I remember the first time I heard Lush. Their sound was dreamy, frenetic, layered, and sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before. They were different, but had a strong pop sensibility. When I saw them live I was impressed by the sheer joy emanating from the stage, both during and between songs. The music had a mysterious air, but the band lacked pretense and clearly enjoyed having fun with each other and their fans. Lush also had incredible songs. Principal songwriters Miki Berenyi (lead vocals, guitar) and Emma Anderson (lead guitar, backing vocals) penned some of the finest guitar pop of their era, and Lush’s influence on other bands can be heard to this day.
Lush formed in late ‘80s London and had many notable achievements in the years that followed: signing to 4AD, touring on Lollapalooza 2, and appearing on Top of the Pops (the only 4AD band ever to do so). Sadly, it all came to an end in October of 1996 when drummer Chris Acland unexpectedly took his own life. Miki, Emma, and bassist Phil King (who replaced Steve Rippon in 1992) grieved the loss of their friend and officially split in 1998. Phil became a touring member of The Jesus & Mary Chain, Emma formed a new band called Sing-Sing that was active until 2007, and Miki retreated almost completely from music. The years wore on and a Lush reunion seemed not to be.
Then, in September 2015, Miki, Emma, and Phil announced a Lush reunion with Justin Welch (previously of Spitfire and Elastica) joining on drums for a limited number of 2016 live dates, as well as the release of an EP of brand new material called Blind Spot. In the buildup to the live shows and new EP, the band reissued the compilation Ciao! (on vinyl for the first time). They likewise released a comprehensive CD box set titled Chorus, and a Record Store Day limited vinyl box set of their out-of-print albums called Origami. I spoke individually with Miki and Emma in the weeks leading up to the release of Blind Spot about the first Lush live dates since 1996 and more.
The announcement of the Lush reunion has generated heartfelt excitement with your fans. What emotions are you experiencing?
MB: Quite a lot of panic! Actually, do you know what? It’s been more frightening thinking about it. The actual doing of it is fine. When we went in to record the EP, I was quite terrified of being back in the studio again. It’s been 20 years! It’s the same with the live shows, but when I rehearse it’s nice because we stand around and play music all day. Once we’re doing it, it’s really enjoyable. I’m hoping the gigs will be the same, because at the moment I’m absolutely terrified! But I think we’ll get there.
EA: We’ve had kids and day jobs, so coming back into the fray has been quite daunting. Being middle-aged as well, it’s scary having your photo taken and thinking, "Oh, we don’t look like we used to!" But the fan reaction has been lovely and very heartwarming. There’s been a [critical] reappraisal of our music, which has been really nice; especially in the U.K., where the music press back in the ‘90s was very gossip-y and a bit tabloid. I think our music got lost in that. And now, especially since Chorus came out, people are actually listening to the records and saying they stood the test of time quite well and the songwriting is good. It’s been really nice after all this time to have a little bit of vindication!
The songs on Blind Spot sound fresh, yet are instantly recognizable as Lush songs. What was the songwriting like, compared to past efforts?
EA: On this record I wrote all the music and Miki wrote all the lyrics. It’s different from what we used to do back in the day when she wrote her songs and I wrote my songs.
MB: I did not have any time to write music [for Blind Spot], so I said to Emma, "I’ll do the lyrics and that will give you extra time to work on the music." It was a really different way of writing for us. We have got occasional Lush songs where Emma wrote the music and I would write the lyrics, but it wasn’t really the way we did things.
That’s interesting, because even with two songwriters and varied production styles, there’s a distinctive character to Lush songs.
MB: I think we feed off each other quite a lot. In the old days with Lush we would write our songs [separately], then we’d rehearse them as a band, then we’d go in the studio and demo them. It would be a long process.
Had you done any songwriting since Sing-Sing disbanded, Emma?
EA: Between Sing-Sing and the Lush reunion I had a baby, day jobs, and I sort of thought it was going to be over, actually. A few years ago somebody suggested that I have a go at writing for other people. I submitted a few songs, but it didn’t come to anything. I don’t even know if the person I gave them to pushed them. I get the feeling it’s a closed shop, that whole area. I’m not one of those people who plays the guitar every day. I have to know there’s a reason for doing it. I have to know if I write a song someone is going to hear it. I don’t write just for my own pleasure. People say, "Why don’t you play in the local band, in the pub, just for fun?" That’s just not my style; I just do what I do. It’s quite personal and I have to be with the right people to do it.
