James Johnston of Gallon Drunk talks about new album,ÃÂ The Road Gets Darker From Here…
May 7th 2012 will markÃÂ theÃÂ turn ofÃÂ celebratedÃÂ London ÃÂ bandÃÂ Gallon Drunk with the release of their dynamic new album The Road Gets Darker From Here on Clouds Hill Records.
Available on heavyweight vinyl, CD and download, The Road Gets Darker From Here was recorded directly to two-inch tape at Clouds Hill in Hamburg (one of Germany’s leadingÃÂ analogÃÂ studios) by producer Johann Scheerer, and deftly captures the formidable power of their renowned live performances.ÃÂ
Gallon Drunk’s other two core cohorts ”âTerry Edwards on bass, saxophone and percussion andÃÂ Ian White on drums and percussion ”â have, together withÃÂ guitarist/organist/ lead singer JamesÃÂ JohnstonÃÂ (also playing bass on the recording),ÃÂ distilled their intuitive and utterly inimitable musical vision into a collection of impassioned songs, imbued with rage, menace and frenzied abandonment, linking them as kindred spirits to the likes of The Gun Club, The Stooges, and Link Wray.ÃÂ
Opening with the exhilaratingly sleazy, deranged rock ”Ën’ roll of ”ËYou Made Me’ÃÂ (the first 7”Â inch single to be pulled off the album), The Road Gets Darker From Here immediately and irresistibly plunges you into its own dark and crazy underworld. The insistent slide guitar-driven ”Ë1,000 Years’ÃÂ sets the stage for an eruption of total guitar fury with ”ËHanging On’, that is then followed by the ominous melancholia of ”ËStuck In My Head’, to which guest singer Marion Andrau (of the London-based French group Underground Railroad) contributes her haunting vocal in a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood-style duetÃÂ with Johnston. Next in line is ”ËKillingÃÂ Time’: classic unfettered Gallon Drunk with all the do-or-die abandon that implies. Hurtling inexorably to the finish line, the fever dream boogie of ”ËThe Big Breakdown’ÃÂ blusters mightily into the wayward big band swagger of ”ËI Just Can’t Help But Stare’, before the final track, anÃÂ enigmatic psychodrama entitled ”ËThe Perfect Dancer’envelopes the listener in a whirlwind of hallucinatory guitars, Hammond organ and hypnotic voodoo drums, ending the album in a haunting finale.
Having over the years inspired countless bands — from early PJ Harvey to The Jim Jones Revue — to dig into the raw vitality of primal blues and garage rock and roll, Gallon Drunk have ÃÂ re-emergedÃÂ with an album that embodies the quintessence of all they are and always have been about.
The new album, The Road Gets Darker From Here,ÃÂ was recorded at Clouds Hills Recordings in Hamburg, Germany. Why?
“ Because it’s the same studio were the Faust album, Something DirtyÃÂ (2010), was recorded.ÃÂ I recorded withÃÂ Faust, yes. That’s how I meetÃÂ Johann Scheerer, the producer and studio owner. ÃÂ We played a festival, he came to see Faust, but he also saw Gallon Drunk play too and he approached us afterwards. He said,ÃÂ ”ËI’dÃÂ love to record your band in my studio.’ÃÂ Knowing the studio and knowing him we obviously jumped at the chance, knowing that it would be a really good experience.”Â
And was it?
