An interview with UK duo Insides
Insides are the Brighton-based duo of singer/bassist Kirsty Yates and guitarist programmer Julian Tardo. In 1989, they formed the minimalist noise-pop group Earwig with guitarist and sequencer Dimitri Voulis, releasing four EPs and singles, an album, and a compilation on La-Di-Da Productions before breaking up in 1992. Yates and Tardo signed to 4AD offshoot Guernica as Insides for two albums which nestled into the divide between ambient techno and indie: 1993’s Euphoria and the following year’s single track Clear Skin. In 2000 they returned for the Bossa Nova-inflected Sweet Tip; some two decades later they’ve self-released the striking Soft Bonds, which places Yates’ direct vocals on off-the-grid paths among fields of oscillators. Jesse Dorris had a Zoom call with Insides on January 6th, 2021, as white nationalists broke into the United States Capitol and COVID-19 sent the UK once again into almost total lockdown. Somehow, a transatlantic conversation emerged, edited and condensed for clarity below. The couple’s beguiling Siamese cat Minky joined in the fun.
Jesse Dorris: So… how are you?
Kirsty Yates: I was just reading today that the infection rate in Brighton is higher than the national average, which is crazy. We’ve gone from being really low—in the UK it kind of started here, and the authorities got it under control—but now we’re higher than the average. The hardest thing for us is parents, Julian hasn’t seen his Dad for over a year and my Mom’s on her own. It’s stuff like that. They’re fine and coping with it, aren’t they—they don’t sound depressed.
Julian Tardo: It does feel like we’re in for a long haul though, this is going to go on for such a long time.
It must be so strange to be returning at a time like this.
Kirsty Yates: I find it weird how generally people take it in their stride. But at least we don’t have a bunch of morons in charge of the country (laughs).
Well who knows who’s in charge of this country. There’s a coup happening as we speak.
Kirsty Yates: When you’ve got people dismantling everything that’s good, it takes forever to put it all back together. I was 50 last year and I think I’m really glad I’m in the last chunk of my life (laughter). But also you start to realize that, for younger people, if you’ve only been abused your whole life, how do you recognize it? It’s not quite appreciated just how right wing they are now. I was young and on the cusp during the Thatcher years but I’ve never been aware of my government being a joke before. That’s a new one. The fact that they are laughable yet have so much support. Cheers by the way, we’re still having a little Christmas drink! (laughter).
How has this affected the release of the new album?
Kirsty Yates: Today we got a cancellation from HMV, which when I was a kid was a huge chain, but is not really a big deal anymore. And to be honest we wouldn’t expect to sell much that route. But it did make me think: Oh yeah, the shops are shut and will be shut for the foreseeable future. But the last couple of days have been busy for a small band that hardly anyone’s heard of. Every time we go ca-ching on Bandcamp we go—
Julian Tardo: Whoo-hoo!
Kirsty Yates: We’re got a hit on our hands! (laughs).
Julian Tardo: We’ve never put out a record ourselves before.
Kirsty Yates: We only did it because of Bandcamp Fridays.
Julian Tardo: That’s not true.
Kirsty Yates: We’d been thinking of doing it but this made of think it’s too good an opportunity.
Julian Tardo: We were going to release it anyway.
Kirsty Yates: Yeah, but let’s face it, we were sitting on it for quite a while. We’d started making the album properly in 2012 and it’s not like we’ve been doing it exhaustively the whole time. We had toilet breaks. Having a recording studio and doing some of it at home sort of meant we could take our time with it. I never know if that’s the best route. I still think we would have been in danger of tweaking and tweaking and fiddling with the artwork.
Julian Tardo: We finished it this time last year. I don’t know whether Kirsty remembers it this way but I was always intending for us to do it ourselves. A couple labels approached us but you always have to ask yourself: What’s a label actually going to be able to offer these days? Because you can buy in the services. For a band of our size there’s not really any point in forfeiting a decent share of your potentially-small income to somebody else when really you could do it yourselves.
Kirsty Yates: When things are on a small level and you know people are using their personal time and money for it, it’s an excruciating amount of responsibility. For the Euphoria reissue we were having to say at Andrew at Beacon Sound, “It won’t sell a lot, it’s lovely to have it out and it’s lovely that you have some writers who all say this is ripe for a rediscovery but we don’t have that expectation.” But it’s definitely brought home what a different era it is. There’s a certain amount of guilt about postage. Everything’s tangible. I had a panic last week when someone messaged me and said did you know the postal rates are going up on the first of January and I was like, “NO!” And then fucking Brexit. And you see messages of people online saying the person buying your record might be charged VAT at the local rate. So all the CDs I had, I put in the post on December 31st thinking: Well, if it’s stamped the 31st, we were in the EU then!
