Bookforum talks to Jenn Pelly

“The Raincoats were a group of women who were, in part, just learning to play their instruments, but their debut album also coincides with the start of a whole artistic sensibility, one of fearless and knowing amateurism,” Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly writes in her recent book about the origins of the Raincoats, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 music writing series.

The band—which in 1979 meant Ana da Silva (guitar), Gina Birch (bass), Vicki Aspinall (violin), Palmolive (drums), and Shirley O’Loughlin (manager and collaborator)—pursued uninhibited expression through imperfect post-punk poetry. Over The Raincoats’s eleven tracks, the four players switch instruments, shout in unison, and seesaw between verses, creating an asymmetrical collage of sound that mirrored the fractured world around them. It’s collaboration in the purest sense, a primal playfulness that has influenced countless musicians and artists. As they sing on the joyous “Fairytale in the Supermarket”: “No one teaches you how to live.”

While it is frustrating that it took almost four decades to get a book dedicated solely to the seminal punk group, perhaps the wait was worth it in exchange for this empathetic, encyclopedic, and eloquent reclamation of the musical canon. Pelly’s vivid study offers a meticulously detailed look at the band’s origins, influences, and legacy from their days squatting in London basements to Kurt Cobain’s passionate fandom.

Early in December, I went over to Pelly’s spacious shared Bushwick loft and, surrounded by plants and punk ephemera of a more recent vintage, we discussed her new book and the band that inspired it. Our conversation began when Pelly showed me The Raincoats Booklet, a minuscule manifesto.

Tell me about The Raincoats Booklet, which the band published in 1980.

It was surprising to me that a band as important as the Raincoats had this crucial document—a pocket-sized pamphlet where they explained their songs—and that it wasn’t already legendary. It was written by Ana da Silva, who plays guitar and sings, and it’s full of her drawings. It’s very minimal but it has all of these searing lines, like: “It is important to find the most honest way of living, trying to avoid as much as possible playing the games constantly proposed to you.” That’s so amazing. You could open The Raincoats Booklet to any page and think these are descriptions of songs from 2017.

At what point in your research did you see this?

In November 2014, I went to London for my first research trip. I interviewed them for a long time, and the band showed me their archive of press clippings and zines. It was so illuminating. I like that The Raincoats Booklet fits in the palm of your hand. I suppose it is appropriate that the book I wrote is also small. You can carry it with you easily.

It allows the band to be accessible. The subway just interrupted our conversation, which reminded me that trains are a constant presence in the band's debut album, The Raincoats.

It’s beautiful what Ana says about trains—how in a city, they’re one of the few places you can actually be alone with your thoughts. It feels prescient to me now. When you’re underground on the subway and you have no cellphone service, it can be a real gift to be cut off.

Writing the book, I wanted to investigate as deeply as I could why this record affects me so much. Take, for example, the imagery of trains and city streets on songs like “Black and White,” “The Void,” “Life on the Line.” I wanted to understand why that made the record feel cinematic to me, so I dove into some feminist criticism about the history of trains in silent film. My relationship to the city is one of the most constant relationships I’ve had. I associate the rhythms of cities with all kinds of independence. A city is a place where you can have at least a certain amount of agency in your life. You can get on a train and go to a museum if you have three dollars and some time.

At the end of the book, you describe how bassist Gina Birch asked several times if your book would be “personal.” You respond by saying, “In so much as every bar of the Raincoats feels attuned to my humanity, the entire book is personal.” What was the first piece of music that made you feel that way?

The first music I really felt reflected in was Fiona Apple. Getting into her exploded how I thought about being a young woman in the world in a way that the pop-punk/hardcore/emo of my youth never could. Fiona Apple’s music clarified so much for me. Listening to the Raincoats is clarifying in a different way. I think a lot of it has to do with being a shy person. Fiona Apple has called herself “tactful” but I’m definitely shy, and I can feel shyness and introspection in the Raincoats’s music.

I wrote that The Raincoats is the sound of “women in the act of becoming,” which is to say the act of changing. Change is obviously a really potent energy. I think you can hear, feel, and see change happening on this record, in between every note. On The Raincoats I also hear that it is possible to find grace in the frayed edges of existence, or that things often feel shaky because they’re moving someplace new. Or that showing the seams of yourself is a kind of poetry. The music isn’t flashy. I related to all of that.

Ana told me that she felt you related to the Raincoats so intensely because you are so introverted.

Something Ana says in The Raincoats Booklet is that none of them had much confidence, but they had just enough confidence to put something out. That line—between being so shy but having just a strong enough thread of confidence to be able to put something into the world—is really interesting to me. In a way, it’s more interesting than someone who is super confident and can be loud and brash.

Especially in their case because no one was making music like they did. It makes more sense to us, because we grew up with the music the Raincoats influenced: Nirvana, Beat Happening, Sleater-Kinney. But as I read your book, I was trying to imagine how wild it must have been to see the Raincoats for the first time.

What they were doing was so new: using the punk impulse to make whatever kind of music they wanted. This feeling is part of why I referenced writers like Eileen Myles and Chris Kraus. In the version of I Love Dick that I have, there’s a foreword by Eileen Myles and she writes, “When I Love Dick came into existence, a new kind of female life did, too.” I feel like the Raincoats and the Slits did the same thing in music. There’s a new documentary about the Slits coming out this year [Here To Be Heard: The Story of the Slits], and in one scene, the journalist Vivien Goldman says, “The Slits created a new paradigm for being a woman.” I remember thinking: that’s exactly what Eileen Myles said about Chris Kraus.

