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Interviews

You The Living

Cool new band alert: You The Living walk the darker side of shoegaze with a fuzzy blend of synths, guitars, a strong visual identity, and a sense that they know where they're going - and they know how to get there, too. We join the band as they unfold their monochrome map and plot the course...

 

Let's do some introductions to start with. Who's who, and who does what in You The Living?

Aidan: I'm Aidan James Stevens and I'm an a - I mean, I'm the singer, guitarist, keyboard player, programmer and songwriter in a band called You The Living with my incredible wife, Natasha.

Natasha: I am Natasha, synth/keyboard player. Still coming to terms with being a "musician" so I channel Ron Mael on stage to cope.

You The LivingAidan: I think "We're You The Living - basically goth Sparks" is a pretty good introduction. Like Sparks, we occasionally rope other people into it, too.

Recently, we had our friend Rob Banham (of The Murder Act and Dogfeet) playing live bass for us, and Ross White is joining us on drums next month.

Looking in from the outside, it seemed as if You The Living emerged fully-formed, as if there was a plan in operation - but how did it come together behind the scenes?

Did You The Living start from a definite concept - to make a band that sounds like this, and looks like this - or did it come about more randomly, from trying out various musical ideas and realising there was the makings of a band in there somewhere?

Aidan: We definitely knew what we wanted to do before we started. I had the name for years and the vague idea to do something electronic, but it wasn't until my old band split that I decided to actually do it. I've had a pretty unique way of playing guitar for a while and my voice is really weird, so that was my starting point - not sounding like anyone else. I felt that, in my previous project, I was compromising to keep my bandmates happy. I can't believe it took me so long to muster the testicular fortitude to say "This is shit - I need to do what I want"!

By stripping the lineup down to the bare bones, taking on guitar AND bass duties by myself with the help of pitch shifters and specially customised guitars, we've come up with a couple of defined sounds that people can hear and You The Livinginstantly know it's me or Natasha.

Natasha: Coming from a very visual background, I've always had a set "look" and personal style, which I think Aidan has adapted over the years, just from us being together.

When we started the band, I knew we were going to be very visually striking and I knew that we'd be a much bigger entity than just the music.

There are so many bands right now that either don't look like they should be a band or are trying desperately to be someone else. I've made sure that we're staying as true to ourselves as we can possibly be. Aidan has always covered the musical side - the writing and composition - he let me take the reins of everything else.

On the You The Living Facebook page the band is described as 'shoegaze', but I wouldn't necessarily have thought of that term. To me, shoegaze bands tend to be all blue jeans and lumberjack shirts, with a certain inconclusive fuzziness to the music.

I think You The Living's music has a lot more focus and definition - and there's a refreshing absence of lumberjack shirts, too. I think you're closer to the likes of HTRK and Tropic Of Cancer than any soft-focus indie bands. But that's only what I think. Who do you see as your kindred spirits, fellow travellers, musical mentors - or just plain bands you like? Are there any artists out there about whom you think, yes, they're on our wavelength?

Aidan: That's interesting - I think we started off with more shoegazey elements, but as the synth has become more and more dominant and the guitar's been pushed back a bit, the Kevin Shields moments have been fewer and further between. In a way, I think that label just makes it easier for a certain demographic to get what we do, and it's worked - we get quite a few plaid-clad guitar geeks taking photos of my pedalboard every show!

In terms of kindred spirits, ORKA, Dogfeet and Manflu slip off the tongue straight away. I'd definitely agree that we've got more in common with HTRK and ToC than, say, Slowdive - it's all about the 808! . We've had a few 'elder statesmen' of the scene showing their support, too - Filter, Bow Wow Wow, Killing Joke and even Wang Chung have lent us a hand in one way or another.

I'd love to share a bill with 2:54 or The Big Pink - they're on a very similar wavelength to us, especially TBP. Robbie Furze has even got a great Neubauten tattoo, so you know he's got a great record collection!

Natasha: Having grown up with my dad as a rock photographer, I've had lots of wisdom passed down from many of my heroes, including Nick Cave, members of Killing Joke and our good friend Leigh Gorman from Adam & the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. You The LivingMy dear friend Warren Hildebrand of Foxes In Fiction has always given me a boost of confidence and, with the release of his forthcoming album, I see bright things in his future - he's immensely talented.

Aidan: Our influences are quite diverse, but I think you can hear them in what we do. You can definitely pick out Cocteau Twins, Einsturzende Neubauten, Bauhaus and Rowland S Howard on my end of things, then Natasha's really into Lorde, FKA Twigs and Lana Del Rey - the more interesting side of current pop music. She loves John Foxx, Japan and Sparks, too - they really come out in her synth playing.

We've definitely got ambitions for bigger stages, hence the imminent addition of live drums. It's definitely a very "un-shoegaze" attitude to have, isn't it? To have our eyes on the stars and the horizon, rather than where we're standing. In that sense, we're more Lorde than Lords of the New Church. We're not afraid to say that we're not precious about being an "underground" band; we sound big and we definitely think big. A lot of people in the scene are ashamed to say they'd like to play arenas - we're certainly not.