Will Brexit fuck up a European tour the way it seems like it will?
Kirsty Yates: The sad thing is, we’ve had all these years to do something and we decide to do it when the world ends! (laughter). In 2018 Seefeel asked us to play a gig with them in Paris.
Kirsty Yates: (sighs). First of all, I was like, “Nope! We can’t do this!” But we did and suddenly realized ah, I love this! I never loved it when I was younger.
Kirsty Yates: I was just a different person. I was too shy, I think that was the main thing, I found it really difficult. I found singing and playing bass technically difficult.
Julian Tardo: Because you hadn’t played bass before and we kind of bullied you into it.
Kirsty Yates: Well in Earwig I hadn’t played bass before!
Julian Tardo: And then with Insides, everything was electronic. When we first played gigs as Insides we had an Atari computer and a sampler and were running it all live and it would go wrong all the time.
Kirsty Yates: Well, hold on, the main reason I didn’t like it was that hardly anyone liked us! That’s the main reason!
Julian Tardo: When we went to play gigs, it was a rock environment. There were no places to play as an electronic band. You always went down badly.
Kirsty Yates: An electronic band with instruments. We weren’t one thing or the other. Seriously, a really big thing was not having a drummer, how much people hated that. Really hated it.
Why do you think that was?
Kirsty Yates: Because they’re MORONS! (laughter). We grew up listening to Kraftwerk, or whatever. It was never an issue for us. When we bought our first drum machine it was with Earwig, when we were really young. Dimitri [Voulis] and I bought the drum machine because we both had a savings account with a building society which floated on the stock exchange so we got shares doing nothing. We cashed in our shares and we bought a drum machine. That was how we did it. When we first formed the band, that was the intention. It wasn’t a compromise.
Julian Tardo: Dimitri was a drummer, so he liked the idea of programming drums. Like Stephen Morris, he was a drummer who liked the idea of programming drums.
Do you remember what machine it was?
Julian Tardo: Alesis HR-16 1B. I’ve still got it. The battery’s expired.
I know the feeling.
Julian Tardo: But it still looks good. Orbital used the sequence in the drum machine for their live set.
Kirsty Yates: At that point, if you were doing something like Orbital it was like, Oh yeah we get that but why do you have a guitar and bass why are you singing?
Julian Tardo: What we were doing was the reality of how people were recording music in studios at that time. Everyone was using samplers and overdubbing. I always hate that thing where people get a band in to play the songs live. I’d rather people mime. I remember writing a letter to Top of the Pops when I was like too old (laughs) to complain that Dannii Minogue was forced to sing live! On Top of the Pops! I was outraged! She should be miming!
Kirsty Yates: Top of the Pops went through this authenticity drive where everyone had to sing live, getting people to sing over a backing track. You’d read interviews with the producers saying: People have been getting away with it for too long! (laughs). That era was Oasis and Blur, a wave of tedious—bit hard on Blur—just tedious rock bands. Again, we were out of step. (Their cat Minky jumps into her lap). This is Minky, this is Jesse.
The elusive third member! Since we started talking about Earwig, let’s talk through the beginning.
Julian Tardo: It was 1989 and we were all at university up the road at Sussex University. Kirsty came from Coventry, I came from Cardiff, Dimitri was from London, and there were a couple other people initially.
Kirsty Yates: We all lived on the same corridor.
Julian Tardo: Dimitri was a massive goth and Kirsty introduced me to all that 88, 87 stuff: Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Jr., she would blast it out of her room. Leather jacket and looked like a Ramone, playing the Jesus and Mary Chain really loud.
Kirsty Yates: Brighton was amazing for gigs at that point, because even though it’s close to London, you’d get all the bands. That was how I chose my university, looking at where the bands played! First term I saw My Bloody Valentine, Loop, they all played. I’d go see anybody if I could find somebody to come along. I remember when Isn’t Anything came out, it was on a big display at HMV. When our records came out, they weren’t obscure, you could get them in the shops. They were covered in the music press. It’s just that no one liked them! (laughs). We started as a five-piece and we were young. Julian was a metal kid, he used to work in actual washed-out Deep Purple t-shirts that really were washed-out because he’d been wearing them since he was 13.
Julian Tardo: Thank you for sharing this. (laughs). But it very quickly crystallized with all these things we hated. The bile came up and we started to become this incredibly embittered trio. That was the start of Earwig.
One of the things I found so astonishing about Earwig, and loved so much about it, was how forthright your vocals and lyrics were in their nastiness. “Her Stupid Face” is so mean and true, whether or not it’s a character study.
Kirsty Yates: The first Earwig records would have been more of a pose. Then again, I sort of think I can be really charming, but, excuse me, I’m a terrible cunt. I really am, there’s definitely going to be that element! Wouldn’t you say?
