“It shouldn't matter at all how we view ourselves or anything like that but as long as people are asking, we'll answer.”
On a recent Sunday, I was invited to record a music video with a group of people I’d never met. Travelling across most of London to meet them at a Nan’s house in New Cross, I was more than a little nervous – I can struggle enough in a large group of people I’ve known for years, let alone a nebulous, faceless group of artists respected in many of the scenes I’ve spent time in. By the time I got off the train, I’d prepared myself for a best-case-scenario of polite small talk; an interview in which my questions are patiently answered but privately scorned, and a journey home listening to The Hotelier. So much so ordinary. The reality of the day couldn’t have been further from my worries – in Itoldyouiwouldeatyou and their friends I found an open-hearted welcome that still baffles me two weeks on, and a day full of humour, mourning, and passionate discussion.
Itoldyouiwouldeatyou are an emo band from London. Sort of. As always when it comes to genre, the details are blurrier than our iTunes libraries would like to suggest, and people are capable of liking and writing music of more than one homogenous sound at a time. When asked how they would pitch their band to a curious listener, lead singer Joey Ashworth operates a tiered system.
‘It depends on the listener; it’s background, right? If it was my aunt I’d be like, well, it’s “indie.” You know? “Indie punk” is what we say to people who don’t know about other things. But then if someone knows a little bit, we’ll say “Oh, it’s kinda emo” and then when they say “…that sounds horrible” we’ll say “well, do you remember the 90s?” and they’d be like “boy, do I!” Then we could mention that it’s more like your 90s Midwest Emo sound. The truth is that we want to sound like a very modern alternative rock band. When you look at alternative rock throughout the ages, enough people sound like Nirvana. We want to write quite hooky, fun, poppy songs that are involved in twinkly tappy stuff as well, the kind of stuff that people normally ignore, in a pop sense.’ I mentioned a strong reference point for ITYIWEY’s blend of melodic hooks, math rock guitars and expansive post-rock atmosphere – Connecticut’s mouthful of emo The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – and we went on to discuss the group’s output.
‘It’s difficult to release something that is as good as that first album. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist when I say that, it’s just that record was – for the scene they were going for – perfectly realized. You know what I mean? That is how that sounds.’ The emphasis on the relation between that band and the scene in which they grew resonates with ITYIWEY’s instrumental, but relatively unnoticed role in fostering the explosion in South London’s capital-S ‘Scene’ in recent years. In various other projects as well as in their primary one, the band have supported, been supported by, and participated with bands like Goat Girl and HMLTD. However, unlike the majority of these bands, ITYIWEY are hard to pin to such a particular movement. They notably played at last year’s ArcTanGent, a yearly focal gathering for the math rock and post-rock scene of the UK, and have toured with the likes of Orchards, Cassels and Sibling. I asked whether they see themselves as part of any distinct scene or movement around London or the UK, and they showed a reluctance to be pigeon-holed. ‘There are just kind of a few that we seem to straddle. I don’t think that we fit, necessarily, into a specific one. And that’s not us being like “Oooh, we’re so versatile…”’ said bassist Ollie Greville, to which Joey elaborated:
‘Sometimes we get put on shows with these sort of grungy emo bands – especially when we first started. Those bands – they’re great, they do what they do really fucking well, bands like Wallflower and stuff like that. But we’d be on bills with them, and people would not really want to hear what we were doing, because it didn’t fit in with that. The word “emo” in that case was sort of a curse, because they’d be like “Emo? Oh, you sound like…”’
‘AFI.’ Mumbled guitarist Josh, to rounds of laughter. The band are six people strong, but I’m interviewing three members, whose roles are outlined by Ollie: ‘Josh writes the tracks, Joey writes the lyrics and the topline, I do most of the business. Most people who follow us and know us as people know that that’s the dynamic.’ This appears to fit them like a glove, as Joey and Ollie, brimming with words and ideas, responded to the bulk of my questions and helmed our meandering discussions. Josh, on the other hand, mostly listened, dropping in occasionally with acerbic jokes and sparse, pensive comments. Responding to Ollie’s implication of him as a silent mastermind, Josh effaced himself with ironic arrogance: ‘It feels kind of weird saying that, you know – these guys can shut up, they’re nothing to me. I’m the greatest.’ The genuine laughter afterwards was all I needed to hear to know that they have the utmost respect for each other’s abilities.
