First published on 12 Apr 2013. Updated on 25 Jun 2013.
Abbe May has never been afraid to shed her skin. When her teenage explorations into Detroit rock’n’roll with renowned live Perth band the Fuzz became too turgid, she released three solo albums that matched her ultra-expressive soul voice with dirty, bluesy guitars. Now, her fourth LP blends mainstream pop with hip-hop and trip-hop for some dark, overtly sexual mood music. (Second single off the rank, 'T.R.O.U.B.L.E.’ has a troupe of wild, lusty girls crawling from a swamp in pursuit of Abbe, in case you were worrying that the upfront lustiness of the rawk albums has been jettisoned with the new sound.)
Abbe... on the new album
You could back this up with a scientific study, but I’m pretty sure that listening to Kiss My Apocalypse releases sex pheromones.
That’s great to hear. That’s exactly what we intended. Probably what you’re picking up on are the themes and the mood of it. The mood of it permeates the music, so I’m writing about an intense, passionate love and heartbreak that I had. I did flip it a little, where I rewrote the actual song ‘Kiss My Apocalypse’ twice. The first time it was really aggressive, it was like (extends middle finger). Then I decided the best way to tell someone “fuck you” is with a real calm smile on your face.
Were you listening to any albums that are notorious for creating that kind of mood?
Try putting on a Portishead record, or a Tricky record. I was at a party just recently, and we put on Portishead after about four hours and everyone starts making out. It’s my preferred music. My producer Sam’s been listening to a lot of Kanye West, and together we love Frank Ocean. I’ve been listening to heaps of Madonna, and some Rihanna, because I think there’s a real mastery in the way those songs are written – I don’t really care if five people wrote them. Madonna’s pretty sexual. Some of her albums in particular, Confessions on a Dance Floor and vintage ’80s Madonna, ‘Get Into the Groove’… that’s almost obscene, which I love.
It’s actually been a real pleasure, being released from that intense and unable-to-laugh-at-itself kind of rock’n’roll – which really pissed me off in the end. I find that really annoying. If the Stones can laugh at themselves then why the fuck can’t some indie band from some corner of the city have a laugh?
What have been the early reactions been to this new sound on your initial short tour?
It was pretty crazy; people just stood, and listened. They seemed to really enjoy it, which was wonderful, but I’ve never had an experience like that –where you’re inviting people in to listen to music that they’ve never heard before, and for them to be so respectful about it. I mean, people still like to shout things out, and I like to shout things back, but they seemed really interested in being taken somewhere new. I expected a lot more: “Where’s your guitar?” but it just didn’t happen.
Before you had a lot of showmanship going on, with the guitar being played behind your head or wielded as a machinegun… how does it feel being up there without your weapon of choice?
I got that all out of my system by doing it for a couple of years. The rock’n’roll thing, I’ve been doing it a lot and it’s fair to say that it’s been done quite a lot. It feels very natural now to actually strip it back.
This is an extremely personal album, bidding someone good riddance.
There’s a real catharsis that you get from writing and recording songs. You’re forced to confront these emotions by putting them into a song, and you’re effectively giving yourself therapy by saying it out loud and trying to form it into something – more beautiful than that disgusting bitterness. I do tend to add more ambiguous elements to it so that it doesn’t necessarily have to just be my story because then it would be really boring, it would just be ten songs of some boring whinging bitch who’s drunk all the time
So if this break-up hadn’t happened, this new sound might never have happened?
No, something else would have happened. Being philosophical about it, if the nasty, bitter end of it hadn’t happened, I’d probably have written an album about being in a really unhappy relationship instead. But then, maybe it’s good to write about a boring, unhappy relationship. That’s probably behind the success of Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’. Everybody goes through that: “Oh my god, you’re still talking about your ex?”
Have you had to retire anyone from the band?
Yeah, retire is a good word. Yeah, we had a drummer recently, who umm… it was a mutual letting go and leaving thing. I’ve been through five drummers since about 2008. You know, I wonder if it’s me or if it’s drummers… no look, it’s one of those things where we have a very specific set up. I like to write my own songs and I don’t particularly want to be pushed around. It just seems like with most drummers that situation comes to a head with them. There’s a theory about drummers actually, that they spend all time their working away really hard at the back of the stage and all they see is the back of the guitarist, the people at the front getting all the applause and the attention, and it ends up grating on them.
But I want to evolve a lot and sometimes you can’t actually do that with the same musicians. You get a very distinct sound out of a set of musicians and you have to move on from that. The only musician I’ve ever stayed with is my brother, because I never get tired of his sort of… his grunge.
A move to Melbourne is afoot later this year. Why are you finally leaving Perth?
I just need a change of scene. To write the next album I need to get out of this space.
Sometimes when you hear an album it’s clearly been recorded in a certain city or part of the world – but you wouldn’t think “Perth” upon hearing your music.
No, I suppose not, but I reckon because of the speed and the availability of other music via the internet now, it’s really hard to actually have anything other than global influence on what you’re making.
Unlike when you first started out, with Perth band the Fuzz.
Yeah absolutely. And also with my solo stuff straight after the Fuzz, the sound was all about whatever record or CD we’d bought at the time, starting with all the classics like Zeppelin and old blues stuff. It was just really all zoned in on one spot, whatever was available. Now I’ll listen to pretty much anything.
It’s difficult to say how music will progress now that it’s so freely available. It could become more homogenised without any regional scenes, but at the same time there will be wider influences flooding in.
There is that risk of it all just mushing into one poo-brown colour. It already happens. And you get that even with the really localised influences – people just ripping each other off. But there are always going to be people really fighting to stick their head out of that brown nest!
