Every now and then a band comes along that seems to capture the zeitgeist, somehow sounds like an authentic voice for a generation, in this case Generation Rent. Strangely reminiscent of The Clash SISTERAY, composed of Niall Rowan (vocals), Dan Connolly (guitar), Mick Hanrahan (bass guitar) and Marco Biagini (drums), have been around since 2014 with their first single ‘No Escape’ released the following year. The song and video explored lack of life chances/purpose and the nihilistic choices that can lead to and was early evidence that SISTERAY are a band who are both informed and articulate. So far their songs and videos have touched on austerity, Brexit, gentrification, class struggle and digital culture with their last EP 15 Minutes referencing Andy Warhol’s comment that “One day everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes”. Citing influences as wide as Douglas Coupland, Shelley (Percy not Pete) and The Smiths Sisteray are the soundtrack to a lot of (young) lives in 2017. I met up with Dan, Niall and Mick near Liverpool Street Station to find out more about the band.
You played Paris recently-how did that go? Was it your first time playing outside the UK?
Niall: No, it wasn’t the first time outside the UK, we have played in Italy before in our drummer’s home town, we did a few gigs there but I think Paris is the first major city. It was good, we do have friends over there, so we had a base of people we could connect with, but the gigs were well attended, better than maybe what we expected really! It was really good!
So somewhere you could return to?
N: Yeah, Yeah definitely, we’ve got plans to go back and play again.
Dan: What’s great about Paris, and maybe it’s easier because its smaller than London, is that there is actually a scene, a rock’n’roll scene. Whereas in London, Shoreditch is quite cool and Camden is quite cool, but you haven’t got a scene. In Paris all the bands seemed to connect really well and I was thinking that maybe we could take ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ to Paris perhaps once every three months...very cool place.
You started in 2014. Did you have a clear idea of the sound you wanted from the start or has it been more evolutionary than that?
D: It evolved, the band started with just me and my brother on drums and I met Niall at a gig and we decided we’d like to play music together. I’m the sort of person, I like to dive in, I don’t like to tip my toes in the water, I like to go straight in the deep end, so I booked us a gig in about three weeks time, we hadn’t even rehearsed! About a week before Mick asked “ Have you got a bass player yet?” and I said “ No, do you want to do it?” He was like “ I can barely play guitar!” So he practiced bass lines on an electric guitar at a couple of rehearsals. The first time he ever played a bass was at our first ever gig!
Mick: It was terrifying, but I was very drunk so it was alright!
D: It was kind of a Sex Pistols story, we learnt our instruments in the rehearsal room as well as learning how to write songs. We were a band but we weren’t really a band until Marco joined and Andrew became our Manager that’s when we started taking it seriously. For a few months before that we were just learning…
How does a song happen in Sisteray? Are you very collaborative or is there one main songwriter?
M: It differs between different songs really, it will often be Niall or Dan coming in with a big idea and then it will get broken down and built back up by everyone else and we’ll end up with something. We play with it for a few weeks and see what happens.
N: Usually there won’t be a bass line or drums written so it will all come about from either chords or a melody or lyrics. The most recent one we’ve done was just a drum beat that Marco was playing, then we saw where a bass line could come in, it was our first song which was kind of layer upon layer, but it all started from the drum beat and it was the first song we’ve written from a drum beat and so it was so different from anything we’d written before and structurally it really seemed fluid, everything coming together, whereas before that it’s come from a set of chords and a melody, it’s been quite conventional and then people write different parts over that.
D: So far we’ve only played it live, but a lot of people think it’s one of our best song!
N: It’s a lot darker, it’s probably going to be called ’The Rumour Mill’, this drum beat he was playing sounded so kind of tense, with everything layered on it. It’s probably my favourite song we’ve done so far!
D: Some of our songs come from ideas, like Niall had an idea for a phrase or a song called ‘Algorithm Prison’, we thought that’s cool and we built a song around that. So the song came from the idea.
Picasso wrote about art washing away the dust of everyday life from the soul and that art should not be decorative but should be an offensive and defensive weapon (1). Is that something you would aim for with your music, that it would wake people up?
