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Chasing the Horse

Porridge Radio were becoming indie pop darlings at the same time the world was shutting down. Two years and one new album later, they’re finally ready to soak it all up.

Photography by Matilda-Hill-Jenkins/Ringer illustration

Dana Margolin is just trying to keep pace with what’s in front of her. It’s a sensation that she sometimes experiences while playing songs with the band she leads, the ascendant U.K. indie quartet Porridge Radio. Lately, however, the chase has crept into her daily life as she grapples with what amounts to overlapping album cycles—the tail end of one for Porridge Radio’s breakout 2020 LP, Every Bad, and the upswing of another for their soaring new record out Friday, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky. The condensed timeline has meant playing a run of shows rescheduled from two years ago while also planning an upcoming world tour and also fitting in the most demanding press gauntlet the onetime DIY artist has ever experienced.

“Sometimes when we play certain songs, we are like, ‘Oh shit, that was like a galloping horse getting away,’” Margolin says via Zoom from her London home in mid-April. “But that’s kind of what I feel like I’m doing with everything at the moment.”

Margolin is happy for the attention her band is getting, even if Porridge Radio find themselves in this saddle not by choice. They became an “it” band at the worst possible moment in recent history: Every Bad was released (and received a Pitchfork Best New Music score) on March 13, 2020, the day America effectively began shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic and just weeks after most of Europe and Asia did the same. As the world tended to a once-in-several-generations health crisis, musicians at all levels were forced to scrap their carefully laid plans. Porridge Radio felt that as acutely as anyone. They were forced to miss out on a conquering hero’s welcome at South by Southwest (among the first of the pandemic’s festival casualties) and scrap a North American tour supporting lo-fi pop gods Car Seat Headrest. As Every Bad racked up accolades—countless year-end lists, independent-album chart placements, and a Mercury Prize nomination chief among them—Porridge Radio essentially became bystanders to their own buzz, experiencing what most bands dream of in virtual isolation.

The pandemic pause has become part of the Porridge Radio narrative, at least as the band runs through the Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky album cycle. (“Did you feel like you were robbed of your moment?” is a question Margolin now laughs at because she’s heard it so many times.) But if Margolin feels any bitterness about missing out, she has no interest in wallowing in it. “There’s a lot of talk about ‘Oh, do you feel like you are having your moment?,’” she says. “‘Do you feel like you regret everything? You suffered loads from the pandemic and you have to catch up’ and all this shit. I think of it like: Life is just life. Shit happens to everyone all the time. It’s really hard sometimes. You just deal with what comes your way.”

For Porridge Radio, dealing with it has meant returning with a new album that packs all of the richness of its predecessor while pushing the music to new heights, even if those heights are sometimes frightening. Every Bad, their second LP and debut for famed label Secretly Canadian, is a big record built around punishing riffs (the quiet-loud-quiet bang of “Sweet” evokes Rid of Me–era PJ Harvey) and undeniable indie pop (the jangly, cutesy “Give/Take” sounds like Feist by way of Pavement). It established Margolin as one of the most exciting voices in her genre, as prone to poetic flourishes and parabolic asides as plain-spoken refrains, many of which she repeats until they sound like incantations. (On the album’s blistering opener, “Born Confused,” she sings the phrase “Thank you for making me happy” 42 times, her voice traveling from deadpan to visceral cry in the span of the song’s final 1:50.) In many ways, Every Bad was the perfect record for the early days of lockdown—full of existential confusion and isolated wanting. Plus, its mix of post-punk, distorted power chords and sweeping dream pop sounded great in headphones.

The band could’ve simply doubled down on what worked for Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky. But while it’s unquestionably a Porridge Radio record—Margolin’s voice and songwriting are both unmistakable—it’s more refined, more produced, and more anthemic. That begins on the opening track and lead single “Back to the Radio”—a roaring song about heartbreak that includes a trumpet and violins and crescendos into a late-night pub sing-along—and continues through to the closing title track. Along the way, there are shimmering keyboards, fragments of trip-hop production, and gigantic choruses that would sound as at home in a stadium as they will on the club circuit. It’s the sound of a band maturing, which Margolin credits to Porridge Radio’s increased comfort: with their craft, with each other, with having a more clear-cut label situation heading into the creation of the record. “I think I got a lot better at playing guitar and I got a lot better at singing,” Margolin says. “As a band, we collaborate better now than we have done in the past. There’s a lot of things on this album where we all kind of sat together, and it felt like it gels better.”

