Ana Da Silva
Photo by Shirley O'Loughlin

Raincoats, punk, and the accordion boy

ANA DA SILVA

It’s no secret that as a youth, one of my favourite pastimes was sifting through old milk crates full of dusty vinyl, looking for the next surprise to add to my collection. If I drove by a yard sale and spotted crates from the street, I’d stop to see what was for sale, and if I found something I liked, I’d pay whatever they were asking—haggling wasn’t my thing. There was something surreal about standing on someone’s lawn flipping through their belongings, wondering why they decided to sell this particular piece of their history? At some point, this music must have been important to them, but now these records were displayed under the summer sun, in boxes propped up on a fold-up table, waiting for me to take one of them home for a spin. I’d look at the people hosting the yard sale and picture them grooving to their collection — the dude wearing way-too-long Bermuda shorts and a Star Wars tee dancing to “Tiny Bubbles” by Don Ho, the lady with drawn-on eyebrows, sipping coffee from a mug that reads “I’m with stupid” shaking her head to the Teenage Head…why part with these memories?

To be fair, this was the period when people were replacing all their vinyl with CDs. Still, Mike Star, the owner of my local vinyl shop, refused to stock this new technology, telling me (and anyone who would walk through his doors) that this “CD thing” was a fad that would eventually go away…technically, he was right!

It was during one of these trips that I stumbled across an interesting specimen—a crayon drawing of a school choir, with a boy playing the accordion off to the side, and two words scrawled across the pink sky—“The Raincoats”. Having grown up in a Portuguese home, the accordion boy on the cover resonated with me. In our family, the accordion is a cherished instrument. An instrument played by my cousin Janette, and as a child, I remember hearing that Janette had once been featured on Tiny Talent Time. This local TV program allowed children to showcase their talents in the performing arts (putting all the money parents had spent on lessons to good use). As a child, I was much more intrigued by the electric guitar and had begged my parents to buy me one, but if the squeezebox was my ticket to fame, I was going down that avenue, so I asked Janette to give me lessons. After two or three lessons, I realized the accordion was harder than it seemed, and I quietly stopped showing up to my lessons (Interesting factoid: to this day, Janette and her accordion continue to entertain audiences). It was clear that The Raincoats’ accordion boy was coming home for a spin.

Once home, it was time for my “new album routine”—place the album on the turntable, clean it, drop the needle and read through the liner notes while side one played. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to read, but on the back of the sleeve, I did notice something on the bottom left corner which I found familiar—Ana da Silva. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew a couple of girls named Ana da Silva and knew that name could only be Portuguese. In the 80s, the cool factor of being Portuguese was low…there weren’t many musicians carrying the flag, but there was Ana, who hadn’t changed her name, identifying herself for me to see.

Fast forward to 1991. I’m pretty sure that legally I have to list my profession for most of the year as “bar fly”, but by September, I had been promoted to DJ. That was the birth of FUBAR Thursday—a night where I was given free rein to play whatever I wanted and get f***ed up beyond all recognition. Looking back, I can only assume Dean (the owner) did this to help me pay my bar tab, but I’m grateful nonetheless. To fans of my music, I was the GOAT. To those who didn’t like my music, I was the worst person to ever slip on a pair of headphones and stand behind the turntables—I refused to take requests and didn’t care if people danced or stood still. My time in the DJ booth was spent drinking Scotch and educating the crowd on what I thought they should be listening to. 

Although that period was a bit of a haze, I remember that it was the fall of 1991. Why? Because after my second week on the job, Dean and I jumped into his 300Z and went record shopping. At the top of my list was Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”, which had just been released and was quickly becoming the anthem for my generation. Nirvana became a staple of my sets, as did bands like the Violent Femmes, The Lowest of the Low and The Forgotten Rebels. Every once in a while, sandwiched in between these bands, I would sneak in The Raincoats’ cover of The Kinks’ “Lola”. 

By Christmas 1992, I had hung up my headphones, retired from the DJ booth, and was purchasing music for my personal consumption—enter Insecticide by Nirvana. This album had three pages of liner notes written by Kurt, and almost half were dedicated to Ana da Silva and The Raincoats. WTF? Kurt knew The Raincoats?

I quickly started riffling through my albums only to find that my copy of “The Raincoats” had been liberated from my collection. Maybe I left it at a party; maybe someone thought Accordion Boy would make a great art piece on their wall; or maybe someone really loved that version of “Lola” I kept shoving down their throats and wanted to discover the rest of the album; or maybe someone hated that cover of “Lola” and wanted to destroy it forever like I had done to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell when I dragged the needle across side two hoping to render it useless (sorry Dean). All I knew for certain was that it was gone, and it was out of print.

