Fingers Crossed: Miki Berenyi Interview

❉ James Collingwood chats with former Lush frontwoman Miki Berenyi about her acclaimed autobiography.

“When we started going to a lot of smaller gigs everyone we met was suddenly writing a fanzine or starting a band and so that was really common currency. A lot of people you’d see play and they weren’t that good, but it looked like they were having fun. Also don’t forget there was a huge amount of very high unemployment at the time, so people had shitloads of time on their hands. You could start a band in someone’s house. Sit there and just bang out a couple of covers or something.”

Released two weeks ago to rave reviews, Miki Berenyi’s new book Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success is an honest and brilliantly written account of Miki’s early life and ups and downs with the brilliant band Lush. Miki was equally honest when I interviewed her on zoom. Also just a slight warning, if you’re sensitive to bad language – you’ve come to the wrong place! 

Hi Miki. Thanks for the interview. I imagine that you are busy at the moment with the buzz around the book?

I am but it’s not like having a 9 to 5 day job, so I feel kind of guilty. It sounds weedy but it kind of takes a lot out of me.

I suppose it’s like touring again, is it?

Yeah, I didn’t really realise but when we did the Rough Trade (instore), and we did like a performance as well I was really excited about it, but I had to sleep for about a day after! It’s quite intense.

The first half of the book is about your childhood. I know you kept journals and diaries when you were young didn’t you? Was it difficult to go back to certain areas in terms of getting back into it and describing things? The description of the 1000-mile family road trip to Hungary is brilliant described for example and it seems to resonate with everyone who reads it.

To be honest a lot of the stuff that is in the book is stuff that I would have talked about quite a lot with my friends or boyfriends over the years anyway. We’ve actually been playing old Lush songs recently – we’ve rehearsed about four and I was like “Oh my god it’s all in the lyrics!”    So, it’s not like it was some sort of attic doorway that I had to open then kind of go into and uncover all this stuff. It was kind of there anyway. So really the diaries were giving a bit of visceral detail and of course when you tell a story or when you talk to people over the years it warps into what your common wisdom is or what your life experience brings.

What was really good about going back to the diaries was that it really immersed me back into what it was like being a child or a teenager and what it actually felt like at the time. The funny thing about the trip to Hungary was it wasn’t just one trip. My dad was like that all the fucking time. Picking up women in nightclubs, getting into scrapes, sitting in the car with Granny and him getting into fucking fights! That kept happening over quite a long span of time. We did that trip yearly. It was always chaos. My dad would have no fucking insurance on the car. We’d have to cross some border at 4 o’clock in the morning in some obscure Austrian outpost. It was so much ducking and diving. To be honest I’m so rule bound now! I’m someone who pays all their bills up front. With my Dad I was like “I get why you’re doing this but it’s so much less hassle if you abide by the rules. Like drive a car that is insured and actually fucking runs!”   

When you started writing did more and more things from your childhood sort of keep coming into your head?

I was advised to just start and then write everything which I maybe took a little bit too literally I’m not gonna lie! I was kind of enjoying myself writing about that stuff and I just thought, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll just cut it”, but I didn’t know which bits are interesting and which bits are going to work because I’m not a writer. If you’re a writer and you know what works, then fair play but I had no fucking clue. In my head things that I thought were quite interesting might come out as not that gripping.

You had your own fanzine Alphabet Soup and were going to loads of gigs before Lush was formed. What was the fanzine scene like at the time?

I think my route into gigs was meeting Emma and starting off at things like seeing the bands playing at the Hammersmith Palais and the Odeon. Stuff where you could get the ticket at Our Price on Oxford Street in the ticket booth. Then you go to their support bands gig and then see THEIR support band in some pub in Hammersmith or something. We didn’t have older siblings and we were quite clueless, so we didn’t know anyone. There was also the social aspect. I was about 15 when I started going to gigs so we were young and most of those people were older than us. So, you’re at the Moonlight Club for example and even that are 21 seem way older and unapproachable.

 The people selling fanzines would be really friendly – because they want to sell you a fucking fanzine! There were loads. I remember the quite sort of political type fanzines. There was James Brown’s Attack on Bzaag. There was a certain type of fanzine where I thought the Membranes would be in every fucking issue. Probably because they were down to earth and willing to talk to fanzines as well There was anarcho punk stuff. And I suppose Tom Vague was writing at the time as well, so VAGUE was an ongoing thing. So, you had things like that which were amazing. There were even fanzines where you’d get some Greenham Common group doing poetry and whatever so there was a real spread, and you could just pick up a lot. Every gig I went to I’d come back with like 4 to 5 fanzines. I even remember Sounds doing a fanzine column where they used to review them.

What gigs were you seeing?

