Busy people fascinate me. As much as try to deny it, fundamentally I’m a pretty lazy guy, so much so that anything that isn’t sitting on the couch watching First Dates seems like a Herculean amount of effort. I find it amazing that there are actual people out there who manage to fit in baking cakes, running half marathons and doing all these other things I keep hearing about.
Admittedly, the bar is set fairly low, but I’m kind of in awe of the members of Sauna Youth. Not only do they live normal, well-rounded lives, they also manage to find time to put out critically-acclaimed records, play almost every show going and balance it all while being in about six other bands. There’s only four of them sat around a coffee table in Jen Calleja’s and Rich Phoenix’s Stoke Newington flat, but they are so productive it almost feels like we’re talking about a whole music scene rather than the output of just one band.
“It doesn’t all happen at once – we just do what needs to be done at the time,” laughs a slightly puzzled looking Lindsay Corstorphine when I ask them how they manage to fit in all this relentless activity. “When that’s finished you do the next thing and then the next thing. We’re not doing things constantly; there’s definitely spates when it’s quite hectic, but then equally there’s long periods where we just watch the telly.”
“Maybe when you get any free time you end up thinking ‘oh I could be doing something’ and that sort of accumulates over time until you realise that you have a lot on,” adds lead singer/drummer Rich Phoenix before confirming something that I probably knew all along; busy people are just busy because they can’t say no. “I’m learning how to say no,” he agrees, “more and more I’m finding out that it’s quite an important skill.”
Alongside singer/keyboardist Jen Calleja and bass player Christopher Murphy, Phoenix and Corstorphine have been causing a fuss with Sauna Youth since they first formed back in 2009. Releasing their debut album, ‘Dreamlands’, back in 2012, the post-punk/post-hardcore four-piece has forged a path that has snaked around genres like a drunken rambler, producing a remarkable back catalogue of intelligent yet extremely jagged punk songs that never seem to quite do what you’d expect them to do. Kurt Cobain once asked why Nirvana couldn’t be both Black Sabbath and The Beatles? and Sauna Youth describe their intentions as an attempt to be both The Ramones and Steve Reich. It’s a pretty lofty ambition, but somehow it seems to understate their particular brand of experimental punk rock. Ask Sauna Youth if they ever meant for any of this to happen and all you’ll get is polite bemusement. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had any intentions, there is certainly no feeling among us that we should be doing this or that,” muses Murphy. “Has it taken on a life of its own now? I guess it has; in the same way that these things do when you keep doing it relentlessly.
“It doesn’t really feel like being in a band, it’s more like four friends hanging out,” says Phoenix. “We have a good times doing things together and we’ve built this environment where we can do interesting and different things. The longer we’ve kept doing it, the more of these interesting things have started to happen.”
Corstorphine steps in to clear up any impression that Sauna Youth are a band with a particular corner to fight. “This all sounds like we’re struggling to make something happen,” he says, leaning in urgently, “but it’s never actually been like that. Aside from a few times when it’s been a bit stressful, it’s all been quite nice. It’s not like we’re Warzone going ‘don’t forget the struggle, don’t forget the streets.’”
Whether they know it or not, their soon to be released second album, ‘Distractions’, sees Sauna Youth starting to become something that stands alone. Picking up where their debut left off and bookended by two tracks of white-noise, the album is a riotous amalgamation of machete-like guitars and pulsating, hypnotic Krautrock melodies, held together with a strange sense of nail-biting foreboding that kind of reminds me of the second half of Blur’s ‘Parklife’. It’s a record that manages to surprise, entertain and make you think. In fact, it’s a record that shows a band at the height of their creative powers. For Phoenix, the reason that the group has slipped into a rich vein of creativity is a direct result of a better understanding of themselves that has developed over the years. “This album has been the first time we’ve actually written something in a room together,” he says, “and there’s been a lot of stuff we’ve tried out that we’ve either ended up giving up on or having to censor because it wasn’t up to scratch. I guess that process takes longer, but you start to figure out how a Sauna Youth song should sound, and how this combination of people work together.” This method of slowly feeling things out is as much of a mystery to the band themselves as it is to anybody else. “It’s weird,” remarks Calleja on the band’s holistic style of signwriting. “I mean, we had loads of versions of ‘The Bridge’ and we’d keep playing it but could never get it sounding right until one day it just clicked. It’s not like a conscious thing where we go ‘this is the way it should be’, yet it’s weird how we all end up agreeing on a sound that feels right.”