Prior to the Blind Spot lyrics, had you done any songwriting over the years, Miki?
MB: I haven’t written anything. Nothing. Not a single note. The only thing I’ve done is an occasional guest vocal. So, when I had to do the lyrics for these new songs, it did take quite a long time. It’s quite weird getting back in the saddle. There’s a massive perspective shift from writing 20 years ago: what I’m interested in writing about and what subjects spring to mind. I was trying to listen to old Lush records and I thought, "Right, what did I used to write about?" What I realized was that I had to write about something that I really cared about, and I care about different things now that I’m nearly 50. That’s quite tricky, to find something that you can write about that doesn’t sound really boring. I’m not saying I want to appeal to 22 year olds, but when you get to my age, what are you going to write about? Motherhood, getting old, or whatever the fuck it is? I don’t have any experience with making that sound interesting, so it did take quite a long time. They [lyrics] were written, rewritten, and rewritten.
What experiences were you able to connect with to get a lyrical flow going?
MB: I think because the big barrier with the reformation has always been Chris’ death, I had to write about that first. The first lyric that I wrote was for "Lost Boy." Beyond that, it was trickier. They are songs about love; but whereas in the past it was boyfriend/ girlfriend/sexual, now it’s just different, isn’t it? It’s family relationships, and it’s about children. I suppose there’s a strand. They are still fairly nebulous.
What’s your songwriting process like, Emma?
EA: It’s so hard describing how I do it. I just think of melodies. Melodies come into my head. I could be walking down the road; I could be playing guitar on the sofa. I start building chords around the melodies. Sometimes I use a Dictaphone on my phone to tape them. I still say, "Tape!" to record them. I amass a few and sometimes I put some together to make a song; sometimes I write a whole song in one go. Sometimes I write a song in a half an hour; sometimes it will take me a month. I can’t really tell you much more than that. I know there are methods of doing it, but for me, it’s just "pluck something out of the air."
So you are not necessarily sitting down with a guitar when you begin writing a song?
EA: More often than not I’m not playing the guitar when I think of a melody. I might have the chords behind the melody in my head, but I have to sit down afterwards and work out what they are. I can’t sit down and go, "Right, I’m going to write a song today." It doesn’t work like that, unfortunately! I’m certainly not lyric-led either. I’m melody-led.
What’s your songwriting process like, Miki?
MB: I remember having this Roland R-8 drum machine. I’m a bit more mathematical in that [songwriting] approach. I would actually quite often start with the drums, program those, and move from there. For Emma, it’s very much about the melody and the tune. I think that’s why sometimes some of her songs are almost jarring, especially when she puts [writes] a bass line down. The amount of times I’ve sat in a studio and people have gone, "That note is wrong." And she’s like, "I want it like that; that’s what I’m hearing!" We’re not classically trained; it’s all by instinct. As restrictive as that is for us – because we are not brilliant musicians – it’s also liberating in a way, because we don’t know the rules.
Sometimes finding things that way gives you a unique signature.
MB: There are benefits and deficits to both [training and instinct]. There have been many times I have been massively frustrated by my lack of ability and knowledge. I absolutely stand up to that, but there is that kind of "necessity being the mother of invention."
Let’s talk about recording Blind Spot. Who produced the EP?
MB: Jim Abbiss (producer of Arctic Monkeys and Adele) and Daniel Hunt from Ladytron. Emma is friends with Danny, and Jim produced Ladytron’s The Witching Hour. Jim and Danny were keen to do another project together, so this became it!
How did you and Danny become friends, Emma?
EA: I had a day job working for Danny’s management company. The first day I met him I was sitting behind my desk at the computer and he was looking at me. Then we went to the pub and he said, "Are you Emma Anderson from Lush?" I was like, "Yeah." And he said, "Oh, my God. I was a massive Lush fan when I was a teenager!" We really hit it off; now he’s co-producing our record! It’s funny how things turn out!
What was the recording process for Blind Spot?
MB: It was quite difficult to arrange logistically; Emma and I had our work and family commitments, and Danny lives in Brazil! But it was really great fun and very productive.
