Second Sight: Former Lush Frontwoman Miki Berenyi Looks Forward with New Project Piroshka

Interviews
02/13/2019
Janice Headley

When Lush reunited in 2015, it was never meant to last. Of all the shoegaze bands of the '90s who have been getting back together lately, Lush were long-time holdouts. Songwriters Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson had traded their guitars for briefcases decades ago, returning back to day jobs and seeming perfectly happy with that. For one bright flash of a year, they toured North America, released an EP of their first new material in 20 years, played a slew of music festivals, and then it was done. 

Or was it? Perhaps the most surprising thing about the short-lived Lush reunion is that a new band rose from the ashes: Piroshka. Made up of Berenyi and her long-time partner KJ “Moose” McKillop (of the band Moose), the new project also includes Elastica drummer Justin Welch (who filled in on the Lush reunion for original drummer Chris Acland who tragically died by suicide in 1996) and Modern English bassist Mick Conroy (who filled in for Lush bassist Phil King when he left the reunion tour before the end). 

"I was really quite reluctant to do the Lush reunion," Berenyi told us via Skype from her London home. "I've been away from everything for 20 years and it just seemed like such a mountain to climb to get back into it. But, in the end, I was really glad I did it. There were quite a few difficulties — I'm not going to lie — but I think touring, recording, rehearsing, all of it was really, really, really good fun. I suddenly realized, this is great; actually, I do miss it."

"When we did the last show in Manchester, that's when Mick came in to play the bass and it was mostly the three of us [Miki, Mick, and Justin] rehearsing because Emma's got a child and it was difficult for her to take the time out for that — so the three of us were just working together and we really, really enjoyed it. And so when [Lush] finished — which it always was going to — we just thought, it's a bit of a shame to just let it go, so we'll just carry on even if it leads to nothing, which genuinely was just how it went. There was no grand plan. There was no, like, you know, 'We're going to conquer the world.' We just literally thought, 'Oh well, we'll just start writing a couple of songs and see what happens.'"

What happened was the creation of their debut album Brickbat, out this Friday, February 15th via Bella Union, the label founded by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins (Guthrie produced the 1992 Lush LP Spooky and the Mad Love EP). The highly-anticipated release ranges from the dream-pop you might expect on songs like "Everlastingly Yours" to the surprising swagger of "This Must Be Bedlam" to the punk-pop of "Run for Your Life," all tied together by Berenyi's distinctive voice.

We asked Berenyi about the new project and forthcoming full-length, and also took the opportunity to ask about her experience as a mixed race, female artist. (Berenyi was born to a Japanese mother and a Hungarian father.) Cultural representation in the media is slowly, but steadily starting to shift, but when Lush was coming up in the '90s music scene, it was rare to see a half-Japanese woman fronting a band. While today's half-Japanese female-identifying generation can look to artists like Mitski and Sarah Midori Perry of Kero Kero Bonito for solace, for those of us who grew up in the pre-internet age, Berenyi was a touchstone, and it was a revelation to get to speak to her about it. 


KEXP: I had read that you hadn't written a song, you hadn't played guitar, you hadn't — well, you did like a couple of guest vocal spots — but for the most part, you hadn't been singing in 20 years, and then you went on a worldwide tour, you released an EP, and now you have an album with a new band. Has it been hard to shift back into that mindset of making music? 

Miki Berenyi: It was quite difficult when we did the Lush EP for the reunion. Emma had written the music, and I thought, I want to be a part of that, so I wrote the lyrics. I had to write and rewrite those lyrics so many times, I can't tell you, but it was really satisfying. The thing is, the way that we wrote in Lush was very separate — you would get my songs, you would get Emma's songs, and there wasn't really any kind of collaboration beyond, say, me writing the lyrics for Emma's songs sometimes. And that's just too much for me, I think. It's just such a lot of work, whereas, with this band, it's much more collaborative. I could write, you know, just like a verse and a chorus, and Mick would come back with a bass line that would completely change it, and Moose would put a lot of guitars on it that would take in a different direction. I've never written like that, actually, and it's just really, really enjoyable and different, and also just takes less time, frankly. 

