London Post-Punks Fight For Meaning In The Age of Distraction
Photo by Glashier
In a culture of distraction and information overload, it is rare to find moments in song that feel like true catharsis from the tyranny of content. But Shopping’s 2015 release Why Choose offers just that, with its post-punk meditations on consumerism, capitalism, instant gratification, and time famine. There are politics and poetry within its frenzied melodies and simultaneous countermelodies, their dizzily overlapping vocals that fight for your attention. Most importantly, Shopping songs are very fun, and easy to get completely lost within. Simply by listening to these songs and bopping along, I feel like I am beginning to purge the inescapable sponsored posts that I unknowingly absorb everyday, temporarily evading the ever-present gaze that social media necessitates.
“I see you staring / straight over me / I see you staring / so vacantly,” opens the album’s first line, on “Wind Up.” A stripped-down moment of pause comes on “Time Wasted,” a song that gets at the emotional core of feeling stuck in a blank feedback loop: “I’m left with nothing but the time that I’m wasting / they’re trying to take it away / I keep remembering all the days that I’m losing / I feel them slipping away.”
Shopping is a trio, made of Billy Easter, Rachel Aggs, and Andrew Milk. Late last year, when they were touring the U.S. in support of their brilliant 2015 record, I sat down with Andrew and Rachel to chat about culture as a weapon, struggling to concentrate, and the political power of dancing.
LIZ PELLY: How did Shopping start?
Rachel Aggs: We were all in another band before Shopping called Covergirl. That was a good, kind of crazy, queer, dance party band that was really chaotic. And then we sort of streamlined it, some people left, and we cut out the keyboard aspect that kept going wrong. Something would go wrong every show without fail. We all met in London just through playing shows. Andrew put on my first show for my first band, Trash Kit, in 2008.
Andrew Milk: A historic event. The first Trash Kit gig. It was at my house.
One of the things that I take away from listening to Shopping, is this idea of distraction, and information overload. To me, especially with the vocals all at the same time, everything happening at once, on the surface that might not seem like a political thing, but it’s definitely a commentary.
R: When we write songs, it all comes out. We don’t think about it very much, but it all comes out. The more I sing those lyrics, and the more we play, I’m able to think of the political context of it. And it is definitely all about – trying to have a second to make something. Trying to concentrate and not being able to.
Can you expand on that? I think a lot about political implications of concentration, and not being able to, and the internet.
R: I think of myself as being part of a generation that’s kind of trapped by the promise of social media to eradicate loneliness, to keep you constantly connected, informed and entertained, help you to promote yourself. But we didn’t grow up with this. It will be interesting to see whether the 2016 babies with iPads grow into using social media in a more intuitively healthy way. I just find it all pretty overwhelming and bizarre. It’s easy to feel like you’re never doing enough, that your Instagram feed is not full enough of you doing exotic things in exotic places, that the world is constantly watching you so there is a pressure to be constantly performing. There’s also a lot of fakery involved. You can package yourself and become your own hype machine. Jennifer Egan totally predicted in her book A Visit From The Goon Squad, the way people would start getting paid to promote things on their social media accounts. It depends how you use it, obviously in the right hands social media can be so powerful but sometimes it feels very capitalist, a bit fake and anxiety inducing.
When I’m on stage singing about wasting time, I feel like it’s a protest to the ‘time is money’ mentality and it’s cathartic for the times when I question whether I am spending my time well or whether I have been productive or ‘Internet present’ enough. As a pretty hyperactive and desperate sounding band, I think we appreciate that people’s attention spans seem shorter and shorter these days but I hope that when we play live we are encouraging people to participate in something real and exciting with us, no matter how fleeting that might be.
As a pretty hyperactive and desperate sounding band, I think we appreciate that people’s attention spans seem shorter and shorter these days but I hope that when we play live we are encouraging people to participate in something real and exciting with us, no matter how fleeting that might be.
