Guest List: Kieron Gillen on the Music Behind The Wicked + The Divine (and a Whole Lot More)

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Guest List: Kieron Gillen on the Music Behind <i>The Wicked + The Divine</i> (and a Whole Lot More)

Writer Kieron Gillen, artist Jamie McKelvie, colorist Matt Wilson and letterer Clayton Cowles blew the doors off of 2014 with one of Image’s biggest launches, the gods-reincarnated-as-teen-rockstars book, The Wicked + The Divine. Gillen is well known for his musical acumen, and his projects with frequent collaborator McKelvie, specifically Phonogram and Young Avengers, often have an intrinsic connection to pop music.

“WicDiv,” as the title is often affectionately shortened, is no exception: Gillen has created a mythically sized playlist to accompany the book, totaling 266 songs at the time of this publication. While many of the songs on this growing sonic supplement (“Die Young,” “Baal’s Hymn,” “Edge of Seventeen”) have immediate connections to the doomed youth of WicDiv, Paste spoke to the prolific writer about why a handful of songs made it onto the playlist, how musical archetypes have shaped the Pantheon, and pop’s influence on some of his other projects.

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Paste: Is the playlist only pulling from your personal library? Or are you binge-listening to anything outside your comfort zone to get in the heads of certain characters?
Gillen: I rarely listen to stuff which is outside my comfort zone. With Phonogram, each one is about a musical period, so I put stuff on playlists I didn’t like. When I was doing Rue Britannia, I was listening to everything from ‘93 to ‘98, and it allowed me to actually reconnect with emotions. Me hating Kula Shaker is a sort of running joke, but I listened to a lot of Kula Shaker and now I do hate them. [Laughs]

With stuff for WicDiv, at least part of The Wicked The Divine is anything that we’ve ever loved, including pop music, but also everything else as well, from the movies to the books to the comics, to the games, even, and all the people we’ve loved especially. The fact that The Wicked The Divine is going to last four years means the playlist will eventually be every song I’ve ever liked. And it’s getting that way already. [Laughs] It’s more like, oh, here is something I’ve been listening to, which I then realize is perfect for this character. Or, occasionally, I add something and I don’t really know why, and then I realize, oh, this is actually about Sakhmet, or this is actually about Dionysus.

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It’s quite a diverse playlist, but it’s also a pop playlist. Our kind of thing is that we wanted [WicDiv] to be like a pop song. In a Daft Punk way, it’s very much Discovery. This is us being populist. We want to get everyone’s hands in the air, if you will. It’s not the Phonogram sort of self-defeating indie bullshit. There aren’t any b-sides in here. There are quite a lot of very big hits. This isn’t about the glory of failure in your bedroom — I’ve written comics about that. And I love that, because that’s very much me. [Laughs] But this is pretty much, “Let’s take over the world, it might be fun.” I scan down the playlist and I’m vaguely aware of where each song has come from and it’s an interesting history of kind of where my head was at.

Paste: Are you hard at work penning WicDiv original songs?
Gillen: I was in all manner of shit bands. There’s an album of demos I did by myself when I was 21, which exists, and there are about ten copies in the universe and I know who has them all. At least one of them is an ex, and I’m not sure if she’s angry enough to ever want to put it online. I pray that she doesn’t. They’re fucking awful. I can’t sing and I can’t play. Bassist-cum-manager is what I did, very happily in the Malcom McLaren mode, which I don’t think is surprising for anybody who’s read my comics. [Laughs] Ideas over aptitude.

Paste: Some comics try to make up fake lyrics and it can be very clunky. The only time you’ve used lyrics in the book was The Morrigan’s angry My Chemical Romance karaoke.
Gillen: Yes, exactly, which was quite fun. Gerard Way gave a shout-out on the back of the trade, as well. Getting mentioned at his concert was incredibly strange and also very kind. There were some lines in Phonogram that Los Campesinos! ended up using in their lyrics, and I was in the crowd for one of their gigs when they played this record. Being in front of people shouting something you’ve written is weird, and I have no idea how pop stars or people in bands even stay sane.

