Interview

St Rupertsberg

St Rupertsberg

Friday 23rd September, 2011 11:40AM

Exuberant eight-piece, St Rupertsberg, have been gathering a reputation for their thoroughly enjoyable live shows and indie-pop sensibilities. Their début EP, Seasonal Glimpse, has just been released, and I sit down with six of the band - Kate Whelan (“K”), Sarah Smythe (“S”), Hera Lindsay Bird (“H”), Thomasin Sleigh (“T”), Isobel Cairns (“I”), Eli Chisholm (“E”) - and during their rehearsal in the Blue Barn in Wellington.

How’d you guys get together?

K: I wanted to start a band, all girls, so I decided to get together as many as I knew who could play instruments. Not even people who could play instruments, people who I thought had a nice energy, so we all met in some crumbly mansion up in Newtown. There were twelve of us originally, and we whittled it down to eight, and have got the same eight, except for Miriam, moved to Mongolia and we’ve got Eli, our new member.

Is eight the magic number?

K: Eight’s magic, it’s good for voting systems.

T: It’s actually bad for voting systems, it can be equal.

H: I think it’s about all that our sound-check can handle.

T: I think also that seven is a big band but still, eight is a really big band. Family Cactus were seven, and the reggae bands that are seven.

E: But eight is the infinite.

So you guys are quite democratic?

K: Yep, pretty much. I’m quite stubborn and bossy.

I: We’ve got quite a few Librans, but the band-mates can be quite stubborn.

E: are Librans not stubborn?

I: or that decisive.

I’m a Libran and I’m quite stubborn.

I: Well you shouldn’t be.

S: Often we won’t make a decision if everyone is not happy. If one person feels strongly but everybody else thinks it’s fine, we won’t do it, because we kind of want everyone.

E: Consensus. It’s more consensus than voting.

How does it work with the song-writing?

K: I think it’s been a year and half since we’ve been together. We’ve experimented with different ways. I think what works really well is we have one girl who writes the song, and another girl who writes the lyrics, ‘Coming Home’ was a really easy one, but then we’ve had another song, ‘Summer Jams’ which took us a whole year to write. That was really fun, but it just takes a long time. It’s all over the place. We get either girls writing a whole song, or ‘Summer Jams’ just started off with a few little riffs and we just built it up. There are lots of girls in the bands that are able to arrange it, girls who are able to play guitars and horns, and can make up a horn section, and other girls who can jump on the guitar, and it just works.

Is it pretty intuitive who does what?

K: We like to move around a bit. We don’t want to move too much for technical sound-guy purposes.

T: We started off thinking that would be our thing and we’d swap all of the time. We did it for a couple of gigs and it kinda didn’t really work, and we sounded really confusing. Some people were ‘it’s really cool’, but most people were ‘it’s confusing how you swap around and it takes ages and different sounds’.

K: and you didn’t get that flow of that kind of thing. Architecture in Helsinki is good at doing those things and being fast at that but there’s a whole sort of skill at jumping around. We have a few moving around but then a few based on one instrument.

Is it hard writing to make sure all eight of you are occupied?

All: yeah!

T: Isobel has just been learning the trombone and the clarinet, so that she could be more nimble in shifting around.

I: We lost our trombone player to Mongolia, so both Kate and I learned the trombone so we have two trombone players.

H: I think in another way, it’s not that hard to find things for everyone to do. It’s not like we sit around and think ‘god we’ve got too many people for this band’. There’s always stuff that people are doing, there is never someone standing on the sidelines and being a dork. As soon as we figure it out, someone is always busy.

S: Even if it means someone is playing this awesome tambourine like Kate does in one song. We can’t do without it, but we need one person to do it.

T: That’s the weird thing, we never at the beginning sat down and said ‘this person can do this, and this person can do this’. It kinda weirdly happened, we all had these commensurate skills in different instruments. I can’t remember planning it out. We came together like Voltron.

Hard getting it right live? Getting better? Sounded pretty good at the EP release party at SFBH...

K:I think a lot of it was due to our sound guy who was really professional about it all. He spent ages getting our sound right and then gave us a long rehearsal. I think if we had the time and the money we could.

T: I think it’s whether the PA could handle us, because we’ve got so many vocal mics. We demand a lot of the PA and some just can’t handle it. Fred’s, actually Mighty is pretty bad.

K: I think a 32 channel is a nice luxury for us, which San Fran has got. More shows at San Fran should do.

I: A lot more space on stage which also is quite important.

I imagine playing at Fred’s or Happy that’d be a challenge all fitting on stage…

I: We’ve actually played at Happy quite a few times. We can do it, but you’re generally hanging off a bit. We’ve got a lot of things that don’t have stands and worried we have things that’d get broken.

