‘I could see the trap in the ladette thing’: Lush’s Miki Berenyi on childhood abuse, hatred of Britpop and her relief at having dodged fame | Music

Ohen Miki Berenyi thinks about Britpop, certain memories stick out – like the night at Soho House in London when Blur’s Alex James drove his teeth into her ass. “I take issue with this idea that Britpop was fucking amazing,” says the Lush lead singer, dragging her vape to her kitchen table in Willesden, north London. ” Do not mistake yourself. I had been there, jumping up and down for girls and boys. Some of the music was great. But Britpop was a monoculture. Every scene has a bottom, but there was no room for another story. Of course you can’t say that, because people will go: stop being a killjoy, you just say that because Lush was not popular – which I conceded!

Berenyi, 55, has a disarming composure with a sparkling energy just below the surface. She fronted Lush with Emma Anderson – they had bonded at school over the Thompson Twins and shared a dirty sense of humor – and they wrote their own songs, contrary to the assumptions of many journalists at the time. . They emerged from the shoegaze scene in the late 80s and were signed to 4AD. Their lyrics were clever: Ladykillers was a kiss to Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who Berenyi says tried to take her to a strip club (“He didn’t do anything terrible – it was just a bit stupid”). But then they got sucked into ladette culture. One day in 1996, Berenyi found herself photographed bent over a toilet with her legs apart, being asked to gaze seductively at the camera.

“I don’t think the Cocteau Twins or the Throwing Muses were asked to take off their kit and pose in swimsuits,” she says. “I’m pretty sure Liz Fraser was never asked to get into her underwear. I could see the catch in the ladette thing. He said: it’s about liberation, it’s about girls doing what they want – if they want to stick their boobs out, or watch football or drink beer, that’s great. The problem is for anyone who doesn’t feel confident enough to go out in a negligee. And the girl who does it, I can guarantee you she’s gonna have a lot of bullshit.

Chaotic promotional tours and a manager no one liked added to the feeling that something was up, and Lush quit in early 1997, devastated by the suicide of their drummer, Chris Acland. Berenyi signed up for a proofreading course and was offered a job as a TV listings substitute on the ninth floor of the King’s Reach Tower in Southwark, south London, the same building that housed NME. She met rock journalists in the elevator: “I felt their discomfort when they recognized me.” But she loved the sociability of office life – the same reason she loved being in a band. She remained in similar jobs, raising two children with her partner, musician “Moose” McKillop, until she was laid off after the pandemic and decided to take up writing a book.

“The thing is, I didn’t know if anyone would really care about Lush,” she says. “And I don’t really read a lot of rock biographies, and the ones I like don’t talk about rock that much…” Many of the most interesting musical narratives of recent years have been written by women who wouldn’t never thought they had that in them. Their stories are worth more than traditional rock’n’roll threads, and Berenyi’s story is stranger than most.

Berenyi performing with Lush in New York in 1993. Photography: Steve Eichner/Getty Images

These suburban streets of Willesden are ones that gave birth to countless pop dreams for musicians of Berenyi’s generation, forged mainly by a desire to escape. Yet her childhood was wild and a lifelong search for normalcy has kept her rooted here: she lives just a bus ride from her old family home. His Japanese mother was an actress (she’s one of the geishas lathering up James Bond in a hot tub in You Only Live Twice) who moved in with Cary Grant’s stunt double and long-distance parent from across the Atlantic. . Her late father was a beloved but destructive Hungarian dissident: for thousands of miles back home, he covered gas costs by having his nine-year-old daughter sell cassette tapes on the streets of bloc countries. East ; in London, he would occasionally take her to nightclubs and use her as bait to lure girls onto the dance floor. At the age of 14, she slept on a cot in the attic of her school.

And then there was Grandma Nora, fallen from a good life under the Nazis when the Russians invaded Hungary, shipped off to Willesden when Berenyi’s mother moved away. Nora, sipping Advocaat, walking her granddaughter off the sidewalk to endure the potential impact of any passing car, sharing her bed – and subjecting her to years of sexual abuse, which Berenyi surmised more later be his fault. “Sometimes I stare at the toothless cavity of her mouth, open as she snores,” she wrote, “and want to shove my fist inside until she chokes.”