Abbe... on the industry
You manage yourself now.
Yes, reluctantly. SGC do my publicity and MGM do distribution and Billions Australia do bookings. They’re all pretty amazing at stepping up, they’ve been great at helping me manage funds and giving me advice. MGM, particularly, really saved the last bit of the record, which was almost impossible to fund, so we were able to get some advance support from them. I wouldn’t have been able to finish the record without it.
Lots of bands – of all levels of success – are going down the route of cutting out the record label.
It can be really hard to find someone who shares your vision. How do you hand over the reins? Because essentially you let a manager just do thing and not have to ask you everything. I’ve never really been able to let that degree of control go. It would be a dream to have someone to do all of that work, because it’s tedious, but I’d hate to wake up and suddenly realise I’ve been turning into something weird or inauthentic.
What do you think is the agenda of most labels these days?
Money. Money money money. Even the smaller indie ones. They’ve got bills to pay and they’re a business essentially, they’re not really a creative hub, they’re moneylenders and networkers. They’re probably the worst loan you can take out – especially if their contact network and their power and reach isn’t worth it. I found their agenda is money first, power and status second. The artist’s needs rarely sits in the top five points of their agenda. It’s money. Which is fine, but that’s the fucking truth of it. I don’t think people realise that many small indie labels, even if they’re not admitting it, aspire to be a big label. It’s capitalism. We all are basically capitalists. It’s not a dirty word, but if you’re pretending you’re not one, that’s a problem.
A lot of the publishing or record companies I meet, it’s all about sniffing around. They’ll ask, “How old are you?” You know – to see how viable your commerciality is and all that kind of stuff. I’ve had a publishing company ask me how commercial I’d be prepared to go, literally those words.
How far will you go for us?
It was a bit foul, you know – they’re a money-making business, which you need on your side because you can be too busy thinking about the music, but it’s also just fucking lame. A lot of people who are in that side of the industry are people who can’t be in a band and so try to get to it that way.
And they’ve got a habit to support.
That’s it, and they love being backstage, you know.
Abbe... on her formative years
What kind of music was playing in your house when you were growing up?
There were several instances where music played a vital part in my understanding of my mother. We’re very close and we’re very similar. The first one it was being unable to sleep and walking out to find my mother watching Rage. Normally she’d be like, “Get back into bed.” This time she just went, “Oh you should watch this.” It was Aretha Franklin’s ‘Freeway of Love’ song and Mum was just loving it. For me, that was a really amazing thing, to see this woman in this video that my mother really admired. It just made me kind of clock in to it and I’ll always remember that. It was my first memory of music.
Mum used to have a bright yellow ’50s convertible VW. It was a shitbox but it was fucking cool. And it had a tape player in it and she had an old rock’n’roll bebop tape. Do you remember that song ‘Let’s Have a Party’? It was a female Little Richard (Wanda Jackson). Mum was into all that stuff and the Stones. Dad was into Zeppelin.
The other thing was my mother’s an Irish woman. My dad would always take us down to the park on a Saturday afternoon, the four of us, and a couple of times we’d come back early and Mum would be in the lounge room with traditional Irish music. I think we gave her shit for it but it was also her private space to have some time away from the kids and she’d be dancing around in the lounge room, dead embarrassed when we’d catch her. There was some connection between her relief and release through music.
There’s always been a real family tie. Only my brother and I are musical, but I think her family has a lot of musicality in it. There are a lot of singers in her family. Those early years as well, my brother got a guitar and I had to have a guitar because he had a guitar. It was a big part of our life.
You grew up in Bunbury, WA… what was that like?
I think Bunbury is place where we can get pulled easily into the mindset that there’s nothing beyond it. It’s a really sunny, beachy, pleasant coastal town, it’s got a bit of a dark underbelly to it in terms of drug culture and organised crime. It’s a really interesting place, there’s also a lot of money there. A lot of big houses a long the coast. But it’s a fucking great place to grow up in, maybe just not so good place to be an adult in. I did half of an arts degree in the time it would take to get two. It was philosophy and literature and all of that, but I was too stoned the whole time. I’d just joined the Fuzz and I was getting inducted into their lifestyle.
How old were you then?
I was 17 when in played my first gig with them. And I was 18 when I really started gigging with them. They’re really lovely people, the guys in that band, but there was a huge culture of marijuana and beer and I was pretty fearful of losing myself into it. I was quite an innocent 18 year old. But six to 12 months in I was smoking like a chimney and doing that and uni is not gonna work.We made a couple of EPs and an album, did it indie. It was pretty harsh music. Most labels will sign you if you have some degree of commercial viability, but we had none of that. It was me screaming over the top of two guitar stacks and bass stack and a really loud drum kit. It was Detroit rock’n’roll. It was MC5. Unrelenting. Hard and fast.
It had its legs for a bit, but the reason I left in the end was I got frustrated at the inability of the group to evolve beyond what we had been. So it was just, we are this and that was that. I wanted to go and write country songs and keep that grit and nastiness but not just stand between two guitars wanking off. They were amazing guitarists but that actual thing is so phallic and so testosterone-driven that I just got over it.
With your solo work you’re seen as a very sexual performer, was there any of that back then?
Yeah, I was a lot younger then as well and I can’t tell if maybe that meant I was less controlled or a bit more controlled. I’m not deliberately trying to be sexual on stage, it just something that comes out. It’s a bit sexual, singing to people. Rock’n’roll and pop music has always been about sex. Pop music, 99 percent of all songs that are written are about sex and love and if just is what it’s about. That’s what you channel when you’re singing about it.
Kiss My Apocalypse is released Fri, May 10