It’s in the roots of London collective Moderate Rebels to push the boundaries as much as possible. This was the case at their first gig in 2016 when they played one song, the single God Sent Us, for 30 drawn out minutes, pulling apart the mantra-esque track at its seams and smashing it back together again.
The positive response to their ambitious performance gave the group a reason to keep going. ‘It broke our own rules and took us out of anything that we thought we felt comfortable with and we liked that,’ says keyboardist and vocalist Mo Bruce. ‘We liked the idea that it felt provocative to ourselves as well as the audience.’
Following in the footsteps of music collectives like the anarchist punk group Crass, Moderate Rebels has no definitive line-up, but the current live line-up includes Kate Worthington, vocals; Emma Faulkner, vocals; Anna Jones, bass; Kevin Retoryka, guitar and vocals; Susan Milanovich, drums; Mo Bruce, keys and vocals.
For their third release the collective decided to keep up the momentum by releasing not just one album, but a 30 track, three-part album. The first of the trilogy If You See Something That Doesn’t Look Right, released on 30 April, is a smorgasbord of ‘60s pop melodies, transcendental ‘80s synth pop and deadpan vocals musing on everything from secret intelligence services to the words of lying politicians.
Stephanie Phillips spoke to Mo and Susan about writing mantras, being provocative, and just what exactly a moderate rebel is.
Steph: You’ve described Moderate Rebels as being provocative and challenging in the past. Do you relate to other anti-establishment music collectives like Crass for example?
Mo: Absolutely. We draw influences from all over all over the place. We love, for example, the Guerrilla Girls. It's sort of that expectation of provocation or saying something really important, but doing so in a very clever, but also fun way.
Steph: Is there a meaning behind the band name Moderate Rebels and is it connected to your politics?
Mo: At the time when we wanted to kick off the project it was a phrase that was being used a lot across the media. It was the time of the bombing in Syria and everything else. When you actually listen to media there's a lot of phrases that are used that feel very strange and loaded. When you hear things like moderate rebel, you're like, that's supposed to be coming from a so-called unbiased news outlet but that in itself, of course, is brimming with bias. You can't call it rebel and then expect to be neutral. We thought by calling ourselves that, it would sort of carry on that idea of this strange, confusing and yet completely ubiquitous language that was out there, and get people to question it. When people ask us, what is a moderate rebel, we're like, ‘I have no idea, what do you think it is’. It's absolutely fundamental to a lot of what we've done ever since.
Steph: How do you usually write songs as a collective?
Mo: It's mostly Kevin and I as a starting point working on lyrics together. We start with the loose beginnings of a song. We'll have boxes and boxes of snapshots of lyrics scrunched up in balls, as everybody does who writes music. It really comes to life when we bring everyone else in and we start their own elements.
Steph: If You See Something That Doesn’t Look Right is the first release of a three-part album run with 30 tracks in total. When did you know this was going to be a big project?
Mo: We like the fact that it just felt quite flamboyant. We just didn't seem to be able to stop coming up with ideas. And all of a sudden, we felt like, ‘well, why not? why shouldn't we have this opus of music’. We'd spoken to the label [Moshi Moshi] a little bit previously, but we sent them the three albums as triple, because our original intention was to release it all at once, but they were really into it and shared our sentiment that it stood out because it was of its ridiculousness.
'The gap between The Haves and The Have Nots has never been bigger. We can't help but point out the hypocrisy and contradiction of it.'
Steph: The album has a lot of ‘80s synth pop and ‘60s influences. Were there any specific artists you were drawing inspiration from?
Mo: Someone said to Kevin and I that [the band] sounded like a mixture between Spiritualized and the Shangri Las, which totally made our day. We love like early Pet Shop Boys, that's quite prevalent, but we equally love Krautrock and I think that's really where we started. I mean, that was God Sent Us, an epic krautrock-esque moment but since then it has definitely evolved. Especially now that we've got Kate and Emma singing vocals it does have that lovely girl band feel, but like the Shangri Las because they've got a toughness.
Susan: As a drummer, it's definitely krautrock. I love getting into a steady backbeat and just letting everyone else sort of go for it and experiment. When I first heard the band, I kept thinking of Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets. I've had people say to me, like someone I work with, so probably not someone who's completely musical, say The Smashing Pumpkins and the Pixies.
Mo: Prior to getting involved with Moshi Moshi we've never talked about any of this stuff. We've always really enjoyed hearing anything that people hear [in our music]. We all love Moody Man, we all love Flying Lizards, we all love like Yoko Ono. It’s hard not to look at the full world of stuff that we listen to, and not go actually, there's a bit of that as well. We're definitely not closed to any genre. We're massively into gospel as well. There's just stuff that we will be drawing on all the time from everywhere.
Susan: And I think that comes with having a rotating or flexible group. The traditional band structure is you all like something so you start a band and copy that until you get your own vibe, but when it's just people coming in and out or you’re brought together. I was brought into the group because we knew someone that worked together, it wasn't you know, that traditional kind of setting up a band.
