Good Bad Thing: PINS interview
PINS guitarist Lois McDonald reflects on recording their Bad Things EP and working with Iggy Pop
Our Friday evening call with Lois McDonald, guitarist from Manchester five-piece PINS, comes at a potentially convenient time for her. She’s currently stuck in a splitter van with her bandmate Kyoko Swan on the long drive back from London, after a trip down to play with a few friends. Speaking to us from somewhere near Chapeltown, we express our hopes that the pair surely aren’t far from home by now.
“I know, but we set off at like 12!” McDonald laughs. “It really is crawling. You’d feel differently if you were here, I think.”
Committing to thankless hours on the road shows a certain degree of dedication, a trait that has led to PINS gaining such a sharp reputation. Since forming in 2011, the band have become a Manchester staple, with noisy surf-rock guitars and cavernous drums marking their two albums to date (2013’s Girls Like Us and 2015’s Wild Nights), which saw them memorably opening for Sleater-Kinney on the Olympia-formed legends’ comeback tour.
Now, following a recording stint way in the Scottish Borders, PINS are set to release a new five-track EP, Bad Thing, at the end of March. It's a record which McDonald calls a "bridge-the-gap situation" ahead of their soon-to-be-finished third full length.
“We went there to do a bit of writing and we took all the gear to record, like a tape deck,” McDonald explains. “I think the plan was to do some new demos or something like that but we started recording some of the tracks we’d already done and they sounded really good, actually: good enough to put out.
“We wanted to put out an EP because [the songs] sounded a bit different to what we’ve done before and they all fit together really well. We just thought, ‘Forget the plan. Let’s put these out as a little EP,' maybe so you can hear some of the new sounds we’re using.”
Bad Thing was recorded over the course of a few weeks in the rural village of Ettrickbridge, seven miles from the nearby town of Selkirk. Despite our expectations of endless moors secreted in eerie mist, à la James Bond film Skyfall, McDonald says that the reality was actually a lot more dull, with the surrounding area blessed with grazing cows and, by the sounds of it, not much else.
“Yeah, there was just nothing there at all and the most interesting thing you could do was to walk up the road,” she reminisces. “But you wouldn’t get anywhere; you’d just get to a point where you had to turn around and go back!”
The cottage itself also presented its own challenges to the recording process, with the walls of the rickety house being so thin that the band were forced to be silent in adjacent rooms while individual members were recording. “If it was something through an amp, or a vocal or whatever… Obviously, [we] didn’t go out,” McDonald laughs. “Just sitting still, playing Scrabble as quietly as possible.”
However, McDonald is careful not to shoot poor Ettrickbridge down, insisting that the trip offered isolation and time together, and gave the band room to experiment with new electronic sounds like drum pads, along with the tons of pedals and synths they’d taken up north with them. “I don’t know if it’s from being in the middle of nowhere, but because we had a bit more time, we were able to mess around with it, layer loads of stuff on there and just try different sounds.”
That experimentation certainly seems to have lent itself to the mysterious mood present on Bad Thing, from latest single All Hail’s psychedelic stoner-rock and the haunting sing-along thump of the title track to the regretful In Nightmares which ends with electric guitar searing in the distance, almost as if a ghost of itself.
We’re particularly intrigued by the EP’s first single Aggrophobe: a mystic bass-led stomp with vocals by none other than the inimitable Iggy Pop, where his brooding spoken word verses eventually combine with the band for a mantra-like chorus: 'So many actions, so many voices…’
“We recorded it in Scotland and when we finished it, Anna [Donigan, PINS’ bassist] did the vocal, but because it’s a bit of a word dump, a bit more unusual, we thought it would be cool to get someone else to read it,” McDonald explains. “He was the first choice, really, for all of us, even though it seemed a bit crazy at the time. We spoke to our manager about the best way of trying to get in touch with him – we wrote a letter which I think his manager gave to him, which just asked him if he wanted to be involved.”
The band didn’t think that Pop would reply but a few weeks later he responded, eventually sending his recorded vocals along with a neat little ident, with PINS’ first listen taking place over a mobile phone while they were on tour. “We were all sat around in soundcheck listening off the phone, like, ‘Oh my God, this is so weird!’” McDonald says. “It was mad.”
The video for Aggrophobe, partly filmed in Manchester venue Gullivers, has a satisfyingly neo-noir feel, featuring the band backstage along with shots of a burlesque show in front of red drapes in a way that immediately evokes David Lynch’s hallucinogenic hallmarks. The video forms part of a full-length film for the EP, with the All Hail video now out and the remaining segments set to come.
“We wanted to be a bit dreamy – going between heady dreams and really bad nightmares, like you’re on a really bad trip or something like that,” McDonald teases. “I think as the other videos come out it’ll give a bit more context for it…”
We pick up on that recurring theme of Bad Thing, one which shows up in the track In Nightmares and a delightfully watery cover of Joy Division’s Dead Souls – singer/guitarist Faith Holgate had suggested giving the latter a try as they recorded, feeling that it fit with the EP’s tone. It’s a bold move for a Manchester band to cover such influential local progenitors, but McDonald insists that the band didn’t feel any pressure, having confidence in their new direction.
“I don’t think we really felt under any pressure but I think we’d have known while we were playing it,” McDonald says, referencing the song’s similarity to some of PINS’ older songs like LUVU4LYF and Girls Like Us. “The sounds are more like that, but because of the drum pads and the electronics, the keys and stuff, we also had more new sounds that we’re working on as well. It just felt like a really good track to put in.”
With plenty of songs demoed for LP number three, PINS set off on a headline tour across the UK and Europe in March and April, and are planning to try some of them out before committing them to tape. McDonald highlights the band’s growing desire to combine the solitary nature of demoing with the more spirited live experience in order to capture the best possible essence of themselves.
“We used to play everything just live and go with the best take and then maybe layer the vocals on the top or have an extra guitar line or whatever,” she explains. “Now we’ll still do that for some songs but we’re a bit more open to tracking it. It’s just good to be able to play around with sounds a bit – and have the confidence to do that – rather than doing everything together as a unit because you feel more confident as five rather than doing it on your own.”
McDonald promises a mixture of old, new and unreleased songs during their upcoming headline shows, before an emphasis on the bangers when they support Maxïmo Park in May. And so we leave PINS on the road, facing the slow crawl back to Manchester. With many more nights in the van ahead of them this spring, one hopes the ride will not be a bad thing for them, but rather a good one.
Bad Thing is out now, Pins play Broadcast, Glasgow, 14 Apr; Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 15 Apr.