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Full-page interview feature by Hugh Gulland
The most stylish singer to have ever screamed her way out of Australia, Meaghan Wilkie is the tiny fireball frontwoman of blues-punk heavyweights Gin Palace. Burning her way across every stage she graces in a blaze of vintage dresses, bad manners and a voice like a lioness on heat; looking and sounding the part is what she does best. Meaghan invited REVOLUTION around to her swanky timewarp Stoke Newington pad for an afternoon of fags, a bottle or four of prosecco, and lots of dressing up. Jealous?
"I got this cute dress in Stoke Newington's Abney Hall market last summer. I remember wearing it to lots of picnics in the park. I also wore it when we did the Vortex Of Now tour with Selfish Cunt, with whom we drove down to Brighton, while they tried to hit on my husband in the van. It was non-stop flirtation - they just kept saying, 'OOH, you're so BIG...'
"When I was 16 I wore this big red dress to my friend's debutant ball. My hair was long and blonde and I had it all done up - very glamourous it was! The night's quite hazy in my memory now, but I do remember that it got very messy. I kissed some boys, I think... I got this for about $7 from a charity shop in Melbourne and wore all my mother's 1950s petticoats underneath it."
"We were off to play at South By Southwest in Texas, and I found this dress in Ribbons And Taylors on Stoke Newington Church Street before we went and I thought it would work really well - what with the yellow rose of Texas and all. I also wore it on my hen's night and we went rowing in Richmond and I had to be stitched back up because it kept ripping. We were meant to go to the butterfly house there, but... we freaked out and had to leave because all of Richmond was wearing blue."
"I wore this black and gold brocade dress at our first gig at The Garage. I got it from 162 on Holloway Road for about a tenner because it was a bit damaged. I then left it in the Artrocker office because I didn't think I liked it and it was a bit itchy. I've started trying to repair the embroidery now, and I'm beginning to love it."
This hat came from a junk shop on Holloway Road called Ooh La La. It was right at the back of the shop, hidden away, but they have some of the best hats I've ever seen in my life at that place. I wore it at our first gig with Country Teasers. Well, I say that, but really I just wore it for half of the first song and then threw it off into the crowd."
My husband got me this dress from Topshop Vintage on Oxford Street - it's very lovely but very expensive. He was spoiling me. I wore it at an Artrocker show that we called the 'Meaghan might never be back' show, because it was touch and go whether or not my visa from Australia would get sorted and let me stay in this country. It all turned out fine, though - I'm still here!"
In unserer Reihe „Zehn Fragen an…“
knöpften wir uns dieses Mal das Londoner Trio Gin Palace vor, das beim
Interviewtermin ihrem Namen in der Tat alle Ehre machten. Nicht unbedingt überraschend,
dass ihre Antworten ähnlich simpel strukturiert wie ihre Musik daherkamen,
doch zumindest kann man nicht behaupten, dass sich Gin Palace in der musikalischen
oder sprachlichen Weite verlieren würden, sondern stets auf den Punkt agieren.
So wie ihre Songs herrlich dahingerotzte Zweiminüter mit drei Akkorden
sind, beschränkte sich die Band auch im Gespräch auf das Wesentliche.
Damit ihr den Überblick nicht verliert: Wir sprachen über Ikea (actually
Kia Motors - ed), die Yardbirds und die Komplexität eines Rocksongs.
Musicscan: What happened to your van? I heard your van broke down yesterday?
Gin Palace: Jon: Somewhere in South Germany,
lots of snow, about 500 kilometers into the journey. Suddenly the gear box wouldn’t
go into any gears. We slowed almost to a halt, managed to get it into first,
which is not really helpful on the Autobahn, and limped into an icy field full
of wolf foot prints with the moon rising and the sun setting. It only took them
two hours to come get us with the giant truck and put the car on top of it,
though, and we only paid 100 pounds for insurance for Europcar to look after
us in Europe.
Meaghan: They then took us to a Kia Motors showroom, which was great. But then we had to wait at this bar, where they showed the Arsenal vs Munich game and there were about 100 screaming Germans and us talking English in the middle of it. That was a little scary, I have to admit.
Musicscan: Did you have any expectations or particular goals when you started the band?
Gin Palace: Jon: Yes, I wanted to drive
to Europe and see a bit of the place and play some shows. I thought we would
come out much sooner than we did. Not that I am complaining, I mean we went
to a lot of other places. We went to America twice and Australia, which was
something I thought we would never do.
Meaghan: Now we are in Europe, which is the thing he promised me in the first place.
Musicscan: So has it already come full circle for you? Are you satisfied with where you are as a band right now?
Gin Palace: Jon: Yes, more of it I say. I would love to go out exploring Europe doing band things.
Musicscan: Is there a difference in audience response compared to when you play in England?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: It varies more from town to town than country to country I think.
Musicscan: Do you read press releases about yourselves? Do you keep track of that?
Gin Palace: Jon: Yes I try to. Why do you ask? Did we say anything amusing?
Musicscan: No, I was just wondering if you are portrayed differently according to the country, since the British press is known to work a little different than the German press for instance?
Gin Palace: Jon: The record label came up with this press release about us that said that we were the most exciting thing to crawl from rock’n’roll swamps since the Yardbirds. That is all very well, but we thought if we played with people like Bob Log, a little more up to date would be useful. I always try to read the reviews that are not in English with the help of Babelfish, do you know that?
Musicscan: Yes, I am quite familiar with it. How do you write songs? I mean it seems like a pretty straight forward approach in your case.
Gin Palace: Jon: That’s exactly it. One of us starts doing something and then we meet and the other ones have to do something and then it is a song.
