Thursday, July 7, 2016

Backchat: Johnny Foreigner on Their Back Catalogue

It's time for another edition of Backchat, where awesome bands offer some insight into the nooks and crannies of their back catalogues.

I first discovered Johnny Foreigner in December 2008, when they supported The Futureheads at a gig in Cardiff. They put on a very impressive show - very energetic, very shouty, very sweaty - and I ordered their then-latest album, Waited Up Til It Was Light, soon afterwards. When the CD arrived in the post, I excitedly unwrapped it and immediately dropped it on the laminate floor in my parents' hallway. The case was horribly cracked, which was devastating, but fortunately the disc itself survived, and the songs thereupon were just as energetic and shouty and sweaty as they had sounded at that Futureheads show.

Johnny Foreigner have come a long way since 2008 (although I, regrettably, am still the clumsy butterfingers I always was). Their fifth album, Mono No Aware, is out on Alcopop! Records today, but before we get to that, here are JoFo themselves to take you through the story so far...

From left: Lewes Herriot, Junior Elvis Washington Laidley, Alexei Berrow, Kelly Southern

we left you sleeping and gone now
(self-released, 2006)

Junior Elvis Washington Laidley (Drums & Noises): This is our first ever album. It was my first "proper" band and I joined after Alexei and former member Daniel decided they needed a drummer. What I'm fond of when remembering recording this record is the complete freedom of time and deadline. We were just doing it because we could, spending pretty much every evening down the studio with no grown-up real life commitments to make us compromise. Experimenting with sounds and recording chants in the rain. Even after a night out we'd usually end up there again, just because. It's a record I would love to steal most of the songs from and record again.

Alexei Berrow (Guitar & Vocals): Lol at Jun including this. I think we only made 40 copies, played 6 shows, then Dan left for London. Even the sleeve was this madly over-complicated origami house shape. So this was the very start of everything; I lost my job cos they thought I was prioritising my old band (also lol), but we only rehearsed once a week so I suddenly had all this free time and recording gear that we didn't quite know how to use. I quite like the electric songs but the rest of it kinda drags under the overdubs. Lot of good and v. stoned memories.

Arcs Across the City
(Best Before, 2007)

Alexei: A six-track introductory EP, modelled on Captain by Idlewild and Messenger in the Camp by Seafood. We made it at Southern Studios, a legendary hidden suburban place in London, over two days; easy enough, as we'd been playing the songs since ever. It got critical acclaim that I'm not sure it lives up to now, but it's a great postcard to an era when we rolled around in sleeping bags on the way to shows in the back of an unconverted transit van and made a bunch of friends.

Kelly Southern (Bass & Vocals): Arcs to me represented a time of nervous excitement and What Might Bes. People started saying nice things about us! And what was great about it is that as a collection of songs it was pure scrappy, but that was us. And no one seemed to mind. We were and I guess in some ways still are this energetic sweaty noisy mess. Recorded in London with Harvey Birrell, it felt a long way from our beginnings of churning out demos on Lex's beat-up eight-track in our cold studio. Pre-unconverted transit van, touring was us packed tight in a car or us with breakables on a coach. Super-DIY, but Arcs was the springboard (or at least the baby steps!) towards being Nearly A Proper Band. 

Waited Up Til It Was Light
(Best Before, 2008)

Kelly: This is our Birmingham album, recorded in Hoboken, NJ whilst sleeping three in a bed in a budget NY hotel. The album is like 100mph, which was pure Us Live at that time and was delicately captured by Machine, who was the most fun. He'd have Lex and I facing each other whilst doing vocals and would run around us, riling us, getting us to scream bloody murder at each other. Our first experience of America. Like three children, in awe of the big city; ducks out of water, but ecstatic to be there.

