Jockstrap: Adventures in Sound
Jockstrap’s debut album has been hailed as one of the year’s best. We meet the experimental duo, making unpredictable and thrilling pop.
STORY: Alison Craig. PHOTOS: Rosie Alice Foster
134 years since someone first had the bright idea of recording sound; 60 after The Beatles changed the course of pop music forever, and more than a decade since Spotify launched giving everybody access to everything all of the time, it feels almost impossible to find anything truly, genuinely new. Trends come and go, genres get spliced and recycled, but rare is the mind that can approach the infinite forest of what’s come before and cut their own original path through the maelstrom.
In Jockstrap’s Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye, however, the music world has found two such sonic adventurers, and on the South London pair’s full-length debut ‘I Love You Jennifer B’, originality is their most formidable weapon.
“We like experimenting and trying things out and putting things together that normally don’t go together; changing the feel and the beat or the style in the middle of a song. It’s exciting for us when we’re making music to hear something that we possibly haven’t heard before,” Georgia begins as Taylor picks up: “There’s a gap in the market in our brains and we’re trying to fill it, music-wise. We just have something we feel like we want to say.”
Formed after meeting at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, you can collect the ingredients of the band’s eclectic melting pot of tastes via their equally unfettered musical past. Georgia (Jockstrap’s vocalist and core melody-writer) grew up playing in orchestras, going to world music festivals like WOMAD and listening to the Irish music beloved of her mother before studying jazz. Taylor (the band’s producer) is the son of two musical theatre teachers who would also play “rap, Kanye West, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – everything basically”, and went on to study electronic music. When the two began to bond, they discovered they’d both spent their formative years listening to Boiler Room shows whilst being too young to actually go.
Somewhere in the middle of all of these ideas, pulling from past and present, esoteric and accessible, Ellery and Skye act as magpie-like magicians, weaving their way through a sonic playground filled with limitless treats and tricks. “We make it in Taylor’s bedroom at a laptop, but maybe in our minds it’s like that,” smiles Georgia of the image. “We have all of these tools or ideas that are endless really. We just follow our instincts with what excites us. It’s quite a playful process.”
Like many devout music nerds before them (“We don’t really do much else apart from make music, play music, see music…” notes Georgia), Jockstrap like to show rather than tell. Though ‘I Love You Jennifer B’ is populated by the playfulness they mention – from the throbbing, metallic breakdown that appears out of nowhere on opener ‘Neon’ to the drum’n’bass playground chants of closer ‘50/50’ – in conversation, they’re more reserved and considered.
“It can be a pretty arduous process making music, so in order to keep things going it’s a huge part that it’s fun,” Skye begins of the three-year process that birthed their debut. “We don’t often [sit] in the room laughing together, but we often have things that we think the other person’s gonna enjoy. It’s quite a fun process to make something for yourself knowing that [the other person is] gonna react a certain way.”
Does this mean their debut has cheeky in-jokes sequestered in its midst, we ask? “It’s not like we’ve got like, [hidden] messages or something,” he replies, looking slightly confused. “If something happens in the music that’s an accident that we both like, then we just accept it.” Right, yes, sorry…
Jockstrap are unlikely to ever churn out Matty Healy-style outlandish quotes or land themselves in the tabloids at the centre of a scandal, but instead they’re quiet renegades with a complete disregard to conform to what’s come before and a clear, bold viewpoint. It’s of note that king disruptor himself Kanye West pops up more than once in conversation; away from all the headlines and media furore, there’s perhaps more that the two have in common than first meets the eye.
“You can never guess where he’s gonna go and it’s quite hard to gauge his motives. The musical decisions he makes are always quite groundbreaking and he seems to have that reinventive quality to him. It strikes a nice balance that I think our music can sometimes have, which is this very emotional aspect whilst also being quite accessible,” Taylor suggests. Later, he picks up on the exploratory, almost wide-eyed way the rapper works: “there’s something quite childlike about the way he goes about things”.
‘Childlike’, or perhaps ‘pure’, feel like terms that sit within Jockstrap’s strange set of juxtapositions, too. Though ‘I Love You…’ is full of warped and weird electronics, with sounds contorted to within an inch of their lives, it also brims with genuine beauty – Disney strings and Georgia’s crystal clear vocals adding an almost old Hollywood cross-current.
