The Raincoats

for Net #12
by Mike Appelstein

There are so many ways for band reunions to fail, particularly punk rock band reunions.  The zeitgeist moves on, context changes,  and hindsight magnifies things in strange and not always welcome ways. However, the Raincoats' return ranks as not only welcome, but enormously timely.

At the turn of the 1980s, these three British women (along with manager/official band member Shirley O'Loughlin and a succession of drummers) released three albums, 1979's The Raincoats, 1981's Odyshape and 1983's Moving. Starting as a rough-and-ready yet complex post-punk band, they eventually moved onto create dense, textural music that incorporated a wide variety of influences, from reggae to calypso to Eskimo chants. You can hear their influence in the works of such current-day musicians as Huggy Bear, Scrawl, the Breeders, Heavens To Betsy, Throwing Muses, the Spinanes, Linda Smith, Bikini Kill and Liz Phair.

Influential as they were, the albums were out of print for years. Nevertheless, their legendary status only grew in the intervening years. Kurt Cobain opened his liner notes to Nirvana's incesticide with an impassioned anecdote about searching for the Raincoats' first LP, thus introducing their name to a modern mainstream audience. Shortly thereafter, DGC opted to reissue the albums on CD, complete with lyrics, press clippings, historical notes from each of the band members, and testimony from Cobain, Kim Gordon, and members of Mambo Taxi and Voodoo Queens.

Spurned on by all this activity, Ana Da Silva and bassist Gina Birch began discussing the possibility of playing live again. "When it finally happened, it seemed like the time was right," says Birch. "The Riot Grrrl thing was happening. We started seeing our name: you know, there'd be an article about something and the Raincoats' name would pop up. The more time passed, the more it seemed like the moment to do it. And the first gig we did was such a megadrug.  Being kind of an addictive personality, I was in with a vengeance."

"It's weird, because there seems to be a whole lot of people who knew us the first time around, and there's a whole other lot of people who've never heard us before." Da Silva says. "We have always had these kind of hardcore fans. We don't have loads of them, but the ones who are fans are very faithful. Our first gig was absolutely amazing. People were crying. It never happened like that before, I don't think. Or maybe I don't remember."

The lineup for the April Raincoats dates (opening for kindred spirits Liz Phair and Magnetic Fields) included Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, the latest in a long line of Raincoats percussionists. Violinist Anne Wood (who recently played with Heidi Berry) took over Vicky Aspinall's slot.  Though it's been more than a decade since the Raincoats' last performances, Birch calls the current group dynamic "much more relaxed and fun now than it ever was. Even when we were touring with (first-album drummer) Palmolive, she was getting into religion then. She used to sit with earplugs in her ears in the van.  I was so depressed on that first tour.   We went through hell at that time, and now we're having really good fun."

"Good fun" was certainly one of the factors when the Raincoats first came together. Ana Da Silva had moved from Portugal to London to attend art school: "I just felt so excited to see all these people dressed in different things. I went to a couple of gigs. People could just be something different from everybody else and nobody even bothered looking." It was at art school where she met Birch, who had recently moved from Nottingham. Neither had band experience: Da Silva used to strum Bob Dylan and Joan Baez songs on acoustic guitar, and Birch "listened to an awful lot of music, but I never dreamt I would he involved in a band."

After some shambling early shows and a number of lineup changes, they met Aspinall, who was the only one to answer a "violinist wanted" ad in a record store, and added the legendary Palmolive, fresh from the Slits. This was the band's nucleus, although they would continue to incorporate numerous drummers and myriad guests.

By 1983, their eclecticism was pulling them apart. They had already agreed to split before recording Moving, their sprawling final album. Neither Ana nor Gina look back on that era with much affection.  Of the three reissues, Moving is the only one with tracks removed and resequenced. In fact, Da Silva says Moving was almost never recorded.  "We actually already had four songs recorded and Shirley just thought it was a shame that we had all these songs and they weren't going to be on a record," says Da Silva. "She's good at thinking laterally, how to go about something so it can happen. So she thought the way to do it was to let each of us have the last say in our own songs. As it happened, in the end I don't think people were very unhappy with what other people were doing or deciding. It ended up being quite a good solution."

After Moving, Da Silva hooked up with This Heat drummer Charles Hayward and formed a new band called Roseland.  They played two gigs, but not much more. "We just had a demo tape of five songs we did; it wasn't even a proper record. That's all we did. Nothing happened, and I was a bit drained anyway." She went on to collaborate with London dancer/choreographer Gaby Agis, writing instrumental music for dance pieces (including one based on the Raincoats' "Shouting Out Loud"). "Other than that, I've done nothing really creative much, except for a bit of painting. I've just been working in an antique shop."

After the Raincoats, Birch joined Mayo Thompson's Red Crayola, appearing prominently on the Kangaroo? album and "Micro-Chips And Fish" EP alongside Lora Logic, Epic Soundtracks, ex-Pere Ubu keyboardist Allan Ravenstine and others. "Mayo produced our first single and album and we'd always got on quite well, so he asked me to do a bit of playing," she recalls. "We did some recording in London, and we came to New York, did a show here, and then we got another lineup and went to Germany." Later, she collaborated with Aspinall under the name Dorothy, releasing a series of dance-inflected 12-inches and recording an album's worth of material that was never released.

"When Dorothy ended, I thought I wanted to get involved in film, because I didn't like the 'aging woman in rock & roll' attitude. ..get out."

Birch worked briefly with Phil Legg from Essential Logic, but eventually went back to school and earned a degree in filmmaking. Most recently, she has directed videos for Daisy Chainsaw, "and a couple you probably haven't heard of, like Mystery Slang and a group called The Color Of Love. Just recently I did one for the Pogues and one for a German band, Pink Turns Blue."

In conjunction with the CD reissues, Birch recently produced a clip for "Fairytale In The Supermarket," the Raincoats' first single from 1979. "I had wanted to do a 20-minute poetic kind of documentary. Geffen wasn't interested in that, but they did want a three-minute clip for MTV. Eventually I had an idea of making it as a contemporary piece of work with no old footage. I don't know, you have to see it."

Their initial gigs finished, both Da Silva and Birch speak excitedly about future Raincoats plans: more live shows and possibly working up new material after that. "I don't feel like we've reformed," says Da Silva. "I feel like we've started a new band, and we're doing covers from this other group, some weird shit group."

For more of this interview, click here.