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Paste: Let’s talk a bit about the gods that inspire the playlist. Dionysus and Woden seem like they could embody different aspects of the same massive modern EDM scene: the superstar DJ and the behind-the-scenes producer.
Gillen: Dionysus is a little bit different from everybody else. Woden is not on stage, but Dionysus…I don’t want to make it too explicit, but he’s not the performer, he’s the crowd. There’s a line we drop in the flyer, “The Dancefloor that Walks Like a Man.” If you go to a Dionysus gig, you become Dionysus, and everybody at the gig is Dionysus. He’s kind of like a hivemind dance floor. It’s about the experience of losing yourself. You know the old line, “The crowd is the star?” It’s a bit like that, in that the crowd is the most important part. It’s not really about the superstar DJ for Dionysus’ philosophy; it’s much more about the experience of human beings listening to dance music together and what that feels like.

He’s kind of like an anti-star, and that’s the appeal of Dionysus. If you’ve read Phonogram, he’s kind of like Kid-With-Knife. He wants everybody on the dance floor forever and we’re all beautiful, and he’s very much disastrous in different ways. But the whole of [issue #8], it’s by far the druggiest issue. There’s a lot of tactility, the colors very much change and once you kind of become Dionysus, the whole issue starts moving to a beat. It’s structured with builds and drops and all sorts of beat stuff going on in there, and we tried to do that experience in a comic form. It’s probably the most experimental issue yet.

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We’ve done experimental bits in WicDiv, but we haven’t done anything this experimental. It’s been quite lowkey, and this issue is very much a deliberate showcase of being lost and sweaty in a crowd when you start to lose that edge of where you are and where other people are. Your identity sort of widens and you become the crowd. That’s sort of what the issue’s about and how that feels. Like once you get into the beat, you should actually feel the beat, because people’s lines are cut to specific lengths, and we play with speed of reading and speed of structure. Of all the issues, this is the one that’s least focused on Laura. When we enter the crowd scene, it’s a bit like Wings of Desire, the floating perspective between the people in the area.

Paste: Sakhmet seems pretty clearly based on Rihanna, but Rihanna hasn’t made it to the playlist yet. Too obvious?
Gillen: That’s surprising actually, you’re right! I can’t work out why I never put any Rihanna on there. I’m going to sort that out now. That just slipped my mind. It’s weird because Rihanna is one of the influences of Sakhmet. Jamie draws influences from various places, and occasionally, he goes, “I actually made that a bit too much there.” I think Sakhmet’s one where we’re thinking you probably see a bit too much Rihanna in there, so we’re sort of trying to pull that back a bit. My immediate urge is “Don’t Stop the Music,” because it’s one of my favorite Rihanna records. It’s not really applicable to Sakhmet. It’s more applicable to Dionysus, really.

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Paste: A lot of readers have read Amaterasu as Florence Welch, but you’ve mentioned she has some Kate Bush in there, too.
Gillen: We’ve generally said all the cast are based on a tradition, these archetypes that people have played, and the idea is that each one of these archetypes that we’re doing is a specific example of that archetype rather than one figure from that archetype. So with Amaterasu, she’s very much Florence Welch, she’s Kate Bush, and you could put Stevie Nicks in there, the idea of that approach to being a woman and a pop star. Björk kind of dances between a few of the characters, but you could even put Björk in there. If you talk Rihanna with Sakhmet, we can probably put some Grace Jones in there. In terms of identity, Baal is inspired by a lineage of masculinity from Bo Diddley to Kanye.

It’s this whole idea of a certain mode of approaching pop culture and being this figure. All the characters, the more we get to know them, some of them, it’s kind of immediately clear that we’re moving a bit away from what you’re thinking about, and some of them will take a while.

I think Baal in particular, people are starting to realize he isn’t quite what they think he is at this point in the story. As aggressive and arrogant as Baal is, he’s the one that’s trying to support people and take the authority. He’s trying to be the father figure. As opposed to someone like Woden, Woden is very clearly something like Daft Punk. Woden is a shithead, and I really like that. [Laughs]

Paste: Baphomet accounts for the “None more goth” songs?
Gillen: Baphomet is a bit of a troll. The word I would use is troll. There’s a line in the recent issue, I forgot how I finally edited it, but I basically described him as “trolling the universe.” If you basically went back to the original idea of trolling, before the word got used for everything, the idea that some people should be annoyed, that’s the heart of trolling in the original way, and Baphomet kind of comes from that place. He looks at the world as full of hypocrisy and dumbness and he’s going to take the piss out of it, because, frankly, fuck everybody. You know, that’s a very teenage attitude, but these are teenagers.

