The Ethical Debating Society are a band routed in the tradition of DIY music. Taking influence from 1960’s girl groups, through angular post-punk and Riot Grrrl, they have distilled those sounds into something uniquely noisy. From the Snow White like aggro-punk of Hobsons Choice to the smutty Shrag-like art-rock of Child’s Play (“come on, come on, don’t be shy, you be the girl and I’ll be the boy”) or List Of Requirements, which is exactly what it sounds, “must read Dostoyevsky, must like girls, must like me especially.”
Lyrically, they cover everything from politics to sex all delivered with a gentle whit and a not entirely well concealed sense of anger at everyone from, “the hip cats with their flat caps” to “the ruling class.” A band with plenty to say, who still have the sense to write songs not manifestos.
Earlier this year, the London-based trio released their debut album, New Sense, via legendary DIY label Odd Box Records. The home to so many great acts who fuse poppy melodies with walls of aggressive noise and tonnes of attitude, there can be few records that have found such a natural home.
Ahead of their upcoming shows at The Sebright Arms and Indietracks Festival, Kris and Tegan from the band were kind enough to sit down and answer our questions about the recording of New Sense, the Mumfordisation of Rock and obsessing over Falco from Future Of The Left (or McClusky if you’re old like us.)
FTR:Who are The Ethical Debating Society?
We are Tegan (guitars and screaming), Kris (guitars and pleading) and Eli (drums and no bass)
FTR:For those who don’t know already, how would you describe your sound?
Tegan: We usually say DIY punk.
Kris: We get compared to everything from anarcho bands to grunge, but at heart we’ll always be more Liliput than L7.
FTR:How do you write songs? Is it a collective effort?
Tegan: Yes, it is. Sometimes we have complete songs that we bring to the band, and then tweak bits and pieces. Or we’ll have an idea that’s just a snippet and we’ll work it out as we go.
Kris: Some are pieced together through a sort of negotiation, which can involve me playing a chord and Tegan making me change it because it’s too obvious or too rock, and she’s always right. And there’s a new song which Eli has made her own with a syncopated percussive bit and a stadium showbiz ending – so it’s definitely collective.
FTR:We’re guessing from your name that you’re fans of lively debate – do you see your music as a way of getting your opinions about the world across?
Tegan: Absolutely. I think it’s important to remember that you do politics, rather than just believe in them. If you live what you believe, it’s not such a struggle to get people to listen. It’s really just a case of pick up a guitar, write some songs, and get a gig. You can do this with your mates, in a bedroom. Suddenly, you’re doing something. This is a particularly poignant plea to women and girls, and those of marginalised groups. Please, get yourselves heard!
Kris: You have to keep perspective, you can’t kid yourself that everyone pores over lyrics, even assuming they can hear them or read them somewhere, but you get across to some people, and even if they don’t analyse in-depth they can still pick up the gist of what you’re about. So we’ve been asked by academics for our views on feminism, just because we’re out there doing this. Which might seem daft but the more you think about it, it isn’t. It’s not that our opinions are important, it’s that everyone’s should be, but most people aren’t invited to any debate. Having said all that, not all of our music is so serious.
FTR:You’ve just released your debut album, New Sense, tell us about the recording process? Was it different compared to writing singles and EPs in the past?
Tegan: Mark Jasper of Witching Waves fame recorded it for us. We’re lucky really that we did it in record time, with minimal fussing about, mostly just two takes of each song, then vocals over the top. Some of the little mistakes are left in there. I particularly love that you can still hear the guide vocals, that were picked up by the drum mics on the spoken-word part of Razor Party. For me, it’s the little details that make it.
Kris: We did a few recordings which came out on singles in a different studio with the amps separated and things like that and the result was cleaner but lost some of the energy. We wouldn’t want to be one of those bands that pisses all their money away in a studio and comes out with a weak-sounding album, but it helps that we haven’t got any money! So in a way we’re fortunate that the way we had to do it was the exactly the way we wanted to. And Sound Savers make it very easy, they know what’s what.
FTR:Who or what influenced you during the writing of New Sense?
Tegan: Many things, including hazy childhood memories, bitterness about particular trendy scenes, and the never ending feeling that we’re all being fucked about by those in power.
Kris: How we write is partly down to how we play which is necessity as well as choice, as we’re non-musicians. People sometimes see influences where there aren’t any, like Crass have come up, which we didn’t expect because Tegan’s more influenced by the Shangri-Las, frankly. Some grrrl bands are obviously touchstones but my guitar parts are more likely to be stuff I’ve nicked from pop, reggae or soul records. But listening back to the album, I realised that some of the songs have a garage trash clatter which possibly reflects being bottle-fed on obscure 90s bands like Bette Davis and the Balconettes.
