Thursday, 24 December 2020

The Top 20 K-pop Singles of 2020

This is the sixth year I've done this, which makes me like a grand old man of K-pop. I have now been a fan for nearly a decade, which has gone fast, and it seems amazing that so little remains of the scene that saved me from becoming a retro-indie bore, snoring on about how music peaked with the third Belle and Sebastian album or something. Anyway, in a totally too-old-to-be-hipster kind of way, it has been a bit sublime to see what felt like my own little world - one which took me to China for three years for the express purpose of blowing my wages on travel to a number of very costly concerts - now become so mainstream that I can find the albums in my local HMV. I usually mention the Dazed list in this introduction, but honestly - it's so disappointing this year (and I've always thought a list which in 2014 never even had Sugar Free in its top 20 eyebrow-raising anyway), I am not going to post a link. 

Anyone (and I know it will be just a few) reading this has probably stumbled upon my blog accidentally or has some interest in K-pop already, so you already know some of the story of 2020. Nonetheless, here is a quick summary...

BTS ruled supreme with Swan, which is not (at the risk of upsetting the 'army') especially remarkable, Mamamoo, whose 2020 singles were not as strong as usual, splintered into a number of solo presentations (I've listed Hwasa as the best) as did EXO, with Suho's superior effort threatening to sound like a Bends-era Radiohead song from those opening notes. COVID-19 compromised the MAMA Awards and, of course, concerts, whilst many of the major names had disappointing comebacks - I wasn't too taken by Stray Kids, it's fine and all but it sounds less grand than usual, or Seventeen. The latest bout of A-Pink sugary-pop (described as 'a sophisticated sound' by Dazed, dear lord) was far too sickly and Loona's big moment made my head hurt. Maybe I'm (finally) too old? Judge for yourself, after all I am the fella who thought BTS sounded like a less interesting version of B.A.P. when they first emerged. I did like A.C.E. - number one for Dazed - but it doesn't make my list whilst, four years later, and I am still not sold on Weki Meki. Otherwise, 2020 was a good, solid year for the Korean pop scene - not as strong as the pre-2016 era, but about as healthy and exciting as you could hope, with a number of mature and maudlin songs, which might surprise some who are listening for the first time. 

And The Guardian still doesn't list K-pop music in its best albums of the year, so we can at least have some comfort in the fact the 'establishment' remain slow to catch on. 

K-pop moves fast, but the true classics are songs that endure forever. I can't imagine anyone will remember Weki Meki in four year's time. But they will probably still be listening to my number one choice for 2020. So without further ado, and with all sarcasm now at a limit, let's see what this year had to offer...

20) Siyeon - 'Paradise'

What? Really? Yes, in totally unexpected fashion, I am starting this year off with a heart-wrenching  ballad, one that actually preceded the pandemic and which is just absolutely beautiful. Came along unexpectedly, pulled at the emotions and showed that Dreamcatcher are more than 'just' another leggy K-pop girl-group producing absolute bangers for over half a decade now. An exceptional 4.05 minutes of lovelorn emotion that, in the wake of such a sorry year, might provoke the feelings of even the biggest bigoted-Brexit buff (scrap that, this comment could be a little bit too hopeful, plus it's not got Liam Gallagher in it).

19) Hyo - 'Dessert' (featuring Loopy and Soyeon)


The solo(ish) career of Girls' Generation member Hyoyeon (or Hyo as she now prefers) has been glorious - her raspy voice reborn within a series of dance-orientated blinders that are usually released to capture the perfect flavour of summer abandon. This stomper was about as close as any of us got to imagining a drunken, late-night, second-wind in the tropics in 2020 but it captures a vision of a year that could have been, at least. Props to (G)I-DLE for lending Hyo their most charismatic member, Soyeon, to prop up not just the soundscape of this single but the attitude-infused music video. A triumph and enduring proof that SM Entertainment did well to keep those SNSD heavyweights on the payroll.

18) Treasure - 'I Love You’


YG Entertainment were looking forward to a glorious 2020 before the obvious. Big Bang were due to make a return at Coachella, without Seungri of course, which would indicate that the label - unlike rivals SM - were capable to keeping a unit together for longer than just a handful of years and Black Pink continued to rule the planet. However, obviously G-Dragon and company failed to make their long-awaited reappearance and that meant that the label was reduced back to its focus on their stadium-filling girl group. Then, finally, came Treasure - featuring 12 (!) members, far more than the five-man Big Bang - and opting for a very different, more traditionally K-pop EDM sound. It's good, not great, but solid, catchy, infinitely memorable... not sure how such a teen-orientated concept will grow to Big Bang levels of superstardom but then I never thought Black Pink had it in them to eclipse 2NE1 (and musically they haven't, but that's another argument for another day). And yes, that is 'I love you' they are chanting over the thudding chorus...

17) Oh My Girl - 'Nonstop' 


Pure bubblegum, but in the best sense of the word. I have come and gone with Oh My Girl, initially falling for the sound of their dream-trance classic Closer only to find out that they were never going to make anything nearly as good again (even the mini-album that it appears on defaults into more traditional uptempo chart-pop). This unashamedly thrilling bop doesn't change things but the band, still one member down since the dark and controversial departure of JinE, more than indicates that it can achieve a furiously accomplished pop landscape with the sort of tried and tested lananananana hook that promises to get lodged in your head and never leave. One of the year's most infuriatingly memorable hits.

16) SuperM - '100'


This is the best SuperM song yet, also managing to sound the closest to a new EXO single in the process - and, whilst the whole 'K-pop Avengers' concept has not really reset the genre (as some expected), there is no doubting that SM has treated this particular pet project with a shed-load of tender loving care. The visuals are as colourful and exemplary as anyone might anticipate, whilst the song feels like an anthem, something that could (and will, when better times arrive) fill a stadium. Not to diminish what has come before, but with '100' SuperM felt - to this listener at least - a far more interesting prospect than before: decidedly more aggressive and a little rockier than before, although if the slightly more sublime Tiger Inside is anything to judge by, this is a group still finding their sound. We clearly have a lot to look forward to.

15) Dreamcatcher - 'Scream'


It is strange to think that Dreamcatcher were initially written-off as little more than a South Korean spin on Japan's Babymetal when, all these years later, their sound has evolved into something that could be described as an even more epic Evanescence. This 2020 single, with the usual slicker-than-slick production, shows the vocal prowess of all members and the whole gob-smacking rock-opera is complimented by a video rich in horror and fantasy imagery. This ambitious concept is a widescreen vision of anger and torment accompanied by brief moments of quiet reflection and it sounds absolutely fabulous. Attesting to their changeability, the accompanying effort from this year, Boca, is quite different.

14) Gfriend - 'Mago'


I have been slow to catch onto GFriend, even, perhaps wrongly, dismissing them as purveyors of cutsie-pop, but 'Mago' is a toe-tapping classic and a single to fall in love with. K-pop has always enjoyed retro-sounding experimentation and this year brought us at least three high profile hits that adapted the synth-sonics of 1980s chart-pop, albeit bringing them crashing into the present day: 'Lovesick Girls' (see number 11) from Blackpink, 'I Can't Stop Me' (see number eight) from Twice and this welcome injection of disco nostalgia, which pulses with pastness from the opening beat. One listen and there is every chance you will find yourself repeating the 'tik tok' hook in your head, possibly in even your deepest sleep. A short-play to be proud of from a group that reached a peak in 2020. I will be listening in 2021.

13) Hwasa - 'Maria'


For 'Maria', read Hwasa - this is a mature, and even slightly macabre, exploration of life as a K-pop idol from one of the most respected figures of recent years. Hwasa would have every right to rest on her laurels as a member of Mamamoo, one of the greatest and most successful bands to emerge from the Korean pop scene (full stop), but as with last year's fabulous Twit, we instead get a bombastic solo spin-off that lets us a little deeper into one of the genre's most accomplished voices. Whilst there's no doubting the talent of all four members of her band, it seems doubtless that Hwasa might be the personality that heads to sonically bigger things when the veteran quartet inevitably, albeit sadly, call it quits.

