Penelope Isles – Interview

Penelope Isles

Formed around the chemistry of siblings and dual songwriters Jack and Lily Wolter, Brighton based Penelope Isles are a classic four piece of guitars, drums and bass, with some keys thrown into the mix. Debut album Until the Tide Creeps In is an album informed by shared experience. Raised on the Isle of Man, Jack moved away to study art at university at 19, when Lily was 13. As he puts it: “Lily was not so much of an annoying younger sister anymore and had grown up and started playing in bands and writing songs. We soon became very close. I had written some songs, so we started a band called Your Gold Teeth. We toured a bit and then Lily left for Brighton to study songwriting. A couple of years later I moved down to Brighton and we started Penelope Isles together.” And along with long time members Jack Sowton and Becky Redford, Penelope Isles have become something of a very welcome fresh breeze on a stiflingly hot summers day, their beautifully constructed dream-pop, and fuzz-rock is by turns blissful, warm and fierce, sprinkled liberally with gorgeous harmonies. Their music is by turns gentle and grand, loud and quiet, rocking and rolling, ebbing and flowing, and made up of the distinctive songs of both Lily and Jack, worked on by the band, and via the live stage. Released on the Brighton based Bella Union label, Until the Tide Creeps In is simply brilliant, a reminder of the power of rock music that combines all the essential ingredients of melody, harmony, space, dynamics and passion, into songs of the highest quality. It is, in the words of Jack, about, “Leaving home, moving away, dealing with transitions in life and growing up. We are six years apart, so we had a different experience of some of this, but we share a similar inspiration when writing music.”

Normally, at 10.30am on a Sunday morning I might still be in bed, or relaxing with a coffee, taking it easy. But instead I am down Brighton seafront, at the iconic Meeting Place cafe, on a warm late June day, chatting with Jack and Lily, with a tea of the builders variety in hand, looking out to a calm and inviting sea. “You went in yesterday, Jack,” says Lily to Jack, after I express my interest in diving in. Jack says: “I’ve got a new tattoo, so I had to hold my hand up. I couldn’t get my tattoo in the water.” He shows me. It is of a bird, beautifully drawn, and in mono. “Cool, isn’t it? Lily did it. Pretty fresh.” “That’s Buzz (his bird)”, says Lily. “He’s bright green, yellow and orange. But I kept it black and white. Those colours are a bit rasta.” “Rasta bird,” laughs Jack.

Lily is covered in many tattoos. I discover she is actually a tattoo artists in her spare time. “You got any tattoos?” she asks me. ’No’, I say. “Well, if you want one, you know where to come!”

I tell Lily that my Mum got her first tattoo while in her fifties. ‘If my Mum can do it, so can I. Maybe I’ll get a big anchor’.

“Yeah, do it!” pipes in Jack. “I’ve got an anchor on my foot. Weighs you down.” I was joking about the anchor, but now I’m thinking maybe…

It is a joy, meeting Jack and Lily Wolter in the flesh. They are both friendly and funny. Signing to a very cool and highly regarded independent label, and suddenly becoming a full time proposition, doesn’t seem to have fazed them. They never expected this, but are loving it all the same.

Phil Nelson, veteran manager of many a band including The Levellers, Aqualung, and Duke Special, was an a enthusiastic and regular attendee at Penelope Isles shows. He thought they were brilliant, and invited Simon Raymonde, head of Bella Union, to check them out. “We met Simon a good year, year and a half ago,” says Jack. “He asked us what we wanted to do, and we said we wanted to make an album. And he let us use his studio, and a year later we had a record. We weren’t really even looking for a record deal, that became less important when we moved to Brighton. We just wanted to play gigs. And then suddenly there was this opportunity. ‘Oh, shit! Yeah! That would be fucking amazing’! It really was like that. But, having a label behind us means we can go up a notch or two, and get help to do that. Being on a label has given us opportunities. It’s a privilege to do just your band, and not have a job and try and keep the band going. It’s nice to be able to concentrate on what we fucking want to do,” says Jack. “It’s knackering trying to juggle it all, which so many of our friends do,” says Lily.

