Shopping :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Taut, tense, and exhilarating, Shopping emerged from an East London DIY scene in the early teens, bringing together guitarist Rachel Aggs, bassist Billy Easter and drummer Andrew Milk together in jittery, angular conjunction, not unison. That is to say, their parts careened off one another in pinballing trajectories creating intricate, geometrical patterns of rhythm, riff, and melody. Since forming Shopping, the three have made four albums together, moved to different cities but stayed connected, while all the while juggling a mini-festival’s worth of other bands, Aggs in Trash Kit and Sacred Paws, Easter in Wet Dog, and Milk in Current Affairs.

For their latest, All Or Nothing, they worked with Godmode producer Nick Sylvester to amp up the hedonism and beef up Shopping’s often skeletal songs. In this interview with all three members, we talked about the band’s new sleeker, synth-augmented sound, the balance of individual autonomy and group voice and why nobody in Shopping wants to be compared to your standard “starter-pack” of post-punk bands.  / j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: It strikes me that the first single, “Initiative,” is on a whole different level from anything you’ve done before. Do you feel that way, too? Were you conscious of doing something different with that song?

Billy Easter: I feel that that song on the album sounds the most like our other stuff before, but I could be deluded. I guess I am deluded. I don’t know. Was it the first song that we wrote?

Rachel Aggs: I think it was. And we think we were both kind of like, “Yeah, that can sell. That’s fine.” But, I think it morphed a little bit in production. So, I think it’s the production that made it sound a little different to our classic sound, maybe.

AD: What was it about the production that was different?

Rachel Aggs: We put a Moog synth in the chorus. There’s a kind of rolling synth bass. And that isn’t something we’ve done in the before. In the past, we’ve always been limited to this very minimal set up of precisely what we could play live. Whereas this is the first time that we’ve done an overdub in a big way.

Billy Easter: It’s the first time we’ve beefed out a song.

AD: That’s what I think. It seems a lot denser. Who played the Moog?

Billy Easter: Nick [Sylvester] who produced the album.

AD: So, you say that song sounds the most like you. Were you trying to do something different with this album? Can you articulate what that was?

Rachel Aggs: We wanted it to sound more poppy, I think. We’re not sure if it sounds poppy or if it’s ever going to sound poppy. We also wanted to make the songs sound good and not be too attached to our own individual parts and the way we wrote it, not being too precious about that. In the past, we were very faithful to the way things were written when we went to the studio. They didn’t change at all from when we wrote them to when we played them live. This time, we were just trying to experiment and be a bit freer with things.

Andrew Milk: I think it helped working with Nick, because he’s such an amazing producer. We had spent some time with him before and felt quite at ease working with him. He helped us feel a bit more free to experiment, just because we had spent some time with him just kind of jamming with him for a different project we were working on together. So, when we came in to work with him, we were totally at ease with his suggestions.

He’s the guy that did the Shamir record that was amazing. I love that record and the sound of it. It’s super pop. So, for us, it’s a really poppy sound. It still sounds like a Shopping record, but it’s got this really nice dance pop layer to it that Nick brought it.

Billy Easter: Because dancing has always been important in terms of our music. It’s really dance-y. And people in the press always describe this as a dance band, and I’m always a little bit confused. I find it too minimal for that. I think we did want to have a more expansive sound, I guess, to enhance that danceability.

AD: Why did that appeal to you at this point?

Andrew Milk: I think we’ve been striving for that for a while, really. We were aiming for that with The Official Body. We were talking about how we’ve amped up the party vibe. We were trying to get people to dance. Our main joy in the band is playing live and having people join us in our songs in this kind of shared cathartic dancing release. I think that’s always been what we enjoy the most. So, we’ve just kind of forever been striving for maximum danceability within the structure of a three-piece, indie-band set up.

Billy Easter: Next time, we’re going to have a full orchestra. We’re going to expand that sound.

AD: Timpanis and oboes?

Andrew Milk: Yeah. And a choir. We’ve got them on hold. Gospel singers.

AD: Maybe this is all in the past now, but one of the things that I love about this band is that all the parts—bass, guitar, drums, vocals—seem so autonomous and yet it all fits together like some sort of geometrical puzzle. Can you tell me how the individual and the group co-exist in Shopping?

Billy Easter: Yeah, it does feel kind of like that when we write. We don’t have a specific plan. And it does feel like – like I’ll often come up with a bass line and I’m just like, right, play along to this. I’m always kind of amazed at how it all works. It is almost like we’re all playing just our own song.

