As frontwoman of the Hooves Of Destiny, Beth Jeans Houghton was all about the work ethic of a gigging group. Now, after a creative crisis, she’s ditched her band and invented a whole new persona. So, who is Du Blonde, asks Tom Ellen, and what does she want?
A couple of years back, Beth Jeans Houghton was driving through the Mojave Desert at midnight. Sat beside her in the hired car was effervescent Future Islands’ frontman Samuel T Herring. The pair were a hundred miles from anywhere, roaring across featureless highway and discussing potential collaborations, when their headlights picked out something extremely unsettling.
“Sam suddenly shrieked, and slammed his foot on the brake,” Houghton recalls. “He was like, ‘Did you see that?! There was this tall… thing in a black cloak, waving its hands around!’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, is he on drugs?’ He’d been driving for hours. I was really freaked out, but we turned back to have a look, and suddenly, this cloaked figure with bright white hands was there, at my side of the car, doing this…” She curls and uncurls all 10 fingers, slowly. “It was freezing outside, nothing around for miles, and I swear this person was 8ft tall. We just screamed and drove off. Then, at the next exit, we saw a sign for ‘Herring Road’, and the one after, ‘Houghton Road’. Seriously. I was like, ‘This is the day we die…'”
Thankfully, far from her signalling her desert-based demise, this troubling incident came right at the beginning of Houghton’s ‘rebirth’. She returned from the Mojave to overhaul the twee, folksy image she’d spent the last few years cultivating, and rebrand herself as Du Blonde – a snarling, strutting rock goddess. With a little help from guest vocalist Herring and producer (and Bad Seed) Jim Sclavunos, she set about recording her new album ‘Welcome Back To Milk’ – a dark, strange, shimmering glam-punk offering, utterly unlike anything she’s previously created.
“I wanted to be more aggressive, more honest, more true to myself,” she shrugs. “I just wanted to do something people wouldn’t expect.”
While it’s tempting to assume that the Mojave’s lanky spectres and sentient road signs were entirely responsible for this dramatic volte-face, that’s not really the case. As we settle down in the corner of a sun-dappled north London pub, the 25-year-old explains that the seeds were actually planted as far back as summer 2012, when she was touring Europe with her then-group, the Hooves Of Destiny.
The Hooves, for the uninitiated, were a picnic-friendly psych-folk outfit, combining twiddly, Vampire Weekend guitars with quirky, non sequitur lyrics about “skinny bone trees” and “sweet tooth birds”. Houghton, who’d grown up in Newcastle listening to Led Zeppelin and ’70s punk, was starting to feel that the tousle-haired, cupcake world she’d stumbled into wasn’t really where she belonged.
“Beth Jeans Houghton [the artist] had become something so far from the core of me,” she remembers. “I’ve never felt very girly or feminine, but people were putting me in that box, which I found difficult.” Difficult was upgraded to devastating after a gig in Zurich, where Houghton suffered a complete mental collapse.
“I’d had death anxiety for a week,” she says. “I felt like my brain was disintegrating. I couldn’t even form the words to tell my tour manager, ‘You need to call an ambulance’. I honestly thought I was dying.”
She promptly quit alcohol, sugar and – despite having a whole new album in the bag – her band. Does she lament the fact that there’s an unheard Hooves record out there that may never see light of day?
“Not really. It wasn’t a bad record at all, and it was more in the direction of what I’m doing now [as Du Blonde]. But it was still too saccharine, I think.”
She relocated to LA, where, aside from sharing a bed with Deap Vally’s Lindsey Troy for a month (“We mainly stayed up watching that YouTube video of the monkey wanking off the toad”), she sought to reconnect with the kind of coarse, combative music she first fell in love with.
“I was listening to a lot of American hardcore,” she explains. “That got me to a place where I was like, ‘Yeah, fuck you all’. That music is a good tool for figuring out who you are.”
Another good tool, it seems, was the V&A’s ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition: “I was stood there, in front of his life’s work, thinking, ‘This is someone who went through so many changes and fulfilled all his creative desires, even when people told him he shouldn’t.’ So, it was almost like the decision [to change] was made for me right there. I didn’t question it.”
Reinvention has always been part of rock & roll, whether it’s major, Tom Waits-style musical gearshifts, or just Mumford & Sons swapping their herringbone tweed for black leather. But, Bowie aside, most artists don’t feel the need for a total rebrand just because they’ve tweaked their sound or bought a new jacket. So, why was the Du Blonde ‘persona’ necessary? What can Houghton express through this character that she couldn’t with The Hooves?
“The name change just made sense of it all,” she explains. “It makes it totally clear this is a different project. Jim [Sclavunos] said the same thing about Grinderman, actually. They were coming up with darker, heavier music that didn’t quite fit into the Bad Seeds’ realm, so it’s like, ‘Let’s put a new name on it’. I guess Du Blonde gives me the chance to be fully myself, to act out all my rage and aggression. It’s very freeing.”
‘Welcome Back To Milk’ (named for Houghton’s discovery that an extra milky latte can successfully conquer constipation) is very much formed of rage, aggression and freedom. It’s dirty, raw, primal stuff; all rumbling bass and doomy, Cramps-esque guitar twangs, over which Houghton vents melodically on death, pain and sex. The chorus of ‘Young Entertainment’ finds her demanding, ‘What is it like to fuck your mistress with her hands tied?’ which is about as far from the Hooves’ wide-eyed whimsy as it’s possible to get. “The mixer’s daughter was having her 10th birthday party in the next room while we recorded that,” she chuckles. “Imagine hearing that line through the wall while you’re trying to watch Frozen…”
The album’s no-holds-barred content and cover – which depicts a near-naked Houghton sporting a makeshift ‘merkin’ – are hardly surprising when you consider her touchstones while writing it. One of the hardcore punk artists she was particularly immersed in during her Du Blonde transition was GG Allin – the late, perma-blood-spattered lunatic whose live shows largely involved him stripping off and flinging his own faeces about.
“I’m not saying I want to be quite that extreme onstage,” she laughs. “But I’d like the freedom to be able to do it if I chose to. And I think it’s more difficult for a girl, because there are certain standards the public hold women to in terms of what’s acceptable. GG Allin did his thing, and it was like, ‘It’s art, he’s being himself’, but Miley Cyrus goes onstage wearing a bikini and suddenly she’s an ‘attention seeker’. Maybe that is her being herself, y’know?”
We can’t speak for Miley, but Du Blonde is definitely Houghton being herself. Part of the reason ‘Welcome Back To Milk’ is such an exhilarating listen is that it really does sound like someone being set free; busting out of nu-folk prison to wreak joyous, three-chord chaos on the world.
“I did used to feel guilty for wanting things to be completely mine when I was in the band”, she admits. “I felt selfish. But then I got to the point of thinking, ‘If I’m going to do continue to [make music] and stay sane, I have to do it exactly how I want’. And I’m glad I did, because, really… I’m so much happier now.”