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Shebeen Queen interview with Jess and Fenda

Discordant harmonies abound in the rusty jagged beats and erratically hypnotic guitars of Shebeen Queen.  The quietly escalating demur belying the devastating power that runs like an electrical current through their debut cassette tape.  It’s not all the time I hear a band where the low fidelity approach actually adds something to the music.  In other words, I hear a lot of jive talk from a lot of people about the warmth of cassettes and stuff but not a lot of bands know how to harness and control that blown-out distorted beast.  While The Mummies instantly spring to mind, Drew Owen of Sick Thoughts is another member of the afore mentioned camp.  Never did I think I would come across an Aussie power house like Shebeen Queen on such a small and unassuming cassette tape, it’s like someone dosed La Luz out on acid and Heather Hussy was sitting in on drums while Ty Segall or Mikal Cronin helped strum some tunes or something.  This shit is the real deal.  Seamlessly transitioning back and forth from calm melodies and soft handed crooning into these raved up frenzies of action, Shebeen Queen is one of the rare bands that draws you in with the calm and collected sounds of tunes like “Devil On My Back” or “June” and then right houses you in the skull with stuff like “Calm” and “Seven Days”.  Minimalism at its finest, the self-titled debut EP is an exercise in musical discovery and experimentation.  You can almost hear the band learning what they’re doing throughout the production of the album and it comes from such a deep and sincere place that all of those aspects really add to the feeling and ambiance of the album.  While Australia might be cranking out killer punk bands and garage rock super-groups all day long Shebeen Queen is something new, fresh and different, a radical change of pace to say the least.  Just check out “Catherine” from the EP at the link below and make sure to let me know if you’re lucky enough to score a tape cause these mothers are gonna go quick, rest assured!

What is Shebeen Queen’s lineup? Is this your original lineup or have there been any changes since the bands started?

Jess:  We are essentially a three piece.  The guts of the band are Fenda and I.  We’ve played with three drummers so far, but at the moment Tony is our drummer and he also helped record the tape.

Fenda:  I’m on Guitar/Vox, Jess does Guitar/Vox/melodica/tamborine and Tony Mcyeh plays Drums.  We had Craig Rossi, Box Of Fish, drumming for us on most of the recordings and he played live with us once.

The more musicians that I talk to the more I realize that most musicians are involved in at least one other band, at least in their spare time or something. Are any of you in any other active bands at this point? Have you released any music with anyone in the past? If so can you tell us a little bit about that?

Jess:  I have been doing home recordings for years, but there’ve been no releases until now.

Fenda:  Nope, and nothing worth mentioning.

Where are you originally from?

Jess:  I'm from Horsfield Bay on the Central Coast, it's over an hour from Sydney.

Fenda:  New Zealand, but I grew up in Sydney and a small town called Mullumbimby.

What was the music scene like there when you were growing up? Did you see a lot of shows when you were a kid? Do you feel like the local music scene played a large role in your musical tastes or the way that you play at this point?

Jess:  The Music scene was pretty much nonexistent.  If there was a show on, it was mostly in Manly or the centre of Sydney.  All ages shows were few and far between.

Fenda:  It was pretty good actually.  They used to put on a lot of underage gigs in Sydney and also when I lived in Mullumbimby.  The festivals were cheaper and allowed for young people to see a lot of great bands at once.  The local scene definitely influenced my tastes at the time, but not the way I play now.

What was your house like when you were a kid? Were your parents or any of your relatives either musicians or extremely interested or involved in music?

Jess:  My eldest sister Holly is a really good singer, and she used to play in clubs in Sydney.  My older brother got me into grunge and punk when I was thirteen.  My dad got me into Bob Dylan and a lot of 70's bands.

Fenda:  I’m half Maori, so there was always someone in the family playing guitar or singing at gatherings as it’s a pretty big part of our culture.  Growing up was pretty normal for me.  My parents weren't musicians, although my mum could play the Ukelele and my dad was a massive Elvis fan and had a great collection of 50's and 60's music.  He gave me my first Kink's album on tape.

What was your first real exposure to music?

Jess:  There was no first, I just slowly discovered that your music doesn't have to sound a certain way and it doesn't need to have a particular structure.

Fenda:  Because I had to share a room with my sister, I listened to everything she liked which was a lot of pop music.  And pretty much everyone in my family listened to Bob Marley and Fleetwood Mac.

