Ten years after their final gig, we talk to much-missed Brighton band Shrag to celebrate their deathiversary and ask: what’s it really like to be in a band with friends – and end it as one?

It’s 15th March 2013, at the Lexington, London N1. As their final song descends frantically into sonic scree, a sweat-soaked and emotional five-piece band fall to the stage one by one, ending up in a messy heap, bashing at keyboards, drums, guitars and whatever they have left to hand. Eventually they stagger off, waving goodbye and thanking the crowd, who cheer for more. But there is no more – this is their last act as a band; chaotic, genuine, wonderful. This writer is in the second row, tremendously hot and cheering too. Finally, the applause dies down. The band are off getting drinks and hugs. The soundman puts a record on.

What are we supposed to do now?

* * * * *

Spring 2023. I am in the spare bedroom talking to the undead. Five-fifths of the dead band Shrag, to be precise, looking curiously unwithered by time, and happily with lots to say via Zoom about their time as plucky practitioners of pop. Time for some ‘posthumous feedback’… 

First though: HIGHLIGHTS REEL. Shrag were fucking great. You might remember them from such spiky, sad, wry, buzzing and beautiful DIY guitar pop gems as ‘Rabbit Kids‘, ‘Mark E Smith‘ and ‘Tendons In The Night‘. 

From early single Punk Grammar – if Le Tigre were playful Brighton book nerds recording on a 1994 Atari ST after six shots of Skittles Vodka – through to lean and focused alt-pop gems like the skinny glam of ‘Devastating Bones‘, they stayed light on their feet, literate, witty and incisive. 

While final LP Canines is their most cohesive, perhaps the ace card is 2010’s Life! Death! Prizes!,  a slightly ramshackle and utterly charming record hitting a sweet spot of noise, melody and feeling that made it one of GIITTV editor Bill Cummings’s Top 25 LPs of the decade

Five 6 Music sessions for Marc Riley, support slots with The Cribs and Stephen Malkmus, three albums showcasing a leap in focus and songcraft each time. A sold-out London show to make their farewell. Crucially, they were – and happily still are – good friends. So…. what’s it like being in a great band with no money? And why shoot a dog that still wags its tail? 

The band: Helen King (vocals, keys), Bob Brown (guitar, vocals) Stephanie Goodman (keys, vocals), Russell Warrior (bass), Andy Pyne (drums)

The band started out as a fun project, but you soon decided that if you were going to do it, you wanted to make it good….

Helen: Everything was a surprise… all it ever started from, was us lot being morons being left at the end of a party night, hanging out… I see it as complete serendipity that we met each other, these 5 people; it just worked…. 

Russell: As soon as we started, very early on, we took it more seriously than we should, and maybe didn’t tell each other how seriously we were taking it.

Steph: I always took it seriously – but serious about having fun! It had to be fun, or else there’s just no point.

Russell: I think it was around (early single) ‘Lost Dog‘ that I realised that this is music I would listen to myself, that I’d choose to listen to. But we had a song called ‘Chuck D & Flavor Flav Come Over‘ or something, and a ‘theme tune’ that hasn’t been committed to tape, and ‘Punk Grammar…’ Brighton had quite a serious music scene at that time, a lot of noisy boys and garage rock and stuff, and we just wanted to be an alternative to that. 

Bob: We just tried to get better at being Shrag – doing what we did better every time.

Steph: It was never about things from the outside, just making it good from the inside.

Russell: Some of the motivation being that we wanted to go somewhere where we could drink all day and have a party afterwards.

Steph: Goals achieved!

Were some of the best times being out on tour?

Russell: When you’ve got a day job, the going on tour is the absolute best bit.

Helen: The more I look back at my time with these guys, being on tour, I think – that was the most amazing thing ever. We just had a whale of a time.

Andy: With good bands, it’s just a pure fluke of getting the right combination of people.

Steph: And that doesn’t happen for everyone. Me and Helen were in someone else’s tour bus once and they were just silent and miserable and not talking, and we were looking at each other, like…

Helen: (cutting in)… this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to us and we will not let these cunts dilute it for us! (laughing) We’d spend most of our time playing gigs with no-one there, but sometimes weird shit would happen, like going on tour with The Cribs. 