A lot of the characters have parts of me parsed out in them, my strengths and flaws — particularly flaws. Baphomet is one of the more obvious ones, in terms of being a fucking idiot. Baphomet, he is a fucking idiot, bless him.

Paste: There’s a lot of speculation online about whether Minerva’s jacket is “Black Parade” or Beatles…
Gillen: Can’t it be both? [Laughs] We tend to work through irony, and I don’t mean irony meaning not saying what we mean, but irony by saying multiple things at once, we speak to the more complicated sense of life. Life is generally more complicated than a single statement.

I really can’t say which songs are Minerva’s. We’re keeping Minerva kind of distant so far, and that’s partially deliberate and partially due to space. [Issue #7] is really the most you see of Minerva in action, and you kind of see her at a distance. You see how she interacts with the other gods, so we’ve got bits of her. Same with Sakhmet; Sakhmet we’ve got bits of, but not nearly enough. Sahkmet, Amaterasu and Minerva will come into a bit more focus in the third arc.

One Minerva song, actually, is “Why Did You Let My Kitten Die” by Angelica. I don’t see the American playlists, so I don’t see which songs don’t work for you guys. It’s vaguely based around [the film] Whistle Down the Wind. It sounds very cute, but is really about a complete lack of faith in a god that would kill such things, and it’s slightly tongue in cheek, because a fucking recorder is on that record. [Laughs] But you know, this is a song about questioning the justice of a god who would kill kittens. There’s at least a little bit of Minerva in there.

Paste: Tara is another mystery. The other gods don’t like her and she wore a meat dress…
Gillen: Tara is a complicated character. She doesn’t come in for a little while, and we’ve been teasing it for a long time. The exact nature of her problem with the Pantheon, her separation from them, we talk about it more. There’s a certain performative aspect of Tara above and beyond everyone else. I almost don’t want to say, but in my head there’s a sort of collision of Lady Gaga going into Taylor Swift for Tara. That’s kind of somehow how I think about Tara, and that’s obviously a very complicated way to think, because they’re obviously very different pop stars. There’s something — it’s hard to explain. You’ll read the comic and go, oh, I see what Kieron is doing there. “Paparazzi,” even aside from Gaga being Tara, that’s very much about the relationship to fame, relationship to the audience, the whole idea of the mirror there, and that’s a very WicDiv sentiment. It covers the ambivalence of it all, the ambivalence and desperation and confusion of it. “Paparazzi” is by far my favorite Gaga record.

Paste: Cassandra is a little out of the circle musically. Is there anything on here for her?
Gillen: The gods don’t actually make music. They kind of do something that has sound and feels. Cassandra literally sidesteps it and just hears noise. As implied in the first issue, quite a few people, it doesn’t work on them, so they ultimately assume it’s fake. It’s kind of a metaphor for how art occasionally just doesn’t work for you. [Laughs] Which is a good Cassandra record? I almost don’t want to give it away. A bit of the Elastica in there, but the Savages records, I think Savages would be a good example of her, of the austerity of Cassandra. There’s a kind of intellectual dryness to her, kind of like very controlled anger. That’s what I got from Savages, so that’s kind of a good example.

Paste: Main character Laura was born in 1997, and the book has definitely attracted a younger crowd and a lot of first-time readers. Have you considered that you might be some teenager’s first exposure to Prince or that Luci may be someone’s gateway drug to Bowie?
Gillen: The scariest thing about WicDiv #8 is that people my age and a little younger, we realize we’re the parents. When I’m writing parents, I’m really writing my peers. All the kids’ parents who we’ve touched on are much more like people I’ve known, and the realization of who are you in this story, that generation gap is really quite fun to play with. I scare the shit of myself with this all the time. I find that fun.

