The British musician made his mark, initially, with Gallon Drunk, with whom he continues to tour and record. Most recently, he’s been an integral part of PJ Harvey’s band and played on her Grammy-nominated Hope Six Demolition Project. Now, he has an ambitious solo album that is already stirring rumblings among music critics about year-end best-of list placement.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston has produced something timeless with his debut solo album The Starless Room, from Clouds Hill Records, based in Hamburg, Germany. The starkness of Johnston’s photo gracing the cover revealing nothing but the man himself, is a wonderful metaphor for the album as a whole. Here, he opens his heart and lets it flow like never before. This is a sweeping culmination of the musical moments we’ve heard punctuated throughout his career—which includes work with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Faust, and, currently, PJ Harvey—as well as a fascinating new step into an artistic space that he’s finally ready to inhabit.
As I did last year for our Gallon Drunk From The Heart Of Town piece for our The Story Behind The Album piece, I contacted James who was more than willing to sit down and answer my questions about the new record and the amazing year he’s had. (Ed. note: Sharp-eyed BLURT readers no doubt spotted the exclusive track he offered us recently, a live version of the new album’s “Heart and Soul” recorded by Linda Gerdes back in 2015 at the Clouds Hill festival. You can listen to that track below. Meanwhile, Johnston has also created a series of videos in which he discusses the writing of each track on the album. Go HERE for the “Track by Track” section of his YouTube channel.)
BLURT: Why at this stage of your career do a solo record?
JAMES JOHNSTON: I needed to do something different, I wanted to try something fresh, something I wasn’t familiar with. Something that reflected more what I like to listen to myself. It just developed from there, encouraged and helped along by Johann Scheerer, the producer. We’d just done two Gallon Drunk albums in fairly quick succession, and it needed to go somewhere new. I’d skulked about behind a curtain of noise for ages, I wanted to see what it was like without it for once, take the comfort blanket away. [Below: Johnston and producer/Cloud Hills owner Scheerer]
How long have the songs on the album been kicking around, and how long did it take to record the album?
Everything was written specifically for the album. I hate coming back to troublesome old demos, all the same indecisions rear their ugly heads back up immediately, sends me out of my mind hearing stagnant old ideas that I overworked or overthought. Garageband drum loops, hearing some of them again makes me want to weep, throttle myself, or smash my computer, so I tried to stay as far away from anything like that as possible this time for the sake of my sanity. If something’s not working it gets erased immediately. I tend to start everything as an improvisation, just see what comes out. Often I keep the form of the improv intact and build on that. The first half of “Dark Water” was done like that, and the last track, a lot of it was.
We did three session for the record, initial recording, then overdubs, the choir, the strings, and then a mixing session a while later. I’ve no real idea how long it took. It’s easy to lose track of time at the studio, Clouds Hill, as it’s a residential studio, meaning you live there too. It’s very easy to just get lost in the whole process, I barely went into Hamburg once throughout the entire recording.
Who decided the running order?
That was me. I spent a long time working on it – as usual, but certain things were always set in stone for me. “When The Wolf Calls” was always going to be the last track, for example. “Dark Water” was the center, so having those in place made it a bit easier. Trying to keep tracks apart that are in the same key. I enjoy albums that have a definite musical and lyrical flow and work as a complete piece, so mostly I was hoping to achieve something like that with the running order. Just listen to it until it felt complete. Probably the same as it is for everyone putting a record together.
How many songs did you record in total, and which were the hardest to nail?
There were only a couple that didn’t make it, one called “The Wild Sky” that I really like, but it just didn’t fit in the running order. The most difficult ones were where I’d embellished the demo too much, and we were trying to recreate that, or build on that rather than start afresh. “Heart and Soul” was like that. Completely different to the demo. We ended up totally stripping out the idea, changing the key, and then slowing it right down, after which Johann further slowed the tape down so it has that odd ambience. The drum part especially. The demo was an up-tempo cross between Dr. John and Ennio Morricone, totally overblown, bombastic, and impossible to recreate, but we still felt it could really work as a song, and I was really happy with how the lyrics turned out. I’m so very glad Johann suggested starting from scratch with that one, as otherwise it was heading towards the bin, and I love the ghostly way it ended up. It fitted the nature of the words so much better than the original track did. So much better than the demo, and more part of the record in its overall atmosphere.
By far the easiest was “When The Wolf Calls,” one take and that was it.
“Cold Morning Light” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and to be honest, I was sad when it ended. What was the seed of an idea that set you on a course to write this gem of a song?
It was originally going to be an instrumental, and I was completely happy with it that way. It was Polly who suggested I try singing on it so I tried it out at home, sounds to me now like I’d been listening to The Doors, which I probably had been! I wanted the whole track to develop, layer upon layer, so it was logical for the vocal to be the last entry, hence the form of the song that leaves you hanging at the end. Also, it works as a break from the more traditional song structures on some of the rest of the album. Live, we’ve stretched the intro out longer, but on the record, I generally tried to keep things more succinct.
“St. Martha’s” I loved when I first heard it—how did this song come about? (Ed. note: A live version of the track, recorded at the above-mentioned Clouds Hill festival, appeared on a 12” single that featured Peter Doherty on the flipside. The limited edition vinyl-only item was released for the 2016 Record Store Day in the UK.)
That’s a favourite of mine too. The music came first. Then the lyric was triggered by looking through a box of very old photos. It’s about a very specific place that has huge emotional resonance for me, it’s out in the country. But hopefully as a song, it could be about anywhere that someone holds precious, hazy memories both good and painful, we’ve all got them! I’ve tried writing about that sort of thing before, but I could never get the tone of it right. Probably the saddest track on there.