M: I think we talk about that quite a lot actually, we often find ourselves sat in a pub having a moan about those middle of the road bands that people nod along to and go ‘Yeah, that’s alright, I might buy that album, that’s quite good’. And really you want to go one way or the other, you want to make people go ’Fuck, that’s brilliant, that’s amazing!’ and then it changes people’s perception of what music is currently.
D: For me the moment we found our sound as a band was when ‘A Wise Man Said’ came out, we recorded quite a few songs at the time, ‘A Wise Man Said’ was 2.02 long and it was a punky, really shouty tune. And when you’re starting a band you think ‘Do I need to do this to get on the radio?’, all bands probably naturally do that, and there’s a lot of that middle of the road nice music being made. And we ended up going ‘Fuck it! Put ‘Wise Man’ out, it’s a punky two minute tune. Just do it , it’s us!’ And it got straight on Radio One, and we were like ‘Wow!’ No plugger, nothing, Niall just handed the CD to Phil Taggart at a gig and two days later it was on Radio One! And then it got playlisted on Radio X. John Kennedy of Radio X said to me there are so many bands going for that middle ground that when you do something like a two minute punky tune it’s actually really refreshing. Being yourself, being authentic does cut through eventually. It might take a bit longer to get there but if you are radio friendly you might get there but you’ll only get to a certain level.
N: For me it not about writing to defend or decry something but writing about what feels natural to you, like that 15 Minutes EP, I’m pretty sure every topic on there was something we wanted to write about because we were annoyed at reality TV shows, or someone telling you to live within your means, it was literally just what we thought as a band. As soon as you start doing something for someone else, if you think ‘I should sound like that band because they’re on the radio’ then it’s not real, you start doing it by numbers. There is an interesting quote, I think from Bernard Butler of Suede, that in the 90s it felt like no one was paying any attention to them at one point , everyone was in another corner of the room and they could have gone over there and gone in with the multitude, but sooner or later everyone is going to turn from that corner and have a look at you. And I kind of feel that’s happening a bit now with bands like ourselves and The Blinders, Idles. Bands that are saying something, it doesn’t matter what it is, that feels real.
There is the same kind of tensions in any art, why am I doing this and what do I define as success? Is it that I’ve perfectly realised this idea I had?
M: I’m sure when Surrealism came out everyone looked at it and said ‘What the fuck are you doing, that looks shit!’
Would you say your music is a commentary on what’s going on in the UK or an act of resistance to it?
N: I’d say a lot of it is social commentary but we hope, especially with our gigs now and the sort of reaction we’re getting, that it could inspire some sort of resistance.
D: A lot of things we do resist are in the music world aswell, venues shutting down, people not going to gigs anymore, big companies taking over venues and making them naff. Our biggest non-aggressive stand against the political side of the music world was starting our own club night. We did a gig for one of the biggest promoters in the country at the time, £5 a ticket, 200 capacity, 4 bands. We sold 50 tickets and got paid £11 quid or something and we thought ‘Fuck this, we’re going to start our own club’. There’s a lot of ‘Pay to play’ promoters especially in London.
N: You get a certain amount of tickets and if you don’t sell them you have to front the money! It’s quite bad, especially for new bands.
D: You know what? Just hire a pub for £50, get everyone there, make it look amazing. We like The Black Heart, it’s one of our favourite venues, we hire it out, £70, get the bands ourselves, take £6 on the door and then we can pay the bands and pay ourselves and everyone’s happy at the end of the night.
So you’ve definitely chosen the DIY route…
N: Yeah, even our label, Vallance Records, is a small label so we retain creative control, everything is quite collaborative and we’re involved in everything. Elliot, the guy who owns it, came to Paris at the weekend, it’s like a cohesive unit.
D: People have a misconception about indie labels, that they just stand back and let you do what you want but it’s not like that, it’s not like a major where they tell you what to do but Elliot is very involved, he is always coming up with great ideas, he’s really enthusiastic...
I was thinking about ‘Nostalgia Trip’ and ‘Faaast Food’- one of them is about the repackaging of the cultural past and the other one is about the purposeless urgency of modern life-those two aspects of a retro industry continually looking back and a modern culture where everyone is ceaselessly looking for the next thing. Does that make it difficult for you as a new band to create a space for yourself? Has that been a difficulty, saying look we’re here and we’re here to stay?