Musicscan: When do you know that the song is finished? When do you know that it is a good song?
Gin Palace: Jon: When it gets too complicated. Just before it gets too complicated.
Musicscan: Do you rely on other people outside of the band to say if something works or not?
Gin Palace: Jon: Absolutely not. You know that you can do it and that you can do it well.
Musicscan: What makes for a good show in your opinion?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: Bottles of gin.
Jon: And an audience that is in the same state that you are in. A crowd that is up for it and not just sitting around.
Musicscan: Does it depend on how many people there are?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: No, not really. I
mean if it’s a huge gig with a lot of people, it is easier.
Jon: It is always better if the audience is closer to the band.
Musicscan: How do you feel in the rock’n’roll boy’s club?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: Sometimes you play in squats and you have nowhere to hang your clothes and you always end up putting your clothes down in urine, which is always annoying. There are no mirrors with lights anywhere. I mean, it is not a terrible hardship. It is something I can quite easily endure. Other than that, I mean these boys are lovely.
Musicscan: Aren’t you also confronted with sexism and people yelling stupid stuff?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: The only person who has ever dared to do that would never do that again and he is actually driving us now. We were just on tour supporting The Kills and he drove us around.
Musicscan: Do you feel like you have to proof yourself harder than guys do just because you are a girl?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: No, there are so many
men in bands and it gets a bit boring listening to men all the time. It is very
easy for a girl to make a different kind of impact.
Jon: I am pretty bored of seeing the generic four piece band with a guy in the front shouting, whining or moaning or whatever. This is actually the first time, this happened, where they used my wife as a pin up in order to promote the show. We don’t normally allow this kind of thing.
Musicscan: What are some of the most prominent themes for you on the album besides sex, drugs and rock’n’roll?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: It is about drinking. Sex, drunks and rock’n’roll.
Musicscan: Doesn’t that feel like a cliché sometimes?
Gin Palace: Meaghan: I don’t actually sing about rock’n’roll at all.
"I can't promise you money. I can't promise you fame. But fat Belgian men? That I can produce."
It's a rare woman who would accept this invitation to join a band, but to Meaghan Wilkie, Gin Palace's tiny, growling Australian vocalist, this questionable offer sounded like fun wrapped up in a bundle of glee. Two years down the line, however, Meaghan is miffed.
"I've been waiting, and I haven't seen one yet!" she says.
"Soon, soon..." says guitarist Jon Free, with a shifty look.
Gin Palace are vintage, immaculate, bottled chaos waiting to burst all over your shoes. If they were a person, they'd be a well-dressed old theatre queen - Quentin Crisp, maybe, but even more fabulous - regaling the barkeep of an ancient Soho pub with tales of the good old days, when the girls were glamorous and the boys were cheap. Hell, the boys were free.
Gin Palace don't like television. "Have you seen it recently? It's very distressing..." says Meaghan, shaking her head. Gin Palace don't like airports. "They took away our Zippos, but let us keep our disposable lighters," mutters drummer Stuart Bell. And Gin Palace certainly don't like the new-style bendy-buses, replacements for the old Routemaster double-deckers and recently introduced into Stoke Newington, the North London borough where the band are based. "It's just madness when two meet in the street - gridlock!" Stuart continues, dismayed.
"We all just really like old things," they say, not talking about Bruce Forsyth and Mark E Smith. Think, instead, of sumptuous Victorian drinking dens, candles dripping and log fires burning; Irish coffees and books bound in leather.
"I don't understand why people keep on copying the Eighties and the Seventies. They were the two ugliest decades known to man," spits Meaghan, pristine in a fitted black Fifties dress that few could carry off mid-afternoon in a Wetherspoons pub. "Things that are new just aren't pretty."
"Whining isn't they way forward, but yelling, shouting and telling people what you're pissed off about is. It makes it better because you've expunged it," says Meaghan, "I don't think any of us could ever stomach making some sickly sweet piece of fluff. Singing about pretty things doesn't ever work. It always sounds as if you're being sarcastic, or it's like a bad piece of high-school poetry. It's all a bit wet."
"So, we're all about the things that tick you off?" enquires Jon. "Well, it's kind of difficult singing about antiques!"
"Sometimes we sing about the happy things - dancing, drinking, hating stupid men," Meaghan laughs, "but I'm getting over that last one a bit more."
Ah yes, the booze. Gin Palace do love their liquor. The title of their 2004 album Kicking On is an Australian expression for going on somewhere else after the pub chucks you out. And then going somewhere else, and then somewhere else, until you fall over in a pool of your own vomit and wake up on a bus at 2pm with toddlers staring at you and trying to balance empty crisp packets on your head. Except that would never happen to Gin Palace, because they're far too classy for that - not to say they haven't come close. But after giving up gin, which makes Meaghan grumpy, and whisky, which makes her mental - "I was scarier than normal when I drank whisky" - she and Jon now have a strict pre-gig diet of vodka and Red Bull.
Stuart, though, sticks with whisky. Red Bull, he says, "Makes me play every song about 20 times faster, and I've finished the set before they've even finished the first song".
What with the booze and with the impression they give, that some kind of suave inner demons are ghost-writing the songs, sometimes it feels as if Gin Palace have no input into their music at all. But there is one thing that shapes and controls the beautiful bedlam of their bluesy rock 'n' roll, and that's the Triumph - Jon and Meaghan's gorgeous, battered old car that squats by the side of the road like a cat purring by the fire. The car is, after all, the reason they did away with the idea of having a bass player.
