An interview with JOHN
Following the release of their sophomore album ‘Out Here on the Fringes’, Connor Bluemel caught up with rock/punk/noise duo JOHN on the final night of their UK tour at Margate’s Elsewhere to discuss creativity, pointless music videos and breathing a sigh of relief when you get off the tube.
Photo by Lindsay Melbourne, 2019
‘Four arms, four legs, two heads, wood, metal and plastic...Two Johns’
I entered Elsewhere feeling somewhat awkward. It always feels strange being in a venue before the doors open, as if you’re intruding. That feeling of being left alone with a friend’s parents makes its presence felt. I said hello to Sammy Clarke, Margate’s promoter-extraordinaire: “Are JOHN sound-checking?”
My question was answered with an eruption of sound from beneath me. The song was dark, furious. Its emergence from the basement briefly makes me think of the underworld. So, when a friendly-faced, bespectacled man appeared upstairs some 15 minutes later, glancing furtively around the bar, there was a brief disconnect. This was of course John, drummer and vocalist for the eponymous band. At John’s suggestions we descended into the depths of the venue; I was introduced to guitarist Johnny and we sealed ourselves in the green room.
How’s the tour been - any highlights?
Johnny: The whole thing’s been a highlight so far, just because the response has been so great. With the radio play and the momentum we’ve had, you’ve got people singing it back to you, which has been a big difference to the last tour.
John: Yeah, it’s noticeable. When you first start out people are getting used to seeing you play and a lot of people are just watching, but we’ve had some really nicely rowdy - rowdy but respectful – shows. It’s been nice to see people really in the music and letting their inhibitions go. You play better when you feed off that energy; it’s a two-way process, if you feel comfortable with the crowd then you don’t feel exposed.
Are there any songs from ‘Out Here on the Fringes’ that have gone down particularly well?
Johnny: High Digger’s not really been surprising because it’s been on the radio, but that one people have really been going for, more so than Future Thinker. Even though that one got more plays.
John: With the radio plays, it’s funny…you almost don’t want to believe that works because of some kind of cynicism. I have that anxiety where I’m like ‘oh no that won’t work’, but then actually people come up to you and say, ‘we heard this on 6 Music and we bought tickets to a show’ and you’re like ‘oh that does work [laughs], the machine works’.
How’s that been? You were 6music’s album of the day, you’ve been in the vinyl charts - it’s a bit of a step up.
John: It’s odd for us because we never changed our approach in any way. Obviously, the radio stuff helped blossom this new audience, but it’s quite funny because you’re like ‘we haven’t changed anything’, but the external world around you has changed in response to the music. It’s really humbling and the fact that we release our own records…I don’t know if anyone knows but it is our own label which I run alongside Johnny.
That must be a lot of work?
John: Yeah, but because I enjoy it, it never really feels like work. To see that you can affect the UK Vinyl Chart with walking to the post office fifty times is really sobering and great. I hope that can translate to younger bands or whoever’s listening in any walk of life, that you can do things on a relatively modest term or budget.
The new album ‘Out Here on the Fringes’ is much more conceptual than the first, is that something you consciously decided to do?
Johnny: With the first album, we’d played for a long time and we knew we had enough songs to make a good record, so we put it out. The second one we had more time to actually think about it as an album, but it’s not like we planned it to be a concept album - we just wrote songs that we liked. We had a little bit of a theme that we worked around, but over two recording sessions it just kind of fell into place; some of the songs we wrote a week before they went onto the album.
John: I’m always one of those believers that the album is like a period of time. With the first one, even though we talk about it as a collection of our first set of songs, I still feel like all those songs came from certain experiences, from a certain period of time. In the same way, the second feels like it’s coming from certain locations, certain images. The lyrics are affected by these images that I’m experiencing on a quite mundane level.
Johnny: It just felt more natural with the second one. We surprised ourselves in some respects. We don’t write songs outside of the rehearsal room, we just get in and start playing. I don’t come in with an idea or with a riff, and you don’t come in with drums.
Really, it’s all done like that?
Johnny: Yeah, just on the spot.
John: But lyrically I’ll know that we’re in the second album camp. If I have the first three songs that we’ve written, then I know that if we’re going to write the next one, I’m living in the same landscape; I can create lyrics that come from the same place, to create this unified theme. I do the artwork as well because my background is working as an artist - I still work as an artist - so visually you can start to marry the images of the album with the lyrical themes.
I think that comes across really well; the title track jumped out a me on that level.
Johnny: I think that song really surprised us when we wrote it because it was quite different. We write a lot of fast noisy stuff that we love, but we wanted to write something slightly darker and slower, with a bit more depth.
