By Chris Patmore, London Correspondent
To Catholics, Saint Agnes is the patron saint of chastity. To discerning music lovers in the know, Saint Agnes are a relatively new London band fronted by guitarist Jon Tufnell and prodigious multi-instrumentalist Kitty Arabella Austen (also of psychedelic band Lola Colt). Their brand of western blues tastes of mescaline and tequila sunrise. Their live performances are energetic and the chemistry between Jon and Kitty is palpable, verging on raunchy. As one female fan was overheard to say after their recent London gig, “Watching Kitty makes me want to have sex with someone”. Saint Agnes, the band, may not protect your chastity, but it will elevate your soul, and possibly steal your heart.
Rock at Night’s London correspondent Chris Patmore caught up with Kitty and Jon before the London show of their recent UK Murder Mystery Tour.
How did Saint Agnes get started, because you are not new to this game?
Jon: It is born out of Kitty and I originally sitting down and going, “Let’s do something that we don’t agonise over”. That was our main reason for doing it, to do something that felt more spontaneous and exciting. Both of us, I was in a different band at the time and Kitty still is in another band as well, and just the roles we had in those bands were things that were quite painstaking. “Let’s just do something, whatever it’s going to be, that’s just fun for us to play”, and the sound came out of the first song that Kitty wrote. It was a riff and we just went with it and it ended up becoming this quite rock-n-rolly-but-Ennio-Morricone kind of thing, and we’ve gone with it ever since. It was fun enough, so we thought, “Let’s get a live band together”, and that’s why we’re here.
How would you describe the sound that you have now, and has it progressed as it’s gone along?
Kitty: When we started, and we are still, very kind of western sounding, like the soundtrack to western films, but live we are much more rock ‘n’ roll, going into more blues-rock.
Jon: Sort of Led Zeppeliny. Although we haven’t done any recordings with this line-up of the band, with songs written together live, so once we do that we’ll probably know how it’s progressed. We’ve got what we did at the beginning, and we’ve got what we know we’re doing live; how that all comes together… It is what it is every different day. Sometimes we’re in the mood to do something more atmospheric, and other times we’re in the mood to be more riffy, but because it’s our voices on it and us playing it, it still sounds like us. There’s not too many restrictions on it.
Jon: Yeah. Most of the songs have a basic blues chord structure underneath, and where they don’t, it’s kind of Ennio Morricone chord change structure. So both of those together are American I guess. We were listening to Free today, and there was definitely bits of that and Led Zeppelin, and you could argue that they had an American sound as well. I think that growing up in the era that we’ve done, I wasn’t aware of where the bands I liked were from. I didn’t know what label they were on or where they came from, I just knew that I liked them or I didn’t, and I was always quite confused when people said it was an English sound or an American sound, because it sounded like rock to me. I think we’re a bit like that, we’ve taken a bit from everywhere, but if it’s more American then it’s in the ears of the beholder.
If you look back to the ’60s, the British bands were taking American black music and selling it back to America in a more sanitised, palatable form for that market that didn’t want to buy black music.
Jon: Yeah. I suppose there is an Englishness in there somewhere.
Kitty: I don’t really know what Englishness means.
Jon: If people say, “Be more English”, does that mean saying “oi” more often, or jangly indie?
You are just finishing your first national tour?
Kitty: It’s our first foray into different parts of the country. It’s been really good, and the other bands have been just great. We’re all really different, but hang together really well.
It’s not that much of a stretch between you and Bad For Lazarus.
Kitty: Well, on paper it doesn’t sound like it would be, but live it feels quite different. And Pink Lizards, again, is essentially bluesy-riffy rock, but it’s totally different.
Jon: It’s a more doom metal sound to it, but with female vocals. But it is that doom riff, sludgy thing. Bad For Lazarus, when you talk to the two Richards, who are the main musical driving force, they are really into The Beatles and Pet Shop Boys, and stuff like that, and you can tell because they jam-pack every second of music with a new chord and a new harmony. Whereas we consciously try and do the opposite and keep things quite simple. But it does all hang together, as touring buddy people they are amazing. They manage to break an amazing amount of gear, but not on stage.