As well as being sonically adventurous, ‘Distractions’ is also an album that has intelligent and surprisingly challenging lyrical themes running through it. Continuing ‘Dreamlands’ mixture of shouted boy/girl punk interspersed with more experimental sounding spoken word tracks, the album’s 14 songs explore the very concept of desire. And perhaps more importantly, they delve into the area just out of reach of desire, at the very centre of the human psyche. “I guess it’s going back to that thing about constantly doing a lot of things at the same time,” says Phoenix as the line of questioning turns to the album’s title. “It’s like is all the other stuff we do a distraction or is the band actually a distraction from all that stuff? It’s like the desire to do all that stuff, but never quite having enough time to do it.”
Coming across like a loose concept album at times, it’s surprising to find out that the album was never intended to focus on one thought or feeling. “When you do a lot of things you tend to dip in and out of them, so it would be impossible to keep a strong sense of narrative going all the time.” says Phoenix after I ask about whether the album was written with a specific set of ideas in mind. “When you write, you just write; and whatever comes out, comes out. It’s only when you look back over that you start to discover that there’s common threads running through everything.” In a strange way, ‘Distractions’ is quite an aspirational record, dreaming of a world where you can forget to be yourself and offering the idea that you could be somebody else. In other ways, however, it’s a record that speaks of the unique, almost existential sense of anxiety and alienation that is a part of life for anyone living in a place like London. That idea that everything you want – a bigger flat, a better-looking partner, a more fulfilled life – is always just around the corner. Tantalisingly close, but forever just out of reach.
“London is an amazing place to live and I think it has been a big influence on what I write about,” explains Phoenix as we discuss the city and the unique, neurotic effect it has on people. “It’s an amazing city,” he says. “You are surrounded by all this stuff going on, there’s opportunities to engage with all these creative things and creative people. We’ve all got friends who are doing incredible and really inspiring things, but there’s always this creeping anxiety that you’re not doing enough. Like, you’re not busy enough or you can’t meet the standard. It does broaden your horizons, but it does create this worry that you can never really measure up.”
Pushed to the extremes, this exploration on the nature of finds form a curious look at the ideas of Transhumanism on some of the album’s tracks. The ultimately futile search for a way to live forever, for something that makes us last, is articulated best on lead single ‘Transmitters’ – “I want my thoughts scratched into plastic / Hear my voice on an endless loop / I like persistence.”
For Phoenix the idea highlights a junction between absurdity and hope. “My friend showed me a website – he has a link to this company who you pay money to so that they can develop the technology to download you so you can live in some sort of digital afterlife. It all comes with this asterisk that says ‘all this technology doesn’t exist, but if you keep paying us money then we’ll build it.’”
“It’s that sense of the uncanny,” adds Calleja. “Like how people will spend all this money and effort trying to cheat death, but it will never bring any joy. Like on the Internet, where people can build second lives for themselves and be whoever they want to be, but can never quite escape the real world.” With all this talk of wanting to be someone else, it seems only natura to switch the conversation to the band’s own alter-ego, Monotony. Featuring the same members muddled up, this mirror band is almost the polar opposite of Sauna Youth, replacing drum-tight post punk with snarling, straight-up punk that is much louder, more direct and primal. These contradictions jump out at you when you listen to both bands forthcoming split 7-inch. While Sauna Youth’s single hints at the price of immortality, Monotony’s ‘Luxury Flats’ transplants J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise to the soulless arena of post-gentrified London. “Acquisitions, no ambition. Jumping off the balcony,” they intone over the swaggering rhythm. It doesn’t get more nihilistic than that.
“We were having a terrible band practice,” says Murphy. “Lindsay went to the bathroom and in his absence we started pissing around and Monotony sort of grew from there”
“I just came back from the bathroom, picked up the microphone and started to sing in this moronic way,” says Corstorphine. “That’s not to say it is moronic – it just felt like what was appropriate.”
“Monotony is a celebration of a group’s limitations in a way,” clarifies Murphy. “Jen’s a great drummer and Rich can play bass, but I can’t play guitar for shit. That does control how the band’s going to sound.”
Big things have small beginnings, and Monotony has allowed the group to loosen the shackles and allow themselves to head off in new, unexplored directions. “Sauna Youth has sort of developed its own sounds but having that boundary created a problem,” says Calleja. “We became a conscious of it when we’d decided to do an album, and it became frustrating when things weren’t working. It’s weird but when we swapped instruments it just felt like that whole weight was lifted.”