Julian Tardo: No, I agree! (laughter).
But was there anything about being in the spotlight at that moment?
Kirsty Yates: I’m 6 foot tall and I was really thin, naturally thin. Even from when I was very small. You see your class picture and it’s like, who the fuck is that? And that was me. I always looked different, I always looked weird. I may not fit in but I’m not going to back down, just because I’m not as attractive as you or I have this, I have that. I was painfully shy, I really was. But when you get older you think, no, I look striking. There’s different marketing on it.
Is that you on the cover of Past?
Kirsty Yates: Yes, that’s me as a kid.
Julian Tardo: Incredible school photo.
To me it just looked so Riot Grrrl, like who the fuck is this and how do I get to be her friend?
Kirsty Yates: I’ve got my fist clenched. My mom said from a baby I’ve always slept with my fists clenched. I worked it out as to how many years I’ve had my fists clenched for and it’s something like 18 years. And I was partially sighted—I’ve got lens implants now—so this would have been when I was at school. You know, four years old, I was two-thirds blind and this was before they picked up on that. So I’m having my picture taken and I think it’s hilarious they still took the picture even though I was crying! That’s the essence of me. A bit emotional and quite angry.
Julian Tardo: She’s still like that today. She’s so great. In so many contexts where I will just change my mind to go along with what somebody else is saying, Kirsty is a hard stop. She never changes when she’s in a different context. That’s not something you can cultivate, that’s just how she is. You keep your focus when everybody else is losing theirs. That’s you.
What was the La-Di-Da scene like?
Julian Tardo: It was basically a label Grant Lyons ran out of his parents’ house. Grant was an overgrown indie kid with an anorak and bowl cut.
Kirsty Yates: He was Mr. C-86.
Julian Tardo: Grant Lyons is a thing to behold. He’s a constantly farting and belching oaf.
Kirsty Yates: Very good-natured.
Julian Tardo: Makes you laugh despite yourself. Once we were out of college and professionally unemployed, we were able to rehearse in a little studio he had in there, and we used to hang out and whenever it was empty he would let us use it. From there we started just getting better. There was a transition where we were influenced by that kind of slightly C-86 thing, that kind of angular pop like the Shop Assistants. At some point that tipped into, let’s try to be as quiet as possible.
I’d seen Bark Psychosis in Cardiff and they did the loud-quiet thing and the loud bit was as loud as Big Black, like full-on explosive. And then they would go right down low. They were my way into Talk Talk. And also I was really into modern classical music at that point, the Philip Glasses and Steve Reichs, and I was like: We can just play this stuff on guitars. I don’t care if it sounds any good! Just do the repetition thing. The C-86 thing comes from the Velvet Underground, which is basically playing minimal. There’s that perfect release in minimalism where you’re looking beyond, the thousand-yard stare. I’ve heard Kaki King talk about when she plays guitar she can have thoughts she can’t have when she’s normally just doing stuff in her life. It buys you kind of a space.
Kirsty Yates: Even on the first single, “Both of Us Screaming,” it was there from the start. There were people who were better musicians than us, or more impressive or immediate, but we made a rod for our own backs. We realized quite early on that this was what we wanted to do.
Julian Tardo: When we were on stage we felt like our backs were up against the wall because we were deliberately not doing what everyone else was doing and that marks you out as a target and that makes you double down. “OK I’m going to go quieter! I’m going to go more minimal!” The aftertaste doing gigs was like, we’re just going to play one note for seven minutes. Take that!
Kirsty Yates: There would always be people when we played in London that got it and liked it and would keep coming back. But there were probably only three of them. That’s not an exaggeration.
Julian Tardo: When I read about Suicide, they went through the same thing being deliberately—
Kirsty Yates: —although I suspect they had a lot more fun—
Julian Tardo: —well if you think having glasses thrown at you is fun—
Kirsty Yates: —OK, they were more confrontational, we were never that confrontational. But people booed. Girls were like, “Look at her, look at what she’s wearing.” People just hated it on sight.
Julian Tardo: But there was something to it, I don’t remember coming off stage feeling upset.
Kirsty Yates: No, I thought it was hilarious!
Talking about minimalism, in Earwig and definitely in Insides you had that repetition. But then your lyrics were so maximal in their emotions. Did you feel pressure to coat everything in reverb and ba-ba-ba harmonies? To disappear in that shoegaze way?
Kirsty Yates: No. Most of the time I was trying to do something I wasn’t embarrassed by. When we did our early demos I would have loved some heavy reverb but by the time we did our stuff we were into this really dry sound.
Julian Tardo: And in the early Earwig records—
Kirsty Yates: It was too dry!