Steph: On the record you’re often singing in unison. How did that style develop?
Mo: Emma is a classically trained singer and has just an incredible voice. She brings that real beauty too, which we never had before. We wanted that beauty and strength, but then something that felt juxtaposed at the same time, which is where Kate comes in. She started in that spoken word approach. Kevin always loved the idea of having sort of a really cut-glass English accent over music. The juxtaposition between Emma and Kate's voice makes it sound quite unusual. Kevin is singing in the background, and I'm adding vocals as well, so it is this chorus almost of different types of singing at once.
Steph: A lot of the lyrics are short phrases that are chanted and repeated to the point where they sound like mantras. Is there a new age, spiritual outlook in the songwriting?
Mo: There is a sort of mantra feeling, because that's when you can feel like it can take you somewhere. The simplicity of less words, less chords, less of everything really is something that has been part of what we've done since the beginning. There's that magic that comes when you've been sort of chanting something over and over again. That was certainly true when we did that first gig. The only and lyrics in that song [God Sent Us] are ‘we're here to wreck your house and ruin your life, God sent us’. That's a quote from Romper Stomper [The 1992 film about a neo-Nazi group in Australia], and that was the entire song.
Steph: Songs like Forever Tomorrow Today and These Are The Good Times feel like two sides of the same coin in that they're both about a bleak political reality we’re all living through. Do you often feel like you’re caught between feeling hopeful and feeling depressed about the world?
Mo: It’s reflective of the sort of powerlessness that it's easy to feel at the moment. We're often told that these are the best of times. Maybe not at the moment, but that has been the message, that we should feel lucky to have what we have and democracy is working and all these things, but actually it isn’t really working. The gap between The Haves and The Have Nots has never been bigger. We can't help but point out the hypocrisy and contradiction of it.
Steph: In These Are The Good Times, there’s the lyric, ‘If you love putting hands in the air before you speak, for untested 5G radiation, for untested smart meters, these are the good times’. Is this about the conspiracy theory?
Mo: We're not there to have an opinion, we're just pointing out the different opinions that are out there. We don't really believe in conspiracy theories as such. At the moment there's a silencing of different opinions I would say and that's possibly what we've always tried to be about. Just because someone has a different opinion from you doesn't mean that it's a conspiracy. In that song we're not suggesting that we know the answers or that we agree with everything we're saying, but it's a case of, again, presenting things that people do believe in. It is widening the conversation and what is acceptable in the mass media.
Steph: Is there a limit to what's acceptable?
Mo: That’s a good question and big question. I don't know that any one individual can say that. I don't think that we are saying anything that is unacceptable. Obviously, we don't tolerate any discrimination or misrepresentation. We don't tolerate anything like that, but questioning what authority is doing is the one unifying factor of what we do.
'I think what we have is a powerful group of people, and I think we can do amazing things, especially together.'
Steph: The theme for International Women's Day this year is #ChooseToChallenge, looking at how we call out gender bias and inequality. Do you feel like you try and challenge inequality through your songwriting or outside the band?
Susan: It's definitely something I do outside of the band because we need to especially in the music industry. I didn't realise I could be in a band until I was about 21 years old, before then it was just, that's something that men do. If we can encourage girls and women to have that realisation, the same time that men do at five years old when they're given a guitar, I feel that's going to help change things. At almost every show, I will have someone, usually a man, come up to me and shout, ‘chick drummer’. When that stops happening, I think we've got progress. But equally, sometimes I get women coming up and being like, ‘Where did you learn to drum, how do I do that?’, and that helps balance it out.
Steph: I'm sorry about those guys, they sound awful.
Susan: My partner's a drummer too. He came to one of our one of our last shows, and he's like, ‘does that always happened’. I'm like, ‘yeah, does it not happen to you?’ No, obviously not.
Steph: In previous interviews you've talked about wanting to keep yourself private and not wanting to discuss any personal beliefs. Is there a worry about being too exposed?
Mo: From the beginning we wanted to avoid adding to the noise of opinion, to provoke and investigate things that you take for granted. So with all of that in mind, we've sort of avoided becoming, for want of a better word, personalities as part of that, and being quite, not hidden, but anonymous. That's evolved now certainly, since we've been working with Moshi Moshi, but not just for the reasons that they're interested in us doing publicity. We've just matured a little bit in our confidence in what we're doing. The music in itself is enough of a statement that me having a good conversation with yourself, is not going to get in the way of that.
Susan: There is a bit of fun keeping it vague too, because when you listen to the tracks, you're like, ‘what's on this? How many musicians are here?’. I like keeping it open to interpretation.
Steph: Finally, what's in the future for Moderate Rebels beyond the three-album run?
Mo: We've already got the bare bones recorded of the next album. That'll be coming out hopefully next year. In so far as the collective, I hope that this is it for a while. Not that I don't love the people coming in and moving on, but I think what we have is a powerful group of people, and I think we can do amazing things, especially together.
If You See Something That Doesn't Look Right (Part One) is out 30 April 2021. You can pre-order it here.