Junior: This album was like our greatest hits pre-being signed. We had a fair amount to choose from; some songs we had been playing for years. It was a strange experience, to this day the most produced and the most produced-sounding recording process we've had. Machine, the producer, would shout down the mic to ramp us up, or sing down the mic while dancing to just get us to play with more intensity. Funnily enough though, for all the production, it was the song Salt, Pepa and Spinderella - made mostly using my Casio SA-21 and a clean guitar - that gained most hype.

I associate this album with staying on Times Square in one of the world's worst hotels (we bloody loved it though), travelling through the Lincoln tunnel every day to go to work, and recording with the best gear. I even used Fall Out Boy's drum kit. Check me.

Alexei: The Machine Shop was the for sure the most Wily Wonka studio we've seen, and Machine (real name Gene but NEVER CALL HIM GENE) is worlds above us. He was an old friend of our label boss, so we got mate's rates in between Lamb of God and Gym Class Heroes. It was the world's best 9-5 for a month, ordering sandwiches and weed in the morning and being creative all day, with weekends off for tourist action. I remember having a big idealistic argument with Machine and his assistants one night over dinner; he saw the studio as a factory with him as the foreman reassembling and fixing the weaker bits of songs, whereas I was all punx punx underground, mistakes = character. He saw bands as business ventures as much as creative artists, and was constantly pressing us to bolt on choruses, exploit our USPs, use Myspace bots instead of actually writing, etc. This was peak FOB era, Angels and Kings and Panic! and alla that; it's not like his circle didn't have a precedent for radiofriendlying that particular brand of teen angst, and he'd made a successful business from faking the natural.

This sounds like a pretty negative review, but he was probably the most fun and enlightening person to butt heads with I'll ever meet. He really made me question my instinct for song structure, why I put certain lyrics where I do, why this bit works and that bit doesn't. Whilst there are a few productiony things that make me cringe (Yes! You Talk Too Fast had the vocals artificially sped up after we re-recorded the instruments, and no-one else can tell but the breathing changes freak me and Kel out), the overall tone and sound is way more poppy and hi-fi than we wanted, and I'm forever glad he overruled us with that. We gave him Cap'n Jazz and Urusei Yatsura CDs as reference and he was like: lol no, kids, we're making an album that sells.

Lewes Herriot (Artwork & Guitar): This was my first proper album artwork for the band. I was new to using Photoshop so it was a huge learning experience for me. I infuriated the label because I had no idea what layers were. Lex gave me a concept of going out and taking photos of locations in the city, once at sunrise and once at night, then adding ghosts on top. There was a map of significant locations under the CD, which isn't even a bit accurate now. I had drawn approximately 600 stars at this point. This album makes me think of listening to Most Serene Republic and Tubelord in Jun and Kel's old flat.

Grace and the Bigger Picture
(Best Before, 2009)

Kelly: Our On The Road album. By this point, reality was a distant dream as we were now in a constant tour bubble. Grace and the Bigger Picture was recorded in Brooklyn with Alex Newport. I bought my favourite pedal (my ZVEX Woolly Mammoth) there and enthusiastically tried to fit it into every song. Our backing choir on songs was formed by Sky Larkin, Fight Like Apes and Meneguar. Dream team.

Junior: This time around it felt way more New York, staying in an apartment in Greenpoint like we lived there, opposite a diner. We could climb to the roof of the studio and see a view of the island and it was simply amazing. Alex Newport was way more reserved than Machine. He was softly spoken, not overly concerned with intensity or making us sweat but a genius all the same. The main difference between this and Waited Up... was the rushed feel we all got from it. This was literally completing some songs just before recording, muscle memory wasn't there for some songs. This record has some of my favourites, Custom Scenes and the Parties That Make Them being one, but it's the one I wish we'd had more time on.

Alexei: Yeah, Alex was the classic English passive engineer, as opposed to Machine's American interactive producer. We'd actually demoed a few songs at the Machine Shop. Alex didn't try to mould our sound so much as accurately capture what we were going for, which we really respected. Grace and the Bigger Picture is my least favourite though, partially cos what we were going for - all intense short loud songs - doesn't really make for a good album. It's very sonically honest; like, that's what we sounded like then, good and bad.

