Words: Callie Petch
Back in June, I was at Manchester’s Albert Hall for only the second UK gig by dance-punk legends Le Tigre in 18 long years. Before one of the bands most responsible for shifting both my music tastes and politics took the stage, I was being utterly blown away by four Northern Irish musicians creating a glorious queer-friendly punk racket, managing to conjure the spirit of a ramshackle basement show whilst also easily filling out the space of Albert Hall’s church-like room. Barely a song went by without all members switching instruments, their stage banter was as fun and livewire as their playing, and songs like “TERFs Out” and “Who Do We Not Save” were the kind of throwback punk which hit me right in my dopamine centres as a progressive queer nb. In just 35 minutes, I had gone from being mildly disappointed that Dream Wife weren’t the openers (like they were in London) to proselytising the good name of Problem Patterns.
Alanah Smith, Ciara King, Bethany Crooks, and Beverley Boal have been together for half-a-decade, playing similarly incendiary shows all over Northen Ireland and the UK whilst building up a vocal cult following which includes the very heroes their music invokes the spirit of. There’s a crushing early L7 crunch to “Y.A.W.,” Bikini Kill defiance in the charged lesbian slur reclamation of “Lesbo 3000,” a Plumtree power pop bounce underpinning “Advertising Services” and “Pity Bra.” These are songs which speak heavily to the charged, exhausting landscape of living as a politically aware woman in the 2020s, yet are also capable of tongue-in-cheek campiness as when “A History of Bad Men Part II,” which begins with a laundry list of microaggressions women and queer artists face in the music scene, reaches its bridge and a scream of “MEN ARE SO FUCKING BORING!” roars out.
These tracks and more appear on Problem Patterns’ great debut album, Blouse Club, which is out today. Earlier this week, I got to hop on a call with Alanah and Ciara – interrupting their last-minute tie-in zine work – to talk about their whirlwind 2023, an R.E.M.-style approach to band democracy, keeping momentum going during COVID as a band just starting out, and becoming friends with Kathleen Hanna.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Minor content warning for references to a sexual assault trial.
I believe you all met in 2018?
Alanah Smith: We knew each other a bit before that. Ciara and I worked together in a café and we talked a lot about wanting to be in a band again, cos we were both in bands when we were younger but had kind of fallen out of love with it. I said that “I’d love to sing,” and Ciara said “well I’d love to sing,” and we just sorta locked eyes together. Then we met the other two [Beverley Boal & Bethany Crooks] and started jamming and doing covers. There was a local sexual assault trial in the news cos it was around a sports team here [the Belfast Rugby Rape Trial]. And we were all so angry in our little group chat, not knowing how to process this. Eventually, we thought “why don’t we write a song about this?” That was how the band was truly born. It started out of anger and we haven’t shut up since! *laughs*
If you’re comfortable talking about it, what about the sexual assault trial especially raised your anger/despair?
Alanah: It was a lot of victim blaming. A lot of the news was focussed around what underwear she was wearing, a lot of mocking towards the victim. Anytime that kind of thing goes to trial, it’s a mess regardless, that’s when it even goes to trial. But a lot of stuff was based around mocking this poor woman after everything she went through.
Ciara King: Plus the fact that, because it was a rugby team, people were like “oh, I love these men! They could never be bad! I went for pints with them and nothing bad happened to me!” A lot of that sentiment which was frustrating because these men were being believed solely because they played rugby, which people here love.
When you mentioned earlier about you both locking eyes and saying “I want to sing,” I guess that fed into the democratic nature of Problem Patterns. Everyone gets a chance to sing, everyone gets a chance to try a different instrument, I’m assuming everyone also gets equal say in creative decisions as well? That nothing goes through unless all four members agree?
Ciara: We always wanted this to be fully democratic. Like Alanah said, we started with both of us telling each other we wanted to front a band, cos we were inspired by Beastie Boys and Bikini Kill, but we were both going “wouldn’t it be great if there was a band like that… but there isn’t, oh well!” And then we realised that we could do a band like that.
