Redefining rock music with Blood Red Shoes V.2.0: Interview with Steven Ansell

J.N. March 11, 2019

Blood Red Shoes released their fifth album “Get Tragic” at the end of January, embarked on a short European promotion tour and made a stopover at a jam-packed Molotow in Hamburg. As a consolation to all those fans that didn’t get in, there’s a new opportunity when they return to Hamburg in beginning of November to play Uebel & Gefährlich.

Much has happened since the release of their self-titled album in 2014. After more than a decade together, Steven and Laura went through an identity crisis with the band, almost got sued, had loads of problems with people they worked with that just wanted them to continue walking down the same road they’ve been doing since the start, and in the end there was even a discussion about putting an end to it all and restart under a different name with new band members. Above all, it was taking a toll on the friendship between Steven and Laura and they realized it was time to put on the brakes for some soul-searching. And during that hiatus they realized what was most important in life: to continue the legend of Blood Red Shoes.

With this in mind we headed towards Molotow just to find out more on how they managed to get through their crisis and restart as Blood Red Shoes 2.0.

When we arrived at Molotow we were told that Laura was sick and needed every minute to relax before the gig but we sat down with a talkative and cheerful Steven Ansell and talked about their identity crisis, the new sound on their latest album “Get Tragic” and why they will fire themselves as managers.

The Start of Blood Red Shoes 2.0

I just have to start with a quote I saved from 2008; “We want to be an international band not like Razorlight or someone who’s massive in the UK, and the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit. That’s not interesting to us; we want to travel with our music.” You said that in Clash Magazine. But you reached international fame quite quickly, didn’t you?
It has always been really important to us. Actually if anything, England is not much to bother about, we’re more popular in lots of other places than we are in England, probably because we haven’t tried that hard in England (laugh).

It’s not that we’re not popular in England, it’s just that we’re more popular here, in The Netherlands, maybe Japan, and increasingly in America.

I remember when I met you at the Reading Festival ten years ago and you were portrayed as this new generation of young punks. How much of it was authentic? I remember how the industry tried to make new bands fit into this new punk imagery back then.
That was us, nobody told us what to wear, that was just what we were into. Right in the very beginning people were like “Do this and do that”. There’s actually a poster up here [at Molotow] with that, where we look really stylized and Laura is wearing like a dress and I got my shirt off. It’s very fashion-styled and we don’t look like a rock band at all – that wasn’t our decision. But from then on, that was just us.

You’ve been on your longest break so far, and I’ve read a bit about the problems you had after the last tour that led to a longer break.
Yeah, we had a lot more problems with people outside the band than each other. It was more like a crisis, like we hit the end of the road. We came to the end of the line of the thing we were doing so we just stopped. It was a debate whether we should stop the band entirely, there was a debate whether we change the band, get new members in and change the name and start a something different with a different name and just say “That was the end of Blood Red Shoes” and then carry on with a different sort of persona. We had a lot of questions.

It was just a period of soul-searching and a lot of questioning and reflecting on what we wanted. Instinctively you just knew, because you could feel it, that it was like “Fuck! We just need to stop right now”.

So we stopped and fired everybody, our manager and our booking agent, we refused to re-sign the record deal we were offered, we just started to say no to everyone because we were unhappy and we spent most of the time apart. Then we realized we didn’t want to break up the band, we didn’t want to change the band, like the name or that stuff, but we needed to do things differently.

We actually needed to make a decision because what we were doing was going along with the momentum that existed. Even though you kind of create it, you get stuck in it, so we were carrying on but almost without thinking, and we had to stop and decide, and actually think about what we wanted to do, and it took time to do that.

But how difficult was it to realize that you have come to a point when your hobby and profession – I would say your passion – was too much and that you had to put on the breaks? I mean, this is your life and you’ve basically done this your whole life as adults.
Really scary because it’s a huge part of your identity. We started when Laura was eighteen or nineteen and I was twenty-one, so that’s all we did. Our entire experience of life has been playing in a band and with each other. So when we got to a point where you almost feel like you only exist in one way and then taking that away from yourself, that suddenly makes you wonder who you are.

That has been most of what I do all day for over a decade and then you’re like “I’m just going to stop doing that”. It’s really weird and just like an identity crisis. In fact, that’s what I think that our band had, a giant identity crisis.

This restart is the start of Blood Red Shoes 2.0.

Taking a step away from rock music

To contextualize a bit, albums written by bands in conflict or in a crisis seem to turn out great. I’d point you in the direction of Abba, Smashing Pumpkins and even The Beatles. And “Get Tragic” is a complete restart of Blood Red Shoes offering a sound that few would have thought was possible a few years ago.

In the beginning of the recording process Laura suffered a broken arm in a bike accident and was unable to play guitar. While waiting for nature to make its magic, the band turned to some experimentation with a keyboard just to be able to write new music. The result? A bold synth sheen envelops everything on the album leading the band into new and interesting avenues. In fact, Steven even admits he was bored of rock music.

