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LOUISE DISTRAS: EXORCISING DEMONS INTERVIEW BY MEL & PHIL

This is the first of our interviews with strong females from the North who are ‘doing it for themselves’. Unfortunately the music industry is still a male dominated arena but some women are trying to address the balance by getting out there and giving themselves a platform. People are beginning to take stock of Wakefield's solo acoustic artist, Louise Distras, who is taking no prisoners as she conjures up a heady brew of folk-punk using political, humane and moral debates. Indeed she challenges a variety of subjects and she makes no bones about it. In an world which needs a good shaking Louise storms in with her own inimitable style, which has been described as the new face of acoustic punk. Forthright and demanding our attention, she sings with a passion that shows her heart is firmly pinned on her sleeve. Channelling her own life experiences, she's a determined firecracker and a force to be reckoned with.

So meeting Louise with her guitar slung over her shoulder at the train station in Manchester prior to her gig at Moho supporting the UK Subs, we head out for a hearty lunch in the delightful Northern Quarters Soup Kitchen, followed by a a photo shoot. After chit chatting about Rebellion, line ups and hotels in Blackpool we slowly entered into the following  interview with Louise Distras.

PHIL: How did you get into Punk?

LOUISE: Well, when I was a kid my biggest influence was Nirvana and that’s why I started playing guitar but when I was at school it wasn’t cool to listen to The Clash or Sex Pistols, everyone liked Korn and Fear Factory, Deftones, Korn and stuff. So it wasn’t something that I was exposed to and my mates didn’t listen to punk. My influence has always come from Nirvana; I’m 25, I’m part of a different generation, I guess.

PHIL: How did you hear about the music?

LOUISE: Nirvana used their position to turn a lot of people onto new bands (especially riot girl bands cos they were feminists), so through Nirvana I found out about Hole, Screaming Trees, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Black Flag, Sex Pistols and that’s where it all came from really.

PHIL: When did you start to play guitar?

LOUISE: I started playing guitar when I was 12.  My first guitar was a Fender Jag, like Kurt Cobain’s. The track ‘Bullets’ on my debut album is about that guitar and my relationship with my Mum. One day she smashed my guitar up, stripped me of my clothes and everything that resembled any kind of individual identity, or independent thought to beat me into submission. ‘Bullets’ is my story of how Punk rock saved my life and as long as there are kids out there that are feeling the same way I did growing up who are channelling the way they feel into writing songs, Punk Rock will never die.

MEL: Do you think she did that to prevent you from being too rebellious?

LOUISE: If questioning everything makes me rebellious then I’m guilty as charged but I would never class myself as rebellious as a kid, ‘cos I was a straight A student and a total outcast. The other girls would be worrying about boys, make up and stuff like that and boys definitely weren’t interested in me. Their lives were so carefree and easy, I couldn’t relate to that, my life was so dark...but I only started getting into trouble and began to lash out when someone was trying to use me, control me or compromise me in some way. I was sick of being a punching bag which is why I emancipated myself when I was 16, just after I got my exam results and it’s just been pretty much me and my guitar ever since. I guess because of my upbringing I just don’t react well to any sort of control, whether it’s in relationships or bands or whatever. That’s why I just do it all myself.

MEL: Do you think it has given you a lot to write about?

LOUISE: Yeah of course, definitely. I think it goes without saying. On my debut album I’ve pretty much exorcised 25 years worth of demons and writing this record has been the best form of therapy I’ve ever had although I can definitely say it’s far from a thirty minute sob story. Instead of wallowing on nihilism I wanted to make an empowering record. Hence my lyric ‘never let the hand you hold, hold you down’. I’m addressing a lot of different issues on there, from sexism to gay rights, drugs addiction to domestic abuse, relationships and corporate greed...it’s a very political record but I wanted to make it universal so that anyone can understand it regardless of race, gender, class, ability/disability because I believe music is inclusive not exclusive.

MEL: It seems like its all been a natural progression for you to go down this route, it’s the path that was right for you!

LOUISE: When I was a kid at school they’d ask me “what do you want to do when you grow up?” The kids would be say “I wanna be a teacher, or a fireman”. I didn’t really know, all I knew is that I didn’t wanna fit into that stereotype of what is normal or expected of me. I knew that I didn’t want to have a career doing something I didn’t really want to do. I knew I didn’t want to get married, and have kids, I knew I didn’t want a mortgage, a car and a white picket fence. I didn’t want any of those things because, even though I was very very young, I knew that in my heart I’d be miserable. I wanted and still want to be able to make a difference to somebody or to something. The only thing that’s ever made me truly happy is the ability to create. Some people say that music and art can’t change the world but I think it can. It can make us happy, or sad, it can give us strength and hope. It can empower us to speak out against what we believe is right or wrong. It’s a very powerful force yknow.

