Complete Strawberry Switchblade interview by subject

Jill Bryson interviewed 9 June 01
Rose McDowall interviewed 29 Jan 02
Bill Drummond interviewed 26 April 03
David Balfe interviewed 19 May 03
David Motion interviewed 2 Aug 02 & 15 April 03
Robin Millar interviewed 16 Feb 03
Tim Pope interviewed 22 June 06

Press and media overload

Having a hit certainly made the journalists attitude towards you change - most of the interviews after Since Yesterday are really shallow and trivial.

JILL: The first interview we ever did was the NME about Trees And Flowers time, just a page. The minute we had a single in the charts it was only about ribbons and what make up you use.

You expect it from the kids mags, Number 1 and Smash Hits, that's what they're there for. And Beeb magazine; a one-page interview with a double-page picture in a magazine that's got Peter Duncan on the front. But even in stuff like ZigZag, which was a serious music magazine, it's still a fairly crap interview.

JILL: I think because we dressed up people couldn't get past that. I kinda forgot that the songs even meant anything cos nobody ever asked us. EVER. They'd ask 'how did you get your name', but they didn't actually want to know cos if you mentioned Orange Juice they'd [blank look]. They didn't go into it in any depth, just asking questions and ticking them off the list.

There doesn't seem to be anything out there, which is why I'm doing this now cos there's a need for it - people are still listening to Strawberry Switchblade. It's not like Hear'Say selling 300,000 in a week when, two months later, most copies have had their last ever play. Your stuff is being tracked down by people who part with sizeable sums for it, it still means something to people. And yet your history isn't documented. This is exactly what the internet is good for, so that the people who want to find this information can get it.

JILL: Most people had an angle on what they were going to do and they didn't deviate from it. Also it was difficult cos Rose was quite resistant to talking about anything in any great depth as well, and then when things broke down between us it was difficult.

Or else it was just hysterically funny, we'd just be having a laugh, which then doesn't really do you any favours.

There's an interview when Jolene came out where you're having a laugh, basically playing word games around Western imagery, which is fine for a conversation but it's not an informative interview.

JILL: Nobody really asked us anything, then they figured there was no depth to us so they wouldn't ask us anything. How could it progress from that? People had made up their minds.

Did that bug you a lot of the time?

JILL: It was mind-numbingly boring. With most interviews you were shoved in a room for half an hour with someone so they weren't going to get an in-depth interview, and you'd be doing it all day.

Before, I remember someone came up to interview us in Glasgow for the NME and there was a photographer there and he spent the day with us. I think that's why NME interviews were generally a little bit better, cos they spend time with people unless they're really big. If they get hold of bands before a major label's got hold of them, they'd spend time with them.

ROSE: The press were really bizarre actually. We did do quite a few interviews before we actually signed. We did a really early THE FACE right at the beginning and we'd done the NME, we'd done a few things. We did start to get the more cynical side of the interviewers coming out, trying to prod more things out of you, wanting to go into detail about the lyrics. I was like, 'you'll get what you're given and that's all. You'll get as much as we want to say and if we don't want to say anything else about it then that's it. The lyrics speak for themselves'. I don't really feel like I want to explain through all the lyrics in the songs.

The press were up and down, really. It was good, we actually got loads and loads of exposure in loads of good magazines that were hip at the time. And then when we did Top Of The Pops it was Smash Hits and those kind of magazines. We did women's magazines and everything, Women's Own and stuff like that, covering lots of angles.

Most of the stuff I've seen from after Since Yesterday is either trivial stuff about clothes, or it's being patronising.

ROSE: We got quite a lot of that from the serious press, titles like 'Strawberry Tarts' in Sounds. Not that the interview was bad, but they'd just put stupid things like that which was a bit irritating. But when you're doing all those teen magazines like Smash Hits that ask you the most mundane questions then, then it was much much better doing an interview for Rolling Stone or Sounds or something like that, something not quite so 'what's your favourite colour? Where do you buy your ribbons?', stupid things like that.

BILL DRUMMOND: I knew from the outset that in the fullness of time - and that time wasn't going to last very long before it was full - that them being on a major label of any sort would break the back of them. Not only the music was fragile but everything about it. The demands that were made - and they were nowhere near as heavy as I guess they must be now - on an act to go out, do things, make records in a way that's supposed to be for the market place.

Knowing the impact that a major record label would have on the way the band worked, did you try to steer that away from them? They were given a tremendously heavy workload by the promotion department, they were doing interviews with absolutely everybody.

