Interview: Lady Bird

The punk-inspired trio sit down to reflect on a turbulent 2019, the importance of independent music venues and their creative developments as musicians and individuals.

‘Grassroots, independent music venues are the most important thing to music in this country,’ proclaims a wide-eyed, mop-haired Alex Deadman. ‘The amount of culture that we wouldn’t have without these places doing what they’re doing – it’s mind-blowing’. As the robust and dexterous guitarist of Tunbridge Wells provocateurs Lady Bird, Deadman’s clear-cut, profound statements slice through the air like an optimistic knife through tumultuous social and political butter. Reflecting backstage at Guildford’s The Boileroom, it becomes apparent that his sharp wit and driving passion is harnessed and shared by drummer Joe Walker and integral commander-in-chief Sam Cox.

Photo courtesy of Jenn Five.

Since signing to fellow Tunbridge Wells residents and close friends Slaves’ Girl Fight Records in 2018, the band’s ascendency to the forefront of British punk’s underground movement has been gradual, despite the turbulence divulging within the band’s personal lives. Having completed a startling sold-out UK headline tour at the beginning of last year, the trio hunkered down over the summer with the aim of having an album wrapped and ready for the beginning of 2020, yet a widening musical consciousness and growth has seen them abandon their original intentions. ‘We decided we wanted to try and find a label for the album,’ states Walker. ‘The setup with Girl Fight has been great for what’s happened so far, but we’ve got to the limits of where that can go, and we’ve found ourselves in the position where we were thinking about self-releasing material. We’ve decided to put a bit of music out at the start of the year and then make those calls’.

A sense of composure and reassurance washes over the trio as they map out their plans for the immediate future and decipher the reasoning behind them. ‘We’re very conscious of getting it right – you only get one chance to release your debut album and you want it to be as hard-hitting as we imagine it in our heads… I don’t think you can rush those sorts of things,’ offers Deadman, whose belief in the band’s current plans and scheduling radiates pride and hope towards the coming year. Cox subsequently chirps: ‘We will do an album later [in 2020], but in the meantime we’ve got another EP that we’re bringing out. What comes first is the music, and you plan the releasing after that’.

'The band’s ascendency to the forefront of British punk’s underground movement has been gradual, despite the turbulence divulging within the band’s personal lives'.

Ever since the dawning of the genre, punk’s affiliation with brash unpredictability, visceral live shows and vitriolic social commentary has always spawned fiercely original and imposing individuals to merge as one movement, and Lady Bird continue to radiate the genre’s traditional characteristics. Yet, in lieu of merely acknowledging their susceptibility to conflict, they have embraced it, permitting it to mould their current dynamic. ‘What makes us who we are, what makes us exist as an entity is our ability to have conflicts freely, to be honest,’ shrugs Cox. ‘To get really pissed off, to storm out; it enables us to go through heaps and heaps of challenges and use that as a tailwind to push the band forward and push the sound forward’.

The embracement of conflict has emulsified an individual mindset into a collective dream, a theme detailed with the utmost clarity by Walker. ‘When you start a new project, your life changes and you sort of grow into it. I’ve been in bands before where I’ve tried to work out how I could give myself to that, whereas I feel that we’ve just grown together so much that there’s no separation between who I am and who I am in this band’. The drummer continues, noting how the impact of the band has continued to shape his personal ethos and musical adroitness. ‘Even when I joined this band, it was a new genre of music that I was playing and creating,’ he explains. ‘At first, you see it is something other than yourself, that you give a little bit of yourself to, but it’s got to a point now where anything I do, it is Lady Bird. When we’re writing a song, I’m not thinking about how can I make that sound right for this band, I just do what I want to do and keep being myself and that makes it more fluid’.

The unwavering commitment to artistic and personal integrity has sparked a relaxation and loosening of the trio’s creative mindset. ‘We’ve detached from there being a “sound" and we’re now just making sounds,’ suggests Walker. ‘When you start with something, you fall in love with a “sound” but that develops, and we all develop over time.’ The mitigation of boundaries has filtered into the upcoming EP, notes Cox. ‘We’re wanting to play with lots of different sounds and not really putting a name to our genre. There are more stylistic shifts coming up in the material we’re writing at the moment. We were listening to Pink Floyd on the way up and just talking about the different shifts they have in their music’.

