After several years of absence from the Nottingham music scene since The Smears disbanded in 2014, singer-songwriter Emma O’Neill is back with a new project. Brooding, dirgy and as distorted as ever, her music with Witches Mark is such a new direction that she’s even ditched her guitar and been bewitched by the sticks. We talk falling out of love with your instrument, the perv barrier and DIY grime.
Tell me about Witches Mark.
We were just two people fed up with making music we had no passion for anymore…I contacted Tom (Hooley), who’s a bassist to have a jam, we both took guitars in and had a drumkit in the room to keep time and we were playing guitar together and I just sat behind the drumkit and started playing [laughs]…and so basically I’m playing drums now rather than guitar! So our gig that we just played is the 8th time I’ve ever sat behind a drumkit and we recorded on the 6th time we’d ever played together.
And as the project has progressed you’ve been documenting it as numbered stages – was there a plan that by a certain number of sessions you would record or play a gig?
No, not at all. I was just so blown away that by the end of our third jam together we’d written nine songs and I thought I’m going to start documenting the process because then we were at the point of talking about recording and I wanted to document how much we could do in a short space of time with no experience on our instruments. So that’s why it’s numbered, and every number is the amount of times I’ve sat behind a drumkit [laughs].
Do you think that your freshness to that instrument has contributed something different to your sound?
Yeah – I could have written 10 punk albums by now! I tried in the background, whole time I’ve been out of the scene, to get bands together, and I just couldn’t. I kind of fell out of love with my guitar; I think the way I had to drop my instrument was such a shock that I wasn’t able to connect with it anymore – I felt like I’d done everything I could with it and I couldn’t find any chords that were interesting me – I felt like having to start again. Also I like things to have an organic sound, without forcing it and all the others [collaborations] seemed forced, to the point where one person sat me down and told me how I was ‘allowed’ to behave on stage and I thought I can’t do this.
I think playing a new instrument has made me feel interested again and the fact that I can get a sound out of it that I can create from is just amazing – it’s fun, it’s fun again.
You performed your first gig a couple of weeks ago – did it feel massively different to when you were performing with your guitar?
Yeah – I couldn’t hear anything and I didn’t take that into consideration. I couldn’t hear my guitarist…he has these tiny amps from the 1950s which in a practice room is fine, but in front of 30 people in a tiny room with all the P.A.s facing outwards, I was really shocked…and then the nerves set in, there was people watching me and actual drummers in the room laughs I thought what the fuck am I doing, and when it got to the second to last song I wanted to stop and put the sticks down and go ‘ha ha ha, I was only joking!’. But I didn’t, I played to the end and it was a very good feeling.
And it was very different – facing that much metal, where as I’m just used to having my guitar, and I could drink loads of beer and you know I had a distortion pedal so any mistakes I could just cover up but you can’t do that behind the drums.
And I guess the drumkit provides a bit of a barrier between you and the audience?
I used to have that anyway because being in a girl band you would get a row of men who would stand between you and the crowd, filming [laughs].
The Perv Barrier?
[Laughs] Yeah and so I used to have a bit of a reputation cos I would get pretty annoyed I’d be like “can you stop filming?” like some diva, but it was more about the connection with the crowd. You know sometimes it would be a really busy gig and I couldn’t get to the crowd because there would be this ‘perv barrier’, treating us like some science experiment that needed documenting on some terrible little phone that’s never gonna do the music justice. God knows what they did with them, all the videos.
But with the drums now, I can’t be got to.
The music is pretty raw, I would say it comes from a raw place, do you think the drums has given an expression to where you are lyrically?
Yeah – it’s stopped me feeling so whingey about what I have to say. You know I find if I’m writing on my own with an acoustic guitar, the melodies go a bit whiney and it’s not me. Whereas Witches Mark has just happened so organically and I like to write my lyrics on the spot, I don’t like to slave over them – what comes out is the song. There’ll be occasion where I might tweak now and again but it’s not written down, it’s all from in here and I find with the drums it’s happening again, where as before I was slaving over melodies and lyrics and which way I should go with it and I was lost. So yeah the drums definitely bring out more of an organic, primal feeling, its tapped in to something that I wasn’t able to get out before.
I’m going to go back to the ‘prev barrier’ – The Punk Lounge is running a campaign called #befreebeyou which is aimed at discussing the issues faced by women in the punk and alternative scene. Obviously its been a big few months for those sorts of issues with #MeToo. Do you think there’s a need for more discussion of these issues?
No – I think the time for discussion is done, because The Slits were answering that question in the 70s and it’s now 2018 and the whole idea that the ‘future is female’ and that we still need to discuss these things, decries the history of the people who have already done it. I’ve been talking about this stuff for 15 years, why should I still have the same discussion, surely it’s time to move on now. And if a woman stands on a stage and says put that camera away, it shouldn’t be looked at to be discussed, it should just be done. Every issue regarding women in the music scene has been discussed and debated. And I don’t mean to undermine anyone’s attempts at understanding it but there is a wealth of knowledge out there from riot grrrls to women in blues music to Tina Turner – there’s a wealth of women in the music industry who have discussed it already, and yeah have it as a topic of discussion but one that needs to be progressive. I think one of the barriers women face is because we are all in music together we are suddenly lumped in to this place where we have to like each other, we all have to support each other but you know if I don’t like this chick, I should be able to say so. It should be as open and honest and frank as the male side of music. Like Oasis and Blur were allowed to hate each other and it was seen as great sport, but if a woman says that oh my god, her life will be pulled apart.
