Music interview: Scottish Album of the Year award winners Sacred Paws on long-distance musical relationships

'˜Last night I had an anxiety dream where I wrote a song while I was onstage in front of thousands of people '“ and it was terrible,' says Rachel Aggs, singer and guitarist in dynamic duo Sacred Paws. Given that her band has recently toured Europe as special guests of Mogwai '“ who also happen to be their record label bosses '“ you can see where her subconsciousness is leading her.
Sacred Paws PIC: Brian SweeneySacred Paws PIC: Brian Sweeney
Sacred Paws PIC: Brian Sweeney

Aggs may have to get used to playing in front of thousands of people, as this was the year when it all kicked off for Sacred Paws – or as near as kicked off as it can for a couple of modest musicians who have been working together episodically across two cities for the last six years. While Aggs is based in London, drummer Eilidh Rodgers lives in Glasgow, necessitating long commutes when their “not very regimented” schedules allow – Aggs plays in two other bands, Trash Kit and Shopping, and Rodgers works in splendid independent record shop Monorail.

The spur for their year of (relative) activity was the January release of their debut album, Strike A Match, on Mogwai’s Rock Action Records to a response as joyous as their music, which seamlessly blends Aggs’ melodic Afrobeat-influenced guitar playing with Rodgers’ loose, jazzy drumming.

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Though Rodgers just laughs when asked about her style of playing – “it’s probably just a bit of a mess,” she reckons – it was a mutual appreciation of each other’s non-techniques which first drew the pair together in the DIY indie band Golden Grrrls and encouraged them to strike out with something new which honoured their left-field influences.

“I didn’t really want to play a classically rock’n’roll style,” says Aggs, who started out playing piano and fiddle as a child before teaching herself folky fingerstyle on a three-stringed acoustic guitar. “I think it’s about playing in a more intuitive way. I was just trying to be creative when I first started playing the guitar because I knew I couldn’t play technically well – I mean, I couldn’t really play at all – but I knew I was going to try and have ideas that would make people want to listen to it, and I still think that’s what I try to do, although I always have this feeling that I don’t know how to write songs. I look at the guitar as if the songs are trapped inside the guitar and you have to get them out and it’s totally mysterious how it happens.”

Whatever esoteric alchemy is at play, it made a winning impression on the judges for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award: Sacred Paws bashfully beat off the competition – including paymasters Mogwai – to take the prize in June.

Summer, it seems, is the optimum time to appreciate their breezy sound, which comes across as a blithe mix of The Bhundu Boys and The Raincoats. Afro-influenced guitars have been quite the indie vogue in recent years with the likes of Vampire Weekend putting them at the heart of their collegiate sound. Sacred Paws, however, add a spiky femme punk edge to mark them out from the pack.

“We’re not trying to make perfect pop music,” says Aggs of their DIY approach. “We’re not really aspiring to what a lot of people’s standards of recording would be, but there’s a balance between being relaxed and being playful in the studio and having a lack of confidence. If people give you a bit of money and a bit of time that helps your ego.”

By Sacred Paws’ lo-fi standards, the timescale and budget for recording Strike A Match was positively luxurious, and there’s no doubt that they have found a happy home on Rock Action, where they are pleased to represent as the label’s first band of female musicians.

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Aggs, in particular, as a queer woman of colour, understands the importance of encouraging diversity across different musical tribes. “I’m really aware of how long it took me to get into music properly,” she says. “I always think if I’d seen more brown people or more women playing the guitar when I was a kid I might have started a band when I was a teenager and I might have been a bit more confident a bit sooner. I remember seeing Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex on Top of the Pops 2 and thinking ‘you know what, I am going to start a band, I’m not too shy’ and I really needed that. It worries me now that kids might not see that. There has to be more visibility and you have to keep going.”

The Sacred Paws train is now rattling along at some rate. The duo, who are joined by an additional guitarist and bassist for their live shows, rounded off 2017 with a set as part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party, and already have another festival appearance lined up for 2018, when they will perform a live soundtrack to Margaret Salmon’s speedway documentary Mm at the Glasgow Film Festival, adding further va-va-voom to their trajectory.

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“We’re both quite disorganised so it’s been funny for it to have its own momentum because we’re not quite ready for it,” says Rodgers.

At least logistics for the band will get a bit easier, as Aggs is planning to relocate to Glasgow in 2018, while maintaining her London musical links. “The music community in Glasgow is really supportive and I feel like I’ve made friends there, but I don’t feel that living in a different city means you can’t be part of music communities all over the country and that’s what doing Sacred Paws has taught me,” she says.

For Rodgers, it’s even simpler. “I’m excited about her coming to Glasgow because it will just be really fun to say ‘what are you doing tomorrow? let’s hang out’.”

Sacred Paws perform a live soundtrack to Mm at Tramway on 24 February, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. Strike A Match is out now on Rock Action Records