Ahead of the release of his stellar debut LP via Touch Sensitive in November, Girls Names’ guitarist Philip Quinn AKA Gross Net talks to Brian Coney about money, sanity, impetus, authenticity and the fact “we’re all fucked”.
Photos by Diarmuid Kennedy
You release Quantitative Easing, on November 25. It follows on from Outstanding Debt, your collection of re-commissioned tracks from aborted releases. Once again, money is the pervading theme here. Cast your mind back ten years ago, did you ever envisage it taking such a hold over your art?
Well… ten years ago releasing music, or making a slight bit of income from music, was a pipe dream. From my parents holding the purse strings on my own money, making me buy a cheaper first guitar because they told me I wouldn’t “stick it”, to imagining myself as the next Kurt Cobain, it wasn’t an issue. As far as I was aware it was never going to happen, nor did I expect it to. It may sound stupid having already performed on two records with Girls Names but having an album that I’ve written and recorded myself released on vinyl is a nice and unexpected surprise. Also, I got big into music in the early 2000’s when there was still a bit of money floating around the “business”, so in short, no.
There’s a stark, nihilistic authenticity to the album that peaks and troughs in a strong, confident, almost literary narrative. The release feels like a culmination of a few different things that have been building up over time. Is that the case?
Yeah, it really is. There’s an awful lot of myself in there, and while it’s not Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ I feel it’s a confessional album of sorts. Like, I’ve been inspired by the title of a track by Einstürzende Neubauten called ‘Keine Schönheit ohne Gefahr’(translation: ‘No beauty without danger’). I feel that to be a true artist one must be as honest as possible and truly commit themselves, revealing themselves even, in their art. Without that fear, that danger, I think it’s more difficult to produce work which is worthwhile. There has been a lot building up over the last few years for me and recording this album has been a release, but I think describing it as nihilistic is a stretch. I believe in little, it’s true, but I have a hope that is inextinguishable even when experience suggests otherwise. Whether that is wise or logical is another thing. I’d consider myself an existentialist and I do believe that life is meaningless except for what meaning we impose on it. I don’t think that’s true nihilism, though I do strive for authenticity and integrity, two things which I believe are sorely lacking in life generally.
You don’t sugarcoat the fact the present – not to mention the near future – is undeniably bleak on different fronts, concluding the album’s press release with the perfectly succinct “We’re all fucked basically.” Are we a) still fucked and b) do you believe entertaining negativism offers a kind of solution?
Are we still fucked? Are we not? This record has been in gestation for some time and work began on it over a year ago. The press release was written almost as long ago and there have been a series of events which have continued to fuck us. The day the leave vote in favour of ‘Brexit’ was announced followed a night of heavy drinking following a somber exposure to someone from my recent past. I woke with a feeling of ‘what’s the point’? Suicide seemed like the only option. To paraphrase Morrissey, ‘there is no love, no hope in modern life’. As I write this on tour with Girls Names in Macedonia, I’ve been picking up scraps of news relating to Theresa May and Amber Rudd’s ideas on Britain and Brexit circa 1930’s Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, Donald Trump gains popularity in the running for leader of the free world despite numerous and exceedingly more offensive gaffes. With regards to the states they’ve a choice between Trump who seems like he’ll completely ruin the country, or Hillary Clinton who could easily well start World War 3. That is but the tip of the iceberg regarding how fucked we all are. So yes, we’re very much still fucked. It’s kind of ridiculous to get bogged down by politics having always been a bit of a sham. It seems like the same old story in every country I’ve ever been to, to varying degrees.
