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It has been said that you should never have a romance with anyone that you are in a band with. If one looks at the long line of casualties -Richard and Linda Thompson, Fleetwood Mac, Sonny and Cher, and Mark E. and Brix Smith to name but a few-one can see that there is a lot of hard truth in that.
Beth Arzy sung and played bass and John Girgus played guitar in Aberdeen, one of the most promising indiepop acts of the mid 90's. Arzy and Girgus, who had been girlfriend and boyfriend since High School, formed Aberdeen in the early 90's out of the ashes of their previous band Black Star Carnival in their home town of Palm Desert in Southern California, but shortly afterwards relocated two hours drive west to Los Angeles. Aberdeen then expanded to a trio when Jenni Fields joined the group on additional guitar and keyboards.
They released their first two EPs, ‘Byron’ (1994)and ‘Fireworks’ (1995), on the seminal "twee" label, Sarah Records, and followed this with a third record, a single. ‘Snapdragon’, on Sunday Records (again 1995).
Arzy and Girgus’ always turbulent relationship, however, fell apart at the end of 1995, and the band broke up in bitter circumstances.
Six years later in 2001 Arzy and Girgus, certainly to Arzy’s surprise and also that of many of their fans, reformed Aberdeen in a different line-up with Johnny Joyner on guitar and bass and Brian Espinoza on drums. They toured America with Trembling Blue Stars, put out three further singles, ‘Sink or Float’ (2002), ‘The Boy Has Gone Away’ (2003) and ‘Florida’ (2004) and also released an album, 2002’s ‘Homesick and Happy to Be Here’.
Beth Arzy now lives in London with her boyfriend, former ex-Field Mice and now Trembling Blue Stars front man , Bobby Wratten (the subject of their own current three part Pennyblackmusic interview). She is also a member of Trembling Blue Stars. John Girgus continues to live in Los Angeles, where he now plays in two other bands, Languis and Spider Problem
An Aberdeen retrospective, ‘What Do I Wish for Now ?’, which consists of singles and extra tracks, was released in October on LTM Records. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Beth Arzy about it and Aberdeen’s often fraught history.
PB : Aberdeen are often labeled as being a twee act, yet your influences seem to be a lot more diverse than that. You can hear the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream in there. The early releases also have something of a shoegazing sound. Do you mind being put under that moniker or is it something which annoys you ?
BA : John has totally come to terms with it. It used to annoy him, but now he is fine about it. He is like “Oh ! Who cares ?”. It would be hypocritical for me to run around and say that we weren’t a twee act when I used to run around in Heavenly shirts and had little hair slides with butterflies on them. I couldn’t really say that we were not a twee band with a clear conscience.
I went through a stage in High School where I listened to the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and Bauhaus and Skinny Puppy and Ministry and things like that. Then when I graduated from High School I started listening to stuff on Sarah Records and I left that behind for a while. Now I am back to listening to Bauhaus again (Laughs). I go through light phases and dark phases.
We were twee, and I think it was because we wanted to be like the groups we were listening to at the time like Blueboy and Heavenly. The Field Mice were the epitome of twee, and now I know where they came from they are to me the most untwee band in the world. Annemari Davis has got the sweetest voice you could ever hear. It wasn’t really indiepop at all, and Bobby and Michael Hiscock come from the Echo and the Bunnymen school of raincoats, and didn’t come from there at all. Bobby has never even heard a full Heavenly record in his life.
We were trying to be like the people that we thought were twee. It is embarrassing to think of the things that I wore (Laughs).
PB : Is it true that you and John first met when you were in High School, and that you first started working together when you asked John if he would set some poems you had written to music ?
BA : Yeah. That’s basically what happened. We went to the same High School in Palm Desert in Southern California at the same time as people like Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age. I think Nick Oliveri got kicked out of school for being stoned or something. I remember him being gone which was pleasant because I didn’t like him. You had the Josh Homme/Nick Oliveri crowd, and then you had other trendy people who were cheerleaders, but at our school we didn’t just have a football team. We also had a golf team.
My friend Ginny and I hated all of that and felt really alienated. Then we met John, who wore Skinny Puppy shirts and had long black hair over his face and Chelsea boots, and I thought “Right ! You’re going to be our friend now.” We made him eat lunch with us one day because we thought he was cute and he told us that he was in this band called the Void and that they practiced in his friend’s garage . Then he told us that they were looking for a lead singer” and I said “What a coincidence ! I’ve got some really shitty poems” and so I went over there and sang my shitty poems and they played their music.
That band the Void eventually became Black Star Carnival, which looking back was a horrible, heinous name for a group. It was the name of a Primal Scream song of the time. We thought we were being really obscure, which we were, because nobody where we lived knew who Primal Scream was. Then eventually Black Star Carnival became Aberdeen.