“There’s such great contrasts on Bella Union. Have you listened to Jambinai? (Korean) They are so epic, like metal and beautiful, film score indie elements,” says Jack. “There’s them, and Father John Misty, and Beach House. One band that everyone needs to check out is Lowly, “ say Lily.

“We did a bit of work in the Bella Union studios in London,” says Jack. “It’s in the same office. When we first met all the team, one of their things is that you can take any records you want. So we walked out with a massive stack of new music on vinyl,” says Jack. “We’re just blown away that we are in this family of bands, and it’s all awesome,” smiles Lily. For the remainder of this year they’re off to both Europe for a two week tour, and a tour of the States, plus they’ll gracing a few festival stages including Green Man and Iceland Airwaves, before the year ends with their own UK headline tour, finishing off with a date in Brighton, in mid-December.

Back when Lily was still at BIMM, they got a gig at Together the People festival, in 2016, in Preston Park. It was the first time I’d seen them, on the recommendation of my colleague, and big fan of the band, Iain Lauder. Scarcely attended, they instantly captivated, not only via their songs, but through their stage presence, a band obviously having fun, and taking control of the stage, immersing themselves in the sonic textures of their music-making. “Can I just say that for that gig I was the most hungover I had ever been up to then,” says Lily. “She was like crying,” informs Jack. “I couldn’t stop being sick: in the van, in the portaloo before I went on. I had a Sainsbury’s bag on stage. ‘How am I going to do this’?

“To be fair, as soon as you started playing, you were great,” says brother Jack. “The adrenaline kicked in and it turned out to be a great gig, actually,” says Lily. “And then I got pissed right after, watching Hiatus Kaiyote and The Beach Boys.”

In fact they are a little sketchy when I meet them this Sunday morning, the day before they go away on a two week tour of Germany and France. “Lily got us drunk last night, fed us a meal and drank loads of wine, “ says Jack. “I got given a box of wine, such a dangerous things to have. A massive box,” says Lily. ‘I had to buy a bottle of wine, but it’s not the same, is it?’ I say. “It never used to happen, but in the last six months we’ve suddenly got riders, so we just pack the van full of goods,” says Jack. “I’ve never acquired so many boxes of lemon and ginger tea in my life,” says Lily.

‘Do you write your own rider now?’ I ask. ‘You could order what you want, and stockpile’. “We’ve been saying what we want on our riders from the start,” says Lily, “but it’s only like now that they actually provide it.” “We added whiskey to see if it worked, and it did!” says Jack. “We realised, when we were touring with The Magic Numbers, who have this amazing epic rider every night, the point of that is so that all your friends and family at the gig can come and enjoy the rider with you,” says Lily.

The Magic Numbers (also made up of siblings, two pairs of them in fact) are one of a number of bands who have taken a shine to Penelope Isles, inviting them on tour, and giving them the veritable leg up. “They were lovely. When we were toured with them we didn’t have a dressing room. They said, ‘Our door is open, come in and help yourself to any beers and food’,” says Jack. “We didn’t hold back on helping ourselves,” says Lily. “We’ve also been playing with British Sea Power, supported them for a bit, which was really cool. Martin (Noble) saw us play and he invited us to play a few shows with them. We’re playing their festival (Krankenhaus) later this summer, somewhere in the Lake District.”

Self-managed until they signed with Bella Union (label bosses Simon and Abbey Raymond are now effectively their managers), they still take control of many of their own affairs. Until the Tide Creeps In was produced by Jack, and he, along with Max, their sound engineer, are in charge of gig production, and even the driving. You got a van then? “Yeah. A big white van,” says Jack. “We couldn’t do any of this without a van, we’d be fucked!” says Lily. “I love my van. Whenever we go away in the morning, and I’m picking up all the gear, I just get that lovely little feeling when I get in the van,” says Jack, with Lily purring in appreciation. “I get a sense of like, home. My little place. I really do feel that. I don’t know if that is a good thing,” laughs Jack.

