On Singing, Leeds, and Tater Tots

An interview with Sally Timms

From the Bloodshot Records web site: Sally was born in Leeds, England. She grew up in the Yorkshire dales, sang in the church choir and performed in poetry recitals as a child. In 1985 she joined the Mekons as a full-time member and has regretted it ever since. Unfortunately, the only way out of the Mekons is in a box, so she's still there. Known as one of the laziest women in show business, she frequently calls in favors from her more talented and successful friends so that she can dedicate more time to watching television and eating bananas. She has blonde hair, grey eyes, and appalling mood swings.

From a glam youth straight to the punk life of the Mekons to becoming America’s favorite English country star to the lush pop of the Aluminum Group. Does Sally Timms the performer reflect Sally Timms the listener? How much of your recorded career reflects what you were listening to as a fan at the time?
I think my tastes in music haven't really mirrored the kind of music I've made, although they've informed my recordings. I tend to listen to a lot of crappy contemporary pop music or more left-field older stuff. I was always a big Yoko Ono fan, so I think there's a closet avant-gardeist trying to get out but not succeeding very well.

Is there anyone you’ve not worked with that you’d like to, any inspirations who you’d like to have a goat collaborating with? Anyone you’re listening to right now who’s become a big influence on you, or just that you'd like the world to know more about?
I'd quite like to work with John Cale. I think he still has some interesting ideas left in him. I could be his new Nico, which would be fine since a friend of mine used to call me “"Little Nico”" due to my persistent homelessness/rootlessness and my liking for odd Germanic ballads. I'd like more people to know about Azita's new record Enantiodromia. I think it's one of the best things I've heard in a while. Also, I wish more people would love Johnny Dowd's material the way I do.

You’ve described the northern punk scene as less about sex-drugs-and-bad-behavior and more about “making tea and staying up all night listening to Jean-Michel Jarre records”. How deep is the disconnect between the perception of that period and the reality?
That's not strictly true. My experiences in Manchester with Pete Shelley were of the tea-making variety but plenty of people were doing crazy things. When you're younger, crazy behavior seems more acceptable than it does later in life. It also looks far less attractive now. However, the scene in Leeds was full of sex and drugs, or at least drink, and was a permanent round of partner-swapping. Punk rock was never really comparable to the earlier rock movements. It was a lot more asexual and politically informed.

Talk about Hangahar, your collaboration with Pete Shelley. I’ve heard it described as improvised percussive pots-and-pans noise-rock, and the moment I heard you talk about it I instantly and desperately wanted to hear it. Any chance it’ll ever get re-released, and how did you come to make a record so removed from what we’re used to hearing from you? Is that style something you’d ever want to return to?
I hope it will get re-released. I've been trying to find a label who would put it out, but I only have a vinyl copy left. That was a concept that came about purely as a result of being stoned on pot with my friend Kay in Newcastle. Pete had pretty left-field sensibilities, so he liked the idea of someone howling in an imaginary language over synths and kitchen percussion. I think I've always wanted to make another record like that, but I also like to make records that at least a few people will buy.

“I don't think any of us had any aspirations to become rich and famous, so we just did what we did and enjoyed that.”

While we’re still back in time, tell me about the Shee-Hees, your pre-Mekons all-female glam-punk band.
Um… well, the Shee-Hees weren't really glam-punk. God knows what we were... basically a reaction to the somewhat stifling Leeds P.C. punk rock scene. We wore silly costumes, couldn't play to save our lives and sang covers of Lionel Ritchie songs. Maybe we were more punk rock than the punks… I don't know.

You’ve been part of the Mekons for over 15 years now. How has being with them compared with how you thought it would be when you joined up? Did you have any notion back then what it might be like and where it might end up?
I didn't even think about where it would end up. Who does, really? I mean, at that age, you just do things. I don't think any of us had any aspirations to become rich and famous, so we just did what we did and enjoyed that. All you can see in looking back is how much you've changed over the years, but whatever “"The Mekons”" is seems to have remained strangely static, at least conceptually if not musically.

You had some choice words to say recently about the “turgid country-rock” of a certain performer that will remain nameless in case we might want to suck up to her for an interview one day. What’s country to you? What appeals to you about the form, and what can happen with it that turns you off?
I can't remember who I was referring to. I don't really have a strong relationship to country music in the way some of my friends do; it's just another form of music with its plusses and minuses. I like singing well-written songs that tend toward the depressive, so country can be a mine of those. I don't like what passes as Nashville country, but I'm so removed from it that it hardly matters any more than Britney Spears does.

Your voice isn’t that of a traditional female country singer, and yet you’ve said that the reason you sing country is that your voice is particularly suited to it. Why country and not straight pop or torchy jazz? What about your voice makes it so well-suited to the American country style?
Well, it could have been pop or torchy jazz, I suppose, but that doesn't sound so enticing to me. Plenty of people have called me a torch singer, but there's not much demand for those nowadays. I would have loved to sing with a big band in some old-fashioned nightclub and dress up like Veronica Lake, but I was born too late. I think there's some kind of misconception that I just sing country, which I don't. One of my next releases will sound nothing like a country record, and one will. Mekons songs aren't country, or at least not for the most part.

The editor of this publication is in a band named for a Mekons song. When you hang it up, what other tributes would you like to have paid to you? What can the Sally Timms fan do to make you think it’s all been worth it?
So many ways I can go with this answer! But I shall try not to be smart-ass or rude... I suppose when I “hang it up” I shall be too old to care about tributes. Fans, if they are wealthy and so inclined, can send cash. Cash tributes would be gratefully received... or fruit. Bananas. I don't really care whether it's all worth it. What does that mean? If I don't think it's worth it now, in my interior world, then why bother doing it at all? The validation is okay, I suppose, but we do these things for far more complex reasons.

You’re set to do some recording here in beautiful Chicago. What are you working on, and when do we get to hear it?
I am working on two new releases. One is being recorded in Ithaca with Johnny Dowd and his band, and one here in Chicago for Bloodshot in a similar vein to the last one. They may have simultaneous release dates, but neither will be out before early next year.

I am reliably informed that you are not familiar with Tater Tots. It is my opinion that a full appreciation of American country music is difficult, if not impossible, without having sampled this staple of downscale cuisine. If I bought you a bag of Tater Tots, would you cook them, top them with cheese, and eat them with a toothpick?
Quite simply...no

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