12) Taeyeon - 'Happy'


Look, Taeyeon's voice is a weapon. It kills me. To prove this, she was even sent to Amsterdam and Berlin to 'busk' for South Korean TV last year as they recorded people breaking into tears (basically). Having been to Taeyeon concerts, and experienced her voice live, it is difficult to describe quite how it feels (I've seen people break and, yes, I was one). Certainly the best vocals I have ever heard (endured? At times, it feels painful to even listen without tearing up), this is one of her less brutalising singles - for that, see I or Fine or Signal - but it is still curiously downbeat and depressing. It's not her strongest tune, nor one of her greatest numbers, but it was kind of what 2020 deserved - a fantasy of happiness that is simply is not there. Still the most iconic figure in K-pop and the one that makes me most ashamed for thinking Morrissey was a legitimate representation of angst in my youth.

11) Blackpink - 'Lovesick Girls'


What can you say? YG's premiere group are now second only to BTS in terms of international prestige and their year included a collaboration with Lady Gaga, a (surprisingly insightful, if still-approved-by-the-record-label) Netflix documentary to accompany their long, long awaited debut full-length album. Hard to believe it took four years to get the first LP out on the market but it certainly did nothing but raise the profile of the entire Blackpink brand. 'Lovesick Girls' does not reinvent their sound but it does show how effortless they make this sort of thing seem: 'Hey ladies, can you seamlessly recreate the sort of anthem for loss that you might have heard on Top of the Pops circa about 1987?' And there it is. Brilliant.

10) Girlkind - 'Future' 


If your initial reaction to this video is 'what the fresh hell is this?' consider yourself not alone. Indeed, the first response to this, and indeed their brilliant Psycho4U, might also be wondering if this is some kind of project akin to the KLF, including with not entirely dissimilar vibes - this is the comedown. 'Future' itself is late 80s/ early 90s chill-out and somewhere between farce and genius in its video presentation ('have these kids even heard of the Hacienda?'). The band has yet to pick up much steam, amazingly, and yet this has to be one of the most experimental concepts and tunes of the year... it's just perfect. And just when you think you it cannot get anymore brilliant there is a rap at 1.57 that bridges no less than three subsequent changes in rhythm and then a dreamy outro that is swoon-some. One of the year's underrated gems.

9) Aespa - 'Black Mamba' 



SM Entertainment badly needed a new girl band after the Girl's Generation split of 2017, the break-up of F(x) a year previous and Red Velvet on a (sort of) hiatus in 2020. So it was that, after a few weeks of tease (not without criticism) we got this outstanding debut, a (yikes) far better, and decidedly more experimental, debut that the aforementioned groups received before they went on to conquer K-pop (and continents). If there is a problem here it is not the song but rather SM's 'back to the drawing board' reliance on young pin-ups for their first ever female quartet - which is a break from F(x) and - arguably - Red Velvet. There's nothing especially interesting about the Aespa look (the video hints at the concept, at least, of a group that will embrace the virtual, whatever that is going to look like and inform) but maybe that will come later (indeed, who could have predicted Taeyeon from watching the video to 'Into the New World?'). As it stands, this is still a job well done.

8) Twice - 'Can't Stop Me'


The best Twice song yet, and the best of the year's eighties throwbacks, this builds up to its breathless, exhausting, heart-racing chorus with the sort of aplomb and confidence one would expect from such a seasoned band. Try listening to this and not being awestruck by that 'awoowoowoo' that is like a time machine back to a pivotal scene in a high school movie from John Hughes (and so good, they use it again for the outro). The accompanying album was a further highlight of 2020 and shows that Twice, finally, are beginning to mature in sound and concept. And damn, some of these high notes are just thrilling.

7) (G)I-DLE - 'Oh my God'




A band that has yet to offer a duff single, 'Oh my God', which features songwriting from the group's Hyuna figure (to reference much-missed, old label-mate 4 Minute) Soyeon, is another blinder. The song begins with religious iconography and sounds - perhaps indicating the end-of-world horrors of 2020 - before breaking into a sweet-sounding ballad that then shatters into a pure pop-rock bridge and into a chorus that slows things down all over again. It is exhilarating to experience and proves that K-pop remains a format for mind-melting musical structures. As for the video - well, it's both delirious and disturbing whilst also downright curious, potentially offering symbolism of a group suffering for their art (or a video director just in love with horror cinema). Cherish this ensemble whilst we still have them, given Cube Entertainment's history with finding a way to mess up a good thing.

6) Ha:tfelt - 'Satellite (Feat. Ash Island)'


It feels like forever since we last heard from Ha:tfelt (aka Yeeun from The Wonder Girls) but her return this year with an astounding album, and a number of superb spin-off singles, really made up for her (much-missed) absence. This was one of the finest surprises of lockdown, her soaring, sumptuous vocals and tortured dreams evoked in this truly terrific number; a standout. It still feels, all these months later, like the small steps towards the beginning of summer. Perhaps that is what was intended. Beautiful.

5) Everglow - 'La Di Da'


My hunch is that if you asked someone 25 years ago what pop music would sound like in 2020 they would not have been able to predict this. From the first thumping beats, this is the sound of motorcycle-at-full-speed down a futuristic cityscape in a steampunk nightmare movie. The video itself uses Sin City as a reference, but they could have played this over a blank screen and, turned up loud, it would still be difficult to sit still. It's the smash-shit-up-song of the year. 

4) Irene and Seugli - 'Monster'


Two erstwhile Red Velvet members also do the 'horror movie' thing (call it the influence of 2020) with this slow-fast composition that creeps (and that could be interpreted literally) into your head-space with some careful pacing and an evocative, instantly effective chorus-crawl. This is indeed a monster of a hit - and proof again that SM Entertainment are still at the very top of their game. Suffice to say, the next Red Velvet album cannot come soon enough, but for a year without the fabulous five this more than made up for their absence.

3) NCT Dream - Ridin


SM again, but I will qualify by saying this that I have found the entire NCT system of groups one of their more inconsistent brain-farts. This absolute banger, however, is a work of genius, and an NCT moment that stands among the best. Turn that chorus up loud and discover for yourself that rare blessing in an otherwise terrible, tragic year - existing on a planet where new music this damn good is still being produced. To use an exhausted term, that is nonetheless especially fitting for this rollicking achievement, it just rocks.

2) Sunmi - Pporappippam


The formula to the perfect pop song is something that few have managed to locate, but if ever there was a modern example to be taught in music classes around the planet, it might just be this enormous-sounding burst of energy from Sunmi. The artist, a former member of The Wonder Girls, rarely disappoints but even by her standards this is an insanely lofty setting-the-bar-so-high-few-will-even-get-beyond-the-first-few-steps level of achievement. It does what great pop all-too-rarely manages - combining a character study of newfound love and heightened pleasure with a comedown into self-doubt and personal tragedy. You don't need the lyrics to even know this, such as Sunmi's talent with composition and her mesmerising vocal evocations, but damn - as I said - this is the sort of blitz on your senses that would probably make me quit if I was a rival songwriter. How do you top this?

Taemin - Two Kids



So what could be better than Sunmi's beloved summer single in 2020? How about a return from Taemin, a superb solo album and this shot-in-Paris music video that feels very much of the year (see these deserted streets?) and is a breathy journey through a spot of heartfelt personal trauma that is all too easy to believe, given he is just three years removed from the suicide from one of his best friends. Do we sense a little of these feelings coming to the surface here? It seems so. And it makes for a difficult listen, with the potential to push tears or muster goosebumps. But Taemin has long been a unique genius, shading his character and entire persona in performances that marry dance and voice to ever more ambitious aural landscapes. There's tragedy in this majestic presentation - trying to dance and sing out what has possibly been left unexpressed since Jonghyun's death. Or perhaps it is just about a long lost love. Whatever, it's also the finest achievements of the year... and, it goes without saying, one hell of a song.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Landfill Indie? Now I Really Feel Old

So in case you have been living in a social media bubble over the past 24 hours, VICE did an article on the The Top 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs of All Time.  The title itself has problems ("greatest of all time?" As opposed to just "of the time"?) and the article was critiqued on Twitter for not really knowing what it wanted to be (celebration? Disdain?). Others embraced it as a nostalgia rush for anyone who now has kids, a mortgage and a marriage. If the songs are meant to be "the best most average songs in British music history" then why an Ivor Novello winner is on there is anyone's guess. But it made me think about some music I've actually not listened to in quite a long time. It made me feel old too, although nowadays a lot of things do that.