M: It’s impossible it really is, at some point it’s all going to turn on its head and obviously all these nostalgia bands are going to have to go ’Well that’s it, we’re gonna have to call it quits’ and then they’ll have to start looking at new bands for new music but everyone will have already gone through them all, they’ve had their 15 minutes and they’re done. They’re going to struggle to find new bands at some point, I think it’ll be impossible. I don’t think it’ll ever self destruct, it’s worth too much but it’s going to get very hard at some point.
D: Our manager summed it up, he was there in the 90s, he says you could release a single then and it could take time it could go up the charts, it could go down the charts, could go up, but now the lifespan of a song is so very short and if you don’t catch people’s attention there and then and it goes, thats it its gone. We live in a Twitterverse, people like to shout things and then it’s gone. If you don’t grab people’s attention there and then they get very bored very quickly. So if you put a song out or you put yourself out there as a band and you don’t catch people’s attention straight away it is such an uphill struggle from there.
N: With the nostalgia acts the money that gets put into bands that are coming back it’s guaranteed money for the majors so they whack a load of money behind a band they know are going to sell out a tour but that means a certain proportion of bands around our level are neglected because they won’t invest in them. The ‘Faaast Food’ aspect, with the internet you’ve got a lot of genre skipping, a lot of people can go from rap to heavy metal to indie and it’s hard to stand out and when the nostalgia acts are taking the festival headline slots, I don’t know where the new headliners are, The Arctic Monkeys have already been around years...it’s hard for us but it’s also hard for the young A&R guys to stake a claim to a new band and say ‘They’re going to be massive’ because they’re battling against the same things we are. There are ways around it, if you stick to independent labels in the initial stages, and there are independents that will develop you.
D: We are very present online but we also got an old school mobile phone got people to sign up, text messages ‘Secret gig tomorrow’, guerilla gig here, guerilla gig there. That’s how we do it ‘Meet at Camden Town station tomorrow 7pm’ gather a load of people go to a gig. We do it the old fashioned way, we hand out flyers and we can get a lot of people doing that because it’s authentic.
Your songs deal with gentrification, digital culture, postmodernism, class struggle, governments abdicating to capital-what books and thinkers have influenced your writing or are your lyrics it the result of experience and observation?
N: I’m well into certain authors, but ‘Gentrification’ was mainly living in Hackney, it was so weird, you literally walk 20 metres and it would change dramatically. There was a street called Borough Market and one side you’d have a jellied eel shop and an old dry cleaners and the rest of the street would be new trendy cafes and eateries just like that! It wasn’t something you could ignore and felt like something we should be writing about. ‘Faaast Food’ is probably influenced by Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, it’s indicative of our generation aswell where you have a lot of over educated people who are just doing ‘Mc Jobs’ as he calls it, jobs that they didn’t do a Degree for and there’s just not the work there. Obviously George Orwell-we’ve read a lot of him. And Shelley.
D: ‘Who R Ya’ is like a modern perspective on 1984 isn’t it, “A million eyes watching over me”, all the cities CCTV cameras.
N: I always loved that though, if you can get references in, from listening to bands you discover that, you read that book. It’s good to switch people on to stuff, which has been done to me alot through listening to music.
Paddy (Shine) of Gnod wrote “On the surface it could almost seem like there's no political art movement out there to oppose what's happening, but there is - we know there is. Maybe that movement is struggling to find its voice as a cohesive whole right now but that will change...”(2) And in Inventing the Future Srnicek and Williams said that often political change often has to be preceded by cultural change (3). Do you think there could be a musical movement, a cultural movement, coalescing around something-a Rock against Racism moment?
M: We’re in it, or on the very edge of it!
D: You’ve got us, Cabbage, The Blinders, Shame, all of those bands that are commenting politically but then you’ve got the whole of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomena at the same time, at Glastonbury, I mean we played at Camden Rocks, every time we stopped a song they all started chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” when we’re singing about anarchy and gentrification. It feels like we’re in the middle of it!
