Piroshka's Miki Berenyi on the Creative Bonds Behind Love Drips and Gathers

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Piroshka's Miki Berenyi on the Creative Bonds Behind <i>Love Drips and Gathers</i>

Does the family that plays together stay together? Ex-Lush frontwoman Miki Berenyi believes so, after two rock-solid releases as Piroshka with her guitarist husband K.J. “Moose” McKillop, of the U.K. shoegaze band Moose, including their new sophomore effort Love Drips and Gathers. The panoramic, often genre-defying soundscapes they’ve concocted bear the unmistakable ethereal date stamp of Lush’s former imprint 4AD Records, which was also home to their bassist Mick Conroy’s old outfit Modern English (onetime Elastica drummer Justin Welch rounds out Piroshka’s all-star lineup). It’s a lesson that Berenyi learned the hard way, when she failed to rekindle the original ‘80s spark she had with co-vocalist Emma Anderson in a 2016 Lush reunion tour, with Welch sitting in for late percussionist Chris Acland. Not all musical clans can be long-haulers, but the gung-ho Welch wanted to keep that momentum going with a new, close-knit combo, Piroshka, which could include real binding ties this time.

McKillop hadn’t considered a husband/wife-based enterprise before, and he was happy to have his moment in the spotlight with Moose, a Ride/Chapterhouse-era anomaly that only toured America once, opening for the Cocteau Twins. Why didn’t Moose—named for its charismatic leader—make it? Berenyi has a business-basic theory. “They were on a major label, Virgin, and if you’re on a major label and you don’t have a chart hit, they just kind of give up on you,” she swears. “So I think Lush was always really lucky to be on 4AD, because that really didn’t bother them—it wasn’t on their radar for you to be a chart band. Moose got on for quite a bit. They were on Play It Again Sam, and then they kind of funded their own record.” But without Virgin’s deep, juggernaut-funding pockets, Moose, she sighs, “kind of fizzled, really.” The couple had home recording equipment, though, so—once the Piroshka concept caught—it was easy for them to begin whipping up their 2018 debut Brickbat, which opened on Petula Clark-breezy janglers (“This Must Be Bedlam,” “Village of the Damned”) and grew increasingly slow and textured (the closing “Heartbeat” and “She’s Unreal”). 

Love Drips and Gathers pushes the experiment further. It starts slower, with Berenyi’s multi-tracked stratocumulus vocals wafting over a gentle, bucolic countryside (“Hastings,” “The Knife Thrower’s Daughter”), then picks up speed with a buzzing, Curve-retro “Scratching at the Lid” and a jiggling “VO” (dedicated to late 4AD art director Vaughan Oliver, who died in December of 2019). “Wanderlust” and “Echo Loco” find Piroshka refining, defining their oblique take on ‘60s-meets-modern pop, and a sinister echo-chamber instrumental closer, “We Told You,” proves that the Berenyi/McKillop chemistry is no fluke—they really can go anywhere, sonically, with this project. Berenyi sat down to talk about the familial possibilities one recent afternoon. 

Paste: I’m familiar with a piroshki. But a Piroshka?

Miki Berenyi: So Piroshka is a Hungarian word, and if you spell it in Hungarian, there’s no “H.” It’s pronounced Pi-ROSH-ka, but if I take out the “H,” then everyone’s going to say “Piroska.” So I left it in, just to be phonetically correct. It’s actually a name. “Piros” in Hungarian is “red,” so Piroska is really an old-fashioned name for a woman. It’s also Little Red Riding Hood, so if you want to say Little Red Riding Hood in Hungarian, it’s Piroshka.

Paste: Some artists over the past year have wished they were locked down in a much more scenic city than they were. How was the pandemic for you and your family over in Britain?

Berenyi: To be honest, it was fine. It’s London, and London without all the entertainment is a bit tiresome, but we live in a relatively quiet suburban area, so it was fine, you know? I think the winter was hard. It was hard not seeing people. My daughter actually moved out in November, because she’d started at college in London. She was fine. I think the adventure of actually leaving home made it fine, because she was in a new environment and with a new flatmate and a friend, so they kind of bonded. My son was struggling a bit when the school was shut—that was quite difficult. They opened the schools as soon as possible, and that was the first wave of openings so he’s been back for quite a while, whereas the shops and things like that have only been opened more recently. It’s fine. It’s not ideal, but I just think that there are people who have been in far worse situations to deal with.