If you had to pick on defining moment, a moment that opened your eyes to the infinite possibilities of music and changed everything for you, what would it be?

Fenda:  When I first heard "Venus In Furs" by the Velvet Underground.  It just floored me.  I must have listened to that a hundred times that week.  Its cliché, I know...

When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music and what brought that decision about?

Jess:  I started writing when I was about ten.  Then I started learning guitar when I was about thirteen.  I liked doing it and it just naturally became my hobby.

Fenda:  When I went through puberty.  All of my favourite albums got me through that.  I thought I should repay that debt.

What was your first instrument? Who gave it to you and when was that?

Jess:  My dad got me an acoustic guitar when I was about thirteen.  I still have it.

Fenda:  Technically it was a 12-string acoustic my uncle left at my house.  When I was fourteen I got my first electric guitar and amp which my parents bought for me.

When and how did you all originally meet?

Fenda:  I'm in a relationship with Jess' cousin.  I think we met at a family BBQ.

Jess:  Fenda started dating my cousin.  I met her a couple of times but we didn't really speak that much. Then they moved in together and we all started hanging out.  We just started playfully jamming and it went from there.

What led to the formation of Shebeen Queen and when was that?

Jess:  After a few jams with friends, we decided to try just jamming together.  I started catching the bus every Friday to Fenda's house and we ended up coming up with eight or so songs in a couple of months.

Fenda:  We were both sick of not playing the music we liked.  I listened to a song Jess wrote and just loved it.  We realized we were on the same page musically and just started writing and recording really quickly.

What does the name Shebeen Queen mean or refer to? As an American I feel like I’m missing out on a joke or some slang here for some reason. Who came up with name and how did you go about choosing it?

Fenda:  A Shebeen is an illegal drinking shack where they would sell homemade alcohol.  In Zimbabwe and South Africa, these places were usually run by women called Shebeen Queens.  I bought this amazing record by a guy called "Rikki Ililonga" who's from Zambia and he wrote a song called "Shebeen Queen" which is easily one of the best songs I've ever heard.  I showed Jess and we just fell in love with the name and thought it had a nice ring to it.

Jess:  You’re not really missing out on a joke, we just wanted a strong name with a strong meaning.  I like what these queens did, they offered a space filled with illegal drinking, a place for bands to play and writers and poets to exchange ideas.  I like the history of it.  Alcohol was their only form of income.  They were strong woman and out of their struggle they managed to create a sense of community.

Is there any shared creed, code, ideal or mantra that the band shares or lives by?

Jess:  We’re pretty much just making music together because we love doing it.  That’s it.

Fenda:  Not really…  We just don't like anything shitty, so we try to make music that we think isn’t shit.

Where are you all located at these days?

Jess:  In Newtown in Sydney.

Fenda:  We both live in Sydney.  I live on Bondi Beach which I can't wait to get out of.  If anyone is reading this that wants to come to Sydney and thinks that Bondi Beach is the place to go, think again.  You've heard lies.

How would you describe the local music scene where you’re at now?

Jess:  Its fine, it’s like every other city.  It's very cliquey, it’s very trendy; the bar isn't set that high in Sydney.  But on the flip side you can meet real people that are amazing and are just playing because they want to.

Fenda:  It's kinda bubbling under a surface of shit right now.  I think in the last year a lot of good bands have formed.  Sydney is generally shit if you're in band, venues only care about dance music.  But I think that will change in the next year.

Are you very involved or interested in the local music scene? Do you book or attend a lot of local shows? Do you help to record and or release any local music?

Jess:  I'm interested but not really blown away by anything.  I think Melbourne has a better music scene then us, but I guess the grass is always greener.

Fenda:  Not yet, but we will be.  We go to our fair share of gigs.

Do you feel like the scene has played a large role in the history or sound of Shebeen Queen, or do you feel like you could be doing what you’re doing and sound like you do regardless of your surroundings?

Jess:  No, the scene has made no effect.

Fenda:  Not really.  I think we’ve always just wanted to play what we like and not think about it too much.  So I guess we would still be doing it regardless of what was happening in the scene.

There’s a lot of things that I love about my job with Psychedelic Baby and there’s a lot of things that I’m very good at when it comes to my work. Describing bands to people who’ve never heard them is unfortunately not one of those things. Rather than me making some bizarre and awkward attempt at it, how would you describe Shebeen Queen’s sound in your own words to our readers who might not have heard you before?

