INTERVIEW: The Ethical Debating Society

The Ethical Debating Society (also known as T.E.D.S to their fans) is one of the most exciting D.I.Y bands around at the moment. They are a three-piece consisting of Tegan (Vocals and Guitar) Kris (Vocals and Guitar) and Eli (Drums). Formed in 2009, T.E.D.S have been thrashing around in the Indie Punk scene with a sound that blends Lo-Fi with the Riot Grrrl movement and instantly grabs your attention. We interviewed Tegan and Kris and discussed Punk, politics and their debut album, ‘New Sense.’

You have a multi-faceted sound that can be linked to Grunge, Lo-Fi and the Riot Grrrl movement, but more often than not you are called a Punk band. Do you feel that a Punk scene still exists? And what is like being in a Punk Band in 2016?

Tegan: I think that Punk is more a state of being, a state of mind, than a genre, especially these days. I think the idea of Punk is the idea that anybody can pick up the baton, and have a go, regardless of class, gender, background. I think hip hop is particularly Punk in its ethics, for instance, although I know very little about it as a genre. What’s it like being in a Punk band in 2016? Maybe borrow a guitar, write some songs, find out for yourself, if you happen to be reading this!

Kris: I think we’re called Punk because it’s a catch-all. Punk exists as a separate scene that we’re not really part of, and there’s also the Queercore scene, but we’re more like DIY Indie with rough edges. We did play with some full-on punks recently called the Antiseptics, who were great and their crowd did a proper mosh-pit for us and really got into it. We’ve played with Shocks of Mighty and others. At the underground level a lot of scenes intermesh and function in pretty much the same way. But yeah, if we’re talking punk as an idea, I’d say that Screaming Toenail are infinitely more punk than, say, reforming Sham 69 again.

From your band name to some of your lyrics, to your general aesthetic, you are quite a political group, but manage to convey your opinions in a way that doesn’t seem preachy, was that a conscious effort on your part?

Tegan: No, definitely not. It’s more that I try to resist the laid out for all to see, bare your heart to the world kind of writing, and I think the same applies to Kris. The point of the songs are pretty clear, with only the most minimal of digging required, I think.

Kris: We’re not that calculated in how we go about things, but you’re right, there is some self-awareness about that stuff. Like, I don’t think we’d ever do a song like ‘Fight the CTS Bill!’ or whatever, although no disrespect to that approach. It’s not really us, though. We’re more about the confusions and the contradictions – without being relativists either.

Some of your lyrics are political and about serious stuff while others are fun and are about hipsters and the joys of vintage clothing. Do you feel any pressure to be overtly political or serious in your songwriting?

Tegan: Not pressure, no, but I often feel irritated enough that I want to comment on certain things. Sometimes these things are just facile and relatively silly, hence the playfulness of some of the songs, but often, the songs end up serious in tone because they are about serious things, that need consideration. I hope that by being somewhat political in the songs, we might be able to spur a few people into at least thinking about the current, and very shitty state of affairs, and perhaps even do something about it.

Kris: There’s no pressure, from anyone else or ourselves, to do or not do anything, we just write what’s on our minds. So songs might end up emotional or whimsical or political. The point is that nothing’s off the table. It wouldn’t occur to us that I shouldn’t write ‘Mission Creep’ which is about geopolitics any more than Tegan shouldn’t write ‘Exxtreme Vintage’. It’s expression. You can trace the political debate back to 30s literature – is the form right for the content, is it successful as art or propaganda? We can’t answer that. But there is this huge disconnect between how politically aware people are, which has increased, and our capacity to express that and get organised, which is culturally repressed. Maybe it’s time we woke each other up.

You have described yourselves as a D.I.Y Indie Punk band. Do you think that today with social media and the internet it’s easier and more beneficial to go the D.I.Y route?

Tegan: I don’t really know if there is another way to do it. If there is, I certainly don’t know how one would approach it. Do major label deals exist for small bands anymore? I’m just not sure it’s a dream worth chasing these days, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do all the fun things: Gigs, touring, merch, records. It’s all still possible, but by doing it yourself.

Kris:Yes’ would the easy answer. But actually we’re not great with the self-promotion stuff, the endless front of confidence you need for it, and we’re not professional networkers. So we are partly a DIY band because that’s the medium that goes with our kind of music and its likely commercial appeal. Purely theoretically, we’re not automatically against labels. We like pop music. Some bands we like have management, are on big independents or ended up on major-connected labels. Mind you, they do tend to start sounding really boring once they sign those bigger deals, haha.

You have been applauded for being a great live band. How important are live shows to you, and what can fans expect from one of your live shows?

Tegan: Well, that’s very kind, and lovely to hear, but I think all we really expect to do when we play live is firstly have fun, and hopefully entertain people at the same time, but for me, a very important part of playing live is demonstrating that again, anybody could have a go. I’m not a particularly skilled guitar player, and my singing skills are minimal, but I still have a go. If I can, anybody can. We usually try to get a guest to come play a song with us onstage, even if that is somebody we’ve never met, and who can’t really play very well. I think we aim to show that anyone can do it, even if you’ve never practiced with us before.