"The three of us, the guitar and amp and drums, just fit into the car - we couldn't have a bassist," they say. "The Triumph defines our sound. If it fits in the car, we'll do it."
Each week a member of the Artrocker Rock 'n' Roll Community gives us their five rates and five slates, what turns them on, what pisses them off. This issue: Gin Palace's feisty singer, Meaghan
1. Classic Cars So beautiful, such lovely lines, made back in the days when people cared about aesthetics. Tax-free and can be fixed generally with a piece of garden hose. It doesn't get better than this. My revenge on London for taking away my Routemasters!
2. Idleness The greatest hit of the summer, that just won't wear off. Being idle is good for you and keep you happy.
3. Hendricks Gin The finest Gin available! Served with cucumber and distilled through rose petals. The purveyors also publish 'The Unusual Times', a ripping read.
4. Drinking Sports The darlings of the moment; darts and cards. When the music's over and the drinking hasn't, games like these can entertain well past dawn.
5. Muffs I love my muff, it keeps my hands nice and warm. The only upside to the English weather is new and entertaining accessories to keep me toasty.
1. Bendy Buses I know it's been said before, but... 18 metres of the ugliest and most uncomfortable design yet managed by the human race! With the added misery of the smug people on the 19 or the 38 (at the time of writing, still running Routemasters - ed) laughing at you!
2. Alarms Alarms of every description are the pure essence of evil. I don't care if your car's being nicked, which it never is, or your shop is being broken into, which it hasn't, I don't want to wake up in the morning and the alarm has been going for a good three hours.
3. Nightmares When I sleep I want to dream about sweet, lovely, comforting things. If I require a nightmare I have only to watch the news or read a paper.
4. Rent Day This is always a bad day. Followed by more bad days where you have no money because you've spent exorbitant amounts of money to live in a place with a leaky roof and no heating.
5. Pirate Radio Stations Drowning Out Resonance FM I want to hear doors creaking in the wind, not boom boom, blah blah, shout out to what's-his-face.
At the time of writing, Gin Palace have an album due for imminent release. A few reviews are knocking about already.
"We had an interesting piece from a girl called Hayley. She called me a bitch. I might have to see her outside later."
"Are you a bit scared?"
"Are you not 'on the right side of a two-way mirror'?"
RIGHT! BACK UP! This is not meant to happen. I, the interviewer am supposed to take Meaghan, the interviewee's quotes and turn them back on her. I am meant to be in control. Right? Damn. See, the thing is, I am a little scared. Well, not scared. Intimidated, maybe. Because Meaghan offstage is not altogether different from Meaghan onstage. I mean, sure, she's not screeching at me to fetch her a drink, or find her fucking shoes or whatever. There's no spotlight following her about the pub while she dances like a deranged princess. But she has this look. She smiles and giggles and her eyes twinkle and don't get me wrong, she's lovely. But you can't help but feel that the twinkle could burn into an almighty fire at any moment.
The first time we spoke on the phone, I pronounced her name wrong. I'll never forget the brief silence that followed the error.
"The favoured name of the band before I joined was 'Scumshots'. For some reason, I wasn't going to go with that," says Meaghan, sarcastically, of the band's genesis. It's easy to see why these three were attracted to each other. They all have a dry sense of humour, a mutual disdain for the world around them and, fuck it: great dress sense. Still, you have to ask the question:
"Booze, in a roundabout kind of way. It was the temptation of vodka that Jon offered me that attracted me, anyway."
What?? Not gin? But I...
"You can't drink too much of it; you'll get sick of it."
Um, I beg to differ. But arguing the merits of gin ain't gonna get us nowhere. So. Scumshots. Tell me more.
"It was written on the CD he gave me. I was like, 'What an offer... wooh!'"
Jon, it appears, takes great pleasure in fashioning unwise monikers for rock 'n' roll bands.
"One of my latest brilliant stupid ideas was 'The Insignificunts'. And some friends of ours are going to use it!"
The studiously quiet Stuart adds, proudly, "it's wrong, on so many levels."
"Can'ts galore!" twinkles Meaghan, twinklingly (god, she's really gonna hate me now).
C@nts galore, indeed. In fact, perhaps Meaghan regrets not saving this particular quote for later, when I ask the band how they feel about being associated with a certain breed of London band, helped along by the association they have with Artrocker. I ask if there are any bands, in London or otherwise, that they feel any kind of affinity with.
There's that silence again. As I writhe in my seat and try to pretend that I'm wholly comfortable with the lack of chat, the band grin at each other like three Cheshire cats about to pounce on a mouse. Finally, Jon rescues me.
"No." He makes a quick check with his comadres. "(We are gonna say 'no', aren't we?)"
They carry on grinning.
From the outside in, the London 'scene' seems both compelling and repulsive. People who understand both the importance and triviality of style (and bear in mind, I say 'style', not fashion). People who don't seem to give a fuck but really care at the same time. People who want the world at their feet, but probably couldn't find their way North of Islington without a chauffeur. Bands that are cool to love, cool to hate, and even cooler to be in. Perhaps it's only the Artrocker connection that makes me think Gin Palace share a conjugal bed with these other bands, but there's certainly no doubting that they have style. But Gin Palace are aloof for a reason. They don't belong in London. They don't belong in London 2004.
"Artrocker's great..." explains Meaghan. "It kinda runs the whole gamut... I don't know how much you've heard of what they've released... we generally like the people in the bands! The people are great! Honestly! We went to the Artrocker Weekly opening thingy for the magazine and lots of nice people we met there..."
She tails off as Jon carries on, as though nothing has been said since he last opened his mouth.
"Erm, no. Not in London. Internationally, though," he says hopefully, "...no."
