In conversation with Gaby Elise-Monaghan of PETSEMATARY

Culture Music

Like all the coolest students at Oxford University (myself sheepishly included), Gaby Elise-Monaghan studies Classics. What is even cooler is how, during the three and a half years she has spent here, she has become a regular feature on the city’s music scene, first as a member of two piece-band Coldredlight, then as front-person for shoegazey rock-outfit Le Feye, before launching her solo project PETSEMATARY last year. As Le Feye, she has found herself supporting the likes of Pale Waves, Black Honey, and most, recently, at London’s Shacklewell Arms, Madonnatron. Her music regularly features on BBC Oxford’s Introducing show, for which she has also performed a live session. If you meet a member of any Oxford indie-rock band, tell them you’re a student, more than likely they will ask you, “Do you know Gaby?”

I interview Gaby in a booth in the beer garden of the Jericho Tavern, before PETSEMATARY are due to perform at an All Tamara’s Parties Christmas do, part a regular series of concerts organised by the eponymous Tamara Parsons-Baker of Oxford rock-outfit Death of the Maiden. We talk about her solo project, her career so far, and student life. But first, we discuss her love of all things gothic.

“I was a big emo kid. I’m not going to say the bands I was into because they are trash and I’m not going to go there, but Kerrang Magazine, I was really into that. Do you know Black Veil Brides? They were terrible. To be fair, I was fourteen, I saw them in Kerrang magazine, and I saw all their makeup and shit, and was I like, “Oh this is really cool”

“I [would] go their gigs and wear the full make up. I literally queued up until seven in the morning at Brixton Academy! I liked the makeup aspect of it, even though they actually terrible. They are a terrible, terrible band.

“I just like a dark aesthetic. I found out I’m a lot similar to my Mum when she was younger. She was very interested in the occult. I’m scared to dabble myself, so I don’t really know a lot about it. I’m a superstitious person. But also, I love horror stories. My Mum drilled horror films into us from a young age. Have you seen Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Also, Interview with a Vampire is one of my favourites. And A Company of Wolves, which is based on an Angela Carter short story. It’s an 80s, gothic-fantasy film, and it’s creepy, eerie, in all the good ways.”

…. I don’t know how to write a song economically. I just come up with stuff.

Last October saw the release of Gaby’s first solo EP, released under the moniker of PETSEMATARY, named, fittingly, after a Stephen King novel. True to her “dark aesthetic”, the EP uses gothic images of Christianity and graveyards to gloomily narrate the emotional chaos of a failed romantic relationship. Described by Gaby herself as “bansheegaze n siren sounds,” the project is a nod to Gaby’s greatest influence, Jeff Buckley, whose song-title ‘Wait in the fire’ she has proudly tattooed on her wrist. We talk about the motivation for, and recording process behind, PETSEMATARY VOL 1:

“I think I was done with worrying with writing songs as a band, recording them, and having a release plan. There was a lot of pressure to write the right song, have a single hit that’s three minutes long. All the songs I end up writing are five and a half minutes, because I don’t know how to write a song economically. I just come up with stuff.

“My friend Luke [Allmond] released a break-up album [ex boyfriend give us a song, it is available to listen to on Bandcamp]. He recorded it at home, did all the vocals, all the guitars, the drums and the bass. I listened to that, having gone through a very similar break-up experience. I was like, “I’ve been writing a lot of songs lately, I just want to record them and put them online. I don’t care whether anyone else likes them. I don’t care whether it gets good feedback, bad feedback, I just want to do this for myself, put the songs out there, and get them out of my system, because I’ve never done that before. I’ve been in bands for three years and never actually put out an EP or anything. I put out a single with Coldredlight but it didn’t do anything. I wanted no bullshit, so that’s why I did it.

“So we booked out two days in the studio at Safehouse on St. Clements. I bought my guitar, Luke brought the amp and all his recording gear, and we literally smashed it out in two days. He mixed it in a couple of months.

“[The cost involved] just hiring the space, which is 10 quid an hour. I think I did two six hour days, which is a 120 quid. So not bad! It’s coming out of the student loan. But Luke agreed to do it for free, but when we do the next one I will pay him!