To answer the second part of your question, I don’t believe in entertaining negativity at all. Negativity breeds negativity. However, I think it’s important that certain ideas of how the world is going down the toilet need rammed home. We need to continue the conversation and to keep talking about what’s broken to help spur on the thirst for change. I do fear that due to human nature that’s ultimately futile, but nothing gets done by keeping these things to ourselves. I’m constantly having conversations with people where we share pieces of news/information we’ve gleamed and our eyes are opened even wider. At the end of the day, and I’ve probably discussed this in interview with you before, money is the absolute guiding force in practically everything that ever occurs ever. I’d like to believe we’ve come to a point where the collective human intelligence is above that and above petty squabbling. I can’t really fathom how the super rich can earn more money in a minute than most working people earn in a month yet still dedicate their lives to the accumulation of even more wealth while people starve and are destitute. Fuck up.
You’re releasing the album via Belfast’s excellent Touch Sensitive. I assume running with those guys on this occasion was a bit of a no-brainer?
It was an absolute no brainer in the sense that this album simply wouldn’t exist without the support of Mark at Touch Sensitive. I’d hazard to say that he commissioned it. I sent on two or three tracks I’d worked on late last Summer/early last Autumn and he encouraged me to send more. Mark has shown a level of trust and belief that I’ve not really experienced before, and as someone with self esteem issues I truly feel emboldened by that.
In much same way as Outstanding Debt, synths and drum machines generally take precedence over guitar here. Was that a conscious decision and how did the songwriting/recording process vary compared with previous output?
I’ll not beat around the bush, partially the electronics make things more cost effective. As I’ve said before, calling this project Gross Net wasn’t taking the piss. Not having an extra person with a drum kit lowers overheads significantly in terms of transport and studio time to record them properly. Besides, I’ve experienced little of anything other than that of the typical four-piece rock band format and it’s nice to see what other possibilities are out there. I’ve become more interested in genres less related to ‘rock’ music. Using electronic equipment/software has taken me out of my comfort zone and I feel I can make something interesting despite my scant knowledge of what I’m using: I’m learning on the job. It was mostly written on my laptop, and/or with electronic instruments. It was a conscious decision in so much that I’d become bored with playing guitar. Furthermore, as the label was asking me for more material I felt the need to come up with something new. Necessity became the mother of invention and I pulled scraps of previous recordings together and made something out of them, often just on the computer with a synth or two while sitting around at home. Obviously, the home environment is less conducive to recording loud guitar parts. My only true conscious decision was to do something different. I feel like it’s something I get asked more and more but I don’t think using less guitar is remarkable. It’s just another tool.
The album pairs personal and political lyrical themes with a clear anti-establishment stance and a darker musical palette. What do you think are the pervading ideas, themes and thoughts that you’re specifically confronting here?
The themes of the record deal with money (and the lack thereof), the perception of the current British government towards the working class and those who aren’t well off, my distaste for Belfast with my catalogue of ex lovers and misadventures/misdemeanours which I’m constantly reminded of, my ongoing depression (which I’m loathe to admit due to its prevalence in musician’s interviews lately and, cynically, I sometimes perceive that as a marketing gimmick. That being said it’s a very important conversation for everyone, particularly of my generation, to have) and my sexuality, and how that relates to politics, especially at home. I can’t honestly describe myself as a heterosexual and I’ve become comfortable with that instead of worrying that I’m one thing or another. I can find anyone attractive. There’s obviously still a lot of pressure especially in Northern Irish society to conform to heterosexuality as a norm, but if everyone was completely honest with themselves there’d be a lot less ‘straights’ about. Part of the problem is the repression in terms of modesty, sexuality and in terms of speaking about what we’re thinking and feeling. Back home we’re dreadfully repressed and breaking those bonds is the way forward. I’m a fan of crushing the white CIS heterosexual male patriarchy and at this period of history I feel that they’ve had their time. This record has been quite cathartic for me in numerous ways and the title itself refers to this. ‘Quantitative easing’ is a term that has been knocking around for the past eight years since the economic crash. It’s become jargon, a buzzword, and even more recently Jeremy Corbyn has spoken of a ‘people’s quantitative easing’. Nobody really and truly knows what it means. I’ve employed this title on a more abstract and personal level, like some idea of a sense of solace which remains un-obtainable, a sort of emotional aphasia which sits on the tip of the tongue but can’t be apprehended.
