When NME launched its new series of gigs and events, Girls To The Front, there could be no finer band to play the inaugural event than Dream Wife, who along with being righteous ringleaders for ‘bad bitches’ everywhere, also happen to be one of the UK’s most kick-ass live acts. NME Editor Charlotte Gunn meets the band in London to hear how a group that started as a situationist art piece turned into a bona fide cultural movement. Pictures by Jenn Five.
Hip hop fans will be familiar with the notion of a bad bitch. Kanye finds them in expensive gym chains. They cause A$AP Rocky no end of bother and Tyga, according to Tyga, has signposted his appendage with “Bad Bitches Only”.
Tonight, at east London’s Shacklewell Arms, Bad Bitches are in demand again, only this time, there’s not a horny rapper in sight. It’s night one of NME’s Girls To The Front series – a run of live shows supporting female and non-binary talent – and Dream Wife are making their mission heard.
“To identify as a Bad Bitch, it’s very simple,” explains frontperson, Rakel Mjöll, to a crammed-full back room of 200 fans.
“All you have to do to be a bad bitch”, she pauses, scouring the crowd: “Is support your fellow bad bitches.” The people cheer. This sort of positivity is crack to us millennials.
“For this next song, I want all of you Bad Bitches to come to the front. If someone behind you can’t see, switch places.”
Given the sardine-can nature of the gig, it’s a miracle that people start to shuffle about. But before long, right up to the barrier, a sea of beaming women is formed. A mosh pit has never looked so inviting.
If you’ve ever been to a Dream Wife show, you’ll know, this is the band’s raison d’être. The punk trio, formed at art school in Brighton by way of Iceland and Somerset, are champions of female and non-binary talent and are determined to create safer spaces at gigs for women. But they don’t just shout about it – they practice what they preach.
“Growing up, we all felt somewhat outside of gig culture as women,” says Alice Go, Dream Wife’s badass, hundred-words-a-minute guitarist. “We want teenagers to come down to our shows and think this is a space for them.”
Together with charities such as Girls Against and Girls Rock, Dream Wife are creating those spaces and making that change, Bad Bitches to the front being just one thing they insist on whenever they play. Ahead of a recent US tour, the band put out an open call out for female and non-binary support acts to join them on the road. When applications came in at close to 500, they had some tough decisions to make.
“The idea that there aren’t enough women who play music is absurd. It’s bullshit.” says Rakel, on the topic of male-dominated festival lineups. “Everybody just needs a break and everybody needs a platform.”
And they’re right. From composers to songwriters to producers, the story is the same – the amount of successful women in the music industry is a tiny percentage of that of men, but not because there isn’t the appetite, but because they’re not given the platforms to create and be heard. While Hollywood was saying no more to sexual abuse and repression, the music world was still celebrating male ‘icons’ who famously had a penchant for young women. It’s an outdated and shameful narrative, and something Dream Wife are determined to help shift.
“The roles of men and women and their definitions are being questioned and redefined by the times, in all avenues”, says Bella Podpadec, Dream Wife bassist, the most pensive of the three. “It’s an interesting conversation.”
The band’s experiences of a male-dominated industry have fuelled their fight for change. Whether it’s turning up to a show and not being taken seriously, being creeped out by leery men post-gig or being labelled a ‘girl band’, Dream Wife are spurred on by the music industry’s imbalance.
“Just because a group of people with vaginas play music, it doesn’t make them a ‘girl band’,” says Rakel, irritated by the thought of it. “It’s this idea of a ‘girl band’ being a pop group put together by male executives. Our peers aren’t being called ‘boy bands’. It really pisses me off when we get asked, ‘Do you write your own songs?’ It’s like: who else is going to write them?”
But with a diverse crowd at tonight’s gig, do they worry about alienating their male fans?
“It’s not our job to satisfy men; we’re here to rock out!” says Alice, to affirmations from her bandmates.
“If they don’t want to engage in that space they can just go to a different show,” echoes Bella. “There are loads of bands playing dude music to dudes. Go listen to that.”
Back at the point of Dream Wife’s inception, though, they had simpler goals in mind than taking a wrecking ball to the patriarchy: goals like having one epic summer together.
“We were on the dancefloor in Brighton talking about how we really wanted to go to Canada. I had a performance art piece due for my end of year show”, Rakel explains, “I thought: ‘forming a band for the sole purpose of touring Canada: that sounds like performance art to me.’”
And so Dream Wife Dream Of Canada, the band’s earliest incarnation, was formed. Their first show was held in an art gallery to bag Rakel some uni credits and shortly after, much to their friends’ amazement, they headed off on a Megabus rock tour of Canada. They had still played together only once.
“There was a bit in our first ever show that encapsulated what Dream Wife would become in so many ways,” remembers Alice. “We had this Le Tigre edge, but it was still like a rock show. At the end, Bella lifted Rakel up and she spray painted ‘Believe’ on the wall. I remember thinking: ‘this is really fun. It’s a thing that doesn’t need to have rules and it’s ours and it can be whatever we want’, and that’s the vibe we’ve continued with.”
