Interview: Bechdel

ELEANOR CALLAGHAN LIVE AT BECHDEL #1 - PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

Bechdel is a new bi-monthly events series based in Brighton, focused on promoting female artists working in all manner of experimental sound. The lineup for the first two events has been ludicrous, featuring the likes of Lutine, Postcards From The Volcano, Lisa Jayne, The Zero Map and The Larsens (the latter of which being an all-female noise/feedback choir comprised of seven lead vocalists).

Below, Bechdel and I discuss the act of deliberate inversion/provocation, the wonders of Tanya Tagaq and the charms of Bechdel’s present home, Cafe Noor. The next event in the series will take place on October 7th , with the lineup due to be announced soon. Head over to the Bechdel facebook page to keep up to date.

So how and why did Bechdel begin?

Bechdel came out of a scenario I’ve dealt with for 10 years of gig bookings: being the token female act. I wasn’t necessarily seen as the token, but I was often the one woman performing. More often than not it’d be a male team putting on the gig, facilitating the gig, teching the gig…all those things. I wanted to be provocative and deliberately agitate the situation by inverting the model that I’d found myself in. Bechdel is deliberately predominantly female. It’s not looking for a 50/50 ratio, which would actually be my approach in a general sense, but Bechdel is specifically looking to provoke by doing an inversion of what I often found to be the case.

You mentioned that there’s often a male team running the technical side of the gigs. I’ve spoken to other female performers who have found themselves being perceived or treated a certain way by male technical teams. Is this something you’ve encountered yourself? 

I’ve had someone explain to me what D.I. box is. And this is after I’d put loop pedals and several bits of equipment onto the table. You might guess that someone with that equipment maybe knows what a D.I. box is. That sound tech actually described the shape of the box and went, “it’s got a hole on one side and a hole on the other side, and what you do is…you take that lead – that’s called a jack lead – and you put it one side…”

Oh god, that’s nauseating.

So there having been things like that. The flipside is that the ones that are good really stand out. Simon Hanson was the tech for Full Of Noises when I played it last year, and he will always stand out in my mind as a legend for not doing that kind of thing. He was great. Simon was doing the routing when I performed, as my performance in the church required a bit of routing around the church to put in microphones. He conferred with me, which might not sound like a big deal, but more often than not the habit would be for the sound tech to confer with the other sound tech – not the artist. That was great to be treated as an equal; automatically, as well. He doesn’t have to make an effort because he hasn’t internalised all of the crap. [laughs]

It’s a tricky situation. You don’t want to walk in arrogantly and say, “I know everything”. It’s such a huge job and obviously no one knows everything. I appreciate humility as a quality, so it’s something I try to demonstrate, but you have to balance that with getting some recognition and wasting less time, the latter of which is the big bugbear for me.

There have been two of these Bechdel shows already, and the lineup for both has been fantastic. I’m a big fan of both artists involved in Postcards From The Volcano…

Their performance was incredible. She made a feather into an instrument and was playing it. It’s been interesting that there’s an inherent habit of “deep listening” going on at the gigs, which I absolutely love. During their set, everyone was peering over them as they sat on the floor, and the room was dead silent – to the point where I had a gin and tonic, and I was worried about the bubbles being too loud…

LISA JAYNE AT BECHDEL #1 - PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

LISA JAYNE AT BECHDEL #1 – PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

I’ve been in that situation at a local gig before; it’d never struck me that carbonated drinks could impede the listening experience… 

[laughs] Exactly.

The Larsens sound fantastic as well. I saw a brief video of you guys and it sounded completely up my street. How was the Bechdel performance?

It was great. I don’t know if you’ve been to Café Noor in Brighton? It’s sort of become Brighton’s attempt at Café Oto. The people running the café are incredibly supportive of our type of music and the scene. It’s a lovely light space with a bit of versatility, but also that café atmosphere that suits this type of music more than a pub venue. We had a choice of a basement space that had a bit more reverb, or an upstairs space that’s more of a “folky” kind of vibe. We chose the basement and it worked really well. It’s an improvised set but it’s structured. It’s got seven lead singers in the band, all with very different musical backgrounds: from a jazz singer-songwriter, to me, to a pop singer and all sorts in between.

There seemed to be varying degrees of vocal processing, too. 

Yeah. It’s all vocals. We each have an amp next to us, and we process the vocals through FX. We also have sections where there are no FX, and a section where it’s unamplified. That’s “Process One”, which is the set we’ve been doing that we’ve now finished. We’ll come up with “Process Two”.

So it’s built upon structural blocks I guess, where each block has its own particular premise?

Yeah. There’s a section of improvising; there are sections where some provide drones and some provide improvisation in duos and trios; there are sections where we take on more aspects of speech in the voice and react to a given direction that we all know from our workshopping of it; there’s a section where we are free to come out with any sound we want, but with the timing directed by a conductor.

I’m always drawn to improvised music that quietly alludes to pre-planning and structure – those moments where the instruments suddenly slip into alignment, and it’s like, “ah! This isn’t entirely spontaneous.”

There’s something about providing the audience with structure, so there’s a certain element of safety and a certain element of danger in our live sets. I’m not sure whether we’ll put out recordings or not. It’s someone else’s baby actually – the rest of us just contribute within it.

How well-equipped is Brighton in terms of venues putting on experimental music? How many places are there that are supportive enough to put it on, but also acoustically conducive to what you want to?

Because there’s such a strong experimental scene in Brighton, a lot of places are open to it. You don’t have to deal with as much of that, “hey – we’re doing something weird in your space”, which you can often get outside of Brighton. On the other hand, it is quite saturated with musicians here. Finding a free slot and making it affordable is the flipside.