Like Kel says, we were so in the bubble at this point and it feels like we blew the idea of being a relatable band cos we were off living our dream. It's hard to write about your local nightclub when you spend more time on aeroplanes than in Birmingham, and I can pretty much place each of these songs in a different city. We did this right off the back of a Euro tour with Sky Larkin; we were totally broke, and hours before we flew, we found out our advance (which by this point we owed out to mostly every van hire company in the country) was going to be halved, and delayed. So the whole album was made in this kinda weird tense atmosphere. We were having daily arguments with our label and Alex got really vomity ill. Johnny X from Kenickie (a.k.a. our manager's mate Pete) stepped in and saved a few mixes when our label and Alex fell out, but it definitely would have benefited from another round of editing.

I've got some beautiful and privileged memories of making this record, but like every niche band on a corporate label in the late '00s, it felt like the end of the Other People's Money era. The title is a joke, by the way: the two things we were lacking at the time. But then I read a theory about how it's actually a girl called Grace from a really old song of ours which is a way better myth, so this is probably the last time I'm going to be honest about it.

You Thought You Saw a Shooting Star But Yr Eyes Were Blurred with Tears and That Lighthouse Can Be Pretty Deceiving with the Sea So Calm and Sky So Clear
(Alcopop!, 2010)

Alexei: Stupid long title which we (me) had to hand-write onto all 500 copies of the 12" aside, this EP is important to me cos I think we levelled up in a bunch of significant ways. For the first time, we had really definite production ideas. I mean, the record was made from a day with Whiskas from ¡Forward, Russia! (the same day we did the Tru Punx single), a weekend with Dom (who'd done demos and B-sides for us since we started and would go on to be our de facto album producer), and a few hours above a pub where my girlfriend was living. So the production is, y'know, actually way worse than the posh NY studios we'd used for the last albums, but for the first time we could tell you why, which ended up being way more important.

This was also our first release on Alcopop! and our first stupidly impractical artwork concept. We asked people to send us old family photos, scissor-and-Sharpied them into ghost shapes, and stuck them on the front of the record sleeve. That's over 1,500 ghosts cut by our tired hands. The price of DIY is arthritis.

Johnny Foreigner vs Everything
(Alcopop!/Vinyl Junkie, 2011)

Kelly: We spent a bit more time making this one. No mad deadlines, just us and Dom taking our time between our studio and Dom's in our hometown. Fuelled by gin and Dom's mum's cooking, if I remember rightly. This was our 'opus', less flat-out and more contemplative, I think. It's diverse, electronic, gentle and then screechy in the next breath. I like that about it.

Junior: This is closest to the very first record out of them all. Again, there were no real time restraints or deadline pressure, and there was loads of experimenting. We all got input; what I love about this one was the fact that I had stuff I'd just been hoarding on my laptop, songs made using FruityLoops and Cool Edit, and between us all we turned them into songs like Supermorning and 200X.

A real fun, group-led, experimental record.

Alexei: I think Dom felt the pressure! Johnny Foreigner vs Everything is a very literal title. Right at the start of it, we decided we were going to follow every idea to completion, make every idea an album-worthy song. An idea Dom was really into at the start...probably less so when we ate up his twelfh successive weekend. His parents are the heroes of this record; for the last stages, he built a makeshift control room adjacent to their living room, and we were there for days on end overdubbing and singing and generally being annoying house guests, but the only times they interrupted us were to offer us lunch and dinner.

I don't know how we come to these decisions but it definitely felt like the right thing to do: walk out of proper record deal and return on indie label with sprawling double album. Alcopop! basically said: go make a record and send us the bill. Which is the best. Even Concret1 and Concret2, which made me cringe about 30 seconds after the masters came back, seem like an essential part of the character of the thing. There's so much of it, we're constantly rediscovering songs. You can totally see the genesis of Fridge Poetry and Yr Friends in there too.

