Sun 13’s Banjo speaks to Stealing Sheep about their influences, rejecting the norm and playing in a beam of light.
After an eventful 12 months, it seems only right that Stealing Sheep are Getintothis’ band of 2019.
The year has seen them release their incredible Big Wows album, which quite rightly made our album of the month back in April, where we noted that ‘ the mere fact that they exist makes pop music a better place.’
They also played the 6 Music Festival held in Liverpool, made a triumphant and extravagant return to Edge Hill Arts Centre and finished the year with a three night residency at The Stockroom, an ‘intimate’ venue with a capacity of just 80 people.
And, something we’re very pleased about, they will be appearing at Liverpool Sound City in 2020.
But more than this, what marks Stealing Sheep out from the pack is the way they naturally, even instinctively, look to do things differently. Not content with the idea of turning up to play a set of songs in their day clothes, they have instead mastered the art of performance.
We can think of no other band capable of putting on a show like Stealing Sheep do and it is simultaneously impressive and inspiring. Every aspect of every detail seems considered and, wherever possible, an alternative, better way of doing things emerges.
The same attitude informs their music, where once again the level of thought and attention to detail raises the Sheep above the masses and makes them stand out and shine.
Personally, no one has impressed me as much in the whole of 2019 and this is a situation I can’t see changing anytime soon. If I see a better gig than the last one I saw by Stealing Sheep, chances are it will be by Stealing Sheep.
To look back at their year and to find out what might be happening in the future, Getintothis spoke to keyboard player Rebecca Hawley about their dream gig, how they get on with technology and empowerment.
I find it difficult to pinpoint where Stealing Sheep get their influences, but I get hints of post punk bands like The Raincoats. What would you say influences your music?
“I’ve never actually heard The Raincoats, but I get where you’re coming from with the way of making music and them not being from classically trained backgrounds, and being a gang of friends and putting music together.
We actually listen to such a massive mix of music, but film soundtrack stuff, Bernard Herrmann. Also, a lot of electronic music, techno stuff, and we really like Daft Punk and their approach. And we listen to a lot of Suzanne Ciani, Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Anderson, those kind of more conceptual synth women.
But it really is a broad range, because then there’ll be times when we just want to listen to Dad stuff or folk stuff.“
Is that where you see yourself, more at the conceptual side of things?
“We do more ‘art’ shows with dancers, so I feel like we’ve got an outlet where we explore more experimental ideas and then the band side is much more of a party atmosphere, using our album’s recorded material.
But we often remix that for a live audience as well. I guess we try to experiment with different ways of performing live,”
I think that’s where the post punk thing comes into it for me, it was a time when people were questioning everything that went into an album or a gig – do bands just stand there and play or can they do something else, can they take it further?
“Yes, because we’re all individuals and we all come from more artistic backgrounds, so that keeps it really fresh and alive for us, playing with costume and lights, how to make it more like a collective experience for the crowd. And us.”
Which shows do you prefer doing, the more theatrical; ones or more straightforward gigs?
“Both, for different reasons. The ‘spectacle’ shows have more of a barrier between us and the audience and we’re more robotic.
We play into that, we feel that everything has to be completely perfect and in sync in the way that we’ve choreographed it, whereas the band show is a much more free spirited experience where there’s no fourth wall and we can break down the barrier between us and the crowd and have that direct connection.
So they both have quite radically different experience connected to them for us and for the audience. It’s interesting to explore the two extremes like that.”
The last two Edge Hill shows that you’ve done were incredible, and now I’m looking forward to seeing you at the Stockroom to see the other side of Stealing Sheep. What made you play a residency there rather than one night at a bigger venue?
“We have a big history with The Kazimier, so that venue and that area of town is such a massive part of our evolution as a band, along with the people who run that venue. With the car park that’s turned into the gardens, they’ve been really creative with the space and the former stockroom, where all the drinks used to be is somewhere we used to hang out backstage.
It’s got an atmosphere that only comes through all of these years of being on the same theme together. So that venue it’s like a portal, like a beam of light in the middle of the gentrification, that has our history in it.
It’s a place that resonates basically, and it felt like the right thing. Plus the fact that we’ve got quite a big show now that fits on a bigger stage and to bring that into a tiny room to have an intimate show with only 80 people, I think that that experience is going to be really amazing.
And Edge Hill has become this incredible place for us, it’s local but it’s a little out of the way, so it’s good for them to bring more of the Liverpool cultural scene into their venue. They have these amazing facilities where we can road test things that we otherwise couldn’t dream of. That pairing has become revolutionary for what we’re doing.
When they first approached us it was at a time when we really needed it, when we wanted to start pushing our artistic boundaries but we didn’t have the financial backing to do that. We suddenly had this unlimited creative scope, so that’s been massively important in our development.”
Is this part of your search for something different?
“Yes, I think it’s just natural for us to lean that way, to have these different experiences with live shows and spaces. In Edinburgh we played The Caves, which is a space that has a really amazing history because the person who found it knocked through walls and claimed it, he was basically a squatter and he just sat on it for ten years and now it’s an amazing music venue.
We played in a library and the premise of that really appealed to us because it’s about reclaiming libraries as public spaces and diversifying how we experience libraries.”
How will this differ from your last performance there?
“Last time we played we celebrated the centenary of suffrage with a 15 piece female marching band and a 15 strong dance troupe from Edge Hill University. It was a bespoke performance with workshops and a residency with brighter sound a charity based in the northwest with a manifesto to rebalance gender in the music industry. This resonates with Sound City too and made for a magical collab.