I wish I had my list. I used to write down every gig that I went to. I’m just trying to think. When I look down the list it’s really quite factional and it changes. So, you’d start off with kind of Japan and Simple Minds and Culture Club and suddenly it’s kind of Southern Death Cult, the Birthday Party, Sisters of Mercy. Serious Drinking, Higsons, Farmers Boys, Mekons, Three Johns.

For these bands it wasn’t based around “Oh they’re now on a label” or they’ll do a single, tour and then album. They just played a lot. Then we would see the 4AD bands. Big gigs, small gigs… Gigs you’d hear about from your friends in Slough or something. You could go to a gig just about every day of the week. There were no mobile phones of course but you’d go to a gig and think I reckon so and so will be there and it’ll be a laugh. It was like a social club.

When you were getting Lush together was it like a gang mentality. Did you see bands and think “We could do that”?             

Yeah, when we started going to a lot of smaller gigs everyone we met was suddenly writing a fanzine or starting a band and so that was really common currency. A lot of people you’d see play and they weren’t that good, but it looked like they were having fun. Also don’t forget there was a huge amount of very high unemployment at the time, so people had shitloads of time on their hands. You could start a band in someone’s house. Sit there and just bang out a couple of covers or something. I think there was something about the vibrancy of that scene which meant forming a band was like starting a school magazine or something. It wasn’t that big a deal, so I think that’s why Emma joined the Rover Girls, and I joined the Bugs. When I was seeing Billy Childish and people like that I was thinking, “I wonder if they’ll ask me to join a band?”. Of course they fucking didn’t! You realise you have to do it yourself. You realise it wasn’t that much of a stretch. So, me and Emma just started to learn how to play an actual instrument by doing Delta 5 covers or whatever. What really spurred it on was that she started going out with Kevin (Shields) from My Bloody Valentine.  She then kind of got in with that scene because I think the Valentines had just switched to Creation so Emma met Jeff Barrett and she got a part time job with Jeff and then met people in the industry and journalists so I think she could eventually see “oh we can do this” and what was required. We just needed a band. I was at North London Poly at the time, so I asked Meriel (first Lush vocalist who later joined the Pale Saints) Chris and Steve. I was good at asking people for shit because if someone said no, I’d just say “don’t bother then!”    

Chris (Acland. the Lush drummer who tragically died in 1996 and who is written about movingly in the book) shines out of the book as a great guy?

Yeah, Chris was an extremely nice person.

What was it like at 4AD when you were working with Robin Guthrie and people like that?

I was immediately out of my depth, but it was great to be on an independent label and I don’t know if we’d have survived on another label. Certainly, on a major label I don’t think we’d have lasted at all long. We really did need a bit of hand holding and a bit of looking after and we…well I certainly didn’t have any grand ambitions. I actually think a band like to Pale Saints were much more ambitious and knew where they wanted to be. I was just in a sweet shop really going “oh my god…I can’t believe we are on 4AD!” And I think Emma was more ambitious as well. It was probably the same with the rest of us – Emma was mainly the most ambitious person in the band. The rest of us – certainly Chris and Steve loved the idea of becoming successful but had absolutely no idea of how to achieve that. Basically, what I’m saying is that we were thrown in at the deep end. So, it was like “now we’re recording with Robin Guthrie!” It was never about being ready for that it was “shit what’s happening now!”

You had an issue with the guy from the Primal Scream entourage (anonymously referred to as “Travis” in the book) and then some other bad experiences. You didn’t like the attitude of some of the Britpop bands?

Yeah I always feel a bit bad about… You know lots of people are obviously picking out those bits going like “Did you really hate everyone in Britpop?” and I think for me it’s like, taking it out of context it’s a bit tricky because looking at the whole book the point is it has a (narrative) arc. So, it starts off being innocent and small and as you get bigger there’s a sort of tipping point where things become harder. Once a band has become established, you’re relying on it, you know… We left college and deliberately didn’t get a job. If the band doesn’t work, then we’re fucked, you know what I mean?  And that actually puts a very different cast on it. Suddenly there’s careers and people are relying on you and there’s press and there’s attention and there’s an image and other bands are coming up. It gets much more complicated and it’s all the boring crap. So, I don’t particularly feel even when I write about Primal Scream, Billy Childish and Britpop bands or whatever..I am sure that half of these people may be fucking lovely people. I’m not trying to go “let me tell you a few things” Nobody’s fucking perfect. Someone might write a book tomorrow and write “I met Miki from Lush once and she was really pissed, and she did this and she did that” and I’d read it and say, “Yeah that really happened”, coz I was a twat sometimes. Everyone’s drunk and it’s not necessarily your best mates so you’re seeing them in a certain context.

