The story so far… Anarcho-cuties Charmpit have big surf-style harmonies, and sing about shopping malls, suburbs and fortified wine. Best femmes forever Anne Marie Sanguigni and Rhianydd YorkWilliams met at University of California Santa Cruz. Experiences on the frontline of political activism bonded them and they came to London, where following an inexplicable series of adventures (see previously on God is in the TV) they formed the femme-punk band Charmpit with their friends Estella Adeyeri (Junk and Big Joanie) and Alex. Their first album, Cause a Stir, is out now on Specialist Subject.
Having made a start by covering the band’s origin story I was interested in hearing more about their politics. Ostensibly cartoonish songs like ‘Free the Burbs’ and ‘Wild Wild Westfield’ seemed to hint at a more far-ranging and personal view of the world than they might be given credit for, and I wanted to paint a picture of what that might be and get a glimpse of what makes them tick.
We talk about shoplifting, Britney, singing on buses, being Californian pop-cultural theorists, gender, fashion, wildcat strikes, singing in harmony, and why the suburbs will absolutely be at the heart of the revolution.
CB: I had a question about shopping malls.
AM: I love the nineties malls, like Lewisham Shopping Centre
Lewisham’s beautiful, yeah. I know that one.
Those are the homely malls to me. I didn’t go to malls with like Gucci and whatever.
In Cardiff, we have these old Victorian shopping arcades.
Oh yeah. And they’ve always been a place to deposit your women. So like, you couldn’t trust them out of the house on their own. Or they weren’t worthy of being out on their own. So immediately, when you look at the history of the mall, whose earliest form is the arcade – if I had fucking money I’d do a PhD on the mall, there’s a lot of interesting writing on it – within a week of the earliest arcades being open to women in London there’s all these headlines like WOMEN GO SHOPLIFTING CRAZY.
They were taking that freedom and fucking running with it. Like, I will make the most out of this cage. And that’s exactly what femmes did in the 2000s.
Your song ‘Wild Wild Westfield‘ makes it sound like an unexpectedly joyful place.
Westfield isn’t specifically our joyful place, like, you know the Stratford Westfield? It really fucking fucked up Newham. We’re not trying to celebrate Westfield. Just a play of words on Wild Wild West. Westfield is fucking wild. And also I’m a huge Will Smith fan, he had the song and the movie Wild Wild West, and we’re from California which is the Wild West so it all just poetically worked out. But definitely, our happy malls are the shitty malls. Just like our happy cinemas are the ones that look like the nineties, like the Peckhamplex. Every movie is £4.99 all the time, love it.
But I think it’s more like a tongue in cheek philosophical, political, sociological musing on being femme, on being young women and femmes in these suburbs of vanity and money and wealth that was Orange County and San Diego. And reflecting on why this is where we go when we feel down? Like why do we need to hit the mall and it’s not even like we buy things?
Me and Rhianydd often go to the mall and don’t buy anything. And we often went to the mall when we were younger and didn’t buy anything. You would just take your little flip phone and try on that sexy dress because no one could tell you you couldn’t. You know, like that’s where we would meet boys from the internet, and that’s where we would steal shit. Sometimes I hear people say the mall’s irrelevant but not to my working-class family. My sister works in a shoe store in the Westminster Mall. Like it’s still very much a part of our lives.
Which is so hilarious because she’s twenty-three and this is like her first job that gives her ten holiday days and stuff. But also I remember that phone call from the police when they were like hi, we have your sister here, we’ve caught her shoplifting like $5,000 worth of goods, and I was like, Taylor, you’re such a fucking idiot why did you spend five hours in the mall stealing shit like you’re supposed to go in, get it and get out. You don’t LINGER! For five hours! And have a pizza! Meanwhile, they’re just watching you on the security cam.
So she was actually banned from the mall for quite a few years and now she works there.
And that’s what the song’s about.
Well she knows all the tricks, you know? Poacher turned gamekeeper.
Oh, she really does. Shoplifting is so low in her shop because she’s like ‘I know what you’re up to, I see you, I see you. I can see you before you see yourself’. So yeah, for us there was part of this album that was kind of looking back and forward simultaneously. We’re both turning thirty this year. We couldn’t really synthesise that without looking at the mall. You just couldn’t.
Talking of malls, how much of Charmpit’s writing is a British perspective on American culture or is it the other way around? Or is there no difference now?
‘Buckfast my Heart‘, kind of thing…
And instead of American, I would prefer Californian. Because America’s so big and there’s so many things with the USA that me and Rhianydd don’t identify with.