FTR:New Sense came out on Odd Box Records? How did that come about?
Tegan: We had recorded the album, and were looking for the right way to release it. Trev is ace, and we trusted his opinion so sent it to him for a listen. Turns out that we didn’t need to look any further than Odd Box!
Kris: I don’t think we’d even played a gig for Trev at that point (we’d had to cancel a couple) but he’s a decent bloke and an enthusiast. We should clone him.
FTR:Do you think record labels are still important?
Tegan: Yes. I think that labels offer a place to go to find excellent music, despite how quickly things have changed in the way that music is consumed. There are labels who you’ll trust, so will buy things blind, and that’s a very important thing, both for the bands on the labels, and for you, to find new music that might well change your life. There’s nothing quite like that first, nervous listen, is there?
Kris: Yes because but you don’t have to literally self release to be DIY. If you can that’s great but not everybody has time for everything and sometimes it’s just division of labour. Labels like Odd Box, Tuff Enuff and Milk are really important in terms of the music they cover, the events they put on, and what they stand for, and Fortuna Pop and HHBTM are important for the next level of promotion and distribution. All bedroom labels, all DIY. Beyond that level I don’t really have an opinion.
FTR:Why do you make music?
Tegan: Because if I don’t, I feel I might explode. The singing, in particular, is a great catharsis for me, and it’s one of the only places, contexts, in which women can really, really scream, and it’s okay. Screaming is necessary and therapeutic, I find.
Kris: Possibly all bands think this, but I don’t see anyone doing exactly what we try to do. There are a lot of shoegaze bands around and grunge and jangle bands and all that music gives the same impression: that everything is ok. And everything is not ok, everything is fucked up. I don’t get escapism from being smothered with reverb, I get it from music which confronts the reality of how we feel, and offers a direction out, even if it’s only a first step of genuine communication, if that doesn’t sound too precious. There are a few hardcore bands that do that, and some we’re totally in awe of, but they intentionally don’t have the pop thing. We’re trying in our small way to write pop songs, with no training so they come out a bit wrong, but in the mess is hopefully an energy and freedom.
There’s something else too. I went to a gig recently by an 80s punk band called the Neurotics, who are brilliant but it was partly the crowd I noticed. There were all these blokes who looked like my dad and uncles, people I work with, people you don’t see at indie gigs. We all know about the Mumfordisation of rock but in the underground too you meet loads of amazing people who are lucky enough to come from families where everyone went to university or were artists or musicians so they’ve grown up encouraged to be creative, perform, express themselves. But we’re not from that background at all, and that’s a pretty good reason for us doing it, in my book. The way things are now, arts and academia are going back to the elite, so DIY culture is really important.
FTR:Your music seems to straddle a lot of genres, what do you think of labels like post-punk and lo-fi? Is there any point to genres?
Tegan: Genre can be misconstrued, but it’s still relatively important, I think. Post punk seems to be applied to us a fair bit. Lo-fi is more of a recording style, than a genre, no? I’d call some of the early Janis Joplin recordings lo-fi, but would also put Daniel Johnston into that slot, as well, and they’re worlds apart stylistically. The point, I suppose, is to be nudged in a general direction, but I don’t think genre has to be limiting when writing music. Besides which, it’s really not for the artist to decide what genre of music they’re creating, is it?
Kris: Yeah I think genres are ok as a rough label to help people find stuff they might like. So we’re happy with being called punk and riot grrrl, though you can quibble over both in all sorts of ways. Post-punk and lo-fi are almost devalued – I agree that lo-fi should mean some sort of cassette-culture approach, rather than generic slacker rock, and post-punk could potentially mean anything. But that’s quibbling too, you can use both of those (preferably together) for us and that’s fine. You can’t be precious about labels, there’s more important stuff to worry about.
FTR:What does punk mean in 2015?
Kris: After the collapse of the music industry, independence might not be a point that needs making now, but after years of pop punk and punk-style boy bands, what’s remains is the real music and where it’s coming from. Good Throb are punk. Sleaford Mods are punk. Slum Of Legs, in the best art tradition, are punk. And it’s as real in this moment as anything ever was. I don’t need to read another article about The Clash. Stop buying heritage rock magazines and support new music instead.
FTR:One of our favourite tracks on the record is Kill You Last for its potent mix of romance and mass murder, which tracks are you most proud of?
Kris: I’m proud of Kill You Last, which is basically Tegan’s song and I love the way she unknowingly channels Ian Dury, I can’t think of anyone else who would write “You fucking what?” as a pop lyric. Disasters ends the album with a sort of field recording – although the field in question was a yard in Homerton – and people say it makes them cry, so Tegan could totally revive Emo if she wanted. I’m proud of the lyric to Creosote Ideas. I like the way Mission Creep sounds completely back to front and wrong which was accidental but kind of what we want. Then again Riderrr has come out sounding alright and that’s the most obvious thing on there. There are some bands where you get an album and it all sounds the same and I hope we’ve avoided that. Future imperfect makes no sense really but people seem to like it. Lyrically it’s cut-and-paste but partly about the fear of mental illness. Someone told us that it was terrifying, so job done, it’s supposed to be the sound of the world falling apart.
Tegan: I rather like Hobson’s Choice, as it’s pretty much one of the first songs I ever wrote. When played live, it’s been described as “terrible, terrible noise” and “absolutely vile and filthy”. I think those are rather nice compliments, in a roundabout way. I’m fond of Child’s Play, too, because it was also one of the earlier songs that came about. It’s got a good pop feel to it, which is purely by accident. At the time it was written, I could barely play a power chord, yet somehow, it’s just worked out nicely. The twangy bits on the verse are just the notes in a power chord played one at a time: try it, you’ll see how easy it is. Hopefully that’ll mean that anyone reading this could feel inspired, get a band together, write some songs, and come play with us sometime.
FTR:Is that a Kazoo on Riderrr?
Tegan: It most certainly is. The kazoo is a very underrated instrument, in my opinion. We sometimes do a cover of “Oh Bondage Up Yours” and, because we don’t have a sax, the kazoo does the job very nicely.
Kris: The most democratic of instruments. I did see a band with a spoons player the other day, but that looked tricky.
FTR:Some of the tracks have a political edge to them. What role do you think bands have in politics? Are there still any political songwriters?
Tegan: Culture and politics go hand in hand; the personal is political. I think bands and musicians can have a great influence in politics, and I think music is one of the last places that political unrest can be properly expressed, although how long that will last is anybody’s guess. How will Cameron be able to actually quantify what counts as treason within the arts? I have no idea, but I am willing to bet there’s somebody working on exactly that, right now, as we speak.
Kris: There’s always been this thing that even if most of your lyrics are about other stuff, if you have one song about politics you’re ‘political’. Which is misleading cause it treats politics as separate from everyday life. It isn’t like any other interest you can choose, like art or even philosophy because even if you think you’re not interested in politics it is interested in you. That said there are loads of political songwriters, whether it’s the older protest blokes, UK hip hop, or younger women like Grace Petrie and Colour Me Wednesday. Bands like ONSIND, Dregs, Fight Rosa Fight are all directly political. I think the sense of certainty has gone since the 80s/90s, so it’s difficult to write manifestos in the way that bands did. It’s harder to write ‘Kick out the Tories’ because it’s not that simple anymore. It never was that simple, but the perception has changed. The party that organised Rock Against Racism is now kicked off campuses as rape apologists, so these are strange days. Here’s the thing though: I don’t know how serious Plan B ever was but when he had that track putting a different perspective on the riots a couple of years ago a lot of people felt that finally someone was saying something, which can be empowering. Culture doesn’t directly challenge political authority but it can help sustain oppositional constituencies through troubled times. Brecht and Dario Fo understood that, so do Kathleen Hanna and Jen Doveton.
FTR:You’re playing Indietracks this year. Have you played before?
Tegan: No, and we’re very, very excited about it. Hopefully see you there!
FTR:Do you feel part of the Indie-Pop scene?
Tegan: Yes and no. I think our music is a little too discordant to be really fully immersed in the indie pop scene, although some of the songs sound as if they were made for it. I love indie pop, I grew up with it, and I feel I owe it a lot. Perhaps we’re just a bit too pissed off to be really part of it.
Kris: Indiepop people are probably the friendliest and most open-minded and it’s always been a broad church, so there might be a space for us on the edge. And the ‘pop’ aspect is important.
FTR:With Sleater Kinney and The Julie Ruin coming back this year Riot Grrrl seems to be getting a second wind? Do you relate to that scene?
Tegan: Perhaps more than any other scene. Riot grrrl was my saviour as a teenager, and it was a great comfort to know that there were girls out there who felt like I did. Without riot grrrl, I’d never have thought to pick up a guitar. Everyone else just told me it was stupid. I owe it a lot.
Kris: We went to those gigs when they came over and they were great and important not because of what happened back then but because of what they still are now. And it was good seeing Woolf support Julie Ruin and Kathleen talking about UK bands like Blood Sausage. We saw the Blue Minkies last year and they gave a shout out to the Balconettes and Valerie. We should celebrate our traditions, especially buried ones, but we’re not interested in media-led so called revivals, it’s a continuity. Support what’s happening now and build the future.
FTR: Mainstream festivals have been exposed as really lacking women in their line ups – do you think it’s important to have female role-models for young girls? What would you do to improve the situation?