So what inspires these lone sailors, then? All that noise and venom and ire and petticoat twirling can't all come straight out of a bottle of 40% proof, surely? The silence strengthens it's stranglehold once more. Gin Palace appear not to take kindly to conventional questioning. They're not conventional folks. There's more disdain in these three tired young rock 'n' rollers than in an army of tired old out-of-work music journalists. You can hear it in the sneer of 'Things I Used To Love About You'. You can hear it in the sex beat of the drums. You can hear it in the answer they give.
"I think things antagonise us more than inspire us," offers Meaghan.
"Every other band we've met." Jon's less discreet.
"Now, now!" Meaghan coos, giggling and rushing in with a little damage limitation. "We listen to a lot of music that's massively hugely old, or dead, um... that just sounds nothing like us. I don't want to listen to the same sounds or that will just block everything else out and then you can't go anywhere."
"Jon later undoes her good work with a wonderful tale of Meaghan ripping a fashionista haircut band to shreds at a gig. But let's not get libellous, here...)
So with all this contempt and derision floating around, how big a part in their lives is the scathing and violent machine that is Gin Palace, then?
"Well, it takes up all our money and all our time... so, yeah. A big part," says Jon, eyebrow raised.
"It's been absolutely brilliant... splendid!"
Brilliant... Splendid... Meaghan's unique Poshtralian accent is crystalline and cute. Through all the outward appearance of spite and disregard, the smiles remain and they're not always laced with booze or cyanide. There's a passion that makes itself known through deadly rhythms and one of the most expressive vocals you're ever likely to hear. It was with reluctance that I turned down their offer of a further descent into inebriation.
Meaghan Wilkie - Vocals
Jon Free - Guitar
Stuart Bell - Drums
Meaghan's from Australia, Jon's from America & Stuart's from Spain.
How did you get here?
Formed in London last year, recorded EP 'Kill Grief' March 2003. Toured Australia, UK and Eire, plus SXSW and CMJ festivals in USA. Played with Bob Log III, Speedball Baby, Black Keys, The Gossip, Kaito, Modey Lemon and Country Teasers. Along the way, Gin Palace also guested on Jon Spencer's forthcoming 'Heavy Trash' album, and Jon's recently been invited to collaborate with Lydia Lunch.
Describe your sound:
While we have all the correct 'cool' factors of last season, (married band-members, no bass guitar etc), we challenge the formula by sometimes dropping the word 'The' from our band name.
What to expect:
Shouting and pouting, and maybe some clouting.
The Gin Palace are immaculately poised hate rock. As brutal and bold a proposition as Tony Iommi and Philthy Animal Taylor supplying musical back up to Kat from Eastenders opening a can of whup ass on Karen O. As nasty as a steel-clawed Siamese tangled up in barbed wire. Oh it’s beautiful alright, but you don’t want to get too close.
The Gin Palace's music sometimes resembles the soundtrack to a jive dancing contest where knives are strapped to the contestants’ hands and feet and the floor is slicked with petrol.
The Gin Palace: "The music for us is more like the soundtrack in you head when you are getting in the mood to go out for a good honest night of mischief - drinking, dancing, and causing trouble!"
Meaghan, explain the change in you that starts when you pick up a microphone.
Meaghan: "It's like my relationship with the world has been reversed, in that I am suddenly taller - like the Alice In Wonderland 'Eat Me and Drink Me' potions.
When you strap yourself into the sound do you find yourself assuming the role of what turns you on? Like a vicar tarted up as a schoolboy, begging to be spanked.
"I don't need to assume any roles, it's all blatant, natural, spontaneous and undeniable."
There’s three of them, they’re a triangle. They’re marshaled by Jon Free, the detuned devil who added the monstrous, purring afterburner guitar to sludge blues legends Penthouse; a man cast almost wholly from chrome and grease. The Gin Palace are led into battle by Meaghan Wilkie, four feet nothing of female unpredictability; out on the prowl, kicking up dust and spitting vodka. The Gin Palace are fed bone-rattling artillery by drummer Stuart Bell, a quiet man. He’s the dangerous one. The Gin Palace are an isosceles backed into the corner, they can cut you like that.
In The Gin Palace, is violence used as a metaphor or is it simply exploited as a minable resource for vicarious recklessness, natural high syringe-to-the-heart adrenaline fixes and flirtation with danger?
The Gin Palace: "We don't understand how our exhilaration and enthusiasm have come to be interpreted as and confused with destructive forces. Violence is abhorrent, but historically a way for carnivores to get fed, and we are in our way trying to get fed by making music... but... erm..."
Jon, if you didn't play guitar what would you do with those hands instead?
Meaghan: "I know exactly what he should be doing with his hands if it wasn't for that damn guitar!"
Like ex-smokers chewing on pens to fill the cigarette-shaped void in their life, I'd like to imagine you grinding your fingertips on metal lathes, chewing broken beer-bottlenecks or maybe masturbating.
Jon: "I think you are deliberately missing out any sensuality which, I believe, is the greatest attribute and asset of the hands. I would love to create beautiful objects out of wood; to tease the form of a guitar from an uncarved block of wood would be quite an achievement. To describe the curve of a woman's neck, waist and arch of her lower back, and to realize those into the form of an archtop guitar would combine many of life's pleasures for me..."
Jon, what makes you dance?