By taking everything that made them special and refining it—and in many respects improving upon it—Porridge Radio has done everything that could be asked of a band following up on their breakthrough. The question now is whether the music world will greet them with the same fervor as last time. “There was all this hype, and now I’m really excited about this new album because I really love it,” Margolin says. “And I’m really proud of it. And I want people to hear it. And there is a sense of playing the Every Bad shows and people being like, ‘Oh, I really wish I could have seen you on that album.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but fuck. Trying to catch the horse.’”

The strangest thing about Porridge Radio’s current predicament is that the band never seemed destined for all the trappings of indie fame, from the awards to the glowing reviews to the sometimes-daunting press runs. That’s not for lack of talent or songcraft: Scouring the early lo-fi releases on their Bandcamp page reveals a group full of passion and a knack for melody, even if it’s buried under tape hiss and shredded vocal chords. But Porridge Radio began as a DIY operation—the kind of outfit that gains a cult following but never lands a Pitchfork review or an invite to South by Southwest. In an alternate timeline, Porridge Radio disbands before ever making Every Bad or joining Secretly Canadian. That they’ve reached this point is a testament to not only their work ethic but the music they’ve created.

Margolin started Porridge Radio in 2012 as a solo endeavor in Brighton, a vibrant coastal British town that both Nick Cave and the Cure’s Robert Smith have claimed as adopted homes over the years. Early on, Margolin would upload songs to SoundCloud and perform at the occasional open mic, but the project was mainly a labor of love and just one of many things she did, from visual art to making fanzines to whatever else inspired her. (“I was just obsessed with music and bands and going to gigs for my entire teenage years,” says Margolin, now 28. “I would always write songs just because I love writing songs.”) In 2014, Porridge Radio expanded from a one-woman operation to a full-blown band: Margolin on guitars and lead vocals, Georgie Stott on keys and synths, Maddie Ryall on bass, and Sam Yardley on drums, the last of whom Margolin met serendipitously while selling self-made zines at a local fair. (When Margolin later posted online that she was looking for other musicians to join her, Yardley volunteered for drums. “I jumped on board pretty quickly after finding out about it, which is just lucky,” they say in a separate Zoom interview.)

Porridge Radio began self-booking tours and “playing shows constantly,” Margolin says. They also rapidly recorded new songs in a practice room they rented at the University of Sussex for £30 a month, producing gripping, hearts-on-their-sleeves lo-fi projects like Hello Dog Friendly, a split EP with Los Angeles trio West America. Amid the anarchy of the early days, they linked up with a small cassette label—Memorials of Distinction, founded by Margolin’s friend and the band’s current manager, Josh Cohen—but still maintained their DIY ethos, pressing their own vinyl and merch and blanketing journalists’ emails in hopes of getting attention. “We were doing it all ourselves,” Margolin says. “It was this compulsion. It’s like an illness where you have to make the thing. You have to just follow the road. I had all these people around me who wanted to just do it because we loved it.”

In August 2016, Porridge Radio released their debut full-length, Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers, which they describe on their Bandcamp page as a testament to “scrapbook absurdism.” While the album possesses a melancholic rawness, the music on Rice, Pasta is more polished than their earlier singles and EPs—the locked-in groove of Ryall’s bass and Yardley’s drumming providing an infectious backdrop for Margolin’s songwriting, which begins to find its pop sensibilities even as the singer sounds downright haunted at times. A song like “Sorry”—where Margolin bellows, “There’s one hundred ways of dealing with this shit / But I think I’ve only got the energy to cry”—is as notable for its earworm melody as for Margolin’s naked vulnerability. “She has a very intense, sometimes guttural delivery that’s really captivating,” Yardley says of Margolin’s talents as a lead singer. “I feel like that is, if not the main, then one of the main pulls for Porridge Radio, in terms of being able to catch people’s attention.”

For Tom Carmichael, a producer who became a fan through Every Bad before collaborating with the band, Margolin’s ability to write about highly specific personal matters in a way that feels universal was a big part of what attracted him to Porridge Radio. “Dana has an amazing gift to create something truly unique when she sits down to write a song, and she has a healthy disregard for the conventions of how a song ‘should’ be written,” Carmichael says via email. “I think it’s a little bit like watching someone pick up and start to play an instrument for the first time, with all the freedom that that gives them, not knowing how you’re supposed to play it. Not to say that Dana’s inexperienced in writing songs, but she keeps that sense of freedom in it.”

