"It feels like I've grown wings!"
Zsuzsa Radnóti, also known as Shakey Sue from the Hellfreaks, in a conversation about genre boundaries, dishonesty in the mainstream, and new music.
ELENA VON DARK DIVAS
6. Apr 2023
Thank you, Sue, for taking the time today to talk with us about "Pitch Black Sunset" and your work.
Sue: Klar! We can do the interview in German if you'd like. It's been three years since I last spoke German, but it should work.
Sure! It doesn't sound like you're out of practice to me.
Sue: Well, I am! (laughs) I still have the vocabulary, but it's become a bit rusty. And it's quite exhausting. But it will work.
Let's get started then! Your music is labeled in various ways, from Modern Metal to Post-Hardcore, Punk, and Punk-Rock. How would you describe your sound?
Sue: I always say we play punk with a hint of metal. It's a bit more metal at the moment, rather aggressive. Somehow, everyone finds something different in our music that appeals to them. But people are right: there's punk, metal, hardcore, sometimes it's a bit poppy. It's actually a mixture of all the things we like to listen to. When the different labels annoy me too much, I just say we play rock music. (laughs)
You've changed your style over the years. You found the genre boundaries and lyrical limitations in psychobilly too narrow. Do you feel that you can express yourself more freely since your style change?
Sue: Definitely! It might sound weird, but it feels like I've grown wings since then. The first two albums were very psychobilly-heavy, and we were very active in that scene. It was cool and kind of like fairy tales for adults. (laughs) After two albums, I felt like I could only repeat myself, and that felt terrible. Also, in terms of singing and especially lyrics, I couldn't experiment much in psychobilly. After a while, I felt pretty stupid, and I thought I didn't want to say this stuff anymore.
In 2014, it was almost over. We thought for about six months that it was the end of the band. But then we received an invitation to the Ink & Iron Festival in the USA. It was a big and unimaginable thing for us as a band from Hungary. After much deliberation, we decided to continue with the Hellfreaks but remove everything from the music that bothered us. We decided to let our creativity flow without choosing a genre and just see what happens. That's how the punk-metal mix we make now came about.
You have your fifth album, "Pitch Black Sunset," in the pipeline. How does the process of making music and producing it today differ from your early days?
Sue: In every way! The songs on "Hell, Sweet Hell" were the first recordings for me as a singer. I didn't take singing lessons before that, and I really had no idea what I was doing. Plus, we were all students, had very little money, and could barely afford to rent a studio for 48 hours. It was really tough! Nevertheless, we recorded the entire album within those 48 hours. That's how it turned out. (laughs) Since then, a lot has changed. Nowadays, I don't go to the studio to record vocals anymore; I record everything at home. I converted the closet in my apartment into a vocal booth. This way, I can practice at night without my neighbors going crazy. We record a lot ourselves these days. Our bassist Gobi does the instrumental parts. Josi, our guitarist, was able to contribute even more to "Pitch Black Sunset," putting more of himself into the music. In the beginning, it was just a hobby, and I never thought the band would still be such a big part of my life 14 years later.
So could we say that your new album is the most collaborative work you've released so far?
Sue: I think so. Everyone contributes something to the music in their strongest area. We've learned what works for us and how we can work well. For example, it makes sense to write the instrumental parts first and then work on the vocals—not the other way around. "Wheeping Willow" is the only song on the new album where the lyrics and vocals came first, and then the instrumental part was added. There are also dead ends and moments when we can't seem to connect. The guys write a really cool song, but I can't do anything with it. Gobi is the head of songwriting; he knows by now that I can't handle things that are too poppy. So there are some little arguments sometimes. But that's the magic of making music. If everything were always smooth, it would be too easy. (laughs)
You share a lot of your creative process. On your YouTube channel, you analyze your video shoots and lyrics, and you regularly upload behind-the-scenes content. It's a rarity, but it's fantastic for the fans! Why did you decide to be so open about your work?
Sue: There are two reasons. First, we are fortunate to have fans from all over the world. We know, however, that we won't be able to go everywhere for live shows—it's impossible. That's why we want to connect with the fans on social media and show them what we're doing. We chat a lot with people, and I talk to them every day in the DMs. It's incredibly important, as we owe everything to our fans. Second, the music industry has changed immensely over the years. A few years ago, it was much easier to go on tour, and people still listened to whole albums and bought CDs. Nowadays, hardly anyone listens to a whole album. If they do, it's typically because they already know the band well. People mainly listen to singles and playlists on Spotify. There are so many songs coming out every day, making it increasingly difficult to make a statement and say, "Hello, here we are." So we try to introduce ourselves with specific songs and share many insights. Also, getting feedback from YouTube comments is incredibly important to me. Feedback is the best driving force.
In one of your videos, you mentioned that you write about everything that moves you. You said, "It's like a photograph of my brain." Is it sometimes frightening to dig so deep?
Sue: It is. But I think the point of all underground music is still to stay honest. The mainstream is often not honest, it's often about saying what people want to hear. In our scene, the focus is on making a connection. That connection is created when someone understands your lyrics and can identify with them, perhaps thinking, "Wow, I'm going through the same crap; I'm not alone with my problems and thoughts." Interpersonal contact, motivation, and inspiration are the most important. So, I don't see any other way but to be very, very honest.
Which song on "Pitch Black Sunset" would you say reveals your most honest, rawest side?
Sue: They are all honest. But I probably reveal myself most unusually in "Wheeping Willow." In this song, I shared thoughts that originally weren't necessarily intended for a broad audience. The song has a very dark text.
Is "Wheeping Willow" your favorite song on the new album?
Sue: In a way, yes. It's a very experimental song. When we finished it, we had a discussion about whether we should even release it as a single because it has the potential to polarize. But we wanted to. As they say, you don't win if you don't dare!
How will you celebrate your release on April 14th? Do you have a big party planned?
Sue: We'll have an album release party here in Budapest, but due to logistical reasons, it will be in the autumn. It wouldn't have made sense in the midst of the festival season. I definitely want to do something on the 14th, but I'm not sure yet what. (laughs)
Speaking of the festival season: Will you be hitting the European stages next summer?
Sue: We've already announced a few festival dates. There's more in the works, but unfortunately, I can't talk about that yet. What's certain is that there will be something!