BILL DRUMMOND: I know they were. It's easy for me with hindsight to say that shouldn't have happened. I don't think we were as aware - in the position I was in I wasn't aware enough - of the problems that Jill had, the fact that Jill found some of these things INCREDIBLY hard and difficult. Whereas Rose was a very very driven woman. I don't know what she's like now but at the time she was very driven. She was 'I am going to be a star, I am going to be a star'. Although she wasn't SAYING that, you could see that that's what was inside her.

It's rather ironic that you're here today cos about half an hour ago I was walking back down here and I passed a woman who was very short, and I was thinking, 'I wonder if she's as short as Rose?', and I was thinking about Rose and about a time we went down to Exeter together. This is a classic example. We got on a plane, I wasn't supposed to be there, I don't know why I was doing it, maybe it was cos Balfe had a word with the promotions department or whatever. But we had to go down to Exeter of all places and she had to do some cable TV stuff there. I was thinking and remembering that as I walked down here just now.

ROSE: We'd get so bored with interviews like that that I started lying every time we did an interview. We did some women's magazine, Women's Own or something like that, and they said 'what do you do when you entertain guests?' I said 'usually we have something healthy to eat, we'll get some chips from the chip shop and some mineral water cos we're really into healthy living. And then we'll mudwrestle'. They said 'how do you do that at home', I said you just get a big plastic pool, fill it with mud and have mudwrestling parties. They were 'REALLY?' and we're 'YEAH!' 'and then what do you do?' 'Well, we shower off and have a glass of wine'. 'Do you shower off together?' I just said, 'well, some of us shower together, some don't, whatever's easiest'.

Did they print this stuff?

ROSE: Yeah! They printed it, they PRINTED it! In another one I said I was so exhausted I had to be carried out on a stretcher. My mum phoned me up cos they printed that. I used to just think, it's time to have a laugh cos this is getting SO boring. People can be so gullible - I would never have believed that in a hundred years - but they printed it! I thought they might leave out some of it cos it's a bit risqué for Woman's Own.

Was there any opportunity to get taken seriously, if the proper music press is being patronising cos you're not blokes and the rest is Smash Hits and Beeb?

ROSE: We did some interviews that were intelligent reading - I can't remember what the magazines were - where there were some feminist themes coming at it from the angle of women in music rather than girls in short skirts.

It's an interesting angle to look at Strawberry Switchblade cos while it's two intelligent articulate women writing their own songs, you're also all ribbons and frills, and feminist politics at the time still had a big streak of not dressing up cos its got overtones of doing it just to please men, being a bit dungarees and crewcuts.

ROSE: Well exactly. I remember we did a gig with The Slits in Glasgow. They were out doing their soundcheck and I was in the dressing room putting my make-up on and their manager comes up to me and says, 'what are you doing putting that make-up on? Who are you putting it on for? Are you putting it on for men or are you putting it on for yourself? Have you asked yourself these questions?' I said to her, 'being a feminist is not being a man. I celebrate the feminine side of my personality, and who are you to tell me what to do? And anyway one of your band is wearing make-up! Just go away. I'm not going to dress down for men, I won't let what men do rule my life'.

To begin with, in The Poems when I was an anarchist I went through a wee phase where I thought I shouldn't wear make-up and stuff. Then I just thought 'NO'; that's not me being who I want to be. I'm doing this because I like being extravagant and I like to paint my face like a picture. I'd do lots of colours or draw flowers on my face and things like that. I just like it, it's an art form. Dressing up and doing this whole thing, it's great fun. Kids love dressing up and I just never grew out of it!

If you're a feminist it doesn't mean that you have to be like a man, it means the exact opposite. People just got it wrong and thought you have to be as macho as possible or whatever. I was brought up with lots of brothers, I was a real tomboy when I was a kid; anything a guy could do I could do anyway, and I used to prove that throughout my growing-up years. I was always a feminist. If I want to wear make up and false eyelashes and whatever, so be it, nobody will tell me what to do.

I think a lot of feminists got it wrong, and because they got it wrong they probably lost a wee bit of the fun out of their lives cos they were taking it too seriously.

The 80s was a time when individualism was coming through, and feminism was probably helped by that because feminism demands that people be judged as individuals rather than eulogised or dismissed on grounds of their sex.

ROSE: We actually had quite a feminist following as well, and quite a sizeable lesbian following as well. We did a club in Edinburgh, a gay club, and there were all these women coming backstage trying to chat us up, 'are you two girlfriends? Are you seeing anybody?'. We did have a lot of a gay following male and female. A lot of gay men liked Strawberry Switchblade, cos we're not conventional women, we are flamboyant. The amount of gay guys who've said to me 'I'd turn for you!'

