Never Mind the Bollocks – the Robots Re-write Rock…
By Aoife Barry
“I’d say get the bass out from under the bed, stop trying to pull boys with it, and play it!” Sue Denim, bassist and one half of English electro-punk band Robots in Disguise laughs, a twinkle in her eyes half hidden by a pair of enormous Jarvis Cocker-esque black glasses. Her partner in music, guitarist Dee Plume, smiles from under her red and black fringe and adds: “Try and write a song everyday, that’s what I’d say.” “Why don’t you follow that advice now?” teases Sue.
We’re sitting in a noisy bar an hour or two before their debut Irish gig in the Village, chatting about the new single (The Sex Has Made Me Stupid), the new album We’re in the Music Biz and what it’s like being a female musician. I’ve asked Dee and Sue (Plume and Denim are pseudonyms, but it seems strange to think of them with ‘normal’ surnames) about what they’d say if they could go back ten years and give their younger selves some advice. After around seven years in a band together, they have a lovely partnership. As a pair they’re perfectly similar and dissimilar in equal parts; they work so well together but are independent at the same time.
We get talking about their lyrics, particularly of the song Girl from their second album Get Rid! (sample lyric: “The f-word, f for feminist”), which came out in 2006. Their debut, Disguises, was released in 2001 after a mini-album, Mix-up Words and Sounds. I tell them that Girl is one of my favourite tracks they’ve written – I feel like the lyrics are pro-feminist in a way that not many other electro-pop songs these days are, with perhaps the exception of Le Tigre. The both nod.
“We always just said we were feminist, that just meant that we could do exactly what boys did,” explains Dee. “That’s what it means to me, as opposed to it being any sort of doctrine or movement …I think that’s why people really steer clear of it, because it means you hate men or you’re not sexy.” Sue agrees: “People are scared that if you say you’re a feminist that you’re not sexy, which is absolutely ridiculous. I think the lyrics to that song are quite humorous as well…it’s a good way of broaching that area for people who are scared of it.”
As much as the song is humorous, as is the video (which features Sue and Dee in a robot battle against The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and IAMX frontman Chris Corner – naturally, the women win), the frivolity is backed up by something more serious. “We were trying to make a point – that language is really negative towards women,” explains Dee.
The past year has seen the band’s popularity rise and rise – and it seems that a large part of its fanbase is made up of teenage girls. “Since the last album, the audience has grown and we’ve got loads of girls and they’re all up the front and are really empowered by it, which is really fantastic,” says Sue. “There’s not a lot go get into when you’re a girl,” says Dee. “You always think you have to get your tits out. There’s still loads of that.” This makes Sue smile, and with good reason. “But we have actually got our tits out on the new album cover,” she laughs. “But again, in a subversive way,” she adds. It’s clearly something they’re more than a little excited about. “We did discuss it and we just found it a really brilliant …I was just about to say ‘we found it a really brilliant concept which we thought up’, which is kind of blowing our own trumpet,” laughs Sue again.
When I saw an image from the shoot, I immediately thought about the iconic cover of The Slits’ album Cut, where the all-female band were dressed in loincloths and pictured almost naked and smeared in mud. It was primal, sexy and provocative. In a way, the Robots’ cover – where they’re body painted to look like they’re wearing white shirts, skinny ties and badges – is an edgier, modern take on it. “The fact that it is shocking is good,” says Dee passionately. “For me, it wasreally inspired by the Slits’ cover of Cut where they’ve all got their tits out basically, but they’re covered in mud, so they’re still sexy but they look really strong. It was definitely inspired by that for me.”
One thing that marks out the Robots from many of their peers is that they generally have an all-female band, something that they strive hard to keep. “I still think there’s sort of a massive imbalance – that’s why we specifically wanted a female drummer,” says Sue. “We did have a male drummer at one point, but we specifically wanted a female drummer, because despite the fact there’s probably a lot of good male drummers that applied for the job, we still had to be sexist and say no…positive discrimination.” The image of three female musicians on stage is a powerful one, and the meaning is not lost on Dee. “I think visually it has loads of impact,” she muses. “Because you come to a gig and if you’re a boy or a girl, you see three women on stage playing their instruments, and their own songs. You know, that sticks in your head.”
“If there were equal numbers [of men and women in music] at this time, which there still really isn’t, then you wouldn’t have to even think about it any more, really,” says Sue. But being an all-female band isn’t just something they want to appeal to women. “I think there are a lot of men who don’t want male stereotypes [pushed] on them, like young men who are a bit more girly, who don’t just want to be a stereotype or whatever,” says Dee. “I do think it’s empowering for guys to watch us,” agrees Sue.
What about women who are reading this and who want to start a band? I ask for their advice – and it turns out to be pretty straightforward. “Just get on with it, basically,” advises Sue. “Learn three chords and start singing, write some lyrics, just fuck about with it for a bit.” Dee’s advice is similar: “Get a friend to write with you. You can write separately, but it is more fun getting together and playing – just get a band together.”
Being in a band might seem like the ultimate fantasy career, but it’s in reality it’s damn hard work. “You’ve got to be really prepared to sacrifice stuff. Like, we haven’t had much money for years,” says Dee. “So you have to kind of work out if you can cope with that.” The Robots first met in college, and have been plugging away around Europe and the UK for around seven years. “A lot of people fall to the wayside after, like, one album. They give up, and they finally think ‘I’ve got to get some money. I’ve got to have a real job.’ Whereas we’ve actually managed to stick it out for ages and we’re still skint,” says Sue.
I don’t really sense a hint of regret in her voice. Sue and Dee’s honesty is refreshing at a time when the music world can be a lot about smoke and mirrors, perpetuating the myth of endless sex, drugs and rock and roll, and plenty of cash. “It’s really, really hard,” says Dee. “You have to know that this is what you want to do. If you like performing, then you just know.” I don’t have any doubt that the two women sitting in front of me ‘just know’ this is what they want to do. “I think you have to be prepared to put ten years of your life into it, before you’re successful…or if you look at a band like Pulp, I think it was 15 years for them,” says Sue. “There are a few lucky ones that get successful right away, but otherwise you’re talking about a few years.”
It’s getting nearer the time for them to start their set, so I leave Dee and Sue to get ready. When they hit the stage they’re clad in bright pink robotic catsuits with backcombed hair and glitter a go-go. During the energetic show they shout, dance, spit and stage dive. The audience, mostly female, jumps around and shouts back, clearly excited and enamoured by the axe-wielding women on stage. It feels like now is the time for the Robots to get the success they’ve worked so hard to get. Never mind the bollocks – the Robots in Disguise are here to rewrite electro-punk rock.