Since that first road trip around Canada, sleeping on floors and figuring out what it meant to be a band, touring is something the Wives have come to know very well. Upon releasing their critically acclaimed debut last January – it was Number 13 in NME’s greatest albums of 2018 – the band have played 151 shows, each one slightly different, but each with the same energy they brought to a tiny room at The Shacklewell on a Tuesday night. How do they keep each other sane on a stretch like that? And what prepares them for it?
“Rock and roll is an extreme sport” says Rakel. “You have to take care of your body and treat it like an athlete would.”
From touring with bands such as Sleigh Bells and Garbage, Dream Wife have learned to hone their craft and have picked up tips for surviving life on the road: physically and mentally, too. But it’s the evident, unique bond between these three women that keeps them going on the tough days when they’ve had little-to-no sleep.
“Giving each other space and being kind and forgiving to yourself and your sisters is important,” says bassist, Bella Podpadec.
“Taking time to walk alone in a city. The little things make a difference,” echoes Rakel.
So understanding each other, then, is key but it was also Dream Wife’s DIY foundations that helped “strengthen their bones”.
“Compared to a lot of our peers, we were a truly feral band,” Rakel explains.
“Often we’d turn up places and have to do our own sound, not knowing where we were, and at times, it was really sketchy. We thought everyone toured like that! Now, we have a brilliant team around us, it makes it easy and we appreciate everything. We still get excited by the rider. If there’s Kombucha on it, that’s like, luxury!”
It’s at this point NME looks around the dank basement dressing room of The Shacklewell Arms, with but a few warm tins on the side and feels a pang of guilt about the lack of rider. Apologies are made. The band laugh it off. “It’s better than the Megabus days – but could we have a gin and tonic?”
Three months earlier, on Halloween night, 2018, we’re in Camden. Dream Wife are celebrating everyone’s favourite holiday by playing one of their annual ghoulish shows. This year it’s at the 1400-capacity KOKO and it’s a sell-out. The band and the crowd are all in fancy dress. Mannequins hang from the ceiling above them. At one point, friends of the Wives flock the stage to show off a spooky dance routine they’d been perfecting.
“By the time it happened, they got it all wrong.” laughs Rakel, “They looked like actual zombies on stage. But we all just carried on dancing. Perfection is not something we strive for, although we do practice a lot”.
It’s the sense of camaraderie, community spirit and pure joy that Dream Wife foster wherever they go that makes them quite special.
“We always have a lot of fun on stage and we aren’t afraid to be silly.” says Alice. “It breaks the ice somehow. It’s always been really important for us to engage with the crowd and make everyone feel welcome and like we’re here together.”
“We grew up having very few female role models”. says Bella, citing Le Tigre, CSS and The Kills as the only women in music that spoke to them as teenagers. “We want to provide an example of what we needed when we were younger.”
But what’s next for the band who never stop?
“We had a break after literally touring for a year and a half and went home like: ‘Hello friends, nice to see you again fam’, which was cool.’ says Rakel.
But now it’s back to business: after the show, the band confide that they started work on album two just yesterday. “When we finished the last tour we were all so excited to get started on the next record but we needed a break”, says Alice, almost bouncing on the spot. “But we’ve started writing it now and there’s so much energy to get stuck in.”
“We’re pretty excited to take everything we’ve learnt from the last year and all these experiences and to be able to sit down and write a damn good second album”, says Rakel, dismissing difficult second album nerves entirely. “I’m just really excited to have more time. The last record was really rushed. I’m not saying we’re going to add in a string quartet or anything like that, but we can think about things in this fresh new way.”
And can we expect any surprises? Collaborations, perhaps? Your former tour-mate Shirley Manson, of Garbage, would be cool…
“Oh my God, that would be so cool. What if we got her to do a spoken word thing?”
“Shirley. Manson. Spoken. Word. Breakdown!”
“Let’s totally do that. That would be wicked.”
“What if we did a live album? All the songs are so much better than when we recorded them.”
“They’ve all changed so much.”
“A live album would be amazing…”
And with that, I leave Dream Wife to circulate The Shacklewell, babbling excitedly about what’s to come, and chatting to fans and friends.
Community and IRL experiences are even more important in this digital age, when so much ‘connection’ exists purely online. Dream Wife know the value of real, tangible moments. Before each show on their recent tour, the band held pre-gig meet-ups for local women and non-binary people in music or with an interest in getting into music to get together, share knowledge, make connections and then watch the show.
“The best compliment someone can give us is to say, ‘I met my best friends at a Dream Wife gig’, or, ‘I started playing guitar after I spoke to you at this show.’ Rakel says. “To see all these interesting people who met before the gig, then as friends down the front, put the biggest smile on our faces”
So if 150 shows wasn’t enough to leave in Dream Wife’s tour van dust, the band have left new communities of creative people, bubbling with ideas and inspiring each other. That’s how real change happens. Rap’s elite better be careful what they wish for: these bad bitches are here to shake shit up.