Do you have plans for another solo record, or will a Gallon Drunk record come next?
Everything is very much open, I really enjoyed the freshness of recording the album, and I’d very much like to keep that sense of newness going, whatever it may be. The feedback will always be there if needed, it’s just waiting inside a Big Muff for a while.
Tell us about Johann Scheerer’s [pictured above, with Johnston] involvement as producer and bassist—what discussions did you have regarding the sound you wanted? What’s he like to work with?
First and foremost, Johann’s a friend. We’ve worked together on two Gallon Drunk records now, and a Faust album, and now The Starless Room. Knowing someone that well can be totally key to trying something new; you have to have that trust, the freedom to try anything, regardless of whether it’ll work or not, and not rely on your usual methods. Johann is great at that, and I’ve seen him develop that level of trust very quickly with other bands in the studio too.
It started with my emailing him a blizzard of demos, sometimes one a day, and this went on for a long time. He’d respond immediately with what he thought, good or bad, and I’d take it from there. They weren’t finished songs, just chord patterns and rough vocal ideas. It really helped to bounce ideas off someone, and gave me confidence to follow my instinct with some songs I might not have ever shown anyone, and also to ditch some things immediately. It gradually became obvious what style was working best, and that a group of songs was developing.
Most of the discussions about the actual sound came in the studio; we both had ideas for every song, so we’d just try them out with Ian [White; pictured below] on drums, and see what worked. Ian plays beautifully on the record, and obviously, that brought something new to respond to as well. Generally, we all tried to let our enthusiasm and instinct take the lead, try different approaches until it felt right, then move on quickly.
Strings are tricky to employ without sounding cloying and overly emotional, and on the album, they seem rather restrained. Was this something you thought about when trying to fill out the core layers of the songs?
Well, I certainly didn’t want it to be like one of those “Hank Williams and Strings” type albums where the strings are poured on as a sweetener. The string arranger, Sebastian Hoffmann, was extremely sympathetic to what I wanted and what was needed. We listed to loads of arrangements I like. From Massive Attack to Serge Gainsbourg, [John] Cale, Lee Hazlewood, and even Vaughan Williams, all sorts of stuff. The overall tone of the whole record is one of restraint, so the strings are part of that mood and he achieved it beautifully, a lot of subtle counter-melodies like the gorgeous tune on “Cold Morning Light,” and then on the last track it’s just improvised harmonics and a very delicate drone was all that was needed, barely there.
On this record, you seem to be the most emotionally vulnerable we’ve seen you. Were you at all worried how this would play with your Gallon Drunk fan base, who were more used to the visceral edge of your songs?
The nature of the songs demanded something open and vulnerable, exposed, something markedly different, so the lyrics had to match that. I really needed that too, I needed change. As usual I wrote the music first, with a vocal melody, then fitted the lyrics to that. You can’t really worry about how people will respond or you’d never finish anything, I know I wouldn’t. I find it hard enough to start with, without setting up even more barriers and things to consider. Again, I just went with what felt right at the time. I was still basically just responding to the music, in the same way as I would with Gallon Drunk, except this time more based around melody, and the vocal taking the lead in the song.
You’ve spent a good part of this year touring with PJ Harvey, who counts Mick Harvey also as one of her band members. What influence has playing with these people had on your music?
I know Mick really well from playing in The Bad Seeds, and in his solo band, so that feels totally comfortable, and I really enjoy it, the same with Terry from Gallon Drunk who’s also in the band. It’s a big band, ten including Polly, so we’re all reacting to one another, and playing off and around one another the whole time. It has to be sympathetic to the song, what’s needed, or as is often the case in music in general, what space needs to be left. One big difference for me has been playing the violin again after years of it sitting sadly in its case, ignored. I took it into the recording sessions on the off-chance it might be of use, even if someone else were playing it, and now I’m playing as much violin as guitar on tour.
What does the Grammy nomination for Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project mean to you since this is also partially your work?
The Grammy nomination is for Polly, it’s her record in every way, but being involved with the album has been an amazing experience, which has now spread out over time to include the tour that now continues on through 2017. Mainly it helps draw more attention to the album, and the timing has been great as the North American dates have just been announced. But also, I’m very proud to play on the album, and it’s meant working closely with friends old and new. The first gig where Polly and I were on the same bill was a Gallon Drunk gig in 1992 in a London pub The White Horse. We subsequently went on to tour together for about a year. It’s always been a great memory; we were all young and very fresh to it all. So, it’s been great to work together, and really reconnect properly as friends.
Will you be touring for your record? Any chance of a stop in Asheville, North Carolina so our esteemed editor, Fred Mills, can catch you?
I played Asheville a few years ago while I was in Faust, loved it, still have the tinnitus to remember it by. I hope to do some shows in the States for the album, so we’ll see. Sadly, we’re not stopping in Asheville on the upcoming Harvey tour or I could have done an impromptu gig somewhere in town that had a piano. (Damn. Well, next time then, mate! – Ed. Fred)
Last time we spoke for our piece on Gallon Drunk, you were looking forward to 2016 and all your various musical endeavors, now that we are at the end of the year, take stock for us as to what this year has meant to you, and what next year holds in store for James Johnston?
Well, a lot [has] happened for me with music this year, and there’s been a lot of travelling. To put it simply, next year looks the same, and I’m very, very grateful for it being that way.
Photos by Steve Gullick