As nationwide restrictions gradually begin to ease, The Mic's Daisy Carter reflects on her conversation with punk trio Dream Wife at the beginning of lockdown for June's Big Read.
Dream Wife are a band who, by their own definition, thrive in contradiction: ‘Taboo, but make it fun – that’s a great description’, laughs lead vocalist Rakel Mjöll. Their name is an ironic middle finger to the 1950s notion that a ‘dream wife’ was part and parcel of the stereotypically middle-class, materialistic ‘dream life’ – the kind of life immortalised by Ewan McGregor’s dulcet tones in Trainspotting’s opening monologue. The trio’s music, meanwhile, promotes this same ethos; part feminist call to arms, part post-punk call to dance, their tracks unashamedly tackle concepts such as sexual assault and female sexual agency with an energy perhaps only paralleled among their contemporaries by Aussie punks Amyl and the Sniffers.
Due to the international lockdown caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – which, at the time of interview, was still in its early weeks – Mjöll spoke to The Mic over the phone from where she was isolating in her native Iceland, whilst guitarist Alice Go and bassist Bella Podpadec (both of whom also do vocals) did so from the relatively closer location of their London home. We start, inevitably, by talking about the current health crisis the world is facing. Go explains how she and Podpadec have been embracing lockdown by ‘basically open[ing] a club in the front room – we’ve got loads of disco lights here, so every Friday night we’ve been able to dance and play techno really loud, and it’s been really fun making the most of each other’s company’.
Indeed, this propensity for dynamism comes as no surprise; following the release of their blistering eponymous debut record in 2018, Dream Wife have barely paused for breath, gigging relentlessly across the UK, Europe, and North America. However, along with the rest of the world, they’ve now been unexpectedly put on pause, just as they were gearing up to promote their upcoming sophomore album, So When You Gonna…. The first single from said album, Sports!, had been released only a couple of weeks previous to our conversation, and is a celebration of movement and physical activity in whatever form they take. ‘I think maybe its sentiment has become even stronger [since lockdown] considering people are having to find different ways to keep active’, Podpadec reflects. Go agrees, musing that ‘I think the idea of being a big team resonates… like finding solidarity through this crisis, it seems like we’re all on the same team and we all have to stick to the rules together – in that sense, Sports! feels relevant in a different, new way’.
"Part feminist call to arms, part post-punk call to dance, their tracks unashamedly tackle concepts such as sexual assault and female sexual agency with an energy perhaps only paralleled among their contemporaries by Aussie punks Amyl and the Sniffers".
As well as being an undeniably catchy track with pleasingly quotable one-liners (‘put your money where your mouth is’ and ‘do you even play this sport?’), the story behind Sports! is refreshingly simple. Mjöll explains that it was born out of the frequent breaks they took when penning the new record in Somerset, during which they’d often play badminton and exchange faux-competitive banter – the likes of which ‘actually ended up being part of the lyrics to the song’ in the form of those aforementioned one-liners. ‘We only had one rule. The rule was that you couldn’t apologise, unless you like you know, actually hurt someone. That instinct to apologise is built in, so we said “nope, if you say sorry you lose a point!”’, she laughs. ‘And we took that same ethos into the writing space’, Go adds, ‘I think within the realm of rock music we’ve kind of created our own rules, we’ve kind of done it our way. That song is going down that line of “take it on, do it your way – make the rules, and never apologise just for existing!” ’.
Dream Wife are a band who certainly practice what they preach, and not just with regards to their own music. In fact, you could argue that it was not the performances themselves which made their debut album tour in 2018 so standout (although if their Nottingham gig was anything to go by, these were masterclasses in how to command a room and engage with a crowd). Rather, it was the trio’s decision to choose a different, regional, femme artist as their support act for each date, as well as hosting pre-show talks between a small group of fans and womxn belonging to each city’s music community.
As Mjöll notes, the call for support acts was ‘open for bands or projects which had at least one femme or non-binary person in them, and that was sort of to raise awareness. London [where the band are based] is a bubble. With the scene we’re in, it’s like “what do you mean? There’s so much opportunity for people here”, but if you go elsewhere you realise that [those scenes are] actually run by a boy’s club. A lot of the music industry is cliques, and it’s hard to get your foot in the door, especially so for womxn and non-binary musicians. So, it was about both raising awareness that this is happening outside of our bubble, and also that it needs to be changed. We also collaborated with Girls Rock, who are amazing and encourage women of all ages to make music – it was really good to work with them and shine a light on their organisation’.
