Stealing Sheep: Scandinavia to Liverpool and Back Again
All girl trio Stealing Sheep have built up a considerable buzz in Liverpool and beyond with their take on psychedelic nu-folk, leading them to be placed on many ‘Ones to Watch’ lists for 2011. Nerve met up with them for an interview.
Lewis - 6/2/2011
In 2007 the Norwegian liberal party Venstre suggested illicit music downloading should be legalized, despite the loss of revenue to all concerned, namely the artists who had produced the content. Fellow countrymen, black metal band Enslaved were incensed and mounted a protest against the party’s leader. Instead of taking to the blogosphere to denounce said politician or slagging him off onstage or in the press however, the band decided to 'download' a free-range mountain sheep from the politician’s farm to see how he would feel about his own suggestion being used against him. The sheep was later released into the wild and the band’s stunt was reported nationally. Undoubtedly an amusing story and another chapter in the ongoing debate regarding illegal downloading. Another side effect of it was to provide the name of one of the most intriguing groups to have come out of Liverpool in a long while.
Stealing Sheep are currently experiencing a wave of acclaim in Liverpool and further afield as the world catches up to their beguiling melodic presence. Consisting of Becky, Emily and Lucy, the trio draw from a huge array of influences, including Coca Rosie, Sagittarius, United States of America, Can, Fela Kuti and Devendra Banhart. Alongside wayward American singer-songwriter Joanna Newson are the industrialized sounds of Micachu and obscure 1960s folk duo Wendy and Bonnie. Compressing these disparate influences along with a whimsical charm all of their own, Stealing Sheep deliver three-minute nuggets of airy pop perfection.
Playing an admirably ramshackle assortment of instruments, their whimsical charm on record is replicated onstage. Becky’s all expenses spared keyboard looks as though it has been rescued from a jumble sale, whilst Emily’s guitar tones are fed through a modest guitar amp. Lucy’s stood-up tom toms meanwhile - highly reminiscent of Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker - are played with black and white striped sticks that look like elongated candy canes.
Originally founded by Becky, the band are now in their second incarnation following the arrival of new members Emily and Lucy in August last year. The direction the band has taken since their arrival has opened up new musical avenues for the group. “It’s changed quite dramatically, getting different influences in”, Becky nods, talking in the Shipping Forecast pre-gig. “I’d say it’s darker, it’s still folky, but now it’s more psychedelic folk.”
Although Becky estimates the band now have roughly “Three months of being together” under their belts, the trio didn’t delay in writing more material. The over-preparation of some bands prior to undertaking gigs which seems to result in even more nerves when stood onstage has been studiously avoided by the trio. “Since Emily and Lucy joined we rehearsed and wrote a set in two to three weeks and then we’ve done about thirty-five gigs. You can spend a lot of time worrying about what your sound is going to be like but you just have to deal with it”, Becky states.
“It’s just fun to not know whether it’s going to go right or wrong!", she smiles. “We’ve basically been touring nonstop; we’ve done about three or four gigs a week.” Summoning a big sound from the three instruments, allowing the space between the musicians to breathe, the band are considering expanding their instrumental palette. “I suppose it’ll change each time we tour”, Becky says, “And also on how much room we’ve got in the car!” she laughs. “We’d maybe a feature someone on harp or use a brass section onstage but the core would always be us three.”
The recent success of Noah and the Whale and Bon Iver has seemingly alerted new listeners to folk based acts. “There’s been a revival in nu-folk and ‘freak folk’, which is what we’ve been listening to”, Becky nods. “People often label a band ‘folk’ because of their instrumentation though", Emily cautions. The present group don’t appear to have any truck with genre demarcations, standout track and forthcoming single Mountain Dogs, is a thing of wonder, the vocals evoking a twenty-first century version of 1940s vocal trio The Andrews Sisters, with backing music supplied by psychedelic pioneers The Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Whilst the close harmony singing evokes an era pre rock and roll, the original title, Telephone, had to be abandoned when a recent duet between little-known singers Stephanie Germanotta and Beyonce Knowles became popular.
With the initial idea for the vocal melody coming from Lucy, the trio collaborated on the end result, Becky mixing the vocal to give it a lo-fi quality. B-side Your Saddest Song meanwhile maintains the standard, glistening like one of Kim Deal’s compositions for The Breeders before the arrival of clangorous guitar chords that resonate like a lost MBV gem.
The packaging of the band’s output, from sleeve design onto music videos and stage presentation is a key facet of their work, with much of the artwork created in-house. “We’re all illustrators, so we want to design the packaging and make it a proper experience basically”, Becky says. Citing Tim Burton’s animated films and the work of Amelie director Jean Pierre Junet as inspiration, the band have created a highly idiosyncratic series, Stealing Sheep Make Films, showcased on their website, many of them in collaboration with filmmakers Jack Whitely and Joe Wills. “I think that’s very important”, Lucy nods when how much film and animation play a part in the band. “The visual style, we’re all really into that” Becky adds, “We all draw and make artwork ourselves, so it’s highly important to the whole project really.”
Alongside these pieces which are nearer to miniature impressionistic films than straightforward music videos are the studio sessions the group record. “It’s all about documenting stuff really, it’s more like collecting diary footage, getting observational footage of the band, as a window into what the project’s about”, Becky says of the practice. The School House Sessions, shot at a disused school in Princes Park, currently available on the group’s website shows the band in the studio, recording the instrumental tracks for their forthcoming singles.
Seemingly unable to take time off for any extended period, plans are already afoot for Mountain Dogs' follow-up. Joe Wills has become a key creative partner with the group as in addition to producing their recent singles, he has filmed many of their recent videos. “We’re making a music video with Jack, we’re thinking about filming it at a heritage site in Staffordshire, it’s basically a Tudor building with a moat and some woodland, so we’re gonna record it there,” Becky explains. "That’s for our second single that’s released in May, which is gonna be a 7” vinyl, called Noah and the Paper Moon, limited to one hundred copies.”
In keeping with the Scandinavian theme and music from that region of the world, the group are keen on visiting the peninsula that inspired their name. “We’re hoping to go to Scandinavia, ‘cos we’ve played with quite a lot of Scandinavian artists, we’ve played with Ólöf Arnalds who’s an Icelandic singer, she was launched by Sigur Ros and Bjork, so we’ve hoping to be able to play with some of those people again”, Becky says.
A tour undertaken by the group in 2009 saw the band cycling to all their gigs, something electronic pioneers Kraftwerk have done on a continent-wide scale. “We cycled to all of gigs around one city, we basically put all of our instruments inside a bike cart so we basically did everything without amps. I also heard about a cycle power company called The Magnificent Revolution,” Becky continues. “We’re going to collaborate with over the summer. They’ve got people who cycle and they create the power for the amps, so we won’t have to do everything acoustically. We definitely want to promote it when we get the opportunity.”
With an album due later in the year, in addition to the single releases and the lengthy tours, the band’s work rate has been exponential. Having recorded sessions for BBC 6 Music with Lauren Laverne, Tom Robinson and Marc Riley last year and no less a deity than Sir Paul McCartney declaring himself a fan, 2011 will surely be the year the band break into the public consciousness.
Stealing Sheep play at Novas on Feb 11th, 2011.
Mountain Dogs is released on Feb 14th, with a launch party at The Shipping Forecast.
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