the reality of girl power
the reality of girl power...

Playing in bands with boys by Ilana Xup from the band Xup

On my 21st birthday my best friend Sarah gave me a shiny red fender bass. I’d never played bass – or any other musical instrument for that matter. I just had a thing for bass players. Alex from Blur was my favourite. He could smoke a cigarette and shake his fringe and play the bass all at the same time. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I did love the sound the bass made. The first time I ever really took notice of a bassline was when I heard ”˜Barbarism Begins At Home’ by The Smiths. It remains one of my favourites to this day. I swear that if they took all of Johnny Marr’s guitar parts out and left just the bass and the drums and the vocals, that song would still sound amazing on the strength of Andy Rourke’s bass playing alone. Nowadays when I want to just swoon at basslines all I have to do is play a Joy Division record. Obviously. But I hadn’t discovered Joy Division at that point.

The first time I took my bass for a set up, the guy behind the counter at the Sound Academy in Manchester looked at me dismissively and said “Given up have you? Come to sell it?”. I wish I could say that things have moved on 15 years later, but I’m afraid attitudes like that still run rife throughout the music industry. All the way down to the people selling the instruments. These days I’m better equipped to deal with the likes of guys like them, and I relish the opportunity in fact. I recently walked into a music shop in London to buy some flat wound bass strings. The guy serving me swore blind that no such strings existed and suggested that being a girl I had obviously dreamt the whole thing up. It took getting his manager to prove him wrong. While I’m by no means an expert by any stretch of the imagination where musical instruments are concerned, it does help that 15 years on I know my shit a little.

In 1994, I saw Hole at the Manchester Academy. It was shortly after Kurt Cobain had died, and I had no idea what to expect. But from the minute Courtney Love took to the stage and planted her leg on the monitor, hiked up her dress and cranked up her guitar I knew my life had changed. My heart was pounding with excitement, lightbulbs were going off in my head as I realised in that moment of absolute purity and clarity, that was what I wanted to be. That was what i wanted to do. More than anything in the world. The trouble was, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get there.

the reality of girl power
the reality of girl power...

I didn’t really get very far at first, in learning how to play my bass. It’s pretty hard to pick up the bass if you’re not practising with a band. And at that point I wasn’t. My boyfriend at the time tried to teach me a few songs. I learnt the bassline to Come As You Are and that made me smile from ear to ear. But then he tried to get all technical and insisted that I needed to learn the blues scale and the E Minor Pentatonic. E fucking Minor Pentatonic!!! What the fuck?! He swore that if I didn’t learn the theory I’d never be able to play. He also tried to teach me Dylan songs. Man, I never quite recovered. Every time I heard the chorus to Quinn The Eskimo I wanted to throw up. Never quite been able to fully enjoy Dylan since!

I hated it. I was down on myself and believed that he was right. Believed at that point that I wouldn’t get anywhere. Because I really didn’t get all the technical side of it. It felt cold and soulless, and a million miles away from the way I wanted and needed to engage and connect with my musical instrument. And so… after a while, I just stopped picking up my bass guitar. And it sat in my room gathering dust and looking like an ornament. I thought my hands were too small, and that I wasn’t made to be a bass player after all. I ditched the boyfriend some time after. He contacted me some years back, via MySpace, on discovering I’d in fact gone on to have quite a prolific time as a bass player over the last decade. I told him where to stick his E Minor Pentatonic.

Going to indie clubs in Manchester in the nineties used to piss me off. Because guys would come up to me over and over again and ask me whether I as in a band. Come to think of it this was probably a chat up line, but I always used to take it at face value. And I used to hate having to reply that I wasn’t. “No Im not in a band”. “Well you look like you’re in a band”. “Yes I know, but I’m not in a band”. I used to fucking hate it! Because I wanted to be in a band, desperately. Sometimes I lied and just told them that I was. I even made up a pretend band name. My pretend band name was ”˜Kill Chrissie’. In the late nineties, while still without a band, I set my own clothes shop. And because I still didn’t have a band, the name above the shop read ”˜Kill Chrissie’.

Being situated in a shopping centre in Manchester’s Northern Quarter meant that there were always hipster club kids, artists, djs and musicians knocking about. And I got to know more and more of them. And while it was inspiring to be around so many amazingly talented and creative people, it only served to rub salt into my wounds a little when I dated musicians because they had what I so badly wanted. It was never about wanting to sleep with rockstars. It was about wanting to be one. I didn’t want to be someone’s plus one on the guestlist. I wanted to be the one handing out the backstage passes.

I used to stand at the side of the stage at gigs and watch intently. Watch the way they carried their instruments, watch the way they strummed and picked and pressed on those chords. I found myself going to gigs and treating them as an education, listening out to whatever it was the bass was doing. I was no longer able to just enjoy the performances.

