Billy Nomates: bold vulnerability, instinctive humanity

By Giles Sibbald

“70-80% of being bold is about being vulnerable as hell”

There weren’t that many places of solace during the bleakness of those lockdowns. I sought out a few musicians who were determined to build communities of positivity and humanity and try to make sense of whatever the fuck was going on. Oh, and to jab persistently at the Cockwomble Cabal of Johnson, Hancock and T***p. Solidarity. #UKGRIM

As the situation brewed, a new songwriter and multi-instrumentalist called Billy Nomates released her debut single No, infectious in its minimalism, fusing a looped bass groove with rarefied synth interjections and her vocal delivery of her barbed lyrics through a mix of deadpan spoken word and imperious soul/jazz harmonies. 

“No is the greatest resistance

No to your nothing existence”

The vulnerability of Tor Maries’ work as Billy Nomates and her life was as apparent as the talent behind it. FNP and Hippy Elite preceded her highly successful debut album released in August 2020 on Geoff Barrow’s Invada label. 

The time is right for that sophomore album. Go and find your own narrative in the wonderful Cacti…..

Tor

It’s really odd because it was written a year ago – I’ve lived with it for a year! And now I’m gonna go and live with it for this whole year! It feels weird that people only just know about it. I’m very nervous about it is the truth. But it’s done, it’s happening and I’m just shutting my eyes!

Giles

Have you listened back to it?

Tor

I’m just starting rehearsals for the live dates that start in March. I’ll be introducing a bit of live guitar and stuff for them, so I am looking at it from that perspective, but I don’t listen to as a record now, God no, no, no! I try and avoid doing that with any records actually or with anything in general. Unless I’m working on something, I just go ‘ok, good, that’s done and dusted’. 

Giles

I guess you’ll end up with a body of work that can represent what you were feeling at that time in your life.

Tor

It really does. Cacti is probably the most like that…..well, I mean, I guess they all are, in a way. I think all art and all albums will do that, won’t they? But Cacti really is: I’ll never be thirty again and won’t be dealing with what I’ve felt for that. So, it feels like a real time capsule. It’s weird because I never really looked at music that way until I thought, ‘Oh, now I trap it, put it on a record and it’s f-o-r-e-v-e-r!’. You have a real moment as an artist where you go ‘Oh, God, I didn’t quite realise it’s f-o-r-e-v-e-r’. But anyway…(laughs)

Giles

Like ‘Why the FUCK did I say that? Did I really say that?’ I guess the way we use language changes over time as well.

Tor

Absolutely. And even just the way that you present yourself, the way you play with melody, the way you look at work is that the shape of everything changes. And that’s a good thing – it should do. But you have to try and not do the thing of like, ‘Oh, I was terrible.’ You have to just accept it and go ‘No, at the time. It was really good, that was me’. I think about this a lot, especially since doing Billy Nomates: we have it in our heads that music has to be really good in order to be acceptable. Like, everything has to be really, really good. No, it doesn’t work that way in the art world. I don’t go to an art gallery and want to see everything painted beautifully. I don’t want to see that. I want to see, like, the lines not meeting, I want to see the person that’s done the abstract thing. It’s weird that we don’t do that with music. We’re so unforgiving. Unless we think something’s really, really good, we’re like a bit blah, whatever…

Giles

Why do you think that is? 

Tor

I think there’s a misconception that what constitutes a good musician and therefore good music is being really masterful at an instrument or being a really masterful singer. Whereas, actually, it’s just a human endeavour – you are just throwing something at a canvas. Also, I think it’s a symptom of everyone being so fucking good at their instruments now, that that’s the base level. And so, you come at it with feelings and everyone’s like, ‘oh, that’s not executed very well.’ I dunno…..

Giles

I think one of your massive strengths is that the storytelling and humanity is not just present, it’s really at the fore. I think that’s so important. I think there are a significant number of people that really want music in their life that they can relate to, stuff they can say ‘fuck, yes, that’s me, that’s exactly what I’m going through’. 

Tor

I mean, I want it myself and I want it from bands and artists that I listen to. I’ve always wanted it. I’ve never looked for the ‘really good thing’. If someone tells me that something’s really good, I’ll immediately go and find something else (laughs). I really have always felt that way about music and art. If you think of the radio as the ‘gallery’, they don’t put the odd stuff on it. What gets onto the ‘gallery’ has to pass these quality control checks. I’ve always hated that, you know, because it just means that the odd stuff doesn’t make it. But then when I discover those oddball things, I’m like ‘this is it, this is the shit.’