“And all the money we raised is for charity. There are two causes I really care about. With Shelter, you walk around Oxford and see how fucking disgusting and how massive the gap is between the rich and the poor in our centre. Obviously Jesus [Gaby’s college] is based on Cornmarket, so every single time you come out of the library you’d see people there. So I thought it would be quite nice to donate some money to that.

“I wanted to donate to Mind as well because music was a massive help for me in terms of mental health stuff as well, so it felt relevant doing that.. Hopefully the money will help in some way. Put a positive thing to the sad songs!

Our conversation moves on to Gaby’s formative musical experiences, in London as teenager, and in Oxford as a student. Gaby has been playing guitar since she was nine, and writing songs from when she was fourteen, during which time she started forming bands, conducting recording sessions and playing her first gigs:

“I went to this music school in West London called The Rhythm Studio. In the Summer holidays they do a boot camp t where you’d go there for a week, they’d put you in a band, you’d learn a couple songs, and then you’d write [your own].I started doing solo stuff there, working with my friend Dug (a guitar teacher. I was writing songs, and he would show me how to record them on the computer.

“So I was writing songs and was like, “I really wanted to be in a band, make them sound bigger”, Then me and my drummer Casper [Miles] ended up doing a gig together, a showpiece at the Borderline in London. And when I came to Uni, we were writing songs for our band Coldredlight, we recorded a song.

“I was at a gig at the Cellar and there was a copy of  [Oxford’s Music Magazine] Nightshift, and they had an ad in there advertising for people to play the Oxford Punt, a multi-venue festival in Oxford. I don’t think they’re doing it anymore.

“I sent a track we did, called ‘Little Scorpion’, and Ronan [Munro, editor of Nightshift= fucking loved it and played it on BBC Introducing! I ended up playing this  gig – I’d never played in Oxford before – at the top of the Turl Street Kitchen, and the room was packed! I was like, “you’re all here to see me oh my god!”

“We had a manager who was like, “Coldredlight is great but you should rebrand.”  So Le Feye was born out of our old project. It was me and Casper, and we went through different guitarists and bassists. It was the songs we already had and making them sound bigger, gearing it more towards a band than a two-piece thing. The two-piece thing was quite gimmicky when we were doing it. Casper was playing drums and bass at the same time. It was like, “yeah this is cool, a novelty”, but it also sounded shit. You’re playing drums with one hand and the bass, like, hammering-on shit. But that’s what we were doing, that’s how it was born.”

A lot of the problem with being at this university is that the majority of the time you’re here for eight weeks than just piss off…

Finally, we discuss Gaby’s life as a student.  What impresses me most is how Gaby has managed to balance her commitments as a student and as a musician throughout her whole degree. I ask her about this, and about the relationship between Oxford University and the wider community.

“It’s one of those things. Some people do Sport, some people do Drama. Music is just a thing I’ll always do. I don’t work past 9 o’clock at night unless I really have to. If I have to write an essay or something I’ll sit there and cram for it. But if it’s a normal work day, I won’t work past nine o clock. I can fix a couple of hours in my day to do music, because that’s what gives me fulfilment.

“It definitely is a nice escape. It’s sad to think of it like that, but it feels like I’ve made a lot of friends through it who I wouldn’t have [made] being an inclusive uni student. A lot of the problem with being at this university is that the majority of the time you’re here for eight weeks than just piss off, just leave. You don’t do anything aside from that. I think it’s important to realise that there is a wider community. I think I would be a little lost if I didn’t do music stuff and make friends through it

“Hopefully [when I graduate] I’ll have more time to put more energy into music, because I have found it hard throwing myself in. I don’t think I’ve been in a position to do that quite yet. I’ve still been doing pretty well out of it, but I want to do more stuff after I graduate.

Gaby’s PETSEMATARY VOL 1 is available to stream and download on https://petsematary.bandcamp.com/releases. All proceeds from the EP go to Mind and Shelter.

Images: Connor Thirlwell