Rachel Aggs: I think it’s the only way that we know how to write. None of us are traditional songwriters. The only way we know how to do things is to listen. Someone comes up with a thing, and we listen to each other, and we slot things in, like you said, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. I do really like how that feels. It’s like a really fun process to feel locked in. You either know you can do it, or you can’t. Sometimes it doesn’t work when you play with other people, but when I play with Billie and Andrew it’s really intuitive. And easy to know. You just lock in.

Billy Easter: Like a really good game of Tetris. When all the parts fit in. I love it when there’s a gap in what I’m doing, and Andrew does some drum thing or Rachel does some opposite guitar thing. And it works really well.

AD: In Tetris, if you do that it all disappears.

Andrew Milk: Oh yeah. But you do win points.

AD: That’s right.

Andrew Milk: We’ve got those big points.

Billy Easter: That’s the aim of the game.  

AD: It gives you a lot of different ways to listen to the songs, though. You can follow the drums or follow the bass or follow the guitar, and it’s a slightly different experience.

Andrew Milk: That’s cool. It’s not often that one of us will suggest to someone else, why don’t you do this with your instrument. When we jam in a room, we get to express whatever it is that we want to do on the instrument. It’s fed by what everyone else is doing, but it usually is just an entirely something that comes from ourselves.

Billy Easter: I feel like this album was a little bit more of us all being more involved in each other’s instruments.

AD: Did you do more reworking?

Andrew Milk: In the lyrics and what songs were about, we were more into each other’s heads.

Billy Easter: We worked collaboratively on the synth parts as well.

Rachel Aggs: I would say all through this, just the general songwriting process, we were trying not to get stuck in riffs or a little part that someone really likes. We were trying to think outside of our own parts to whether this is going to be a really good song. Because I don’t think we ever did that in the past. Our confidence in song structuring and writing has improved a lot over the years. Now I think we’re a bit more confident to say, no actually, let’s not do that. It can be a bit of a self-deprecating headspace, just “I don’t know. Whatever. I’m playing this bit. It’s my bit.” It’s a bit of a cop-out. And actually, it takes more confidence to say, “Actually I’m not going to play in this moment. I’m going to sing a melody. I’m not going to just shout words. I’m going to sing a melody.”

Billy Easter: I’m thinking of the song “About You” where we really worked out the bass and the guitar together, the interweaving element of that. We did a lot more of that than we would normally.

AD: Were you doing more harmonies and vocal counterparts this time? It seemed like you were.

Rachel Aggs: We used to do more of that. On The Official Body I decided to sing less. And then I said, no, I want to do more. Just from a personal point of view, I wanted to do more backing vocals and other parts. That probably makes for more singing. I think we might have one harmony.

Andrew Milk: That also ties into this idea of bulking songs out. A lot of that happened not in the writing process but as the songs were getting produced.

Billy Easter: No, I did this when we were writing.

Andrew Milk: No but I’m just thinking about bits where now I’m wondering how do we play that and sing that at the same time? The stuff that I recorded vocal-wise as well. We didn’t write that with me singing it. There were lots of extra bits. We added a lot of little bits that beef out songs, vocal stuff.

AD: Your albums in the past have been very outspoken about things like body image and consumerism and inclusiveness. I’m hearing more of a personal focus on this one. Would you say that’s the case or would you say there’s an ideological theme to this album as well?

Billy Easter: Yeah, it’s more personal, I think, definitely. It’s not like we don’t have those themes anymore. But how long can sing about the same things? The world is so political right now. It’s not like we had a conscious thought, “Let’s be less political.” But if you’re going to be, you’d better back it up. But it wasn’t conscious, there was just a lot going on in all of our lives that coincided with this album.

AD: Yeah, without being too intrusive, is there any way to talk about what was going on in your lives?

Billy Easter: I had a lot of personal relationship breakdowns and a new relationship happening, right at the moment we were making the album, and I was making really big decisions in my life. And it’s funny because when I was singing the lyrics, my focus was on what I was going through. I didn’t really know what Rachel and Andrew were singing about, but it made sense to me.

Rachel Aggs: I feel like I was just singing about the same old shite, but maybe there was an atmosphere in the room that influenced me to make the songs a bit more ambiguous or trying to sing about things that are not politically pointed but more personal political.  