PB : You released your first two records, ‘Byron’ and ‘Fireworks’, on the Sarah label in the mid 90’s. They were two of their last releases. Up until that point they had been a largely English label. That was quite an achievement. How did you become involved with Sarah ?
BA : That was amazing. We couldn’t believe it when that happened. We didn’t take it for granted at all. It was down to Brandt Larson who lived in the same area as we did. He used to have loads of parties and play records for people. He was really clued up and used to order all this stuff from the mail order firm Parasol. He used to do things like invite people over for a party and to listen to the new Field Mice record. I remember lying on the floor and listening to ‘Missing the Moon’ for the first time in the week that it came out and thinking “Oh My God ! This is so amazing.”
Brandt phoned up Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd, Sarah’s owners, one day when I was there and said “Here you are ! Talk to Matt and Claire.” I didn’t know what to say and I said something like. “Hello. I really like ‘If Wishes Were Horses’ by Blueboy. Goodbye” and gave the phone back (Laughs).
When we did our first demo Brandt said “Why don’t you send it to Sarah Records ?” We sent it to two or three other places as well and got a rejection letter from SpinArt who said it wasn’t right for them and then this letter came back from Matt which said “This is really good, but not quite good enough. Do you have anything more ?”
It just went from there, and, although we were in the last wave of Sarah bands when it wasn’t very good anymore, and we were considered one of the shitty Sarah bands, it was still pretty exciting for us.
PB : In another interview John has been very dismissive of those first two EPs. He says that they sound flat. How do you feel about them ?
BA : LTM have recently done a Field Mice retrospective as well. Bobby had to listen to all the old Field Mice stuff which he normally wouldn’t have done and he said that it was like looking at baby pictures, That is the way that I feel about those first Aberdeen EPs.
It was horrible having to listen to them again. I just kept thinking “Oh God !. We could have done this or that instead. Didn’t anyone notice that they were recorded badly ?” I am much happier with our later stuff.
PB : Those were your first recordings. How much of your dislike of those recordings comes from the fact that they were recorded in the naivity of youth and it was your first time proper time in the recording studio ?
BA : All of it. We didn’t know what we were doing or who we wanted to be. I blame myself a lot because I was a total prima donna in those days. Rather than actually try to listen to the music, I was always coming out with stuff like “Turn down the guitars !” or “There’s too much drums” or “There isn’t this and there isn’t that”. I was forever saying “I don’t want to do that”.
John also wasn’t, quote, “a singer.” Towards the end of Aberdeen’s first incarnation he wanted to sing more and more, and I kind of had my head up my own ass and was going “No. No. I am the singer. You can’t sing. You couldn’t possibly.”
Then when we reformed he said “Look, I am now singing backing vocals whether you like it or not.” Then when we did that I thought “Fucking hell ! This is so good. Why didn’t we do that before ?” and he was like “Erm. I don’t have to remind you.” (Laughs).
I made a lot of mistakes, and I wasn’t easy to work with. Thinking back there were a lot worse records, but I can’t help thinking that we could have done them differently, and that I should have let John play bass on that record and I should have let him have more guitar and I should have let him sing. If I sit back and listen to our first records. I always end up comparing them to our later records, which are much better.
PB : You wrote the lyrics and John the music at the beginning. Did it ever evolve on from that ? Is that what you always did ?
BA : That didn’t change. He would send the tapes and I would go away and write the lyrics, but having said that towards the end it got a lot easier on me when we reformed because we incorporated Johnny Joyner, who used to play in a band called 8 Stage Story and who was a friend of ours from way back, into the group.
He wrote poems and great songs as well and stuff like ‘Sunny in California’ and ‘Cities and Buses’. Some of my favourite Aberdeen songs are Johnny’s songs. That made it easier on me because Johnny would say “What do you think of this ?” and I would say “It’s great” and he would go “Oh great ! Let’s hear you sing it then !”
Normally though John would me a tape and then I would go and rack my brains and try to think of something and normally not have anything to write about (Laughs)..
PB : Much has been made in the press that before you broke up the first time you were a band that didn’t get on. There are lots of stories of doors slamming, instruments being thrown down and even of a guitar ending up in a wall.
BA : I still have the remnants of that in my top drawer as a souvenir (Laughs).
PB : You and John had also been an item and then also broke up at the end of that period that Aberdeen were first together. Was your break-up every bit as bad as it has been made out ?
BA : Yeah. It was fucking horrible (Laughs). I was not the model girlfriend. I was a force to be reckoned with. I was also something of a prima donna and used to chase bands around everywhere, so I wasn’t the ideal girlfriend.