EA: It was actually done in stages. The first part was with done with Danny [remotely in Brazil]. We were sending files back and forth across the ocean! I did my home demos on GarageBand and I sent them to him. He took the demos and built on them with keyboards, quite a lot of effects, and some guitar. We sent Danny drums that Justin had recorded remotely [for "Out of Control" and "Burnham Beeches"] and he edited those as well. He did quite a lot, but he didn’t do any structural changes. Some of what you hear on there is actually from my home demos! The beginning of "Lost Boy" is my original guitar. The second stage was with Jim Abbiss [at Jim’s studio, Lime Green Monkeys, in Saffron Walden, England]. Danny was in the studio for that part as well, and even did a little bit of vocal! If you can hear some male vocal in there, that’s Danny. Jim recorded vocals, more guitar, bass, trumpet, and strings. Audrey Riley, whom we’ve worked with many times in the past, arranged the strings. It was a different way of recording for Lush, but it was good; it worked well. If we do another record we might try and get Justin into a studio with everybody else. I think it would work better.
What is the set up at Lime Green Monkeys like?
MB: It’s based around a vintage SSL G console, and Jim has tons of older EQs and compressors. We recorded to Pro Tools, but the signal first went through various outboard mic pres, compressors, and effects. It has a large-ish live room and various booths for guitars and bass amps.
How was your experience back in the studio after all these years?
MB: It was really enjoyable and I was surprised how quickly it gelled. It was exciting! Danny and Jim had massive enthusiasm for the record, which is irreplaceable. Edd Hartwell [studio engineer] was also brilliant; he’s an amazing tech head and a total sweetheart. Everyone felt really creative and it was good fun, which is really the best way to make a record. Doing the vocals with Jim was brilliant, because I haven’t sung properly in a studio for decades. It’s a real talent to get someone to feel comfortable when they’re not that confident. I think confidence was a good 50% of it. I was agonizing about "Rosebud," because I demoed it with a friend of Emma’s and it had been really shaky. I thought it was going to be a nightmare to sing. I did one take and Jim was like, "That was great! We just need to drop in a few notes and that’s it." I was amazed.
"Rosebud" stood out to me on the first listen. It’s amazing to hear that your vocals are mostly a first take!
MB: What makes a good producer? Of course they have to have a great ear, know what they want to hear, and what they need to record; but I think that ability to work with people, to make them feel comfortable and get the best out of them is such a massive part of it.
You’re one of my favorite singers. There’s something about your vocals that really pulls me in. Do you have a preferred way of working to achieve sincere and convincing performances? Is it full passes and comp-ing, or line-by-line?
MB: My god, I wish I was professional enough to give you a succinct answer! I usually stand there thinking, "Oh, my God. This is going to be a fucking nightmare." I stare through some bit of glass at some producer, desperately hoping that it sounds alright, swearing in between songs saying, "Stop, stop, stop. I’ll start again; it’s awful!" There is no professionalism in my vocal technique, whatsoever. I don’t have a huge amount of confidence about it. I’m desperate for it to sound okay and I’m grateful when it does.
There’s a lot of vulnerability to singing in the studio.
MB: I grew up in the post-punk era. It’s all right to be a bit shit at playing the guitar and it doesn’t matter. It’s about the song, and if that sounds good – and you can play the chords – then it’s absolutely fine. There’s something so exposing about vocals. I think it’s tougher when you’re a vocalist, because you feel like if you haven’t got the natural talent you’re always climbing up hill. There are singers who can open their mouths and it’s powerful, and in-tune, and it’s confident, and spot-on. I don’t have any of that. I go in and I think, "God, please let it be alright." When I did the demo of "Rosebud" I kept going flat and didn’t sound very expressive. I thought, "Before I go in the studio I need to have a singing lesson." There was this girl – she was great. She said, "You don’t need to hold the notes that long, and don’t worry so much about the pitch. Just think about what you’re actually saying." They were really good tips. I’m not someone who has had this sort of input before. But it’s a bit of a playoff, between getting things pitch perfect or actually thinking about what you’re singing and expressing that. You can try and express what you’re singing, and it can sound really hammy. There’s an element of acting involved, so it’s really tricky.
Do you have a favorite vocal mic or vocal chain you feel responds well to your voice?