‘To get really pissed off, to storm out; it enables us to go through heaps and heaps of challenges and use that as a tailwind to push the band forward and push the sound forward’.

Whilst the band’s debut record has been put on hold for the foreseeable future, Cox remains buoyant for the band’s upcoming material. ‘We’ve recorded three of what we wanted to release of the four-track EP,’ he confirms, pausing precariously for a matter of seconds, the silence allowing the room's gaze to fixate solely on his following musings. ‘We wrote a whole album and are sitting on fifteen or so new songs, however we got to the point where we were getting ready to record and then decided to just release an EP. So, we’ve picked four tunes from there that fit with one another. [Debut EP] Social Potions had a loose abstract narrative and we’ve found a narrative for this as well’.

Despite their uttering of Pink Floyd, the Tunbridge Wells outfit have leaned towards iconic Joe Strummer-led The Clash for their inspiration on their upcoming EP, which the band note applies the punk rock mentality to outbreaks of Caribbean and Reggaeton influences. ‘There’s a lot of variation on the future material we have from song to song if you take the lyrics out and just listen to what’s going on musically – there’s several different loose genres you could apply to what we’re doing,’ confirms Walker. ‘I’ve given up trying to work out what we are and what we aren’t, we just do stuff and whatever comes out, that’s what we are!’. Deadman later chimes: ‘We’re just much more capable of listening to what we like and then applying it to our own music. We’ve all just come such a long way, even just in the last few years. From just playing together over and over again, you can’t fake tightness in a band that have played together a lot, the songs naturally develop. We’re opening up as artists and peeling our egos away and writing for each other and the overall outcome, rather than just as three individuals’.

The clarity in conviction within the writing process has allowed the band to channel their experiences with greater efficiency, embellishing narratives into their blossoming catalogue. ‘When I look at it from a musical point of view as a guitarist, when I play guitar is my opportunity to put in my life story,’ exudes Deadman. ‘You’re only going to hear it as a guitar, but I live what I lived through day to day in my playing. I think that’s the same with drums and any instrument really. You do capture that when you record – you can hear someone’s passion and energy. I think the way that Sam writes as well, the actual words if you’re looking at that, all we write about is stuff we see and stuff we talk about. We talk about the news sometimes, we talk about this and that and how fucked it is that this is happening, just little things really, and then Sam comes back with a line about it. It is just influences from what is around us, that’s what we’ve got to work with. That sense of the personal journeys that we’ve been embarking on, that naturally comes out in the music’.

'We talk about the news sometimes, we talk about this and that and how fucked it is that this is happening, just little things really, and then Sam comes back with a line about it.'

A hive of innovation, a sense of feverishness towards the future is prevalent within the three individuals as they twirl a delightful wit and candor to their tales of 2019. ‘Musically I think we’ve developed more, we’re writing more and being more literate in our own language, the language of Lady Bird; I think we’re managing to put across what we really want to say with a bit more consideration and with more of an idea of what noises and sounds we want to make,’ proclaims Deadman. He is arguably the most concise orator of the trio’s ambitions, but despite their resilience and growth as individuals, the band remain humble towards the help they’ve received throughout the year. ‘For me, the biggest impact on our growth has been working with this guy Lee, who’s a mate of ours and another lad from [local Tunbridge Wells venue] The Forum,’ explains Walker. ‘He’s twelve years older than us and played his first gig at The Forum as a twelve year-old in 1993, the year the venue opened. The guys that opened the venue were in their twenties and Lee is the generation between us and the founding group and we’re all part of one thing’.

Walker continues: ‘He appeared at one of our gigs towards the end of 2018 and just announced himself and his purpose… to come and sort us out. He’s dragged us through the year by our collars whilst tickling our chins. Emotionally, spiritually and musically, he’s an absolute professional… an utter icon… one of the few people I’ve met who’s just come from the ground. He doesn’t come from any influence but the earth from which he stands and what he chooses to focus on at that moment. Working with someone like that, you learn who you are because he sees the best in you and forces you to identity with it. It’s hard to identify the best in ourselves’.

A deft pause in the drummer’s speech and a lowering of the head, and it’s clear to see the importance and poignance of the journey that the trio have been on over the year – a journey suitably summed up a minute later by the band’s emboldened guitarist. ‘Lee’s been a great influence and I feel we’ve all found a greater power, we’re more powerful as a group. We’ve had a change in management, different directions we’ve been going, a lot of hard work and grafting to get this studio done’; he rattles through the list with enough conviction and assuredness to relay that this course was necessary for the band. 'We’ve taken the decision to do it ourselves because they’re the right things for Lady Bird and not because other people think we should be doing something else. This is our vision and we have trust in ourselves to know what’s best for us… that confidence in ourselves is starting to show in the music’.

