Having spent many of my years growing up walking around the streets of London after dark, it’s hard to imagine a more inspirational setting for the work of London duo Saint Agnes. Aside from the darker side of life, the pair share a love for everything from Nick Cave to The Matrix. Couple that with months spent locked in a London flat, and the end result can be heard on their recently released new mini-album, Vampire.
Their story is a fascinating one so, one night when we couldn’t sleep, we had a chat with Jon Tufnell and Kitty Austen about their inspiration, London after dark, and scary stories.
Thanks for your time. How is life treating you at the moment?
Jon Tufnell: “This could be a long answer! The whole music industry is facing a lot of challenges right now, but what is helping us is that we believe in embracing the time you have, to try and see limitations as something to spur you on. With so many hurdles in the way we’re finding a lot of reasons to throw ourselves into what we do.”
So the new mini-album, Vampire, is out and you’ve described the title-track as a hate-letter to social media. Where did the inspiration come from? Personal experience or just a general dislike?
Tufnell: “This whole last year has meant that just about everyone has been peering at the outside world through a screen. It was moving that way anyway, but has been pushed to an extreme by the current circumstances. What we saw when having an uninterrupted experience of what social media actually is was almost entirely negative, with very few positives. It is addictive, hate-filled and a platform for narcissism and marketing. It’s the two minutes hate from 1984, the colourful, always cheerful, advertising of kids’ breakfast cereals and the addictiveness of cigarettes all rolled into one. Anyone who uses it (which due to the way the modern world is structured, just about everyone) can recognize elements of its ugliness, of the monster beneath the surface.”
Kitty Austen: “Nobody spends half an hour on Instagram and comes away feeling particularly good about themselves. ‘Vampire,’ the song, is about this perfect, glittering, beauty that we present as real, as everyday, and how there is ugliness underneath. How we’re manipulated, by the platforms, to feed them a constant stream of heightened, beautified version of ourselves while the real human cringes in the shadows! We wanted to talk about the monstrous underbelly of the glittery, shiny, exciting online experience.”
There have been some good uses for it throughout the last twelve months especially, wouldn’t you agree?
Austen: “When it’s used as a tool for a specific positive aim, it can be a positive thing; when we see it as a tool we can pick up and utilize to enhance our lives. The problem is that it’s literally been set up as a commercial machine designed to turn our most basic human weaknesses into profit with no regard for the human cost (which, it turns out, is a huge deterioration of our mental health). There are examples of it being positive, with people using it as a place to share and learn, to inform, to galvanize people to positive action, but, to put it bluntly, it has been specifically designed and created to manipulate us in various ways, in order to sell us stuff. We really need to address the way we use it and interact with it and how we hold the creators of this stuff to account.”
You’ve seemingly had no problems keeping creative throughout the last year. Tell us about the writing process for Vampire and what those presumably dead of night writing sessions were like…
Tufnell: “When lockdown started we had just come off tour and we were at the peak of our live performance. We had a whole load of shows ahead and were all set for that. Lockdown meant it just stopped overnight and we saw a year’s work disappear. We had a huge amount of pent up energy and frustration and then the fear and uncertainty mixed in. Kitty and I were shut in a tiny flat in what was, at the time, the worst affected borough in Europe for COVID-19. We wanted to write, but weren’t quite in the right place creatively for writing our own music, so we set about doing a series of cover songs. We challenged ourselves to learn, arrange, record, and make a video for each one in a day. It gave us focus and ignited the creative spark and got us into the routine of working fast, going with instinct, and trying to distract us from the horror that was going on outside.”
Austen: “Yeah, creating The Quarantine Diaries really helped us get back into being creative. The rising death toll, the worry for family members and friends, the anger at the government’s absolute ineptitude was just overwhelming and giving ourselves the challenge of making the cover songs and videos, really helped us a lot. It was also really interesting tackling other artists’ songs to give us a fresh perspective on songwriting. A lot of things we picked up in making them, made their way onto the record. It was definitely a blur of a summer. With no time limits or routine, we just worked on the songs whenever the moment took us, we have no real memory of what time of day or night it was.”
Would you say that you’re both night owls then? How would you describe London after dark and is it inspirational to you both as creatives?
Tufnell: “The first moment of creation that sets us off racing always seems to come between 11 pm and midnight. Usually after discussing a concept and then just picking up a guitar and suddenly it all starts to come together.”
