Supersonic 2022 Interview: Bismuth

This weekend sees the return of Supersonic Festival to the cobbles of Digbeth, Birmingham, with a bill of artists as experimental and fascinating as you’d expect from organisers Capsule. Astral Noize caught up with Tanya of Bismuth to discuss growing up in the city, the band’s plans for the festival, and their recent collaboration with Vile Creature.

Supersonic concludes a run of Bismuth shows that began at Roadburn festival. How has the experience of working with those two compared, given some of their philosophical similarities?

Tanya: I view them both as experimental festivals: not just booking metal or heavy music in general, instead there’s a wider scope of artists, people like The Bug. It’s a different definition of heavy than people who only listen to guitar music would use, but it’s awesome, because it means you can see a variety of people just pushing their art in different directions. Supersonic was the first experimental music festival I ever went to, growing up in Birmingham. And so yeah, it’s probably Supersonic’s fault I’m the way I am now with music (laughs). And similarly with Roadburn: they promote different things and embrace different themes each year. I feel like Supersonic just wants to give a platform to anyone that’s doing interesting and experimental stuff. Joe & I are both excited that we get to play both amazing festivals in one year. It’s kind of crazy how life works out sometimes.

The outset of the tour was the debut of A Hymn of Loss and Hope, and you’ve been playing with Vile Creature since – tell us about the history of the two bands and the friendship that’s developed there.

Tanya: We actually first met each other when I booked a tour for them in the UK in 2018. They got in contact and I thought their music was cool, that’s how we kind of got to know each other really, that tour went really well. After that, we both ended up playing like sets at Roadburn in 2019, we both did skatepark shows. Afterwards we were chatting away and Walter from Roadburn actually overheard us talking about maybe doing a collaboration, so he sneaks over and joins in! We started discussing it, and then a few weeks later we got an email officially commissioning the collaboration. We were stunned, it was amazing. We started writing it, but then the pandemic happened which naturally made writing a lot more tricky, we’d do a lot of sending files over to each other and practicing when we could. I do think doing it that way made our friendship stronger as well, because trying to create something even though you can’t necessarily be in the same room is a real challenge, and we had to solve it together. Hopefully we pulled it off. I think we’re probably just going to periodically tour with them forever at this point, because they’re the best people. I think sometimes you meet people and you just get on with them, no drama, no egos or anything like that. And it’s really nice.

No drama sounds pretty invaluable.

Tanya: Yeah, definitely, especially when you’re on tour. You’re all tired, you don’t need any additional stress on top of that.

You mentioned that you booked one of their early UK shows. At the time, were you booking a lot of shows locally, or purely for Bismuth?

Tanya: I used to put on a lot of shows in Nottingham and as a result I got to know other bookers around the UK. That’s the reason they asked me initially, because I could email people regionally and get to play shows with Bismuth at the same time. We’d book a place in Nottingham called Stuck On A Name, it’s a practice space but they put on gigs there as well, people record there too. It’s just Nottingham’s cool DIY space, it’s great. And in music, it’s always nice to try and help each other out, so when bands would email me saying hi, we’re American or Canadian and we don’t know where’s good to play, I’d obviously email them and say yeah, I could put you on in Nottingham. And I can put you in touch with good people in other cities.

You touched on the fact that there was a gap between the initial writing period on the record and performing, did that lead to a kind of a different piece? Were there changes and iterations as time went by? 

Tanya: So the song is 40 minutes long. Originally, it was almost an hour and a bit. So the additional time was good because it gave us the opportunity to listen to what we had and ruminate over what needed cutting back. It gives you time to listen to it and go, actually, do we want it to be this way? Or do we want to add, you know, more piano, or add more of Vic’s vocals, it really helped. It was a double edged sword too because it made you overthink things as well (laughs). But yeah, I think the time did really help. The more frustrating thing was not being in the same place, because obviously Vile Creature are in Canada, and we’re here in the UK and even Joe and I don’t live in the same city. So yeah, it was interesting, but it was a good experience. And then terrifying when we played!