Lewes: Lex had a massive epic theatrical storyline in his head when describing the artwork he wanted for this album. A boat with people being sucked into the sky was part of it. The super-talented Patty Rentschler contributed some photos and, along with a comic, this was a chance to do my first vinyl art. On the inside left of the gatefold, I drew a starmap from the month and year the Titanic sank, and on the opposite side I drew the starmap of the month I was in right then: one hundred years to the month since the event, which tied into the storyline of the comic and the themes of time and alternate/tangential universes piling up. I did that so that I'd be able to mention it in something like this one day. Complete!

(Alcopop!/Swerp, 2012)

Alexei: I just listened to this for the first time in years and I really fucking like it, it's so much beefier than I remember us actually sounding. There are loads of cliché twin guitar trade-offs and crafted swaps cos this is the first set of songs Lewes was involved in and we wanted to use all of the tricks. It's only explicit in one song, but I'd just spent the summer working at the London 2012 Olympics, going slowly mad with a group of friends working busy eighteen-hour days against a backdrop of millions of people. This record is pure catharsis from the cabin fever that summer invoked. Probably should have had a better promotional strategy than Magic Artwork; instead of being in the country when it came out, we were in America killing the label that put it out over there. RIP Swerp, you were awesome.

Lewes: My first time recording guitar with the band. I was super-scared, but also super-amazed at how easy it was to play with these people who'd been a three-piece for so long. I still enjoy playing these songs now, especially Maybe Daniel's All the Push I Need, which took me a while to master because it has a part in it that was too fast for my measly under-trained fingers.

The cover is a drawing of a toy robot holding a magick sigil that Lex had created. I don't know what the spell was for, but we still don't have speedboats, so it wasn't that. We were both quite into Grant Morrison at the time and thought nothing of casually messing with the fabric of reality. We ended up colouring LOTS of this design onto T-shirts in the back of a van in america.

Kelly: Those T-shirts! Literally, an entire US tour was spent colouring in robots and scrawling our favourite lyrics on the front. It was so surreal. I think this is our most concise work - just four pure pop songs. I have no recollection of where we recorded these or the process of doing so. To me, it's like they magically appeared in the band history timeline. Maybe that's the sigil at work.

You Can Do Better
(Alcopop!/Vinyl Junkie//Lame-O, 2014)

Kelly: Our straightforward pop record. More in-keeping with One and Two, but with more control and running with the themes of ...vs Everything. Mostly guitar, bass and drums, and made beefier by the fact that Lewes had now joined our gang.

Junior: Drumming on this record was so strange at first. You get so used to playing with one guitarist and therefore maybe being less dynamic than you should for fear that it just won't sound full enough. I also started to realise how much I followed Alexei's guitar. Now, with another guitar in the band, not only could I make the drums sit back a little more, I could choose who to compliment and have more options dynamically. Saying that, this album is pretty relentless, but it definitely improved me as a drummer, following a different guitarist's patterns and being able to do fills in less obvious places and not lose intensity. I think Dom did amazingly well making this record sound huge.

Alexei: So where NAMES was all about showing off the novelties of duelling guitars, this was a conscious attempt to redefine ourselves as a four-piece band. I banned Jun from having keyboard/sampler fun. Our side projects were established enough that JF felt like it should also have a set tone, like American Football or Clarity or The Blue Album. Lyrically, this ended up being the bleakest thing I've ever done; I got kinda obsessed with writing not about myself, as if I was a first person novelist, but ended up showing more than I really wanted. Deep down, I prolly just wanted to remake Domestica.

I love it, though; You Can Do Better is probably my favourite JF album, I think. Halfway through writing it, an old friend killed himself and it broke the creative bit of my brain; like, I'm equipped to deal with girls and bad architecture and that's about it. My usual cathartic process just couldn't deal, and I stumbled for weeks before my friend Lauren was like: write a fucking song about it. As soon as To The Death fell out, the rest pretty much wrote itself.