Julian Tardo: We just basically thought: This is what it is and it’s going to be brutally frank in how it’s recorded. In retrospect it sounds terribly austere and too dry, and that is the difference between Earwig and Insides. We’d reached a point when we thought we’d done that super-dryness and we wanted to explore something else.
So you start buying sequencers and machines and learning how to use them?
Julian Tardo: Grant did. He bought an EPS 16+ sampler for his studio and of course we completely kind of said, “this is MINE!” I just learned how to use it. Dimitri was still the main programmer in the band, but I wanted to know how to do stuff, so we had some sessions of sort of dog barking kind of sounds.
Kirsty Yates: I remember the look on Grant’s dad’s face.
Julian Tardo: The kind of stuff Depeche Mode had gone through ten years before, these new possibilities of sound. We started sampling the guitars a little bit and using the string patches to play the guitar parts. Increasing your palette. And there was no way of going backwards.
Kirsty Yates: Even then we were aware that the more people you have involved the more confusing it becomes. So we saw samplers as ways of expanding without having to get anyone else involved. We didn’t worry about the artificial nature of things. Other people had those worries but that didn’t bother us.
Julian Tardo: There’s a point at the end of “Scraped Out” where basically we had sampled guitar harmonics.
Kirsty Yates: We just switched it to the string patch and it’s kind of ridiculous.
Julian Tardo: It sounds stupid, completely plastic!
Kirsty Yates: And we did laugh at it!
Julian Tardo: But it’s this weird middle ground of real/not-real. It’s always interesting to explore something that is partially fake. That’s an interesting area to exist in. Earwig was a guitar band. Even though we had the drum machine, everything was very organic and played. I wanted more and more layers that I’m not even creating—using automatic rhythms—or I’m sampling chunks of it and reusing it. I started to play chords that were impossible to play, sampling strings and playing them on the keyboard. It’s pretty amateurish to describe it now but at the time it was something we hadn’t done. It was where we wanted to be.
And then 4AD came calling?
Kirsty Yates: Ivo [Watts-Russell] came to see us. He said he was reluctant to take us away from Grant. But Grant was generous enough to say, “No, you need your opportunity.” We didn’t have a lot to do with Ivo because at that point, we now know, he was having a bit of a breakdown. We were shy people. I can remember being in Ivo’s office on a big orange sofa. That was the thing, you went to 4AD and the furniture was amazing!
Julian Tardo: It was the most stylish place I’d ever been to. I wanted to live there. We were in shitty rented studentville.
Kirsty Yates: I remember him suddenly going: Who wants to see a Breeders video? And playing “Cannonball.”
Julian Tardo: “We’ve just got this, isn’t it good?” “Yeah, it’s pretty good…” what else do you say?
Kirsty Yates: By this time Dimitri had left the band. We were approached as a three-piece and we’d been offered some gigs with Belly. Dimitri decided he wanted to follow his girlfriend to Spain and leave the band. We were like OH NO what are we going to do? But Ivo was generous enough to be like, that’s fine.
Julian Tardo: We fitted into Ivo’s typical 4AD band like Wolfgang Press or Dif Juz in that we were a problematic not proper band that had done something interesting. That fitted into the odd narrative of 4AD.
Kirsty Yates: We weren’t charmers. He didn’t sign us based on, “I like these people!”
Julian Tardo: He said he would do a record but we hadn’t done demos or anything, so he had no idea. He just said, Do you want to play the 13 Year Itch festival with all the other 4AD bands?
Kirsty Yates: We worked really hard for that. We’d been playing bits of other people’s songs between our songs. Not pop songs.
Julian Tardo: Willy Wonka.
Kirsty Yates: “This Guy’s in Love with You.” No one was fawning over Burt Bacharach in 1992.
You were doing this so you had time to figure out the programming of the next track?
Kirsty: And so there was no silence or one person clapping. We did that to relieve everybody. And ourselves. But for the 13 Year Itch we programmed everything as if it was one long piece of music.
Julian Tardo: Euphoria as one 20-30 minute piece of music.
That must have driven you crazy.
Julian Tardo: I was trying to get to grips with all the equipment because I wasn’t the main programmer. I did two parallel things which was to program all the songs on the album separately, write them all, and then to take all of those in a separate arrangement and join them all together.
Kirsty Yates: We went the next day to go and record them. It’s really strange.
Julian Tardo: All these tempo changes, just nuts.
Kirsty Yates: We also decided we’d start working with visuals because we were conscious of it being the two of us. I really wanted the visuals to be a kind of Fuck you, this is what it is. So our visuals were just our faces on a loop. Which is the “Ghost Music” video.
Julian Tardo: Giving one of our patented hard stares.
