A hangover can’t slow Sarah Chadwick down. Sitting in a North Fitzroy café, fittingly on Anzac Day, the singer and rhythm guitarist for New Zealand expatriates Batrider pushes a 3pm breakfast to one side and coaxes more tea from the pot. Chadwick and her bandmates – guitarist Julia McFarlane, drummer Tara Wilcox and bassist Toby Morris – were out drinking with friends till 6am following the successful Melbourne launch of their first Australian release, the extended EP They Said You’re Hideous, at the Northcote Social Club.
Six tracks that mix a caterwauling indie clatter with vicious guitar grooves, the EP was salvaged from an album released in their homeland two years ago. Since then they’ve relocated to Melbourne and began to build a following with uncompromising live shows, as well as an approach to artwork and promotional posters (completed by band members) that’s distinguished them visually.
The songs on They Said You’re Hideous barely sound a day old – revulsion has rarely sounded so fresh. Naturally, Chadwick is vivacious and impertinent, unafraid to discuss herself, critically if necessary, and her art; in other words, she’s not what you expect. The 23-year-old was born in the tiny town of Taumarunui, went to school in Hamilton, studied film for a year in Wellington, and then spent another two years getting drunk before Wilcox and McFarlane presented her with the idea of forming a band. It was a good idea.
M+N: Who are the “they” of They Said You’re Hideous?
Sarah Chadwick: It’s aimed at the arseholes of the world. When we used to play gigs in New Zealand and everyone used to stand at the back or just refuse to get into it and judge you really hard, we’d use that to psyche each other up. We’d be backstage going, “They think you’re hideous!” It’s for the people in the crowd who just want to see you fuck up.
M+N: Were you always able to transform that kind of adverse emotional energy?
People’s negative response still bum me out, but you just can’t worry about it. If you let it bother you a little it will end up bothering you a lot, and the next thing you know you’re writing songs that other people will like. Even this morning, on the internet, there was negative shit about last night.
Yeah, he must have really hated us. That’s bumming, for a split second you wonder if you did suck, but there’s no point wondering whether other people hated it, you’ve just got to carry on.
M+N: Was there a point when you realised facing down negativity could be a kind of energy?
In high school heaps of people from this other school didn’t like me because I slept with someone else’s boyfriend and I got all this real negative shit – people I didn’t know were calling me “whore” to my face and it just felt like even before that I’d had so much negativity in my life. Around the same time I started getting into music and I went to the [1998 Auckland] Big Day Out and I saw all these people that hated me and I was like, “Fuck you, these are my bands and I really like them”. My attitude that day was, “You think I’m a hideous slut, but I’m here and you can’t do anything to me.”
M+N: What were those bands?
Foo Fighters played early on and I crowd surfed and lost my shoes, but someone passed them over the barrier to me. Hole and Marilyn Manson played as well.
M+N: How long did it take you to be able to translate what you felt inside into a song?
Lyrically it came easily, because I always wrote. At high school I wanted to be a writer. But musically it’s still hard because I’m not a good guitarist – I still rely heavily on Julia and Tara because I can write a basic song, but they make it sound weird while I just play E minor over and over again.
M+N: You’ve previously said that you only know three chords. Any plans on acquiring a fourth?
I learnt piano for 10 years and I used to be quite good at that, but I just can’t get around guitar. I keep hoping that one day I’ll pick it up and suddenly be awesome, but that day just hasn’t come.
M+N: Was piano for a decade a parental dictate? My mum tried to make me do everything. I tried ballet when I was little, but I was really uncoordinated and clumsy. I’ve done everything – gymnastics and jazz ballet, violin and double bass. I wasn’t good at any of those things.
M+N: When did that end?
When I joined a band. I realised I didn’t need to do all that lame shit. The thing I remember about jazz ballet was having this really tight skirt – I chose it over one that actually fit because it had all these frilly bits on it.
M+N: When did you first lose control of your emotions in a song?
I think because I’m not a very good guitarist, that what I lack in playing and singing I make up for with gusto. I’m aware of my musical limitations, so I always knew that one thing I could do was show my emotions and not be embarrassed about it. It goes back to high school – people were so ratshit to me for so long that there’s nothing mean left for people to say to me. I’ve heard it all. Nothing’s new. So I know I’m not the world’s best guitarist or singer, and some of the songwriting is average, but I can make up for it with emotion and that’s what we connect with. I’d rather see someone like that than someone technically gifted who doesn’t care.
