Hands Off Gretel Interview: Jimmy’s Manchester, 12th July 2018
I drive into Manchester early evening. Even though it’s been a beautiful summer, the rain is falling as I get a parking space behind Jimmy’s in the North Quarter. Jimmy’s is my kind of bar. Blondie and Bowie posters under neon-lights. A long bar upstairs and in the basement, the bands are setting up. Guitar cases fill the small backstage room and the lady on the door sends a text to tell the band I’m here for the interview: They’d popped out to get some food nearby.
Photo by Stephanie Arteaga
Not long after, we’re seated in a small room at the front of Jimmy’s. The barman turned the speaker down so we could hear each other and Lauren and I have already been chatting Riot Grrrl tunes for five minutes while waiting for the others to come and join us.
Hands Off Gretel are Lauren Tate (guitar, vox), Sean Bon (guitar) Sam Hobbins (drums) and Becky Baldwin (bass) and their Facebook page describes them as “an Alternative Rock/ New Wave Grunge band formed in 2015 from South Yorkshire”
Marina: Hands off Gretel. Thank you for joining me. Tell me a little bit about the band, how it all started….
Lauren: I’m Lauren, the singer and songwriter of the band. I started the project with Sean originally and we went through a few members but eventually, we found this line-up now which is how it will stay, hopefully. It all kind of started from a solo project which then turned into the band. Originally the style of music that I was playing was the soft acoustic stuff, then I found bands like Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland and loads of female-fronted bands that were like angry, unapologetic female fronted bands. And then we started as a group and a lot, a lot has happened. Which brings us to today.
Marina: Yeah, I can see that you’ve been out there touring a lot, doing lots of gigs…. There’s a lot happening for the band. Would you like to share with us some good things you’ve got going on at the moment?
Sam: At the moment we’re looking forward to a European Tour. We’re going to Germany, Belgium and we’re doing a date in Holland. We went to Germany last year and really enjoyed that. They treat bands really well out there, and we got paid, which was really good! They gave us free beer and food. It’s what it’s like being in a band and getting looked after. Yeah, that was a really good experience and we’re looking forward to doing that again…. And we’ve got a big UK tour coming up.
Becky: Yeah, we’re also going to be up and down the country
Marina: I’ve seen on Facebook you’ve got loads of dates coming up throughout the summer and autumn.
Becky: And we’re going to be releasing some singles gearing towards an album…. Soon.
Marina: Oh fantastic! Are you giving me an exclusive?
Becky: Somewhat…well, I can’t give you a date just yet, but it’s no secret that we are still writing music and will be releasing it soon.
Marina: Great that you continue to write, despite the heavy touring schedule, but actually, I saw a wonderful picture of you all on Instagram a couple of weeks ago. You were all chilling out on the grass on a beautiful day, in the sunshine with the guitars out and you said you were working on new material. It looked absolutely amazing… So tell me is this typically how you write songs?
Lauren: No, that’d be lovely. Well, I’m the main songwriter so it will come from an idea. Sometimes I’m playing my acoustic guitar and then I put together a demo… I’ll put some rough drums down and then I’ll send them to Sam… but then everyone adds to it. I get the ball rolling then everyone adds their little bits and by the time we’re in the studio we’re all bouncing ideas about the songs. They all become like my kids, like I implant the seeds into everyone else and then they become something. Everyone gets involved and gives different ideas and opinions and then we build on it from there. With Becky, she’s relatively new to the band.
Marina: Yeah, can I ask you about that? Have you known each other for a while?
Becky: Yes, we’d been out on the gigging circuit for a while, about a year or two. I already knew Hands Off Gretel and we’d shared lineups then they asked me to fill in for a few gigs last summer, so I did a couple of tours with them, and then a couple of months ago, they said that they had new stuff going on and asked me to join full time… and I was like ‘YES’! *laughs
They still didn’t have a permanent bass player… how could I refuse!! I was saying to Sam: “Sam, I wanna join the band” (Becky whispers loudly), * Everyone laughs.
Marina: So, it was really exciting for you then?
Becky: Well, I was wondering what they were going to say! But eventually they did ask me and I was really happy to.
Marina: You fit in really well.
Marina: I actually wanted to ask you, Becky, about your Rickenbacker, if you don’t mind? I’m a Rickenbacker bass player myself…
Becky: Really…. what do you play?
Marina: I’ve got a 1972, 4001
Becky: Oh wow, what colour?
Marina: It’s the ruby red…. I think I first followed you on Instagram because I saw your beautiful bass…
Becky: I want one….
Marina: So tell me about your instruments…
Becky: Mines a 4001 as well, it’s a 1977 Rickenbacker. It’s got a few modifications, Seymour Duncan Pick-ups put in and I’ve changed the custom scratchplate and it is a great Rickenbacker, basically. I love it!
Marina: Oh yeah, they are beautiful guitars. Any others we can talk about in the group?
Lauren: Me and Sean use a lot of Offsets…. But I prefer the Fender Stratocaster. But we use a lot of the Fenders… the Jag…
Sean: Yours is a gorgeous guitar!
Lauren: I use a Jagstang, a Mustang… Anything ‘stang!