Jess:  Doom country.

Fenda:  Doomed country, loud and pretty.

I love the melting pot of sound that you all have going on in your music and am curious who some of your major musical influences are? What about influences on the band as a whole rather than just individually?

Jess:  I think Roland S. Howard is a personal influence.  Karen Dolten, The Band, Television, etcetera are influences on the band.

Fenda:  We both love Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Velvet Underground, Serge Gainsbourg, PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi and The Stooges.

Can you tell our readers about the songwriting process with Shebeen Queen? Is there someone who comes to the rest of the band with a riff or more finished idea to work out and compose with the rest of the band? Or is it more of a situation where you all get together, jam and slowly work the idea into a song?

Jess:  Pretty much someone has an idea and then we just play it out and see if it's anything.  Most of the time it will be a partly finished song by Fenda or myself, and we will just add to it and make suggestions.  We’re both pretty strong headed so when we have an idea, it sounds a particular way in our head and we just kind of expect the other to already know how it's meant to sound.  Luckily enough it works out alright in the end.

Fenda:  Primarily we make up songs on our own and then take them to each other to help develop.  There's only been a couple of occasions where we've jammed on the spot and come up with something.  If we don't get to work with each other, we send each other recordings via email and work on them separately.

Do you all enjoy recording? As a musician myself I think that most of us can really appreciate the end result, holding that album in your hands knowing that its yours and that no one can ever take that away from you, it’s a great feeling to say the least. Getting to that final point though. Getting everything recorded, especially when it comes to having to record as a band and stuff can be extremely rough to say the least. How is it recording for you all?

Fenda:  Mainly it’s fun and exciting.  We kinda rushed our first recording and learnt a lot from that, but we were very excited when it was done.  We're looking forward to the next one!

Do you all utilize studio environments for recording, or is it more of a DIY proposition that you handle on your own time with your own equipment and personnel?

Jess:  It's DIY.  We recorded the drums first on a 4-track and then we just kept using the 4-track in my lounge room and did the whole album like that.  We used our shitty drum kit and Tony, our drummer at the time, recorded it all, mixed, mastered and dubbed all the tapes for us.  He's pretty amazing.

Fenda:  Completely DIY.  We recorded it in Jess's lounge room and at our rehearsal space.  Tony mixed it all for us and did all of the tedious stuff which was awesome.

Does Shebeen Queen do a lot of prep work before you all record getting things sounding just the way that you want them, all the arrangements and compositions worked out? Or is it more of an organic process where things have a little room to breathe, change and evolve during recording?

Jess:  We pretty much have the songs figured out before we record.  The only thing that we let evolve during recording is the sound of it, which pedals we may use on our guitars and vocals.  Recording this tape was just Fenda and I figuring it out as we went.

Fenda:  Being our first record we just kinda pumped the tracks out and printed it!  And like I said before we learned from that and we will definitely take more time on the next recording.

Your debut release was the self-titled Shebeen Queen cassette which came out the end of last year (2013). Is that release limited at all? I thought I remembered reading about it being limited but can’t find the article again and beginning to think I just made it up. Can you share some of your memories of recording that material with our readers? Was that a fun, pleasurable experience for you all? Where and when was that material recorded? Who recorded it? What kind of equipment was used?

Jess:  Our tape was self-released.  Everything that we've done for it, like get it played on radio and get it into stores here and overseas was all us.  If you see us on iTunes don't buy it, ‘cause the money doesn’t go to us, thanks!  It was a limited release of 50.  We’re sold out now, but I’m dubbing a second lot now for our shows and to send people who buy them off the Bandcamp page.  The recording process has its high and lows.  We did it all in my living room, Tony recorded it for us as well as mastered and dubbed the tapes.  We did have a lot of fun with it though.  There were a lot of long nights of drinking and singing.”

Do you all have any material other than the tape that you’ve released that I might have missed, a song on a comp or anything that I might have missed?

Fenda:  Nope.

Jess:  No, just the tape.

With the release of the tape not too long ago, are there any other releases in the works or on the horizon at this point?

Jess:  We have songs that we want to record and we want to release a record this year hopefully.

Fenda:  Yeah.  We’re currently working on some new songs and are thinking of releasing stuff on vinyl this time.

