I remember the first time I put in a copy of The Grates Gravity Won’t Get You High. The first song, “I Won’t Survive,” started with bells and vocals that were somewhere between the Swedish Chef and Heidi, and then suddenly there were loud guitars with an indie rock vibe and it was awesome. I listened to the whole thing several times alone, and then popped it in anytime there was another person nearby that I could get hooked. Though I missed the show when The Grates were in San Francisco, a music snob friend of mine who did attend sent me a text message well past my bedtime that said, “Fucking great show! Amazing!”
The Grates are Patience Hodgson on vocals, Alana Skyring on drums and John Patterson on guitar. They’re from Australia, and each of them is also a graphic artist in his or her own right (check out their website and MySpace for samples of their art). Their sound is appropriately stripped down, but Patience has a strangely malleable voice that keeps each song fresh. I chatted her up when the band was touring a bit in the States earlier this summer – they’ll be back for a brief time in September – and was thrilled to find that she’s just as spunky on the phone as she is wailing into a microphone.
Much has been made of the garden shed in which The Grates began practicing and recording music. Can you describe that space?
You come down the back steps of John’s house and it’s in the back yard. It’s just an aluminum shed. It’s kind of like a light olive green color with a silver roof. Then you go inside and it’s just covered in crap, like metal stuff. John’s dad is a fitter and turner, and he used to work from home quite a lot so he’s got huge machines in there for cutting steel and turning steel and drilling little holes in steel and buffing steel – he really works with steel a lot – and all over the floor is tiny bits of steel shavings. You have to wear shoes when you go in, you can’t not wear shoes or else you’ll get bits of steel in the bottom of your feet. And it’s a little bit dusty. Most of his tools are on wheels, so we just push them to the side and we practice, then we move them back and we go. And that’s about that!
No major injuries while practicing in the shed?
No, never! We don’t really play with the tools. We just push them aside.
You spent a couple of months in Chicago recording Gravity Won’t Get You High. What’s the worst food you consumed there?
Oh, boy! I don’t know if I actually consumed any bad food in Chicago. We had some – oh, lordy – we had some favorite places. There was this little pizza shop that one of the interns worked at that served the most delicious pasta. Yum-o! Then there was this taco guy just down the street and we’d go get tacos off him all the time and horchata. Is that it? We had it so much, it’s a Mexican rice drink. Then we’d get the deep pan Chicago pizza pie.
I remember the worst thing we did eat was…we went to Jewel-Osco this one time and Alana got some kind of chicken salad from the deli and it smelled like cat food. Smelled. Like. Cat food. She didn’t notice the smell and I was sitting next to her and I was like, ‘Alana, that smells like cat food.’ And she was like, ‘no it doesn’t,’ and I made John smell it. He was like, ‘that smells like cat food!’ We took it away from her and told her to take in some fresh air and try it again with fresh senses, and it smelled like cat food. I tried it, and the chicken inside it was so salty and whack. That was the worst food we ever had, and I think it was on our first or second day.
If you didn’t get sick from the taco truck, you were doing pretty good.
No! It wasn’t a truck, it was a shop. Taco Café it was called. And then we’d go to the Art Gallery Kafe which was the most beautiful, close-by coffee shop which served really nice coffees. We got to be friends with the people there, and as soon as they’d see John walk in they’d start making his coffee. He loved it! The first time it happened he came back and told us all about it. He was so stoked, that had never happened to him anywhere else before.
Before playing South By Southwest, what was your impression of Texas, and did it live up to that impression?
We actually played South By Southwest last year, too. This year it was different because we were playing on 6th Street, we’d played at The Parish, and it was packed. There was a line out the door. That was full on! It was great! Last year we just played at little places on Red River or even further.
Our impression of Texas was pretty much everything [you’d expect] but not quite, because we were in Austin. We’ve been to Dallas and Houston before. I expected there to be more cattle. I expected the accents to be a little more Texas-y, but not in Austin, because Austin’s the more culturey part of Texas. I love all the Mexican flavor there, being so close to the border. We bought lots of little tiny Mexican wrestling dolls, and fell in love with their Day of the Dead celebration. It was really enjoyable.
It was great when we went to Dallas the first time. Where we were staying, at our hotel, down the street there was this Mexican nightclub. They were just going off and going crazy in that place. But there was no one around, just fields. Across the street from us there was this steak house that was pretty much dead the whole time. Buckin’ Good Steaks. It had a bucking bronco. We’d go over there and have big-ass Texas meat.
Who expends more energy during a performance – you, or Ninja from The Go! Team?
Oh! I don’t know! We’re on par. She does dances from the world that I don’t do, like Russian dancing. But I am skilled with a ribbon. I’m taller. She does more dancing, I do more jumping. She wears that little outfit and stuff, too, and really works it. It’s so cute.
One of our editors is minorly obsessed with Smoosh, the barely teenaged sisters generating mucho buzz on the music scene. You were on a bill with them last year. What’s their story? Creepy? Or delightful?
Love them. Love. Them. We did the American tour with them, and also in England with The Go! Team. In England, we just became best friends with them. We were like family on tour, we shared our dressing rooms, and on nights when we didn’t have to share we’d end up sharing anyway because we were in love with each other – in a friendly way. We loved them, and I think they really loved us, too.
