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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Roller Derby are an indie dream pop band from Hamburg, consisting of Philine Meyer (vocals, keys) and Manuel Romero Soria (guitar). Their music branches out from nostalgic '80s sounds and modern indie pop, their wistful lyrics rooted in warm synth. Roller Derby played their first concert in June 2021 and by spring 2022, they had played SXSW and The Great Escape. I caught up with them after a headline show at Shacklewell Arms in February this year.

Manuel and Philine met whilst studying culture studies at college in Germany and, toying with the idea of starting a band, began writing music and covering songs together. Manuel had already been in two bands, starting when he was 15, but for Philine, this was the first time. "I always sang and loved singing, but when I was younger I felt like making my own music just wasn't realistic."

Roller Derby performing live

"It took some time to evolve to the point where we felt we could go out with our music," explains Philine. "It was only after about three years of writing songs and experimenting that we felt confident in our sound. We wanted to combine a dream pop sound with '80s influences, using a synthesiser and guitar effect pedals to make something warm and dreamy. In 2020 we felt ready, and Roller Derby was born."

Roller Derby is a woman-dominated full-contact sport played on roller skates, and the name that they decided on for their band. "We loved artists with sport-related names, like Soccer Mommy, American Football or Tennis," smiles Philine. "We came up with the name Roller Derby, and we liked that idea, it's a cool sport – like rugby on roller skates – and roller skates have quite a retro vibe, which fits with our music. We also liked the idea of a rough feminist sport and the stark contrast of that with our soft-sounding music."

It took some time to evolve to the point where we felt we could go out with our music.

Philine Meyer

The band's influences range from the '60s to the modern day, with artists like Melanie Safka, through to Bob Dylan, The Cure, and The Smiths, and onwards to Beach House. "Maybe it's not always obvious in our music now, but the inspiration lies there," says Manuel.

Roller Derby started releasing their first songs during the height of COVID-19, promoting their music online with DIY roller skate videos, and gradually gaining a following. In the summer of 2021 they received an email from a booker offering them a support slot for the Oracle Sisters at the Molotow Club, a legendary venue in Hamburg. "Due to the pandemic it was a restricted show in the backyard of the club," explains Philine. "We were so honored about it and I still remember how nervous I was beforehand."

The band has now played a string of gigs and festivals, a lifestyle which suits them well. "I love the mixture of touring, meeting loads of people, and then heading back to the quiet of home," says Philine. "It's the perfect balance." Although they enjoy festivals, gigs are their favorite. "Often we play festivals during the day," explains Manuel. "It's not the same atmosphere, especially for our music. Because our songs are quite dreamy, they work better in the dark." "In the dark I feel as if I can enchant the crowd," Philine adds. "I can sing to them and don't need to respond to me, just absorb it."

Regarding playing live, "I really enjoy playing or singing 'Starry-Eyed' and 'Only You'," says Philine. "I love all the songs of course, but singing 'Starry-Eyed' and 'Only You' is something special to me." Manuel agrees, adding that he also loves playing "Say How Come" and "I Wish".

What advice would you give an artist starting to make music, in the position you were in in 2020?

Philine: Find people who really want to help you or who really love what you do and can support you. Having motivated people, having friends around you—that helps the most—

Manuel: —like filmmakers, photographers. And you don't need to find a label right away. You can just start on your own—

Philine: Using the internet to get an audience. And yeah, just start—

Manuel: —don't overthink everything… (he laughs) I like to do that a lot and release the first single as soon as you can—

Philine: Don't think too much about it!

Manuel: Try to play gigs, go out and meet other musicians—

Philine: Don't be shy or don't be too hard on yourself regarding your art. You can release a song that's perfect, even though it only has two chords, it could be a cool, nice song. No pressure on being too elaborate or too artsy or whatever.

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Manuel: I guess nothing is ever really perfect.

Because our songs are quite dreamy, they work better in the dark.

Manuel Romero Soria

Getting support from their network of friends and family is key to Roller Derby's success—Philine's mum does the artwork for all of their singles and they collaborated with a young director on their first music videos ("I Wish", "Flying High", and "Can't See You"). "The director was actually the friend of someone who lived next door to us at the time," Manuel explains. "It was her idea to come up with a visual story that combined our first three singles, and we loved it."

From their soft beginnings, Roller Derby are ready to evolve their sound, whilst holding onto their essence of "vintage-sounding music with catchy melodies." Philine says, "Things are always changing. I think our new songs, written in the last year for our upcoming album, are more mature, more melancholy – less flowery let's say. There are still some upbeat songs on the album, but fewer than before. We're leaning into something slower, and heavier."

Another essential part of Roller Derby's identity is their intuitive, joint approach to songwriting. "Our writing process has always been very collaborative," explains Manuel. "We like to do it with friends and take time to play with them. We'll come up with some chords, and Philine will sing a melody above it – it all happens together, quite instinctively."

"We always start with the music," agrees Philine. "I let the lyrics take me where they want to go. I'm not always aware of where they come from – sometimes they reflect what's on my mind, sometimes I sing from someone else's perspective."

The overriding emotion that seeps into Roller Derby's music is a certain melancholy, or sense of longing, which is at odds with their upbeat sound. "I'm a very shy, quiet person," Philine explains. "Being introverted is something I feel deeply, that feeling when you can't express something to another person and so you keep it to yourself, and the linked feeling of losing someone, losing love, losing a friend."

Alongside Roller Derby, both Manuel and Philine work part-time—Philine as management assistant in the construction sector and Manuel at a music management agency—and they've had to find ways to stay inspired to create. "We love to go out to the countryside on the weekend, or sometimes for a whole week, and just focus on writing new music," says Manuel. "In Hamburg, it's sometimes hard for us to sit down after work and write music, so it's good to get into a different headspace."

"Taking time is also important for us – not hurrying, not rushing to the rehearsal room for one or two hours and rushing away again." Philine smiles, "Sometimes it helps just to sit on the sitting room floor, looking out of the window and letting inspiration come."

What's next for Roller Derby, what do the next 2-3 years look like?

Philine: Well we've got our album coming out, we're just looking for a partner to release it with… We want to start putting out singles in the coming months!

Manuel: We're hoping by next February it will be out—

Philine: And in summer we're playing a festival in Germany and another show in the Netherlands, and hopefully some support shows too – recently I've been listening to a lot of Future Islands and they're touring right now, it would be amazing to open for someone like that.

Manuel: And in three years? Play a solo at the Moth Club in London maybe?

Philine: We once played at the Moth Club supporting Lunar Vacation and we loved it. Because… I don't know, it was amazing. In three years I think we'd love to be touring through some cities in Europe, in venues like Paradiso Amsterdam—

Manuel: Ok, yeah. Headline shows in Europe. UK, Netherlands, France, Spain. Everywhere!

Listen to "Starry-Eyed" below and read our review of the track.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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