This article originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on June 17, 2017. Sacred Paws have since won The Scottish Album of the Year Award, which was announced on June 28th…
IT WILL be a major surprise – and no little disappointment – if tropical pop duo Sacred Paws are not included on the shortlist for 2017’s Scottish Album of the Year Award, which was revealed last night.
Their debut album – a riot of day-glo, African-influenced jams – is among the brightest on this year’s 20-strong longlist, alongside LPs from collage-pop genius Ela Orleans, alt-rock duo Honeyblood, chamber-folk voyagers Modern Studies, and indie-pop sisterhood Teen Canteen. Their inclusion with the likes of Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub and the Jesus and Mary Chain underscores the SAY Award’s increasing recognition of brilliant, inventive female musicians – including Anna Meredith, who won last year’s award, and Kathryn Joseph, who lifted it in 2015.
Sacred Paws are Glasgow-based vocalist Eilidh Rodgers and London guitarist and vocalist Rachel Aggs. They make irresistible, vibrant post-punk that evokes The Raincoats, The Bhundu Boys, and Orange Juice. As with Orange Juice, the duo upturn the rainy greys and blues that often overshadow Scottish rock, in favour of a dazzling burst of colour, and their rhythmic guitar pop casts light and warmth. Their debut album, released on Mogwai’s Rock Action label, is aptly titled Strike A Match.
They recorded it in the depths of a Glasgow winter, in Mogwai’s recording studio – the brilliantly, if gloomily, designated Castle of Doom. It was a challenge, muses Rodgers, summoning their powers to kick out the blues. “Unfortunately, it was the winter. It was hard,” she says. “We were actually going to get a SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder] lamp because we were really depressed. But we powered through.”
“It was in the deepest, darkest point of January,” Aggs recalls. “It was dark, and it was snowing, so it was actually really good to have to go into a studio every day and make music that’s uplifting.”
Their music is surprising, too. Sacred Paws’ long sold-out debut EP, Six Songs, was a thrilling drums and guitars affair, but their new album has bass, synthesisers and brass – the latter of which in particular underscores the band’s sense of celebration, and fun. Did they always have plans to bring fanfares to Sacred Paws?
“I think we had this vague idea that we might get someone to play the trumpet,” offers Aggs. “But sometimes we struggle to have the confidence to make decisions. The good thing was, Tony [Doogan, producer] was really encouraging. It wasn’t like he suggested things that seemed really weird to us, but he did encourage us to do things that we might have felt were a bit outrageous – like having a brass section,” she laughs.
“We were actually a bit worried about it though,” she continues, “because I remember Eilidh saying she’d had a conversation with someone, where she’d said to them, ‘Oh, you know, we’re adding some extra stuff this time, for the album.’ And the person she was telling made this joke, like – ‘What, are you getting a brass section in?’”
As if that was the most preposterous, flamboyant notion?
The album’s neat flourishes of trombone, saxophone and trumpet, on tracks like Rest and Strike A Match, are anything but overblown in fact. They’re gleaming and joyous, but never pompous. “It was pretty intense though,” offers Aggs. “It was the first time we’d worked with people who were actually professional session musicians. I didn’t know what it would be like at all. I mean, I kind of knew what I wanted it to sound like – I’d written the parts on Garageband on the really crappy Midi keyboard – but then someone from the brass section arranged it into proper parts. The time we had with them was so limited and I was so worried about knowing what it was going to sound like that I didn’t even want to go to the toilet,” she laughs.
Strike A Match charts the tale of Sacred Paws to date – from their early songs like chiming afro-rock chorale Nothing and harmonic post-punk wig-out Ride (first released as a split cassette with Grass Widow’s Hannah Lew in 2012), to electro-indie aria Voice, written just before they entered the studio.
“We weren’t sure about that song,” offers Aggs. “We were really into it when we wrote it, but then I think it was just the kind of panic of trying to finish it – we were really stressed about it. But then Lewis Cook [of psychedelic Glasgow duo Happy Meals] came in and did a really fun synth part on it. That kind of rescued it.”
Sacred Paws use the word “fun” a lot. Little wonder, perhaps, when their band was borne out of camaraderie. Rodgers and Aggs originally played together in riot-pop trio Golden Grrrls, and hit it off.
“It was more of a friendship to start,” says Rodgers. “But I also really loved Trash Kit [another Rachel Aggs outfit], so we were like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s start another band, it’ll be fun!’ It was really exciting, and at that point we had more energy, and it was nice to have a reason to hang out and make music.”
“I really love the way Eilidh plays drums,” Aggs adds. “I was always totally fascinated by her drumming, and I was like, ‘We really need to some more music together – music that’s really wild,’” she laughs.
They formed Sacred Paws around 2012, and by 2013 they’d joined forces with Mogwai’s Rock Action label. How did the record deal come about?
“I can’t really remember,” Rodgers says. “It was funny, because a friend of mine had said something about it to me before it actually happened, and I was like, ‘No, I don’t think they’re signing us, we haven’t heard anything [from Rock Action].’ And then we played this gig at Mono, and it was kind of ropey, and I remember looking up and seeing Stuart [Braithwaite, from Mogwai] and thinking – ‘Well there’s that opportunity gone,’” she laughs.
They signed to the label shortly thereafter. Which means that despite being a band jointly based in Glasgow and London, their label, record studio, producer and spiritual home (The Mono/Monorail cafe/bar and record shop, where Rodgers also works) are all in Glasgow. But perhaps that’s just a Scottish vantage point – when the band are in London, are they made to feel as warmly welcome? Is the DIY community in the big smoke as nurturing toward them?
“There is a really strong scene in London too, but it’s very different,” Aggs reflects. “So I think Sacred Paws does feel like a Glasgow band. We’ve had so much support from people here. And also, I enjoy having a reason to come up here, having a reason to visit. It’s like being on holiday.”
The same could be said for the timeless, far-flung sunshine pop of Sacred Paws.