You just released your fifth album, “Get Tragic” and speaking of changes, it’s quite a different sound on the album than we’re used to. You slowed things down a bit and there’s much more electronics on it. It’s kind of a huge change in sound. What’s behind the new sound and why did it happen now on the fifth album, and not earlier?
That came more from me than from Laura. I’m really bored of rock music, personally, and just find it really repetitive. Most bands are doing the same shit that has been done since the seventies, and I felt that we were going down that path, and I said that “We’re becoming another boring rock band”.

I want to do something that excites me and is different and unexpected and started to listen to more and more electronic music, and then we went through a period of trying to incorporate different ideas. We also even went through a period of writing songs acoustically, and wrote a whole lot of stuff that was almost somber and kind of country – we tried all these different things.

One thing I was really pushing for was to explore more of hip hop, R&B and electronic music because that’s what excites me and what I listen to. And I feel that rock music was stuck in a hole, and I was like “If we don’t try to make it exciting, what are we doing?”.

Usually you need to prepare for some sort of reaction when you make a change, especially in your sound.
A lot of people didn’t want us to change. We fired a whole bunch of people because they didn’t want us to change the sound, they didn’t want us to change the label, they didn’t want us to put more people on stage, so we fired them (laugh).

We had to change to carry on or we would have been bored and we wouldn’t have liked it, and it would have been stale; we had to do it, for ourselves.

From my experience of working with music production, rock musicians are usually not that much into electronic music, in general I mean. But on “Get Tragic” you have an electronic foundation. There’s even songs in there with electronic drums only. How new was this for you when you started the process with the album?
It was a lot of trial and error, we just experimented a lot. A lot of times we were writing a song and then I would sit there and try to put a synth on it, and it would just sound shit because it was just a rock band with a synth that was just jammed in and it wasn’t fitting, it didn’t glue and it didn’t feel like honest. It just felt too considered or too contrived, and it took a lot of fucking around until it was right (laugh), it was just difficult!

The producer, Nick Launay, was really good because he has made a lot of records, like with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs when they started to use more electronics and he has worked with Depeche Mode, Kate Bush and with Arcade Fire a lot, and he really understood us. Like you say, at the heart of the band we’re a punk band or a rock‘n’roll band, and I see what we do now as painting with different colors, but at the core we’re still the same kind of band. For us it was like “How do we take the soul of a punk band or a rock band but use different sounds to express that”. And he was really, really good at that.

And the songs; it was nearly three with electronic rhythms. That was cool, man (laugh)! I imagine that this is how Radiohead do everything; I imagine they make something and they sit there agonoizing about it like “Oh, we’ve done that before, let’s change it”. It was just like that. Every time we did something that felt familiar or a typical thing the Blood Red Shoes would do, we tried to do it differently.

With one song it was “Let’s put no drums on it”. We put on a drum machine and then were like “Oh yeah, we should do that with real drums when we get to the studio”, and then we suddenly thought “Why? That’s what we normally do. Let’s force ourselves to do it in a different way”. It makes you creative because when you draw the line like “I’m not going to do that anymore” you just have to come up with something else (laugh).

But isn’t also about taking that step out of your comfort zone and doing something you’ve never done before?
Yeah, you have to do it, but you also have to find a way to use something different that still feel like you, which is difficult. But drawing the line is quite fun actually, just fucking with yourself (laugh).

I heard you had lots of ideas that didn’t make it on to the album and are probably hidden somewhere, maybe for the future.
The whole time! Even though we did spend a lot of time apart, when we were together we were writing songs. One of the songs on the album we started to write at the end of 2014, and the last song to finish the album we finished in the studio on the day (laugh). It covers a four year period!

But you don’t find it more difficult to put together an album today than ten years?
No, it’s not easier but it’s not any more difficult. This one was difficult because we went through a lot of shit with each other, we went through a self-identity crisis and then someone tried to sue us, three times, because the music industry sucks and is full of people with no ethics. Someone was claiming they owned the right to the album and was trying to put an injunction to stop us releasing the album, which he lost.

Every biography I ever read about bands, at some point they sign a contract that really fucks them up and they go to court. We went through that but we never got to court luckily because that would’ve made me bankrupt.

This album was difficult for all those things but musically it was no more difficult than the others, really. We just wrote more than on the others.

You said that people wanted you to go in a certain direction, musically, but how are the fan reactions on the album so far?
Really good! It’s the first album where people have come and said, when we’re signing albums or on social media, “This is my favorite album”. People always say like “I really love the new record but not as much as ‘Box of Secrets’”. This is the first album where people are saying to us “This is my favorite album now” or “I didn’t think you could do better than ‘Box of Secrets’ but you have”.

To be honest, perversely, I mean it’s great and I’m really happy but a little bit of me was hoping to piss people off, and no one’s pissed off (laugh)! I’m always a bit like “Come on man! There’s got to be some people who go ‘Fuck you! It got keyboards in it’”, but no one is really angry about it.