Billy Easter: Even when we’re singing about political stuff, it’s still from a personal point of view.

AD: Definitely.

Billie Easter: I felt like there was more personal feeling and emotion going into what we were writing, more than usual.

AD: I was wondering if each of you has a favorite sound or lyric or song, anything in All or Nothing that you felt came out especially well?

Andrew Milk: The next single that’s coming, out “For Your Pleasure” has this incredible arpeggiated synth bit three-quarters through the song, that just builds and is very ecstatic, to my ear. I love that arpeggiated synth, Italo-disco sound. That’s one of my favorite things. What were you going to say, Billie?

Billy Easter: There’s a song called “Follow Me,” which will be the fourth single. I really like what Rachel’s done with the chorus, that “Follow me, follow me, I’ll make it worth it.” It just references so many things now. It makes me think of Instagram, you know, which is not that deep, right? But the thing that it unleashes in us where it’s like needing to be fully accepted by people to feel okay and how it can morph into this desperate need to be liked. I love it because it’s really catchy when she’s singing it. That’s one of my favorites.

Rachel Aggs: That’s funny because I remember the moment when we were like, oh, shit, it’s about social media. I was singing that, and we were joking about being physically followed, like being stalked or profiled or followed around the shop or something. It didn’t even occur to us that it was about social media.

Billy Easter: But it’s also really funny because we want to be followed, but then everyone freaks out about being followed on a regular basis, like you worry that your phone’s listening to you. So, we want everyone to follow us, but then it’s like, I don’t want to be followed by that, you know. It’s just funny. But I just love, whatever you’re thinking about in that chorus. It kind of works. Even before any social media, having a crush on someone and wanting them to know about you.

Andrew Milk: I just pulled up the lyrics sheet, and I’ve got another thing that I enjoyed. It’s silly, but I managed to get “Constant Craving” by K.D. Lang into my lyrics for “No Apologies.”

AD: Are you a K.D. Lang fan?

Andrew Milk: I love that song. I think it’s in my range. I’m going to write that down in my karaoke list.

AD: Maybe when you get the gospel choir?

Rachel Aggs: Do you do karaoke?

Andrew Milk: I feel like it’s been a long time, maybe once, years ago, but definitely in the car with you two.

Rachel Aggs: I wanted to say my favorite.

Andrew Milk: No, you’re not allowed.

Rachel Aggs: But I can’t remember which song, because we changed the names of all the songs.  

Andrew Milk: I’ve got the lyrics in front of me.  

Rachel Aggs: Oh, it’s called “All or Nothing.” (She laughs because this is the title track that she’s forgotten the name of.) I really like that song just in general. I like the groove of it and the way Andrew’s drums do this cool sort of skipping a beat thing. I just really enjoy it.

AD: There’s a ton of keyboards on that song?

Billy Easter: In “All or Nothing”? No….

Rachel Aggs: Wait, yes, there are.

Billy Easter: We don’t even know our own songs.

AD: I know that everyone compares Shopping to post-punk bands like ESG and Gang of Four and Kleenex Lilliput, and I’ve seen in other interviews that you’re not 100% happy with the comparison. Is there a band that no one would guess that’s had influence on Shopping?

Billy Easter: I mean, loads of stuff. It’s rarely those post-punk bands that have an influence on us.

Andrew Milk: I think we’re probably bringing in our own influences anyways. We never really discussed as a band, that this song is going to sound a bit like this. Or I’m going to do a bass line that’s like this. Or these drums are from whatever. I think we’ve got our own stuff going out that makes a rich tapestry in our own heads.

Billy Easter: I’m always trying to write “I Need You Tonight” by INXS because I think it’s the most perfect song.

AD: Oh yeah.

Billy Easter: I love that song. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not doing it very successfully.

AD: Related question. What are you listening to these days? Found anything good?

Billy Easter: “I Need You Tonight” by INXS. What are you guys listening to?

Rachel Aggs: I really like this band called Mope Grooves. My other band, Trash Kit, played with them early last year. My mind was blown. They were really great. They’re going to play with us in Portland. We’re really excited about that.

Andrew Milk: I’ve been listening to a lot of 1980s high energy stuff. I’ve been DJing a lot of high energy and Italo-disco recently. For the last year, I’ve been heavily down this 1980s high energy hole.

AD: What do you like about that stuff?