We had a really volatile relationship. We would have probably ended up killing each other or on ‘Cops’ with one of us sitting on the doorstep with a bottle in the hand and being separated from the other for domestic violence. In the end it was pretty bad. We didn’t have any respect for each other as people.
He ended up getting together with my best friend, and that lead to us finally breaking up. I should emphasize that we all get on much better now though (Laughs). My best friend is once more my best friend. After a few years, we all sat down and had a chat and laugh about it. Better her than me though !.
PB : The band had also done well in England, but I believe was little known in America. You only played one gig outside Southern California in Arizona in your original existence. Do you think that was also a factor which lead to the group’s breakdown ?
BA : I think so. John loves to tour. He is a complete road bitch, and loves to get behind the wheel of a van and just go, and I am in contrast a completely paranoid, whiney thing when we are on tour. Even when Trembling Blue Stars are on tour, I am in the back of the van and I cry all the time. I make everyone nervous because I hate the dark, I hate being on the road and I hate being at a truck stop in the middle of Texas. For a long time John would say “We need to tour and I was like “No ! No ! No ! No !”
PB : Aberdeen were apart for about six years. You and John both still lived in LA. Did you see much of each other during the time that you were apart ?
BA : No, we didn’t really see much of each other at all. We split up as a band and a couple around about December 1995. We had gone over to England and visited Matt and Claire and talked about doing an album for Shinkansen, Matt’s label after Sarah, and then we came back and by January of February he had moved out and I hardly saw or heard from him or my best friend who he was living with for I think about six years.
We would bump into each other by accident occasionally at gigs which was really bad. We were both at a Saint Etienne gig and people actually had to tell us to shut up and the security guys told me to go outside because we were yelling at each other. We hadn’t seen each other for like three or four years at that stage and when we did it was like “Raaarh ! Raaarh ! Raaarh !”
Then one day he sent me an e-mail. Someone gave him my e-mail address and he said something like “Are we going to finish being stupid and are we going to do an album now ?” (Laughs) and I was like “Yeah. Okay !” What else could you say to that (Laughs)?
PB : The reformed group’s sound is much fuller on the later singles and on ‘Homesick and Happy to be Here’ than on the early recordings. You used a drum machine on the original recordings and then you brought in this guy Brian Espinoza full-time.
BA : Brian was in a band that we used to go and see quite a lot called Super 31 Watt. During the shoe gazing time you couldn’t go and see a band without seeing them playing support .We played this thing in Arizona just before we split called ‘All Fish Go to Heaven’ with bands like For Against and Apples in Stereo, and we poached Brian for that and when we reformed Brian was there still.
We had a drummer in Black Star Carnival who used to have about 20 million cymbals and they used to drive me absolutely around the bend to the point in which I was literally pulling my hair out. I was like “I can’t sing with all these cymbals crashing around.” I had complete drumophobia ! That’s why we used a drum machine on those early recordings. It was fine, but people would keep saying to us “You guys would be so good if you had real drums” and I would be like “The Jesus and Mary Chain don’t have real drums.” I always felt really comfortable with Brian though and, when we started playing with him, even first time around, it completely changed the sound and also made things a lot easier.
After Aberdeen had split up, I had committed to doing a song on ‘Pop American Style’, a compilation on March Records, and I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. I basically had someone teach me two chords and made a song out of it, ‘Marine Parade’, which was the most twee and horrible little song that you had ever heard . Brian came into the studio with me, which was owned by someone who had been kicked out of the band Ratt for drug use, and played drums and a little bit of guitar.
PB : You have mentioned already Johnny Joyner who also joined Aberdeen when you reformed. He replaced your original guitarist Jenni Fields. Who were the band, 8 Page Story, who he used to play in ?
BA : They were one of the really good Southern Californian bands of the time. They had a girl singer and were really kind of 10,000 Maniacs-ish. We both thought that he was a great musician and we always kept in touch with him. I can’t remember how he joined up. I think John basically said “Oh, Johnny is playing with us now.”
PB : What happened to Jenni ?
BA : That’s a difficult one. Jenni and I were both into Heavenly and it was always good to have a bitch to another girl about John. She was going to university at the time in LA and became very stressed out with the band because John was quite bossy and not easy to be in a band with either. She had already left the group before we split up. I think John chucked her out in the end. She’s happily married now and has children.
PB : During your six years apart did you play in any other groups ?
BA : I tried. I really did. I even put adverts out. The closest I got to being in a group was with this band called Maximillian, and with this guy who worked who for the KCRW radio station in California-he was the sound guy-and who was the lead singer and guitarist. We sounded like Luna. He was really into that kind of stuff, so we ended up sounding like them which was fine.