Respect and equal treatment are Itoldyouiwouldeatyou’s raison d’etre. They are a viscerally political band not just in the lyrical content of songs such as recent single Divine Violence, but in their very way of being. Issues of gender and sexuality experienced by the band members are presented front-and-centre of their performance. I asked Joey whether their transparency and earnestness is something they value in the music of themselves and others.
‘It’s good that you ask that, because Poppy, who’s doing our PR, messaged me and they said – sort of joking – “How gay do you want to come across in the press release? How gay do you want this?” And obviously that’s funny on paper, but what Poppy was actually saying was “How comfortable are you talking about your queerness?” Luckily, I was with [our drummer] Sean at the time, and Ollie, and we could talk about how far we wanted it to go. For me anyway – and of course I can’t speak for others in the band because that would be egregious – I am very happy to talk about those issues, insofar as they matter to people. Sean said a very interesting thing that day when they said “It shouldn’t matter at all how we view ourselves or anything like that but as long as people are asking, we’ll answer.” And I feel like we’ve yet to straddle a scene that has any sort of reasonable representation of queer or trans or even just female artists. I said in the same e-mail thread that I feel terrified talking about the idea of feeling non-binary, because I think people will be like – well you’re broad, and you have a beard so you couldn’t possibly be non-binary – when the fact is that I feel more comfortable that way because people aren’t going to question me, you know what I mean? I know how I can look to fit in better, and I personally think that it’s a shame that I have to do that, but – well – here I am. It’s not necessarily about me. In that conversation, this came up very naturally, and I said to Poppy that personally I feel terrified about this conversation, but also there are kids going through the exact same fucking thing, and those kids aren’t in bands, they don’t have people coming up to them and saying “Well done on that thing you just did,” which we all are lucky enough to get when we play a gig. So if people who aren’t in that sort of situation don’t get to dodge that conversation, why should I? Sean said the exact same thing, Sean is non-binary. I think most members of the band are queer in some way, only Josh is straight. And hot as hell.’
‘Always flaunting the goods,’ Josh agreed.
After agreeing, Joey continued: ‘In the last couple of years in an AMA, Gerard Way was asked about gender stuff, because they had always been queer in look, you know, and they said that they actually consider themselves non-binary. I imagine they only felt comfortable saying that after a certain amount of time, but I know how much that would have mattered to me when I was fourteen. I would have been like “oh shit, really?” And I think after so many bands have either decided they don’t want to be bands anymore, don’t want to be big, like G.L.O.S.S., or fucked it up for themselves by actually being arseholes, like PWR BTTM, that there is space for a band that is talking about gender and sexuality issues in an open and honest way and I want us to do that.’
One of the best things about the band’s transparency is that the image they present of themselves is not only one of struggle, but also joy. Taking part in the recording of the video for new single Mourn allowed me to experience this first-hand. The video is dedicated to Rob, a close friend of the band who ended his own life, and to Josh’s recently deceased Grandma, an instrumental figure in helping him get on his feet and onto the path he’s currently heading down. However, during the filming, there was rarely a moment that wasn’t filled with irreverent humour. Laughs and cackles resounded throughout friend of the band Dockers’ Nan’s home. The softly aged front-room was dressed up for a wake, complete with customary dishes of food – only their tin foil covered emptiness. Joey agreed: ‘That’s one of the great things about the video – the balance of the light-heartedness of a bunch of friends having a good time together, and acknowledging something awful that’s happened. [Rob] was a lovely dude and a good friend and very supportive of the band.’ Asked by Joey if he wanted to speak about how his Grandma had affected his life, Josh opened up about her pivotal role in Itoldyouiwouldeatyou’s existence. ‘It wasn’t particularly that she got me into music, she just… Made me want to take it seriously. You know I was always doing music and stuff but, I wasn’t doing very well after I got kicked out of uni, my parents didn’t want anything to do with me. I just felt fucking useless. But then she called me on my 20th birthday and she told me “You should do what you want to do and not what other people want you to do.” Then I got my qualifications, joined ACM, started doing more music qualifications, and here I am in a band playing to thousands of people at ArcTanGent, and around Europe and shit. It’s good. I would not be here if it wasn’t for things like that – motivation. It was something I really needed. That’s the thing, I’m not really one for family, I don’t talk to my family a lot – so it was nice to have that relationship I had with my Grandma. After she passed, considering I hadn’t lost a family member and been old enough to comprehend it, it was really… I still feel, I can’t… You know… So I dunno. I’d like to dedicate it in some sense.’ I got the feeling from the way the band support each other while discussing these sensitive topics that they are each other’s family now, providing the structure and motivation to carry on making their art.