Fast forward to present times, and I’m playing an Alternative 70s playlist on Spotify—Iggy, MC5, Buzzcocks, Bowie…and 76 songs in “No Side to Fall In” by The Raincoats! Here they were again. I did a quick search, and there they were—the full discography—The Raincoats (1979), Odyshape (1981), Moving (1984) and The Kitchen Tapes (1988). Ana had also released albums in 2018—The Lighthouse (solo) and Island (with Japanese musician Phew).

Over thirty years had passed since I had taken someone’s discarded memory home for a spin. I used that album to make my own memories, I shared it with others, I discovered that it had influenced oodles of 90s bands, and now Spotify was serving it up to me digitally, bringing all those memories to the forefront. The logical next step was to chat with this extraordinary lady, to make new memories that I can share with you…so I reached out.

Luso Life: You were born in Madeira during the Salazar regime. I’ve heard that the further you were from Lisbon, the tougher life was because of Salazar’s cuts. Being an island, Madeira was hit especially hard. What was that like? 

Ana da Silva: My personal experience was that growing up in Madeira, it was such a small place that my horizons were small. Most of what is now seen as a lack of liberty were then seen as normal. All my life, I had lived under this regime. I didn’t know the alternatives first hand. There was a heavyweight in all our lives. In the summer of 1967, I was 19 and legally emancipated. I and my sister were going to Germany for a few months to live and study the language. Our parents drove us there and, when we arrived at the Portuguese border, I realized that my mother, who was nearly 55, could have been forbidden from leaving the country. To travel out of Portugal, then, my mother had to present the border police with two documents offering permission, one from her employer and one from my father. 

I can’t imagine American/British rock being played on Portuguese radio in the 50s or 60s. What music were you exposed to growing up in Madeira?

All my life I enjoyed listening to music. As a child, I heard Elvis and the Everly Brothers on my older cousins’ 45s, and from then on, I developed a passion for music. I also sang in a choir and had some piano lessons, which gave me a basis that is still helpful to my music-making today. In my late teenage years, I came to England for two months, heard The Beatles, saw The Rolling Stones and a few others, bought a few magazines, 45s and albums by the above to take home and play for my friends and a really precious piece of clothing – a black polo-neck sweater. That was cool (when cool was cool). 

I went to Germany a few years later and learned a few guitar chords from an American girl. Eventually, my sister bought me an acoustic guitar, and I played Bob Dylan songs, just like everybody else. This was an awakening time as I realized then that so much could be said and expressed through music and that it was such a powerful, rich and easily available medium. It is poetry, movement, structure, personal experience turned into a shared one, it’s immediate, or it can take you into a complex journey, it’s fun, introspective, and so varied – not only because of what’s in there as far as lyrics and composition go, but because of the variety of instruments that exist and the advancement of technology which brings new possibilities and sounds into the mix.

How and when do you end up in London?

I moved to London on December 13, 1974, not intending to stay forever. I was excited to go through an unknown experience. Being in London, I felt very free, excited to feel free, although, at the same time, I was learning to be free. It takes a while. You only realize how free you are after you’ve lived within the oppressive chains of the Portuguese dictatorship until the moment of the revolution on the 25th of April 1974. Maybe I brought to our work certain anguish from that time and a will to break down the walls that had surrounded me. 

I met Gina at art school in 1976. And a couple of other things happened there that were really important for me/us. There was a female model and also another student who played electric guitars during the lunch breaks. I was drawn to that and bought a Fender copy at the Portobello Market and later a small amp. This made me really happy. The other important thing was that there were two boys at the college that knew the Sex Pistols’ roadie and who introduced me to punk. One of them asked me to cut his hair badly, which I did and enjoyed doing so. Gina and I started to go to lots of gigs. Everybody was saying you didn’t need to know how to play well to do something interesting and strong. Early 1977, we were both sitting in a pub and decided to start a band. 

The Raincoats career intercepted with other (now) legendary punk musicians like The Slits, Sex Pistols, PIL, and The Clash, but in 1977, the DIY punk era was in full force, and most of you were squatting and creating art, writing songs, designing posters, etc. What was that scene like? Was there a communal/collaborative feel?

