The band you’ve been waiting for…
Saint Agnes are a band that don’t fit comfortably into a single genre. Drawing from a diverse range of influences spanning cinema, music, with a firm grasp on their image and sound, they are a group who do things on their terms.
Having forged a path for several years they have honed and refined their live setlist into an album in this year’s “Welcome to Silvertown” that is sonically commanding and prompts a visceral response – it is an album that you WANT to play loud. To experience a Saint Agnes’ performance in the flesh is beyond words. Put simply, they make you want to get up there and rock out with them, which is a quality they share with other great bands.
We were very lucky to catch Jon and Ben from Saint Agnes on the Liverpool leg of their UK headline tour, where they kindly chatted to us about gigging, gear, recording their album and their approach to crafting their sound.
Dawsons: We’re outside the Arts Club in Liverpool with Ben and Jon from the band Saint Agnes taking in the calm before the storm, if you will. Jumping straight into it, how did Saint Agnes come to be?
Jon: I saw Kitty playing keys and percussion in another band and I thought she was an amazing, captivating performer and I have got to be in a band with her! It turned out that we loved loads of the same things and kind of felt that in the London scene at the time that the thing that was missing was a band that was scrappy and rocky, punchy and dark but not retro, and so we created the band we wished existed.
Dawsons: When you were getting into music as a kid, what was the first thing that you picked up?
Jon: When I was younger? My very first guitar was a Marlin Sidewinder, which was the only second-hand guitar in the local music shop, and I begged my parents to buy it for me for Christmas. It was a really horrible Super Strat kind of thing with a humbucker, Floyd Rose-style tremolo…it was about £65 and it was totally fine to learn on. I think the amp was something like a (Marshall) GFX. My mindset was that I just had something and that I would make the most of it, which has never really changed.
Dawsons: So, keeping things sparse?
Jon: Maybe not so much sparse but just making the most of what you’ve got rather than obsessing over having ‘the best of the best’. Instead think, ‘This is what I’ve got, let’s make something cool with it’. Embrace the imperfections or the quirks of it – or the sh*tness of it. I’d rather beat the sh*t out of it and see what happens than covet something expensive I cannot obtain.
Dawsons: And you Ben, you joined the band a little later?
Ben: I think it’s like just after you (Jon and Kitty) started doing live stuff, maybe you’d done a couple of gigs with different people.
Dawsons: And what is your musical background?
Ben: Yeah, like always been in bands in school and met these guys through making pedals, which came from not being able to afford some of the gear that I wanted so, I decided to make it as it was cheaper. I can’t remember who it was – Jon or Kitty – that contacted me…
Dawsons: I read a story about you guys finding him playing tunes on his narrow boat?
Jon: We heard that there was a guy who lived on a boat and that he made pedals in London and we were like, ‘he sounds like he might be cheap’ hahaha…
Ben: Ha-ha! Well, I make pedals under the name Kraken Effects and I designed a Fuzz that also retains a nice clarity, which is more natural and that ended up on Kitty’s board and she still uses it. It’s just one big knob that just gets louder – and it gets stupidly loud! It changes a lot depending on what guitar and pickups you’re using too. I wanted to make a super simple circuit so, it’s only got one transistor and LED clipping diodes that makes it quite dynamic for a fuzz but still hard clipping.
Dawsons: I’ll be honest, I checked to see if you had any left for sale on your website and I’m gutted that you’ve sold out…
Ben: Yeah, I made a limited run of 50. I do a few custom bits for people but it’s hard to find time with the band.
Jon: Yeah, we’ve been really busy!
Dawsons: How long have you been on the road for now?
Jon: We’ve been on the road since March this year…
Dawsons: That’s when the album (Welcome to Silvertown) came out?
Jon: …Yeah, so we’ve done a European tour, Summer Festival season, and a few other bits and pieces in Europe supporting other bands and now it’s our UK headline tour. So, another week of this tour and then a few shows to kind of finish off the year with a couple in Switzerland and stuff like that. It’s been amazing being on the road doing so many shows and I really feel that as a band we’ve developed quite a lot over the course of this Summer.
Dawsons: Listening to the album there is definitely an edginess – and I apologise for using that word – to the overall vibe, with a dark and brooding quality that stands out. But the album is also boasts an atmospheric depth that sets it apart. I’ve read that you’re influenced by cinema just as much as music, citing the soundtracks of Westerns and composers like Ennio Morricone as your inspiration.
Jon: If you’re going to do something that’s darker and a little bit heavier, it can be a bit one-dimensional if you’re just on the attack all the time. One of my favourite bands is Nine Inch Nails and there’s something about having a kind of atmosphere that feels, for want of a better word, ‘epic’ at points that you then launch an attack from.
