by Jade Curson
From just about any perspective, things are bad at the moment. The double whammy of Brexit and Covid means that the music industry is just one of the dozens of sectors facing an uncertain future even after pandemic restrictions are finally lifted. The sheer volume of records released during the last year has been a small but essential silver lining on a very dark cloud, but it’s no secret that bands typically depend on touring over paltry streaming revenue. This is true not only financially but spiritually; virtual engagement is fine, but it can’t compare to the joyful, life-affirming experience of a perfect set. Livestream gigs may have sustained us for a little while, but now the vaccine rollout is in progress and bands are tentatively organising tours for the end of 2021, we’re all starting to reminisce with a borderline feverish intensity about our last gigs and mourn a full year without them. Mine was Chris Farren and MEREX at the Old Blue Last, February 28th. I think back on it now with the sepia-tinted nostalgic reverence that I thought could only be managed by late-middle-aged men for the various wars they weren’t alive for but seem to think they fought in. That impatience to return to live shows is palpable amongst bands and fans, with so many new records yet to be given the chance to breathe on stage.
The connection that comes with live music is of huge importance to Manchester-based ‘parp-punk’ quartet Animal Byproducts, so much so that they delayed releasing their second EP by over a year. “I think the reason why we didn’t get the EP out until [now] when we recorded it in September 2019 is that there was no prospect of sharing it in a physical space with people,” says singer and guitarist Joe Molloy. “And that’s the reason why the thing’s so late – because meaningfully, what you’re trying to do is share your art with people who you think care about it… but somebody listening to an EP online doesn’t have the same intensity, and if it doesn’t come with a real-life conversation it doesn’t feel the same, at least to me.”
As it became increasingly clear that we were not going to be heading back to venues anytime soon, they released Attempts At Understanding in January of this year, a short and sweet four-track EP that packs a surprising amount of heart and charm into its 15-minute runtime. I’m catching up with Joe and brother Josh Molloy (French horn and vocals) a few weeks after its release. While we are still limited to their detested internet-based interaction, the chance to really dig into the songs and wider contexts on which they are built does lend considerable weight to Joe’s assertion that we are missing out on a massive chunk of really experiencing music at the moment. Joe is effortlessly effusive, willing to talk at length on any number of subjects he’s passionate about. Josh may hold himself slightly more in reserve, but when he does speak up – often at the behest of Joe, who seems to take a practised care in ensuring his brother has the space to contribute – he is insightful, considered and hides a dry humour behind his quieter demeanour. Both are more generous with their time than at all necessary, allowing me to bend their ears for well over an hour. Our conversation, principally arranged to talk about Attempts At Understanding, veers off into politics and queerness and history – and ends up being the closest I’ve felt in over a year to those hallowed nights out where you and your people huddle in the corner of a quiet pub spending a long night and a long tab putting the world to rights. It’s both comforting and revitalising – and entirely in keeping with the experience of listening to Animal Byproducts.
The band began life as a creative outlet for Joe – a fun way to procrastinate while studying for his Master’s degree, before recruiting Richard Brindle on bass and Andy Teal on drums. “They’re good eggs – particularly Andy,” says Joe, unprompted, while I hope that this dynamic is well-established and that this hierarchy will not be news to their bassist. After their first gig as a three-piece in December 2017 (“Josh was front and centre at that gig, you know. Bopping around”), they brought Josh on board, who was looking for a new musical outlet after years of playing in community orchestras. “I just like getting together in a room with people and doing music,” he says, “and being in a band sort of scratches the same itch.” With the lineup in place, their focus could turn to writing layered and poetic folk-punk, releasing first EP The Big C in late 2018. Steeped in literary references and riffing on anti-capitalist texts by Audre Lorde – “we use the tools of the master / to chip at cracks in plaster / while wealth dictates our days” – their songs are complex, politically charged and more than accomplished enough to hold their own; but given their style and subject matter, it is also impossible not to throw an Onsind comparison into the mix. “[Onsind are] such a formative band for me,” Joe says with evident enthusiasm. “Once or twice we’ve been compared to them and I’ve been like… yes, I can die happy now.”
Before I even have the opportunity to ask, the pair begin to offer a track-by-track breakdown of Attempts At Understanding. While it may not have the same intimacy as a half-yelled conversation over a wonky merch table, to borrow a phrase from Josh, it scratches the same sort of itch.
