Not Giving Up
The Day Job
It’s an interesting question, this: when does a band become a side-project, and vice-versa? When it comes to art-punk outfit Sauna Youth it’s a particularly pertinent one. I’m supposed to be here to speak with them about their new record, but I could just as easily be talking to each member about a dozen other projects.
In no particular order: drummer and vocalist Rich Phoenix releases his own music as Twin Lakes/Burnt Brains and also plays with Tense Men; keyboardist and vocalist Jen Calleja is one-third of fellow art-punk group Feature and also finds time to edit an Anglo-German arts magazine and write for The Quietus; guitarist Lindsay Corstorphine is in Cold Pumas and Primitive Parts while bassist Christopher Murphy has himself a nice side-line printing t-shirts.
In fact, no sooner have we all sat down – without Corstorsphine, who for the purposes of our shoot was replaced by a lizard – in the Stoke Newington flat shared by Phoenix and Calleja that the pair start telling me about yet another separate gig they’re playing that very evening, alongside a guy who’s apparently turned his violin into a drum machine, no less. “We’re not alone in doing this,” says Calleja as she tries to rationalise things. “Everyone we know is in multiple bands and have jobs, plus other hobbies on the side.”
Now we understand why the excellent new Sauna Youth album is called Distractions. Phoenix and Calleja sing about taking the path of least resistance on New Fear, the perils of boredom on Monotony or in the case of Try to Leave, just getting the hell out of somewhere: “I try to leave but I couldn’t go through with it / I try to leave; distraction was never enough.” A thread of escapism runs through most songs, as though the band playing them would rather be somewhere else in their lives.
For Phoenix though, actions speak louder than words. “I like the escapism aspect but I’ve never wanted to live my life one way, doing a job I absolutely hate and just having escapism through playing in a band or whatever,” he says. “I like the idea of almost finding the ‘escape’ – the thing that excites you and you’re interested in – then actually inhabiting it. So, lyrically it’s about always trying to explore the contrast with what your life is then what you want it to be and the kind of clashes that happen there.” To that end, Sauna Youth might be escapists but they’re also realists: the band all still have jobs, albeit doing things they enjoy. Phoenix, for instance, spends his time putting on shows and organising workshops, as opposed to staring at spreadsheets all day (“It’s sort of a busman’s holiday,” he says). In fact, for Calleja, the idea of anybody in the band ditching their job is ridiculous: “Never going to happen. We’ll keep going until one of us has a nervous breakdown!”
Having made the move from Brighton to London, jobs are a necessity given the absurd cost of living in the capital, particularly when it comes to property. “There was this awful video online from some development company – I think it was advertising some flats behind the place I work in Deptford – and it was essentially saying, artists in Deptford have made the area really nice, we’re creating an opportunity to invest, now let’s just destroy that community,” says Phoenix. “I said we should write a song about luxury flats but I kind of knew that I would never be able to write that song in like, a direct manner for Sauna Youth.”
Instead, Corstorphine recently penned Luxury Flats (sample lyric: “penthouse / shithouse!”) and in the process assumed the mantle of chief songwriter and vocalist for yet another new band, the proto-punkish Monotony (signed to Sauna Youth’s previous label, the Brighton-based Faux Discx). Calleja plays drums, Phoenix is on bass and Murphy handles guitar; the four often simply switch instruments to play back-to-back shows as Sauna Youth and Monotony.
The switcheroo means that Monotony necessarily play rudimentary, direct punk songs; a marked contrast from “Steve Reich meets the Ramones,” as the band themselves have described Sauna Youth. “I think I’m the only one playing an instrument that I’m comfortable with,” says Jen. “It’s changed the boundaries of what we can sound like.” Murphy has a mischievous idea: “Maybe Monotony was what we always wanted to sound like but it didn’t come out right. Now we’ve got another go!”
Even the band’s vinyl pressing company seem to be embracing amateurism: Phoenix pulls a test pressing of the forthcoming Monotony album off the shelf but its songs are muddled up in the wrong order and bits are missing. “It will come out!” he cries. No doubt by the time it does there’ll be yet another band or three to talk about.
Distractions is released 8 June via Upset The Rhythm