‘This is very, very punk’ – Charmpit in Conversation (Part the First)

‘This is very, very punk’ – Charmpit in Conversation (Part the First)

It’s a bright, sunny day about a week before lockdown when I catch up with Anne Marie Sanguigni of DIY femme-punk band Charmpit. I’ve been singing along with their brightly coloured hooks and daft lyrics since I caught them at Wales Goes Pop last year, where they played one of the sets of the weekend. An abiding memory of those happier times was the sight of a dozen or so forty to sixty-something old white guys standing around with their jars of real ale and their newly acquired ‘Anarchism is for Lovers’ t-shirts. It looked like the entire patriarchy had just given up and gone over to the other side. I regret not getting a picture of us all. Speaking via our arbitrarily chosen video messaging platform, she’s sporting a wide smile, a rather splendid pony-wig and a zinger of a bright green, cannabis leaf-print business suit. Again I regret the lack of photographic evidence to share with you. She looks amazing.

After just a few seconds it’s clear that Anne Marie is someone who always has a lot to talk about, but with Charmpit’s debut album, Cause a Stir, out now on Bristol’s Specialist Subject Records, there’s a ton of chit chat to cover. She talks compulsively, urgently, with a Californian lilt, and laughs easily, peppering her speech with funny voices and carefully deployed shifts of register and emphasis. I’m soon laughing along with her, but underneath the playfulness, there’s the keen, razor-sharp mind of a committed political activist and artist.

Her tale will take us from the beaches and college campuses of Southern California to Lewisham Shopping Centre and their inaugural gig at the now-legendary First Timers Fest. It’s a tale of queer politics, punk, the origins of the Occupy movement, punk, cartoons, nineties shopping malls, Louisa May Alcott, punk, the baby section of Primark, the revolutionary potential of the suburbs and punk. Most of all it’s a tale of the friendship between Anne Marie and her best friend and bandmate Rhianydd YorkWilliams, and their raggle-taggle band of freedom fighters and anarchists, Estella Adeyeri (also of the bands Junk and Big Joanie) and Alex (just Alex, because he’s such a punk).

Anne Marie kept me talking for a full hour and a quarter which felt like five minutes. Under the current special circumstances, it feels like an attempt to expurgate the thoughts of my new Best Femme Forever would be a crime against all the extra time you’ve got on your hands now, dear reader. Are you ready to stop surviving and start sur-thriving? Strap in, pop-pickers, because the world according to Anne-Marie Sanguigni is a two-parter.

CB: I like your suit.

AM: Yeah, I thought I’d dress up.

It’s not a job interview (laughs). It’s not that kind of interview.

I know, but I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone who’d want to spend an hour out of their day talking to me about some noise I made. I thought I’d put on my new suit from Deptford Market.

Very professional it looks too.

Thank you.

So, I wanted to ask, I know you and Rhi are both from Los Angeles. Did you meet in Los Angeles or in London?

We’re not from that close to LA. We’re actually from the beach-town suburbs. I’m from an hour south of LA. It’s called Huntington Beach. It has a lot of punk history, a lot of fascist history. It’s basically where California becomes conservative. It’s called behind the Orange Curtain. So I’m from right behind the Orange Curtain, which is next to Long Beach, and then Rhi’s from San Diego.

Ok

But yeah, we’re California girls, southern California Girls

So were you friends in California or did you meet in London? What’s the story of Charmpit?

The origin story? Me and Rhianydd met at university. We were both really stifled by our conservative environments and chose to go to the most hippie-dippy, loosey-goosey, but very good quality university called University of California Santa Cruz. It’s up by San Francisco. You might know it from the famous skate brand – the hand with the tongue coming out?

Uh-huh (CB is clearly bluffing).

(Laughs) Anyway, Santa Cruz is a very interesting and radical place. And um, we met there in our freshman year. We lived in the same building. So we saw each other around and knew of each other and then sophomore year she started dating a friend of mine. And we’d both started politically organising on campus against fee hikes after the financial crisis. So we got to know each other when we were occupying buildings on campus. And that’s when we switched from whatever caricatures we had of each other to, you know, like actually being friends.

So that’s sort of Occupy period, isn’t it?

Yeah, it was actually pre-Occupy. Occupy as an international movement, or how people think about Occupy – Occupy Wall Street – started in 2011 but it actually started on college campuses mainly around New York and California, in 2009. And we were kind of hoping – once you get to the end of the story you can see it – but we were thinking at the time what if this could be a movement? What if we have no demands but just take everything back? So that kind of slowly occupied everything.