Alanah and I are much more confident with singing, whereas Bev and Beth needed persuasion over time. But it mainly comes down to whomever is writing the lyrics. Whomever is singing lead wrote the words for that song, or if there’s two of us sharing then that can mean we came at the topic with similar mindsets. Sometimes, someone will say “I wrote a riff on the bass/guitar” and so take that instrument. It keeps it fun and creative for us; you’re not stuck on the one instrument worrying about playing the same thing over and over again.
It allows us the space to grow, as well. Literally everyone in the band has picked up an instrument they’d never touched before or would have tried otherwise. I’d never really played the guitar; now I play it live, which is insane. In terms of songwriting, someone will come to practice with a sheet and say “I’ve written some lyrics, it’s an angry song/fast/slow and gross” and then we’ll take it from there. We take cues from each other, but it’s very much free-flowing.
I’m guessing that everyone being open to trying new musical instruments, putting you all in the same exploratory space, aided the confidence for people like Bev & Beth to step up to the mic?
Alanah: Beth was definitely the last to step out front. She would tell you that it was something she’d never have dreamt of doing a few years ago. I think we all build each other’s confidence up to do these things which seem scary, especially on-stage. Off-stage, I’m quite introverted and socially awkward. Whereas on-stage, I can look at these people and have the best time, and that’s down to our dynamic as a band. We spur each other on to do these silly things.
Ciara: And I think we all understand the responsibility. If someone is playing bass for the first time, I feel the responsibility to give them cheats and confidence. When Beth was singing for the first time, we gave her cheats and confidence. Beth gave me tips on drums because I was terrified. We know there are people who lean more towards a particular instrument, but we don’t let that stop us from playing parts which speak to us. If we’re playing it, we wrote it.
How have you found the progression of yourself as a band? You’ve been together half-a-decade but a lot of the middle part of the gestation period, post-first EP [Good for You, Aren’t You Great?], happened during COVID where there were no shows to build momentum.
Alanah: When we first started, we came out guns a-blazing taking on any gigs we could. We had that energy coming out of us, but we just needed to refine it. I know for myself that I needed to learn to play the guitar a bit better; our first gig, I couldn’t play with a pick! *laughs* I didn’t know the names of any chords, even though I’d been technically playing for years. We worked really hard for those first two years. And then everything stopped but, because of the way our brains worked, we were like “well, we can’t stop! We have to keep busy!”
We had luckily gone into the studio literally a week before lockdown to record some things. Didn’t know what we were gonna do with them, but we just recorded some songs. Two weeks into lockdown, we decided “why don’t we put out a single?” Ciara got straight on the artwork and sending to PRs. We did a video independent of each other; I just told everyone what to do, they recorded themselves, and then I stitched it all together. The only thing you really could do at that time was talk to each other on social media, so we kept at that which helped the momentum. Little things like an April Fool’s joke where we put up a fake album we were gonna do. Ciara helped put together a charity compilation with a load of artists from around Ireland [A Litany of Failures: Volume III]. We did a Christmas song!
We did basically as much as we could without gigging. By the time lockdowns were lifted and we could get to gigging again, we felt more excited than ever cos we hadn’t been able to play live for a year and a half. We appreciated it more.
And you had more material out for fans to connect to and then sing back at those shows.
Alanah: That was an interesting thing we noticed. For over a year, people were stuck at home just listening to whatever we had online. One of those songs (“Big Shouty”) did pretty well on Spotify in terms of numbers and it meant that, when we got back out, people knew all the lyrics even though we hadn’t played it live at that point. It was surreal to hear that.
Quite a few of the songs from those single drops are on the album [Blouse Club] as well. Tracks released back in 2020 like “TERFs Out” and “Y.A.W.” which have become even more vital today. Was that something you realised when putting together the tracklist for the record and deciding which would get that new lease on life?