M+N: It’s an interesting time to be pursuing that, given that emotion is out of favour. Terms like angular, removed and distance all communicate a retreat from emotion.
One way or another people are always like that. Feeling bad has a really bad rep. I feel like I’ve had quite a rough year in terms of shit going on, but I woke up this morning and realised that you have to embrace that. It’s all part of what’s going on in your life. I’ve got friends who act surprised when something goes wrong; they’re personally affronted when shit doesn’t go their way. That’s stupid, heaps of life goes that way. Just going “Everything’s fine!” makes it worse.
M+N: That ties into the culture that prescribes anti-depressants for the slightest emotional hiccup.
I went to Myer with my parents yesterday and I was thinking that it was soulless in just every way possible. People say they have a problem with corporations on a monetary level, but it’s the lack of emotion that matters. Myer has a beautiful façade, like much of everything, but there’s nothing behind it.
M+N: Given what music has taught you, how do you interact with your family?
My parents are from New Zealand and they brought my grandma and uncle with them, who I don’t get along with at all. We were at this café and my uncle was just such an arsehole to the staff and I’d just had a gutful of it. I was like, “That’s fucked, do you have to be so rude?” He lost it and called me arrogant and said that he should be allowed to say anything to them, yet I couldn’t say what I thought to him. He and my grandmother will go to places and be real rude, just so that people will react and then they can say to each other, “The service here is dreadful!” I think my uncle is having a mid-life crisis and because he’s real obscure and the maitre’d was young and hip, he felt like he was being judged, so he was determined to try and take him down. Of all the emotions insecurity is the one most perversely expressed.
M+N: It fuels all the others, for the worse.
Insecurity is emotional stock.
M+N: The first time I heard They Said You’re Hideous I barely understand a word, yet it made complete sense.
That’s a credit to Julia and Tara and Toby.
M+N: Does the CD feel optimistic to you?
We have a lot of writing on our website and a lot of people think its pretentious, they take it as us being better than everyone else and wanking on about it. People I meet who react to us like that I always end up thinking they’re wankers anyway. It’s not for those people, it’s for people who can be comfortable about feeling bad, people who’ve known what it’s like to feel bad in life. You don’t have to feel bummed out that so much shit sucks. We all think so much stuff sucks, but we can enjoy the fact that we think that – there’s a kind of solidarity in that. It’s like being in a bar by yourself and one other person is alone and everyone else is having a great time in groups. You might not speak to that person who is by themself, but you both feel better for knowing that the other one is there.
M+N: So what happens when there are 300 people in a room, supporting that idea?
Last night did make me question stuff. On one hand I – we – are saying that we’re losers, but on the other hand we’re trying to succeed by being that. I feel weird about that. Playing to that many people feels depressing in a way, it kinda defeats the purpose of being intimate.
M+N: Does size make a gig like that a mass celebration?
Everyone’s having a great time and 300 people have actually paid money to see you and you can’t help feeling happy about that. I always treasure the shows where we played to four people who hated us, but there was one guy down the back who looks real straggly and busted his arse to get there and really liked it. That’s when I feel our show the most.
M+N: You’ve talked in the past about your disgust with conventional notions of beauty and the sheer weight of mainstream advertising promoting it – have you ever sabotaged a piece of corporate culture?
We used to do shit like that when we were young and drunk. Rugby [union] is real big in New Zealand, so naturally we hated it and once my and Julia and our friend Daniel climbed over this fence to get at this massive billboard at a sporting arena. There was this slogan at the time, “Rugby is a ball, pass it on”, so we spray-painted, “Rugby is a disease, pass it on”, on there. But what else can you do if you’re drunk and unemployed?
M+N: How long did the amendment last?
A couple of days, I think. We were really proud of it.
M+N: What does the image of the EP’s back sleeve – two people having sex in the missionary position, with the man vomiting on the women – say to you?
What do you take from that?
M+N: That something pleasurable can also disgust people.
That’s what I like about those things – they can be taken different ways. If you have ambiguous song lyrics they’ll have their own interpretation. When I drew that picture it was about the girl and how she looked freaked out even as they’re having sex. It was quite a personal thing for me.
M+N: How do you remember the early days of Batrider?
Now we’re definitely coming into our own, but when you first start a band you just want to sound like someone else. Me and Julia used to be obsessed with sounding like Human Waste Project.
M+N: You’re just 23-years-old, which means a 21-year-old recorded the EP, but you don’t sound like that.
Are you saying I’m a weary old woman! No, I only feel old when I’m feeling extra sorry for myself.