In her all-too-earnest roughness, Margolin finds kinship in musicians outside of Porridge Radio’s immediate indie peer group: most notably emo and nu metal bands, who she says are like her in that they’re not afraid to be “cringe as fuck.” She first noticed the connection while skimming late-night mainstream rock radio and hearing lyrics that reminded her of her own writing. (“I’m always like, ‘Oh, I’m so cringe, why do I write like this?’” she says. “And then you hear a little bit of Deftones and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s the right fit. I get it.’”) That approach manifests itself in some of Porridge Radio’s best songs, like Rice, Pasta’s “Lemonade” or Every Bad’s “Sweet,” the latter of which opens with a verse that would feel at home on a Bayside or Saves the Day song if not for the punishing post-punk riff and Margolin’s disembodied, distinctly British wail:

My mum says that I look like a nervous wreck
Because I bite my nails right down to the flesh
And sometimes, I am just a child, writing letters to myself
Wishing out loud you were dead, and then taking it back
And I used to be ashamed until I learned I love the game
And I slowly move away from everything I knew about you

“You get over the hurdle of ‘I’m going to bear my soul, and I’m going to be vulnerable, and someone might use it against me,’” Margolin says. “You just go and be vulnerable. If someone uses it against you, say, ‘OK, but what are you going to do? What could you possibly do? I’ve put it all on the table now.’”

That table is only bigger now, thanks to the giant leap forward Porridge Radio took with 2020’s Every Bad. It’s not that the themes were different—Margolin embraced her cringe as much as ever, and it can be heart-rending and wryly funny in the same breath—it’s that everything sounded more lush and crystalline, from the production to the hooks to even Margolin’s voice. Part of that came from the natural evolution of a band that had been growing together for a half decade, but it’s also a result of their record deal. With the Secretly Canadian arrangement came more resources: access to nicer studio spaces and staff to help with the press runs and everything else that goes into making a band successful. “We still want to be in control,” Yardley says. “It’s still fundamentally a creative project, and it’s our creative project. It’s something we want to do because we like making things. I kind of try and see it as ‘Well, we’re still kind of doing the same thing, but now we’ve got more, better opportunities to do what we want to do.’”

For Margolin, the change required a bit of getting used to, even if the increased attention on the music was welcome. Suddenly, a band that had spent years toiling outside the spotlight was getting an influx of new fans and attention from the press. When the prestigious Mercury Prize announced its shortlist of nominees in July 2020, Porridge Radio’s name sat next to Dua Lipa’s, Charli XCX’s, and Stormzy’s. “You go from being, like, DIYers, not just out of a political sense of what it means to be DIY but also out of pure necessity,” she says. “Then suddenly you switch over and you’re like, ‘Oh shit, people want to talk to us about this? What are we doing? This is absolutely ridiculous.’”

There’s one important job that Porridge Radio hasn’t relinquished in their transition from do-everything wizards to indie-label darlings: making the cover art to their records. As she has since the band’s earliest days, Margolin designed the artwork for Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky. The series of portraits she made for the album are charmingly literal in their connection to the title but also possess a striking amount of abstract depth. (Margolin has painted since she was a teenager, but only began taking it seriously within the past few years. “It was kind of similar to music,” she says. “I just really liked it. So I started doing it.”)

The inspiration for the cover—and the seemingly random objects the title comprises—comes from a number of sources, including the Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder and a collage by British surrealist Eileen Agar that Margolin discovered deep into the making of the record. She was drawn most to the diving board in the collage: the steps leading up to it, the curve of the rails, the waves below, and the angelic figures hovering above. It spoke to some of the emotions she was experiencing in a year packed with highs and lows. “The diving board is risk, and fear, and work, and climbing up to jump off the edge,” she says. “It’s like putting yourself on the edge of your comfort zone or taking one step beyond that. So you are outside of your comfort zone, but there’s also thrill in there.”