It felt like, for me, like I had a family because their mum was on tour and she was the best. At that stage in the tour we had a male tour manager – now we have a female – but having her around really helped me. It was so nice. We’d do homework with them, and they’d play games with us. It doesn’t really matter, but because we had kids with us, we didn’t really drink or do anything. It wasn’t like the big rock-out-get-drunk party. I think it was great for them to be touring with a band that had girls in it as well, and to be able to hang out with us because we weren’t off smoking and drinking. We’d dance with them every night.
When we got sick we didn’t hang out with them for a couple of days, because we didn’t want them to get sick, too. They would buy us oranges and orange juice and leave bags on our door. It was wonderful. They’re incredible girls. The whole family is amazing – their mum, their dad, their view on the world, the way they raise their kids, they’re beautiful people. I think they’re going to do amazing things, and not just for music, I think they’re going to do amazing things for women and girls and life.
Writers have used every adjective meaning “fun” to describe you. Do you have a favorite?
I don’t think I do. Shall I ask someone else to tell me?
Last night I started a list, there was zany and zesty and sassy and saucy…It just went on forever.
What is that “zesty”? I’ve never heard of that before. Zesty! I like it. I’m going to take that home with me to Australia. Is that a real word? I’m looking it up.
Do you ever have moments, before shows, when you worry that you won’t be fun enough?
Not really before shows. Sometimes I do before interviews. You work a lot and you have a lot of energy, and you want to be able to keep up being your natural self, and just be good fun, because that’s part of being in our band. That’s the only time I wish I had more sleep or wish I hadn’t gone out, because I think, ‘oh, man, I’m going to seem like such a drag.’
Before shows I just worry about my voice, but things always seem to work out. I don’t really worry, because as soon as we start playing it just sort of flows and has a life of its own, like music does. If you’re feeling tired you might have a Red Bull or a drink, and sometimes I put on my dress and do a little ‘la la la la la’ to warm up my voice. But depending on the tour we might be performing six nights a week, so you get in a rhythm. If you didn’t want to do it, though, you probably wouldn’t be able to go on stage some nights.
That’s a great transition. Has the band officially become a job for you, or just it still feel like a hobby?
It kind of feels like both. It’s a job, but it doesn’t feel like a real job. Well, sometimes it does. We design our own merchandise, it’s our art work. On the 4th of July we had all this shit we had to do, and we wanted to be at Venice Beach, experiencing it, hiring one of those bikes and riding around seeing all the loonies. But we were in our hotel room working on a design. John was really cranky, because he had the most work to do.
There’s other bits of it, like when you have to sit in the car for 10 hours. You can’t escape that, it’s pretty boring. No matter what the destination, it’s boring. But then, ‘thank God, we’re at the venue now!’ And some days you get there and you’re tired, but you know what? So you’re tired. As soon as you start seeing the support band play and you start warming up, you get back into that feeling, like it all makes sense again.
Is the band really responsible for its own album cover art, or is that part of The Grates myth?
The album art? Yeah, yeah. We do it all. That was mostly what we were doing on the 4th. We have a single coming out in Australia and America and England, so we’re doing the cover art for that. Everywhere is a little bit different. We do ads, too. In the beginning we thought we’d leave ads up to the record label where they have in-house designers to do it. But we didn’t really like it, we didn’t think they did a good job. Also, it makes John feel really weird sometimes because ads are just gross. I mean, you have to have them, but they make you feel like…it’s yucky. John feels that if he makes the ads he can put good intentions into them, so they’ll come across better.
Just one more question, before our time is up. What’s something about each of your bandmates that would horrify them if they knew you’d told me?
Alana killed an owl recently before leaving Australia. She didn’t see it! She was driving along late at night. It was like two in the morning and she just kind of saw something and she was like, ‘wha?’ and then BANG. She freaked out and was like, ‘ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod’ but she kept driving. We give her shit about that all the time and she gets really upset.
What’s horrifying about John? Oh! To make Alana feel better about it, John told us about how he ran over a blue-tongued lizard with a motor mower one time and he didn’t mean to. He was listening to headphones one time while he was mowing the lawn when he was younger, and then all of a sudden he just heard the most fucking horrible noise and he pulled his headphones off and there was just blood and crap coming out of the mower. He said when he thinks about it now it makes him want to cry he’s so disturbed.
What’s the story they would tell about you, were I talking to one of them instead?
They’d be like…in high school, this one time, these friends and I were jumping over this little lake going back to class – it was at the end of the day, we didn’t go to sport – and one of my friends, who is a little bit of a bigger girl, did a ballerina jump and landed with one foot in the middle of the lake and when she moved, there was this gleaming white sock. Her foot had come right out of her shoe.
I don’t know why, but it was really funny for me. I was really, really laughing heaps, and then I peed my pants. And then, because I didn’t want anyone to know, I grabbed this water bottle I had and poured it all over myself, and I was like, ‘oh, look at that, I spilled all down my dress.’ And my friends were like, ‘Patience, you idiot! No you didn’t. You poured that all over yourself!’ And then, because I lived on an island, I had to catch a bus, a ferry and another bus to get home. It was the most miserable thing for me.
Perfect. Thank you so much.
It was lovely talking to you! Hopefully we’ll see you in San Francisco soon!
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