“that’s the biggest thing you’re going to get out of a band: the fun” — menace beachBack
The changing, expanding, contracting, revolving and evolving line-up of the Menace Beach band has attracted as much comment as Menace Beach’s music.
A chunk of that music was released on their debut album, Ratworld, in January, building on a rapid sequence of releases that has grown in size from cassette to seven inch to twelve inch to LP since 2012.
A mid-2010s reinterpretation of a less-explored flipside of a mid-1990s reinterpretation of early 1990s USA- styled indie rock, plus psychedelics, Ratworld is the sound of teenagers who gave TFI Friday a miss when Oasis were on, but waited eagerly with a blank VHS if it was The Longpigs. It has an intimate joyfulness full of something that is often overlooked when people comb through lyrics and chords looking for meaning and anguish: it’s fun to listen to, and sounds like it was fun to make.
The audible fun in its making might be what drives the interest in the Menace Beach band’s make-up; nothing excites curiosity more than the thought that some people might be having fun that you’re not, and we want to know who they are and what they ordered so we can break the rules of polite decorum and have some too.
Another rule being broken by the Menace Beach band is the unwritten law that dictates that once a person is in a band, that person has no business being in another. Menace Beach themselves have been respectful of that law, but the Menace Beach band has been home to rulebreakers from Hookworms, Sky Larkin, Pulled Apart By Horses, Mother Vulpine, This Et Al, The Bruising, possibly more.
‘Regular line-up’ doesn’t quite cut it when summarising that situation in a record review, so the word ‘supergroup’ gets pulled off the Traveling Wilburys’ shelf and the Menace Beach band starts to be seen as a vessel for the most exalted of Leeds’ musicians to come together in one studio, or on one stage, to argue about which one is Tom Petty and play songs they don’t play in their ‘regular’ bands.
Except the songs are by a regular band, and the regular band are called Menace Beach; and Liza Violet and Ryan Needham, who are the very regular regulars in Menace Beach, are not exalted members of other Leeds bands. And they’re from Derby.
“That’s the beauty of the whole supergroup thing,” says Ryan. “Nobody really knows about us two. Everyone else was already in successful bands, so that deflects attention, which is great.”
You can’t stick to the Leeds supergroup story when its two founder members are recent refugees from the East Midlands, but you can ask how, after Ryan and Liza’s escape from Derby (“It wasn’t that big an adventure – just up the motorway”) they became embroiled in that story so quickly.
“We didn’t really know anyone that well,” says Liza. “We knew Owen from Department M, and he did us a big favour by letting us stay at his house when we couldn’t find anywhere to live. He introduced us to the Pulled Apart By Horses guys.”
“I’d met some of them at a festival in Wales,” says Ryan. “And Nestor, who is our drummer now, I met him once backstage at Leeds Festival, when I was really drunk and embarrassed myself because I love Sky Larkin, and I love his drumming in particular.”
“I think we begged Nestor to play drums on the recording,” says Liza. “We didn’t know anyone else who could play, and we were like, ‘You’re our favourite drummer, please please please!’
“We met MJ from Hookworms on something like our third night in Leeds, in the smoking area outside the Brudenell. We were with Owen, and the four of us ended up sitting at the same table and started chatting. In my head I remember it like we were the only people at the Brudenell that night. It was like everyone else had left.”
“Back in our previous bands we kind of had some beef with MJ,” says Ryan. “He was at Nottingham Music College, and we both used to post on a Derby music website – and MJ really hated my old band. Looking back I can obviously see why! When we met I kind of knew who he was and told him – you used to slag off my band. He was like, ‘oh bloody hell, yeah, I remember’ – but obviously there was no apology!
“We just thought this was a good way to meet people, to see if anyone was open to getting a studio – not necessarily starting a band, but a social thing.”
The secret to a supergroup is not to know everybody, but to know nobody; to spend lonely days in bars, outside hidden venues, seizing on lucky introductions and driven by compulsive songwriting; that’s the formula, and the lesson might be that when you don’t know anybody, that’s when you’ll meet the best people.
“We didn’t find a lot of places to begin with because after crashing with Owen we moved straight into town,” says Ryan. “And everyone we met lived in Hyde Park. So to start with we were hanging out with barmen and people in coffee shops. As a result we still get cheap drinks, so that’s nice.
“But places like Wharf Chambers – I kept walking past that place, but there wasn’t a sign or anything.”
“It’s shut in the daytime too,” says Liza. “It looked like an art studio or something.”
“We were peering in through the windows – what are they doing in there? And now we know, that place is great.
“We were bored I guess. I was thinking earlier about how we even ended up doing this. I feel stupid saying we wrote songs without thinking of playing them live, but that’s genuinely it. We were just bored. I feel like because I’ve been in a band since I was 18, it’s just a thing that I do. I don’t think about why, I’ve just never snapped out of it.”
The sequence of bands that brought Ryan and Liza from their teens to Menace Beach is important, but it’s background; the band Ryan fronted that MJ hated, Komakino, “Didn’t really do that much,” he says, glossing over the tours and festival appearances and music videos. When Ryan speaks it’s with the advisable caution of someone who has perhaps given and regretted interviews before, but who balances that now with the relaxed sense that, having been around the block already, those pressures no longer actually apply. Sometimes he’ll pause to consider a question and eventually direct his answer to Liza, and vice-versa, and in those moments you can understand why these two left Derby and five-piece band formalities in favour of a new way in Leeds where it’s just them, if they want it that way.
They’re particularly stumped by the suggestion that, with a stack of bored songs and some new mates to play with, Menace Beach are now better placed to ‘make it’ than the bands they’ve been in before. I’ve been told, I tell them, that this could be Menace Beach’s ‘year’.
