INTERVIEW

Dirtying sweet songs of the sixties and putting politics back into music.

Photography by Leon Diaper

“I sound a bit dodgy today, I’ve got a bad cold,” admits Anika “and the German accent comes in once in a while, along with the Cardiff and whatever else is mixed in there. I’m a bit homeless. I have been for years.” Born in England and brought up by a German mother –  “There’s something going round that I was born in Berlin but that’s absolute bollocks, I was born in Chertsey.” – Anika visited Germany frequently as a child and still spends time there, though she’s also lived in Wales, the US, and all over England. “That’s why my accent is all over the place,” she explains. “It goes a bit Home Counties then a bit London, Birmingham, then the German comes in.”

At the moment all I’m hearing is slightly Brummified Surrey, but having listened to Anika’s debut album all weekend, a German accent was exactly what I was expecting – specifically of the deep, smoky, Nico-esque variety. Was the singing accent a choice?

“I don’t know, sometimes I just can’t pronounce words,” she laughs “and when I sing I have a sort of German speech impediment. I can’t help it; it’s not intentional at all. I over pronounced my words on the record because I didn’t want to sound American, and I ended up sounding really German.”

Don’t you just hate it when that happens? While it might seem peculiar to be analysing the way a singer pronounces things, it’s a key factor in the draw of the record. The precise, elegant articulation and measured emotion of Anika’s voice is utterly captivating, especially as it slices its way through a minefield of screaming guitars, hip hop beats, acid synths and passing clouds of reverb that sound like they’ve been beamed down from outer space.

The album is a collaboration between Anika and Bristol trio Beak>, and contains both original compositions and a strangely well-suited assortment of cover versions, including songs by Yoko Ono and Bob Dylan.

“I really like 60’s music,” says Anika. “I’ve always liked garage rock. It was me, Billy [Fuller, Fuzz Against Junk] and Geoff [Barrow, Portishead] who picked the songs. We wanted to find really sickly sweet songs and mess with them as much as we could.” Which they certainly did; their take on Brenda Lee’s ‘End Of The World’ is a sort of slow motion ode to the apocalypse, while Ray Davies’ ‘I Go To Sleep’ sounds like a nightmarish carnival ride. “Even the love songs have turned into stalker songs,” she says evenly, and there are plenty of politically motivated songs in there as well, such as ‘Masters Of War’, which might have seemed an obvious, almost lazy political choice, but for the unfortunately timeless message of protest and outrage, which, again, Anika’s voice conveys stunningly with its dignified anger and frankness, backed only by a minimal beat and its own hollow echoes.

Anika studied journalism in Cardiff, which is when the political side of her really began to emerge. “I had some pretty interesting lecturers, they were proper lefties, and I just started getting into politics,” she explains. “Plus, having a German mother who’s a bit of a crazy Buddhist, I was brought up to have an open mind, to say the least. At uni, I started to help out with the Innocence Project, reviewing cases of people who are facing life imprisonment or who are on Death Row.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that the songs Anika writes tend to address political issues, if not quite as overtly as a Dylan track. “There’s a few that are quite political but people might not realise,” she says. “Like, ‘No One’s There’ is about the recession, which I don’t admit often, but it’s about when the recession first set in and it was a big moral panic, people blamed it for everything that was going wrong, but there was nothing really there, it was all in their minds.”

A political thread seems to run throughout the entire record, its very subtext is subversive, as much in the reworking of gritty 70’s rock tracks as in the deconstruction of saccharine 60’s goo. She’s talked about the common interest amongst her bandmates of messing with music, but the whole piece seems a bit too heavy for an off the cuff song-mangling session.

“I was at a really low point at the time,” she explains. “I wanted to mess with these songs, and I was also working as a promoter at the time, for about three or four venues in Cardiff, and I was really bored with the way the music industry was. I mean, there were good bands out there, but they were different, and I wouldn’t book them, not because I didn’t like them, but because I knew they wouldn’t pull a crowd. I hated that, I hated that I couldn’t book bands that weren’t ‘normal’ and so, with my own music, I just decided to mess with everyone as much as I could.”

She wasn’t interested in putting out a ‘straight up indie’ record, and was particularly happy to end up working with Beak> because of the range of influences – and instruments – that came into the mix. The music is based on a foundation of drums, bass and guitar, but there are other elements, referred to vaguely as “all the other weird shit”, which contribute quite significantly to the harsh, yet ethereal quality of the songs. Apparently there’s enough “other weird shit” involved to require an extra pair of hands on stage for the live performances.

It’s tough to imagine how the album will translate live, but after a few practices with the new set up, Anika is optimistic. “I just feel sorry for the person who ends up standing directly opposite me during the show because I’ll probably be giving them really bad evils the whole time.”

And what does she expect it will be like playing the album to a live audience?

“I think some people don’t quite know what to make of the record – it’s quite different to what’s out at the moment. It would have been easy to make a straightforward indie tune and just slot it right in there, but instead we’re saying, ‘this is what’s going on now’ and we’re standing on the wall doing our own thing.” Anika is aware that there will be plenty of people who hate the record as well as those who like it, but that doesn’t bother her – as with most art, it’s indifference that would be most worrying. Fortunately, she has a feeling she’s made a proper ‘Marmite record’. Even as they were recording it, she says they would stop and listen back, and realise whatever they’d just laid down didn’t really work with any other music being made at the moment. It was afterwards, when Anika went back to Berlin, that she realised her music had been very well received in Germany. “It’s very different to England there,” she explains. “In Berlin people don’t always try to understand stuff, and the English seem to have to put things in a box in order to understand them, so I think the record has confused them a bit, taken them out of their comfort zone. Maybe that was the intention.”

It seems that, with this record, Anika has found the perfect balance of politics and music, all wrapped up in the perfect excuse to visit more countries and make some more trouble. Maybe she’ll even pick up a few extra accents along the way.

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