Like, culturally we are so fucking Californian, you know? Queer, and so femme. And like ‘Buckfast my Heart‘ is a play on ‘E-mail my Heart‘, which is one of our favourite Britney Spears C-sides. ‘Buckfast my Heart‘ is about things that society pigeonholes femmes into, like hyper hysteria, emotions-up-here kind of crush. Like how Buckfast makes you feel and that kind of naiveté.
Buckfast we literally found ‘cos we are at a park somewhere in East London and we stumbled into an off-license and we were like Wow, look at that wine it’s soooo fancy, it’s fortified, it’s made by monks. We thought this was like some sort of Whole Foods, California hippy situation.
We drink it, again we’re very young and unaware, I don’t think we realised how hyper and drunk it made us. And then we went to some punk show, and we had it with us and they were like, oh, so punk!, and we were like, ‘scuse me?
Made by monks, drunk by punks.
And that was when we found out that it was like this thing that they had tried to ban as a way to target working-class and homeless people in Scotland and it had this similarity with the Four Loko drink that we had had at university and college that got many of our friends thrown in the drunk tank and arrested and we’re like, aaaaaaaah! So at once we understood this English and Californian perspective of this thing – and Rhianydd was having a crush at the time – and that’s where Buckfast my Heart comes from.
It’s kind of a lot of ideas compressed into a song then?
All of them. I think often, we’re really impulsive and to watch us when we work together would probably exhaust a lot of people. Because it’s like (AM makes very fast jabbering noise). There’s all these thoughts that we just throw at the wall. And I think we are both like pop cultural theorists – and theorists in general. Like we love coming up with a theory. So then it’s like, wait, bitch, this connects with this, and this is about this and this can actually mean this, and, kind of like, take this thread and start weaving all these things together.
And sometimes it’s like, is this too specific and people won’t identify with it? Or again, because we’ve neglected ourselves so much during our lives, we think, is this so selfish? Oh my god, this is all about us, this is so selfish.
But we’ve found that people have connected some way or another. Really. Like a lot of Charmpit is group therapy for me and Rhianydd. Like in therapy, where you’re bringing in all these experiences and feelings and the therapist is like, honey, there’s a pattern here. There’s things to weave together here, these are not disparate.
So that’s kind of in our music as well, yeah.
So is this a good time to ask about Charmpit songs about friendship?
I just want to say something though, which is that Rhianydd does have more of a connection to British culture than I do. Remember that she’s Welsh. So her dad was showing her British cinema, British songs, and Welsh culture – like Shirley Bassey was the soundtrack of her youth, so I think she brings more of that. I bring my experience of my ten years here, but she grew up with it.
So I had a question about friendship. I was thinking about it after I emailed you. And I was thinking about the film, you must have seen Spinal Tap?
(AM is not impressed) No.
(AM Laughs crazily) Lots of people talk about it and I’ve seen enough clips and I’ve read enough fucking summaries and I’m like, yeah, I’ve seen it.
Well, the reason it’s the greatest film about rock and roll is that really it’s a film about the friendship between these two men.
And they’re not great musicians, they’re terrible songwriters, they’re extremely sexist, they’re not very bright, their career’s going nowhere, but they’re friends and that somehow redeems everything else about them and you end up rooting for them. And it seems like that’s at the heart of a lot of bands’ relationships and why people would want to join a band, and yet you always seem to end up with a lead singer at the front, going on about their turgid love life, you know? Why are there so few songs about friendship?
One fun fact is that there are more songs about friendship than you think but they’re often written and hidden as love songs. Because that’s what the industry thinks will sell. So, ‘Survivor‘ by Destiny’s Child is about a broken friendship. It’s about the two people who got kicked out of the band. So it can often be more than you know.
Yeah, I think about that too, I dunno. Maybe me and Rhianydd seem like people with a lot of ego but we really don’t. We really don’t have a lot of ego.
I think some people want to be in a band because they like playing their instrument, some people want to be in a band because they want to be famous, some people want to be in a band because they want to get laid, all these sorts of things, and it’s a fucking good question because even bands I know made up of friends – why is there only one person singing when there’s five mouths on stage? Why aren’t there even any harmonies or back up vocals? I don’t know. I guess because it comes right down to our anarchist politics. We’re really horizontal, we’re really collaborative, and it’s just unintuitive to us to do it any other way.
It’s just so direct. You have a song about everyone going on vacation together. And that’s the song. Which is great. It makes me want to go on vacation with my friends.