More than anything you’ve released to date, the album traverses a range of sounds and genres. Post-punk bleeds into minimal wave and NDW leads into textures and beats with clear techno-influences. What artists do you think have made an imprint on this release? Are there overriding points of reference?
I suppose, and I hope this doesn’t make things seem to obvious, but two of my main inspirations on this record were Throbbing Gristle and Broken English Club. In particular I feel like Throbbing Gristle have this brutal, honest, disgusting and real element. I find them to be a sort of mirror held up to society. As well as their lyrical themes I was inspired by the often looseness of their music. I find most music to be based on too rigid rules, and I tried to move away from that. I’m still trying.
You’ve said you want to do something different and bypass musical homogeneity with the album. Do you think it’s important to attempt to forge idiosyncratic art? Is there still new and bold terrain to be uncovered musically?
Do I think it’s important? It’s imperative! If every musical artist recorded incessant variations of ‘Happy Birthday’ for example, that could possibly serve some artistic value, but I believe in progress. I believe in progress and I fear that we’ve already reached the apex of art in all disciplines. I fear that there is no ground left to cover and everything is now technically just ‘post-modern’. I do wish to strive to create the new, and hope/encourage other artists to do the same. I don’t think a true artist is satisfied in retracing steps which have already been well trodden. What would be the point except some financial cash-in on someone else’s success? Human beings have always advanced in all fields throughout time, artists need not be complacent and endeavour to break new ground. That being said, I believe technology has a lot to do with advancements in music, from the Beatles’ use of multi-tracking to the dawn of sampling. Musicians in particular are nostalgic and creatures of habit. I want to use more instruments I know nothing about, and perhaps we all need to use newly created instruments to further our expression. On this record I dwelt on first takes and mistakes, partly because I don’t really give a fuck – if it’s music: it’s music – but partly to kind of change what is perceived as acceptable. I don’t care for perfectionism, it’s tiring and unobtainable and I’d rather free up my energy to the pursuit of more hedonism.
The album conjures up “beautiful boys, ghosts, exorcisms, resurrections, sex, mental disorder, the boredom that comes with being ‘dole-scum’, the post-Brexit dystopia of now, the antidote to the endless whitewash of indie groups in their matching Topshop outfits, and a riposte to the messianic false prophets pontificating a financial ruse as a grand truth.” Do you have an escape plan from all of the above in mind or are we mutually helpless to overcome?
Suicide? I have over-arching dreams of nation-wide strike action which eventually brings this geriatric capitalist situation to an end. Greed and selfishness are typical human traits, but after thousands of years of human history they need bred out. Don’t be a dick: treat people as people, respect each other, enjoy what little time we have on this rock together as much as possible. We’re scum. I want you to know it, I want everyone to know it. Let’s work on bettering ourselves, then bettering the world will come more easily. That’d be one solution. We’ve always lived in conflict though so what’s going to change? Maybe I’ll live self sufficiently in some far off place in twenty years as the world burns… assuming there still exists far off places, of course.
Read any good books recently?
I recently finished A Square in East Berlin which was written by the father of a friend of mine and was made into a film in Germany. It was an enjoyable and interesting coming of age sort of story with the background of death, family, murder and life in East Germany circa the 1960s. Easy to read and with an unexpected twist at the end. I’d recommend it. Currently on tour I’ve been reading The Story of O on my girlfriend’s recommendation. It’s… steamy. I’ve been hiding that one from the rest of the guys, actually. Good old garden variety Northern Irish repression for you there!
You tour quite a bit as part of Girls Names. How do you find the time to focus on your own craft and to what extent do you feel zig-zagging around the place informs your music as Gross Net?
