We find Robots in Disguise in a warehouse in King’s Cross, surrounded by envelopes containing copies of their latest album, Happiness VS Sadness, in preparation to be distributed to fans for its release on the 11th of July. It’s their fourth studio album, released ten years on from their first and has been heavily anticipated by followers of the electro-punk duo after months of build-up following the single release ‘Wake Up’ for a Barry M commercial. The track didn’t make it to the album, but fanclub members have had the chance to hear some of the songs that did. The girls took Jasmine Brady and Emma Levinkind to a nearby coffee shop to discuss the album, elephants and the wearable face of Vinnie Jones.
Cat On The Wall: ‘Lady and the Flies’ seems to be a narrative track about turning down suitors. Is it based on personal experience?
Sue Denim: It’s about constantly having to swat them away, like flies. Can’t you see them swarming around us now?
Dee Plume: It’s all about female power and probably female sexual power.
SD: I suppose it’s the black widow thing of getting the male and killing them. [laugh] It’s literal. Interestingly, that song was also being constructed at a time when we had a lot of flies in the studio – actual flies, because there were a couple of dead birds in one of the pipes which we didn’t know about, for a year or two. Something really horrific. The guy who manages our record label came down for quite an important meeting and he just stood there, all these flies buzzing around his head.
COTW: Speaking of your studio, what’s your writing process like? You both sing and you do a call-and-response thing a lot of the time – do you sing the words that you write or is there one lyricist?
SD: Mostly one of us will come up with the verse and the chorus and then we finish the song together. Sometimes we have an idea and jam it out. Often one of the songs starts with one of us – but it’s supposed to be so we’re both emotionally connected to the song.
DP: It’s not like we write parts for each other, we’ve never really done it like that. That could be interesting. We work really hard on the lyrics. It’s not stream of consciousness and then we kind of go ‘right, that’s that’. We often go ‘let’s change that word’ and get the dictionary out.
SD: It used to take us like three trees per song. We’d just get through so much paper!
DP: We used to go a bit mad.
SD: We’re not as much like that as we were. I mean, we still want to write good lyrics, of course, but we don’t go quite so overboard. This time we had a few experiments where we decided that we were only going to have a certain amount of words per song. We actually didn’t stick to that on any of the songs, in the end, but we tried it.
COTW: You trialled some of the songs from the new album acoustically first…
DP: We didn’t really trial them. We don’t really trial anything, we just write stuff and then we record it.
SD: I mean, we trialled them in the sense of just playing them live…
DP: But in the past, because of the fact that we’re not just bass, guitar and singing, it’s loads of complicated production, we always had to decide what the definitive song was and then record it… which is sometimes a mistake because you get on stage and think ‘oh. This is too slow’. So sometimes it could be good to demo stuff for longer and play it live, but we haven’t really had that.
COTW: Thinking about the fanclub, have you got any plans for the future? I know that in the past you’ve produced newsletters
SD: That’s about all we did, isn’t it?
DP: Well, we did a gig in a park.
SD: We had to share a bandstand with some sort of sports team. It was raining, so they all crowded in onto the bandstand.
DP: That increased our audience numbers, didn’t it?
COTW: What’s the strangest venue you’ve ever played in?
SD: That might be it.
DP: We played in a squat in Zurich. That wasn’t really strange. But it was just strange afterwards because then we went and squatted another building with all the squatters. So that was more of a strange experience.
SD: We were in Guy Ritchie’s house recently, that was squatting.
DP: Oh yeah, that was really fun.
SD: Wearing masks of Guy Ritchie, weren’t we? Getting on to the roof.
DP: I mean, he wasn’t in his house.
SD: The squatters made up all these masks of him.
DP: No, Vinnie Jones it was. That was the whole point.
SD: Oh yes, Vinnie Jones, not Guy Ritchie.
DP: That was good. It was this thing called ‘The Really Free School’ where you could go along and go to classes and then there were jazz musicians playing and me and Sue started joining in really badly.
SD: And they tried to get us off, didn’t they?
DP: Yeah. And we wouldn’t leave [laugh]
COTW: Talking of the song ‘Winner’, if you could win one award or prize or race, what would you choose?
DP: [really keenly, before the question had even finished] The Mercury music prize! We have entered it.
