The Cover Story

Pupil Slicer: “We’re welcoming to everyone. If you don’t agree with that, leave”

Their breathtakingly heavy music might catch you off guard, but if there’s one thing Pupil Slicer want, it’s to make people feel comfortable in themselves. And in future metal icon Kate Davies, there’s no-one more perfect for the job…

Pupil Slicer: “We’re welcoming to everyone. If you don’t agree with that, leave”
Nick Ruskell
Nick Sayers

Kate Davies has a motto for how Pupil Slicer get things done: “Work hard. Die.”

They’re half-joking, but it perfectly frames the band’s recent past. Last Friday, Pupil Slicer released the most exciting, creative, intriguing, flamboyant, complex, layered and fascinating album you’ll hear in 2023, Blossom. Though it’s a record that on paper can be broken down into ingredients ranging from grindcore, black metal, indie-rock, death metal, shoegaze and post-metal, with notes in the margins referencing everything from trap beats to cut-glass, Björk-ish beauty, to knowingly over-digitised sci-fi noises, and things that legitimately have no previous reference point, it’s actually all and none of these things. It’s also about to make Pupil Slicer one of the most talked about metal bands in Britain.

To make it, Kate (they/them) estimates that they spent two years writing the songs – most of which hadn’t been played together, in a room, as a band before it was recorded – before heading to The Ranch studios for a month working with producer Lewis Johns (Svalbard, Employed To Serve, Rolo Tomassi). Here, Kate worked for a month with almost no rest. On days when they weren’t recording guitars, vocals, synths or adding in the million and one tiny details you might not necessarily hear but would be noticeable by their absence, Kate took just as intense an interest in bassist Luke Fabian, drummer Josh Andrews and studio guitarist Frank Muir laying down their parts.

“I was there making notes, being like, ‘Oh, this fill’s changed from the demo, can we do this one instead?’ There wasn't a day off where I didn’t have to pay attention because other people were doing their parts. Maybe more so when other people are doing that as compared to when I'm doing my own.”

Oh, and somewhere in between, Kate was working their day job remotely as well. Try it. It’ll begin to take a toll.

“I cried probably five times in the studio. There were multiple times where I thought, ‘I just want to go home. This is terrible. I hate doing this,’” Kate recalls. “I can sometimes be a bit overbearing in the studio as well, trying to get things right. I'm not a confrontational person, so when you have those moments where you have to speak up, I didn't want to say anything, but I had to keep reminding myself that I couldn't just go, ‘Oh, whatever. I'm just gonna leave it.’”

After all this, returning to reality without a break, while also planning shows, dealing with merch, social media and the myriad other pies in which an artist must now have their fingers instead of keeping them on the neck of a guitar, Kate was knackered. As someone with autism, the whole process proved a challenge, and an exhausting one at that. Kate needed to go to bed. So they did. And then found they couldn’t get back out.

“After I got home, I was stuck in bed for a month. I had autistic burnout,” they explain. “I couldn't do anything. Literally standing up, I’d get really dizzy and nauseous. I couldn't look at a screen. I couldn’t read a book because it was too much stimulation. I literally just stayed in bed staring into space. Painkillers didn't do anything. My brain was going, ‘You need to stop working.’”

In the months that have passed since, Pupil Slicer still haven’t had much time to rest, having just finished a mammoth European tour with Japanese avant-doom outfit Boris. Today, Kate says with a grin, what they’d like is to just be able to go home and spend a week playing Zelda. That’ll have to wait: Download’s coming this weekend, then even more festivals, then more touring. To make room, the job has gone, but after coming this far, it’s a worthy sacrifice.

“I’m gonna be absolutely broke, but I would rather put all my effort into making this release as good as it can after putting this much effort,” they shrug with a wry smile. “I'm really proud of it. I might as well commit.”

The way people are talking about Blossom already, it’s a wise strategy. And with Kate as a star in the making, it’s one that may pay off. Right now, Pupil Slicer are one of the best, fastest-rising metal bands in Britain. For those just arriving, you won’t discover a better band in 2023.

When we meet Kate outside a coffee shop at London’s Marylebone station they’re carrying a load that would give a camel the hump – two guitars, suitcase, pedalboard, backpack. As they tuck into breakfast of a croissant and hot chocolate, the expected weariness of which they speak isn’t too visible, even as they wait to get the train home to Aylesbury, following last night’s gig at Portals Festival alongside Svalbard, Mono and A.A. Williams.

