The boundary-breaking indie punks talk ageing, role models, and throwing away their own lockdown album
Dream Wife aren’t a real band. At least, that’s how it all began. Starting off as a performance art project at Brighton Uni, Rakel Mjöll, Bella Podpadec and Alice Go formed a “fake girl band” for a mockumentary all about the artifice of the music industry. Almost 10 years later, now headlining a stage at The Great Escape a few weeks before their third album arrives, Dream Wife are about as real as it gets.
Fusing punk and pop with fun, wry indie rock into something electric, Dream Wife tackle gender roles, sexual norms and body image isssues through lyrics barbed enough to bleed. Two minutes into their Great Escape set, the whole room is screaming back the chorus to a song that isn’t even properly out yet – “have some f*cking empathy!” becoming a chant alongside “I am not my body I am somebody!” and Mjöll’s call for all the bad bitches in the house, whatever their gender, to push to the front.
Leaving all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bikini Kill and Le Tigre comparisons back in their old reviews, Dream Wife have spent the last decade carving out their own niche – next-gen rock heroes for an audience that hates labels almost as much as they do.
As the band prepare to mark their new album, Social Lubrication, with a headline slot at Cardiff’s Celebrate This Place – before a run of UK and Ireland shows in October – we sat down with Rakel, Bella and Alice to talk Dream Wife’s next big reinvention.
You really know how to make an entrance. ‘Kick In The Teeth’ opens Social Lubrication in such a powerful way – just like the first tracks off the other albums. How important is it too grab people from the very start like that?
Mjöll: Yeah we’re kicking in teeth! That song starts with such a punch, and when we wrote it we all sort of looked at each other and knew that it had to be the first song on the album. It’s breaking down the door. Like, hey, we’re here. Take notice.
This record is inspired by coming back to life after lockdown, but you released your last album right in the worst of it. How hard was that for you, especially for a band that puts so much into that connection with an audience?
Mjöll: I mean, it was super weird. But then even going into writing this record we tried a month together in a writing camp, and a few isolated sessions here and there, and nothing that we wrote seemed translate. So much of our inspiration comes from being a live band. It comes from the joy of playing together. And the audience has such a big input in how our songs are made. I mean, we still wrote a bunch of songs, but when we showed them to our label they didn’t like them, which is a very good thing. I’m so happy we didn’t release that album.
Podpadec: Can you imagine if we did?! They were really sad, lonely songs. That whole last album release was sad too, in a way, because a lot of those songs never got played live and they probably never will now. And that that’s a loss. But, you know, the pandemic was obviously a loss in a lot of ways. In a way though, taking an enforced break and then returning to it all again really solidified what it is that’s important and vital and really alive about everything that we do. I think there’s something really distilled in this new body of work. We really know who we are and what we can create. And that’s a party. With a soft, emotional underbelly. And a horny edge.
Mjöll: At least we now know we can write sad-ass songs! But do we want to release them? No. But what we do want to do is change an idea we had around a sad-ass song and just give it a kick in the teeth. The majority of the songs on this album were written after we started playing live again. The first festival we played again was Latitude in 2021, and after that we came back to our rehearsal space and the songs just came out. We felt the energy. That audience reminded us why we’re here.
So many of these new tracks have that great old sticky-floor club feel to them – especially ‘Orbit’. Have you had a chance to play that live yet?
Mjöll: Yeah actually, and the reaction has just been incredible. Bella, that was your favourite song right? You were fighting for that song to go on the album.
Podpadec: Yeah! I thought it was such a fun dance anthem. For me, that’s so important to what we do. We started playing it live for the first time at South by Southwest and it was amazing how instantly it connected. Sometimes you play a song live and it might take like a little while to kind of workshop how you move with it, how you respond to the crowd, how you create that kind of live translation, but ‘Orbit’ instantly felt really, really good.
Mjöll: When people start singing the chorus back to you before the song has ever been released… that’s a good sign. I think it’s maybe the joyfulness of it. The line, “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” is a really fun line to sing because it’s like, “I’m not going to overthink things… I’m just gonna adapt and be here and be present… the next step I have to take will come later, or maybe not. Who knows?”
There’s a line in ‘Hot’: “what’s your favourite Yeah Yeah Yeahs song…” that you must have had thrown at you a lot over the years. Did those comparisons to your influences used to annoy you when you were starting out?