S: Miriam got her trombone caught in my dress a couple of times. We do like all playing the tambourine at once, and so someone has got a bit of a whack on the head.

You’re getting pretty good praise for your live show, do you plan much out?

K: We wanted to be a live band – I think – did we want to be a live band? We didn’t want to be a studio band, because there are so many of us, it’s going to be unpolished, rough around the edges a bit. It works better live if we just keep the energy, which is easier to achieve than trying to be fully polished. And then when we were recording in the studio, that was brand new and a challenge, but I think we did pretty well but live has been our main thing.

H: We’ve put a lot of thought into our costuming, and we’re kinda almost running out of costuming ideas.

A: Each time it’s getting harder.

Is there a risk your music might not be taken seriously if you get this reputation as a party band?

T: I do sometimes worry about the costuming. We talk about this quite a bit, whether it’s super-gimmicky to get dressed up and the aesthetics of a band, and it’s hard to come up with ideas that aren’t super clichéd. But also I think it comes from a genuine nutty, nut-bar place. We all whip ourselves up into this frenzy. I think it’s genuine.

S: In some ways we’re not a band that’s all about the music, we’re about a community, we’re all friends. We do things differently. It’s about more than just the songs for us. We want to put on a live show that’s more than just the music. Something that’s a bit ridiculous.

H: so many bands are real cool, the big cardigans and things like that, and jerky dancing, and we’re all dorks. It’s fun to be a bit dorky and be interested.

S: We’re really interested.

I: I think we have quite a few people who do visual arts as well, Kate went to fine art school and Tom works at the City Gallery, so we’re into that stuff. We wouldn’t be able to ignore it. We could go on in our pyjamas, but we couldn’t play a show without thinking about it.

Is it kinda like a mask as well? Playing a role?

K: It is from the beginning, it’s a nurturing kind of way, that whole thing of putting on a mask makes it easier. The gimmicky thing, it’s nice at the start – I think we might be evolving other places in the future but to start off, with a bit of a bang, a bit of excitement, sparkly pop songs with lots of colours. It could evolve to other things, but it’s a beginning for us.

How did you find recording the EP? Did you approach it quite differently?

T: Kate was really organised, so wrote out all of these charts with all of the different parts we had. We subconsciously did a lot of stuff, but hadn’t thought it through. Kate was very good at organising us into a semblance of structure. It made us break our songs down quite a bit, it was really helpful. We recorded all of the rhythm and bass together, and we overdubbed the vocals and trebly stuff, it was very helpful for us to think the songs out.

S: We did want that live energy to come through on the EP. We didn’t want it to be this polished studio sound, we wanted it to be a reflection of us and our live shows.

K: We were deciding to do it more like a demo and have some friends come and record us, or put in some money and get the best guy in town to record us. There were so many instruments, we kind of had to get Lee Prebble to do all of the little bits, just to do it justice.

T: He was amazing, he was so good to work with.

Have you got plans for further releases?

S: We’ve got to write more songs.

K: Writing more songs. It’d be nice to move in a few different directions. Lots of girls in the band can write songs. It’d be good to see how we all mature as we write the next songs. We don’t have anything lined up. We’re not that out there to ‘what comes next, how do we get to this place’, this goal-driven. Just enough to be able to bring out an EP and show our friends and family.

T: it’s a huge amount of work that we all did. I was surprised at how much effort it required. The whole process from recording to mastering.

S: And then with eight of us getting the consensus, everything goes a bit slower. It does seem a bit more labour intensive.

I: the band is kinda like a mammoth. It’s really big and it’s really slow-moving, but it’s kinda cute.

Has it helped with promo having eight of you?

T: I think it’s hard because we are a bit of an anomaly. I liked in the Dom on Thursday it had a picture of us and started off with a question: ‘how many Wellington-based all-girl indie-pop octets have you seen?’ I think that was the sentence we had in the beginning in the press release, our band requires so many adjectives.

H: we do tend to divide responsibilities between us, but Kate Whelan puts in heaps and heaps of work and hours and does colour-coded charts.

S: We’re lucky to have a professional publicist, Tom, working for us as well, and also Kate [Uhe, the “other” Kate] does label work.

K: And she’s in City Oh Sigh, and there’s three girls in St Rupertsberg who are in City Oh Sigh, and they released an EP this year, so she’s a great person to help guide us.

Helped having that other band’s experiences?

K: Yeah, it means everyone is a bit more experienced and you can draw from the other people in the band.

S: And know what leads to plug in where. I didn’t used to know different chords from a bar of soap, but now I do.

Have you found with indie music being so male dominated, being an all-girl group, you have a lot of stereotypes and attention drawn to the fact you’re female?

T: it’s a tough question. We haven’t really figured out first why we’re an all-girl band, or whether that’s a political statement or not. We’re a little uncomfortable. It’s not cool to say you’re a feminist, and that irritates me.