                                            Guillemots: not Landfill Indie

About the list: I don't understand how if Franz Ferdinand are "too art rock" to be included then The Cribs album which Alex Kapranos produced has its rather fabulous main single present, let alone The Mystery Jets (and I was not even much of a fan of the latter but, yeah, "art rock", hello?). Other puzzling inclusions are The Guillemots - who never had a drunken sing-a-long anthem, lay on the student avant-garde fringe and were roundly acclaimed (I learned about them from John Harris of all people) - and the lead single from Glasvegas, which perplexed Simon Price on Twitter as well. 

                                          The Mystery Jets - actually quite "art rock". And annoying

With all of this said, obviously music taste is subjective, and I no more want to criticise someone for weeping to The Pigeon Detectives as I want to be criticised for once wearing white jeans and Top Man shirts, but I have issues with the snark and tone of the list too. 

    I wore white jeans. Please forgive me (Landfill Indie period)

On Twitter there was discussion about this being 'classist' - I'm not so sure about that, but I would certainly argue it is geographically naïve. Describing The Automatic, from Cowbridge as being from "The Valleys", for instance, or mentioning Glasvegas as a "rare Scottish entry" (the 1900s also get a look in). Franz Ferdinand aside, if the Londoners had bothered to look just a tiny bit further up North they would have noticed Boards of Canada, Camera Obscura, the multi-ethnic El Presidente, The Hussys, Sons and Daughters and quite a few others (I'm presuming that Frightened Rabbit got a pass for obvious reasons). I accept that from these names Camera Obscura are the standout, and have sustained a critically favourable reputation (although the same could be said for The Cribs and many others), but if "Landfill Indie" means absolutely anything vaguely sulky and/ or with a guitar released between 2003 and 2011, and now irrelevant to pop culture in general, then I'm not quite sure how they missed inclusion and can only imagine it's the usual "rest of the UK does not exist" nonsense that led us to Brexit.

                                            Camera Obscure: Excellent and Scottish

Unsurprisingly Northern Ireland doesn't get a look in either. Which is amazing giving one of the finest alternative artists of this era came from the country. But, you know, Londoners gotta London, I guess (note: I just found out the Fratellis are Scottish too, who knew? Clearly not VICE)... I've posted a video of Duke Special below, though, less you be curious.

                                      Duke Special: from Belfast but with now inappropriate dreadnaughts

The list becomes even more perplexing with the addition of The Arctic Monkeys. The band were awful, and I decided that the minute they appeared, but they were and are undoubtedly important (both commercially and culturally), which the article acknowledges, although I'm unclear how the dirge of "Mardy Bum" would resonate with anyone in Belfast or Glasgow more than a Glasvegas anthem about sectarianism such as "Flowers and Football Tops". In retrospect, I would maintain that the latter has more to say about live political issues in modern Britain than a few spotty teenagers strumming guitars to a tune about a moody girl.

                                           Glasvegas: one of the worst live bands I ever saw

Anyway, the list was quite a hit of nostalgia so I wanted to use this post to write a bit about my own Landfill Indie days. I generally like/ liked the term - but not always in the pejorative sense, necessarily, rather to relate to a time and music that I simply don't listen to anymore but which was once quite prominent. The VICE brain-trust insists that the era was predominantly white men with guitars, but that's only because, much as they couldn't find Cowbridge or Scotland on the map of the UK, nor did they apparently notice The Dears or Lightspeed Champion or Test Icicles. These might have been isolated cases in comparison to the proliferation of all-white boy Razorlight wannabes, but not noting them at all when each was far more prominent than - for instance - Good Shoes or Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong shows that some of these writers were probably too young to have encountered the Landfill Indie era in more than bemused distance (one of the reviewers admits to being 13 at the time, which is a good way to make a mockery of your own article).

                                                    Lightspeed Champion: not white

I assumed the 'landfill' referent was there to signify a tipping point; where the music became so much of a muchness that no one was buying into it anymore. I mean, Razorlight even played Live Aid and even got a bigger slot than The Killers, which seemed crazy in 2005 but now feels extraordinarily ridiculous. In retrospect, though, I think the period was formative insofar as it signaled the death of guitar music as 'edgy' or even minimally 'alternative' - something Britpop did damage to but never quite fully managed. As mentioned, 13 is way too young to be talking about connecting with a 'scene' (and shame on the writer for pretending they did) - and Landfill Indie was never a scene in the way baggy, Britpop, grunge or hip-hop was - but if we are using 2003 as the basis, then I can say I was there and, to my surprise, I went to many of the concerts. This is something I had never thought about until yesterday. 

                                               This is what 2007 looked like

There were some good forgotten bands from this time that missed the list too - until yesterday, for example, I cannot remember the last time I thought about The Long Blondes, who I saw live twice and who felt exciting for a very brief period but were probably a little too soon after 1997 to sound 'retro' in the way that evoked fondness among the masses. They split shortly after their second album.

                                            The Long Blondes: Not-Quite-Elastica in 2007

The first thing that needs clarified is that neither grime nor necessarily electro-pop caused the proverbial 'Landfill'. Both were around during the peak of even The Libertines and Girls Aloud and Sugababes were playing the major the indie-fests (I saw the latter at T in the Park, 2003) indicating that a crossover was already taking place. "Biology" by Girls Aloud was about as radical as British pop during the noughties got, with its jarring double chorus. It's also worth stressing that The Strokes, despite the patronage of NME, were never as big as Blur or Oasis. They were big, they played arenas, but your parents wouldn't have noticed them.

                                        The Strokes: formative but more warm-up for The Killers

At the time, the alternative music press was in free-fall, Select had gone under and Melody Maker was soon to follow, Napster and then iTunes and then broadband had wrecked the record shops and I saw them shut down in Edinburgh and Glasgow, one by one. My local store in Kirkcaldy, where I bought Up the Bracket from the Libertines in 2002, also closed. NME was thus desperate to avoid (guess what?) closure so they attached themselves to the biggest indie project of the day, which was The Strokes. But they were pushing everything back then, The Strokes were just the more accessible - Landfill Indie arguably began with the dregs of this scene: The Vines (from Australia, who got a huge NME push), Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Bravery, Interpol, The Polyphonic Spree, We Are Scientists, The Von Bondies and probably quite a few more I've let slide to the back of my head. The Killers took the mantle from The Strokes in 2004 and exploded in a way that Julian Casablancas and his chums never accomplished.

                                            The Von Bondies: Came and went, unsurprisingly

In comparison the UK equivalent of disposable, briefly happening, NME- endorsed 'cool' happened with remarkably little note which everyone seems to have forgotten. The publication had become 'glossy' in the early noughties and decided the best way to kill the ghost of Britpop was to shit on everything that still remained - thus, weekly columns were dedicated to laughing at Suede's feeble 2003 comeback whilst toasting to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (who deserved a bigger run during the decade that followed on the basis they were fabulous). I saw The Strokes, The Vines and The White Stripes at a music festival in 2002. The White Stripes were the ones who really stood out and by the time I saw them again (in Glasgow, 2004), they had moved into becoming something culturally significant. In the interim, the mag actually missed out on the meteoric rise of The Libertines. By the time they did see this little drugged-up foursome as money in the bank it was by playing catch-up (they had given Up the Bracket just 7/10). 

                                           The Libertines: Classic

If you were 'into' indie music at the time then you doubtlessly needed MTV2. I can still remember hearing the title track "Up the Bracket" late one night and being briefly shaken out of my mundane existence. NME had never really reported on The Libertines but suddenly this blast of energy appeared on my TV and felt loud, angry, exciting, new - I had no idea what it was about but I noted the name of the group and got the LP the next day. I remember playing it to my girlfriend at the time, who simply shrugged and said she preferred Coldplay. She later, despite my begging, wouldn't go and see them with me at King Tuts in Glasgow, insisting they were never going to amount to anything. We clearly weren't meant to last. When I finally saw The Libertines in 2003 (supported by an unknown Franz Ferdinand), Pete had bailed on the tour and Carl Barat had to hold it all together himself. The other great find from this time was The Raveonettes, from Denmark, who I still rank as one of the finest groups to ever exist. Make of that what you will. 

