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IN CONVERSATION: Torture and the Desert Spiders

Torture and the Desert Spiders is the musical project of prolific leftfield singer songwriter Anna Kuntz, taking us on her musical journey from New York to New Jersey, Nashville to London to Liverpool where she lives now which she describes as a “fuckin’ cool town“, “where everyone has each other’s back” and “there’s no bullsh*t.” Through our conversation we had a lot of laughs, in depth discussions about genre and craft, a sing-a-long with insights into the influence of the fruitful Nashville scene, The Strokes and Ramones influence in New York, her reflective time in New Jersey, where the introspection allowed her to form her own sound and how Jacob Slater of Wunderhorse inspired her to move to the UK after hearing him play in a basement in London. His post -punk sound was something that inspired her as well as the Liverpool scene and her upcoming New Year Show with Zuzu and friends.

By the end of the conversation you couldn’t help but think that an artist with this level of graft, wit talent, adaptability, and endless energy is on an upwards trajectory in her career.

I first encountered Torture and the Desert Spiders playing solo at How the Light Gets in Festival In London, singing whip-smart, gritty, folk-tinged punk with knowing wit. A punk country star with a bite. Her catchy confessional tunes and incredibly witty and warm stage presence had the audience hooked, with hints of Courtney Barnett and Ani Di Franco. Her voice had amazing range and textures, with shouts going out ‘to imposter syndrome’ with emotive lyrics like, ‘I’m almost famous, I’m almost nothing’ and an honest track about having a crush on an online computer tech support guy called, ‘Flirting with Jeremy.‘ Going from soft arpeggios to fierce Riot Grrrl shredding she was like a grittier Kimya Dawson.

After the festival it was great to hear heavier punk and riot grrl sound of tracks like ‘The Tooth, the Gap and the Filling’. Their music moves and shifts into scathing live performances with her band that have been likened to Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and PJ Harvey. Drawing on her personal inspirations Sinéad O’Connor and Jeff Tweedy and the band’s collective love of leftfield industrial pop and dance, Torture’s sound is hard to place and easy to move to.

While still self-releasing on their record label, Moon Umlaut, the project has just completed its first full year touring and have supported the likes of CRAWLERS, Mattiel, the Lounge Society, Starcrawler, performed for Thee Oh Sees‘ Liverpool afterparty and played for Tim Burgess’ Tim Peaks Stage at Sound City and Kendal Calling. 

With sold-out headline shows and solo festival slots in London, Brighton and Preston, Torture says that this indie project is steadily building its cult following that is more akin to friends than fans.

So, for anyone new to Torture and the Desert Spiders, how would you describe you, your band and your sound?

I would say it’s somewhere between really honouring the graft of traditional songwriting and then taking it as far as it can possibly go when the band takes it on. So it’s American garage rock mixed with post punk influences. We try to stretch it out as far as we can. It’s like if Sinéad O’Connor got into Gilla Band or if Beck had a sabbatical in Scouserland.

Um, it’s American garage but not at all and it’s in Liverpool.

I saw you playing at HTLGI festival solo and it was awesome, then I heard you with your band. Does the vibe change when you play with your band? I like the change of energy with both.

Oh totally, the songs have their initial go for me in that inital smaller life, with more folky influences and storytelling vibe I keep that, then when the band comes along I can take a step back and stop relying on my own sound to tell the story.

What is your songwriting process?

It changes. I have hundreds of books of lyrics and poetry. I write on any scraps on receipts. Any piece of paper is covered in lyrics. I was working on a riff a minute ago before you called for this interview. I was working on a riff that made sense and I looped that and I wrote a whole song off that and sometimes the band has a jam and it’s more of an energy thing. I rarely start that way. I know the band can take a song and bring it there; bring the energy and make it full as long as it’s a solid song. If we go from a jam I skip some of the process and I can lose some of the integrity, so I try and get a song down before I get to them.

Who or what inspires you?

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco is my go-to; I love him so much – I’m obsessed, and Sinéad O’Connor gave me my start singing. I was always singing her songs. Dylan and obviously Pete Seeger, Karen Dalton, Nina Simone. Melodically, she is a woman who really has a punky energy to her. Nina is most famous for jazz but her energy and nature of how she performed gave me a lot of energy and inspiration.

There seems to be so much poetic imagery in your work.

