Smile, It's Vanilla Gloom
The all-girl post-punk group on dodgy sound engineers, touring Scotland and making radio playlists wtih 'Lemons and Wine'
Hailing from County Londonderry and based in Belfast, three-piece post-punk outfit Vanilla Gloom are a band on the up.
Guitarist Shannon Delores O'Neill and bassist Megan O'Kane (they share vocal duties) have been best friends since school and spent a year in another all-girl band, Puerile Honey.
Since forming Vanilla Gloom last year with drummer Grace Leacock (older cousin of General Fiasco/Desert Hearts drummer Leaky, fact fans), they have set tongues-a-wagging with their feisty, vibrant take on grunge and American college rock.
Their debut EP caught the ear of radio producers and blog writers from Belfast to the USA, and the band recently returned from their debut tour, in Scotland. Chris Jones met them for a chat.
You seem to be progressing at a rate of knots, having formed the band, released your Vexed EP and completed a tour in the space of a year. Has that been deliberate?
Grace: We get bored if we don't have anything set out in advance. We work towards it and get it done. We haven't purposely set out to book any of the gigs that are going to happen in the next few months – they've come along and we have accepted them – but we haven't booked any more because we're going to get down seriously to writing. The whole writing thing needs to take priority.
Has it been running away from you a bit?
Shannon: Oh, definitely.
Megan: We haven’t had time to write. We've hardly had time to practise.
You did your first tour recently, in Scotland. How did it go?
Grace: We got it under our belts. We discovered we can survive a week together, which is really good. Bands don't realise, when they go on tour, that's when they can't stand each other and they break up. But we had the best time and we're all in deep depression now that we're back to normality. But it's made us more excited for what we can produce [in the future].
What kind of response did you get at the gigs?
Grace: We had no expectations at all because no-one had ever heard of us. The gigs weren't packed out – [Megan: Some of them were!] – but they weren't empty either, and they were free in, which was great. But basically every night, people bought CDs and t-shirts.
Megan: In Dundee, there was only about 15 people there and we thought that they were really unresponsive, but at the end we sold ten CDs and a guy asked for a setlist.
Shannon: We signed a t-shirt as well, it was surreal.
Was it always your intention to form an all-girl band?
Megan: We kind of wanted to, because there aren't really any other all-female bands from Northern Ireland. We wanted to do it just to show people that it can happen. But if a guy wanted to be in a band with us, we wouldn't have said no.
Grace: I've heard whispers of another all-female band through the grapevine, but I don’t know their name or even if they are gigging. We're always interested to hear.
Shannon: I think there was one in Derry in the 1970s.
This is the point – if you're going back to the 70s, that emphasises how rare it is. Why do you think that might be?
Shannon: It's so hard to answer that question. I think about it a lot.
Grace: I think there's a lack of female musicians. You guys [Shannon and Megan] found it hard enough at school, you couldn't even find people in the same year as you. There just aren't the female musicians out there. When I was at school, I was the only girl who played the drums.
Shannon: I was the only girl who played the guitar. Maybe most girls are preoccupied with other stuff. But we're interested in other stuff as well, from gaming to knitting...
Is there a perception that it's macho to be in a band?
Grace: Maybe there is, in a way. I've experienced a certain amount of sexism when it comes to drums. Maybe people think it's a masculine thing. A bouncer once told me, 'You can't play the drums because you're a girl'. I told him to eff off and let me in the venue. He was refusing me entry! But any male musicians I've worked with are not sexist at all, in the slightest.
Shannon: It might be a Northern Irish thing as well. We're 20 years behind everywhere else in the UK. I'm planning to be a music teacher and I'm going to try to enthuse more girls [to play music].
Grace: But at the same time, this isn't a girl power, 'girls are better than boys' thing. We just happened to find each other. I started playing with these guys because I liked their music. It wasn't based on gender.
Have you encountered any major difficulties or challenges in your time in the band?
Grace: Sometimes we don't know – is it because we're girls or because the sound man is an asshole in general? We've experienced a couple of them and I think they automatically have it in their head that we don't know how to play our instruments. They come across very ignorant. I've noticed the way they speak to Megan and Shannon. They don't really say much to me, though someone did say, 'You hit the drums really hard'. I said, 'I can't really turn them down'. Another sound guy said my cymbals were too loud.
Shannon: They keep changing my guitar tones, despite the fact that I've set them – that's my sound. It's not in their job description to worry about the tonality. Maybe I just need to grow a thicker skin. It's just fuel for the fire. It's helping us write songs, play bigger venues, see new things and meet new people.
What have been your highlights of being in Vanilla Gloom up to now?
Shannon: I loved hearing 'Lemons and Wine' being played on the radio. That was the first time anything we'd written had been played on the radio, so that was special for me. I got shivers, it was so good.
Megan: My highlight was when we were in the hostel on tour, Grace was away getting a pizza and me and Shannon were lying on the bed listening to Jen Long on Radio 1 talk about how she'd come to our gig in Glasgow. It was so surreal.
Grace: She's offered us a gig in London but we haven't jumped on it because we want to write more and maybe have another EP before we go to London and do stuff there. We don’t want to rush in.
Looking into the future, what do you want out of this band?
Grace: The biggest thing would be to get signed by a respectable label that respects us as artists.
Shannon: Until I know more about what being signed entails, I'm not getting excited about it. I'm looking at it like Guitar Hero – the gigs keep getting better and better.
Vanilla Gloom perform next at Tweedfest in Ballymoney on September 7. Photo by Ciara McMullan Photography.