SD: We’ve won it, in fact. In my head.
COTW: I suppose that if you publicise it, the Mercury jury might read it and realise that they’ve already decided (only they’d forgotten).
SD: Yeah! We should just keep saying we’ve won.
DP: Well, that’s creative visualisation, isn’t it?
SD: I actually tweeted the Olympics, with this song I’m a Winner, and I said ‘Check out Mercury-Prize winning Robots in Disguise “I’m a Winner”
DP: Ah! That’s brilliant.
SD: That’s our Olympic song, so you know.
COTW: So did you two apply for tickets?
SD: We’ll get them for free because we will have won the Mercury award music prize by then. That is, if the world hasn’t ended already by 2012. Mayan prophecy.
DP: Well, it was supposed to end in May.
SD: Wasn’t that the Rapture?
DP: My friend said ‘Oh, the world’s going to end today’ so I stayed out longer with him. I was like ‘Can you not go home until we get past that point?’ I didn’t want to be on my own when the world was ending.
COTW: I was worried. I was going to see Suede that night…
COTW: So did you do any collaborations for this album? I think at one point Jimmy Urine (of Mindless Self Indulgence) was mentioned…
DP: We were going to – we wrote Let’s Get Friendly for him to collaborate on… but he didn’t.
SD: Maybe he didn’t like it?
DP: Well it’s difficult, when he’s in America. In the end we were going to get Jon Snow, the newsreader, to do it. He was up for it, and we know him because he works at ITN round the corner from our studio. But then he didn’t. And then we were just a bit like ‘Oh, it’s quite nice this middle eight without anything on it.’
SD: That song’s got more space on it than any of the others because we had that bit in the middle for other people to sing on. It would be good at some point to just get all the people that had said they’d be up for it but didn’t actually get round to doing it to do their own versions and put out an EP. ‘Robots in Disguise and Friends’.
COTW: So if you could collaborate with anyone, alive or (in any state of decomposition) who would you chose?
SD: I wouldn’t mind doing a collaboration with all of the Beatles. Or all of the Slits, for that matter. All together. We might be doing one with one of the Slits.
DP: We were supposed to meet with Viv Albertine, so maybe that’ll come true.
COTW: We have a little challenge for you. When people spend large amounts of time together, it’s said that they develop a sort of telepathy… so we were wondering if, after 10 years, you’d be able to communicate with each other. [We hand each Robot a pen and piece of paper.]So the idea is that you draw what you think the other person is drawing – and hopefully you’ll end up with the same thing.
SD: How long have we got?
COTW: Well, in theory you should both finish at the same time.
DP: That’s not going to happen. [after a bit of a pause] Right, I’ve had enough now.
SD: I’m not done yet! I’ll be another two hours.
COTW: Whilst we’re waiting, that’s a nice ring you’ve got, Dee.
DP: It was from a fan, actually. A little girl called Evie May on Twitter, one of the fans who came to the fan club gig.
COTW: What do you think is the strangest gift you’ve ever received from a fan?
DP: Oh, I don’t know if it’s that strange, but I received a letter in a tiny box. That was really cool. I actually still get it out and read it sometimes. It was from this girl who was like ‘Oh, you really saved my life’, so I like to get it out of this tiny box and read it. [to Sue] Come on! Let’s inspect your masterpiece.
[The Robots reveal their drawings. Dee has drawn a picture of Sue whilst Sue has drawn an elephant riding a bicycle. Laughter ensues.]
SD: Oh, not anything like each other.
COTW: They both have circles…
SD: I drew the elephant after you’d finished, so that may be why it doesn’t appear in yours.
DP: This is what I thought you’d draw. I thought you’d draw yourself. And you thought I’d draw an elephant?
SD: Maybe I thought you’d draw a bike? I drew the elephant later, you’d already finished by then.
DP: Have you ever seen me draw an elephant?
SD: No. That was a real longshot.
DP: But you’ve never seen me draw an elephant! Ever! In ten years!
SD: Didn’t really work, that, did it? Actually we do often find things like we’ll go and get our hair done (and we don’t consult about it anymore) and often it’s really similar.
DP: Yeah, but that’s not – I mean -
SD: Well, the things do happen quite often where we’ll have not seen each other for ages and we’ll have done something exactly the same.
