Upon first hearing London’s Pens one could swear that they were the descendents of the shit-pop movement born in basements of the Midwest as all of the distinctive signifiers are firmly intact: the sweet and sour guitar buzz, the atonal keyboard skronk, imposing caveman percussion and gleefully shouted team-chants. While in theory that may be true (the Pens confess a love of bands of that ilk), the trio swears by the ephemeral musical moments in their teen years as the purest inspiration for the cacophony they construct. If there’s one thing to learn from Amelia, Stef and Helen, it’s that their mission is anything but mundane, pretentious or elitist. When the stark white template of lo-fi was sent via air mail in a package marked “shambolic,” they took that message to heart but insisted on splattering the canvas with bright and vibrant character. It’s not exactly the neon color blast suggested by the cover of their De Stijl debut, Hey Friend, What You Doing?, though tracks like “High in the Cinema” and “Freddie” come across as adorably motley pop songs. And it’s not exactly dunderheaded punk, though “I Heart U” and “Hide the Kids” could double as femme-fronted hardcore from a forgotten era. Somewhere in the middle Pens exist—as fleeting in cobbling together their sound as the melodies they form are in cementing themselves to the skull. That conflict leaves one wondering where these girls have been all this time that the genre has been gestating. Hiding on the internet? Playing pub enthusiasts with similar-minded punters in the U.K like Graffiti Island, Male Bonding, and Mazes? Or patiently waiting for the next wave to take them Stateside? It’s likely none of the above, as they seem too busy in writing, illustrating, and recording to give much of a care. Isn’t that how we like our rock stars—wildly indifferent?
First things first, could the three of you tell us your names and what you play?
Amelia: Drums, vocals, guitar, keyboards.
Stef: Drums, vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass.
Helen: Drums, vocals, keyboards, bass.
Were any of you in bands before staring Pens?
A: Yes, Stef and I were in a band called Look Look! (Dancing Boys) when we were 19. It was completely shambolic, and you either loved us or hated us, but it was a lot of fun. We travelled and released one 7-inch that is nowhere to be found. There is a lot of LLDB in Pens, although Pens is more thought through, that and Thurston Moore is a fan, so up yours.
I know you haven’t been a band for very long, so when and why did you start?
A: After we got bored of LLDB, we bought some real instruments. Well, we bought a snare drum and a cymbal without stands. It was about December 2007, January 2008, and we just wanted to learn drums but we didn’t know how so we just improvised with guitar. The reason for starting is because we really liked “Delta 88” by X at the time and we wanted to make a band that was like that song. We recorded a bunch or messy songs until we made “Hate Your Calendar.” The lyrics to that song made so much sense at the time—but none at all now—because of how we were feeling. We then figured we needed another member and keyboard so we asked our good friend Helen and she joined in March. We had our first show together in our student house that year in May.
That said, the way the internet works in promoting bands these days, how come it’s taken so long for you to release something we in the States can get a hold of?
A: I know this is really bad, but we have the worst attitude when it comes to promoting and organizing this band. We were the same way in our other band. We just like playing and can’t be bothered with the other stuff. Sorry.
H: You could get hold of our split tape, although it was really limited. Even we don’t have copies. Our split 7-inch was also available directly from us. We shipped worldwide! Actually there are four copies left as I speak.
Pens is probably in the top ten of un-Google-able band names, so I’m curious to know how you came up with something so mundane (not that that’s bad)?
A: Ha ha! Mundane... everyone thinks it’s because we’re obsessed with willies, but it’s really just in reference to Stef and I being illustrators.
S: Is it bad that I like how hard it is to find us on Google? You just get thousands of websites about stationery.
Were you at all influenced by the underground lo-fi movement that’s been cropping up the last few years here in the States? I really hear that in the recordings.
A: Well, we like that music, but it wasn’t the reason that we started. From being in a band before, I guess Stef and I just wanted to carry on but do something different from what we had. We are influenced by everything we hear and see so there will obviously be some traces of that. But we really just wanted to make the band because of distinctive songs. Stef and I would hear a good song and be like “I want to sound like this song,” not a particular band. Those were again “Delta 88” by X and mainly “Dino” by Baby Gecko and “Broken Windshields” (or something) by Japanther.
H: We’ve been hanging out and going to see those bands when they come to London. I suppose when I joined I was just energized to start making music and be on stage. I was as much influenced by Amelia and Stef and it was more that I wanted to make music, than a question of “there’s a new scene I want in.”
What are your other influences? After hearing the record, its sounds like you have a good understanding of hardcore and the Messthetics weirdness, something I didn’t hear in the original four or five songs that you had released.
A: Yeah I like hardcore, but I love simple pop songs too.
S: Songs that make you want to “jump up, jump up and get down.”
H: We have such wide music tastes, I think a lot of the music on the album is influenced by a certain attitude, which I guess the listener could associate with hardcore or whatever they’re familiar with. We have stuff that started out being influenced by new wave, but we don’t expect our music to come out the same way it starts off.
I often see your name associated with Male Bonding and Graffiti Island. Is this a little clique of bands in the UK that we all should know about? What binds you all together?
A: We’re touring with Graffiti Island in the States in August.
H: We’ve released splits with both those artists and play with them. “Clique” is a horrible word though! I’d like to think music is inclusive, that it’s friendly and new bands can come out without people dragging them down, accusing of copying, bitching, etc. That’s what “clique” says to me. Just listen to what you want and enjoy it.
Fill in the blanks: In the year 2000 I was ___ years old, listening to ____ in the ____ doing ____ with ____, dreaming of one day when I would become a ___.
H: In the year 2000 I was 15 years old, listening to Les Rythmes Digitales in my bedroom doing revision with a math book, dreaming of one day when I would become a writer for The Face.
S: In the year 2000 I was 14 years old, listening to nü-metal in my bedroom doing something incredibly unexciting, dreaming of one day doing something incredibly exciting.
How did your relationship with De Stijl come about? Did you have all of these songs ready to go, or did you start the record from scratch? Can you describe your process of recording and how you came to the conclusion that this was the final album?
A: Clint from De Stijl asked us if we wanted to release something and we said “yes.” The recording took forever. We had about three people try and help us with it in the beginning, but then we just realized it would be better to do it by ourselves.
H: I think we had about four songs that ended up on the record, the rest we wrote in a load of creative practice times in smelly rooms.
You’ve done art for Wavves and some other bands with which I’m unfamiliar. Is this something you do full-time and where can we expect to see more?
A: I did that stuff. Not much to do with Pens, I just like drawing. I’m working on an animated video for a band called the Pomegranates with Pete Ohs, who also made the Wavves “No Hope Kids” video. I have a Flickr if you stalk hard enough, and I’ve contributed to a couple of zines.
So, what’s in the cards for Pens in the immediate future? Is there a vision you have for what your next album might sound like, what it might involve, what you want it to involve?
H: We’ve already recorded a bunch of new songs with Jack from Mazes (a band from Manchester). I’m not sure how you’d describe the sound. Fuller? At the moment we’re just preparing for tour and still writing new songs.
A: And having fun as always.