Blood Red Shoes’ Steven Ansell on Chemistry, Honesty, and “Musical Love at First Sight”
By Lauren Johnson
It’s Friday, May 25th and Steven Ansell and Laura-Mary Carter from England’s energetic alternative rock band, Blood Red Shoes, have just flown across the pond, returning home to their country after an epic month-long tour across the U.S. and Canada with fellow UK band, The Fratellis. Blood Red Shoes – whose name allegedly came from a pair of white dancing shoes that Ginger Rogers had turned a bloody red after practicing hard for a role with Fred Astaire – will take a few days’ break before turning out some new music and hitting up some homeland festivals.
If, like me, you were recently introduced to Blood Red Shoes on their North American tour, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say I’ve never quite seen a performance as instantaneous or as magnetic as their recent show at Brooklyn Steel on May 16. The powerful duo brought so much energy and passion to the stage that I found myself unable to look away, moving closer to take in as much of the experience as I possibly could. Because that’s precisely what Steven and Laura-Mary create with their intensely powerful one-drum-one-guitar-two-person band – an experience that moves beyond a concert, where the music sticks with you for the hours, days, even weeks after the event.
Because such an immediate reaction to new music is rare, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Steven Ansell, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists of Blood Red Shoes, for an exclusive phone interview. Let it be known that Steven was awesome – not only a kind, interested, and generally funny person, but also generous with his time – he literally stopped during the middle of a road trip to their show in Atlanta to have this conversation with me!
Q: Hi Steven! Thank you for taking the time to speak with Hedonist/Shedonist, I know you’re busy wrapping up your North American tour with The Fratellis and getting ready to head home shortly. I’d love to hear more about your musical background. When did you start learning to play music and when did you begin to develop your passion?
A: We both started when we were kids, really – I mean not in the form that we’re doing it now. Both of us were wanting to do it since we were young, but we didn’t meet until we were teenagers. And then, we actually learned to play our instruments by playing together. But yeah, both of us were just kinda singing and stuff, just hanging out, playing music together.
Q: When did you guys have that “Aha!” moment where you went “Yes, we were meant to play together, we should start our own band”?
A: Oh, the first time we played music together. It was immediate. Completely immediate. I guess some people kind of have a love at first sight…we kind of had a musical romance at first sight. Very quick, very quickly, like immediate – Laura was like “Oh I’m playing guitar” and I was like “I wanna play drums – I’ve never tried it, but I’d like to try it” [laughs]. We got in a room and played and just straight away it was like something just clicked, and you just kind of know.”
Q: You can definitely feel that as an audience member.
A: Yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to be!
Q: Can you describe Blood Red Shoes’ songwriting process? Is one of you primarily responsible for songwriting and the other for lyrics, or is it a little bit of both?
A: It just sort of changes you know, we don’t really have any rules. We basically just do everything together. So even if Laura, for example, brings in a song and she’s like “Okay, I’ve got this whole idea,” I’ll usually sit with it and then I’ll be like “Eh, you could change these words, or you could mess with this,” and we’ll kind of play it out a couple of times until we can kind of kick it into shape together. So sometimes one of us initiates more than the other one, but everything always goes through this kind of filter of each other. And then in terms of lyrics, usually it depends on who’s singing, but again, sometimes, one of us will write most of the lyrics to the song, and then we’ll go, “Actually, maybe there’s something there if you took it” and we’ll just swap it. We’ve been doing this for like 13 years as a band, we have a kind of level of trust and intuition with each other, where neither of us gets upset or offended and neither of us are precious about what we make, we just share everything. So it’s so easy to just kind of throw an idea out, and if it doesn’t work, we’re like “Eh, fuck it,” or change the words…it’s always kind of the two of us working on something. I think that’s how it needs to be. When there are only two people, I don’t understand how it could be any other way – otherwise one of you is always going to feel left out. It would be really weird. In a band where there’s like five people and one guy writes the songs or whatever, that kinda makes sense. When there’s two of you, you kinda both need to be equal the whole time….well, that’s what we do, anyway.
Q: It’s great to have that kind of honesty where you can voice your opinion without somebody getting offended, and then feeling like you have to compromise on quality to avoid hurt feelings.