"A lot of the music industry is cliques, and it’s hard to get your foot in the door, especially so for womxn and non-binary musicians".
The pre-show discussions also aimed to bring together female and non-binary creatives in each city or town to discuss what their respective regional scenes are like, fostering links between artists, promoters and producers in order to build up an inclusive industry network. ‘Meeting all these amazing bands and the conversations we had with them was the best thing about our headline tour – it was such an exciting and vital way of going about it’, Podpadec enthuses. Mjöll agrees: ‘we wanted to create a real life community for marginalised groups with those pre-show meet ups. And when we play our shows, we really encourage people to sort of be in this experience together, cos that’s what a show is; it’s not just the band playing to an audience, it should be an experience for everyone. And if it isn’t, it’s boring’.
With a mission statement such as this, it’s hardly surprising that their dynamic, exhaustingly fun live shows are what Dream Wife have become renowned for. Never is this more apparent than when they perform Somebody – an anthemic track charged with emotional electricity which crackles through the crowd until the whole room is lit up like a completed circuit, ultimately releasing this energy in a huge power surge as they unanimously chant the track’s chorus and central premise: ‘I am not my body, I am somebody’. As Mjöll explains, ‘that song was originally written about believing survivors of sexual assault and rape, and about the practice of taking the blame from the perpetrator and putting it on the victim, the “oh well you shouldn’t have gone out looking like that” mentality. It’s saying, “I am not my body, I am literally a human being” ’.
However, she goes on to describe how the track’s meaning and significance has evolved through playing it live: ‘what we found out with Somebody is the beauty of songs – you may have an idea when you write it, but its meaning is different for every single person that listens to it. We had these experiences when we started touring; for example, at on show in the USA, this older man came up to me in tears, saying how important the song was for him as someone with a disability. He felt like it was a relief to be like, ‘I am not my blindness, I am a human being – treat me like one’. That’s what they got out of the song, and it took on a whole new meaning from me as the songwriter, and it was so moving. Now Somebody is about not judging anyone for gender, disability, or any kind of front. And that makes the song way more special to me’.
Normally during this point in their set, the Wives (their self-styled nickname) also pause for a moment, asking anyone in the audience who identifies as a ‘bad bitch’ to come to the front. This, Mjöll explains, ‘is a good way of making the room change a bit, to get people to move around and change the dynamics of the gig – and often after that happens, people start dancing. They feel more present at the gig and more aware of each other’s safety, so that’s great’. The phrase ‘girls to the front’ – having been favoured by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna – has gained increasing currency in recent years, being the title of a book by Sara Marcus on the Riot Grrrl movement and an NME gig series. Mjöll is quick to point out that the trio’s initiative is not gender-specific, but ‘more about people who need to be represented and need to know that they are welcome in that space. It’s basically just not cis white men who are tall’, she laughs. ‘They normally can see pretty well at gigs – they’ve already had a bit of time up at the front’.
Indeed, that phrase can be considered an apt metaphor for society more generally – as Podpadec mentions, incredulous, ‘there’s some really wild stat that in 2019 something like less than 3% of records were produced by a non-male producer’. Did this knowledge inform their decision to work with an all-female team on the making of So When You Gonna…? ‘It was fairly intuitive – we’d been going on a number of ‘producer dates’ and Marta [Salogni (Björk, FKA Twigs)] was really just the right person for the job, regardless of her gender, and she’s done a lot of work with [engineer] Grace [Banks (David Wrench, Marika Hackman)]’, Podpadec continues. ‘It just felt like practicing what we’re preaching, flying the flag – like the lyric in Sports! ‘put your money where your mouth is’, Go chips in. ‘It was a fairly intuitive decision, it felt natural and really important. We couldn’t have made this record with anyone else’.
"Never is this more apparent than when they perform Somebody – an anthemic track charged with emotional electricity which crackles through the crowd until the whole room is lit up like a completed circuit".
As well as producing and mixing their second record, Salogni also features in the first episode of Dream Wife’s new podcast series of the same name, in which one of the trio sit down with a different female industry professional each week to discuss how they got into their field. ‘We’ve just been chatting with different people in creative industries and people who have been part of making this album, our collaborators and friends’, Go explains. ‘In the same way as the meet ups we did on the first tour, it’s just trying to join the dots a bit, to talk about things you don’t learn at school or uni. It’s that stuff I wish someone had said when I was a teenager trying to get into music, and for us this podcast is a way to kind of carry on that conversation’.
