"Don't break your leg!": Let's Eat Grandma's anarchic, eccentric live shows

"Let's have a bit of a mess around with the audience": Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton discuss their playful approach to touring.

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When it comes to live shows, Let’s Eat Grandma don’t mess around. Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton, both 20, open with a deadpan performance, their heads bent to the ground, long hair draping over their synths. They only break this eerie stance to shout one greeting to the crowd, before dropping their heads again.

Once their upper bodies resume a normal position, the band suss out how their crowd is faring. “I like watching people’s facial expressions when we’re playing,” says Walton when I speak to the duo, who have released two albums of weird and wonderful electro-pop, following their afternoon set at British Summer Time at London’s Hyde Park. “I like seeing if they’re getting enticed in or not, if they walk away again.”

Let's Eat Grandma are back onstage for the summer, playing festivals including Glastonbury and End of the Road after cancelling a string of US spring dates following the death of Hollingworth's boyfriend, Billy Clayton, in April.

The one-day Hyde Park festival, which is sponsored by Barclaycard, feels a mismatched setting for the band, whose very existence is at odds with the usual realms of everyday capitalist possibility, and whose music thrives on an otherworldly sisterhood. Within minutes of entering the arena, I am offered a complimentary can of alcohol-free Heineken; ten metres later, it’s a can of Coke Zero. I put these down to stand in front of Let’s Eat Grandma’s stage, and find a spectral calm, as pop meets psych-folk in an enchanting playground of synths.

Hollingworth and Walton grew up in Norwich and have been making music together since they were 13, between them playing keys, synths, guitar and saxophone. Many of the songs that featured on their 2016 debut album, I, Gemini, were written when they were just 14. When, just after the record’s release, I approached the counter of an Oxford record shop with I, Gemini in my hand, the man behind the counter gave me a funny look. “That’s a really weird album, you know”, he said, as if I should be wary of buying it. I bought it anyway, and sunk, willingly, into its nursery-rhyme-like tracks titled “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms”, “Rapunzel” and “Chimpanzees in Canopies.” I was spellbound, enamoured with Hollingworth and Walton’s wonderfully girlish voices, mystical lyrics and unlikely recorder solos. Their music was the soundtrack to a dark fantasy dreamland.

“Quite a lot of that representation was engineered by us”, says Walton, when I ask what they think of the language the media use to define their sound, and the descriptors I also find myself falling back on. “I remember our management, ages ago, asking us to send a list of words that we wanted people to associate with us, and a lot of them were the words you mentioned there,” she says.

“I like our Spotify description”, adds Hollingworth, pleased that Let’s Eat Grandma have finally been understood. “It just talks about things that our album is like – ringtones, train journeys, old record collections, PC Music. I’m like yeah, fair enough, that’s definitely what I’m All Ears is.”

It's true that I’m All Ears – their second album, released in June last year – is all of these things. It is also a collection of slick pop tunes that embrace catchy electro rhythms and singalong choruses, no matter how obscure some of their lyrics remain. It is a record that saw Hollingworth and Walton collaborate with the esteemed electronic producer SOPHIE and the Horrors’ Faris Badwan for “Hot Pink” and “It’s Not Just Me”, two of the album’s jump-start pop tracks. It is a release that won Album of the Year at the 2018 Q Awards, garnered a glowing five-star Guardian review and earned an impressive 8.6/10 from Pitchfork.

“Donnie Darko”, the album’s 11-minute-long final track, named for the 2001 sci-fi thriller, closes Let’s Eat Grandma’s current live sets. Its spaciousness offers lots of opportunity for dancing. “We wrote it with a Boss loop pedal,” explains Hollingworth, “and we couldn't be asked to lean down and press the button to shut the loop off, so we just used to hit it with our feet, and that makes you a bit unstable. One of us fell over once!”

Now, they perform this stumble. The duo start the song lying down, Walton playing guitar on the floor, and slowly clamber up to standing. Then they play out a hand-clapping routine, before they fall down again, limbs flailing, and, a few bars later, come back up to sitting with crossed legs. Here they sit looking out at the crowd, surveying their audience, until their vocal lines demand they rise to reach their microphones, trailing lengthy cords as they bounce around the stage.

“The song is so long that there were parts where we both weren't doing much, so we thought, 'Well, where could we go? Let's have a bit of a mess around with the audience,'” explains Hollingworth who, next, plunges off the stage, not simply stage-diving (“I’ve crowd-surfed a few times,” she says, “but that doesn’t happen very often”), but getting down onto the ground with the crowd, front and centre, and jumping along to the beat. Festival revellers who haven’t seen a Let’s Eat Grandma show before are rightly amused; those who have are expecting Hollingworth’s arrival – and know just where to stand so that they’re jumping alongside her.

It’s a move that epitomises Let’s Eat Grandma’s sense of unrelenting fun as well as their tact for musical precision: Hollingworth has to make it back onstage to play her next part, else she’ll leave Walton stranded solo. There’s the differing height of each stage to take into consideration before jumping too, as well as the condescending remarks of the security staff. “Before we went on, this guy was like, 'Don't hurt yourselves! Don't break your leg!'”, says Walton, rolling her eyes.

“You wouldn't say that to a guy who was jumping off the stage,” Hollingworth points out. “They view us as a bit delicate, like we're going to suddenly snap if we jump.”

This sort of tip-toeing around two young female artists was rife when Let’s Eat Grandma first started touring, but both musicians are keen to point out how that’s changed since growing a little older, becoming more established, and releasing I’m All Ears. “People have treated us with quite a lot more respect and that's been very much appreciated. We definitely didn’t have that with the first record, though. It was a really big problem,” says Walton.

“Bad reviews are fine. Criticism is fine. But when it's always about your age, always about you being girls, it’s infuriating. The worst ones are when they say 'they couldn't possibly have done this themselves' and completely discredit us.”

But getting to grips with this stood them in good stead for releasing an innovative second album. “Because we had such resistance to what we were doing, we had to decide that we really wanted to do this, in order to push through when it was difficult. We had to be completely sure of ourselves and that gave us confidence,” says Walton.

Now, Let’s Eat Grandma are “just completely unbothered” by the tech problems that still plague their electronic-heavy set-up. When they first started out, Walton’s Yamaha keyboard was “an old school one they gave away for free”, while Hollingworth played one that was given as a birthday present to her older sister a few years previously. “Of course they were gonna break, we didn’t think about that!”, laughs Walton.

They’re still not interested in splashing out for the latest in expensive synths, no matter how often their tech-geek fans ask them what model and number they’re using. “I don’t know and I don’t care either” is Walton’s response. “As long as it makes some good sounds, as long as it plays what you wanna play!” is Hollingworth’s, who christens herself and her bandmate “the queens of presets”.

As they sip from bottles of cider in the London sun, the day’s set played, both musicians seem resolutely relaxed. And so they should be: as Let’s Eat Grandma, they demonstrate a creative talent that will not be tethered by mundane practicalities or limiting expectations.

“It's almost like people think you have to be extra clever to write good songs,” says Hollingworth. “And I don't think you need to be.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.