Shelf Lives: “Everything’s already screwed up, so why don’t you approach it with some lightness?”

London-based electro-punk duo SHELF LIVES have already whipped up a buzz at festivals, yet they’ve only just announced their first-ever headline show in the capital. They’re coming up fast.

Words: Steven Loftin
Photo: Jennifer McCord

“Just do it!” 

No, Shelf Lives haven’t signed a sponsorship with Nike. But, the Swoosh purveyors’ slogan is a good fit for the attitude-spitting two-piece. It’s also a phrase that landed in their lap back in 2021.

After getting together to create tunes for a television library (stock music to be used in shows etc.), the London-based pair found instead an instantaneous chemistry that they couldn’t resist. “It was exciting right from the start,” says vocalist Sabrina Di Giulio. “We showed everyone that we knew because we were very excited about it. We were like, ‘You know what, that went off so well… Why don’t we just make some more for fun?'” What happened next has been a whirlwind of sound, support slots, and now a signing to Modern Sky Records. 

While the initial tracks were, as Sabrina puts it, “a little PG-13”, the realisation of what they’d discovered warranted something a little more spicy, and a little more shouty. “As that happened, everyone wanted a piece of the action,” Sabrina enthuses. This is where the duo’s debut mini-album, ‘No Offence’, rocks up. 

“That was literally what came out first,” guitarist and producer Johnny Hillyard says proudly. The Transatlantic pair (Sabrina hails from Canada, Johnny from Northampton) aren’t here to overthink. ‘No Offence’ is that initial crash, bang, wallop of all things lining up – a physical reaction from their caustic chemistry. Hooking up with producer Space (Black Futures), the burst of energy fizzes with Shelf Lives’ personality and style. It is, as the pair excitedly describe it, “unfiltered, raw… just do it!”

They’re toting an electro-post-punk sound that kicks you in the teeth. Not content with the sonic assault, Sabrina shouts the house down. It swaggers and goads, leaving no room for apologies. As for where that all comes from for the pair, Johnny gruffly says, “A deep, pitted anger inside. A deep dark, grungy, gross anger…”  before breaking and laughing. “No. I don’t really know.”

“We just thought her vocals would fit well for this brief, and then all of a sudden, this monster just comes out of that,” he grins. “That’s when we knew there was something there. Obviously, people saying they liked it was cool. But I think the feeling that we got when we made it was probably the dead giveaway.”

While Johnny has been a part of artistic endeavours previously, Shelf Lives is Sabrina’s first outing. For her, it’s been a good way to figure things out. “I was like, wow, I’ve never felt this liberation.” Under Johnny’s tutelage, Sabrina discovered what input she could offer Shelf Lives. “I would try something, and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ Like… is it?” she laughs. “I don’t know! It was things like that. And the multitude of years I spent singing in a hairbrush while in my room by myself actually ended up being practice. So the lesson of the day is pick up the hairbrush! You never know what you’re preparing for.”

The balance between Johnny’s artistic experience and Sabrina’s lack thereof is the makeup of Shelf Lives’ basic DNA. But the pair keep a keen eye on the goings on of the world to fuse meaning within the rowdy sounds. Johnny cites his interest in society and how “gross the consumerism side of society can be.” Particularly nodding towards our friends over the pond, “and how consumerist mentality they are and how they’ve done things. Everything’s quite hyper over there. I feel like we’re in a hyper-Western society.”

While it takes some level of premeditation, in the form of keeping up with whatever’s going on, Shelf Lives’ approach is far more reflexive. “We just spew things out,” Johnny smirks. “It’s just this primal feeling you get,” Sabrina adds. “Like something is telling you to unleash it or to be dramatic about it.” 

“I think people take things too seriously,” she adds. “In general, even serious subject matters.” Shelf Lives are all about having a good time without sacrificing any heftier and sometimes ridiculous subject matter. ‘Shock Horror’ delivers the playful “Big rocks, small cocks, flashing all the big bucks” as a scathing depiction of fragile masculinity, and recent single ‘All The Problems’ reckons with similar toxicity: “He’s got all the problems in him, he keeps them down in a phenomenal way.”

“Sometimes, in order to process things properly, you have to have this lightness – this open-mindedness,” Sabrina reckons. “That’s how we tackle things. Sometimes subconsciously, we’re poking fun, but it’s not really to poke fun at the subject. It’s just like, chill out, everyone. Everything’s already screwed up, so why don’t you just take a moment, calm down, and approach it with some lightness? Maybe you’ll survive a little longer.”

In order for this to all work, the pair had to be on the same wavelength. This synchronicity between their chaos and meaning is unique, and one of the reasons it all works. On what it is they think made them a good fit, Sabrina offers up that it was easy due to “feeling super comfortable with each other.” Realising that the level of sound experimentation required open minds, Sabrina adds that “you have to feel super comfortable in yourself, of course, but also with the other person. Being able to give each other notes on stuff – it just works.”

There’s no denying that Shelf Lives have tapped into something a bit special. Their raucous energy is as addictive as it is rallying. But since forming just two years ago, things have ramped up for the pair. “As soon as you start kind of overthinking that, and you start thinking about why it’s happened, that’s when I think you start getting in trouble,” Sabrina warns. “That’s why an artist or band’s second or third album sometimes doesn’t click like the first one does. It’s because they start thinking about things that they weren’t thinking about when they made that first one.”

Ignoring opinions, Shelf Lives know the key to survival is staying true to themselves. “This might come across as a bit egotistical, but everyone has to realise why you’re there to begin with. It’s because you made a great body of work without any input. So as much as all of that means something, you can’t think about making everyone happy,” she affirms before resolutely hammering home Shelf Lives’ ultimate motto: “You have to stick to your guns.”

Taken from the July 2023 edition of Upset.