Formed in 2014 after guitarist Jon James Tufnell saw vocalist Kitty A. Austen performing with a prior band, Saint Agnes have carved out a unique niche with a sound tailor made for anyone whose ever felt like an outcast or outsider. Making a welcome return to this year’s 2000 Trees festival, The Midlands Rocks caught up with Jon James Tufnell prior to the band’s blistering set.
Saint Agnes are no strangers to 2000 Trees. How does it compare to other festivals?
It’s less corporate, which I think is a really big appeal. There seems to be a general vibe where everyone wants to make it good, being in a band can be quite competitive, but for some reason 2000 Trees doesn’t have that, it feels more collaborative. It has a feeling of being low pressure, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to put on the best show you can.
Do you approach club and festival dates differently?
Definitely, we approach every gig slightly differently. We always look at what the context will be; if we are playing a festival show in the middle of Europe and no one there has ever heard of us, we construct a set list that will give the best synopsis of who we are, whereas at Trees, where we’re more familiar, we feel we can be less “greatest hits” about the way we approach it. Every single night on tour, we will change the set list to try and improve the night before. There are some bands who keep the same set for the entire tour cycle, which is totally fine, but it’s not the way we do things. We can’t help but tinker.
You’ll be on stage in a few hours. Aside from talking to idiots like me, how do you prepare?
I find it hard to engage with the outside world, we tend to hang out by the van. I think it’s important that the band are all of the same mindset, whatever that might be. We try to stay focused and in our own little world, and doing interviews is the one little bit outside of that. I wouldn’t say we’re anti-social, but we’re not actively looking to socialise until after we’ve played. All the way here we’re thinking about it, we still get keyed-up, I’m not exactly nervous, but I’m aware it’s coming.
I imagine it’s a weird kind of emotional cocktail.
It’s like Christmas day and a dentist visit simultaneously on the horizon, and then there’s the unknown factor of getting onstage; if they stage manager is great and it runs smoothly, that’s fine, but if there’s loads of problems you’ve got to keep your wits about you, because the audience don’t know that; if you’ve had trouble getting onstage, you can’t let that effect your performance.
You strike me as a very DIY type of band, you had your own record label [Death Or Glory Gang] but now you’ve signed with Spinefarm records. How did it feel relinquishing some control to them?
It’s quite a new thing. On a creative level we haven’t relinquished any control, we have a great relationship with the A&R guy, we knew him for a long time before we signed the deal, and that was important. He knows who we are and can trust us to do our thing; no one knows Saint Agnes better than us, and he trusts that. We weren’t put with a producer, and when we sent demos of the album, we weren’t told to modify anything, the creative side is totally our own. The only thing that’s been weird is all the stuff we used to have to do like figuring out barcodes and production times of records is being taken care of. I find it so weird sending the music and the artwork, then I’ll email a few weeks later and say “Guys, do you need help sorting out those barcodes?”, and they’ll be like “John, we do know what we’re doing!”. So, it’s difficult to be hands off in that aspect because it was so integral to what we do, but it’s been good because it means we can focus more on the art. You still have to keep half an eye on it, because for us this is our life and our passion. You have to assert yourself, because we are one of many bands on the label, and we’re not an enormous machine.
How is it editing your own work? For example, you create your own videos, and if that was me, I’d always want to keep going back and tinkering with it.
It is difficult, I’d say it is much harder with the music than the videos. With the videos, there’s an element where we are on a really tight budget, you have what you have and you make the best of what you’ve got. We’re quite good at walking away from the video aspect, and not worrying about tiny details. With the music, it’s so much harder. Because we produce and mix ourselves, it is much more tempting to keep going back. With video, it’s quite hard to edit, but with music it’s easy, so it’s hard to say enough is enough, but that’s where Kitty and I work really well as a team, where I am more of the technical side, and Kitty has a broader, artistic vision for it. She can step away and say “That’s done”, and I totally trust her view of that, and whenever I look back, I can see that she was right.
Similarly, your new album Bloodsuckers drops on the 21st July. Now that it’s in the can, is there anything you’d like to have done differently during the recording process?
