Shimura Curves

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Lead vocals: Lisa Payne, Anne-Marie Payne, Kate St.Claire
Guitar, programming, everything else: Kate St.Claire

Download on SoundCloud. The track is free, but if you like it please consider donating something here.

Listening to this song now, I can't even tell who's singing on it. I think it's AMP and Lisa on lead, with me doing the descant, but it's been so long, and the voices have all blended together. Though that was actually kind of the point, that I wanted this to sound loose and blurry, like the sweet but slightly amateurish sound of all girls school choir singing in chapel, deliberately not autotuned or corrected into perfect rhythm.

It's funny, this is the song that people have most asked me about the lyrics, over the years, and it's still one of those ones I have the hardest time explaining. It would be easy to say it's about thoughtworms in general, but it is actually about a specific thoughtworm. OK, back up, maybe I should explain what a thoughtworm is in the first place. It's that kind of OCD thing where your thoughts become trapped in a loop that goes round and round, and becomes impossible to dislodge, kind of like an earworm, but instead of a catchy pop melody, it's a thought, a narrative, a set of mental processes that become fixated and will not leave.

The name comes from a line in the Weather Prophets song, "I've got a worm in my brain, it brings me to my knees. It comes on like a thought, and stays just like a disease." Thoughtworms are good at hiding themselves in otherwise innocent thoughts. An idea flickers across your mind, you think it's just a thought, so you think, and suddenly you're trapped, it just eats away all your other thought processes until this one is the only one left, and it loops and it loops and it loops like the same scene from a film playing over and over. It's not like that thing where, if you say a word over and over enough times, it loses its meaning. It's more like, no matter how outlandish the idea is, if you think it enough times, it starts to feel true. Even if it's something completely improbably, like, your neighbour wants to kill you. There is no arguing with a thoughtworm, and to even try risks only engaging it further and lodging it deeper into your brain.

So this was a loop that lodged itself in my brain in 2004, when the Sound Artist and I were breaking up. The Sound Artist was an Atheist, not just one of those gentle Englishmen who lost their belief a long time ago - or never had any to start with - and never gave it much thought again. But one of those Committed Atheists who talks a lot about "Secular Humanism" (and though I generally am in favour of Secularism, I am not enamoured of Humanism as I don't think that humans should hold any great position of privilege over the other denizens of this earth) and generally argues a lot about its inherent superiority, trying to convert others to their own cause. Oddly, rather uncomfortably too much like the religion I'd left as a teenager.

Yes, so I was raised Christian. Or rather, to be specific, I was raised Church of England (do we worship God? No, we worship England.) When I was about five, my Mother, who up until that point had been a lifelong atheist from a family of lifelong atheists, who had been atheists and freethinkers since the Edinburgh Enlightenment (though I suspect they really decided a Century earlier that they'd rather have no religion than an English religion) discovered a Bible that had been left by the previous owners of our house. She picked it up and read it cover to cover like a novel, had her mind completely blown, and rang the local vicar to have him send someone immediately to explain it to her. And so Church came into our lives. (Well not my father's life, he remains a lifelong atheist, though he went to Church for most of my childhood because he enjoyed the donuts at coffee hour.)

Redemption narratives are funny things. So I'll breeze over the narrative about how my mother, who had been an angry, lost, damaged survivor of abuse and probably undiagnosed bipolar, rebuilt her life, underwent therapy, went back to university (Yale, to be exact) and, through her religion, grew and changed into someone I now deeply admire. I met some incredibly kind, and loving, and generous people (both physically generous and generosity of spirit) through the Church. (Yes, I met some hypocrites and some pedants, too, but you meet them everywhere, even among atheists.) So even though I stopped believing in Christianity in any meaningful sense when I was a teenager and read The Golden Bough and Joseph Campbell, I still have a lot of time for spirituality, for faith, and for people of faith.

But my then-partner was reading Richard Dawkins, who had not yet started on his grand crusade, but was making his anti-Religion stance quite clear in tedious essays. And I had yet to discover Mary Midgley, with her clear and elegant debunkings of Dawkins and the whole Empire-Building new strain of Atheism with its deeply flawed notions of the omnicompetence of "~Science!!!11~" And my partner and I had a series of massive, flaming rows, during which I discovered that we were unable to fight about serious topics without tearing each other to pieces. Which was a far worse problem than a mere quibble over which gods we didn't believe in.