I know that you and Moose have been a couple for a while now. Had you guys never thought of collaborating musically before? 

We thought about it and we would talk about it after a few glasses. "Oh, we must do that thing!" "Yes, we must!" And then nothing happens because life just gets in the way. I don't know if you've ever met Justin, but he's just got all this energy, this "can-do" sort-of energy about him, and he's like, "Yeah, yeah, it's gonna be easy!" And I think that's the thing that sparked the band because I don't really have that. Emma was always much more ambitious than I was, much more concentrated with Lush. If it was down to me, Lush would still be playing in a pub downstairs in Hammersmith or something. So, I need that person to motivate me, and I think Justin was the one. Me and Moose are just hopeless on our end. 

Leading up to the Lush reunion, you guys were talking about the reasons why it's been so hard because of day jobs and because of kids and now both parents are going to be on tour. Have you guys thought about how you're going to deal with all that? 

Yeah, it's a tricky one, isn't it? Don't tell social services, or we'll get in trouble. [Laughs] But yeah, I think the balance of it is quite difficult. My daughter is going to be 18-years-old in April, so we might just have to pay her loads of money to look after our younger one. But yeah, no, it is tricky, and actually, everybody has got commitments — you know, dogs, elderly parents, all sorts of stuff — so it's quite difficult at this stage to fit it all in. I totally recommend doing this when you're in your 20s, not in your 50s. [Laughs] So yeah, we'll do it somehow. 

Via the Piroshka Twitter feed

 

You guys have made it very clear you're not a supergroup, but each of the band members brings such a rich musical history to the table. You all come from bands that have inspired generations, but who were the bands that you would say inspired Piroshka? 

You know, it's tricky, isn't it? Because you don't want to say, "oh, it's got to sound nothing like Lush" or "it's got to sound nothing like Moose" — like that's a bad thing, you know? But at the same time, you are sort-of conscious that you could easily get shelved into this bracket where it's, "Alright, well, it's just the same thing." So, we did want to have something different to aim for. I'm not sure we got there. There were things that were bandied around. Trying to get Mick off the subject of David Bowie is almost impossible, for a start. And you know, the Simple Minds was talked about quite a lot, weirdly. Early Simple Minds, I might add. Yeah, there were things that were discussed that I don't really think manifested itself that well because I think, funnily enough, despite trying not to sound like Lush/Moose/Modern English/Elastica, I think you end up just playing the way that you play or singing the way that you sing and that's quite difficult to break with. So hopefully there's enough of a kind of pull between the influences to sort of come up with something new in the mix. I hope so anyway. 

One thing that I did notice is a little bit different in Piroshka as opposed to Lush are the lyrics seem a little bit more... I guess, a little bit more angry, in a sense, or a little bit more political? 

I mean, yeah, I guess. Again, just even going back to the Lush EP, the Blind Spot EP, I can remember really, really struggling with the lyrics. I was just trying to tap into how I even wrote lyrics, and after 20 years, your perspective on things is quite different. Justin would send a bit with drums and some guitars and then he just had a title. He just called it "Protest."  [Laughs] No idea what he meant by that, but I would think, "OK, I'm going to go with that," because it's his idea. I don't want to then write a song that's about some boyfriend I had when I was 23-years-old or something that is just going to annoy him, so I'm going to try and bend towards that.

I did try and be a bit more — even a bit more overtly — political, but there were a few songs I wrote where I just thought, "this is actually appalling, I can't do this." [Laughs] I think I wrote songs in Lush that were quite angry — "Ladykillers," "Hypocrite," you know, "my gripe against the world, part 10." But I'm not very good at pointing the finger at people and saying something's entirely their fault because, after a bit of calming down, I think about how complicit we all are, you know. So, that's my deep moment for today. [Laughs]

In "Run for your Life," you're singing "Don't give up / just get up" and in "What's Next," you're singing "We need to protest" and you sound optimistic. Do you feel optimistic about the future and about changes to come? 

