Wynona Bleach at SXSW
Credit: Julia Mason

In Conversation: Wynona Bleach

Wynona Bleach contributed a cover of The Cure‘s ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ for God Is In The TV Zines compilation Pictures of You. The Belfast band played Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh on the last night of their tour so I jumped at the opportunity to interview the band. Settled in a bar just around the corner from the venue I chatted with Melyssa Shannon (Vocals), Jonny Woods (Guitar, Vocals), Aaron Black (Guitar), James Foy (Drums) and Carl Gilmore (Bass)

Welcome Wynona Bleach!  How has the tour been?
Its been super smooth.  It’s our first time with a tour manager which has made it hugely more enjoyable.  Mostly fun and a lot of laughs and very few problems.

I’m really intrigued by the fact that when you were your previous band R51 (“not the B52’s or WD40”) you did a tour of Russia in 2017.  How on earth did that come about?
We got an email from a booking agent who said that that we think we can do this.  We were like “Is this a scam?” but I talked to him backwards and forwards a bit and realised it really wasn’t a scam.   He said I reckon you could break even if you budgeted this much but you might get this much profit if you do it this way.  He said he knew these venues.  And we just went “ok“.  We saved up a bit, booked the flights and we landed in Moscow.  He bundled us into a van, and we briefly thought we were going to die!  But we did 12 shows in a row and came back ten times a tighter band then when we went because we had to play in every condition you can imagine.
But it was as simple as that, we were just asked. It turned out there was people who knew our songs.  They were singing the words back to us! 

So after that you came back and thought “right we’re going to change our name”!
Everyone was asking us what it meant and it didn’t really have much of a meaning.  We wanted something that was instantly findable, searchable.  And there was the post tour blues.  You come back and the adrenalin goes away and you’re like oh now I’m back to normal life.   The big thing for me was that the band name sucked.  You go from this huge adrenaline rush so no adrenalin – so we just changed the name!

And I read that the current band name had something to do with Wynona Ryder and Nirvana’s first album Bleach – is that right?
Yes exactly, and also bleaching our hair, which we were doing while we were discussing new names.  I had a whole page of band names!

Was the 2018 EP Sugar self released?
Yes, self-produced, self recorded, self released, self everything.  We had no help.  We had our own made up record label on it. That was all completely done in our rehearsal rooms and we still play some of those songs today.  We knew we wanted to try and do a vinyl pressing but even in 2018 it was getting popular but it was still expensive.  So we put up a pre order for it and asked people.  We got enough to pay for the pressing.

And was it after the EP that you signed for Fierce Panda?
We had already finished the album when Fierce Panda happened.  When we had done the album we had a soundcloud playlist to shop it around to people  A good friend of ours Steve Strange who was an agent who worked with Snow Patrol, Foo Fighter and Eminem, he has sadly since passed away but when we had the album together and mixed he shopped it around.  And it turned out Fierce Panda thought that we’d taken a deal with someone else.  So they didn’t get in touch.  But our manager then bumped into Simon Williams of Fierce Panda and he asked who did we sign with in the end, and she said no-one, they are still looking and so we then signed a contract with them. So at that point our album had been sitting finished for about a year.  Them taking it on delayed its release a little more, plus it was getting too close to the end of end of the year as well.

Basically Moonsoake was recorded at the  end of 2019,  was mixed in 2020 during Covid, and by the end of 2021 we signed the deal, and it finally came out in 2022.  It ended up taking three years to release for various reasons including Covid.

The obvious question then is because of that duration of time, have the songs changed since the original recordings?
I think some of them are more or less the same but are now better played thanks to James (Foy, drummer) joining the band.  They are much more laser beam focused and the band as a unit are playing them better.  Sometimes I listen to the album and I think that’s too slow or that’s not what the song should be about.  If we could record the entire set its probably a better album! There’s a good bit of hindsight in the set now because if you could record it live in a room now it would be an amazing recording.  The album is still great, but its just in comparison with how we now play it live, it’s that next step up.

There are others things that evolve from playing things live.  Even just a couple of days ago on this tour playing ‘Drag’ and Carl suggested in the soundcheck why don’t we try it this way. It keeps it fresh for us too.  Its been a long time since its been finished in our heads.  I think people can see that, they can see the excitement of us getting into it.

I’m interested in the recording of the album as you took your studio from Belfast to a space in Portugal.  Why was that?
It was all about creating a story, something a bit more interesting than the usual “band records in local studio”.  It’s like, you did what, and where, and why?  You just want to know more.  Our sound engineer Michael, who has been our sound engineer since before Russia, he wouldn’t stop talking about it!  He said he would drive everything down.  We came up with the idea at first as a joke.  It was our friends house and he was like you could totally write the album out there. That was the original idea and when he asked the locals who owned the land around him  for permission, was is it ok if a band made a noise they said there is a factory you could use up the road so we used the factory and built a studio in two days. 

