Bovine Intervention: An Interview with Cowtown

Feature by Hayley Scott | 24 Aug 2016

One of the many jewels of Leeds' diverse DIY scene, post-punk idiosyncrats Cowtown return with new album Paranormal Romance. Here they share their thoughts on lazy journalism and the harsh lessons of touring

Many people familiar with Leeds' DIY music scene will struggle to remember life before Cowtown. Not because they’ve been around forever (although 12 years is pretty good going), but because the city's musical landscape wouldn’t quite be the same without them. Their songs are weird but high-energy and erratic; everything that’s good about guitar-centric party music. Fun is their main objective, but it's clear that a lot of hard work has gone into it.

The band formed in circumstances typical of Leeds' tight-knit musical community: “I met Shieldsy [aka drummer David Shields] in Wakefield in about 2000, where I moved to go to art school,” explains synth player/singer Hilary Knott. “My course moved to Leeds in the last year so I just kind of took him with me, and I met Nash [singer/guitarist] at a gig in a squat. Cowtown started practising in our cellar and just never stopped. I don't think any of us ever imagined it would become such a big part of our lives at the time. I'm happy about it because I really had no idea what I was doing with myself.”

Cowtown, Leeds and the DIY scene

With persistence come inevitable setbacks. Their recently released fourth album Paranormal Romance was recorded amidst the floods that damaged producer and Hookworms frontman Matt Johnson's Suburban Home studio in the winter of last year. Knott recalls how stressful it was for all involved: “The night of the floods I remember just being totally blown away by how different everything was. There was a river running past the Asda at the bottom of my street that isn't normally there. 

“It was kind of beautiful in a way, but then I saw Nash in a total panic – he said that Suburban Home was totally flooded and the reality of it sunk in. Lots of people lost their homes and businesses for a long time and it was pretty brutal, but in typical Leeds fashion the whole community pulled together and helped each other get back on their feet. There were a fair amount of fundraisers for a while after that. Just witnessing the generosity of people who don't have that much to begin with made me feel really proud.”

Jonathan Nash is similarly enthused by his hometown: “It's just a great place to be creative and learn things and find other people to do that with. It's good for people who want to do things but don't have much money. It's taught me everything I know about DIY and what music's about.

“The DIY scene has a very collaborative, non-competitive vibe and I think that's why the music is of such a high standard,” he explains. “This all happens in other cities too but maybe the geography of Leeds makes it easier, and the affordability of things like living and practising maybe gives us an advantage. Saying that, places like The Audacious Art Experiment in Sheffield and, more recently, places like DIY Space for London prove that a scene can flourish anywhere there are people willing to do the graft.”

While Cowtown are largely celebrated locally, their appeal reaches far and wide. When asked how they’re received outside of Leeds, Knott says: “The DIY music scene is everywhere! Having said that, we mostly play in the UK, and despite how long we've been at it, we often find ourselves playing to new audiences. We've worked really hard to craft songs and sets that will be exciting and interesting to people like us, who like weirdo party music. People who are that way inclined seem to appreciate it.” 

On the subject of favourite Leeds bands, she’s quick with a list of responses: “Crumbs, Game_Program, Mia La Metta, Beards, Guttersnipe, Commiserations, Xam, Bilge Pump, Milk Crimes, City Yelps... there's so many. All the hard-working weirdo spuds who do their own thing; that's what I like.” 

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Although Cowtown have cemented their place in the list of great bands Leeds has spawned over the years, they still remain relatively unknown outside of DIY music scenes. When asked about the Guardian recently referring to them as ‘newbies’, Knott seems surprisingly unfazed: “Journos mostly have to write about things that get sent to them, 'cause that's their job. They need sandwiches like everyone else.” 

Being ignored or misunderstood by the press is a recurring theme, she explains, especially within DIY music: “Anytime there's any kind of documentary about the Leeds music scene, it feels like it's about ten years late to the party and totally missing the point. The world of DIY music is largely undocumented because chasing after press is super-time-consuming, boring and expensive. There's lots of debate about what DIY means, but I like the idea of making art as a form of resistance. From a capitalist perspective it makes no sense as a thing to do with your life. In every other way it makes complete sense.”

Indeed, Paranormal Romance encapsulates everything Cowtown are about, in particular their self-sufficiency and tendency to get friends involved. The artwork was done by Jonathan Wilkinson, aka Idiots Pasture and also of Hookworms. Do these links make DIY easier, we ask? “There's definitely a symbiosis that happens as a result of being part of such a non-competitive, supportive creative community,” says Knott. “I love JW's work because it's funny and unpretentious and colourful. That's what we're going for as a band so it works well together.”

"Brutalism rules when it doesn’t suck"

Perhaps best thought of as Leeds' version of Ohio misfits Devo, the band render us curious about their songwriting – particularly album highlight and live favourite Castle Greyscale: “It's about a building out in Holbeck I used to work in,” says Nash. “It’s a particularly bleak example of brutalist architecture and being there every day was having a detrimental effect on my personality. So it’s about environment affecting a person’s emotional state. I was really down on brutalism for a while as a result but I’m back on board now. Brutalism rules when it doesn’t suck.”

Talk turns to the troubling way in which a lot of men – and some women – write about women in bands, for example using words like 'sassy' and 'feisty' to denote a particular kind of strong and positive attitude, presumably because they see women playing instruments as a novelty. We ask Knott if she’s ever experienced it herself: “I've noticed it for sure, it's super-lazy. I don't feel like I've especially been a victim of it, though. In the early days people used to say that I looked angry or intimidating but as it turns out that’s just what my face does when I'm concentrating really hard.

“I do find that kind of music journalism annoying though – if I'm reading a review it's because I want to know what the band was like so I can decide if I want to listen or not, I don't really care if the singer is 'elfen' or 'exotic'. It just makes me think that person should write fan fiction about girls in bands instead of music journalism.” 

This far into their career, and with Paranormal Romance co-released by Athens, Georgia indie label Happy Happy Birthday To Me, you’d imagine Cowtown would be no strangers to the US. Following recent trouble with the visa process, Knott explains that touring over there is not as easy as it seems, and they still seem understandably dejected by the whole situation: “Basically there's a good reason lots of bands tour on the downsies on tourist visas. The application process is like throwing money into a big hole, while a lawyer dressed like a clown laughs and throws knives at you.” 

It’s not all bad news, though. Long-term fans of San Francisco noisepoppers Deerhoof, Cowtown have since become their regular tourmates, and it’s taught them to take things a little more seriously: “The first time we toured with them Nash nearly had a meltdown,” says Knott. “Basically we got our asses handed to us every night. On the other hand it taught us a lot about how we approach everything as a band and made us try to step up our game. They're the sweetest people and really supportive; watching them play every night is like a dream. I'm a little bit in love with all of them.”

As the interview comes to an end, we're reminded of why every city needs a band like Cowtown. They're the glue to Leeds' DIY infrastructure – it wouldn't collapse without them, but it'd have a large, gaping hole in its backstory.

Paranormal Romance is out now. Cowtown play Stay Fresh Fest at The Deaf Institute, Manchester on 24 Sep, and A Carefully Planned Festival #6, Manchester on 15 Oct