I like the idea of Easter eggs in art and music. You know people have spent their entire lives reading his lyrics and trying to draw blood from a stone and they get nowhere and Dylan is like HA AHA. That’s a subversive way of trying to look at art and the only way to look at art. When you write lyrics you have no idea what you are writing about most of the time, then you come back two years later and my friends says that’s a really good metaphor for what you were going through and I say, “I was just talking about the traffic man.” So you know, I think that’s like dual reality of blessing for music and lyrics and poetry.

By Easter egg I mean hidden things in music whether we mean to put them there or not. I was watching Dig last night, The Brian Jones Town Massacre documentary. I watch it every year or so. I come back to it and I’ve been making music all night after it. Anton Newcombe was like we are going to put the entire record on one level and the next song is going to be WAY over that and they just turn up their stereo and their ears get blasted. That is such a weird thing to do… and I love the little Easter eggs like that. They would do something like a hidden Easter egg that gives another dimension to the art, the same way that you could tell a story. The music could have multiple layers and metaphors which live as double entendres for your life but also for the general discontent. I’m constantly writing about my own discontent of the world and then it filters out.

Yeah, it’s like James Joyce said, ” In the particular is contained the universal”

It’s the individual versus the universal that I find most interesting.

So how did you come to be in Liverpool? Was it via uni?

When I was 17 I moved to Nashville Tennessee from New York to study music. It was the most fruitful music scene that I have ever experienced and I learned at lot but I also needed more. Even though it was a progressive town, the school that I was in was quite conservative and I wanted to live abroad so I went to London and went to a skate shop and asked where is the music? I had no phone. The skate shop has always been my haven. They said get a phone. I saw Jacob Slater play in a basement and I thought, I wanna live in this country. It was just me watching this amazing guy play with a sax player. He is now Wunderhorse.

Oh Wunderhorse are awesome. I saw them on tour with with Fontaines D.C. last week

He was awesome. I saw him at So Young festival, I think. He was the first band on and I was literally the only one in the room besides the merch guy and I was just sitting and I saw Jacob Slater playing. I had no idea who he was and I saw him playing with this sax player behind him and I just started crying, tears streaming down. I had never heard anything like that before. I had never seen post-punk live. We only have hard core in America and Garage, which I love, and then all of a sudden I was like, “I wanna live HERE” and then I got a Visa to stay longer at Goldsmiths Uni and then I had to move up to Liverpool to finish my degree.

Oh, Blur were at Goldsmiths too. They have had some great musical artists just like Torture and the Desert Spiders, Kae Tempest, Brian Moloko and John Cale.

That’s wild. So, I started at Goldsmiths, then, I finished my degree at Paul McCartney‘s uni LIPA (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts). I have just got onto Wunderhorse’s new song it really reminds me of the best of 90’s music. I think Jacob Slater is fuckin rippin’ but I thought he was good since ‘Dead Pretty.’ He already had a massive band.

I grew up in New York and New Jersey….I split time a lot. My family is from Queens and I grew up in the Bronx then up state New York, Cold Spring and I wrote a lot there. When I was really little I got used to committing things to memory. I would walk by the river for endless hours every day, then I moved out to Jersey and did kinda the same thing. And I finished high school out there.

Jersey’s insane but, like, Jersey’s got it’s own thing. The suburbs or anywhere are an interesting place to make music because you don’t have anyone to show it for forever. I think my style became distinctive because of that. If I was in New York I might have ended up latching onto something because it was all so hip at the time I would have just done what they were doing, but because I had to sit in a room alone without any one to critique it for endless hours, for ten years, by the time I got to cities I was only a few steps away. I know I can do this. I can play open mics and then I’ll get a guitarist drummer and a band?

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The New York influence must have been big.

New York was huge in a sense that I love The Strokes and my first record was the Ramones I grew up in nightclubs in New York.

You must have seen a lot in New York. Was it like ‘ See it then be it ?

Absolutely. Also New York has this defensive thing that is very good with Scousers, it’s aggressive and I like that. That’s what I like about the North too – they are a cool lot. I like Liverpool a lot, people have got each other’s backs there is no bullshit. Liverpool is a fuckin cool town and New York’s the same. I like that thing: “I hate this city– but — Do NOT say a bad word about this city!” I’ve been working on a song today called ‘New York is dead’ and the chorus is “New York is Dead, but tell me a place that you would rather be instead.” Everyone hates on the scene, but people would spend a lot of money to go there.

Were you influenced by the Liverpool and London scene too, having lived there ?

Oh massively. I think it’s funny that we get called Post-Punk because sometimes in my head, I’m still this folk geek kid, but I think anyone with a leftfield approach to music in England gets called post-punk.

