This December legendary band ESG are heading down under to kick off the southern hemisphere summer in the most funky of ways. Besides headlining Meredith Music Festival they’re also set to do a string of intimte side-show performances with Melbourne’s own kingqueens of heatbeat, NO ZU. Ahead of the shows we put Nic from NO ZU in front of Renee from ESG for a heartfelt conversation that will only get you more excited for these very special shows.
Nic: I have read that your album What More Can You Take is your last. Is this true?
Renee: Yes, What More Can You Take will be our last release because I believe that I have said all that I can musically.
N: That is a strong artistic statement to bookend a project in that way. Are you content with the body of work that ESG has produced?
R: Yes. We did what we wanted.
N: I also understand that this is your last trip down under. Why?
R: This will be our last trip to Australia because as much as we love visiting and performing, it is a very long trip (flight wise) and those long flights definitely begin to affect one. We love to give our best performance and that is what we will be bringing.
N: How did you like your last trip to Australia? Any memories of note? I speak for the nation when I say, we absolutely loved having you here. Never have I danced like I danced to your sets then.
R: We loved our last trip to Australia. Yes, we got to see a koala and many kangaroos. The food, your beaches and, of course, the performances and the wonderful crowds. We are coming to make you dance and have a great time.
N: Everything I have heard from ESG, from the earliest release to the Keep On Moving album, sounds so ESG. How did you manage to sound so fully realised as a project even from the very beginning? Has being sisters got to do something with it?
R: When recording any album, it is how I am feeling emotionally. Or what is going on with me at that time (as I write the songs).
N: Do you have a favourite ESG record?
R: Album wise, I think the current What More Can You Take is my favourite. Single wise, I will always love ‘Everything Goes’.
N: What was one of your favourite shows you have ever played?
R: It was in New York City and there was a major snowstorm, and I knew (probably) that no one was coming—but when it was show time the place was packed to the walls! Next year marks our 40 years of ESG performing live and that was the only time I was actually moved to tears. I couldn’t believe the love in that room.
N: Do you feel that where you are from plays a big part in your sound?
R: Yes, I believe you environment can play a part in your music.
N: Does the South Bronx live in your music somehow?
R: The South Bronx will always play a part in my music, and my life in general.
N: How does it manifest?
R: I will always hear the salsa from park scene, and the funk of our streets, literally and figuratively
N: Your lyrics are so direct and refined. What toll do lyrics have in a band that is so much about moving bodies?
R: I try to make the lyrics fun but also to make you think and come to your conclusions about what I’m saying.
N: Whenever I get the urge to add a lot to a song I listen to ESG to remind myself that all you really need is the groove. For this reason, I find your music to be refreshing, so free, and so confident. When I first heard heard ESG it was a slap in the face wake up call—an epiphany. What role have minimalism played in your approach to writing?
R: I like to keep it funky by adding the instruments that I feel are necessary. I see the voice or even something as simple as a whistle, as an instrument. I think if you add too much, you can overpower your point. So, minimalism will always play a major part in the writing of my songs.
N: I think I’ve been guilty of overpowering songs with too much on more than one occasion. I have never heard an overcooked ESG song. What is the process for writing an ESG song?
R: I get a bassline or vocal in my head and then I add drums. I also add assorted percussion if needed.
N: Would I be right to say that, the Keep on Moving album is the most minimal to date? A friend described it to me as having an almost precise, mechanical edge about it. Was this an intention?
R: No, the current release What More Can You Take is. Listen to ‘My World Is You,’ which just contains voice, bass, and drums. I love it, and the message it gives about being in a relationship with a self-centred person (whom probably doesn’t realise that they are self-centred).
N: Yes, I think ‘My World is You’ epitomises many of the elements of ESG that I love. The self-assured simplicity is so powerful. What is the thinking behind the track order for What More Can You Take and starting is off with one of the more chilled songs in ‘My World Is You’?
R: The track order just fell into place on its own I just went with the emotion and feel of the tracks.
N: ‘Purely Physical’ the first track is so deep and bass-y without any unnecessary frills. It’s disarming and powerful. What was the writing process like for this and the album as a whole?
R: That album was fresh after my divorce (originally released in 2006). I found it to be a major release of my thoughts and emotions at that time.
N: Looking back, does each album represent different emotional periods of your life? I know that listening back to any NO ZU record is like revisiting a time capsule of who I was when that was created—even if I didn’t know it at the time.
R: Yes, it definitely does.
