From the moment the name QUEEN ZEE AND THE SASSTONES was first seen on a poster it was one near impossible to ignore. Bold, brash and oozing with attitude, it’s not a title which can be forgotten easily. What came from their first ever live show lived up to their namesake totally. An anarchic tour de force which shook the newly founded Drop The Dumbulls (Liverpool’s most anti-establishmentarian venue) to its very core. In a set which lasted no longer than 15 minutes, the band played a couple of original numbers and finished with a cover of The Prodigy’s Fire Starter, not leaving the stage until they’d smashed up their instruments in a wall of screaming distortion and interference. In this first short glimpse, they had proved themselves as a force to be reckoned with, kicking and screaming all the way.
A lot has changed for the band since that night almost two years ago. The three-piece has become a fivesome, with only two of the original members surviving from that first show. “The first time we met as people was at a black metal show in Maguire’s,” frontwoman Zee explains of her first encounter with guitarist and fellow founding Sasstone, Em Dee. “I don’t want to say that I could tell it was meant to be at first sight, but Em Dee is very good at making something sonically, whereas I still struggle to play a guitar most of the time. I always felt my role would be as a lyricist, so in an ideal world I wouldn’t even play an instrument.”
Prior to Queen Zee, both Zee and Em had their own solo projects. Em focussed on dark, tinnitus-inducing instrumental shoegaze confined to dark dingy venues, while Zee’s work manifested itself in the form of political rantings soundtracked by a guitar – which usually ended up under her feet rather than strapped round her shoulder. Therefore, it seems only right the two found themselves in their natural habitat of a DIY heavy metal show in Liverpool’s home of Punk Rock Pizza. The pair’s individual strengths were what made them quite unique, not just to the Liverpool scene, but to that which exists nationwide.
Combining sonically-charged, noisy shoegaze soundscapes with social commentary snarled with a truly biting delivery, they set themselves apart from just about everyone, capturing a DIY spirit within noisy pop songs. “Listening to heavier music helps you understand pop music,” Zee tells us, embarking on one of her familiar long tales. “There has to be that adrenaline-pumping moment that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and fight, and dance and make you want to have sex and drink too much alcohol. So many bands fail to grab that and just meander on, whereas us – a band who love punk, hardcore and metal – we appreciate the need for that moment. You get it with Skepta, you get it with trap, you get it with ska. I think it was LCD Soundsystem that said you should be in a punk band before you’re a DJ. If you listen to Queen Zee you’ll see we fuckin’ love a drop, a breakdown and a hook, and every song has a chorus: they don’t all have verses but they all have a chorus.”
Writing a number of songs together, the duo worked furiously, self-recording their own demos in Em’s bedroom. “There are a lot of kids in Liverpool with rich mummies and daddies and a good education who are very technically proficient, but, at the end of the day, that privilege just hinders them because they can just get everything they need without having to work for it,” Zee continues. “We couldn’t afford studio time so we had to learn how to record stuff in our bedroom, with Em stealing microphones so we can record ourselves!” Although rough and ready, their early demos managed to encapsulate the raw energy and determined spirit, and attracted the attention of Radio 1. It’s rare enough for a band to have their debut single played on Radio 1, let alone one recorded in a bedroom using school grade microphones and incorporating skateboard wheels.
The word DIY is bandied around a lot within music today but it is one which has transformed from one of necessity to one of desire. Zee: “To this day, even though we have a manager, we still do all the artwork, mix it, have an impact on videos, glue-gunning costumes together til early hours of the morning. I still think it’s DIY, but not out of necessity anymore but because we’re obsessed with it.” Their love for DIY aesthetics is one that manifests itself in their style. From their self-designed knife-through-lips logo to Zee’s elaborate stage outfits, the band still employ the creative ingenuity of their early days purely for the fun of it.
From those first rough steps has blossomed a full band who sit before us. “The more time and effort you put into it, the more people see that it’s picking up speed – either that or people see you’re just the same bunch of degenerates you are! It’s been an organic growth, it’s not been like, ‘Oh, we need a drummer’. It’s about finding the right people. The right people who join us now include Frankie French on bass, Lily Bit Furious on drums, and Courtney Hate on keys and additional vocals. When we were auditioning for drummers earlier in the year we had a lot of very technically proficient drummers come in who were just a bit too proficient; when it was Lily Bit Furious’ turn, they just assaulted the drum kit for 25 minutes and didn’t really know the songs, but we couldn’t say no to them.” It appears that to be a Sasstone is all about raw energy and enthusiasm, something which you’re born with and not something that can be taught. This is a blueprint that’s been there since the minute they took to the stage for the first time and tore the room down; an ethos of providing anarchy, avoiding pseudo-masculine bravado bullshit and embracing the joys of performing without taking themselves too seriously.