Amazingly, not. It’s the first thing we are releasing where I’ve listened back (and I listened just the other day because we got the first pressing of vinyl) and I really enjoyed it and was really happy with it. Sometimes it’s hard to remove yourself from the recording; I remembered a guitar solo that was really hard, and the pain of it, but I’m really proud of it. The memories of the exhausting effort we put into it are fading, and in another six months I’ll be able to enjoy it fully. I’m amazed at what we made. We went through such a difficult time, Kitty had just lost her mum, and having your closest ally, teammate and visionary going through something like that and unable to focus for big chunks of time, but when she was able to focus, the iron was incredibly hot and it was an intense way to work. We kept checking in with Kitty, to see if this was the right thing to be doing and putting pressure on herself and documenting the mental struggles she was going through, and she just went for it. We’ve talked about it a lot since, and we found it a cathartic experience, as well as an artistic one.
The opening (and title) track on the new album is just a blur of energy. Did you achieve that by finding strength in adversity?
Absolutely. There are three main themes on the album. One is that grief permeated Kitty’s view of the world, and that is most evident on ‘This Is Not The End’. She said it gave her clarity in life. When you lose someone close to you unexpectedly, you realise what’s bullshit and what’s important, and she realised being artistic and making music was incredibly important, and worrying about what’s popular and what might get on the radio, wasn’t. The anger and rage came from grief, but there were some other personal issues that were difficult on a number of levels, and that made it easy to just throw ourselves into this project. ‘Bloodsuckers’ started out as a much popular song on the demo, and that developed quickly, after everything that happened, into a rage filled entity. It was a very bittersweet process for Kitty, but by getting that out of her system, she was able to engage with the more tender moments on the album.
Listing to latest single ‘Outsiders’, it’s the kind of track the marginalised could find solace in. Is that the kind of vibe you were aiming for?
With ‘Outsiders’, the melody and lyric to that track was written about three years ago, and we never found a way to present the idea as a song. At that time we had released an EP, The Family Strange, that dealt with childhood, there’s a song on there called ‘The Meanest Little Kid In Town’ which was semi-autobiographical for Kitty, this kid full of pent-up rage, aggression and stress, and how, if she could go back in time, would have given herself words of encouragement, and that’s where ‘Outsiders’ came from; what would I have said if I saw myself in a playground now, feeling alone, different and uncertain about my place in the world. It’s an arm around the shoulder and a friendly word. I think whether you are 12 years old and your parents are shouting up the stairs at you, or you’re being bullied at school, or you are a 45-year-old man going to a gig and feeling out of place, all of those things are relevant, you still feel like an outsider. Just having someone say “I get it. You are enough”. There’s a line in the song; “You’re broken, but that doesn’t mean we’re no whole”, and I think that sums it up, when Kitty wrote that song and we put it together, it was really emotional, and made me see her in a different light. She’s a very punky, intense performer and seeing that vulnerability was quite moving.
Aside you mentioned, your songs deal with some weighty issues. Do you find it hard to leave them onstage or in the studio?
There’s a real hope any joy that can come from acceptance. If you think about someone who’s a bully, they’re that way because there’s something wrong, they’re lashing out and dealing with weighty things in their life in the wrong way. If you deal with those things in a healthy way, by talking about them, you’re still experiencing those issues, but you feel lighter, and you feel relief in that. The band are at a stage where we feel that lightness after each show, and a joy in it. The album ends on a note of hope, and a song like ‘Follow You’ is about deep friendship, it is not all bleakness. It is difficult to deal with these weighty subjects, but the thing that attracts us to music and art, is the ability to deal with these things. Normal life is about very surface activities; going to Sainsbury’s and doing your shopping and being online, but getting to have a deep, meaningful and confrontation with yourself, dealing with it and expunging those things and exorcising those demons in a place that feels like it makes sense is an honour and a therapy that money can’t really buy.
It’s a very exciting time with the new album, and you have a tour planned towards the end of the year. What’s your survival plan?
Just keep going [laughs]. With the album coming out, it feels like the end of something. To write it and make it, we’re still so hands on, to deal with the label situation, we lost our bass player at the start of the process, and all these things played into Bloodsuckers, and it will feel like a victory on the day it comes out, regardless of how many copies it sells or what the reviews are like. We can look at it and think; in a situation that might have broken a lot of people, we came out of it with a record we’re really proud of. Playing the songs on the last tour was incredible, playing them on the tour in October to a UK audience that will know the album will be a holding-each-other-while-we-cry type of situation.
Finally, if I had a magic wand and I could make any dream come true for your band, what would that be?
A worldwide tour support with Nine Inch Nails that never ended and be able to watch them night after night!