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Embodying front woman Annette Berlin’s DIY philosophy of 'Just do it', Shoun Shoun are currently completing a UK tour following the release of their independent, self-funded album ‘Monsters and Heroes’ on January 28th. Their noisy passion project has been likened continuously to Sonic Youth and Nico, and yet they resist pigeonholing, with a truly extensive and wide-ranging approach to creativity. I was lucky enough to speak with Annette over Zoom, and learned about her abstract lyrical inspiration (ranging from cinematic criminals to avant-garde outfits) as well as the freedom of choosing a creative path and supporting fellow independent artists.
Hey! What’s up?
Hi! I’m fine—I was just sitting with a friend around the corner, drinking tea, when I realised, 'Oh my God, it’s 4 o’clock!'.
No worries! I’ve actually been sitting here listening to your album, Monsters and Heroes! Your band Shoun Shoun has had a really exciting start to the year. How was your album launch in Bristol?
It was amazing! The launch was better than I thought it would be under the circumstances. I thought it might not happen, due to the horrible Covid situation. I have kids, and one of them tested positive the day before the launch—I was thinking, “Please, not now.” But I kept away from him and I was fine! Everybody managed to turn up to the gig, and it was packed. There was a great atmosphere: it was a proper rocking, hot, sweaty gig. Rough Trade Bristol is a great central venue with a great vibe. The backroom is a decent size and has an amazing sound system. You end up having a phenomenal sound on stage which makes you play better. The audience was raucous, fun and really up for it, so you just give it everything you’ve got.
Is that what most Shoun Shoun gigs are like—that rocky, sweaty vibe?
It can vary, because sometimes an audience can be timid, where they stay a few steps back from the stage and you have to try to lure them in. Especially as a front woman, you’re like, “Work with me!”. But over the last couple of weeks our gigs have been so good. A few weeks before our launch night we had a support slot with Desperate Journalist at the Theckla here in Bristol, a big old boat. We were asked last minute with no time to promote it, so the audience was totally there for the main headliners, but they were the best audience ever. We were on at 7:30 sharp, quite early, but they were all there, ready to rock. Nobody knew us, and afterwards they bought loads of albums—we totally won them over! That gives you a real boost as a small band. Our debut album has been received well, and we’re trying to build on that. Something has changed in the way we’re received by audiences; it’s getting better and better. Total strangers say they love our music, and that’s what it’s all about for me.
Does it come quite naturally for you to perform, then? Some people have to cultivate their stage presence and musical style. Is that difficult, or are you just tapping into something intrinsic?
I’ve been playing for quite a while, it’s what I do and what I am. There’s nothing fake about it, it comes from the heart. The way I express myself on stage is very much in the moment, and sometimes I’ll seem to stare people out and come across quite aggressively, but that’s not because I mean to, I'm just really in the zone. One friend was convinced I’d been staring at him throughout the gig. I hadn’t! Not knowingly…(laughs)
Well, that’s how you know you were into it! You’re just embodying the music.
And the intensity takes over! We don’t study our performances or have particular moves we do. I don’t have anything I repeatedly say to audiences, it’s all ad hoc. It’s about the music more than what I talk about in between songs. But as for the music, we’ve been building that now for the past 4 years, and you can really tell we gel. When I bring in a new idea to the rehearsal room, we might rehearse it twice and play it live, it’s that quick. It’s like a miracle. The three guys are really quick, like geniuses. We react to each other, and no one outplays each other. Hence, I guess, why we suddenly have an album. And we’ve got two new songs already that aren’t on the album; we just keep writing! I don’t wanna say “Oh, we have an album out, I’m gonna focus on that for the next year.” I’m already moving on in my head. I hardly listen to what I’ve done in the past.
That’s a really healthy approach, just to keep creating. But how would you compare this project to things you’ve done in the past? Were you always in bands? I know you’ve done noise stuff in the past…
Oh yeah, that was Big Joan, an amazing band. We’d been together for such a long time, and that was the most democratic I’d ever been in a band. We were really noisy and experimental, to the point where people either got it or they would just leave the room. It was that extreme! We had so much fun.
There should be more extreme noise out there!
Yeah, I didn’t even play guitar then, I’d just shout into the microphone and jump into the audience, and hit a metal bin. I did what I wanted, like shout into an old phone receiver I modelled into a microphone. The band was phenomenal and unusual because we were equal parts in the band, the same four members for over ten years. That made it a very slow thing because our songwriting process was so democratic, and sometimes no one wanted to make decisions. But it was the loveliest experience ever, and really free-flowing. Whereas now, with Shoun Shoun, I'm the leader of the band. I write the songs and lyrics, and the others flesh it out. We sometimes jam, especially with Boris on synth and violin, and we create new sounds, which I take home and build into my songwriting. So it’s very different. Ole, our bass player, would say I’m like an art director, or something. I have some crazy grand idea in my head, and tell them “No! Do this! Do that!” (laughs).
