It was late winter in Oxford and I was feeling gloomy, so I went to see my friends Little Fish play upstairs at a pub on St. Clements.
There had been a mixup about the gig. I used to think that live music was simple: you had the people playing the music and the people listening to the music, and that was it. That is not it, as it turns out. There are agents and promoters and managers and press people. Sometimes they don’t talk to each other. Sometimes they don’t talk to the band, so one day the band is walking along and they see a poster with their faces on and that poster says they are playing a gig tomorrow at 9pm in a pub somewhere, so they turn up the next day and play a gig at a pub somewhere.
I got there late. The space was long and narrow, the walls painted black, the ceiling too low - one of these places that always makes you think of the very real possibility of being trampled to death by a mob, even if there are only five other people in the room. Ben and Juju stood on the stage - or, more precisely, Ben and Juju stood at one end of the room, which I took based on the presence of a few fairy lights and a microphone to be the stage.
It was just the two of them tonight - acoustic guitar, vocals and harmonica. I’ve known Ben for a few years. He started playing Hammond full time for Little Fish in early 2010; very shortly after, I remember him sitting on our couch late one evening, saying, “but this girl’s voice. You have to hear her voice.”
I think I didn’t really appreciate what he was saying, at first. I couldn’t see what was so urgent about anyone’s voice. I liked music, but I was wary of becoming someone for whom the whole world revolved around it, so I tended towards musical promiscuity - obsessing for one week over this song, then dumping it in favour of its slower, longer cousin the next week.
But he was right, I did have to hear her voice. I first heard it at a philosophy festival in Wales, where Little Fish had been invited to play. I stood at the front of the crowd, very close to Juju. She was holding a mug of tea, which struck me as simultaneously quaint and rock 'n' roll. She’s small, but when she sings, it’s like a prettier version of what happens to Bruce Banner when he becomes the Hulk. I watched her hair get matted down with sweat as the set wore on. It was late and hot and I was tired and had started out the evening resolved to be grumpy, mostly just for the sake of being grumpy. But I always know I like a band when I hear them play live and I start to smile even if I don’t want to smile. And that night in Wales I started to smile.
And again, tonight, upstairs at a pub on St. Clements, I started to smile. I suppose I always thought that a band came with a pre-determined identity: that you chose your influences and stuck to them, that no matter how varied your songs were, once a critic had said you sounded like, say, “a cross between the Velvet Underground, the Spice Girls and the mating call of a kakapo,” that’s what you sounded like. And that may have been the case in some cases, but that is not the case with Little Fish. Because I was a writer, and because comparisons made sense to me, I was always trying to come up with a way to categorise them, or a justification for liking them, but it was not so easy to do. I could not say that because I liked Belle and Sebastian or Bach I naturally also liked Little Fish. I had heard them sound angry and loud and seen Juju look possessed, smash glasses, pour water onto the crowd; but I had also heard them, on nights like this, sound totally different; they tapped their feet, harmonized, hummed, like they were just in their own living room on a cold evening, playing for some friends, or for themselves. Like there was a change coming.
Later, after the gig, we sat downstairs and had a drink. We sat for a while. We drank for a while. It is easy to become maudlin in late winter after a few ciders in a dark pub, and we very quickly became maudlin. This living business was hard, we all agreed. This making a living business, as a matter of fact, was hard. And it was easy to look at this band, who made me smile even when I didn’t want to smile, and ask them if they were crazy.
Are they crazy? Maybe they are. They’ve had had to pirate their own album to give to fans in the US. They’ve toured all over the world, supporting acts like Supergrass, Alice in Chains, Courtney Love and Blondie, but at a recent gig in Leicester, they’d made £6.67. They didn’t know how they were going to make another album, let alone a living, but even so, they were not going to stop playing music. They were not going to give up.
That night they told me about what was going to happen - or not happen - next. They were in negotiations with their label, which was, as far as I could tell, mostly a waiting game. So in order to fill the time, in order to keep playing music, they were recording acoustic sessions in a little flat in Headington and posting them online. They were making booklets of art and lyrics with hand-stitched binding and posting them to their fans. They were playing open mic nights in Oxford, which, I said to them, must have felt a little like a letdown after they had played the Royal Albert Hall last year, but no, they said, they loved it.
“Why?” I said. “Why do you love it?”
And maybe this book is the answer to that question.