Interview: Hands Off Gretel

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Photos: Kimberly Bayliss

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?!

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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.

Connect with Hands Off Gretel at:
Facebook: facebook.com/handsoffgretel
Twitter: twitter.com/HandsOffGretel
Web: handsoffgretel.co.uk

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

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Interview: get yer Hands Off Gretel

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Sean McAvinue/ Laura Moakes/ Lauren Tate/ Danny Pollard

Those who have taken an interest in the rock, metal and alternative music scene in and around Yorkshire of late will have heard the name of Lauren Tate. More importantly, they will also have heard her extraordinary singing voice.

A soulful instrument powered by impassioned songwriting, Tate’s musical talents, thoughtful approach and impressive work ethic have ensured millions of YouTube views of her cover videos and original material as well as the attention of pop music moguls.

But Tate has continued to beat her own drum and carve out her own path, taking a DIY approach to her music and remaining true to her vision for herself and her band. As the woman herself says: “Imagine it’s your baby, that’s what I do… and I would never sell my baby.”

Tate has now launched her new outfit, Hands Off Gretel, pulling together everything she has learned over recent years in to a group with their feet grounded in the 90’s alternative rock scene, but their eyes set firmly on the future.

For those who may not yet be familiar, tell us a little bit about Hands Off Gretel and how you came together.

Hands Off Gretel are a four piece alternative band that came together in October 2014. I formed it after the backing band, supporting me as a solo artist literally fell apart after my guitarist fell down the stairs, just before we were about to record our first video, breaking his hand! The rest of the band wanted to carry on and replace him for the rest of the gigs we had planned, but I just couldn’t do that, so I waited for him to mend.

I began to realise I was ready for something completely new. The EP I wrote had been very important to me and reflected how I felt at the time, but I found performing it live lacked the excitement and the fun I wanted to have on stage. I wanted an exciting project with brand new songs I’d wrote from a more upbeat lively place in me. I picked up the electric guitar and started to write a completely new sound, it just felt right to start a band and start all over again.

Lauren, what drove the transition to a full band from your solo material under your own name?

I recorded my first ever EP My Reflection and built a band around that, playing the songs that had already been recorded. I am a big believer in things happening for a reason and Sean falling down the stairs changed everything for us! I’d started writing new music just waiting for the moment I could leave Lauren Tate and start up this new project of mine. As soon as I did that, a massive weight was lifted and I was creatively happy again.

As you started recording together as Hands Off Gretel did you have an idea or vision of how you wanted your music to sound?

From recording the demos at home myself, without noticing, I’d got a pretty solid vision in my head. I sat with the producer Pete Thompson of Flat Wave studios for hours and hours, days at a time because I felt so confident in the sound I wanted to hear. I probably drove him mad, but I couldn’t let go of my vision, I pushed it hard and now I listen to the exact thing I wanted. It’s perfect.

Has the writing and recording process differed at all for the band vs. your solo material?

I write all the songs, I work best that way. I like to really think about what I’m writing, I can let it flow and jam around but I always find the best songs I’ve wrote have been the ones I’ve worked at alone in my room, that hasn’t changed. The recording process was a lot quicker having musicians around me learning new songs, but since recording my solo EP I’ve become much clearer on how I want it to sound. It wouldn’t have taken half as long as it did if I hadn’t been so driven to hear what was in my head. The process hasn’t been that different, I think it’s just me that’s been different this time.

Can you tell us a bit about your three new tracks, “Be Mine”, “My Toy” and “Other Town”? Are there specific stories behind them? What influenced the music and lyrics?

The song “Be Mine” was the first of the three I wrote. It’s kinda’ about not knowing what you want, being confused, not wanting to give too much to a person, but at the same time wanting the person to be only yours. It’s about being quite mean, being damn confusing and misleading, which is something that a lot of people are towards others but daren’t admit. I admit it though.

“My Toy” is about wanting to have someone, like a little girl owns her doll. The song has several different meanings, sometimes it’s a person I see, sometimes it’s more innocent and I’m actually talking to my toys in my room at night when nobody else is there. That song is my own little fantasy world.

“Other Town” is a damn fun song to play and sing, it’s about the start of it all really, moving forward and letting go, it’s about feeling good and being positive. I like being the happy Lauren.

Are the tracks indicative of any forthcoming album do you think?

I really like the sound we have with the three songs, the rest are in that vain with some songs being more punk and fast, others being softer and more sweet and the rest heavily soaked in grunge sauce, we are covering all bases, there’s a lot of dynamic going off. I’m dying to hear them on an album!

You mention in the Hands Off Gretel bio that you ‘look up to female musicians with integrity and attitude that don’t rely on overly-sexualised imagery’. Can you tell us who has inspired you in that regard, how they’ve influenced you and why you consider them important?

