Rachel Aggs can't really remember a moment when she's not making music with other people. At the age of seven she is given a violin in her hands: with her parents and grandparents she plays folk music at small festivals, in bars or just together on the veranda of the house. 'Together' has remained the buzzword for Aggs for the past decade: she is a familiar face within Sacred Paws, Trash Kit and Shopping, punk bands that all maintain a passionate DIY ethos.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photo: Stephanie Gibson
“My mother is from Detroit and she left home when she was quite young,” says Aggs from her current home of Glasgow, in a cozy room full of posters and equipment. “When she came to the UK she met my father at art school. My father is British, I grew up in a house about five minutes from where he grew up. It was a very white neighborhood. I was in a boarding school and was the only person of color there. I had quite a weird upbringing, but it was also the only upbringing I can imagine.”
“I have always cherished the different cultural references in me as a person. Musically I enjoy that enormously: it's nice to play folk with my father while my mother listens to Motown and reggae. She now also plays folk, so my parents now play in a band together. Music has always been a very big part of my family. I was really lucky that that was just normal.”
Seclusion But what happens once Aggs is left to make music on her own, without creative stimuli from others in the physical space? After all, playing is always so self-evident, making music is mainly a social connective tissue. Even before the corona pandemic breaks out, she decides to decipher that key question. In collaboration with the Lost Map label, she participates in Visitations, a residency project where artists spend a week on the Scottish island of Eigg to record music.
For years, Aggs lived in South London with like-minded musicians, so the natural environment of the island took a little getting used to at first. “I grew up in the countryside, so I didn't have much of a culture shock. In fact, I almost feel more at home in the countryside than in a city. But I did realize again how vulnerable people are when they are left to the natural elements. At one point I went swimming in a piece of rocky area. I slipped on a slippery rock, and afterwards I thought: I could really fall and no one would ever find me here. At one point I went into a cave and I became aware that the water was slowly rising. If the water rose too far, I wouldn't be able to escape. Nature is very powerful, and when you are among the elements of the island, you need to pay close attention to it. You can't say, 'Oh, I'll just call an Uber.' You can really get lost.”
On ‘Water’s Rising’ Aggs channels with a triumphant primal scream that moment when she briefly panicked in the cave. The joy she radiates here symbolizes the situations in which she feels most inspired: it should never be too easy. By facing her own discomfort and limits, she finds the motivation to tackle the obstacles. During the Visitations process, these obstacles were not always of a technical or physical nature, but sometimes also emotional.
“At that time, in 2019, I was touring pretty consistently all year round. I was really happy to be alone for a while. I had forgotten what it felt like not to be around other people. I may not have felt loneliness in years. At first I was like, 'Wow, this is a bit of a bad feeling.' But I was also quite fascinated by it, because this is a feeling that most people feel all the time. It's a specific sense of desire that I hadn't tapped into since I was a lot younger. Maybe when I was a teenager. That feeling of longing for something without knowing exactly what it is. I actually recommend everyone to go on holiday alone once. It's really interesting: you will have moments of joy, but also moments of sadness. When you are alone, you tend to think: what exactly do I want? And to have all these feelings in a very dramatic and beautiful landscape, that is very special.”
In the end, the Visitations project turned out to be a bittersweet preparation for the corona pandemic for Aggs: she got hold of the continuity and workflow to continue making music on her own. During the past year, Aggs released several tapes with that mindset. “I am very proud to have been able to do Visitations as I think I developed the resources and mindset there to keep making music during the pandemic. It was actually a no brainer. I had already developed an image of what I would sound like if no one else was in the room.”
It was a bit of an acclimation for Aggs at first: she is quite self-critical and impatient by nature. She explains that she is used to recording things very quickly: she does not work with drum machines, samplers and synths with a manual, but preferably completely intuitive. “It's funny, because as soon as I master something I immediately want to write a song around it. Once it's time to use that instrument again, I've already forgotten how I created certain sounds. It is a gradual process.”
Aggs shows off her latest acquisition: a Korg Volca FM Sequencer. “Most of the songs on the record started with this instrument, even though I wasn't quite sure how to use a sequencer at the time. As soon as I came up with a pattern or melody for this, I could select any tempo. But it never did exactly what I wanted. That said, it always produced a rhythm or melody that I found interesting.” She bursts into a burst of laughter. ”I never really want to learn how this thing works! I secretly like that things always turn out wrong.”
Back to basic Incidentally, that is the common thread in Aggs' musical career: learning and reinventing things purely intuitively, as befits a good punk musician. While still a student at art school, she wrote her thesis on Glenn Brancas Symphony No. 13, his famous orchestra of a hundred guitars. She was particularly fascinated by the idea that music on a larger scale can also be done democratically, instead of a composer who dictates everything to the instrumentalists. Aggs also immersed himself in the deep listening concepts of Pauline Oliveros: music that functions as a form of communication, listening therapy and meditation.
