The Raincoats
Begin the Begin
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Though they formed in the thick of London’s punk phenomena of 1977, the all-female Raincoats never shared the shock tactics or volume of their male peers. Instead, they put out a trio of albums in the late ’70s and early ’80s that contained a herky jerky mix of post-punk nerves and searing violin discord. A variety of rhythmic influences (reggae, dub, African) showed the band’s aspirations were higher than the level of their cumulative musical dexterity, but fortunately they were smart enough to overcome any limitations.

Nonetheless, the group may have just been a footnote in the punk (and post-punk) annals had it not been for Kurt Cobain. Cobain championed the band, and even hunted down guitarist Ana da Silva to try to get a new copy of their classic self-titled debut, which in the early ’90s was out of print both at home and abroad. He mentioned the band frequently in interviews and in the notes for Nirvana’s Incesticide, and Geffen eventually reissued The Raincoats’ small catalog. The new interest gave cause for Da Silva and the band’s other principal member, bassist Gina March, to put together a new version of the band and record a new album, Looking in the Shadows, which was released in 1996.

After once again going underground soon after Looking’s release, The Raincoats resurfaced earlier this decade to play sporadic live shows. Birch and Da Silva recently started the WeThree label with manager Shirley O’Loughlin to reissue the band’s catalog, and this week they are releasing the 30th anniversary edition of the group’s second record, Odyshape. The Raincoats are also hitting the East Coast this week for a series of shows, but I caught up with Da Silva via Skype before she left England to discuss the band’s many incarnations and the whys and what fors of each.

Did you have any goals when you initially started the band or was it just for kicks?

Ana da Silva: At the start it was like, “Why don’t we start a band?” We didn’t have any set ideas about what we wanted to do or what it was about.

Being part of the punk scene, at the time, did you feel like you were part of something larger than yourself?

ADS: Yeah, of course. Punk was there, and I was just a little person, but I embraced it and heard and experienced it. Then we decided to do the band to be part of that thing. Obviously, if you do something like that, you want to take it seriously, so although it was a fun thing to think about doing—having a band—it was also a very meaningful thing.

What was the idea behind naming the band The Raincoats?

ADS: It wasn’t too much of an idea. We were just saying names, going through all sorts of things, and probably we got to clothing. It seemed pertinent to the time, and also being in England, it rained a lot. And I liked the word. It wasn’t even me who thought of it, but as soon as I head the word, I embraced it. It’s a nice sounding word and has a nice to ring to it. Then you can think of it as a protective garment. A name becomes a name and people don’t even think about what it means anymore. It’s just the name of a band.

By most accounts, you just picked up your instruments without really knowing how to play them. It seems odd that you then put out a call for a violinist. That’s not the first instrument that comes to mind when starting a punk band. Why did you want a violin player?

ADS: It was (original drummer and former Slit) Palmolive who had the idea to have a violin player. It was only very recently, though, that Gina found out that she had the idea to have the violin played classically, but it didn’t go that way. So we put out an ad for a violin of keyboard player and Vicky (Aspinall) responded. She adapted her way of playing to what we were about. We really like the Velvet Underground, and I think that’s where we went with it. I don’t know that the classical would have worked.

Between being women in a male-dominated arena and kind of learning to play your instruments in public, did The Raincoats feel like a constant challenge?

ADS: Learning how play our instruments was definitely a challenge, but that was one of the interesting things about being in a band. We weren’t really learning together, though. We’d come together and try things on the guitar and bass and everything, and if it sounded good, we’d use it, even if we didn’t know what it was. I already knew a little bit of guitar—just a few chords—and Gina was learning how to play bass. When we were together, we were basically writing parts to the song. When we performed in public, we didn’t actually know much more than what we played in those songs. We’d just do something, and if it sounded interesting, we’d use it, even if we didn’t know if it was an E chord or a minor chord or a seventh or whatever.

You once said something to the effect that you broke up after every record. So what ultimately led to the actual break-up of the band?

ADS: The first time, it was mainly Palmolive. She wanted to leave. She didn’t have a hard time playing with us, but she was looking for a different meaning for her life and she just had enough of playing in a band. You wouldn’t be able to say that, though, if you saw her live because she always showed so much joy when she was playing. Even at the last gig that we did when we knew she was leaving, we did some Super 8 film and she looks so joyous and happy playing. When she left, I was really devastated and it didn’t seem to make any sense. We were having problems between all of us, and it seemed like a good time to end it all—and we did, and then started again. It’s like when a women has a baby and it’s terrible, but then she forgets about it and has another one.

You’re talking about after the first record, but after the last record, after Moving, what caused the sort of permanent break-up?

ADS: Basically, at that point, we were all pushing in different directions. When we started, our differences were a good thing. We brought different things to the band and it made it interesting. On the second album, we were trying even more things. Odyshape has a lot of different feels. But by the time we did Moving, it had become a negative thing. Each person’s songs were so different, it was almost like different bands on each song. I felt that I wasn’t connecting. I didn’t feel like part of a whole and it seemed like we were all separate. To me, it didn’t make any sense to do that sort of thing. I don’t know about the others, but I felt really, really unhappy. For a long time, I couldn’t even listen to that album because it was after we decided to split up that we decided, since we had the songs, we should just make a record of them. Shirley, our manager, said, “You’re splitting up, but why don’t you just go and just do the album and then that’s it?” It seemed like a good idea. We got along fine at the studio. The way we did it was that each person had the last say on their songs, like I would have to be 100% happy with my song. So we finished the album and that was it.

Let’s talk about Odyshape as that’s the impetus for the activity of the band right now, isn’t it?