M+N: What’s your remedy for that?
No remedy, I tend to wallow. I like watching movies, so my boyfriend gave me a portable DVD player so I could watch a film in bed or in the bath.
M+N: Are there filmmakers whose work you feel a compatibility with?
I really like Lars Von Trier. I really, really liked Dogville. I loved The Royal Tenenbaums, probably because I’d loved J.D. Salinger’s Glass family stories. The Royal Tenenbaums is so sad. The soundtrack takes songs that are often optimistic and sweet and makes them feel melancholy. Sometimes I wish our songs could be like that. It’s like The Stone Roses: they sound happening, but there’s still a depressing element to it. I hope that we can be not so obvious in the future.
M+N: Have you figured out how to do that for the album recording sessions?
No, I don’t know how to do it. I can barely explain it. That’s probably why people react it – you just recognise it, you just know you’re watching a funny movie with Bill Murray in it and it’s so sad.
M+N: How many people in the world are you completely open with?
There’s my boyfriend – we’ve been together for three years now. Maybe one friend. I feel like a lot of my friends from school have dropped off.
M+N: Do you want to give a shout out to your alma mater?
No, because I got expelled from there. A lot of those girls were my close friends because we lived together at the school, but as time goes on I catch up with them and realise that we’re now disappointing each other. One of them became a real bigot. I often wonder if I’m too hard on people – I’ve been friends with her for 12 years, so maybe I should be able to get over the fact that she thinks that Maori people shouldn’t be given anything. But once I hear someone say anything I don’t like, that’s it. Over. I think people can tell I don’t like them. Should I call my uncle a wanker? Maybe not.
M+N: A lot of people probably wish they could do that.
I definitely haven’t found a happy medium yet. Maybe it’s a matter of not what you say, but how you say it.
M+N: But that rawness, that honesty, also informs your music.
It seems like such a simple thing, but I can’t decide. Half the time I think I’m completely right, but the other half I think I’m completely fucked up and need to rethink everything I do.
M+N: Did getting expelled work for you?
It worked out really well. All my friends were quite conservative. One’s a doctor, one’s a teacher, and I would have probably gone to Dunedin, the boozy student town, and studied journalism. But I stayed with this girl and her family and she went to gigs. I started to hang out with Julia more; we hadn’t been friends previously because she had piercings and spiky hair.
M+N: What do you do to support yourself now?
Nothing, because I quit my job. Unfortunately I was working in hospitality and I hated it. People who hate other people shouldn’t be in an industry that’s called hospitality and people with anxiety problems shouldn’t be in a high-stress job.
M+N: Do you get uptight about your emotional balance?
My mum will say something like, “Let’s go to the casino”, and I’ll tell her, “The casino is tormenting and depressing” and she’ll tease me about it. But I just know what I like; I know what makes me happy. If I didn’t have those few things that mattered to me everything in life truly would suck. I went and saw Cat Power, who I’m obsessed with, at Manchester Lane last year and I really built it up. It had been a long time since I’d been so excited about something. I was so excited I felt like writing something of my own. The idea of seeing Cat Power completely inspired me. She was completely shit and I walked out of there crying. I hated her for a couple of months.
M+N: Did feeling horrible that night inspire you to write something that night?
It did, but it was completely shit.
M+N: Why are you credited as Sarah Mary Chadwick on the EP sleeve?
I started doing that as an affectation when I was young, because I was a wanker and I wanted to be like Sylvia Plath and shit. Now people meet me and they say, “Hello, Sarah Mary” and I really wish I hadn’t done that. If I change it back I’ll have to admit it was an affectation so I feel like it’s partially stuck to me.
M+N: Are you surprised when people treat you differently, when they elevate you, because you’ve performed for them?
Last night I was talking to this girl who introduced herself and said she was from New Zealand and this little guy, maybe just 18, piped up and he said, “My name’s Aden and I’m not from New Zealand, but I think you’re really cool, Sarah!” He was so nice about it that I was embarrassed. But this other guy we met was like, “I’ve just been over in New York playing with Thurston and those dudes.” Obviously he meant Thurston Moore, but we didn’t react. Someone said, “Thurston who?” He said, “Thurston Moore” and we still pretended not to know whom he meant. Then he said, “Sonic Youth”, but we kept pretending not to know. If someone’s nice about it it’s flattering, especially because I’m not very nice to people I don’t know very well. I wouldn’t meet someone like that little dude Aden otherwise. It’s kinda cool because I become such a dick around anyone remotely famous.