"Electrodes, stun guns and weddings. Yet it’s
a fine line between dancing
“BOOM! It’s open WAAARfare BAAAAY-BEE!” Jon’s guitar catches a gin-slicked slip ‘n slide and turns it into an unflappable, unerringly cool swagger. Suddenly Meaghan’s bony fingers are jabbing accusations at your eyes and you don’t know what the fuck you’ve done except maybe look a half-second longer than you were supposed. “You think Ahhmm baaaaad maybe a little insssssane/I think you oughtta go check yr own BRAIN!” Glass smashes on concrete and we leg it down the street, the very fire-water of consciousness streaming slick in our brains. Stuart’s beat pounds hard in our chests, Jon’s sandpapered style transforms our clumsy, punch-drunk stumble into the gait of cagey tigers. We catch our breath – where the fuck’s Meaghan?? We dart a glance round the corner to see a little girl in a ballerina dress dancing drunkenly on broken bottles, arms spinning like swords, eyes sparkling with electric, laughing like a witch at the stars. Laughing straight and hard at the puny, impotent dick of the cosmos.
The Gin Palace always sound like they're going out fighting. What is the darkness closing in that you have to punch your way out of to stop it from consuming you?
The Gin Palace: "The only darkness closing in is the mind-numbing idiocy of popular culture. Have you watched TV lately? It’s enough to make you violently ill and it is certainly something that we want to punch out to stop from consuming us. Not for nothing do they refer to television as PROGRAMMING. We don't want anyone programming us. We like to yell at the audience to awaken them from the stupor that they can afford to be complacent and the world is fine. It's not. Things are so wrong out there, it's enough to make you want to weep but it’s best to go the other way."
HOW THEY SOUND: A schizophrenic Patti Smith (Meaghan Wilkie) fronting the White Stripes, except the drummer can actually play and the guitarist (Jon Free, late of British noir-rockers Penthouse) has a tone that can peel skin.
WHY THEY MATTER: Give us danger, British strangers! The seven tracks on 'Kill Grief' were done in one afternoon for maximum energy and passion, two things the British music scene only recently started generating again. "We've got another 11 tracks recorded and ready to go," says Free about his band's unbridled creativity. "We work relatively quickly. It's not like we're an eight-piece band with four or five Linda McCartneys working on it." A new single on the way-cool Australian garage-rock label Au-Go-Go is on its way.
"Stuart plays the drums viciously, Jon plays the guitar viciously, and I sing - viciously" says Meaghan Wilkie, of Gin Palace's combustible garage-blues sound. It's such a vicious mix that a bass guitar would actually make the trio seem sluggish.
"When we started without bass, I was worried that we were going to sound puny on stage," says guitarist Jon Free, "but then we tried a double-bassist on some recent recordings, we ended up mixing the bass out altogether."
Now, The Gin Palace worry the audience might be intimidated by their "viciousness". Stuart Bell has been known to play drums so hard that his hands bleed. "I am a bit worried sometimes that the audience will think, "Whoa, this is a bit much," Free says, "which is funny because we're one guitar, one drummer... " "And one tiny, tiny little singer!" Wilkie laughs.
She is tiny - 4'11", to be exact. But she roars and slurs through the tracks of the band's first mini-album Kill-Grief with a gritty passion that is larger than life. On one track, she wails impatiently, "Where are my shoes?!". "That line is my life - everything is just like, 'Where are my shoes? And where are my keys?!" Wilkie explains. "I had locked myself out of my house, like, three nights in a row when I wrote that."
Sounds like drunken behavior. Perhaps that's why the band's name fits so well. "In the 1700s, London had a 'Gin Epidemic' where there was, like, one gin pub for every thirty persons." Free explains, "And these pubs were splendid, opulent buildings with cut glass, polished brass, and gold plating. But the streets were just filth and open sewage... there was a deep contrast."
Even the title of their album is a pseudonym for gin. "Well, Kill-Grief is a better name than 'King Theodore of Corsica." Wilkie says with a shrug. King Theodore of Corsica and tonic? She's right.
The Gin Palace planned a holiday and instead found themselves on tour in Australia. Clem Bastow talks with vocalist Meaghan Wilkie and guitarist Jon Free about lit-rock, hype, and the fashion of rock.
Here's the 411 - London band The Gin Palace are raw and ready to pulverise you with their demented take on three-piece bloozerockopera, guitarist Jon Free and drummer Stuart Bell thrashing their instruments around like they're electrocuting swarming eels and 'lady singer' Meaghan Wilkie stomping in her prim party frocks while howling like a stuck banshee with her finger in the socket. Ow! And did I mention the fags and booze and bleeding fingers? Double Yow!
So was it always thus? "I used to be in a band called Penthouse," explains Jon, "then we split up. Stuart used to come to our shows and say 'hello'. So after my old band split up, I just said 'come and help me out sometime and we can get some ideas on tape'. So he turned up with half a drum-kit and drummer this primeval..." he struggles to find the words. "I don't know if it's 'auteur' or 'autistic', but it sounded great! We didn't have a bassist because we didn't know anyone, and he didn't use hi-hats because he'd broken them and didn't buy any more, so that's where the sound of the band comes from. Meaghan had a good literate vocabulary, and it just slowly dawned on me when she started banging on about Beasts Of Bourbon and generally 'Very Good Music', it was just..." A match made in Heaven? Perhaps not. "I was exceptionally rude to Jon when he asked me to be in the band, laughs Meaghan, "but then I just thought, 'Why the Hell not?' And it suited me down to the ground! You get to drink a lot, you get to wear fun clothes and you get to travel. Like, 'This is actually really good - I was born to do this, who would have thought?' It's really very odd. We had nothing to lose, so we just did two rehearsals, and then Jon had found a gig for the band the next night."
