INTERVIEW: Saint Agnes talk touring, teamwork , and finding your DIY vision
With their reputation for fierce riffs and flirting with themes of the occult, Saint Agnes is steadily building a legion of fans. The passionate rockers took a breather from promoting their latest album Vampire to chat with us.
Thanks so much for your time, guys! Can you tell me a little bit about how the past few months have been for you since the album’s come out?
John: The buildup to the release was as hectic as it always is, to be honest. We’re a totally DIY band, and that means doing a thousand different jobs in the same day, kind of going from shooting a video to being on the phone to a distributor about a problem with them not receiving some records. We kind of do everything.
Kitty: Yeah, we run our own label, so not only do we have the band jobs, being in the band and running our social media, we also have to do all of our own label stuff. So it was just…insane.
John: The only thing that was really weird about it was that every time we’ve done this before, we’ve also had gigs around it, and doing those same jobs normally in the back of a van. At least this time we were able to do those jobs sat at a desk, which is a tiny positive of the year was the fact that we felt we actually nailed all that stuff. Normally we’re in, like, the Czech Republic with bad reception trying to get back to a distributor.
That does sound like a lot to keep on top of…
John: Our whole band existence is that we just make things really hard for ourselves because every time some job comes up, rather than employing someone to do it, we think –
Kitty: Because we’re control freaks –
John: Yeah, because we’re control freaks, we just think “let’s do it ourselves”. We do crazy amounts of stuff.
You do seem very multi-talented!
Kitty: We are control freaks, I think is a better description! We can’t let other people in; we find it really difficult. John and I have been talking about this band, living this band, for years. It’s the obsession of both of our lives, so it’s really difficult to let other creatives in. Say when we’re filming a music video, we try to do everything. There’s some things we physically can’t do, like film both of us at the same time, but everything else, we control.
John: You know what it’s like when you’re with your best friend at school and there’s some band you love and another that’s really tragic to you, and to an outsider, the reasons for that might be totally unapparent, but to you, it’s really obvious why one’s amazing and the other’s really bad? Kitty and I are the same, we’ve got certain things that we’ve talked about, and we’ve kind of built up creatively in this language. But when we bring in a third party to work on something, they might come up with something that’s a perfectly decent idea, but we’re like “ah no, it’s not our idea. It’s not right”.
Kitty: We’ve pretty much got our own language. But we do wanna, get better at letting other people in. It could be really interesting working with someone else, you know, someone coming in from a different angle can obviously make you think of stuff you’ve not thought of. But we find it hard.
Considering how well Vampire’s done and the traction it’s got, you must have more people wanting to work with you now. How’s that kind of been, seeing the reception of that?
John: The reception’s been really good, yeah! Everything that we’ve released has just been growing. We were overwhelmed by the reception we got to our debut album, which sold out much quicker than we were expecting, and then we did the Family Strange EP just over a year ago, and again we were kind of knocked out by how well that did. That went out literally on the first day of lockdown, so it was a real nightmare, and we were just amazed by the support we got from people and the enthusiasm that was there. And it’s just carried on with Vampire, and we’re always vaguely kind of in a state of wonderment at how it happens. But we just keep creating and working and trying to be as honest with our vision as we can, and people tend to respond to it.
I do feel like this is a big thing about Saint Agnes: you’ve got this very distinct vision of encompassing the sound and the visuals. How do you get this distinctive vision you’ve got into songs and videos? How do you kickstart that process?
Kitty: The way we work is that John tends to have…like, a million ideas, and I go through a process of editing them down. For me, it’s very much a feel thing? The more time goes on and the more we talk about it, the more sure I am what Saint Agnes is and what it should be, so it gets easier over time. Say John’s got a bunch of riffs, I’ll be able to feel like “that’s the right one, that’s a Saint Agnes riff”. It just feels right.
John: I think Kitty’s definitely got a better handle on what in the early stages will develop into something that feels…Saint-Agnes-y. Obviously, I have my own opinion on it, and every now and then there’ll be something where I’m like “I know you don’t see where this is going, but I’ve really got an idea that I wanna run with”, and we trust each other enough to do that. But on the whole, that process works that I just throw ideas until something really catches Kitty’s ear, and then we work on that together and develop it. It’s the same with the whole kind of visual side and the whole vision; it’s all born out of those endless conversations that we have about where the dividing line is. We like playing with religious imagery, we like playing with horror elements, but there’s a real subtle dividing line between that becoming pastiche and jokey, and we don’t want it to be that. And those real subtle grey areas are the bits that we find hardest to communicate to others, but to us they’re really important.