Yeah I think even with #MeToo there’s been a lot of discussion that the time is over for women to explain these things, the responsibility is for men to change their behaviour…
And when I talk to male musicians who I respect, they don’t see this, or they know it’s there but they respect me as a musician so the conversations we have are different, there’s a musical context to it; it’s the gig goer who still latches on to that weird…the barrier is the discussion if you know what I mean…and I’m all for it as long as you’ve done your homework as a chick and if you know what you’re stepping in to and you can play hard then I’m happy.
On a wider political level, we are in some hardcore political times, similar to the era that punk was born out of or at least a modern reflection of it – do you think that is causing a new burgeoning of the DIY scene?
Yeah but I don’t think it’s a burgeoning of the DIY scene in terms of instruments and guitars and Mohicans. The ethnic and cultural landscape of the UK has changed massively since the 70s and the advent of technology has meant it’s more like the grime scene now, stuff that people can do with their mouths…they don’t have to buy an instrument, they have it all on their phone. I think that’s where the DIY scene is, you know owning an instrument, being in a band is a middle class privilege now.
Are you missing your guitar then?
No, not at all.
What do you normally play?
I have a Vantage Les Paul copy and she is an absolute chunk of wood and I’ve wrapped her in t-shirts and put her in plane holds and she’s come out fine, like she’s really hard. And look at this – somebody made me my own pedal (shows me the O’Neillator)…This dude I was jamming with bought this to one of our jams and he said you always knew when one of my songs started and he tried to capture that sound in a pedal, so you can get a pedal that recreates the sound from my big old battered Les Paul copy!
The WM sound is super durgey distorted sludgey sound, was that a purposeful direction?
Not at all – it just happened, all of it just happened, no pre-meditated direction. At the gig we wrote a song the night before, lyrics and everything and played it. Patti Smith used to do that and I’ve always structured myself round that, like you can make it up there and then if you have to.
In terms of production and recording you and Tom just did that together?
We went to J.T. Soar and the dude who runs it just understood us so it worked. There’s no scene that we’ve tried to get involved in. There’s a lot of respect for the old blues guitarists. Tom’s a bassist on guitar and I’m a guitarist on drums…
Which must contribute to the raw energy the tracks have, and which considering how long you’ve been playing is quite difficult to capture…
You see these bands that become parodies of themselves because they’re trying so hard to be what they were and reproduce what they’ve done and it’s just a different formula of the same thing, so I’m lucky that I’ve side-stepped that, but I don’t think I would have put anything out if I hadn’t side-stepped that. I’m a very truthful person and I can’t feel like I’m a parody of myself.
And I guess when a long-term project like The Smears ends, I guess you need to move forward.
It did take a while because the ending was very abrupt and I’d put so much work in to suddenly have nothing, so it was a funny position to start from. I felt a lot of pain when it ended, I was embarrassed, you know it’s like the end of a relationship – it took a lot to come back from.
I guess you can see the mirroring of the end of a relationship in the process you’re talking about before WM with trying out other bands…
Yeah my series of one night stands laughs and now I’m on my summer romance…
And when it has been difficult through that process where did the motivation to keep making music come from?
I dunno…when I was four years old I saw John Lydon on the telly and I just knew that’s what I wanted to be. The only reason I went to Uni was to get my student loan to buy guitars. Like I said to you before, punks are born not made. It’s either in you or it’s not. I don’t understand the normal world, like I have a nervous breakdown if I have to go to the supermarket – that to me is scarier than standing on stage in front of 150 punks.
I’ve never fitted in to those suburban places. When I was a kid we moved from the centre of Liverpool to the suburbs and parents wouldn’t let their kids play with me. They wouldn’t let me in their houses – those types of people can smell it on me. And I’m fine with that, I’d rather hang out with the reprobates any day of the week.
They can smell rebellion!
Yeah and those masonic lot, they don’t like it [laughs].
No, they don’t like a kick-ass woman for sure!
Well, I’ve been bought up by kick-ass women. The men in Liverpool are minor characters sometimes, compared to the Scouse women. You’ve gotta be hard to put up with Scouse men laughs
You are a born and bred Scouser, but you have been on the Nottingham scene for a long time, and there’s been some notable acts making it into the mainstream, perhaps most notable being Sleaford Mods. Has that success impacted on the Nottingham music scene at all?
There’s a lot of ‘I knew The Mods when’ laughs…apart from that I don’t really know. I’ve been out of the scene for a while and I stay away from the scene-sters. I don’t believe them so I don’t hang out with them.
You create your own scene…
I can’t help it [laughs].
Back to Witches Mark, your scene as it were – your vocals on the new tracks, particularly on Fools Sold are a whole new level to your previous work.
Yeah on that track I was actually trying to sing like Eartha Kitt because I watched this interview where she said why would I ever compromise for a man and the idea of it made me laugh, so I tried to sing like her [laughs].
I don’t think anyone would have expected these vocals from me because before I was very shouty-shouty in The Smears. But while I’ve been away, I’ve been practicing my vocals. I had to because I was playing on acoustic guitar so I had to hit the notes.
And what are your plans for the recordings?
We will release them somehow. Not really sure, right now as it was only ever supposed to be a jam!
So from this huge expansive jam that is Witches Mark, do you have any plans? Or are you just going to keep going in the studio and see what happens?
Yeah that [laughs]…All I know is if I continue working with this guy our next album is gonna be a techno album laughs which even I can’t fake.
You can listen to the new tracks by Witches Mark now on soundcloud: