Slow Faction interview
With a brilliant new album out now, Slow Faction are one of the country’s best punk bands. Joe Whyte speaks to frontman John Youens for LTW.
With new album Unilateral Declaration of Independence out now (it’s their fourth release), Slow Faction are turning heads. See the link at the bottom of article to hear it. The band are a no-compromise, ant-fash collective and are very single-minded in their approach. They are not without a dose of romanticism, however, and the songs do not lack finesse or melody.
John Youens also heads up the South London Punk Collective and is the driving force behind their DIY aesthetic and regular charity and fundraiser gigs.
LTW- Tell me a little bit about the formation of the band and any bands you may have been in before?
JY- For me, Slow Faction has been an off-and-on life long project. When I was in Exeter in the 80s I started writing songs with a housemate and we got a few tunes together and one solitary gig. After that, I lived in London and my song-writing partner lived in York – we continued to write songs via correspondence, and I bought a cheap 4 track cassette recorder to demo ideas. Eventually, he moved down to London and we put a proper gigging version of Slow Faction together. Unfortunately, we split up at the end of the 90s in rather acrimonious circumstances. What came after I laughingly refer to as my wilderness years, but I continued to write songs and spend all my money on recording equipment. I always knew I wanted to make music again with Umbi, our bass-player, but he was always in other bands…eventually, we met up again in 2012 and I was like “what are you doing these days” and he was like “nothing” so we recruited Zen on drums and Lee on rhythm guitar through Gumtree and have been gigging solidly since the beginning of 2013. Zen left at the end of 2016 and Kit joined on drums straight afterwards
LTW-Who/what are the main influences in your writing?
JY-In terms of lyrics, Strummer was the obvious influence. Even though they didn’t write their own lyrics at the time, SLF and Inflammable Material were massive for me. I was also a big fan of the fiction of Heinrich Boell who was a prominent figure in post-war German literature and was especially critical of the Wirtschaftwunder of West Germany through the 60s & 70s. He attempted to take a moderate, thought-out position on the arrest of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and was absolutely pilloried for it – so, taking a stand for what you believe to be right even though others might attack you for it is something close to my heart.
LTW-Tell me about your songwriting process?
JY-Ever since I learnt my first handful of chords I was the one who would strum a couple of chords and hear melody lines in my head. That is still the way I write songs to this day. I play around on a clean guitar sound or even unplugged and concentrate on a decent chord structure and melody lines. I don’t force a song but live with the nascent ideas for a while until something more concrete starts to take shape. It’s the same with lyrics – I don’t force an idea or a lyric on a song – I wait until I have the right theme for a song and a couple of lyrical ideas and then when I’m ready I’ll sit down and build the song from there. Distorted guitars, solos, overdub ideas only come much later.
LTW-What is Slow Faction trying to do as a band? Is there a message?
JY-First off, the music has to be good. The original idea behind Slow Faction all those years ago in Exeter was the best tunes we could possibly write allied with proper lyrics that have something to say. That is still the “mission”. In my mind the world we live in – particularly in the UK is overwhelmingly right wing from the press through to the televised media through to the politics – the idea behind the lyrics of Slow Faction has always been to offer an alternative viewpoint. Even if only one person gets it, it’s worth doing in my view – that’s why we include lyrics on all our song pages or I send out lyric sheets with CD orders & review copies.
LTW-Tell me about the “concept” behind the new album?
JY-Our first 3 recorded offerings were collections of new and older tunes. Under Heavy Manners, our 4th release, was a collection of new songs written in a 2 year period. This had a very different feel – all the songs hung together well and it was very well-received. With Unilateral Declaration Of Independence, the gestation time was shortened further – all the songs were written and demoed between July 2018 and April 2019. This gives the album (at least in my mind) a coherency and unified sense of purpose, stronger than we’ve ever had before. The “concept” of the album is the observation of this country as it descends into total chaos; the assault on the weak & vulnerable, the pursuit of austerity as a political objective & its dreadful aftermath, the deflection of blame from the guilty to immigrants, the young and those left behind, the contamination of thought & language and the rise of the far-right.
