Minimalist-garage-pop act, Agent Ribbons, have a lot of admirers. Vice called them “The Dreamiest” while Paste magazine praised “The girls are able to create eerie stories that draw in listeners—all in the nice package of a pop song” and Bust loves the duo’s “beautifully haunting sounds and harmonies” naming them “the band of your dreams.” Guitarist-vocalist Natalie Ribbons chats to us about their recent collectable 300-run cassette EP Family Haircut, style, hanging out in Austin, being banned from the UK and 50s films!
What were your first impressions when you heard your latest release Family Haircut cassette EP back in its entirety for the first time?
NATALIE RIBBONS: Well, we were really happy with the way that it sounded on tape, actually. Also, Eric Broyhill from MonsterLab really did wonders with mastering it! We recorded this batch of songs digitally to save money, but with his mastering I really feel like it’s not garishly digital-sounding at all.
What’s your favourite thing about the release?
NR: My favorite song is ‘Family Haircut’ because it’s really fun to play live and I like how complex our vocal parts get at times…but the songs that are most intimate for me are ‘I Can’t Believe You’re Real’ and ‘Jamaica and the Wishing Shrine’. The former was written as I was falling in love with my boyfriend, whom I currently live with. I was so ecstatic to have found someone that shares so many strange and uncommon interests with me and I still have a hard time believing that he exists! The latter is about an actual shrine in Tucson, AZ that one of my dear friends took me to in the middle of the night one spring. It is the only known shrine that is devoted to a sinner, and every night it’s surrounded by tea light candles. It was our first night seeing each other in over a year and thick magic seemed to hang in the air all around us…the shrine has a big mud wall with lots of holes in it and you’re supposed to write a wish on a piece of paper and put it in one of the holes. We did that and then sat quietly holding hands for a long time after that, and it affected me deeply.
Are you comfortable with hearing your own vocal back?
NR: Yes, it doesn’t really bother me unless I’ve been sick or something…or if I said something embarrassing between takes! [laughs].
How would you describe your guitar playing?
NR: Hmm. I suppose it’s a bit clumsy but delicate. It depends on the song, but it can be very harsh and raw or simply a small wind chime to decorate the quiet behind a vocal line. I like to exercise freedom in dynamics and contrast quiet and loud parts whenever possible.
The release party for it was this week; what’s your most memorable moment of the night?
NR: There was a dunk tank that the owner of the bar had built in the outdoor patio/smoking area, filled with water. After we played our last song, everyone went back and there and Lauren climbed on to the dunk tank. People lined up to throw the ball at the target and we thought it would take a while before someone actually hit the target. You know, since everyone was drunk. But a girl from the opening band, Lonesome Heroes, she got it in the first throw! Lauren fell into 5 feet of cold water. It was pretty great! And they were projecting the film ‘The Jerk’ on the wall while all of this was happening.
What’s your favourite thing about the EP title track, Family Haircut?
NR: I suppose I like how each part of the song takes me back to specific time periods that I was writing them. The chorus, for example, reminds me of the band The Bachs, who I had just discovered and was listening to obsessively at that time.
How did you and Lauren meet one another?
NR: In a record store in Sacramento called ‘Records.’ I was working there and Lauren was dating my co-worker.
Why did you start making music?
NR: That’s a really hard question to answer because I’ve always done it. I took piano lessons from age five to sixteen…and then I went to an experimental performing arts high school were I learned guitar. I guess there are a fair amount of artists in my family, and music was always my thing. It was the only thing that I was good at and could rely on to express ideas.
As a musician, what is one of the most challenging things for you?
NR: For most independent musicians, it’s hard to carve out a real career in music when it’s so hard to survive financially doing only that. There is a non-stop tug-of-war in balancing practicality with taking music seriously.
What was the last song that you wrote and where were you writing it?
NR: I only ever complete songs in my bedroom, but I write lyrics going on long walks. I have a million half-finished songs…I don’t remember the last one I wrote, honestly. I document them on cassette tapes and they get out of order.
You have such an amazing sense of style; what do you attribute that to?
NR: Thank you, that’s very kind. I suppose I attribute it to the fact that I enjoy looking different, being colorful, and I have a deep appreciation of the old world and like to incorporate vintage whenever I can. As a young adult, people who dressed normally weren’t very nice to me and didn’t seem to have much in common with me, so I gave up any interest in trying to be like them. After that, I went through a loud, clashing, ugly phase where I just slapped outfits together that were very, very bright and, well, pretty crazy. As I got older I tamed it down significantly, heh.
Is what you wear on stage important to you?
NR: Usually I do like to look nice. I am entertaining people, so what I look like effects the way my performance effects people. That’s important.
What is the most epic event you’ve played to date?
NR: Epic? Gosh, I don’t know. I guess playing Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona was fairly epic because we had to leave in the middle of a tour with Camera Obscura, fly to Spain for one day, perform and then fly to Chicago to keep touring! That was insane.
If we were to visit you in Austin, how would you entertain us?
NR: I would probably take you on a moped ride at what we call ‘the golden hour’ or the ‘violet crown hour’ through my favorite strange little neighborhoods of little Texan cottages and shanties. Then, I’d cook you my famous quiche for dinner and make cocktails to drink on the porch. We could go to night swim at the spring, and maybe see a show on the east side. Then we could go to a real speakeasy after-hours and drink some more until 5 am in a fancy secret place I know about!
Recently when asked about Austin in an interview you commented: “We both are involved with activities that enrich our personal lives which helps us be more well-rounded and creative individuals.” What’s something that’s enriched your life lately?
NR: I suppose this is something you could do anywhere, but I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately. Some recent ones that I recommend are ‘Rebecca’ by Alfred Hitchcock, which was a brilliant story…1950s…that captured female jealousy and fearing the unknown in a really magnificent way. Another one is ‘A Face in the Crowd’ another 50s film. The actress in this movie, Patricia Neal, is one of my new biggest inspirations. Her voice is amazing and her acting is truly the best. She was also in the film ‘Hud’ and won an Academy Award for it. That movie a great one to watch if you want to see what central Texas looked like and still pretty much looks like today!
When asked about challenges the band has faced “being banned from the UK” was mentioned; what happened there?
NR: Oh, a lot of things, but basically we were stupid and didn’t have work visas. We tried to say we were just coming on vacation, but they ‘googled’ our names and found our tour dates so they banned us for ten years. It was a pretty extreme punishment!
What’s next for Agent Ribbons?
NR: I don’t know. We tend to surprise ourselves. We just won a contest for free recording studio time at Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, so we’re hoping to prepare a new album of material and get it recorded at that very special studio. Also, we’re hoping to come to Europe or wherever else we can get a booking agent in 2013.
Photo credits: 1 – Amelia Raley / 2 + 3 – Devaki Knowles