I’ve played at the Prince Albert before – they seem to put on a few experimental shows there.

The Prince Albert is a longstanding venue, but there are some nice new venues that are coming up. Rialto Theatre is a nice theatre space with a decent-sized stage, without needing a huge audience to fill it. That’s where the Bleeding Hearts Club is, which I played a couple of weeks ago. There’s a new place called the Spire, which was always a church but has now been opened up for experimental performance.

Café Noor is one of those spaces where you have to bring all the tech to it, but it’s got a certain ambience. It’s not cluttered, and for people who just want to focus on the music, you can definitely put on that sort of gig there. It almost feels like an art gallery with the light and the big windows.

LUTINE AT BECHDEL #1 - PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

LUTINE AT BECHDEL #1 – PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

The café setup is interesting. Because the seating and the tables are often arranged in a manner conducive to socialising and conversation, spaces like Café Oto can occasionally become rather loud and full of background chatter. Then again, a lot of my experiences at Café Oto have been some of the most dedicated listening experiences I’ve ever had. It can be incredibly volatile.

We normally spend a lot of time arranging the space for Bechdel. I put the chairs in rows and take out the tables. That probably helps get rid of the café atmosphere. I’ve gone as far as saying to the people running it – “these people are unamplified and they’re using feathers as instruments – can we not have the coffee machine going during the performance?”

Are they happy to do that?

They’re very happy to do that. They go, “oh yes – of course!” Dom and his wife run the café, and Dom went to a lot of SoundFjord events. He totally gets it.

I understand that the next Bechdel night is due to happen in October.

That’s right. I do Bechdel on my own terms, with regards to time management and when I can do it, the best place to check is the facebook page or the twitter account. I could definitely do it every month with the amount of people that want to play, and it seems to be one of these ideas that has legs. [coughs] Sorry, excuse me. I think I growled too much in the set last night. You can blame that on seeing Tanya Tagaq a few weeks back.

Oh wow. Was she great?

She was incredible. She did a live soundtracking to the film Nanook Of The North – she reclaimed this old colonial film about Inuits, and told us what was wrong with it as she introduced it, and then did the most amazing improvised soundtrack to it. She was howling, growling…I met her afterwards and said, “you are the freest vocal improviser I have ever seen”, in terms of being free in her body and free in her voice. I’m not kidding, but I think she’s got a seven-octave range.

What!

Yeah. I was counting it. I met her afterwards and said, “you’re just so free – I don’t know how you do it.” And she just went, “I think it’s about not giving a fuck!” [laughs]. So now I’m howling and growling.

Sorry, in answer to your question – the next one will be on October 7th. There are a lot of people asking me about it, and it feels like I’m doing something that there was already an audience for. I was chatting to someone yesterday, and apparently some other people in Brighton had attempted to put on a similar sort of thing, but it hadn’t come together for various reasons. Obviously I just hit upon something that everyone wants.

VERITY SPOTT AT BECHDEL #1 - PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

VERITY SPOTT AT BECHDEL #1 – PHOTO BY AGATA URBANIAK

Given the premises upon which it was set up, I guess that must feel awesome?

Yeah. It’s a funny one, as ideally it would be unnecessary [laughs]. I would like Bechdel to become completely irrelevant. That would be great. For now, it is relevant and people are really supportive of it. We were well over capacity the first night and very busy for the second one. I’m just doing it DIY and positioning it around paying artists, because that’s been quite revealing in a lot of ways. The response has been phenomenal.

I was recently part of the Women In Sound / Women On Sound discussion panel at Goldsmiths. Not to sound arrogant, but you say things that feel a bit obvious and people are surprised by them. It’s just an experiential reference really.

Does it reaffirm why you’re doing Bechdel, in terms of illustrating the fact that there’s still a long way to go? When you’re saying things you expect to be well known, and it transpires that many are still oblivious…

I guess so. At WIS/WOS, the issue was still fairly new to some people. Then there are other people like Magz Hall, who was brilliant. When women want more for women in music it’s refreshing to hear higher expectations than your own. Like I say, it’s experiential reference – you have to go through a journey as a musician and a woman to get to the point where you expect more. You’d have to be really cocky – oh, what a word to use – to start off in your career expecting a lot. You have to learn the lie of the land before you. The interesting thing about WIS/WOS was looking at musical education, and that perhaps those expectations are set in the education of women when they’re young. It was very interesting to discuss that.

Essentially, I did Bechdel as a knee-jerk reaction. I’m very honest about that. This is me deliberately inverting something that I’ve experienced too much and seeing what happens. As well as being provocative, it’s about creating a really welcoming space for female artists. The interesting thing is that, without me being explicit, every artist doing something new is using Bechdel as a testing ground…they are given that space and they’re going to use it. I wonder how many times a female artist can have the chance to experiment within a performance space if they’re the only female artist on a lineup, you know? That does relate to the WIS/WOS conference, in terms of education for girls in music and the opportunity to experiment and the position to learn, without having to come in as an expert level. I find it really interesting that it keeps coming up.

So is there the sense that there’s a certain leniency afforded to men in this context, where the desire to participate is enough?

Taking it back to education… one thing that got pointed out to me by Freida Abtan, who’s the head of Music Computing at Goldsmiths, is that teenage boys are more likely to skill-share than teenage girls. If someone’s coming from that skill-sharing environment, there’s going to be an attitude of, “yeah – come out and try your new thing.” But I feel like using the word “leniency” is putting blame on men, and I don’t like the binary division of that. I see it as a team effort, you know?

Bechdel on Facebook – www.facebook.com/Bechdelbrighton
Agata Urbaniak on Flickr – www.flickr.com/photos/agataurbaniak