I read an article in a music magazine (can’t remember which) Vivian Goldman wrote about girl-bands. I remember The Slits and Girlschool were two of them. I don’t think The Slits had played yet, but Vivian knew about them. I didn’t think women weren’t capable of doing whatever, but the limitations were so engraved in the general psyche that something like that article had an impact on me. I also had a book about girl-bands. So, to me, it wasn’t a completely strange thing. What was encouraging at the time was the idea that you could start from almost nothing – just knowing three chords was enough to start something of value. 

The Slits were truly irreverent, and that was beautiful to watch, more than to listen at that point, although they already had some great songs, mainly written by Palmolive, who had also started their band. I wasn’t like them or aspired to be like them, but the fact that they were local and Gina knew Palmolive’s sister made it look more possible to start a band. They were ‘real people’, as opposed to almost feeling that the people on the records I was familiar with didn’t exist in the real world. They were sort of mythical and unapproachable. 

I felt close to Rough Trade, because I worked there sometimes and knew about new music from the shop. Mostly, we spent a lot of time together as a band, composing, rehearsing, chatting and making decisions as we went along. The communal/collaborative feel was more within the band but with awareness of what was going on outside.

You all wrote songs and contributed to each other’s music. What was the songwriting process?

Mostly, one of us would bring the lyrics and maybe a guitar part and singing melody and then we would work on the arrangements together, constantly changing and trying ideas. On the first album, The Raincoats, we each played, with a few exceptions, our own instruments, me on guitar, Gina on bass, Vicky on violin and Palmolive on drums. It was recorded mainly live, and so the music sounds quite direct.

Odyshape was a lot more spacious, and we used lots of acoustic instruments and noises (no acoustic guitars, though), and some people thought it was a bit folky; others found it experimental. This shows we didn’t really fit or wanted to fit, in a particular style or genre. Things evolved because of quite simple things. For instance, when we went to play on the east coast of the USA, we bought a kalimba (thumb piano), a sruti box and a balaphone. They are as far from punk as you can get, but we didn’t think in those terms and, because we liked their sound, we used them mixed up with more edgy sounds on “Only Loved at Night”, “Shouting Out Loud” and “And Then it’s OK” respectively. We just always tried what came to our heads. 

We never really sat down to make big decisions, and that included what sort of music we were going to play. Things always tended to evolve organically. So, musically and lyrically, each of us expressed herself in a particular way, depending on our character, tastes, background, etc. It was the differences and mix of these four people that created the sort of music we played. But, of course, we lived in a particular time and punk heavily informed this early body of work. Therefore, it sounded immediate and loud. 

Although some of your peers like Chrissie Hynde or Siouxsie Sioux are strong female icons, The Raincoats really introduced the music world to feminism. Was this a conscious decision, or did you and Gina just click artistically, and things fell into place?

I think that the fact that me, Gena, Vicki and Palmolive were in a band and collaborating with Shirley, was in itself an act of feminism, as generally, it wasn’t accepted that girls should be in a band unless they sang or played acoustic guitar. We formed the band because we wanted to, and not to prove anything or as an act of conscious feminism. I never thought we shouldn’t or couldn’t form a band if we wanted to. We just had to find out if we were able to write good songs and play our instruments in a creative way, and this had nothing to do with the fact that we were women. 

To me, the punk ethos is breaking creative rules. It’s passion over perfection. When you started making music, the Billboard charts were dominated by artists like Jimmy Buffet and ELO. You weren’t interested in mastering your instruments; you wanted to get your message out to anyone who would listen. Music was a conveyor of rebellion. Do you see that in any of today’s bands?

We were one of Rough Trade’s best-selling bands in that period. So, we always had people who enjoyed what we did. You can’t please everybody. Had we been men, maybe the reaction would have been different, and we would have been considered geniuses. It was all too quirky for easy assimilation.

Artists are always rebelling, and, at the moment, it’s important to rebel against government corruption, unequal status imposed on women and people of other races, cultures, religions, sexualities, etc. It’s also so necessary to do something big about climate change.

As a youth, I spent too many hours sifting through bins filled with vinyl, looking for the next masterpiece to spend my money on…. Some of that money was used to purchase a used copy of The Raincoats debut, which was purchased solely for Accordion boy on the cover. I’ve since found out it was a painting by nine-year-old Pang Hsiao-Li. Where did you find this, and why did you decide to use it?

The painting by Pang Hsiao-Li was chosen from a book called Pictures by Chinese Children, published in 1976 and is credited on the album sleeve. We chose this painting as a basis for the cover because it was musical and had girls and boys. You mention the accordion boy. Someone that came to one of our gigs had a tattoo done with that boy. It looked really nice!