Both bands have a weird parallel existence these days. Since Monotony came together around the middle part of last year, both have played sets from Marc Reilly on BBC 6 Music and both were invited to play Wire’s DRILL festival last summer. However, while Sauna Youth are definitely no slouches when it comes to playing live, Monotony have quickly built a reputation for putting on a particularly intense show. According to Corstorphine: “We’ve played some of the best Monotony shows when we’ve been really, really drunk and just mucking around.”
If you’re thinking that two bands is enough, Monotony represent the tip of a rather large iceberg. The various members of Sauna Youth lend their talents to so many different and varied projects it actually becomes pretty difficult to keep up. Here’s a brief, and in no way complete rundown of the band’s various activities; Corstorphine plays guitar in Cold Pumas and sings in post-Male Bonding noise makers Primitive Parts; Phoenix plays in Tense Men, puts out his solo work as Twin Lakes/Burnt Brains and runs community project Constant Flux. As for the other two, Murphy is busy printing T-shirts, and Calleja plays drums in art-punk trio Feature, edits Anglo-German arts magazine Verfreundungseffekt and even finds the time to contribute a regular column to The Quietus.
I’m keen to find out what gives them the energy to keep so many projects on the go. Does this constant activity have one overarching plan behind it? Are there common ideas running through all of it? Do Sauna Youth see themselves as outriders of some sort, of a bigger east London scene? “There is this thing that when you identify with a scene then you have to sound or be a certain way,” says Corstorphine pointing out that a philosophy can sometimes be more of a straitjacket than a blue print. “I mean, take DIY for example, I don’t know where it has come from, but there’s this pressure to play punk or adhere to a certain lifestyle. In reality DIY philosophy exists across the board. Reggae artists have been putting their own music out for years, and house and techno have a long history of releasing their own stuff. We just want to do this stuff because we want to do it, and if we don’t do it ourselves then it won’t happen.”
For Calleja, at least, making music and being in bands comes as much from a personal need than a desire to entertain or make a statement. “All the bands I’ve been in fulfil a different need,” she says. “In the first band I was in, I just wanted to play drums in a band, then I wanted to sing and not play drums so I started Feature, but then I missed playing drums so I started playing drums in Monotony. They all fulfil quite different needs and all speak from different places.”
“We’re all into a lot of different stuff as everyone else is in the world,” offers Corstorphine as we try to reason out the band’s collective sense of motivation. “We’re older than a lot of other bands around London, so maybe that has something to with it,” he adds half-jokingly. “We’re definitely not a bunch of young kids starting out trying to sound like Minor Threat or Hank Wood. Y’know, we’re just jamming.”
For natural-born schemers like me, it seems downright odd to start off any venture without having at least an idea of a method. After all, a failure to plan is planning for failure, right? Just putting together this article has meant that I had to make three-pages of notes, draw a diagram and figure out a rough structure of how the whole thing will flow. Now, I know writing an article is not the same thing as recording an album, but it’s refreshing to come across a group of people who seem dedicated to the idea of just letting things happen. Talking with them for the best part of an hour, I begin to get the impression that Sauna Youth see opportunities and just grab them.
“I think it’s just being with different people and trying out different things,” says Phoenix, summing up the band’s loose philosophy. “Whatever comes out of it depends on how we play our instruments and how you play off each other. That’s what I like about Sauna Youth – it’s not like we want to sound like x crossed with y, it’s just being a room of people and whatever comes out is whatever comes out. It’s only when you look back that you start to explain it, making it look like it was all considered and planned out from the start.”
He has a point. Like a lot of great music, paintings or pieces of art, when you boil it down Sauna Youth stems from the chemistry of four mates hanging out with a desire to make some music rather than a pre-thought out notions to explore particular sounds or ideas. Any meaning, philosophy or ideal evolves from there. After all what’s the point of making the most articulate, politically astute piece of pop ever if no-one will listen and you can’t even dance to it? “I think people get too hung up on the process that they forget to look at the output, which is the only thing that matters at the end of the day,” shrugs Corstorphine, making my point for me. “I’m not constantly thinking ‘how does this fit in’ when we’re doing something; we just carry on. We’ve been doing this for ages – we can’t stop.”