We did a demo where I sang the B side and he sang the A side. He had a full string section of an orchestra come in and record the A side, but he couldn’t think of any lyrics so I went away and wrote lyrics for it and came back and everybody thought that it was brilliant and that I had saved the song.
One day at practice-I sang and played bass- he said “I don’t think you’ve got the right image for the band. I need someone who is more sexy” and so I got my marching orders and was flung out (Laughs).
PB : How many of the songs from ‘Homesick and Happy to Be Here’ were written in your first incarnation before you split up and how many of them were new songs ?
BA : It was about half and half. ‘Thousand Steps’ is a new song. That came quite easily because that was my way of me saying to my best friend “This whole thing is fucked up, but I am over it if you are. It’s okay.” We never did that live because I could never do that without bursting into tears. ‘In My Sleep’ has new lyrics but is an old song. ‘Cities and Buses’ and ‘Sunny in California’ are both Johnny’s songs and new. They are great to sing.
PB : How have you and John got on since you reformed ?
BA : John has stayed with Bobby and I in London a couple of times since we reformed. Bobby brings out the best in me. If he’s around, I’ll behave (Laughs). When Aberdeen toured the States with Trembling Blue Stars, you’d be surprised at how little fighting there was. Bobby would put his hand over my mouth and say something like “Stop It!”
He and John are the best of friends. It’s so annoying because he is meant to hate my ex-boyfriend and they get along so well together (Laughs). They adore each other. It’s disgusting. They talk all the time. John played on the forthcoming Trembling Blue Stars album. He played bass guitar on some tracks. As long as Bobby is around, I am okay. John came over to stay with us for three weeks, and there wasn’t a growl or a grumble, and I was actually quite sad to see him go.
I am friendly too with Bobby’s ex, Annemari, as well. I did her make-up and hair for her wedding. There are no evil exs floating around.
PB : Aberdeen appeared in the seventh and final season of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’in 2003 playing ‘Cities and Buses’. How did you manage to get yourself onto ‘Buffy’ ?
BA : John hooked up that. He somehow knew John King, not Jonathan King, but John King who was the music supervisor for ‘Buffy’ and sent him some of our stuff. He liked it and said “Oh ! Can we use this in this episode and that ?”and they actually used a few floating tracks in different episodes before we appeared.
I was over here and John phoned and said ‘Dude, you have to fly back here because they want us to be the band in the bar” and I was like “You want me to fly to LA ?” and so I did. One of the actresses was sick, so I flew back and then I had to fly over again and the second time it was fine.
Most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. I think I was too fat for Hollywood. You see me playing my tambourine, and John dipping in and out a bit. There was about eight hours of miming for thirty seconds, but it was good.
PB : ‘What Do I Wish For Now ?” has just come out on LTM. How did that release come about ?
BA : Through Bobby. He A and R’d it for us. For a long time he kept saying to me “You should send Aberdeen to James Nice.” James runs LTM and has put out a lot of Bobby’s back catalogue. He has re-released the Trembling Blue Stars’ records, ‘Her Handwriting’ and ‘Lips That Taste Like Tears’. He has done three Field Mice reissues, and a CD from Bobby’s offshoot project, the Occasional Keepers, with Carolyn and Caesar from the Wake, and Michael Hiscock from the Field Mice.
Bobby kept saying “Send it to him” and I kept going “No ! No ! No !" and finally I caved in and sent it to James just out of curiosity and he liked it. He didn’t know of Aberdeen before, but he put it out.
PB : Last question ! Aberdeen have now gone into hiatus again. Do you think you will get back together ?
BA : John’s other band Languis are doing well and have been really successful , and so I thought “Oh good ! He has got that now. He doesn’t need to do Aberdeen.”.It is expensive for me to keep flying back to LA and it has been getting harder and harder for me to get over there.
We recorded our last single, ‘Florida’, when he was last over here in 2004. When he came over here, we went into Ian Catt’s studio where we do Trembling Blue Stars, but we can’t fly really back and forth. We take things one step at a time. If he throws ideas at me, I either don’t reply or take them eventually.
Two weeks ago I would have probably said “No. Never” but since then John phoned and said “Hey dude ! Do you want to play in Sweden ?” He is going over with Languis and wants to take Aberdeen as well. I went “No”, but he has a way of talking me around (Laughs).
PB : Thank you.
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Trembling Blue Stars
Charlie Big Time
Mid 90's Californian indiepop band Aberdeen released two singles on the infamous Sarah label, but split up shortly afterwards in acrimonous circumstances only to reform again seven years later. Frontwoman Beth Arzy chats to John Clarkson about the group's turbulent history
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