You read that correctly: the two-hit-wonder teen-poppers that Gen Y once loved to hate are in for another round.
A few weeks ago we received a cryptic email from quirk-pop maverick Max Tundra (last seen on Domino Records in 2008 with his acclaimed and bonkers third album, Parallax Error Beheads You) which hinted at the comeback of a “long-lost pop act”. Would we care to know more? Yes, we would, we said.
Tundra, real name Ben Jacobs, revealed he’s been covertly working with Daphne and Celeste, the helium-lunged US duo who shot to fame in the UK in 1999 with playground-pop irritant ‘Ooh Stick You’. As Brits of a certain age will recall, they released one more song, ‘U.G.L.Y’ – another nursery rhyme nonsense ditty that got them told off for encouraging bullying – and promptly bowed out, but not before a brave showing on the main stage at Reading Festival where they faced down a hailstorm of piss-filled bottles. They were the ultimate pop trolls in the era when Louis Walsh’s manufactured pretty-boy troupes reigned supreme, and they were, in retrospect, hard as nails.
Their first single in 15 years is ‘You And I Alone’, an inside-out indie-pop charmer that finally reveals the girls’ real voices (no more pitch-shifted silliness) in close harmony, weaving daftly poetic lyrics through clippy-clop percussion and radiating synths. It’s how Daphne and Celeste would sound now they’re grown up, says Tundra. “It couldn’t have been another ‘up your butt with a coconut’ track, but it’s not a serious track either, it’s still very playful.”
The song came to him in a dream with a vision of two girls singing the harmonies, so he got in touch with Celeste on Twitter and began a collaboration via the internet. Eventually – four years later, in fact – they had their single. The current vogue for saccharine melodies and J-pop sensibilities is a neat coincidence, adds Tundra, whose own back catalogue now seems like a faint prototype for the likes of SOPHIE and PC Music. “It’s interesting to hear music that places an emphasis on melodies and sugariness crossing over to this world of being quite cool. I’m very excited that that sort of thing is popular – if I had to do a top 10 list of last year’s music, it’d probably just be the PC Music SoundCloud page. And five years into the Coalition we need music to cheer us up. While we’re waiting on hold we don’t wanna hear stuff that’s gonna make us even sadder.”
FACT caught up with the very giggly Daphne (who’s actually Karen – more on that later) and Celeste from LA to talk about life after pop, touring Britain’s supermarkets and the glory of being bottled at Reading.
Hi Karen and Celeste. Why are you back, and where have you been?
C: We weren’t planning a comeback. Max just presented us with this awesome piece of music and we were like, you know what? If we were gonna [come back], that would be what we wanted to do. He had played a music venue that I hang out at in Brooklyn, years ago, and then funnily enough six months after that he found me through Twitter. I didn’t think anything of it – people have contacted us for songs before, we’ve listened to them and it’s not really been a thing, but then we heard this one.
And what have you been doing in the 15 years since we last heard from Daphne and Celeste?
K: I work as a writer now. I worked as an actor for a long time after the band, and now I’m working on a show that I co-created with Bert V. Royal – it’s gonna be on ABC Family, it’s called Recovery Road. I live in LA now, which is crazy, never saw that coming.
C: Karen downplays it though, ‘cos she also wrote a play and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve stayed doing music and in the arts, acting here and there but mainly focusing on music – singing back-up for other people and collaborating with friends.
So Max came to you with this track – did you meet in person or was it all done over the internet?
K: It’s actually really funny, ‘cos I think we recorded it, what was it, four years ago? I was doing Jersey Shoresical, the musical, at the time [laughs]. I was playing Snooki in a musical satire – or spoof, let’s call it a spoof. So I was in the city and we recorded the song, we spoke to Ben, we had back and forth.
C: Ben was kind of the man behind the curtains. Especially with the time difference, we’d be recording when we could and we’d be sending him what we’d been doing and he would send us back his input, so it was kind of like he was there but he wasn’t there. We didn’t meet him for years.
K: We actually just met him for the first time. It was pretty amazing, I don’t know if you’ve had one of those relationships where you talk so much on the phone and email, so you feel like you’ve met somebody in person but you actually haven’t? That’s what Monday was, it was crazy.
You said you recorded the track four years ago – how did it take so long?
C: Not to get too deep into it but you know, when you come from a manufactured past, to then become your own group takes a while. And to make three people’s schedules work together has not been the easiest either.
How does ‘You And I Alone’ reflect the kind of music you’re into normally?
C: The thing about the song that Max presented us with is it’s like a really happy marriage of like what the group would have evolved to sound like, and also what is cool about pop. There’s a catchiness to it, there’s a glitchiness to it. I really like indie pop.
