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

Jill's agoraphobia

All the Strawberry Switchblade lyrics have this melancholy and awkwardness to it. You've mentioned your agoraphobia several times and Trees And Flowers is clearly about that. How bad was the agoraphobia?

JILL: It started when I was about 15, I missed a year of school. I didn't do O Levels at school cos I'd missed a year. Nobody knew how to treat it. Being an outpatient in a mental hospital wasn't much fun.

How did it start? Cos when it first starts you're just going to get called an idle git.

JILL: Yeah, they said I just wanted to get out of going to school. The first time that I had it I was 10 and I was at primary school and I remember saying I felt dizzy all the time. I remember being taken to the doctor and he said I was just trying to get out of school, just a hypochondriac, and I was so mortified cos I was actually really frightened and didn't know why I was going dizzy and light-headed. When I was ten I believed the doctor, and if he says nothing's wrong with me then nothing's wrong with me and I just didn't do certain things and kind of got over it I suppose. But then it happened again when I was 15 and I was really freaked and I used to just scream, I used to get into such a state of panic that my dad would slap me across the face to shut me up cos I was in SUCH a panic. I use to think I was going to die cos I felt I was clearly having an out of body experience, I'd be looking down on myself, I wouldn't be able to stand because my head was spinning, I'd be screaming 'I'M GOING TO DIE'. My parents couldn't handle it at all.

And I remember when I wasn't doing that just sitting, sitting, just feeling so depressed, and thinking some weird thing's come over me like some veil's been drawn down and I'm never going to be the same, I'm never going to be happy, I'm never going to be the same again. I remember thinking I'm going to end up in a hospital, I can't cope with anything. It was awful. I think it was depression, it was probably brought about by hormones or something. And since then I've suffered from depression which brings on anxiety which brings on the symptoms of agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is just severe anxiety manifesting itself in panics. It's panic attacks. I was having panic attacks at school. I'd be sitting there shaking and having to leave the classroom, all hot and cold and thinking I was going to faint and thinking I was going to die, my heart pounding, all that sort of thing.

If somebody had explained that to me then it might've helped, but nobody explained it to me until I was about 18 when my dad found a book about it and I read about it. And after that it was never so bad, I still had the panics but at least it was a recognised phenomenon.

You're no longer panicking about panicking…

JILL: …which reduces the amount of time you panic. I'd be left on my own all day which is the worst way to treat somebody suffering from depression and anxiety, to leave them alone. My friend Lisa was telling me how she was reading a book by a Victorian female writer who had suffered from depression and anxiety, and at that time they used to confine you to a room and they wouldn't allow you to write, to have paper, pencils, pens, anything so you were just there in a room on your own, you weren't allowed visitors, you weren't allowed to go out; that's the worst thing to do. But women were told 'you're suffering from hysteria'. The idea that the best treatment for it is to shut you in a room with nothing so you can completely rest - you can't cos your mind is plummeting the depths.

It's a typical Victorian way to treat women - if she won't do what she's told then get her out of the way, don't let anybody see her being disobedient.

JILL: The idea that they wouldn't even let them write….the best thing I found after being left alone - cos everybody went out my mum worked, my dad worked, my sister went to school and I was left in the house on my own with the silence echoing. There'd be this flurry of activity and then they'd go out. They used to give me all kinds of medication which I never took, I used to throw them out on the floor when I got really panicky and count them, count count count count, shaking, you know? And sometimes I'd run out the front door and run back in again, just do anything to try and snap out of the panic. The worst thing is just to leave you sitting there. I remember my dad brought a kitten home and I used to sit with the kitten and focus completely. She'd sit on my lap and sleep so much, and I'd be stroking her, it was something to concentrate on, something not me. Waiting for everyone to come home, having freaked out several times on my own. It was awful, absolutely awful. It was a year of that.

My friend Marge used to come round after school or after work and bring albums. I remember getting the Patti Smith album Horses. I used to listen to John Peel. I'd read the NME, I got the NME every week, and Sounds. I used to read them cover to cover, that was the best day of the week when they came out. But I'd never listen to music on my own, I'd read stuff but not listen to stuff on my own.