Also Jacob Slater and similar artists, the first time seeing sax paired with noisy guitar and a prominent solitary singer influenced me massively because that wasn’t something that I was exposed to. In America I was exposed to as much noise as possible or harmonies. Post-punk in the UK right now is what garage was when I was growing up – The Districts and Wilco and all the way back to REM, proper garage bands and Beck. I fucking love Beck, their counterparts over here in a way is post-punk modern.

So how would you describe your specific sound or is it best not to be pigeonholed?

I find it really hard to describe. I would say it’s a blend of American Garage rock, Leftfield rock influences across the board and because of that it gets labelled as Post-Punk nowadays. There’s not a single genre, but over all, Garage or Leftfield Rock. That’s the closest that I’m gonna get. It’s the same, if you can accept that the White Stripes can have melodic songs like “I Can Tell That We are Gonna be Friends” together with heavier tracks like “The Hardest Button to Button”. All these bigger bands have this breadth.

I‘m trying to straddle the breadth of my style rather than land on either side and then fall short, because I realise that I’m not fully committed to any one sound and then become dissatisfied with my work, because the best part about my bandmates, besides that I adore them, is that they have given me the space to write the songs and they respect that I churn out a few songs a day. Because I write so much they don’t compete with it. They write their own stuff and then we collaborate that way. They have such eclectic styles, they come in and I have this sound that in my head I try not to show them what it was. I give them the bare bones, saying this is the vocals that I need to sit and everything else is negotiable and then all of a sudden Max who likes Swans more than life itself and Clara who is basically The Replacements if they had another member, they just push me until the song becomes something that it could never have been without them, so that’s more deciding on our style than predicting any genre itself.

As a project I am Torture and the Desert Spiders and because they are an integral part of it …they are also Torture and the Desert Spiders. When I play solo I am also Torture and the Desert Spiders. I want to play every day of my life if I can, and I didn’t want my ability to play everyday to be contingent on anyone else. I want that freedom and I need it being international. I never know which country I will be in and for how long so I want to be in a position where I can say I want to go to America and play 20 shows and that still has to be my music. I hope to be in the UK for a while though. I have 8 months on my visa, but at that point we have accepted that it’s an international project. We want to go on international tours and hope to be in a position where people are touring internationally and they say “Tag along with us wherever it is.” And because all of our mutual goals we want to tour as much as possible to wherever the best scene is for us – UK, Europe, Asia, America – it will be a privilege to be anywhere, so I hope that when my visa starts to lean down, we are looking for some longer international tours together as a group.

That sounds really exciting. So where did the name Torture and the Desert Spiders come from?

I was on the 263 in Holloway and I went to see a band called Sqig at Nambuca. I love and enjoy that band. Someone at the bar said Kevin Parker IS Tame Impala and I was like, that’s amazing I can do that. I figured that if I make a name cool enough then people will just join and then we will be a band, rather than try to start a band and then get a name. I want to do it the other way round; I know what I’m doing. Fake it ’til you make it, I guess. So I made this list of band names there was about 30 names and it was terrible, SO bad. So I thought of my mum – her name is Theresa Chambers – but when she was managing Hothouse Flowers on their tour around America they nicknamed her Torture Chambers.

I asked her the story for you and got it from the horse’s mouth. She said, it was 1989, she was travelling with both Something Happens and the Hothouse Flowers she was going from one tour bus to the other and was really stressed. She was managing both of them across the US and she was going from city to city and both bands apparently didn’t like each other much at the time – they do now – but it was really stressful and she had to do so many live interviews to get both bands together and she would be banging on their hotel rooms to get them up for 8am live on air and they were flipping out in the early morning at her and they said that she was a torture and all the room mates and sound crew started calling her Torture Chambers instead of Theresa or Tae

It sounds like she was just doing her job!

That name Torture was then passed onto an American band called The Carnies, which was John Wurster from Superchunk and the guitarist started calling her Torture Chambers and then everyone did. When I was about 13 I played a show at some warehouse in Brooklyn and everyone was like it’s “Little T – it’s Little Torture Chambers – Torture Junior.” I don’t know what I was thinking on the bus that night but I thought, that’s funny, I thought I’d take my mum’s name, Torture. Anna Kunz just never sounded like a very rock’n’roll name.

It’s a great name. Where did the desert spiders part come from?

I was writing a dissertation on Bowie‘s Spiders from Mars at the time so I was inspired by that too. That’s where the name is from, robbing a bit of Bowie and a bit of my Mum.