Feedback for the album so far has been all full-marks and high praise, including both from Kerrang!. “I’m waiting for the negative comments to come in – so far, everything’s been really amazing,” says Kate. “Not everyone can like it, surely?”

Oh, but they seem to. Blossom is an album that dizzies and allures, a blur of noise given articulacy by genius choruses and sections of bubble-fragile quiet. Kate says that in contrast to the spiked frenzy of their Mirrors debut, the bright array of colours and tones, it’s down to learned confidence, to knowing you don’t have to be one thing. “It’s sort of like the real Pupil Slicer.”

“There were no limits on this album,” they continue. “On Mirrors, we thought no-one would like Collective Unconscious, and we almost didn't put it on the album. We felt like we weren’t mature enough to pull it off. But then everyone really likes that song. They’ll always go mad for it live. That gave us the boost to do whatever we liked. If it works, it can be on the album. There wasn't an active decision to make the sound broader on this one, we just felt more confident to do whatever felt good.”

“There were no limits on this album”

Kate Davies

The Pupil Slicer story, it must be said, sounds like one of similar trial and error and growing confidence. Kate discovered heavy music while at university, after a friend put them onto Converge’s Jane Doe album. “It’s not one you go to first, is it?” they laugh. “I’d listen to it doing the washing up going, ‘This is sick.’” Buying a cheap guitar with terrible action, Kate spent that summer learning Deafheaven songs. When it came to joining a band, they asked an online music community, “Can I join a band that sounds like Deafheaven, please?” Josh responded almost immediately, already at a rehearsal.

After playing in a black metal band together, the pair were involved in a few projects, one of which would become Pupil Slicer. This was about the same time Kate was thrown out of a death metal band for just “writing Pupil Slicer stuff all the time” and telling everyone else that, "I didn’t want to play their riffs because they were boring, which was really mean of me”.

Luke wasn’t first choice for bass, partly on account of his dreadlocks giving the impression of someone who wouldn't get what PS were doing, but eventually he was brought on board after needing someone for a gig at short notice. Even though they suspected his hair marked him out as a potential flake at first, “He’s the most on it and organised out of all of us.”

Even Kate’s position as singer came about when their original vocalist didn’t turn up for a gig.

“I think that was our fourth one, we managed to get a show opening for Frontierer because we rigged a Facebook poll,” they grin. “We got all our friends to vote on it, and then none of those friends came. At the last minute our vocalist went, ‘I can't come.’ So with two days’ notice, I was like, ‘We don't have anyone else. I'm just gonna learn all the vocals and try and play it even though I don't think I can.’ But it worked.”

Pupil Slicer’s name may rival Hot Milk as music's most queasy (the result of Kate trying to think up “the stupidest one possible”), but today it’s taken on considerable weight. Thanks to Mirrors, and their chaotic, flamboyant live shows, and now Blossom, they have become one of British metal’s most prominent and promising bands.

In Kate, they also have someone who is already becoming a star. Today, dressed in black jeans, black jacket, black hat, they shrug that, “I look like just another metal fan.” At gigs, however, the singer/guitarist is a riot of brightly-coloured outfits, big sunglasses and lipstick, running all over the stage, having it. “Some bands have no banter, they look like they’re not having any fun,” they hoot, “I love it. Obviously, it's just an act when I'm telling you to fucking kill each other. I just want you to have a good time.”

That they are a trans person at the front of a growing metal band, they say, isn’t something they give much thought to. Indeed, when we say it's partly why they’re becoming an icon of sorts, they laugh. But they also quickly note that, “At a Pupil Slicer show, if you talk to someone, you probably need to ask their pronouns.

“I have had a lot of people come up to me and say it’s sick that I’m openly autistic, or that us having a trans person is massive in the scene,” they say. “There are people who really connect with that. There's a lot of trans girls at our shows, trans guys, non-binary people. You don't see that as much at a Dying Fetus show.”

“There’s a lot of trans girls at our shows, trans guys, non-binary people. You don’t see that as much at a Dying Fetus show”

Kate Davies

Again, Kate says it’s not really something that they think about much, but they are aware of what seeing someone like them onstage can mean to someone in the audience. They point to seeing SeeYouSpaceCowboy singer Connie Sgarbossa and realising “the scene really is for everyone”. It’s a similar thing at Pupil Slicer’s own shows.

