Like the Velvet Underground and Big Star, the Raincoats were one of those bands who were better at inspiring future generations of bands than selling records.
Every decade or so, the Raincoats enjoy a little surge in popularity, their music enduring far longer than many of their peers in the U.K. postpunk scene of the late ‘70s.
After releasing three quirkily enchanting folk-punk studio albums with exotic touches of world music between 1979 and ’84, they broke up, only to be rediscovered a decade later by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and the emerging riot grrrl movement. Now the band is enjoying another revival, re-releasing its older music on its own label (the 1981 “Odyshape” is the latest to surface), and touring parts of North America for the first time with founding members Gina Birch and Ana da Silva joined by violinist Anne Wood and drummer Vice Cooler.
In a recent phone interview from her home in London, Birch says the band is thrilled to be making its Chicago debut Monday at the Double Door.
“We never thought of it as a career, so for the Raincoats to still have an audience is quite a wonderful thing,” Birch says. “We have remained fresh – we make different mistakes every time we play!”
On the band’s origins: “I just came to London in September 1976 when punk was in full swing. I saw the Sex Pistols some months before and the Clash, but when I saw the Slits that was it! They were young women, the drummer Palmolive was my friend (and later bandmate in the Raincoats), and I went to all their gigs. I was knocked out. It gave me permission to think I could do it too. It didn’t occur to me I couldn’t play. Although they couldn’t play either, they did something amazing, vibrant, connected, and it totally spoke to me. Soon thereafter I bought a bass and started to work out what a bass line was, which I primarily learned by listening to reggae records.”
On the Raincoats early gigs: “We weaved together enough melody and words and performed four, five songs at our first gig. We were nervous as hell. Our teachers from art school said, ‘Don’t give up your day job.’ But a guy over from Poland saw us and invited us to play. Before we knew it, we were playing a Polish arts festival, and we must’ve looked really weird, because the reviews said we looked like whores who had escaped from prison! (laughs) I got huge blisters on the ends of my fingers, because we played four shows in two days, and I leaped around the stage playing loads of wrong notes. We sang our hearts out. It was a great time. We were at art school, doing projects, doing shows. I lived in a squat on a street full of musicians, artists, artisans, cafes. Our record company (Rough Trade) was down the street, full of idealists. You’re 20 and it felt like the world was a great place to be.”
On the band’s sound: “There was not much precedent for four women playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band. The ones that came before us were like the Runaways, who were manipulated a bit by characters like Kim Fowley. There was a fusion of punk, reggae, art, and we weren’t trying to play three-chord rock ‘n’ roll or cover (Buddy Holly’s) ‘Peggy Sue.’ Or if we did, it might have been unrecognized. We put our own interpretation on things. We didn’t spend hours trying to sound like someone else and we didn’t rehearse on our own. We would always work together, and it became this weave of sound, falling and swaying in its own time and space.”
On the oddball cover of the Kinks’ “Lola” in 1979: “People make a lot of assumptions about gender. At that time with punk, it was very liberating, you could chop your hair off, wear Doc Martens boots, put eye liner on if you were a boy. From age 14, I thought it was necessary to have a boyfriend, but with punk I realized I was absolutely my own person. You can have relationships with women or men. And ‘Lola’ spoke to all that. It was an amusing, radical, liberating song.”
On the band’s fascination with exotic instruments and sounds, such as thumb pianos and balafons that factored heavily in the making of “Odyshape”: “Now people would just sample all that, but this was the pre-sample era. We would haul all this strange stuff we’d pick up at markets into the studio. We always tried to find the music in bits of plastic, metal and tin. To this day, Ana can’t resist buying little boxes that go ‘blip’ and ‘beep’ and make them part of the song.”
On the renewed interest in the band sparked by Kurt Cobain and riot grrrl: “I was editing a video at art college when I got a call asking the Raincoats to go on tour with Nirvana (in 1994). I thought it would be ridiculous. It was amazing that someone like Kurt was so interested in what we were doing. He offered us a lifeline. The riot grrrl thing was a beautiful surprise too. When we were in our female band, there were a few others, and the press would lump us tighter and we didn’t want to be lumped together. We wanted to be seen as individuals. But what happened with riot grrrl was all about women sticking together, supporting each other. They made feminism fun, vibrant and cool. They ran with it, shouted about it, in part because they had mothers who were feminists too. I didn’t come from a family of feminists. Every time I would bring it up to my mother, my dad would say, ‘Don’t start causing trouble.’ ”
The Raincoats: 9 p.m. Monday at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee Av., $20; ticketfly.com.