Paste: Last time we talked, you were steadily employed as a computer magazine editor. Were you still working there during lockdown?

Berenyi: No, I lost my job. The magazine folded in December so there’s been a lot of upheaval. I think what I really noticed about the pandemic was with my friends and stuff—I mean, I know quite a few people who are teachers and doctors, so they’ve been working throughout, and I think for those people there was a kind of normality that keeps you going. I just noticed with people who have been at home the whole time that anything that happens, it tends to loom really large on your world, because there’s so little else going on. I’ve lost a couple of people, which is really awful. One was actually COVID and another was unrelated, but it was really hard because you can’t go to the funeral and you can’t go and visit the partner who was left behind. This whole online thing is deeply unsatisfactory, really. If there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that this shiny future world that people always predicted where we’re all speaking to holograms and things like that? No, it’s not going to work, because nothing beats being in the same room as people, whether that’s people getting an education via screen or just seeing friends and family, if you know what I mean.

Paste: It looks like you’ve been going through a very reflective time on Twitter, because you’ve been posting all these wild old photos from the ‘80s. I don’t remember hearing of the band Terminal Cheesecake, for instance.

Berenyi: Ha! Yeah, some are a bit obscure. But it depends where my head is at. I tend to post stuff when it’s really late at night and I’ve had a few drinks. There is something slightly more cynical to it, in that I sort of realized when I started Piroshka—and everyone said, “You’ve got to have an online presence! And blah, blah, blah”—I kind of figured that me just rambling my opinions is not gonna cut it. I’m not saying that Lush fans are gonna immediately run out and buy Piroshka stuff, but there’s a slight chance of getting through to a bigger number of people. I don’t want to say that it’s all completely cynical, but that was the kind of driving force, really, and now it’s become a bit of a habit. And I do quite enjoy it—it’s quite fun to see people’s discomfort. 

Paste: Did your husband Moose continue to make music over the years? Or did he get a straight job like you did?

Berenyi: Yeah—we both got straight jobs. When I first got together with him, he was already working, just doing odd jobs, to be honest. And then when Lush sort of fell apart, we kind of … well, we didn’t really work for a bit. I was so in shock and depressed, I just took a time out. But then basically, yeah, he got a normal job. I’m just trying to remember the sequence of events … and then the kids came along, so then it’s like you’re just sort of … tied in, really. And once you’ve got a job like that, you can’t really give it up. He was teaching English as a foreign language, which he still does. And he was doing it for awhile during the pandemic, but now he’s just really glad to be back at school, because again, with teaching, you need the feedback. You need to be able to pick up on the subtle signs that students understand what the fuck you’re talking about, do you know what I mean? And you miss all that kind of body language when you’re just on a screen. 

Paste: Well, he must have been scratching his chin after the Lush reunion, and Justin wanted to try something else to keep that momentum going. I’m sure he eventually tapped you on your shoulder and asked to get involved.

Berenyi: Funnily enough, it was actually more the other way around. I think he was a little bit … not reluctant, but he wasn’t really sure. But I think when Mick [Conroy] got involved, he felt a lot more okay with it, because him and Mick are old friends, and it was because of that that Mick stood in for Phil [King, departing bassist] at the last Lush show [in 2016], and I think when Mick was onboard it made him a bit more comfortable, I suppose because he didn’t really know Justin, and I don’t know if he felt like, “Oh, is it a good idea to be a couple in a band together? Is it gonna cause problems?” Do you know what I mean? And plus, there’s the kids—they were still a bit small at the time. They weren’t teeny-tiny, but they were still quite young. And I think there was a sense of “One of us has to be here” and all that kind of stuff. But anyway, he kind of got over it, and I think as the band got a bit of momentum, he really started to enjoy it. And he hadn’t done it for so long, I don’t think he realized how much he’d enjoy it. And that only made him get more involved. 

