Great band. Terrible SEO.
Back in the 1970s the concept of punk was codified into a strict set of music, fashion and lifestyle parameters that were inherently limited. According to these parameters, you were either a punk – a white teenage boy in a safety-pinned denim jacket thrashing about on a guitar with three chords – or you weren’t. Today though, punk is something else. It’s about doing it yourself. It’s about casting notional rules aside.
Totally – for that is their wholly SEO-unfriendly, nineties Valleyspeak moniker – might not be the loudest or most aggressive band you’ll ever hear but make no mistake, they’re about as punk as it gets. A group of five girls in their late twenties and early thirties from disparate parts of the country (or in their drummer’s case, the world), the quintet came together in August of last year. This despite the fact that their vocalist had never sung before and their bassist had never previously played either.
The band’s origins also lie within the heart of the London DIY scene. Jade – said rookie singer – had been a part of the community at least on a supportive basis for quite some time prior to getting started with Totally, cheering on her favourite bands and generally getting involved. She and guitarist Laurel had lived with Lindsay Corstorphine, a member of Sauna Youth along with innumerable other punk acts.
Yet it’s fair to say that Totally have a sound distinct from all of that. “Most of my friends are in lo-fi punk bands but my vocals don’t suit that at all,” Jade says, her voice barely rising over the bustle of the East London arts café we’re sat in. “I’ve tried to shouty-sing and I think that sounds amazing and I’d have loved to have done it but it just didn’t work. They were always, ‘Aw it sounds too nice. Can you shout a bit more?’”
Jade and Laurel linked up with lead guitarist Fliss before recruiting Australian import Susan after watching her play with singer-songwriter Pete Astor at an in-store appearance. Novice bassist Franny rounded out the line-up. The group more or less coalesced around a former music venue called Power Lunches over in Dalston, followed by DIY Space in Peckham, south London, but they were sure they wanted to distinguish themselves.
“We knew we wanted to sound different to punk,” says Jade. “We’re a punk band in the sense some of us had never picked up instruments before, but I was just really sick of being told my voice wasn’t right for bands.” Fliss remembers feeling slightly removed from the old Power Lunches scene. “It kind of forces you to think about where your music is situated, which [for us] was outside of that.”
If Totally were clear about their direction from the outset, early rehearsals were still tough, especially given the varying levels of proficiency within the band. Equally though, the more experienced Laurel and Susan gave the band the encouragement they needed to keep going. “It helps having more experienced people in the band because when you first start practicing, you sound terrible,” laughs Jade. “It doesn’t matter how good you are. It takes a while to figure out how you’re going to sound, what everyone’s going to do. They have the confidence to stick with it.”
Within six months of forming, the group recorded four songs with Corstorphine, which then found their way on to 100 CDRs thanks to some thriftiness from Susan. A couple of them are on Soundcloud. The tracks are a promising glimpse of the band’s lush, melodic take on lo-fi punk and also capture some painfully honest lyrics from Jade about a recent break-up. “You’re just a moonlit memory,” she sings on one. “Oh God, I love him,” she wearily admits on another.
Both Jade and Laurel were deeply heartbroken from respective relationship failures around the time Totally got together. “At the time I didn’t have a proper job and I couldn’t afford my rent – my rent’s really cheap – and this person had broken up with me. They’re still very much in my life but it was kind of trying to work through that,” Jade recalls.
“We were bonding,” laughs Laurel.
The band say they were worried when Laurel got a boyfriend and I think they’re only half-joking – the best art is borne of pain and all that.
One of the demos was called ‘Falling Apart’, which the band have now re-recorded and released as their new single. Like the others, the song chronicles Jade’s relationship woes but the new version is a far more polished affair, with the singer’s lovelorn vocals backed by lush harmonies, jangly guitar and sweeping organ. “So if you’re going to sail away from me / Come back and set me free,” pleads Jade.
“This is probably the first time I’ve talked about it,” she tells me, “but the song is about someone I was with and it was really toxic and just not very nice. It was actually the first song I had written about anyone and I was just really depressed and heartbroken. We’ve got a joke that all of my songs are really sad!”
Indeed, if a lot of punk music comes from a place of white-hot anger and frustration, Totally are unabashedly romantic, recalling doomed romances, longing and loss. A recent Loud And Quiet profile even referred to their new single’s ‘R&B harmonies’. At least part of that comes from the band’s stylistic reference points; Jade holds Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac and Mariah Carey in very high regard – atypical influences for your average punk band. “I love both of them so much,” she gushes.