I think that feels more exciting and puts you in more of a mindset that inhabits a film-like world where everything is larger than life. You simply wouldn’t get that feeling if you’re just bang, bang, bang all the time.
So, we do try and bring some of the drama that you get from like Westerns and stuff because there is nothing more dramatic than an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Dawsons: With regard to the making of the album, I read that you guys completed everything from start to finish in just a couple of weeks – is that right?!
Jon: Yeah it was 10 days so, a song a day. We love bands like Black Sabbath and The White Stripes and how they just recorded quickly. It’s not that we want to be a classic rock band but there’s something magic about performing and capturing something in the moment for better or worse with various mistakes. Then listen back to that take and ask ‘Does that feel like us? Does that feel like what it feels like on stage?’ you know? You can always enhance using compression and effects, but you’re not going back and fixing every tiny detail.
For example, there’s a lot of bleed in the room and on one of the tracks, when I mixed the album I noticed that on one of the tracks Ben’s bass ended up really loud in the room so all of the bass guitar just comes through the kick drum mic. There’s no DI and the mic on Ben’s bass amp was redundant because there’s so much coming through the kick drum and I thought ‘that will do’, and I kind of like that. It’s got a unique sound to it and that we couldn’t have got had we like planned it.
Ben: As performers, when recording to tape it changes your mindset because you can’t just chop it up into little bits. When you’re listening back, you’re listening for the good bits, you’re listening for some magic rather than listening to what went wrong. Rather than trying to fix this or that you grab a whole take that you like and appreciate the magic in that.
Dawsons: Of course, you went analogue rather than the digital route, so you have to let it all hang out so to speak.
Jon: If there’s a clanger then you just have to start again, but you can’t do 20 takes because you’ve only got so much tape. If you want to record another take you have to rewind and erase the one you just did so you have to be confident that you can beat what you just recorded.
Dawsons: And do you have your own studio?
Jon: We demo in our rehearsal space, but the album was recorded at Tilehouse Studios, which is owned by Luke Oldfield (son of Mike Oldfield).
Ben: Mike Oldfield set it up, but Luke now runs it and has updated it.
Jon: Yeah, he’s got this two-inch tape machine and Luke was up for being hands-off and just letting us get on with producing the album ourselves. These are songs that we’d been playing live for at least a year and they’ve developed over time. We’ve grown used to how they feel when playing live, how they respond on stage, and we didn’t want to work with a producer who might change stuff. There are producers who we respect but we just felt that for our first album, let’s go and be this thing that we are right now and we’re really enjoying.
Dawsons: When you were heading into the studio did you whittle down the gear that you use on stage or did your indulgent side kick in, i.e. did you hire any vintage gear or instruments?
Jon: I think we kept it to pretty much our own stuff we use live.
Ben: Yeah with the bass it’s pretty much running as bass through a bass amp and guitar amp setup. At the moment I’ve got a Hofner Verythin with a few mods to make it a bit more roadworthy. At the time of the album I had a Fender Coronado. Amps-wise I’ve got a Peavey Mark IV from the ‘80s and I love it – big, loud, and clean with good EQing. Cab-wise I’ve got an Ampeg 4×10 that’s ported and goes super-low.
Dawsons: Do you tend to keep the amp clean and ramp things up with effects?
Ben: Yeah. My main preamp pedal is the Catalinbread SFT, which is like an older Ampeg-style preamp. When it comes to drive, I use a pedal that I made, which creates my main “clean” sound. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s got active bass and treble controls and is perfect for bass. My main fuzz at the moment comes from the Electro Harmonix Micro Synth – but that wasn’t what I recorded with. I recorded with a Velcro-y Fuzz thing that I made.
Jon: But we did use it on “Brother“, our latest single that’s just been released so, there’s been a bit of a transition between the album and what we’re using now. We’ve found that as we’ve progressed there were minor EQ differences that things like the active bass and treble controls have sorted out.
Dawsons: Have you found that your “sound” has changed during the course of the tour?
Ben: Yeah, we’re shifting constantly, tweaking stuff and it never stays the same. From when we recorded the album, we’ve gone from trying to get the biggest sound possible individually to being more considered in our approach, sonically, as a band.
Jon: And we’ve removed some options as well to try and make the tonal palette more identifiable as Saint Agnes. There were too many sounds that we had live where it was confusing to listen to, so we wanted to simplify it and make the most from less.
Ben: Plus, our live performances can be pretty chaotic so paring things down is useful and safer.