Incidentally, Lauren also took the back cover photo and is one of the "one, two, three, four" voices before the trumpets in To The Deaf. The other voice is Evan from Philly superheros The Superweaks. He's basically indie rock in human form, and is prolly our favourite Tour Dad, and driver, and tech, and gear provider, and breakfast maker, and merch shop, and hot sauce manufacturer, and general all-around beacon of optimism and good songs.

Lewes: Jun is responsible for the photo on the front of this one again. I always knew that Kel's bass cab would have its day as the artwork at some point, and this seemed like the perfect time. Kept it simple by using a picture of Digbeth (where we rehearse) at dusk. The insanely difficult part (besides now having to record 10 new, harder songs instead of four) was the enormous map that Lex wanted to do alongside it. I remember sitting in the studio one day for hours, pencilling onto sheets of paper sellotaped together whilst Lex relived his SimCity days and planned a ghost-shaped city with fifty-seven locations marked out. This album has Riff Glitchard on it, which is ridiculously titled (my fault?) but always one of my favourite songs to play live. 

Mono No Aware
(Alcopop!/Vinyl Junkie//Lame-O, 2016)

Kelly: A musical thing with pop sensibilities but with occasional blips, arrghss and ahhhhs. It's a bit like the lovechild of Three and Four. World, Johnny Foreigner Five,

Junior: This album, in my opinion, just appeared out of nowhere. We were discussing making enough time for rehearsals; I'd recently become a father, and finding time to write, practice, and record seemed impossible, but Alexei just had these songs ready to be worked on and slowly it all just came together.

The recording process was possibly one of the hardest yet. We did drums with Dom for some songs, then all the rest of the album at our own studio with James and Josh of Mutes. We then had bedroom sessions doing electronics, vocal sessions at our studio, and lastly we had some time in Peckham with Dom to re-amp and do some comping. So recording it was literally all over the place, with a lot of mix emails back and forth to Dom and mastering by Larry Lachman again.

Alexei: Looking back now, it seems almost obvious that we'd make this record. But up until late last year, we had no real sense of it; we were happy writing for random singles and one-offs, then suddenly we vomited up an album. Still way too close to know where this falls in our quality control scale. But I can honestly say I haven't cringed at owt yet.

I can look at You Can Do Better more objectively now, out of that self-imposed lyrical remove, and see it as a record about the initial shock; peering into the voids of lives left behind in various manners. I think this new album is about accepting, even getting used to those shocks, navigating those voids. The first proper song is a pretty overt reboot of the last proper song from YCDB, and I'm pretty happy to be mostly writing from the heart again. Undevastator was kinda key; as soon as we had that finished, it felt like we could make a coherent album as opposed to a collection of songs.

In practical terms, Jun's summed it up pretty well. We're idiots really, and this would have been the perfect opportunity to make an easy, even-sounding uniform rock record, but this particular creative spark insisted on wanting to be Pinkerton instead. So lots of time was spent finding creative ways to mess things up and take full advantage of moving between different creative spaces. Less controlled, more colourful.

Lewes: Did not expect this to be an album at all really. Happy that it is. I was pretty sure we were going to do a series of small things, but then suddenly we had enough album-worthy material to make a whole complete thing. I'd been really into old and foreign poster design at this point, specifically bizarre sci-fi films from the seventies, and I wanted to try and emulate something like that. Lex loves space all of the time, so he agreed. I collaborated with my close friend Irene Zafra, a collage artist, to create posters for each song.  We used illustration along with both digital and real collage, and - using basic descriptions given to us by Lex - we tried to do posters that looked like they were different but all linked by a plot. It's my favourite of all the covers so far, and it feels like a really complete and symmetrical album. I hope people enjoy it!

Thanks so much to Lex, Kelly, Junior and Lewes for their contribution - hope you had as much fun reading their comments as I did! As previously mentioned, Mono No Aware is out TODAY (8th July 2016) on Alcopop! Records. Buy it here.

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