N: You are known for your dance floor stompers, but you have created a few more ballad like groovers on some records, like ‘Ex’ from the Keep On Moving album. I have read in the past that people like James Brown were big influencers on ESGs groove, but what about the more ballad like songs?
R: James brown is and will always play a part of my music writing, but for ‘Ex’, needless to say, my ex-husband was the inspiration for that one. I think when you write a ballad, someone is in your mind, whether it is positive or just saying what you have to about them, or the relationship.
N: Who are your vocal inspirations?
R: I always loved Billie Holliday, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, and Michael Jackson.
N: Obligatory question about the scene/anti-scene where ESG started: In the period of what people like to neatly label no-wave or New York post-punk or post-funk, or whatever, in the last ‘70s and early ‘80s, how did ESG fit or not fit into this period of huge influence on contemporary music?
R: I think that was an interesting time musically, because there were all kinds of people trying to do all types of music. You could be performing a venue or club, and the different kinds of acts made it feel as if you were playing a festival. We didn’t feel the need to fit in. We just were ourselves and played our own kind of music.
N: I remember I was so chuffed when you likened us to Liquid Liquid when we played together a few years ago—did you guys play together much? Did you have any buddy bands, or were there any at the time you really admired?
R: Unfortunately, ’99 Records would always try to bill us together. We were more fond of our label mates the Bush Tetrus as they were very helpful, and even shared their equipment with us on occasion.
N: Bush Tetrus and ESG sounds like a dream bill. I imagine that was a very complimentary pairing musically. What was the reaction of the crowds you played to in the early ‘80s? Did they lose themselves to the groove bliss?
R: When we played with Bush Tetrus it was always a funky night.
N: How was the show at the closing of Paradise Garage? What was your relationship like with that early house scene?
R: We played both nights of the Paradise Garage, and it was a bittersweet experience. It was packed to the walls on both nights, and we were truly say that this club that always welcomes us with arms open was ending. It always lives in our hearts and had one of the greatest sound systems I’d ever heard.
N: I have seen ‘Moody’ was listed in a Paradise Garage Top 50 list. Did you get to hear it on that incredible system?
R: I did, and also had the great pleasure of performing it live there.
N: You worked with Martin Hannett on ‘Moody’, ‘Your No Good’, and ‘UFO’. Stories about Martin have become legendary, especially form his time recording Joy Division. What was your experience with him and were you happy with the outcome at the time?
R: Martin Hannett treated us well and was very respectful to us. I loved the outcome because he didn’t screw with our sound.
N: Did you see yourselves as part of a larger global scene of like-minded bands, as musicians often do today? I guess I am referring to the scene in England for example, that saw funk with punk ideals being delivered in some related ways—bands like The Pop Group, A certain Ration, Maximum Joy and so on…
R: No, I never thought of ESG in any way other than just being ourselves. When writing I am inspired by the James Brown school of funk. I just want to be original and not forced in a category.
N: ESG is definitely a category all to itself. With this in mind, are you self-referential when it comes to your back catalogue? Meaning, do you make choices on what you write, based on what you have already written?
R: No. The only thing I did intentionally was to sample my own song by replayed ‘Dance in Erase You’. We were so sick of people sampling us at that point so we did ‘Erase You’.
N: In Australia, and I would dare say around the world, there is a lot of focus on having gender diverse bills and a lot of advocacy for equal opportunities for female artists. Do you feel that being female led has had much of an effect, positively, or negatively on ESGs career?
R: That’s hard to answer, as I have I have always felt it was the power of the music that got us through and kept us going, not our gender. I have dealt with attempts of sexism and racism, but I stood strong and did not take crap from anyone!
N: Who is playing in the band this time around for your Australian tour? Any more family members joining the fold?
R: Joining me this time out: my daughter Nicole is returning on bass, my son Nicholas is playing percussion, and Charlie our cousin is on drums.
N: What are you planning to do for the set?
R: We have a very exciting and fun set lined up for our Australian tour. You will dance! You will have fun!
N: After this year, what does the future hold for ESG?
R: In a way Australia kind of kicks-off our 2018 40 years of ESG performing live tour. We have the What More Can You Take album, and we will be touring the USA, Canada, UK, and Europe. I am pretty happy about that and hopefully I will be able to slow down then.
N: What are you looking forward to doing outside of music?
R: I don’t think I’ll ever be outside of music. I will write for other artists, and get to do a film score or be a music director of a film.
N: I really can’t wait to play together again. Thank for taking the time to let me get all fanboy!
R: No. Thank you Nic, and everyone else for all the love and support you have given ESG. We look forward to playing with NO ZU and performing in Australia again.