John: I remember going out of the rehearsal room and being like ‘that is the song that I wanted, and we got it’. That really helped the process of the album. You just have to leave yourself open to noticing when something’s happening; you play naïve. We don’t labour and sit there working out very hegemonic structures. You’re like, ‘ok what’s going on here’ and you capture something that slips out in the rehearsal room.
Johnny: We record everything on our phones and sometimes we get so used to the recordings that even if there’s mistakes, the mistakes become the song. You listen to it so much as a basis for the next rehearsal, you end up putting the mistakes in. We’re not consciously trying to make it an odd timing or a weird riff, it’s actually just trying to emulate that first recording.
John: It really is. You sit on the edge of your seat and you’ve got to be ready to be surprised. When you do get surprised you’ve got to capture it. I think that is a really important part of being a musician. I listened to Thom Yorke’s Desert Island Discs and he said a very similar thing, which is that you really are just putting yourself in the moment - you just have to keep chasing it. He says it’s like a drug and it is, you keep wanting to find the moment. That happened on that song for sure.
You stuck with the same studio and producer as your first album, whereas a lot of bands change it up each record. What was the thinking behind keeping that aspect of the process the same?
Johnny: I think we realised quickly when we worked with Wayne that he got what we wanted to do. He’s not a flattering person who just takes anything you throw at him, says ‘that’s great’ and tries to record it. He’ll say, ‘you could do that better’ or ‘this could be better this way’. Sometimes we’ll try it and we’ll agree with him and sometimes we disagree with him. But he’s fine with that because he wants to make it the best you can do it.
John: There’s also a certain sense of trust with Wayne. We know how much music he’s made and the breadth of music he’s made; whether it be gabber and techno or the bands that he plays in. If Wayne says we’ve got it then I’m pretty sure that’s ok, because his standard is pretty high. He also doesn’t overlabour, so like we were talking about with those happy accidents and capturing those.
Johnny: Most of the drums, the vocals, guitars, bass, are one or two tracks. It’s then going back in and doing little things where you can start being a bit more creative; placing an amp outside of the studio to get these lo-fi things going on or getting feedback from different amps…things like that really polish off a record. Also, we don’t go in there and write songs, we just go in there and record; we aim to go in and not labour over them.
John: I think a lot of people go into the studio thinking ‘this is the hardest crystallised version of a song forever’ and if you start thinking like that, it can be debilitating. You can end up completely sterilising a song. The way I deal with it, I think ‘well this is a snapshot of how the song is’. We were listening to the first album the other day and I thought some of the vocal deliveries on the songs I’ve completely improved onto my drum beat live, but that’s fine. I still love the recordings; the song just moves on and changes throughout time. It’s nice to know that it’s this organic thing.
There’s obviously a lot of autobiographical source material on the album, but were there any books that influenced you?
John: I think the fictionalisation of the biographical is something that I’ve always been really interested in - understanding that any re-telling becomes a fiction. B S Johnson, a novelist in the ‘60s, was obsessed with this quest for writing honestly. He always said that he never wrote anything that wasn’t true, but then any retelling is a lie because you’re at the mercy of language. I like seeing these songs as stories that get mangled through a song and also understanding the form of a song being important - like it’s up on a stage. I like subverting that. You can write about the most mundane things, but when it’s put into the vehicle of a song it automatically gets put onto the pedestal of art. Ghost Printer is essentially a micro-narrative about someone writing applications for things and failing, then blaming it on this ghost that happens to be in the printer. It comes from a very mundane place, but through the song it becomes this kind of exploded narrative.
Johnny: It’s like with Midnight Supermarket, the interlude after Laszlo. Living on the outskirts of London, if you go on a night out you might leave where you are at 1 or 2 in the morning, but it takes you an hour to come home even at night. You always end up in a supermarket getting a last drink or something to eat - it’s always very bright and disorientating. You’re walking around a bit dazed. You came up with that title and then I used it as a basis to write an interlude. There’s a snapshot of being a little disorientated in a place. Then you buy your stuff and leave, and you’re back out again.
John: Yeah, it’s how music can suggest an emotional image, in terms of this routine of consumerism like Johnny was saying; the way you would go to a shop and feel forced to buy certain things because of those structures that you’re in. Johnny did an amazing job of translating that title into an emotional feeling. We have some small field recordings that are hidden within it as well, which helps push it towards knowing that it’s a supermarket sound, whether it’s the bleeps or the trollies moving.
Johnny: Or the fact that the song Laszlo fades out into a tannoy.
John: It’s actually physically trying to move a viewer into a different space, cinematically.
I really loved your self-directed video for Future Thinker. What was the creative process behind that?