I guess that’s the cool thing about being an activist. You’re doing something and you don’t really get a win out of it – fee hikes happened – but then you see, two years on it took over the world. Started a really big conversation. So yeah, that’s how we met and I think that’s when we became really close and started to have a lot of care for each other, you know? I was watching Rhianydd being circled by police dogs and I was being shot at with rubber bullets, all just cos we didn’t want university fees to go up.

We didn’t think the crisis was our fault and if the presidents of the university were making 500k, you probably just wanna cut your own salaries. So yeah, I think that we were really vulnerable together then, feelings-wise, and we put ourselves in a vulnerable position in the hands of the state and police. It really bonded us.

And how did you come to be in London?

Yeah, good questions. Well, Rhianydd is half Welsh.

I did wonder. I’m based in Cardiff so I know a few Rhianydds.

Like, her Nan and her cousins live in Pontypridd. But she actually grew up in Hong Kong. Her dad did like telecommunications stuff. And then would go between Hong Kong and California. And moved permanently to California when she was like twelve or something.

So she had that European air – that Welsh European air – and my dad is also an immigrant. He came from Italy to California in like ’88. So we both had this, like, America is so passé, fucked up, and Europe knows better, kind of naïveté. And little grains of truth. And so then the crisis in 2012 meant there were no jobs. Worst time to come out of university ever. And I was really poor, and my family’s really poor, so I got my Italian citizenship and came to the UK, because you guys spoke English, and also because I’d come here in 2010 to do a field study, for my community organising degree, so I’d gotten to know different activist communities here.

I discovered that organising on this tiny island versus the big old USA was actually quite interesting and more impactful. That we could have more of an impact in terms of changing laws, changing culture quickly. So yeah. I came here for that. Rhianydd had stayed behind in California for a bit, went to San Francisco, got pushed out of San Francisco, went to Oakland. Was in Oakland for a bit, got kind of into the DIY punk scene there. And then in 2015 was it? – I just got a text from her saying I’m moving to England next week, can I stay with you?

Right.

(Laughs) She lived with me for a bit in my housing cooperative and in my bunk bed for a while and we started Charmpit.

Ok Cool. One of the things I like about Charmpit is it seems to have a real ethos, best femmes forever, and there’s all these catchy slogans and things. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, I think that is definitely at the heart of it. When I was having coffee this morning and answering another interview question the word sur-thrive came out of my hands and I was like. Oh. I like that. Survive and thrive. And –

Do I need to ask what that is? Or can I just pretend I know this word?

Oh, I want to check that. Let me google it and see if I did invent it (sound of typing). Ok, it did come naturally out of my fingers but Carrie Fisher said it before. Excellent company!

It’s good.

Best Femmes Forever. That’s the origin story of Charmpit and that’s the intention that we hold in our hearts. There’s a line in Josie and the Pussycats – they say ‘Friends first, band second‘, and that’s definitely our vibe. When we started the band we were twenty-five. And as adult as you feel in your early twenties, you’re still quite unformed.

And so we were processing our lives together and realising how much of our sur-thrival came from our best femmes, and that’s being like womxn with an X friends, or non-binary friends who like lean into a kind of hyper-femininity. In a way a caricature of femininity, in presentation and interests, like us.

And yeah, I think we both had kicked away our femme sides because of A) judgement in activist groups when you’re femme and B) harassment on the street when you’re femme. So it was something that was very much who we were but that we denied for a long time.

Charmpit was definitely about a revival of that, like bringing back our femme-ness, and embracing our femme-ness and celebrating it. So that’s very much everything that Charmpit was intended for us to contemplate and highlight. Especially in punk. Femme-punk representation is so low. It means things like people will call us twee. I’m like, it’s not twee at all. But just because you kind of like look femme, people are like that’s cute.

I mean, yeah, we like to feel cute but like… this is very, very punk. Like if punk is fucking saying fuck it to the people who have power, then people who have power in the punk scene are like people that wear black and want to be all like doomsday-ey and judge you all the time.

Yeah. I feel like the word twee in the context of British music discussions – it’s just – oh never even go there –

I didn’t even know what twee meant! I’d never heard the word twee. I was like Fuck. You. No.

Basically, go back to the nineties and any indie music that wasn’t laddish Britpop, anything that wasn’t Oasis, was dismissed as twee and I agree, yeah, fuck that shit. Anyway, I’m interrupting you.

No that’s ok. Even people we know who support us or are interested in us, words like twee will fall out of their mouths. We’re like ok, you’re not quite there yet, you don’t quite understand what we’re doing, why we feel like what we’re doing is important and influential. That’s not just us, we come from like a whole kind of a whole diverse, growing femme punk scene. I would call Big Joanie a black feminist punk band, and they’re also femme punk.

They’re terrific, yeah.

