DATE OF INTERVIEW:
30th January 2009
ERIN BENNETT; AMANDA SMITH-SKINNER; JO HEELEY
Formed in the USA mid-2006, all female alt-rock trio Syren are comprised of young American vocalist/guitarist Erin Bennett and two Brits - virtuoso bassist Amanda Smith-Skinner (aka 'Fuse') and drummer Jo Heeley. Both Amanda and Jo are veterans of the alternative music scene, with their respective talents familiar to some from long defunct, and sorely missed, previous band Rockbitch (although extant Stateside as MT-TV until recently), whereas Erin is a lesser known musician. However, all that is set to change, as Syren have been engendering widespread positive reactions to their music from both the media and fans alike, worthy attention that's resulted from extensive touring and stunning debut album, 'Dehumanized'. I took the opportunity to quiz the three talented ladies about a plethora of subjects in between their two sets in Lincoln's Tap & Spile at the end of January. Retiring to the kitchen (which has the distinctive odour of scrumpy due to the accidental spillage of a £100 barrel earlier in the evening!), I begin by asking about their decision to relocate from the States to the UK...
METAL DISCOVERY: I gather you formed in the States in 2006 and gigged quite heavily over there - what prompted you to relocate to the UK in the middle of last year?
ERIN BENNETT: Sort of everything really. We’d gotten a lot of interest from the UK; people in the UK started buying our albums, and people in Holland actually started buying our albums so we thought ah, you know, people are starting to hear about us, maybe we should branch out anyway. The girls had been in the States for three years, and I think they were kind of ready to come home and see people; see England. So we thought well, this could be good all round, let’s give it a go.
(Erin on the dedication of some of Syren's fans)
"We did a gig in Dordrecht, Holland, and this guy from Nottingham turned up…and he didn’t realise it would be so far, so he didn’t bring the right shoes and had these horrible, massive blisters on his feet because he had walked to our gig."
Erin performing with Syren in the Tap & Spile, Lincoln, UK, 30th January 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
AMANDA SMITH-SKINNER: Flexible, I think, because we really love it in England and Europe because it’s different types of crowds. They’re very verbally responsive…in a good way! They’re not afraid to express their emotions. It’s a bit different from being in the States.
JO HEELEY: We got invited by a Dutch agent we used to work with as well for a Netherlands tour.
MD: Do you plan to stay in the UK indefinitely or do you want to head back to the States eventually?
JH: We’re flexible, really.
EB: America is so big that if you concentrate on one place you can get big in that area, but if you go to the next state over, no-one knows who you are. You have to be really lucky to get big the whole country over whereas here, if you get big in one area, the chances are people in the South of England know who you are. You know, so it’s easier here once you conquer, so to speak, England or Holland, places like this, it’s easier to go back to America - you get looked at more seriously.
MD: The UK’s like the size of one state, so…
JH: Being an indie band as well, we can just pretty much just take up and go wherever we want.
MD: Do any of you ever get homesick for the States?…that’s aimed more at you I guess, Erin…
EB: I don’t think I get homesick…
MD: Is there any particular thing you miss?
EB: I miss my mom!
AS: Really? Oh no! [laughs]
EB: [laughs] I think that’s about it! To be honest with you, I was really ready. I’d never been outside the US before…I was really ready to see Europe and particularly England and, you know, that same old cliché of my ancestors were Irish - if you’re American, everybody says that! [laughs] You know, so I was interested to see where my family have come from and it’s just been really lovely. I miss being able to drive without being paranoid that I’m gonna start driving on the right for some reason.
AS: Getting used to gears as well, isn’t it?!
EB: Yeah, that too!
MD: You have quite a unique sound in your music - did you set out to try and come up with something a bit different, or is that just what transpired when you started jamming together?
AS: It just happened!
JH: You two started first, didn’t you?
AS: Yeah, Erin and I started just playing and seeing what would happen with just guitar, vocals and fretless, and it became this thing, then we added drums to the mix, and it became another thing and this is what you’ve got!
MD: The music you’ve recorded is generally how you play it live, but are you ever tempted to add more layers in the studio, like with keyboards or samples for example, or is it important to you to keep the music true to how you would perform it live?
AS: True to how we perform it live, definitely.
EB: We never really set out for the album to be a particular way, like no keyboards or anything like that. In justice there are…obviously there are effects on the vocals, and then we’ve got a girl crying in the song as well which doesn’t happen live but, on one hand, we were new to the studio with this band and we thought let’s take it one step at a time; and then, on the other hand as well, I don’t play keyboard and I don’t think you guys…none of us play keyboard or anything…
AS: I can a little bit, but not really.
EB: It doesn’t really jump out at you, you know.
JH: We like being a three-piece, you know, apart from bringing a fourth person or a backing track…
EB: Session musicians or backing tapes, we don’t…
MD: Did you perform all the backing vocals on the album?...[to Erin]
EB: Yes. And it was early on in the band when we started working on things, sort of picking apart everybody’s piece of the pie, so to speak, and sort of really working on it. And this time, we hadn’t established a backing vocalist. I remember Mandy had a go at it, and I don’t think you’d ever really considered it...[to Jo]
JH: We did joke about it, didn‘t we!