K: That’s something that’s really cool about what Max did with the song, it sort of feels like the evolution of Daphne and Celeste. There are moments in the song that are such a shout out to our past.
C: We went with what we like about pop, what’s fun, and sometimes you think, what are our fans going to really get a kick out of seeing us do? And this was such a happy marriage of that. And Max was able to touch on pop culture things that we really adore. We didn’t even have to tell him, he gave us these lyrics and we were like, ‘We love all of this stuff!’ T
K: And the song itself, it’s so textured and layered, it really is. You listen to the song over and over again, and the way that he’s built the music is very impressive to me.
Is this the start of a larger comeback?
K: We’ve got a lot of exciting things… we can’t talk about any of it yet, but we’ll definitely let you know when we can.
It sounds as though you’ve remained friends the whole time, so not the typical girl group where the members all come to hate each other.
C: Oddly enough, when we were in the group we didn’t get along as well.
K: But I think that being in a manufactured pop band together, it’s such an unusual and unique experience, I think we’re bonded for life, you know? Like, we’re family. No one else in the world in the world will ever know what that experience was, except for Celeste.
C: We were a duo, so it’s just the one other person that gets it.
When I was a kid in 1999, I just thought Daphne and Celeste were British. But was it that you were only famous in Britain? Were you big anywhere else?
K: We were really big in New Zealand.
C: Yeah, we were huge in New Zealand.
K: We had very isolated markets [both giggle]. Where else? We went and played a gig in Sweden…
C: I think our main markets were Australia and New Zealand, and the UK.
K: We never went to Japan but we heard that something happened there, but we don’t know.
That could have been a great market for you.
C: Yes, this is what we’re saying! You understand.
So you never even got to visit New Zealand in the end?
C: No, and we have a gold record there! And we never got to visit our fanbase there! [Snorts of laughter]
C: It’s awful! For a while Karen was interested in buying an island just off the coast of New Zealand.
K: Well, I heard this rumour, no one believes that this is true but somebody told me when we were touring that you could buy an island in New Zealand, and it’s just the cost of a large home. I was like, oh my god, if I have enough money to buy a house I should definitely invest in an island.
“Reading is what we saw as our crowning achievement”
Do people in the US know who you are?
K: I mean, we never got released over here, so it was sort of like dual realities. When we were in the UK we were in this band, and then when we were back home… you know, I definitely did experience – and I know you did as well Celeste – if there were kids from Britain that were, like, walking in Central Park, sometimes we’d be recognised.
C: If we did get recognised in the States it was definitely someone with more obscure pop music taste, they’d be very into Britpop and just know all of those people.
That must have been baffling for your friends in the US.
C: It was really bizarre even for us sometimes. Someone would be looking at me and I’d just have no idea why and feel really self conscious, and then they’d come up and be like, ‘You’re from that pop group’, and I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah! I am.’
What was the point of Daphne and Celeste originally – were you in on the joke? Were you invented just to piss people off?
K: I think that initially our producers wanted to do a thing like Gorillaz, with cartoon videos, so at first they weren’t even gonna hire live action girls. They were going to have anime characters to sing the songs. And then they decided they wanted to audition girls, so that’s when we got it. Celeste and I are so convinced that the reason we got the gig is because we kind of looked like anime characters, so it was sort of marrying the two ideas. In terms of the nature of the lyrics, that was always set, but in terms of what we did, we sort of invented it on the fly. We stumbled into those personalities, I would say.
Were you free to be yourself?
C: Yes, thank goodness, we were free to be ourselves, for better or worse. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted to.
K: And I think you know, you become these heightened versions of yourself, especially when you’re teenagers.
C: Oh my gosh, yeah.
How old were you when you got signed?
C: I was 15 and Karen, you were about 17 I think?
I think you handled yourself pretty well, considering the circumstances. A lot happened in a year.
C: Oh yeah, it was really intense.
K: It was very fast and furious.
How did it all come to an end?
K: Reading was kind of when… I mean, Reading is what we saw as our crowning achievement. So it kind of felt like a good thing to do Reading and then just disappear. It felt right for us. But I also think with those kinds of bands, what are you gonna do next? I mean, our voices were pitched up, we sounded like chipmunks, and how long can you go on with that?
Your voices were pitched up on the records?
C: [Slight pause] Yes.
K: Way more than that.
C: They were sped up and pitched up.
K: There came a certain point where Celeste and I decided we weren’t gonna lip sync ever, so the only time we would lip sync would be on a TV show, ‘cos sometimes you just have to lip sync cos they don’t have the capabilities in terms of the sound system. But we were like, no, for any live performance we’ll both sing live. People’s faces when we were like [lowers voice to a grunt] “Ooh stick you!” They were like, what are these girls?! We sounded like men compared to what we sounded like on the record. [Laughs]
I think Reading is a complete highlight. And it really started a trend for the next few years, of bands getting bottled on stage.