Kirsty Yates: This is what you’re getting. My memory is that we went down really well considering no one knew who the hell we were. We played the same night as Red House Painters. The crowd went wild! (laughs). I’m sure Ivo said, “That was one of the best fucking demos I’ve ever heard.” Because that was the first he’d heard!
Julian Tardo: It upped our game. A friend of ours, Jonathan Charles, we’d been talking about working with for ages so we constructed this roadblock with our faces projected on it.
Kirsty Yates: The concept was the barrier between us and the audience (laughter).
It seemed like the narrative that developed with Euphoria was that the songs were about the two of you, sort of a Fleetwood Mac breakup album.
Kirsty Yates: We were only not together for a really short time but it did inform the period. It makes good copy. Ivo did phone us when we were on our way up to Edinburgh to record, tiptoeing around the question of whether we needed one bed or two!
Julian Tardo: Was that the gig where he had the nervous breakdown?
Kirsty Yates: What, because he couldn’t have me? (laughs). Like with anything there’s dramatized bits and elements that are true. And lots of things I write are true but not necessarily my truth. Conversations overheard or things people have said to me. So the “Darling Effect” line [“I hate lovers / I hate the way they go to the bathroom / in shifts / after they fuck.”] came from a letter from a friend. Great, the thing I’m most known for wasn’t even me. I was just a curator (laughs). Before people cared about curating.
Talent borrows, genius steals.
Kirsty Yates: You can only write that stuff when you’re 23 and you’re not aware that anybody’s listening. It’s always a surprise when people tell me about, “I was in this relationship and this was our album,” or “this helped me after that.” Because I was this shy, gangly 23-year-old that nobody wanted to listen to in real life. So there would have been an intention there to write something I was proud of. I like to think I’m alright in the brain department. Anything more than that wasn’t premeditated. Bearing in mind we’d just done a fucking gig that was a big deal for 4AD. Lots of those words weren’t finalized until just before I sang them.
Julian Tardo: I hadn’t heard any of the lyrics. We went to Edinburgh without me knowing what any of the lyrics meant.
Kirsty Yates: I was a terrible time waster! Bernard Sumner talked about writing a line and singing and line and I thought thank fuck for that.
And Clear Skin left off the vocals altogether.
Julian Tardo: I’d read someone else, maybe Wire, had supported itself as a different entity. So we thought [for the tour] we’ll be a different band and go on first and do Clear Skin and then come on and do Euphoria. We meant it as something people would talk over as they walked in. Some nonprecious kind of prettiness.
Kirsty Yates: We spent hours in our flat playing versions. I used to really annoy you, just having the bass on my lap doing the harmonics, you hated it!
Julian Tardo: The outright refusal to get good at it. “I’ll just play it on my lap!”
Kirsty Yates: I’ll have you know when I was in the studio most of my basslines are first takes. (laughter).
First thought, best thought.
Julian Tardo: She brings what is needed.
Kirsty Yates: I find it weird that myths exists about Clear Skin coming out without our agreeing to it. Our disgruntlement came later, when we realized oh that’s it, that’s our relationship with 4AD, [it’s] over. I wouldn’t have chosen to put Clear Skin out, I would have preferred for them to say, “OK, here’s your next pot of money, go write your next album.” But that’s not how it worked.
Julian Tardo: We didn’t know at the time that 4AD was running aground and Ivo was trying to back out of it. To us it just looked like, oh shit, nobody’s offering us anything. So we’re stuck. Is that it?
Kirsty Yates: I had a chat with Chris Bigg of v23 recently for the first time in years and he said Clear Skin was the last big thing he worked on. He kind of sees that as being where the line is drawn. It changed after that. We were never 4AD aficionados, though. It was more about finding a home with people who love you. It definitely has an impact, though. Like Ivo’s peers at the time, Geoff Travis and Daniel Miller, Miller said to our manager at the time, “why doesn’t Ivo want them?” So the fact that he didn’t sign us—when we may not have sold thousands and thousands, but it did a better job for the kind of album it was than some of the 4AD proper releases and some of the other Guernica releases—people thought there must be something wrong with us.
Kirsty Yates: They wanted us to go one way or the other.
Julian Tardo: And the sense that we couldn’t trust these people.
Kirsty Yates: That was kind of annoying, to be told to work with somebody. Like, fuck off, you’re not in this band! I don’t see you at rehearsal.
Saint Etienne is one of my favorite bands but I don’t know what you would have gotten from working from them.
Someone like Too Pure, you really presaged what they were doing.
Kirsty Yates: Well they had a pretty full roster. They were on the cusp—or over-cusped, really. You always read about when smaller labels get some success, how hard it is for them in the next stage. Everything’s a lot more serious.
Julian Tardo: And now we know Seefeel, they moved away from Too Pure because there was a hard stop of what Too Pure could provide for them.
