Crystal Palace based two-piece JOHN release their new album, Out Here On The Fringes, on the 4th October. They’ve gained huge support from BBC 6Music’s Steve Lamacq, and also from influential Seattle station KEXP. Paul Grace caught up with JOHN to chat about the new album, their background and life in leafy South London.
Who are JOHN and where did you meet?
John: I’m John Newton. I play the drums and sing in JOHN.
Johnny: I’m John Healy (aka Johnny). I play the guitar and I don’t sing.
John: We were at the same university and lived in the same halls of residence. I think we first met at some house party in Hackney.
John: Whenever we’d meet up we’d talk about the music we liked, but it actually took until the end of university, when everyone had dispersed, to realise that actually we should hang out more, and see what would happen if we put our two heads together.
When was it that you started making music?
John: It was around 2013/14.
Johnny: There were three of us initially but then the third guy never really turned up, so we kind of worked out how to operate as a two-piece, and how to fill a room with sound.
John: Yeah, we spent a year behind closed doors rehearsing in places that don’t exist anymore, in a basement in Denmark Street, which is now a big hole in the ground.
Who are your musical influences?
Johnny: I’ve always been influenced by John Reis from Hot Snakes and Rocket From The Crypt – he was always a massive influence on my guitar playing. And obviously, Metz at the time we met were really big, and then Ceremony.
John: Yeah Ceremony. Actually seeing those bands together at the Old Blue Last made me realise I wanted to do similarly energetic performances. For me, I’ve come to music from an art side, and I’ve always followed creative writers. I really like Andy Falkous from McClusky – I love the way he develops his lyrics.
How would you describe your sound?
Johnny: Well..it’s been said that we sound as if we could fall apart at any minute, which I think sums us up quite well (laughs). We’re two people who really go for it, but if one of us was to stop it could all just fall apart. There’s a lot of in-the-moment energy.
John: We focus on the live performance, so we always try to capture that spirit in our recordings.
Do you find that as a two-piece, you have to make compromises to your musical vision?
John: With it being just the two of us we do understand the limitations that we have. I have to sing in coordination with my body so that kind of informs a certain sound to it, which takes the shape of rhythmic lyrics. But I think I’ve now got to a point where I’m able to write lyrics that match what I can do.
Johnny: Similarly, I play with two amps at once; bass and guitar, and I write around what I can do to make it sound punchy. Looking at our dynamics, we try and do the best we can with our two things; me with my foot and him with his voice (laughs).
Do you get people thinking you’re bigger than a two-piece band?
Johnny: At pretty much every gig someone tells us exactly that, and also another comment is, “Where is your bass player?”. A lot of people don’t realise there is actually a bass playing and then they see just the two of us.
Of late, there’s been an explosion of noise rock/punk bands like yourselves, IDLES, Slaves, The St. Pierre Snake Invasion. Why do you think the scene is so big at the moment?
Johnny: I think there’s a lot of anger out there at the moment. IDLES came at the right time and with the right message, which I think has fuelled people’s interest to find similar-sounding bands. The same with Slaves who are also really massive. There’s now more interest in this sound and more of a push towards the likes of ourselves, which has opened up a far bigger audience. Also, with IDLES doing Glastonbury, a lot of people who would have never experienced that energy saw it and wanted to find out more, so that’s pushing us smaller bands.
John: Yeah IDLES doing well in a more mainstream sense has definitely helped, but I think there has always been good noise rock in this country.
A lot of which is driven by the socio-political climate?
John: Well it doesn’t have to be hard-edged direct statements because I’m not really interested in doing that but I do really like creative writing. There’s a lot of really good music out there which involves certain social or political images or suggestions. It’s great there are bands who do seem genuinely very creative rather than bands just rehashing the same old themes. I definitely think we’ve got enough love songs now (laughs).
Do you think this kind of music specifically appeals to the disenchanted?
Johnny: Yeah it’s like a massive counselling session. You go to see a band who are really energetic and get you riled up, which is a good way of releasing energy rather than doing something destructive. It’s positive and you end up making great new friends. I think people are just looking for that sort of outlet.