PHIL: When did you play your first gig?

LOUISE: My first gig when I was 14. We played Nirvana and Silverchair covers that we’d rehearsed in the school music block at lunchtime. I was in bands up until being 22 but after my last band split I moved to London for just over a year and what happened there was the catalyst for going solo.

PHIL: Has your musical tastes changed since then?

LOUISE: I’ve always been a fan of lots of different types of music. It doesn’t matter what genre I’m listening to, as long as it’s a great song with heart.

When I was teenager my Granddad, always used to say to me “don’t listen to that Marilyn Manson crap, you need to listen to some Johnny Cash, that’s real music” and I said “yeah yeah…bla de bla”, yknow, being obnoxious and 14. Then a few years ago, after my Granddad's funeral, I did get into Johnny Cash and I realised what he meant then. I think some bands can pass you by but then as you get older, you gain more life experience its only then you can understand certain subjects or certain songs.

PHIL: How do your songs come to you?

LOUISE: It’s kinda hard to describe the writing process because it’s a different process for each song. I go into a completely different world where everything is buzzing around me and I’m really vulnerable and exposed. I don’t usually remember writing it. It’s just like waking up after a night on the piss and trying to fill in the blanks...but when I have written a song I obsess over it, and constantly try to figure out how I can improve bits like the delivery of a certain line or whatever until I’m happy with it.

PHIL: Do you know when to stop refining the song?

LOUISE: I haven’t quite worked out how to do that yet. Since the first studio session on my album, I’ve been listening to it pretty much every single day. To be honest I wish I hadn’t been listening to it because so much because I’ve almost ruined it for myself and now I’ve got to somehow detox myself from it before it gets released...but then again I believe in never accepting anything less than what I know I’m capable of. I’ll know when it’s done, I’ll just know. My debut album is a very intense and political record. It’s basically me exorcising 25 years worth of demons. I’m really excited about it.

MEL: How do you feel playing these songs live?

LOUISE: When I play on stage I go into a weird place in my head...

Mel: Are you somebody else on stage?

LOUISE: It’s the only time I feel at peace. Everything just goes blank and I feel a kind of comfort.

PHIL: What festivals are you playing this year?

LOUISE: There’s Strummercamp, Long Division Festival, Dogstock, Beacons, Rebellion, Ladyfest and some more festivals on my website.

MEL: Have you thought about getting a tour manager, to assist with transport and stuff?

LOUISE: I’ve definitely though about getting a friend to drive me around for some gigs, ‘cos it can be very difficult at times carrying all my merch, clothes and my guitar on the Megabus. I came back from my Holland dates with bruises on my shoulders and I was in pain so transport help would be cool for sure.

MEL: What about a Manager, as I noticed you do it all yourself, facebook and everything….

LOUISE: Managers are overrated. Until someone comes along who gives me a good vibe and can do something for me that I can’t do myself then that’ll be the time I look into it.

Since I began working with Steve Whale (who is producing my debut album) he’s also become my mentor in a way, and he has given me some really good advice that will last me a lifetime. He’s a really super smart guy, we work really well together and have alot of cool ideas. I’ve never had to compromise myself in any way shape or form so except for Steve’s involvement in my debut album and our working relationship (which was a natural progression) I wouldn’t entertain adding anymore cogs to the machine unless it was a natural progression that felt right, because I’d run the risk of screwing things up. There are alot of people in this business who have ulterior motives and who can’t be trusted so I’ve gotta watch my back.

PHIL: Is it just you and your guitar on the new album or are there other instruments?

LOUISE: Yeah it’s not strictly just a voice and guitar. There are additional instruments on there. Jamie from the UK Subs played drums on it and Mick Talbot from the Style Council is played keyboards. I’m playing everything else.

MEL: Do you think you’ll ever get a band together to play live?

LOUISE: I used to say no, but I think eventually I will get a band, but only in the right circumstances. If and when I do the band will be a group of people that I trust implicitly. But I think that’s another two to three years down the line. We’ll see.

PHIL: Do you have a clear idea of how you want to be portrayed and would you ever make a compromise about your image?

