It’s been a remarkable couple of years for Hands Off Gretel, seeing the alt-rock quartet on an upward trajectory worthy of their drive, ambition and – most importantly – superb songs. September saw the release of the Barnsley-based self-described “clungerock” band’s debut album, Burn The Beauty Queen, a harder, heavier collection than HOG’s previous EP and one that saw the band’s new lineup bed in with style.
Currently in the throes of a UK tour, we caught up with Hands Off Gretel songwriter, frontwoman, guitarist and creative powerhouse, Lauren Tate, from the road.
Skin Back Alley: Last time we spoke was about 18 months ago when Hands Off Gretel was still very new. Since then you’ve played a lot of gigs and festivals, released an EP and been through a line-up change. Now your debut album has been released. It seems safe to say that Hands Off Gretel has developed considerably since that last conversation?!
Lauren Tate: Oh yes! Definitely. The past 6 months have been the best months yet! When I told my previous drummer it wasn’t working out just before we recorded our first album I thought we’d really struggle to get Sam (bassist at the time) to the point where he could record a full album on drums knowing he hadn’t even touched a kit for 5 years. Sam literally changed everything. The songs got a lot heavier and I felt so inspired, most of the songs on the album were written about 2 weeks before we went into the studio. Sam stayed on drums and Joe joined us on bass and from our first practice with the new line up I was just so excited, the songs had never sounded better.
What have been some of your favourite moments or highlights in the past year and a half?
Playing the Isle Of Wight festival was a wild one. We were shortlisted from thousands of bands to compete in front of festival organiser John Giddings to win a slot at the festival. We came third place and played the ‘Hey Joe’ stage and it was just so crazy. After we played the show, Sam pulled me into a hug and said “Dude, we just played the Isle Of Wight festival.” And I could feel myself starting to cry because finally I could feel we were rising and I was starting to get everything I’ve ever wanted alongside people I really loved. That was definitely a high point for me!
And what is it with Hands Off Gretel and band members breaking bones?!
Haha! I have no idea, it’s crazy! Some people might believe I’m pushing them all down the stairs… but I’m not. *Evil Laugh* I still cannot believe Sam is playing the whole tour with broken fingers, he’s not even complained once. Part of me thinks he might be faking it so we carry all his drum gear down the stairs for him. Well, Sean will. Joe and I are usually running away at this point with a bottle of wine.
Burn the Beauty Queen has been out for a little while now. What has the reception been like so far?
It’s been amazing! Our fans love it, which is the most important thing. We sold over 700 pre-order copies and heard nothing but praise since. I love that the fans get it, they buy my ‘zines and read my lyrics and I feel like they just understand me so deeply, it’s so wonderful. The bigger radio stations haven’t picked up on us yet though, we are yet to invade, it’s just so damn hard! We got played on Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show ‘Rodney on the Roq’ over in the US and that is so freaking cool cause he broke some of my favourite bands and I feel honoured that he loves HOG!
How did it feel to successfully crowdfund the album, and not only that, but utterly destroy the funding target that you set?
Oh it felt fabulous! I was shy about it because I thought there was no way we’d get to 100%. Once we launched it I went on holiday so I couldn’t even see how it was going until I came home. It killed me! It was always important to me to launch it totally D.I.Y, to let us have full control and remain one-to-one with our fans. They loved it, some people were spending over £200 a time on everything they could to support us and nothing compares to that feeling, knowing your entire fan base has your back and shares your excitement for your new record.
You chose to record the album in Wales. Was there a specific thinking or logic behind the choice of location?
I wanted somewhere secluded, somewhere with lots of space and no distractions. The house was perfect for what I wanted, though it was a risk that it’d sound any good once we started recording. The house was miles away from any shops; we didn’t even have any Internet or signal for 2 weeks! We literally shut the whole world out to work on the record and apart from the vocals to ‘Little Man’ and ‘Plasters’ we recorded everything within the 2 weeks.
You’ve said in the past that P!nk singing Led Zeppelin covers helped turn you on to rock music. You weren’t worried that disappearing into Wales to record your album would result in HoG going ‘Full Zeppelin’ and coming back with an album full of songs about Hobbits?!
Haha! What? You’re telling me you don’t know that all HOG songs ARE about hobbits?!
How important a role has Pete Thompson of Flat Wave studios played in the making of the album?
Pete was so excited about the album right from the start when Sam laid down his drum tracks. He just kept telling me how good it was, telling me how proud he was after watching my transformation as a writer since my early days. Pete and I mixed & produced the album side by side right at the end, bouncing ideas back and forth, head in hands one minute, hands in the air the next. We made the perfect team. I think the best bit was when I made the decision to scrap the original version of ‘Plasters’ and add piano and crazy vocals instead. My friend Alisha Vickers came in and recorded the piano parts and him and I sat and experimented with the song for hours hoping that Sean and Sam would dig the whole ‘Dresden Dolls’ theatrical vibe. BTBQ was the first album Pete had produced and I wouldn’t change a thing, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted and I’m so happy he got to do it.