                                            The Raveonettes: Not Landfill Indie. Just Brilliant

In 2003 my own life was changing, I was an MA graduate with no idea what to do next. In December of that year I began signing on as unemployed as job after job - even in mundane office work - escaped me in dreary old Fife (and Edinburgh). Occasional new music was all I had to access what the 'fun' kids were doing with their time, as I settled into an existence in my old bedroom at my mum's place, depressed and disappointed. The Libertines sounded like the most exciting thing in the world during these dark days, but I also recall seeing The Cribs for the first time as support to Death Cab for Cutie in Edinburgh (2003). They were fantastic and my best friend and I predicted big things. In retrospect, their best material has held up even better than The Libertines. Whilst they are undoubtedly culturally irrelevant in 2020, they were once something special and their concerts were unbeatable.

                                           The Cribs: also classic

I managed to do a brief internship in Los Angeles as I struggled to find my own way in postgraduate life - eventually becoming prominent enough as a writer to start getting by without the worry of having to send off my CV for anymore monotonous office jobs in Glenrothes and the related area (I had also done a six month stint at Standard Life). Landfill Indie was the soundtrack of this period, which lasted for over five years, which means I don't associate it with 'good' times (I broke up with my girlfriend of six years in 2006 as well) but I have a strange nostalgia for it - per yesterday - that I cannot say I have for the more tawdry elements of Britpop. Some of these are missing from the VICE list, such as  The Duke Spirit, who I discovered in 2005 but who vanished just a few years later (the VICE list appears to think female-fronted bands didn't exist). I think this is the first time I've played this song in a decade.


                                            The Duke Spirit: rocked for a short time

The peak of Landfill Indie was probably 2005, which was also my last T in the Park. I went with my ex and stood through Kasabian, The Killers, Razorlight and the new Brett Anderson/ Bernard Butler project The Tears. The TV camera crews all left for The Tears, such was the lack of interest in anything even remotely associated with Britpop that did not belong to the still-dominant Oasis or Albarn.

                       Meeting with Björn Ågren from Razorlight back in the Landfill Indie days

I also caught The Editors and saw The Kaiser Chiefs from a safe distance. I can still recall Kaiser Chiefs lead singer Ricky Wilson urging the women in the crowd to remove their tops for him, attesting to quite what a different time 2005 was from 2020. The lack of The Kaiser Chiefs, nevermind Hard-Fi (who always seemed unable to craft a basic tune but somehow sold loads of records) and Kasabian, on the VICE list is bizarre. For about a year they defined every radio channel in the country and, fittingly, they were irredeemable.

                                            The Kaiser Chiefs: terrible. Just terrible

With The Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian and Razorlight selling stacks of records, it would be easy in retrospect to think of the 'indie' scene as being as healthy as the Britpop era. Indeed, Oasis were still huge all through the noughties (I last saw them in 2002 at T in the Park and no I'm not proud), Damon Albarn resurfaced with Gorillaz, Morrissey returned and probably peaked in 2004, the Manics, Placebo and The Stereophonics still packed out stadiums and Muse and Franz Ferdinand were breaking America. However, what I most remember taking place was that - as the music became smoother and better produced than ever - maintaining a place in the record collection of those who also bought into the dirge of Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol, it meant that the stars were not just topping charts but became fodder for newspaper headlines. Matt from Muse, Johnny Borrell and Pete Doherty had celebrity girlfriends. Preston from The Ordinary Boys was on Celebrity Big Brother and wooing a page three model. Girls Aloud covered The Kaiser Chiefs. I might just be speaking for myself and my little gaggle of friends but nothing was identifiably 'cool' in a way that made anyone want to buy into it. I remember in the summer of 2007 every member of the opposite sex I came across in the Edinburgh night clubs seemed to dress like Kate Nash, but that was about as far as anything really went.

                                            Razorlight: insufferably huge for about two years

I remember seeing The Cribs in December, 2005 and recognising that music was changing. MySpace was the new way of discovering bands (and how I eventually stumbled across Glasvegas) but mostly gigs were a disappointment. Being down the front of The Cribs made me feel like a teenager again. The Libertines also had that rare thing: people were hysterical for the people on the stage. Seeing Camera Obscura, The Duke Spirit, Glasvegas, The Guillemots, The Howling Bells (from Australia), The Long Blondes, Maximo Park, Metric (from Canada), The Sounds (from Sweden) and even Carl Barat's The Dirty Pretty Things was not the same because no one was losing their shit to the band and there's nothing more depressing than holding a pint at another ho-hum indie gig. Meanwhile Pete Doherty's drug habit had spiraled, making him a daily news story and giving him a new kind of follower who otherwise had only ever bought Oasis CDs. His new band The Babyshambles, when I saw them in 2006, played to about 2000 drunk, violent thugs in Glasgow. It was terrifying.

                                            Nightmare concert: The Babyshambles

I saw The View supporting The Babyshambles in 2006 and knew then that something else was wrong. They were young. Like, really young. The music sounded like it had been formed out of off-cuts from all the other music at the time and I predicted they would probably last a year and burn out fast. I was right. But if they were made to come and go this fast, with one or two singles that could return a bit of cash to the record label before they were inevitably cast adrift, then how many more indie bands were going to just appear and disappear? It felt like the desperate last gasp of an industry that was discovering no one really bought music anymore, especially not 'the kids'. I also saw The Arctic Monkeys growing and never understood the appeal. One of my friends went to check them out and confirmed that the gig was full of the 'new' indie lads that had embraced Doherty as 'one of them': in other words, it was violent down front. And I was getting too old to avoid fights at concerts. That same friend later set up an 'ironic' Towers of London fan page to annoy their fans. 

Anyway at this stage, the music was starting to sound the same. Anyone remember The Rakes?

                                          The Rakes: one of the worst songs ever produced by humans

The Rakes felt particularly condescending (I would have killed for a 22 grand job at this time), but they were not even the worst offender. I saw Scouting for Girls in a tiny little 200-room event during the Edinburgh Fringe where they launched their debut single (don't ask) and it was as piss-poor as you can imagine. I still get emails from their record label about what they are up to no matter how often I try and unsubscribe. The Hot Puppies, on the other hand, were an agreeable live discovery from this time, even if no one else bought their album. 

                                            The Hot Puppies: we barely knew ye

Glasvegas were appalling live but, in their defence,  we all later learned the lead singer had mental health issues. Aside from a trio of strong singles, the band faded into obscurity. I'm not sure where The Delays lie in all of this, but I still rate them really, really highly. "Valentine" was astonishing. It still is.

                                            The Delays: astonishing pop perfection

Maximo Park were ridiculously bad when I saw them at a concert. I had heard they were really good onstage, but Paul Smith and crew appeared at a packed Corn Exchange in Edinburgh and after one song fled off. They came back on but this happened a couple of times, eventually encouraging boos. The band mentioned the sound wasn't working for them and their record label was in the back. They needed to impress them. Something about representatives from Virgin. The crowd went flat. The veil of indie cred pulled away by a band too unironic to see it. We left the gig early. Others did too. Maximo Park never played a gig this big in my home city again.

                                            Maximo Park: corporate indie. Apparently.

By the end of the noughties, indie felt like just a free-flow of bands that were on MTV2 one evening and then gone from the face of the planet the next and not just The View. From American bands you all forgot existed or never heard in the first place, such as The Drums, The Eames Era and Music Go Music, to British never-weres such as Frankie and the Heart Strings and We Start Fires. Some of these groups deserved to evolve at their own pace but either they never had that pivotal 'one big hit' or, like The Drums, were thrown onto an NME cover and declared to be too cool for school only to turn out as just another alight guitar band. 

                                           The Eames Era: American Landfill Indie but good

By the time The Vaccines appeared, a private school, funded-by-rich-parents 'alternative' project, it was not just cynical in a way that even Menswear or Razorlight were not, but corrupt: Spice Girls dolls for students who needed something Smithsy and contemporary but less Richie Manics and more Preston from Big Brother. It was easy to become disillusioned and 'indie' nights stopped happening or turned into something more retro, promising Britpop or grunge, the staples of 'alternative' even today.

                                            We Start Fires: VICE ignored the female bands

In the mid-noughties when I tried to get my ex-girlfriend to move to the front of a Cribs gig she shot me a look and said "I'm not 18 anymore". By the end of the noughties, I was feeling like maybe I had also become too old for new music. My friends had gotten married. Some had kids and a mortgage. I had started a PhD. One memory I cannot shake off was being at a club night out during the Fringe with friends and seeing the floor (I was too old to dance at this stage), and two young drunk kids particularly, go ecstatic over The Ting Tings. The music must have changed. I didn't get it anymore. Maybe I was too old.

