If you’re a troublemaker and you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you may have been called a “ratbag”. Aucklander Sophie Brown, who now releases music as ‘Ratbag’, certainly had no shortage of the endearing insult. “In New Zealand, it’s a mischievous kid who doesn’t follow the rules, who doesn’t behave,” she explains. “I used to draw on walls, I was that kid unfortunately. I know how to get on people’s nerves.”
Brown has graduated from drawing on walls to drawing on paper, where she’s spent the last two years creating a multimedia fictional band that’s like Gorillaz-meets-Neil Gaiman. There’s Deemo, the towering, lanky red devil who sports a bucket hat, Fritz, a puke-green crocodile-clown hybrid, Slug, who wears a bird mask with a spiky mohawk, and Eugene, a portly beast with a purple octopus for a head. As Ratbag, Brown acts as the frontwoman, singing songs about her everyday life and feelings with the help (and occasional hindrance) of her band.
Even more excitingly, Brown is bringing her “twisted, weird, and creepy” world more firmly into reality. Her TikTok account is a surreal performance art space where she lets the monsters come out and play. You can see digital animation of the band living in their village and stop-motion of the band at work (or you can just come to get a bit creeped out). Either way, Brown is using TikTok like no other artist around these days: “The world is so virtual anyway that I can get across everything I want to say on Tik Tok as a visual digital gallery.”
Soon to release her debut EP ‘Why Aren’t You Laughing?’ (due November 24), Brown’s layered, gauzy music takes its cues from shoegaze, grunge and pop to create unsettling, undeniable earworms. Taking inspiration from a diverse range of influences such as Jack Stauber, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, and Adventure Time, Brown is also a fan of David Bowie and contemporaries such as Declan McKenna. Each song on the EP, according to her, is dedicated to a particular band member.
Today, she’s invited NME into her bedroom over Zoom, where she lets us peek behind the curtain of her hypercreative brain and artistic process.
How did you come up with the idea for the world of Ratbag?
“Two years ago, I would live in bed at night and get bored thinking about my own life when I fell asleep. So I decided to create a world, and I’ve been adding to it almost every night. I’d lie there thinking about new characters, places. I’m writing in my journal or my phone and then going to sleep. The visual side has always been there. All my artwork as a kid was character designs and world building. Everything fell into place when I started making music and it became one world. ”
Your visuals have a really distinct aesthetic. What’s so fascinating about horror to you?
“I’ve always been into horror movies, I’ve always had a lot of nightmares. I don’t know why, I had a really amazing childhood.
“I watched only horror movies growing up – if it wasn’t horror, I was bored. I love A24 films: Midsommar, Hereditary. What makes a horror movie really good is when it makes you think for days and days afterwards. If it’s something that almost could be real, or looks so unreal, or if the story and characterisation was well-written and the psychology was really well done, I’m gonna love the fear of it because it’s going to inspire me, but I’m also going to suffer for the next few days.”
When did you start getting into art and music?
“I was into art well before music, I drew in every single book. I kept all my school books because I wanted to look at my doodles when I’m older. I didn’t actually start making music in my room until I was 15 and very quickly realised that I loved it and wanted to do that all the time.
“At one point I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I do both?’. They were always in different worlds to me, I don’t know why. I just didn’t think I was allowed to combine them into this big world. The music never felt enough, the art never felt enough, so I put them together and put all myself into this cohesive, creative place in my mind.”
Credit: Frances Carter
How does the band fit into your life beyond music?
“If I were to take myself and split myself into a pie graph, each slice would be one band member. If you gave me an emotion, I’d be able to go – that’s that band member. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll ask myself, ‘Who’s present now?’
“If I’m tired, Deemo’s gonna be there. If I’m feeling on edge, it’s Fritz. Sometimes they’re all there, sometimes one or two. If I wanna distract myself from something going on around me, I’ll ask myself, ‘What are they doing? Is Deemo lying down, playing bass?’ It’s helpful because it’s recognising how I’m feeling and letting my imagination have a moment. That’s what I love to do.”
So what does each band member represent?
“Deemo [the bassist] represents the wanting-to-be-alone, sad part of me. Fritz is the keyboardist, he represents when I’m feeling frantic. He also represents happiness – he’s present when I’m not sober, let’s just say that. Eugene is the drummer. He represents my anger and frustration, with myself or what’s going on around me. And Slug [the guitarist] represents disgust. When I feel gross, like I haven’t showered, or mental disgust, he’ll be there.”
“I want to make the Ratbag show an entire theatrical experience”
Your song ‘Dead End Kids’ starts with a mistake at the beginning, and your music has overall has a very raw feel – why is that important to you?
“Having mistakes in songs is so cool. It makes the song interesting and you can connect to it a little bit more. It feels more real, and that’s why I like risks in songs. My favourite artists do it too – the looseness and the jangliness makes me feel connected to the artist without even hearing the lyrics.”
What other sounds are important to you?
“Experimenting with sounds. I like to take normal sounds and make them really weird – I’m really into reversing. I like mucking around with the little pieces of vocals and cutting it up. It’s almost like I’m dissecting things in my computer. I’m going to take that and fuck it up, it’s like a game and I’m dissecting a rat and all the different pieces, the intestines and eyeballs are just different instruments.”
You really love rats, don’t you?
“That’s what’s funny, I actually hate rats. I have a rock wall outside my kitchen, there’s a big glass window that you can see the wall through. Every morning, I’ll go and take my bowl of cereal. I sit by the window and I watch all the rats, because there’s often rats. They just kind of come out of the wall, eat the avocados and then go back in. One time there was a whole family of them, there were baby rats running around fighting with the birds. Sometimes I’m actually late to things because I get so into it.”
So ‘Rats In My Wall’ is just reality for you?
“Yeah, I actually have rats in my bedroom walls. It sounds like I’m living in New York streets. But I have rats in my bedroom wall and my family don’t have them in their walls. So I think my walls are cursed, they come back every few months and they wake me up at night and it’s really annoying.
“I was lying in bed while they were scurrying around behind me, and because they were keeping me up at night, it was making me overthink. The song is about having metaphorical rats in your head whispering annoying, stupid shit to you. But that was also true because they were keeping me up at night.”
Credit: Frances Carter
Aesthetically, you draw a lot of parallels to Gorillaz. What makes the world of Ratbag different?
“I’ve always looked at them and really wished that they’d done more with it. I wanted to be that more. I love Gorillaz, they’re awesome, but they don’t take it out of the digital world. I want to bring my characters out of my head and create them into real costumes onto the stage. I want to make the Ratbag show an entire theatrical experience where you’re stepping into my world. I can see so much more that is possible to do within the world of art and music, and I hope to do it all.”
What’s your ultimate dream with Ratbag in the future?
“My dream is to have a real life Ratbag village that you can walk through. The food is from the world of Ratbag, all the people like behind stalls are in full monster costumes. You can meet the band, you can meet the you can meet me, there’s like a big concert at the end of the day where I play all the songs. Everything is just Ratbag, you’re essentially stepping into my world – you’re not on planet Earth anymore. That would be insane to me.”
Ratbag’s ‘Why Aren’t You Laughing?’ EP will be released on November 24
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