The song was written after a sullen weekend on the Isle of Wight (he forgot both condoms and the codeine tablets to which he was addicted) when I found ammonite fossils on the beach and he didn't, because I was just better at noticing than he was. When I returned to London, my father told me that his paternal grandparents had retired to, and were buried on the Isle of Wight, and that apparently I still had relatives there. That Great Grandfather was Welsh, and a Wesleyan Minister - it always struck me as ironic that my father, coming from a long line of Methodist Ministers, should be an atheist, while my mother, coming from a long line of atheists, eventually became a priest in the C of E. These things are not incompatible, they often seem to be two sides of the same coin. Strong Views on religion manifest just as easily in non-belief as in belief.

What I fear most in this song is not "losing my mind and finding religion" or that blind "faith in evolution" (see Mary Midgley's Evolution As A Religion for everything I was taking a swipe at in that line) but the kind of didactic, autocratic fundamentalism rampant on both sides, where one loses the ability to see from both points of view. I never saw any conflict between "Science" and "Religion" - it would be as absurd as seeing a conflict between Biochemistry and Poetry. They are two different ways of looking at life, two different tools for different problems. The religion I was taught never had any designs on science, it was one of The Humanities - and it always struck me as odd that those "secular humanists" always seemed so down on The Humanities, those subjective ways of subjectively examining the subjective experiences of human subjects.

I always felt like the song failed, it did not get across what I meant it to. And the arguments with dogmatic atheists have not stopped, if anything, they have become more vicious. (Luckily I'm now able to see the amusing side of being lectured on the perils of "taking things on faith alone," that apparently infest religion, by an atheist who could not even supply me a back-of-the-envelope explanation of the principles of quantum physics.) The irony was, that at the point of writing this song, I was much closer to "Science" - I was using databases to perform statistical analysis on medical data - and therefore had much less faith in the omnicompetence of science and an understanding of its limitations, than him, who was an artist mucking about doing pretentious bollocks under the guise of so-called "experimental" art. I believe whole-heartedly in Evidence-Based medicine and Evidence-Based government policies, but if you think Evidence-Based is a life model for everything, try listening to Evidence-Based pop music while conducting an Evidence-Based love affair.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Brown and Sticky

Lead vocals: Marianna Longmire, Lisa Payne, Anne-Marie Payne
Backing vocals, guitar, programming, everything else: Kate St.Claire

Download on SoundCloud. The track is free, but if you like it please consider donating something here.

This song was always one of the highlights of the live set, with its suggestive dance routine, and its filthy banter back and forth at the end, riffing over the most disgustingly sexual wah-wah guitar licks I could muster. I always wanted to write one of those double entendre songs (in a tradition wending from blues to 60s bubblegum to disco) where you were never quite sure if they were singing about sex or drugs or food but you knew whatever it was, you wanted it, and bad.

Each of the girls takes a turn on lead vocals on each verse, first Marianna, then Lisa then AMP, with a classic call and response on the choruses, AMP's and Lisa's voices blending together in a way that only sisters really can, with Marianna and I providing the salacious "ooh yeah"s and "oh baby"s to undercut and tease. But the real vocal star of this track is Marianna and her monologue at the end, rattling off pun after pun with enough smutty come-on to make Mae West blush.

Marianna was, in many ways, the unsung hero of the Shimuras story. She joined late - I drafted her at the nightclub where she was DJing, to fill Frances' spot - but Shimura Curves proper started the minute she walked into the rehearsal room. She sounded right, she looked right, she dressed right - and at the moment that we realied we were now Marianna, Anne-Marie and Anna, she even rhymed right.

