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One of Those Bands: An Interview With the Noisettes

Chris Catania

Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes turns the tables on the Western mindset and contemporary pop music, as well as on our interviewer.

The Noisettes

What's the Time, Mr. Wolf?

Label: Motown
US Release Date: 2007-04-17
UK Release Date: 2007-02-05

At the core of UK trio the Noisettes is a youthful punk-flavored imagination that is rooted in a passionate thirst for rock 'n' roll. The Noisettes are in the process of re-re-introducing themselves as they make their third trip across the States, and this time around they're armed with their debut album What's the Time Mr. Wolf?

On a Sunday afternoon, a few days before the album's US release -- just as the tour bus was rolling to the next gig -- lead singer Shingai Shoniwa explained via phone how her traditional African upbringing and family's love for music and pure creativity has helped to propel and solidify the Noisettes volatile mix of punk, blues, and dirty garage rock.

Having toured twice before, including last year with UK art-punk quartet Bloc Party and this time with New York's TV on the Radio, the US is not an unfamiliar place, but a place the band couldn't wait to return to. And much the same way Mr. Wolf keeps you honest, Shoniwa did the same to me and caught me off guard when she grabbed control of the chat and asked me a few probing questions.

That's just the kind of person Shoniwa is. Like a close friend she wants to genuinely know the person she's talking with just as much as she loves to take an audience beyond simple entertainment and thrust them into a carnival of slow soulful grooves and blistering rhythms provided manicly by her band mates Dan Smith (guitar) and Jamie Morrison (drums).

Anything was fair game as we covered everything from the new album to forgotten lines from The Lost Boys to her memories of falling asleep at age four next to a concert stage at an African tribal jazz show that her mom was promoting.

How has your theater and circus background worked into the band's live performance?

It actually fit in quite nicely especially when it's not quite what you expected your career to be. It really complemented, nicely, coming from a background of wanting to create illusions that come from the imagination. It's nice to able to paint black and white pictures but it's also fun to also take people away into the potential of someone's imagination. Me and the boys, like most people really, have spent our life making up a lot of fiction along the way through different experiences and dreams that we've had as a kids. Music is a great chance to explore those kinds of things.

What artists have inspired you to create that fictional atmosphere?

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. There used to be people, like them, who gave really incendiary performances without a PA system -- like when I used to go to the flea market and someone would be depicting everything live and sort of in your face. Like that, I also have a desire to want make a bit of trouble and wake people up as well.

Have you always wanted to do that, sort of surprise people and give them something they don't expect but end up loving when it's presented to them?

Exactly. We're always trying to bridge the gap between different art forms and experiences in half an hour. It's important to keep things fresh and new and we don't ever play the same set with the same songs and hopefully when we start doing that we'll take a break.

Do you guys have set lists?

Oh, yes, if you tour national you've got to play the hits. You can't get away with playing Mothers of Invention or Howlin' Wolf on the harmonica. You could squeeze it in there for about ten seconds but that's about it.

Is there a difference between a UK and US audience?

Yeah, completely different. There's a sort of transatlantic wave that comes across you when you get off the plane and you got new gigs ahead of you. The weather can influence how you play and in the UK the kids seems to move around a bit more, making more of a mosh pit.

So the US audiences are not as physical when it comes to a live show?

The US audiences we've experienced may be less physical but they are very honest and if they like something or not they shout about it right there in front of you. I love the differences between the East Coast and the West Coast, too. I found that the South to be more punk than I expected and more appreciative. But this is just on this tour because the TV on the Radio crowd is going to be completely different from a Bloc Party or Babyshambles crowd. Everyone's got a different thirst for things in each town. You might have towns like Athens. They seem really hungry and thirtsy for rock 'n' roll because a lot of international bands get to make it that deep into the heart of America playing places like Savannah. In London there's so many gigs that not every boy is going to go crazy the first time they see a band. I get the idea during out first time through that playing in the South there's a hunger and thirst and appreciation for punk. But maybe in New York and LA it could be the opposite. It's different each time and with each city.

Do you pick up on those kind of intangibles before the show or is it something you just spontaneously react to mid-show once you've got a feeling for the crowd?

I might include an old song that mentions the name of or is synonymous with that city and we find a way to play a song like "Georgia on My Mind" but do it in a non-cheesy way, or just drop a lyrical reference and watch the crowd go crazy which they usually do.

Is that just an American thing or do UK fans like hear an artist show appreciation, too, and name drop their city?

It happens a lot in the UK. I've learned that that kind of thing has [folk] roots and it happens in a lot of cities. It's like choosing what coat to wear before you're going to play, because you're not going to be in the same mood as you were in Savannah as you were in Chicago. You're living for that moment for that night that city. And it just might be your last time there.

Are there cities you're looking forward to returning to?

I love Athens, Atlanta, Chicago. In San Francisco you can be really lazy there and playing there people treat you like you're playing in their living room. It's very nice.

