Interview: Isa & The Filthy Tongues

This interview was originally published in Issue #7, June 2009.

Isa and the Filthy Tongues are Issue #8’s pride and joy. We love them. They, on the other hand, are overly sincere about their genius. Miss Fliss talks to lead guitarist and sometimes vocalist Martin Metcalf, and frontwoman Stacey Chavis about the band’s convoluted history and life out of the limelight.

Isa and the Filthy Tongues are seductively dark rockabilly, shot through with rusty grooves and undertows of melody that curl round and ensnare you. Sometimes this manifests itself into a cinematic eeriness, sometimes guitar layers wind and twirl against good time dancing, and in other moments it recalls the scratchy, lo-fi, art rock of Sonic Youth. Speaking of the latter, their singer Stacey Chavis describes it as an “honour” to be compared to the “very cool” Kim Gordon, a likeness that a few writers other than myself have picked up on. Stacey’s drawled out monologue on The Filthy Tongues’ “Dreamcatcher” sends a chill down your spine as it echoes and hovers over a rumbling gothic bass and conjures images of a sinister night time road trip (which came to mind before I saw the band’s car journey video for the song) and is instantly reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s goosebump-inducing “Tunic”.

The rest of Isa and the Filthy Tongues are dab hands at playing and performing - their family tree forks from Goodbye Mr McKenzie and Angelfish, the two bands that Shirley Manson started out in before going on to be in the globally successful Garbage. The Filthy Tongues carry on a tradition of what might best be described as ‘Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds go pop’. This complicated history is our starting point for my interview with the band.

Martin Metcalf: What we do now is not so much like the commercial period of the ‘Mackenzies. At one point…we really wanted to be a ‘big’ band. We wanted to be alternative stars like David Bowie was in the early 1970’s. But we just couldn’t stop writing about unacceptable subjects for Top 40 radio. So we didn’t get very far in the mainstream really.

We had a top 30 album, which was very good going and we managed to tour all over Europe and pulled off a record deal with Deborah Harry’s manager in the USA. This led to a band we created called Angelfish. Angelfish released one album in the US and we toured all over North America with that band. Shirley sang lead vocals on the album. She was noticed by Nirvana’s producer when we played in Chicago. He had this little project on the go called Garbage, and he needed help with vocals. Shirley obliged. Our group fell apart and then Garbage did great things. Our band doesn’t sound like Garbage though. It’s more like the ‘Mackenzies indie albums (Five and The Glory Hole), or I suppose it’s like Angelfish. Garbage use a lot of computers, we don’t. The Mackenzie’s commercial period was kind of rigid sounding. This band is loose and raw.

Could you bring us up to date with the beginnings of the Filthy Tongues, to where you’re at now?

M: After [a] few quiet years…we decided to try and get more creative again around 2003, [and] called ourselves the Filthy Tongues. The band was Derek Kelly on drums, Fin Wilson on bass and me on guitar and a bit of singing. We intended our band to be fluid; I mean it wasn’t going to have a permanent singer or other permanent instrumentalists. We wanted to have lots of guests on any album we managed to get out there. Then Stacey came back over from the USA in 2004. We had been friends when she was over on a job placement previously. This time she’d learned a bit of guitar and had a song she’d written. She asked me if I would record it for her and I said OK. I found that she had a really great indie voice and suggested that we try her on some of the Filthy Tongues material and it worked! So that was that. Soon after we abandoned the idea of having a fluid band and she became the permanent singer.

Regarding the band name, where did the ‘Isa’ part come from?

M: Stacey didn’t want the band to be named Stacey & the Filthy Tongues. She was so new to singing that she didn’t want to have her real name on there so we looked for some names through books and movies and on the net. She’d been in a Wiccan spiritual group in Portland and I’d been reading up on the history of Scottish witches so I thought I’d look up some of their names on the net. The only records up there were of witches who’d been tried and/or executed. I made a text file of those and sent it round [to] the rest of the band. Derek Kelly noticed something strange. A very large amount of the witches had the name Isobel or Isabel. He said, ‘I wouldn’t like to have been called Isabel in those days...more chance of getting hanged!’ So that was [that]! Isa is short for Isabel in Scotland. It’s pronounced ‘eye-za’ by the way. We’ve had one LP out since then called Addiction, which is being re-released in July on Circular Records, and we have another due out this autumn called Dark Passenger.

Your music has loose, dirty, rock and roll grooves. I imagine it’s a sound that works best live - how do you intend your music to affect audience members at gigs?