How did it feel stepping out as the first band on the main stage for the weekend at Roadburn?

Tanya: It was a lot of pressure! Obviously we didn’t want to let Walter down. It blew our mind slightly that we are actually playing on the main stage. A lot of pressure, but a great honor as well.

One of the striking sections of the record features your piano playing. Do you see that as particular to the collaboration, or do you foresee further dynamic additions to future Bismuth material? 

Tanya: I’ve always wanted to have piano on a Bismuth record, it’s just trying to find the right place for it. I felt like the collaboration was a good space to make it happen because we were combining forces anyway, so we could tease things out that we wouldn’t normally do. But it’s definitely something that I want to do. We do actually have a song that we’re working on for the new Bismuth album that does have piano on it, but not probably in the way that you would expect, it’s a simpler thing, written to fit in with the drones underneath it. But yeah it’s something that we think about constantly. Then I have to consider the logistics as well, of playing piano and bass at the same time, because I’m trying to avoid having to use samples because they’re always a pain to deal with. But yeah, new record, we’ll have some piano. I think that was a secret – not any more!

Do you foresee any additional complexity in terms of how to recreate that on stage?

Tanya: It’s something I’ve actively been thinking about. Because yeah as I said, I want to avoid using samples. So how can I do this in a robust manner that doesn’t rely on a laptop that might break or a keyboard that might break? So I’m still figuring it out. Really, I probably will end up getting another keyboard. It’s always tricky when you have to bring new gear on tour, and we have famously bad luck with equipment as well. So if I have to introduce more equipment it’s always risky. On the tour we just did with Vile Creature two of my amps broke and one of my cabs broke. So yay (laughs).

I’ve read interviews where you’ve discussed the degree of customisation of your amps, so it must be tricky if you need to borrow something from another act.

Tanya: Yeah, it’s really tricky, because a lot of my amps are made for me. And while the models are not necessarily uncommon, it’s kind of tricky to get the same tonality you want. But we’re always appreciative of any band that lends equipment when things go wrong. It’s unavoidable when you’re on tour, if you use valve amplifiers, they’re gona break eventually!

We’ve talked about Vile Creature, but you’re prolific collaborators and have released various splits over the years. How do you select or instigate those collaborations when they happen?

Tanya: With all our collaborations, we primarily look for some kind of commonality between us and the other act, whether that be in terms of harsh repetitiveness like with Legion of Andromeda, or embracing melodicism on the split that we did within Undersmile. I think it’s important when you’re doing a collab that both bands are not exactly the same, because that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. You don’t want to listen to one side of the record, and be like oh, it’s the same as the other side. I think it stems back from listening to my favourite collaborations, like The Body’s for example, all the collaborations that they’ve done are wildly different from each other but you can still tell that there’s the same people involved. And another commonality is just that we try and do collaborations with like, good people, as well. We just want to avoid any kind of additional stress when we’re releasing music with somebody else. But yeah, enhancing each other’s musicality is most important.

You mentioned your release with Legion of Andromeda: do you have a friendship with that band? They seem quite secretive and almost publicity averse.

Tanya: Yeah, they actually toured with our friends in Ommadon, so I went to watch them and I was blown away by them. It was just the most nasty, repetitive horribleness!  And regarding the split – I just asked them if they wanted to do it on the off chance, and I was so happy when they said yes, I got to be a part of this horrible filth (laughs). It was actually frustrating because even though I’ve been in the same room as them, I’ve never actually been able to watch them directly because – it’s basically just a guitarist, a drum machine and a singer – they use a strobe and I suffer from photosensitive seizures. So I can’t watch them! But they are my guitar tone soulmates, they bring this Big Black kind of tone, a noise rock vibe but in a metal context, if that makes sense. So yeah I really, really loved releasing with them.

I remember hearing their first album, you get three tracks in and think wow, they’re ballsy enough to use the same drum track on every song?

Tanya: They did! They used exactly the same track. So their singer was saying, yeah, no change. Nothing. Just this singular vision to be as nasty sounding as possible with the kind of least amount of change.