MB: That’s down to the producer. We did try three different mics on Blind Spot and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what Jim used. "Rosebud" was just single tracked and that’s unusual for Lush. Nearly everything we do [vocally] is double tracked. "Out of Control" was the one I struggled the most on and it fucking took hours! It was double tracked and it wasn’t really working. It’s in a weird part of my range and didn’t have any power behind it. Jim said, "Sing it straight, and then do an overdub where it’s really breathy." It was really interesting to get that sort of direction, and the tracks all worked together. We’ve always had that with Lush where the vocals are used almost like a musical instrument. It’s not a vocal performance, it has to sit in the track. It’s part of the music.
The guitar sounds on the EP harken back to the dreamy side of Lush. How did you capture these sounds?
EA: Jim said, "Bring all your effects and amps." Miki still has hers [guitars and effects], but I said, "I don’t have any," because I didn’t! I still had all my guitars, but I didn’t have anything else. Back in the day I used these rack mount things, and I got rid of them because I didn’t like them. We made this record before we’d been back in a rehearsal room, and I thought I’d get all of that set up when we started rehearsing for the live show. That’s why we used all of Jim’s stuff. But now I’ve got my own, so next time! I typically use delay, chorus, overdrive, and tremolo; those are the main ones. I’ve never used a reverb on my amp when I play live. I leave that to the producer, or to the soundman when playing live. MB: Various amps were used, including an Ampeg Reverberocket, Fender Vibrolux, Marshall JMP 50, and a Vox AC30. We went through different combinations of pedals on different songs, often using a ‘70s MXR Chorus, Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy, a DigiTech Polara Reverb and an Empress Superdelay. Then more effects were used in the mix, including a Bandive Great British Spring and an Ursa Major Space Station. We recorded DI signals, but didn’t do any re-amping in the end.
What decisions did you all make regarding touring, considering family, jobs, and your renewed relationships as bandmates?
MB: It’s been really tricky, because we all have children. I am not one for dragging kids around on tour, and I don’t like being away from my family at all! I am also working full time at Web User Magazine, so I effectively have two jobs now, which is exhausting. But this is the only way it could be done. It has limited what we can do; we simply can’t go off on a month-long tour, or spend weeks on end in the studio. But it’s been great working together again, and playing with Justin onboard has been a joy.
How has preparation for the live performances been going? Has it been emotionally difficult at times rehearsing the old songs without Chris?
MB: It’s actually been really easy. Part of why I ducked out of the music industry was that after Chris died, there was a big hole. Chris made it such a great experience being in the band. Without him it felt like, "Do I really want to do this?" Justin is such a nice person. He is quite similar to Chris, in a way. He’s very upbeat, and a sweet and friendly guy. He was a good friend of Chris’ as well. It’s gelled really well. It hasn’t felt like, "It’s not Chris, it doesn’t feel right," or, "We shouldn’t be doing this." It’s been really good.
What are your expectations for festival performances, which are likely to include broader audiences than your headline shows?
MB: That’s a weird one, isn’t it? I don’t really know what to expect from them. I am quite nervous about playing live. We are rehearsing quite a lot and I just want to get to the stage where I can play without having to think too much about it. That’s what makes you able to enjoy the gig and interact with people: when you’re not standing there thinking, "Oh fucking hell! What are the chords to the song?"
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year, Emma?
EA: I’m looking forward to making a new record, at some point. We’re already starting to talk about that. I’ve got a few songs knocking about and I’d quite like to get back in the studio. We hadn’t been playing as a band when we made Blind Spot. We have now, and it would be really good to get back in with Justin, hopefully. I think we’ll all fit into our roles a bit more. It’s been really good rehearsing and feeling like a band again. It was a bit strange without Chris at first, but Justin is fantastic. The reaction has been great so far, so we just hope to keep that up and not disappoint anyone!
A part of it has got to be for your own satisfaction, too.
EA: Yeah, it’s funny, especially after having a child, to get back in a band. We are older, and wiser, and have a different perspective. I think we know what we want a lot more now, and what we don’t want as well. The music business is a tricky one to navigate, but hopefully we’ll get through it.
What are you looking forward to the most, Miki?
MB: Playing live. It’s the thing I really enjoyed the most, when it was good. There were times when it was exhausting. There’s nothing that matches that energy and excitement of playing your music, and getting immediate feedback. It’s great to be in a room, create something, and have loads of people really into it. That is why I’m working really hard, so we can have a really good time at these gigs. I want to come away from that and go, "That was brilliant!"