There's a harmonious balance within the band’s collective spirit, a nod to the natural differences between each musician. Walker’s throaty cackle infects anybody and everybody he turns to, a sense of raw and primal love for the music he plays and the company he shares permeating his emotional state and future drive. Deadman’s demeanor flickers between light-hearted anecdotes and utter seriousness, an air of ambition igniting his eyes and the corner of his mouth as he caresses his jawline and ruminates on the band's progress over the past year and of their growth as people and musicians. Cox is a trickier nut to crack, his voice is both omnipresent and absent from the room, his wide-eyed gaze appearing unnerving yet warm as he sits happily in the background before launching into flickers of debate.

Asked whether the growth and expansion in Lady Bird’s direction could alter the perception of some fans as to what the band’s style is, the guitarist is straightforward, highlighting that ‘the new songs are very much us though. Whilst being more accepting of our influences, going less for that punk sound and pigeon-holing ourselves into a genre, we’re becoming more aware of our own selves and our identities are just coming through the music. We sound more mature and more together and I think that’s because we all are. We’ve all been through things in our own lives in the last twelve months that have turned us more into men than we were at the beginning of it. I think that starts to come through in what we’re putting out there. Sam’s honed in on his vocals, his singing and rapping, and I think you’re starting to see a wiser eye’.

This natural development and increased confidence not only permeates the upcoming studio releases but is prevalent onstage. The change in Lady Bird’s live presence has been startling, from their outstanding first UK headline tour to their now infamous performance at Truck Festival in the summer. ‘Even in the last couple of dates we’ve done on this tour, I can feel the hard work that we’ve put in playing together,’ Deadman muses. ‘I caught myself recently in the middle of playing I’ve Got Lucky – one of the slightly newer songs – just on a completely different planet and I woke up into reality and realised I hadn’t dropped a beat at all. That’s literally how natural it is, how much muscle memory there is now. We’ve finally found the place where the sound of what Lady Bird is; it’s gotten larger just from playing better’.

Walker picks up on the conversation, providing insight into the band’s summer highlight. ‘The Truck Festival show was really important for us because we decided at the start of the year to stay off the festival circuit a bit to give ourselves the time to release the album that we wanted to release at the end of this year. Obviously, things happen and change, and it hasn’t gone that way, so I think we were less busy this summer than we could have been. I think there’s always a fear that what happened at the start of the year with so many people coming to our shows and our minds being blown… there’s always a fear of losing momentum. Having that gig at Truck, I’d say that was one of the very few direct connections with the fan base that we got to make over the summer. It meant a hell of a lot to us and to feel that energy in that tent was really grounding’.

'Whilst being more accepting of our influences, going less for that punk sound and pigeon-holing ourselves into a genre, we’re becoming more aware of our own selves and our identities are just coming through the music'.

The increased time and space at their disposal in the latter half of 2019 arguably pushed the trio into deepening their connection with the grassroots music community that has been essential to their identity. Passionate advocates of DIY music, their recent ‘un-tour’ of independent music venues across the country has seen the band interact immersively and intimately with younger crowds biting eagerly for originality in towns and cities which, without a local venue, lack the support, infrastructure and creativity to bolster a vibrant DIY guitar movement.

‘We all grew up at The Forum, and we always wanted to sell it out, that was the dream,’ beams Cox, a twitching smile lighting up his face instantaneously. ‘First of all, just getting there was a dream, and we’ve proceeded to sell it out the last three times we’ve played there. That is the dream. This whole tour… it matches perfectly with what we’ve grown up around at The Forum. We have more of an affinity with the crowds here because it’s these types of venues, with the smaller crowds, that makes it more special. With each leg of the ‘un-tour’ allowing the trio to relate with unique and divergent communities, Deadman clarifies that ‘each place we’ve been to has been mesmerising. There’s an incredible community and hub that each venue has created. We wanted to come to these places because that’s what we have in our town’.

