Beth Ditto of Gossip
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In 2006, Gossip was a well-regarded fixture happily plugging away in the indie scene. Its loyal following was, in no small part, thanks to eye-catching lead singer Beth Ditto, a proudly queer, outspoken feminist whose voice could blast the armor off a tank. Then the Brits caught on.
While the trio's third album, Standing In The Way Of Control, didn't blow up in America, it hit in a big way in the UK, where it climbed the indie charts behind its breakout title single. Ditto, a manic stage presence and occasional loudmouth, was revered and reviled, known as much for stripping onstage as for the blues-laced post-punk she and Gossip co-founder (and childhood friend) Brace Paine produced. But it was more than notoriety that launched Gossip from Kill Rock Stars onto Columbia a year ago, on the new LGBT-focused Music With A Twist subsidiary. Newly minted Columbia mucky-muck Rick Rubin called the band's high-energy live performance "the best show I've seen in five years." Back from a European tour, with Live In Liverpool out as a major-label debut, and beginning work on new material, Ditto spoke with The A.V. Club about expectations in the majors and having a high profile.
The A.V. Club: Why did Gossip decide to make a live album its first major-label release?
Beth Ditto: I don't really know that it was a decision like, "You know what, this should be our first major-label release." A weird thing about Gossip that I've always said: "If I weren't in this band, I would never listen to it." [Laughs.] But I would go see it. It's a band you would go see that you don't necessarily listen to. We've always wanted to do a live album because personally, I think we're a way better band live than on record. We always wanted to do a live record, but we never took it seriously. We were thinking something like The Make-Up, when they did Live At Cold Rice. And also, who does a live album any more? I thought it would've been really rad, but I had a completely different idea of what was gonna happen.
The thing about Gossip is that we never really set out to do anything. It just kind of happens, which is why things can be half-assed a lot of the time on our part, because we're just like, "Well, whatever, doo-do-doo-do-doo." So it was kind of like that, we were meeting Rick Rubin for the first time and we kind of mentioned it off-the-cuff, nonchalantly, how cool we thought it would be to do. But no one was like, "That would be the best idea to do as a first major-label release!" Sometimes I'm like, "Why did we do it?" But whatever.
AVC: There was a recent feature on Rick Rubin in The New York Times where he talks a bit about Gossip, and he mentions that when he met with you guys, you were having trouble getting kick-started in the studio, and that's where the idea of doing a live album came from. Is that your perception of it?
BD: No. [Laughs.] We weren't like, "Let's stave off the majors!" Not really, because we never really have trouble in the studio, because we don't book studio time until—I can't really explain the way we do things. It's really accidental, like shit just comes up, and either the songs are written or they're not. The thing about being on the majors, from the beginning, going into this, I was like, "I'm not going to be treated like a factory," because that's never the way it was done before. You're talking about a major label, we're talking about serious business; you're not an artist anymore, you're a business, you have to work in terms of product, you have to release a product, and I don't really think that way at all. I think from a major-label perspective, if you were on the flip side of things and that's the world you were used to working in, your interpretation could be, "Oh, they're having trouble writing songs," when really it's like, "No, I'm not ready to write songs, I don't want to write a song right now, if I did write a song, it would be forced." The live album just kind of came about, and I think we were like, "Oh, that sounds fun, let's do it." None of us really took it seriously, and I think it was after that meeting, people were like—I guess it was Rick Rubin who was like, "Let's do a live album." It was just really mentioned in the conversation, like I don't remember ever sitting at the little lunch place we were at and being like, "Yeah, gung-ho, live album!"
AVC: So it wasn't calculated, is what you're saying.
BD: No, it wasn't. I wish we could be more calculated, I think that would save us sometimes.
AVC: Did you record it in Liverpool because you guys are so much bigger in the UK?
BD: You know, the show was small, I think it was just as big as it could've been in San Francisco. It was probably like 500 people or something, so I wouldn't say it was based on that, as much as we were on tour and they wanted to have it out by a certain time, and that's where we were at the time. I think it was place and time and convenience more than anything else, I don't think anybody was like, "Oh yeah, England!" It was more like they wanted it out by a certain time. Had it been up to us, we would've recorded multiple shows at multiple places. I mean, it was up to us, but—I think the thing we're learning with the majors is that you have to hold your own. Like before, with Kill Rock Stars, they let you be whatever you want. It's just a different approach and a completely different world, and the guidance is just not what you're used to, so you have this really weird blind trust.
AVC: Have you started working on a studio follow-up?
BD: A studio follow-up, you mean as in a real record? [Laughs.] Actually, that's what I'm doing right now with Nathan [Brace Paine's real name]. We're just working on the new record, taking our own time. I hate to do what I'm told, that's why I'm not good at 9-to-5s. When I feel like I'm being forced to do something, I can't, so that's why we're doing it on our own time now. But yeah, we're working on a full-length now.
