London boy/girl couple You The Living craft quite the most harrowing, sinister gloom pop we’ve heard in years. They promise their forthcoming album ‘XXXI (Thirtyone)’ which was recorded last year amidst a very dark period in the life of singer/guitarist/composer Aidy – one half of You The Living. They promise it ‘will be one of the darkest records of all time’. With a sound that cracks open the ribcage of genre, taps people to try to stretch them like industrial, goth, electronic pop, witch house and gaze, they are set to leave an unmistakable imprint on 2015. We caught up with the duo – Aidy and Natasha – for a frank set of questions that will introduce you to You The Living’s world.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself. A: We’re Aidan and Natasha Stevens; we’re a husband and wife who make music and art in our band, You The Living. We live, work and make music in Camden Town with our two gerbils, Nick and Blixa.
2) What drew you to make music as a career? A: I grew up in Bottisham, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, eight miles from Cambridge. At school, you either played sports, created art and/or music or took drugs to chase the boredom away. I just happened to choose music! When I finished school, despite being very academically successful, further education didn’t interest me and the grind of a “normal” job bored me to despair. After touring with a few bands, I decided that this is the only way by which I could lead a fulfilled existence. I ended up dragging Natasha along for the ride!
N: I was forced into it by my horribly abusive husband who chained me to my synthesiser. He whipped me continuously and denied me food until he was satisfied that each song was completed.
A: If you finish this interview, you can have a Pop Tart.”
3) Who or what influences you, musically and lyrically? A: Perhaps even more so than our favourite bands, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nine Inch Nails, Cocteau Twins, The Stranglers and Nick Cave, I’m inspired by Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtracks for the Final Fantasy games – particularly FFIX, and authors like Phillip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and Junji Ito. Above all else, though, I’m inspired by trains and railway architecture – particularly Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s sounding arches. I love the clanking, the screeching, the massive, hollow reverberations… Since I was an infant, trains have fascinated me, and it’s translated into my music since day one.
N: You pretentious cunt… My greatest influences are Ron Mael from Sparks, Brutalist architecture and the French Coldwave movement of the 80s. Let it also be known that I showed Aidy Nick Cave and Neubauten when we first met.
A: You could say that, by introducing me to my favourite bands, Natasha’s my biggest influence. She’s definitely the most inspiring person I’ve ever worked with – whether it’s despite or because she wasn’t a musician before this. She approaches it from a totally different angle.
4) In light of those influences, how would you describe your sound? A: A friend of a friend once nailed it with “violent soundscapes”. I’d say it’s beautifully ugly; blissfully aggressive. A lot of bands that play similar music to us sound too polite and inoffensive. Music like shoegaze and post-rock is so pretty that it doesn’t evoke an emotional reaction from me; I need something jarring!
5) What else do you do, besides making music? N: I have a PR firm, Obscure Alternatives, and I’ve taken Aidy on as my partner in that. Even though it was more fashion based, Aidy’s involvement has allowed us to start working with clients in the music industry. We’ve just got some pretty high profile clients that we’re very excited to be working with!
6) Tell us more about your upcoming debut album. What can we expect? Is the latest single indicative of what’s to come or do you have something else up your sleeve? A: Grief’s a bit of both; it definitely points to the diversity of the album, but it doesn’t give too much away, either. Just like its massive crescendo, the stuff we’ve yet to share has a grandiose, cinematic quality – but in a much more obvious sense. Hell, there’s a song towards the end of the album, “Rituals”, where this huge synth drone builds up, then falls away to reveal a pretty little piano solo and samples of rain falling outside our flat. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and you’d never see a band like My Bloody Valentine doing something that tongue-in-cheek; it’s a bit Muse-esque!
I can so say, hand on heart, that the tracks you’ve yet to hear are the best – by far. To me, the most important thing to remember when you’re making an album is to make sure it has a fantastic closer, and “Sleeper” could not have been a better final chapter to this story if we tried.
7) What can we expect from the YTL in future? A: We want to really bring our album to life on stage, so we’re currently thinking of ways in which we can sort some kind of stage production in the venues we’re playing. I’d also really like to add a live drummer, just to get some energy underneath the beats Natasha triggers from her laptop.
I’m writing new material at the moment, too. Whether I add it to the album and just delay it a little bit longer or just start album two before album one’s even released; this stuff is just getting better and better. Last year, the songs I was writing were so shaded by the black cloud that was looming over us, but this new music is very uplifting and jubilant, like a fanfare to survival.
I’ve also hooked up with Knowledge – he was the first documented rapper in the UK. I’m producing and co-writing his new record, and sessions for that are going really well. He’s previously worked with Serj Tankian and Tom Morello, so for him to be saying I’m some kind of genius is really humbling.
