8 October 1983
Strawberry And Dreams
Paul Strange discusses past and present with Strawberry Switchblade
They giggle constantly but don't be fooled - Strawberry Switchblade mean business. Lurking behind their hysterical laughter, striking image and overwhelming charm, Jill Bryson and Rose McDowall are two Glaswegian girls who firmly believe in themselves and their music. They're a trifle nervous - the giggles are a safety valve - but it's hardly surprising. A lot has happened for them in a short space of time.
So far they've released just one single, the delicate and quietly moving 'Trees And Flowers', which has been flirting with the outskirts of the charts in recent weeks, and have successfully supported Orange Juice on a British tour. A second single, 'Let Her Go', is due out soon, and a deluge of gigs is being arranged to coincide, so Strawberry Switchblade look well set for glory.
Amazingly it's all happened in less than a year, although the two girls have known each other for much longer.
'We met in a punk disco in Glasgow about seven years ago,' says Rose as the two of them settle down in a quiet reception area at their record company's office. 'We hardly talked to each other cos we were both quite shy. I knew Jill's boyfriend and we used to walk around together.'
'Some of our friends had punk groups,' says Jill. 'We knew Orange Juice when they were the NuSonics - a weird punk group - and the reason I wanted to be in a group was seeing them. I thought they were really great. At the time everybody else was brash and loud and they were doing this weird Velvet Underground thing.'
'And I was in groups before... I played drums,' says Rose. 'I was okay, but I preferred singing... I mean I wasn't a real rock drummer, I played standing up with big tom tom beaters because I couldn't use a foot pedal. Really we wanted to form a group where I could sing, so I just transferred the tom toms from the end of the beater to my ear. I enjoy singing more and Jill does lots of harmonics and things to help out vocally.'
Strawberry Switchblade started in the summer of 81. A duo who couldn't play particularly well, they developed into a four-piece all-girl group who performed their first gigs at the end of 81. The larger group didn't work, so Jill and Rose reverted to a duo, with the idea of using a pool of musicians to flesh out live and recorded work if and when the occasion demanded.
'It was a bad time,' says Jill. 'When we split up the four-piece, we thought, How are we going to carry on as a duo?'
Rose: 'It was a really big, brave step.'
The first glimmer of hope came when Simple Minds' Jim Kerr gave them a warm mention on a Dave Jensen show about a year ago. Intrigued by the name and the promise of great potential, Jensen's producer contacted Switchblade and asked them to record a session.
Coincidentally, John Peel had just spotted them on one of his roadshows, and he too contracted them for a session. Both Peel and Jensen phoned within a couple of days of each other.
The sessions proved fruitful and a new chapter opened for Switchblade. Echo And The Bunnymen's manager Bill Drummond, and David Balfe (ex-Teardrops) heard the sessions and signed the duo to their Zoo music publishing company. At the time, Switchblade toured with Orange Juice, again using pick-up musicians. 'It was brilliant!' says Rose. 'My favourite memory so far'.
Drummond meanwhile had played the Switchblade sessions to Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant and shortly afterwards the duo were signed to Sergeant's own 92 Happy Customers label. A single, 'Trees And Flowers', was recorded in February and eventually released in July.
'Yes, it IS about agoraphobia,' says Jill as we mull over the mournful lyric. 'I've got it and I'd rather not have it!'
Part of the single's irresistible charm is the delicate horn and oboe arrangement, carefully textured by Nicky Holland, the Fun Boy Three's arranger. The woodwind voices help set the mood of the single perfectly, the haunting lilting oboe on the intro a perfect foil to the relaxed sliding basslines that follow.
'It was really annoying when people reviewed the single and said that it was a silly song,' says Jill. 'that made me MAD! It might have sounded slushy in the summer, but it was recorded in February and it's a serious song. I don't think people really listened to the lyric or took it seriously.'
To help them on the single, Jill and Rose again dipped into their pool of musician friends. Madness Madmen Mark Bedford (bass) and Woody (drums) agreed to help, along with Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame on guitar.
'It was great fun working with them,' says Jill
Although 'Trees And Flowers' hasn't taken the charts by storm, it's helped to establish them as they plan a further attack on the fickle tastes of the pop public. Now signed to Korova, the Bunnymen label distributed via WEA, Switchblade plan to release their second single, 'Let Her Go', at the end of October.
'It's about someone's over-possessive boyfriend,' says Rose.
Jill: 'It's a real story!'
'Yeah,' says Rose, warming to the subject, 'It's about somebody I know - a really close friend'.
Is this close friend aware that the song's about her?
Rose: 'She will be now!'
Both girls collapse into fits of giggles. 'I grew up with her,' says Rose, desperately trying to contain her mirth. 'We were like sisters and she had this over-possessive boyfriend, but she's got away from him now, thank goodness.'
So he let her go in the end?
Rose: 'No. She let him go!'
The girls erupt into more laughter and rose eventually splutters: 'It was quite sad really'
'But it's not a sad-sounding song,' says Jill. 'It's much more up-tempo than the last one, and you can just about dance to this one, but it's not a typical pop record. We don't write pop songs with catchy hooks and things. I think they're fairly catchy songs, but they're not like pop songs with a hook that's repeated. I think if somebody heard the LP, they'd learn a lot more about us.'
Sessions for that album are currently taking place using the same musicians who play on the new single. They include Weekend's Simon Booth (guitar), Scritti's Tom (drums) and John Cook on bass.
[This session, produced by Nicky Holland at Wessex Studios in London, featured Tom Morley of Scritti Politti on drums and John Cook on bass. Nobody liked the results and the band didn't work with Holland or Morley again]
'All of them were really good,' says Jill, 'they didn't force us to do things. We've been really lucky with all the people we've worked with.'
In the immediate future, Switchblade are playing London's ICA on october 6, using the same extra musicians who helped them on the album sessions.
'I love playing live,' says Rose.
Jill: 'It's horrible if it goes bad though, a really bad night is a nightmare.'
Rose: I always think that nothing can be that bad, even if something bad happens. It never depresses me. I just think nothing of it, and it'll be all right the next time around.
Jill laughs furiously and tosses back her head. A strange, mystical tinkling of bells fills the room. I look at her, bemused and confused.
'It's my Indian earrings,' she says, 'they make a terrible row! They get quite annoying after a while.'
Actually, the noisy earrings help me to distinguish Jill from Rose. At first glance, both girls are very similar - today they're both wearing black and with polka dot dresses, heavy, ornate make-up and red and blue flowers in their hair.
'We never normally wear exactly the same things,' says Rose. 'Today is really just a coincidence'.
Jill: 'A lot of people think we must be horrible - "look at the way they're dressed, they're probably very arrogant" and it's daft, you know? You can't tell what somebody's personality is by the way the look. It's like when you're walking down a street in Glasgow and some people say, "Oh, you look great dear, I love your flowers!", and then you get the ones who go, "Oh God!" and they swear under their breath at you.
'and these two types of people look exactly the same as each other, but one of them is a wee better person, more broadminded, and the other is narrow minded.'
'I think people have got used to seeing us in Glasgow,' says Rose, 'and now we've been in the Daily Record, people probably think we're dead famous.
Those people will probably be right in a few months time.