Yeah, and uh, our friends in this band Jeff And Cat Apostrophe, we all kind of happened together. Well, Big Joanie happened before us, but we’ve all been on the sidelines for a long time. We’ve been a part of these scenes and quietly listening to punk music but many not going to gigs because we didn’t feel safe there. So yeah, all kind of zeitgeisty, it erupted all at once.

So yeah… Best Femmes Forever, anarcho-cuties, I think it’s really about… I think that what a poet does is name what hasn’t been named before. And gives it a place and a name. And so that’s what we do when we create these new words with these new slogans or meanings that give a place and a name to something that me and Rhianydd haven’t been able to find a place and a name for before.

Yeah cool. And I noticed it came out of the First Timers Festival or something?

Yeah, that’s absolutely vital to our story. Basically, DIY Space was just starting up and me and Rhianydd knew about the space. We didn’t know it was a gig venue but we were working on some sculptures for this Sisters Uncut protest. It’s like a direct action feminist group against cuts to domestic violence services. And we were at this art studio and the structures were getting too big for that place.

So that was our first interaction with DIY space. It was just a place where we were making these political sculptures. And then, I dunno. When we’re focussed we can be quite unaware. I don’t think we really paid attention to where we were. Then our friend Alex has been a part of the London punk scene since he was like 14, and he was like, DIY space is putting on this thing called First Timers Fest.

Now, we’d just been going down the street and harmonising a lot. Like Charmpit the name existed even before First Timers Fest – we were living our fantasy like, woah, we’re in a band and we’re called Charmpit. And we would do like Beyonce and Britney covers on the bus. If you scroll down to the bottom of our Instagram you can very much see where we were.

So… yeah… we had made up this fake world for ourselves to live our Josie and the Pussycats dream and survive like a really cold winter. Then we found out First Timers Fest was a thing that was happening, and we’re like cool, it’s like homework, we’ll write three songs. We never thought we’d perform after First Timers Fest. Ever. But some members of Suggested Friends and another band The Potentials, both came up to us and were like, ‘we love your music we wanna take you on a tour’.

Cool.

What is tour?!? What is merch!?! It was just fucking stumbling around really. Just having fun together, celebrating that me and Rhianydd could be connected with other UK babes. Deciding what our London life was gonna be.

I think that so much of what’s exciting about watching it as a band is watching you and Rhianydd singing together. I can totally see the two of you on a bus, fart-arsing about.

You can really see it if you go on Instagram.

Hey, I might.

Actually, my favourite thing to do when I discover a band is I scroll right down to the bottom. I’m like, let me see your origin. Was your first post about an album? Where do you come from? How do you get that money? What’s your story? But I love seeing that messy kind of journey of like, oooooooooooooh!

So, wait what was your question?

I can imagine it being, not exactly fully formed, but the interplay between the two of you as vocalists coming together very quickly. Was it like that?

Yeah, that interplay was all we musically had to begin with! Sometimes, Alex gives notes. He’s like, sometimes, you know, dynamics, it’d be good, you know, the dynamics, if you didn’t always sing at the same time.

So we kind of explored that more on the album. But, at the beginning we were like, Best Femmes Forever, we’re doing this together, we’re gonna have each other’s back, no one is gonna sing alone. Those first songs, like I think ‘Vacation‘ has a few like literally sentences where we sing by ourselves. But we were like… we had to hold each other, and that’s why we sang together.

I do think about what will happen as we go forward, but I think when I read about Girlpool, it’s similar. Like they sing now not always in unison and not harmonised but… it’s just so comforting to have. It’s like someone’s holding your hand with their voice.

Then, like we did on the bus, one time we busked on the street. Our friend was with this boyfriend we really hated and we didn’t want to go to dinner with him, so we were like, we’ll wait outside the restaurant and we just like busked acapella. Literally just used out voices. We made about ten pounds. And people were like, hey, your voices sound good together! I think because Rhianydd has like a classical musical theatre voice and I have this really gruff voice. But it somehow just like really holds each other well.

Yeah, it’s like the thing about harmonies isn’t it? It’s like it doesn’t have to be two really, really strong voices. As long as they sit together somehow. Like Lennon and McCartney are not the best singers but as soon as you hear the two voices together…

Magic. Yeah. We’re not a similar sound, but our dynamic is similar to Sleater-Kinney. Where Corin has this really like operatic voice and then Carrie has this really like gruff, really kind of… like I feel like my voice really doesn’t adhere to any gender. Whereas Rhianydd has a distinctive feminine voice. And I feel similar to Carrie’s vocals in that way.