N: Ask our psychic neighbour, Angie Jensen – everything she’s said so far has come true. We were skeptical before we met her, but she came over one day and started speaking to Aidy in his dead grandmother’s voice, using the pet names she called him, her mannerisms… everything. Apparently, we’re currently in the “calm before the storm”.
A: She says we’re going to be very successful. It’d certainly be nice!”
8) What bands and artists are exciting you right now? A: I only discovered “Yeezus” by Kanye West about a month ago, and I’m still glued to it. I really want to hate the guy, but he’s genuinely as talented as he believes he is. Conviction’s missing in today’s musicians – myself included.
I’m really loving Girl Band – their instrumentation sounds so incredibly fucked, like “With Teeth” era Nine Inch Nails. Sulk are great, too, and we’re really looking forward to playing with them on April 1st. Last year, we played with a fantastic electronic noise trio from Germany, Melodic Abortion Orchestra; they’re a force of nature. I also thoroughly recommend Whores, from Atlanta – they’re the first “heavy” band to inspire me in a very long time.
N: We’re really liking Sia’s new album “1000 forms of fear”, Son Lux, Lorde, Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Lament”… Oh God, I don’t understand Aidy’s love of Kanye West…
9) You have been tagged as doom pop, industrial and even witch house! What do you think about these kinds of labels? A: Some of these tags – like “doom pop” – actually offer some kind of insight into how people interpret our music, because we’re terrible at self-analysis. When they’re that ridiculous, they’re just descriptors; they’re not convenient little drawers into which artists can be dumped. Labels like “industrial”, though…
N: The “industrial” label is fucking stupid. Just because we use found object sounds, it doesn’t mean we sound anything like Skinny Puppy.
A: The industrial scene adopted us very quickly. Even though we like industrial music, we’d play these shows and feel like we have nothing in common with the other acts.
10) Does it depress you that people are so concerned with music genres and pigeonholes these days? A: It depresses me that these genres are so revisionist. “Rock”, “indie”, “punk”, “metal” – they’re all just shambling on in an advanced state of decomposition. If they’re not dead, they definitely look, smell and sound dead. They’re family pets to which their fans have grown too attached, so they can’t bear the thought of putting them down.
The last band to do anything with rock music that really made me think “holy fuck; I’ve never heard anything like this!” was Muse. For everyone who’s now thinking “but I need my music to fit somewhere in order for people to notice me!”, I’ve seen Matt Bellamy’s house – he’s doing just fine with the “mad scientist” schtick. My previous band convinced me that I had to make my music fit somewhere in order for it to be heard – and I stuck to that school of thought for five years – but I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have had Natasha to shake me out of that bullshit cycle of creative guilt.
If anything interesting was happening in these genres, I’d probably have no problem with them. However, since they’re just used as banners behind which artists hide a lack of creativity and initiative, they just make me shudder. Don’t get me started on how upper middle-class “indie” has become, too. I grew up in Cambridge; you’d be surprised by how dull music can be when it’s made by people to whom nothing bad has ever happened.”
11) Do you think the rock scene is a little bit retrogressive? A: It’s massively retro-fetishist and reductionist. Rock fans are incredibly conservative – which is ironic, considering their “rebellious” slant. The “guitar, bass and drums” format is inherently limited, especially as many rock musicians are opposed to using effects, or anything “processed”.
To take a very recent example, rock fans are so reviled by anything remotely different that they’re petitioning against Kanye West headlining Glastonbury. Have they even heard “Yeezus”? If “Black Skinhead” was performed by a bunch of white guys with long hair and Les Pauls, they’d love it. They seem terrified of anything new or different. Right now, it feels like I’m stuck in Groundhog Day: The Musical.
12) You once called your debut album ‘one of the darkest albums ever committed to record’ one assumes it reflects a period of your life? A: When I recorded the first few tracks (“Naked”, “Reprobates”, “Precipice” and “Wax”), life was starting to look pretty good. I had just stopped having seizures caused by mould poisoning (thanks for that, alcoholic dickhead ex-flatmate), and I’d just started a great new job – and a new band. However, that was all ruined when a dodgy yoghurt (yes, it was in date) destroyed my insides, and the over-stretched, under-funded NHS wasn’t equipped to help me, so I spent most of last year in crippling agony, being mocked by middle-aged women on the bus. I couldn’t work – Hell, I couldn’t eat… I STILL can’t eat most things – so I immersed myself in this project to pass the time between hospital visits and suicide attempts.