Giles

When I used to get into a band  – well, still do! – and I’d buy their studio stuff, then they’d bring out a live album. I used to really love it when they’d play a wrong chord live or the drummer would play a different roll or something. And when a band makes a false start when they play live. I fucking love that. It made me think that these people making this amazing music were just human. It made me feel that it was ok to make mistakes and that maybe I could do what they were doing. In a way, it’s a little bit hopeful, isn’t it, it makes it real….

Tor

Totally! I’ve always felt like that, and I’ve always liked that idea that anyone could come to a show of mine and go like, ‘I could probably have a stab at that.’ That’d be fucking ace. Because that’s the whole point. I didn’t go to university and study this shit. I just did it. That’s how I think a lot of stuff genuinely comes about and yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it, that we always want the human touch? We always want it yet we’re kind of told otherwise, but actually, we crave it. And it’s the same with like, social media and everyone looking good. I definitely don’t want to see people looking that good (laughs).

Giles

What’s the demographic of your fanbase now? Is it a mixed bag? The reason I’m asking is that I’m interested in what the future will look like and there seems to be a bigger proportion of the younger generation – I’m thinking perhaps 11 and upwards – having the mentality and drive to do something about things that they see as wrong or unjust. And I’m wondering how they might be using music, art, poetry etc. for this… And so how you’re impacting them?

Tor

It’d be nice to think that I was in any way. 

Giles

I think you are. 

Tor

One of the reasons that I got really angry at The Guardian recently was because they said that my audience was basically 6 Music mums and dads in turtlenecks. It’s the opposite of that. It’s always been the opposite of that. One of the best things about my last tour was the audience because it was women that had come out as a group of women without their partners, it was young girls that had come with their dads, dads that had come with their mates. Grandparents that just fancied it. Just fuckin’ everyone. I met a lot of people from the queer and trans communities that just felt safe to come and enjoy. And like that shit is a real privilege, because you know that when you start seeing that, that’s when it’s bigger than you. There’s a responsibility. And that is why I kicked off about that article, because I was like, fuck you, it’s the opposite of that and whether you like the music or not at that point is irrelevant, because to be honest, everyone has just come out and everyone’s cool in a space. And we’re not a country that’s good with that.

Giles

I think that’s absolutely spot on. If you can create a space where you bring people together, whether through the music, through the relatability of what you’re singing about or through the safety that the crowd generates through its own vibe of acceptance and understanding.

Tor

It means everything to see that as well. Because you just don’t really see it in life anymore. It’s so fractured. It’s so vulnerable. We’re so ready to hate each. We’re more ready to hate each other than accept each other like always. It’s an absolute privilege to have audiences like that. The reason The Guardian article irks me was because they missed that by a mile. I’ve never seen such a diverse audience in my life.

Giles

When they miss it by so far, that makes you wonder what agenda they had in the first place…..

Tor

Well, the shit thing as well is that it was written by a woman, and I’ve had a lot of women writing snidey stuff about Billy Nomates from day one. The common misconception is often that it’s going to be men hating. But men are my biggest supporters. They come with their daughters, they come with their mates, and like, more often than not it’s been a fucking woman that just goes ‘what was she doing?’, you know?

Giles

Have you been able to work out why that is?

Tor

I don’t know. It’s just a bit of an unspoken thing. I do wanna say, though, that I get a lot of support from female artists, and it does feel like there’s a sisterhood around it. But misogyny isn’t just a male thing. That’s the truth. I’ve definitely experienced misogyny from women, where they’ve been quite hard on Billy Nomates. It’s not for them clearly, but also then wanting to discredit it in some way – really? I don’t know why we do it to each other. It’s the fucking last thing in the world that we need.

Giles

Makes you wonder about who’s really behind those ‘divide and conquer’ attacks – something systemic? I dunno. But, if you’re getting the open minds to your shows, those open to doing and creating, those wanting to make some change for themselves and others, and you can inspire just one of those coming to your show to use their talent, then that’s got to be a good result….

Tor

Oh, god, it’s always been about that. Yes, I want to make music and yes, this is cool. But, as I’m getting older as a human, I can start understanding that, actually, all it is about is just doing good for each other. That’s literally all we’ve got.