You know, you could argue, “Why put that stuff in there?” The problem is that it was really quite bruising. I can sit here and forgive it but at the same time the onslaught of it was just really not fun and it’s not just one particular person. It’s just the environment… Being picked on by the press, having random fucking fans who want to humiliate you and fans who want to sleaze you and just be nasty about you.  People who spread gossip as well. All of these things I’m sure are familiar to anybody who works in an environment where your social life is tied into your job. I just wanted to communicate how that can really affect you and not put you in a very happy place.

You write really well about these issues. Did bands and people’s attitudes change going through the early to mid-90’s?

Once our star started to wane it really pissed me of that certain people didn’t have the time of day for me. That’s the world your operating in. I was quite lucky in that I always maintained strong friendships outside of music completely. People I was at college with or people that I was at school with. To be honest I didn’t really hang out with that many famous people. I’m not great at meeting famous people. Especially famous people whose work I really like. I kind of expect them to be possibly quite unpleasant. Not because they’re horrible people. It’s like I don’t know why people expect famous people to be nice as well as fucking talented. Isn’t it enough that you just have the book and the music that you love rather than you are wanting them to be this amazing generous human being as well which they might not be. I don’t want that spoiled.

I remember meeting Ian McCulloch because he was recording with Robin Guthrie at the time we were doing Spooky and I don’t know if he had a hangover or whatever but he was basically in their kitchen wearing dark glasses and very monosyllabic when I spoke to him and I was like “That’s alright, I’ll just go for a walk now because I don’t want to know if he’s a wanker”! I really didn’t, because I love the Bunnymen!

I’ve spoken to people in the past and obviously some people in bands don’t get on?

That’s the other thing. I have had a fair bit of flack about how I’ve written about Emma (Emma Anderson, co-writer and guitarist in Lush) She’s obviously not happy with the book at all but that’s partly because we haven’t spoken for five years. I do think – and it’s very common in bands – bands fall out. And so even when people go “Oh, you never gave that impression” at the time you think “Well, you can’t”. Things may already be fragile, so you don’t want to make them worse. Apart from Oasis maybe. Most bands keep that conflict and tension under wraps, but I would have thought that most bands have got a side where that sort of story would feel very familiar.

 

To be fair in the book you do say that someone else could write this story from another point of view.  Emma could write it differently for example…

Oh completely. I’m sure that I am fucking unbearable to be with for long stretches of time when I’m touring America when I’m pissed and then hungover and loud and annoying! When you’ve got slings and arrows aimed at you from various quarters unless you are really good at listening to each other and caring about each other that causes rifts. What attention people get and how much they feel credited and whether they think someone’s hogging the limelight. All of those things affect every band.  From the outside people would go “But oh my God it all looks so fucking amazing!”

Was the famous Lollapalooza tour good fun or was it a bit scary at the time?

It was terrifying. The first week and the two weeks before I thought “this is going to be a nightmare!” I literally thought we’d get bottled off for a start just playing the gigs. I also thought all these American Rock bands would look at us and think “those English pussies.. Who the fuck are they!” you know what I mean. Especially as it was such a ‘Monsters of Rock’ type tour. Most tours that I went on… Pale Saints, Faith Healers for example… you all get on and it’s a real laugh. Even with Ride everyone mucks in together. The crew are lovely, and we all have a brilliant time. On a tour like Lollapalooza, they operate in a different world with their separate entourage and everything. I thought they would look at us like we were nothing. Actually, it wasn’t like that.

Part of it was because it was only the second Lollapalooza tour. The vibe was still good. A bit of a free for all and hanging out on each other’s stages. Admittedly at the end of it I’d lost all sense of self control but that was kind of part of the package!

To be honest I don’t really have that much of a barometer when it comes to bands. If it’s on I’ll find a way to enjoy it, I’m not gonna lie. There’re certain bands that I just don’t get but on the whole I can dance to Una Paloma  Blanca and Earth Wind and Fire and also be into Leonard Cohen and Throwing Muses.

With the book getting so many good critical reviews do you plan on writing anything else. Fiction for example? You can obviously write.

You know what?  I’m so confused. Everyone’s saying the book’s doing really well. I literally do not have a measure of what that means at the moment. It’s been out a week and I’ve been here before with records saying, “Oh you’ve got a great review here!” and then literally about a month later it drops off a cliff. I have yet to see whether there is any mileage in this book or the usual kind of promo flurry. I’ll see. The one thing that really buoys me is that a lot of people do say that they like the writing. So not just the content but the actual writing. Which gives me some sort of feeling that “Okay, maybe I could write something else”.  I just haven’t really thought about it that much because I tend not too until I feel it is generally worth it.

I look forward to reading what Miki writes in the future and the forthcoming music from Piroshka. It’s a great book.


 ‘Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved My Life From Success’ by Miki Berenyi was published via Nine Eight Books on 29 September 2022. 

 James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre.  His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1

Header image source photo: Kevin Cummings © Getty Images. All rights reserved

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