Published on June 14th, 2022 | by Addison Paterson0
Reigning Supreme: An Interview with Pillow Queens
Blue balls, deep fakes, and good clean fun with the flourishing Dublin indie rock quartet
Words by Addison Paterson // Photos by Loreana Rushe
Pillow Queens are still for a rare minute. The Dublin four-piece just got back from touring their second LP Leave The Light On in the US, and it’s a couple of weeks before they head to the UK. Then Europe, then festival season. It’s quite the change from the album launch they experienced with 2020’s In Waiting — a virtual listening party with fans, all sat in their respective kitchens. Nought to one hundred.
For now, they’re recovering from jet-lag, Zooming in for this call from various locations in Ireland. Drummer Rachel is on the tea and biscuits. They must be tired, having crammed two album PR and tour cycles into these post-lockdown months. “If we weren’t doing that, we would’ve been sitting around giving out about how everything was closed,” says Sarah. “It’s nice to have a project; to have a focus. I feel like we achieved something over that period of time.”
Achieve, they did: a monumental rise following their cornerstone debut album, self-released with their hands tied by pandemic restrictions. “It felt like trying to run in a dream,” offers Pamela. “Where you’re doing it, you’re putting everything into it, and something’s happening… but you’re not going fast enough.”
The band didn’t get any of those first album experiences until the second album came out, she continues: “It was weird, it was strange; it wasn’t ideal but it was part of history, I guess.” They tried to make the most of their time, and look back with fondness and gratitude at what they were afforded. Some of it, though, they hope to have been once-in-a-lifetime happenings. “Hopefully we won’t ever have to set up our own record label again and send off five hundred albums – or however many it was,” says Pamela. “We all had paper cuts by the end of it.”
The band had spent the last few years cementing themselves as one of Ireland’s best-cherished crafters of intricate, anthemic indie-rock ballads. Still, Sarah felt their rise was “really out of the blue,” as lockdown surrealism surrounded their many feats. “When we got the email from Sub Pop to say they wanted to work with us, or the James Corden show, all of this was happening while we were sitting in our pyjamas, texting people like, ‘Are they… Is this… What?’. It was really strange. You’d expect these kinds of things to happen in fucking fancy boardrooms in LA. We were just getting emails and sitting around making banana bread.”
Pamela simply puts this phenomenon as “the ultimate blue-ball experience,” while Cathy notes the self-preservation and hesitancy it forced them into. But eventually things did lift, and the promises in their inboxes came to fruition. This spring they were able perform ‘Hearts & Minds’ in person, finally, on The Late Late Show with James Corden. They had appeared via livestream the year before — and initial shock at the invite made them think it wasn’t real. It took a while for the band to compute that they would be appearing virtually on the same sofa that they had watched the likes of Billie Eilish and Harry Styles sit on. “Suddenly you’re on Zoom and [Corden’s] face flashes up and he’s like ‘Pillow Queens!’, and you’re like ‘This is fucking weird,’” explains Sarah, going onto half-joke that she thought the host was a deep fake. When they got to the US studio, Cathy tripped over someone on the way to the bathroom, only to realise it was Mark Wahlberg.
Back home, while venues were restricted to half-capacity, Pillow Queens were sometimes playing two shows consecutively — in essence opening for themselves. Two shows, one cup is what they called it, according to Pamela. It was hard for them to keep the energy up, or vary their stage patter — and they were “also a bit more drunk for the second one,” says Rachel. Despite all the postponements, they eventually did every single date on their tour, bar one. “Leeds. And that’s because the venue burnt down — not our fault,” adds Sarah.
Leave The Light On was written with touring in mind. “We knew not to make too many plans,” explains Pamela, but “having to wait so long to perform the first album, we needed something to keep ourselves excited”. Their reference point when writing? “How will this feel, performing it to a crowd?” reveals Sarah. Having played most of it on the US tour now, the answer is “class”.
Released in early March, their second record takes on the vibrant indie spirit of their debut, with deeper vulnerability and even further introspection. Guitars brood; lyrics are wrenching, but more abstract. During restrictions, inspiration was harder to come by, or rather, was simply sought elsewhere, explains Pamela: “You’re not going out and getting fucked over. You’re just being, just existing. Everything’s the same every day. Essentially, I think we had to sit with ourselves a lot. I think maybe the difference in themes is because a lot of it was self-analysis, and just looking inward to a point where you’re like ‘I need to keep on looking until a song comes out’ because there’s nothing else that’s going to be able to help with this situation. That’s the album for the most part.”
“There’s a lot of past and future memories,” adds Cathy. “It’s almost time-travelling, if you will. There’s a lot of memories being recounted, or very much nondescript feelings in the present; thinking about our past selves, or thinking about older generations. I guess, kind of more fabricating memories than drawing on legitimate experience.”
The response has been more than warm, both on their travels and at home. In different ways, though. “When you play at home, your friends and family are there, or it feels like they’re your friends and family because they’re from down the road,” says Sarah. “Everyone feels like you know them, so if somebody comes up to you after a gig and says ‘Congratulations, we’re so proud of you’, there is that kind of shared pride. Your pals are there slapping you on the back. Then you go to America, and it’s not that they’re proud of you, they’re just enjoying it. They’re fans.” A case in point: she was recognised while buying ice cream before playing a show in Boston. “It’s very different to hearing that someone from Galway heard of the band because their friend was like — I don’t know, their ex is in Pillow Queens, or something,” laughs Sarah.
Everywhere they go, Irish fans turn up in support. “When we played in Vancouver, we kept making Canadian jokes and there wasn’t a single Canadian there,” says Pamela, and the band all love a home crowd. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about Irish music as I have at this moment,” she continues. “Maybe because it felt so far away and now I just want to go to so many shows, or listen to so much music. All I want to do is listen to so much Irish music. If other people are feeling like that, you could take that energy and something amazing could happen. But there is obviously a crisis, cause you know, bands from the last two or three years have had nothing to show for their efforts. It could go one of two ways, and both could be pretty drastic.”
SXSW in March was great, but stressful. They hadn’t done quick festival changeovers in so long. “You get a bit frazzled, especially if it’s a showcase,” says Pamela. She blew her pedalboard twice. And after two years of no South By, everyone was obviously looking to blow off some steam — but PQ had to be cautious. They knew they were on James Corden the following week and needed to remain Covid-free. “We were trying to have fun. Good clean fun,” says Sarah.
They kept their appearance on the show under wraps just in case, which made coming up with an excuse when turning down boat party invites all the more difficult. “We’re normally very cool, but we’re not allowed on the boat party,” they assure me. And while they loved performing, they’d quite like to go back as spectators —without having to worry about showcasing jet-lagged and surviving on naps. “We played just after Yard Act and Los Bitchos, two high energy, amazing fucking bands,” says Sarah. “And we’re just sad lesbians!” laughs Pamela.
We end on what’s next: Eat chips on the pier. Tour. Start writing again. Addison Paterson
Leave The Light On is out now