I think all those examples that you've given are as much about me telling myself that. [Laughs] Like, "Come on! You know, don't give up!" It's really easy to just sit around and get depressed because God knows, I do. And actually, it's as much a rallying cry to myself. I hate the idea of people thinking, "Oh, well, who are you to tell us? What are you doing?" You know, not enough, clearly. But yes, I am optimistic actually. I'm always optimistic. How can you not be? I think terrible, terrible, terrible things happen and they always happen but there's always optimism, isn't there? But then there's always pessimism... yeah, it's tricky. [Laughs]

You mentioned "Ladykillers" and, I know back in the '90s, it seems like you guys had to deal with a lot of sexism in the music industry. I watched that BBC documentary Girl in a Band where you talked about how the Brit Pop scene seemed very exclusionary, like it was more of like a "lad scene", is I think how you put it. So, I wanted to ask you about that experience. I mean, you went on the Lollapalooza tour in 1992, and it was like you guys and then like Ministry and Soundgarden and these very you know, I hate to use the word  but like "masculine sounding" bands. What was that experience like for you and do you feel like things have changed since then? 

I think there's always been that background hum of sexism. I mean, I just get annoyed. My daughter's out tonight and there's absolutely no doubt that someone's going to say something crappy to her on the tube journey or look at her the wrong way. It's decades on and it hasn't actually changed. And whether she's at school and some bloke is going, "Well, girls are rubbish at this" and blah blah blah, it just actually never changes.

It's funny that you mention something like Lollapalooza because actually I probably got less grief there from the people who were actually on that tour. Yes, there was some real knobs, you know, but there were loads of people who were absolutely nothing like that, who were totally capable of just having a conversation with you without sleazing you or trying to pick you up. Half of those were actually the Ministry crew. You know, there were loads of people on that crew covered in tattoos with all sorts of scary stuff all over them, who were just the sweetest and most polite and, you know, "woke" people, whatever the new terminology is. Whereas you know bands in Britain — who really should have known better because they'd been like students and had all the benefits of that kind of education — were walking around like, you know, pinching girls' bums and making jokes about tits and stuff and you think, what's going on here, you know? So I think it's totally dependent on the person on how much of a bully they are, really. To me, it always seems to be linked to that. I don't think it's about your upbringing, I don't think it's about what class you are, I don't think it has anything to do with that. I just think it's about how much respect you have for people, generally. 

There's the optimism that you were talking about though! That most people aren't like that! 

Oh, absolutely. You know, and don't get me wrong — it's not even exclusive to men. You know, men get incredibly sensitive about this. They're meant to be the tough ones. They're all, "Oh, you're always picking on men." But there are just as many women who are incredibly anti-feminist and, you know, really cruel and nasty to other women. I kind of get it, when you're brought up in a culture where women are degraded, you want to be on the winning side. So, of course, you're going to go off and side with the guys, you know what I mean? But, how self-defeating is that really? 

Definitely. So, that kind of leads me to another aspect that I want to talk about. It seems like nowadays things like representation are only starting to kind of come to the forefront — like, you know, music festivals won't book a lineup that's all men, they'll be like, "we should have people of color, we should have women on the bill." Even in the media, there's finally starting to be more diversity.

Growing up, Lush was really important to me, and part of that reason is that you're half-Japanese. I'm also half-Japanese and I grew up in a very small town that was very white, very racist, very sexist. I love reading stories about when you and Emma were pre-teens and how you guys felt like the weirdos but found each other and you found music, because that's something I relate a lot to; I discovered Lush at a time I was feeling like an outcast. So, I wanted to ask you, what was it like for you growing up in London being mixed race? 

I suppose London is incredibly mixed. There are so many different races and cultures all living in incredibly close proximity, much closer than you would probably get in most American cities, actually. So, I never really felt it quite so badly in London. Funnily enough, about eight years ago when I was really struggling financially, we were sort of looking further outside London because I thought, I just can't afford to live here. And the further out of London I got, the more Japanese I suddenly felt. Like in London, it feels like it's just not really noticed.