ADS: It kind of coincided with a gig in Montreal we were asked to play about a year ago. It was the 30th anniversary of Odyshape and we didn’t have any CDs left, so we thought we’d do it again and do it better, where the artwork is better, the vinyl is 180 grams and we remastered everything. We’ll be playing more songs from Odyshape than we have been lately, but it’s not really a promotional tour. It’s very much of a coincidence. We go to the States on the 13th, and the album comes out on that day. It’s pretty amazing that it coincided.

Have your feelings about the songs on Odyshape changed over the years?

ADS: No, they haven’t. I always think that what’s done is done, and it’s the expression of a moment in time. Now, if we feel like changing them a bit to suit something we’re thinking about, we choose the songs that we prefer.

I don’t know what the reception was like when the first album came out, but was there any external pressure when you were making the second album?

ADS: No, we always made our own minds up about things, and Rough Trade let us get on with it and do what we wanted. When we wrote the songs for Odyshape and went to record them, there wasn’t a problem even though they sounded very different from the first album. We kept challenging ourselves and saw it as an art project. For me, in art, each piece that you do has to challenge you and what is going on with you at the time. So we went and did Odyshape and everything was fine. In terms of sales, it wasn’t as successful as the first one, but a lot of people prefer it. I think it’s good that they’re all different.

With the gained experience, did you feel like you had a better idea of what you wanted to accomplish with Odyshape?

ADS: Everything was always really organic with us. We never sat down and thought about how we were going to do a second album. We never thought, “This time around we have do do a less punky album.” We went to the States and did some gigs. I bought an Indian instrument called a Shruti Box—we used it on the record at the end of “Shouting Out Loud”—and Gina bought a balafon and we just wanted to use those instruments in the music.

You were talking about not having any specific ideas and the impression people have is that these songs are fairly loose. Were you rehearsed at all when you went in to record?

ADS: Yes, we were. But we had four songs with drums with Ingird (Weiss), and then all the other songs, we wrote without a drummer. When we went to the studio, we got different drummers to do different songs because of the styles they played. So they added the drums to what was already there and had to adapt to what we did, so that might be why they’re a bit loose in certain places. Maybe a drummer would have pushed us in a more structured way, but I think that music shouldn’t always be in time. It should evolve from what you’re doing. Life goes in spurts and lunges, and music should portray that sort of thing. You go a bit faster, then you go a bit slower. Then you have something terrible happen to you and then something great happens. Music should express all the changes in your life.

You were relatively unknown here in the United States, but what was the profile of the band like in England before the renewed interest in the band thanks to Nirvana?

ADS: We were one of the bands on Rough Trade that sold the most records until the Smiths came along, so we did quite well, especially with the first record. In the ’90s, though, we didn’t have any records out. In the States, we had a strong fanbase. Here, we did also, but at that time, there were more fans in the States. People were giving each other tapes with Raincoats songs here and there, and telling each other about it. And bands like Nirvana and Bikini Kill were interested in what we did, but we didn’t know anything till we found out later. Still, until the CDs came out, there was nothing happening. I thought it was pretty dead, and I was surprised when there was interest in our work.

And it seemed like there was a good amount of momentum when you got back together, then you broke up again or it petered out. What happened there?

ADS: We did break up again and we didn’t do anything for ages. Then Robert Wyatt (who was one of the drummers on Odyshape) curated the Meltdown Festival, and one of the bands he wanted was us, so we decided to do it. Then Chicks on Speed asked us to play in Berlin, and we went. So slowly we started coming back in, but we haven’t recorded another album. If we did another album, which I don’t think we will, we’d probably break up again.

Was there any particular reason you stopped playing in the ’90s?

ADS: I cant’t even remember! It’s always a bit difficult to negotiate the band with different people. We had different drummers, and it didn’t feel particularly urgent. We did some gigs when Looking in the Shadows came out and we didn’t try to do anything more. Then people started asking us to play, and we can never say “no.”

You said you don’t foresee the band making another record, but it seems like the band is still an on-going concern, just with a more relaxed attitude.

ADS: Yes, I think it’s good to have this relaxed attitude. In fact, there was a band we met that was splitting up, and we said that they should do like us and just do the odd thing and not feel like they are in the band 24/7. It can be claustrophobic being in a group. The best thing is to do as much as you can to keep it from feeling that way. We just do things people ask us to do and never do big tours.

When you reunited in the ’90s, did you ask Vicky?

ADS: Yes, we did, but she wasn’t interested. She was in a different life. She has a family, though she’s not the only one, and she was doing a label. She liked playing, but she didn’t like playing live. She used to get rashes, so for her it was finished.

Do you plan to reissue Moving for its 30th anniversary?

ADS: I dont know, I suppose maybe we will. It came out in Japan. We did alter it a bit. Some songs are a bit too out-of-place, so we edited it. The cover is blue instead of red, so it’s like a new edition, and we put “Nice Little Girl” on there, which didn’t belong to an album before.

It sounds like you have mixed feelings about Moving.

ADS: Yeah, I like some of it a lot, and I’ve grown out of the feeling of being really upset. We probably will do it eventually.

And in 2026, you’re going to do the 30th anniversary of Looking in the Shadows, right?

ADS: Is that when it is? Oh my god! The thing is we don’t have the rights to it, so if Geffen lets us do it.

Do you feel like you have a legacy to live up to?

ADS: No, we just do our gigs and try to enjoy them. I like the idea of doing things to make people always know that we’re there. I don’t like thinking that we’ll be forgotten. But as far as a legacy, that’s up to the people. We don’t try to live up to anything. We just do what we do, and people can either take it or leave it.