This element of the Sasstones worldview is something that springs vibrantly to life onstage, where the diverse bunch of misfits’ stage attire flits from black metal T-shirts and three-quarter-length shorts through to homemade costumes for the Queen herself. “It’s all an influence from drag. We’re not drag kings or drag queens, and I don’t wanna defile that artform, but it’s definitely an influence,” Zee explains. “It’s why we have stage names and why I wear costumes and it’s that ability to blur sexuality, gender and identity. Social media has made us into brands and it makes us conform to be one person. Whereas this allows us to almost have split personalities. You can go on stage and can be whatever you want. Zombie Mickey Mouse.” Keys player Courtney Hate adds: “It’s a performance and if you were in a play or an art show you’d dress up, so why not in music?”
The Sasstones’ emergence has been one which has been hurtling since day one, fuelled by a drive unrivalled in Liverpool at the moment. They have set themselves on a warpath for world domination, stopping at nothing to get to the top – and you won’t find Zee shying away from ambition. “Not that many bands in Liverpool venture outside. There’s this competition to be the best band in the city. That’s fine, but there’s just so much more outside.” In pursuit of a more nationwide notoriety, they’ve been touring across major cities and spreading the Gospel of Sass. “The second gig we ever played was supporting Gordon Raphael [who produced The Strokes’ Is This It]. We thought, ‘Fuckin’ hell, this is going to be amazing!’ but not a single person turned up. Gordon Raphael and the promoter stayed for one song before fucking off elsewhere. We literally played to no one! And we still played our hearts out. It really hurt me but I think it’s important to experience gigs like that because it makes you grateful for the gigs where it goes off.”
Despite some tough early gigs, they took the knocks in their stride and powered through, now playing gigs to adoring fans across the country. “I still find it mad that we get to travel across the country and go to places we’ve always wanted to go and get paid to do it, and then people come and say thank you to us! It’s crazy,” Zee puts humbly. “I’m from a small town in the Midlands,” adds Frankie French, “and when I first came into Liverpool I was listening to folk music and just thought ‘Wow, I’m in the Big City,’ so to explore the rest of the country has been great.”
Being in a band can be incredibly important for a lot of musicians, but for the Sasstones it has been more vital than most. It has been a crucial outlet in revealing aspects of the band’s identity and a means by which to find an unprecedented confidence to be themselves. Shortly after the band’s conception Zee started to transition. “I wouldn’t have done it without the band. I lived in fear for a number of years. All I wish for is to be seen as human with feelings who is also transgender. But, yeh, without the band I really don’t feel I would’ve been able have got this far.” But it’s not just Zee who has felt more confident in their ability to show their true selves. “Before the band I never wore make-up and it really helped me to open up,” confesses Em. This release can be heard in their recordings and onstage as the music seems to act as a real catharsis from a society which still has an archaic attitude when it comes to sexuality and gender identity. Music has always been an outlet for frustration with societal norms, whether that be from Little Richard, Bowie or, more recently, Ezra Furman and Anohni. Much like the artists mentioned, music may have provided an outlet but it certainly doesn’t define them.
“I’m out and transitioning and I don’t feel the need to be defined as a queercore or a trans-punk band. We probably are. We could probably play with the likes of G.L.O.S.S. or Spook School and go down really well, but it doesn’t have to be solely as that.”
Since their rather recent arrival they have become important figures within the local LGBTQ community, DJing at cult queer night Preach and having their smiley logo emblazoned on the walls of popular club night Sonic Yootha (a space usually saved for icons), all while touring the more traditional gig scene, and this is something which sets them apart from the rest of their current counterparts. “The LGBT and drag scene is so rooted in the club and dance scene and it very rarely crosses over into the heavy and punk world. We’re not really punk and we’re not really pop – and we’re not really drag but we’re not really not drag, so it seems to have naturally found its own space. So, we can play with everyone from drag queens to death metal bands.” Herein lies the beauty of Queen Zee: the ability to draw together a crowd that ranges from aging punks in crusty leather jackets through to androgynous youths kicking against binarism.
Empowering a new generation with a sound which appeals to an older one, the Sasstones are a band liberated by their ability to express themselves through their art. Combining fashion, art, music and queer culture, the group are quickly becoming one of the country’s most exciting exports. Having already secured a slot at Reading and Leeds festivals, and with a support tour with Cabbage in the can, it truly is Sass Or Die time.
Eat My Sass is out on 22nd September.