With the completely insane international postage rate increases this past year I try to provide our readers with as many options as I possibly can for picking up imports! Where’s the best place for our US readers to pick up copies of your music?

Jess:  The best place to buy the tape is from our Bandcamp.  I just sent some out to Volcanic tongue in Glasgow, it’s in at Permanent Records Chicago and I’ll keep sending them out to record stores over the next couple of weeks.

What about our international and overseas readers?

Jess:  Feel free to email us at, we will get a tape out to you.

Does Shebeen Queen have any big plans for 2014?

Jess:  We have some shows in February, March and April so far.  We’ve started writing new songs and we want to start recording soon.  We want to put out a record and be mighty proud of it.

Fenda:  We plan to remove the stigma of menstruation being a "curse" and we also hope to gig more often.  Hopefully this next recording we do will earn us some money so we can pay our credit card debts.

Do you remember what the first song that Shebeen Queen ever played live was? Where and when was that?

Jess:  I think it was “Change My Mind”.

Fenda:  "Change my Mind".  We played this weird little pub called Town & Country.

What, if anything, do you all have planned as far as touring goes for 2014 so far?

Fenda:  We will be playing in Melbourne in March and hopefully we get to do that more often and perhaps some other cities in Australia.  We haven't really discussed touring, I think that’ll happen once we know how this next recording will turn out.

Does Shebeen Queen spend a lot of time on the road? Do you all enjoy touring? What’s life like on the road for Shebeen Queen?

Jess:  We haven't toured at all yet.

Fenda:  I spend a lot of time on Bondi Road.  In summer the traffic is shit, and you’ll sit in a packed bus full of sweaty beach heads for way longer than you can stand.

Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play a shows with so far?

Fenda:  It’s still early days for us…

Jess:  No one yet, we just got asked to play with Ausmanauts who I think have good songs.

In your dream, who are you on tour with?

Jess:  Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson or Patti Smith.

Fenda:  Bill Hicks.

Do you have any funny or interesting stories from your live shows or performances that you’d like to share here with our readers?

Jess:  We played our very first gig in this little pub called The Town & Country.  There were a few of our friends there but it was pretty funny to see Paul Mac sitting at the bar eating a counter meal.  He was on the radio when I was growing up, I thought it was pretty weird that he just so happened to be at this shitty pub.

Fenda:  Not yet.

Do you give a lot of thought to the visual aspects of the band like artwork on flyers, posters and covers that represent the band? If so do you have a defacto artist that you turn to for your art needs? Who is that and how did you originally get involved with them?

Fenda:  Jess has a great eye for stuff, so she's been doing it so far.

Jess:  I did a lot of photo restorations for work, I just used one of the 'before' images (with permission) for our front cover.  I think Fenda and I are on the same page with our taste and what suits the band.

With all the choices that are available to people today, I’m always curious why artists choose and prefer the various methods that they do. Do you have a preferred medium of release for your own music? What about when you’re listening to and or listening to music? If so, why?

Jess:  We released a tape because that’s what we recorded on.  It’s what I’ve always recorded on.  When I listen to music, it’s usually a record or a tape.  I’m not against digital, it’s just that that's what I’ve always done.

Fenda:  Tape is fun, inexpensive and suited the songs we wrote.  There’s no doubt that vinyl is the best for sound, it’s so warm and just feels right.  I do love the ease of having digital files though, especially for travelling purposes.

Do you have a music collection at all? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Jess:  Yeah, it’s mainly LP's.  A lot of Dylan, a lot of Blue Note jazz, Colin Stetson, a lot of country, blues, Angel Olsen, Jenks Milner, Bowie, Total Control and I love any tape that is released on Night People.

Fenda:  You can find anything in my music collection, from country music to heavy metal.  I listen to anything that’s honest and well produced.  I also have a lot of music from different countries and from every era, even classical music.  I like to have music for every mood possible and to learn from.

I grew up around a fairly large collection of music and I was encouraged from a very young ago to listen to anything that I wanted. There was always something magical about wandering over the endless shelves of music that stretched out in front of me, picking something completely at random, popping it into the player, kicking back in the beanie bag, reading the liner notes, staring at the artwork and just letting the experience carry me off to another time and place. At this point I’m pretty sure it’s become an addiction, but I love my music collection! Do you have any such connection with physically released music?

