Love is the Tender Trap

by Roger Holland

Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey explore the challenges of putting out an album and a baby at the same time.

“Missed a pill, it’s no big deal
Pat my belly and I’ll squeal
Blood will often take its time
‘Specially when it’s mine
I don’t want to take a test
But I guess it’s for the best
Just don’t tell me what to think
If it turns pink
—Heavenly, “Sperm Meets Egg ... So What?”

Time, tide, and the biological clock wait for no one, not even the undisputed queen of indie-pop. So, eleven years after she wrote “Sperm Meets Egg ... So What?”, I’m talking with Tender Trap’s Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey about the almost simultaneous releases of the band’s new single and the couple’s new baby.

So how’s the proud mother doing?

“I’m OK.”

And baby?

“It eats. It sleeps. That’s about it.”

From memory, I’m sure you’ve missed something out there. But you’re not sounding very maternal?

She laughs.

“I’m sorry. It’s very sweet.”

“It” is Ivy, the couple’s second child. Dora, Ivy’s totally cute elder sister, is two years old.

“When Ivy first came out, she looked rather like Mark E. Smith, but she’s quickly getting cuter! I’m mildly terrified about having two children—one was fine, but hopefully we’ll manage.”

Amelia, Rob, and I are talking barely two days after Ivy was born. It’s almost midnight in London. The Tender Trap household is now free of family and friends for the first time since mother and baby came home. And Ivy is unlikely to need feeding or changing for at least another couple of hours. So naturally the tired parents can think of nothing they’d rather do than talk to PopMatters.

The new Tender Trap single is actually an EP called Language Lessons. It combines a couple of shiny new songs with two tracks from the band’s 2004 Spanish EP ¿Como Te Llamas?. Looking forwards, Language Lessons is essentially a taster for Tender Trap’s forthcoming new album, Talking Backwards, which is scheduled for release early in 2006. But looking backwards, this new EP is the latest addition to an important, impressive, and highly influential indie-pop canon. So a little history is most definitely in order.

In the beginning, there was Talulah Gosh—all über rad crash punk pop and probably the best live act of all time. Although Rob Pursey was the original bassist in Talulah Gosh, you won’t find him on any of their recordings.

“Rob played the first three gigs,” explains Amelia. “But then he got cross at our ramshackle amateurishness and left. He also had finals to do at University, which probably played a part. Anyway, he never recorded anything that came out.”

Talulah Gosh split in 1988 feeling, I suspect, that they had gone as far as they could in that form. Then, after a brief hiatus and a line-up change that brought Rob Pursey back into the fold, there was Heavenly.

The classic indie-pop group, Heavenly recorded four landmark albums and the marvelous near-concept EP P.U.N.K. Girl, before the tragic loss in 1996 of Amelia’s younger brother Mathew, a fine songwriter who had drummed for both Heavenly and Talulah Gosh, led to a further inevitable prolonged hiatus.

Eventually, almost surprisingly, the band re-emerged as Marine Salvage and Research Limited—subsequently just plain Marine Research. The line up was Heavenly, with John Stanley (aka DJ Downfall) taking the drum stool, but the music was somewhat different. The 1998 Marine Research album, Songs From the Gulf Stream, was more mature, more considered, and more troubled than anything that had gone before. It’s an excellent record but—especially when taken live—it seemed as if the joy that had made those earlier bands so very special had somehow slipped away. Consequently, it came as no surprise when Marine Research themselves slipped silently away at the end of the last millennium.

Tender Trap, a stripped-down Marine Research featuring just Rob, Amelia and Stanley, first appeared in 2002. The trio’s first flush of recordings (singles “Face Of 73” and “Oh Katrina”, album Film Molecules) retained and developed the maturity and experimentation of Songs From the Gulf Stream while suggesting that the pop thrill might also be back. Now, three years and two babies on, we finally have confirmation.

Where Film Molecules took a short, sharp, often electronic approach to pop and largely scorned the conventions of chorus and middle eight, Language Lessons seems to indicate a return to a more Heavenly approach.