Yeah! I don’t know man. People are just limiting themselves too much or adhering to what they think a band is and what music is for. And it’s definitely about connecting and talking about love, but there’s so many types of love. Like one of my favourite songs on Kacey Musgrave’s new album is one she wrote high on LSD in Joshua Tree about her mom. You know? Writing a song about your mom? Is that hot? I would never do it because I don’t have a good connection with my mom, but like, I fucking loved it. I thought it was fucking cool. And I loved that she put it out as a single.
It’s easiest to sell one narrative. It’s hard to sell nuance. And songs about friendships or bands that don’t have one lead singer are more nuanced. It’s like in the movie Josie and the Pussycats, they change the band name from The Pussycats to Josie and The Pussycats. The music industry thinks people need like one focal point and get so confused if they have to get to know more than one person.
It’s just not believing in human potential enough. We really don’t need to have that much tunnel vision. That’s not what people are drawn to, but that’s what business thinks that’s what people are drawn to, so some people stifle their creative potential because they want to be able to pay the bills off music. And so they do what they have to do within the boundaries that industry sets you.
I had another question here about notions of masculinity and femininity.
And about a conversation that I had recently with a queer academic acquaintance of mine. She was telling me that back in the nineties when she was a student, the idea that in 2020 we would still be masculine and feminine, that it would be possible to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing and you’d be able to say, well, that’s feminine, that those categories just wouldn’t exist anymore. And it hasn’t panned out like that obviously.
Why do you think these notions are so persistent?
I was in the Primark baby boy section, because I’m a nanny, and little Red was asleep in the pram, so I went through Primark because I was on a high street. And the baby boy section had one pink t-shirt in it, with palm trees on it. And I somehow felt very liberal and I was like I’m gonna buy this shirt for £1.30, that way the register is logged as having sold this shirt (laughs) and expresses that there is an interest in pink boys shirts, please.
Well, pink shirts for men, that’s a real hyper-masculine kind of thing. Have a look on the tube next time. See the city boys in suits with the pink shirts.
I don’t look at men often enough.
Well, it’s more interesting than you think. There’s all kinds of subtle gradations you know?
It’s super interesting and I am thinking about it more and more than I have in past years.
I’d have gone for it myself but my colour, you know. Pink wouldn’t work.
(Laughs) Did I think it would be gone by now? No. I think it’s important to note that there’s a different time frame. Me and Rhianydd grew up in the feminist backlash.
So our feminism – we gleaned kernels from Spice Girls and from things like that – but the 1990s were a backlash. And that was a really hard time to come of age.
And I think that in that backlash, in our communities things were very binary, and me and Rhianydd didn’t adhere to it. I think we knew we were queer before we knew we were queer, kind of thing. In both of our child albums, there’s like the real tom-boy us and the real hyper-femme us. We were both kind of floating through that spectrum.
And I think that… I don’t know… This gets talked about a lot in the queer scene and by a lot of my trans friends. It’s like gender is still real. So some people feel that in order to feel safe as a trans woman they want to adhere to a more classic feminine look because it keeps them safer from harassment and harm, also because maybe that’s what their idols looked like. Like me too, when I dress up I wanna look like Britney Spears.
And gender’s a construct but it’s also real in our society right now. So we can’t pretend it’s not. We can talk beyond it, live beyond it, make the future in the now, but at the end of the day, like, for a passport you need to mark one or the other. This is the shared reality we’re living.
Charmpit have had a real journey with the word femme because we were like, are we putting ourselves in a box again? We really hated the kind of femme/butch binary within the queer and lesbian scene. It’s something we’ve never related to, that made us feel really weird. That our sexuality didn’t attach to.
Then there was all this other kind of magic and community and self-actualisation that we claimed in embracing the word. And you know the first Charmpit gig, at First Timers – actually this is the wig I wore for it – we bought these pony wigs for five pounds, matching pony wigs. And I’ll never forget, after the gig, I was dressed up in like a tiny, short skirt and a tiny top, clothes that I hadn’t worn for like fifteen years, unless it was ironically at a 2000s party kind of situation. But this time I was wearing it to feel good and to feel confident and to feel myself.
So after that gig, firstly we never saw any of the other bands because Rhianydd’s tummy hurt so bad, we had to go home after the shock of performing. But for some reason, I was walking around the street that night still in my outfit at 1 am. And I was walking back from her house to mine. And this car pulled over and they were like, how much? And I was like huh? And they were like how much for tonight? And I was like oh no, I’m not a sex worker. Now, I fucking love sex workers, I have many friends who work in that field and I’m supportive, so I wasn’t offended by that. But I was just like, wow, this hasn’t happened to me since the last time I wore clothes like this. So, yeah. Fifteen.
