“Gob-rock”, raw animal energy, and a good damn time is what you get when you see the Stiff Cats perform live. Once upon a time, you may have seen vocalist Emily Johnstone perform at The Old Firehouse in Exeter – with a flower in her hair, of course – as part of The Big V. Since then, Emily and The Big V’s guitarist, Richard have moved to Barcelona. There, their fates crossed with that of drummer, Matan, and bassist, Pablo. The rest is Stiff Cats history. Below, Nickie Shobeiry, along with photographer Simon Edward Johns (who was there from the very start) talks to Emily about it all.
How did you all meet?
Well, Richard and I met with The Big V. One thing led to another and we moved to Barcelona in October. We then spent six months desperately looking for a drummer, trying different guys and girls, and it was just not working – and then finally, Matan fell into our lives! The first time we met him, he had this long, rock ‘n’ roll, curly black hair, and I thought “This is the one, baby!” – and then we heard him play. The man is a fucking beast. Anyway, we weren’t going to have a bass player, and then Matan suggested we meet Pablo, and it was love at first sight. We’ve only been a band together for three months, man! It’s all moving very quickly.
Simon: So you met Pablo, your bassist, through Matan, your drummer?
Actually, I had met Pablo before – I’d sung to him on top of a mountain, and he thought to himself “I need to join this band, but I don’t want to be the drummer” – so he’s now the bass player. I’d completely forgotten about that until he reminded me.
What was it like when you all played together for the first time?
The first time was beautiful; we played Murder Song, which is one of my favourites from The Big V. It’s very piano-led, and without a bass, would have been impossible. It was one of those moments where we knew we had it. Pablo and Matan already had this deep connection, and then obviously Ricardo and I – well, it’s always enjoyable.
Simon: And how did that mixture of words come about, “Stiff Cats”?
Who doesn’t like cats, man?! I think it sums up our personality. We are definitely… tense animals. The logo is inspired by a beautiful Burmese blue, a cat we met named “Chairman Meow”.
And how would you describe your own sound?
Gob rock, psychedelic – dripping with erotic tension.
You come from a very musical family – did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
Oh, hell yeah. Unfortunately, I have to do other things too at the moment, but hopefully one day, it’ll be the only thing I have to do.
As for song writing – how does your material come about?
It depends, it depends! For our most recent one, Whiskey and Wine, I was at a hen-do in Wales, and my boys were jamming here. I came back and they presented me with this perfectly structured song. Song-writing is an organic thing; you change it, you form it, you think “We need to make this better” – or worse. Sometimes Richard writes the whole thing, sometimes I write something on guitar and Richard makes it better. In fact, one of our songs was a beat that Matan played, and we just went around that.
Could you share your favourite memories from the stage?
Well, I don’t have many memories of the last gig we did, apart from the fact that it went down well! I used to play in a band called The Fabulous Good Time Party Boys, and there were 16 of us on stage in front of about 4,000 people at Beautiful Days festival, dressed up to the nine’s. One year we had a space theme, another year we had Christmas in August, and were throwing presents out into the audience. I joined The Levellers on stage at the end of the whole festival, and seeing that amount of people screaming at you with fireworks going off – get me a bigger stage! With the Stiff Cats, we’ve only done three gigs, and they’ve all been fucking awesome. I did fall to the floor at our last gig, a dramatic sort of throw-back, and sang the last lines of ‘Murder Song’ on my back.
How about the best venue you’ve played in?
Emily: Well, my favourite venue we ever played in with The Big V was a place in London called The Underbelly. It was beautifully decorated and had a really good vibe, and the promoter was fantastic. The gig we played last night here in Barcelona at Nevermind – it had a fucking skate ring inside it! It was a really cool venue, and it was full as well – a lot of strangers came in and watched us pretty mesmerized, from what I remember.
Simon: There was one girl in front that I particularly remember, almost going mad.
Emily: Oh, she is awesome! She’s going to do a video for us for our song Urchin. She dances with fire. We had a party in the woods, and it turned out it was her forest. She is one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen, and her dancing is insane. There’s a whole tribe of them and they do these crazy things with helmets and fire, and at that party she was dancing, and everything about it was moving together perfectly – her energetic and almost violent moves – it was great.
And how do you put that together with a music video? You did something similar with Mania?
I had a vision for Mania when I was walking down the street in Edinburgh. In the video, I appear in my mother’s wedding dress, which I’d already worn on stage once, and it fits me like a glove. Anyway, Simon and I spent the day filming in Exeter, and we got very drunk.
Simon: We systematically worked our way through whiskey, and at one point, Emily went to the toilet, came back in a wedding dress and said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here and start filming a video!”
I was there in my bridal gown and everyone was looking at me. We went running around Exeter, and the people in Book Cycle gave us loads of books and were really nice – then I was running down a hill. I would love to see people in Exeter dressed up, running around, doing stupid things. In fact, it was a really good video in the end, because Richard matched it with footage of nuclear weapons testing. It was quite a violent image and, oh my god, the ending is the best – Simon’s scene.