“Talking Backwards” is the first song on Language Lessons and the title track of the forthcoming Tender Trap album. It boasts the classic multi-tracked Fletcher vocals, adds backing vocals that go “ba ba ba” in all the right places, explores the awkwardness of an inexpressible crush, and appropriates a line or two of Smiths lyric to boot. All in all, it’s a rousing girly guitar-pop joy that takes at least ten years off the soul.

“It’s about falling in love in your head,” says Amelia, “and not being able to communicate that, and it actually not being real anyway.

“I went to see You And Me And Everyone We Know the other day, the Miranda July independent movie, and I really liked it. I thought it was a lot about kind of imaginary relationships that may or may not turn into reality—this living in your head thing. And I think Talking Backwards is on very much the same track. It’s about someone who is absolutely bound up in this love in their head, but it can’t come out of their mouth at all. And every time it tries to come out, it’s like talking backwards—it doesn’t make any sense. And this person is getting torn up trying to get it out.”

At which point Rob suggests that Amelia’s explanation of the song is pretty much talking backwards too.

The second original track on Language Lessons is “Unputdownable”. As enchanting as “Talking Backwards”, it’s a song that details the discovery of a lover’s secret diary and, inevitably, infidelity. Rob explains:

“We wrote the lyrics to ‘Unputdownable’ while we were driving around Italy. It’s a song about having to keep on reading, about the compulsion of continuing to torture yourself even though you know you have the option of putting the diary back under the bed and trying to forget about it. And the challenge was to keep coming up with landmarks in London where infidelities could have taken place that also just happened to rhyme with the days of the month.”

And precious little rhymes with Mornington Crescent?

“Yes, but it’s odd you say that, because we did try, actually. But obviously it would been a bit Radio Four.

“It’s strange, but I think writing lyrics starts off with a potent sense of an emotion, and quickly turns into solving a cryptic crossword. You start off with a vivid sense of what it feels like to discover that your girlfriend has been unfaithful, and then by the time you get around to writing the chorus you’re thinking, ‘What the fuck is going to rhyme with that?’

The third song is “Friendster”. Propelled gently along by Rob’s then brand new guitar and featuring ample use of the tremolo arm, it’s a mild savaging of the Internet site of the same name.

“Amelia went through a phase of indulging in Internet communications through Friendster, so most of that song was written by me as a kind of oblique ... well, it’s not oblique at all actually, it’s basically me saying that there’s something very sad and something very lonely about achieving a huge community of ‘friends’ so instantly.”

Much to my confusion, “¿Como Te Llamas?” has nothing to do with domesticated South American ruminants. Rather, it’s a kind electro Euro-disco bounce duet—sung with Lupe Núnez-Fernández of Pipas—that was inspired by Amelia’s obsession with the personal ads.

“I came across this ad that said, ‘Indie Girl Seeks Same’, and I thought, ‘Ooo’. I just really liked it. I thought it said all it needed to say. So I decided to write a song based around that ad. And I also, for a long time, had wanted to write a song that was half in one language and half in another, as almost a technical experiment to see if one could do it. So since we were going to be recording a single for our Spanish label, I thought that this ‘Indie Girl Seeks Same’ concept might work quite well if it was about a Spanish girl who’d just come to London.

“The idea is that the two girls are perfectly matched, and that in their different languages they’re both saying pretty much the same things. That they’re indie kids, that they quite enjoy being miserable sometimes, but they also enjoy going out for cocktails ... ‘50s kitsch ... it’s a happy song, and it’s actually going to be a pretty good relationship when they finally get to meet each other.”

For the recording of Talking Backwards, the Tender Trap trio have been joined by Claudia Gonson (Magnetic Fields et al) on drums. After we’d finished talking, Amelia sent me MP3s of a couple of tracks from the album: “Six Billion People” and “Inuit Beauty Queen”. Based on these songs and the new tracks on Language Lessons, it’s clear that Tender Trap have indeed move back towards their Heavenly blueprint while still retaining their latter day propensity for “fiddling around with electronics”. This can only be a good thing. Though, of course, the recent arrival of Ivy makes it unlikely that we’ll see too many live shows to promote their new music.

