Our path towards Sŵn Festival, the multi-venue festival that is going to take over the Cardiff music scene for the weekend of 18th, 19th and 20th October, touches base in neighbouring Bristol yet again, as I discuss musical oddities, the state of the post-punk scene and dark humour with Alastair Shuttleworth, vocalist for self-described satirical art-punk quartet LICE.
Love them or hate them, one thing that is sure about LICE is that it’s practically impossible to ignore them. Their particular brand of sound, deliberately jarring and challenging in a far-from-obvious way, seems made to elicit a strong reaction from its audience. It has certainly obtained a good number of positive reactions from critics and commentators, with double EP It All Worked Out Great (1&2), which came out last year for Balley Records, catching the attention and gaining the approval of reviewers from the punk scene and beyond. The band’s caustic style, coupled with lyrics full of a slightly bitter irony and a bold use of dissonance, have definitely put them in a well-deserved spotlight.
And the excitement for their participation at Sŵn Festival has an especially good reason to run high, as the band is famous – or possibly infamous – for their explosive live performances. There is always something chaotic and unexpected, and for this very reason thrilling, to their live shows, generating a subtle tension among the audience which lends additional weight to a stage presence that is larger-than-life without sacrificing the rough, cutting impact of their sound. The alternative music scene in Bristol and beyond already has a good knowledge of how strong that impact can be, and as they head to Sŵn Festival the Cardiff crowds will only have one certainty about what they can expect from this band – that is, that nothing is completely out of question.
Chiara Strazzulla: Being from Bristol, you’re right round the corner from Wales. What’s your experience of the Welsh music scene, and playing at Welsh venues?
Alastair Shuttleworth: We’ve only played in Wales twice (once at Green Man Festival, and once at Clwb Ifor Bach with IDLES on the Brutalism tour) and aren’t well versed in your country’s music beyond Datblygu. However, my sister lived in Cardiff for several years and championed the local scene, making an excellent documentary series for CUTV on the ‘Save Womanby Street’ campaign.
CS: On your Facebook page you self-describe as a ‘satirical art-punk band’, which I think perfectly sums up your sound. What does that definition mean to you, and how would you place yourselves within the punk scene?
AS: I saw the term ‘art-punk’ used to describe something else and was drawn to it, because it’s quite funny. ‘Punk’ has a lot of connotations to artlessness: lazy compositions, cheap platitudes, and a macho use of confrontation that feels outmoded and toothless. You add the ‘art’ prefix and all of a sudden it sounds pretentious – isn’t that wonderful?
Since the It All Worked Out Great EPs, we have become both far more experimental and far more disillusioned with the prevailing, traditionalist norms of the ‘post-punk revival’ we’ve long been lumped in with… it is to this, we deliver the punching fist!
CS: In general, what do you think about the sort of resurgence punk and post-punk seems to be having in the UK?
AS: Do not be taken in by this false-impulse, friends! It is straightforward music with straightforward messages, incommensurate to the complex minds and spirits of our people. In the realm of politicized, caustic and confrontational new music, the recent HARRGA album (Hèroïques Animaux de la Misère) makes the past two years of punk albums look as benign and toothless as a duckling. The Rise of the Bristol Avant-Garde has always been the more interesting and rewarding news story, though the mainstream music press (false arbiters!) withhold it from you.
CS: Can you tell us something more about the more experimental things in your sound? I’m thinking for instance of the delivery in the vocals, which is quite unique, or the way you use dissonance and switching rhythms. How have you been exploring this, and how do you work when it comes to songwriting?
AS: While the impulse to be ‘weird’ was always present on our stuff, recently we’ve started to fully pursue experimentation, drawing particularly from industrial music, minimalism and progressive rock. While we used to negotiate our different musical backgrounds through a shared interest in early post-punk, now we are trying to explore and wind them together, especially in ways that play with non-conventional structure. The band setup hasn’t changed, but much of our songwriting process (which is always collaborative), comes from a place of trying to subvert the very sounds we were trying to copy on the It All Worked Out Great EPs.
CS: Your work has this slightly twisted, cutting sense of humour running through it that gives it a very distinctive personality. Can you tell us something about how you work the satirical element in, and finding a balance around it?
AS: Most of my early stuff stemmed from trying to copy the satirical style of Ben ‘The Rebel’ Wallers, which is of the Swift/Burroughs camp: trying to inhabit and caricaturise everyday forms of bias, which is also where the interest in black-humour and absurdism came from. Some early attempts were better than others, with ‘Ted’s Dead’ being the standout. My new lyrics are based on a more individualistic set of ideas about satire, and are more formalistically experimental – there’s still work to do on a couple of things, but it’s stuff I never thought I’d be capable of writing.
CS: What are you looking forward to the most about playing at Sŵn Festival?
AS: Sŵn Festival has actually been on our list for a while. There’s some acts we’re excited to see, including Black Country New Road, our friends SCALPING and the always-exceptional Housewives, but the best thing is knowing that there will be very few people there who have seen us before – getting to play to a completely new crowd is wonderful.
CS: I’ve always found that your sound and delivery work especially well in a live setting. What are your favourite things about performing live?
AS: The best thing about playing in this sort of band – one which isn’t for everyone – is that you can see your audience change. After a couple of songs, half the front row will screw their faces up and march off to the bar, while a curious huddle who were hanging at the back weave through to the front to replace them. LICE shows are increasingly about reaching people who like weird music, amongst those who don’t; the reactions of the crowds consequently feel a lot more interesting and intense.
CS: You’ve been opening for bands like Fat White Family and The Fall. What were those experiences like?
AS: We were very privileged to share the stage with most of our heroes and favourite bands right at the start of our career. They were magical experiences, but sharing a stage with your heroes also breaks the spell a bit – you realise they’re just people, and it makes it less attractive to see yourselves in terms of them. I think it got something out of our systems, and made us want to build our own identity more quickly than I think we would have otherwise.
CS: What’s your favourite festival moment, or a memory from a festival that has stuck with you?
AS: One of the first day festivals we played was Brisfest, sharing the stage with future global techno stars Giant Swan. That was my first time feeling like we’d established ourselves amongst the local DIY music community. Looking into the audience and seeing Oliver Wilde (now of Pet Shimmers) headbanging to us was an excellent feeling.
CS: What does the rest of the summer have in store for you, and what are your future projects?
AS: THE CREATION OF OUR FIRST MASTERPIECE, AND DEATH-KNELL TO PUNK TRADITIONALISM!!
Sŵn Festival will be held at various venues in Cardiff from 18/10/19 to 20/10/19. Find details and buy tickets on the Sŵn Festival website.