JILL: Well, it would depress me. Music's very emotive anyway, and especially the sort of music I was listening to.

That's really odd, cos so many people deal with depression by having music 'in there' with them, particularly the darkest music, it actually helps by making them feel not alone, that there are other people who feel the same way.

JILL: I did listen to it, but I had to do it when there was somebody else in the house, I could never listen to it when I was in on my own.

I remember reading in Where Are They Now in Q magazine and the guy had said 'one of them was supposed to be agoraphobic, yeah right, standing up in front of loads of people and going on Top of The Pops, how very agoraphobic', and this wasn't that long ago. How completely shit, what a horrible sweeping bloody statement to make about somebody. It was like being punched. I was going to write to them but I thought it doesn't matter, and I know it's not true. Jesus, I've been through it. And especially when it still happens. It's the sort of thing that will subside and then it'll come back. It's more to do with depression, depression and anxiety, it's not anything glamorous. Agoraphobia's just a name for the condition. I didn't want to go out, I couldn't go out cos I was scared I'd have a panic. I'd have panics at home where nobody could see me!

I remember being out with [daughter] Jessie when she was about six months old, I was coming home from the doctor's. I was panicking. I took her out of the pram, I thought 'if I hold her it'll stop me panicking; she's a baby, she needs me'. I was pushing the pram while holding her and I was literally yards from the house, and I saw somebody coming down the road. I needed to talk to somebody, just have them walk me to the door. I said to this woman 'excuse me, would you mind walking me, I live just there', and she didn't speak English! She was saying 'attacked? Attacked? Put baby down!'. By the time I'd finished explaining to her it had started to subside. I panicked again once I got in the house.

Before then I'd been thinking I had a baby, I had to look after her, I won't panic. You can have months of it being fine and then it'll just happen.

You put this into Trees & Flowers, putting it out overtly. There's a lot of stigma comes with psychological conditions and mental health problems these days, but twenty years ago there was even more. Did you have any reservations about putting that stuff out and being so open about it?

JILL: No, because at that point I'd met lots of people and managed to talk about it. I knew there'd be other people out there - I used to read the NME cover to cover, and there might be someone read ME talking about it and get a bit of hope. Women used to be agoraphobic for the whole of their lives because it wasn't explained to them, it was just 'something that happens to housewives'. It happens to women a lot.

But no, it didn't bother me at all, why should it? Loads of people have it.

While you know you SHOULD be able to talk about it, there was always a chance it could provoke reactions from people who could be cruel and make things worse for you.

JILL: I never had anything like that. I got over it when I used to dress up and look weird in Glasgow. That helped me a lot, cos it wasn't like me being out, it was somebody else being out. It never bothered me. I'd been at art school for four years and, I dunno - people spend their lives trying to cultivate stuff like that, 'I AM really interesting, honestly, I have problems!' Part of being there, we had to read about loads of artists, and you read that and, jeez, I'm completely sane! There's nothing wrong with me, I've just got a bit of anxiety. I've not got any bizarre real serious psychological psychiatric problems that some people have to live with and deal with. I'm not saying this isn't serious, but at least it's something that'll come and go.

Isn't it odd how people with extreme introspection and self-consciousness end up dressing really outlandishly? Think about Goths who spend three hours dressing up and then are worried that everyone's looking at them. Like if you're, say, a Mod, you can have a day job and no-one would know. But if you're a Goth, it's a full-time thing, 24/7 looking like something out of the Addams Family and yet being nervous of other people and not wanting them to look at you. It's such a paradox of being scared of attention yet dressing up so they'd stand out in a crowd of a thousand people.

JILL: But it's a way of hiding isn't it? It doesn't really make THEM stand out, it's a total mask, it's something to hide behind. I can relate to it. I used to wear a lot of make up - get a cotton bud, stick it in black paint and run it under my eye then put a point at each end and then put stripes on of whatever colour I was wearing.

How did the agoraphobia affect things with the band?

JILL: I suppose I knew it was going to affect the band. Everybody near me knew I was agoraphobic. I didn't really affect me hugely cos I wasn't too bad at that point. I wasn't good at travelling out of Glasgow. It was tricky. There were several times I didn't get to London. We used to travel at night cos it was cheap, but by that time I'd worked myself into such a state; when dusk falls it's not a good time for depression and anxiety. So I'd be 'I can't go, you'll have to go without me'. That's why we moved to London really, cos we had to keep travelling backwards and forwards from Glasgow. We used to stay in this hotel in Sussex Gardens, the Keiyo, run by Chinese people. It was nice, it was fine, but it was a hotel; we didn't have the cats there and Rose didn't have her daughter there, so we had to move. I couldn't do the travelling, it was SO upsetting. Every time I went back to Glasgow I'd wonder if I would get back to London. London was important cos there were things to do and I'd be letting Rose down if I didn't.

Was everyone around you understanding about it?

JILL: Not really. Bill Drummond was OK about it, Balfey wasn't particularly, he thought it was a pain, Rose thought it was a pain. She never said much, but it was clear it wasn't going to stop her. But [Jill's boyfriend] Peter was. I tried really hard. When I first came to London I used to go to sleep listening to this self-help tape. One side was called Good Night, the other's Good Morning, this Australian woman talking. I used to fall asleep listening to that on my walkman. In the morning as soon as I woke up I'd turn the tape round and wake up to it. That was months and months.

I knew Rose wanted to do it [be successful with the band]. I wanted to do it as well, but it was difficult with responsibilities to other people.

Did anyone ever give you any stick, any 'snap out of it' stuff?

JILL: No, no. They were all 'it's OK'. But you can tell when people aren't particularly sympathetic. It was very difficult for them to be around, depression is difficult to be around because you're aware that there's nothing you can do to help.

How did Jill's agoraphobia affect having to travel and go out to do gigs and interviews and stuff?

ROSE: Some times it was worse than others. I mean, there were times where the tour van was sat outside and she would not come out of the house, and there'd be all sorts of bribes but she just couldn't get out of the house. Eventually we'd get her into the van.

She'd had valium given to her from the doctor once when we were going to Japan, and she had a fit in the airport. She just started screaming and saying 'I'm not getting on the plane'. She didn't like planes anyway, that's a whole part of the agoraphobia as well. 'It's unnatural for something that big and heavy to fly, I'm not getting on it'! So I ended up getting on the plane myself, off to Japan the first time. Well, I wasn't by myself, David Balfe the manager was there and our translator from the record company was there. Jill was left at the airport. We were supposed to be doing gigs as well.

The record company had to buy her boyfriend a ticket cos she could travel with him sometimes. He got a ticket and they flew over the next day or the day after that. But I had to deal with the press stuff and it was just madness, I was so exhausted, it was so mad and I couldn't wait till she got there, cos it's better when there's the two of you.

It affected quite a lot of things quite a lot of times. Sometimes I'd have to go down to London on my own to do meetings with the record company or do auditions and stuff like that which I really didn't enjoy doing. I don't like saying to somebody 'you're not what I'm looking for,' especially when they're well respected in a circle of musicians. It was things like that that were really difficult.

We were going to do the second album - or we were talking about doing the second album - with Ryuichi Sakamoto. We had the big meeting in Japan with him and he was really up for doing it but we had to go to Japan to do it and stay in Japan for two months, and Jill wouldn't do it. She wasn't having any of it, 'can he not come here?'. David Balfe was a massive fan of his and he was like, 'can you sign this album?' ! But Jill couldn't go to Japan and stay there. So that was a hindrance. We couldn't play New York, we couldn't play Hong Kong, cos we had gigs in places like that. We were supposed to go to New York on bloody Concorde and come back on the QE2! I was, 'oh wow, that'd be so fantastic!', but Jill would say 'I can't go'.

