The cover for Goat Girl’s new album ‘On All Fours’ depicts groups of strange creatures, mountains with faces and blobs climbing out of a crack in the earth. It looks like the opposite of the coronavirus meme “nature is healing, we are the virus”. The contents of the record uphold the second half of that unavoidable piece of dark pandemic gallows humour, though, examining humanity’s effect on our world, alongside more personal stories.
That might sound like a grand concept, but the south London four-piece have always cast a critical eye on society’s behaviour. On their 2018 self-titled debut, they tackled creepy men preying on women and were labelled as political firebrands for writing songs such as ‘Burn The Stake’, which included the visceral, memorable line: “Build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top / Put the DUP in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot.”
Writing an album seems like a daunting task at the best of times – if not, we’d all have a bulging back catalogue under our belts – let alone when the world has made it very clear how it sees you. After some tangles with the pressure of living up to that, the group came to the realisation that making that kind of music was in their DNA.
Guitarist, lyricist and vocalist Lottie ‘Clottie Cream’ Pendlebury is unwell and therefore absent from NME’s interview with Goat Girl, but bassist Holly ‘Hole’ Mullineaux explains: “There was an awareness that people had pigeonholed the band as political, but Lottie is quite a politically active person – that’s just who she is. She’s just trying to convey her feelings about whatever’s going on at the time and, a lot of the time, that is going to come out as political. At the same time, it’s from a genuine place. No one’s being forced to do that.”
But don’t let the lack of Tory-burning on ‘On All Fours’, a more sonically sedate record than its punky predecessor, lead you to suspect Pendlebury is softening to the government. On the spacey, bewitching ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’, the band imagine dissecting Boris Johnson: “I’m sure it stinks under his skin / Where pores secrete all the hate from within.”
Guitarist Ellie ‘LED’ Rose Davies, who underwent a six-month course of chemotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma during the making of the record, says that the band would never want to write about something they didn’t sincerely believe in or feel, especially in terms of political and societal struggles. “If you’re talking about people’s misfortunes – especially if they’re not you’re own – then you’re profiting off of that or sculpting your aesthetic around someone else’s struggle that you’re not genuinely concerned with. That wouldn’t be right.”
A lot of the struggle featured on this album is focused around the conflict between people and the environment. On the frosty, swirling ‘Pest’, they tackle the idea that climate change isn’t the problem of the west’s and the racist beliefs that perpetuate that idea. ‘Badibaba’ revolves around a chant that burrows into your brain and weighs up humanity’s “parasitic relationship” with the world we inhabit, while the ominous lope of ‘The Crack’ pictures the physical destruction we’ve wreaked through extremities like nuclear war and our everyday lives.
In all there’s an element of turning away and pretending things aren’t happening – things that, thanks to the pandemic, we’re now being forced to confront head-on. “It’s weird because obviously these songs were written in 2019,” ponders Davies. “I feel like they may be more relevant now than they would have been then because of the insane stuff that’s going on.”
“When it comes to a pandemic or global warming or your health in general, people are very complacent and take things for granted,” adds Mullineaux. “But those things don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or who you are. Those things are just more powerful than all of that so it’s quite dangerous to ignore them. I think some people really think that they are immune from these things, but they’re not.”
Although Goat Girl don’t shy away from tackling big topics on ‘On All Fours’, the album does represent a slight shift in their approach. Not only does it feature more electronic elements (synth-filled ‘Sad Cowboy’ sounds like galloping on horseback through an ambient rave), but finds the band refocusing their perspective.
“The first album was a lot more confrontational and talking more about examples of specific incidents that are happening,” Mullineaux explains. “This one is coming from a slightly more reflective place. ‘Why is this happening now?’ We’re trying to look at the bigger picture of everything that’s going on.”
The album is also coloured with more insights into the four musicians’ personal lives. On the deceptively jaunty ‘P.T.S.Tea’, drummer Rosy ‘Bones’ Jones, who identifies as non-binary, references being burned by a stranger’s tea on a ferry to explore the encounters they’ve had with men questioning their sexuality and gender identity. ‘Closing In’ deals with the depression Pendlebury has had to deal with, while she transforms the private moment of having scabies into a critique on capitalism.
“That’s a theme of the album that maybe wasn’t touched upon as much in the first one,” acknowledges Davies. She has her own personal moment on the record too in the form of ‘Anxiety Feels’, which deals with a period when she was suffering frequent panic attacks and weighing up whether to start taking medication for them.
“These songs were written in 2019, but they feel more relevant now” – Ellie ‘LED’ Rose Davies
“It definitely helped me,” she says of writing that song, describing it as starting the “healing process” for her. “It was when I started to open up, but I was still very much struggling at that point. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results so, for me, realising that I had to change something and using that song as a cathartic release definitely began the process of getting better.”
