A young PJ Harvey gazes out across The Mysterines’ Liverpool rehearsal space. The framed photo of the iconic rocker from around the time of her early ‘90s emergence is propped against a wall, waiting to be mounted; it was a birthday present from the photographer Steve Gullick, to the band’s singer and key creative force, Lia Metcalfe. Steve shot the fledgling Liverpool outfit recently, and would probably tell you he sees in Lia some of what marked out Harvey as a special talent around the time he first met her.
You’d imagine Polly Jean would approve of what she’d hear if she could gaze out of the frame and into the room, too. The Mysterines’ debut record ‘Reeling’ shares its title with a song on ‘4-Track Demos’, the legendary raw takes that paved the way for PJ’s breakthrough LP, ‘Rid of Me’. It’s that album that The Mysterines’ own ‘Reeling’ recalls; slick but emotionally turbulent, polished without rounding off the cutting edges from the singer’s razor-sharp writing. Its release marks the end of a winning road for the group’s two remaining founding members, Lia and bassist George Favager, one marked by lineup changes and COVID-enforced inertia.
Drummer Paul Crilly arrives first today to the industrial estate about a mile north-west of the city centre that the band currently call their base. He’s marvelling at some bizarre prospective footage that the singer has put together for the video for their next single, the incendiary ‘Life’s a Bitch (But I Like It So Much)’, which looks like what you might expect a tour documentary directed by David Lynch to be.
As the group’s principal songwriter, and with a keen handle on every aspect of their output, The Mysterines is very much Lia’s band - a commanding presence onstage, with a line in conversation that’s thoughtful one minute and wisecracking Scouser the next. If the group started out as a vehicle for her writing, you get the sense it’s because going down the traditional singer-songwriter route was never an option. She seems invested in the idea of what it means to create with like-minded people, particularly when she talks about the additions to the lineup in 2020 of Paul and guitarist Callum Thompson, as well as in the opportunity to build a mythology around her songs that tends to come more readily to bands than to solo artists.
“I had time to try to craft a definitive story on the album: ‘What else can I say now? How far can I take my ideas?”
— Lia Metcalfe
Her position as the brains of the operation perhaps explains why the arduous process of putting together ‘Reeling’ seems to have been harder on her than anybody else; today, she talks about the recording with the occasional wince. “We spent three weeks in the studio,” she says. “But they were months apart. July, November, and then March. So there were these long drawn-out months in between where the lockdowns meant we couldn’t really do anything. So that was kind of intense.”
“It was a bit of a double-edged sword,” adds Paul, “because it gave us time to write a few more songs. If we’d done three straight weeks before COVID happened, this would be a very different album.” As much as he’s able to see the positives, Lia isn’t so sure; in contrast to the freewheeling rock’n’roll of their band’s live shows and her dominant presence as frontwoman, doubts crept in during the recording process, something she said she “resented” at times. “Some of these songs were written when I was 16, so I have a lot invested in them,” she explains.
“When something means so much to you, it can be hard to have resistance against it. To introduce it to this new lineup, to then be taking it to London, there’s a lot of pressure on,” she continues. “You get signed, there’s singles to think about, then the album, it’s like, ‘How the fuck did we get here?’ And things have moved so fast since the beginning of 2020 after moving so slow for a few years for me and George. So that was overwhelming. I had some resentment towards the album at times that made me not enjoy it. With a little bit of distance from it, I’m proud of it now. It’s a good snapshot of that time.”
Initially Lia did, in her own way, enjoy the derailment of the band’s plans. After finishing up a UK tour - Paul and Callum’s first - in March 2020, she found herself living alone for the first time, and the isolation suited her: not just because she had nothing to do but write music, but because she had nothing to do besides listen to it, either. More of her heroes have been honoured with photos on the wall, including Bob Dylan and her biggest lyrical inspiration, Tom Waits - although it’s worth noting that not all legends are revered here, not even local ones. ‘BRING ME THE HEAD OF PAUL McCARTNEY ON HEATHER MILLS’ WOODEN PEG’ reads a scrawling on the space’s back wall, with Lia and Paul both quick to deny responsibility.
More time digging into those influences, as well as more contemporary ones such as Queens of the Stone Age, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Strokes, meant that Lia was able to retool lyrics and look for new thematic avenues to wander down. “I didn’t worry about running out of inspiration,” she says. “It was kind of the opposite, because I’d never had that sort of time on my hands since we started the band. I had time to try to craft a definitive story on the album. Just asking myself questions - ‘What else can I say now? What else can I think about? How far can I take my ideas?’”
“One minute you’re second-guessing what you’re doing musically, and the next you’re questioning what your role is on planet earth.”
— Lia Metcalfe
By the time the later sessions had rolled around, however, the strain of making sure they could faithfully realise their artistic vision on their debut was biting The Mysterines hard - something not helped by the fact that the four were all now living in the same house in lockdown, creating a pressure-cooker environment.
“I was convinced I was going to end up sneaking a lyric about being pissed off that somebody hadn’t put the milk away in there,” laughs the singer. “But because it was lockdown, we only really had each other. And when you’re spending so many hours a day working on something you’re so passionate about, and then you can’t even go to the pub at the end of the day - that was intense. That’s not how I would have chosen to do it, definitely.”
Paul makes repeated reference to certain aspects of the record’s gestation “playing to our advantage,” and on the evidence of the finished product, the intensity Lia talks about fed into ‘Reeling’ for the better. There’s a searing irrepressibility to the album, from the bluesy menace of the title track to ‘Life’s a Bitch’’s runaway punk, via the steadily soaring ‘All These Things’. If there was a torment to the process, it’s only served to imbue the album with an added strength of feeling, especially when some of the more emotionally wrought tracks - closer ‘The Confession Song’ is the obvious case in point here - were the ones that ended up left on the back burner the longest, completed not long before it was time to lock the album in for good.
Between how utterly all-consuming - physically, emotionally, intellectually - the process of putting together their debut was, in addition to the fact that touring of any description was firmly off the table for two years, you could almost forget that Lia and George’s slow-burn rise to prominence was achieved the old-fashioned way: steadily building a fanbase with raucously fun live shows. The opportunity to make up for lost time beckons in 2022, set to be a massive year of touring that will involve among many other things, a show at the BBC 6 Music Festival in Cardiff at the end of this month.
They’ve been staples of the station’s playlists so far this year, but their avowed and unswerving commitment to making fizzing guitar rock almost marks them out as outliers on the poster. How much do they have in common with their contemporaries in a world where the ‘last gang in town’ indie-rock mentality seems to be a genuinely dying breed?
“I think the beauty of that is that we don’t really need to think about it,” explains Paul. “I mean, the one thing all the artists on that lineup probably have in common is a similar mindset of not worrying about commercial aspects - just make music that reflects who you are. If you don’t, you set yourself up to fail.”
“One minute you’re second-guessing what you’re doing musically,” grins Lia, “and the next you’re questioning what your role is on Planet Earth.”
‘Reeling’ is out 11th March via Fiction.
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