And just feeling like, fuck you for putting me in a box, when I was in a punk band today. So I think that really solidified for me that femme was gonna be at the forefront of Charmpit
I just felt like you can’t ignore that. I couldn’t, as a songwriter, and an artist and a creative, ignore that. I realised that this is why I’ve avoided dressing like this, this is why I didn’t let myself dress like how I wanted to dress all the time. And I’m never gonna do that again. So I’m gonna dress how I want, whether it’s like granny ass sweat pants or looking great.
So we can’t move beyond it because we live in it, but we’re definitely thinking beyond it and we’re building communities beyond it, and it’s definitely trickling into mainstream thought. Alex works at a university and they’re bringing in more gender-neutral bathrooms, so it’s a conversation that kind of like the Occupation conversation is really interesting to be within and then watch how it trickles into the mainstream. And see how the mainstream deals with it and responds to it.
Sometimes I do get a bit envious, like I wish I was fifteen now. Which is not to say it’s any better. There’s still queer kids, trans kids getting murdered, committing suicide. I’m in the city and still the world hates queer people. But I also live by Goldsmiths and people are EXPRESSING THEMSELVES! It’s nice to see people who are forming themselves in adolescence feel more like it is normal to explore that spectrum and see where you land within or outside of it. And also to keep monitoring your feelings and seeing how you move through that spectrum in your lifetime.
You know, if you do move. Yeah, interesting times.
I think we’ll start wrapping up, erm, I’m looking at the time now and we’ve been talking for like 55 minutes. It feels like 5. And I’m aware of how much typing I might have to do.
So, what’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness? Hmmmmmmm belonging. Yeah. I think when you belong. When you feel you belong and when you experience belonging. That’s the only way you can be happy. And content. At peace.
If rock and roll was a building on fire and you could only grab one item what would it be?
Billy Eilish or Billy Idol?
Can I have other options?
No. It’s one or the other. And I need to see your working out.
Give me one minute just to look at some (frantic googling) content and decide where I stand today. I’m a very fluid person so –
It can be a snapshot of whatever fluidity we’re currently experiencing.
Hmmm. Billy Idol. Yeah, it’s Billy Idol. I dunno, Billie Eilish’s brother creeps me out and I worry that he’s puppeteering too much. And that scares me. But ‘Dancing With Myself‘ and ‘Rebel Yell‘ are like great fucking songs that I connect with more than Billie Eilish’s music.
Mountains or beach?
Beach. 100%. Also, you can have both. Santa Cruz is wonderful. They have redwood forests about a minute away from the beach. I think the bisexual answer is both.
Sonic Youth or Sonic the Hedgehog?
Sonic the Hedgehog.
No, wait! No, I can’t say that because Thurston Moore put out Big Joanie’s record. So we’re gonna say Thurston Moore plus Big Joanie, please.
Little Mix or Little Women?
Little Mix. Well, yeah actually I love Louisa May Alcott. But I don’t love the Little Women story. I love her.
What do you love about her?
Well, I personally think she was queer. I think she was bisexual. And I think that, erm, I love the transcendentalists. Like Emerson and Thoreau really brought me to anarchist philosophy. And that was all in Concord, where she came from, so she was also imbued with that. And that’s important to me. And I find it really kind of interesting.
The final one of those was Andy Warhol or Andy Murray, but I think actually it would be more interesting to ask you about a J.G. Ballard quote I’ve been thinking about this week. It’s from his novel Kingdom Come and it’s about the suburbs and we can close on that, so…
‘The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls they await patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.’
Oh, science fiction! We are huge science fiction nerds. That’s like our number one commonly read subject.
Well, I was feeling very dystopian and I thought you’d probably disagree with the quotation heavily.
What! We totally agree! Yeah, that’s what the song ‘Free The Burbs‘ is about. The suburbs have so much potential and they make up such a large amount of electoral votes. I think it’s like the decade of the suburb, in that it’s the decade that the suburbs really need to radicalise and be radicalised. Because the city’s got it on lock.
But the suburbs have been really affected by the crisis and the suburb as we knew it in the nineties is dead, because of late capitalism. So actually the suburbs are a really important location right now.