Julian Tardo: There was no room for another band.
So what did you do?
Julian Tardo: I started the studio I have now. We moved all the stuff out of Grant’s parents’ house and got a premises. All the Insides gear I’d amassed at that point just all went into the studio. It changed my life in a way I didn’t really predict. It became a job and I started doing less and less of my own stuff as I did other people’s music.
Who recorded in the studio?
Julian Tardo: Initially it was demo bands, local type bands for a really long time. But the first things I did that anyone would have heard came a decade later, really. We worked on the Seefeel album and recorded stuff with Fear of Men.
I love Fear of Men, I don’t understand why they’re not massive. I can’t believe how good they are live.
Julian Tardo: They’re very intense people. The studio was started to be a plan B because neither of us really wanted to get an office job but the way it turned out was we both kind of got jobs because we needed to make some money.
Kirsty Yates: The musical landscape changed. Then I’d got a viral thing that meant for about a year I couldn’t hear properly. That was 94? So it was after Clear Skin. Even if we’d been the most enthusiastic giggers we couldn’t anyway because I couldn’t hear. It was the final straw. I heard everything like Daleks, it was awful.
That must have been such a headfuck for you.
Kirsty Yates: I’d wake in the morning and think it was better and gradually it would get worse over the day. Finally it came back but we’d moved on.
Julian Tardo: We’d done some demos and a few songs, like “Blue Nimbus,” which was the only thing we really like from that period.
Kirsty Yates: And was a Melody Maker single of the week! (laughs).
Julian Tardo: We were doing Insides part time. And I was obsessed with Luscious Jackson and exotica.
Kirsty Yates: Astrud Gilberto.
Julian Tardo: I wanted to make something between two things. Like those lovely soul records that jungle was manipulating and chopping up. We did loads of experimenting with things that were more like Marvin Gaye. I love the idea of being sort of soppy, over-romantic, that kind of Scritti Politti thing was still a major thing for me. I think at some point we wrote to Greene to ask him to produce us.
Kirsty Yates: We didn’t hear from him. Put that in. (laughter).
How much of Sweet Tip is live and how much is loops?
Julian Tardo: It’s a little of both. With the advance money I bought a 24-track recorder for the studio, that was the new obsession. We had been recorded in such a lovely way for the Euphoria stuff, two great studios, including the one up in Edinburgh used by Cocteau Twins and Prefab Sprout and Billy Mackenzie.
Kirsty Yates: Keith Mitchell who engineered it was such a pleasure to work with.
The piano sound on that just tears my heart in two.
Julian Tardo: It was just a lovely Yamaha grand piano. So when we were recording Sweet Tip it was the first time I was in control of recording the 24-track. It sounds okay but it’s not as good, the equipment wasn’t as good.
Kirsty Yates: And you probably tinkered too much. But there are some things like “All Life Long”… I wish I hadn’t done the harmonies on it, or so many of them.
Julian Tardo: “Hold This in Your Heart.”
Kirsty Yates: “Nothing Could Be Sweeter” is good.
I love that song.
Julian Tardo: There are some bits I could play live now, I’m happy with it. But shortly after it came out, it didn’t really do anything. Frankly I don’t think we’ve spoken to the label since the day it was released. They didn’t really promote it at all.
Kirsty Yates: It was met with complete indifference
Julian Tardo: It didn’t have the clout of 4AD and it was a slightly odd record that we didn’t tour, so nobody got to know about it.
Personally I was a little befuddled because Clear Skin was the last you’d put out before this. It felt kind of like a reverse Everything But the Girl.
Kirsty Yates: It’s not the next logical step (laughter).
And I think for some of us fans, it felt like you had really gotten somewhere with the sampling that others were just catching up to. Like Radiohead, everyone was saying that sounded like Autechre. They didn’t sound like Autechre, they sounded like Insides! And then you returned… with a bossa nova record.
Kirsty Yates: It was a sort of reaction to all the nonsense over those records.
Julian Tardo: When you look at Julius Eastman doing repetitive stuff, that’s what we were trying to do.
Kirsty Yates: And Eastman was upbeat, it wasn’t this achingly cool thing. Definitely around Sweet Tip that was something we had on our minds.
Julian Tardo: We went to see Astrud Gilberto at a jazz café in London and we were like, “Oh my god we are actually sitting in front of her.” There’s something about the quiet way she sings. The melody and the intimacy. And intimacy right back to Earwig is a huge thing. Intimacy isn’t necessarily what bands like Radiohead and their ilk were after. In fact, it’s diametrically opposed to things like Slowdive, Chapterhouse, and those kind of things. We were definitely not shoegaze in that sense, which is very much distanced and depersonalized.
And so much of that is the dryness and closeness of your vocals—in retrospect it does feel very Astrud. Someone speaking directly into your ear. Not trying to be a…spectral presence.
