Thursday, 28 January 2016

Q & A with James Johnston

Harry Pye: I really like the film on You Tube of you and Gallon Drunk playing live at Clouds Hill, Hamburg. Were you happy in Hamburg and pleased with the way that film came out? James Johnston: "Sure, it looks great and it was fun to do. There's also some excellent footage of the band around the time of The Soul Of The Hour album playing in Budapest that was shot for TV, that's really good too. I played the Clouds Hill Festival again last December, the first time I'd played any of the new songs live. That was filmed too and will be out at some point fairly soon."
You're now bringing out a solo album - what are Terry, Leo and Ian going to be doing with themselves? Terry and I are lucky to be involved in the new PJ Harvey album, which is an absolutely superb record, he's also playing in Holy Holy with Tony Visconti, and Leo is also playing with a couple of bands at the moment. Ian is the only GD member with me on the solo record, which was necessary as it's really quite different, so when that's performed live it will be with Ian. The core of musicians on the album is very small, but a huge depth is brought to it with a choir and some beautiful strings. Ian plays some wonderful stuff on the record. It's my favourite thing I've done so far, and probably closer to what I actually listen to. It's a heartfelt record for sure, and intense in a different way to GD. I'm planning towards the next one with Clouds Hill and Johann already."
The Gallon Drunk sound has been described as "Swamp Rock" - from your personal experience of rocking all over the world, which countries are the most keen to lap up swamp rock? "Well with GD, outside the UK, we go down well in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and also seemingly unlikely places like Budapest. I suppose it changes over time too. Often it's also a reflection of the quality and organisation of the venues though, obviously that helps. We haven't played in Ireland for a while either, nor the States where there's a good following that we built up ages ago doing big supports. However whether or not it's swamp rock is another issue...whatever it is." Does your solo album have a title and am I right in thinking the cover of the album will be a big Steve Gullick photo of your face? Still thinking about the title, such a nightmare until it's finally set, the song order too. And yes, a portrait could be on the cards. Steve's a very, very good photographer, so thankfully there's some flattering and striking pictures to work with. He was on hand in the studio too. We'll see. It's all still very up in the air.
Are your new solo songs mostly unplugged/acoustic? "Well, it's got a fairly wide range of instruments on it. The general sound is Piano, hammond, Taurus - which is moog-type synth bass, bass guitar, drums, electric guitar, strings, choir and voice. So a mix of electric and acoustic. It's got quite an intimate yet lush and large sound. The voice is very up front for me. A lot of it was written on the piano in order to get away from guitar songwriting habits." Will you be doing any live shows to promote your album and what formats will it be available on? There'll definitely be gigs to go with the album, very much looking forward to it all. The album will be in all the usual formats, vinyl included for sure."
Who have you been listening to lately? Which singers, songwriters or bands have inspired you recently? Recently, by necessity, I've been listening intently to what I've recorded as we've been mixing, so as a break I'd listen to stuff like Beny More, a fantastic Cuban singer from the fifties, or solo John Cale, Eno, Miles Davis, the new PJ Harvey album, live Hendrix, Sparklehorse, and a great new album Abracadabra by the French band Ulan Bator who were there right at the start of what's now termed Post Rock - all sorts really, and rather a lot of Bowie of course following his death. Big White Cloud by Cale always does the trick for me, out of this world. But no music's often quite a relief to be honest when you're working on something, or just a record that makes you laugh or dance, or the miracle combination of both."
You've been in the music business a while now. Over the years you've played the Hollywood Bowl with Morrissey, met Little Richard, got championed by John Peel, been one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds etc - what mattered most? What was a big deal? "All those things were absolutely a big deal, very much so. Playing on the new PJ Harvey record was a wonderful surprise too, and I loved the gigs I did with her and John Parish recently at the Festival Hall in London at the release of her book The Hollow Of The Hand. I've been lucky enough to play with some great people over time, paths do eventually seem to cross if you stick at what you're doing and create your own little niche in the massive ocean of music out there. And now I have the chance to really do my own thing too."
When you play live with Lydia Lunch you often end the set with your cover of Kill Your Sons which is one of my favourite Lou Reed songs. What do you rate about Reed? In your opinion was his was of guitar playing as important as his lyrics? "It's such a classic, and I love playing our version with Big Sexy noise. We've got a gig at The Lexington on March 20th, then one in Bucharest on the 30th if anyone fancies coming along and hearing us blast it out. I'm a big fan of Lou Reed, all the Velvets records, Street Hassle and so on. His guitar playing's out of this world, like his lyrics and attitude distilled into raw, unhinged sound. Just perfect."
Read any good books lately? "I'm a chapter into Francis Bacon In Your Blood by Michael Peppiatt, and so far it's excellent. Before that an Everyman's collection of Apolllinaire, Tender Is The Night, Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas (who also wrote a beautiful book called The Ice Palace), Yasmina Khadra's The Swallows Of Kabul, and A Farewell To Arms - which I'd never read before. They're all things I've read over the last year or so that I've loved. I read Moby Dick on the last Gallon Drunk tour. A tour bus is a great place to catch up on reading, or take on something dauntingly long during the interminable eight hour drives. One book I'd always recommend - particularly if you want a laugh, albeit a somewhat dark one, is The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis, about a struggling artist in East London, very underrated and extremely funny. Similarly grim but hilarious territory as Julia Davis' superb series Nighty Night."
After this album comes out, what will be the next chapter in the James Johnston story? "Well I need to start working on the next one, that's the main thing at the moment. I'll be on tour a lot this year, and next, promoting records that are coming out this year, so I should get on with it while I have the time. But having just finished this one I'm finding it hard to jump straight back in, but something will come, you just have to be prepared to discard a lot of what seemed initially like great ideas along the way. Also a couple of people I want to do some writing or recording with, so that's something else to work on as well. Good to talk to you Harry". Colour photo of James at Corsica studios 2009 by Natasha Xavier. B&W photo of James at top of page and photo of lyric sheet by Steve Gullick

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