I had read that Moe Tucker was raising a family, working at Walmart somewhere in Middle-America and totally unaware of the renewed interest in the Velvet Underground. What was going on in your life when Kurt Cobain declared The Raincoats one of his favourite bands? Were you aware of Nirvana or any of their contemporaries?

Although our music had been appreciated, everything was a bit quiet after we disbanded in 1984. The records stopped being available for a while. We were doing other things. In the early ‘90s, though, we started thinking we should re-release them on CD. Meanwhile, we realized that some people were mentioning us as an influence, so it seemed even more appropriate. I’m not completely sure why they liked us. Some people do think we were and still are ahead of our time, especially with Odyshape. I wouldn’t know because of my close relationship with it. 

I think we are still popular due in great part to the fact that a lot of people got to know about us through Kurt Cobain. He was a fan and talked about the band on the liner notes to Incesticide. We also asked him to write something for the liner notes of the re-issue of our first album, which he did. That meant so much to us. Also, many people are interested in the music from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

I wasn’t very aware of what was going on musically in the early 1990s but, after meeting Kurt, I decided to find out more about the bands of that period and started going to gigs again and met Bikini Kill and lots of the Riot Grrrl bands. Like punk, that time was also very creative musically. All this led to a sort of The Raincoats revival… It made us play again, do another album, Looking in the Shadows, and we have been getting new followers all the time.

We can say your band wrote the blueprint for the Riot Grrrl movement, you’re revered by music icons like Kim Gordon, John Lydon and (of course) Kurt, and your debut is ranked 398 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (right between Brian Wilson’s Smile and When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billy Eilish!). How does it feel to finally have your proper place in rock n’ roll history? 

We’re not in bad company in the Rolling Stone list! It’s the most rewarding thing to feel that what we did is still meaningful and giving pleasure to a lot of people and inspiring other artists. People contact us through social media, and we have been quite touched by the comments, messages, and friend requests that we’ve received. This makes us aware that people from all over the world have taken something from us, even from countries where our albums were not released. Another amazing thing is that very young people also like our music. There are always a lot of young people, including lots of girls at our concerts.

I just discovered your solo album, The Lighthouse—I think it’s brilliant. How did you make the transition into electronica? Was it a comfortable move?

I don’t remember how I started looking at electronic equipment. Somehow in 2005, I came across a digital device – a Yamaha QY70 – which was supposed to be good for composing. I also saw Björk in a documentary walking along the beach with this instrument, with which she was writing an album. I got curious and ended up buying it, because I thought it would be good to take it with me, at a time I had to go to Madeira a lot and for long periods. I thought I’d have to eventually transfer everything to a more complex digital instrument via MIDI and adapt it all, but I ended up liking how it sounded and the fact that it was such a small instrument, accessible, inexpensive for what it did, and roughly the size of a VHS cassette. So, in the end, all the instrumentation in ‘The Lighthouse’ is done on the QY70, except for the vocals. Nowadays, it could all be done on a computer.

Your music draws influence from a lot of different places. I love that “Disco Ball” has that distinct Portuguese baseline that we hear in so many traditional songs. Do you find yourself turning to Portugal for inspiration? 

I don’t actively look for inspiration in Portuguese music, although it’s always difficult to know where ideas and feelings come from exactly. I’m a product of the time I’m living in. The bass line (well spotted David!) on “Disco Ball”, though, was a sort of ‘perverse’ idea I had. It is taken from ‘Bailinho da Madeira’, which is a very popular country song in Madeira, the most typical song there. I think I just wondered what I would end up with if I started with such a bass line. I built everything on top of it.

What music is getting you excited today?

In the last few years, I’ve been very interested in some electronic music. I love the sounds you can get from synthesizers and the moods you can create. Also, the possibilities for sounds are endless. Because of all this, I ended up buying modules to build a modular synth. With this, I played my parts in my collaborative album with the Japanese musician Phew, called ‘Island’, released in late 2018. We performed the festival MADEIRADiG in December of the same year.

Being Portuguese, there’s an ingrained sense of family and a guilt-fuelled obligation to please our parents. Were your parents supportive of your art?

I’m sure they were sad when they realized I had definitely moved to the UK but never said anything about it. They didn’t interfere with our decisions and were very accepting and proud of what I did.

anadasilva.net

 

anadasilva.net

WORDS & INTERVIEW: DAVID GANHÃO
PHOTOS: MARIA HELENA DA SILVA, JOE DILWORTH, JERZY KOZNIK, SHIRLEY O’LOUGHLIN

Ana Da Silva
Ana Da Silva
Ana Da Silva
Ana Da Silva

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