Tucked away below the railway bridge along Oxford Road, the tiny (and aptly chosen) Zombie Shack underwent a spooky transformation as nu punk’s BEX prepared Manchester for her Halloween tour date.
Courtney and I walked up the stairwell concealed in the pub below to a visage of headless Barbies, disfigured baby dolls spiderwebs hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by a huge stuffed teddy bear covered with pentagrams and other ominous scribblings in red. Having seen shots of the previous shows on the tour, I was wondering to what scale the outfits and decorations would be brought out – I wasn’t disappointed.
BEX’s unique sound stems from her DIY approach to writing and recording (which we discuss in detail below). It’s difficult to pin down a list of similar artists due to this, but I last saw her supporting WARGASM, and she’s since been featured on various curated alternative playlists, enjoyed radio plays on Kerrang! and attended Spotify’s Anti-Prom.
As one of Scruff of the Neck’s heavier artists, BEX has carved out her own space in the alternative scene, and looks forward to filling it with positive punk vibes for women and queer people.
Following the release of her debut EP, titled ‘SCUM’, we had lots to discuss regarding how she approaches writing and recording, the logistics of touring as a smaller artist, creating stylised merch, and a general catch-up.
Hugging warm coats, clutching soothing drinks and avoiding the pouring Manchester rain, we sat down to chat about how BEX so closely embraces the core of what it means to be DIY and independent in today’s industry.
Finding and Progressing the Sound of Punk
You don’t use guitars.
And in some cases, two basses.
“There’s always two basses, but sometimes they’re playing the same thing, so I don’t play it live. Josh has built a pedalboard that lets him play both parts at the same time. He sends one signal through a guitar amp, and one through the bass amp. And then I don’t have to play, which is fun.”
Why did you decide to go down that route instead of picking up a normal guitar?
“We originally had a guitar, but Josh was a bassist and wanted to play bass, and I wanted to play bass … so we decided to do two basses as a joke. And then, my manager at the time said, ‘No, actually do two basses.’ So we tried it, and it works.”
It ties in with the punk genre you bring. You describe yourself as ‘nu punk’ – what does that mean, compared to nu metal?
“I don’t know, someone called me it. I think it was Alex Baker, on Kerrang! He said, ‘This is BEX. This is nu punk,’ and I was like, ‘Oh okay, we’re going to stick with that!’ Whatever this is, this is nu punk.”
A lot of what you’re playing is very low in the mix. Have you found challenges with getting the sounds to cut through?
“Sometimes. But I feel like limitations breed creativity. When you have two bass parts, you have to really pay attention to the pedals you’re using, because the sound is sometimes really muddy.”
“When we first started, it wasn’t muddy, it was just really high and squeaky, and painful to listen to – we have a high bass and a low bass, and the high bass is an octave above, and it was too high. The distortion was tinny and sounded horrible. But we eventually sorted it out.”
Has it presented any challenges for you when recording?
“When we record, we use the stems that I recorded for the demo, in my bedroom. We don’t actually go to a studio to record.”
Do you record drums?
Are they all programmed?
“Yeah, they’re not real. Everything is DI (direct input). Sometimes we go through the pedalboard, but only if we can be bothered, really. For half the songs, it’s just straight bass DI that we’ve messed with after.”
Was it hard to get a programmed drum sound that isn’t crap?
“I don’t know, I didn’t do it!” (laughs)
Who did do it?
So, you record most of it yourself, is he just your mixing engineer?
“I record all the parts when I’m writing the song, and then we go and sit in his studio – but it’s not a live room, or anything. If we do want to record any parts, because they sound weird, we do it through DI. Sometimes we do the vocals in the room. Sometimes it’s easier to get into it when there’s people there, watching.”
You find that easier?
That’s interesting. I feel like I’d find that way harder.
“Really? I find it easier to sing at them because I know that they can only hear me, so I need to sing my best. And for the drums – we have the same preset that Sam does, but then he does something to it. I don’t know what he does, but he’s good. I can write drums, but I don’t know how to mix them.”
Speaking of drums – when I saw you last, you didn’t have a drummer. Now you do. Why did you make that decision?
“We always wanted a drummer, but we just couldn’t get someone for the WARGASM set of dates. We did have a drummer before that, and then they didn’t want to play with us, anymore. So, we were kind of stuck in the mud. We had shows coming up and no money to hire a session drummer, so we just went without a drummer.”
What are the benefits of having a live drummer, then?
“I mean … now, we can play with a drummer or without one. Last week, I found out a couple of hours before the show that we weren’t going to have one, so we just did it without.”