John: I had this idea of setting the camera on conveyor belts and using that as the tracking device. I probably had that for about five years, I just couldn’t find the appropriate time to bring it out in an artwork context. Then when I listened to Future Thinker I started to realise that those images could match the rise, falls and peaks of the song, so sonically it worked. Also, conceptually with the lyrics it worked because it’s this negotiation of the past, present and future. It’s like how we reflect on our future with these images of the past; that kind of haunting quality which those memories can have, and also how problematic they can be.
That seemed to be mimicked in the repetition, again with consumerism and commuting, and having to be on this relentless escalator journey. Then Johnny very shrewdly noticed that since there was a gap in the song, it could pop out to another image which is very estranged from the rest. We got really lucky, and again this is where you strike on that happy accident. We were playing a show in Bristol and it snowed that night. We couldn’t get into my brother’s flat, so I ended up driving back in the night to my parents’ house in the countryside. I managed to get that shot of a shack in the woods with this snowy landscape - the opposite of this internal shot inside the tube.
Johnny: It just felt like it needed that break, like a gasp and then you’re back under. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when they get off the tube, like ‘oh thank fuck for that’ [laughs].
John: It’s a device though. By doing that you tell a story. That’s why in cinema it’s so great when you choose to set up a shot or you choose to show something. Like Chekhov’s gun - which is if you show a gun, then the viewer assumes that the gun is going to be important later on. If you realise that’s the case, then you can show the gun and not use it later on, like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. There are ways of creating tension or suggesting something by the input of an estranged image.
I thought it was really interesting from a DIY standpoint as well. You showed that you can make something relatively simple, with a modest budget and for it still to tell this great story.
John: I hate when music videos are a matter of fact for bands. I almost think if you don’t have a good idea for a standalone music video, don’t bother making one, because what’s the point?
Johnny: It needs to be its own thing really, it can’t just be a pointless accessory. If it can stand up as its own piece of work then do it, but if it’s just a video for the sake of having a video…
John: It’s become a marketing device. Things look like they’re put together for the sake of getting more clicks and making it more readily available to link to a song in order to sell tickets. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to bother making a music video, but I did have that idea for the music video and I’m really pleased that we made it.
What’s the aim for JOHN and where would you like to see yourselves down the line?
John: I think we’re already seeing it [laughs].
Johnny: Yeah, I think as long as we can write stuff that we’re happy with - which we’re doing and we’re incredibly proud of - that’s all I really want from it. I’ve never been of the persuasion that I want to be in stadiums and doing all that, I’m not interested in it. What I want to do is have a body of work that will be there, that people might be influenced by and think ‘that was a cool scene’. I feel like we’re kind of on the cusp of that; we’ve got a lot planned for the next year. But that’s different from personally what I want. Personally, I really want to do well so that we can travel more [laughs] and just enjoy playing the places that we grew up going to watch bands. Getting to play with other bands that you grew up respecting, that’s all it is for us.
John: It should always come this way round: you go out and you really enjoy what you’re doing and make things that you’re proud of. We’re very happy that it’s now enabled us to go out and make a bit a bit of money and be able to put that back into the band to fuel it for the next run of shows or the next recordings. It’s very hand to mouth but it’s really gratifying that it seems like people are on board with it. But you know, you write these songs for yourself because you enjoy being in a room with your best mate.
Johnny: Yeah, if we didn’t like the songs we wouldn’t have recorded them. We’re not going to make a record we think people are going to want to hear, we do it for ourselves. The whole ethos was that if people like it then that’s great because we like it, but if they don’t like it then it’s still great because we like it.
John: If you’d said we’d have been supporting bands that we respect like Metz of McClusky…we started out with those songs in our ears. To see that and see how we’ve risen to that opportunity, we’re super happy. Long may it continue.
Listen to JOHN at these places:
See JOHN at these places:
13/11 COLOURS HOXTON
23/11 SOUTH STREET ARTS CENTRE READING
29/11 BENNIGANS BAR DERRY
30/11 THE 343 BELFAST
06/12 CHALK LIVE HOVE w/METZ
08/12 MOTH CLUB LONDON w/METZ
21/12 BROADCAST GLASGOW
22/12 SNEAKY PETE’S EDINBURGH
29/01 MANCHESTER DEAF INSTITUTE
30/01 BODEGA NOTTINGHAM
31/01 MOLES BATH
02/02 BOILEROOM GUILDFORD
04/02 PHASE ONE LIVERPOOL
05/02 THE FULFORD ARMS YORK
06/02 THE NEW ADELPHI HULL
07/02 ESQUIRES BEDFORD
08/02 CENTRAL LIBRARY COVENTRY
09/02 JOINERS SOUTHAMPTON