I would hope people get into [the music] in a good-spirited way. It’s not really meant to be like the annoying uncle who keeps trying to play you records. Yes, there’s a bit of me that is that, but it’s fun. I look at the playlist, and there are definitely worse quick guides to 30, 40 years of pop music than this. Most guides would probably lose Kenickie, which I’ve included. [Laughs]

The way we could have made money off Phonogram is if we actually had links, click-through links, and had the Amazon referral costs. We could have been rich I tell you, rich.

Paste: In the backmatter for the second issue, you wrote an essay on your personal experience with Hole and how “Celebrity Skin” works as a sort of thesis statement for the book. You’ve got a letters column now, but are you planning to dive deep into any other tracks down the line?
Gillen: It’s weird, I did a load of them on my website and I’ve got loads I want to do in my head also, but the problem being is we keep on using up all the pages. [Laughs] I’ve got one essay we’ve proofed but haven’t printed, and every time we want to do it, it’s like, oh, we’ve got no pages. With issue #8, the Dionysus issue, it’s actually expanding to 40 pages, because we use space differently. It’s probably 20 pages of content and we’ve cut it up and used space in an interesting way. We’ve done this quite a bit, but we’re kind of pushing it to a whole different level with this. The problem is we’re filling the space. If we have extra space, yes, I’ll get some in. I mean shit, I want to do my Belle and Sebastian essay. I nearly did my hivemind Belle and Sebastian/Glass Animals kid character at one point, but decided no, that’s not really pop star gold, it’s really the opposite. [Laughs]

I should feel more out of date than I do. We’re kind of trapped in the machinations of pop culture. You kind of got that with Daft Punk coming back two years ago. A, with how old they are, and B, how they could turn it into a big deal, and they worked that very well, but it’s also a bit amusing. You do the math. Especially when I was younger, because I’m phenomenally old now, you realize that all those classic albums were released in a much smaller period. And I used to have fun scaring people like Warren Ellis. It’s a classic old person time difference game. “You remember how we fought about The Smiths, how old The Smiths were? Well, that’s how 17-year-olds feel about The Strokes now.” And of course that just scares anybody. And this conversation is of course over a decade old, which is even scarier.

Paste: At the Image Expo in January, you announced that the third arc will have guest artists for six issues while Jamie gets going on Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl. Did you quiz all of the guest artists on their music fandom?
Gillen: Can you imagine me being that level of fascist? [Laughs] Like, “What is your favorite Smiths record? Wrong!” I actually more asked them what gods they want to work with. I had an idea because I know their aesthetic, and I know what I think will suit, and that’s kind of how I hooked them up. It’s very much like Young Avengers or even Phonogram. We kind of like working with people who are our people, who are friends or whose work we love, with kind of that sense of comics as community. So that was our main thing.

It’s actually going to be five artists, and the sixth episode is going to be something completely different, abstractly with Jamie on art, but it’s one of the more conceptual issues. And I can’t really say anything about it, except when it happens, I’m pretty confident it’ll be probably the strangest mainstream comic book of the year, if we pull it off. If we don’t pull it off, it’ll be the strangest mainstream comic book of the year, but just shit. I’ve had this idea and Jamie really thinks we should try to do it. It’s kind of the Woden issue.

Paste: Speaking of Phonogram, the WicDiv playlist takes a big Britpop detour midway through.
Gillen: Does it? I chose “Entertain Me” by Blur, which is kind of re-doing “Girls and Boys” on the album after “Girls and Boys.” It’s just basically “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and that’s the same basic disgust, or at least antipathetic feeling, toward your audience. And by doing that on a remake of a previous record is particularly sharp. It’s definitely the point when you realize that A, Britpop is about to fall apart, and B, No one is enjoying themselves anymore. So it kind of feels like a very blank, dark party record, and that kind of speaks to the mood of WicDiv. It was very clearly written about Justine and Damon and Brett, in that classic Britpop love triangle. It’s the penultimate track at the end of the album. The distance, the fundamental distance between two lovers, when both are trying to become creative people. So they’re particularly cold records.