M: It’s not just our sort of music either, a lot of the Grime artists are getting to it now as well, people like Akala and Novelist, they’re talking about what’s going on around them and the political movement stuff, people are getting really involved with Jeremy Corbyn from that side of things so it’s all coming together.
N: I definitely think there’s a movement it’s just whether that movement will get sanitised and bought out by the majors, that’s my worry. Most of the bands are on the cusp of getting really big, when they come into the mainstream consciousness I’d like to see what happens then. Whether they try and tone it down or whether it will spark.
That’s interesting and ties in with a question I had...With the banality of a lot of radio-is there a lot of pressure to bland out as you get bigger? Or do you think it’s possible now with the Internet to circumnavigate that? Have you felt pressure to bland out?
D: No, no and I don’t know whether it’s because we’re outside of that with our label, they’ve encouraged us. Our record label wants to be as successful as we want to be but not once have that tried to steer us in a radio friendly type of way to do that. Maybe we don’t see it because we’re outside it.
N: I guess that pressure might be felt if you had a bigger label with more ears to please before it goes out, they might say ‘You can’t say that’. Thinking about what you hear on the radio, you don’t hear that many controversial tracks. I do think you can exist outside that anyway, there’s a lot of artists now who’ve done it through the internet.
D: I don’t know if you remember Squeeze played on the Andrew Marr Show and had a stab at David Cameron, someone from a big label said to our manager ‘I’d love a new band to do that, that’s what I’m looking for in a band’. We’ve never felt under pressure to tone it down. You can’t shut up an aggressive angry revolutionary youth I guess, you’ve just got to go with it. They might try and sell it out, turn it into a marketing campaign at some point.
The ‘No Escape’ video seems like a vignette of urban life for a lot of young people growing up, and also the precarity of life-is that what you were after? Is that what you were trying to communicate?
D: It’s where Mick grew up…
M: It was an old friend from school who I did Film Studies with, and we said ‘Do you fancy doing it, do you want to come up with an idea see what we can do’ He just listened to the song and that’s what he came up with. I guess the songs about that...
D: He won a BFI Short Film award and used a couple of our songs in the film, it was great it was like some kind of Skins V Inbetweeners short film with Sisteray playing in the background! He listened to the song, came to rehearsal spoke to us, got the vibe of the song, came up with a storyboard, got some actors involved, fitted the song perfectly.
Would you say that’s part of Sisteray’s ‘raison d’etre’ wanting to make working class invisible experiences visible, making the invisible visible? Presenting people with the uncomfortable truths of working class experience?
N: ‘No Escape’ is just about boredom as well not necessarily working class it could be anyone really if you’re stuck in a rut and you feel like you’re chasing a lot of dead ends, you’re going to Uni but you don’t know where it’s going to lead, your bored of going out with the same people to the same clubs every weekend, you seeing your friends doing the same drugs every weekend and the same outcomes. So I wouldn’t say it’s just working class, it’s suburban life and not having an end goal. We’re in a band and we’re trying to do that but a lot of my friends just seem to be working to go out every weekend and do the same thing but at the same time it doesn’t seem like they’re getting a lot of satisfaction from it past maybe that night. And then back to Monday. We’ve touched on that subject a lot, accelerated culture in ‘Faaast Food’ is slightly different but still touching on that nihilism I suppose.
D: We know our roots, we know where we’re from, we write about the sort of people we know.
You’ve played some ‘Musicians against Homelessness’ gigs for Crisis-how did that come about? Was that driven by your politics, did they come to you, did you go to them?
N: I think they approached us from what I remember, probably due to the things we talk about in our songs.
M: It was right around when we were recording ‘Gentrification’, I think they picked up on that, obviously it’s very related to that, and we’re still working with them, with got gigs coming up with them in, in Sheffield and we’ve just done a Water Rats one.
In Lipstick Traces Marcus connects Dadaism, the Situationists and early Punk as movements that creatively disrupted and exposed (4). Would you be OK with being included in that lineage? Disrupting the top down narrative, exposing the mechanisms of power and what’s really going on in society?