Marina: Anything with ‘stang on the end is good, then! So, I’m from Grrrls with Guitars and we’re really interested to talk to you also about promoting women in the music industry. Do you think you’re inspiring girls and women to play music? And do you think they face any hurdles?
Lauren: I get messages all the time from people saying that it’s so nice to see us… I think these days there are so many girls and women in the pop industry …. There are many to look at but I feel like some of them are in control of what they’re doing but others are very manufactured
Becky: Or they’re produced by a guy and they’ve got an all-male band behind them
Lauren: And like, for some young girls they want a Joan Jett figure, they need the next Courtney Love… They need someone that’s going to be that honest, balls to the…. Well, balls is a bad word to choose, but… vigiznalll….. (Lauren laughs as she tries to invent a word….). They need someone who is going to be unapologetic and speak for a generation but not feel like they aren’t being heard. People message Hands Off Gretel all the time saying you’ve given me the confidence to be in a band. And I find that so weird that people feel like that… I’ve never felt like that in my life, I’ve always felt confident in my music and when people message me and say ‘you’ve given me the confidence’, it just shows how badly these young girls are needing these role models. They need people to look up to. I’m nobody! I don’t see myself as a big personality… I’m getting there, but for people to message me and say ‘I’ve picked up my guitar and I’m gonna start a band today’, just to hear that just shows that these young girls are sat waiting for someone to come along and be their role model. And for me to be like that, it the biggest compliment ever!
Marina: Absolutely. That’s so great! What would you say to any one of them if they were doubting whether to get in a band?
Lauren: I’d tell them to go for it and be the most themselves that they can be. And tell them to not be bullied EVER into doing anything. It’s so easy to be manipulated by money and power and people in powerful positions that make you feel like you have to do something. And I feel like now, like a lot of people are feeling that they can talk about things …. If now in the industry something happens between a man and a young girl you can speak out about it, but I still think there is a fear that you’re not going to make it unless you’re a nice, polite, young girl and sometimes you have to be a bitch and you have to be confident… and you have to say ‘NO’ when it feels wrong. And do what feels right for you and be authentic.
Sam: Fans can see through the bullshit. As long as the fans are going to turn up to the gigs and buy the records, it doesn’t matter what anyone tells you. You have people there who are willing to buy the product, and that’s what you do.
Marina: Do you find that social media is helping to get that message out there?
Becky: Yeah, definitely. It’s like anyone can reach anyone else.
Sam: It’s like a double-edged sword… It’s killed the industry in one way but it’s really good in another because it gives bands exposure that otherwise they wouldn’t have. The same time now, it’s so easy for people to look online at a band and watch a live gig and think ‘I’ve seen them on YouTube, I won’t bother going to watch the gig’ and that is making it hard.
Marina: Yeah, but except it isn’t just a name now, they can check you out on YouTube and think ‘Oh, I really like the sound of that so I should go and see them’
Sam: Yeah, you get both sides
Marina: Talking about social media…. Is image important in the music industry?
Lauren: I think it is…
Sam: It’s always been to some degree
Lauren: Like with us … I got a bit of a backlash because I used the term ‘cool bass player’ when Hands Off Gretel were looking for one and I think people perceive the word ‘cool’ as meaning beautiful, well I’d never use the word beautiful because that’s like, well, cool doesn’t matter. But I meant cool as in that they’d created an image. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a set image. It doesn’t mean you have to be this slim, perfect shape, or what people imagine is perfect. It’s not about that. I think that when you create an image, you create something that people recognise as the band. So like with us, we style ourselves. We decide that we’re going to dress more alternative. I think for every band ever has had an image… even if it is ‘we don’t give a shit about image’. That’s an image. You always style yourself. You’re a product as well as a band. We always style ourselves to match. For example, when we’re doing music videos, that have a certain style, we’ll match it. It’s all part of the same thing.
Sam: It’s just fun, you know.
Marina: So image is an expression of your art?
Sam: Yes, definitely… it’s an extension of you.
Marina: And an expression of the music.
Sean: The video is the advert for Hands Off Gretel. If I’d have seen a band and not heard them, the visuals are powerful and you warm to them. It does affect things because you warm to them more you get the word out more. Visuals are a very powerful thing. In the expression, a picture paints a thousand words. Music creates more but …
Marina: Yeah, it’s always about the music but if that can bring people in.
Sam: Yeah, if your music sucks but you have a great image, it’s still going to suck. It’s not going to fix anything, but if you can marry the two. That’s what it’s all about really.
Marina: So, Hand’s Off Gretel has a great social media presence, but is that really hard work having to keep that up? Does it take away from the music and time spent creating?
Becky: Yes, it’s a lot to think about.
Lauren: Well, it’s easier than getting a job in an office. A lot of people complain about it but it’s fun. You get to engage one to one with the fans. Sometimes though you forget about it and you’ve got a gig coming up and you’re like ‘shit, I should’ve put that post up’ and sometimes it can get on top of you a little bit but when you’re all posting different stuff, it’s ok. People follow the different characters in the band. They’ll follow all of us individually as well as the band. Social media has been the best thing for us. It’s been so good. Every day, I’m talking to fans all the time. It feels weird even calling them fans. They’re friends now. You get used to the names on the comments. You get to know them all by their Instagram names. They come to gigs and you say ‘oh, you are number 67444….’ It’s been such a big thing for us.