[The band reminisce about a bizarre European tour in December 2010 where, amongst other shows, they were booked to play a fish restaurant in an out-of-season seaside town and a remote ‘horror movie’ country house on the dark fringes of Milan….]

Russell: We got lost outside Milan and they had to come out in cars and guide us in. 

Steph: …So this guy in the house made this log fire with lighter fluid and pushed it around with his boots and somebody said, “um, are there going to be many people tonight?” and he was like (tetchily) “there are like 30 million people in Milan, OF COURSE there will be!”

Russell: It’s like doing a gig in a village in Suffolk and saying “It’s ok, London’s really close”. We played to the other band and that was it. We got paid handsomely… it was very weird, probably money laundering or something!

Steph: In Europe you get paid really well – or you used to – and they’d feed you and give you a place to stay. Round England you wouldn’t get that, you might get fifty quid and that’s got to pay for petrol and everyone’s drinks…

Russell: We had promoters and hosts who had us round their house, like in Newcastle, and friends in places like Manchester and Glasgow, and also some of the saddest nights would become the best party nights.

People struggled to pin Shrag down to a genre or sub-genre. Though you were adopted by the indiepop scene…

Steph: We didn’t subscribe to one scene, or one genre… we were doing what made us happy. There was lots of lazy journalism early on as well, as we had women in the band so we were ‘riot grrrl’.

Bob: I just thought we were a pop band, but not like… Beyonce or anything.

Russell: We had that in us! But indiepop can be into the jangly twee stuff from the 80s but also the noisy stuff, which is maybe how we fitted into that scene.

Helen: We were very much embraced and interviewed and welcomed by that scene… and honestly, there was no other scene that was gonna be at all interested in what we were doing. I always thought it was amazing that anyone would take any interest.

The band seemed to be getting better album by album. Why did you decide to bring it to an end?

Helen: The process of making Canines was quite intensive, when I look back at it now, we had it recorded and mixed in a short time and it took up a lot of our personal lives. The next year Bob and Russell were both getting married, and it was like, it’s probably not feasible that we’re going to be able to devote that amount of time (again).

Russell: It felt like the right time…. it ticked a massive box for all of us. We rehearsed, recorded and mixed two songs a day, whereas Life! Death! Prizes! was recorded over a  few months at different times. We wanted that experience of doing it all at the same time. For some reason we decided to it across a week in Glasgow in August. And that process of being together for a week was a real highlight, it was great.

Helen: But also, we never ‘broke through’, in any way, at all. Do you remember (now defunct music mag) Artrocker? They were very supportive, but we plateaued at the middle of the bill at Artrocker nights. It was like, this is where Shrag are gonna be – the middle of the bill. It was a weird experience with the last show, everyone was trying to get in, when we’d always been embarrassed about the number of people coming to the shows. 

Steph: Ten years is probably enough of anything, is my theory. And after that you need a break! 

Andy: I just think it felt like the right time to stop… it had run its course at that point in time. We would have had to commit to writing and recording another proper album and doing it really well – we couldn’t have just gone along casually.

Bob: Every band would be a bit jaded at that point. That final headline tour… it wasn’t empty, but it was so very sparsely populated…. that gave us the impetus (to say) let’s knock it on the head and just have one big party.

Whilst you might have been considered outsiders in some ways, it must have been satisfying in those moments like the sold-out last gig, when when you could really see the work itself had got through to people?

Bob: Maybe we were too ‘outside’ (the mainstream)… there weren’t that many of these people!

Steph: Leading up to that we had to steel ourselves and not think too much about how people were receiving us – we did what we liked and pleased ourselves, so it was nice at the end to see that there were people it did mean a lot to. When Russell posted about the ten year anniversary, it was really nice to see people saying “we miss you guys”.  

Bob: It’s always good to get posthumous feedback.

How did it feel on that night at the Lexington – you’d announced it as being your last show, it had sold out, and then it was finally happening?

Helen: I remember being mindblown that it had sold out so quickly. We’d played Manchester or Leeds or whatever and there were like 30 people there! It didn’t reflect our experience. 