I guess one of the interesting things about them is that they were built and conceived as being, not exactly utopias, but somewhere that you’d have everything that you wanted. Like there’d be a shopping mall, there’d be the parks and everybody would have a nice little house and yet they fall short somehow.
Yeah. It was designed to isolate. White flight. Me and Rhianydd come from very, very different suburbs. There’s really a range of suburbs, for instance the wealthy suburbs and then there’s the aspirational suburbs for the working class and that’s where I come from. I come from a place, I say Huntington Beach because it’s more identifiable, but I come from a place called Fountain Valley, which is in the OC. The slogan is A Nice Place to Live,
It was fucking boring as hell. And when I grew up it was predominantly east Asian, white and Mexican working class families. So yeah, I think that the origin of the suburb is really interesting, their intersection with feminist movements is really interesting, right? Like, these housewives are eventually are like wait, this sucks, I’m fucking doping myself up and putting my head in the oven.
They’ve always been really interesting sites. And that’s why we wrote ‘Free The Burbs‘. We have quite a lot of friends that had to move out of the cities because they couldn’t afford San Francisco and they moved back to the burbs with their families. And there are these queer anarchist radicals in the burbs again. And they started volunteering with the rape crisis hotlines there and started graffiti-ing around, and just freeing the burbs. And when I go home now it’s definitely a different place than when I was there. It’s more interesting, it has more things happening, its more of a sight of resistance and protest than when I was there.
So I think yeah, there’s a lot of interesting things being written about the suburbs right now and I enjoy musing about the suburbs. And I think they will definitely be key to the revolution.
And you can hear this in our new single ‘Sophomore Year‘. We’re doing a video for it that supports the wildcat strikes happening in California right now.
Oh, so the tagline is journey to the heart of anarchism, and it’s the only song that we actually sing ‘anarchy’ in. It’s about what radicalised us and how we formed our politics. There’s a line in it that says ‘Fate’s a cake for us to bake’, and it juxtaposes this with the idea that your fate is sealed. Like you know the 8-ball? That you shake and gives you an answer? So the opening lines are ‘Shook it once, signs point to yes / Shook it again, don’t count on it’, so it’s like, your destiny is not determined. We all create a future together. That’s what the song is about.
But we’re specifically tying it to the UC Santa Cruz wildcat strikes, so we’ll have like a link to the strike fund in all the articles for it hopefully. And the music video will be like an explainer on the wildcat strike, what’s happening,
So what issues are they striking over?
It started at UC Santa Cruz. They have a no-strike clause in their union contract, so that’s why they’re wildcat strikes. It’s not union sanctioned. They’re striking for a cost of living adjustment because graduate students at UC Santa Cruz are in severe rent burden. Economists say you should be spending thirty per cent of your salary on rent. Well, they’re spending fifty to seventy per cent. In Santa Cruz rents alone went up fifteen per cent last year because it’s quite close to silicon valley and a lot of the techies have come over. And California has a housing crisis in general. We’re seeing things like @Moms4Housing occupying houses in Oakland.
So grad students literally cannot live. They’re using food banks. So it’s about this cost of living adjustment. And they’ve worked it out that they would need $1,412 more a month to come out of rent burden. And so that’s what they’re on strike for. Because it’s a housing crisis in California. And so much of the world.
So first every other UC had a solidarity campaign with UC Santa Cruz because after a month of the wildcat strike they fired eighty people. And some of these grad students are pregnant, or their visas depend on their studies and they are now to be deported. So people are really putting their lives and wellbeing on the line to have a quality of life. For them and the students and the faculty and the staff.
But now five University of California universities are on wildcat strike. And I think there’s only 9 of them, so it’s really spreading. And UC Berkeley is one of the number one public universities in the USA, and in fact, the interesting thing about the UC is like five out of ten of them are in the top public universities of the USA. They’re incredible institutions, so I think this is a really powerful thing because as the UC goes, then other public institutions and universities will be pressured to go as well.
So yeah, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, they’re dropping like dynamos. They’re all going on wildcat strike. And so part of that is withholding grades. Because that’s the power they have. The grad students are the ones to submit the grades. So they’re not submitting grades on a grade strike. Until they get their cost of living adjustment.
Go on the website. I’ll send it to you it’s really interesting.
They are working with students to find out how they can give them their grades without actually giving the university their grade. It’ll make more sense when you look at the website but it’s absolutely fascinating and I think that it’s incredibly moving and motivating. It has a lot of revolutionary potential and they’re doing exactly what the song is about.
Play us out Britney…