With a love of photography, film, literature and philosophy permeating their pulsing, voodoo garage rock, Rayographs are not simply the sum of their impeccable music tastes.
The London-based trio – Astrud Steehouder plays guitars and is lead vocalist, Jessamine Tierney plays bass and Amy Hurst is on drumming duties – released two stunning singles (‘Hidden Doors’ and ‘Francis’) before taking a couple of years to finely craft their eponymous debut album. Recently released, Rayographs is woozy mix of dark pyschedelia, brooding art-rock and guttural blues that takes as much from the films of Derek Jarman and David Lynch, and the photographic art of Francesca Woodman, as it does from the more obvious musical signposts of Nick Cave, The Breeders and Patti Smith.
After a couple of failed attempts to meet in the flesh, our chat is conducted via the web magic of a Skype video link. We are Amy-less, and Jess and Astrud are seated in front of an impressively bulging set of bookcases. The interview cannot start before our respective cats are introduced to one another (they feign a bemused indifference). However, thankfully, the two Rayographs are more attentive as interviewees, even if it becomes apparent that their favourite line of questioning is about a sandwich.
I was lucky enough to interview Black Francis last year, and one of his songs was inspired by [the photographer] Man Ray, who coined the term ‘rayograph’. I told him about your band and he thought your name sounded great. I’d just thought I’d pass that on.
Jess: Even for him to be aware of us in anyway whatsoever is really cool. He was a massive inspiration, a while ago, when we first getting to know each other – Pixies were a massive bonding-band between us.
You have been playing together as musicians for quite a while. How long did it take you to find the ‘Rayographs’ sound’?
Jess: We were playing together for quite a lot longer before we were actually Rayographs and we have gone through a few different guises. Actually, although we have had different names, since it has been Rayographs it has felt like this band. Stuff that we have done before under different names has felt different, even though it has been exactly the same line-up.
Astrud: We’d not played in different bands with anyone else and it took us quite a while to really decide the sound that was us. We didn’t release anything, and it was only when we decided that it had all come together that we decided what we were going to call ourselves. When we put out the first single we knew that was the sound. We all recognized it and from then on there was a pathway set.
Jess: And each of us in the band brings something different. I think for a while, that was quite hard – but somehow choosing the name seemed to unify us and make sense to all of us.
Astrud: We have created our own blueprint and we are living by it sonically.
Jess: That’s a good quote, Astrud.
Astrud: But I sound like a complete, pretentious arsehole.
When I listen to your music it would seem, more than a lot of other bands, that your points of reference are not merely musical. Do you agree?
Astrud: You are right. There is a hell of a lot of stuff going on that isn’t musical. There are a lot of different influences – literary, visual, filmic and philosophical. All of us oscillate between these very different ideas all the time. We all use completely different reference points. We are infused and interested in culture rather than just music.
Your album has had quite a long gestation period. Has it turned out how you originally envisioned?
Astrud: I think it sounds a lot more varied than we thought it was going to sound. Part of that was because we were recording every so often – a lot of bands go into the studio and record the whole lot but ours was spread out. It does sound quite disparate, and although it has got an internal logic and structure it is extremely varied. I see the album like a book. You listen to it and then you will listen to it again and see different angles. I think it is deceptively dense. I know that it is dense, because I know what goes behind it.
Dou feel any trepidation, now that it finally out for public consumption?
Jess: You tend not to think about it, what with all the administration and everything. But then suddenly you realise a couple of weeks before it is going to come out that actually people are going to listen to it. It all becomes quite scary. But the response has been great – it has been really thoughtful.
Astrud: People seem to get the album as we do, which is kind of bizarre.
The album seems to have a central theme about heroines. Am I right?
Astrud: Absolutely, there a lot of characters on the album which are people that have featured in all our lives or [from] individual experiences that have been really important. One of the songs is about Francesca Woodman [‘Providence, Rhode Island’] and another is about my family member’s mother who was called Nan Donahue [‘Cartwheels’]. She was an Irish traveler and I read a book about her in which she recounts her experiences, plus there are dark fables which have been related to me. As I have got older I have understood more the significance and the horror of her experiences.
Tell me about Francesca Woodman. Who was she and why would she be an inspiration for a song?
Astrud: She is an icon – she is kind of viewed in certain terms as the Sylvia Plath of photography. Her work was complete at a very young age and was very ethereal and powerful and she plays around with concepts of femininity and surrealism in her work. Someone said recently that there is an honesty and transparency about what we are doing. Personally, I can think and speak in riddles which I don’t really understand – and certainly no-one else does – but through that there is some sort of truth, and I think the album presents stories that twist in on themselves and create their own reality. It was the same with Francesca Woodman. There is a surrealism but also a truth and sincerity in her work.
Lazy journalists – myself included – have often likened your sound to bands like The Breeders. I think there is a powerful femininity about your work, and your album depicts some very strong female characters. Is it a difficult balance to know how much to play on the ‘girl band’ thing?
Astrud: I don’t mind being compared to The Breeders. I wouldn’t say it was conscious that a lot of these songs were written about female characters, but it is something that I was progressively more aware of. These people were some sort of role model. Before I started playing guitar, I was looking for female guitarists. You see someone get up and play and you think ‘I could do that too’. It is important for women to see other female musicians doing stuff that is not really twee.
Rayographs are definitely not twee. You music is very atmospheric. Is this more important than the hook?
Astrud: No, we are interested in hooks and wonky pop music. To be able to create pop music, however alternative a take on pop that is, is for me the Holy Grail. I’ve always been fascinated by the people who write those pop songs – the teams of people like Xenomania. I might do it one day; it is not ruled out of my life tick-list of things to do.
Jess: I’ve heard that Xenomania is like a factory – but not in a bad way.
Astrud: Do you mean like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
Jess: Yeah, people go into booths and sing as many hooks and melodies as they can think of and then they trawl through them all.
What might the second Rayographs’ album sound like?
Jess: We are aching to do a film score. We are really into the visual side of things and we would like to explore that at some point, whether that would be working with a film-maker or whatever.
Astrud: It is going to get much darker; very dark, very textural and a bit more sparse and atonal. Once we have got that out of our system, we will probably make a pop record.
Jess: These things are wrestling with each other.
I’m gonna do my time honoured sandwich question. If Rayographs were a sandwich, what type of sandwich would they be? And I don’t mean ‘what is your favourite sandwich?’ and you are not allowed to answer with Club sandwich because that is a cop out.
[After seemingly endless minutes of whispered conferring.]
Jess: We also have to factor in Amy’s spiritual contribution. But, for the sake of the interview we are going to say a BLT on really posh, artisan bread with a bit of mayo. The BLT is the marriage of three quite different elements that come together and create something delicious.
Who is the bacon, who is the lettuce and who is the tomato?
Astrud: I’m the lettuce.
Jess: Amy is the bacon and I am the tomato.
Astrud, you eagerly admitted to being the lettuce part?
Astrud: I love lettuce and you are what you eat.
Jess: Astrud only really eats lettuce, eggs and potatoes.
Okay, I’m on a roll now. One last quick-fire question – Harry or Wills?
Astrud: That surprises me. Though, I’d say Harry because he is such an idiot.
Jess: He is a slightly more interesting idiot.
Astrud: What, for dressing up as a Nazi?
Rayographs is out now on Desire.