“I like the idea that our music can span a whole lifetime; it can be of a childlike nature sometimes [or more mature at others],” Taylor continues. “The drops are quite important in the music because they’re, for me, this very instinctive satisfaction which is what a child looks for. A child’s light is on or off, there’s not much subtlety in between, and children are so creative so it’s quite nice to reconnect with that. But at the same time, we’re in our mid-twenties, we’re probably the most angsty and complex we’re ever going to be. There’s something beautiful in the poetry that Georgia writes too; it’s quite mature, and that’s really important as well.”
Full of sexual imagery that throbs with a dark sense of drama, Ellery’s wide-eyed vocal delivery often belies the lyrics found within. On the harp-laden ‘Angst’, she sings “Let it sink in/ As his titanic rises/ And the sun streams in whilst you’re here hard on the floor”; on ‘Lancaster Court’, over tense guitars and theatrical flourishes, there are tales of “making love” and “sweet release”. Throughout, her images are evocative yet strange, phrased in ways that never take the obvious path.
“The ones that are more sexually direct are more about having a sensual feeling and trying to depict it; I enjoy trying to depict it – to me it’s very vivid and it’s a form of sexual expression,” Georgia explains. “Lots of the songs, the topic is more [about] sexual repression so maybe that’s why I go to express it – because it’s a product of that. ‘Lancaster Court’ isn’t really about sex, it’s about a feeling that’s hidden under a sexual metaphor. The books I like to read are American modernist female writers, so a lot of those themes they write about inspire my lyrics – Kathy Acker and Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson, who all write quite a lot about sex in a modernist way.”
The stories in ‘I Love You Jennifer B’, Georgia states, are all autobiographical aside from ‘Debra’, which is written – naturally – from the perspective of a character in Animal Crossing. In their visuals, however, the duo have been testing the waters of the fantastical in gloriously eccentric ways. Take the video for lead single ‘Concrete Over Water’, for example, in which the singer, dressed as a clown-like mime, dips and swings first atop a ‘60s egg chair and then a model of the solar system, the result like the strange midpoint of David Bowie and Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’.
For a band who don’t present as natural show-offs, it marks a commendable level of commitment and boldness. “I enjoyed it, yeah!” Georgia laughs of her acting foray. “The props were helpful. The chair was helpful… We wanted it to be celestial and magical and wondrous, and we were determined to put 100% into the video to make it look amazing as a debut statement, visually. It was really fun, and it’s another way of exploring the song and the material to make it a more immersive experience.”
It’s a prime example of what Jockstrap do best: creating things that are intriguingly odd but still invite people in. Where the South London peers they initially were grouped in with – black midi or Black Country, New Road (of which Georgia is also a member) perhaps – can sometimes feel impenetrable, Jockstrap choose to still prioritise melody within the musical madness. Across the record, there are strange corridors to wander down and sounds ripped from an electronic apocalypse, but there are also hooks and earworms and moments you’ll find yourself humming for days after. If accessibility can often be mistaken for simplicity or making something ‘easy’, ‘I Love You Jennifer B’ proves you can still be accessible without sanding anything off or dumbing it down.
“We want to make a tune and we want some melodies in there, but on the other hand we’re not really driven by what the listener may want to hear. We’re making music that we want to hear that’s a mix of really tuneful songs, exciting production, lots of emotion and hopefully there’s some catchy melodies that people can take away,” Georgia shrugs. “We want people to buy the albums and stream it and hopefully make some money!”
Whether the duo can beat the endless algorithms and make their millions remains to be seen, but ‘I Love You Jennifer B’ feels like a fairly sure bet for 2022’s end of year lists and next year’s Mercury Prize nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, they’re accolades that Georgia and Taylor seem relatively nonplussed about, but beneath the lack of mantelpiece-centric ambition, you can sense that even these two most understated of interviewees are starting to enjoy the results of their superlative labours coming to fruition.
“If we’d have thought about [winning prizes] then we should have made short songs that would get on the radio, but it’s been three years of doing this, so for me that’s what I’m going to be celebrating,” Taylor nods. “There’s too many inconsistencies with these award shows to put them on any kind of pedestal; sometimes people win who I think totally deserve it and sometimes it’s people who I don’t think do at all, so I’m over trusting these things. But we’ve been getting reviews coming out this past week and it’s a weird feeling, adrenaline-wise, that’s new.”
All positive, we ask, already knowing the affirmative answer. Taylor nods with a hint of a small smile. Like we say, Jockstrap aren’t ones to blow their own trumpets, but ‘I Love You Jennifer B’ is more than enough to do it for them.
‘I Love You Jennifer B’ is out now via Rough Trade