Most of all I used to go to gigs and soak up the energy. I was captivated by the way energy just bounced off the stage straight into the crowd and right back onto the stage again. Transfixed by the very strong physical and emotional reaction this can have on all involved, when it’s done properly. I wanted some of that. I wanted to see my soul reflected in their eyes. My insides staring right back at me. And I was envious that I was at the side of the stage, when others were getting to stand on it. From the nineties right into the noughties I saw some of the most amazing bands in the process. Everything from Manchester’s own Goldblade, to Lift To Experience from Texas, and everything in between. There are far too many to mention. In Spain where I was raised, they have a name for all that energy, that spirit, that soul and passion. It is born in Flamenco. They call it ”˜duende’. I had grown up enveloped in it. It was the sonic blueprint of my childhood. It coursed through my veins. And here I was all grown up in rainy Manchester, finding myself drawn to it again albeit under a different guise.

At a nightclub at the turn of the Millennium, I promised one of my friends that I would be in a band by the end of the year, and on stage within 5 years. In reality my dreams began to materialise a lot sooner than I could have ever anticipated. I suppose all along, all I had to do was say it out loud. Because saying it out loud meant that I had to get up off my arse and do it. By late 2001 I was not only a bass player in a band, but I had also began to play live shows.

Anyone who has ever been in a band will tell you that it’s a bloody logistical nightmare getting four people in a room at any given time, for the purpose of playing music. And so despite the fact that I had somehow managed to pluck a guitarist, a singer, and a drummer (the latter on loan from another band) from Manchester’s deepest darkest underbelly… It would be several months before we ever made it to a practice room. At first it was all a bit of a joke really. None of us (aside from the drummer) had really been in bands before. I was the only girl – a fact I relished, and to this day I have always preferred playing in bands with boys rather than girls. One day I’ll be able to rationalise why that is. At the moment it still remains a mystery.

My first band were called the Strap Ons – like I say, we never really set out to play music seriously, hence the name. We wanted to sound like Mudhoney but ended up somewhere closer to the Ramones. Which was pretty damn cool in the end. Before I had even learnt to play our first song I had already made a batch of band t-shirts. And told everyone on the Manchester music scene all about us. And had already planned all my stage outfits for that year! Throughout my time in the band I could only play the E and the A strings on my bass. I had a mental block about venturing as far as the D and the G strings. We were booked to play our first gig before we’d even written any of our own songs. We covered Venus In Furs, and in the lead up to this everyone treated us as if we were soiling something sacred. I mean who dares even touch the Velvet Underground?! But it was great. I had been sick with nerves for weeks beforehand. I really didn’t think I’d be able to get up on stage. I was petrified. I thought I would have to pull out and let everyone down. I very nearly didn’t make it.

On stepping onto the stage for that first time all those years ago, I instantly made a beeline for the monitor like a homing pigeon. I walked right up, hiked up my skirt, and planted my kitten heeled foot on it. In the 1960s, the Americans made it to the moon and planted a star spangled banner to mark the new alien territory as their own. At the Night And Day Cafe in Manchester that night, that was my way of saying I had arrived. I was home. And I was planning on staying. Half way through the song it dawned on me that I was loving every single second of it. And i never ever ever wanted to come down.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Also, would you mind if I asked how old you are today? From the sounds of it, it seems like you haven’t aged since about 1991. :-)

    • i wish i hadn’t aged since 1991! it was a good year for bands. unfortunately time stands still for no man (or woman!) : )

      the blog above is only the first chapter – that is why it focuses on the 90’s. it was getting way too long so i stopped there.

      i’ve been in 3 bands since then… but that’s another story ; )

      • I started playing guitar at 7. I have now been playing in a rock band for some years and written many intricate riffs in the process… but I didn’t even know what a Pentatonic Scale was til I was about 20!

        Wish I could have been there to tell you that :)

        Anyway, check out Toxins!

  2. While admitting you only played the E and A strings of your bass in your first band, you confess to having picked out stage outfits when clearly you should have been learning to play the instrument – and then have a go at the guy in the music shop for not knowing his onions. Not sure what the point of this blog is.

    I’m a bass player who happens to be a girl – but I don’t wear being a girl as a badge; it’s incidental. Shame you feel the need to focus this blog on clothing and lifestyle reasons for wanting to write and play music. And I agree with Dan – folks in music shops can be obtuse – lose the attitude, the cliche and the need to point out you wore kitten heels once and tell us something genuine and interesting in your next blog about being a musician.

    • Absolutely. People dont look down on her because she is a woman, they look down on her because she doesnt know how to play bass…

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