When I was growing up, I lived for a while in Windsor, which is a lovely, lovely city, but again very monocultural, it was very white. There was probably about one Indian girl in my school. I was the only Japanese one and everyone thought I was Chinese anyway. And it was so weird to be suddenly in this community where that just made me so different. I can actually remember a boy saying to me, "You are quite pretty, but you don't really count because you're, like, you're not normal. So I don't know where to put you on the scale." [Laughs

I experienced something very similar!

Right, exactly! So it's this weird thing, like you're not measured in the same way, you're just not part of the group. And I think that then leads to a sort-of exoticism which is irritating, clearly, in a completely different way, where I would get people expecting me to be very — I don't know, like what, a geisha or something? Like, I'm going to start bowing and making tea? I don't know. And then they were almost more annoyed if I swore because it was like, "Well, that's not very culturally right for you, is it?" And I'm thinking, "OK, I've actually grown up in London and I literally don't know what you're talking about. I mean, being in Japan is just as alien for me as it is for you."

I suppose mixed race means that you're kind of neither here nor there. Then, mixed race and born in a country that isn't of either race is another thing on top of that. So it does kind of skew your identity a bit, I think. I didn't really trumpet it that much, I have to say. I mean, it was remarkable really because, honestly, growing up, even once I was older, some people would instantly spot that I was Japanese and other people, just because of the way I talk, would say, "No way, I can't even see that," and I'm going, "OK, you are joking, surely." Whatever, you know. So, I don't think I felt I massively suffered a lot of racism but it did make me feel a bit like... I don't know. Just a bit outside of things, I suppose, and it was another thing I would just ignore and get on with things. You know, it was like having the red hair. I remember a mate saying, "I don't know how you can walk around with that. Like, people are actually staring and pointing," and I'd be like, "you know, I don't even notice, I just zone it out. I can't even see it." And I think I've felt the same way about my race I guess which isn't necessarily a good thing but I think it's kind of the way I got through it. 

I went through a similar thing when I was in junior high and I went through a goth phase where I was doing the Robert Smith lipstick and like the Siouxsie Sioux eyeliner. And it was kind of, I think, a reaction to the way that people would look at me. It was like, oh, you think I look weird? Wait 'til you see this.

Exactly! I think that's a really relevant thing because I think there is that thing — you know, when people are looking at you like you're weird or you don't belong, that's kind of them making a judgment, but then if you're going to, you know, literally backcomb your hair and cover yourself in makeup and, in a funny way, draw attention to yourself — even though you're not the kind of person who would want that attention — It's actually just taking control of it, isn't it? And going like, "OK, fine, you're going to be looking at me and pointing anyway, so might as well, at least in my mind, make it about the hair and the makeup and not about whatever you're judging me as being inside," you know. 

Thank you for answering that and for saying that. That's incredibly comforting to hear. In the '90s, in the pre-internet days, there just really wasn't a lot of representation and you feel very alone. And then I remember watching 120 Minutes and seeing you in the "Nothing Natural" video and feeling, like, an even stronger connection to you. I mean, I was already a fan of the music before that, but then learning that you were also mixed race gave me something to look up to. I imagine with the Lush reunion, you must be hearing from a lot of people who grew up listening to your music and idolizing you. How does that feel for you?

[Deadpan] Yeah, it's great. [Laughs] It's, you know, it's weird, but I get it because I've been that person growing up and listening to music and hanging on every word or interpreting it and thinking it's about my life. Of course, there's a sort of transformative effect that a song has — because I think, OK, I know how I wrote that song and why I wrote it, and then in-between me writing it and someone listening to it, it transforms into something else which is, you know, the important bit. It's why I don't necessarily like completely explaining lyrics because I quite like it when people get them wrong and they've got an image in their head of what it's really about that means a lot to them and I don't really want to spoil that because it probably means more to them than anything that I would have written. In fact, I've had that. I remember finding out that [the Primal Scream song] "Velocity Girl" was about Edie Sedgwick and I was like, oh that's a bit disappointing, isn't it? [Laughs]

So, you know, I think all that stuff of listening to music and making a connection and loving what someone is doing, I mean, it's the music, and the person that you're seeing is not really a real person. I mean, you can't even see me because I've got a sticker on my computer, but if you could see me now, think kind-of early Roseanne Barr in her most slobby moments. I look like an absolute wreck at the moment, just so you know. I've even got reading glasses on cause I can't even see properly anymore. Honestly, it's really depressing. So you know I'm just saying that, yeah, I'm not this lovely, gorgeous, whatever thing that some people might think I am. I'm really not. 