 

Giles

From a cultural point of view, music has suffered increasingly callous attacks from this government over the years, and the past two years were, like, a really good excuse for the power structures to attack even more brutally. How do you see music’s health in terms of, you know, still having the resilience to tackle the injustices that we face as a society?

Tor

I think it’s always been a driving force of community and, for as long as I can remember, music has always been about breaking down barriers. You know, everybody meeting up almost like World War Two style, you know, we’re playing football in the trenches for a bit and then we go back to killing each other and hating each other. And it feels like that that’s happening more than ever. I hope that it will be able to continue to build communities and create bonds. That feels really powerful, and I don’t think that gets enough credit. And it’s, I don’t know, I think, you know, we’re just so unbelievably fractured and divided and hateful. My next door neighbour is really pro-Brexit. I can’t talk to him about that. But we were talking the other day and we discovered that we both really like Ian Dury and The Blockheads. So, once we discovered that, now we can talk about music, and now we’re okay with each other. A small thing maybe, but it builds a bond.

Giles

When I’m thinking about this, I think, probably with misplaced romance, of the days of the kind of 60s where there were these radical groups that were popping up all over the place – you know like the MC5 in Detroit when their manager John Sinclair got them involved in the White Panthers, and the Combahee River Collective in the late 70s, and it feels like many more people were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths for their beliefs. I mean, in comparison to that, it feels like we’re really fucking timid and far less prepared to act on our convictions, doesn’t it?

Tor

Oh, God, I mean, it’s like a source of forever frustration where you’ll see protests in France, where they topple their government, and they stay out all night and they light flares in their hand and they’re all French and sexy and fucking ‘Come on, let’s do this!’. You’re just like ‘Why can’t we do that? When the fuck is that happening and where because I’ll be there’ I’ve never really felt that British in that respect. Because we have this real apathetic attitude towards everything. And it’s so frustrating. Take the ambulances for example. What will it actually take for us to protest? And then you’re in a herd mentality and you’re just on a train that’s going that way. You can say you want to get off, but you just keep going.

Giles

I read this quote from John Waters about counterculture. He says there is no counterculture because what used to be counterculture is now commercialised. And it’s true, it’s almost like once the system kind of gets into something, the thing dies. The impact of people like Vivienne Westwood and Pam Hogg through fashion and music – encouraging everyone to have their unique identity, to think and create for themselves and speaking out against over-consumption – should reverberate around the world for a long time. Even though Vivienne became a huge ‘brand’, she retained the ideal counter-culture ideology.

Tor

Yeah, the ‘system’ can kill things, but the resistance within that has to be that you just commit, and you truly fucking believe in it and that’s something that I feel like we have lost a bit of our willingness to commit to things, like being a goth or a cheerleader or a weirdo or outsider. I mean in life you still get that but – and it’s not even so much about the look – we seem to have lost that commitment to what it really means to ‘be a goth’, for example. We’re just very watered down – because we have access to everything, we can be a bit of everything and that can be a brilliant thing, but I do actually think but you do kind of miss that like raw ‘I am 100% this and I fucking believe that I am fucking Black Death!’

Giles

That’s an interesting point about identity I guess. Do you remember Chumbawamba?

Tor

Yeah, yeah.

Giles

Well, last year I interviewed Alice Nutter, one of the founders of the band, but they basically lived together in a squat in Leeds for many years. They all dressed in black, they ate together, they went out together, they obviously played the music together and they pooled their money. She said she just felt like she was part of this gang that was just looking out for each other which generated this very powerful feeling of untouchability. I just thought, ‘wow, what a positive story of identity’…

Tor

Yeah. Well, I remember I did a similar thing. I had a year living in like a squat when I first came to Bristol when I was about 19. It was an ex care home. You had to apply to live there. There were some people that went to Circomedia, so they were trying to be circus people, there were two people that made yurts for a living, someone owned a snake and I remember it got loose once. And I was there, and I’d just started playing a bit of music and I look back and it’s things like that. I felt fucking untouchable then. I really felt part of something. I was like, I don’t know what it’s like to be, you know, bohemian, but maybe this is it. And now squats don’t really exist, do they? Like, you’re fucked. The dole’s gone. Unless you’re making okay money, you’re just worried all the time. And they’re fucking coming for you. And it’s really hard. I’ve often wondered, is that me getting older and being more worried about things and being more financially savvy, or is that actually happening? But it’s happening, isn’t it?