As you can imagine, it just got darker and darker as the months went on, and I became more and more resigned to death. The track listing of the album is pretty much chronological, too, so it’s ended up as a concept album. It goes from “All better” (Grief) to “will agony free me?” (Poly) to “the last I’ll know is hanging from a drip with pennies on my eyes” (Sleeper). Definitely one for the happy-happy-joy-joy Belle & Sebastian jerkoffs back in Cambridge! I’d definitely say that it’ll be brought up in the same discussions as “The Downward Spiral”, “Pornography” and “The Holy Bible” – it’s not easy listening. I mean, I intended it to be my epitaph; I was planning on finishing the album and throwing myself in front of a train (“Poly” is my suicide note to Natasha; “Sleeper” is an account of how I’d have offed myself), but I was finally hospitalised just before I finished the album. My plan was for the story behind the album to give it notoriety and build interest, so it could generate money for Natasha so I could look after her after I died. Luckily, it didn’t work out like that…
N: 2014 was the worst year of our entire lives. You never expect that your husband could be dying within two years of getting married but now he’s doing better and getting stronger. We didn’t think we’d make it to 2015 together, not only have we but things are going better than we’d ever imagine!
A: If I didn’t have Natasha by my side, fighting this illness with me, I’d be dead, for sure. So many people would just give up, but she stayed strong for both of us – carrying me down the street when I couldn’t walk from pain, administering the most horrible, degrading treatments without complaint, and doing everything she could to make what we thought would be my last days comfortable and full of love, happiness and light.”
13) What’s your favourite song on the album? A: Sleeper – it’s the album closer. I’ve always skipped straight to the last track of an album, as it’s always the best. Of course, it was really important for me that this album had a massive finale. It has everything – a massive chorus, tear-inducing sentimentality, a big guitar solo… and, of course, a train: The Caledonian Sleeper, which is also the song’s namesake and subject matter.
N: “XXXI”, obviously! Nothing is more amazing than knowing you have a song written about you. It’s the most fantastic, lovely thing anyone’s ever done for me.
14) Which albums inspired you to continue to experiment with your sound? A: “Year Zero” by Nine Inch Nails was the big one; I saw NIN performing most of it at Reading Festival in 2013, and it broke my feeble brain. I went straight home and recorded “Naked”. Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T” inspired us to experiment with found sounds and objects. “Lament” took that to the next level; there’s no way we can top a barbed wire dulcimer! In terms of the bare bones (the “real” instruments), Shellac really show me how to use space to make everything sound huge.
15) What’s your favourite film? A: “You, The Living” by Roy Andersson would be an obvious choice, as we’re named after it! We love Blade Runner and The Fifth Element for their visual impact, but “Withnail & I” is probably our all-time favourite.
N: The Dreamers – it’s a great, sexy film. Even I fall for Eva Green!”
16) What’s your favourite quote? A: “Having a good time? Ready to party, have fun? Well, that was the last guys, not our band. We are here to have a bad time.” -Trent Reznor, at Lowlands a Festival in 2013. He was pissed off at the happy-happy-joy-joy Scandinavian audience and decided to wipe those smiles off their faces.
I could have waxed philosophical and got all pretentious up in your face, but I’d rather quote something that reflects how we feel at most of our gigs, rather than some Oscar Wilde, or some other bollocks people regurgitate to appear well-read.
N: “The only worse thing than being talked about is not being talked about” – Oscar Wilde.
17) I hear you are involved in trying to save venues in London!? A: Yeah! It started with a petition to change noise complaint legislation, then it resulted in so much more. It just goes to show that anyone can make a difference if they really want to.
I need to get something off my chest, though: we got really pissed off at the protesters that were occupying 12 Bar. They are what we call “cause tourists” – they’re squatters that occupy buildings, then adopt a cause that will win them public favour, and thus support for their continued residence. While we were talking to them, we quickly learned that they knew nothing about the venue, or even where Tin Pan Alley is. They had no interest in retaining it as a music venue; they wanted to make it into a community centre, where they’d hold yoga classes.
What was worse, is that they’d always undo the help that we’d offer them. When they were being assaulted by bailiffs, we told them that we’d call the police, but to let us deal with them, as we know what they’re like with cops. Of course, as soon as the cops arrived, they SWARMED all over them – chastising them, telling them to go away, and making us look like idiots for trying to help them. After this, we cut them off and met with the developers by ourselves, quietly securing the 12 Bar for many more years of live music – not fucking yoga.
A few days ago, we met one of the guys who was helping them out, a volunteer who lives in squats in Camden. He confided in us that the “Bohemians” were telling people like Alan McGee and Frank Turner that they were there to save live music, but they were gutting the building’s metal and selling it to scrap dealers. Isn’t that disgusting?!
I think we’ll be saving the world by ourselves from now on…”