Russell: We were proud of what we’d done, particularly the last album, and it was better to do one gig and have a sign-off. It was really nice, like having a kids’ birthday party – family came…. I was really happy we did it. I was very grateful to see there was a sort of sepia tint on the footage, like the ‘digital’ has faded in ten years. I had a light shirt on, which is never a good look for a sweaty bloke.

You managed to fit a couple of string players onto the stage that night…

Russell: That was ambitious. Rehearsals were really nervy actually, trying to play with string instruments, having to turn everyone else down, then “you need to turn it down more”, to get the balance right. 

Bob: It was tricky – it was the first time we’d done it and it was our last gig.

Helen: We’d always go a bit crazy when there’d be an actual crowd.

We chat about what the band are up to now – Andy has a brand new album as part of duo Map 71, Steph has been DJ-ing after some solo work pre-pandemic, and Helen has been writing for a literary journal. Meanwhile Bob has been making music videos for Fujiya & Miyagi, and playing guitar to his children (“my daughter is the best audience I could ever have” officially being sweetest quote of the day). Russell is a manager in the NHS. His bass solo album is still forthcoming.

What are some of the best memories you have from your ten years as a band?

Andy: So this van had been all the way around Europe on that December tour, and right at the final hurdle in Brighton, it couldn’t get up the last 50 metres up this hill. 

Russell: It was steep and icy….

Steph: We physically had to carry the stuff up the hill then scoot back down on our bums… passing the drumkit back up to Andy’s – he lived on the hill….

Bob: Why does a drummer live on a hill?!

Steph: In the van on that tour it was a struggle but so much fun, and I remember thinking ‘I’m so in love with my bandmates, these are my favourite people’, it was just… fucking great. I loved it.

Andy: (tells a tale of ludicrous train travel hell)…We got back to Brighton the next afternoon, we got a taxi with the drumkit, and he wouldn’t take us up that same hill!

Steph: So we had to walk my really heavy keyboard and Andy’s drumkit up to my place.

Bob: All of Shrag’s memories have involved walking with a drumkit up that hill!

Russell: When I hear one of our songs like ‘Furnishings‘ or ‘Chasing Consummations‘, not the loud,  rowdy ones, I think ‘oh, who did that?’.. then I’m surprised and never disappointed, listening back to it. I’m just really proud of the music. It’s the surprise element, y’know… you go ‘that was really good!’.

Bob: It’s got to involve one of the Marc Riley sessions – we did 5 of them in all – which is quite something really. We did our first one when we didn’t have many songs!

Russell: We’ve been on big tours, played in America and Europe, done things that were unusual for a band at our level, (so) just like yeah – I’ve done it, I’ve had a look through the curtains into the World of Entertainment – it’s alright in there isn’t it? – and then been like, (waves) “bye!”

Helen – Everything just felt like a surprise, the whole ten years. Oh shit, we’ve been invited to play with the Cribs… we’re getting to play with Stephen Malkmus… and with all of us there was like a giddy sense of… ‘yeah sure, we’ll just go ahead with it’. Always (feeling) like interlopers, imposters… and it was always good fun. These are my best friends, its always been like that the whole time. The more I look back on it the older I get, I think – that was the most amazing thing ever. And nothing has changed with everyone in this band… we all get each other, we have the same sense of humour, we understand what matters and what doesn’t. I feel lucky every day.

* * * * *

A giddy sense of joy and the beauty of enduring friendships? It’s a good place to end. Shrag were, and remain, one of this writer’s favourite bands, from early, bratty songs about teenage shoplifting to opaque, concise, subtly melancholic songs of endings, consummations, of a crowd who don’t know your name. Times change. For those who came of age in the early-00’s indie boom, the fireworks that came from it would eventually tail off, and – Jagger’s gang aside – bands don’t last forever. It’s hard to keep going on fifty quid a night, and it’s become even harder to do it in 2023. But let’s raise a glass to everyone in the Transit van on the motorway, heading to Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, sat in the back with their feet on the amps. Laughing with their best friends. Walking with a drumkit up a hill.

Thank you to Steph, Russell, Andy, Bob and Helen for taking time to speak to GIITV and being utterly delightful. Music is available to stream and buy from WIAIWYA on Bandcamp. 

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.