S: I think we’re an all-girl band as a point, we’re not going to go out and get a guy drummer when Thomasin leaves at the end of the year – that’s the point, we’re all females and that extends itself to other forms of feminism. For us, I guess we haven’t decided – being a band is the main thing.

H: I feel like all of us have been in bands before, and all of us have been in bands with boys – there’s something about this band, it’s so easy to make music with other women. It’s been incredibly easy.

K: i guess it’s the same way with a guy, being in a band with three other male friends. How it’s easy. When you interview a boy band you don’t go ‘why are you in a band with four boys’. It’s there, but it’s also not there.

S: another band in Wellington is Newtown Rocksteady. I’ve never heard anyone go ‘oh, you’re an all boy band’. I’ve heard some people picking their “favourite” [with us] – do people do that with Newtown Rocksteady?

A: People pick their favourite??

S: It does stand out, but it shouldn’t. I can see why it’s a big deal because it’s rare, but it’s a pity it’s a world where it is commented on. I guess that’s what Kate hopes to change by this initial bringing of together of this band. It’d be great to have more females being in bands and not just being back up vocalists.

K: that’s what I wanted to do – saturate the stage with girls and it becomes a culture, and it doesn’t become a feminist statement anymore. Just bands with girls in them.

I guess often “girl” groups get words like twee or stereotypical words thrown at them…

K: I guess we’re uncomfortable with words like twee

T: We have lots of discussions ‘is that twee?’ We have a twee-o-meter.

I: I guess we are quite twee. We had to get rid of our glockenspiel.

S: We’ve got a horn section, I don’t think we’re that twee.

T: We’re more ska than twee.

Sorry to bring up the all girl thing – I hate it when people bring up things like that way [e.g. reinforcing the minority-ness of the performer]

T: Like I say I don’t think we’ve figured it out. I did this interview at Salient and the interviewer asked us that question and we ended up arguing with each other. We had these different positions.

S: We do publicise it. We send out press-releases saying we’re this all girl band, and it’s nice to talk about it. I think we’re proud of it. It‘s something we all have in common.

K: With any minority, it’s nice to boost up the minority and hope in the future it’s not imbalanced. That’s the way I see it from my perspective.

T: After playing it at Camp it seemed relevant, after playing with all of these boys and Hera and I were the only girls who played the drums – oh, three girls who were playing drums out of over eighty. I remember thinking it must have been boring to be one of those feminists who counts everything, but actually you have to, because your discrepancy is so huge.

I: No-one notices it. No-one talks about all of the boys you go see are totally made up of boys. It’s so invisible and weird.

I guess there aren’t too many bands with female drummers –um, The Corrs?

T: And Meg White. But she’s a terrible, terrible drummer.

S: Because we are so many it helps. In my old band, we played so many gigs with maybe three bands, and it was so rare to meet another woman. Not only in the bands, but also the sound people, everyone that you work with.

Has it helped having eight of you with various musical taste?

K: I don’t think we’ve talked about bands we want to draw upon.

T: We made this compilation CD when we started – we brought three songs that we really liked: “this is music I listen to”.

Have you covered any of those songs?

T: All we’ve covered is Enya. And it was terrible. We played it terribly. We’re learning a Zombies’ cover tonight.

Is it hard having eight of you – being in your mid to late twenties, I presume some of you guys might be heading away, hard having long-term plans for the band?

T: We were talking the other day about the Sugarbabes, how they don’t have any of their original members, they could be replaced because they were so replaceable. It’s not the case with us. But we’re being a bit organic. Kate’s definitely the beating heart of the band, so I can’t really imagine it existing without her skills and energy.

K: It’s more of a culture. As people come and go, you have to be part of that same St. Rupertsberg culture, in that way the band stays the same.

What the plans in the future?

T: Go to Auckland. That’s our band’s first gig apart from Camp, out of Wellington. We’re driving up in a van and we’re staying in Raglan, and it should be lots of fun.

Do you know what to expect in Auckland?

T: We’re playing – Golden Dawn Tavern of Power – that’s where we’re playing and none of us have been there.

I: Apparently it’s tiny.

S: We’ve been told various ways to fit in the venue, just us the band.

T: We’ve had a bit of radio play in Radio One and Active. We sent a lot of stuff to bFM, but we don’t know if they’re playing it.

I: I would dream of doing a country-wide tour and going in a bus and stopping off in all of these small towns. But I don’t know if that’d be able to happen, there’s just too many people.

K: A lot of people in the band are so talented in other ways apart from music, and so they’ll have other goals and careers in life. That’s a tricky one to push the band more. It is what it is.

Brannavan Gnanalingam


related gigs
St Rupertsberg EP release
Sat 24th Sep, Golden Dawn: Tavern of Power, Auckland


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