A: Right. Yeah, I mean it takes a bit of time to get there, but we’ve been through that bit where if one of us told the other one to change the lyrics, we used to get shitty, but that was years ago, we got past that.
Q: Speaking of years ago…you guys have been playing together since 2004! What are some changes you guys have made since the early days, and what are some of the constants that have remained throughout Blood Red Shoes’ tenure as a band?
A: We’ve changed a lot in that we’ve learned a lot musically – I mean we literally couldn’t play, we physically didn’t know our instruments, we were just making a lot of noise. I think the constant thing the whole time, and it’s still there – and like you said, you saw it when we played – is that we have some sort of chemistry, and it’s funny ’cause if you met us, we’re like completely opposite beings, besides the fact that there’s one male, one female. But personality wise, we’re the opposite in almost every way. It’s kinda hilarious how different we are, yet when we play music, it just works, we just connect. It’s really strange. And that constant is still there, if it wasn’t we wouldn’t still be doing it. It is a strange thing, you wouldn’t put us together. You’d see us in a room and be like, ‘Those two, no way,” and then we pick up instruments and we play and something really grows…and I kinda like it that way.
Q: Switching to a more technical question…when you play the drums, you really go at it – I mean, you’re like pounding away – yet your singing voice is unwavering. How do you do that?
A: Oh, well, by doing it a lot [laughs]. People ask me that a lot, and that is just practice, there’s really nothing more than that. When we started, I would basically sing the drum part, so everything I’d hit, I would sing exactly the same rhythm, and there wasn’t much melody. And then I tried to get better at it, and then you kinda figure it out [laughs]. I mean people play guitar and sing, it just takes a bit more time to sort of get a feel for it. The only problem part is you gotta figure out where to breathe, because when you’re drumming you use lots of oxygen, and when you’re singing you breathe it out a lot, and you’ve got to figure out which bits you can take massive gasps of air so you don’t pass out. It’s a bit like doing a sport, and trying to sing at the same time. It does take a bit of work. Not that many people do it, so it stands out to people who ask me that question, but it’s not as hard as it looks.
Q: What’s up next on the roster for Blood Red Shoes?
A: So we’re on the way to Atlanta right now, and then we fly back to the UK, and then we’ve got about a week gap, and then we have some British festivals. Those are actually the first shows that we’ve got in our own country this year. And then we also have a whole lot of new music. We just had a single called God Complex come out, and then we’ve got another single coming out in July – I think – yeah, July. I’m not too good at that stuff [laughs]. So basically we kinda have a lot of songs coming out over the course of this year and then we’re hoping to be back here in September. That’s the plan, September or October, for our next round of US touring.
Q: Is it different to play for a US audience than it is to play for a British or European audience? Does it have a different feel?
A: Yeah, it does, it’s different in different countries, generally, and I find it different in different areas of the States. I think generally over here people are a bit more immediate in their reaction than our country, and I feel like especially for our kind of music as well it’s quite kind of difficult, that like even if you don’t know us you can see us and you can get a hand on what we’re making, and I think people react quite quickly here, compared to England. And then some cities more than others. I think of it here as a bit more of a pure audience, because there’s like an emotional response that’s very fast here, you guys tend to be not that –you’re not that shy in this country, compared to where we’re from. I feel like we play here and if people like it, you know about it immediately, whereas in England, no one wants to be the first one to dance, no one wants to be the first one to scream, everyone’s a little kind of awkward, a little reserved, so the reaction is more stilted, and slower, and a bit more thought out. Whereas here, you play a show, you get the fuck out, if people like it, you know about it straight away, it’s very quick. And like that, for us, that’s actually much better. If everybody suddenly reacts and makes a lot of noise, you know that it’s great.
Q: I think that makes perfect sense given the stereotypes around both of our respective cultures.
A: [Laughs] Yeah I know, I know, that does sound really sort of cliché, doesn’t it? A lot of English bands notice this, that it’s more fun playing playing here, that it’s much more…yeah I use the word pure, because it just feels very kind of authentic, very emotional, where it’s not just thought out, it’s just an instinctive response.
Q: Glad to hear it – that means you’ll be back again soon for another tour! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. Looking forward to catching Blood Red Shoes again in September!
A: Yeah, I’m just going to get back in the car, I’m in this rest area in the middle of nowhere.