I get this all the time, and while Girls Names have been busy the past year there’s always downtime. That being said I’ve done virtually zero Gross Net work since recording finished on the record in January. It’s good to rest the ears after tours and recording and to give time for new ideas to percolate. There’s a lot of time spent travelling where I’ll pick up ideas, but generally it doesn’t influence my music as much as it influences me as a person. Possibly there’s an influence regarding what I don’t want to do. It’s tiring hearing the same type of bands or artists over and over and they can blend into one. I felt pretty inspired in Bucharest by Richard Dawson, who supported us. His music and performance was so idiosyncratic and he seemed absolutely fearless. It’s not every day you hear a capella working songs from by-gone times belted into your face by an eccentric and intense Geordie. Not to sound crass, but I thought it was punk as fuck.
Is it a relief or difficult returning to Belfast after those busy weeks on the road? Do you think that transition (and the aforementioned boredom) feeds into the nature of your work?
There’s a bit of both. Being on tour isn’t a holiday despite popular opinion, it’s incredibly tiring especially when like me you don’t look after yourself as well as you should. Though after a week or two of sitting around back home I yearn to be visiting far off places again, meeting new people, experiencing different cultures and performing. I’m never happy, but at least I’ve always something to complain about!
Is what’s commonly regarded as sanity possible on the road?
You’d probably need to be an incredibly extreme personality to find sanity on the road. Your physical and mental health can go down the tubes and too much alcohol/too little sleep is the culprit. I never learn my lesson. There are some oases of calm though, like short journeys, separate hotel rooms, friendly and interesting people and the occasional day off somewhere interesting. The other guys may not necessarily share my opinion though.
Is what’s commonly regarded as sanity possible off the road?
I think so, but it’s not always easy. Due to some topics I’ve previously mentioned I can have good days and bad days. Lately the good days have been more numerous than the bad and I’ve been pretty busy lately too so I’ve not had the time to be bored. That’s a big help.
What has it been like performing material from the album live? Are there many challenges or limitations there?
It has been challenging, and originally I expected never to perform it live and to never perform live as Gross Net again. The biggest limitation for me has been using backing tracks, as I feel like some sort of charlatan. The restrictions of the backing track have been a pain, I like to be more loose and move been sections when I feel it on the night, not having this rigid example of what the tune is that needs to be adhered too else everything goes to shit. More recently I’ve been trying to come to solutions from acoustic arrangements with minimal electronics to the last show I did roping in my old stalwart from the Charles Hurts days, Sam Goodwin, alternating between bass and guitar duties. I’m not sure if that’s really something I’d do again but it keeps the material fresh when I’m trying to frame it in a different way. The idea of having a different show almost every time I perform is interesting to me too, and hopefully also to the audience.
For you to deem this album a success, what would need to happen upon its release?
Sell all the copies? Hopefully people will like it, and it’ll help me do something new. Reaching a slightly larger audience and giving me opportunities for touring would be good too. To be honest and cheesy, having it released is it’s own success in my opinion.
Best thing about Belfast?
Those that I’m close to, and the craic. I’ve been in other countries for a month or so at a time and sorely missed the banter.
Worst thing about Belfast?
The dinosaur politics and sectarianism, the lack of arts funding, the weather, my mistakes and regrets with the accompanying haunting guilt and need for avoidance, the boredom, the weather, and the weather.
Finally, are we definitely fucked and what are your plans – artistically and psychically – for the remainder of 2016?
Yeah yeah, we’re fucked, but we always have been. That’s for definite. Artistically, I’ll planning on working on new Gross Net material and doing some shows in Germany, at home and hopefully elsewhere. I should also be working on some other top secret materials… I’ve organised a gig for one of the best bands in Ireland, M(h)aol, which is happening at Framewerk on the 29th October (the support is interesting too) and I suppose I should get writing more. Psychically I’ll be finding and losing my mind on a never ending loop, hopefully becoming ever less forgetful and finding my marbles more often than I lose them. Otherwise I’ll be thinking on ideas, pondering useless information and planning/fantasising about my escape from Belfast to continental Europe.
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