The slogan for The Spark Mag is “Culture is a Weapon.” How do you see that ethos relating to Shopping’s music?
R: What we do is not specifically trying to package ideas, to say, “we have this political idea” or “this song is about this political idea.” It’s much messier than that. I would like to think that phrase encompasses what we do, but I also think it’s too messy to be a weapon.
A: There’s never been any kind of conscious decision on our part to say, “we’re going to be creating culture in a way that’s against something,” or as a weapon in that way.
R: I think it’s more like an antidote in Shopping, and less of a weapon. A weapon seems like it has to be more direct. What we do is much more about catharsis, and existing in the world, and all of the stressors and pressures of modern life. Our music is this kind of freak out, this space to dance, and meditate on some of those consumerist issues or capitalist stuff, and the ways in which people’s time is controlled.
A: In many ways we’re active consumerists, we’re very self-aware and kind of taking the piss out of ourselves. And everyone can join in, to say, “Yeah, it’s all pretty shit isn’t it?” It’s not like we’re living an anarchist lifestyle in a squat, and being like, “We’ve chosen this alternative way, and we have the answers!” We’re not that. We are part of this consumerist and capitalist world.
R: When people ask us, “are you a political band?” We always say, not really. But the more I think about, yeah, obviously we are.
A: How could you not be? Aren’t most bands? Aren’t most people? I don’t think we’re saying anything particularly revolutionary, that’s for sure.
R: We don’t want to come across as dogmatic.
A: We don’t have a specific idea that we want people to prescribe to, we’re not proposing some alternative. Although there are alternatives that would be better, it’s not something we have an answer for. We share a frustration, that I think most people existing in this world share.
R: The first thing I thought about when you brought up “the weapon” – I thought about what Katie [Alice Greer] said on stage last night, about the way in which through, your personality is packaged, and everything is a product. It’s cool to think about music or culture as the antidote of that, as the opposite of that, as a weapon in that respect. And taking up space. One of our songs is about wasting time, and time, and I think that’s quite a political thing.
When you were thinking about starting a band called Shopping, was it a conscious decision to make the band focused on commentary around consumerism and capitalism?
R: We thought it was just a good-sounding name.
A: Maybe after we decided on the name, we might have decided to do this one song based on this theme of instant gratification. And in the context of the name, it felt like even more of a good idea. And then it kind of became a thing.
R: We never discussed it.
A: Because that’s how we work, that’s how we make music. It’s very of-the-moment.
R: It is quite good to have that theme, because it’s so different from the other bands I do, and when I go and write songs with other people, it’s a completely different space. When we get together and write songs, it is a bit for focused on this topic. but it’s not discussed. It is all very subconscious. And the music we make is more desperate sounding, and frustrating, so those are the types of lyrics that come out. And it’s an endless topic. Everything is about money. Everyone is trying to sell you stuff.
There is an apparent performance aspect of the band that seems politicized in its own way: facial expressions, coordinated dancing. I always wonder if bands play it up because they’re in New York and it seems like a bigger show.
R: That is literally what we’re like every night. I think this year I’ve started doing way more dancing, and staring people down. I’ve definitely started trying to be as present as possible this year on stage. Something I’ve learned this year is that I can’t do a half-hearted gig, even if there’s only three people there — which is good, but also gets exhausting. We played some shows with Hysterics in Europe and I was really inspired by Stef’s stage presence. It made me really want to give more on stage. Katie from Priests, and Downtown Boys as well. They’re all such good performers.
A: Trying to get people to dance is part of it. You’ve got to lead the way a bit.
R: I was reading the beginning of Violence Girl, the Alice Bag book. She writes that there should be no spectators at punk shows. It’s definitely how we think of it. Everyone should be a participant.
I was reading the beginning of Violence Girl, the Alice Bag book. She writes that there should be no spectators at punk shows. It’s definitely how we think of it. Everyone should be a participant.