I was really excited to interview you, because I also really like your influences, like Sonic Youth and Nico, and I felt like in your music I could even hear a bit of Lizzy Mercer Descloux, or Rosa Vertov, or something similar! What do you think of the whole idea of influence, and people nowadays being nostalgic about past movements, and putting their influences on a pedestal? Is there value in that?
I mean, it’s a good thing to be influenced. But you don’t want to just copy—that’s what I try not to do. I want to take on board what my influences have done and develop my own thing from it. And influences can come from something completely different, such as from the hip-hop scene. Like the London band SALT, I absolutely adore them. They’re totally different to what we do, and I feel really inspired by their music. Or Billy Nomates: again a totally different style, but a phenomenal attitude, and I really tap into that! I also adore the band Sorry, for totally different reasons. They all have something else going on that you can’t mimic, because what they do is so unique. These influences are great, but I didn’t start the band because I wanted to sound like Sonic Youth, or something. I started a band and we ended up having elements that sounded a bit like them. I love guitar music, and PJ Harvey, for example, but we don’t totally sound like her. It’s just somewhere in there, you can sense it. Influences are healthy, just don’t model yourself too closely to someone.
That’s interesting, because I was actually going to ask you who your most surprising musical influence is. Some of the artists you’ve already mentioned might be quite unexpected for some.
Yeah, people wouldn’t think that a band like SALT would be something I’d take on board. Another one I really like is Big Thief. They are much folkier than bands I'd usually listen to, but they have that raw emotion that totally works for me. I get goosebumps, the reaction is just there. But in the past I’d also have listened to someone like the Sugababes, and I think they’re awesome. They’ve got stuff going on that is genius.
It’s like something nameless, almost.
Yeah, it can come from any genre and hit you square in the face. It’s a difficult question, because I’m fickle, my influences change by the day. I’ll hear something on the radio and go “Oh, this is my new favourite now!”
There’s such a world of music to discover from, it’s hard to be tied down.
Yeah, that’s too narrow! That’s not doing yourself a favour. Like, I remember I used to just listen to Fat White Family. I love how wonky and wrong they sound! Now, at the moment, I love listening to Viagra Boys, again they have a real tongue-in-cheek style. They’re always taking the piss, but they’re really good musicians. What I look for is energy, and belief. I believe in them.
I think there’s quite a raw energy in some of the Shoun Shoun stuff. There’s a punk feel to a lot of the songs, like ‘Masquerade’ and ‘Stuck’. Is there a punk, DIY sense to you guys as a band?
We are as DIY as you could get. We just recorded an album ourselves, hired some studio space and brought our portable studio and laid down the tracks. Basically, the bass and the drums need to be there, and we’d do that in a few days when we have time and a bit of money for the studio hire. It’s all friends and family that have done the recording and production. Outside of music, I’m a designer, so I do all of the packaging, album covers and illustrations. We mastered it ourselves. We have no producer, no management, no label representing us. It’s fulfilling, but really hard work. It mostly comes down to me to keep this baby on the road.
What would your advice be to anyone going down a similar creative path?
It’s so rewarding, because what comes back is totally your achievement! You know it’s yours, and also when it comes to pay, which is very important, when people buy the album the money goes directly to us. Usually, if you are signed, you end up with about 15% of the actual profit. It’s so little that most bands see no money for several years before they have paid off their recording costs. In a way, DIY is really empowering, because you can do it now, yourself, on a very small budget. It’s the same with the videos that we’ve done. I would either do the video myself or ask friends for help, and then do the editing myself. It’s a steep learning curve, and you need to know about everything when you run a band yourself. The marketing, design, how to record, creating a video. It’s like running a business, and the reward isn’t actually money, it’s people coming back to say you love it.
Is that a learn-as-you-go type thing?
Oh, yes. You can’t know all of that when you start a band. How? But you just realise you have financial barriers, you don’t have money lying around. Musicians are always poor, we all work in regular jobs! So you need to make everything work on a budget. That makes you more creative, and I’m very focused. When we record, we can’t faff. We can’t go and disappear for two months in a lovely studio somewhere in Wales in the mountains. But if you want something to happen, do it yourself. You can’t wait for anybody.
Is there a strong DIY scene in Bristol?
Yes, it’s great. Lots of bands are like us. We might not be famous but people respect us, and that’s a nice feeling within the music scene. You notice when bands are really good and have something going on. I think if you gave each of these bands £10,000 for a year to promote themselves they would suddenly be played on Radio 6 regularly.
Do you think the pandemic has affected the way people make music? Is there an underlying anxious sensibility in a lot of art now, do you think it’s affected the way people consume and interact with music?