The ethos of the independent venue tour filtered not just from the venue choices, but spanned the selection of the support acts playing alongside the trio each night. Having chosen each support from a list of 160, the guitarist’s desire to ‘further our efforts to harbor the independent community-based scene and support the next bands coming through’ is unwavering. ‘There is a fucking hell of a lot of sixteen year-old’s in guitar bands right now,’ he expresses. ‘That’s really exciting because even when we were doing our thing when we were sixteen or seventeen, it wasn’t really there. It was kind of there, but the Arctic Monkeys had just happened, and everyone forgot about every other band because they weren’t as good as the Arctic Monkeys, and then EDM happened, and now there’s another scene coming back now. It’s so exciting seeing the amount of kids that are coming down and checking the listings out at Tunbridge Wells’ Forum, walking past The Forum and there are kids looking at the listings and hanging out. Just encouraging that youth movement is so important’.

'‘We all grew up at The Forum, and we always wanted to sell it out, that was the dream,’ beams Cox, a twitching smile lighting up his face instantaneously.'

The vibrant reception received by the band from each community has undoubtedly instilled a sense of desire to harness and bolster the grassroots movement – a movement which has been so vital for each musician from the very beginning. ‘I just really want to see this amazing scene that has come to fruition just continue to grow and grow because it’s still in the underground phase,’ proclaims Deadman. ‘Even a band like IDLES headlining Alexandra Palace… if you tell Margaret on the street that, she wouldn’t know who you’re talking about. I want the biggest band to be the biggest band. That scene, the emotional energy… what’s good about our youth culture at the moment, I want that to become pop culture. I want to be one of the big fucking makers of that’.

‘All the conditions are right for the explosion of another big, big guitar band at the moment,’ continues Walker. ‘There’s a band called Scowl in Tunbridge Wells at the moment… when they do gigs, all of their mates come down and they can get about a hundred, two hundred people in The Forum. There’s this great event going on of just teenagers. When we were kids, Sam and Isaac [Holman, Slaves] were in this band [Bearface] which had exactly that effect on our generation; me and Alex were affected by that, all the schools would be talking about it and everyone goes and sees that. There being just one band that does that, it makes us buzz because other people want to do that as well’.

Reflecting on the year, the trio cautiously look at their hopes and aspirations moving into 2020, but with an assuredness that keeps them rooted to the grassroots that first nurtured and then fiercely supported them. ‘I’ve got dreams, I’ve got dreams!’, laughs Walker. ‘I’m not going to share them though! Whilst I’m a firm believer that voicing dreams is part of the actualization of them, where I’m at now, I just see my dreams as ego at the moment, it’s not real. What is real is where I am tonight – this room, this gig, doing more recording. I want to be living and loving every moment and it’s so easy to get distracted by the future. You’ve got no idea what it’s going to be, you know what it can be and what you want it to be. I don’t think anyone should ever shy away from saying that they want to do something and then going and doing it, but where I’m at within myself is just focusing on the moment’.

'Speaking at the end of a decade, Lady Bird’s decision to embark on an intimate grassroots tour has the potential to spark innovation in a new generation of teenagers, reaching for a catalyst to kick-start their musical journey'.

Despite Walker’s reserved nature, Cox proclaims that ‘I like to spend a small portion of each day focusing on what I would like, whether I’m determining things about myself that I want to be a certain way or exert my circumstances and then spend the rest of the day not thinking about that. It’s important to do so, but not be unable to connect with the now as a result of wishing. Pushing, pushing, not wishing, wishing!’; his ability to quote his own lyrics sparking uproar amongst his bandmates. ‘We’re on a really positive creative path and are opening up as individuals and with each other,’ confirms Deadman. ‘I want that to just continue because it’s fruitful. We write better songs, we play better shows, we have a better time. I want that to continue’.

As the band finish reflecting on their future ambitions, it seems almost fitting that a decade ago, the trio were merely young and impressionable teenagers. Speaking at the end of a decade, Lady Bird’s decision to embark on an intimate grassroots tour has the potential to spark innovation in a new generation of teenagers, reaching for a catalyst to kick-start their musical journey. Whilst it is potentially too easy and naive to speculate, there’s something oddly comforting about the thought that in a decade’s time, one band could be sitting in the same exact spot, talking of how a ragtag punk-inspired trio came to their local independent music venue and inspired them to pick up an instrument and run with it. Pushing, pushing, not wishing, wishing, the punk legacy continues to inspire, one band and one independent venue at a time.