Jon: Making sure that everything is easily replaceable is definitely useful. We don’t have anything that costs thousands of pounds, we try to keep things road-ready and if they die, we can figure some way around it. We’re pretty physical onstage and things get broken all the time.
Dawsons: How do you manage to transfer the energy from the stage into the studio?
Jon: Actually, that was something we really tried to work on with the new single. So, when we did the album, you know, we just finished touring and we just kind of walked into the studio and played exactly what we played. I think that we captured a good chunk of that energy too.
When we came to record the new single, we really wanted to capture the chaos and venom that has been part of the shows this year, so we started where we left off with the album but figured out how to refine things. For example, we got Ben and Andy (drums) to play together and EQ’ed everything so that the bass was fuzzy and as loud as possible without swamping the drums. We spent more time there than in the mix afterwards, just EQing the amp until we were happy, and did the same thing with the guitar. Taking the time there means you can then just throw yourself into the performance, reacting to sounds that are close to finished, rather than ones that you hope will sound good once mixed.
For the guitar in fact, I did the same as what we did last night and tonight, which is running my guitar through a DI at the end of the chain as well to the amp so that the front of house has DI’d fuzz to be able to put into the signal. We found that combining the amp with the DI fuzz, we can get that attacking bite that to me just sounds perfect.
My main fuzz is a bit obscure, it’s a Zoom Ultra Fuzz, which was like a poor man’s Fuzz Factory when it came out. I bought it for £20 in a blowout sale and try as I might, I haven’t been able to replace it. It’s got a gate on it and the gate is just magic. On other pedals the gate is not quick enough, and I like to stutter the guitar sound and no other pedal has come close to replicating it.
Both Kitty and I use copies of a Crowther Hotcake that Ben made for us. I have mine on all the time as a general overdrive at the start of the chain. then I use wah a lot as a sweep filter to give any lead or solo a nice, gnarly sound. I like the variety and chaos you get with FX you can manipulate in real time.
For the same reason I like the Digitech Whammy and use it all the time. The main riff in our new single is 100% Whammy and wouldn’t sound the same without it.
The other pedals I use are a BOSS Blues Driver for stacking with the Hotcake when I want to go harder than overdrive but not quite to fuzz. I have a BOSS TR-2 for the cowboy trem, an EHX LPB-1 and then a Fulltone Octafuzz that I use on just about every solo for extra fizz and even more gating.
Amp-wise I use a Fender Concert 4×10 or Fender Twin. Kitty’s amp though is the one that always delivers the goods, a Peavey Classic 30. That thing is incredible.
Kitty being a multi-instrumentalist playing guitars, keys, singing, etc. gives us a lot of strings to our bow but also means there’s more gear onstage in danger of getting damaged so we try and keep things simple. She uses an Alesis VI61 MIDI Controller, which we have three of on the tour as she breaks so many.
The Alesis is connected to a NORD Electro brain, which we keep at the back of the stage. The keys go through a RAT clone that Ben made and Wah pedal for solos, which creates crazy distorted organ sounds. If something with the keyboard goes wrong, then she can trash the MIDI controller rather than trash a NORD.
Ben: The keys also go into an amp as well so there’s no DI for keys. It’s an important part of the sound too because whenever you hear keys on recordings they’re always through a miked-up amp.
Jon: Plus, when it’s miked up on stage, even when Kitty puts down the guitar and switches to keys, you’re still getting that feeling of something physical coming from the stage and we can all vibe off that.
Dawsons: You also mentioned before the interview that you’ve been using Lewitt Microphones exclusively on the tour…
Jon: Yeah, we’re using Lewitt Microphones for everything! Lewitt saw us play in Austria and kindly offered to loan us a few microphones to test on the road and we were like, ‘yeah, we like these’ and contacted them again to say that we’re doing this tour and they were like, ‘Well, take the whole package”.
So, we’ve got drum mics, loads of vocal mics and cab mics – everything. Our front house guys been delighted, and I have to say from our point of view the vocal mics in particular have made life so much easier. They cut through so much more than standard stage vocal mics we’re used to using. Kitty’s in a constant battle of trying to hear herself and she finally feels like she can hear herself and get a lot of gain before feedback.
We can’t recommend the Lewitt 550 DM vocal mics enough. Yeah, and as we said our Front of House guys have said that the tom mics are top notch too.
Dawsons: Well Jon and Ben thank you for chatting with us and can’t wait to check out Saint Agnes live!
Check this out!
Whether you’ve got to travel near or far, you have got to experience Saint Agnes live – words can’t do them justice!
Jon has a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons Music Web Team before progressing into his current role as Content Manager. Favourite things: My LTD MH-400NT, a decent brew, and Ron Swanson.