“Yes, it’s going to be hard to get out to play gigs. We were just reaching a position where we were ready to go out and play. In particular I was really excited about it because I really, really like playing live. It’s a really different thing to playing music in your house, or even recording. We were really looking forward to that, but I think it’s going to have to be put on hold for at least six months or so now.”

Rob, however, is not that disappointed: “No. That’s very much Amelia’s thing. I might as well drive around the venue in a big lorry as play on stage. Because that’s essentially what playing bass live is like really: making unpleasant rumbling noises with occasional bids for the high notes to play a bit of melody.”

Frankly, I’m surprised Rob and Amelia are still making music, let alone recording and even considering touring. They both have very proper, very grown up jobs—the sort that you and I would kill for, and, of course, they have a young family.

“Well, it’s hard to find time,” says Amelia. “It’s hard to find time to get out of the house and go and practice or to record ... and I suppose it’s going to be even harder now. But it doesn’t take very long to write a song at all. In fact, it’s actually a really nice thing to do ... when you’re knackered at the end of the day and you finally have a little peace and quiet, to sit and try and write a song. It’s a chance to clear the mundanities of everyday life out of your brain, and to create something that actually means something.

“It’s a really healthy thing, I’d say. The alternative is sitting like a Neanderthal in front of the TV. Which we obviously do quite a lot as well.”

But why do they still bother? Isn’t it about time they grew up?

“I think, partly, there’s an inherent need in us to do this. But also there just aren’t that many people around who are making the kind of music that we like. There’s plenty of good bands around, particularly in Britain at the moment. But they aren’t making the kind of music that we really want to listen to.

“That’s always been our motivation, in a way. To try to create the records that we would want to listen to at home, in the face of a vacuum of other people doing it. That hasn’t always been the case, but it certainly is today.

“As I said, there’s a lot of very good bands around, but there’s a real absence of femaleness. It’s almost like after Talulah Gosh and before Heavenly. Heavenly actually started partly in reaction to the fact that ... um ... well, we were deliberately female, with lots of girly backing vocals, because there were so many male, macho rock bands around. Indie bands, but still very masculine. Very macho. So we reacted against that then. And I think we’re almost reacting against it again today, and trying to bring some femaleness back into music.

“It’s really peculiar looking at all these bands who are coming through today. I’ve always felt part of a group of women who were getting into music, and getting into playing in bands, and I always had the feeling that it was an increasing thing, an ever upward crescendo of women in music, and that it was unstoppable. And then suddenly, it’s stopped.

“So here we are.”

In the wake of Amelia’s feminist manifesto, the conversation turns to the new British bands. After a while we decide that Franz Ferdinand are the new Spandau Ballet because they take themselves so very seriously, while the Libertines are Duran Duran, and Babyshambles are the new Alarm. And then Rob begins to wax philosophical about the effects of age and children.

“Amelia is very much enamored of the Libertines. I half suspect it’s because of a vicarious passion for bands and fans twenty years younger than herself.”

I wince. Amelia protests.

“No, I don’t mean it like that. I do it too, I’m sure. I just think that it’s strange now that when you see bands like that, bands who have undoubtedly inspired people to get into them, and probably to change for the better—except for Kate Moss, of course—you can still think ‘God! That’s exciting.’

“But now you’re thinking it, inevitably, from a certain lofty distance. That’s one thing about having children, I think. You start thinking ‘Ah, yes. That’s brilliant. All those young people learning how to be autonomous and rebellious and stuff’ ... which is a pretty weird thing to think as you sit there serving up some kind of pasta to a two year old.

“You know, where we live, it’s almost immediately opposite the Brixton Academy. And it’s fun coming out of the tube to find yourself surrounded by kids between 18 and 22, all wearing the same certain clothes and silly little hat to try to look like Pete Doherty. That sort of behavior used to depress me twenty years ago: people willing joining these little tribes to try to socially express their individuality and rebelliousness. And it makes me feel even more depressed now too. But then on the other hand, I feel less qualified to moan about it today.

“Age puts things into perspective. You can no longer delude yourself into thinking that writing a song is the most important thing in the world, which when you’re 20 and in a band, you easily can. And I don’t know whether it’s better to have grown out of that, or not.

“But then again, in many ways, music is actually worth more to us now. We still love it just as much, and we have so much less time.”

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