Giving a platform to conversations which are generally muted in mainstream culture is the beating heart around which the body of Dream Wife’s work functions, and their latest album is no exception. ‘We recorded the first record in like a week, and it was while we had shows either side of the recording sessions, so it was done very quickly and with that live energy’, Go reflects. ‘With this record we wanted to bring that to the table but also, I think, go to more sensitive spaces. It feels like it’s a sort of level up from [their debut] in lots of different respects, thematically and sonically’. Mjöll agrees, citing ABBA and Robyn as artists she enjoys because ‘so much of the content of their songs is actually quite difficult, and sad, but the melody is not’, yet they ensure that ‘the subject matter isn’t made a joke, or to seem lesser than it is’.
She is acutely aware of the importance of this latter point: ‘We tackle abortion and miscarriage on the album, both of which are extremely taboo in our culture, which is ridiculous. Not because we were like “let’s write a song about abortion today”, but more just because of things that were happening in our personal lives, or with our friends. All of the songs, lyrically, are based on conversations with friends and our paths. We wrote a song called After The Rain, which I’m really excited for people to hear; it’s such a delicate subject matter, talking about society’s role in claiming women’s bodies regarding reproductive rights. That song is based on a conversation I had with my sister. So that one… we had to do it justice’.
Our conversation drifts, inevitably, back to the ongoing pandemic – what it means for both the music industry and the world more broadly. In terms of how people can support independent artists and their local scene over what will undoubtedly be a difficult next few months, Podpadec notes the importance of even small acts of generosity: ‘I’d encourage anyone with any extra cash to invest that in their local venues, in their favourite artists. A lot of people are really struggling, and the more we can band together the better. And that’s a conversation that extends far beyond the music industry. The unprecedented nature of [the coronavirus pandemic] is that it’s showing all the holes in the system we have, showing all the places where people aren’t supported and how it’s those who are vulnerable who will be disproportionately affected by all this’.
" 'A lot of people are really struggling, and the more we can band together the better. And that’s a conversation that extends far beyond the music industry' ".
However, there are nevertheless a few silver linings to be found in the midst of the dark cloud which seems to be hanging over 2020, still visible to those who care to look. Despite the cancellation of gigs and festivals this summer being a huge blow to artists and fans alike, Mjöll maintains that this doesn’t negate the fact that ‘England is so special for gig culture. That all these people come together over the love of music is brilliant, and it’s not like that in many other countries. Even though they knew Glastonbury wasn’t going to happen, it was great that they announced [the line-up] anyway because it was so good, and because of the point made there’, she continues, referring to the festival behemoth’s line-up having a 50:50 gender split for the first time. This follows in the footsteps of Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, which in 2019 dubbed the practice ‘the new normal’ and which Mjöll describes as ‘the best festival I’ve been to in my life’.
I mentioned the images circulating on social media around the time of the Reading and Leeds announcement, which depicted what the festival’s 2020 poster would have looked like had it only featured the names of acts which weren’t all-male. ‘I saw that!’, Mjöll exclaimed, ‘what the hell went on there? It was almost an empty poster. We’ve played that festival and we had a great time, but there’s so many festivals in England that if ones that size have that kind of approach towards it, it’s gonna filter down to the rest. That’s why it was so great for a festival the size of Glastonbury to at least announce that incredible line up, because that will hopefully filter down to other festival bookers’.
Looking to the future, Dream Wife are positive: ‘as and when the time comes, it’s gonna be so euphoric to feel that physical solidarity again’, Go muses, with a note of longing in her voice. ‘The fact [the pandemic] is happening in the world is an awful tragedy, but it also really is a call to change’. These sentiments are echoed by her bandmates, who are equally – albeit warily – optimistic about what a post-corona world might look like. ‘I don’t think we’ll take anything for granted again’, smiles Mjöll, ‘it will just be like “oh my god, I can’t believe I’m in a mosh pit!” ’. ‘Hopefully, we will end up with a more humanitarian, socially and eco-conscious global society’, Podpadec reflects – a poignant remark which has since taken on even greater relevance in light of recent weeks’ international protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the midst of such uncertainty and division Dream Wife are defiantly sure of themselves, a riotously empowering force to be reckoned with who fervently believe that subverting expectations and shaking things up are practices which in the current climate are not just welcome, but vital.
So When You Gonna… is out on the 3rd July via Banquet Records.
The So When You Gonna... podcast is available on Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/show/4z1yCrpCAkvkU4Vot1b3bT?si=8YUSfRPUQIK75POmrmb1WA