It certainly wasn't to be the last time things fell eerily into place for the band. Just days before Meaghan and Jon had planned to take a holiday to Australia, an email arrived that would pique their interest. "I'm actually from Melbourne originally, but living in London," says Meaghan, "and I was coming back here to sort out some Visa stuff, when we got an email from Riff Random and Ground Components the day before we were leaving, asking when we were going to play some gigs in Australia. We were like, 'well, funnily enough...'! So we sorted out for Stuart to come out too, on Friday the 13th, and, hey! Surprise tour!"
In their brief but explosive career, The Gin Palace have set the music press alight, with a lot of rock scribes comparing and aligning them with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - but a lot of these comparisons stem from an industry that has become obsessed with 'cool' - is the emphasis on Meaghan's stage persona just a symptom of too much emphasis placed on style rather than substance? "I just got onstage at the first gig and started doing stuff; I'm just being myself," Meaghan sighs. "I think people do put on a bit of crap. I mean, we're not made up; Stuey bleeds every gig!" Jon continues, "You're very right, there is a lot of emphasis on style and photos. I mean, I guess you need a focus in order for people to get into the lyrics and yadda yadda, but it's weird when that thing gets taken into the extreme. We've been in the English Style Magazines, which to me is the opposite of what rock 'n' roll is. They say things like 'bands you should look out for' and it turns out to be 'bands you should dress like'. But I suppose it makes you feel a bit better about yourselves if people in your family have actually heard of the magazines you're in for once, which is nice!"
It's a sound dirtier than Janet Jackson's nipple, sweeter than honeybees, and guaranteed to propel your mind into rock 'n' roll heaven. Sure, it's stripped back - just drums, monster guitar and the volcanic vocals of Meaghan Wilkie. But beware, ultra-hip kids in skinny black ties. This ain't another band trading on the past glories of NYC disco-punk. It's the blues, but that's where the Stripes comparisons end. Because these guys sound different. Raw yet cooked to the bone in scuzzed-out desperation and intoxicated fervour. It's the Gin Palace. And no, they're not about to serve you a drink...
Hailing from London's fierce music scene, the Palace haven't actually been together for so long. They were formed early last year from the ashes of underrated UK band Penthouse, although it's Meaghan's maiden-voyage on the leaky boat called rock 'n' roll. And now they're making their debut Australian tour. "It's fucking marvelous," enthuses Goliath-sized guitarist Jon Free. "I'm really proud and pleased to play out here. We were coming for a holiday, but we were glumly resigned to spending £2000 to come over, missing gigs in London, just to hang out for six weeks. So now we've got something to do!" That's right, the upcoming tour is kinda impromptu, knacked upon Meaghan's trip to see her family in Melbourne. Yet Australian audiences are already enjoying the Gin Palace's gutter-trash meltdown, with their debut release Kill-Grief receiving airplay on Triple J. It was released last year on London's Artrocker Records (also home to The Hells, The Divine Brown, and Numbers) and has since received great reviews in NME and squillions of other 'zines. "Artrocker are the guys who wanted to bring the London music scene back to life" says Jon over yet another gin and tonic. "They've released loads of great compilations, some artier stuff, and some straight-down-the-line rock 'n' roll. It's a similar feel to Factory Records (the celebrated label behind Joy Division and Happy Mondays). It's about improving everyone's quality of life in some small way, and not just about making money"
So people, there's the cheese. The Gin Palace will distress your denim, free of charge, as they power through breakneck songs recalling the finest moments of The Cramps, Andre Williams, Johnny Cash and The Stooges. And they ain't about to give up the campaign. "We've got a new album coming out that we've recorded. Artrocker want to release it in Australia, the USA and Europe around April. We're also going to be playing at South By SouthWest in March, and we've got gigs in NY and Berlin booked afterwards." Meaghan jumps from her chair. "That's right!" she yells happily, "Jon promised me that we'd be playing to fat Belgian men... but it hasn't happened yet!"
Many condolences, Meaghan, but there's certainly plenty of fat men in Melbourne. And they can wobble to the Gin Palace this Thursday at The Tote, Friday at the Espy, and next Thursday at the Ding Dong Lounge. So, rock 'n' roll-lovers, forget about buying new boots and clean the wax from your ears. The Gin Palace are in town and there ain't no excuse...
Gin Palace are a whirlwind of contradictions. Guitarist Jon Free (ex- London swamp-rockers Penthouse) towers above vocalist Meaghan Wilkie. In turn, teeny Wilkie's voice is a mighty roar at odds with her Audrey Hepburn frame. Free met Wilkie at his local pub. "I was taken aback at the power of her voice coming from such a small frame as she cleared out the bar at closing time," he says. One night of drinking cheap bottles of Vodka and jumping cemetery walls together and the Gin Palace were formed.
With the subsequent, and sober (sic), addition of drummer Stuart Bell (formerly of Girls Without Skin), Gin Palace started playing their dark and rumbling shows at the beginning of 2003. Live, the band shakes foundations and leaves audiences stunned. Wilkie prowls the stage, roaring and emoting and shrugging and pointing like fellow Australian Nick Cave.
Free and Wilkie date in real life, and their odd-couple dynamics dominate the stage. Free has had to drag Wilkie from the stage kicking and screaming because she loves performing so much. Meanwhile, Bell has on-stage puking tendencies. He says, "I usually manage to swallow it with no-one noticing. Even if I've eaten chips. Although it's really hard to swallow the remains of 20 mouthfuls in two gulps."
They played CMJ in New York in October 2003, have an EP, 'Kill-Grief', out on Artrocker, and have no qualms about wanting to make it big. As Wilkie says, "I want to make enough money to be able to visit my family in Australia whenever I want." Free grins at his fiancee and says; "I want what Meaghan wants."