Very cool story! So to touch on the subject matter of Bismuth’s catalogue to date. There’s the running theme of environmental science that is a big part of what the band does. Do you find that audiences engage with you on the topics being discussed?

Tanya: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I’ve had good discussions with people after shows about the environment, and what people can do on a local level to try and help with for instance, degradation of the environment or biodiversity. Because I think people can feel quite powerless, given most of the issues are caused by big corporations and governments wanting loads of money. So it’s good to talk to people about what they can actively do to help, even a little local change is better than nothing. And even though it can feel really overwhelming it’s a really good discussion to have with people. For the band, when we have to take flights to shows we use carbon offsetting. Flying is not great but it’s sometimes needed when you’re in a band, unfortunately. There have been a few people who’ve said that listening to The Slow Dying of the Great  Barrier Reef helped them articulate something which has been in their mind for a little while, with regards to biodiversity decline in particular, which is kind of crazy to me, but also awesome. On a personal level, it helps me deal with a lot of the stuff that my colleagues and I were researching, and having to read about; so much bleak stuff every day, and writing about it is a good way of processing it.

And are the subject matter and the music equal components, are they inseparable at this point?

Tanya: So I always write the music first, and how the music sounds then helps to develop the lyrics. So, while I had a broad theme in mind (when we first started writing Barrier Reef) I didn’t know it was going to be about the Barrier Reef decline. But then as soon as the music started forming it reminded me of the ocean, the depths of the ocean. And that feeling informed my lyrics a lot, so they kind of work together with the music carving the lyrical content to an extent.

Jumping back to Supersonic, who would you suggest other people  go and see over the course that weekend?

Tanya: I’m really sad that we’re not at Supersonic on Friday because I really want to see The Bug a lot. He is probably the bassiest artist I’ve ever seen. So if you really love deep bass and electronic music get to that set, and Flowdan‘s there as well  so yeah, that’ll be great, if you have any kind of interest in grime too then you should definitely go check them out. And then I’d be kind of remiss if I didn’t say Thou as well because obviously, everyone has to go watch Thou. Divide & Dissolve are playing as well, aren’t they? They were really great when I saw them last time, once again pushing the boundaries of heavy music. And then also, from the Nottingham scene Bloody Head as well: Nottingham based noise rock and they practise in the same studio as us, they’re a mix of nasty sounding noisiness and psychedelia. Generally, any of the artists playing Supersonic are going to be great, because they always book a good range of people.

You mentioned earlier that you grew up in Birmingham as well.

Tanya: I did. Yeah. I grew up in the Rubery & Rednal area of Birmingham, south of the city in Bromsgrove. Growing up in Birmingham there wasn’t a great range of shows, but I feel like (culture & events promoter) Capsule has helped foster a really good music scene there now, they’ve worked so hard for a long time to bring good music to Birmingham. I remember going see Pelican and like The Melvins in Capsule’s early days at the Hare & Hounds, they put on so many good bands. And now it feels like a big honour to play Supersonic.

When people go to Supersonic for the first time one thing everyone takes away is how amazing the samosas are that are the pubs. Do you have any tips on where to get the best samosas?

Tanya: Ooh that’s a tricky one. So there’s a food market in Digbeth, and I don’t know if the stall’s still there because I’ve not been home for a little while, but on the corner of Digbeth market there’s a little samosa and bread stall that’s really good. I recommend that a lot. And then there’s like a little vegan place around the corner as well from the venue. So that’s another good good place to go as well. 

This may not have been an entirely selfless question. 

Tanya: (laughs) I think the problem when you go back to Digbeth now is that there are so many good places to eat that you end up trying to run between them all and see a bunch of bands as well – it’s always a fun game. One thing I will say for anyone who’s not been to Birmingham before is even in the summer, bring your raincoat because it will rain. Always does (laughs). I mean, I can’t talk because I live in Manchester right now. But yeah, be warned.

Bismuth play Supersonic Festival at the 7SVN venue on Saturday July 9th. Tickets.

A Hymn of Loss and Hope is out now. Order here.

Words: Luke Jackson

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