Between me and Max, we’ve got the production side of it nailed,” says Jack. “Max is Lilly’s boyfriend,” he informs me. “That’s the trick. You’ve got to sleep with the engineer, and then he’ll do it for free!” says Lily. “Free what, free blowies?” laughs Jack. Free blowies, free mixes,” says Lily in her dry-as-a-bone tone. ‘He could make you sound a bit dodgy on stage though, couldn’t he’, I say. “He wouldn’t sabotage us, he would know he’d get a bollocking. And no more blowies. You can put that in the mag!”

“He’s invested in this band emotionally as much as we are,” says Jack. “He’s the fifth member,” says Lily. ‘Is he fit and healthy?’ I ask. “He needs a bit more sun on his face,” says Lily. Sounds like a true sound engineer. ‘I bet he wears all black’, I say. “He does!” says Lily. “We’ll be on the beach, and he’ll be indoors, Googling microphones, and gaffer tape. Lots and lots of gaf. At Christmas time we don’t have a Christmas tree, we have a gaf tree. Stacks of gaf, with smaller electrical tape at the top…”

Max obviously knows what he is doing. I tell Jack and Lily that I saw them play in St. Mary’s Church, as part of Brightonsfinest’s Great Escape showcase, in 2017. Churches are notoriously difficult places to get the sound right, the snare drum and bass often reverberating all around the place. But, they put in a spectacular performance, that was both epic and mesmerising. In particular, ‘Gnarbone’, a track off the new album, was simply brilliant, 15 or so minutes of melody and huge guitars. “Try doing that every night with the meat sweats,” informs Lily. “That was the first time Max did our sound,” says Jack. We’d seen Deerhunter play in a church in Hove, a few weeks before. I was in denial at the time because I’m such a fan of the band, but it sounded absolutely terrible in there. People were actually saying, ‘it sounds shit’. I was going, ‘It doesn’t! It sounds great’! Deep down, I was protecting them, but I think they knew as well. We talked to Max about it before the St. Mary’s gig. Max is very clever,” says Jack. “Just keep it dry, you don’t need any reverb,” says Lily.

Siblings often make remarkably tight partners in a musical setting. Think The Carpenters, Arcade Fire, Sparks, Tegan and Sara, Radiohead, and of course, both the aforementioned British Sea Power, The Beach Boys, and The Magic Numbers. Jack and Lily were raised on the small island of the Isle of Man, a self-governing British crown dependency nestled between Ireland and England. “I left before Lily. We’re six years apart. I left to go to uni in Cornwall, and studied art down there. But my main reason to go to uni wasn’t to study, it was to get off the Isle of Man and play some music and meet people. Lily did the same thing a few years later, but she moved to Brighton. And I moved down here and we started the band.”

Have you ever played on the island? “We played a gig there recently,” say Lily. “It was the first time we’d been back to play a proper show. It was amazing.” “Lily and I grew up there and we played in lots of bands. It’s a small place, everyone is in the know about what we’re doing here, and really supporting us. So, when we went home, it was fucking ace.” “There’s nothing to do there,” says Lily. “So, everyone booked their tickets like two months in advance. The event of the year!”

How does it work, being siblings in a band. You obviously have a fantastic chemistry, I say. “I can’t really see myself in a band without Jack,” says Lily. “You’d be nothing without me,” says Jack in ribbing-of-sibbling manner. “But, that’s one thing I really notice. When we were in the same place again (Brighton), I had already written some songs, and she started to write some songs. And jamming with her for the first time, getting to know the way she works. The thing I found fascinating was the connection. Because we’re blood, there was something you don’t need to work on. It was natural, and fascinating to experience that. We’re kinda best mates, so it’s pretty cool.”

Jeff Hemmings