Here it comes again, just when you've sat down for a quick breather, another bunch of amped-up punksters poke you in the eye and tell you to get with the program, daddy-o. London trio The Gin Palace are visceral like Link Wray's harsh psychobilly growl, but super-charged like Link if he'd never lost a lung battling in North Korea. All up in there with the liberating vocals of Australian-born Meaghan Wilkie, swaggering through town like Louise Brooks blessed with Iggy's snarl and pumped with a delightful dose of vitriol. On blistering blues guitar there's all six foot six of Jon Free leading them into war and sounding like his guitar lessons were conducted by the Birthday Party's Rowland S. Howard, while trashing the battered skins comes courtesy of Stuart Bell. Altogether it's an explosive soundtrack that wouldn't be out of place serenading the fearsome firepower of a dragster duel blasting through the chequered flag.
Heaving his battered soul from the mangled trainwreck that was his former band, Penthouse, Jon set about channeling the spirit of 100% proof maximum rock'n'soul into a new scuzz-driven discordance, and added girlfriend Meaghan into the equation. As she explains, "When Riot Grrrl came about it was exciting to hear women getting a voice in music. I'm excited that I'm getting the chance to add something else too."
Gin Palace make a frantic, urgent din that could be perceived as hate-fueled and brutal. Shocked by this description, Meaghan prefers to see it "as a catharsis for all of us. Loud, exhilarating music tends to get misconstrued as dark and evil, although we're actually quite happy. We're not really making dark music - it's maybe just a little bit temperamental and cantankerous."
They're the tonic that's gonna refresh your soul like no other. You'll have to bring your own bottle of gin, though.
The first time I saw Gin Palace, all I could remember was Meaghan's dancing, her feet hammering away at the stage, mercilessly and tirelessly and deathlessly.
That's not exactly true. Call it poetic license; I remember lots of things from that night, that performance. Jon Free's severe and brutal and beautiful guitar playing, insane runs and ruts of broken blues, slurs of swamp goo gliding the strings, a sound Free himself describes as 'Bob Log on speed'. Stuey Bell, battering similarly gutteral tattoos on a spare thrift store drumkit, stirring a fuck-load of noise from such a spare ensemble of skins and cymbals. And Meaghan's voice, somehow audible, dominated over the ruckus, and possessed of a plethora of moods and shades, at one moment stern and ma'am-ly, the next roaring and fierce, the next feline and purring, all fur and claws. I remember the scissor-sharpness of Jon's quiff and collars, Stuey all sweat-drenched and seemingly crumbling into his kit, Meaghan's still-pristine antique white frock.
But, for drama's sake, pretend all I remembered that night was her dancing, because that's the image burnt deepest into my mind. Let's focus on that physical abandon, the shoes hammering like drumsticks on the stage, like John Lee Hooker's spectral foot-tap rhythms gone gonzo, all bloodshot. Let's choose the fiction this time around, because it fits us closer, fools us sweeter and sharpens everything that life renders fuzzy.
I meet The Gin Palace inside The Film Shop, an independent video store in Stoke Newington where Jon Free - the only gainfully employed member - works. As he's closing up the shop, Meaghan drags painted fingernails across the rows of videocassettes that line the walls.
CLAKCLAKCLAK "What sort of films do you like?" CLAKCLAKCLAK
Oh, you know, oldies.
"The Film Shop has a great stock of old classics." CLAKCLAKCLAK fingernail falls upon Mildred Pierce, the classic Joan Crawford Freudian-noir.
"People keep stealing our tapes," sighs Jon, switching off a Link Wray CD and locking the shutters down. "We lost Harvey last week."
Stoke Newington is an odd little pocket of North London sealed off from the rest of the bustling metropolis by it's lack of tube station; serviced by a fuzzy timetable of night buses and irregular overground trains, it's remote isolation has cultivated a winningly eccentric village-y air in between the puke-fringed chicken and kebab outlets. For some reason, Stokie has enjoyed quite the rock 'n' roll heritage over the last decade. Much of the nineties-blues-punk explosion lodged here - bands like the sublime Monkey Island, like the departed Soulbossa, Gretschen Hofner, Free's own Penthouse - though it also boasted members of Pulp, Dodgy, Cornershop and Bill from Carcass. "we have a regular Stoke Newington Festival, all crafts and world music and stuff, " grins Free, "I'd love to see Bill perform at one of those!"
Jon moved to Stokie in time to enjoy these glory days, living above the Samuel Beckett, a fondly-remembered local venue, though he admits sometimes it got too full on - "I once woke up in the middle of the night to find a punk pissing through my letterbox". It was in a nearby pub that Jon first met Meaghan last Autumn, and asked her to sing in his new band. And received the courtly reply, "Fuck off".
Meaghan Wilkie is slightly tipsy. She and a friend spent the afternoon charity shopping for items to decorate local venue The Eye for the band's album launch party this coming Sunday. The friend insisted Meaghan join her in draining several bottles of a cheap fizz she insists is called Bruschetta, although why a wine would share the name of a grilled tomato bread is a subject I won't broach, mainly because Meaghan intimidates me.
(a word from our drinks correspondent - the hapless Mr Chick has misheard the name 'Prosecco', a sparkling wine from Northern Italy, as immortalised in the popular phrase "Champagne is so 90's - Prosecco is in!".)
