South London quartet Goat Girl were deep into making their second album when it became clear that something was very wrong with their youngest member, guitarist-vocalist Ellie Rose Davies. At the end of 2019, she had had lumps on her neck for some time, which eventually spread to both armpits. It wasn’t until the 23-year-old’s “fourth or fifth” trip to the doctors that she was finally referred for a blood test, then a biopsy. “By which time the cancer was at stage four,” she says.
Davies had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, and had to start a six-month course of chemotherapy immediately. “We were pretty worried because we knew it was getting worse,” says their bassist, Holly Mullineaux. They had been mixing the record with their producer, Dan Carey, when Davies got her results, “and we all just started crying”.
“It was a really shocking moment,” says lead singer-guitarist Lottie Pendlebury. “A lot of silence. A lot of hugging.”
Then came the pandemic. Davies decamped with her family to Cornwall, where the risk of Covid was lower, and underwent treatment. She is in remission now, although the experience is clearly painful to talk about. “The thought that death was knocking at the door was very real for me, and that still hasn’t gone away,” she says.
When Goat Girl were signed to Rough Trade in 2016, they were still teenagers, and lived and breathed the DIY spirit. They had been playing together since school, came up around the same time as other rabble-rousers who populated Brixton’s Windmill venue such as Shame and Black Midi, and rehearsed in Davies’ mum’s garage. Their music, spanning swampy psych-rock, grotbag grunge and unkempt post-punk, spoke to the angst and uncertainty of being young. But Davies’ diagnosis, coupled with the political joyride of the past year – from Black Lives Matter to Brexit – was a wake-up call.
“I feel like [we’re] a different band. I’m a different person, for sure,” says Pendlebury, still in bed in her pyjamas, and hungover from her 24th birthday last night. She and the drummer, Rosy Jones, who is absent from today’s Zoom call, live in a Lewisham terrace strewn with homemade banners calling for “trans rights now” and to “end the hostile environment”. They have always been outspoken on issues they care about, they say, but the protests that followed the death of George Floyd were a particular cause for reflection.
“It’s my duty to educate myself further on these things and understand my privileges,” says Pendlebury. “We’ve always felt we are anti-racist and we strive to create some kind of change in society; obviously we’re all trying our best, but it’s not really enough.”
There’s plenty of anti-authoritarian attitude in On All Fours, the follow-up to their acclaimed 2018 self-titled debut. The new album title conjures an image of Maggie Gyllenhaal in the film Secretary: complete submission, letter in mouth. The band partly liked that it felt a bit “animalistic” but also evoked a power struggle; it considers climate change, the egocentrism of the western world, and mental health, often with unwavering specificity. The new song P.T.S.Tea is about a ferry trip, when Jones, who is non-binary, was burned with boiling hot tea by someone who did not apologise. “That can be broadened out into a more general feeling of: ‘Why am I not being listened to, why isn’t my identity respected?’” says Pendlebury.
Or there is They Bite on You, which must be the first ever song about scabies and uses Pendlebury’s experience of losing her mind to mites as a metaphor for “capitalist parasites”. Her lyrics are not prescriptive, but try to channel the band’s “feelings of helplessness in a positive way, rather than being complacent … Whatever I’m writing is always gonna be inspired by politics in some way, but I don’t think I’m ever that explicit.”
For all their obvious brilliance, you do get the sense that Goat Girl are sometimes not taken as seriously as their male post-punk peers, such as the Irish band Fontaines DC, who have been nominated for a Grammy. “We’re pissed off,” says Davies, although it’s impossible to tell if she’s joking or not. “I mean, I’m happy for them. But we’ve been going for longer. There do need to be more female artists being pushed for this kind of stuff.”
They share the barbed ferocity of Fat White Family, they say. “Remember when there was an uproar and people said they shouldn’t play Glastonbury because they’d said some controversial political things?” says Mullineaux. “On our first record, a track like Burn the Stake has a similar sentiment” – it says to put the Tories on top of a bonfire – “but it’s like we’re seen as harmless because we’re not men. It’s not even recognised as being on the same level of intensity.”
On All Fours still has the elastic live feel of their early material but Goat Girl are very much upping their game. It is the first album they have written collaboratively, and they have added more electronic elements. The melancholy dance-punk of Sad Cowboy has a synth breakdown that recalls Caribou’s Can’t Do Without You, and there’s a Broadcast-like airiness to songs such as Where Do We Go from Here? and Closing In. Their enormous track The Crack – “About the power of nature and how, when it comes down to a pandemic, or your health, it doesn’t discriminate,” says Pendlebury – is a song cleaved in two, starting with the clanging thrust of early Franz Ferdinand before it wafts into psychedelic pop.
Lockdown gave them time to involve themselves with more of the creative aspects, too, says Mullineaux, such as the artwork and their visual aesthetic. For all their press photographs, they appear in coordinated reds, oranges and yellows; defiant and radiant and ready to take on 2021. “We’ve been through a lot together,” says Pendlebury. “Being in this band is what brings us the most joy.”
• On All Fours is out on 29 January via Rough Trade