Filed under: feature, interrupting yr broadcast | Tags: clare byrne, gaggle, i hear flies, interview
As a choir of 22 women dressed in tribalistic coloured robes singing anthemic, assertive, multilayered choral harmonies about love and loss, getting drunk and being a woman in a male-dominated world, Gaggle is certainly not something you see every day. Wears The Trousers sat down with Deborah Coughlin, formerly of 586 and Gaggle’s founder and leader, in the George Tavern in London’s East End (the “spiritual home” and rehearsal space of Gaggle) to ask her what it’s all about. The majority of the other members, flushed with delight after another epic rehearsal, joined us over a few beers and chipped in as we went along.
While, seen live, Gaggle can appear to have the sense of a 1960s ‘happening’, Coughlin argues that most aspects – the size, the shape, the sound – were intricately planned from the beginning. “I wanted to have a large group of women on stage, singing and making a noise, probably without instruments,” she explains. “It just seemed like the antidote to everything that was annoying me at the time, an antidote to the status quo. Every band I saw was creatively pathetic, not doing anything particularly interesting; everything just seemed to be regurgitated and regurgitated.” More specifically, Coughlin argues that Gaggle has a direct feminist agenda. “The fact that we’ve made the choice to have only women in it, that’s a statement.” The choir was conceived as a response to the male-dominated music industry, of which Coughlin had firsthand experience. “From being in a band before, I knew that as a woman you get treated in a different way to men,” she explains. “People don’t assume you write anything, you get asked to look a certain way, which is different to people like Ian Brown, who is allowed to look like a trogg. I actually like Ian Brown, but the point is his look does not affect his record sales, or how much money they decide to spend on him.”
Unsurprisingly, some men have found Gaggle rather intimidating. Apparently, when the band first formed, a number of the members had boyfriends who were also musicians, but by the first gig there were at least three relationships breaking down because, in Gaggle’s words, “the men didn’t want women to be musicians or in something successful or scary, or that criticised men.” But Coughlin is quick to point out that Gaggle’s songs are co-written with a man – Simon Dempsey, her former bandmate in 586 – and that Gaggle is not essentially anti-male. “It is just readdressing the balance in a really obvious way, like getting the scales and bunging a whole load of fucking women on them.”
To Coughlin, “a whole load” is apparently 22, a number chosen because “it just seemed like 22 would be terrifying enough, a big enough statement. It seemed like that would shock people.” Naturally, with such a large number of people involved, Gaggle is a heavily organised operation. Coughlin likens the band to an army, or a company. “We have a manager with loads of spreadsheets!” she laughs. The others nod vigorously when she explains that there are really amazing things to gain from being a member of Gaggle, “in terms of the experience and getting to know everybody and getting to be involved in this weird and wonderful thing”, but that in exchange for this there are responsibilities. There are rules, most importantly that members have to turn up. Apparently getting people to adhere to this rule has not really proven a problem. Coughlin mentions a recent holiday break and the other members erupt into choruses of “I missed Gaggle!” and “I couldn’t wait to see everyone!”
Each member has a pseudonym, partly because some of them have jobs that necessitate them, but partly because “it makes it much easier to be subversive and to be something other or bigger or more exaggerated than your normal self, and to be braver. It’s the same reason for the costumes – like Bowie or Madonna or Elton John.” There is a diverse mix of women here: teachers, doctors, academics, people involved with television, others involved with the deradicalisation of radical Muslims. So what do they have in common?
“To be in Gaggle you have to be inspired and also a bit inspiring,” Coughlin explains. Everybody in Gaggle is really up for giving parts of themselves and exploring the darker sides of their lives, and being more honest than the majority of groups you’d pull together in an office. There is something a bit special about the levels on which people are prepared to engage in Gaggle, and people are just beginning to realise how much they have in common, even though one of them works in finance and another one hasn’t got a job and another one’s an actress.” Coughlin ponders whether the same result would have been produced by another 22 women given the same philosophy. “I don’t think they would, I think there’s a bit of magic involved in our coming together.”
For Coughlin, Gaggle isn’t just about music – it could have existed as an academic or creative collective. “The music is an excuse to really get into the popular consciousness that a group of women can get together and have all these different opinions and different superpowers and create something amazing together.” When asked about her influences, Coughlin notably names two Icelandic all-female projects – Wunderbrass, the brass section who accompanied Björk’s Volta tour, and The Weird Girls Project, a massive visual group. “I’ve been doing an MA and we’ve been looking at a lot of magazines that were run by women that all folded, like Spare Rib, and it brought up the question of whether groups of women can work together and make something succeed.” She shakes her head incredulously as she tells me the sort of questions they usually get asked in interviews. “‘Are you all lesbians?’ We get asked that every time! Oh and, ‘Don’t you all bitch at each other all the time?’”
As for the music itself, although Coughlin is classically trained and grew up around choral music, she argues that none of that is important. “It’s much more about instinct and what is sounding interesting and foreboding…Simon and I have written together for years and it just comes out as it comes out.” The other members also describe the organic process of refining and reshaping that occurs during rehearsal and recording. Gaggle’s first official 7″, ‘I Hear Flies’, is released through Transgressive Records on March 8, and is already available digitally. Less about insects than it is about drinking, the song finds the girls repeating euphorically and somewhat confrontationally “I’m a drunk, I’m a drunk!”
Questioned on this, Coughlin mentions that drink basically broke up her last band and explains that the song is a meditation on the problem of alcohol, particularly in the music world. “If you’re working in music you’re around booze all the time and most of it is free, so it’s a nightmare if you haven’t got much self-control. The song is about drink being this massive driving force that can be quite damaging, and trying to reassess it…I think most of us are in a place where we’re reassessing drinking, trying to work out how you socialise without being drunk. Very few people can drink every day and find it amazing and get the things they want to do done.” The other members, most of whom are drinking while we’re speaking, chime in that the great thing about the song is that it is joyous and so conveys both sides of drinking. “It can be brilliant, the best party ever, but it isn’t going to be the best party ever forever, and so what do you do when it stops being brilliant?”
No doubt because of their utter uniqueness, Gaggle has already gained a lot of media attention in its short existence, getting rave reviews in the NME and appearances on BBC Radio 1 before having even put out a record. A double-edged sword, this is part of the reason the release of ‘I Hear Flies’ has been delayed a number of times. “We’ve been trying to reassess it and make sure we’re not rushing it,” says Coughlin. So what else can be expected from this singular collective? “We’re looking for new ways to work within music. There are 22 people, so how we’re going to take this on tour has to be done creatively, and how we connect with an audience has to be done creatively. It has to be a new way of working. We’re not going to do tours of smaller venues; Gaggle is something that’s bigger than that.”
Gaggle play a sold-out single launch party at St-Giles-in-the-Field in London tonight; details of the afterparty, to be held at The George Tavern, here. Pre-order your copy of ‘I Hear Flies’ over on the Transgressive webshop; only 500 copies are being pressed so get in quick!
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