We have always been punks but it doesn’t mean that you have to do one style of music your whole life.

A DIY ethos: “People in the industry won’t understand you”

After 25 years in the music business, I’ve probably seen it all when it comes to musicians ending up in conflicts or even worse, being ripped off – by managers, labels, promoters, venues, websites and assorted other characters in the music industry.

Luckily Steven and Laura have experience from running their own label, Jazzlife, that started in 2014, and the band is still driven by a DIY ethos and trying to do as much of the work on their own. In an interview with Drowned In Sound Steven even pointed out that “[labels] don’t understand music or bands really at all […] I’ve never dealt with a room of so many people who are that unaware of music”.

But although they have much experience from DIY work it’s a delicate balance to deal with “idiots” and the physical workload from doing it all by yourself.

Already from the start you had this DIY attitude, to stay in control of what you do and it gave me the impression that you were running many things on your own. Do you still have a DIY mindset? Is it still possible to work like that at this level?
Yes we do! This album is on our own label and we have no manager. We fired three different managers because they were all fucking idiots and didn’t understand what we wanted to do. So this record is the most DIY record we’ve made. Literally, we are running the label day-to-day, we are dealing with people from the label in all these countries and making decisions without a manager at all.

And that’s really impressive because it must be time-consuming to run it and then you have to get out on tour and be in the studio at times as well.
It fucking sucks and we don’t want to do it (laugh). It’s insane and almost killing us. Actually, we’re hiring a manager who will start in March because we realize we can’t fucking do it – we physically can’t do it. So basically we’re firing ourselves as the manager (laugh).

But if you consider modern DIY and relate to the punk DIY attitude of seventies, is it possible to do it the same way today? You must be working much more professionally today.
Yes, that’s the difficult thing. It’s about keeping communication and keep track of a lots of moving parts; it’s a lot and it’s not very fun either.

The “Blood Red Shoes” album is also on Jazzlife but we used a label to run the day-to-day work, it was like a partnership with a label but this one isn’t, now it’s even more us (laugh). But the next one definitely won’t be, fuck that (laugh).

If you think forward although you just released a new album. How will you go forward for here? What did you learn from what happened after the “Blood Red Shoes” album?
We learned a lot of things. We learned a lot about how to talk more cleverly, we learned how to say no to things, we learned to let each other have more say creatively and I think that has been really important. A lot of why this record is different is because some songs are really, really Laura and some songs are really, really me. Before we always used to meet in the middle and now we give each other a ridiculous amount of space, and I think that makes both of us loads happier.

I think of this record a lot like it’s a stage of self-acceptance in a band and it’s accepting us as each other, accepting the differences we have and not always try to push us to agree on meeting in the middle. Sometimes there’s something in Laura’s ideas that I just don’t like. But do you know what? We’ve made five albums now, it’s going to be ok, “Let Laura go in this direction for all of this song and it will be something cool”. There will be another song where I put something in a direction where Laura is like “I really don’t know about this”, but she will let me keep going. In the past we would fight.

That change is really important because we both feel happier with the band than before; emotionally, that is a really big difference. The way we tour and stuff, that’s just practical problems, but emotionally, to have that understanding, that acceptance of each other as complete total opposites (laugh), has made it a lot easier. We’re really, really opposites, but it’s ok.

But have you cut down on touring this time to not push tings too far?
No, we go on tour in September and won’t finish until the end of November.

There’s something in how we are with each other. It’s hard to explain, but we give each other more space and that takes the pressure out. And also, being away this long, we wanted to go on the road for ages because you miss it, and you realize what you like and you value it. Instead of going on tour because you just go on tour, and it’s like a boulder rolling down the hill, we decided to go on tour because we want to; we miss it and we want to be here.

I think we got to a point before where we couldn’t tell and it was like “Am I just doing this because that’s what I do now? Is this what I do for the rest of my life? Is this who I am now?”, and we went away and came back and are like “Yeah, this is who I am and I am fucking doing this for the rest of my life, let’s go on tour” (laugh).

Because you’ve been around for a while by now and been going through all these things you’ve read about in biographies on other bands, what would you say to young bands that just have started their career, like a word of advice?
Get a really good lawyer (laugh).

Honestly, my only advice is really, truly, and actually really obvious and probably applies to everything in life: just communicate. The most difficult shit in a band is there because you don’t communicate with each other, and especially with people outside of you.

A lot of people that you work with in the music industry won’t understand you and the only way you can make them understand you is to communicate as much as possible so they can’t even try because they don’t get it. People who organize things, they don’t get it.

Do you know how it is to be the person who’s creating something? To them it doesn’t fucking matter if the record comes out and it’s slightly the wrong shade of green on the cover, they don’t care. For you it’s like “That’s what I put my heart and soul into, those mistakes matter”.

The more you communicate to people and the more they can try to understand you, and the more you communicate with each other in your band, the better.

Photographer: ©Julia Schwendner
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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.