Tegan: Book more acts with women in. Make sure the music press gives equal weight to bands with girls in, without making it just about sexual attractiveness, or the “novelty” of a woman in a band. It’s still a tough industry for women, but the more who pick up an instrument and have a go, the more who’ll make it. I live in hope that one day it’ll be equal.
Kris: It’s important to have female role models for young boys! Quotas have been mentioned, which I’m not 100% sure about, but in general I agree with political correctness and positive discrimination and would support it. There are lots of groups under-represented on stage, whether BME or working class people. The reasons are structural and cultural and start way back in school and in the family. The music world could use a kick up the arse about it but it can only do so much by itself.
FTR:In List Of Requirements you list what you want in a potential mate. They actually seem relatively undemanding. Does the same list apply to all member of the band? Or would they like to add some more conditions of their own?
Tegan: hahaaa. This was written during my obsessed-with-Falco phase. Falco from Future of the Left. I had noticed that he would wear terrible, knackered Reebok classics when he played, and for some reason, I thought it was completely appealing. I have no idea if he does read Dostoevsky, but I assume so. And, of course, it rhymes with “especially”.
Kris: In retrospect my partners all seem to love X Ray Spex and hate The Beatles. But I’ve never made it a formal stipulation.
FTR:You’re from London, what’s your opinion on the music scene there? With the spiralling cost of living is it viable to be in a band and based in London?
Kris: We’re all saving up to move to Finland. Yeah the London scene is really healthy, there’s almost too much to take in. Power Lunches in the East, DIY Space in the South, Dovetown in the West. Lots of bands don’t fit neatly into any sub-scene though, and that’s fine too. Like, Witching Waves are a great example of a London DIY pop group, from somewhere else, trying to survive here in the cracks, writing songs that can’t be pigeonholed. We tried to do a bit of a DIY showcase with our album launch and had Little Fists and Actual Crimes and Spanking Machine playing, all London bands which defy categories and all brilliant.
Tegan: It’s tough, I can’t lie. It’s less easy to live on the dole and be a full time creative, but it’s still possible to make music.
FTR:Where do you see The Ethical Debating Society going in the future? Could you make a living out of music? Would you want to?
Tegan: From the band, I doubt it very much, short of a miracle. That’s not me just being disparaging about the band, or too modest: I just think that the music scene doesn’t work like it used to. If we break even, we do well. And that’s good enough. Would we want to? Hell yeah. Who wouldn’t?
Kris: We’re long-term amateurs, but I would like to keep going for exactly however long it’s valid. So many bands like us don’t make it to album, or never make a second album. No-one would’ve expected us to get this far when we started. It’s good to throw off peoples’ expectations.
FTR:What’s your opinion of the vinyl/cassette revivals? Is the physical format still important to bands?
Tegan: Definitely. Records in particular are beautiful. I’m really glad it’s making a comeback.
Kris: As a fan, if I care about a band’s artwork or about the people involved I might want something tangible. I don’t do Kindle and likewise it’s not the same reading lyrics off a PDF. So I like that our album is on vinyl, and the front cover is a specially-commissioned piece of 12” DIY art, linocut and block-printed. You wouldn’t be happy with ”Guernica” as a jpeg.
FTR:What about streaming services, Spotify/Apple music etc? Do they make it harder or easier for bands starting out?
Tegan: I honestly don’t know about Spotify, because we don’t have any experience of being on it, but I hear bad things about how they pay the bands, which is a real shame, because it’s an excellent way of listening to new music. Hopefully, those who can will head over to the new groups’ bandcamp pages, and give them a few quid. That seems the best way to show appreciation.
Kris: For new bands hoping to make money or a career, the public’s expectation that music will be free obviously hits you indirectly, and if you’re a small band you don’t have the consolation of merch income. But for smaller bands like us, something like bandcamp is pretty handy, and you can choose how much streaming you allow. Personally I don’t even like Spotify as a user because I hate adverts. If I like something I’ll download it one way or another, or buy a physical copy.
FTR:What do you all do outside of the band? Are you involved in other music/arts projects?
Kris: We do rubbish jobs for a living. I’m in another band and a couple of obscure side projects, Eli’s a roving hardcore-punk ambassador and Tegan’s a vintage style guru.
FTR:What’s next for The Ethical Debating Society?
Tegan: More playing, more writing, more recording. Watch this space!
Kris: We’ve got enough songs for a new EP if we can get it together. And there’s been talk of contributing to a Christmas comp which is such a ridiculous idea we just have to do it.
New Sense is out now on Odd Box Records. The Ethical Debating Society play The Sebright Arms July 22nd and then at Indietracks on the Church Stage July 25th. They have further dates in August check their BANDCAMP for details.