Berenyi’s book recreates the mental landscape of a neglected child in stunning detail and reveals new truths about the kind of impulses that drive a teenager to carve out a life in groups. She developed a series of childhood tics, like poking her eyeballs with her fingers: an early introduction, she explains, to self-harm and controlling her own pain. Today she wears a sleeveless top and many old self-inflicted scars are visible on her forearm.

Bereny, centre, with Emma Anderson and Phil King, playing at The National, Kilburn, London, in 1991.
Bereny, centre, with Emma Anderson and Phil King, playing at The National, Kilburn, London, in 1991. Photography: Mick Hutson/Redferns

She was people-pleasing, tough but clingy and terrified of being alone. “I’ve always defined myself as rather tasteless,” she adds. “Charlie Brown is my ideal childhood character. Whereas Emma would be Lucy van Pelt…” (Berenyi and Anderson – who are often characterized in the book as “moany” – no longer speak, since a 2016 Lush reunion has proven that their lifelong differences were irreconcilable.) But a reasonable calm hangs over Berenyi: his obsession with weighing both sides of any story was useful for an independent band placed in compromised positions. which started in childhood – she considers kicking her grandmother on the stairs but thinks better of it because she doesn’t want the sentence of juvenile detention.

“One of my workhorses is the idea of ​​going through life feeling like a victim, waiting to be bruised by everything and on the prowl for harm,” she says. “I’ve seen people react to my childhood and say, ‘God, I can’t believe that social worker came and saw the state of the place, and didn’t recommend that you be taken care of.’ What, and would it have been better to grow up in care?

There was no love lost when grandma died. Much of Berenyi’s shame and confusion stemmed from the fact that she would reciprocate her grandmother’s advances to please her, by acting out love scenes she had seen in movies (details of the book are kept to a minimum). “When I was talking to friends, I was raising outrage,” she says. “I would never have admitted that there were times when I really prompted this. Because people would think I was the bad seed, and Nora wasn’t the aggressor at all.

As an adult, Berenyi had difficulty staying faithful and had a reputation for being sleepy. She had many famous boyfriends, including Billy Childish, who was still with Tracey Emin at the time. “Even in Britpop there was moral judgment,” she says. “It’s expected to be big or whatever, but we’re still called slag behind our backs.”

That said, a lot of it was great fun. In groups, she found the constant companionship she craved; with her image, she made a mark of her innate difference: “If someone stared at me, I could tell myself that they reacted to clothes, hair, make-up. The stuff I would deliberately put on,” she wrote. “Not the girl I couldn’t help but be inside the disguise.” She spends grueling tours of the United States in a state of wonder, sitting in front of the driver all night on the bus. She is endlessly thrilled by the famous people she meets, even when she is quite famous herself. But Britpop felt naughty, like the playground at one of its many primary schools. And it homogenized what was interesting in British music in the years before it, she now thinks.

Berenyi with Lush, performing in London in April 2016, in their first performance in nearly 20 years.
Berenyi with Lush, performing in London in April 2016, in their first performance in nearly 20 years. Photography: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

When shoegaze came along, there was also Manchester, and baggy, all these different things,” she says. “People could be tribal but they coexisted. Britpop knocked off interesting band corners – even with Pulp, which I absolutely loved. Jarvis had a way of self-mockery, the songs were romantic, they reminded me of The Kinks, touching and awkward. But everything I found charming about Pulp has been swept away. I could see it happening in the attitude and the sneer. Everyone thought Common People was awesome. The song that makes a girl mad is the one everyone loves the most.

Lush folded after their most successful album, Lovelife, following foolish attempts to break up America and a steady decline in morale. In 1997, reporters linked Acland’s death to the band’s changing fortunes – another thing that sets their story in more primitive times. “What these obituaries have taught me is that unless you’re a mental health professional, keep your silly assumptions to yourself,” Berenyi says. “Because all the people who were close to him, and his family, none of us found an answer, and we knew him better than anyone.”

If Acland hadn’t died, Berenyi said, “I wonder what state I would have ended up in before I think: I really need to get out of this. The book she didn’t think she had the courage to write is captioned: ‘How music saved me from success’. As deputy editor, she led a less glamorous life but thinks she was lucky: “6:00 p.m., the job is done”. It also paid twice as much as Lush.

Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success by Miki Berenyi is published September 29 by Nine Eight Books. To help the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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