Simon: “And a pint of Creme de Menthe for me friend”!
I always tell people to wait for the end.
And how about the music video for Splinter?
It’s with a trapeze artist names Jowy. I love what people can do with their bodies when they train, and to do trapeze, you have to be so strong and graceful. She is a really beautiful dancer, and I’d always wanted to work with her, and finally it happened. We also want to work with her doing live performances where she’s doing trapeze, and me and Richard are playing – and maybe with the whole band.
Sounds amazing. I love your song Electric Velvet, too.
Oh, that is our favourite beat. That was written on Waikiki, just out of Barcelona. You have to walk through a forest to get to it, and it’s got white sand and turquoise sea – it’s a nudist beach. We spent a very happy day waking up super early in the morning. That was when me and Richard were traveling through France and Spain the first time, before deciding to move to Barcelona.
Could you compare the experience of performing in Exeter to Barcelona?
Playing to a full venue is the main difference – although saying that, the Old Firehouse was always great. For me, it’s all about the energy, and I feel so much happier in myself here. I think that comes across in the performance. I feel more alive.
Why do you think that is?
Here is a magical place.
What was the evolution like from The Big V to the Stiff Cats?
We’re a lot more feisty and heavy. We don’t do so much pop, and we’re a bit more psychedelic. We’re more wild and demonic on stage. I think the biggest difference is our heaviness, though. Hopefully our songs still have the same merit.
Simon mentioned something about “Gladys”?
Gladys! Gladys was an old persona of mine. It actually dates back to when I was about 18 with my best friend Ellie, who is another Gladys living in Taunton. I had the most inspiring woman teaching me English, and we were studying The Picture of Dorian Gray, and there’s a fabulous moment where Lord Wotton says, “I shall call everything Gladys.” Technically, everyone is Gladys. Then I was Violet, and now I’m just an emu.
Like the bird?
Like the bird. One of the names we were considering was “Emus in the Zone”, but we settled for Stiff Cats instead.
Do you have an on-stage persona?
Oh, no. I’m just me. I don’t think you have to have a specific name to be you.
Compared to Exeter, how does your experience in Spain affect your music?
I think living with sunshine in your life, and being surrounded by plants – I’ve become a bit of a gardening freak – gives you maybe more of a Bohemian vibe. You relax a little more. We were always frustrated in Exeter because we were limited by location, time, and money. Here, everything feels freer, and maybe our songs are a little more interesting because of it.
Do you have any favourite Exeter memories?
Oh, lots! The studio years were probably my favourite. We had a lot of parties – inflatable parties, Save the Rave parties, Alice in Wonderland parties. Everyone who’s been to a studio party knows we had a lot of fun, and Simon took lots of pictures of those.
You’re working on your EP now – how’s that going?
We were very lucky – it was our second gig, and a man who is giving us a little push brought along a producer, and this producer has a studio just north of Barcelona, on the beach. He loved the energy on stage, and he came here and we played the songs we’re thinking of. We have two and a half months before recording begins. We want to release The Boy Is Easily Broken again, because it sounds so different now – it’s such a good song, I don’t want to waste it. I want to write a hell of a lot more, and have twenty to thirty songs to choose from. It’s going to be a creative two months.
And how about your musical influences?
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – all the classics! Jimi Hendrix, Queens of the Stone Age, and actually, Fat White Family. They’re the best, best band who exist currently – full of raw, pure, sexual energy. But in terms of influences, it’s everything from Jefferson Airplane to Led Zeppelin to The Beach Boys – all of the real, rich classics. Much better than anything we see these days – ahem, Ellie Goulding. Do you want to hear some of our new lyrics?
I’d love to.
[Singing] “I’ll make a crucifix of blood and shit and little wooden twigs… and then I’ll burn, burn, burn, burn, burn Ellie Goulding.” And Katy Perry can go up in flames, too.
Ha! And what’s the best advice you’ve received as a musician, that you feel is relevant to everyone?
Obviously I didn’t receive it personally, but I love what John Lennon said in his book, Skywriting by Word of Mouth. He says that a lot of bands – a lot of people, I suppose – are so obsessed with making it, that they forget about their personal happiness. They make themselves miserable, because they forget to enjoy life while they go along. You have to be happy, otherwise there’s no point in being.
And if you could have any rider request in the world…?
Velvet and flowers. Just the classic alcohol – some good red wine. I’m a red wine and whiskey girl.
And what’s next on the horizon?
Writing, writing, writing! Recording, gigging. We want to get a van and start travelling around Europe.
It’s interesting, you guys were this big thing in Exeter, and now you’re here.
Well, as big as anyone can be in Exeter.
Big fish, small pond?
And now, we swim out to sea…
Photo credit: Simon Edward Johns