International Musician and Recording World Magazine
Special Anniversary Issue, March 1985
ADRIEN DEEVOY FINDS STRAWBERRY SWITCHBLADE TO BE MORE THAN JUST FLAVOUR OF THE MONTH
If Julian Cope is Pop gone weird and The Smiths are Pop gone idiosyncratic then Strawberry Switchblade must be Pop going sour.
For despite the ribbons and bows falling from their curls, the sentiments that Rose Mcdowall and Jill Bryson project through their songs are often as pretty as Lou Reed's sugar-coated Heroin. For these two girls, Scots by birth, populist and perverse by and large, are not in the business of soft selling sweet Pop. After all, the twist in the name Strawberry Switchblade could hardly be anything but intentional.
"That's what we started out with three years ago," recalls Rose, mother of one, "just a name. I know it might be a bit of a strange way to start a band but it was as valid a starting point as any. Shortly after that I bought a copy of a Gibson SG that sounded horrible but looked great and we started writing songs."
This initial acquisition began something of a guitar fetish for Rose and Jill. They both now own fine (if a little pubescent) collections of delicious semis and acoustics.
"My favourite," decides Rose, "is the Antigua I've got. It's white and it's beautiful. I bought it off James Kirk who used to be in Orange Juice. I just wanted it for ages and eventually he sold it to me so I'd stop nagging him. I'm thinking of putting it in a showcase rather than playing it just because it's so nice. It took a wee bash when we were on tour last and I nearly cried."
"I played a red Hofner on the last tour," says Jill, "but I think my best one is probably my Guild semi-acoustic. It's really ancient but it plays really well and it looks the best. It's got one of those sort of stained wood finishes that the really old ones have."
"I've also got a Burns Nusonic" adds Rose, "and one of those thin bodied Washburn 12 string acoustics. They're great, really neat. They've got a built in pickup and they sound very acoustic but play, in feel, almost like an electric. I've got an Eko 12 string acoustic too which still sounds really nice and I often pick it up to write songs on. I got the Antigua for 200 Pounds in the end although it's insured for something like 600 Pounds. I know it's silly to be in love with a guitar, but I am."
The pair are a very symbiotic writing unit and both are dedicated to and inspired by acoustic guitars, feeling that these are the essence of Pop songwriting.
"There's something instantly recognisable about a song written on just an acoustic guitar," states Jill. "You can make a totally brilliant record like I Feel Love or Two Tribes but there just seems to be something saying that they aren't proper 'songs'. I'd feel it was out of control and not a proper song if I write it on a drum machine or if it was based on a collection of synthesizer riffs. That approach seems to place emphasis on everything but the melody, which is the most important part."
This isn't to say that Strawberry Switchblade eschew all things technological to meet their Pop aims.
"Originally," admits Rose, "we tried a bass and drum type line up but it didn't really work and we decided that we really wanted a group based around the two of us."
So with the aid of ex-Teardrop Explodes keyboardist David Balfe and producer David Motion the Caledonian chanteuses have arrived at a minimilistic synthed up Sixties sound with which they are happy, but not content.
"I'd actually prefer a real drummer to the drum machine we use," says Jill, "but you'd have to use a drummer who could keep things very simple and complement the song rather than domineer it. The drum machine is very good live, though, because we sing so quietly that if we use a real drummer we tend to get completely drowned out. And although it's really good to have the power of a real drummer behind you on stage you can avoid all those feedback problems that you get because you have to turn up to compensate for the drummer."
"A drum machine is a worthwile compromise," philosophises Rose, "purely because it save a lot of time and trouble. You can programme a drum machine easily but it's much more difficult to programme a person."
For their forthcoming LP, David Balfe played most of the keyboards and David Motion programmed the drum machine and played the bass parts into the trusty sequencer. What were the machines used?
"I know what the drum machine was, I've been practising this" boasts Rose laughing, "it was a DX7!"
But that's a keyboard.
"In that case it was an OB something," she says, "an OBX... and OBXa...och I dinnae know what it was called."
"At least I know the difference between a drum machine and a synth," taunts Jill. "A synth has wee black and white things on it. But the drum machine was definitely on Oberheim. It was really good. Dave Motion would programme a pattern in and then we would play along with it to see if the sound were right and it fitted the arrangement of the song well, and if it worked we'd modify a few bits here and there and then use it."
"We used the DX7 for the synth parts then," says Rose redeeming herself. "We used the synth that goes with the Roland Micro Composer too, and Balfey's Oberheim. He's got a lot of these wee, old synths too and little Casios and things like that. He's dead into using those sort of sounds and a bit sort of organy sound as well. He's very keen on that."
He's very keen on frills on the drum machine too," puts in Jill, "we had to keep telling him to stop being clever and just do simple things."