‘Having the friends that I do and being in this band is very useful in that respect, because even though I don’t write shit, I find being involved in this very therapeutic,’ said Ollie. ‘I grew up not really knowing where I fit in, and never really thought I’d be good at doing anything, but I finally realised I’m good at doing this and was like “Oh, okay cool, I’m gonna do this”. So being transparent about that, for me, is kind of about – maybe there’s some kid somewhere who learns that and felt the way that I did, and thinks: “Even if I’m not doing that specific thing, I just need to work out what I’m good at and what I enjoy doing.”’ Joey agreed, and gave a particularly important example from Sean:
‘I don’t want to talk for Sean any more than necessary, but last time we had the conversation with Sean, it matters a hell of a lot to them that kids who are autistic and have an interest that is just like overwhelming, know that maybe the thing that they go home and do to calm down is actually useful and could help them. Recently we had a discussion about where the band was going, mostly with Sean, because they were a bit confused. They said they were happy to stay on the same label for the next few years, happy to keep it how it’s going now, happy to work nights at Argos or whatever, if that’s how it goes. And that’s not how I think about it, that’s not how Ollie thinks about it. We consider it a mainstream concern. Sean was down for some reason, and me, Ollie and Sean had a drink, and Sean said “I just don’t know if I’ll be very good at all the stuff we’ll have to do” – this sort of stuff. And we said, “Mate, you don’t have to be! Don’t try and do everything, do what you’re good at – what you’re good at is playing drums and composing. Just do that – me and Ollie will do the business shit, don’t worry about it.” Sean said “So do you guys want to be like, a proper thing? You guys want to be big?” And well, of course! There’s no point doing this if not. If we bottomed out on some nice indie, and we stayed there until we decided we didn’t want to do it anymore and had a nice farewell show when we’re 30 – that’s fine. If those kids like it and they’re happier for it, then great. But, personally, I don’t think it would get to that point because I think once myself, or Josh, or Ollie saw us on that trajectory we’d be like “Why are we doing this?” I want as many kids as possible to feel better, you know? If we get to the point where more kids aren’t listening to it there’s no point anymore. I said that to Sean and Sean said “Yeah, that’s actually a good shout – I’d like it if some kid who was autistic knew that someone in a band they like was, because growing up for me I never had someone like that.”
Itoldyouiwouldeatyou know what they’re about. They’ve personally felt the impact that a band can have on a young person’s life, and all that matters to them is making that impact on more kids. A band like Itoldyouiwouldeatyou could heal a wound, save a life, inspire another band. They have the vision and the integrity to take this as far as they aim. In the weeks since I spent that Sunday with them, one moment in particular has stood out to me as a symbol of their infectious vitality in the face of life’s struggles. In a break between takes in the front room, I reached out to a faux-vintage radio to turn on some music. I switched it on, and a Radio 3 presenter chimed out across the room:
‘DEATH… AND LAMENTATION.’
A pause – then a house filled with laughter.
Itoldyouiwouldeatyou will launch their new single ‘Mourn‘ on the 25th October at the Five Bells, New Cross.