The trio face a set of questions from the community of mates, fellow artists and collaborators who have contributed tracks to a remix version of new album Big Wows.
STEALING SHEEP’s third album on Heavenly Recordings, Big Wows, sees the trio further extending their experimentation at the outer fringes of pop. The LP, released in April, is characterised by spacey synths and the kind of backwards disco art-pop that owes as much to Japanese manga influences as conventional musical touchstones.
However, to discuss Stealing Sheep in purely sonic terms is to miss the depth of consideration they place in all aspects of their aesthetic. The block colours, geometric shapes and different coloured tights that characterised the world of previous album Not Real have since been replaced by spangly gold sequins and a futuristic sheen. In between that, a drum and dance commission for their Suffragette Tribute (with Both Sides Now, Sound City and Edge Hill University) and an international mural project have kept the Sheep in the public eye, all while slowly morphing their image into the retro roboto-pop stars we see today.
This feel has extended to a companion release alongside Big Wows, a remix project released on cassette. Stealing Sheep have always been at the heart of a diverse creative world in Liverpool, and it’s with a little help from these friends that they’ve put together an album of killer alternative versions. “We always wanted to make a cassette tape for Big Wows,” says Becky Hawley. “The album has an internet-surfing, 90s nostalgia theme and we wanted to capture this bubblegum realm in the form of a cassette, complete with our favourite artists from the Liverpool music scene. We wanted to capture the essence of the city’s creative spaces inside our tape! They have all influenced us in some way and we’re proud to be part of such a genre-pushing music scene in Liverpool.”
Ahead of the release of this companion cassette, we caught up with Becky, Emily and Luci, and put questions to them from their mates and collaborators. But could they work out who was asking the questions?
In what way did your individual creative practices feed into the making of Big Wows, and how did these interests or concepts manifest collectively?
Emily: Sounds like Aleph… probably isn’t though, maybe it’s Maddie.
Becky: I think we’re going to go for Maddie!
Question by: M T Hall [Correct!]
Becky: I tend to write on software like Logic to bring in ideas, and then get Luci’s interpretation of that on a drum kit and Emily’s on bass. Then we mould all that together and collaborate in the recording and production process. And then we generally write our own harmonies and vocals to go over the top.
BL!: How much did this change from your previous two albums?
Becky: We started doing it this way a little bit with [previous album] Not Real. Generally, it’s more each song that demands a different approach, rather than a creative style of writing. We all have very varied interests, but we channel some very similar ones as well.
Emily: And sometimes one of us will independently go forth with an idea, and then the rest of us will jump on it. It tends to go through what we call a Stealing Sheep washing machine effect, translating the idea in some way so that it comes from us as a whole. In the past, maybe, the process of starting ideas was more like a jam in a room – which could be easier for some [songs] and harder for others. But we’re always changing, and I think that variation will continue to happen. Some songs work better live than others, and generally they’re the most collaborative ones.
Becky: It’s almost like, Stealing Sheep as a band remix our individual tunes. ’Cos we’re all jamming our own versions of what somebody else has written, but there’s usually a director for each tune.
BL!: Why do you think Maddie asked that question?
Becky: With her live set being very hardware based, it feels like her interests lie in the realm of the practice of being a musician, how all the parts fit together.
What non-musical thing most inspires you at the moment?
Emily: Hmm, it’s an interesting question.
Luci: Any guesses to who asked this? Ben or Jon again?
Becky: We’ll go with Alex Germains.
Question by: Magic Spells [Wrong!]
Becky: It’s Tommy Husband!
Emily: Doing things that aren’t completely related to what we normally do is quite inspiring. I’m part of an all-women boxing group, and I feel quite refreshed when I come out of there. And cycling – Luci and I have spoken about this, going out on our bikes and writing lyrics.
Becky: I often get really inspired when I’m in the shower, or washing up, or gardening; having some sort of creative time-out. Often, a really mundane activity can bring forth a rush of ideas.
Do you find there is much compromise between your own individual artistic visions and that of the band as a whole? How do you balance this with wanting to be commercially successful (if that’s what you want!)?
Emily: Andy Hunt!
Luci: Yeh, we’re gonna go with Andrew Hunt!
Question by: Nick Branton [Wrong!]
