Shades is the fourth album in some 11 years from Good Sad Happy Bad, the London-based band formerly known as Micachu and the Shapes (now rechristened after their 2015 LP). It arrives after the longest gap between between the group’s albums yet, and just as there’s something idiosyncratic and unshakeable about their lo-fi avant-pop and lilting garage band jams, GSHB is a collaboration the quartet can’t help but come back to despite their own musical pursuits. Both lead vocalist and keyboardist Raisa Khan and percussionist Marc Pell have contributed releases across the electronic underground while the band’s guitarist and other member of the original lineup, Mica Levi, is best known for their experimental compositions and cinematic scores in recent years. New to the group is CJ Calderwood, who dual-wields sax and recorder for this album and collaborates with Junior XL as Lol K.
Like Good Sad Happy Bad, Shades features its fair share of domestic contemplation, interpersonal ambivalence and determination among the mundane. It’s catchy hooks and mixed feelings, soft musings and direct proclamations – very much continuing the sonic traditions of the UK DIY scene. But there’s a certain brightness and optimism shining through, one that wasn’t totally in view on previous records; perhaps it’s the change in bandleader or the new instrumentation involved, or it’s simply what lay next for the group’s progression. Title track “Shades” finds silver linings for begrudging pessimists amidst a sun-soaked shoegaze sheen while the other pre-release single “Pyro” delivers its post-punk call-and-response warnings against arson with a wink. For every lyrically poignant paean like “Star”, there’s a snarling road-wrecker such as “This Skin”. It’s a charming record that speaks for itself pretty well, but we caught up with the band over email anyway.
Hi! Can you describe your environments right now?
Marc Pell: “Hello! Thanks for having us. Currently the schoolchildren are in the playground opposite our flat, a reminder everyday of what time it is. Our roof is a bit leaky, but the roofers will be round soon to sort that, and I’ve a hot instant coffee with oat milk freshly made.”
CJ Calderwood: “I’m intermittently answering these questions and shooting a music video with a camera inside my mouth.”
Raisa Khan: “In the small room on my laptop.”
Mica Levi: “I am in Caffè Nero, it’s warm.”
Some of you go way back of course – Raisa and Mica living together with Marc joining to form the band initially. One of the biggest changes has been the addition of CJ – how do you know each other and how did this come about?
CJ: “I met Mica at a concert at Cafe OTO in London a bunch of years ago. We lived in similar areas and like the same sorta stuff so kept seeing each other around and playing the same nights. I think Marc was the first member of the band I actually made music with but basically the guys asked me to join them at this one concert and I just sorta stuck around haha.”
Marc: “I can’t remember exactly our first meet but it was probably the Sunday Curl nights at Rye Wax and then things went from there.”
CJ: “omg truuuue! Great nights.”
If I recall correctly, your previous album Good Sad Happy Bad was essentially the result of a jam session. Shades arrives five years on, and I saw CJ mention the project’s been in the works for a few years – what can you tell us about the process writing the record?
Raisa: “Yes good sad happy mathes [Micachu and the Shapes] album was completely the result of a jam session – the instrumentals are untouched on that record. However, with the Shades album we re-recorded the songs after the jam session. It came along from two different jams – one heavier and one softer. Then CJ came along and helped bring the vibes together.”
Did COVID-19 and the pandemic-induced lockdown have much of an effect on the album? Was it recorded during this time?
CJ: “Nope, before. Quite a long time before. Christ, remember before? Woah.”
Marc: “The album was completely finished at the end of 2019. It’ll be interesting to hear what music comes out end of this year into next because that would likely have been written during Lockdown.”
Mica: “Ah yeh before. I think not performing the album in these times feels different, that’s had an effect – but the album was sealed before.”
Both lyrically and melodically it feels like a cautiously hopeful and optimistic album – “Shades” for sure, but also “Star” has really pulled my heartstrings so much – and CJ’s sax and vocals add a lot of colour as the skronk is slightly muted. Raisa, I wanted to ask how it’s been taking lead on vocals, and CJ, how it’s been for you sort of coming in on this pre-established sound? I think I read that 2020 is the first time the both of you have been releasing music again in a while…
CJ: “I’ve got a lotta love for the Shapes’ back catalogue so I wanted to add layers I felt were in keeping and felt at home. I remember when we first listened together to the parts I’d recorded for this album one of you guys saying that it sounded like the first album, Jewellery. ”
Raisa: “Ah thanks :) I started to finally enjoy singing at home on my own. It felt really nice and not something I’d ever really done or enjoyed much before. So writing the songs was a natural step.”
I wanted to ask about CURL, co-founded by Mica and serving as both label and vehicle for collaborations. How has it been releasing music there, and what is it that sort of ties the network together?