David Motion thought it a good idea that the band used several studios whilst making the album to avoid boredom and subsequent creative stagnation. This would appear to have worked considering the variation of sounds and atmospheres achieved on the record.
"It was very exciting," says Rose, "to think that, like the day after tomorrow you'd be in a totally different environment being inspired and influenced by completely different surroundings and people. It kept us fresh and stopped us from getting bored and feeling locked in."
Outside of the studio Rose maintains a high-tech profile at home having recently bought a Fostex X15.
"I've only had it a wee while," she claims, "but I'm gradually getting to grips with it and learning how to use it properly. it's not as if it's very hard to use per se, but it takes a bit of getting used to having more than one idea recorded at one time. The actual operation of the machine is very simple, it's very like a normal cassette recorder. But it does effect your writing because I've noticed that I've started writing bass lines on a wee keyboard or on the bass strings of my guitar to go with the song. I used to think of bass lines for songs and I'd either sing them to the bass player and he'd ignore me, or I'd just let the bass player or whoever was doing the bass part come up with something good. People tend to take more notice of your bass lines when they're on tape."
Live Strawberry Switchblade is a very rudimentary affair. Rose and Jill strum their delectable semi-acoustics and sing while David Balfe embellishes the arrangements with sparse keyboard patterns. At their recent appearance at the Royal Albert Hall the rhythm tracks were taken from the album recording but this will change.
"We felt it was cheating a little bit just using the backing tracks from the LP, but we were in a real rush," confesses Jill. "For the next tour We're going to go into the studio and record some different backing tapes so we can get away from the sound on the album."
Was playing at such a venue an overwhelming experience?
"It was a wee bit strange," says Rose, "because that was really the first gig of that tour that we had done properly."
"I had chickenpox for the first dates," continues Jill, "so for a first gig it was very nerve-racking. It's weird acoustically and it's also weird to play because the audience just seem so far away so you find your eyes just drift up and up because the seats just seem to go up to the sky and your voice just seems to disappear the moment it leaves your mouth."
One of Tona de Brett's pupils, Rose McDowall was warmly complimented recently by the vocal tutor on the quality of her voice. After last month's merciless probe into the stars' vocal foibles, what was a pupil's opinion of Tona de Brett's teaching technique?
"Tona's very good at making you confident," says Rose. "But more often than not as soon as you get on stage and the nerves have got on top of you, you forget everything she has told you and you sing from the throat and do everything wrong. But I found she has helped tremendously with my projection and phrasing and that. Siouxsie went to when she discovered that the way she was singing was damaging her voice. Tona's very helpful when it comes to voice preservation and looking after yourself as a singer."
Dealing in Pop as Strawberry Switchblade do makes the songwriting mind very susceptible to clichés. Do they feel they use the unavoidable clichés well? "I think that's the difference between a good and a bad Pop song. You have to use the clichés well. Because it is a real craft to write a good Pop song but to write a bad one is dire."
"But when you're dealing with Pop songs," argues Rose, "most people don't know what a Pop cliché is. Musicians analyse Pop music but the people who it's aimed at don't analyse it at all. They'll sing the tune to themselves but they'll never think about the bass line or how clichéd a chord pattern is. If the tune is the same as another song they'll notice that but they couldn't notice similar chord patterns or similar drum patterns. It's like if people say that we're psychedelic, I ask them to define what they mean by psychedelic. People have very broad, general ideas about music."
"Orange Juice used to use clichés really well," adds Jill. "They'd start or end a song with a really corny chord like a major 7th or something. They made musical jokes. I think that's very good, a very healthy thing to be able to do."
"But it makes you ponder," ponders Rose, "people must have liked clichés for them to have become clichés in the first place. But now that I'm involved in music and don't just hum to myself I could probably write you 10 clichéd Pop songs complete with love lyrics in a minute."
How, with their polka-dot and high-hairspray persona and sweet melodic music, do they convince anybody that they are anything other than twee?
"It's the lyrics really," states Jill. "I mean you don't get many love songs called Go Away. We're just not sweet. We just like Pop music in that Velvets sort of mould. Heroin, Femme Fatale, 'I'll Be Your Mirror.' The LP could have been a hell of a lot twee-er. I think it's actually quite hard in places. I think people like Motorhead are much more twee than us because they're just pandering to an image. We're writing and playing what comes completely naturally. There's no pretense or falseness."
"Plus," concludes Rose, "We're not twee as people. We don't go around kissing babies and smelling flowers. I hate the trees/and I hate the flowers, remember that? We wake up in the morning like everybody else and think, 'For fuck's sake, not this again.' There might be wee synthesizer noises and we might have pleasant voices and sing nice tunes but listen to the lyrics. We're not really very nice people."
But you sing songs about glasses of milk.
"Yeah," spits Jill, regret in her eyes, "maybe we should change that to a glass of Scotch."