Kitty: They are a chaotic group of people. Before the first gig, they’d lost stuff, broken stuff. They had to go and get guitars fixed. Rich had to buy a new guitar on tour. And these are things they haven’t necessarily played. They’re unbelievable.
Kitty: It’s great. It’s very, very different. I get to do two very different things. With Lola Colt, because we’re a six-piece, it’s like each person is part of this big sound, and it feels like we’re very much part of this team, musically, and I get to really think about the sounds I use and think about the parts because with six people you have to not be bold and brash, and you have to be very conscious of not being too much of a lead instrument. That’s a really interesting thing to do; an interesting discipline musically. It’s vastly different from Saint Agnes where it is very much about the bold, brash, big solos, big keys parts, big bass solo, which we now have from Ben. We built a bass solo into the set, which is incredible. I get to experiment with two totally different disciplines.
Jon: Discipline and flair are the two sides, aren’t they? One is a bit more chaotic – we all think we’re Jimi Hendrix in this band – that’s the difference. “Get out of my frequency range”.
Kitty: But time wise it’s a bit of a kick in the balls really.
Didn’t you have come off the Lola Colt tour to do a Saint Agnes gig?
Kitty: Oh God. I was doing a European tour with Lola Colt, and we had a festival in Manchester for Saint Agnes. I flew back from Zurich one night. I got no sleep that night, played Cosmosis and flew back the next morning. I ended up over a 72-hour period having about three hours of sleep. I was a bit weird by the time I got back to Zurich.
Jon: It sounds like we have this crazy jet-setting lifestyle…
Kitty: But it’s EasyJet and RyanAir [two UK budget airlines].
Jon: It shows more just how committed we are to our commitments. We said we’d do the gig, Lola Colt got offered a tour they couldn’t turn down, and we went to extraordinary lengths to make sure we still played our set at the festival. So if anyone wants to book us for a festival, we’re very fucking reliable.
Do you find that British bands touring in Europe get treated better than they do at home?
Kitty: I’d say unanimously, yes. The attitude in Europe is really different. Music is seen as a viable and admirable career path, whereas in England it is seen as a waste of time.
Kitty: Right. It’s very strange, the music industry in Britain.
Jon: Every now and then there’ll be a government scheme that provides loads of kids with computers to record music, and they’ll get really excited about it for five minutes, but that’s not the musical world we inhabit at all.
Kitty: It’s a massive cultural difference in Europe. Their governments specifically give money to venues, so you always get paid well, you’re always fed well and they put you up. It’s totally different. It’s a culture thing, they just see it differently.
Jon: They do it so that the average person in that country has access to go and see decent music. It’s important to them to be culturally rich. It’s not for the benefit of the band, it’s for the benefit of their people.
Iceland, for example, gives a huge amount of support to its musicians, and it’s its second biggest industry after fishing.
Jon: When you consider there are less than a million people in Iceland, and yet they have this endless stream of bands coming out of there. It can’t be just that Icelandic people are born with more musical ability. There must be something else that is helping build that up and get those people out there. Every Icelandic person I’ve ever met that plays music has incredibly top-notch gear, whereas almost every English band is pretty much gaffer taping it together and trying to make sure it works. I worry more, when we do a gig, about things breaking, and that’s going to ruin our set more than our ability. I never worry about my voice going, or Kitty’s voice going, it’s always something breaking. That’s our biggest variable.
You see it all the time, with bands fiddling with leads on pedals to make the sound come back in the middle of a set.
Jon: When that happens, it’s heartbreaking. If you’re doing a half-hour set support slot, being paid 30 quid to do it, the whole focus of your week could be that 30 minutes, and if something like that goes wrong, it undermines it, no matter how good you were, it’s heartbreaking. You learn how to get around it and it happens often enough that you develop a thick skin, and it does mean that when you do go off on tour you have learned how to deal with it. Maybe these bands that have more funding wouldn’t know how to deal with it.
I was reliably told that there are 10,000 unsigned bands playing in London every week.
Jon: Kitty’s in loads of them.
Kitty: Being in a band is really fucking difficult, but it’s also the most fun you can have.
Jon: That’s a given. We wouldn’t put ourselves through it if we didn’t enjoy it. Like anything that’s good, there’s lots of bad on the other side; but when it goes well it’s the best thing ever. We really enjoy it, regardless of whatever difficulties may have happened during the day to get us to that point. We’re not whinging, we’re just informing people.