“I’ve got friends – well, friends who are now friends but who started as fans – who never went to shows because they didn’t feel comfortable,” says Kate. “I'd see them online saying, ‘I'd love to go to this show. But I don't really go to shows, so don't feel welcome.’

“I said, ‘Come to one of our shows, if you just want to hang out or whatever, I’ll look after you.’ They came, and they said, ‘That was the best night of my life. Everyone was really affirming to me, everyone was really kind.’ And now they're going to come to every Pupil Slicer show, just because it's a really nice thing for them to be able to go out and be recognised as the person they are. When your situation at home isn't good, or work life isn't good, in that environment, people are accepting. It's really important that we offer this.”

Onstage, Kate often gives a short speech clearly marking their gigs as a place where all people should feel comfortable. This is the important bit for them. “We're welcoming to everyone. If you don't agree with that, leave,” they say. “If you're not down with that, if you want to be there and be like, ‘Hey, I hate this minority, I hate these kinds of people,’ what the fuck are you doing at one of our shows? My riffs are not for you. You can enjoy them in the comfort of your own home if you want, but you can get the fuck out of our shows.”

In person, Kate’s more reserved than their noisy onstage presence might suggest, but you’re still in the company of someone who’s A Laugh. As much as anything else, they reckon a large part of the band’s character and appeal is down to being “terminally online”, with a predilection for shitposting cat videos. Any suggestion that they’re a star is met with a smile and a casual, “I’m just me, I’m just chilling.”

Discussing what they do outside the band, they enthuse keenly about video games, Warhammer and comic books. On the latter, they’re currently reading through The Fantastic Four, the first title they got into as a kid, from its first issues in the 1960s. When our response to all this is to ask if they’re just a massive nerd, they laugh loud and ask us, “Haven’t you been listening?!”

Stuff like this makes it easier to understand how Blossom ended up as it has. Going down the rabbit-hole writing ideas on the computer, Kate would “work myself to the bone”, losing entire days to poring over things, getting to 5pm before realising they hadn’t eaten all day. They admit they need to find some balance there, but they’re also incredibly – and rightly – proud that they’ve got back something equal to what they’ve put in.

Even when explaining all this, though, Kate describes Blossom as being more fun than its predecessor. That album had been a raw, open wound, which they say was good for catharsis, but was also taxingly bleak.

“I tried to put more fun into it this time around,” they say. “It’s not as depressing. There's still loads of personal stuff in there, but I thought, ‘Why not adjust my metaphors and translate my own experiences through the lens of this story I've come up with?’ I’m not as depressed as I was. I'm physically struggling because of the amount of work we’ve put in, but I'm not as depressed as I was two years ago.

“The band is fun. It’s fulfilling. It's something that’s positive in my life. It's just a lot of work. But it's not meant to be the depressing thing. My favourite parts of all this are creating music and then performing it, I like being onstage and performing, and I like writing and having a finished product of music. I don't like anything in between!”

“We kept having these goals, and then meeting them and having to raise the bar”

Kate Davies

Those hitting Download on Friday will get to experience just how fun the catharsis of Pupil Slicer is, and understand where all the excitement around them is coming from. After that, there’s European fests, ArcTanGent, more touring with Employed To Serve. After that, the way people are talking about Blossom, it’s not hard to feel that something very special is in the post for them.

“What’s my end goal? That’s hard, because we kept having these goals, and then meeting them and having to raise the bar,” Kate ponders. “We wanted to play with Rolo Tomassi, and then that was our first tour. I wanted to play ArcTanGent, and then we did that. We thought about Download, and now we’re doing that. So we have to keep raising the bar. I’m gonna say now that I want to play with Nine Inch Nails or Slipknot. You might as well just go for the top.”

For now, Pupil Slicer have made a record that could very well get them there. Blossom is a brilliant work by a band who make it sound so easy. When you speak to Kate and realise that its creation was at times anything but. Kate, meanwhile, is becoming one of the coolest and most magnetic figures in British metal, a star in the making.

Work hard, die? Work hard, sure. Work too bloody hard sometimes. But die? Not yet. Pupil Slicer are just starting to bloom.

Blossom is out now via Prosthetic

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