On the other hand, the group opted for a prudent, punk-inspired approach to releasing ‘Falling Apart’, putting it out as part of the ‘Pin Pals’ club on indie label Art is Hard – you buy a pin for your jacket and there’s a download code on the back. It’s a neat idea and also offers a satisfying sense of progression for the band. “To produce seven-inches is super expensive and economically it doesn’t necessarily work out that well,” Fliss says. “Whereas this is quite a lo-fi thing to do but you still get a physical thing. We saved up from all the shows we played last year to produce a single, which is a really nice way of doing it.”
Speaking of which, the band have only been playing properly for the past 10 months but they’ve already graced pre-eminent London venues like MOTH Club, the Shacklewell Arms and the Lock Tavern with supporting slots. I ask about any favourite shows – the answer is instant and unanimous: “Goon Sax!” The teenage indie-poppers were already a firm favourite of fellow Aussie Susan, who’s from Brisbane. “They’re so adorable and their music’s incredible,” she says with a big smile. “That was a really fun one!”
Laurel chips in with another: “Weaves were fun to play with, we really like them too.”
There’s a whole lot to admire about the get-up-and-go mantra that seems to drive Totally. Less than a year after starting to play live – with some of the band having literally never picked up an instrument before – here they are playing some of London’s best venues, releasing a great single and on the cusp of getting an album out of the door. The group have already well exceeded their own expectations, Fliss says. “We didn’t expect the sound to all just gel together. When we heard the recording of the single it was like oh, wow, how did we make that happen?! If we can make the album sound like that, then that will be really nice.”
The band members also have an assortment of jobs, ranging from book publishing and PhD art production, through to charity advertising, speech and language therapy and working in a library. Yet they’re still squeezing in one or two gigs a month, albeit also trying to avoid some of the pitfalls that might derail other new acts – the experience of people like Laurel helps in this regard. “People will get in touch and be like, ‘We want you to play at these shows, you have to bring 50 people’, and it’s like, hmmm, no,” she says.
Fliss adds: “In my career as an artist as well, I’ve kind of been able to apply that to this. There are always people trying to take advantage of your creativity. Always! I think you can be naïve sometimes and think something’s a good opportunity and it’s not, so you’ve just got to be really careful.” To that end, the five have teamed up with indie gig promoters Bird on the Wire (“I think they should be held up as a good example,” Laurel notes).
Perhaps another advantage that the band have over other acts is their relative maturity: with each of the girls already having established their careers and lives outside the group, the pressure to succeed – and the sense of desperation – is less intense. “I’m really glad that I waited,” Jade says. “This is my first ever band and my first experience doing this, although it was really nice to come into this with people who have that experience and have the combination of people being completely new or having done this before.”
Susan agrees but Fliss protests: “I don’t feel older, for the record!”
Everyone laughs but Jade was always conscious of the age thing. “I was super into indie music when I was growing up and I remember reading that the guitarist from Bloc Party was 18 and he’d been playing guitar since he was 14. I was like 15 and I thought, oh well that’s it then.”
“Then you remember Debbie Harry was 32 when Blondie started!” says Laurel.
Franny points out that she probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to get involved in the band until now. Plus, says Susan, “It’s not like we’re 21, this is everything and if it doesn’t happen we’ll be devastated. We’ve got stuff going on and we’re comfortable in our own skin.”
To that end, the quintet has already entertained discussions with a sizeable indie label but they’ve got the confidence to move on without them, for now at least.
Next year there’ll be more shows. Hopefully the album is on the way, too; decisions are yet to be made on production values, or indeed a label, but the time is right, says Fliss.
“It feels like it’s time to get it out. It’s that weird thing where you don’t want to compromise on quality and we want this great recording and for everything to sound the same, but you can let things drag and drag, so I think it’s time to do it. The songs are there, so they should just be out.”
As for that name, it might be right down there with the Music in terms of search effectiveness but it sounds like it’s here to stay. “I’ve got two housemates, neither of whom play any instruments,” says Laurel, “so we were going to start a kind of electro band with one of them playing the coconuts and the other one playing the ukulele, and we were going to be called Totally. Obviously we were never going to do this – it was a joke band – and then on the night when we met Susan, I was like, how about Totally, would that be the worst thing ever? People said ‘Actually, that would be great!’” Susan gives a rueful laugh. “Terrible SEO.”
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