Kitty: And obvious.
John: It is just about writing the early stages of each creation, starting out on the right path and not really deviating from it, not being too distracted by any shiny new thing, just being like “this is what I wanna say, this is how I’m gonna do it”. And keep stripping it back until it is the most potent version of that idea possible.
Kitty: We’re both quite sensitive people, and I think that really helps in feeling whether something’s not right.
John: You can just tell when it’s not right. The weirdest moment is when you’re doing something that doesn’t feel right but that other people seem to really like because you realise there are a lot of artists out there that might go “well if other people really like it that’s justification enough even if I’m not particularly into it”. But we would rather have a song that no one heard that we feel totally happy with.
Kitty: That’s like, the dream, isn’t it? To be totally happy with something you’ve made.
John: That’s what we’re always striving towards. What can we make that we’re total fans of? Cause we just make the band that we wish existed, that’s it.
Do you think you guys being a DIY band helps with that? Do you reckon if you were signed somewhere, you’d be sort of inclined to go “oh the fans want this, so we’ll follow that more”?
John: I think if you were signed, it all depends on your relationship with the label and who’s around you, you’d probably have to fight a bit more, particularly when you’re a smaller band, for things that maybe go against the grain? You know, the music industry as a whole has a tendency to, when presented with a choice, to take the most conservative done-before choice. And, you know, it makes sense, it’s business, so if there’d been a record executive stood in the room when the White Stripes were forming they would have had a bass player. Someone would have said “I like it, but why don’t you just get a bass player?” but then the White Stripes wouldn’t be what they are. And I think that, you know, the music industry isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it just is a business. Even the small times that we come up against things, even though we’re totally DIY, we still have to have conversations that kind of come up where you’re having to deal with various parts of the industry, you do have to fight your corner about “no, we think this is the right thing to do, we still wanna keep this swear word in the song even though we’re sending it out to radio…”
Kitty: Ultimately, you decide who you work with. And we only work with people who have visions, who are interested in doing something interesting. Our manager, for example, v much part of the music industry but is someone with a huge amount of vision, and trusts us to do our jobs which is be a band and write music? You know, it’s not the whole industry, but that’s why we’re really choosy with who we work with. We don’t wanna be fighting people.
John: Both of us have been in other projects and done things in certain ways where we’ve learnt that just because someone is established in the music industry doesn’t mean it’s gonna work for you? You’re better off having people you chime with. Like Kitty said, our manager…I wouldn’t say he’s a fifth member of the band, he just trusts us to do what we do, but every now and then he’ll be like “I’m gonna put my business hat on and tell you why what you’re doing is a bad idea and then you can decide to ignore it or not”, and generally we do, and he goes “cool, if you’re gonna ignore it, I’m still 100% with you”. Having that support is huge for us.
It’s really good for a DIY band to have someone that has your back but won’t dilute what you want. Do you reckon you guys being quite headstrong in what you want Saint Agnes to be like helps you fight your corner a little bit?
John: We kind of don’t really know any other way to be. You know, the only reason we do this band, it was deeply person as to why we do it. You know, it’s not an easy life. If you wanted to make money, there’s much easier ways to do all this. So why give up on your vision halfway through to make more money, potentially? It’s not even guaranteed. If someone says “I think you should release song x over song y”…that’s just one person’s opinion. You know, you’ve gotta be happy w yourself n starting a band is so hard that is just seems kind of…
Kitty: It would be crazy not to do exactly what we want.
John: I don’t think we know any other way to be except headstrong and belligerent and stubborn. I think that there’s an element of…we like being a spanner in the works. The reason that Kitty and I were attracted to making music together is that we felt there was something kind of missing from rock music around us that we personally just missed.
Kitty: We formed when it was the huge psych scene, and there were no bands around who would get up and make loads of noise and be a punk band. That just wasn’t a thing, and that pissed us both off. That’s why we decided to make Saint Agnes! We played a lot of psych gigs – very inappropriate for us to be on those bills, but there were no other gigs around!
John: I think we put psych on our press release, to get into those spaces.
Kitty: Rock really was a dirty word, like, it’s so nice now to see metal and rock being really fucking heavy again.
