Interview: Muscles of Joy

This feature originally ran in the The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on Saturday 3rd September 2011, under the headline MAGNIFICENT SEVEN FIND STRENGTH IN DEPTH.

Art-rock provocateur Lydia Lunch recently made an appearance in Glasgow. Her show was hypnotic, but she was upstaged by her local support act, Muscles of Joy.

An all-female, vocal-led Glasgow septet, Muscles of Joy fuse the post-punk ethos of Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux with far-reaching folk influences like Gaelic psalm singing, primal Americana and Italian gypsy music. The result is quite unlike anything else.

“Everyone sings and plays something, and most of us move around instruments and percussion depending on how we feel when a song is being written,” says Leigh Ferguson of the band’s versatile dynamic. “About three-and-a-half years ago, some of us were singing in [country-blues choir] The Parsonage and we started meeting to jam” she says of their early days. “I can’t remember exactly how the first incarnation of Muscles of Joy got together, but I do know it was nearly a year before everyone actually got into the room all at the one time,” she laughs.

Gigs with variegated acts like Tenniscoats, The Slits and Lydia Lunch followed – as did comparisons with The Raincoats, OOIOO and Delta 5. This weekend, the collective are set to join Richard Youngs, Withered Hand, Wounded Knee and many more at Glasgow independent festival Music is the Music Language.

They’re also ensconced in Dundee Contemporary Arts, screen-printing the artwork for their self-titled debut album, (MoJ are also visual artists), which blends stripped-back art-pop, post-punk and avant-folk and is by turns rousing, challenging, haunting and beautiful. True to their spirit of democracy and improvisation, the songs were half-written then worked out live.

“It’s taken a while and we’ve all arrived at these songs in a different way – and we’ve sometimes had to vote on things to move them on,” explains Ferguson. “We’ve tried things out in our live performances and used that experience to develop the tunes. They’re still evolving and I imagine they always will.”

Alongside collective reference points like Poly Styrene, Robert Wyatt and Annette Peacock, the band’s fusion of experimentalism with traditional music is occasionally redolent of Mouth Music. Does folk play a key role in the MoJ doctrine? “To me, folk is about making it up on the spot or having something that’s been passed on through generations, that can be quite complex or can be simply performed,” suggests Ferguson.

Anne-Marie Copestake agrees with this familial resonance. “My parents listened to a lot of folk music while I was growing up, and my father played lots of fragments on violin and banjo. It still holds strong for me,” she says. “Many of us have talked about traditional music – field recordings from Lewis that Ariki [Porteous, another band member] made; waulking songs; singing from the Bahamas. And plenty of pop music too.”

Muscles of Joy embrace an impressive range of vocal styles and instruments (Esther Congreave, their newest recruit, has tried her hand at “bass, synths, drums, cymbala, thumb piano, keyboards, percussion, horn, and singing” and she only joined in April), but they also arm themselves with self-built apparatus, like their Marching Machines.

“One of my inclinations is towards rhythm and percussion, and at the time I didn’t have a drum kit,” says Copestake, who constructed said instruments. “I had been thinking about making kick boxes for the band, and I came across a reference to a marching machine – it was a lovely description and there was a ‘recipe’ of how to make one.

“I made one, then immediately thought it would be great to make a much bigger one,” she continues. “It was made from wood that Leigh and Ariki had chopped down – it was sanded and cut into small pegs in a range of sizes and drilled with holes, with wooden pegs suspended from crossed strings hanging from wooden frame. Then it was painted in gold, red, and pink washes.”

This feminist burl on the rock patriarchy – building machines and flushing them pink – prompts me to ask whether their moniker is a salute to the female anatomy, as per The Slits and Hole.

“It’s not at all about the vagina directly,” says Ferguson. “Tell her, Rie!”

“I had done some research into laughter,” elucidates Copestake. “I looked at the work of Dr Duchenne de Boulogne, and in particular an extraordinary series of photographs he made in which he sought to investigate, capture, and demonstrate human emotions, by isolating his patients’ facial muscles with electric probes.

“Afterwards I made a drawing and titled it ‘Muscles of Joy’ for an exhibition that Vikki [Morton – who completes the line-up with Katy Dove and Jenny O’Boyle] had organised.

“Years later, when all were suggesting band names, Vikki put it forward as a possibility. There was a lot of ‘No we can’t! Yes we can! No we can’t!’ and the name stuck,” Copestake says. “It does make people smile.”

Muscles of Joy’s debut album is out on October 17 via Watts of Goodwill.

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