Interview: Casual Sex on the benefits of winging it
With a new single out on Moshi Moshi and an album on the horizon, we sit down with Casual Sex to discuss the Glasgow band's past, present and why winging it can yield the best results
Granted it’s usually intentional, but some band names make innuendo nigh impossible to dodge – Throbbing Gristle (snigger!); Helmet (tee hee!); The Strokes (OK, that’s enough…). The latest act of naughty nomenclature to trigger titters is Glasgow-based four-piece Casual Sex – a straight-up mono entendre that’ll leave the bashful sheepishly clearing their search history after every Googling.
So, lest smut run rampant, we’ll get it out of our system upfront: recently, The Skinny has been getting into Casual Sex. In fact, The Skinny finds the sounds of Casual Sex most enjoyable. So much so, that The Skinny decided a first-hand introduction to Casual Sex was in order. “I think when we picked the name we kind of knew that, well, obviously we’d get some kind of jokes,” says vocalist, guitarist and Casual Sex-instigator Sam Smith (known in a former life as Mother, of disbanded art-punks Mother and the Addicts). “I suppose with a lot of people, you say it to them, they go ‘hahaha’ and you’ve got their attention, so it serves its purpose at that level. My sister hates it though,” he laughs. “She’s a mother of two young children. She said ‘Sam, why can’t you call a band something nice like The Village, which I think sounds bloody creepy… So yes, puns around the name are always taken in good humour, but we just hope that when people eventually get over the ‘ho ho, Casual Sex!’ reaction, they’ll actually listen to us.”
There’s plenty of incentive to do so. Across their slim-but-ace catalogue of available tracks, the band have synthesised a thrilling mix of sounds, including rockabilly, post-punk, glam rock and shades of dub-indebted new wave in the Police/Clash mould. This medley is reflective of the diversity of tastes amongst the members (in addition to Sam, Edward Wood on guitar, Chris McCrory on drums and Peter Masson on bass), with dozens of acts and scenes dropped into conversation across our interview: from Sparks to PiL; Detroit electro to northern soul. Their tunes present a rich soup of influences, recut in vibrant ways: from the crisp space-surf of North to the strutting, sleazy come-on of We’re All Here Mainly for the Sex; the spidery guitars and motorik rhythms of National Unity to the disco-tinted groove of The Bastard Beat. Lean, arch and assured, the band’s appeal is immediate and infectious.
Casual Sex began life as a series of demos that Sam had worked on with colleague Emily MacLaren, a fellow engineer at The Green Door recording studio in the city’s West End. “We just muddled it together really,” says Sam, “and afterwards she was like ‘you’ve got a body of work here, it’d be a shame not to get a band together.’” Ed was brought in first, initially to do a drum session but soon switching to his six-stringed comfort zone. Chris and Peter, meanwhile, came into the fold via a course they were both enrolled on at Green Door.
“Sometimes I do just make stuff up…” - Sam Smith
“When I was in the studio doing my session, someone let me hear what he was working on,” says Peter, “and then basically, whenever I’d see Sam out I’d be like ‘oh come on, let me come and play guitar.’” With that corner already covered, the position of bassist was offered instead. “I just said ‘aye’ and then learned really quickly,” says Peter. “I could play guitar, and imagined it would be about the same, but I remember at the first practices my fingers were getting really sore but I’d kid on they weren’t…”
Almost immediately, Casual Sex shifted from being purely an outlet for Sam’s solo ideas to a fully-fledged collaborative affair. “As I started working with these guys, the majority of what I’d done on my own got pushed aside,” says Sam. “Originally, Ed was just coming in to learn the parts, but very quickly I thought ‘actually, this is fucking boring, all this stuff’s really old.’”
As a result, “warm-up sessions became writing sessions,” with new material coming together fluidly. “One of the keys to our writing,” reckons Ed, “is we’ve got such a strong rhythm section – like, Chris can pretty much play any style of drumming, whether he likes the style or not. So Pete will throw out a bass line and Chris will immediately pick up on the style, and then it gets embellished with guitars and Sam just drops lyrics on it – it seems to flow like that every time. Plus, our rehearsal room is a studio, so when an idea gets formulated it’s really quickly recorded and set in stone. I’d say that the majority of the tracks we’ve done in the last few years have been written and recorded in the same day.”
Ed credits Sam’s foundational material as key to this healthy creativity. “The narratives of Sam’s early songs have pretty much been the platform for everything up to now,” he states. “There’s a definite theme. Speaking for Sam, the majority of the songs are about past relationships and, well, casual sex…” He pauses, allowing Sam time to interject. “Not always...” the singer counters. “Sometimes I do just make stuff up…”
New single Stroh 80 certainly seems to have a few near-the-knuckle truths at its core, however. “It’s a very brutally honest track,” says Sam. “There are people that at times think they know what it’s about, and I just kind of have an interior cringe.” If there’s a line between being honest and being a little too honest, Sam’s walking it gingerly. “Those are the trials and tribulations of dating people who write songs – the good stuff, sadly, is the stuff where you go, ‘I shouldn’t really write that, oh wait that works…’”
The track – a lascivious blend of wiry guitar, louche lyrics and handclaps – is available now as a limited edition 7”, released as part of Moshi Moshi’s singles club and due to receive a formal launch later this month at Nice 'N' Sleazy. The night will be hosted by Mao Disney, a branch of Glasgow promoters/label/arts collective We Can Still Picnic with whom the band has a “really good relationship.” Run by brothers Bjorn and Erik Sandberg (of Wake the President), We Can Still Picnic have put out Casual Sex songs in the past, and Sam says the band are “still very much involved” with the WCSP network. Indeed, later this year Casual Sex will again tour with Wake the President and fellow picnickers POST – an arrangement that has some obvious logistical advantages (i.e. shared costs) but which seems just as driven by mutual enthusiasm for each other’s work.
When it comes to the launch gig, we ask whether the sense of occasion creates any additional pressure, or if, from their point of view, it will just be like any other show. “It is a bit more pressure, yeah,” says Sam, “because you do get a bit more profile – and of course, as soon as you put something out to the public there are expectations, so you naturally think ‘oh shit, don’t fuck it up’… But I think the main thing is, if you feel that pressure, to just keep on doing it, keep on enjoying it.” Chris agrees. “We’ve put in so much work over the years, and I mean, we could be all rock star about it, but it’s nice just to get any sort of recognition. And that may make you nervous – it might, you know, put additional pressure on us – but ultimately, it’s just really great that people appreciate things that we’ve worked hard on.”
Having in-band producers and access to a full studio and mastering suite means that Casual Sex are ahead of the curve when it comes to putting together an album, with enough tracks for two already in the can. You’d think that might allow them to ease off the accelerator a little, but already they’re anticipating the next, hopefully more extended, period of writing: in an ideal world, two weeks in a cottage in the south of France with an 8-track recorder (“I just remember seeing footage of Brian Eno’s studio and thinking, ‘You lucky bastard’…” says Sam), though they’d settle for anything longer than the odd evening here and there. “But then again,” Sam ponders, “if you give a band too much time and you take away a certain amount of pressure, people just dig in. They start overthinking, and before you know it you’ve had six weeks in the studio and done nothing.” He stops and reflects. “Of course, there’s an argument that bands should never own their own studio for the same reasons…”
In that case, received wisdom can do one: for Casual Sex, the regular recording time afforded by Sam’s day job is paying major dividends, and we look forward to hearing further fruits of their labours later in the year. In the meantime, we take Casual Sex outside to have their photographs taken: first up against a wall, and then down an alley. Oh, grow up…