Paste: Had you guys ever written or recorded music together before this?

Berenyi: I did a backing vocal on a Moose record at some point, but honestly, I can barely remember it. I think that might have been when we first got together, but I really have hardly any memory of it. But I think it was one of those things that we always thought we should do—not least because there were loads of people saying we should do it, like, “Why haven’t you written any music together?” And blah, blah, blah. But to be honest of all, first of all, both having jobs and then having a kid, it’s like, full-on, do you know what I mean? Also, I don’t think either of us is very good at starting things like that. I mean, Moose was the main kind of songwriter and instigator in Moose, but I think I always need Emma’s input. Emma was much more confident in Lush—she was the real driver of the band’s ambitions and where it could go, so I kind of needed her, or that kind of drive, to get me to do anything, really. I mean, it could also just be a lack of self-confidence on my part. But in any case, it was Justin who had this can-do enthusiasm, pretty much about anything, which is quite hard to resist. So I think he’s the key—he’s such a dynamo. 

Paste: This may seem like an odd question, but, uh, why do they call him Moose?

Berenyi: Because his real name is Kevin, and in the ‘80s, when we were students, in Britain, Kevin and Sharon were the kind of real crappy names that you’d get the piss taken out of you for, coincidentally kind of both real Irish working-class names, and used as a stereotype, like, “Oh, he’s a right Kev” or “She’s a real Sharon.” So it wasn’t a name that had a particularly good association. So I think when he was at college, he drank Moosehead lager and got quickly nicknamed Moose as a result, and was quite happy to adopt that, in light of his rather unfortunate name at the time. 

Paste: How is Emma doing now?

Berenyi: I don’t know, since we don’t really speak, and haven’t since the Lush reunion. We all fell out, so I don’t really hear from them. But hey—I think there’s a sort of slight thawing maybe, but I don’t want to preempt it. But I think 4AD are looking at reissuing some of the Lush stuff, because a lot of it is now unavailable, so there’s been discussions about that, and it’s not hostile, but it’s not completely thawed yet, either. 

Paste: It was nice for you to do “VO,” a hats-off to the late Vaughan Oliver. People forget how important his artwork was to the whole 4AD aesthetic. 

Berenyi: I think you’re right—people forget how integral that kind of 23 Envelope and V23 or whatever else they called themselves were to the whole image of the label. And Ivo [Watts-Russell, 4AD founder] looked at each record as a kind of artifact in itself, and the music, the packaging, all of it, it was incredibly important to him to have it as a complete thing.

Paste: Would you sit down and discuss ideas for images with Oliver? Or would he just go, “Surprise! Here’s how I see it!”

Berenyi: I think different bands did different things, so I think with the Pixies, they would always have such strong ideas that Vaughan really enjoyed working with them. And I think that was that way, but with me and with us, we were like, “Listen—you will come up with something that is way beyond anything that I can imagine, so do what you feel and we’ll pretty much go along with it.” Which is what we did. Which is why I think he quite liked working with us, because we did pretty much carte blanche. 

Paste: And his former design partner Chris Bigg designed both Piroshka covers. And what is this new piece, exactly? It looks like a melted wax seal with a pot brownie.

Berenyi: I’m not sure, you know. I think there’s a sort of lump of moss in there somewhere … I need to look at it now! Hmm … yeah, I don’t really know. But the guy who does the photography, it’s a bloke called Martin Anderson, he did the stuff on the previous album, as well. And then Chris does all the art direction and fonts and all that overall design sort of stuff. But again, I just kind of leave him to it, because I was pretty blown away when he agreed to do the first album. I just got in touch with him, and to be honest, I didn’t even think he’d be interested. So I was really surprised that he was keen. So yeah—why go anywhere else, really?

Paste: Does Moose sing on some songs? It seems like there’s a male harmony just underneath your vocals, here and there.

Berenyi: No, that’s me. There are a couple of songs like that, aren’t there? “Hastings” and “Wanderlust” definitely have a low vocal. But yeah—that’s mine. 

Paste: Who is the “she” you’re addressing in “Wanderlust”?