Kitty: We’ve released two singles so far and we want to put out a bigger body of work, but we’re not really ready for an album yet. We’re thinking about doing an EP in the autumn, and maybe a tour around the UK. That’s the thing, we just need to get out in front of more people, as we’ve really only played London for the last year, and this tour has really opened our eyes as to how well the music goes down outside London. I was a bit nervous and not entirely sure, but it’s gone really well. So we really need to get out and do more gigs.
Jon: We just want to put record something, put it out and tour it, as often as possible. We don’t have anything set in stone, like a release date, but as soon as possible.
Kitty: We just really want to record together. We’ve never had the time to get in the studio, mess around and actually see what we sound like. It’s just been me and Jon demoing stuff up together, purely because of time pressures, and we have a bit of time now where the four of us, with our new drummer Andy Head, can get together and work out what we sound like, which is an important step for us at the moment.
Jon: This goes hand-in-hand with the question you asked earlier. We’re aware of what we first sounded like, and we’re aware of how it feels to play what we play now, but what that actually sounds like we’re not quite sure. It would be quite nice to go as a band playing in the studio, to find out what we sound like.
Kitty: We’re going to record quite simply, and do quite a bit live.
Jon: As live as possible.
Similar to the live EP you released, which sounded really great, capturing the energy of a gig, with a clean studio sound.
Jon: Cheers. That was a bit of an experiment.
Kitty: It was the same kind of thing: What are we like? It was very rough and ready.
Jon: We were intrigued to see how those songs Kitty and I had recorded and written on our own sounded like with all four of us playing. We wanted to record it out of our own curiousity, and then once it’s recorded we may as well release it. There was no real thought behind it beyond that. It was a fun thing to do. We’ve got loads and loads of songs and it’s trying to decide which ones to do next. That’s one of the harder parts, so it sits together.
Have you brought out any on this tour?
Kitty: Yes, we’ve got four new songs we’ve been playing. It’s been really nice to have loads of songs so that each night we can tailor the set list to how we feel the vibe in the venue is. That’s been really exciting. Usually you have eight songs and you have to play them all. If there’s an encore you have to go, “Err, no. Sorry.” We have loads and loads of new material and that’s going to be really fun, and we’re going to be able to release some new stuff.
You do a cover version of Roadhouse Blues. Do you want to do more cover versions?
Kitty: I love doing covers. I just find it so much fun.
Jon: We did a cover recently. We did this thing called Sofar Sounds, which is an acoustic thing where people don’t know who they’re going to see, and it’s in someone’s house. They film it, and it should be out soon. We actually played a new song for that. We did a cover of Cry Little Sister from the Lost Boys, just to see if we could do it acoustically and still make it sound really dramatic.
Kitty: It’s probably the most 80s song of all time, and doing it acoustically, and it worked.
Jon: We’ve got a few ideas for covers we want to do, but we won’t say. I like doing covers. Roadhouse Blues is so much fun to do, it kind of feels like it’s our song at the moment because we play it so differently to the original. If we played it exactly the same it wouldn’t feel like our song, but because it is so different it feels like a valid thing to have in our set. We don’t always play it, but we tend to play it.
Cover versions should be interpretations, not copies, like jazz or Indian classical are improvised around a fixed structure.
Kitty: I think people look down quite a lot on playing covers, and to be clear, we’re not a covers band, and it’s very different from that, obviously, but I think there’s – I don’t want to say art as that sounds wanky – but it’s really interesting the way bands can take on another band’s song and totally make it their own (another phrase I hate), but that’s what I mean.
Jon: It’s a different discipline. When you’re writing a song it could be anything and you’re like, “Is that the right chord? Is that the right melody?”, but when you’re doing a cover, that’s decided for you, and we have to do those chords and those notes and those words, but within that, what can we do that’s different, and you get to be creative in a different way. It can then inform your own stuff that you’re making, as well. “That’s interesting, we took an approach to that song that we might not have done to our own stuff before.” So, when we write our own song we can apply that idea, maybe.
I do lots of things, some better than others, and one of them is taking photos of bands. Contrary to popular belief, I will work for money.