There’s a lot of joyous stuff in here, but the Kenickie I’ve got is like “5:00 A.M.,” which is implied to be after a one-night stand. “Millionaire Sweeper” is about teenage pregnancy, “Classy” is pretty much the closest they ever got to being Iggy Pop, which is them falling down the stairs and trying to turn a night into sociopathy. Lastly we’ve got “Robot Song,” which is a first-person song about a robot who wants emotions and then they get emotions and they try it and they’re entirely incapable of dealing with them. You’ve got Kenickie doing this 3-part harmony and it’s like, “You may think it’s bad we have emotions, but we need emotions to feel bad about it, so it’s probably okay.” And the beat starts and it goes on forever, like jackboots stomping a human face. It’s a wonderful little vignette.

Paste: Everything you and Jamie have done together has had a strong musical edge but you don’t really talk about it as much with your other work. Do you ever catch yourself imagining what Angela or Darth Vader listen to on their downtime?
Gillen: I should do a joke playlist for Darth Vader where I just put “The Imperial March” on twenty times [Ed.: He did]. I kind of like the idea of me walking around the house making toast constantly to “The Imperial March.”

Honestly, my projects kind of divide into two halves, and one half, I very much like the soundtrack, like Uncanny X-Men or Journey Into Mystery or Young Avengers. They all have playlists. And there’re other ones, I don’t explicitly tie them to music as closely. That includes stuff like Über, that includes stuff like Three, that includes stuff like Darth Vader. That’d be the perfect example. That’s not really how I approach those characters, with the universe being so distant.

I’m doing this Crossed arc for Avatar, and I did that entirely listening to Mastodon’s new album, and Swans’ previous album. So the house is full of very loud noises, and obviously being Crossed, it’s incredibly violent and depressing. The song “Lunacy” by Swans, I just played that one particularly on repeat while writing this story of just awful, awful, awful things. If you were to imagine me in that period, it’s me, holding my iPad above my head like a massive black stone tablet, with it playing “Lunacy,” walking around the house naked, sort of singing along with the chanting bits, with my wife rolling her eyes at me. So occasionally you go native.

Paste: Will music be a part of The Ludocrats at all? It seems like the setting might rule out a lot of familiar tunes.
Gillen: I’m cowriting it with Jim [Rossignol], so it’s been incredibly improvisational, where we came down and got off our heads together and we worked out the story. [Laughs] That’s not true, we worked out the story before getting off our heads. I more remember flavors of whisky connected to Ludocrats more than any specific soundtrack. The first episode is all I’ve written completely now, but going back to the original Ludocrats, this was 2007 or so, and I was really obsessed with Klaxons’ “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and that was them at their most ramshackle, falling down stairs, hopefully pretentious but very excitingly heading towards infinity. That kind of spoke to Ludocrats. So that’s the one record I kind of connect to Ludocrats. I suspect by the end of Ludocrats, there’ll be more.

It’s a very improvisational book. I’m always tempted to compare things to jazz, because it winds up Matt Fraction, who despises all jazz comparisons. Ludocrats is definitely like jazz, it’s a lot like jazz, Matt. We want to include as much concentrated human imagination in as small amount of space as possible. There might be recipes, board games, some sort of whisky tasting guide. The joy of co-writing is that we can do all sort of random shit in the back and I don’t have to worry about it. [Laughs] A monthly blob of excitement.

Paste: So how slim is our chance of seeing a Loki in WicDiv flashbacks to past Recurrences?
Gillen: You never know! When I first conceived WicDiv, I did play with the original character being Loki, in the Lucifer role. I thought for a couple seconds and then thought, no, it’s tacky and derivative, especially with what happens to Luci. We would very much be making a public statement. [Laughs] We were a bit better than that, and Lucifer is a more powerful cultural icon than Loki is, so we went with that instead. I would not say no to Loki ever, because there are 12 gods every 90 years, and we’ve kind of implied that there’s a larger set of gods they choose from. Baal says in issue #4, “If I come back next time,” because he may not come back next time, which implies that the gods do mix it up a bit. I would never say never.

Paste: Out of all of 2015’s pop stars, who has the best chance of secretly being a reincarnated god?
Gillen: Wow. I’ve worshipped a few pop stars in my time. I would love it to be Kanye. [Laughs] It’s like, from the “Power” teaser onwards, “Yeah, I am a god. I’ve said this in multiple records, why can you not just pay attention to me?”