Mjöll: The answer is ‘Maps’. It’s also my favourite music video, with that one tear falling down Karen O’s cheek. It hits all the spots.
Did you watch Meet Me In The Bathroom? There’s a great scene there of that video being shot.
Mjöll: Not yet actually, but I did buy seven copies of the book! I kept on giving it to people.
Podpadec: I think there’s a really beautiful thing about acknowledging the lineage that you exist within, and the shoulders you stand upon as a musician. I think some of those comparisons can definitely sometimes just be lazy journalism, but that’s not the worst of it. We endlessly, endlessly get ‘Oh, you’re a riot grrrl band’. And okay, yeah, we love that, we respect it, but it was always Le Tigra that we wanted to sound like. It’s that energy that we wanted to bring.
Mjöll: We get to play with Le Tigre soon and that feels like it’s gonna be a very full circle moment. During your young teens, when you don’t really know how you’re going to be an adult, or even how you’re going to leave your village, all you can do is listen to music and transport yourself to London or New York. A band like Le Tigra has been such a big part of all three of our personal connections to music – so I’m very thankful that people maybe say we sound alike. It’s a compliment. What’s weird is when we get compared to bands that we definitely don’t sound like. ‘Oh, you happen to have vaginas? You must sound like this other band that also has vaginas…’
Do you sense the flip side of that yet – that new bands are starting to talk about being influenced by you?
Mjöll: It’s pretty cool to be on our third album now, because that feels like a career. It’s not just a flash in the pan thing. During South By South West we met a bunch of artists that came up to us and told us that we’d inspired them. That they saw us play live and then wanted to make their own band. And I think that sort of took us a bit by surprise. It’s wonderful releasing albums, but you release songs to be able to tour them. At this stage of our lives, the live show is everything. A concert is one of the most magical places you could ever go, and we’re always incredibly present during our live shows. So when someone now tells us that they started playing guitar because of a Dream Wife gig… it’s the best compliment that we could ever really get.
Another line I loved from the new record: “you’ll be middle-aged men one day and I’ll be a middle-aged dream wife…”. Have you thought about the future in those terms before?
Mjöll: Ageism in music is an interesting one. We’re going back to Kathleen Hanna again here, but she did really interesting interview in The Guardian the other day where she talks about going back on tour. She didn’t tour for almost 15 years, because of her Lyme disease, and she talks about being met with this different attitude, being now in her 50s and being in a punk band. There’s no time limit in music. Without age, we wouldn’t have gotten Blackstar by Bowie. So those two lines were put in there to sort of contradict the idea of ageism in music. But then, also, literally – as the BBC6 dads are propping up the entire scene! It’s important to appreciate them. Thank you, 6Music dads, for making sure bands like us can still sell vinyl!
You’ve evolved so much over the last decade – what’s your relationship to your earlier music now? Are you approaching it differently when you’re building a setlist?
Mjöll: We have so many songs now! It’s really difficult to write a setlist, let alone for a 30 minute set like we had a South By Southwest and Great Escape. We love our first two records, but they didn’t capture our live sound. They’re very much studio albums. For this one, Alice produced them and really just cracked down on getting the guitars right, and on how we make the room sound. The vocals aren’t pretty on this album because they’re not trying to sound like a studio setup. It’s messy. It’s chaotic. And it’s pretty magical.
Go: I agree. But also, every time you play a song live, it’s like you’re kind of experiencing it again for the first time. The songs grow with us. The version of ‘Hey Heartbreaker’ that we play now is probably fairly unrecognisable from what it is on the record. But that’s part of what we do. There are probably songs on those records that I don’t even remember.
Mjöll: I don’t think I would know how to play those old songs how we used to play them. I remember seeing Bob Dylan playing when I was a teenager in Reykjavik. And I had the best time ever. My friends walked away with me and they were complaining because he didn’t play the songs like they were played in 1964. And that’s such a ridiculous concept to me. I just loved that there was so much joy. He didn’t have to play ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ or ‘Lay Lady Lay’, but he played them a way that made them feel alive. I thought that was incredible. Music has a living and beating heart. You have to respect that.
Social Lubrication is out 9 June on Lucky Number. Pre-order here.