COTW: So you do have a sort of telepathic link…
SD: I think there can be. But not in this case.
COTW: Listening to the new album, and we thought that the vocals on ‘Hey Watcha Say’ sounded reminiscent of Columbia from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. So, we were wondering, are you two very inspired by films?
DP: Definitely, in terms of making videos. Basically, if I see anything with singing and dancing in -
SD: Bob Fosse!
DP: – then I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s re-enact that’. Which is what we’ve just done on our Chains video; we got the girls who choreographed Wake Up to do more dances and we dressed up. We’re totally influenced by musicals. And just wearing costumes. I love costumes. I don’t know if you’ve noticed [Dee gestures to the clown suit she is currently wearing. In the interests of fairness, we should point out that this sartorial decision was due to the clown suit being available as dry clothing in the studio after her attire became drenched during a bike ride in the rain.]
COTW: We had a question for you about costumes, actually. What we were thinking is that quite a few electro acts, especially from the late 80s such as Devo and Kraftwerk, seem to have a uniform…
SD: It’s really easy and really enjoyable to have a uniform in a way, because when you get ready for a gig it’s part of getting into the whole mindset.
DP: It’s visually really strong seeing people in similar costumes. It’s quite graphic.
COTW: You’ve had different eras of costume.
SD: We sure have!
DP: My mum made us some weird little costumes that were on the cover of our first mini album. They were just made out of a sort of metallic quilting. Really, really unsexy.
SD: We wore them for the first Reading, didn’t we? With quilted shorts and welly boots. That was maybe not the best outfit we ever wore.
DP: What was the question?
COTW: Did you consciously choose to have a uniform?
DP: Yeah, we did, But, for me, nothing to do with electronic bands. We were originally in another band with two other girls and the first costume we had was a t-shirt which printed our face on, with a passport photo. That was, I think, really influenced by the Ramones. We just wanted to be the Ramones, but with girls. So it wasn’t really electro. I just think it’s really strong though, that kind of gang mentality when you have people wearing the similar costume. It’s really tribal and then there’s something, I think, that’s really historically a music thing. Creating little tribes.
SD: And our fans also like to dress up in similar costumes.
DP: I mean, that’s like Rocky Horror. It’s coming and being part of the whole experience. Customising your outfit. It just being more of a theatrical event.
COTW: Like with the cardboard robot costumes
DP: It should be a spectacle.
COTW: In the past, you’ve worked with quite a few independent designers such as Coco Career. Do you have a specific interest in collaborating with really independent people?
SD: Maybe they have a specific interest in collaborating with us?
DP: Well, they’re just our friends.
SD: If we need things and we know people who do those things…. it’s just hanging out with other creative people, really. It’s probably unlikely we’re going to be hanging out with Vivienne Westwood at the moment. We’re not quite on that level, are we?
COTW: But once you tell her that you’ve won the Mercury music prize…
DP: Exactly! But also, it’s also to do with the fact that we want to wear what we want to wear, so then we get the chance.
COTW: So in order to get ready for a gig, you put on your costume. Do you have any other rituals?
DP: Warming up. I think that the best gigs that we’ve done, for me, have been when we’ve been DJing in the dressing room and singing showtunes beforehand. Because then you go onstage really hyped up. I’ve noticed that.
SD: Songs from Cabaret.
COTW: Wilkommen, bienvenue….
SD: Well, actually just Cabaret mostly.
DP: Yeah, because we don’t know the words to the other ones.
SD: And just generally songs from musicals. And Madonna.
DP: Yeah, old Vogue. Stuff like that, stuff we can really warble the vocals before going up onstage- which is really quite weird because you get on stage and sing completely differently.
COTW: Any recurring themes for this album?
DP: Death. Sex. Breaking up. Loss.
SD: And the struggle to be happy.
COTW: It’s quite an upbeat album for one centred around death and loss…
SD: It should be.
DP: Even if it’s in the darkness I want some hope.
SD: Like with Sink in the Dirt for example, it’s a real battle between the two, the negative and the positive, and Happiness vs Sadness as well. But yeah, generally, it’s like totally, totally positive outcome overall.
COTW: On which note, thank you very much for your time. Good luck for the Mercury!