I love Hothouse Flowers and I just left my mate the record with ‘Hallalujah Jordan‘ on. She sings and says, “that was like the sexiest song ever.” Hothouse Flowers are all really supportive of our art. You know Fiachna Ó Braonáin from Hothouse Flowers is an RTE DJ now and he’s been spinning us on Irish Radio. I told him that ‘Hallelujah Jordan’ is the best song ever.

and Tom Dunne from Something Happens is an Irish radio broadcaster now too....

Yeah. The Happens guys are like family and I’m still friends with their kids. I stayed with Tom and Ray in Dublin and Wicklow. I was on an 18 year old soul-searching journey and I came back with a stick. They are insanely supportive. My mum was 100% there in the recordings of Something Happens. My dad has every has every track they ever wrote.

You have played with some big bands like Crawlers, Gaye Bikers on Acid, Heartless, Bastards, Pillow Queens, Lounge Society Mattiel. What was that like?

Crawlers are our friends I love them all so much. It was a privilege to share a stage with them . I have seen them more than any other band. I have played with the Lounge Society, they are rippers, they are are smashing it. I played with Mattiel from Georgi, she is amazing, she is sick, she is so good. She starts singing We played for the British Arts Council with Heartless Bastards, which was a lifelong dream. It was one of those classic love stories.

I worked on her merch store on the Flaming Lips tour in Liverpool and then she was, like, thanks for the night. Then I gave them a CD, then I found out that they were on my dream label as they have the band The Districts on it which at 17 was my most listened to band of all time. I would send them letters and say one day, I will have a band, so it’s intense to have played with them. Gaye Bikers on Acid was surreal because my mum worked for them. My mum put them on 30 years ago to the month. It was so weird. I saw the name and I thought “Oh my God, my mum’s gonna flip.” We supported Pillow Queens, a great Irish band, and The Arcs are phenomenal …and at Kendal Calling we played earlier in the day and I saw Stereophonics side stage. It was surreal seeing the motion of the crowd. I foresee the rest of my life playing music. I’m taking what comes. I’ve got a couple of showcases at the Great Escape and hope to get some more.

Is there anything else in the pipeline ?

We are working a lot. We just did our BBC show at The Cavern in Liverpool and I’m doing some more stuff with them which I’m really excited about. There’s a load of secret record store shows coming up local and abroad which is great. I’m playing in Brooklyn next week which I’m really excited about before our New Year’s Eve show in Liverpool which is going to be insanity. It’s gonna be massive. It’s us, our mates Zuzu and San Lorenz, it’s going to be raucous. We have a tour for Independent Venue Week and we are working on a record right now and that’s the next big thing. We are supporting Adwaith in Chester, which is fantastic.

The record is next. Single out end of Jan early Feb then the record should be out shortly thereafter. I’m trying to let it breath a little bit because we have a lot of ideas coming into the group right now, between all three of us and our live set has been really informing what we wanna do for Spring and for touring, so I’m giving as much time as I can to breathe but I produced 6 or 7 more tracks last night as options for the band to show today. We are working though a lot of material and seeing. It was originally going to be an EP but it might be looking like a record now to be honest. We’ll see what happens. It depends on the cohesion between the tracks. Then that’s next then touring as much as possible, so if you know anyone get them to book us and we’ll have an absolute freaking blast.

They definitely will have a blast.

To end our chat Torture asks, “Do you know this song?” and starts to sing a word perfect, note perfect rendition of the traditional Irish song “Óró, sé do bheatha ‘bhaile” covered by Sinéad O’Connor on her Sean-Nós Nua album and I feel like I’m in the best Irish pub lock in ever. All we were missing were the pints. “I love Sinead O’ Connor” she said, ” I used to listen to her a lot and I used to try and speak Gaelic when I was a kid”.

It seemed very prescient that she was singing an Irish song about a Pirate Queen ‘Gráinne Ní Mháille‘. “Coming over the sea,/Armed warriors along with her as her guard,” Torture seems to share that positive fighting spirit, crossing the waves armed with her guitar, finding kinship wherever she goes, conquering and charming international audience with her fierce tracks, bringing her graft, talent, wit, soul, musical prowess and laughter with her, weaving all that international experience into her repertoire. The sky’s the limit for Torture and the Desert Spiders and we can’t wait to see what they do next. Look out for them in a town near you and catch them playing on New Year’s Eve in Liverpool –“It’s gonna be raucous.”

Find out more about Torture and the Desert Spiders here Home | Torture and the Desert Spiders

They play Jimmy’s in Liverpool on New Year’s Eve with Zuzu, San Lorenz, The DSM IV, Spilt, COW.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.