Photos by Michael Wood
“I’m pretty certain my nose is stronger than a fish…” muses Spook School’s moustachio’d drummer, Niall McCamley, turning what started as a routine discussion about bassist Anna Cory’s new nose stud into something culminating into a man vs marine creature tug-of-war. Indicative of the undoubted character of the quartet, his eyes flash when asked to ruminate on the reaction their début album received as he says that “I think for me it was a case of “wait, we were allowed to do that?!”
What a début 2013’s Dress Up proved to be and all. Fronted by Nye Todd, it proved to be a fizzing, effervescent rocket ride packed with killer tunes and whipsmart lyricism which detailed a truckload of ideas and discussion surrounding gender politics, identity and sexuality. Wrapped in infectious pop-punk songs as they undoubtedly were, the underlying messages were arguably taken to whole new audiences as a result. Not, as they detail, that they were always picked up on as well as they’d hoped. “I think that some of the stuff that was written about it prompted us to write in a much more direct way on this album and be ‘Hey! We’re a lot a lot more queer than you obviously thought we were!’” begins Nye Todd, cautiously. “I think that on a general level those who came to shows and who we spoke to, got it and understood the context. But on the other hand I do remember some of the things that were written – there was one piece in particular that made me really angry – generally a lot of what was written about it missed the point and made it about something that it really wasn’t.”
“The people came to shows really got it,” attests McCamley, being equally careful with his words “but I think those that wrote about it found that it didn’t fit in with what they were used to, so they made their own minds up and decided what it was about for themselves.” “I think it needs to be said,” interjects Nye’s brother and fellow guitarist Adam with a shrug and affable smile “that I for one don’t especially have an issue with people just enjoying the tunes. Just as long as, you know, they’re not nasty people! But it’s also really nice when people get the message behind it.”
That sense of inclusiveness is something dear to the band’s heart, as is their determination to have fun at the same time. Nye Todd excepted, all members are involved in the world of comedy and the band have skirted with circuit as a unit too via their links with the Pappy’s comedy troupe, culminaitng in lending their hand to the Badults theme. Their live show has also developed into a joyous, supercharged burst of high-octane melodicism and idealism interspersed with McCamley’s own brand of surreal monologues from behind the drum kit. With their records carrying such thought-provoking, serious messages is it difficult to reconcile the two elements? “I think it’s a nice juxtaposition,” says the drumming dynamo “because if we were completely silly we’d maybe be viewed as a gimmick or a novelty. No-one likes being lectured so I hope people get the message of what were trying to do in terms of the patriarchy and feminism and gender identity, but also comes away feeling like they’ve had a really good time. You don’t want people going away feeling they’ve a lot of footnotes to chase up and reading and homework!” “There’s definitely an element of trying to make people feel part of the gang as well,” adds Adam Todd “we want to have fun and hang out with people and all those sorts of things.” “We started a band to have fun,” concurs McCamley “and from a personal perspective I certainly have a lot of fun.” Cue a barrage of knowing chuckles and a ‘we’ve noticed!’ from his bandmates.
Recently, the band met up with Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace for a Rolling Stone mini-film which saw a meeting of minds regarding their own experiences of being trans musicians. While the band, speaking a matter of days after it went online, feel unable at that moment to say whether it’s given them a raised standing and a place of responsibility within the trans community, Nye Todd admits it caused him to examine his own position and standing. “When we were asked to go and meet Laura Jane Grace she spoke about how she’d tried to reach out to the trans community and for me that was a moment of realistion that I – and maybe we as a band – hadn’t done that very much.” he says, with an admirable candidness. “I know that on the back of that I’ve tried to be more active in groups and organisations that are doing good things for trans people. It certainly led to a realistion that perhaps we could be a bit more helpful and it’d be good if we did. We’re part of a really good community with bands like Martha who’ve reached out to people doing great things within the LGBT queerspace and I definitely would like to do more of that. It’s nice to feel that you can work together with people.”
“As a financially secure, white trans male I actually have it pretty easy,” he continues, contemplating his own experiences and situation “I’ve been very lucky, be it in work or gigs or whatever that I’ve never really experienced any trouble. It’d be easy for me to say that everything’s great and fine but in relation to trans women – and especially trans women of colour – there’s still a lot of work to be done. I think there’s a definite split in that a lot of people don’t know that trans men exist – an issue of ignorance, I suppose – while trans women are burdened with this caricatured vision of what they are. You could argue there’s more knowledge but there’s also more prejudice. There’s such different experiences from either side that it’s difficult to talk about them both at the same time.”
I started testosterone hormone treatment about four months before we made the album. There was a bit of figuring things out, and then we went back to record ‘Binary’ and my voice had changed further so we had to record it in a different key.