Do you see yourselves as being part of any scene - or are scenes something best avoided? Are there even any scenes going on in London right now? Is it time for someone to make a scene?

Aidan: We're in a weird situation where the goth/industrial scene has really embraced us, but the shoegaze scene has, too. We'll play a gig full of guys in the aforementioned lumberjack shirts taking the aforementioned photos of my gear, then we'll play a gig the next night full of latex, leather and New Rock boots. It'd be funny to start a new scene that's somewhere between the two. How easy is it to print plaid patterns on PVC?

We definitely made a conscious effort to avoid the wanky "rock" scene in Camden and the corksniffing hipsters on the other side of the Overground.

I'm not going to name names or anything, but we used to be heavily involved in Camden's scene until it became apparent that there's too much ego and bravado for us. We were in friendships that were entirely one-sided because certain people thought so highly of themselves that they only wanted our company when it was convenient for them, or we could do something for them - as if it were a privilege to come running at their beck and call. Fuck that!

The goth and industrial crowd, however, are wonderful. They welcomed us with open arms, everyone goes to each other's shows and there are plenty of characters, but none of the ego tripping that you see in so many of the Dublin Castle Rock "Stars" and Dalston's Loafers-With-No-Socks Brigade. For an example, since I've been ill, Jason (one of the promoters who sorted us out early on in our career) has checked up on me EVERY DAY to make sure I'm okay. The scene's full of people like that.

You The LivingNatasha: I'd say that we're one of those bands that's hard to pin down but I agree that there are too many people in Camden that spend too much time looking at themselves in the mirror or, because they did something semi-successful twenty years ago, that they're still super rock stars who consider their presence to be a privilege. Their fans also try way too hard to get in with them. I'd much rather just have fans who are genuinely interested in what we do, not just seeing us as another name to drop.

One of the interesting things about You The Living's music is the way the beats provide a very definite structure to the songs, while the guitars and electronix are more of an impressionist colour-wash. I think the effect is emphasised by the drum machine you've been using up to now.

Do you think bringing in a drum kit will change that? Do you think that having a 'rock band' line-up, drums and all, will nudge you in the direction of more conventionally structured rock songs?

Aidan: I think we're going to be sticking with the 808 and 909 sounds on the records, but Ross will just be reinforcing that live with the OOMPH of real drums. It'll be sort of like Melvins or Adam Ant, where there are two drummers - it's just that one of them is invisible! It's also nice to bring the beats to life (quite literally) with a real drummer bashing them out in front of you. As much as I love the drum sounds we've created, I think they lose a little bit of their power live when they're just coming out of nowhere. It's all about making our live show more LIVE - more tangible.

Do you even think of You The Living as a rock band - or a guitar band, or an electronic band? Or is it best not to let the hardware define the band?

Aidan: We're definitely not a rock band - we never will be a rock band. I'll always bring the massive guitar riffs, but I think that we'll ultimately always be an electronic band. I've had a cheeky look at the next question and I can sense Robert Cowlin starting a Blur vs Oasis-esque rivalry from this, but I think "rock" is a dirty word. It makes me think of egocentric pricks, like the sound guy who treated us like crap because we don't use "real" instruments.

Natasha: Yeah, I don't see us ever turning into a rock band. I see us more as an art project where we're constantly trying to experiment with new sounds and challenging ourselves sonically. Wherever we end up in five years will be a natural progression.

I was talking to a member of a machine-beat combo a while back (I probably shouldn't mention that it was Terminal Gods) and he remarked that the band had considered getting a drummer - so that their credentials as a rock band couldn't be disputed. A rock band with a drum machine tends to be pigeonholed as a goth band, regardless of how un-goth they may be in other ways (I think Ulterior have experienced some of that). In short, The Sisters Of Mercy have a lot to answer for!

You The LivingDo you think that drums make a band somehow more authentic - to a rock audience, at least? Is there a 'for real' factor about a drum kit that technology can't replace? Does it ultimately come down to the sheer physical presence of someone whacking away behind the band - is this, by itself, something worth having?

Natasha: Because The Sisters of Mercy have made having a drum machine such a 'goth' thing is maybe why the goth/industrial scene has taken such a liking to us, but they're more open-minded when it comes to new music. With rock bands, if you don't have a certain sound you're dismissed - I don't want to be pigeonholed in a genre where people will see us and ask "what kind of fuckery is this?!".

Aidan: That's exactly why we've recruited Ross - we want there to be that extra degree of realism in our live shows. Our records can be as crazy and 'unreal' as we can make them. I mean, there are some proper Einsturzende Neubauten moments on there! We've been standing on railway bridges waiting for a certain train to pass underneath it so we can record the sound it makes and recording our gerbils chirping (can you imagine Blixa Bargeld stroking a gerbil whilst F.M. Einheit holds a dictaphone to its mouth? Neither can we, but we did). However, it's important to us that our live shows feel 'real' and dynamic - we just can't achieve that with an iPad.

On the other hand, we'll do anything to NOT be a 'rock band' - we'll do anything to shake off any 'rock' credentials. Terminal Gods can have them, if they want. We'll always be an electronic band - that's a given.