                                                The Ting Tings: felt like having your brain drilled

Drinking overpriced lager and being down the front of a gig was for those ten years younger than me as I discovered in 2011 at White Lies, when Naomi and I were the oldest people in the Glasgow Barrowlands. When Naomi got hit on by one kid down the front and he turned out to be 18 she told him she felt more motherly than anything else. Nevertheless that feeling of yesteryear, of a crowd totally invested in every word coming from a lead singer's mouth, was how White Lies felt. Of course, White Lies never belonged to the Landfill Indie scene, being too dark and dystopian and appealing to a crowd that was moving into music a little more likely to prepare for the post-uni, post-financial crash mental breakdown. But they remain probably the best guitar band to have emerged from the UK in that ten year sprawl. Brexit Britain will need something similar. 

                                            White Lies: One of the great British indie bands

I would agree with VICE that pop had crossed over to the extent that 'identity' no longer meant anything but it probably began when Amy Winehouse had appeal and credibility beyond just 2000 capacity venues. I also remember hearing "Paparazi" by Lady Gaga and being sold, immediately. The thing with Gaga, in that glorious initial stage (comprising her first LP and follow-up mini-project that gave us "Bad Romance") before drugs and fame made the 'difficult second album' a washout is that she was alternative in a way The Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian and even The Libertines never were. She stated she was a hermaphrodite, and she occasionally sang lyrics about sex and her kinks and her heartbreaks that seemed more honest and open than anything you got from the new Morrissey album, but she also wrote her own work just like the indie kids. Her work was censored in Malaysia and the Middle East but it remained popular because it had a grand statement about gender and sexual equality that threatened the religious censors. And tunes such as "Paparazi" and "Poker Face" were darker and edgier and yet far more fun and fresher sounding than anything that Alex Turner ever did. I watcher her show at T in the Park on the television and it was performance art mixed with a credibility and arrogance that blew everything else away. Electro-pop in the noughties had straddled some mighty achievements - Ladytron and La Roux had been essential - but this, this, was the point in which I knew even Snow Patrol were going to be over sooner rather than later (as an addendum I finally saw Gaga live and the show was awful, she was stoned and late and the performance half-arsed but by then she didn't need to give a shit). It's difficult to believe only a few years earlier some of the indie kids were listening to Starsailor.

                                            Lady Gaga: revolutionary for a time

What might be dubbed 'indie' music still sells out large venues, of course, but it is usually the nostalgia acts - Mumford and Sons have been around for a while, inspiring absolutely nobody, and Muse, Radiohead, Suede and the Gallagher brothers are always going to appeal to the lads who want to forget the wife and kids for a night. But whilst Sleeper can reform in 2018 there is probably not much of a crowd for a resurgent bunch of gigs from The Automatic or the posh-anthems of Noah and the Whale (strangely also missing from VICE).  I've enjoyed following Christina and the Queens (from France) and Wolf Alice, but generally find the UK 'indie' of today lacks even the bombast and ego of the first Oasis album and is destined to just be a footnote in some sort of PhD on the past ten years of Britain's fade into pop culture irrelevance with only Ed Sheeran still around to flog the occasional ditty to daytime television advertisements.

                                            Noah and the Whale: posh with Becks (or maybe champers)

Nowadays someone who buys into Gaga or Lana Del Rey or Taylor Swift is just as likely to have a Nirvana or Public Enemy t-shirt or enjoy Stormyz or be one of the kids retrospectively checking out The Stone Roses (whose third coming I bailed on, to the astonishment of my 22 year old self) or Eminem.  Music is now anything and everything - and Landfill Indie collapsed for the simple reason that in the age of YouTube and social media, it is hard to imagine that anyone defines themselves by tracks on an The Enemy CD. Small bands from small towns taking the world by storm with their guitars, as did The Arctic Monkeys, now seems quaint, even unimaginable. I was too old to be traipsing through gigs by every new band with an NME cover by the time 2010 arrived and, that flurry of Gaga-inspired enthusiasm aside, had given up on music doing anything for me again. 

                                            El Presidente: Landfill Indie, Glasgow-style

I returned to my first love and saw a reformed Suede across two nights at Brixton the next summer. And then K-pop happened. I pitched NME on covering the scene and was roundly ignored. On they went with coverage of Manics, Noel, Stereophonics, Florence, whatever would postpone their slide into purgatory, blissfully unaware of the revolution happening in Seoul. Last time I checked their web site they were now belatedly all over BTS. For me, discovering K-pop meant buying more records, and spending more money on concerts, than I ever did during the 1990s or 2000s, however ironic that might be now that I am also older. And being the oldest fella at the front of an EXO gig in Singapore was obviously slightly awkward. 

                                                             This is music (for the kids): EXO

Of course, it was a little disorientating to see what felt like my little private passion break through into the West, but I rode the wave when it was still in relative adolescence. I even recall coming back from being in Seoul in 2013 and attending a Cribs gig and just knowing the 'old me' was gone. I missed the sound of K-pop, I missed being wired into it and I missed how Seoul felt like it was happening in a way that Edinburgh or Leeds did not. I missed the feeling of youth again, the sounds, the freshness and as much as I loved the Jarman brothers, my brain had just been fed "Fantastic Baby" by Big Bang in every shop I had walked into. How do you come back from that? How does anyone? Moreover, now bands such as The Arctic Monkeys and The Kooks didn't just sound rubbish, they sounded redundant.

                                            Big Bang: Fantastic baby
                                            
So now we start a new decade. K-pop remains strong (to a lesser extent J-pop, although I converted at least one-time indie colleague to Perfume) and it's anyone's guess where it goes from here or where the 'next big thing' might come from. I might not be getting any younger but I hope I'll have tickets to whatever it is. As for Landfill Indie? To me, it just represents the period before K-pop. It was the tune to my life when everything seemed luckless, but - given Boris Johnson and Brexit - perhaps these were retrospectively the anthems to a far better time.




Friday, 17 April 2020

POETIC PLASMA: JEAN ROLLIN INTERVIEWED


Jean Rollin, who passed away in 2010 aged 72, may not have been as celebrated or as famous as other Euro-horror cohorts such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci but he was certainly a distinctive and stylish filmmaker. From his debut with 1968’s The Rape of the Vampire, the director  churned out a number of worthy titles including 1971’s Requiem for a Vampire, 1979’s Fascination, 1982’s The Living Dead Girl and 1995’s Two Orphan Vampires. Interestingly, he was also the first celebrity to ever grant me an interview. I spoke with Rollin way, way, way back in 1999 when he visitied Edinburgh and my subsequent interview was printed in a wee short-lived Scottish vampire rag called Bite Me! It was, technically, my first ever published article, anywhere - and a bit of a 'last resort' because I had exhausted everywhere else (even soon-to-be-close-friend Allan Bryce didn't reply to my emails!). I was still an undergraduate student in 1999 and I also used the Rollin piece to launch my own little fanzine as I dreamed that one day my words would be important enough to get me into the big leagues - The Dark Side, Fangoria, SFX, Shivers.... the publications that littered my room at university and which I hoped I'd one day navigate a course into. Little did I know it would take between four and seven years to get into each of these and become regular contributor! I kept Rollin's phone number when I met him in 1999 and in 2007 I decided to see if it still worked - calling him to invite him to Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films. This was literally months before I met Naomi Holwill and embarked on High Rising Productions and, in retrospect, I'm gutted we had not been introduced to each other earlier. This really was the 'last chance' to get Rollin in front of the camera and document his life. He was well-received in Manchester and, I hasten to add, to anyone who has not been paying attention this really is the UK festival that offers a chance to meet some of the rarest albeit most worthwhile genre guests possible - from Rollin to Umberto Lenzi to Aldo Lado and Giannetto De Rossi.

The following interview takes from both meetings with the great man and I hope, of course, that enjoy reading!

I believe that your debut feature The Rape of the Vampire was originally intended as a half an hour short. Can you tell me a little bit about how it became a full-length feature?