Giles

As I’ve got older, I’ve definitely felt like I’m being more calculating with the risks I take than I used to when I was younger and then I start wondering if my circle so kind of insular that I don’t see what’s happening outside of that circle? But I think you’re right, it is happening and it is more dangerous now.

Tor

I think it is probably a bit of both, isn’t it? Because we do need to be even more careful. I don’t want to be on the streets. I do want to pay my rent. But it is happening because I don’t really know anyone left in those circles still doing that. But here’s a thing: what would be a really cool thought is that maybe like that there still people doing it. And it’s so underground that they’ve completely fucking gone off the grid and off the system. The idea that there are groups like that is cool as fuck (laughs).

Giles

How do you feel about going off grid and just getting back to nature outside of today’s system?

Tor

Oh yeah, I’ll be honest with you. I just want to make enough to be able to go and do that eventually. I feel like we’re all just commercial hippies at the minute. We’re all just going, ‘Yeah, I need to have enough to make sure I can do X, Y, and Z’ and then ‘see you later.’

Giles

In our first issue, Youth had a conversation with Penny Rimbaud. Penny was saying that his idea of activism is ‘nothingism’ which is allowing the situation to happen and then responding accordingly – kind of like an animal response to your surroundings where instinct matters.

Tor

Yeah, I mean, I think all you can do at the minute is just try your best to respond to the situation that you find yourself in, then look for the best possible avenue. It’s like a checklist of things, isn’t it? It’s like you go okay, what have I got? How do I get a bit more? How do I not sell everything? How do I become happy? No-one’s got the whole fucking thing ticked. Absolutely no one. Or, if they have, they’re on the verge of a fucking mental breakdown. But yeah, it’s so true – responding to what you’ve got when you’ve got it and that’s all you can do. And just try and make the best of that. I’m still renting at the moment in Bristol – sky high rent. I don’t love living in the city. I’m not a city person at all, but it’s functional. It allows me to do Billy Nomates and Billy Nomates is very fulfilling, but ultimately, on a human level, it’s all about it’s all about getting out of it all. You know, music’s always about escapism, you’re constantly escaping from reality with music, and then it gets deeper than that. And you go, ‘Oh, at some point, I’ll need to escape all of this as well.’ Like the walls will have to come off this as well.

Giles

If you do go off grid, would you still create music, but maybe perhaps for different reasons?

Tor

Oh, 100% I hope I always create music. I say this all the time – so much so that everyone is like ‘shut the fuck up’ (laughs) – but I wrote songs and music way before anyone was interested. And I’ll make it way after anyone’s interested. That always did it to me. If just 10 people heard it on my Bandcamp, that was enough. You have to unlearn everything. The music industry tells you to look at numbers, look at this, look at that. All bollocks. And you have to just remember why you make music in the first place. What’s it a response to? I’ll play this silly little game for a bit but there’s a bigger target at the end of it. There has to be. We’re born into this world, and we know all the old ways: we know a life without a computer, we know a life without mobile phones, we know a life without social media. All of these then get introduced to us. And we have this choice. I feel like people like me in their 30’s, we have this choice to make where it’s like ‘Are accepting this or are we rejecting it?’, and the world kind of went, ‘Well, if you don’t accept it, you won’t be part of it, and you won’t be able to work or anything’. So, we’ve accepted it. But we’re all aware that there’s a life without it. We do know that life. So, I feel like we’re all kind of wanting to go back to that we’re just, you know, we’re all using it now to go, ‘okay, there’ll be a cut off point for this life’. Like where I won’t have a phone at some point, and I will go back to the most primitive way of living to get by.

Giles

I think most people know that something isn’t right with the way we live, it comes to us all, just depends how long you last!

Tor

We know it in our bones. We know it. It’s the apathy again, of like, we know this is gonna be a fucking disaster. It’s already a mental health crisis for a lot of people, but this is only gonna get worse. It comes back to responding – how are we responding? Well, in that case, I’ve kind of got a 10 year plan (laughs)

Cacti is out on 13th January 2023 on Invada Records and is available here:

www.iambillynomates.com/store

The European tour starts on 14th March 2023 in Lille and comes to UK on 17th April at Cardiff Tramshed. All dates here:

www.iambillynomates.com/live 

Photography by Immy (photo 1)  & Eddie Whelan (photo 2)

 

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