Mica: “I don’t know how you all feel about it – Curl is always morphing. It’s a type of organising thing that includes what’s in and around it- I mean all of the members of GSHB are also members of Curl.”
Marc, you’ve got all the session drumming you do as well as Good Sad Happy Bad, and then of course your spoken word-and-breaks activities as Suitman Jungle. I feel like it’s not totally unusual for drummers to juggle such incredibly varied musical commitments but how do you find separating these things in your mind and muscle memory?
Marc: “Ah yeah, definitely my favourite drummers play in a varied range of musical projects and vibes. I’ve never thought about the muscle memory, but because each project has it’s own language then creative crosstalk is avoided (ie: a DnB fill in a Good Sad Happy Bad song just wouldn’t work).”
Mica: “Now we have to try it – can’t say never.”
Marc: “Maybe from doing something in one style I learn about something in another. It’s certainly therapeutic playing music in as many styles as possible.”
CJ, can you tell us about the tattoos you’ve been inking? What draws you to the nature theme?
CJ: “Ah yeah man thanks for asking. I have an art background and I used to make big crazy sci-fi installations in galleries but recently I’ve been cultivating a quieter practice that’s more for me than anything else. No stress, no deadlines, just pen and paper, skin and ink. I love the permanence of a tattoo and how that relates to a split-second encounter with an animal or a glimpse of a plant in the wind. I have an Instagram, @dotdotdot_and_blood, which I post to sometimes so if anyone’s in London and wants a tattoo contact me there.”
Mica: “I got inked, thanks CJ ★”
How are you all paying the bills? Is it full-time musicianship for you all or have you been doing bits on the side too? Marc, I saw you’re teaching both uni students and neurodivergent young people…
CJ: “With the lack of live music available it’s harder than ever to get by doing only music. Sadly, I don’t feel that our government is doing enough to support the arts through this time and we’re seeing many great venues closing their doors for good and many jobs lost across the board. Not just for the people on the stage but for everyone involved behind it too. Honestly, fuck the Tory rhetoric about retraining and finding new work, we need to come together as a creative community right now and ensure that young people have the space they need to engage with the arts in whatever ways they deem necessary.”
Mica: “At the moment I make a living from writing and performing music. Yeh I have seen the retraining advert from the Tory party and it’s sad and ill-informed stupid.”
Raisa: “Even when things were better, being a full time musician can be really taxing on your mental health. Work goes through dry periods and busy periods and that cycle doesn’t work for everyone so the stability of structured part time work can help both financially and mentally. Obviously it would be great to be doing music full time.”
Are you all planning on finding ways to support the new album with a tour or shows at all?
CJ: “Yeah we can’t wait to get back on stage together! Whenever it can be safe we’ll be there.”
Marc: “Amen! I’m trying to support our venues – if you head to the Suitman Jungle Facebook page you’ll find a fundraiser featuring music from people we’ve played with at Windmill, Brixton, which has been our social hub and performance venue for many years.”
Mica: “Can’t wait.”
What comes next for you all as a band, as collaborators or as individuals? Raisa, I saw that you’re working on your solo album too, for example…
CJ: “I have a new record out with my other project Lol K later this month. It’s called The Breeze and is out on Halcyon Veil.”
Marc: “Suitman Jungle is producing the DnB soundtrack for Half A String. They’re developing a puppet show about Seedling’s journey in the forest from Autumn to Spring. As a band I hope and believe we’re always going to be making music together.”
Raisa: “Hmmm I’m probably the only one not working on much music at the moment. I’m focusing on GSHB, spending time with my family, and work. Working again is still quite new to me after a couple of years out of the whole game so taking up a lot of my head space for now and that’s ok.”
Mica: “Curl and GSHB mostly – I sang on a song with Stubborn that came out a month ago.”
What’s the saddest thing you think is good, and what’s the baddest thing that makes you happy?
Marc: “The baddest thing that makes me happy is eating a Skittle and then having a sip of milk. Also a Bourbon biscuit followed by a salt and vinegar crisp (preferably Walkers) is highly enjoyable. You can also replace the Bourbon biscuit with a bite of a corned beef sandwich with cheese and pickle if you want some variation.”
Mica: “Throwing tea bags on the floor and leaving them.”
And when was the last time yous properly danced?
CJ: “I was in a dance off with Raisa’s 16-month-old daughter the other day. Got pretty heated ngl…”
Marc: “My wife and I were properly raving to the BBC News music the other day in our kitchen.”
Mica: “16th May 2020 danced with my housemates for Leah’s birthday – too long ago.”
Raisa: “I get to dance a lot, lucky me :)”
Shades is available now via Textile Records, in digital, vinyl and CD formats.
Photo by Tony Harewood.