In lockdown I felt cut off from everything, so I actually became more creative. The song ‘Stuck’ for example, is absolutely a lockdown product, top to bottom. I recorded most of it here at home without the band, because I couldn’t see them. That was my rescue, my phone line to the Samaritans or something. It was the thing that helped me feel a bit positive and not be so down and depressed.
The song ‘Follow Me’ was also written because of lockdown. And I had to just somehow channel my creativity, but I couldn't go and see my band, like I usually would. So I had to change my technique. But while I became more creative, other people I know in the music scene just stopped. And friends and fans would want to go and see you and support you, but didn't dare to, because they were so scared and worried. Nowadays, some people just love going back into venues, while others want to stay more distant and feel scared. But I think the lockdown also created a sense of community where people became more supportive of each other, where fans and bands alike would help each other out. Because who do we have, if not each other? There aren't any big guys helping us out. The government is not exactly a helping hand when it comes to the arts in the first place. So it's up to us. So if you like a band, shout about it! If I like a band, I share the video or go and tell them. ‘Cause that always makes our heart skip.
What’s your approach towards lyric-writing? Is it a stream-of-consciousness process, like poetry? Do you have lyrics stored away for when you find a melody?
I’m basically a bit of a storyteller. I don't usually talk about myself—‘Stuck’ is an exception to that rule because it was about me, how I felt and how probably lots of people felt. But most songs are stories that I see that I see around me, like in the news. One of our new songs that isn't yet recorded is about a criminal from France. He’s alive right now, and he managed to escape high-security prisons twice in France, like a film hero. He dresses smart, and calls himself ‘the author’, or ‘the writer’, because he likes to be kind of like Scarface. He approaches crime like that.
So I wrote a song about him because I was just amazed! I’d read an article about it two or three years ago. He escaped from one of the big prisons in Paris with a stolen helicopter. It was so well-timed and they were out of there within ten minutes. I was just thinking, my God, you have to write stuff about people like that. You have to talk about these stories. Honestly, open your eyes and you'll probably see a story.
Don't describe exactly what you see, describe what surrounds it, the bigger picture. Good books are like that. You want to give them the taste, the flavour, the atmosphere, the colour of the sky, the long shadows—you set the scene, you create a bit of an atmosphere. I want my scenes and lyrics to be intriguing.
I think your inspiration seems to be quite multifaceted. It comes from everywhere - even the name of the band is from the artist Yamamoto Shoun. Do you take a lot of sonic inspiration from various mediums, like visuals?
Honestly, inspiration can come at any moment, anywhere. It's really random, which makes it a bit volatile and difficult to work with because if you lack inspiration, you can't force it. If I’m really really tired, nothing happens. But if I'm not overworked, there’s always something that I suddenly hear or see that inspires me. It could be seeing a crazy person walking past me. It could be something I hear on the radio. It's amazing actually, because there is no real rule to it.
How do you push through things like writer’s block, when ideas just aren’t progressing for whatever reason. Do you just wait for it to pass?
It reminds me a little bit of going to school and having to write an essay. Sometimes you just have to sit down and work at it. Inspiration doesn’t come for free—there is a little spark, which might just be one line or one word. Then you have to sit down and put the hours into it to actually write the rest. I like handwritten lyrics; I scribble out words and put other words next to them. That way I can see what I’ve written before, and I like to see my thinking process. Whereas with typing, when you delete the words they're gone.
I make wild notes in terrible handwriting. And I cross things out and make crazy lines and say, oh no, this line needs to go there. And there's no structure whatsoever at first, but that's part of the process.
Do you usually start with lyrics, as opposed to melody and beat?
No, it’s both. Actually, I find melody easier than writing lyrics. Lyrics are the hardest part, and I sometimes wish they would just come easier. Melody often just comes out of my ears. I have so many things that I'd like to write, that melodically speaking, I can't keep up.
Is there an ideal state to be in when you’re creating, like dissatisfaction or joy? There's this idea that it's easier to write songs with a pessimistic slant, or an issue to grapple with, but is that just a myth about creativity?
It's both. Like I said, with the song ‘Stuck’, I was definitely feeling down and depressed and I needed to keep myself busy, so I wouldn't slide down further. It came from emotion, and feeling trapped. But with other songs, I need to feel alert and awake. Some people work best in the evening or at night, for example. But for me, my brain wants to switch off, I don't have that sharpness anymore. I have that in the daytime, when there's nobody else around and I can make all the noises that I want without feeling like somebody is hearing it. I want to try new words and new lyrics, making mistakes and repeating them. It's not interesting to anyone else to hear that, and I want it to be just me. I don't like others in the room unless we’re jamming. Really it's a very, very private process.
If you were making any other genre, something completely different to what you're doing now, any musical movement from the world, what would you be doing?