The Vegan Leather on anxiety, escapism and their debut album

We chat to The Vegan Leather's Gianluca Bernacchi and Marie Collins about anxiety, escapism and their debut album, Poor Girls / Broken Boys

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 16 Oct 2019
  • The Vegan Leather

The opener to Poor Girls / Broken Boys, French Exit, is a perfect summation of the jittery, angular dance-pop journey you’re about to go on with The Vegan Leather’s debut album. An ode to getting the hell out of Dodge, its social anxiety theme is juxtaposed against a strutting, posturing beat. Just the thing to demonstrate the FOMO inherent in nights out in this time of social media and perfectly curated feeds.

With the disco ball’s shards never far from mind, are The VL dancing through the pain or dancing to forget? "We want to be seen as an escapism band," says singer/guitarist Gianluca Bernacchi. "You listen to the album and you can get really into it, the themes all flow together. For a wee 45 minutes, it’s this weird jilted world that’s a bit real. But then put it down and come back out of it."

This escapism theme is one echoed by co-vocalist Marie Collins, who cites music – both playing and listening – as being a lifeline for her in terms of keeping an even keel mental health-wise. All four band members hail from Paisley, whose industrialism and small Scottish town vibes meant there was little to do bar, luckily for The Vegan Leather, open mic nights.

"That makes it really easy to go into a depression or anxiety," says Collins. "But it was the music that brought us together and that’s given us all sorts of amazing opportunities. It’s not tangible – you can’t really put your finger on what it does to you – but I hope our music can maybe do that to someone in the way bands have done that for us."

Perhaps it's this sense of escaping from a pre-written fate that makes The Vegan Leather so electric. Their live shows pulse with tension and sparks, with the exuberant Bernacchi at the front; Collins dipping in and out like a devil/angel on his shoulder and drum/bass kingpins Duncan Carswell and Matt McGoldrick keeping everything driving ever forwards. How, then, to capture this very ephemeral essence and lock it into an album? They credit producer Paul Savage to a certain extent.

"I say that Paul literally taught me how to sing," says Bernacchi. "He taught me to go crazy, but to go crazy really quietly. It actually does sound much better." Collins adds: "To just go for it, even if it’s out of tune. Those were some of his best takes."

Savage encouraged the band to have Carswell and McGoldrick play live in the studio together for a couple of days, laying down all of the drum and bass backbone so that Collins and Bernacchi could come in later and experience the feeling of playing near-live. "It set a really good platform for us to go and add more stuff on top," says Bernacchi. "It is a little bit more visceral and a little bit more alive."

Poor Girls / Broken Boys has been a long time coming for The Vegan Leather. Most of the songs were written within the past couple of years, but some date as far back as 2012. They’ve spent a lot of time honing their live show craft via coveted support slots, such as appearing alongside Paolo Nutini at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in 2016, and gigs at London’s Roundhouse and Glasgow's Barrowland Ballroom. It became clear an album was the next move.

"That came with a bit of anxiety as well," admits Bernacchi. "In the latter half of 2018, we only played one or two gigs. Obviously we were doing work pretty much every day on the album, but it got to the point where we were all thinking, 'Are we actually doing anything? Because we’re not playing any gigs.' It was fine, though – we’d been gigging for the whole four-and-a-half years before that."

This is one aspect of what their single The Hit deals with. The concept of 'waiting for the hit' is one most bands can probably relate to, trying to juggle playing live, promoting themselves, releasing singles, finding time to record an album – but for what? With big hits comes commodification and commercialisation – and this is something The Vegan Leather have an ongoing battle with. In a music scene as ripe and fervent as Glasgow’s, there’s always going to be another band to measure yourself against, which isn’t an excellent situation to be in for a band as anxious as The Vegan Leather.

"It is hard sometimes," says Collins. "When you’re a band in the Glasgow scene, you’ve got a lot of peers doing really amazing things. You think, 'Why are we not doing this?' and you can feel a bit bummed out by that. You have to measure your own success. We do all these shows and that’s enough. That’s cool. If you’re going to keep striving to be better, you’re never going to be happy, I think. We’ve recorded an album. That’s amazing."

The other side of The Hit is a look at the commodification of women, gender violence and the other more physical definition of 'hit'. Written by Collins, it’s a side-eye at a world that still doesn’t treat women equally, leading to passivity and women being treated as objects of other people’s pleasure. "There are a lot of dark themes," says Collins, "but we wanted to have a message that there’s hope there as well."

Poor Girls / Broken Boys exemplifies the upbeat music and morbid lyrics school of thought; art pop bangers on the outside, the songs linger, sometimes with a sense of beautiful unease. In fan favourite Days Go By, for example, playful 8-bit bloops and whoops become menacing when followed by the stark refrain that 'The days go by / On and on and on / On and on and on / On and on and on / on and.' Closer Zeitgeist begins with the lyrics 'It’s too late, too cruel', and details the horror of a life that’s inextricably laid out ahead of you. This is also, however, where the optimism starts to creep back in; indeed the album ends with the line: 'Still you never quit'.

This seems to be the philosophy The Vegan Leather are espousing on Poor Girls / Broken Boys. For all the fear of dying alone, being stuck at home, feeling forced to have fun, and existential dread, the music is what drags everyone through the rough parts of life. At the heart of Poor Girls / Broken Boys there’s a message of triumph over adversity told through disco guitar, dirty riffs and mirrorball vibes, and the ghostly vocal interplay between Bernacchi and Collins only has our best interests at heart.

Poor Girls / Broken Boys is released on 25 Oct via Midnight Pink / Believe Digital
The Vegan Leather play King Tut's, Glasgow, 2 Nov