Alanah: We love those early recordings but, when we were putting the album together, we collectively decided that these songs could use another go. Be beefier, be heavier, have a little more oomph. Unfortunately, they’ve also become more relevant all the time. “Y.A.W.” was written specifically about a case here where a woman was murdered, but there’s been countless other stories since, especially in Northern Ireland. We’re the #1 worst for femicide in all of Western Europe. Northern Ireland is not that big of a country, and yet it’s constant. Every other week, there’s a new name in the papers; one was an old neighbour of mine. You’re literally only a degree or two away from them.
Similar story with “TERFs Out.” Transphobes have always existed, but we wrote that when TERF-ism was an isolated online community. And whilst they are still very small community, it seems like it’s been amplified to the point where the literal UK PM is talking about that stuff. It’s really bad when, by comparison, Theresa May was a trans ally. How you gonna make Theresa May look good?!
Ciara: Our sound had developed so much since the first take of “Big Shouty,” so we felt like it needed to be louder and heavier. This feels like our fullest release, something which matches our live sets more.
Sort of like going from demos to widescreen stereo?
Alanah: We had done all our previous recordings live in the room due to a tiny budget, so they had that demo quality even when properly mastered. This was the first time we had gone in and done layered tracking.
Did the new studio techniques affect your approach to the new material for the album?
Ciara: We always write with the studio in mind, but the way we approach the studio is different. Nearly everything we’ve ever recorded has been done in the same studio with the same producer. We don’t like playing to a click cos it just doesn’t capture us; the second we have to start playing to one, we lose the energy that we want to have. But it’s not stuff we think about purposefully, it’s just something we decide on as we’re going. We have the conversations in the moment as opposed to planning things out.
There’s a proper range to the album, in terms of tone and emotion; the four-song stretch from “Lesbo 3000” to “Poverty Tourist,” especially. A defiant slur-reclaiming rallying cry, a sweetly funny Sleater-Kinney show anecdote, a crushingly heavy protest song against our fucked health system, to a sneering broadside against the current faux-working class post-punk scene.
Alanah: That kind of tracklist order is very intentional. I feel it captures the variety in Problem Patterns cos we’re not a straightforward punk band. There’s a cheekiness to even the serious stuff that we talk about. We have the ability to commit to a bit, such as with “Pity Bra” which was us thinking it’d be really funny to write a song about what Carrie Brownstein said at that Sleater-Kinney gig we attended. The arc of the album represents all aspects of us in terms of the heavier stuff and also just poking at the little stuff which annoys us, like in the local music scene. It might seem like a musical whiplash to some people, but tonally I think it’s true to what Problem Patterns is.
I’m assuming a future dream bill for you guys would be to play with Sleater-Kinney down the line? To add to your growing list of co-signs!
Alanah: We definitely don’t take the number of people behind us for granted, but we’ve started making a joke about how, in terms of influential 90s women, we’re just waiting for Sleater-Kinney and L7! *laughs* I mean, we’ve tried to get their attention already!
How did the Le Tigre gig come about? You mentioned at the show how you would’ve just been there as fans if you weren’t invited.
Ciara: Beth tweeted our live session and said “1 like and I’ll share this to Kathleen Hanna.” Kathleen saw it, liked it, and we became friends with her over the Internet. She’s been incredibly sweet to us. We had been offered to support Bikini Kill, but unfortunately members of the band contracted COVID so we had to pull out and go “oh well, it’s fine.” Then we got offered the Le Tigre support and died!
Alanah: To be fair, cancelling Bikini Kill we were not “oh whatever, it’s fine.” We were devastated! *laughs*
Ciara: Yeah, that’s me trying to downplay it! We treated it like a bad break-up! *fake sob* “Don’t talk about it!” Just an inconsolable pain that followed us around for months. *laughs* But then we got the Le Tigre support, it was incredible! I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to fully process or find the words to describe it. Dream come true. I have this thing now where I feel like anything can happen. Nothing seems out of reach or ridiculous anymore, cos that was the most ridiculous thing and it happened to us!