Yeah, even with reading glasses, you are gorgeous and lovely. [Laughs] I wanted to ask you about Twitter. You are so entertaining and I love reading your stories and seeing the backstage photos from the '90s and things like that. Have you ever thought of compiling it into a book? 

Yeah, I keep getting people saying that, very kindly. If you knew how long it takes me to actually just get one of those posts together, you know, just scanning the photo, trying to remember who's in it, trying to actually remember what the hell was going on, and also then writing something. I think, "oh God, you know I don't want to offend anyone or upset anyone. Maybe I shouldn't put that photo because that person — oh, did they have a girlfriend then? And there's someone sitting in their lap..." All that is quite tricky! 

I've been asked to write an essay for a publication and I just cannot do it. It's impossible. I can do like 280 characters on Twitter, but trying to get two pages together is actually killing me. So the idea of trying to write a coherent book where one post follows on from the other would probably take me about a decade. 

Of course, ten years from now I'll be just as interested to read it! So, you had the first sold out Piroshka London show back in November. What was that like for you to be performing those songs together as a band in front of an audience for the first time? 

Well, we did do a little warm-up show a couple of nights before but, yeah, it was really nerve-wracking not least because I suddenly realized that with Lush, you know, each time you go on tour, you're playing the old songs and they're songs that you know. Whereas suddenly, there's just all these new songs and I've got to learn the guitar parts and I'm forgetting all the lyrics and I didn't have a single drink before I went onstage — not one, OK? Because when I did the warmup show I thought, hey, I'm going to have a beer. And I went onstage and I was like, "OK, so I've completely forgotten how this song begins and I'm just going to make up words as I go along..." But it was exciting and it's great fun. 

We've got two extra people in the band, too. There's Mew, who is Justin's wife, and we've got Sukie Smith who is an old friend of Moose's. She's in a band called Madam. And so anyway she's doing backing vocals, Mew's doing keyboard and backing vocals, because you know, you've heard the album — I just thought without those backing vocals, it's just not going to sound right. And Moose wouldn't do it. [Laughs] Trying to get his falsetto going. But it was great. It was great. I need to do it more so that I'm not so crushingly nervous. So next time I'm hoping that I can actually just relax and enjoy it a bit more. 

Piroshka, live on KEXP from our International Clash Day broadcast // photo by Lindsay Melbourne

 

It's funny that you can go on tour with Lush and you're playing in front of zillions of people every night but then you start a whole new project and then it feels different. 

Yeah, because I mean, the Lush thing, that's home crowd. You know that's like, "Oh yeah! Play the old ones!" Yeah, okay, fine, we'll play all the old ones. [Laughs]  Whereas that gig was, you know, not only was it the fact that it was a new band and stuff but there was nothing out at that point. Not a single song. And people had bought tickets — I was amazed, actually. These four people who were in these four bands, so people come along. I was amazed. But yeah, that's the first time they're hearing it. So a little bit scary because they could just go, "Blimey, this is awful" and leave. You know, those dreams that you have where people are just leaving? [Laughs

I know you guys have a couple more dates in March and then will there maybe possibly be anything in America? 

So we're playing in the UK — sorry — at the end of March and then we're playing in Europe at the end of April. And I know we would love, love, love, love, love, love to come to America, but it is so expensive. And oh god, you know, it was so much grief going last time with Lush. It was an absolute disaster. You know, we missed that first Coachella day and I can't go through that again. I really need to know that everything will be fine. But you know, yeah, I guess, I guess if things go well... if we know that... I'm fishing, here I know, I'm just wanting like loads of people to go online and create this absolute shit storm that means we go, "Oh well, we'll have to come now, won't we?" [Laughs

We can help with that. 


Brickbat is out this Friday, February 15th via Bella Union. UK and European tour dates can be found here.

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