“We’ve got two drummers – Connor and Liam. Liam is up north, and Connor is down south, so we split the work between them. But Connor’s doing the whole tour. And Liam’s doing the shows after the tour.”
“It’s just easier. If you have a session drummer, it’s easier to send them the song and trust they’re going to learn it. Whereas before, we had a band drummer, and he just didn’t really learn the songs.”
Is it easier in terms of creative direction, as well? I suppose when there’s only two of you, you have quite a lot of control over how you write stuff.
“I write everything, it’s just me, really. Josh is also technically a session musician, but because we live together, he does extra stuff. But all the creative stuff – and the writing – is me. Josh has started coming to the writing sessions – he did Don’t Date the Devil with us, but I don’t think he did any others.”
Being a Modern Artist is About More Than the Music
Something I think is very interesting about you – and I’m sure you’ll agree – is that, as well as being a songwriter, you deal with fashion, and the merch, and – I’ve seen the inside of the venue …
“Oh, have you been in?!”
Yes, did you decorate the whole thing?
It looks mental. I walked in and thought, “I don’t remember it looking like this.”
“Well, we did it on the first night of the tour, and everyone thought: “Yeah, this looks sick!” But then, by the end, no one wanted to take the stuff down. And we were like, ‘We’ve got to do this four more times…’”
Are you bringing all of the decorations with you?
“Yeah, we have a van just for the props.”
Do you … do you have time for a job?
Do you just do music?
“Well, I also sell clothes. I sort of intertwine my merch with the music, and then I manage to make enough money off selling clothes, so that’s sort of my job. But I also do social media for a pizza company, and I do Sundays at the local pub, and I got another job at the other local pub. So I just do like, odd jobs.”
How do you balance it all, then? It must be very chaotic.
“My mum helps a lot. Like, if I can’t do a shift at the pub, she does it. Because she’s also self-employed – she runs a business selling stuff, so she does stuff as and when, and I can do stuff as and when, so we just sort of share the jobs.”
I think we spoke briefly about London rent costs and stuff like that. Even up here it’s a struggle.
“Yeah, I moved back home, recently. I just couldn’t afford London. It’s too expensive and I can’t justify spending money on rent when I could spend it on music. Plus, my parents’ house is nice, and they feed me. And they drive me places. (she laughs) It’s a win-win.”
Are your parents with you here, tonight?
How come you’re doing northern dates, then?
“I don’t know, I didn’t actually pick the locations.”
Are you still with Scruff of the Neck?
“Yeah. Scruff and my agent Steve planned the whole tour. Well, they booked the venues, and then Grace and my mum have been doing all the tour manager stuff. I didn’t pick the locations, but I wanted to play London, and I wanted to play Manchester. And then they picked the other two.”
“We partly did Manchester because Scruff are based in Manchester, so that made sense. I don’t really know why we did Birmingham!”
How was it?
“It was busy, but there was this guy there – when we were packing down, they told me that this guy assaulted three girls in the crowd and stole seven jackets … One of the jackets had this guy’s housekeys in it, and he lives on his own, and it was like midnight … And no one told me it happened before my set, so I’m just singing to everyone, and everyone is probably thinking, ‘What the hell’s going on?'”
“That was our first ever show in Birmingham, as well. I guess we’ll give them some feedback.”
Do you think anything more can be done to stop things like that from happening? Or is it just a case of shitty people being shitty?
“Yeah, last night, there wasn’t a single security guard. There wasn’t even one. Also, apparently, he was haggling on the door, trying to get the ticket fee down, so he shouldn’t have been let in in the first place. And he was walking around and doing things before any of this happened, and people noticed, and no one said anything. I was upstairs, I couldn’t have known.”
It’s hard enough that artists have to arrange a lot of the other aspects of a tour, you shouldn’t also need to organise security.
“It’s entirely down to the venue – him being there. It’s down to them who comes in, I’m not the one on the door. The fact that he’s haggling to try and get into a small show – they should have turned him away. The rep said she thought she was going to get punched – so why would you let him in? That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not her fault, of course – she doesn’t work for the venue. But, if someone’s giving you that vibe, don’t let them into a feminist gig. It’s not the one! Why would you do that?!” (laughs)
“But if she hadn’t let him in, she’d probably have had her own problem, between him and her. It’s really confusing, but more probably could have been done.”
Writing Music for Alternative Women and Queer Audiences
When we spoke last, you were talking about how you wanted to bring women and queer artists onboard. Do you believe that artists have a duty to promote and advocate for social issues?