LTW-You seem to have very precise ideas around the track order on the album?
JY-Yes, the meat of the album is framed by 2 state of the nation songs. UDI is me sitting in my flat at the top of Brixton Hill looking at the mess down below and observing how we’ve sold out this country to the highest bidder whilst taking away all that we held to have value from the post-wat consensus – even Thatcher didn’t dare go as far as the Conservative governments since 2010. The album ends with the results of the past few years rhetoric – the creation of May’s hostile environment and a country that’s no longer a place for the young.
The songs in the middle are detailing the link between UDI and No Country For The Young – the disappointment in a generation that had all the benefits of the post-war consensus, but threw it all away, the contamination of thought & language by sites such as Breitbart, the rise of hatred for anyone that’s different or who doesn’t conform to a very limited view of the world and, of course, the rise of the far right is a constant thread through all the songs. And Never Said A Word is from a Heinrich Boell novella about the effects of poverty on the marriage of a young family in post-war Germany. He returns from the front, suffering with what we would now call PTSD, and sees a world where the people who cheered on the Nazis before the world, are seamlessly profiting in the new Germany as if nothing had happened. Oblivion is the story of Hans Fallada, a German writer who unlike Hesse or Mann, did not leave Nazi Germany, but stayed and, as a person of suspicious character, was reduced to writing meaningless fairy stories and taking morphine every night. It’s a warning to confront fascism before it becomes too late and we are reduced to powerlessness. Oblivion is kind of the centre-piece of the album in more ways than just being positioned in the middle!
LTW-Where/when did you record the album?
JY-We are a DIY band to the extent that we also record ourselves. I have a 24 track digital recorder and we recorded the drums and bass live in one session in our rehearsal room. We then overdubbed my guitars in a different session and I added lead vocals and my back-ups. Lee then added his rhythm guitar in another session, plus his and Umbi’s backing vocals. Finally, Kit added his backing vocals and the keyboards that you can hear in a couple of the middle eights.
I then drove everyone mad with different mixes until we had the balance right. The only outside help we have is at the mastering stage. I always use Steve Kitch Mastering in Exeter – I believe that professional mastering is worth every penny for giving the finished track clarity and punch and also making sure that a track can play on different systems and still sound ok. It’s the final, dispassionate pair of ears that can make the crucial difference.
LTW-Tell us about the SLPC?
JY-Like many bands, we started off applying for this and that gig and getting some decent gigs and some not so decent ones. It was after one of the not-so-decent ones where it was a mixed bill, none of the bands supported each other and the promoter was nowhere to be seen, that I decided I could do better myself. The next day I set up a FB group, South London DIY Gigs and within hours people had joined and the concept had become the South London Punk Collective. My partners in the SLPC are Fleagle (Stone Heroes) and Ollie Tarboschski (latterly of Mindframe). Our concept is simple – to put on fun, enjoyable & safe gigs that bands and fans alike enjoy being part of. Naturally, the road can sometimes be rocky, but we are approaching our 5th anniversary in November and are stronger than ever. We have a new home venue in South London, the Queen’s Head in Brixton, but we also put on gigs at The Unicorn in Camden, The Gunners in North London, the New Cross Inn and Amersham Arms. We do this for free and all money generated is split with the participating bands. For the past 5 years we have worked with Mat Sargent (Chelsea) on raising money for HIV/Aids and have currently reached £12,500 to date in donations to different Aids charities in the UK and abroad.
LTW-You seem to have a very antifascist message?
JY-As I write/sing in UDI, Pandora’s Box has been opened and it seems that the right is getting organised and is on the march again. In the song Antifascist on the new album I am very much looking at the issue of false equivalency. In my mind, it is lazy thinking to say antifascists and fascists are all the same – and it is dangerous to do so. I thought long and hard about writing the lyric to this song and did a fair amount of research in order to reach the right tone. I am horrified at the developments in this country and abroad, the growing support for Yaxley-Lennon, a US president who says there are good people amongst white supremacists, a prime minister who uses racist language, a previous prime minister who as home secretary created a hostile environment against refugees & asylum seekers and the seeming acceptance in public of casual racism, Islamophobia and migrant hate.