Jess:  Definitely, I just have a couple of shelves of records in the living room and listening to records is how I listen to music, that and tapes.  I think I have way too many tape players.  I’ve always done that, ever since I got into music.  I would listen to records and always record them on tape players.  I just love the sound of them, the artwork and when you buy a record you are really going to listen to it from start to finish and get to know it.  You can't do that with a digital album.  You just see people listening to the first ten seconds of a song and just skip and skip.  I could never relate to that.

Fenda:  Definitely!  I used to go to my local library, when I was around thirteen years old, and select random CDs that I’d never heard of and take them home to digest.  Things like Nirvana's In Utero, the soundtrack to "Cabaret", some classical music and The Beatles.  I also found Bjork’s first band Sugarcubes there and fell in love with her.  I loved going to record stores and spending hours in there staring at the covers and wondering what it would sound like.  I usually bought things based on the cover back then.  I was rarely disappointed.

As much as I love my music collection, and I’m passionate about collecting and listening to good music. But as much as I love it there was always the issue of portability. I was just never able to take enough of what I wanted with me on the go. Digital music has all but eliminated that problem over night, but that’s not even the kicker! When teamed with the internet, the two have exposed people to an entire universe of music that they otherwise wouldn’t have known even existed. It’s opened people’s eyes to the infinite amounts of amazing music out there and levelled the playing field somewhat for dedicated independent artists willing to take the time to promote and harbor a healthy online presence. On the other hand illegal downloading runs rampant and a lot of people feel like music is becoming this disposable thing to be used and then forgotten or erased. As an artist during the reign of the digital era, what’s your opinion on digital music and distribution?

Jess:  On the positive side it’s easier to find bands and listen to them and to get suggestions of other bands, finding out there’s this whole scene that you didn't even know about.  I like Soundcloud for that.  I think it makes us more knowledgeable but at the same time, if you're not careful, also makes us really fucking lazy.

Fenda:  I think the pros outweigh the cons at this point.  Yeah, its shit, people aren't appreciating music as actual things people have created and put time and effort into.  But on the other hand, it’s allowed people to control where their music goes and to be able to do everything without a middle man.  I think it has uprooted a lot of dishonesty in the business and made people realize that it needs to be purely creative and not a corporation.  We still have major labels, yeah, but for independent artists, the possibilities are endless.

I try to keep up on as many good bands as I possibly can, but with all the avenues and venues available to me today it’s impossible to keep up with even one-percent of the amazing stuff going on out there! Because of this I rely on talking to intelligent and talented people such as yourself for suggestions on who I should be checking out. Is there anyone from your local scene or area that I should be listening to that I might not have heard of before?

Jess:  Our drummer at the moment Tony is in this noise act called Teen Ax, very intense to see live, he also does Pleasure Bros. which is working with reel-to-reels.  Anything on Lost Race Records, like the Cobwebbs, Vacant Valley Records, Per Purpose.  Mad Nana are one of my favourite bands, they're from Melbourne.  Love chants are really good, Drunk Elk just released a tape and it blew me away, they're from Tasmania.  East Link, Wonderfuls, Treehouse, Bitchratch, Udays Tiger, White Walls, then Damn Terrain are from Melbourne, Harmony are good live and Total Control, Amateur Childbirth, Psy Ants and Taco Leg…  That's all I can think of at the moment.

Fenda:  I just saw a local band I hadn't heard of before called Alex Cameron.  I haven't been able to stop listening to them.  Check out  Royal Headache are from Sydney and are a lot of fun, Holy Balm are great too, oh and Raw Prawn.

What about nationally and internationally?

Jess:  To make my answer simple, at the moment I've been playing Afflicted Man, Henry Flynt, Pop 1280, Disappears and Ann Briggs.

Fenda:  I really like UV Race and Total Control from Melbourne.  Also Kitchen’s Floor from Brisbane.

Thanks so much for doing the interview, I hope to see a lot more of you all in the future and hope we hear a lot as well; ah, terrible jokes, I’m sorry… But seriously, before we call it a day and I let you go, is there anything that I might have missed or that you’d just like to take this opportunity to talk to me or my readers about?

Jess:  Thanks a lot.

Fenda:  Thanks!

(2013) Shebeen Queen – Shebeen Queen EP – digital, Cassette Tape – Self-Released

Interview made by Roman Rathert/2014
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