The Rates: Virginia Wing on basic house and the worst sleeve artwork you’ve ever seen

We ask an artist or group to share the three musicians they think have gone under-appreciated, and three new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate

“It’s about personal stuff,” explains Virginia Wing vocalist Alice Merida Richards. “We were clearly all going through personal stuff. You have to pretend it won’t, but it will get in there. Of course it comes out and you’re screaming and crying, but for a small amount of time you just have to pretend that it isn’t.”

Since forming in 2012, Virginia Wing have been many things, one of the most important of which has been coping mechanism. 

“It’s like Merida’s going through your bins and is giving you life advice,” says saxophonist Christopher Duffin, who completes the three-piece alongside Sam Pillay. Perhaps the only sonic constant across four records now is Richards’ glacial sprechgesang; a lyricist who can veer fluently between the philosophical and the motivational. Just don’t mistake that for detachment – it’s anything but.

When the group formed – originally Richards, Pillay and another member now lost to the world of German post-war philosophy studies – it began a period of reckoning with the weight of gendered assumptions both internal and external to the group. “When we started, I’d made music with women, and it was really free and silly,” explains Richards, “and I felt very self-conscious making music with men, that it had to be really serious. But I came to realise that was stupid and you’ve just got to be human – that’s what people connect with.” 

This fed directly into 2018’s breakthrough album Ecstatic Arrow; a serious record that established the band as one of the most progressive and interesting groups operating in Britain today. It chimed with its times whilst sounding entirely outside of its contemporaries, and was widely acclaimed as such – not least by this publication, who made it album of the year that December.

Continuing on the band’s superb new record private LIFE, Ecstatic Arrow had a sonically all gates open approach, where 1980s American art hybrid pop (think Laurie Anderson or Tina Weymouth in Tom Tom Club) was thrown into the pot with the leftfield jazz of Yasuaki Shimizu, bright sparkling skies of analogue synthesisers and a passionate and deep understanding of black R&B. “All of our production comes from black music,” says Pillay, “but the most we ever get is a reference to ‘pulsating beats’. It’s sad.” All of which is rendered with a crispness and clarity that evokes ideas of utopia; it sounds like a better reality to be in.

“We try and make big tunes,” says Pillay. “We try and make big records that have a place in people’s lives, and are shooting for things. We don’t need to follow that up by doing all the cynical stuff that’s associated with it.”

Serious about being serious about their work, without being po-faced, the band clearly think deeply about the role of a band in 2021 and varying definitions of success. Their last album’s doing so well could have afforded them an opportunity to work towards a different kind of success. “We’re not trying to cool guy it, we don’t think we’re above it,” offers Pillay. “There are a lot of people who want to level up – they’re playing Yes in Manchester and they want to play Gorilla. So there’s this expectation that we should enter into that stuff more, to have a hot take on every political thing. Now, we all have the exact political leanings as you can imagine we would, but I don’t like everything being filtered through the prism of the band. It’s not a conscious thing but it becomes the mindset. Everything in life can be through the context of being a musician but it’s not realistic.”

Social media is a concern too, and the album’s press release makes reference to “daily reminders of what happened a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, it’s without question eroding our capacity to be happy with ourselves, or know who we are.” Is it worth the larger commercial success for zapping your energy on the band Twitter account? Virginia Wing suspect not, and Richards points to the band’s monthly NTS show as an example of what this band is really interested in – contributing to a larger framework of creative people engaging seriously with art. Sharing of music between the three of them is, for Pillay, “the number one thing. The people I want to impress the most in this world are these two.” So I spoke to Virginia Wing about their Rates, starting with their three older artists.

Gabi Delgado

Pillay: He was the singer in DAF and I always liked how he looked. That stuff is really cool, but it’s very stylised and I find extremely stylised music with super icy post-punk… I find it fatiguing when it has such a defined sound and aesthetic. Whereas Gabi Delgado’s Mistress, I wanted the excuse to be into him. 

Duffin: It’s oddly charming. The horn lines all sound like they could come from a cartoon show or Prince’s Black Album. It’s dark and it’s about sex and there’s weird sex noises, but then this Looney Tunes horn section. So there’s a good sense of humour about it. And the mix! It’s like Sly Stone’s Fresh. It sounds inside out and unconventional; it wasn’t built up from drums and bass upward.

Richards: I find it quite unconvincing when men try and be sexy – apart from Prince – but he pulls it off in a funny characterful way, that sultriness. 

Pillay: He pulls it off without being… there’s something about Gainsbourg or Leonard Cohen on Death of a Ladies’ Man, where it veers into the seedy, which is obviously intentional. But Prince, he was a dirty bastard but it never seemed malevolent, and I get that from this Gabi record. When you start discovering Conny Plank, that stuff just got rinsed a few years ago. This is a bit more slickly put together but has the collaging nature of Holger Czukay. 

Pillay: I don’t like ‘Voodoo Ray’ and I don’t particularly like 808 State, but I do like jungle. Now, when I moved to Manchester, a friend of mine recommended me Black Secret Technology by A Guy Called Gerald. And when I listened to it, it was everything I wanted at the time, something about it appeals to everything I want from music. We’re opposite Alexandra Park now, just on the verge of Whalley Range and Moss Side, and he’d listen to the mixes whilst walking around Hulme Park. It’s not a club record at all, so things like Timeless [by Golide], that was really blowing up at the time, and that stuff sounds unreal in a club as it’s mixed for it, but Black Secret Technology isn’t. It’s so singular as a result, even though it can sound shit (the album has suffered numerous mixing problems over the years). To go back to Gabi Delgado, it’s completely it’s own thing and Black Secret Technology is like that – in its world, it isn’t underrated. In the world of jungle, it’s the cornerstone. Even down to the shitty mix, it creates a world. Sitting on the edge of Moss Side now and the idea of it, I hear Princess Parkway, it’s just a world.