Opener ‘Bin Day’ begins softly, a gentle horn refrain and guitar slowly fading in, lulling the listener into a serene headspace while finding romance in the mundane. “Please don’t forget that it’s your bin day / Your neighbours rarely remember / They probably feel far away” feels thematically consistent with “you know I love you ‘cos the heating’s on when you come round” from Martha’s ‘Winter Fuel Allowance Ineligibility Blues’, of a love language rooted specifically in domesticity. But the song quickly veers away and into much more confrontational territory, a drumroll and surge of guitar and bass lead into a rousing call to “Chuck out shit men!” segueing into a passionate criticism of toxic masculinity: “That’s just a general acknowledgement that patriarchy is actually bad for the vast majority of people, regardless of gender,” begins Joe. “Obviously, it’s worse for women and non-binary people, but it’s still bad for the vast majority of men as well. I think we are all very conscious about our position in society and the relative bits of privilege that we come from. I’m not a vocal online activist – none of us are – but we try and do politics in our everyday life and in our work and our community.”
“We’re almost screaming out ‘listen to other people!’” adds Josh. “I’m very conscious that, like Joe mentioned, it’s four cis white guys with scruffy beards shouting. Part of me feels weird about it, part of me thinks it’s absolutely necessary to do it, part of me feels weird that there are probably people who would listen to that, but won’t listen to other people say it.”
“I try and capture those contradictions, and also the anger that goes with it,” says Joe. Because for me as well, as a man, I often feel very, very annoyed with how the concepts and constructs around masculinity have been fucking warped over time to be associated with this power imbalance. And that means that a lot of the time I feel like shouting about how terrible all this has become. It’s like the Onsind song ‘Heterosexuality Is A Construct’… like certainly I don’t feel like a heterosexual man or the construct of one, even though to all intents and purposes, I am. But I don’t feel like that at the same time, because it’s about the reality and the construction of [masculinity]. Sometimes when I hear about how men’s mental health is packaged in wider society and how it’s like, ‘it’s okay to tell a mate how you’re feeling, it’s okay to cry’, you know… this kind of broadening of social attitudes towards mental health in men – which is quite positive actually – being packaged in a way that is still quite alpha-focused…”
“Yeah, like ‘it doesn’t make you any weaker, you’re still really really strong!’” adds Josh.
“That’s exactly it!” says Joe. “Yeah. ‘This is a really strong thing to do, mate. Ah! You are so strong!’ I hate that so much. I am proudly beta and will remain so.”
THERE ARE DOZENS OF US!
“I did a song in lieu of writing an essay,” says Josh, who wrote the lyrics which grapple with misconceptions and erasure of bisexuality. “There’ve been thoughts bubbling around in my head, and resentments and stuff going around for years – and there are a lot of songs I start and then give up because I’m looking for an excuse not to write them. But with ‘There Are Dozens Of Us!’ it just all started to come out. I’ve had [that line] said to me a lot. You know, ‘oh I guess everyone’s just holes to you’, or ‘anything that moves’. I was angry, and I felt safe to express it in this kind of space.
“When I was growing up I didn’t feel comfortable in gay spaces – gay spaces as opposed to queer spaces. They felt very exclusive. And fine, that’s a community in need of safe spaces, for sure. But at every turn I was reminded that maybe it wasn’t for me. I don’t know… society doesn’t seem to embrace the messiness about being a human and all of the interesting, complicated factors. It wants to see everything in black and white terms, but everything’s messy. Everyone’s messy, and frankly, I think people like to imagine that bisexual people don’t exist because it means that they can’t pity gay people anymore, because there are those sort of accepting, pitying homophobes who think they like gay people but really they just think, ‘oh it’s not their fault that they’re attracted to the same gender. They have to be’, and they take gay relationships as lesser. Black and white narratives harm everyone, and we need to embrace the messiness inherent in being human.”
Joe is quick to agree. “I guess that’s what a lot of the songs here are about. The breaking down of binaries, which is happening a lot in society, confuses people who have grown up with these strict conceptual categories: capitalism and socialism, straight and gay, or left and right wing. Non-binary people are confusing the hell out of lots of people who have grown up with the idea of that not being a thing. I think a lot of the cultural commentary is at the moment based ultimately around the breaking down of these firm conceptual categories – and as ever, reactionary forces try and pick out demons.”
“There always needs to be someone, the other,” Josh adds. “It is odd to see how the discussion has shifted away from queerness and just moved on almost seamlessly to transphobia now. But maybe it is the breaking down of categories and the reminder that actually, the world isn’t exactly how you see it to be. What is that quote, is it Shakespeare? ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies.’ There’s all sorts of shit out there!”
