Songs for the Apocalypseby Andy Davis, images Justin Polkey / 21.07.2011
The Dirty Skirts have just released their 3rd full length album, Lost in the Fall, an album that’s bound to take some of the gloss off their pneumatic indie pop image. Lost in the Fall is by far their darkest and most experimental offering to date. It also might be their last. We caught up with Jeremy De Tolly in studio for a little taster.
Now, I must admit, I was never a big fan of the Dirty Skirts, when they first flashed onto the scene with their self titled EP. There was something unsettling about their tight, manicured indie pop, a kind of contrived MTV-inspired over-reaching. I couldn’t recognise anything distinctly South African in the music, it seemed to bespeak a certain cloistered Kloof Street milieu that was globally interchangeable with hipster scenes in London and New York and just didn’t relate back to here. And yet, while songs like “Feeling the Pressure” grated, I couldn’t help but find my toes tapping to tracks like “Set Me Alight”. Their first full length album On A Stellar Bender, followed closely by Daddy Don’t Disco piqued more interest on songs like “Is This It”, “You’re Such a Fucking Handful”, “Rolling Like Thunder”, “Daddy Don’t Disco” and “T is for Turbo” and all of a sudden, despite not being a huge fan of indie rock, I found myself enjoying their polished sound and effervescent performances. And yet, despite the polish and skilled musicianship, the Dirty Skirts still seemed kind of lightweight. A great indie pop party band. The new album, however, seems set to change all that. Lyrically, at least, Lost in the Fall represents a hard swing towards the darkness.
Jeremy De Tolly: I think one of the things going into this album is that we wanted to go into some new territory for us, or rather old territory. I think we just felt like we hadn’t really discovered ourselves as a band or ever really released anything that fully represented us. We just didn’t know how, actually. From a production point of view we’d always handed that over to other people and I think one of the things in this album is that we’re deeply involved in creating the sound that we want to get.
Mahala: Do you think you’re at the peak of your powers in terms of being able to play your instruments and write songs?
I think we are. I think we’re more confident than we have ever been. We also really don’t care, on such a substantial level, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It’s just that… .
You’re not trying to impress anyone with this. You’re just making the music you love?
We really are and we’re making the album that we want to make and I’m sure we should have always be doing that.
But it’s been a process?
It’s a process. You enter the scene and you’re naive and you don’t know what you’re doing. It just took us a while to develop the confidence and the vision to really honour what we actually care about musically. And that’s hopefully going to come out in this record.
You’ve got two albums before this, right?
Well two and a half. We did a six track EP before On A Stellar Bender and Daddy Don’t Disco.
And Daddy Don’t Disco is probably the one that did the best.
It was definitely our most mainstream offering.
So it’s been a while since you’ve recorded?
It’s been a while, ja.
So what stopped you? Why so long? Why three years before you getting around to the next one?
I don’t know. I think life. I think all of us got really busy. Some of the material we wrote two years ago so it’s taken that long. I don’t really know to be honest. We also got really busy as a band. We played a lot after Daddy Don’t Disco. But it’s not ideal having three years between albums.
Don’t beat yourself up about it. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good band if you take a long time to produce.
It’s just sometimes playing the same songs three years down the line… I love playing our material but you also get over stuff.
Do you not like fuck them up? Like start playing them differently to keep it interesting?
No, not really. I think I imagine doing that but we just never do. I’d rather be writing something new.
Don’t you sometimes just start playing the old song and then you get stuck on the riff and then that kind of blooms into something else?
Well the only way that that would ever happen is in a rehearsal room. You probably wouldn’t do that in the middle of a live performance. We spend a lot of time jamming so we end up just making new material. We like playing together.
Tell us about the process for this album? You say you recorded a lot of these songs a long time ago?
Some. But some are really new too. And others we wrote a year and a half ago. But I think it’s only when you’re in the tunnel of the recording that cold eyes start to look at the ideas. What was just like a basic little lyrical idea looks like bullshit and then you have to evolve it further. So we have what we call the golden turd phenomenon, which is when you start polishing a turd until it’s gold.
It’s funny that you can take what is not the most substantial idea through that elbow grease you can make something that is still good.
Sometimes those songs really work out and sometimes they stay golden turds. So we’ll see.
I’m just reading those lyrics. A lot of the lyrical content on Lost in the Fall is pretty down and serious. Does it come from a space where you’re depressed or is there a point you’re trying to make?
I don’t know about making a point but definitely a comment about the state of the world right now. We’re a very fucked up animal and we’re fucking it up so hard and so fast and so badly that I think it might be quite urgent that we have a little sharp look at ourselves. There’s quite a lot of environment on the album.
We’re basically eradicating ourselves.
I like to call it ecocide. You’ll find that all over this album. It’s in every fibre of it.
Who knows? This may be our last album. You know life shifts. We’re really just producing an album that we like. I mean, on this album I’m saying a lot of the stuff that maybe I’ve not been ready to say before. I haven’t found a way to say it in an uncheesy way without sounding like Bono.
Lost in the Fall is so much harder than what I expect from you guys.
Yes there’s a lot of heavy riffage and that sort of stuff.