Not that Try To Be Hopeful has been totally trouble free for him. Watching them having to adjust the key on a number of occasions at the show they play at The Shacklewell Arms shortly after we speak offers a reminder of how the band have had to adjust to Nye’s hormone therapy and attedant effect on his voice. “I started testosterone hormone treatment about four months before we made the album. There was a bit of figuring things out, and then we went back to record ‘Binary’ and my voice had changed further so we had to record it in a different key. It was all something of an interesting experience. MJ [Hookworms, who produced the album] must’ve thought I was a right idiot” he offers an eye-roll and a rueful laugh. Nonetheless, McCamley thinks that it marks a developments as a band, suggesting that “we’re definitely a lot more comfortable in each other and being able to critique without hurting feelings. Just being in the studio and feeling more comfortable with things crept into playbacks too. We got better at listening to things and saying if something didn’t sound how we wanted without fear of hurting feelings or stepping on toes.”
In a way, that coming to terms with and overcoming obstacles is at the centre of the album’s narrative. Be it ‘Burn Masculinity’s questioning of male privilege or ‘Binary’s exploration of gender norms and fluidity, it’s an album that’s unafraid to challenge and rail against counter-productive societal norms, in turn offset by its title. “I think that title means something slightly different to all of us” offers Nye Todd “a lot of the lyrics I wrote on our first record were about coming to terms with being trans, whereas on this one the songs are more about a feeling of ‘yeah, this is an identity! This is GOOD!’ They’re about being proud of an identity and standing up for things.” Reserved bassist Anna Cory interjects to add “I like the ‘try’ part of it. For all our grand schemes of thinking ‘yeah, I’m going to do this from now and be more confident and this and this and this’ it suggests that it’s still OK to have bad days where you’re less confident.”
It’s a topic that’s clearly close to everyone’s heart, as they practically scramble over each other to offer their own take on what the title means to them in relation to the subjects covered and their own experiences. Next is Adam Todd adding, “A lot of the songs are about how things are shitty at the moment, but I feel like the stuff that I wrote came from a place where I was inspired by people I’d been doing a lot of really cool things within progressive, DIY circles. It’s important to remember that a lot of good things are going on and so I feel that title is a reminder that there’s still a lot to be hopeful about. It might at times feel like everything’s rubbish but there’s also good people doing good things too.” “I think it’s really empowering,” chimes McCamley “in that even if you feel really alone there are loads of other people going through the same. It really makes me a bit soppy, especially the last song and the guitar solo. For some reason it always really gets me. It’s the most emotionally connected I’ve ever been to a guitar!” “That’s a pretty good peer review, right?” teases Cory, directing it towards guitarist Adam Todd “Well, it would be if I could remember how to play it!” comes the swift riposte.
The titling, it could be argued, comes at an especially prescient time, given the current political climate. With our encounter coming not long after the general election and mere days before the Labour leadership vote, it’s something which isn’t lost on the band themselves. “I certainly went through the cycle of…grief, I suppose” admits Nye Todd “from being really angry and wondering how this happened to thinking more constructively towards what we can actually do in response. It was a shit situation but to see a lot of people thinking about how we could make things better made things so much easier.” Brother Adam was affected similarly, as he adds “I never expected to be affected that emotionally. Beforehand, politics had seemed to be a case of agreeing with one set of people over another but I found the result of the last election to actually be quite devastating. I didn’t think it would affect how I felt as much as it did.”
It’s about finding your own identity and realising you’re not alone.
“In the press at the moment,” bristles Nye “and in relation to Jeremy Corbyn especially, there’s almost a tone of disdain towards anyone who dare to be hopeful of a shift towards something away from the current status quo. There’s nearly a sense of surprise and derision for people who have ideals and actually want change. Why not? Why not stand up for a set of ideals and what you believe in?” It’s a view seconded by McCamley who, with a tone which suggests he’s equally irked at the state of play, says “we’re all sick of being hamstrung by austerity. It’s a load of rubbish, life is worth living and it angers me that the focus at the moment seems to be on numbers and figures. What about doing things to help people? That annoys me hugely – there isn’t enough humanity and too many ledgers. There’s talk of being naïve as though it’s a bad thing, but I’d rather be naïve than a cynical old man.” Seeing an opportunity to bring things full circle, Nye closes the topic with a cheery “If people listen to this album and say it’s hopelessly idealistic then I’d be happy with that.”
With Try To Be Hopeful The Spook School have pulled off the ultimate of pop tricks. A series of pop songs instant enough to draw in an audience and yet with a series of messages pertinent and thought-provoking enough to give them something to think about. With a record dealing with such complex issues, what one thing above all else do they want people to take away from it? Once again McCamley steals the show, leaving sheepish shrugs and ‘what he said’s in his wake. “it’s a record of positivity that celebrates identity and its many forms.”
“It’s about finding your own identity and realising you’re not alone and even when things seem pretty shitty there’s always there’s always a sense of hope, and an idea or a person that you can cling to.”