In 2020 we’re touring our album show Big Wows, performing tracks from our latest album and live remixes of our past stuff, it’s our 10th anniversary as a band and this is culminating in super eclectic show filled with lasers, choreography, costume changes and rhythmically synchronised lights, programmed and built by Venya Krutikov, one of the directors at the infamous Kazimier Productions.”
Where would be your dream gig?
“We’ve been plotting for a while to do something in the Barbican, because we’ve seen quite a lot of interesting things there, so that’s one of our dreams.
But in a more dreamy, fantastical sense we’ve been looking into a virtual reality dream venue, so I think that will come to fruition in the next year or so, a self-invented space to perform. Inside a rainbow for example or a beam of light”
How would you describe your relationship with technology?
“That’s a theme within the album. We’re from the pre-Internet generation, so we remember what it was like to go and call for your friends and they might not be in and it was a surprise and it was spontaneous, before Instagram and being popular online and how it affected people.
We had that as a discussion within the group and that started coming through the music. It also affects how we make music, how you start making music with acoustic instruments and then how the computer becomes a tool as well.
It’s a love/hate relationship with the computer because it’s an amazing palette that you could never have accessed otherwise and then it’s that journey of trying to find the human, emotive quality in all of the sounds and how slight things like modulation travel through the sound of the synthesiser and gives it an almost organic felling, and then pitch shifting so it sounds more human, because the human voice isn’t just monotone, it fluctuates.
And I feel that this mirrors the conversation that we’re having about technology and how we’re trying to manipulate it to bring back to its human essence.”
Your music is quite intricate and has lots of different parts to it, but it all manages to fit together. How do you go about writing your songs?
“We each have a vision for a song and the meanings we want to get across, and that’s an independent thing that comes out of one of us having a certain message or a certain chord progression that has a feeling to it and then that person usually directs the vision and we all support that and bring it to life and then we all add our own personalities to it.
On most of the albums there’s kind of a ‘leader’ per track and I think that that comes out. That gives the albums so much variety and dynamic because it’s always going between each of us. And the fact they’ve all got vocals linking together creates a thread that goes through everything that we do that makes it completely ours, no matter how we want to experiment with genres and sounds. It’s our personalities coming through those vocals.”
You’ve changed a lot musically over the years, have we now arrived at the Stealing Sheep sound or is this just another stop on a long journey?
“I’d say the latter, which is kind of annoying because it means we’re never satisfied. We have a personal need to push our boundaries of what we can do and that’s what makes us us, the thirst for fresh energy and sounds and exploration.
But I do feel there’s been a reference to each decade in each album, where we’ve been really enjoying a certain era. They’ve kind of been in the right order too, 60s, then 70s, then early krautrock into more electronic 80s pop, then into where we are now.
Lucy’s been playing a lot of Charleston jazz drumming in the background so I don’t know if that will come through, but who knows.”
You do always seem to have one foot firmly planted in the future as well, so it never seems retro.
“I think that applies to so many things we do as well, like what we want to do with a gig and the album sounds.
We’re on tour at the moment and we have a support artist on tour with us called VideO, who does all of our visuals, she’s very much in tune with who we are and what we represent, and we’ve been working with her as sort of a pen pal over the Internet for a year without even knowing each other and now we’ve got her in real life.
I feel that when we’ve been the support artist in the past it’s been very, very hard, you’re right at the beginning of your career. So we wanted to change things instead of going by the rules of the past and so we have them on tour with us, in the van, making sure they don’t have to spend money unnecessarily, putting them up in our hotels and anything that we can do to make that experience better for the new artist.
Hopefully we’ll be changing the culture in the music industry that way, with little things where we go “we don’t have to just do what everyone did to us, we’re in a position now where we can make it a bit different” and that applies to how we want to do a lot of things.”
Is this questioning of the norm, rejecting of the norm something instinctive or is it something you’ve sat down and talked about?
“I think it’s instinctive and it might be based a little on our backgrounds and the lack of opportunities we might have experienced as younger people and coming at things from a more artistic background, where you’re taught that if you’re following the market you’ll always be behind the market.
So you have to be brave and push boundaries and experiment with your own vision, even though that can be harder and more scary and you could face more rejection.
If you’re coming from a background where things haven’t always gone smoothly, maybe that’s part of your instinct to reject the norm, because the norm didn’t work for you as a child, and for many people who are disenfranchised or on the outskirts of privilege and things like that. So maybe that’s something that’s come through how we’ve been brought up.”
Do you see that as part of what you do, giving a voice to the disenfranchised?
“There’s a feeling of wanting to unite people who have been outcasts, at school or somewhere else. That’s a strong feeling for us, just through different things in our past, like family members that have been rejected. You have more of an empathy, there’s definitely a fight in that and it’s a good fight to have.”
There’s an air of empowerment about Stealing Sheep as well. Is that part of the same thing, the same struggle?
“Yes, that’s something that we’ve experienced through being three women on stage and being constantly compared at the beginning, realising that that shouldn’t be how it is. All this subconscious bias that everybody has and the “which is your favourite?” and “who’s the most talented?” and things like that.
We’ve rebelled against that and realised that it’s about supporting other women, making sure women aren’t a threat to each other, that it shouldn’t be like that. We want people to feel that girls should support each other instead of being seen as competitors.”
What next for Stealing Sheep?
“We’ve got a few plans for 2020. We’ve already announced South by Southwest, and we’re going to announce a US tour and we have the plans for the virtual reality experience that we’d like to start developing. Also, there will be new music in the new year, so quite a lot.”
So, while Stealing Sheep may be the best band of the last 12 months, it would appear that they are all ready for the next 12. It is also easy to see they aren’t afraid of a challenge.
They have the songs, the appeal, the intelligence and the drive to take their sound and their performance truly overground in the next year.
Our band of the year may also be our band of the future.