“‘Obscene’ is a bit of an outlier,” begins Joe. “It’s about my idea of love, what love means and my difficulties in pinning down the concept. I think when you’re experiencing something amazing and you’re in an amazing relationship, you don’t always – or at least I don’t always – notice it. When I look back on times I’ve had with a person, I’m like ‘oh that was really nice’. But when I am in a very happy moment I don’t always recognise it’s happening. It’s only on reflection that I’m like ‘this is a nice thing’, and it’s important for me to bring myself back to those moments. And putting your narrative into someone else’s, or accepting your place in someone else’s narrative, is a really powerful thing as well.”
“It’s not the most conceptually secure song on the EP, but that’s fine. That’s okay. I always admire lyricists who are ridiculously ambiguous because that is not me.”
The song from which the EP draws its name and contains the fundamental essence underpinning each track: a rejection of the status quo and living within restrictive binaries. ‘Tavistock Square’ is a sprawling entanglement of narratives that captures snippets of the Square’s storied history and weaves them into a larger contemplation of human nature. It captures the intimacy, futility and inevitability of human history in a way that is almost dizzying – like One Hundred Years Of Solitude condensed into a three and a half minute punk song.
“I think the binary in this song is peace and violence. And I think oftentimes the idea of peace and peacefulness is itself weaponised by a state that actually has an effective monopoly on violence,” says Joe.
“I went [to Tavistock Square] one day; it was maybe September 2018. I used to work for this organisation that spoke about radicalisation in schools, assemblies, things like that, and I’d been at a pupil referral unit where people’s lives are very complex. We spoke about radicalisation and this concept of how people become ‘extremists’ – I’m going to put that in inverted commas because I think that term itself is defined by states with this effective monopoly on violence – and I was getting ready to get the train back from London.
“It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon, and Tavistock Square is filled with statues and monuments to various bits and pieces – there’s this statue of Gandhi, and the cherry trees overhead that are dedicated to Hiroshima victims… it was weird because it felt like a really powerful place, but I was reading about the history of the square as well, that the railings around the square had been melted down to help with the war effort in World War II, and also that it was the site of one of the 7/7 bombings. And all of these things kind of smashed into each other in my head.
“And I don’t think I did justice to the subject because there’s a lot there and a lot of geopolitical strife. Our mum always told us that she was a pacifist, and that doesn’t seem sensible to me. I think if you call yourself a pacifist, implicitly, you are handing over power to people who will use violence over you or over people who aren’t as fortunate as you to assert their dominance. And I think that ultimately the threat of violence or the potential for violence is a force within human society – and to abdicate that knowledge and that fact means that you lose some kind of weight.
“I mean, humans are violent and to say otherwise is to disregard all of history,” says Josh. “I think it’s noble to not want to engage with that.”
Joe continues: “I agree, but I put myself in those situations and… sometimes using violence is obviously wrong, and it has horrible ends most of the time, but sometimes it’s necessary. There are many forms of violence – and not many of them are talked about regularly – and the idea of non-violence as a noble goal, particularly in protest, is something that is, ironically, weaponised.”
“I guess at the end it’s essentially ‘attempts at understanding’ – I think that is where peace comes from. Compromise is important and obviously some things you shouldn’t… the ultimate compromise is centrism, which is terrible,” he laughs. “But I think if you compromise too much then you end up giving way to powerful interests anyway.
“[There’s an] interesting point in there, that line about ‘the people we learn to love’,” says Josh. “I always interpret that as the way we talk about things like this – it changes, it evolves over time.”
“That’s exactly it,” says Joe. “I think Alan Turing is a prime example of someone who was absolutely screwed by the state, and the state would never admit that.”
Josh agrees: “Alan Turing was gay, chemically castrated instead of going to prison. Committed suicide, probably. And now he’s got a statue in a park.”
“They actually issued some mealy-mouthed apology the other year, but what they would never acknowledge is the continuing, systematised degradation of queer people. And actually, if you’re lionising Alan Turing, you also have to do this,” Joe concludes. ”Otherwise, it’s in bad faith.”
As ‘Tavistock Square’ winds towards its conclusion and brings the EP to a close, there is a line that stands out in particular as the embodiment of that nuance the band are determined to capture in their music: “I reserve the right to refuse to kill / And I reserve the right to empathise with those who will / Because horror begets horror / And peace corresponds with attempts at understanding”.
Revisiting our conversation several weeks later, the discussion of state violence and of weaponising the concept of protest feels unnervingly prescient as we continue to live through yet more examples of this exact misuse of power being played out – both across the country and globally. It’s not often that a four-song EP can inspire an hour-long conversation spanning so many aspects of social politics, and so begs an inevitable final question: where do Animal Byproducts go from here?
“Well, I’ve recently written a song about somebody going on a smoke break,” laughs Joe. “So that’ll be a much shorter explanation.”