A friend of mine had bought a film from England and he asked four theatres in France to show the film. When he received it, it was too short - it was only one hour and ten minutes long. So, he said to me “we need half an hour to put with this film we have, so if you can shoot it, we can release it in the theatres.” He knew that I was very fond of this kind of film… So I called the producers and I said “listen, if we make this half an hour film we will have four cinemas to put it in’. They said “OK we will give you a little money,” and so I wrote the script for thirty-five minutes and we made it! Then, afterwards, when this American producer sees what we have done for practically no money, he says: “OK, if you are given more money you can make an hour extra and we will have a ninety minute film.” So I wrote the sequel and, let’s see (pauses) the difficulty was at the end of the first shooting… at the end of the thirty five minutes everybody was dead in the story! So, we invented the Queen of the Vampires who comes in from the sea and makes everybody come back and this was the story of the film. It was done in two shootings - the second was shot one month after the first.


How much money were you given to shoot The Rape of the Vampire?

I remember that I said I could do half an hour of film for 20,000 francs, which was not a lot of money. Of course, the producer liked it so much he gave me another 20,000 francs and let me turn it into the feature film that you now see. It was a strange year… it was the revolution of 1968 and here I was making this low budget vampire film that would cause controversy in its own right (laughs).

The Rape of the Vampire predates any of the erotic Hammer works. How influential do you think that it was?

I don’t see the influence on Hammer with The Rape of the Vampire. The reason why audiences were so furious was because, to the people who like this kind of film, the vampire film is Hammer. And, on the contrary, my film was very different and completely crazy! So it was very criticised… because of the French and Hammer films and so on. The Hammer films work with restrictions you know: beginning, middle and end. My Rape of the Vampire is crazy, nothing like this at all. It is very different.

Which brings me to my next question: You have spoken in the past about the initial audience resentment towards your films in France. Can you explain this further?

I can’t explain it myself. Why they like it now? (Shrugs). For The Rape of the Vampire it was terrible, everybody was so furious! At this period I said “I will never do films again.” But the scandal was important and the film was a success because of it, so the producers told me: “Make another one - we have money for you to try another movie.” They gave me a little money to make another one (and) after that it was the beginning of it all… but the first one had a terrible reception in France.

Your follow up The Naked Vampire is, like its predecessor, difficult to follow, sacrificing plot for some beautiful visuals – this time in colour. Do you feel that the look of your films is more important than their plot?

Perhaps you are right (pauses and laughs). There is a story in The Rape of the Vampire and a story in The Naked Vampire, but the story is always an alibi for me to shoot some visuals that I want to shoot. You understand what I mean? It’s a tool…

In the early seventies you began to venture into the field of hardcore pornography, even including such scenes in the horror film Phantasmes from 1975. Why was this?

It was impossible for me to make such films as I was making before. The pornography was popular in France, so little cinemas where my films were playing became ‘X’ cinemas. It became impossible to shoot a ‘B’ picture like I had done and I have to earn money of course. So that is why I shot so much extreme stuff… then one day I tried (to) make an ‘X’ film with a real story, like the films I made before. Phantasmes was completely... how you might say... shite though…

What do you think is the difference between erotica and pornography?

In erotica you see the woman while in pornography you see the man as well (laughs)!


Were you at all influenced by Spain’s Jess Franco who was also beginning to wed horror and sex?

Not at all... I count my influence as Georges Franju but not Jess Franco (laughs). I have never even met Jess Franco.

But you filmed some sequences for his movie Virgin among the Living Dead, didn’t you?

Yes, but I never worked with Jess Franco. What happened was that one day Jess Franco’s producer asked me if I could make some stuff that he could put into Virgin among the Living Dead. I was taken to the location and given some actors to shoot. Some people have told me that my sequence made it into Virgin among the Living Dead and if that is the case then fine but I never saw the movie… I have no interest in seeing the movie (laughs).

Some Euro-horror critics have said your best movie is 1975’s Lips of Blood. Care to comment?

I think it is probably my best story… it is a very good idea. But we met great difficulties with Lips of Blood. We were to be working for five weeks, then on just the first day of shooting one of the producers pulled out! The rest of the producers said: “Oh God! Now you make the film in three weeks or we don’t make it at all.” So I chose to make it, of course, and I had to make the shoot in three weeks when, originally, it was a five-week shoot. So more difficulties… and there were many things that could not be shot… The film is a little unbalanced, but there are some sequences I like very much. Also, the ending is great for me…

Tell me about making one of your most infamous titles – Zombie Lake

Ah, Zombie Lake – it is a funny story. One day the producers phoned me while I was adjusting my suitcase to go on holiday, and they said “we need you to make a new zombie film…” I went “when?” and they said “tomorrow morning…”

Talk about giving you ample time in pre-production!

Well I was going on my holidays and I said “call me back in one month and maybe we can talk then.” Well this guy said, “No, you don’t understand, we begin to shoot next Monday.” I said, “How on earth can I do this? I do not even know the script.” He said, “I will spend time with you and at the end of it you will know the script very well.” I thought it was such a funny idea that I agreed not to go on holiday and make the film instead. But, on the set, there was nothing – no script or anything. They just told me what to shoot. I know now that the film was supposed to have been done by Jess Franco but he just didn’t turn up…

Were you influenced by Night of the Living Dead?

I would say so. That is probably the scariest movie I have ever seen.

On speaking about your films Brigette Lahaie has said : “I don’t even think that it is justified to call them horror films because they really aren’t. They hardly ever try to be frightening or shocking. They have a timeless, romantic quality.” Would you agree with this?

Yes… as I have said, I don’t like so much gory pictures, what I like is the difference… when you see the older Dracula films of Universal you are not frightened. But there is, you know, something strange… that is what I try and find in my films. Not to scare people but, I don’t know how to say it, that strange little thing that makes my films different. It’s a kind of poetry and if you know my films you know exactly what I mean.


Speaking about Brigette Lahaie – the scene where she stabs a man whilst mounting him during sex in Fascination… That sequence reminded me a bit of the way Sharon Stone slashes up her victims in Basic Instinct. Do you think you influenced the Paul Verhoeven movie?

No, I didn’t think that… but, if you say so, then why not? Maybe it was – it would be nice if that was the case (laughs).

How did you get away with having Brigette parade around bare naked in the wide open countryside in Fascination? Were you not worried you might get caught?

Oh no, it was in a place that was completely deserted. We found this old village where no one was living. It was very strange but there was a strong mood there. As soon as I arrived I saw, in my head, a naked girl walking around there and that was the reason I shot that scene (laughs). After working with her on Grapes of Death I had written a script just for Brigitte and that was Fascination. I had a great rapport with her, such a fantastic actress.

And Grapes of Death was a bit of a change of pace for you too – it is a lot more fantastical…

What happened was that the producer of that movie asked if I could make a film like the American movie The Poseidon Adventure or Earthquake – that sort of thing. He asked if I could write a disaster script like that so we took The Poseidon Adventure and we decided to make the story about this group of people in a crisis but they do not get along. They start to fight. We decided to set the disaster around a virus because, of course, we did not have a lot of money. We could not sink a ship or anything (laughs).


You mentioned earlier you don’t like gory movies but your 1982 effort The Living Dead Girl has its fair share of nasty moments…

Yes, but at this moment it was the beginning of the gore picture and every producer or financier told me that I had to make something very gruesome. So I added lots of gory stuff to the plot. It was also possible to get realistic, sophisticated special effects for once. I don’t like showing lots of blood spilling everywhere without any reason but in The Living Dead Girl every horrible sequence was there for a reason.

Requiem for a Vampire is one of your most visually striking offerings. Can you talk about shooting in the scenic castles that you located for that movie?

We actually shot that movie in three castles! It is only one castle on the screen but it was actually filmed in three different places. I found a great castle just outside of Paris but some days just before shooting the owner of the château found out that we were making a movie with sex and violence and he said “you cannot do that here - absolutely not!” He forced us to pack up and leave. So we had to go and look elsewhere and we could not find another castle that was quite so perfect. So we used three different ones.

Finally, what is the movie you are most proud of directing? 

There are two films I like the most. The first is Requiem for a Vampire because it was written in one day and I was asked to make it, in France, on a low budget and it turned out very nicely. It was a big challenge but I really love the end results. The other is my new movie which I hope everyone will have the chance to see very soon. I just need to sort out the distribution of it in the UK. It is a crazy movie called The Night of the Clocks. It is everything I have tried to showcase with my other films – it brings my entire career full circle and pays homage to many of my other movies. I think it will be my last ever project so it brings everything to a proper end.