“I think artists have a choice. You can either use your platform to make an influence, or you can ignore it. If you’re just ignoring it, it’s harder to find people who support you, because if you’re promoting something, everyone who also believes in that will then support you, and it’s easier to build a stronger fanbase. Whereas, if you’re ignoring every issue in the world, it’s quite arrogant. That’s not the vibe.”
What do you think about the phrase ‘leave the politics out of music?’
“Well, what’s the point of music if you’re not going to sing about anything? You should be singing about things. I’m not very political …”
I think you come across in a way that is aware, though.
“I’m very hot on certain things, and I know there’s a lot of things I ignore … You can’t vouch for everything, and I don’t want to speak on something I don’t know much about, because it would just be embarrassing.”
“As soon as I know enough about something, then I’ll write a song about it, but I’m not going to write a really political song about, like, the English government, because I just don’t know enough. I know what I don’t like about it, but it’s too much for me to put into a song.
Whereas I could write a song about a dude who assaulted people at my gig. Everyone has their niche of what they’re there to create awareness of.”
I suppose you don’t have the same guarantees that large venues have at smaller gigs, but you shouldn’t let experiences like that put you off playing. It’s not your responsibility to be everywhere.
“It sucks when you’re promoting a gig that’s ‘safe’ for everyone to come to, but obviously it’s not. If I was on the door, I would have been like, ‘No, you can’t come in.’ But I can’t physically be everywhere at once. Yeah, it’s really hard.”
“I know for a lot of people in the alternative scene, it’s all about creating safe gigs for women and queer people, but we also can’t stop who’s coming into the gig.”
The Duality of the Alternative Scene
Don’t you think that it’s absolutely bizarre that you have a scene with so many people who mean really well, and yet it has so many people like that, too? Especially when the music is trying to promote positive values and safety.
“It’s very easy to manipulate someone who’s vulnerable by pretending you’re the same as them. I used to live with this housemate who was very, very clever when it came to manipulating girls. He was an alternative person, but it doesn’t feel genuine because of the amount of people he manipulated into breaking off their relationships and sleeping with him in such a short space of time, despite none of them really wanting to. And all the while, he’s saying, ‘I’m a queer-friendly alternative person.'”
“And there’s so many people like that in the music industry. A lot of alternative people are alternative for a reason, and a lot of us – me included – are quite vulnerable. We express ourselves outwardly, so I think we’re quite easy targets.”
“I feel like a lot of alt people are misunderstood, so when we feel like someone understands us, we drop our guard. Seeing my old housemate doing it … I can see through it, and there’s too many people in the industry like that.”
There’s a metal club here that I used to go to when I was in uni with a big group of friends, some of whom I knew distantly. At first, it was great, but over time, more and more people that I knew – a lot of who were in the music industry, playing in punk, rock and metal bands – were being outed for all manner of gross acts. The double standards are really disappointing.A lot of people in Manchester complain about the lack of a good, alternative night out that isn’t full of creeps.
Maybe there’s a mental health argument to be made there, but I’m not sure if it’s valid.
“I don’t know if it’s because it’s an extremely male-dominated industry. The alternative part of it is so male-dominated.”
I do feel like, even just based off the people we’ve interviewed so far, women and queer artists are really the ones pushing the boat out and are doing interesting things, where a lot of the male-driving alt bands are doing stuff that is just kind of boring and samey. (Hot take, I know.) So hopefully that is a sign of change.
“I hope so. I feel like there’s just such a lack of … girls. Even at the London show – it was sold-out but there was a good 40/60. And Birmingham last night – there was probably like 20% girls. So, we’ll see what it’s like tonight.”
“I went to a gig at The Crawford Arms last week, and I swear that me and two other girl friends were the only girls in the room. And I was like, “What the hell is going on?” It was the first time I really, really noticed it. I was stood there, and I realised, “There’s not a single other girl in this room.” This is just so wrong, so backwards.”
Courtney: Are you trying anything in your music and brand to appeal more to women? Is there anything you’re trying to do?
“Yeah! That’s exactly what I want to do, but it’s so hard to reach them. But I feel like there’s just more alternative men …”
Courtney: I think, once they find you, they stick with you. It’s what I’ve notice about some other artists.
“Yeah! It’s just hard to reach them.”
You can enjoy BEX’s chaotic amalgamation of chunky bass riffs and punk hooks – SCUM – on streaming services now. Consider supporting an emerging artist by buying her custom, handmade merch, including CDs, posters, cassettes and clothing. Following her to stay up to date on the latest designs.
For all the old, hardcore punk fans looking for something raw, unfiltered, and bursting with personality, look no further than BEX.
Photos: Courtney Turner