John: There’s a big craving towards some kind of collectivism, which I think has been crushed by certain governments or politicians, particularly Thatcher. But hopefully, that craving for this collective view could lead to something good. I know it’s hard to think about that at the moment because there is a lot of doom and gloom, but that is all the more reason to go to shows and carry on doing these things. I even saw Tom Morello from Prophets of Rage had Fuck Borris on the back of his guitar the other night.
Your new album, Out Here On The Fringes, comes out on 4th October. Is it conceptual or more a fluid collection of songs?
John: We are always very fluid but I’m always thinking about how things come together lyrically and audibly.
Johnny: More so this album. The first album was more that we had a collection of songs which we really liked and worked well as an album, but this one came naturally and almost out of nowhere. Wayne produced it, and he did our first album too. He’s amazing and will never give you any idea if anything is good or not and just gets you into the moment. We don’t work on a song for too long because the longer you work on something, the more you try to break it down, and then you start making it not what it is.
John: Yeah we often take little demo phone recordings of how first played the songs and how we needed them to sound because that is where the energy first came from.
Johnny: We wanted these songs to have all the mistakes in because, when you’ve been listening to them as a demo, you get used to hearing to those weird bits, and they’re the bits that make it interesting, organic and real. This one felt way more organic.
What does the title of the album mean?
John: With the title of the album, Out Here On The Fringes, it was working with images about living on the edge of a city, and feeling that kind of push and pull to somewhere whether that be financial, social or whatever. I wanted to use images from that landscape across all the songs. There is one particular song that is I think is probably the most creative thing we’ve done on record, which is more of an interlude, but we’re really excited with how it sounds.
What’s the song called?
Johnny: It’s funny how it all came together. It’s called Midnight Supermarket. John came up with the title. It’s a hazy dream-like vision of when you’re living out in the sticks and you come back late at night from central and you go to a supermarket but you’re all a bit blurry-eyed, looking around picking things up and putting them back. Originally John had this poem he wrote that he was going to read over it, but it didn’t quite work. Then my aunty’s friend read it and it worked really well – it was nice to get her to do it because she’s helped us out as a band so much, and also introduced us to some great musicians who’ve helped us.
John: She has a great voice for it and it works perfectly. We also had some other guests on the album as well – Chloe Harrington, who’s a saxophone player for Knifeworld and Chrome Hoof, she’s played with all sorts of amazing people. She came in and played on the first single, Future Thinker. Rosanna Dean also played some violin as well. It’s been great having these additional musicians come in because it makes it surprising for you when you have this additional instrumentation.
John: We toured with IDLES in Europe last November so we wrote some songs before the tour, and tried some songs in soundchecks while we were on tour.
Johnny: Yeah it was great to soundcheck and test those new songs in a massive 5,000 seat empty venue.
Where was the album recorded?
Johnny: With Wayne who works at Bear Bites Horse, in Haggerston (East London).
John: He’s like the East London Steve Albini, but he’s got a mullet now so we are never going to work with him again (laughs). He plays in various bands and does a lot of that DIY punk noise metal scene.
It’s safe to say you have an enormous sound. I can imagine your shows get quite lively?
Johnny: Well, I’m a bit stuck behind my peddle board doing the bass and John is stuck behind the drum kit, so it’s very hard for me to try to crowd surf ‘cos I just fuck up! So a lot more of the energy is on stage and in the actual sound we make. But there have been times where I’ve taken my peddle board out into the crowd.
John: But I just feel that is not us.
Johnny: We don’t feel like we need to do that.
That’s quite clichéd now.
Johnny: I’d rather play the music well giving it everything I can. We want to perform it as well as possible.
John: Then you’ll still get someone at the end of the gig come up and say “Where is your bass player?”. “He or she is on Johnny’s right foot in that peddle!” (laughs)
How was playing the recent 2000trees festival?