Andrew Milk: I think it’s quite simple. It’s really, really unpretentious in what it wants to do, which is to get people sweaty and dancing. And it works. Usually it’s got a really simple high-pitched vocal. There’s something about the combination of a high vocal, arpeggiated synth or what’s the thing where it goes like bo-wah, bo-wah, bo-wah? An octave? There’s something really satisfying about those things.

Rachel Aggs: It’s also really gay.

Andrew Milk: Oh yeah. And I love that it’s really gay. It’s super gay. I’m just listening to the album Results, the Liza Minelli/Pet Shop Boys album, which has some good bangers on it. Like I had “Losing My Mind” and “Love Pains” are great. “Don’t Drop Bombs” is great. Yeah, so…

AD: Are there any misconceptions about Shopping? Things that people think they know about you, but they’re wrong.

Billy Easter: That we’re trying to reinvent the wheel?

Andrew Milk: Yeah, people will often mention bands that — even if we were trying to do a post-punk sound—these are bands that never come on in the car, that no one listens to. We don’t really listen to Joy Division, though it gets mentioned a lot. I feel like people’s references for post-punk are limited. Post-punk was a little bit of everything, it was so varied and so expansive. So, when people are like, I’m guessing, they see that someone has tagged us as post-punk, they will say, oh, you must be influenced by Joy Division. I literally haven’t listened to Joy Division in 15 years.

Billy Easter: They mention the post-punk starter pack bands.  

Rachel Aggs: They don’t mention bands that are more recent like Le Tigre or the Gossip, which I’m more into.

Billy Easter: I’m pretty sure that they early 2000s is going to get a huge comeback, and all of those bands will be back in style.  

AD: Two of you live in Glasgow and one in LA and you’re all in a ton of different bands, and I’m wondering what happens to Shopping when you’re not doing Shopping. Do you feel like it exists the whole time, or do you have to recreate it every time?

Billy Easter: It’s definitely there. It’s like an open tab in the background. It’s not like we constant need to be in touch. We’re communicating a lot at the moment, because there’s an album coming out and we’ve got a lot of stuff to do. But it’s not like when we have time apart that we forget how to do it. It’s sort of this staple thing. We do this.

AD: How did you get started?

Billy Easter: It’s a story as old as time.

Andrew Milk: We were all doing stuff in London’s DIY scene. And we started a band together with two other people. So, it was a five-piece chaotic, odd party band that lasted for a little while in about 2010. That kind of came to a natural end and the three of us decided that we had a good thing going and we were on the same wavelength and wanted to carry on and wanted to be very productive and make a lot of music and put a lot of energy into this. So that’s when we started Shopping as a three-piece.

Billy Easter: We were all in bands that we would see each other regularly at parties and be together. We would always really want to do things – let’s write an album and release it ourselves and see what happens if we have that specific aim. I’m glad we did that. Look at us now.

AD: It sounds like work ethic was a big part of it. Being ambitious, having goals, maybe that was what set you apart from all these other DIY bands? Do you feel like you work harder?

Billy Easter: We kind of think “Let’s do it.” Unless you think like that, years can go by. You can be constantly working on something that never gets out there in the world. I personally can’t deal with that. And so, yeah, I guess there was a strong work ethic.

Andrew Milk: We definitely do put a lot of effort in and work hard at this band. But I think loads of bands work hard and have a good work ethic. We were in privileged position to be able to take time off of work and do this. Because being in London, it was rare that a band could do that, unless they were independently wealthy or well-off background. Having my job be super chill, working a venue for a friend, having that space for a practice space, Rachel was working there, Billie was working there.

Billy Easter: I’d just been made redundant when we did Shopping. I was working every day up to that point, but then I was just like, okay.

Andrew Milk: Totally free.

Billy Easter: I’m free!

Rachel Aggs: We were all pretty driven, but we were also desperate. To do something fun and get on with it. We were all pretty frustrated with the other musical things we were doing that weren’t progressing.

Andrew Milk: It’s not a slight against anyone, but a lot of what we were doing in other musical projects was at the behest of other people’s schedules and people being really, really busy. Having, out of necessity, different priorities and needing to do other stuff first. With us free in 2013 and 2014, it just happened, and stars aligned that we could do this as a top priority for a bit and make a record. It’s lucky as well as having a really good work ethic and drive.

AD: Is there anything else you want to talk about.

Rachel Aggs: I don’t think so.

Andrew Milk: Just that we’ll be touring a lot and we’ll be nearby. Come and see us.

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