Becky: I think we each have a different style that we do have to compromise a little bit for the format of the band. So, the format we’ve found that’s working for this album is a bass guitar, a drum kit as a live kit and then keyboard, because that gives us all a solid position in the band. But then Emily writes a lot of stuff for synth bass and electronic drum kit, and Luci writes a lot of stuff on acoustic guitar and for orchestral instruments. So I guess there is a little bit of compromise individually for what Stealing Sheep as a whole is.
Emily: I don’t see it as compromising, necessarily. I find it more it more challenging to write for the outcome that we normally have. Like, if I was working on my own, I’d just do what I want with no real end goal. Working as a band, I have to think about what I’m doing in a bigger picture, which I actually think is more challenging for me but I sort of prefer it that way. It’s more interesting.
Becky: When you’re writing a piece of music solo, just for the joy of writing, you can be a bit more self-indulgent. But when you know you’ve got to perform it for an audience – which is, I guess, the commercial element here – there is an element of compromise there because you’ve got to factor in the needs of lots of people, and mainly that of an audience. That changes the way you write.
Emily: It’s a bit like editing, too. You can get wrapped up when working on your own; but, working together, you can see the bits that would be irrelevant to the outside eye, and that’s a skill.
Becky: We also like to create those situations where those [more individual] ideas can thrive. So, for Wow Machine, we created a conceptual piece of performance where it could be completely instrumental if it wanted to be, or we’d do it as a live soundtrack. So it would satisfy different needs. We’ve created situations for ourselves like that – for instance, Luci’s desire to write for lots of drummers, like we did for the Suffragette Tribute.
How do you – as individuals and as a group – reconcile the two notions of innovation and entertainment, especially in respect of your thoughts about your next musical output?
Emily: I’m going for The Aleph!
Question by: Germanager [Wrong!]
Luci: I don’t think you have to compromise those things, really. We just make music and what comes out is what comes out.
Becky: We’re naturally a little bit obscure with our musical approaches anyway, so it’s not something we have to worry about too much. When we are trying to be entertaining it never comes out as square as other people! It’s always just a bit of weird-shaped version of entertainment anyway.
Luci: We’re not purposefully trying to entertain, really.
Becky: Well, we think about what experience we want the audience to have and what we want them to feel. But then there are lots of different contexts for that. As for our next musical output – it’s definitely going to be entertaining, and it’s going to be innovative!
A rope rests on two platforms which are both inclined at an angle θ (which you are free to pick), as shown above… [Long, rambling maths question with accompanying diagram – real question below].
Luci: That’s Jon Hering.
Question by: All We Are [Wrong!]
Have you seen a change in the industry’s attitude to women in your 10 years as a band?
Becky: I feel like you go down a rabbit hole of finding out how awful it is every single day! It’s not getting worse – it’s always been really bad. And people’s awareness of it still isn’t up to scratch. The more you dig, the more you find out how much injustice there is. But it’s good that there are some people supporting women – and I do feel that some people are doing it for the wrong reasons. They’re just doing it because they want audiences to think that they’re being balanced.
BL!: Is there anything we can actually do? Are we a little bit powerless other than just talking about it?
Becky: More conversations are good. But a whole re-education is needed.
Emily: It’s all about awareness. And I think that needs to start very early on, like in schools. Creating more of an equilibrium among young people so they have more opportunities. Like, I may sometimes be sexist towards women – it’s just how I’ve learned it over my life, because of society. It’s inbuilt in us from when we’re children, so we need to affect things from that very early stage.
Becky: Yeh, I’m all for representation. Lizzo does that really well, not just advocating but representing – in her case, using plus-size dancers. That’s had a massively positive impact on body image, and that kind of thing is coming out of the woodwork more and more now. And it’s popularised by people being interested in it, not by execs who are calling the shots.
Emily: I feel like we are part of that revolution in doing what we do.
Becky: Like, Luci playing the drums is still, kind of, a gender-defying role.
BL!: How far can you go with it? Like, could you insist on only being photographed by female photographers and interviewed by female journalists? Or request only women technical staff at venues you play, or a more even gender split on security at venues?
Emily: I think it would be great to try and do some of those things – but I also want to include everybody. It’s generally all about awareness.
Becky: We have kind of made this a theme with the album, to intentionally work with a lot more women. But not exclusively. I feel like we’ve got a lot of male technicians, which is a bit disappointing sometimes – but there just aren’t that many women in those roles.
