Hands Off Gretel

It’s a Friday night in Belfast. It’s actually Valentine’s night – a fact not lost on the lone busker with his keyboard, crooning his way through a selection of romantic easy listening staples. Not that the romance is rubbing off on the passing couples. Indifference is his reward, and after a few songs he changes his tune, literally. Now it’s Erasure. An odd choice, but he’s pleasing himself now. No one is listening. Belfast’s Voodoo, on the other hand, is seething with alternative types. Goths and punks are shoulder to shoulder, the soundtrack is 70s retro and there’s a happy, expectant vibe. Hands Off Gretel are in town and there’s an expectant buzz in the venue bar.

If you have seen Hands Off Gretel perform, you’ll know that they are an explosively lively bunch who have no trouble in using every inch of stage available to them. It is a bit of a shock to find Lauren, Becky, Sean and Sam crammed into what must be the world’s smallest green upstairs room in Voodoo. They’ve just eaten, and after a bit of introductory banter about the difficulties of eating when you’re a band on the road, we have a few minutes to discuss the ‘Don’t Touch‘ tour and the business of being in a band.

Belfast is the third date of the tour, after Cork and Dublin. It has been a few months since the band have toured and they’re getting back into the swing of it. 2019 was a spectacularly busy year for the band and particularly Lauren, whose writing featured on both the band’s “I Want The World” album and her solo work “Songs For Sad Girls“. “It’s all kind of meshed into one,” Lauren explains. “We did the album, then we started playing live and then we recorded The Angry EP in November, so we just crammed that in at the end of the year. We did as much as we could that year.” Being so prolific does pose problems when it comes to choosing a set. “We have too many songs. We all have our favourites that we like to play and we always try to alternate to make it more exciting.”

“There are always people who come to several gigs,” Becky adds, “so we like to swap things around, to give them something to look forward to.” 

A band is mentioned, one trading on decades of touring and locked into performing pretty much the same set every time. “We have played with bands like that,” Lauren agrees, “everything they say is the same every night. It’s like it’s rehearsed. I don’t think we could do that. Sean, when he’s moving, he’ll do something cool. Last night he was hung from beam. He’ll do that one night and then the next he’ll say ‘I’ll have to do something different now, I need to up the game and change things.’ It keeps it fun.”

Hands Off Gretel are paragons of the DIY ethos. Every aspect and detail of the band’s output is meticulously planned and executed in-house. It’s something they enjoy. Lauren explains that she enjoys the strategising around the release of records and realised early on that there was little point in relinquishing control when you could do what needed to be done yourself. I propose that this is an archetypal punk approach but wonder, mischievously, if ‘punk’ is a thing anymore. Lauren is clear that it is: “I think a lot of people think punk is a style of music, that you play a certain way and that makes you a punk band. Now, punk is what you’re singing about more that what it sounds like. We get classed as punk but I don’t think we sound like a punk band – we’ve got all different influences – but when you’re fighting against something, when you have a strong message, you’re rooted in punk.”

Managing their own affairs is a matter of great importance to the band. Having had unfortunate experiences devolving management of the band’s activities in the past, the DIY route suits their creative energy. Staying in control gives the band a freedom to please themselves and keeps them tuned in to fans’ wants in terms of products and performance.

Lauren is a famously prolific songwriter, as 2019’s recorded output demonstrates. I’m intrigued to learn how a songwriter who has released both a band and a solo album in one year decides whether a song is for the band or for solo release. For Lauren, it’s a question of her own feelings about the songs individually and how they came to be written: “For a long time I tended to give the songs I liked the best to Hands Off Gretel. Songs that I liked to sing but that were softer, more personal – I wondered if doing them with the full band might take away that vulnerability. Bringing a song to the band means that it gets amped up, it becomes bigger. Some songs work like that. When it doesn’t, I just keep them for myself. Anything that needs that stronger backing, that’s a Hands Off Gretel thing.” This is, in itself, a process. Lauren first creates the song as a demo herself at home before sharing with the band. Sam is usually the first port of call, adding drum ideas before the song is worked on in rehearsal. Songs evolve and change quite radically in rehearsal, so having those developed demos help to compare between the original idea for the song and how the band have expressed it. It helps with the recording process too to have a reference version of the song to compare Lauren’s original intent with the eventual musical outcome, which is often quite different.

Lyrically, there’s a rawness and openness to Lauren’s work that can be challenging to listen to. She does not shy away from uncomfortable topics or expressing how they have affected her. This gives her output a journal-like feel, a glimpse into the deepest, and sometimes darkest, corners of her mind. It’s a peep into a not-so-secret diary, an idea Lauren alluded to in a piece for Kerrang! in which she reflected on “I Want The World“, song by song. “I’m always trying to write the truest song I can,” Lauren says, “I’m always trying to pinpoint how I feel, even if it’s the same sort of feelings over and over again. It is like a diary in that way. Sometimes a song will be close to what I mean, but I think I can get closer to the core of what I’m trying to say.  Repeating yourself can be quite powerful. When I talked about men at gigs being inappropriate – that was a little seed planted and it got people talking about it. I thought ‘I can’t just write one song, I have to write lots of songs. I can’t just write something and it’s exactly what I want to say in three minutes. There are so many ways I can say something, so when I write my songs, I always ask myself ‘what is it I want to say?’.”

To round off the interview, I thank the band for bringing the tour to Belfast. Too many bands announce UK tours, which comprise gigs in England and possibly a token one or two in Scotland and Wales. There’s a good and growing scene in Northern Ireland that is crying out for bands like Hands Off Gretel. The band seem surprised and embarrassed to be thanked for bringing the show to Ireland. To close, I ask them if after the busy time they have had recently, they feel like veterans of the Punk Rock Wars. They laugh it off. “Maybe veterans of a small tour of a small corner,” laughs Sam.

Looks like the horizon is opening up for Hands Off Gretel. Get it while it’s hot.