Meaghan is utterly charming. Later, she will describe herself a 'a thesp.', and this is totally fitting. Five foot nothing, she's possessed of an exquisite tiny-ness; doll-like, like Audrey Hepburn with none of the anorexic frailty. She talks with a nervous theatricality, like Katharine Hepburn were she born in Australia, swearing like a sailor. As more red wine is poured, so she disconnects from her vocabulary further, sentences broken by frustrated gaps where she struggles, eyes scrunched, after what she's trying to say. And she says "Tra-La-La" all the time, like Annie Hall said "La-Di-Da".
She met Jon a few nights after leaving Shepherd's Bush, after she'd returned home one night to find reporters and a police line blocking the entrance to her flat after a gangland murder. Stokie, she says, reminds her of her native Melbourne, but for all this affection, she says, the question of why she heft Oz for London makes her 'slightly uppity'.
"How could I not move here?" she asks. "Some exquisite and wonderful things happen in my hometown, but it's still mostly a cultural wasteland. A place like London beckons you, because you know you'll meet people with ideas, with the same passion, who'll spur you on. I never considered I'd be singing, but Jon handed me a card and I decided to play with it. I've not stopped having fun since."
Jon had hooked up with Stuey (then drumming with Girls Without Skin) at Penthouse's last gig. They recorded a bunch of new riffs Jon had written, Jon bumped into Meaghan, and The Gin Palace opened it's woozy gates.
"It's horribly difficult, being a singer," winces Meaghan. "But it's horribly difficult not to. I've been doing it so long now that whenever I get the urge to shout and scream at people, I wish I could play a gig, so I could get it all out of my system. Tra-La-La"
"Singing is quite foreign to me. I don't have a really melodic voice, in case you haven't noticed. But the dramatic aspect makes it fun for me. That's why I can do it, because I've done Ac-Ting before. But I actually find it much more fun being a part of myself onstage, the nastiest part, and getting rid of it."
"Acting, it's like watching a movie," offers Jon, "In that, you enter another world the whole time it's happening."
"And it's fun! It's a much better world that any bollocks crap 9-to-5 rubbish I've ever done! I get to dance, shout at people, freak people out, if they're miserable then shout at them. Stop being so... shit, stop being so fucking miserable. It's not that bad. You can pull through it, for crying out... loud. I love that, I love screaming out on stage, 'Stop It!'"
The Gin Palace have just released their debut mini-album, 'Kill-Grief', named after a euphemistic name for booze during the Gin Epidemic of the Twenties.
"At the end of last year, we were all quite miserable," says Jon. "It's not for nothing the album is called 'Kill-Grief '. The band was a way of getting through this misery. Something positive that involved... shouting!"
"I never expected to be in a band in my whole life," smiles Meaghan. "Then I find I'm doing it, and it suits me down to the ground. Which is preposterous. It's the truth. It's part of me. It's like all the bad things that have happened, coming out. It's irresistible. We all want to dance. Jon can't dance, but he makes me dance. Dancing is my special joy and you, Jon, make me dance
"Jon's guitar is like everything i ever wanted to dance to, all rolled into one. It's like someone's actually playing music that is worth having a dance to, shouting to, filling people with everything. Tra-La-La. Ra-ra. Lumpity-Bomp. These are the things that make us happy."
The Gin Palace conjure up a world of broken glass, barflies, bar brawls and bad-tempered broads, all delivered by Melbourne-born vamp Meaghan Wilkie in gravelly rage, while ex-Penthouse guitarist Jon Free - probably one of the most imaginative guitarists to tour the toilets - makes like a fucked-up Link Wray or Duane Eddy all over the top.
Like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Gin Palace have an aversion to bass guitar. To compensate for this, Free uses a fuzz pedal and runs his guitar through two amps, one clean and one distorted. Oh, and it turns out the combo aren't too keen of hi-hats, either...
"Our drummer Stuart claimed to be a drummer," starts Free in inflammatory fashion, "but he still can't afford the whole shebang. I had a problem with the drummer in Penthouse being too loud and smashing his cymbals, drowning out the top-end on anything else, so it was a blessed relief to meet Stu with his depleted drum kit and only one cymbal!". Stuart Bell's poverty is set to get even worse; the hapless beats provider breaks all his sticks - and, more often than not, his knuckles - at every gig. Somebody sponsor this man!
Free's doing a little better on the gear front, due to his propensity for lovingly restoring old guitars. "I've got two 1957 Gretsches, but one must have been a write-off at some point; it was scrapped with all the parts taken off, so I had to put it back together. I got all original parts off eBay, and refinished it. The other one was very badly abused as well - the top was caving in. I restore them rather than adapt them, though. I'm more of a vet than a re animator!"
The process of writing Gin Palace songs is very much a group affair, and all rather manic, it seems.
"Stuey comes up with rhythm patterns at bus stops and things and then he comes into rehearsal slapping his legs," says Free. "We used to try binary codes, just make up random rhythms of ones and zeros and see how it sounded. Then Meaghan writes the words over the top."
Entertainingly, Wilkie seems to specialise in alcoholic, noir-ish characters that could be straight out of a James Ellroy or Jim Thompson novel. On the ironically titled 'Lady', we find her asking life's all-important questions: "Where the hell am I? Where's everybody gone? Where are my shoes?" WIth personalities like this to channel herself into, how on earth does she psyche herself up before a performance?
"Gin!" she beams. But of course. "Quite a few! And a really good frock makes it easier. But it's great music to dance to, so that's what really does it for me."
From the body of Audrey Hepburn comes the voice of Godzilla. Tiny singer Meaghan had to be dragged screaming off stage at a gig in Leeds recently, repeatedly kicking man-mountain guitarist Jon Free (actually it was mild-mannered Stuart Bell) in the bollocks. "I just wanted to play one more song!" she protests.