Heavy days. What do you call that? That’s not a chorus, that’s like your bridge almost?
That’s our middle-eighth. We’re very fond of middle-eighth so we’ll always use that to sort of get creative. Basically a verse and your chorus are the stock construction units of an average song, where as a middle-eighth is a chance to depart from all of the themes and go somewhere different. The Beatles were wild about structure. And I’ve always been really inspired by them.
A lot of your vocal arrangements sound kind of religious. Incantations. Isn’t this going to freak out your fans?
We don’t mind. That way one of the things we said going into this is that we don’t mind losing our fan base.
Is it because you feel like as a band you’ve got nothing to lose? Life has taken over. Everyone’s growing up. We’ve all got to do what we need to do in order to survive.
I don’t know what it is. It’s just been a really healthy thing. In a way it’s the best space for us to operate from. And when I say not caring I mean it in the nicest possible way.
What do the other guys in the band do for a living?
David runs a company, Hello Computer. Markie’s a client service guy at a small ad agency. Morris is an architect and a store designer so he does retail store design.
I do community work and trauma therapy.
So in a way that kind of buys you the freedom to be an artist?
To be honest, that’s completely true. There’s just like no pressure. I think we’ve also given up on any idea that we’re going to go anywhere. We might. Maybe people like it.
You’re pretty hard on yourself.
No but just even like internationally. We were always driven. We were going to go somewhere. But we were also never there. We tried. And to be honest it’s so much more fun not having any of those pretentions or aspirations because the music that we’re producing now is much more satisfying.
You might find that through this process, maybe it’s your birth as a band, as opposed to your demise.
Well that’s possibly true because I find voices on this that I’m singing in that I’ve never had before and some of them have emerged in the last three weeks. There’s a pathos in some of the numbers that I just didn’t have access to before. So you can say this is apocalyptic.
Much like the album. It feels like it was inspired by Derrick Jensen’s book End Game.
I think most humans know what it feels like to want to die but we don’t talk about it very much. So there’s kind of a combination between a sort of apocalyptic vision and the link between our personal shit as individuals and the collective sort of agony, destruction, whatever is in us. So some of the songs on this album are sort of trying to bridge what we’re doing on the larger scale and comparing it to an individual who’s brought up in terrible circumstances and just wants to die.
This might actually work. The Dirty Skirts gone emo. And teenagers love something to get angsty to. They are going to want to have that lump in their throats.
Let me show you something I wrote. I wrote myself a note somewhere in February to try and explain also to myself what I was doing because I am inherently a very positive human being. But there was just a line that came into my head which was ‘You only understand the language of darkness’.
That’s pretty true about the way we were talking.
I only want to hear stuff that’s depressing or sad. Positivity doesn’t really work with music very well. Be happy, you know. I don’t know. Anyway…
Yeah, I think you’ve got it couched in what you guys do really well which is pop indie rock. The lyrical content is fucking armageddon, your dad getting washed away in a car by the tsunami… So what’s next for you guys if this album tanks?
I want to buy land and help South Africans return to live sustainably on the land on like an epic scale. I don’t have the money to do it now. I want to try and earn the money. I work with an organization called Mylife in the centre of town where I do trauma work and they’ve got a fantastic mission around working with disenfranchised youth to essentially provide sustainable living skills, get land, assist people to live in what they call Ubuntu Living Villages where if people want to they can come live there, they can learn skills, they’ll be assisted to heal themselves, they’ll be taught leadership skills, you name it, sustainability, environment and they stay as long as they want to in these communities.
Look at what happened in New York when they had that power cut, about 10 years ago. You know what I mean?
I got very excited. Turn the switch off, please.
I mean I think it’s something that we all kind of fantasize about in a way. No one wants to admit that you’re fantasizing about the end of the world. But we do have those kind of fatalistic fantasies.
I think we do. I think we’ve got like a fat death urge on our species.
We must do because look at the way that nothing permeates the consciousness of buy, consume, die.
It’s fucking difficult. I mean the amount of power that goes into propagating the message of buy bullshit.
But I don’t think it’s that, I don’t think it’s the power of the message, I think it’s something innate in us that like nyom nyom nyom.
Must have more! I agree with you. I just think that there is a potential massive genetic fuck-up in us which is that our evolutionary process is not complete whereas other mammals are like completely balanced. Even on like a biological and stress level they can live in an extremely traumatic environment, like when they are chased by predators, but they don’t seem to display PTSD, they get over trauma really quickly.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So you’ll see like if a lion chases a zebra, the zebra will be full of adrenalin, will get away, it will shake through its whole body and then it will go nibble on some grass.
Like nothing had happened. It’s dealt with it. It’s done.
Whereas we carry bags of trauma as a species. It has been described that we are an entire species that has PTSD.
You think about how those animals live in constant states of hunger and fear, by our standards, but actually they don’t. That’s just life. ‘OK, if that thing’s going to try and eat me, I’m going to run away and damn I’m hungry.’
There are some proper good theories about why they are balanced and why we’re not. Anyway…
*Buy The Dirty Skirts’ Lost in the Fall here.
**Images © Justin Polkey