“It was amazing, yeah. ÃÂ Went in basically with a lot of ideas recorded on to the voice recorder on my phone.ÃÂ ÃÂ About 30 ideas and then just played them through. We recorded a lot more than usual, then whittled down a short list. We recorded 15 and ended up with 9 on the record. Then went back, a couple of months later, and did the vocals. That gave me a lot more time than usual to work on the vocals, to make sure they really fitted in the respective tunes and that I really got to express what I wanted to on this record ”âÃÂ give it a realÃÂ atmosphere andÃÂ directsubject matter. It was all basically recorded live again. With Johann this was the first time we have actually worked with someone as a producer.ÃÂ We tried things out that I normally wouldn’t have normally have done ”â certain types of effects, being a bitÃÂ more”Â¦.ÃÂ Just trying some things that we probably would have thought wouldn’t suit us, like strange guitar effects and what have you, which actually really made the record.Having listened to a lot of Jim Dickinson records, certain touches of production can just change the vibe of a record so much, there are someÃÂ weirdÃÂ echo things on there and stuff like that. ÃÂ It stops it, obviously, from being just aÃÂ liveÃÂ recording. It brings something else to it that sometimes we would have really shunned before.ÃÂ Also there are a lot of female vocals on itÃÂ to counter mine.ÃÂ
It’s quite a full-on record, and simply because we had more time I focussed moreÃÂ on the singing. That drives it. ÃÂ It’s quite an angry record as well. In order toÃÂ temper that anger and give it some contrastÃÂ I also wanted something about the nature of it to be quite carefree and throwaway. I wanted backing vocals on it but not overtly professional ones, so we had our friends come in and we recorded them in the most slap dash, carefree way possible, to get that sort of vibe to it. Then if you stick those on these on these fairly anxiety ridden songs, you got a fairly strange atmosphere to it.ÃÂ There’sÃÂ alsoÃÂ a guestÃÂ leadÃÂ singer on there Marion Andrau,ÃÂ who share the vocal with me on two tracks,ÃÂ that brings something else straight away, especially as weÃÂ co-wroteÃÂ the lyrics onÃÂ theÃÂ two songsÃÂ she sings on,ÃÂ ”ËStuck In My Head‘ÃÂ andÃÂ ”ËThe Perfect Dancer‘, and she came up with her vocal melody. Again, that‘s something quite different in there for us.
Both you, Terry Edwards and Ian White are also in Big Sexy Noise with Lydia Lunch. Did that have any influence on The Road Gets Darker From Here? ÃÂ You are operating in two different bands at the same time, wasÃÂ this aÃÂ distinct break?
“Yes, very much. It was a distinct break from that and the nature of that. For me, itÃÂ meantÃÂ wanting to get more guitar on this album, because that’s what I do with Lydia. Maybe I’ve got slightly more used to slightly more tradition song structures, certainly for Big Sexy Noise, but always wanting to get something unexpected in there. On this, we really worked on that. Even if initially something might seem like a conventional song, somethingÃÂ peculiar happens, structurally.ÃÂ And for once notshying away from having really big choruses and using the backing vocals to really bolster that;ÃÂ like on ”ËHanging On’. So something could be really desperate but also really uplifting – which you get off Dylan or Stones records. They can be like that. I was listening toÃÂ themÃÂ incessantly before going in the studio, because someone nicked my computer andÃÂ those werethe only two records I hadÃÂ left, Exile On Main St and Highway 61. I was listening to them over and over againÃÂ for a while, as much for the lyrics as anything else, but both those albums have such a great live feel.”Â
But there doesn’t seem to be any overriding influence on the record, does there?
“No, not at all. It was a bit likeÃÂ our previous albumÃÂ The Rotten Mile,ÃÂ stylistically anything goes as long as it’s exciting,ÃÂ butevenÃÂ more so with The Road Gets Darker From Here. Initially, I thought I had what I thought was complete and utter writers block. ÃÂ I done all this stuff with Lydia and all this really free stuff with Faust and I thought, ”ËRight, now we’ve got to do Gallon Drunk’ and it is like a really specific thing and trying to do that. I don’t want to repeat myself. So I had all these little ideas that I didn’t really play to anyone. IÃÂ thought, ”ËIsÃÂ this really the right sort of thing?’ ÃÂ But eventually we started playing them and they had so much life.ÃÂ It transpired that I actually had more ideasÃÂ than ever, but I’d been reluctant to play them to anyone for some ungodly reason. I think because I was doing it on my own.Then, obviously, when I started playing them out with Ian and TerryÃÂ it just sounded great,ÃÂ andÃÂ theÃÂ enthusiasm from JohannÃÂ really helped all that.