Kirsty Yates: Yeah. And I like things like the occasional off-note. I like to get as much of a full take as possible. The Shimmy-Disc, Kramer thing where he would apparently play something you weren’t happy with until you were happy with it. Wear you down! I quite like the idea of keeping something in that wasn’t that perfect. Even now Julian will say, “Are you okay with that?” We’ll sometimes have quick conflicting ideas.
Julian Tardo: When I record other bands, I spend a lot of time on that edge of, “Should I repair this to make it sound super tough/pop/polished?” But my heart is born of the Velvet Underground and all those imperfections. Suicide.
Kirsty Yates: They have to be good imperfections.
Julian Tardo: Between 2000 and 2010 everyone was using DAW sequencers to produce their music and the ability to layer stuff became an almost foregone conclusion. So you’d get this incredibly slick, powerful music, in all different contexts. When we started to have some songs I thought, well, look: I want it to sound ragged and almost unfinished and I want it to have gaps in it. We got to the point of starting a track with your voice completely a cappella. Who does that? How minimal can you get before it actually falls to pieces?
Kirsty Yates: I remember in the early days someone said to me: Wou sing how you speak. Which I thought was great. In a way it’s trying to be hyper-real. Although I suppose you can fake that, as well.
Were you building songs up and then stripping them back, or beginning and stopping?
Kirsty Yates: Some songs would begin with vocal melodies that were difficult to build around.
Julian Tardo: We didn’t record on the grid at all. We’d done a few songs of Kirsty’s I could never find the chords of. Which is my failure!
Kirsty Yates: Well at the time, it was mine.
Julian Tardo: I’m trying to be generous! (laughter). But at the end of the process, I’d seen the benefits. If you start with the melody then it’s a much tougher assignment to try to construct something underneath. It’s like making the cake underneath the cherry. There’s no foundation, which makes it super interesting. It comes out really wonky and weird and it was such a breath of fresh air to write songs in this topsy-turvy way. It felt new. The only person I knew who created songs from the vocal downwards was Scott Walker on his last albums. He would sing a track and not change it at all and everything else was dotted around it.
So much of the new album operates on very high and very low frequencies, with dips and valleys between them. Tilt does a lot of that. I don’t know if it’s just my ears wearing out, but so much of what I hear right now is about the middle and it’s interesting to hear all that just vanish.
Julian Tardo: I’ve always been interested in the extremities. Even on Sweet Tip we sampled the edges of a few of our favorite records, I can’t tell you which ones, but the moments where they disappear.
Kirsty Yates: A friend of mine Dylan Nyoukis, who records under the name Blood Stereo, was doing Feral Choir with an avant guard composer called Phil Minton. Minton basically directs assembled seniors to be guttural. I got to join in on one of those sessions. It’s quite weird when you’re a professional singer because obviously I want to sound nice. But you’re meant to belch, be guttural. Be feral! On “Subordinate” I was keen to do the whole range even if it didn’t sound great. I wanted to sing my range which we argued about quite a lot. I bought this tuning fork to hit the notes.
Kirsty Yates: (hits the note).
Julian Tardo: She was forever trying to hit this high G and also the low one. And it was ridiculous!
Kirsty Yates: But I did (laughter). The name Florence Foster Jenkins was thrown about during the recording. But the idea was not to be strong and true. To not be perfect. If you’re going to have an unpleasant time in the studio, which we quite often do, it has to be for something that we think is exceptional.
Julian Tardo: One reason we’re quite obsessed with This Is Not This Heat is that their working process is pretty much what we went through and still go through. A constant churn of trying things and throwing things away and rejection of anything that’s a retread.
Kirsty Yates: There’s a lot more reworks on this album mainly because we have the time. We had difficult children. “Miserichord” was a difficult child.
Tell me the process of getting that together, please.
Julian Tardo: I’d got an app of the VC3 which is the original kind of synth, and I’d just come up with a few patches that weren’t on a strict grid at all. I had to place them and just go with this weird rhythm but I liked it.
Kirsty Yates: It was the very first song I started to work on. We recorded vocals in this room and it was really good. It was! It was a good vocal take. But the whole track was so noisy and something about it neither of us liked. (Minky yells in the background). We asked a friend what we should do with this and it went on for years. We started it in 2012 and finished it in 2019. We joined one vocal melody to another. And it was difficult because it went to being really empty. Is this a song?
