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20 June 2008

Interview: The Nuns

Words Niall O’Keeffe
Photography James Dunbar

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Conceptually, it’s perfect: an all-female tribute band who play the songs of The Monks while dressed as nuns. I meet two-thirds of the geniuses responsible at The Constitution in Camden, where Debbie Smith – Banjo Debbie, in Nunspeak – hosts regular Sunday session The Nitty Gritty. We enter a parallel universe in which The Monks are afforded the respect they deserve.

In 1964, a band named The 5 Torquays was formed by five American GIs stationed in Germany. On discharge they renamed themselves The Monks, shaved the tops of their heads, and took to wearing nooses as neck-ties, over black uniforms. The image alternately baffled and outraged punters as The Monks toured their adopted homeland, honing a style of music that Nuns guitarist Delia Divinity terms “nihilistic, dark-wave garage punk”.

Because they prioritised rhythm over melody and deployed bizarre song structures, The Monks are seen as forefathers of Krautrock. However, their lone album, Black Monk Time, bombed on its release in 1966. “People are stupid,” explains Delia. “Let’s allow The Monks go by and get into The New Seekers instead? Fuck off.”

But Mark E. Smith was paying attention. On 1990 album Extricate, The Fall included two Monks covers, and it’s these that drew in most of The Nuns. The tribute-band concept was brainstormed by organist Andrea (formerly of Mambo Taxi) and Banjo Debbie (Curve, Echobelly). Subsequently, the pair brought in Delia (Mambo Taxi), Headcoatees drummer Bongo Debbie and Priscillas bassist Katie Kannibal. The final piece fell in place when Banjo Debbie met Irish singer Lolo (of The Nanny Maze) at a London gig the re-formed Monks played in 2006. Perfectly, Lolo’s mother was an actual nun for five years in the sixties.

The Nuns love the dressing-up aspect, but make no mistake: their obsession runs deep. The simple question “Why The Monks?” leads to a passionate, everyone-talking-at-once debate on the many facets of The Monks’ brilliance. YouTube clips are cited as evidence, and it’s concluded that The Monks were a Velvet Underground without an Andy Warhol.

July’s Truck Festival brings The Nuns a chance to win converts. A Monks tribute band named The Nuns… it seems an idea too good to have been sitting idle for 40 years. Andrea: “You get some blokes saying, ‘I thought about doing that,’ and you say, ‘Well, you fucking didn’t, did you? And we did!’”

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