Austen: “London at night is London at its best. I miss it so much! But we’re inspired by all things not usually seen by light of day, we’re interested in exploring and examining the darker impulses of humanity and a nighttime setting is fitting for that. If our music was a soundtrack for a film, it would definitely be a nighttime scene.”
What else inspires you to create your work? Movies, books, places?
Tufnell: “The answer is everything inspires us. From a conversation with a stranger to a riff you half remember writing when you were 12 years old. But books and films with a strong visual aspect with high stakes moral questions involved are certainly regular sources of inspiration. Only Lovers Left Alive, Atomic Blonde, Black Mirror, and The Matrix all sparked visual ideas and conversations that lead to musical ideas on this record.”
Austen: “We also both listen to a lot of podcasts, fiction and nonfiction, hearing other stories helps fuel your ignition. Special mention goes to one called The Program Audio Series that shaped some of our thinking with the song ‘Vampire’ and the creators allowed us to sample it for one of our Psalms. The Psalms are five tracks on the physical release that flesh out the world that these songs live in.”
You’ve also been remixing tracks for other artists like Pengshui and CLTDRP. How did that come about and do you have plans to work with any other artists?
Tufnell: “Not being on tour has meant we have had time to do some studio related projects we’d never normally get to do. One was remixing music by bands we love. Both those bands are amazing and when they asked if we could remix their music we jumped at it. It is a totally different process than writing a song, more in line with how we viewed doing the Quarantine Diaries covers, how do I take a good idea and make something new? It is something we will continue to do for sure.”
Austen: “In Saint Agnes, we self produce everything, as we feel production is as important as the music and for us is a key part of expressing our vision. So getting more into that side for other people is really exciting.”
You’ve already mentioned The Quarantine Diaries which you released earlier in lockdown as well. Any plans to repeat this with more covers? If so, are there any covers you’ve been working on?
Austen: “We love covering songs. When we started one of our first recordings was a cover of ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by The Doors and we still play it from time to time now. We have ideas for other songs we want to tackle, but right now we’re so busy getting this album out and preparing for returning to the live circuit that they’ll have to wait.”
You received praise from none other than Nick Cave. If he offered to collaborate with you on a track, what do you imagine the end result would sound like?
Tufnell: “I think we’d have to pick ourselves up off the floor first! To get recognition from Nick Cave was incredible. We seem to share his love of dark imagery, storytelling and intensity, so I imagine something that started with something like his Grinderman output, but coupled with a slamming fuzz riff you can dance to and Kitty spitting fire alongside his crooning. I would love to see what came of it.”
If you turned Vampire into a movie, who do you think would be perfect for the lead role?
Austen: “We watched Atomic Blonde and then two days later made the video for ‘Vampire,’ heavily inspired by the colours and imagery of that film. So let’s go with Charlize Theron.”
We were all told scary stories as a child. Do you remember a story that you were told that kept you awake all night?
Tufnell: “From a really young age me and two friends used to do Ouija boards. We scared ourselves so much and ended up burning the board. For some reason I hung onto the remains and convinced myself I’d brought evil into my bedroom and spent many nights debating to myself whether it was better that the evil lived in the board in my drawer or if I got rid of it then the evil might transfer to me. These were very real thoughts at the time and I didn’t sleep for weeks!”
Finally, as life looks like it could return to normal in 2021, what are your plans for the year ahead?
Austen: “We want to play EVERY show we possibly can. Not touring has been awful, we realize that playing shows for us isn’t just part of being in a band, it is pretty much the core focus and is such a cathartic experience that without it we struggle mentally. So we will be playing every show like it is our last and embracing life.”
Thanks and good luck with everything. Over to you for the final words…
Tufnell: “We want to thank everyone who has been spreading the word and helped us keep growing during the last year. And to all the new fans who have not seen us live yet, we cannot wait to tear up some stages with you.”
Saint Agnes Tour Dates:
10/17 – Manchester – Deaf Institute
10/18 – Nottingham – The Bodega
10/19 – Leeds – Brudenell Social Club
10/21 – Glasgow – Broadcast
10/22 – Sheffield – Sidney & Matilda
10/23 – Newcastle – Hit The North Festival
10/24 – Bristol – The Crofters Rights
10/25 – Southampton – Heartbreakers
10/26 – Guildford – The Boileroom
10/28 – London – The Garage
10/29 – Brighton – The Green Door Store
10/30 – Norwich – Voodoo Daddys