Marina: Just going back to your roots, who have been the biggest influences on your lives, musically speaking?
Sam: That’s hard to answer as one collective coz we all have our individual influences.
Marina: Of course, I’d be interested to hear from each of Hand’s Off Gretel individually.
Sam: I started with rock music. When I heard Van Halen for the first time, I really wanted to play the guitar. Who doesn’t hear Van Halen and want to play the guitar? But then when I got to college, I found punk music and got really heavily into that. What I bring to the band is the fast, loud drum sound.
Marina: What era of punk? Original 70’s?
Sam: Yeah, I had this mate whose Dad was an old punk and had all of the old singles and LPs, like the Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, Ramones, UK Subs, all of that kind of stuff, so I used to go around and listen to them. And then I got into the American Skater Punk, like NOFX, and I started working on that kind of stuff. So I like the fast, in your face, but melodic stuff as well.
Marina: What about yourself Sean?
Sean: Well, I’ve loved music all of my life and then I remember finding Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr and I thought ‘Wow, you can do that?’ It was just this amazing noise that was roaring and roaring with raw energy. And I thought ‘that’s a thing, oh my God’ and I got really into that side of it, and then you find ‘Jack off Jill’ and Bikini Kill because they’re all associated with the same label. Like the label, Grunge is quite ambiguous, so many bands would fall under it but they’re not really like each other.
Lauren: Don’t forget Pearl Jam!!
Sean: Oh Pearl Jam!! They are a huge influence for me. You find them and you’re like ‘AAAHHHH’. And no matter what I find myself listening to, I like to move around, but I’ll always go back there… Just to get that buzz. There’s an energy there that I can’t find in other places. I just love that it can be harnessed. That you can listen to that and feel it. You kinda wanna convey that totally, that frantic energy, that anger. That ‘I don’t know what I’m angry about but I’m gonna shout!’. There’s definitely something to be angry about (*laughs)
Marina: And what about you Becky? Why did you pick up a bass?
Becky: I guess most of my influences are metal, actually. So a lot of Black Sabbath, Motorhead… almost a punk crossover with Motorhead, Metallica… I think that Thrash Metal is very similar to punk. It has a very similar attitude, with the speed and aggression being very similar. But more recently, I’ve been more broad and been getting into more punk and riot grrrl stuff. I’ve been trying to pull my taste in music out of the seventies. I’ve been trying out ‘modern bands’…. Like Bikini Kill! (*everyone laughs at Becky’s use of the term ‘modern’). I’m still really living in the time before I was born.
Marina: And Lauren, we talked about Babes in Toyland before the interview as being a massive influence on Hands Off Gretel’s sound…
Lauren: Yeah, I think my first ever idol was Pink, she was just everything. And now there’s Beyoncé who has this big thing about empowering women, that’s her thing. But I think that Pink was so in front of all over them, she was just amazing. She spoke to the outcasts. The song ‘Don’t let me get me’, for example, would make me feel that she was singing about me. And then I went from Pink to Janis Joplin, who I love. My music taste is very strange. I like Pop, Pink and Christina Aguilera and I like a lot of the pop stars. Then also I like Joplin and Etta James and I also like Babes in Toyland, Courtney Love all the screamers
Marina: So it’s a really great variety of influences.
Sam: Yeah, everyone has their little niche
Marina: Would you categorise yourselves as Riot Grrrl?
Becky: It’s definitely an influence.
Lauren: Yeah, we’re definitely influenced by Riot Grrrl. The Riot Grrrl scene now, I don’t feel like we’re totally part of it. I don’t really know where it is at the moment and how Hand’s Off Gretel fits in. We don’t do many gigs with people in the Riot Grrrl scene so I think that possibly it’s a thing of the past, but we are definitely influenced by it. We always just say ‘Alternative Rock’. It’s kind of a broader term.
Marina: So what’s going on for you guys now?
Lauren: Well, we’ve just come out of the studio, we have all the songs now and we have our gun loaded with all the things that are coming out.
Sam: I think we might be doing a pledge for that.
Becky: We’re looking at options and dates.
Marina: So releasing things little by little with the aim of an album at the end and keeping touring?
Lauren: Yeah, we’ve got the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool. We also have Tramlines festival.
Sam: We’re playing at half two on the Sunday at Rebellion on the Casbah Stage.
Some fans enter the room and there are hugs all around. I decide at this point to have a couple of pictures with Hands Off Gretel and leave them to mingle with the people who have turned out on this rainy Manchester night to see them. Time to get a drink at the bar and check out the bands that were starting up downstairs.
Stephanie Arteaga is a post-graduate student studying and blogging about the UK and Spanish Alternative Music scene and women in music as 'Marina is Red'. She is one of the original 1990's Riot Grrrls who plays a Rickenbacker Bass and screams very loudly.
Twitter: @marinaisred Instagram: @marina.is.red Website: www.marinaisred.com Facebook: @marinaisred