Julian Tardo: We asked ourselves on all of them: Is this a song? They’re all arrived at through ways I’d never made music before. We’d got to a point where I had some demos I hated and they were in the bin but I hadn’t actually flushed the trash. Those songs I put onto random tracks in my DAW and created some random freeform noise off oscillators, they were just on, and then I cross-patched them with the tracks I’d thrown away, those ghosts, and the ghosts were creating the rhythm. So it was a great repurposing of things I wasn’t going to use. It was so freeing that this thing almost controlled itself, this complex knitting. And then of course the talent shows up and she can somehow sing on it, and found a tune within in it.
Kirsty Yates: It was nice to me because it was not dictated that “this is what you’ll do.” I got to place the melody and the structure on something that has no structure.
Julian Tardo: The idea of things not having a beat but having an innate sense of rhythm or momentum became interesting. It doesn’t have to be about a drum pattern. It can be an oozing rush. I was reading an interview with Gary Hume, who paints like household emulsion paint on doors, and he said, “I’ll just paint the whole side of a piece of wood and just over a week stare at it for a long time.” You get to live with it. If something is interesting it draws you back to it and you keep being interested in it and that’s what all of these songs had. Irrespective of melody or rhythm or anything conventionally musical, they’ve all got something magnetic about them that defies your ability to take in what they’re doing somehow. So they are enigmatic.
Kirsty Yates: There’s not much there, but there’s enough there that you want to crack the code. Sometimes you can hear sounds in them that aren’t actually there. That’s still the case. “Miserichord” has a completely different tune to it—especially on stage, you think: Fuck, it doesn’t go like that! (laughs).
When did you start doing live shows again and where was this in the recording process?
Kirsty Yates: Paris was the first, in 2018. Actually most of the record was finished, only “Subordinate” hadn’t been done. We played “Ghost Music.”
Julian Tardo: We’d put a video for that out in 2016 just to kind of put it out. And as soon as we did—
Kirsty Yates: It was a smash hit!
Julian Tardo: (laughs). Well, people started writing to us telling us we should take it down because shouldn’t we want to put it out properly.
Kirsty Yates: It was surprising because we found out people were still following us and wanted to hear more.
Julian Tardo: It gets harder and harder to focus. I don’t know. It’s something about being in this age of constant distraction.
Kirsty Yates: Mark Clifford from Seefeel lives on his own and spends a lot of his time fiddling with music but he admits himself he never completes anything. We talked recently about how we all need to give each other access to our files because sooner or later one of us is going to die (laughter) and this has got to see the light of day somehow.
Ahhhhhhh please do!
Kirsty Yates: I don’t necessarily enjoy being in the studio that much. I enjoy doing it to a degree. When you’re working you have to ask yourself sometimes, “In the summer do I want to go into a basement studio and have an argument with Julian or do I want to go to the beach?” And I love the sun (laughs).
How are you negotiating lockdown?
Julian Tardo: I have to take bookings in the studio—everything’s socially distanced. It’s stressful because I rent my studio space, so I’ve constantly got that money to come up with. So that’s a pressure. A few days a week I also teach music production, which has been tricky. They have laptops so they’re able to make stuff but they are missing out on the studios, they haven’t been able to come in a lot. Classes don’t really exist; everything’s broken down into smaller groups of three or four people. It’s incredibly problematic.
Kirsty Yates: It’s been really stressful for you, though, because it’s doubled your workload at the college.
Julian Tardo: Because my course has suddenly become an online course. Something I used to come in and teach, I’ve had to make 50 videos for YouTube since September. All of that stuff you’re not paid for. You’re paid for an hour to do teaching but making a video takes like four hours.
And I bet you don’t own that video.
Julian Tardo: And I don’t own that video.
Kirsty Yates: I’m not working at the moment. I deliberately took some time off from work because I had a really high-pressure job.
Julian Tardo: She hates working and hates talking about it! (laughter).
Kirsty Yates: I was a project manager in a tech company. When you have a ridiculous job that pays well you do ridiculous things. I was unemployed until I was 27 so that kind of mentality never left me. I knew when I was wasting money and I could never do it, I always broke out into a sweat. I do worry about the future. I’m too young to be doing nothing and I think it does addle your brain and make you a bit boring.
Hardly doing nothing, the new album is coming out!
Kirsty Yates: I’m head of fulfillment! And now I understand why people in my old place were so fucking awful! (laughs). I get it. We had problems with the production of the record. When we finally got test pressings that everyone agreed with, then the plant said, “Ah, COVID, we’ve got delays.” Then the records arrive and there’s a global cardboard shortage! The mailers I thought I didn’t need to get just yet, now I can’t get them. Everywhere is sold out. That’s what you learn the tiny things that can really send me over the edge.
Julian Tardo: That’s what the next Insides record will be about.
Kirsty Yates: It’s about cardboard. It’s about stiffness. It’s about twist mailers.
Thank you for reading the fourty-eighth issue of Tone Glow. Save your cardboard mailers.
If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi or becoming a Patreon patron. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.