Since their formation in 2011, Fear of Men have worked on a principle of opposition. “There were a lot of slacker rock bands in London that would sing about pizza and girls,” vocalist Jessica Weiss recalled in a mom-and-pop crepe café during SXSW this spring. “I really didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to take a stand against those kind of things.”
With a band name which feels like a slogan you'd see on a placard at a protest, Fear of Men set out their stall from the jump. On their first releases, the trio’s textural post-punk seemed close to the bookish sensibilities of ‘80s indie acts like Young Marble Giants, or, bands on the politically-minded indie label Sarah Records. As an art school graduate with an interest in critical theory and feminism, Weiss weaved Sartre quotes and themes of divinity and destruction into her abstract lyrics, and the band's early EPs were named after cult figures like German actress Hanna Schygulla and writer Alice Munro.
On their second studio album, Fall Forever (due June 3 on Kanine Records), Fear of Men’s songs have the same intensity, but with lyrics that pull focus from theoretical topics to the emotional tumult of romantic relationships. "Having a crush [and] being hurt can feel completely vital and universal,” Weiss reflects, stirring her iced coffee with a straw. “Actually, that’s stuff that’s really important to write about as well, and find your own perspective on.”
Weiss delivers her visceral lyrics in a sweetly melodious voice, which hit you as if cupid’s arrow was switched out for a poison dart. On the new album's hypnotic lead single “Island” she sings, I’m beyond good and evil today/ I’m a force to fear. It’s a line that could be delivered by a creature with snakes for hair and flashing eyes, but Weiss’s precise delivery makes the lyrics feel as powerful as if they were roared. Then, amid alien-sounding guitars on “Ruins,” the message is one of heartbreaking plainness: When I think of you my whole life takes its shape. In a wide-ranging conversation with The FADER, Weiss gave insight into the turbulent times that inspired the new album, the issues she has faced as a female artist, and her continuing research into the philosophy of love.
Your new songs feel intensely personal. What was going on in your life when you were writing them?
I’m someone who, when left alone, can either be incredibly productive and write tons of songs—or I can just fall down a hole of thinking about bigger things and emotions. I’ve been ricocheting between [those feelings] over the past year, and this [album] is kind of the product of that. There’s a lot of songs about love, which was a theme that I never thought I would write about. Before I was dismissive about that being too ‘normal’— or, how a lot of pop songs about love end up having the same lyrics. Like, ‘I can’t live without you.’
That’s an uncomplicated approach. But falling in love or even having a crush can feel crazy.
Yeah. As a self-aware person, as you’re falling in love and experiencing all the wonderful things, the end is already in sight in your mind, or [you’re] wondering how genuine things are.
As young creative people, we can be so focussed on being independent that we don’t have time for relationships.
I’ve always wanted to make beautiful things, and for those to be what I’m judged on. But if you go too far down that road, it’s like, ‘[but] what actually makes me happy?’ That’s love and personal relationships, and feeling valued.
“If ever I’m carrying my guitar on a train and someone asks me what my band name is, and I say ‘Fear of Men,’ it’s immediately confrontational. I kind of like that.” —Jessica Weiss
I remember receiving a promo CD of your first full-length release Early Fragments a few years ago, and being really struck by the conceptual artwork. How did you come up with it?
The cover of Early Fragments was a found image of The Parthenon, so that was our first step of saying what we were interested in, and the path we were going to pursue. Then for Loom, we made our own version of the bodies that were trapped in the ash at Pompeii—the reliefs that they made. There are all these ideas about being half-asleep—sleep is that elusive world—and there’s definitely a sleep theme in my lyrics sometimes.
For this [album], we kind of moved into more progressive, modern sounds, and so for the cover we bought a 3D scan of a sculpture that I saw in Rome which I loved, "The Rape of Prosepina." It depicts a rape, but it's Classical art so there's a sensual aspect to it as well.
It’s kind of fucked up to portray a rape in a sensual way.
Yeah. But the sculpture is amazing, and—if you don’t know that—it’s just this really sensual, beautiful thing. And with the way we’ve cropped it [on Fall Forever], it kind of looks timeless because you can’t see their clothes or hair. So it’s more about the idea of these grappling bodies, and the mystery of it.
Your band name seems to be about masculinity, and how this can be a threat. How do you see it?
I really like that it has so many different connotations. There is a feminist, separatist idea in there—it was this little phrase used in a letter by Anaïs Nin, who’s a writer that I really love. Another reading of it that I like is, ‘what men fear.’ To me, that’s mortality anxiety, because we’re all gonna die. My songs have a lot of elements of that too. And if ever I’m carrying my guitar on a train and someone asks me what my band name is, and I say “Fear of Men,” it’s immediately confrontational. I kind of like that.
As a female musician in a male-dominated British indie scene, can that confrontational aspect be empowering?
I definitely think things are getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. I think I write from a feminist perspective, but the songs aren’t literally feminist rhetoric. It’s been interesting [to see] all the things that happened in the press recently. There’s been elements of [sexism] in my experience of music, but sometimes I just know people are doing things without even thinking about it. I’m a short person, and sometimes I come off stage and people are like, ‘Aww, you’re so cute, can I pick you up?’ And I’m just like, ‘fucking hell!’ This is obviously the most mild manifestation of these kinds of problems and I've experienced much worse too, but they all accumulate and they're all frustrating. I definitely support women speaking out about whatever they're going through.
In the past, you’ve referenced writers like Freud, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. What were you reading while making this new album?
Feeling very intense emotions of love made me read more philosophy about that. I was reading some Rilke; Kierkegaard, Works of Love; Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse. And there’s a book called Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong. It came out about five years ago, [and] it’s trying to explain the theories of, ‘how we can all have this emotion that we all recognise as love? What does that mean?’ Self-love, sexual love, and intimate love. It’s just when you’re feeling all over the place and swept up in something, trying to read something to give you this understanding.
Did it help?
I’m not sure! I’m still in love, but it’s been kind of crazy. I’m just all about trying to understand myself and other people. I started a course to train to be a counsellor this year as well, and I actually dropped out ‘cause I couldn’t deal with the self-knowledge. I found it really hard to put on this front of, ‘oh, everything’s fine, and I’m here to be understanding about your problems.’ I would like to do something like that in the future, but I think I need a bit more to be centered. You need to know yourself to be able to do that.