John: Brilliant, it was a special one for me as I grew up very close to it and went for the first years it started. It was full of lots of friends, with lots of friends playing and we had our friend Greg who, is an amazing promoter in Sheffield, come down to help tour manage for us. Daddy Greg. There’s a reason why it has won awards as a festival. It’s a special one, and it was really good to finally get to play after also growing up seeing bands I’ve admired there.
Johnny: Yeah we had great fun.
Seattle station KEXP are big fans of yours. How was the live session you did with them?
Johnny: It was kind of surreal when that happened.
John: Yeah that was amazing, we played the first show they had ever put on in England. They came over to celebrate International Clash Day and invited a group of bands to play each night in Studio 9294 in Hackney Wick. We were one of the bands asked, so obviously it was a massive career highlight. It was live-streamed and we played a really good show.
How was the tour with IDLES?
Johnny: Incredible, and there is not really much more to say really. It was insane. The first show we played was 2,000 people and the biggest show we’d played before that was about 400 so it was pretty daunting.
Did you play the Bataclan in Paris?
Johnny: Yeah at the end of tour – that was really special. We were knackered though – we’d done 28 shows in 30 days. Starting at 3pm and finishing at 3am, pretty much every day. It was a lot of work to do that but it was probably the fittest I’ve ever been.
John: I was pretty slim (laughs). It was great to play at such a historic venue. We played at some great venues across Europe. SO36 in Berlin which is a famous punk club and Vera in Groningen, the Netherlands which is one of my favourite ever venues.
Who does your artwork? The visuals are strikingly bleak…almost brutal.
John: I come from an art background so I have always made sure that all the album artwork and all the shirts are made well and are all relevant.
Johnny: It’s important to have a consistent image. It’s important that you have the same person doing it, and I love what John does. There’s a nice progression and consistent narrative from the first album to second album.
John: The visuals really help direct people around an album. You have the sonic experience but with imaging as well you can direct how that is all perceived. I think it’s funny when some bands aren’t so involved with that because it’s a really enjoyable side of it.
You live in Crystal Palace, there seem to be quite a few musicians and creative people around here.
Johnny: Yeah a friend of ours Ross who’s in Hot Sauce Pony and Modern Men lives here.
Maybe the draw of the TV transmitter?
Johnny: It’s an interesting area, I think there are a lot of people who want a lot more space and calmness. There are a lot of places on the outskirts of London that are still very much London, and not so chilled. I think in Crystal Palace you have a lot of headspace here and us musicians need that.
John: Yeah, you’ve got the park over there and the lakes, lots of quirks. I talk about the dinosaurs too much though…the concrete dinosaurs.
JOHN’s album, Out Here On The Fringes, comes out on 4th October 2019.
16/09 SUPERSONIC PARIS
17/09 L’AUSTRAL LE MANS
18/09 JOKER’S CLUB ANGERS
19/09 LA VOUTE BORDEAUX
20/09 LE CONTAINER ANGRESSE
21/09 PAVILLION 108 FUMEL
03/10 RECORD JUNKEE SHEFFIELD
04/10 THE CASTLE HOTEL MANCHESTER *SOLD OUT*
05/10 MABGATE BLEACH LEEDS
09/10 THE WHEATSHEAF OXFORD
10/10 THE MOON CARDIFF
11/10 THE LOUISIANA BRISTOL *SOLD OUT*
12/10 THE HOPE & RUIN BRIGHTON
16/10 THE SHACKLEWELL ARMS LONDON *SOLD OUT*
18/10 THE FESTING PORTSMOUTH *SOLD OUT*
19/10 ELSEWHERE MARGATE
29/11 BENNIGANS DERRY
30/11 THE 343 BELFAST
01/12 THE SOUNDHOUSE DUBLIN
21/12 BROADCAST GLASGOW
22/12 SNEAKY PETE’S EDINBURGH
All words and photos by Paul Grace, for more of Paul’s writing and photos go to his archive. Paul is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his websites are www.paulgrace-eventphotos.co.uk & www.pgrace.co.uk