Thursday, 9 April 2020

LORDS OF CHAOS: TRACI LORDS IN CONVERSATION



Traci Lords has been a sci-fi and horror mainstay for three decades and, as Infinity finds out, she rather fittingly believes that her best roles are in the future…



Okay, let’s get it out of the way: the legendary and iconic Traci Lords has that slightly controversial past every article has to acknowledge: a teen runaway turned Penthouse Pet at the age of 15 she became the underage porn star of such hardcore hits as Talk Dirty to Me Part III (1984) and New Wave Hookers (1985). As the story goes, of course, our Traci got nabbed by the FBI shortly after her 18th birthday – with her fake passport being so convincing she had just managed to fly to Tokyo and back. Going underground to avoid what was a nationwide (and even global) scandal and re-emerging as a drama school thespian, Lords made her mainstream debut with the 1988 sci-fi classic Not of this Earth. A standout genre rehash, produced by Roger Corman, Not of this Earth proved that the blonde bombshell was indeed an accomplished actress and not just a one-note, bare-bodied X-rated presence. Follow-up appearances in the John Waters-helmed cult favourite Cry-Baby (1990), the Stephen King adaptation The Tommyknockers (1993), the grim low budget slice and dicer Skinner (1993), Underworld (1996) and the bloodsucking blockbuster Blade (1998), saw the actress emerge as a certified fan favourite and rightly so. 


Nowadays, Lords seems at peace with her past – even making casual reference to it – and who can blame her? Her current followers respect her less for her flesh-flaunting and more for her legitimate forays into cult and genre-defining cinema. Indeed, well into the new millennium our fine femme has kept up a high profile with Tsui Hark’s Black Mask 2 (2002), Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) and the gruelling horror shocked Excision (2012). And when Infinity catches up with Lords, it is at the annual Sitges Film Festival where she is promoting the premiere of her latest genre outing Cemetery Tales: A Tale of Two Sisters

The following Q and A comprises two conversations that I enjoyed with Lords - one in 2012 over the phone and the other in 2018 in-person at the Sitges Film Festival. In both instances, she was delightful. The resulting chats were published in The Dark Side magazine, but I have combined them into one here for some further Covid-19 lockdown reading... (sorry about the HTML issues in the font size etc here, no matter what I do it seems to be an issue!)



We saw you in the critically acclaimed horror outing Excision. Have you enjoyed maturing into playing the motherly role? Your reviews, which I echo, have been fantastic...

I think it is a great [laughs]. Excision was a brilliant role for me because it is really against type. I don't think anyone would expect to see me in this sort of part. This woman is very emotional but also very controlling. She has a big heart. She wants to do the right thing and she wants her family to be stable. It is the unravelling of her character that I found really intriguing and which, as an actress, I was looking forward to portraying. She has a lot of layers to get involved with - and that is something I look for, or at least hope for, when I take on a new film.
Were you much of a mother to the young cast behind-the-scenes?

Oh no, that wasn't really necessary [laughs]. AnnaLynne McCord, who plays my daughter in the film, is not really 17 years old of course - and she's a very experienced actress. Even Ariel Winter, who is only 13, has been on film sets for a long time as a child performer. So I don't think they needed to look to me for any advice [laughs].


Excision also features a cameo appearance from John Waters. Are you guys still close friends?

Oh yeah - John and I are very, very close friends. He is an amazing person. We did Cry-Baby together back in 1989 and then Serial Mom a few years after that. I just had dinner with him a few days ago too. He is a funny person and a really sweet man. He is someone who is very near and dear to my heart and when I was just getting ready to do Excision the director told me that one of his biggest ambitions was to work with John. So I said, 'Oh, well would you like me to call him?' He was shocked at first and then he said, 'Yeah that would be a dream come true.' So I put them both together, John read the script to Excision and thought it was interesting and twisted and then he agreed to do the part. He flew out to Los Angeles and worked for just one day. I remember when we went to Sundance with the film, John came onscreen and right away the whole audience stood up and applauded. He still commands that sort of fan following and I think he is a delightful little moment in the film. 
Let’s go back and talk about Not of this Earth. Did you ever think it would last this long?


I am shocked. Absolutely shocked. Who knew? Not of this Earth was my first mainstream movie. It was also Jim Wynorski and Roger Corman – so there was that too, I think, which got the fans curious about it. I was very good for them though because I brought them a lot of attention [laughs]. It worked both ways, I guess. But Not of this Earth was a little sci-fi film I did, and it was such a good laugh. It is still a funny little film. And at the time I loved being given the chance to make it - but I was not even thinking about if it was significant. The fact that it has turned out that way is wonderful. It is gratifying to me that people still love that movie. It was cheeky and funny and brilliant to make. I think a lot of people still remember that film because it really didn't take itself too seriously. 


I remember your appearance on Melrose Place, which was quite heavily publicised at the time...

Melrose Place still has quite a lot of fans too. That was an incredible opportunity for me because it was a hit television series and I got to play the bitch - although she was quite likeable in a strange way. It was fun, what can I say? [Laughs] The fun thing about doing conventions is that you meet people who remind you about TV appearances that have faded into the back of your mind. I have people say 'hey, you were great as the fortune teller in Highlander' or 'I loved you in Roseanne' and I'm just 'Oh yeah, I did appear on that show didn't I?' I have done a lot of television.
Your earliest work became so iconic and it all happened so fast as well – I mean, Cry Baby is probably still your most celebrated role…

And you might not believe it but I had no idea that would be significant either! I knew and loved John Waters and I thought he was brilliant – but I did not know 30 years from now people would still dress up as me at Halloween. How could I have predicted that? I was just too busy getting on with it [laughs].




Before this interview I actually went back and looked at some reviews of Not of this Earth and the critics really liked you – I mean, you got great notices for that movie…


I think that, and I wrote about this in my autobiography Underneath it All, the fact that the critics came out and said I was pretty good in that movie was really satisfying. I had never had that. I had only had the bad stuff and the naysayers at that stage – the ones who said I should not get a chance to do a mainstream movie because of what I had just come from. The fact was, though, I was a 19-year-old girl, very feisty and I was determined. I was thinking to myself, ‘Okay, so maybe this won’t work out, but I am at least going to give it a try’ and you know what, it did work out. I was so lucky – I got to travel the world, meet great people and have a wonderful career. Here I am in Sitges, with this beautiful sunshine. My life is extraordinary. And I think that my best roles are still ahead of me.


It has been 15 years since we have seen a new John Waters film. What do you think is the reason for that?


I think that film is changing all the time and that has had an impact on a great artist like John as well. In America there used to be financing for independent films but now you have many people going the crowdfunding route and you also have smaller movies being made because of digital and so on. The big studios now count on their comic books and sequels – so whilst there is a niche now of smaller independent movies, made for about $5 million, people often do not get the chance to see them. There is just so much challenge for distribution if you are an independent artist. John probably falls into that category – he wants to make his smaller movies, but not too small. He is still the busiest man in showbusiness, he is incredible on stage, he is brilliant – I saw him just four weeks ago. He is constantly creating but not doing it, and this is unfortunate for us, as a filmmaker so much.


What was the whole Cry-Baby experience like for you? I mean, this was when you were just beginning to become a recognisable mainstream face...

It was amazing. When I think about the films that I have done which have become iconic, Cry Baby is right up there with the original Blade. I loved working with Johnny Depp too. I mean, how many actresses have had that chance? And that was his first leading role in a film. I know that he had done A Nightmare on Elm Street but he had not yet become huge megastar yet...

Here's a challenge for you: describe Johnny Depp in one sentence...


Ha! I'll try but I cannot say enough good things about him. Okay, one sentence... He is as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside and he is a remarkably humble, wonderful, talented human being, who is also a very good kisser...
I'm sure you have just become the envy of many woman, and indeed many men, reading this by stating that...

And that is exactly why I am telling you. I'll just tease them all a little bit [laughs].
So you had this big hit with Cry Baby and you continued doing a lot of lower budgeted sci-fi at that time, such as Shock ‘Em Dead, Skinner and Raw Nerve. You certainly proved you could act – but do you ever feel that you might have been turned down for some roles because of the past notoriety?


I’m sure – but who knows? No one has ever said it to me. People never tell you why you do not get something in this industry though [laughs]. I never wasted a second thinking about it either. If it was over my past or because I was too thin or too fat or whatever – I did not concern myself about that.




