Indie four-piece The Spook School formed in 2012 whilst studying at the University of Edinburgh. We spoke to the band’s singer Nye Todd about his experiences of coming out as transgender during this period and his thoughts on how public perceptions around transgender rights is evolving for the better.
You formed The Spook School with your brother Adam, Anna and Niall while the four of you were studying at the University of Edinburgh. Can you tell us more about the band's formative years?
I'd gone away to the Netherlands on an Erasmus year when Adam was just starting his first year of uni - we had some songs we'd written and wanted a band so he had the task to find band mates by the time I got back! He managed to find Anna and Niall through the university’s comedy society and we met up and had a practice and got along and that was it really!
At the time, Creative Scotland (the musical funding body in Scotland) were doing a thing in partnership with music studios where new bands could apply to record their first single free. We did that and released those songs, ‘History/Hallam’ ourselves, sent them to blogs we knew and made scrappy CD-Rs on the table of our student flat.
Luckily enough, people liked the songs enough to offer us gigs and then we met people through gigs (particularly Indietracks festival) who we ended up putting out records with and doing other fun stuff with!
The band's lyrics explore themes of gender and sexuality. Did you identify as Transgender while you were a student and when you first started the band?
I first started figuring out that I might be Trans when I was living in the Netherlands, the year before the band started. I stumbled across a video by a Trans male YouTuber somehow and had a kind of “oh, that's me!” moment.
The year that we started the band (the final year of my bachelor's), I was pretty sure that I identified as male, but I hadn't shared that with anyone else yet. Some of our early songs that reference gender and sexuality (‘History, Hallam’) were me kind of processing my emotions about it all, whereas some (‘Are You Who You Think You Are’) were me doing that but also trying to be as obvious as possibly on the vain hope that everyone would just get it and I wouldn't have to come out to everyone.
I only really properly started coming out to close friends as Trans the year after, and then everyone the year after that, so it took me a pretty long time.
Was it difficult performing those songs about being Transgender without many people outside the band knowing what they were about?
I kind of had this silly hope that I would just sing the song and people would be like “Oh, you're Trans! Cool!” which of course didn't happen.
I think it's pretty easy for people to miss things in songs unless you are pretty obvious about it!
I do remember being pretty frustrated when I'd sing with the band and then immediately be gendered by everyone as female. I’ve certainly found it so much more rewarding/affirming to play those songs as an openly Trans person, sometimes introducing what they are about.
Of all the songs you've penned, which draw on your own personal experiences of coming out the most?
Well, 'I’ll Be Honest’ is pretty much entirely about how useless I was at coming out to people, about how I'd give myself countless excuses for not doing it or wait until the person was really drunk and probably wouldn't even remember the conversation in the morning.
'Are You Who You Think You Are?’, was also a lot about my feelings around coming out, particularly to my family.
How important has having a creative outlet been for you?
I think it’s been very important. I'm not the greatest person at having emotional conversations with people and it took me so long to come out to everyone that I really needed to have that kind of one form of honest self-expression, even if I was the only one who knew what it was at the time!
On our second album (‘Try To Be Hopeful’), when the songs I was writing were less about figuring out an identity and coming out and more about having pride in that identity, I really enjoyed sharing those with people and having them understood.
I think writing songs from that place kind of helped me move into it, and definitely meeting so many cool Trans and queer people through playing those songs has made so much positive change in my life.
Have you been surprised by the response from bands and peers in the music industry?
I don't know, I think I never really had any real expectation of how people would react, either to me or to our music.
I definitely have moments of being surprised at all the things we've been lucky enough to get the opportunity to do - touring with queer heroes PWR BTTM this year was one of those moments was one - but I'm also proud of our music and what we've managed to express.
The reaction to me coming out and identifying as Trans has always been pretty positive, I think partly because we've generally been quite careful in who we work with and who we play for (trying to avoid dickheads, essentially).
Finding a lovely and supportive network of queer artists has been a wonderful surprise, too.
This week, NUS is making history with the election of our first ever Trans Officer - the first position of its kind in Europe. If you were a student again today, do you think you'd feel more comfortable in being open about your identity?
I'd hope so. Certainly when I was a student there weren't many (if any) celebrated Trans icons like Laverne Cox or Laura Jane Grace.
I think having those people be visible and celebrated will hopefully make it both easier for people to figure out what being Trans is and if that's how they identify. Hopefully it would also be easier to come out now as there's more awareness but it's also one of those things where I think it's okay to do in your own time.
In the same way that seeing famous Transgender people is helpful in raising awareness and understanding, seeing Trans people that are closer to your experience is also so great, and also hopefully having a Trans NUS officer will help the progress towards making universities a safe and positive environment for Trans students so it sounds like a very good step.
What do you think the biggest challenges facing Transgender students and how can we overcome these together?
I think a lot of it is still lack of awareness and false awareness. Particularly concerning Transgender women, comedy shows and films still contain lots of bad/damaging jokes and degrading depictions of Trans women as not really being women, which helps encourage an atmosphere where people (usually men) feel entitled to insult or even harm Transgender women.
The ability for people to exist openly and honestly in safety is a pretty fundamental one so obviously challenging these behaviours is incredibly important.
Other smaller, easier to achieve things can also make a big difference - things like making it easy to request for the use of a different names or pronouns in classes, having gender-neutral bathroom facilities available, all of that stuff adds up to an easier and less stressful environment.
The Spook School travel across the pond to play SXSX in Texas later this month before returning to the UK for two shows at West Hill Hall in Brighton (Saturday 25 March) and the Scala in London (Sunday 26 March).