At this summer's gay Pride in London, the headmaster of Jill's daughter's school borrowed some of Jill's old polka dot outfits and went with his boyfriend as Strawberry Switchblade. Imagine your headmaster and his boyfriend dressing up as your mum!

ROSE: Excellent!

At least sometimes when people know who you are it needn't be a stalker.

ROSE: When I came out here [rural Oxfordshire] I came out here to get away from the Kelvins. I thought London's totally doing my head in, it's too chaotic, it's driving me insane. Which it actually was, literally. I moved out to the country and dropped out a lot, I didn't really keep in contact with a lot of people, like a hermit in the woods for a while. I just needed the tranquillity. The woods were my Valium, basically.

When was that?

ROSE: I've been here for nine years. I lived in Canada for one and a half, and then came straight here, after going to Scotland to have a baby cos I wanted it to be Scottish. It sounds terrible doesn't it? I wanted to do that with my last daughter as well but nobody would let me, it would've been hitch-hiking up the road at nine months pregnant! So she was born in Oxford. I dunno, I just like it out here, I like the peace, I like the quiet.

We go to the pub one night, a little country pub. I walked in and asked for a Red Witch and they just looked at me. They don't even sell mineral water, never mind cocktails or whatever. I sat down and this guy said, 'I know you'. I thought I came out here to get away from everybody that knows me. He said 'I worked with you in the studio once', and he was an engineer on a Strawberry Switchblade session! His name's Pete Brown, he lives locally. His dad's Joe Brown and his sister's Sam Brown.

And then a girl moved a couple of cottages down from me with her boyfriend who was a photographer. She said to him one day, 'I know that girl' and he asked me. I said 'I know her as well, is she a make-up artist?' She did Strawberry Switchblade's make-up and she moved here! For two years she was a neighbour. I thought god, it's SUCH a small world, it's bizarre. You can't run away from yourself!

There's a photo of you at Red Wedge's launch. How did they get you into that? Strawberry Switchblade don't have much of a political tone to them.

JILL: I can't remember how I got involved with that. At that time I was a member of the Labour Party, but it wasn't through that. I think I met somebody who was organising it and they asked if I would do it. Thatcher was in at that time, you know? So I went along, I met Neil Kinnock, it was great.

Did you do any of the Red Wedge gigs?

JILL: No, because Rose was so totally not into politics. She'd say 'I'm into personal politics not party politics', she was totally against that, it wasn't something she was interested in at all. I went along to the launch, it was really interesting to meet all those people.

What is it like in retrospect? Red Wedge is now largely seen as a half-arsed thing.

JILL: I thought it was well meaning, I'm not embarrassed to have been part of it at all. We did Artists Against Apartheid as well, well I did it anyway, I can't remember if Rose did much with it. It was just something you got asked to do. It was a real 80s thing. It was well meaning.

I think Band Aid gets really overlooked as a cultural phenomenon, after that there was a whole load of stuff with people using music in that way.

JILL: It's not anything that I feel embarrassed about. At that point I felt there was - and there still is - a lot of apathy with young people about voting. Rose would say 'I'm not going to vote, they're all the same'. There was Neil Kinnock's Labour Party and Margaret Thatcher's Tory Party; they're NOT the same, they are SO not the same. You may not be able to say it now, but at that point they were NOT the same. They were different parties, they did different things. You've got to find out about the history, people died to get you a vote. You don't have to vote for Labour or the Tories, you can vote for another party, it's worth doing. So I felt, why not? Especially when Thatcher was in, she was SUCH an evil bitch. They were such an appalling party, they did so much damage to this country, it's never recovered. And I felt really strongly about it. Even if it is half-arsed it's better than doing bugger all. You just go along, a picture gets in the paper and somebody sees it and decides to vote. They can vote whatever they like, but just think about it, do it.

It's a measure of how different the political landscape was then - the idea of a whole load of good people saying 'yay vote Labour' now is unthinkable. That time was the beginning of the convergence of the main parties, and the consequent encouragement of what gets called apathy, which is usually not apathy at all but actually disgust with the whole system. The Labour Party at that time had just turned their back on the miners, they were disowning Liverpool City Council and abandoning commitment to nuclear disarmament. These days we see it was the beginning of their launching on to the corporate capitalist agenda giving people no party political choice outside of that, and so maybe that's why Red Wedge is dismissed, it was a campaign for the Labour Party just as they became Tory Lite.

JILL: I think that's pretty unfair though. It's fair enough to say just vote. I voted Labour and so I didn't mind standing up and saying I voted Labour. At that point that was what I believed in and I wasn't ashamed of saying it.

Did Red Wedge do any good, do you think?

JILL: Nah. Not at all! I don't think so. They didn't win did they?