So the idea was instigated by you, as a band?
Michael wouldn’t stop talking about it, and it became this idea that was so obvious to do we might as well do it.  And we applied for some grants because we didn’t have a record label at that point and so we got a musicians grant to do it.  I’ve subsequently met people who were on the deciding panel and they were like “Why would we pay for them to go on their jollies!”  But apparently a couple of them were like, “No, this is a great thing they should totally do it.  They are building a studio, not just going on holiday.”

It must have added to the music, with the journey, literally to get there.
Well we all flew and Michael drove! But he loved it, that was his favourite drive ever.  He slept for two nights on a boat.  He landed in Santander at 8am and he had lunch with us in Portugal that day.  It was a really good experience.  It had lots of stresses, had lots of tensions, but also had lots of fun.  There was a lot of different emotions.  We were there for the best part of a month. When we did the vinyl pressing, our friend Audrey flew over and took photographs of the whole thing so in the gatefold you see the building of the studio, you see us hanging out under palm trees, and the pool.  It was fantastic content for the album.

Well the next question has to be, where are you going to record the next album?
We’re probably going to record where we rehearse in Belfast this time but we rehearse above a pub so it will still be fun.  We really want to work with two producers who helped us a lot on the first record and its easy to get them to come from London to us.  It’ll still cost just as much as going to Portugal but it will at least be done with people that we trust.

Is there a main theme that runs through the album Moonsoake?
I can only talk from the lyrics standpoint as I wrote the lyrics (Jonny).  It doesn’t have a main overarching concept, It was never supposed to be a concept album.  But certainly they’re all just love songs really.  Some may seem a bit janky and seem like hate songs but they still have love in them and it’s a vital thing in the fabric of existence for me.  They are all love songs shoehorned into different genres that we all like.   I’m pretty proud of it as its pretty consistent and the parts are really creative with all the noises we made on it.

So how does the song-writing process come together?
It can be pretty mixed up.  Aaron might write a riff or Carl will come up with something and we go from there. Some songs come from an embryonic idea that we all work on. Others just come straight out of us. ‘Drippy‘ was pretty much is a song that just happened one day. But ‘Flesh’ began as a clip from Aaron of a guitar part he wrote which I was obsessed with, and we ended up making it into what it is. There is this saying which I think is really cool:
“songs already exist, you just pluck them from the universe”
Sometimes you sing some gibberish and it phonetically lines up with a hook and you go “WOW”.  With the addition of James joining the band, he is a song-writer I really respect so I’m really excited to see what happens there with collaboration. 

I do have to ask you about America at the beginning of the year.  Is it possible to verbalise the experience of playing New Colossus festival (New York) and SXSW (Austin)?
It was wild, totally surreal.  Two weeks of just stuff, you came home and that adrenaline was still there when we landed, and it was like Jesus what happened there. It was also another steppingstone, that we’re going in the right direction, and we want to do more.   Especially as our sound seemed to resonate quite well Stateside, and people seemed genuinely more open to hearing different styles of music.  I think it can be clichey in the UK and Ireland but in America people will go to gigs for the sake of going to gigs.  They just want to see live music.  It was a celebration of that, a real gig culture. 

The generosity is there too.  We had a friend in the US who printed us tee shirts.  When we landed at the door of our Air B N B there was a box of tee shirts there ready.   And when we went to sell them, people were literally offering us a hundred dollar for one tee-shirt.  Some guy he sent us $100 for one tee shirt.  I said let me give you more but he said I only want one.  That happened a few times. The last show we did was a crazy late night 1am in the morning show.  People were telling me that they were waiting on an Uber and they heard us and came in.  We had seven or eight tee shirts left that we just couldn’t take home so we said they are whatever you want to pay for them and people were paying $40, $50 for these tee-shirts.  It was crazy.  The generosity was amazing and to the people who made it all happen for us, they are just great great people.

I believe you’re also playing Ireland Music Week.  I’ve heard that it’s a really important organisation for bands.
We did it once before but it was pandemic ridden.  Everyone wearing masks, people had to have space and it was all pre-recorded.  So this will be a whole different Ireland Music Week experience.  It is quite prestige.  They were telling us there were about 800 applications and only about 50 bands get it.  I’m really proud of us for getting it but it’s also a meetup, a showcase so they urge us to go to a few conferences and spend the day there are, purposely making the bands all meet up and hang out which is a good thing too.

It’s good for northern and southern bands to mix more as well.  I think there is a divide there and there shouldn’t be because music brings people together across divides.  We found it much easier to get a gig in London than in Dublin.  But this meeting up and mixing is going to help fix that. We’re only two hours away from each other.  It’s kinda like a band from Glasgow not playing with a band from Edinburgh, its ridiculous.

And just to finish up, any plans for Wynona Bleach you can share?
There is talk of us potentially re-recording and re-releasing our previous Christmas single which we put out last year really for a laugh, and now its been re-done with James on drums and his partner on various instruments.  We’ve also another single ready to go at some point during the next few months.

For more information on Wynona Bleach please check out their facebook and instagram.

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.