“Really?” says Liza, introducing a long pause. “That’s gross.
“We have to completely ignore all that stuff, so it doesn’t have any influence on what we’re doing. Just because people pay us compliments, we don’t want to get caught up in it.”
“Sometimes I feel like…” begins Ryan, “Like, I’m not totally jaded. I’m really excited by what we’re doing. But because I’ve been in this position with a couple of bands before I’m a bit wary.
“I’ve been in the position where I was twenty years old and super-excited that people seemed to be into our band, and that is great, it’s really good fun. But now that I’m a little bit older, and working as well, and having met the people we’ve met and learned more about the industry, I feel like we’re a bit more realistic about it now.”
“You’ve got to make sure it’s enjoyable all the time,” says Liza. “That you’re not making a decision that makes it not enjoyable for you anymore. Because that’s the biggest thing you’re going to get out of a band: the fun.”
When the music press isn’t ascribing supergroup status upon gangs of mates, or building bands up to be the next big best brilliant thing (because things that are brilliant now are boring, I guess), they also love defining music scenes by genre or geography, whichever takes less effort. For a Leeds-based paper, the latter is tempting but too tacky, but if forced to herd the bands of Leeds into one singular barn, I’d be inclined to build them a barn of temperament above all else. What the various bands linked around the Menace Beach band have in common is not sound or location, but it’s that they’ve been through a lot and learned a lot about what really matters.
“It’s funny hanging out with all our friends and watching how different people have done things,” says Ryan. “Pulled Apart by Horses, for example, have followed a totally different path to Hookworms.
“Horses have done the Reading and Leeds Festivals, they’ve toured with Biffy Clyro and Muse, and done all the crazy stuff; and Hookworms have done a totally different thing. I find it really interesting to watch how people navigate their thing, the different decisions they make that determine their path.”
The paths some of the harder-treading Leeds bands have taken have diverged, but what characterises the bands in the town barn is that the divergence doesn’t lead to rivalry or argument, but to an acceptance that getting stuff done is hard enough, and that how you get it done is a point of interest and creativity, not conflict.
“Everyone we know is very focused on projects that they’re doing because they love them,” says Liza. “Not for any other reason. That really stops any of that stuff.”
“That’s one of the things I find most exciting about Leeds,” says Ryan. We meet up with our friends and even the people in bands don’t sit around talking shop. Everyone is doing different projects; all the Horses guys are doing various things, MJ is recording bands all the time, then there’s Lord Whitney doing amazing work. Liza made clothes for The Wood Beneath The World last year and that was great. Lins Wilson did her Evangelist project last year… it feels like people are just getting stuff done.
“Moving up from Derby, I guess Leeds is a lot bigger, but the stuff that’s going on is insane. It has totally spurred me on.”
That’s where the real answer to Menace Beach’s supergroup status lies; rather than a Power Station-style force of egos, they’re a flexible gang with a two-person core because experience has taught everyone involved how crucial flexibility is when you try to work creatively. The Menace Beach band have a working model for getting things done.
“People can come and go,” says Ryan. “Nestor is pretty committed to it, because Katie is away with Sleater-Kinney so Sky Larkin aren’t going to be doing much this year. Then if he has to go away with Sky Larkin, that’s fine, we would understand and find someone else.
“It’s the same with people’s jobs. When you’re a band of five people it’s a big ask to keep everyone involved in this one thing. I wanted to avoid that, because it’s killed so many bands I’ve been in or been friends with. With us now, if someone says they can’t do a tour because it’s their parents’ wedding anniversary or whatever, rather than cancelling and everybody being annoyed with that person, we can ask someone else. It works around daft things like that, where real, regular day- to-day stuff comes into it.
“We’re not twenty year old kids anymore. When you’re twenty and it’s looking good, it’s like: right, everyone quit their jobs, we’ll get student loans and all live in a house together, we’ll get in the back of a van and play shows everywhere.
“But there’s a point where you burn out. You can’t be sleeping in someone’s basement every night while having a job and holding that down.”
While Ryan and Liza are all about holding the present down, they are looking forward to the future, and do have ambitions.
“We want to play as many shows as we can,” says Ryan. “As many as we can in Europe, and America doesn’t seem totally out of the question. I’m just totally all about doing festivals.
“You turn up two hours before you play, and there are loads of people to help you load in; you don’t have to soundcheck so you just go up on stage and play. Your mates are there and yo can go and watch bands the rest of the weekend and it’s great. Plus it’s the only time it’s acceptable to wear sunglasses on stage. I’ve only done it once – I couldn’t see my pedals. I felt like a right idiot.”
“I didn’t,” says Liza. “I loved it.”
“I looked at the photos and thought, that looks great, but you just can’t do it. I will do it once.”
Is that an ambition? To wear sunglasses indoors, at night, on stage?
“I think that would be more of a trough than a peak,” says Liza.
“Maybe if I got an eye injury,” says Ryan. “I don’t know, with Americans nobody seems to question it. You look at Julian Casablancas on the main stage at nine with sunglasses on, and he looks like the coolest person ever.”
“You can imagine him in nice, sunny places though,” says Liza. “And he has that mysticism.”
“Yeah. It’s mysticism,” says Ryan. “A band like Peace, they’re from Birmingham, and you know what Birmingham is like. You know the Bullring and you can picture where they work; you’ve been to Birmingham before, you might know some people from Birmingham. But the Strokes could be beamed in; you’ve got no reference points for their life and it makes them seem like the coolest thing ever.
“But if you know someone is from Birmingham then you know what they’re doing every day, pretty much. It’s definitely true. It’s why British bands can’t get away with being cool. Who’s cool?”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 22