Ian,ÃÂ Terry and I have played together for such a long time now, and know each other so well that the process feels so natural now. Terry and I swapped instruments quite a bit on The Road Gets Darker FromÃÂ Here;ÃÂ we both played some bass for example. I’ve played with a lot of musicians now, but absolutely nothing comesÃÂ close to the feeling of the three of usÃÂ playing together. The power of Ian’s drums is the very core of the sound of the band.”Â
It seems unusual that you would feel blocked during such a turbulent time”Â¦
“For lyrics maybe,ÃÂ especially following the death of Simon, our bassist and close friend for about 15 years, so I just had to wait. I gradually started writing ideas as they came, and thenÃÂ when I finallyÃÂ looked backÃÂ at all the stuffÃÂ I had, there wereÃÂ 40 pages of just rough things. The whole time, when we were on tour I was just writing down, automatic writing, anything. Then, right at the very, very end, just picking lines I liked and suddenly it all falls into place, song by song. ÃÂ Then when we were recoding them, the process would be, we’d get the music done and then leave the song playing on a loop and everyone would go away; do whatever, go for a walk and I’d sing it over and over again, literally about 30 times. ÃÂ You can hear it on the record, it sounds like my voice is falling to bits, which I like. But, to totally get into it, get all the phrasing right, so that they sounded like songs that had been played live for 10 years, or something. ÃÂ To get the scan of the words right, make it feel totally organic. ÃÂ It’s easier to doÃÂ it because you start recitingÃÂ words rather than dwelling upon them too much. ÃÂ Also you get a more natural performance. ÃÂ It makes it sound a lot more honest, I think.”Â
The Road Gets Darker From HereÃÂ is really diverse. Stylistically you’ve got something really wacked out likeÃÂ ”ËThe Perfect Dancer‘. That sounds like a real departure.
“It’s a huge great studio. Loads ofÃÂ instrumentsÃÂ lying around everywhere and we had a bit of time on our hands, for once. I’d just get up in the morning, we were staying in the studio and I could get up, really quite early and start playing around on the Hammond organ for about an hour.”Â
Never had thisÃÂ luxuryÃÂ before?
“Not at all. You can sort of do that at home, but it’s so different when you know that the pressures on when you know that everybody is coming in at ten and you have to think of something.ÃÂ And justÃÂ tryingÃÂ out these different sounds that I’ve never tried before.ÃÂ Then someone else would wander in and this thing would start, but I would have had time to quickly work out some chords, done comparatively off the cuff. And then I wasgoing,’ IÃÂ don’t know what to put on this, it needs something spooky.’ ÃÂ And JohannÃÂ said, ”ËTryÃÂ this amazingÃÂ LudwigÃÂ Phase Two guitarÃÂ synthesizer.’ It’s this thing from 1969/1970 and it looks like a suitcaseÃÂ and you put your guitar through it and it creates this incredible sustain. That’s the reallyÃÂ weirdÃÂ guitar that is all the way throughÃÂ ”ËThe Perfect Dancer‘. Obviously, I’d have never thought of doing that, IÃÂ didn’t even know that theÃÂ fucking thing existed. And if I had, I would have probably thought that a guitar synthesizer would sound fucking horrendous, but actually it’s just perfect.”Â
The studio wasÃÂ analogueÃÂ central,ÃÂ I take it?
“ Everything. There were about a hundred analogue cameras lying around ”â it is analogueÃÂ central. Johann is really enthusiastic and he’s quite a bit younger than us as well. For example, the assistant working on it was 20. ÃÂ Johann is 29. He’s got his own ideas. It’s really nice to open that up a bit as well.”Â
Feeding off young energy and ideas being presented?