Aggs herself gives various workshops that introduce the guitar from an angle that is not grounded in Western, white standards. One of these workshops is called Decolonize the guitar, specifically aimed at women and people of color, with the overarching aim of lowering the threshold for these target groups to start bands themselves. One example Aggs cites in one of her zines is Elizabeth Cotten, an African-American woman who learned to play the guitar upside down, influencing an entire generation of blues and folk musicians.
Aggs argues that the more she masters an instrument technically, the harder it is to ensure originality. “That's also what I find exciting about working with all these new instruments now. It takes me all the way back to the time when I learned to play the guitar. Just randomly place my fingers and find out for myself what sounds good. Over the years I learned to play the guitar 'properly'. I notice that fewer opportunities arise where I surprise myself, because I make fewer mistakes. That is part of aging and gaining experience. There are also benefits to it, but I really enjoy situations where I feel like a beginner again, the process in which I am constantly attacked. Now that I don't have people I can communicate with through music, the machines now take over that job, bumping into things I wouldn't have thought of on my own. Within that process of making mistakes, a lot of creativity is released.”
The bands Aggs has toured non-stop with over the years all have an element of friction, of defying limitations. Sacred Paws, the duo that Aggs forms with Eilidh Rodgers, essentially write catchy pop songs in a lo-fi guise. Trash Kit reconciles the different roots that Aggs feels related to, from African music to Western folk. Shopping is a hyper-energetic, danceable post-punk trio closely related to bands such as Gang Of Four, X-Ray Spex and The Slits.
“I've always felt that the possibilities are endless and I enjoy most types of music. But I feel like there are a lot of different things I still want to try and do. It's cool to have the time now, but to be honest it wasn't always the most creative time because this pandemic has been so bizarre. I hate not playing music with my friends. That's a huge source of motivation for me, so I haven't been as productive as I'd like to be. But that probably applies to most people.”
A new legacy At the beginning of this year, Aggs wrote a wonderful column for The Guardian about one of her great heroes, Poly Styrene of the influential punk band X-Ray Spex. The occasion was the poignant documentary Poly Styrene: I am Cliché. According to her, the close-knit scene of bands that Aggs now feels a part of was less applicable during the days when X-Ray Spex caused a furore. Although the music press during the punk explosion spoke of a large 'punk scene', in fact X-Ray Spex was much too easily lumped together as, for example, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
“I was on a panel the other day talking to Celeste Bell, Poly's daughter, and she made the point that Poly Styrene wasn't really part of punk in the 1970s. It was often written as if those bands all knew each other and that they were all friends – but that was not the case at all. Especially the women we're talking about in punk: The Slits, X-Ray Spex, The Raincoats. Those bands didn't have much of a community or a community. It was more what Celeste pointed out: that so-called 'cool scene' was actually quite terrifying. Watching the movie made it clear to me that Poly Styrene wasn't exactly comfortable with that punk scene. She didn't necessarily describe herself as a punk, because that was a label that was produced by the press and used to describe this 'cool' scene. She was bullied a lot by members of The Sex Pistols.”
Aggs feels many parallels between Poly Styrene and herself: especially in their laborious navigation in a mainly white environment.'She lived and embodied these modern-day tensions: in the space between black and white, using her voice in a wild and noisy way, she occupied a very real outsider identity. This knife-edge existence, paired with such a sharp wit and vision, meant that she saw through the cracks in society', she writes in the aforementioned opinion piece. The difference with then is that punk music has mainly started to move again within the niches, in which bands such as Big Joanie, Downtown Boys and Aggs' own bands evoke the same urgency.
During the heyday of punk, Poly Styrene didn't have the luxury of quietly developing her art within a tight-knit community. She did it in the brightest of spotlights. “That's another aspect that's important to remember about X-Ray Spex: that they were really famous. That is very hard to imagine these days. Anyone who makes this kind of music that I know at the moment is in no danger of becoming famous. X-Ray Spex was hugely famous and successful: Poly Styrene was covered in the tabloids. That's so far removed from my own frame of reference with punk music. It must have been weird for her to have that as a starting point for everything.”
It is a very complicated discussion, according to Aggs. She highlights the stark contrast between the way punk is portrayed in popular culture with the activist aspects of punk that make sense in today's DIY climate.
“I think the legacy of punk has a lot more meaning now. We look at musicians like Poly Styrene and we are now inspired by her courage to be a person of color in a scene full of white straight men. That was extraordinarily brave. I'm very inspired by movements like LadyFest, Queercore and Riot Grrrl, punk scenes that give power and initiative to marginalized people, who say that anyone can make music. You don't have to go to a music school, you don't have to know anyone. You can do it here, do your own thing and express yourself your way. That's the legacy of punk that's most useful to me, and it doesn't have that much to do with the 1970s. The point I was trying to make in my piece on Poly Styrene: she was someone who was super sensitive to the world around her. I think nowadays punk is about reacting to the world, and being aware that you are part of a capitalist system.”
You can order Rachel Aggs solo recordon the Lost Map-website. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.