Interview: Polly & the Billets Doux

Sandwiched between Winchester and Bristol, Polly & the Billets Doux are a familiar name on their scene, serving up a welcomed slice of rural homebrew and prompting rosy cheeks from all those who listen to them. But the four-piece are far from your average country hicks, fusing gypsy, folk and rock into their mix to create a set of songs that vary with each listen.

Ahead of a full UK tour with a stop at Thekla, Bristol on 17th November, DrunkenWerewolf’s Tiffany Daniels settles down to chat with front lady and namesake Polly Perry about staying on campsites, appropriating their live sets and listening to X-Ray Spex.

How’s the preparation for the tour coming along?

Good yeah, really well thank you. We’re just trying to find places to stay, friends that will put us up and campsites!

You seem to be constantly on the road – do you prefer it to being in the studio?

Yeah I love it, I think it’s really good fun, you meet loads of fans, make good friends and stay in all sorts of places. The studio has its merits, but I always prefer playing live, I prefer our live recordings even. You get so much feedback from the audience. You thrive off them more than anything.

Do you find you’re more productive on the road?

Yeah I guess. We improvise more on the road, when we’re at a gig and feeling it we play things a little differently or add other instruments that are lying around, whereas in the studio you’re trying to complete a song within a certain time so you end up thinking about how you’re going to play it more. I feel like we experiment a bit more on the road, and as a band it’s about being together for that long.

You’re still relatively new even though you’ve released a lot of material since then...

We feel like we’ve hardly recorded anything of the songs that we’re writing, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve recorded a lot, but I think our management is always pushing releases! I guess sometimes we record little bits and release loads of MP3s to keep people interested and us enjoying it. There’s still plenty to record and release, we’re just currently getting things together; there’s at least another album’s worth which we’re hoping to record later in the year.

Is that fairly different from your previous material – have you changed a lot?

I think we have since we first begun. I think the album was a lot heavier, it was a lot more electric, and up tempo. When we first started playing it was mellower and stuff. The new material is more folky and has more harmonies. We’ve always just written songs we like rather than writing to a specification. We’ve still kind of got the rock, folk and country throughout but I guess our sound is coming together a bit more and has a more coherent sound.

Because you all collaborate on songwriting...

Yeah we do. Most of it, the guitar parts and things, all come from Steeny and Dan. Often Steeny will come with a whole song with lyrics and music. When we’re practicing it does come together as a band. That happens naturally I think.

Do you think those changes in genres are because you all collaborate, or is it just how it comes out at the end of the day?

I think it’s just how it comes out. Putting my voice to it will instantly change the song. Dan has a particular way that he plays bass and he’ll have to play something differently to suit; I think it just comes together. I think even though we all have very varied music tastes, when we’re rehearsing it makes the song our own.

What’s with the name Polly and the Billets Doux?

We are a band, and sometimes the confusion comes across, I’ve always tried to be very careful about how we come across as a band because I don’t want the others to think I’m carrying the flag. Well we used to be called Polly Ben and Steeny, and sometimes we’d turn up to gigs and we’d be billed wrong; people would get left off. So we were thinking we need a proper name, and Steeny is a Literature student and he’d been reading a poem by Alexander Pope called “The Billets Doux”. Apparently young French lovers used to send each other encoded letters called billets doux. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s a little bit too romantic as a name, and on the radio it seems to work, people will say what do you think it means? It does work in our favour.

Does literature still influence you?

I wouldn’t say we directly try to quote literature, but certainly Steeny is an incredibly good lyricist and he’s the literature king out of all of us. He’s very good at constructing verse and I’m sure a lot of the things he writes about will be taken from literature that we’re all readying, so yeah I guess so. I can’t say I’ve written about particularly books, I tend to write about things that have happened to me or places I’ve been, rather than trying to imagine things. Steeny tends to write songs that are more stories about being a sailor and things like that.

If you have two different ways of writing songs, do you find you have to get into a character to deliver all of the lyrics on stage?

I wouldn’t say I’m getting into character because one of things I love about music is that you’re very much yourself on stage; I do like that. I do a bit of acting and that’s completely different, you’re being someone else, but I guess I try to re-appropriate lyrics for myself so it still rings true to me.

It seems like you’ve intermixed and cemented your ideas now, but when you started out what influenced you and were there any competing aspects?

There are always competing aspects! [Laughs] I guess for me I grew up listening to all of my parents vinyl collection, so I grew up with a vast array of punk like X-Ray Specs and blues like Billy Holliday and Nina Simone. I like music that’s got that warm passion to it, it doesn’t have to be too clean. Steeny loves his metal, country and folk and all sorts of things, and Dan as well likes experimental and avant garde jazz and folk. We all have this love of older music... Ben I guess likes more modern stuff. We all love so many different kinds of music. I wouldn’t say one of us loves a genre that someone else hates, but we all love different kinds of music. It works; I guess it just means that as a band our set is quite versatile.

Are you based in Bristol or Winchester now?

Half of us live in Winchester, and Dan lives in Bristol, so we spend a lot of time there. We go between the two places really. The other three were in a rock band called the Bully Cats years ago; they’re doing a reunion gig in a couple of weeks so Dan keeps coming down to rehearse their old songs which is getting to be quite tough.

Do you find one place influences you more than the other?

We all kind of met in Winchester so I guess our routes lie in Winchester rather than Bristol, but Bristol is a very cool place. Winchester’s being in a really big comfortable chair; it’s like you could very happily stay here and drink tea, going to the pub and see your friends in the evening, it’s a really beautiful place to be, but it can get complacent and comfortable here. It’s really good to have that Bristol influence because it’s all going on in Bristol and everyone’s kind of doing something. So with that influence it keeps us going otherwise it’d be too easy to relax all the time!

You’re coming to Bristol in November – what can attendees expect?

Well, it depends what the night’s like. I imagine we’ll do quite a lively set for Bristol. We’re going to play the Thekla which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve always wanted to play there, I’m really excited and nervous about it, as always.

You’re not the kind of band to plan everything meticulously?

Sometimes we try and have an idea of a tour set list, but the venues we play are all so different, you have to re-appropriate the set for the evening.

What’s the tour particularly in aid of?

We will be recording the album afterwards, so we’re going to try some of the new songs on the journey to see how they feel. Once you play them a few times you change them a bit, rather than laying them down straight away. Also it’s just getting out there, it’s a good time for us to be on tour, take time off and jump in the van.

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