And then there was supposed to be some big opening or something in Japan and we were supposed to go to that, and we couldn't do it. I would have gone myself cos one of us is better than none of us, but at that point there was a wee bit of ego shit going on in the band, so it wasn't gonna happen.

It kinda steadily got worse, the agoraphobia, because we were being asked to do more things and go further afield. Someone said to Jill once - the guy who supposed to be doing the sound on tour, the road manager - he said 'I think you're in the wrong profession if you're agoraphobic,' and she got really really upset and her boyfriend got really upset with this guy and there was a massive big row. The guy punched Jill's boyfriend on the nose.

How was everyone else about it, how tolerant were people?

ROSE: I think most people were really pretty tolerant, actually. She'd always had agoraphobia as long as I'd known her. It's a horrible condition to have, when she was panicking she was REALLY scared. It's not like 'I don't want to do this,' she was really really scared, scared for her life, that kind of fear. And I know what that feels like from a different kind of angle, being scared for your life - I've felt that before but not through agoraphobia. Most people were pretty tolerant I think. Her boyfriend was really good cos he'd go places with her.

At the end she was seeing hypnotists and stuff, we'd tried everything, the record company had tried. She'd meditation tapes and all sorts of stuff, and she went to group therapy where people had all sorts of different phobias. And sometimes she would get better. It was completely unpredictable, that was the worst thing about it, it was so completely unpredictable. If it was like PMT and you knew it was coming then you could avoid it!

From my point of view it would be really disappointing. I was really disappointed we couldn't go to Hong Kong, but I completely understood why. And maybe we could do it later. And New York, I really wanted to play New York but, well, we've hundreds of other things to do. But I did want to go on the QE2 and Concorde!

Surely you must've been aware at the time that that kind of opportunity isn't going to be there forever?

ROSE: I know, I know, exactly. But it [agoraphobia] had always been there, so we'd lived with it from the beginning. But there were real opportunities missed, like going to Japan for two months and doing the album with Ryuichi Sakamoto, which would've been really interesting. We had a really funny time when we all went out to dinner with him and we were chatting about it with him. We were all talking about different things around the table and that end of the table was talking about food, this end of the table was talking about something else. That end of the table started talking about dogs that were popular in Japan as pets and I turned to Ryuichi Sakamoto and said 'do you eat dogs?' and David Balfe just looked at me and went completely bright red, cos he was the Big Fan.

I was always saying inappropriate things to people, not deliberately but things would slip out. Like we were at the Rock and Pop Awards and all the big guys in the business were there and I'd go 'I'm just off to the toilet to touch myself up'. I was only talking about my make-up, but everyone was chins dropped to their chests. [laughs] I'd go 'oh!', realising what I'd just said. I used to do stuff like that all the time.

So, Balfe was like, 'there she goes again! You've completely humiliated us now!'. But the Japanese eat dogs anyway. It's no big deal.

I didn't realise the second album had got as far as sorting out a producer.

ROSE: Oh yeah, yeah definitely. He [Sakamoto] looked like the one we were going to go with. Balfe REALLY wanted to go with him.

How close did it get to starting?

ROSE: We split up quite soon before. We were supposed to go back to Japan really soon and do a tour there, a couple of months or something like that. We had songs ready, the next single was going to be Cut With A Cake Knife. We had a whole year or two's plans ahead of us.

Do you remember how far plans got for the second album?

BILL DRUMMOND: No idea. I was with WEA for three years. I don't know if they were dropped before I left or I left before they were dropped, I don't know which way round it came.

What was the first you heard of them coming apart as a partnership?

BILL DRUMMOND: It was a gradual thing. Obviously, there must have been a point. I just think it was a gradual thing in the difficulties they seemed to be having in their own personal lives. I can't remember an actual point. I can't remember the last time I saw them. I must have just been too involved in other things.

When they split did it seem like it had been a long time coming or was it sudden?

BILL DRUMMOND: I wouldn't have been surprised. I think Jill's situation was that she was becoming more unhappy with the whole being in London, and everything about her situation. I think it was kind of natural, but I can't remember actual dates and things.