I have been massively inspired by Kathleen Hanna Of Bikini kill, Julie Ruin and Le Tigre, after watching her documentary The Punk Singer I was just in awe of the powerful women in that scene. I watched the performances of girls screaming and shouting about rape and things girls shy from and I tingled and tingled shouting “Yes!” at the screen.

I read Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus and once again I had that feeling. I love seeing women who aren’t afraid of the world out there and all it’s opinions on them, it makes me feel strong seeing them because I am just a girl too and I can be just as powerful as anyone.

Hands Off Gretel 004You’ve said that L7’s Bricks Are Heavy is one of your favourite albums but that you sometimes feel cheated that you weren’t around at the time that bands like L7 were first on the scene. Are you stoked that L7 are back together and playing live again?! Can we expect to see you at this year’s Download singing along to their set?!

Oh my god, I couldn’t believe it when I found out. I’m awaiting their tour dates. Babes in Toyland have also come back and I’m seeing them in Manchester. It feels like the perfect time for Hands Off Gretel… Heres my chance to play a show with the women that I thought had died 25 years ago.

How did you discover the music that you love such as the 90s Riot Grrl scene? Can you remember the first time you heard the styles and sounds and thought “Yes! THIS is my music!”?

Being only 17 it took me a while to find these women, nobody introduced me to them. I just had to search and search until I found it. I found The Distillers first, they were my favourite band for ages, I felt the coolest girl in school listening to Brody. Then I found Hole, and I was instantly addicted. Musically and vocally I heard the closest sounding band to what I was trying so long to describe. I searched and searched for more, and they all ended up being from the 90s scene, then I found Riot Grrl and fell in love.

You’ve launched Hands Off Gretel with three free tracks and have previously used crowd-funding to help get your music recorded and released. Do you think that the major-label model has gone the way of the Dodo, or do you think the more independent approach just suits your mindset and music?

I love doing it all myself. It’s cheaper, but way harder. Everything you see has been done by either me, my mum or the band. It’s the cutest team ever. There’s so much freedom doing it yourself, which is great if you know what you want, not so great if you have no ideas. But I’m full of ideas so the independent approach is perfect for Hands Off Gretel. I am indeed a megalomaniac.

Who did you work with for the video of “Be Mine”?

Ah, that video was so fun to shoot. My Mum videoed it all for us! We all new little about what we were doing, or how to do it, but we did it and it looks great, just like I wanted. My mum rocks!

The visuals and colours in the video seem to these eyes to be reminiscent the early 90s alternative scene – kind of hyper-real and richly coloured. Were you deliberately trying to invoke that style of music video?

Yeah! I wanted it bright and vivid, that’s all I kept saying when we where thinking of ideas for the video. I imagined this colourful look, like something out of Sesame Street.

Now that the band is announced and you have new material out, what would success look like for Hands Off Gretel? What would you like to see happen?

I want to play and play, 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. I want to play festivals, record an album, make more videos and eventually tour and be greeted every night with happy faces in the crowd feeling as awesome as we do stood on the stage. I want to take this band all the way, wherever that is.

You’ve previously turned down approaches by the likes of Simon Cowell’s A&R team and have instead spent time developing your own style and sound. Do you think young musicians are given enough opportunity to develop their own talent these days or the space to find their own musical voice?

Doing your own thing will always be much harder. Things get offered to you when you’re young and unsure and when something big comes along you instantly see both success and failure and it’s scary to know what to do. To do your own thing and get somewhere you just have to keep doing it, believe one day it will work out, and push and push your own project, imagine it’s your baby, that’s what I do… and I would never sell my baby.

Which new artists or bands – male or female! – are you listening to at the moment? Who should we be paying attention to?!

Only recently I found two girl bands I really like, and I couldn’t believe it… they aren’t from the 90s and they still actually exist! One is a three piece all girl grunge band called Valentiine and the second is another all girl three piece The Coathangers, those girls are so cool. I’m also a massive fan of Allusondrugs, a five piece all male grunge band from Castleford, they are the most captivating live band I’ve ever seen.

What next for Hands Off Gretel? Where can we see you live in the coming weeks and months?

Our first gig is a local one at Barnsley Rock and Blues club on the 7th March, the event is also International Women’s Day so that’s pretty damn cool. You can check out all our upcoming gig dates on our website, www.handsoffgretel.co.uk!

Check out Hands Off Gretel’s video for their track “Be Mine” below:

You can listen to Hands Off Gretel’s three new songs and download them via the Soundcloud stream below:


Hands Off Gretel will play the following upcoming live shows in 2015:

07th Mar: Barnsley Rock & Blues Club
03rd Apr: Frog & Parrot, Sheffield
02nd May: Venue TBC – Barnsley
29th May: Plug, Sheffield
05th Jun: Verve Bar, Leeds
11th Jul: Beanfest, Rotherham
18th Jul: Venue TBC, Camden

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