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“We get to do whatever we like. We get to make music because we love it, not because somebody else wants us to do something.”
In the run-up to the release of Millie Manders And The Shutup’s debut full length Telling Truths, Breaking Ties, we get to grab 20 precious minutes on the ‘phone with Millie to chat about the highs and lows of chasing dreams.
Millie is running late for our appointment. It’s a Friday early evening and she’s in the supermarket, then rushing to get home. Home to a flat stacked full of mailer boxes and vinyl LPs ahead of packing and shipping copies of the new album. Which she’ll do herself, because that’s the reality of being the sharp end of a hard-working musical unit with a cast iron DIY mentality and an unwavering commitment to their supporters. And she’s working other jobs. All in the week before Rishi Sunak suggested that artists, amongst others, might consider retraining to do something else. He should have had a word with Millie first. I’m fairly sure she would have strong views on the subject.
Which, of course, she does. Even a cursory listen to the new album reveals that wrapped up in her band’s sublime trademark mostly ska-punk, but wonderfully cross-genre, music are a lot of what you might call strong opinions. The reality is that Millie writes what she feels and without filter or reservation. The DIY route facilitates this. No corporate overseer or artificial commerciality filter is applied. Millie Manders and the Shutup are paragons of the DIY method, devising and creating every aspect of their presence. The benefits are self-evident. Millie says:
“Whatever crazy idea I come up with creatively, whether it’s to do with merchandise or touring, or the next release – I get to do what I want with it and the band get to be part of that journey and decide with me. There’s no-one going ‘oh, well, that’s not going to be very commercial’!”
With this shift in power back to the artist, facilitated by access to all the means of production and marketing once the exclusive preserve of the record company monoliths, the very idea of what constitutes ‘success’ is changing. It is something that Millie teaches to her Level 4 Artist Development class (at Access Creative College). She’s very clear that success is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not a measurable thing. She expands:
“Whatever markers you put in place for yourself … if you’re hitting those markers, you’re already successful. It’s about counting the small successes, as a DIY artist especially and particularly at the beginning of your career, because you’re creating the foundation on which you can perpetuate your career.”
Some artists thrive in the live environment, some find the recording process more rewarding. Millie enjoys both equally, explaining that both have their own and quite different merits:
“I love going out on the road and seeing everybody and interacting with the people that love our music. It’s so important and so rewarding to do that. The rewarding side of the recording process is that we get to be creative. There’s a teamwork and a camaraderie and that family feeling that you get from working with people that you work well with.”
“I’m not OK/I don’t see myself feeling that way/I haven’t been for years/ But I’ve got masks made up to cover up my tears, OK …
While the trademark MMATSU sound is typically upbeat, horn-driven punk-ska or guitar-led punk-pop (and I contend that it is not possible to hear any kind of ska and not feel uplifted), there are threads in Millie’s lyrical work that deal explicitly with her demons. Music is Millie’s catharsis. She reveals, tellingly, that she is not very good at talking about things when she’s going through them. She elaborates:
“I’ve always been better at talking through my music and talking publicly in a way that is supportive of other people as opposed to ‘this is what I’m going through’. Also, pain is a wonderful motivator in all music, unfortunately. Heartbreak is one of the biggest motivators for writing and anger is either equal or a very close second. I have plenty of both. Everything I have written has been real chapters in my life.”
This aspect of Millie’s song-writing is itself supported by her fearless approach to taking on political issues. There is a bold and eloquent progressive slant to her lyrical work. But it’s not appreciated by all of her followers, some of whom are not slow to share the notion that they ‘don’t listen to music to hear about politics’. Coming from ska and punk fans, Millie find this a bit bewildering:
“There are some people who will never understand that music needs to be political. I get a lot of flak from followers when I have posted things on social media that are directly political as opposed to about my music. Generally, because of the type of music that I write, people understand that this is a kind of genre where politics has always been and always will be. For the majority though, people get it.”
Which gives me the opportunity to ask the $64,000 question. If Millie was a benign dictator, what would her first decree be? It’s not a question that she can answer off the bat. We will revisit this later.
As a debut album, Telling Truths, Breaking Ties is a hugely important document (you can read our review here). As a whole piece, it swerves from sharp, riff-laden guitar punk pop to upbeat punk ska and back via dreamy reggae vibes and affecting power-balladry. It’s a sonic rollercoaster that hints at Millie’s own diversity of musical taste:
“For me it’s really important to have flexibility in what we create. My development as a musician has been so wide-ranging, starting with being classically and jazz-trained as a clarinettist and then classically trained as a vocalist but being brought up in a house where a huge variety of music was played all of the time. I have listened to so many genres all my life that it would feel cruel to me if I was forced to choose one thing over another.”
“I’ve had plenty of burnouts over the years. It’s not something that has stopped me.”
There’s one track on the album – Burnout – that deals with the rigours of being a touring band while working other jobs that Millie says predicted her own burnout at the beginning of the year. But the underlying message is not about the stresses. On the contrary, it’s about the importance of following the dream, regardless of the downsides. Millie is not afraid to share her lived experience.
“It’s something that I teach to my students that I’m developing as young artists. If you really, really want to work in the music industry, there is very little chance of you not working two jobs and living on a shoestring. I’ve had plenty of burnouts over the years. It’s not something that has stopped me.”
And that is Millie Manders in a nutshell: bold, determined and single-minded, but empathic, sensitive and sometimes anxious. To round off our chat, I press Millie on her first decree as our benign dictator. “I have decided!”, she replies chirpily, “I would – immediately – make illegal all single use and non-biodegradable plastics. Instantly. Everything. Gone. It would be a beautiful thing. So many things would heal.”
Amen to that.
Telling Truths, Breaking Ties is out on the 23rd October and can be pre-ordered here