Re:Generation is a monthly column about yesterday’s heroines today, revisiting some of the women who have helped map out musical history but have since, for one reason or another, fallen out of the spotlight. Over the coming months, Wears The Trousers will be speaking to these influential figures as they make their way back into the public sphere. While regular columnist Val Phoenix takes a break, Alan Pedder speaks to Pam Berry, singer and keyboardist for Black Tambourine.
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In researching this interview I picked out three big volumes on the history of women in rock from my bookshelf and was disappointed to find that not one of them listed either you or Black Tambourine in the index. Do you feel as if that band has been somewhat overlooked by rock historians?
It doesn’t feel much like we’ve been overlooked, not these days, at least. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many positive mentions we’ve had recently around the news of the Complete Recordings reissue. I’d be really shocked to find myself in one of those rock historian volumes. There are gals I presume are missing from those books who were an influence on me and are much more deserving.
For the band’s tenth anniversary it finally got the anthology it deserved. For the twentieth, you’ve gone one better and actually reunited to record four new songs. Presumably it was more than just the numbers that led to this?
This reissue was timed to celebrate alongside the twentieth anniversary of Slumberland Records, which is so closely tied to Black Tambourine’s beginning. As this is probably the last time we’ll ever release anything, we wanted the reissue to have something special in addition to the original tracks. None of the old radio sessions or live stuff we had on tape was fit to put out (off-key crooning alert!) and the four songs we recorded last year had been favourites from our live set twenty years ago. We’d never got around to recording them before we split up, and it just seemed like even though Mike lives on a different coast to Arch, and Brian and I live on a different continent, if we could at all manage it we should really try our best to record them and see if they were listenable. We were all really happy with how they turned out, very true to how we feel they would have sounded if we’d recorded them back when we were playing together.
I’ve read old interviews in which you’ve expressed how much you missed playing with the Black Tambourine guys. Assuming you were all in the same place for recording, how did it feel to walk in the room and sing with them again? Can you tell us about the sessions?
I wish I could tell you! Though Mike timed a family trip to the East coast to meet up with Arch and Brian for recording, I couldn’t leave London to join them for a heap of reasons out of my control. The guys had a blast getting together and playing and hanging out, sent me rough mixes and I recorded my vocals on top of them in the kitchen on our Akai portastudio. I sent the files back to Arch and we all listened to and agreed on the final mixes long-distance style, through the beauty of the interweb.
You’ve gone back and dug up two old songs you used to play live but never recorded, ‘Lazy Heart’ and ‘Tears Of Joy’. Was it easy to reconnect with those songs after all this time? You must be pleased they’re finally seeing the light of day…
It was really easy! Though I couldn’t remember all the words at first and of course they’re indecipherable over the guitar squall on the old live recordings I have. But singing them again was great and I’m really happy they’re on the record.
How did you pick the two covers?
Like the two originals, these were two of our favourites to play from back then so it was an easy choice. I have fond memories of a Pylon cover we used to do now and again, but it wasn’t a contender compared to ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Dream Baby Dream’.
The press release for the album boldly states that “2010 is the year for Black Tambourine!”, and I have to agree. It seems like the perfect time for everyone to be rediscovering bands like yours and Chin Chin – bands that burned out perhaps before their time but their few recordings really captured a time and place. Are there any other female-fronted rock bands from around your time that you think deserve a reappraisal?
Ah, Chin Chin, I loved them so much. I can’t say whether these bands burned out before their time, but I’m still feeling the love for bands like the Fizzbombs, Jesse Garon and the Desperadoes, Revolving Paint Dream, the Hummingbirds, Even As We Speak, the Nightblooms. I’m forgetting loads, I bet.
Dum Dum Girls have recently recorded a cover of ‘Throw Aggi Off The Bridge’ – what’s your take on the current garage/surf-rock revival? Do bands like Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls and Best Coast excite you, or make you feel nostalgic?
I love that Dum Dum Girls cover and have a lot of time for that sound. It makes me wish I was in a noisy guitar band again!