But I think the other reason why harmonising was such a starting point for us and felt like an instrument we were comfortable with was, being femme, no-one ever handed us instruments. No one ever asked us if we wanted to play guitar or whatever. And we never saw ourselves like that. Except for Josie and the Pussycats which was a fictional band and movie. To play instruments then, what we had was our voice. So I spent my whole life in the car harmonising to pop songs and, because I don’t have a feminine voice, I couldn’t sing along the line like Rhianydd does. Like, she can sing a Britney line. I can’t, but I want to sing with Britney so I have to harmonise to it. So it was kind of like this instrument that we were both really confident in. Whereas other instruments we were not.

That’s us. And also, Alex I met at a house party when I crashed his BBQ and Estella we met at First Timers. She plugged our guitars into amps on a stage for the first time. We were like, where does this noodle go? And she was like – with a comforting smile – there. She was learning sound. She was shadowing the sound engineer at First Timers Fest 2016, so (puts on a starstruck ingénue voice) she was there for our first show.

And then that first tour we went on, her band Junk also came, and she was like the first person that really supported us. She bought a t-shirt and we talked about how much better band t-shirts look cropped and we googled how to like crop a shirt well together. And she was just like, yeah… she was our first fan really. The first person who told us that we were doing something that was meaningful and good.

Ok, so, getting back to my list of questions, if Charmpit ruled the world, and this is coming back to activism I guess, what would be the first three things you’d change?

First three things we’d change? Oh gosh, I mean we’re anarchists so we wouldn’t put anything like in place. I guess we’d abolish things. Or ask people in different communities what they want to abolish and what they want to grow. And how they want to run themselves. So I guess the state. All states would be abolished. All borders would be abolished. And we’d have a flag with like Sailor Moon on it that said, ‘MUTUAL AID, DIRECT DEMOCRACY, SOLIDARITY’. Mutual aid, direct democracy, solidarity. Yeah. Those are the three things.

And yeah. The abolish list would probably be a little bit longer.

I’m asking you to abolish yourselves, aren’t I?

Gladly! Exactly, totally. That’s definitely the punk thing to do. (Iggy Pop voice) The first thing I’m gonna do is fire myself!

But yeah I guess, that’s what we would do. It would be anar-cutie community times.

Talking of punk, on your album you say that being a punk is tons of fun.

Yeah.

What’s the best thing about being a punk?

The best thing about being a punk is the creative freedom. Maybe some punks feel like they can only do certain things because only certain things are punk, but punk really means the same thing as anarchism. So it’s kind of like, you can dream it, you can do it. You can do it if you can dream it. It feels really limitless.

In our time on the punk scene, I don’t think there was ever a time where we felt like we didn’t say what we felt or that we ever allowed ourselves to feel pressured, to do anything other than what feels right to us and what feels fun to us.

And I think that’s what makes being a punk… punk’s so fun. It’s really like a little anarchist playground. So we kind of have this Charmpit Universe and we live inside that with our listeners.

Plus there’s loads of ways our punk bridges with our activism, bridges with our fashion and all that kind of stuff. It’s really borderless, punk. I wish more people realised that.

So do you have any sort of punk ambitions? Like to open a shop selling bondage trousers on the Kings Road or make a terrible film?

All those things.

(CB laughs but AM is quite serious)

It’s really just time. Time and money hold us down. Because we also talked about how we wanted our album launch to be a fashion show, throw a karaoke party, and how we wanted to like make things and bring a little clothing rail and not just have band shirts with our name on it. But actually like clothes that we made or that other people made. Like bring ‘em along. Yeah.

The music video for our next single is based on this Charmpit sitcom idea we’ve had. I’m writing a play that I want to be about being in a femme punk band. I think nothing is off-limits. We’re finally comfortable calling ourselves creatives and artists. And nothing can stop us now, kind of, except money.

That’s always the kicker.

But even then, like, what do they say? That necessity is the mother of all invention? And femmes – femmes are people that have grown up having to do a lot with a little, so we’re, very resourceful. We’re very imaginative, very playful. Yeah we love all that. Oh, and we love doing radio shows!

I think the videos are fantastic.

Thank you, yeah we love like –

They just make me smile and yeah, feel like old fashioned pop videos.

We love learning skills, like what do we have? iMovie, a selfie stick and an iPhone. Great. That’s quite a lot to have really. So that’s like, go with that. And like oh, we want to be able to do loads of outfit changes, but we don’t have the money, time or connections to get out and choose and put a bunch of looks together and whatever. Ok, so let’s go to the mall where there are endless outfits. And endless make-up that we could just put on our face. So we don’t have black lipstick, but we want it. Go to the mall, throw it on, leave. So yeah.

Yeah. Charmpit is definitely like a vehicle for us to do any kind of like creative thing we want to. And build any kind of community that we want to.

Part two of the interview features more tunes from Cause a Stir and Anne Marie’s further visionary musings. What with the lockdown, Cause a Stir is available via Charmpit’s bandcamp and Specialist Subject. Or you could just stream it. We’re not judging.

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