You got turned down for Casino, the Martin Scorsese film, for Sharon Stone, who was Oscar nominated for the part – but knowing you were down to the final two under consideration, was that a confidence boost or a disappointment?


Oh no, no, no, never a disappointment - you know I think that in the audition it was mind-blowing, being there with Robert De Niro and being taken seriously. I was there and so close to getting it – but I just don’t have any regrets. I think that she was better for it. Sharon Stone was slightly older than I was, and that worked for the character. I look back and just think that I was too young to do it. She was the right person for the part.

I would rather have seen you than Sharon Stone, personally, but hey... I’m biased [note: worst press conference I ever did was with Sharon Stone]

Oh really? Well thanks - although she was fabulous in it. Absolutely fabulous. It would have been different with me playing the part. Of course, it is an amazing movie. And it would have completely and totally changed my career. I guess I wouldn't have played any creatures with fangs or anything like that [laughs].
Let’s go back to your sci-fi work, what do you remember about making the Stephen King adaptation The Tommyknockers?

We shot that in New Zealand. I was a huge fan of Stephen King and I still am. I knew the original book, so it was good to get that role. I got to play someone who could kill with her lipstick – I shoot lasers out of it [laughs]. That was so much fun, what woman does not want to do that? And I fell in love with New Zealand, it is a beautiful country.




What was it like to be in the original Blade?


Oh yeah, Blade – that was such a big hit. It was before everyone began making comic book movies! No one was really doing that back then except maybe the occasional Batman film.

The rumour mill has it that you were originally pegged as the lead…


Okay, there is some truth in that. Basically, I did go in and audition for the lead role in Blade. And I felt that the director, Stephen Norrington, was brilliant. I really wanted to work with him – and he was great. He actually made that film with headphones on and music playing as he saw it all come together. That was the way he was and that is why Blade is the way it is [laughs]. I mean, that movie has a rhythm to it – unlike the sequels, and I am not just saying that because I am in the first one. I really believe it is the standout – and to see an African-American superhero at that point was just amazing. Now whatever you think about Wesley Snipes, he was awesome in that role.


Agreed – but how come you did not get the lead?


I was told they wanted an African-American actress for the lead and that was fine – and I think that N'Bushe Wright was amazing in it. Norrington came to me, though, and said ‘I want you to be in this movie, and will you do this other role?’ It was a much smaller role, of course, but it was the opening of the movie and she is a vampire – I mean, yeah, of course, let’s do this [laughs]. So I did it and I got to disintegrate onscreen – it was fabulous. 

Your image was also used to market the film...


Yeah, they did use my image a lot to market Blade – and part of that was because I was going to be in the sequel. 




Oh, do tell…


They had plans for me to play the twin sister of my character in the first film and I come back and create havoc and stalk Wesley Snipes. At the time I was contracted for First Wave, the television series, however, so I was not available. And then I heard that they canned the entire project and started on a new Blade II, which was eventually done by Guillermo Del Toro. 


And presumably that was a totally different film?


Yes, they began from scratch. So that Blade II script I saw is in a vault somewhere and probably of interest to the die-hard fans but I do not know how they can find it so don’t ask me [laughs]. But we certainly had these talks about the sequel – and that movie really popped at the time. It was enormous.




Yeah, Blade was obviously a blockbuster success...

I thought it had a brilliant style and a great soundtrack too. Stephen Norrington was a fantastic director to work with. I think it holds up too, it's the best of the series. I think Blade really introduced vampires back into the popular lexicon. This was before Twilight and True Blood - you hadn't seen a lot of vampire films. I still have female fans at conventions who come up to me dressed as my character from Blade
You took on the surreal kung-fu superhero sci-fi film Black Mask 2 for director Tsui Hark. What was that like?


That was a bizarre experience – mainly because we had a language barrier, although I loved working in Hong Kong. I played an alien in it, basically – a character called Chameleon [laughs]. It was enjoyable – but just very, very weird. We had to mainly communicate with the director with hand gestures and I would decipher what he wanted from that. It was just a case of hoping that he liked what I was doing and in the end it all seemed to work. That movie has a little cult following like a lot of Hong Kong cinema from that period.

We saw you playing an adult star in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Some critics were surprised to see you involved in that...


Well, first of all, Kevin Smith is such a brilliant writer and director – and that was a funny movie. I loved the colour they used in that movie, it pops out just like a comic book. As you and your readers will know, Kevin loves comic books and what I admired about him with that film was we shot it in the dead of winter, it was freezing, and yet all of this colour pops out from the screen. We had a great cast, great script and I loved my part – it was hilarious. I didn’t think, ‘Oh god, I can’t do that because of my past and what people think of me’. That would just be stupid.


A lot of our readers might know you from sci-fi cinema, but what they might not know is your 1995 album 1000 Fires. It sounded futuristic at the time, it was experimental, it was actually quite brilliant. Do you think you are going to keep producing music?


It is a very strange position to be in… But I just always felt I was a better actor than a musician. I know I’m not meant to say that and judge myself but I always felt like a novice and an imposter when it came to music. I have people, right to this day, who tell me they love something I have done – even now I can be surprised by Not of this Earth fans, you know? I want to always say, ‘Wow you remember that? It was 30 years ago!’ And that is sort of how I feel about 1000 Fires. I had written some of the lyrics, back when I was 16 and 17, still picking up the pieces, you know? It was my whole life on there… I worked with great people and I am happy with the album, it was slightly ahead of techno music breaking in America. I mean, yeah, we are talking about sci-fi and in a way that was an album ahead of its time for the United States. I still get this question, though, ‘when will you do more music?’ And I have to say that it was really a one-off. I don’t have a record label, I love music – but I’m not Shirley Manson from Garbage. That is her thing – and it is not that music is not my thing, but I am an actress and not a singer.




Your 2012 album has a great title: M2F2 - Music to Fuck To...

Yeah [laughs]. It is sexy. But it is funny as well. I wanted to make music for when I have a relaxing night alone with my husband [laughs]. I have different moods on my iPod - for instance, I have a gym mix and I have a romantic mix. So this is the sex mix. It is music to get your funk onto [laughs]. With M2F2 it had been a while since I did anything. One of the great things about digital media is that is that you can see your work out there faster and that is fantastic when you're an independent artist. Last year I had my song 'Last Drag' in the charts. I still meet a lot of people who know me more from my music than my film career...
I love your vocals on the Manic Street Preachers song 'Little Baby Nothing'...

That was an amazing time. I felt sorry when I heard about [songwriter/ guitarist] Richey's disappearance. It is mystery - no one knows what happened to him - and a very sad thing. That whole experience with the Manics is very close to my heart. They were great.
Any regrets from that period?

Only that I never got to know Richey better. But who could have known what would happened next?


You have never performed 'Little Baby Nothing' live. What is up with that?

Well I would love to. Originally the Manics had written it with Kylie Minogue in mind but she turned it down and I ended up recording it. They asked me to sing it live a couple of times but our schedules just did not work out. One time I was in Australia and they were in LA - we've just never been in the same place at the same time. But, hey, the night is still young [laughs].
We also recently saw you in Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, and what a great title that is! What is next for you? 

I have been doing lots of comedy lately. I’m doing more TV just now – obviously there has been Swedish Dicks, the series I have been doing with Keanu Reeves and Peter Stormare and that is about to go into its third season. And my new film Cemetery Tales: A Tale of Two Sisters, which I am very happy with. I’m busy with lots of stuff, but I would welcome the chance to do more sci-fi. Bring it on!

Do you think your biggest fan following still comes from the horror and sci-fi world?

I'm not really sure to be honest. I guess the things that come up over and over again are my comedies - Cry-Baby and Zack and Mari and stuff like that. But I guess now with Excision, and then Blade, The Tommyknockers and Not of this Earth, I have my genre stripes. I've served my time, you know? [Laughs]. Some people still remember me as the killer from Profiler and from Skinner, you know? And other people just know my music. So I don't know if I can say I have any particular fan. My fanbase is pretty wide. I meet a lot of little girls at conventions who adore Cry-Baby and I'm sure they haven't seen John's early stuff [laughs].
Excuse me for not looking my best, but I'd literally had to run from one end of Sitges to the other to make this interview (I'd been speaking to Peter Weir beforehand). I made a 30 minute journey in ten to get to Traci. It was worth it!