Kris: Playing gigs can sometimes be frustrating because there are so many things you can’t control – although you could say the same about studio recording or anything else. But on a good day you get an instant reaction from people dancing or a buzz in the air or that spark onstage when songs come together just right, and there’s no substitute for that, although hopefully you can hear the spark in the records too. Whatever goes wrong or right at a gig, you can expect us to mean it, you can expect sincerity.

Can you explain the origins of your sound? For example, there is no bass, and it gives your songs this visceral, primal urgency. Was that how you always envisioned your songs sounding, or did someone forget to buy a bass and you just rolled with it?

Tegan: It’s definitely more the latter. While I was plotting with Lauren Ding about how to make a band, we both realised we had a guitar each, but no bass. It never stopped Sleater Kinney, so we thought we’d just crack on with what we had. As it turns out, it’s a rather nice way to write songs: There’s no bass to lean on, to fill in gaps, so it means a little more thought is needed when writing melodies.

Your debut album, ‘New Sense’ has a very live feel. Was there any extensive planning involved in regards to sound when recording the album, or did you just turn up to the studio, plug in and play?

Tegan: I definitely wanted a very lo-fi sound. The more scrappy, the more accessible I feel music is. I particularly love stuff like early Scout Niblett, Daniel Johnston,  and some of the Palace Brothers music, to name just a few of my favourite Lo-Fi sounds, but Kris quite rightly pointed out that it does need to be listenable. Mark from Sound Savers got what we are after, and realised there had to be a compromise, but just made it work. It sounds like a band in a room, which is exactly what it was. There are a few little beautiful mistakes and idiosyncrasies left in there, which I’m incredibly glad about.

Kris: No preparation, beyond choice of studio. We needed to find someone we were comfortable with, who wouldn’t tell us what to do, and would understand what we didn’t want, what to leave out. Sound Savers in Homerton do a lot of DIY bands and get that groups want to capture their live sound and don’t want to spend days doing overdubs they could never replicate ‘live’.

I love the whole album; ‘Razor Party’ is one of my favourite tracks and I’m dying to know something: What is the origin of the lyric “Don’t bring your dick to the razor party…”

Tegan: Razor Party was a song that’s actually written by one of my best mates Rob, of Tall Stories and Darla and the Blonde fame, and I think it’s a case of don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.  Don’t kick the girl who knows karate…

Kris: Rob’s an undiscovered genius who was our drummer before we found Eli. For a complete answer you’d have to ask him (he’s even more cryptic than we are) but I always took it to be a twisted take on ‘don’t bring a knife to a gunfight’. His songs tend to be about how fucked up everything is and how everyone is full of it. Like Celine writing lyrics for The Pop Group.

Another favourite track of mine is the closing track, ‘Disasters I’ve Known and Loved’. It’s a beautifully haunting, almost acapella track. What’s the story behind that song?

Tegan: It’s a song about a girl whose love is going to leave in the near future. She’s trying to hold on to the fact that he’ll come back, but knows he never will, deep down. 

‘New Sense’ was incredibly well-received; all the reviews I have read are positive. Were you surprised that your D.I.Y. punk band were on so many radars? And do you feel any nerves about following up such a well-received album?

Kris: We are secretly highly ambitious and want to be on more radars! I’m always a bit surprised when people like our stuff but I think that’s partly because we’re self-taught, without the confidence some musicians take for granted. Also I find it quite hard to step back and separate the achievements from the less successful bits. Plus I think we’re all aware that we push the boundaries of acceptability in various ways. But paradoxically, on another level we do think we have something, and the next release will be better because we’re getting better. The third album will be awful though.

Tegan: Of course, everybody hopes their work will be well liked, but it’s been especially lovely that people have been so kind. It seems that people from all walks have enjoyed it, too: From Indie-Pop to Punk to Grunge, hopefully there’s something for everyone in it. Definitely a bit nervous about making album number two, but it’s got to be done!

Have you started writing and recording album number two? If so, how’s it going? If not, when do you plan to make another record?

Tegan: Yes, writing for number two has already started, and we’re already playing new tracks when we gig. Trying out some new ideas, and hopefully getting Eli out from behind those drums to do a bit of shouting in her native tongue, too. It’ll be ready as soon as we’re all happy with it!

Kris: Assuming we do a full length album next, we’ve written half of it, with a few tweaks to do here and there.  Nothing recorded yet though. So far, there are songs about London, carpetbaggers, jihadis, ‘local characters’, and glass ceilings.

What does the future hold for The Ethical Debating Society?

Tegan: More gigs, more records, and who knows what else?

Kris: Self-actualisation, and a new set of badges.

The Ethical Debating Society’s debut album ‘New Sense’ is out now, get a copy here. You can also find their tour dates here.

Gabriel Ebulue