M: You’re right, it does work best live, but we don’t really have a plan as far as how we affect the audience goes. I suppose we want them to stay gripped and have an excitement rush at certain points. I have seen many great bands play live. I felt Pixies weren’t as good live as I wanted them to be, [but] I’ve seen them four times and each time was better. The last time I think would have been great but it was outdoors and a high wind was messing with the sound. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds was really good the first time we saw him live in 1988. I thought: ‘good stuff’ afterwards. The next time he was better, then on about the fourth time I was electrified, I actually hallucinated colours they were so good.

It’s hard to quantify what makes a good performance. What the artist can summon up on the night. I think it must be hard to come up with a formula to affect the audience. Much of that power comes from the people a band is trying to communicate with. So some of it is a kind of divine alchemy or the stars all being in the right alignment…fate. The only rule that really lets you be on a stage is that the people don’t try to kick you off it. But then I think of Suicide (NYC pre-punk) and, well, they were nearly killed sometimes the audience hated them so much.

 

Stacey Chavis: Who knows! Not me. I can only say that I enjoy the audience when they are having a riotous time. Singing along, jumping around drunk and disorderly.

It can be difficult to gain recognition, often without reward, in music during these times. What propels you?

M: Unknown forces propel us! What can you say? In the beginning music was all I had. Now I do have something of a life but music always pulls me back in. I love recordings. I love CD/LP artwork. Those things will disappear but we’ll still have street poster artwork. Music and the things that frame it and compliment it are crucial to my life. I love it when music makes a social statement that gets people talking. We would of course like to pay the rent via music. It would mean we could leave behind a certain type of mundane. But for now that’s not happening and that’s OK. It makes us try harder to reach that situation.

What is it that you personally get from making the Filthy Tongues’ music in the style that you use?

M: [What we do is] fairly basic indie rock…so it’s more about loud and quiet, fast and slow, than intricate sensitive playing. I enjoy the loud after the quiet and I enjoy the fast after the slow. I suppose it’s like a rollercoaster effect. It entertains us.

S: We try to keep it simple and use two or three chords for most of our songs. This means we have plenty of freedom to improvise - or perhaps it’s just that when we make a mistake it’s not so noticeable. I like the idea that anybody can pick up a guitar and start a band. Three chords and some passion and there you have rock n’ roll. Yet very few people get it right for my ears.

“Diva”, “queen” and “little girl” are just some of the words I’ve picked up on in write-ups regarding Stacey’s performance. What do you think about the constant over-use of these words in reviews of female artists? Men aren’t portrayed to be nearly so clichéd… S: I find those terms to be a bit lazy…it seems that the journalists that are writing these stories don’t really know about the artists they are writing about. I wouldn’t label myself [with] any of those [terms]. On the other hand ‘King’, ‘Godfather’ and ‘wild man’ are frequently used terms for male singers so maybe it’s just the world we live in. We’ve had some interesting terms used for us though, ‘ballsy femme-rock’ for instance.

I’ve got quite a romantic view of Edinburgh; can you confirm what kind of place it is for being active in music?

M: Edinburgh is a very active place for bands. What it doesn’t have is a good medium sized venue: one that can accommodate up to 400 people. Glasgow has it all venue-wise which in turn creates a more vibrant scene - it’s three times as big. But Edinburgh is pretty good for its size. And it now has three 200 capacity venues and some nice small ones too (Bannermans holds around 70 and has a great little PA system).

Even with MySpace and other technologies, some bands still don’t get the attention they deserve - can you tell us about some of the other musical treasures in Edinburgh that we may not have been exposed to yet?

M: Sellotape are a good band. Cornelius Pierce is a great artist - a star in fact. There are probably scores of good acts in Edinburgh. I don’t go to gigs much, though, so you’d have to ask Fin our bassist. Try getting him to stay home at night!

I was intrigued to note that you’ve got separate MySpace sites for a few different countries (e.g. USA, France, Ireland) - is this something the band have instigated, or is it fan-run? I just wondered what the reasoning behind it was… M: We wanted to have regional sites, so we could mail out to everyone in say Madrid if we were to play there, or Paris, Berlin, Dublin. That was the idea. If we were playing in New York we didn’t want to mail everybody in Glasgow about it…do you know what I mean?

 

S: Anyway, MySpace search engine and regional settings are so rubbish that it didn’t work. We did some mail-outs in Spanish to the Madrid site and people from Liverpool or wherever were answering back with ‘I don’t speak Spanish…what are you on about?’ It was a nice idea at the time that didn’t work…you’ve got to try these things though.

Name three hopes and ambitions the band has for the future?

1. We’d like to tour all the festivals in the UK and Europe and maybe the USA…2010 perhaps. Or just tour …we need an agent!

2. We’ve made a great second LP and we hope you enjoy it!

3. We’d like to do the musical score in a great movie from beginning to end - offers anyone? We won’t let you down.

- Miss Fliss

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