N: I think so, yeah. When you were talking about social media earlier, I think people feel like they can bypass the papers now, it seems like the youth are looking towards that as a way of changing things and expressing the truth. As recently as Grenfell Tower you had a lot of coverage on there, people going down filming people on the estate getting their account of what was happening. I think people are waking up to things, I think as a generation our end goals are different from our parents, it’s not so much own a house or own a car, you have different landmarks in life, like travelling, our generation will spend their money to go out and eat instead of saving for a house, there are different goals and the world is changing. We are going to be part of it and we’re probably more explicitly part of it because of our music.
I watched the video for ‘Queen’s English’- both the song and the video are superb, the way the video realises the song is brilliant. It presents Sisteray as a Clash type band rooted in urban geography and class- did you feel that as a video it’s a perfect representation of where Sisteray are at the moment-were you happy with it?
M: Yeah, very happy with it, we went round the houses for a bit!
N: It was a weird video because at first it was just footage of us walking around here, that was all it was and everyone was ‘We’ve need to do something with that’ so over the next couple of weeks we cut in the live footage and the stock footage of riots and stuff to try to get the feeling of the song whereas before it was just Sisteray walking around!
D: It demonstrates everything that we are as a band, we’re a band from East London. This is where we based, we rehearse here, and everything that we believe. Our beliefs are in those lyrics and the images go along with that. ‘Fucked up the country, went on the run’ you got Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and all those characters. And you’ve got the bit with the Queen’s speech at the beginning which is where the song came from.
Roland Barthes talked about the death of the author-that the meaning of art is constructed in the interaction of the viewer/listener and the artefact. What does it feel like when you put stuff out into the public space knowing it could be misinterpreted, or do you have tactics to make sure that doesn’t happen?
D: What a song means to one person (it means that to them), it doesn’t really matter what it means to us, it matters how it connects to someone else, they can all have their own interpretation of a song that’s fine.
N: The latest one is quite explicit, I think it would be hard for someone to misinterpret it. You’d hope so anyway. But some of the newer stuff might be a bit more open to interpretation. But I find that kind of fun really, see what they come up with. If we felt strongly enough we could put up what it was about but I think till now most of them have been explicit.
D: I think a lot of the songs are written to get people debating things, it’s not like saying ‘This is it, you’re wrong this is what you should be thinking’. It’s to get them to talk about it, if they have a different opinion on it, then great.
D: At a gig you try and engage with the crowd, try and thought provoke as well as make them go mosh pitting!
N: Our best gigs are probably when we have almost have like a narrative and it’s not like ‘Oh, here’s another song’. We try and give a background to what the 15 Minutes bit is, sometimes we play it in its entirety in the middle of the set and tell people briefly what ‘Queen’s English’, ‘Famous for Nothing’ are about. You can see people sometimes thinking ‘Oh, is that what this song’s is about’.
You mentioned earlier about a monthly event you put on at The Black Heart in Camden- ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’-what goes on? I know you’ve made sure its a space for that’s inclusive of female musicians, is it mostly bands from London or from all over the place?
N: Yeah, bands from all over.
M: They’re bands we like at the time, if we find a band or someone recommends a band D: There are some bands that we’ve had to have on at our club night like The Bulletproof Bomb, we saw them once and thought ‘They’re great, they’ve got to play our club!’ They’ve played it a few times. We don’t always play, sometimes we do a secret set, when 15 Minutes came out we did a secret set which was exactly 15 minutes long!
M: It’s making sure bands actually getting paid when they come to London.it’s not necessarily a lot of money but it’ll cover your costs at least, and we get to see bands we like!
What are your plans for the second half of 2017-an album at all?
N: Well we’ve got a run of festivals and then finalise what we’re going to record next. It’s probably going to be an EP again. So trying to get the concept of it, we’ve got two songs so far.
D: And the tunes have got a lot to say, we’ve got ‘The Rumour Mill’ we talked about earlier, about fake news, it’s got themes of America in there and Donald Trump and the other one’s ‘Algorithm Prison’ about a lot of what we’ve been talking about. And we’re looking to book a tour!
3. Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) ‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’ Verso. London and Brooklyn, NY.
4. Marcus, G. (2011) 'Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century', Faber and Faber, London.