It wasn’t just the music itself that went through change on Goat Girl’s second album. In 2019, original bassist Naima ‘Jelly’ Redina-Bock left the group, with Mullineaux coming in to replace her. The personnel change was amicable – Redina-Bock even took the time to teach the incoming member the bass parts from the first album.
Asked about her experience of being in the band so far, Mullineaux replies, “This is gonna sound really cheesy,” before flashing an awkward grin towards Davies’ box on our Zoom call. “I feel very comfortable,” she says eventually. “l feel at home with the rest of the band.”
“We’re like your family!” Davies chips in sweetly.
“You guys made me feel really welcome from the start,” the bassist agrees. “Then we started writing together and that was really fun and it felt nice to be included in that straightaway. I’d been a fan of Goats before seeing them and met people individually drunkenly on nights out ’cause we were in similar circles. It did feel like it was meant to be and I think we have quite a special musical connection, which I haven’t had before.”
As a testament to that bond, they say the manner in which they started writing ‘On All Fours’ – by switching instruments and playing things they weren’t proficient in or comfortable on – wasn’t as uncomfortable as you might expect. “We’re quite silly, aren’t we really?” Mullineaux reasons. “We just joke around – a lot of things came from jokes and we’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s actually quite good. How do we make this not a mistake?’”
Taking themselves out of their comfort zones rejuvenated the band at a time when they were feeling a little stale. “We were getting a bit complacent on our normal instruments,” explains Davies. “I was bored of playing rocky riffs and rock-centric notes and chords. Through changing instruments, I could be like, ‘I’m just going to play weird chords that I don’t know what they are’.”
They also say it allowed them to showcase their personalities on the record in ways they might not have been able to otherwise. “When you play an instrument all the time, you fall into certain patterns of playing or gravitate around similar notes,” says Mullineaux. “Rosy plays guitar in this insane way that I could never ever do.”
Davies jumps in with an evocative description of their bandmate: “They play drums like a spider and when they play guitar they’ve got that same spidery feel.”
When Goat Girl next tour, they’ll be back on their usual instruments but buoyed by the exploratory energy of their second record. Currently, they’re planning gigs for September, which Mullineaux says are “right on the brink of realistic”, given the ever-changing situation caused by the pandemic. “It feels quite hard to envision, but I really hope they’re going to happen,” she sighs.
Small venues and the communities around them have been key to Goat Girl’s story so far, with them often associated with the south London cultural hub of Brixton Windmill. In recent months, they’ve been part of a fundraising effort to help save the venue, which has been marked by the Music Venue Trust as being in “imminent danger” of permanent closure.
“I’ve thought about this for a while,” Mullineaux says, noting that even before the pandemic, venues have been struggling. “It would be good if there was some sort of cultural protection, like how a building is grade-listed. These places are for the community and you can’t put a price on what they bring – and they can’t be replaced once they’re gone. Obviously, we want venues to be funded and all of that, but there should also be something that protects them and says, ‘You can’t turn this into housing’ or ‘You can’t turn this into a car park’.”
“This album is coming from a more reflective place. ‘Why is this happening now?’” – Holly ‘Hole’ Mullineaux
“With that protection, you could also have a rent cap on places of social importance,” adds Davies, the pair’s ideas beginning to snowball. “People get priced out. There should be a rent cap full stop, actually.”
“If we’re changing things, there’s a lot to change,” Mullineaux laughs. “But there should be some sort of security in place that preserves them basically.” Davies nods, adding with a grin: “Like a pickle in a jar.”
As well as saving music venues, that pickling process is much needed when it comes to artists’ ability to tour Europe now the UK is officially fully out of the EU. Although Goat Girl say it’s still too early to say how the lack of a visa-free work permit will affect them, they are certain it will cause problems for smaller bands.
“Obviously not everyone had money to get the tunnel across before, but you could just go and play a gig in Paris and get paid enough to cover the train or ferry,” Mullineaux says. “It will mean only bigger and more elite bands can do that and that’s a shame. It’s also a shame that European bands won’t be able to come and do the same thing over here.”
Davies, meanwhile, is concerned about the unpredictabilities of tour life, if they can make it across to the continent. She points to the incident Jones wrote about in ‘P.T.S.Tea’ as a prime example – the burns the drummer suffered landed them in the burns unit and meant the band had to cancel a series of gigs. “If that happened in Spain or somewhere, we’d have to pay loads of money for healthcare,” she says. “It’s just a nightmare, the whole thing.”
While the government and the EU continue to bicker about who is to blame for letting musicians down, the band will continue to do what they can – both in their music and in helping those around them. If – or, rather, when – the Tories continue to screw everyone over, expect Goat Girl to respond in kind: with more brutally brilliant, evocative songs that cast a keen eye on the state of things and hold them to account.