Emily: Yeh, and some of these men that we know who work in the techy side of things are also disappointed that they can’t find more women that want to work in the same field as them. It all comes back to being encouraged at a younger age, way back before prejudices set in.
What will Stealing Sheep’s 11th album sound like and what will it be called?
Luci: I feel like that one was Maundy…
Question by: The Aleph [Wrong!]
Emily: I feel like it would only be able to be heard by dogs! Or only be hippo-heard!
Becky: White noise. Or you can only hear it underwater.
BL!: Is there anything that you still want to explore musically, as a band?
Luci. Yeh, it’s kind of endless. But, a full orchestra version of the whole album would be amazing. I’ll choose that.
BL!: Do you have the next stage of the band and album already planned out?
Becky: How much can we reveal…?
Emily: I feel like we’re always thinking ahead. Not necessarily the eleventh one, but definitely the next one. It just keeps moving onwards all the time, always keeps snowballing.
Luci: Some of the ideas I had for Big Wows are actually ideas that I had a few years ago but were never realised. I didn’t understand what they were then, or I wasn’t into it. But they’ve now threaded their way through and appeared again in another fashion. And I imagine that that same process is happening now. That’ll continue to happen for album four, and five… and 11!
Emily: God knows what’s going to be happening on our 11th album. That’s potentially 30 years away.
Becky: I like the idea of nans playing in the band.
BL:! Why did you choose to do this remix album, giving your music to your mates and collaborators to play around with?
Becky: Generally, with remixes, you opt for a big name or an associated act. We felt that there was so much interesting music already in Liverpool, especially that made by artists who maybe haven’t gone that big yet, so it was a good opportunity to highlight some of that. Plus, we love all of their music.
Luci: Loads of our friends are making really boss stuff that we just wanted to shout about it.
Emily: It’s interesting to see what people do with your music, as well. These are people who we’re quite close to creatively as well as personally, so we were really open about them taking our music and seeing what they came up with.
Luci: Yeh – it’s interesting hearing how they’ve interpreted our interpretations of the music, what bits they’ve selected, how they’ve used the instrumentation.
Emily: You learn about them a little bit in how they approach it.
Big Wows is out now via Heavenly Recordings. The remix cassette will be released at some point in August, with a limited number of copies left in secret locations around Liverpool.
STEALING SHEEP REMIXED
Show Love // Germanager
The processed strings added by former Mountaineer Alex Germains adds an air of claustrophobia, making it sound like the original tune is being covered by an AI bot.
Back In Time // Advice Moth
Alex Germains again, teaming up with Sheep bassist Emily to add some robot disco to this track that feels like the most pleasant way to fall down a flight of stairs.
Joking Me // The Aleph
A gloriously bonkers radiophonic re-working of Big Wows’ lead single from Jon Hering and Ben Fair, regular collaborators with Luci Mercer on their own oddball experimentalism.
Why Haven’t I? // All We Are
Ooohh, Sheep v AWA, much anticipated this. Weirdly, it comes out sounding a bit like an Outfit tune, the Domino-signed trio bringing an icy sparkle to this rubbery disco gem.
Girl // Magic Spells
Cinematographer Tommy Husband – once of Warp Films – brings his some bassy, downtempo techno feels to this imminently dancey banger. One for the clubs.
Just Dreaming // Nick Branton
Gah, this’ll get you. A soft sax lament from the genius Nick Branton who turns the pensive original into a devilishly beguiling prowl. There’s nothing this boy can’t do.
Big Wows (dub) // Dialect
It wouldn’t be a remix album without a bit of dub, and Andrew Hunt (erstwhile Outfit vocalist) brings a masterful touch to the album’s title track. Just as compelling as his solo work.
Breathe // M T Hall
Maddie Hall’s deft work on sequencers and modular synths lends this track a decidedly acid techno air. A full-on deconstruction that’s as fascinating as one of M T Hall’s live sets.
True Colours // Ulysses
Float off in to space with Ulysses at the helm, and marvel at how one of the many arms of noise-prog outfit Barberos can take you on a tour of the outer reaches of your brain.
Choose Like You // George /M\
George Maund – one of the Cartier 4 Everyone collective alongside M T Hall – steals the show with this dancefloor techno anthem that’s been making it into Stealing Sheep’s DJ sets.
Heartbeats // Bextacy
Becky Hawley herself lays things down gently with a closing track that has an air of Four Tet about it. Super soft and squelchy, its take on the bassy warbles of the original is bliss.