She didn't get involved in the public spats, she never played that "I'm the more important diva" lateness game, and yet because of her bandmates' actions, she often unfairly got caught up in the flak. Marianna was always on time, always well rehearsed and totally prepared - heck, if the band had been four Mariannas, we would have run the world. With her immaculately coifed butter-blonde hair and her wide, bright-eyed smile, with a slight hint of schoolgirl naughtiness, she was the Shimuras poster girl. But those angelic looks could be deceiving. Having grown up on a farm in Australia, she behaved like the quintessential farm girl - prim and proper until she got some alcohol in her, then she would grow earthy, bawdy, and hilariously filthy. The session for this song was priceless - I saved it for last, filled Marianna with pink wine, pointed a microphone in her direction, and we just traded filth back and forth, egging her on as we fell over ourselves laughing. Some judicious editing produced the outro you hear now - originally it was longer, and ruder, though funnily, to my ears, that final "mmm" without the concluding sigh (she made me edit it out) sounds even more salacious than the original.

So what was the song about? It's funny, everyone who heard it came up with their own ideas, from anal sex to heroin to, my personal favourite, a torrid affair with our beautiful erstwhile backing dancer, Barima (I should be so lucky!) It's supposed to be ambiguous, so that everyone who hears it will project their own personal most taboo yet desired vice into it. But what is it really about? Chocolate. No, really, It is about chocolate.

I don't think that I ever technically had an eating disorder, but during my time in The Lollies, I definitely fell into disordered eating in a way that became problematic and very unhealthy. Part of it was peer pressure, that weird way that young women trigger one another, and once one woman in a group becomes obsessed with whittling herself down to nothing, the others fall into it, too. A huge part of it was the impossible pressure of beauty standards applied to women in the entertainment industry. When you are scrutinised on that level, reading reviews discussing whether the author would like to shag you before even mentioning your music, photos of your breasts blown up bigger than the accompanying piece of text in what's supposed to be a serious monthly music magazine, it's really, really hard not to let it get to you. And then the last piece of the puzzle is control. When you're in a touring band, ironically, control over every aspect of your life from where you go to who you talk to, is taken away from you, so that the last thing you have left is your eating. I starved myself, I deliberately over-exercised (I acted like it was normal to walk the 5 miles from Shoreditch to Stamford Hill, eat nothing but chocolate all day, then walk home at the end of a recording session) and I became what's jokingly called a "drunkorexic," swapping out actual food for the calories in alcohol. I lived on vodka and nutrigrain bars. I was the unhealthiest I've ever been. I passed out in public, I collapsed after shows, I got so anaemic I spent four days in hospital getting my blood replaced - and still checked myself out to go and play a gig that night. Who cared what I was doing to myself? I looked great. Everyone told me so.

Ironically, it was only by the time I started Shimura Curves that I started to have a passably normal relationship with food again. (It took falling in love with and living with a guy whose grandmother wrote the gold standard of British cookbooks, and whose aunt was a television chef, to make me discover cooking as an art, as rewarding and enjoyable as painting or writing music.) I put on weight - a lot of weight. (Having read Health At Every Size a few years ago, I now understand that what I did during those obsessive years of dieting and bingeing was permanently fuck up my set point.) And funnily enough, it's now that people concern troll me about my health - now that I eat three balanced meals a day with lots of fresh fruit and veg and plenty of whole grains, now that I can actually sprint up four floors (eight flights of stairs) to my office without losing my puff, now that I go on holidays where I eat tons of award-winning Cornish produce and hike up cliff paths for fun - now that I'm healthy, that people make assumptions about how unhealthy I must be, based on my body size. 

And Jesus Christ, the press coverage of Shimura Curves was relentless about how our bodies - and mine in particular - did not measure up to those impossible standards of thinness that put me in the hospital. For every article that lovingly compared our music to Stereolab or St Etienne, there would be three that laughed at the diversity of our bodies, called us slappers (oh heaven forbid, that some of us should not only be fat, but also be over the age of 30!) or made disparaging remarks, comparing our looks unfavourably to bands we had nothing in common with, other than having ovaries. I could not take it. It did my head in; it destroyed what little self confidence I had left. I am still, only now, undoing the damage in therapy.

So Brown and Sticky is not about drugs and it is not about deviant sex. It is about that insane, obsessive, craving, bingeing, good-bad, must-mustn't, only-going-to-have-a-taste oh-shit-I-ate-the-whole-thing relationship that I used to have with chocolate, with food-as-vice, with delicious thing as forbidden object of desire.