Alanah: It’s one of those things, as well, where if I’m having a tough day I can think “Kathleen Hanna likes us. I don’t need anyone else’s validation.” But it’s also really weird cos she’s gone of these giant stages and geeked out about us, and that’s freaked us out! It’s a mutual thing but it shouldn’t be as mutual as it is! It should be us holding her up going “aaah, we love you!” yet she’s out going “aaah, I love Problem Patterns!”
That really warms my heart to hear cos Kathleen is one of my heroes, so to know that she is still that awesome…
Ciara: She is SO sweet!
Alanah: They say “never meet your heroes;” that is not true with Kathleen Hanna. She is literally everything and more!
Ciara: Beth had a hole in her trousers and couldn’t get a sewing kit, then we met Kathleen and she said “why didn’t you just ask me? I would’ve got you a sewing kit!” Like we could just ring up our hero and go “hey, can we borrow a sewing kit?” *laughs* “We’re afraid to speak to you!”
Alanah: Also, we only found this out recently cos we were lucky to tour with Dream Wife a few weeks ago… Apparently, they didn’t get to meet her! And she went out of her way to meet us! *laughs* That really says a lot about how much she appreciates us and how much we appreciate her.
Because of COVID and vinyl pressing delays mucking up release schedules, I have to ask how long have you had Blouse Club done for? Are you already thinking about new material?
Ciara: We’ve had it done since about April 2022. That’s when we had the music finalised, all the artwork sorted, and everything. It’s weird getting used to the fact that we’ve had it for so long yet people haven’t heard it. As for the future, we have a name for a future project and that’s literally as far as we’ve got. Up until a few weeks ago, we had no plans whatsoever, but it feels like we’re definitely working towards something! Nothing we can reveal, though. Sorry!
No, it’s alright! I only ask cos you can’t seem to open an album nowadays, especially from an independent artist, and get a “recorded between” date that’s less than 18 months before release.
Ciara: Ours wasn’t the worst, at least.
Still, I imagine it must’ve been a bit frustrating to sit on it for a year and a half.
Ciara: It is a weird thing to get so used to your album before anyone’s allowed to hear it. People are only going to start talking about it to us after this week, yet we’ll already have those songs burned into our brains. But I do find I have a newfound appreciation for the album all the time. Like, I’ll leave it for ages but then re-listen to certain bits and go “yo, that’s actually sick!” You know a song as you’re writing it, but then it also means more to you the more time you spend with it.
Alanah: All our other recordings, especially when we first started, we sort of winged straight out into the world. Being on an independent label where we have to follow their schedule, since they have so many other releases they have to work with, that’s been something new for us to get used to.
But now you get to experience it all over again and take it out on tour to hear other people sing it back to you!
Alanah: I’m excited to see what other people pick out of it that they haven’t heard yet, cos there are songs we purposefully haven’t played live yet. Especially for the local crowd, we wanted to hold back some surprises for them.
What are you both listening to at the moment?
Alanah: I got to see Scowl a few months ago and they were amazing! They’ve been touring with a band called MSPAINT and I’ve been listening to that album a lot. I’ve been really obsessed with the new Troye Sivan song, “One of Your Girls!” I’ve literally listened to it 100 times today! I’m not even joking! *song starts to play through speakers* SORRY, I DIDN’T MEAN TO ACTUALLY PLAY IT!
Ciara: I’ve been listening to CMAT’s new album which is insanely amazing. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dream Wife; I was already a fan, but now we’ve been on tour with them I actually like the songs even more because I know how they’re played live, in between spamming them with messages going “uuugghhh!” thinking of all the memories. But I otherwise don’t have the brain space right now to search out new music. I’ve mostly just been listening to “Disorder” by Joy Division over and over trying to keep my life going! *laughs*