Have you been able to connect with other bands or make friends in other US cities?

We've been on tour for 12 months now. It's been hard to keep in touch with people unless you see them at festivals or on the Internet. We really look forward going to New York and spending time with TV on the Radio or another band called Celebration. We've kind of become a bit homeless on the road and the road has sort of merged in to one big intergalactic gig map. And we spend a lot of time sleeping in the van. I actually get really antsy and want to get out of the van and walk around. But I know and was taught that music is something you live. It's not just a recording or bunch of albums. It's a flow that you live and touring or anything can add to the music without really realizing it is a part of the whole process of making music. But I still get antsy being the van for so long.

Do you guys write songs on the road?

Some of us do. But some of us just draw sketches and sometimes those sketches might reminds us of a city or a moment and that might lead to a song and then we try to ignore what's going on around us and write the song. [chuckles] We might jam at a sound check but nothing is ever set in stone.

Are you all are that open to just going with the flow and adapting.

Not all of us are like that. I'm certainly like that and I have my own organized chaos that goes on but the boys are more creatures of habit and I found out a lot their habits when my habits collided with theirs.

How do you work that out?

If you're in a band you have to find a way to learn from those times and move on. Everyone's got different sensitivities but you have to expect that if you have five blokes and one girl in the back of a van it gets to be interesting or maybe someone gets homesick or someone might have a girlfriend or is not feeling well. It's like any family. You have to find a way to live together and make it work. You have to be very creative in how you deal with it. I am very much a family person. I come from a really big family. Maybe sometimes band members might have different ideas or change what they thought they wanted to get out of being in a band. I think it comes like a family or like at work you may not know somebody or even speak the same language but over time you might become friends and go to the pub for a drink. Every thing in life depends how open you are to the moment.

You were raised by a single mother from Zimbabwe. How did that relationship influence you?

I came from a lot of love and we didn't necessarily have a lot of money but I came from a really strong mother and father. We weren't together a lot when I was growing up so I did have several parents. And if me and my numerous siblings didn't get what we wanted for Christmas, it didn't really matter because we always ended up making something out of what we didn't have that actually turned out to be ten times better. There's a lot of ways you can look at life and someone might say I was deprived but I came from a woman that was really strong and made me think, "Wow, what a princess or a warrior," and if I can be half as strong as her than I'll be alright. And in my family we always made our own entertainment and there was never a dull moment.

What music an important factor or was it just a natural part?

Absolutely! Music was like water in my family. In my family everyone played an instrument. Uncles and aunties would always being dropping in, staying on the couches for a few days. And us kids would be getting them tea and cookies and in most families where kids would be fighting over the remote control, we'd be waking up to an uncle jamming on his instrument. And they cared and always showed us something about music. And I'm really glad I had that experience and I wish more musicians had that type of experience and saw music as a life source rather than just a means to an end.

Did your bandmates grow up in that same atmosphere or do they learn by watching you?

I don't shove anything down anyone's throat. I shared it with them very naturally, and I can't take that family part out of me but both Jamie and Danny have their own qualities that are similar, and where their families loved music and had a lot of community centered around that love.

That's really--

Where are you from?


Where are you doing this interview from?

Oh...? I'm from Chicago.

[Yells] I love Chicago! Some of my favorite musicians come from Chicago. I love a lot of that Thrill Jockey stuff.

Yeah, I've lived my whole life in Chicago and I love it here: the Cubs, the music.

There's some really nice blokes in Chicago, actually. I find the men there very fast-paced and I love it. They're not as passive as I've seen. I don't mean that in a bad way, but I see Chicago as a metropolis. You got the bus, the cars, and everyone's walking around, interacting with everyone whereas in as place like LA you might not see anyone on the way to the venue apart from the person they came with, so it might take a bit longer for them to warm up to you. In Chicago, you bump into someone you can start a conversation about what his philosophy is or anything and I love that sort of thing. It reminds me of how my family was.

That's something that does get said about Chicago -- that it is a more community-minded city when it comes to the artist community here.

Yes, I feel that when I'm there. Music has to be a part of your life and not just something you include in your diet when you feel like something's lacking. You definitely have got good stuff there in Chicago.

So did--

Have you always live there or did you just recently move there?

Uh... I lived in Chicago my whole life, I actually just took a recent road trip to Phoenix and I was constantly comparing everything -- the sight, sounds, smells, downtown area ... to Chicago.

I've always wanted to go to Phoenix. It's where the film The Lost Boys was set. I love when the characters say they don't want to go in the opening scene ... [impersonates a bratty childish tone] "Awww ... what? We're moving to Phoenix ... aw, shit!" You think it going to be really boring but ... when they get there... That was before Keifer Sutherland starting doing box office hits that went straight to VHS. [laughs]

What was you first live show as a fan?