AVC: It's been a while since you guys were last in the studio, right? Standing In The Way Of Control was recorded three years ago.
BD: Someone told me once that Lucinda Williams takes six years between albums, and that's what stuck to me; it's like, you really are a factory. You don't do things to make them, on your own time. There were three years between Movement and Standing In The Way Of Control, too. It's just our pace, and that's natural for us. I don't feel freaked out about it until people freak out about it. When you get a certain amount of media attention, I think people are like, "Where's your other album?" and I'm like, "Well, this is a new band to you, to a lot of people, and I think that's not what they're used to. I think they're used to major-label bands that set out to be famous and make a lot of money, keeping people happy, and that's just not the way we do things." So it could be another year, it could be another two years.
AVC: On the tour you just wrapped up in Europe, you added a bassist for the first time, Chris Sutton. Is he a permanent addition, or was that just for those shows?
BD: It's just for shows right now; we're still working it in. But I think the way we're writing right now is going in a different direction, and we need more people, we need more instruments. It's really weird. The first time we played with him, it was like, "What the hell?" For the first time ever, I was really conscious about how much space I was taking up, because usually it's just me and Nathan. But it's really good having him around. It's really fun having another person in the band too.
AVC: Obviously the band has a very queer-friendly philosophy, but do you worry at all about being pigeonholed as exclusively a queer act, especially after signing to Music With A Twist?
BD: I don't really care. I could give a shit. I think if I were someone who takes themselves completely seriously as an artist I would, but I don't take myself that seriously, I don't think Gossip takes itself that seriously. It's also just such a part of who we are as a band. If you want to look at it like that, all music is pretty fucking gay. [Laughs.] I mean especially dance music or punk music, it's all so gay. So I don't feel pigeonholed, I feel like we're right at home. You don't pigeonhole yourself, people pigeonhole you. If the world is not at a place yet where it can just be like, "This music is gay and it's music," then it's not my fault that it gets pigeonholed, it's not the people in the band's fault, it's because people won't just let music be music, people who need to put a name on something or to critique something. And I'm not saying that whole shit with, "Man, labels are labels," because I don't really agree with that either. It's interesting how people always ask the band that question when they should be asking the media that question. I don't mean to shame you for your question, I'm all "How dare you?" [Laughs.]
AVC: No, it's a valid point, but dealing with media perception is part of being in a band, right?
BD: Yeah, I'm not saying it's important to point it out when people are talking about that stuff. I think if the world were a fair and just place, there wouldn't even need to be a gay label. But I feel glad and I feel really at home there, and it is a part of my culture, this unspoken thing where you understand each other, and it's just nice.
AVC: You have a much higher profile in Britain than you do here. Is it weird for you being a tabloid figure?
BD: Ooh, that's a good one, "higher profile," I like that, that's a really good way to put it. I just think it's funny. And also, I don't live there, I don't Google myself, I don't go out the morning after we do a show trying to find things, I just stay away from it. But then people bring it to me, my friends will be like, "Did you see this?" and I'm like, "No, I didn't, because I'm not looking for it," and it's always funny. Even if it's really negative, it's funny. I think that's what the world misses sometimes, it's like they say, you just can't take yourself too seriously.
AVC: Right, but there's a real cult of personality around you, and—
BD: Do I ever worry if that takes away from the band? [Laughs.] I think if anything, it really helps the band, I think it's been really good. We didn't start a band to be hugely popular, we never had an idea that our record would go beyond Kill Rock Stars, and before that, we never even thought we would make it onto Kill Rock Stars. My point is, I never said I wanted to be a singer for the rest of my life, and that I'm married to this band forever. Nathan, I've known him since I was 13, 14, and he's one of my best friends, he's like family to me, and that's the most important thing to me, is that we're still close, and that the music is still good. But as far as like, attention, whatever, you know, there was a time before we were so "high profile"—I really love that, those are like, the perfect words for it, it makes me feel more comfortable. [Laughs.] I have a lot of opinions about it, but I don't get stressed out about it. I just want Nathan to get the credit that he deserves.
It's really interesting—and I love LCD Soundsystem and all these bands—but when you see that dickhead Isaac Brock on the cover of a magazine, nobody asks him, "Aren't you worried that it's taking away from the band?" I think it's a really sexist point of view, and people only ask women that question. I would love to see someone ask James from LCD Soundsystem if he's ever worried that Death From Above is going to take away from LCD Soundsystem. People never ask that question. It's like they get to be geniuses or they get to be put on the pedestal because they have cocks. I think that's one thing that bothers me about it, the sexist part of it, and that it's just socially unjust. But it doesn't tear us apart. I think Gossip is better than it's ever been, and more productive than it's ever been. But the thing that bothers me about it is that it's a female question, like "Shouldn't you feel guilty about all the attention that you get?" I can't remember the last time I saw all of Modest Mouse or LCD Soundsystem on the cover of a magazine.