“Well, yeah. Well it just nice to not be in a studio with someone just sat thereÃÂ fucking fallingÃÂ asleep. ÃÂ Not that happens that muchanymore, butÃÂ this couldn’t have been more the opposite of that. The thing was it was really fun to record as well. Certainly lyrically, it’s really personal, a really heartfelt record but at the same time”Â¦ it’s just getting all that out of your system can generate a lot of mania.ÃÂ Really good fun.ÃÂ It’s just such a relief to get all that out.”Â
So it was cathartic?
“Emotionally.ÃÂ Yeah, totally.ÃÂ ÃÂ I really felt that we completely proved ourselves.ÃÂ I’ve always had that worry; I’m sure everybody does. You’re about to do something and it has to be the best thing. ÃÂ We were given the opportunity to think about stuff,ÃÂ andÃÂ come backÃÂ to it. It didn’t changeÃÂ itÃÂ very much, it’s predominately liveÃÂ still, but it meant we could bring different textures and sounds to songs once the lyrics were in place. Also, we could really carefully pick what songs go on and which don’t go on, rather than rush to finish everything we’d recorded.”Â
”ËThe Big Breakdown’ almost enters boogie territory”Â¦
“Again that was something I had on a loop. I can’t even remember why. I had bought a loop pedal just to use with Faust, just to make funny noises.ÃÂ I hate doing all those loops,ÃÂ it’s so fiddly. I remember, just for my own pleasure, just doing a John Lee Hooker loop and thinking that this is the sort of thing I really, really like. ÃÂ Then taking that initial idea, playing it liveand then addingÃÂ to it. Something loose but really electric and nasty, inÃÂ aÃÂ Velvet’sÃÂ style on top.ÃÂ Ian added a second kit to the chorus parts too, so it sounds huge, and sort of voodoo. ÃÂ And then this big brass section comes in, the idea of the sound being that you are beckoning someone down to this bacchanal somewhere and the band is playing this song.”Â
SirensÃÂ luring the unsuspectingÃÂ onto the rocks”Â¦
“Yeah. SomethingÃÂ likeÃÂ that.”Â
”ËKilling Time’ÃÂ hasÃÂ a StoogesÃÂ feel to it. They have always been a big influence, haven’t they?
“Yeah, that was one of the first songs we recorded. Didn’t really know what to do in the middle section, soÃÂ weÃÂ thoughtÃÂ lets have aweirdÃÂ freakÃÂ out in the middle, but we’ve done this so many times. So I tired a harmonica, sticking it though some archaic effectsÃÂ pedalÃÂ ofÃÂ Johann’s, pitch bending it, now it sounds like some newly discovered jungle instrument that nobody’s ever heardÃÂ before. ÃÂ Things likeÃÂ thatÃÂ are really nice. It displaces the song completely. That’s indicative of the record and the mood of it.ÃÂ I had to take it away from being obviously Stooges like; it would have ended up as our attempt to do ”Ë1970′ or something, which there is obviously no point in doing whatsoever. But obviously, Suicide, The Stooges,ÃÂ areÃÂ touchstones for the band, for all of us, really.
There is aÃÂ punky, sleazy feel to ”ËYou Made Me’. Is that what you were aiming for?
“I just played a riff at home and thought, that’s a fucking killer! It’s really like The Heartbreakers, or something.ÃÂ That sort of laziness to it.ÃÂ But then I was almost too embarrassed to play it to anyone, because I almost thought it was too corny”Â¦ but then it sounds brilliant, I love that tune.”Â
So, how are you going to be playing this live for the forthcoming gigs?
“We have a new bass player, LeoÃÂ Kurunis. We’ve already done a warm up gig with Leo in Hamburg and it was great, so we are really looking forward to playing the new stuff live.”Â
The Road Gets Darker From Here track listing:
You Made Me
A Thousand Years
Stuck In My Head
The Big Breakdown
I Just Can’t Help But Stare
The Perfect Dancer
18th April London The LexingtonÃÂ
21st May London Rough Trade Shop East ”â In-store ÃÂ (Free Show)
22nd May Cambridge Portland ArmsÃÂ
24th May Brighton StickyÃÂ Mikes’s
25th May LondonÃÂ Nambuca