by Rob Mair
photo: Carl Farrugia

“When we first started out, I’d have been like ‘This is brilliant!’ if someone said we sounded like Sleeper.”

“Now it’s a drinking game,” interjects Alex Wisgard, breaking vocalist Lily Rae’s train of thought as Fightmilk discuss just why they continue to get compared to bastions of Britpop, Sleeper.

“Literally, when we read that comparison in a review – particularly one that’s slightly dismissive – or if we see someone mention it on Twitter, then we’ll get on the band WhatsApp and someone will say ‘DRINK!’” jokes Wisgard.

While Fightmilk are over the comparisons with Britpop royalty – and this extends to Kenickie and Elastica, too – they’ve potentially had to drink a small brewery dry after the success of second album Contender. The Britpop tag appears to have stuck, meaning these comparisons have been frequently made as the overwhelmingly positive reviews for the record have rolled in.

And while the quartet, completed by Nick Kiddle and Healey Becks, are only half-serious about such comparisons – after all, Lily Rae comments that both her and Wisgard are massive Britpop nerds – it does an enormous disservice to pigeonhole one of the UK’s brightest up-and-coming DIY acts as simply Britpop revivalists.

The intention was to never initially dig into the group’s feelings about the Britpop tag but instead to understand why they had broadened their sound following debut full-length Not With That Attitude. Yet, without even mentioning the word Britpop, the can of worms has been opened, and the band are eager to set the record straight.

“It’s really weird how much the Sleeper comparison comes up,” says Kiddle. “I think it’s just because of Lily’s voice, but it’s something we’ve actively been trying to get away from in terms of the production. But then, I’ve never particularly seen it – maybe on the first couple of EPs, fair enough – I think we wore our influences on our sleeves.”

“The thing is, we’re both altos,” says Rae, referring to Sleeper’s Louise Wener, “but then loads of people are altos,” she laughs. “It’s funny though because we’ve had some people say, ‘Oh, you’re far too Britpop for me’, and others say we’re not Britpop enough. I mean, c’mon, it’s 2021!”

In truth, Fightmilk have done an enormous amount to distance themselves from the Britpop label, and on Contender they’ve produced an album that beautifully straddles the divide between indie-rock oomph and power-pop charm. While comparisons to fellow London indie punks Fresh seem like a stretch – Fightmilk are far less frenetic – there’s still a certain level of synergy between the two acts, thanks to the love of a bitingly sharp observational lyric and a great big pop hook.

Perhaps more subtly, there’s an argument for placing Fightmilk in the same world as the Mountain Goats or the Weakerthans, with the group able to take melancholy songs using abstract metaphors – for example, going into space – and make them about sadness, loneliness, or longing. Further, in the case of ‘Cool Cool Girl’, they have a protagonist every bit as rounded as John Darnielle’s homesick goth on ‘Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back To Leeds’ or John K Samson’s academic layabout on ‘When I Write My Master’s Thesis’. 

Indeed, ‘Cool Cool Girl’ has been a live staple for several years but finally made it to record on Contender, where it shines alongside closing number ‘Overbite’ as the album’s beating heart pop song. At turns influenced by the storytelling of Bruce Springsteen and the huge pop sound of Carly Rae Jepsen and Robyn, it’s Fightmilk in microcosm, delivering an acerbic and dry lyrical narrative to an irresistible indie-pop accompaniment. Dig deeper, however, and it has some prescient insight into the perception of – and views of – some women in the music industry.

“‘Cool Cool Girl’ definitely comes from my own experiences of being in a band in the DIY scene,” says Rae. “And I’m sure that experience is similar to a lot of other bands, too. Like, constantly being referred to as a female-fronted band or being put onto all-female punk line-ups because I’m a girl, or being included because someone somewhere feels the need to tick some equality box, and that kind of lip-service being paid to women and non-binary people in a very male-dominated industry.

“And then, unfortunately, I’ve seen women who are in the same position as me who have recognised that an easy way to get an echelon up is to write off other women, and write off the concept of feminism or go ‘Well, I don’t really think that ‘Girls to the front’ is an important motto for today’, or ‘I don’t think feminism has any place in music’, or ‘I don’t want to be political’. So, by distancing themselves from other people in the same boat as them, they’re able to join this secret cool club, where male audiences don’t have to think about that stuff. 

“I’ll try not to go on too much of a rant, because I can talk about this for hours,” she concludes with a weary laugh.

With Channel Four’s brilliant We Are Lady Parts raising similar issues – as well as those around race and ethnicity in music – such conversations are just as relevant and important today as they were forty years ago, and while it’s continually depressing that little has changed, it’s equally as powerful to see bands like Fightmilk taking the battle forward. 

And what Fightmilk do particularly well is mix their political message with stories of heartbreak, ensuring neither gets too heavy or overpowering. Throw in an underlying message of hope – which finds itself taking centre stage on ‘Maybe’ and ‘Overbite’ – and they’ve crafted an album that is an equal balance of political discourse and personal struggle.

Yet, just as Fightmilk were eager to finally slay the Britpop comparisons, so too were they eager to grow from the tag of a band that writes ‘breakup music’. While writing debut Not With That Attitude, both Rae and Wisgard went through breakups, resulting in a collection of songs that possessed the angst and uncertainty of those times. With that now behind them, Contender gave the group the opportunity to grow lyrically and push themselves into new territory. Rae, for example, says they were much more willing to write songs that leaned into the narratives of Bruce Springsteen, while the addition of Healey Becks on bass helped boost the confidence of the band to try new things.

“A good breakup album is timeless,” considers Rae. “Like, I think they get a lot of unwarranted criticism for being shallow because everyone breaks up with someone, so who cares? But that’s also the point; everyone does break up with someone, and the songs that come out when you’re depressed are often really good. I have a lot of time for breakup records, and if you can monetise that breakup, I’m all for it,” she laughs.

“But with Contender, because I think we had longer to write it – and half of it was written at a time when the world was literally going to shit – especially in the UK – it felt like an opportunity to write about this other stuff, and some of it is just as painful as a breakup. I mean, I’ll never stop being angsty about different things, and there’s still a couple of good breakup songs on there.”

“I’d say we were quite fortunate in that, as we got more well-adjusted as people, the world got more fucked,” laughs Wisgard.

Rae is also keen to apportion some of this growth to the addition of Becks. Indeed, just like how drummer Jason McGerr added a different dynamic to Death Cab For Cutie prior to joining on Transatlanticism, Becks’ bass elevates Fightmilk, with thick, wandering bass tones reminiscent of Martha’s Naomi Griffin all over the likes of ‘Hey Annabelle!’, ‘Banger #4’ and ‘Overbite’. Also a graphic designer, they were able to pull together some brilliant merch designs featuring mascot Lucky Douglas to help promote the release of Contender.

“They’ve got so much experience of the DIY scene, and they’ve played in bands before. It was like being joined by a missing piece of the puzzle. No shade on our former bassist, but it was like, ‘Oh shit, we can cohesively do stuff and write stuff in a way we hadn’t before’. It felt like the start of a new chapter for the band,” says Rae.

Contender is certainly a monumental step forward, and unquestionably one of the finest albums from a British act this year. Polished, political and personal, it’s an indie-pop record for the ages. Don’t Sleep(er) on it…