So, yes, for me, this is unequivocal and feels that this is one of the most important issues in the current climate.
LTW-Does punk rock still have validity in 2019? Is punk something different in the 21st century?
JY-Punk is very much a niche music genre but within that niche it has evolved to encompass many different sub-genres – from the bands like ours who are more 1st generation-influenced to those who were influenced by the ’82 UK Decay bands through hardcore, the Epitaph bands, Green Day and Emo – so punk now has many different flavours and you can take your pick as to what your taste is. At SLPC shows we try to have a broad mix in our bills crossing from younger bands to older bands, from hardcore through to more melodic punk – the idea being that if you come to see one band you will hear 2 or 3 other bands playing a different style so hopefully you’ll be exposed to something you haven’t heard before. People often complement us on the bills we put together. So yes, punk is different nowadays as it can mean so many different things to different people
LTW-Are you preaching to the converted to an extent?
JY-As I state above, we try to mix our bills across genres and generations so you will come to a show and hear not just one genre of punk all night long. When we play to a younger audience, they totally get what we are doing and really appreciate it. By the same token, I have learnt how to appreciate hardcore and really enjoy seeing the younger bands taking things on from where my generation left off. It’s a mutual respect and appreciation thing and I think the current state of punk is very healthy & interesting – but it remains a niche thing….as is going to a small venue and seeing live original music of any genre, sadly…
LTW-What do you have planned for next year as a band/the SLPC?
JY-Next year will see us promoting the new album further afield – the last quarter of the year is always a hiatus for us as Umbi goes to Japan with his wife and I go to Thailand with mine, so the first half of next year will be about establishing the new album as core to our live set. For the SLPC it will be about working hard to really establish the Queen’s Head as our new venue and repaying their faith in us by offering storage and gig space for free.
LTW-Is music as important to people nowadays? Is it still a powerful tool?
JY-There are many demands on people’s time, attention and money – more so than ever before. We had 3 channels and God Save The Queen at 11.30pm when I was growing up so going to gigs was a major form of entertainment. Nowadays, people have far more home entertainment options and spending is squeezed so music has to vie for their attention…
But, music will always be important to some people and yes, it is a powerful tool. But not just music – all art-forms are vitally important – music, art, theatre, poetry, fiction, etc, etc – and I am still very much of the opinion that it is the role of the artist (no matter what their medium) to hold a mirror up to society, to speak uncomfortable truths, offer different worldviews and to challenge set or received opinions….it’s just we need to work harder to get people’s attention.
LTW-Where do you stand on having a high online profile?
JY-At the end of the day, when you’ve spent years practising your art, be it music, art, writing, etc, what you’re left with is still a product – no one owes you anything and there’s a danger that what you’ve produced will spend its time gathering dust on the proverbial shelf. So, yes, whether it’s online or at shows or through blagging reviews it is important that you engage with marketing your product. There is no money in music at our level (and that realisation can be quite liberating) but we still want to get our music, our ideas, our views across so having an online profile is one of the tools at our disposal.
With the recording gear being relatively cheap we have the means of production at our disposal but the downside to that is, so does everyone else – hoping that someone will find you without some sort of promotional plan is doomed to failure. Congratulations on your new magnum opus but you do realise your just one of millions 😊
LTW-What bands should we be looking out for in the next year?
JY-I’m not going to recommend anyone but what I will say to anyone who reads this is to get to a local show. I am amazed at the quality of musicianship, the song-writing, the performance and energy of so many great bands who will never make a dime. So, my recommendation is, next time you see a local gig offering original bands for a fiver – go and see it and open yourself up to hearing some brilliant, dedicated musicians who do what they do for the sheer love of it!
Buy Slow Factions albums from Bandcamp
Slow Faction Faceboook
South London Punk Collective Facebook
Interview conducted by Joe Whyte DTK