Duffin: Have you read that book Join the Future by Matt Annis? There’s a whole section on A Guy Called Gerald. I first heard of him when he played on a really bad Herbie Hancock record! I think I first heard of ‘Voodoo Ray’ because it was a Pete and Dud sample. He was a trained classical jazz and contemporary dancer, and when he’s making music it’s almost like synaesthesia; he can hear how people would move to it. He wasn’t influenced by going to the Hacienda, it was all the black footwork crowd and the jazz dancers who brought house music in. When the white guys started taking pills and it was house all night long, they thought, “fuck this”. That sound progressed. D&B and jungle was a reaction, a protest against what was going on. 

Richards: There’s videos on YouTube we found of people just dancing from Moss Side, and they’re incredible. 

Pillay: People didn’t know how to dance to that stuff yet, so the videos are incredible. Gerald wasn’t a club guy. When Goldie was doing the Blue Note in London they were playing Black Secret Technology tracks and Goldie was trying to get Gerald to go down and he wouldn’t. 

Thick Pigeon

Richards: There’s a theatricality – it’s silly in a serious way – which I love. There’s one compilation that has the worst artwork you’ll ever see; it’s called Too Crazy Cowboys. It’s not by any means a flawless lost classic, but I’ve always had a keen interest in post-punk and no wave, things of that genre, and particularly the female made things in that. I thought it was strange that I’d never heard of her before – she was in a band with Kim Gordon. It’s not perfect, no, but it’s such a good vibe, and I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. She did Wheels Over Indian Trails too [under her name Stanton Miranda].

Pillay: That’s really like a New York classic. Thick Pigeon, it’s a bit of a footnote, but the other person in the group was Carter Burwell, who does all the soundtracks to the Coen brothers’ films. The thing I get from Thick Pigeon is a sort of Bongwater thing – I was really into Bongwater eight years ago and the thing is, with us, you can go as arty as you want, go for it, whatever, but you’ve got to have a sense of humour. 

Juu & G Jee

Pillay: Trying to find information on this one is really hard! One of them used to be a biker? Their album is called New Luk Thung anyway.

Duffin: This is a really old man, uncool thing to say, but I used to love Tom Waits and he said about Beefheart that first hearing it was like blood on your clothes – you can’t get it out. And then you think, why the fuck are you not doing something like this? Sam played us this record, and I was like, yeah, everything else sounds a little bit tame.

Richards: Some things are so out of your comfort zone that you can’t stop thinking about it, and the more you listen to it the more it makes sense. And then it becomes just pop music.

Pillay: There’s a lot of music that does blag my head immediately, but what I get from this is there’s a lot that it does for me. Lots of signifiers that I’m into already. I’m a sucker for the black notes on a keyboard. Because I’m shit as a musician, my role is production, and I’m really into the melodies they use on this.  

J McFarlane’s Reality Guest 

Richards: Julia McFarlane is wicked. She was in a band called Twerps, who I don’t think I’ve actually heard, but my friend heard her record as J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest and then it came out on Night School Records. The original pressing sold out very quickly, so probably not underrated, but I never hear people talk about it! It’s got so much humour in it – the lyrics are really funny. I don’t know, it just really reminds me of a lot of stuff that I love. It’s really playful and I think it deserves more kudos. We don’t have the same reference points but our approach is the same. I don’t think you can hear direct influences in her work, that it’s like this or this or this. I think she’s just got in and sat down and made something that she wants to make.

Duffin: The thing that gets me about that record, from the first track I thought, would I have said that take is alright? Would I have thought that’s the one or would I have re-recorded that? Even some Neil Young guitar solos, I’m like, would I have the confidence to think that’s the one? And I’m really pleased that they did, they are right, and I like that bravery. I don’t want that to sound condescending.

Richards: No, I agree. It’s nice when you’re put in a place where you don’t know if it’s naïve because the person lacks experience or it’s naïve out of personal choice. Not knowing that difference is a really good place to be.

Pillay: There’s not one benchmark for success. When people call us underrated, or say the record was slept on, that isn’t how I feel! We got on Pitchfork, in the Guardian, played the South Bank, went to America, played End of the Road where people were singing the lyrics and crying and shit. But people would be like, “Oh they’ve got 1000 followers on the internet!” Nah man, that’s limited thinking.

Richards: And J. MacFarlane is a good one for this because we have no idea of her reach in this country – I mean the record did sell out and was repressed. So let’s say, not underrated.

John FM

Pillay: We’re very basic people when it comes to house and techno. It’s got to be black and it’s got to be rugged – like Moodymann, that’s what does it for us. We’re not coming to this as authorities on house and techno. I hear this and from a production point of view it really resonates with me, I don’t know why. There’s just something about the production on this that just is very comforting. The important thing for us is to make something that we can be proud of and that is authentically ours – we’re not really part of a scene, or riding a wave, because that’s not the type of people we are or what we would be into. When there are waves of things, like Squid and Black Country, New Road, people get pissed off about black midi, now it might not be my cup of tea but it’s hilarious that they got nominated for the Mercury as their music is genuinely bizarre. I wouldn’t want to critique that at all! But we want something singular, and John FM does that, and that American Spirit EP is the one.

Richards: That’s why we picked solo artists, it just comes out. It’s not a group of people working out their influences.

Duffin: I don’t think Virginia Wing fits into anyone’s Venn diagram of toolkit touchstones, so I think that’s why people feel we’re viewed as underrated. Three miserable people talking about their addictions and how sad they are, that isn’t a genre is it?