Did you and Annabel Wright ever “have words” about you suggesting she be thrown off a bridge?
No, Annabel was way too nice to bring it up, even if not a court in the land would have convicted her had she thrown me into the river in some kind of bridge revenge incident. The title of the song belies that fact that it was always a pro-Stephen song rather than an anti-Aggi song and I’m a huge fan of her wonderful illustrations. She’s never been anything other than friendly toward me.
You’ve said that, for you, Black Tambourine was as much about the experience of making music with your friends as it was about creating something fresh, and that when Black Tambourine started you couldn’t sing very well and didn’t really play any instruments. Did people give you a hard time about that or was it generally a friendly scene?
Nobody gave me a hard time at all, hurrah! Everybody was friendly enough and very supportive. I suppose It would have been fairly easy to avoid us if it wasn’t your cuppa; we didn’t play out that much and it wasn’t like we were getting huge amounts of press or being piped through shopping malls. If we got bad reviews, I’ve blocked them!
What advice would you give to young women who perhaps don’t have confidence in their own abilities to write songs or play instruments?
Do it anyway. If you don’t like what you come up with, nobody else has to hear it. Practise your instrument more than I did so you don’t find yourself twenty years later wishing you could play better!
Have your children grown up musical?
The girls are loving the music. Ava, who is five, is never happier than when she’s bouncing on the sofa busting interpretive hip-shaking moves to Stereolab or Kraftwerk. She sings Laura Cantrell songs along with me when I’m doing the dishes and plays air trumpet along to Love at the dinner table. Lulu’s three and loves a dance herself; also she’s quite the crooner and makes up crazy songs while she’s strumming her out-of-tune uke.
Chickfactor zine is very dear to our hearts at Wears The Trousers. What are your most memorable moments from the time you spent working on it? Any favourite interviewees?
So many great memories! Some of my favourite times doing Chickfactor were when I’d go up to NYC to stay with Gail and we’d put on a show with ten gazillion bands playing short sets and give out the new issue and stay up too late every night and spend too much money at the Fluevog store. But when she’d come down to DC so we could put the issues together late at night in the City Paper offices, there were many good times then, too. Fave interviewees include (but are not limited to!) Lois Maffeo, Superchunk, Legendary Jim Ruiz group. These were all people that made me laugh, were a delight to sit around and yap with, folks I’d love to have as neighbours and have weekly dinner parties with.
I think it’s a shame that more of the content isn’t available online. But, conversely, I wanted to ask if you think the internet has ruined zine culture?
It would be great to see all of the back issues online at some point, especially now that they’re hard to come by and Gail and I don’t have the space available to store back issues for the handful of folks who might want to take a trip down memory lane. And maybe more will go up one day, but that’s a heck of a lot of scanning to contend with and we’ve got busy lives.
I think the internet changed zine culture but it didn’t ruin it! Paper zines are more expensive to make, harder to get distributed and you can’t update them quick like the way you can a blog or online zine. There’s a lot to be said for web presence where you can link to songs and past articles, etc. I personally still prefer to hold a copy of something in my hands and read it given the choice, but that’s me and I reckon I’m in the minority – I’m trying to spend less time on the web and I still buy newspapers.
What do you do outside of music these days? Do you still make hats? You should give Lady Gaga a call.
I do freelance work nights and weekends after the girls hit the hay, so there’s not nearly enough time to cram in all the crafting I want to, but that’s what I spend most of my free time doing. I do a lot of printing with my trusty PG-10 print gocco. I’m starting to slide down the awesome slippery slope that is letterpress printing, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of sewing lately. But sadly, small projects that I can sneak into pockets of free time rather than hats and dresses – mostly making demented-looking dolls filled with lentils and hand-embroidered cushion covers. I’m going to a friend’s craft night on Friday armed with a pink block of Speedball and some cutting tools, and there I will attempt to carve my first homemade rubba stamps whilst simultaneously inhaling chip and dip.
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Black Tambourine is out now on Slumberland Records.