Besides I Love Dick, was there anything you read while writing this book that really cracked open your brain?

There was so much. I worked on the book for nearly four years. I knew I wanted to situate the record within a feminist cultural-historical context, not only a temporal one. The Raincoats formed in 1977 and they were directly inspired by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect—the whole O. G. punk scene in London as it turned into post-punk, and so many great books have been written about that history already. I wanted to understand why the record endures and what it means, and that meant incorporating thinkers and artists and writers from other parts of history. There’s no index, but if there were it would include, for example, Virginia Woolf, Emma Goldman, Pauline Oliveros, Cindy Sherman, and Hélène Cixous.

Time to ask the most basic question: How did you decide to write a book on the Raincoats?

For me—someone who started writing about music as a teenager and basically decided at age thirteen that I was going to commit a serious amount of time to investigating the history of music—the fact that there was not a book about the Raincoats was a little absurd. In the summer of 2011, I interviewed the Raincoats for a piece about their album Odyshape and left thinking, “I would love to write a book about this band someday, they’re one of my favorite bands and no one has ever written a book about them!”

When you interviewed the Raincoats in 2011, how much information was out there?

At that point, I definitely couldn’t go to the library and check out some books on the Raincoats. This is the first one. But there were some crucial references to the Raincoats in, for example, Greil Marcus’s post-punk anthology In the Fascist Bathroom and in Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds, and his post-punk interview collection Totally Wired. I’m grateful to both of them for laying the foundation for my research, and to Helen Reddington for her book The Lost Women of Rock Music.

When I interviewed Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill, she told me that part of what Bikini Kill wanted to do in the ’90s was spread information about overlooked women of punk and rock history. She said they were trying to reclaim bands like the Raincoats as their heroes, even though they didn’t know much about them. They would write the names of bands down on napkins and give them to people at their shows.

Does In the Fascist Bathroom include the Rolling Stone profile that you mention in the book? Where he says “As the Raincoats stand back from the tradition they also open it up?”

Yes. The headline is an Essential Logic song title: “Wake Up.” I would say that article, which was a survey of the Rough Trade scene in 1980, was the first significant piece of reporting on the Raincoats in the press. The first great profile of the band in the British press was by Vivien Goldman in Melody Maker.

What is it that she says about the democracy of the band?

“Irritating, this democracy.” She’s talking about the band’s tendency towards group statements.

Can you explain the importance of democracy to the Raincoats?

On The Raincoats you can hear four people working through a collective process of composing music together. Vicki was classically trained, but the rest of the band were learning how to play. Palmolive had been in the Slits, but they kicked her out because she couldn’t keep time. You can hear them figuring things out together, which is powerful because that’s what life is like: working with people and trying to figure things out. The record is really egalitarian and you can hear the collectivism in process—the sound of them working together to move a song, rather than one person carrying it.

But what I didn’t know before I talked to the band was that two of the members were from fascist countries. Ana da Silva was born in Portugal and Palmolive came from Spain. They were leaving these repressive dictatorships to come to London and have more agency. Democracy was a literal and potent idea for them and it contributed to how their songs were composed and constructed and released. Palmolive told me recently that democracy was “non-negotiable” when she was coming into music. It says so much about the way she plays the drums. She’s not dictating the beat at all.

Tell me more about your interview with Palmolive who, after playing on The Raincoats, departed the punk scene and famously underwent a spiritual journey?

I went to Cape Cod in July 2015. I spent a very vivid afternoon in Palmolive’s backyard. The air just felt so charged; it was a really electric conversation. She is a very spiritual person and you can feel that when you hang out with her. When she plays the drums—which I can now say that I’ve seen in person!—she’s always smiling, full of life, and it’s beautiful.

One of the most wonderful obscure facts your book taught me was that she was trained as a mime.

Mimes are very emotionally attuned. When you watch videos of her playing drums in the late ’70s, it’s like she is channeling that—there is a photo in the book where she’s wearing a beret and a striped shirt—making these dramatic facial gestures. She is enacting this pure emotionality that keeps you on the edge of your seat. You never know where it’s going. Bowie also trained to be a mime.

I’d read the book about musicians who are also mimes.

Me too. I relate so much to the rhythms of this record. I loved what the band told me about thinking of drumming and rhythm like a heartbeat. Sometimes your heart races. Sometimes it’s steady. The rhythm of life is not constant and the Raincoats wanted their songs to speed up and slow down accordingly. Ana and Shirley spoke to me about how sometimes you might be walking to go somewhere and then the bus is coming and you have to run across the street—they wanted the music to move in accordance with real life.

Which is one of the reasons why the record is immediately affecting.

Kim Gordon has said that the Raincoats’s music was powerful to her because it sounded like “ordinary people playing extraordinary music.” It really does feel like a continuation of life, or an extension of it, like you turn on the record and you’re there with them. That’s what Kurt Cobain said about their music: He felt like he was listening in on them, not just listening to them. They kind of broke down the fourth wall. You’re listening to music, but it does feel like real life is happening. The Raincoats weren’t striving for perfection, or to be fully formed. They were embracing the imperfection of being a person.