Berenyi: Hmm … that’s one of Moose’s. I’ve got a feeling it might be our daughter. He’s quite fixative with being exact about lyrics. And he does quite a lot of exploring relationships with the women in his life, and in his home.

Paste: Which songs are yours, specifically?

Berenyi: Mine are … ”Echo Loco” is mine, “Loveable” is mine, and some of them are just really collaborative. Like, “Familiar” are my lyrics, but they kind of started from an idea of Mick’s, and he did a lot of work on that. “VO” I wrote as an instrumental, actually, and again, everyone kind of piled in, and it was Mick’s idea to add lyrics—he kept going, “Are you sure you don’t want to write a vocal line for this?” And in the end, I was like, “Okay. I will write a vocal line for it.” And “We Told You” started from Justin, and actually we’d cut a version for the previous album, but it never quite made it on, ironically because I actually didn’t like my vocal line. I didn’t like what I had done at all, so we kind of rearranged that, and it sounds infinitely better, frankly. So yeah—there’s quite a lot of mixed up collaboration.

Paste: Were you surprised how easy it was to work with Moose? As in, “Why haven’t we ever tried this before?”

Berenyi: Well, the difficulty is with Lush, I’ll be honest, I think it suits Emma more to be so separately writing songs. I think it really worked for her, but I don’t think it really worked for me. I always wanted someone to come in and help out a bit—it felt a bit overwhelming to have to write the guitars and the vocal and the bassline and the drum part and the this and the that—all these embellishments. So what used to happen is that we would write separately, which is how we learned why a producer is really important, because that is where a lot of the embellishments would come from. But I kind of like it this way. I don’t wanna knock the old way, because I get what Emma was doing, and she always had a real complete vision of how she wanted her songs to sound. And for her, I think it really worked. But for me, I did really get quite a lot out of this collaboration. I mean Mick, for instance, as a bass player, is just phenomenal—he’ll come in and put on a bassline that will just completely change the mood of a song, for the better. He just comes up with things that I could never, ever come up with, and Moose, as well—he has these really atonal riffs and touches. And I just really like having those other people’s personalities kind of stamped into a song that I’ve written. I think it really adds to it, personally, so I’m quite enjoying that.

Paste: I like “Scratching at the Lid.” Obviously a coffin reference.

Berenyi: Yeah. And I think even more what it’s implying is that you don’t want to be scratching at the lid because you haven’t lived the life that you felt you should have done. I think that’s the vibe of it.

Paste: “Echo Loco” is interesting, when you cheerfully note that the sun is up, the grass is green and life is good. I kept thinking, “Where, exactly, is she living?”

Berenyi: Ha! It kind of goes darker as the song goes on, I think. And to be honest with you, I have had a few people go, “Oh, my God! It’s so amazing! You’ve been productive in the pandemic and you’ve recorded this album!” But honestly, most of it was recorded before the first lockdown. Literally, only days before it, we kind of recorded the last bit, and then we just had to wait ages to be able to mix it and stuff. So all of that was pre-pandemic. So with “Echo Loco,” I was more sort of thinking about—and this is gonna sound a bit wanky—but there’s a certain modern thing with social media, a kind of watch your step thing, because people can turn on you really quickly. 

Paste: Cancel culture?

Berenyi: Kind of. But I hate using that word, because I don’t like dissing any kind of woke stuff, because I understand that there are many, many benefits to it. But I think that the whiplash tail of it can be incredibly unforgiving, and the way it harbors this constant eggshell-treading, watch-your-step mentality that I find rather annoying. I have no problem with people speaking their truth. It’s people being stopped from speaking their truth that worries me more. 

Paste: Final question, then—since this was conceived before the pandemic, is there a new collection of much darker material that was written during it all?

Berenyi: No, I haven’t really. I’m with a lot of the people who said the same thing, but I found the pandemic to be really unproductive. So I think it’s things like gardening and cooking and making bread and things like that that actually are the helpful things. I think trying to be creative has not been great, possible because it does all feel a bit hopeless at its worst. And that certainly doesn’t work for me, so I’ve actually been pretty unproductive, on the whole!