. I’ve had arthritis since I was 3, and it’s getting worse at the moment. I used to be in banking, so I guess it’s partly my fault for the way the world is…sorry!

Tessa: You chose not to describe your band as female-fronted, which I think was a cool and interesting decision. A lot of bands will put the label “female-fronted” or “all-female” in their descriptions of themselves very quickly. Why did you choose not to?
Lucy: The fact that our singer is female is an incidental fact – it doesn’t bear any relevance to our music. Adding “female-fronted” to a description of a band indicates that this is something people look for (or don’t) in a band. It suggests some sort of “specialty music”; that the gender of our singer has some sort of bearing on whether you will enjoy our band or not. Our band is made up of three very different individuals – and the gender of each member is not relevant to the music we play.
Aly: Plus I think you have to be a female human for it to count. Bazinga.
Martin: I don’t think being female-fronted was an issue that we ever thought about. We are a band. Thinking about it, you never have to describe bands like Metallica or Pink Floyd as male-fronted… I have to admit that there are a lot of fanzines, magazines and internet radio stations that are geared towards female-fronted bands, and I’m glad they are there because they have given us some great coverage, but it’s not something we actively seek out. We are just three people making music and if others like what we are about, that’s a bonus.

Tessa: Why is your Bandcamp description written the way it is? (The Western theme is cool, by the way. “Strangers in a desolate ghost town, here to settle an old and bitter feud.”)
Martin: Over to Lucy on this one.
Lucy: Ahem. I am obsessed with becoming the eponymous rider-in-black from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s amazing movie El Topo. I make all my stage outfits, and everything I make is a nod to El Topo’s style in some way. My husband and I travel to the US regularly and have spent a lot of time wandering round ghost towns in Arizona, California and Nevada. I like to imagine our music playing out of a derelict saloon, into the silence of the desert…
Aly: Not even cowboys listen to us? Ouch…

Tessa: What is your goal as a band? Do you want to make it big, pay your rent, or just make a few bucks and have fun?
Lucy: For me, it’s being part of something I can feel proud of, and having fun in the process.
Martin: Just to make music, play it and have fun, and maybe break even, that would be nice…almost impossible, but you can dream. (Haha.)
Aly: You know, I’ve not even thought about a goal. Being in a band with Lucy has always been an important thing to me, as we’ve been in bands together for over half our lifetimes now, so I guess to continue that would be my goal. And millions of dollars and a 1959 Les Paul would also be cool.

Tessa: So Lucy, I think it’s really cool how you can go from singing very prettily to almost screaming. How do you get that raspy quality about your voice without hurting it? Any tips for someone who might want to try singing that way?
Lucy: Shucks, thanks…but who said it didn’t hurt?! …um, I drink Old Grandad and Pepsi. (Pure class.) I always seem to end up singing like this – it just feels right! I like to hear singers who have different or interesting voices: Lemmy, David Bowie, Roger Waters, Jack White, Anna Calvi. I went through a phase when I was a teenager, listening to extreme vocal stuff like Diamanda Galas. It’s cool hearing what the human voice can do.

Tessa: How did you all meet and start a band?
Martin: I met Lucy at a mutual friend’s wedding, we got talking about music and about a year later she introduced me to Aly.
Lucy: Aly and I went to school together and have always been in bands together… I met Martin at a wedding. I believe that’s the tradition, to meet your future drummer at a wedding.
Aly: Yeah, I was playing the drums to “Breed” by Nirvana in the music room at school, and Lucy asked if I wanted to be in a band in the next lesson. And here we still are…

Tessa: So, what does your band name mean?
Aly: So, first you should know that due to my illness I take a LOT of painkillers, okay? Bear that in mind.

So about a decade ago I had a dream about a monster. Nothing unusual there, as I’m a lifelong Stephen King fan and monsters pop up from time to time. This one was a little Victorian girl in a pinafore dress, but her neck was about 12 feet long and bendy like Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four. She was using this to spy on me through a window, and when I confronted her by saying (in shock), “Who ARE you?” she said “I’m Madeline Rust.” And at this point I woke up nearly screaming.

So from that day on, the name has been rattling round my head, and after being stuck for a band name for what seemed like forever, we decided to use it. It confuses people, but that’s okay; we like doing that.

A bonus question
Tessa: After reading the interview, I want to ask another question. Aly, how does your arthritis affect your playing?
Aly: Playing guitar with arthritis is tricky. Apart from the basic fact that I don’t know if I’ll be able to even play a gig until that day, as I can wake up pretty ill quite randomly, when I play I have to wear Tubigrip bandages on my wrists to stop them from swelling, and I tend to play very light guitars onstage to save my shoulders. Even so, after a half hour gig I’m in lots of pain and I tend to get swollen knuckles and a stiff neck the next day.

I’ll never be a jazz guitarist or a shredder, as my fingers don’t stretch very far; some of the joints have fused and don’t straighten. But I guess it’s become part of my style – lots of basic power chords, or open, ringing drone notes and partial open chords too.

My insecurity about this means I’ve always looked for tricks to keep the sound interesting, and that’s where the pedals come in, I guess. I don’t know if you know the scene in “It Might Get Loud” where The Edge from U2 plays a riff with all his FX and it sounds awesome, and then when he plays without it the riff’s like two notes or something, but it’s very funny and that’s basically how I feel most of the time. My gear is all carefully chosen to cover up the fact that I’m not playing guitar “properly,” basically. Not that there is such a thing as playing properly, of course!

You can get more of The Madeline Rust on their Facebook page, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud. What did you think about the interview? Tell us in the comments!

Underrated Band of the Month: Babes in Toyland

They’ve been described as both a punk and grunge band. However, the only adjective needed to describe this band is awesome. These ladies really deserve some more recognition.

Jumpy, ferocious bass? Fierce, relentless drums? Heavy, stuttering guitar coupled with edgy, screaming vocals? Yes, please. How come when VH1 documentaries discuss alternative rock bands of the 90s, all they talk about is Nirvana this and Smashing Pumpkins that? Babes in Toyland should at least get an honorary mention. After all, their first album Spanking Machine impressed the members of Sonic Youth so much that they were invited to tour with them. (Check out the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke to see the results.)

Their names are Kat Bjelland (guitars, vocals), Lori Barbero (drums), and Maureen Herman (bass on albums Fontanelle and Nemesisters; Michelle Leon played bass on Spanking Machine). Check them out; they might impress you just as much as they’ve impressed me.