A photo of Eileen Agar’s collage that partly inspired Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky.
(Dana Margolin)
One of Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky’s covers, painted by Margolin.
(Secretly Canadian)

It’s an apt metaphor for where Porridge Radio find themselves now. There’s inherent fear and thrill in climbing to the height they have, but on Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky, the band is pushing past their comfort zone, the cold water beneath them be damned. Waterslide is not a retread of Every Bad—Margolin says she wanted to write more patient songs and “not just bash out chords.” So while it’s not completely devoid of fire-breathing intensity—the pandemic anxiety of “Birthday Party” conjures the dark magic of Every Bad’s fiercest moments, while centerpiece “The Rip” splits the difference between the two albums to stunning results—there’s a refined elegance to many of the tracks, like the plaintive, piano-led “Flowers” or “End of Last Year,” a love letter to the band itself. Waterslide is often a soft record, but never one that threatens to go quietly. It would be impossible for it to do that with the way Margolin’s voice cracks on refrains like “I don’t want to be loved” and “Now my heart aches” or the way it rises on late-album highlight “Splintered,” which turns a story of a minor wound into a parable of how our bodies work to protect us. (“​​I got a splinter last time I visited you / But my body pushed it out,” she sings to open the song, which she closes on a slightly tweaked version of the line that stands as a declaration of freedom: “My body pushes you out.”)

The music has also grown around Margolin. Even when she’s at her most distressed, the backdrops she’s working with are almost uniformly beautiful—the contrast underlining the power of both. Stott’s synth work takes center stage on Waterslide, driving songs into ethereal, often spiritual new directions, and on “Jealousy,” the production recalls Portishead and Deftones in equal measure. It’s not a wholesale change from the last record—Every Bad songs like “Long” didn’t shy away from big keyboard lines and studio embellishments—but it’s enough of an evolution to feel like a daring choice, especially for a band that just got its first taste of widespread acclaim.

“In terms of the songwriting and the arrangement and putting things together, it felt a bit more mature and considered,” Yardley says. “I felt proud of what we had managed to do, and maybe there is an extent to which we didn’t quite feel that so much with Every Bad.”

Margolin is quick to credit the new direction to both Ryall and Stott (the latter of whom Margolin says helped saved some of the album’s better songs from the cutting-room floor), as well her two co-producers on Waterslide: Yardley, who she says excels at adding “beautiful little parts” to her sketches, and Carmichael, who’s assisted on records by Kendrick Lamar, Haim, and Chance the Rapper. Like Every Bad, Waterslide was created in professional studios—conceived at PRAH in Margate, U.K., and recorded at Echo Zoo in Eastbourne—but with their growing comfort in those spaces, Porridge Radio found a way to smuggle some of their DIY DNA onto the new album. On the last night of recording, inspired by a long trip spent listening to Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and all of its distinctive percussion, the band assembled a junk-yard drum kit, setting up metal ashtray buckets and pieces from a car on the floor of the studio. “There’s not one correct way to do things, or one correct way that something should sound,” Yardley says. “You kind of use whatever means you have, or find whatever means you need, to get the sound that you want, and sometimes that is going a bit off-kilter. But that was really fun.”

With all the ashtray buckets banged and Waterslide out Friday, it’s now up to the public to decide whether it will resonate as much as Every Bad did. The early reception would seem to point to that being the case, but as the band has begun to experience their last record’s success in person, they’re realizing just how much people adored it. For Yardley, the moment it hit them came at the Green Man Festival in South Wales last August, when Porridge Radio played for the largest crowd they can recall. “It was like, there’s a lot of people here, and it’s a lot of people who are really invested in seeing us as well,” Yardley says. “Had nice reactions before but not on a scale like that.”

Yardley rightly points out that these types of things can be fickle and unpredictable, and even with the pride they take in Waterslide, there’s a small piece of them that worries about this album connecting in the same way. “There’s a thing for me that’s like, ‘What if the reaction to this one isn’t quite as buzzing?’” Yardley says. “Me and Dana are both like, ‘Well, this one is definitely better,’ but what if other people don’t realize that? What if everyone else is kind of over it at this point?”

Maybe that’s just the next galloping horse to chase. But if Porridge Radio never catches up, Margolin seems at peace with what the band has been able to accomplish with both records. She’s had people tell her that Every Bad helped them get through not only the darkest days of 2020 but also cancer diagnoses and breakups. As her band has climbed ladders and walked out onto the diving board, she’s learned that in all her oversharing and cringe, there are pieces for others to latch onto. When asked what she hopes Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky will accomplish, she points to something more modest than year-end lists or Mercury Prize shortlists: creating a space to be able to share some embarrassing feelings and being OK with it.

“It’s only in accepting the fact that you are ashamed of something inside you and then talking about it that you can have some kind of understanding and connection through it,” she says. “Without that, you’ll just go through life feeling alone and suffering through your shame. What I’m trying to do is just acknowledge the painful things, or the shameful things, and talk about it, because otherwise, it’s just going to eat me alive.”

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