I caught your set at Barnsley Rock & Blues just before the album launched. I was struck by how focused you all were. Even though that night was a support slot, you owned that room. It was like it was a headline gig for you in more ways than one. Would you say you were a driven or ambitious band?
Yeah I’d call us driven. We all have that same dream within us. We all want to quit our jobs and play music full time and I just love looking around at Joe, Sam and Sean next to me on stage knowing that we are all in the same team fighting for the same spotlight. It’s lovely to know that we are all in the same boat, we are all also just mental. We laugh and argue, we scream at each other and punch each other and then love each other so much. You should’ve seen us on the first leg of the album tour, we got a little bizarre.
When I got to listen to the album, it struck me that there were lots of wonderful complexities within it. Confidence and vulnerability. Punk fury and a kind of intimate singer/songwriter confessional quality. A fairy tale dream but with a dark and twisted heart. Were those kinds of complexities and tensions something you were consciously weaving into the album?
You got it! That’s exactly what I imagine the songs look like. I took a lot of inspiration from fairy tales, they are always made out to be really sweet and innocent but the origins are nearly always awful. The Hansel and Gretel original story is god awful and I loved it because that’s what life feels like to me. The good covering up the bad.
Sonically, the album sounds heavier; fiercer than your previous EP and singles. Was that an intentional shift in sound?
That was from Sam joining the band really. I’ve always pushed HOG to sound heavier with previous members and I got frustrated a lot because it was as though people thought I was just bossy and controlling when I’m constantly saying “We gotta’ sound bigger and better than this.” The drums changed so much in the songs, the harder Sam hit them, the louder I screamed, the faster Sean strummed his guitar. Finally now in the band we are all as mental and loud as each other.
The songs on Burn The Beauty Queen feel more intricate than your previous EP as well; layered vocals and plenty of harmonies. Was that attention to detail a natural progression from EP to album?
I started adding harmonies to nearly everything when we did the album songs. I firstly added them to ‘One Eyed Girl’ and then thought “Oooo I could add it here, and there and everywhere”. I deleted quite a lot off in the final mixes because I did get a little carried away. I had a few weeks before recording the album to do all the pre-production on my mac at home using logic so I had lots of indulgence time to work the sounds out exactly how I wanted them, whereas before with the first EP I didn’t even consider harmonies or fancy vocal things like that.
In your time prior to HoG you’ve turned down approaches by the likes of Simon Cowell’s team. Have you been tempted away from your full-on DIY approach as the band has risen in profile over the past 18 months or so?
Every once in while people approach with these ‘ideas’ and these huge offers and to be honest I’ve never been tempted yet. The second I hear “I’ve got some songs I want you to sing…” I’m instantly turned off because I’ve got some songs too, I haven’t finished saying what I want to say just yet. I’m not strong enough or ready for the big boys to control me just yet, I’m still building myself.
When we last spoke you said that success for you would include “…to play and play and play as many good gigs as we can and build up a live following. I really want to connect with people, I want people to come up to me after a gig and tell me Hands Off Gretel has been something they’ve been waiting for.” Mission accomplished in that regard?
Oh my god yes! You’re right! That is the best feeling, so many people give me their stories each night and I love to listen, I love to connect with them person to person and relate to them. Young girls tell me they have started bands after being inspired by my band and God! I cannot describe to you the fuzzy feeling I get inside me.
What are some of your next milestones as a band? Do you have defined goals in mind?
Next milestone for me is to tour out of the UK. We have so many fans in the USA, and in Germany, France, Spain, all over! I owe it to them to make it over there and play to some different faces. I want to release lots of new music videos too and then on to the next album I guess. You can interview me then as I sit in my yacht drinking Mojito getting my toe nails painted by Simon Cowell as he begs me to become a popstar. Haha!
Hands Off Gretel’s debut album, ‘Burn The Beauty Queen’, is out now. Read our review here.
Hands Off Gretel will play:
Oct 13th: Trillions, Newcastle
Oct 14th: Parish, Huddersfield
Oct 15th: Sanctuary Rock Bar, Burnley
Oct 17th: Krazyhouse, Liverpool (w/Barb Wire Dolls)
Oct 27th: Fulford Arms, York
Oct 28th: Soundhouse, Leicester
Nov 05th: Surya, London (w/BirdEatsBaby)
Nov 11th: Mulberry Tavern, Sheffield
Nov 17th: Nice N Sleazy, Glasgow
Nov 18th: Bannermans, Edinburgh
Nov 24th: Rainbow Venues, Birmingham
Nov 25th: Brain Freeze Fest, Ebbw Vale
Nov 26th: Mothers Ruin, Bristol
Dec 03rd: Rebellion, Manchester
Dec 09th: Lincoln Imp, Scunthorpe
Dec 10th: Chameleon Arts Centre, Nottingham