LOUISE: Yeah for sure, I would only ever portray myself in a way where I felt comfortable and confident and where I wasn’t being compromised in some way.
The media has a very strong influence on the way that society views women and how women view themselves. I think it’s important for female artists to be positive examples and show other women and young girls that they can be their own creative force regardless of what they look like, hence why in the music video for ‘The Hand You Hold’ I presented a deliberately de-sexualised image and why I will never ever use my body as a currency to sell records. What a woman has to say is way more valuable than how she looks and I think Adele and Kate Nash are great examples of that.

PHIL: It is very difficult to maintain control as soon as you get people in, they will start seeing you down roads you never thought.

LOUISE: People can analyse the industry and speculate all they want, but the bottom line is that if an artists motivation for making music is money, fame, groupies or whatever, then they are in it for the wrong reasons. It has to be about the music, its a very very hard business. The motivation has to be music and nothing else. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

MEL: How do you think you would cope with being really famous, if it happened to you?

LOUISE: Fame is just a by product and nothing else, I know for sure that it’s definitely not what people think it is at all. It’s lame and I don’t understand why anyone would deliberately set out to live out their life under a magnifying glass. I wouldn’t really want to speculate on how I may or may not cope with it because fame isn’t my motivation for creating music so I guess I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. What’s important to me is leaving the world in a better place than what I found it and the value of that exceeds any amount of money or fame. I hate this X Factor ‘anyone can be famous culture’.

PHIL: How much control do you have over your music, and do reviews matter?

LOUISE: I am 100% a DIY artist and I have complete control and direction over everything I do and create. I do literally everything myself and I have to play alot of different sorts of roles.  It definitely isn’t an easy task and it’s exhausting but as I said the more cogs I add to the machine, the more likely it is to break. Reviews do matter to me, but only in the respect that I think it’s important for artists to have press because otherwise an artists potential audience won’t know that the artist exists. With regards to the reviewers critique of my music, if they like it - cool, and if they don’t like it - so what? If I cared what other people think I’d be placing restrictions. Boundaries and expectations upon myself which are just conducive to the writing process anyway. Art is about freedom. If someone gives me a bad review it’s not going to stop me from writing because it’s in my blood.

MEL: It’s still really hard for a woman in the music industry. There still aren’t enough female musicians out there. Has it been difficult being a solo female artist?

LOUISE: Women are still very under-represented in music. It’s still very male dominated and it stems right back to that negative portrayal of women in the media and all the casual sexism that filters through into everyday life and despite popular belief it does exist in the punk scene. I experience sexism every single day and it pisses me off, I hate the prejudice that’s out there but I refuse to see myself as a victim because that would be a defeatist attitude to have and I definitely don’t see my gender as an obstacle. I think Brody Dalle said it best, “I don’t play guitar with my fucking vagina so what difference does it make?”

MEL: What advice would you give to female musicians starting out?

LOUISE: I’d just say that you’ve got to live by your own politics and do everything on your own terms and don’t let anyone else tell you how to look, think, feel or act. If you want to pick up a guitar then just do it and expressing yourself. You don’t have to be a size zero and you don’t have to be the best singer or guitar player because it’s art and art is freedom of expression and no matter what, never compromise yourself and always do it on your own terms.

MEL: Do you get a lot messages from your fans?

LOUISE: I get a lot of messages from alot of different types of people, some of the stuff that they tell me is horrendous. It’s really bad. There are alot of people out there that spend their entire life walking in shadows, because fear and prejudice dominates their life, which is why I wrote my song 'Love Me, The Way I Am’, the title speaks for itself really. It’s a call for everyone to step out of those shadows and begin living their lives as their true selves and to be proud of who they are...to accept and love one another for who they are. In a world where complete honesty, love, compassion and acceptance exists, only then can we start to move forward together and make the world a better place.

MEL: Final question, do you have a life plan and what's on your agenda?

LOUISE: I feel like I should say yes, but I’d be lying if I said yes. My life is so different from one day to the next so I can’t ever make plans because I’m never around anymore. I just tend to live my life from day to day, making decisions based on my gut instinct and doing whatever I feel like at the time. All I know is that I want to leave the world better than I found it, and who knows what journey life is going to take me on? The only thing I have cared about for a very long time is my message and releasing my debut album, which will hopefully be out later on in the year, and from then on I’m hoping to be on the road for a couple of years promoting it. I’ll definitely be going back to Europe, and hopefully the states but either way I am laying down the foundations for everything now. I’m just about to enter a blackout phase, for a short while and upon my return there will be some pretty exciting news and some pretty big changes. Stay tuned!

www.louisedistras.co.uk 

Interview by Melanie Smith & Phil King
Photos by Melanie Smith – www.mudkissphotography.co.uk