My mom used to take us to gigs everywhere all the time. Her and my uncle were promoters for this place call the Africa Center and often, starting at age four, at these shows me and my siblings would fall asleep next to the stage. I remember these guys playing all kinds of weird instruments mixed with guitar and bass and these huge shakers creating this sort of transcendental dance beat and very spiritual music. I didn't get back into that type of music until about 14 when pop music was shit -- but right now it's actually getting better. But then I got back to the African music and really into the African carnival type stuff ... but my first concert experience was ... [struggles to remember] ... Oh! I remember now! [laughs] It was Bobby Brown at Wembly Arena when I was six and going to Wembly was a really big deal. You had to save up money to go. I remember we all started to cry because we were too far away and we couldn't see. And that started my hatred of arena shows. That was such a horrible experience.

So when did you start to make music your own?

In my teens I started to grow into what I knew music to sound like --- going from the traditional African music which to me is so true and honest and do-or-die -- and translating those experiences into to the electric power of rock 'n' roll. I started to fall in love with translating what I heard in the simple but strange melodies of my uncle playing this centuries old African guitar-type melodies which have been played on gourds and put them on an electric guitar. Obviously a boy band wasn't going to do it for me.

Did your mom intentionally steer you in the direction of listening to records?

Yes, she started my record collection. One of the first records she gave me was by Nina Simone. She was also into stuff like Deep Purple and other stuff that was out there.

Did she listen to them with you or just hand them to you for you to experience on your own?

It was kind of my present when I left home at 15. A little futon and a box of records. She was more rock 'n' roll than I was. And a lot of beings in their 20s that I meet on the road that were born in the '80s, the Nintendo generation, and a lot of us take for granted it terms of what rock 'n' roll was. The bands of my mom's generation really lived it, right? The promise of music bringing a certain type of freedom was never taken for granted, whereas people today are so under certain illusions of freedom and want everything to be perfect and forever. That's not the impression I get when I listen to Hendrix.

You've mentioned the importance of punk music and a band like Bad Brains being liberating for fans. How is that happening today with current artists?

It really has a lot to do with influences and I didn't mean to get on my high horse because I've been seduced by things, too. And there is the plus side of people coming up with creative ways to make videos you can watch on a cell phone. That's all good fun, but the downside to that is so much of our time is taken up in front of a screen where maybe the imagination doesn't get used in a way that helps it to grow. I'm not saying you have to grow up like I did to be creative, but maybe it couldn't hurt to strip away a little bit of the technology to get at more of who were are on the inside. And lyrically I hear a lot bands think that rock 'n' roll is about saying how bad life is and how I hate my mom and dad and they don't understand me. Maybe that's how they grew up because their parents plopped them in front of the TV or Nintendo and they're mad about that. But that might not be everyone's experience and you don't have to put someone else through the misery of music like emo. I'm not really into that type of music unless I'm doing karaoke at a pub, but it's not music I'm going to take to the grave. That music may be important, but there's just so much of it being made in two extremes and made by kids that grew up in a Cold War world or who get successful very quickly with very little to say.

Is music more of a product today, or seen as something that can save your life?

I think of the Ramones when I think of music that can save your life, but I'm not so sure about a band like Fall Out Boy who appears to make music in vein or that, at least, doesn't sound like something they would die for. Maybe they do make that kind of music, but their hits don't seem to conjure up that kind of feeling. And because nobody has time to listen to every bloody band out there I just have to move on.

And for some reason a lot of the Western world seems to like the self-confessional style of reality entertainment, and fortunately for me that type of band usually only lasts a short time. And we don't take ourselves too seriously where America must listen up and listen to us. We're not that kind of band and you don't have to get rid of us that easily.

Does your view on life come through intentionally in your songs? The lead track "Don't Give Up" seems like a song with a purpose.

With an upbringing like I've had there is an element of survival that comes through our music. My tribe of people and also my adopted family the Western world are important. Coming from a post-colonial country that has been stolen from me or pissed on a bit, you learn to fight for what you want and that definitely is going to come through in our music. And living the nomadic lifestyle of touring can be rehabilitating because you can learn to make home something you carry with you. As a band we have such a long way to go and so many things to learn as human beings and I try never to use music to feel sorry for myself but there may be some anger that comes through. And there is also extreme joy about life that I can hide but I'm not quite ready to be fully transparent in the music. I don't want to force anything. We'll write a get-down song that's just good to dance to or write a song that might go deeper. We want to mix in both.

Have you ever gone back to Africa?

Yes. I've gone back when I was 12. And I know that a week or a month in Africa is enough to last you a decade.

Would you ever go and perform there?

We haven't yet. But we want to. And playing music there can really make us look silly when it comes to a person's daily dependence on music. Us in the western world are really behind and sort of stuck in the Cold War type of self-consciousness. And only certain bands can rid you of that, and we want to be one of those bands.

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