C: I thought that was so strange when I heard that! I would like to apologise to 50 Cent, and anyone else who was affected.
K: What was so funny is that I think that going into it, we definitely knew we were going to get bottled, we knew that was on the table, but I didn’t think that we were the beginning of that sort of… expression, shall we call it, at Reading. [Both laugh]
Is it really true that you threatened to pull out of Reading because Eminem had cancelled?
C: No, we’d already made the commitment.
K: I kind of loved the irony of it.
C: Yeah, Karen loved the irony of it. I did not as much, at the time.
K: I thought it was so great that we were playing Reading so that Celeste could finally be united with Eminem.
C: This underage girl wants to meet Eminem so badly, and then he gets arrested for domestic violence and can’t be there.
K: It was so perfect, because everything about us at Reading was just unexpected and wrong, you know? It was definitely like an absurdist play.
Why were you called Daphne and Celeste in the first place?
K: Why is a great question! Well, when we first recorded ‘Ooh Stick You’, this was back in the time of fax machines, that’s how long ago it was, and we were faxed the song lyrics. And it was like, what is this song? At the top of it, it said ‘Hey, my name is blah blah, and this is blah blah’, but it didn’t say our names. So when we went into the recording studio we kind of played around with a lot of different ideas, and we thought at one point it’d be funny to be like, ‘Hey, my name is Ethel, and this is my friend Bertha’, you know, we tried all different kinds of names. One of the combinations had to have been Daphne and Celeste. And I didn’t know that my name was Daphne until we got to the UK for the first time.
C: I don’t even think it was Daphne and Celeste, I think it was Daphne and Velma, and then they split it. We were just messing around with so many names. Maud and Saucy…
K: I thought Saucy was really funny. But no one acted like I was gonna change my name, and then when we got to the UK it was like, oh, your name is Daphne and you’re two years younger. So Celeste got to keep her name and her age, and I had to forfeit both. [Laughs] At first I was like, ugh, this is so immoral, and I sort of revolted, but then I was like, who cares? I actually thought it was a bit of a gift. It was kind of cool to have these split personalities.
So you were told to act younger as well.
K: Yeah, I was two years younger. I’ve never hidden my age, you were always able to get it, once the internet took flight, but when I was in the band I was [meant to be] 16 instead of 17 or 18, whatever age I was. And there were a lot of rumours at the time that we were both in our thirties. I mean, the rumours were pretty funny.
Aside from Reading then, what were your highlights from your year of being Daphne and Celeste?
C: So many good ones. I’m gonna go with the Asda tour.
K: The Asda tour was great. We did a supermarket tour.
C: Yeah that was interesting, to just barge into people’s daily routine and be like, here we are with our pop music!
They sent you to a bunch of Asdas to do in-store performances?
C: Oh, all of the Asdas [laughs]. Depending on where they could fit the stage – sometimes we’d be by the frozen food, sometimes we’d be by the CDs…
K: That was pretty great. I got hypnotised on TV, do you remember this?
C: Oh my god. [Laughs]
K: It was on The Big Breakfast when Johnny Vaughn was on, I’m just remembering it right now. This is the fun thing about the pop band, once we start talking about it all of these memories come back, things that you don’t think about any more. This guy hypnotised me, and then I think I went and kissed a crew member, a camera guy?
C: Yeah, you committed. Were you really hypnotised?
K: I still don’t know to this day. I’ve never been able to figure it out.
C: I thought for sure you were faking.
K: I don’t know if I was. I’m not sure.
C: It might have been the combination of being, like, overly tired from being a pop sensation. [Laughs] I just remembered that time we were on, I think, Blue Peter, and they made us dive to the bottom of a pool for some reason? They make you do the weirdest things when you’re in a pop group. You just show up places and they’re like here, this is what you’re going to be doing today.
K: There’s definitely a lot of that. But I do think our Asda and Butlins tours were pretty special.
It doesn’t seem as though the experience scarred you too much – or is it that you’ve had 15 years to get over it?
C: Oh yeah, we had 15 years to heal! [Both snort with laughter]
K: The good thing is that we always had each other, I think that’s huge.
C: If you could just have a tiny violin play after that…
K: But also I think that when you’re in a manufactured pop band, you can only take it so seriously.
C: We didn’t take it seriously, I think that’s the thing that saved us, thank goodness. I think also having a disconnect of being able to go home and be normal, that was good.
K: And also having our moms constantly making fun of us was helpful. They would come and watch us at dance rehearsal and they were just, like, crying with laughter.
C: So we knew we looked great if our moms were laughing at us, clearly. [Hysterical laughter]