John: It felt like if there was a more rock bill it was always really retro and really 80s and a bit cheesy, and just nothing that we were interested in. We were just like “we are bored of the bills feeling the same”, and we wanted to think that someone might kick an amp over, or play a riff and jump into the crowd. That danger just felt like it wasn’t really there. So we thought “let’s just fill that band, let’s be that band”. We were kind of aware that a lot of times we were doing shows, we were the odd ones out and viewed with some level of suspicion and “look at those guys being cheesy rockers”…
Kitty: Who’s laughing now?
John: And we enjoyed it! We loved that role.
Kitty: We do struggle a bit when everything’s going really smoothly. When people tell us “oh you’re amazing I love your band” it’s a bit odd. Nuh uh.
John: If our sound became the number one “in” thing and everyone was doing it, we’d feel so strange.
Are there any venues you’d really like to play: either venues you’ve played before, or venues you’ve always wanted to play and haven’t had a chance to?
John: I mean the show that we’ve got coming up at The Garage in London…that’s a huge thing, to get to play an iconic venue. The last gig we played in London was at Dingwalls, and that’s an iconic venue, and to sell it out felt like a huge deal to us as a band, having started in London playing to not v many interested people, to play there was incredible. So The Garage being bigger, and after all this time of not playing and seeing people’s hunger for us to play live again, that feels really exciting.
Kitty: The Garage is so iconic because growing up all of us have been there to see rock bands.
John: The last band we saw there was Ho99o9 and it was just incredible, wasn’t it?
I got into them really late over lockdown, but now I just love them.
John: The very last gig we did before lockdown was supporting Ho99o9 in Bedford, and that was incredible. The other thing we’d like to do is get back into mainland Europe. Obviously we love playing live n we’re happy to play pretty much anywhere, if there’s a stage and a crowd we’ll play but I think all the adventure of being the 4 of us in a van away kind of chasing a dream it’s romantic and exciting and we miss that a lot that adventure and the camaraderie all of that. So getting to play mainland Europe after all this Brexit stuff when you feel really disconnected and embarrassed about our position it’ll be nice to do our tiny bit and remind everyone, you know…
Kitty: “hey, we’re not all racists!”
Are you worried about getting back into mainland Europe given all that?
John: We’re not worried about how we’ll be perceived because I think people coming to the gigs will be cool and they’ll understand the situation, and we’ve been fairly vocal about how we feel about it. Our concern is more how the Brexit situation’s gonna fuck our touring plans.
Kitty: I mean, already for merch for this release it’s been a fucking nightmare sending stuff to Europe and probably the bulk of our sales come from Europe? So it’s already an absolute joke, isn’t it?
John: Getting our records made and CDs made as well, they’re mostly made in mainland Europe, so every single box that comes over, you have to pay an extra £50.
Kitty: For a small band, that’s massive.
John: We had to, like, sell hundreds of pounds more worth of stuff before we even started where we were.
Kitty: So god knows how touring’s gonna go. And that’s the thing as well, nobody knows! There’s no information, it’s just…
John: There’s no information, there’s no plan, it’s just things have been left up to the last minute.
Are you excited to get back to the chaos and excitement of those live performances? Are there any nerves about performing live again?
John: It’s been eye-opening not doing it to realise how fundamentally important it was.
Kitty: I’m not nervous. I’m just bloody excited.
John: We were talking about it last night, and I actually had a stress dream about playing our first gig back, but it wasn’t a real stage; it was just the corner of a working men’s club, and no-one was interested, and we were playing a set where I was like “I don’t know any of these songs”. Definitely have some anxiety about going back to it, just because it matters so much, and I want it to be perfect. And I think we’ve realised for our mental health over the past year and a half of not doing it, how much it played a role in keeping us balanced. As Kitty said, we’re quite sensitive people and are relatively reserved about expressing ourselves in the wider world, and it’s our chance to go and express that and do all of that in a really concentrated way.
Kitty: It’s a huge part of our identity, and to not have your identity for a year has felt really difficult. We’ve both struggled with it.
John: We’re absolutely dying to play again. And we’ve got, you know, the Family Strange EP, we didn’t really get to play that live, so when we get to play live it’s gonna be a whole new set, and it’s gonna be so fun putting all that together. Putting a new live set together and tweaking it night after night…we love that.
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