EB: We joked about it and one day we said, but seriously, do you fancy doing it? Jo started doing it and it was amazing; it was like star course, you know, you didn’t expect it. So if we do a second album, I think we might…
AS: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
MD: It seems like your music has the potential for a fairly wide appeal - what kind of crowds do you get turning up to your gigs?
JH: All sorts.
AS: A really wide mixture from young people to…not old, no, no, let me rephrase that! A very broad spectrum across generations!
EB: And all different genres. We have a bit of everything and everybody really. We’re like a mongrel!
MD: Do you see Syren shirts at your gigs?
EB: Yes we do, there’s a guy wearing one tonight.
MD: Is he your biggest, number one fan?
JH: I think he’s been to a few gigs. We’ve picked up a few hardcore fans.
EB: We’ll have to have a contest now! Who is the bigger fan? [laughs]
JH: We’ve had a guy come from Norway.
MD: What, over to the UK?
JH: Oh, absolutely, and Holland as well. We were playing a pub in Newbury, and this guy just turned up - “oh hello, I’ve come all the way from Norway”.
EB: We did a gig in Dordrecht, Holland, and this guy from Nottingham turned up, and he hardly had any money. He had somehow managed to save up the money to get the ticket over there and pay for the hotel he was staying at, which was like the cheapest sort of hotel you can get, and walked to the gig from…I don’t know where he was staying near Amsterdam…and he didn’t realise it would be so far, so he didn’t bring the right shoes and had these horrible, massive blisters on his feet because he had walked to our gig. So, that’s pretty dedicated! [laughs]
MD: Wow, that’s pretty fucking dedicated!
AS: We should’ve given him Syren t-shirts - one for each foot maybe! [laughs]
MD: Syren shoes! You played with Hawkwind at a couple of dates in December - at Rock City and Manchester Academy?
MD: How did you end up with that support slot?
AS: Because we played Hawkfest in…was that June?
EB: It was July…June or July…and we played there - we had been offered this slot and I think Jo had hooked up with their drum tech, and they were just sort of internet friends, like chatting back and forth, and managed to get this support slot for Hawkwind, like the slot just before they played. As you were playing, it’s like this big tent and you look off backstage, and you see all members of Hawkwind sort of peeking round the corner watching us and, you know, we didn’t expect to be offered two support slots at such good gigs, but it was…
JH: They were really good to us; they were lovely.
MD: Are you fans of Hawkwind?
EB: Oh yeah!
AS: Big fan!
MD: So that must’ve been like, wow.
AS: It was awesome, wasn’t it, so cool.
MD: How did your music go down with Hawkwind fans because I guess their crowd is quite an old one?
AS: Really well. A really good response.
JH: They enjoyed the contrast.
MD: Did you get any press at Rock City or Manchester Academy?
EB: I don’t think so. Well, we don’t know if we did.
JH: We’re a bit lazy because we do everything, and we don’t really have the time to chase everything up.
EB: But I guess it’s a good sign that, at the end of the night, we go to pack down our merch stand at Rock City and Manchester Academy, and you find that you’ve sold loads of merch. So I guess they must’ve liked it ‘cause we sold some CDs!
MD: That’s brilliant.
JH: Again, the Hawkwind people were really lovely - they sold our stuff as well. We tried to give them some money for it, and they’re like no, no, put your money away.
MD: You seem to play a handful of sporadic Dutch dates as you’ve mentioned before - do you have much of a fan base in Holland, or is it that there’s a promoter who books you over there?
AS: We’ve got a promoter out there. We can go there about once a month …we’ve been there, what, four or five times now?
JH: Yeah, four or five times.
AS: We’re doing some festivals there soon I think.
JH: We’re trying to build up there. It’s smaller than England and the agent we work with who books us throughout Holland, they’re trying to get us…we’ve done a radio thing there; we’ve done a guitar magazine…
AS: Some bass clinics as well. That was good fun.
JH: Oh yeah, two bass clinics there. So it’s a different thing from England. I think overall on the continent they have…the equivalent of tonight would’ve been a stage, an in-house PA…not that the British don’t support live music but you’re either in the pubs in England or you’re in clubs - there’s no middle ground, but on the continent they still have that middle ground, there’s a lot of small clubs which is really good for us.
MD: Yeah, we go to Holland at least three times a year because the music scene is just like…particularly for progressive music, in Holland they lap it up.
EB: Yeah, you find the Dutch, whether they know the band that’s playing or not, they’re interested. If they hear, they’ll look you up online; they’ll read about you; they’ll go and see if they like it, whereas most people nowadays, it’s like a fast-food world now. You know, if they haven’t heard of you or seen you on TV…
MD: Yeah, in the UK, they’ll have to have heard you on the radio or CD and then go and see the band, but in Holland it’s like, we’ll just turn up and see a band.
AS: Yeah, yeah, it’s just so laid back.
EB: It’s smaller than Texas, you know, so…