There's a theory these days that bands can more or less build their careers on the web, without even leaving the house. You can sit on Facebook all day, send out tweets every 20 minutes, and you can really become part of your fans' lives. That's the theory, but I'm not so sure. There's so much noise on the web - an overwhelming stream of stuff coming at us all the time - how does a band use the web effectively? How do you avoid becoming part of the background noise?

Natasha: I've tried to make our online presence as visual as possible so, when someone goes on our page (Instagram, Soundcloud, Bandcamp), they can immediately be immersed in the world of You The Living. Surprisingly, our Instagram page has been getting many likes and followers - these people go on to like our music. I've found that people find our pictures and other content not knowing who we are, but their curiosity gets the best of them and they end up listening to our music, becoming fans.

You The LivingAidan: It's not just the visual stuff that draws people in - a lot of people have been sharing our music and, through clever hashtagging (ugh - I hate that word), lots of people end up finding our music just out of curiosity on Soundcloud and Bandcamp. I've also seen us on messageboards and Reddit. It seems that social networking is becoming too bloated to be a promotional tool, so people are turning to more direct sources to find their music.

Now that Facebook is so dominant, is it necessary to have a real website any more? But while Facebook may be dominant, is it effective? We hear horror stories about the poor reach that Facebook has these days - it's so top-heavy it's on the brink of being unworkable. Is the web getting to the point where it's more trouble than it's worth?

Aidan: I tried searching for "You The Living" (yes, in quotation marks) on Facebook in a cafe yesterday and we didn't come up, despite us being called You The Living and our URL being "/youtheliving".

Facebook has become completely obsolete as a promotional tool because you have to shell out the cash to get any reach whatsoever. Soundcloud and Instagram, however, have won us lots of fans all over the world who we stay in close contact with.

It seems to me that getting on stage and impressing real people in real time is where the real action is. But it's not necessarily easy to do that, either. How have things gone for you, as you take the band out onto the gig circuit? Is it easy to get gigs in the first place - especially as a new band that's an unknown quantity for most people? Are there things you can do to make the gigs good ones - and things you should *never* do? Give us the You The Living guide to the gig circuit!

Aidan: We were really lucky to have some friends in high places that managed to convince promoters to pick us up early on! Once you've got a couple of shows under your belt and you have a reputation for putting on a good show, bookings come in fairly steadily.

The main thing to remember is that you've got to give people a damn good reason to go out these days. If you can't put on a show that's better than sitting at home, no-one SHOULD bother! We go to lots of shows and we watch even more on YouTube, taking notes of what we like and what we don't like. Definitely see lots of shows at different levels - you can apply what you learn at a big show to smaller venues, and vice-versa.

You The LivingAnd then there's the whole business of recording music, getting it out there, and (hopefully) selling it. Are you fans of the vinyl revival, or is it CDs all the way? Bands are even releasing stuff on cassette nowadays, which surely amounts to making the artifact more important than the art.

Is that what music in physical form has come down to - souvenir merchandise which it's nice to own, in the way that it's nice to own a cut-glass flower vase? What new releases do you have in the works - and how will they be made available?

Aidan: We're definitely vinyl junkies! We have a great record player and sound system in our flat and we like nothing more than to put a great record on and listen to it from start to finish whilst looking through all the artwork. We don't even own a CD player! I'm glad that people are starting to rediscover the buzz of having a physical record in their hands with all the artwork that goes with it. Files feel so impersonal and unexciting.

We're hoping to release the "I" EP on vinyl prior to our album coming out. The album's nearly done, too - we're being careful not to make it too long - so it sounds good on vinyl, of course.

The main barrier between us and physical releases is the cost of entry. We'd love to release the EP and album on vinyl and CD - it's just a matter of affording it. If there's enough demand, we could start some kind of pre-order system or Kickstarter. We have some great supporters who buy our music digitally and pay us handsomely for it, so it's obvious that people still value music.

And finally....what's the very next thing that You The Living will do - tomorrow, next week, next month? What are the next few steps the band plans to take?

Aidan: Right now, we're still finishing the album - hopefully it'll be done soon! We want to get some more live shows booked for around October, too - we want to start playing overseas, seeing as we're getting a lot of international love.

Natasha: Nobody knows what they're going to be doing 3, 6, 9 months from now. Life is full of surprises... We'll just have to see where the music takes us!

You The Living

You The Living:

Website

Facebook

Soundcloud

Find a You The Living live review here, and photos here.

'Precipice' by You The Living is reviewed here.

Page credits: Interview, photos and construction by Michael Johnson except black & white pix at the top, which were borrowed from You The Living's Facebook page. Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston. Red N version by Mark Rimmell.
Words and photos in Nemesis To Go by Michael Johnson are licenced under Creative Commons. You may copy and distribute this material, or derivations of it, provided that you give a credit to Michael Johnson and a link to Nemesis To Go. Where material from other sources is used, copyright remains with the original owners. All rights in the name 'Nemesis To Go' and the 'N' logo are retained.