[Here Kieron explained how a few randomly chosen songs were selected out of the 265 tracks.]


“The Passenger,” Iggy Pop
That is primarily my friend Cara Ellison, who’s a games journalist. She said, “Why isn’t Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” on your playlist? And I can of course not say no to Cara. It’s an agreeably primal record, and it’s got a sense of grace and motion. There’s the argument of what relationship the gods have to the people, you know, and is it the person who’s being transformed into a god? Are these gods actually taking over these people? That question of what the godhood actually means, but it’s also just a great record.
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“Crooked,” G-Dragon
I’ve got friends who are into K-pop, and I don’t really follow it that closely. The reason that got onto my list is because of a friend of mine, Akira the Don, who’s a British producer/rapper. He’s now in the Midnitemen and he’s kind of stopped doing his own stuff. One of his final things, he did a cover of this, and he translated the lyrics. And of course the translated lyrics. Lyrically, it’s incredibly a WicDiv song, so I put the original on there as well.
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“Try a Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding and “I Say a Little Prayer,” Aretha Franklin
I grew up on Motown and soul, it’s kind of family music. My mom was like eight and a half months pregnant and went to a Detroit Spinners gig, stuff like that. “Try a Little Tenderness” specifically is connected to my brother and not a character. I’m actually surprised I put that there. I was thinking more about shape and mood. “I Say a Little Prayer,” I used to listen to a lot and still do. I listen to it in the shower, literally acting out the lyrics. There’s obviously the religious connotation, but it’s a pop record, and if things reach a certain level of power and structure, it’s on the playlist for the effect.
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“Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj
I really just kind of like it. I love Nicki Minaj as a rapper and a singer and as a figure, but generally, I just don’t think her material is as good as she is yet. It’s very annoying. I still have never loved her as much as I loved her on “Monster.” That was utterly seismic. “Super Bass” is a really good pop song and I like it a lot. I kind of like the light, airy, playful sexualness of it. “Super Bass” is kind of fun, and it’s fun without being goofy. It’s specifically in there because there’s a panel description I dropped in issue #4 where Baal turns and gives Laura a look, and the panel description is “the look that Baal gives Laura is very much the look that Nicki Minaj nailed in ‘Super Bass.’” [Laughs]
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“Wolf Like Me,” TV On The Radio
[In an issue of Phonogram], we explicitly tried to match the structure of this record. Build up-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-breakdown-repeat chorus is kind of the story structure, once it catches that sense of propulsion. It’s a record I love. It’s kind of liberating. If I had a car, I would drive whilst playing it. I’ve started running this year, and I’ve ran with a few times. I was kind of cosplaying Kid-With-Knife. [Laughs] I’m kind of quite twitchy. Originally I didn’t want to put songs that had been on other playlists of mine, and as I’ve gone through, I’ve been relenting on that. If I really feel I want to do it, I do. There’s a few that have worked their way over because of that. “Wolf Like Me” is one of them, and I think that came on when I realized Dionysus was a little bit like Kid-With-Knife. The Dionysus issue, because it’s about propulsion and flow, is basically us trying to take what we did with “Wolf Like Me” and taking it a few steps further.
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“Cabaret,” Liza Minelli
Weirdly I’m thinking about Jane Horrocks’ version of “Cabaret.” It’s an utterly scouring performance. It’s a monstrous performance. It’s all about her breaking apart. “When I’m going, I’m going like Elsie,” and the idea that we will go onstage and we will perform despite the fact we are doomed and life is very short, that’s WicDiv. I really want to write an essay about this — this is one I haven’t written about — but the way the version on the playlist, very much the most famous version, by Minelli, is a triumphant and glorious record: “Fuck the world, I’ll be glorious and glamorous and I don’t care.” And [Horrocks’] version, which is definitely another fair reading of the record, is utterly petrified. [Laughs] It’s like, “It doesn’t matter if I’m defiant or not. I’m going like Elsie.” There’s the sense that “I am going to go. That’s not a choice, I will go like Elsie, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to me too, and I will be worm food.”

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