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Johny Brown - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 8 / 3 / 2024

Johny Brown - Interview

“I get up in the morning and I write,” says Johny Brown towards the end of his interview with Pennyblackmusic. “I go to bed at night and I write. I have always wanted to create, communicate, bring people together and work on projects. I have never wanted to have a family. I have never wanted to drive a car. I have never wanted to own a house. I do like making music though and working with other artists. That is what galvanises me. That is what I love and spurs me on. I don’t think I am ever going to stop. It is always going to be there.” We are sitting beneath the Shard in London outside a tiny Costa’s on the forecourt between London Bridge rail and bus stations. A huge, self-automated road sweeper - an example of the Artificial Intelligence that will soon come to dominate us all - shunts back and forth in front of us. In a few minutes, when the interview is over, Brown, fascinated, will go over to photograph it with his phone. It will appear on his Instagram page shortly afterwards. At 63, Brown’s enthusiasm and energy for life remains completely undimmed. His group of the last five decades The Band of Holy Joy are going through a golden period. There have been more than forty members since it first formed in the early 1980s, and over twenty albums, as well as various CDs and official bootlegs. The line-up has stabilised over recent years to include, as well as Brown on vocals, James Stephen Finn on guitars, Peter Smith on keyboards, studio bassist Mark Beazley and Brown’s partner Inga Tillere on visuals and art work. Many are saying that their latest album, ‘Fated Beautiful Mistakes’, which came out in mid-2023, is their best yet. Always restless, ever busy, Brown makes regular radio programmes. He has written plays, and published books of poetry and prose. He is now about to release his debut solo album, ‘Gut Feels’, which will come out on CD on St. Valentine’s Day on his regular record label of the last few years, Tiny Global Productions. While The Band of Holy Joy have employed an increasingly lavish sound in recent years, and ‘Fated Beautiful Mistakes’ features the twin guest talents of Terry Edwards (The Higsons, Gallon Drunk) and Sean Read (Dexy’s, Edwyn Collins) on saxophone and trumpets, ‘Gut Feels’ is in comparison much more lo-fi. Recorded on seemingly ancient instruments at Jon Clayton’s One Cat Studios in Crystal Palace, it involves acoustic guitars, an ukelele, the cello and an organ. In contrast to the social and political concerns of The Band of Holy Joy, its songs are abstract and angular. In ‘A Mawkish Sentiment’ a friend plans to get rid of his terrible tattoos, but Brown likes them, feeling each tells its own story. ‘The Old Hopefuls’ tells of a group of elderly musicians and actors, who go on honing their craft against all odds and time year after year. There ae songs too about Brown’s raincoat-wearing brigade of teenage peers and friends in his native Newcastle and punk badges. ‘Gut Feels’ is as vital and as extraordinary an album as any in Johny Brown’s long history in music. PB: Various critics and also John Henderson, your record label boss at Tiny Global Productions, have all said that ‘Fated Beautiful Mistakes’ is the best Band of Holy Joy album ever. Do you agree or does it just seem like the latest in a long line of great albums? JOHNY BROWN: No, it is a step up absolutely, just in terms of songwriting and musicianship. The next album is better still though, and it is already written and a step up again. These are exciting times really. PB: The Band of Holy Joy’s line-up has been the most stable it has ever been and pretty much the same for ten years. James Stephen Finn and Peter Smith have been there for a long time now. Mark Beazley comes in to play bass on studio recordings and Inga is involved as well with visuals and sleeve art. Is that a factor? JB: Yes, definitely. A stable working environment has made all the difference. James and I know each other well now. We have worked together for ten years, and we have got a vision of where we want to be with the music. The record is selling in Rough Trade and it is in the ‘Modern Alternative’ section, which is great for us, because it is a long time since we have been seen to be modern (Laughs). PB: There is a big age difference between you and James. You’re about twenty-five years apart. Do you see it as a positive factor because you are perhaps able to bring different perspectives and influences in? JB: It is absolutely a positive factor. James is in some ways a lot more conservative than me. He is rooted in older music and bands like The Smiths and The Cure, while I like out and out noise and modern stuff. It works both ways though. About ten years ago we flew to Greece to do some gigs and got our iPods out and I said, “Let’s listen to some old Bowie stuff,” and he said, “Forget that! Let’s listen to some new Bowie stuff,” which I had never listened to before, and James turned me on to some new Bowie and stuff like ‘Outside’ and ‘Heathen’. PB: What is James’ background? JB: James went to Middlesex University. He did a music course there. He is a music engineer by trade. He grew up in Devon and started out in his bedroom, teaching himself to play the guitar and playing and playing it over and over. James and Peter play pretty much every instrument. They both play piano, guitar, violin. They play anything. They are multi-talented, They are really good sound engineers. PB: What’s Peter’s background? Again he has been there a long time. JB: Peter’s background is very similar to James’s. He was again brought up in Devon in the countryside. He is obsessed with music as well. Peter is only a few years younger than me, but he came to London around the same time as me. He knows his music inside out. Peter and James met at college at Middlesex on the sound course there. They both also play in a noise group Tiger Walking Down the Hill. They have got roots in garage and futuristic stuff. They are both Velvet Underground freaks. PB: How does the songwriting work between you and James? JB: Nowadays James comes up with the melody, the beats, the songwriting structure. I don’t mess with the music anymore. I am also at the moment loathe to let anyone else write the songs. I like working with James. That will change. We will move to a different way of working again, but at the moment it is working with me and James. It is a really good partnership. PB: How did you cope with Covid? It destroyed some bands, but it seems to have pushed The Band of Holy to new heights and limits. JB: I have always thrived on chaos. I am quite adept at standing in the middle of chaos and letting it swirl all around me, letting it blow all around me. I am quite resolute at working it to my advantage and taking the best things out of it. I am quite grounded these days, but I value chaos. If you are in band and want to make music that is worthwhile, you have got to be chaotic. You have got to rely on magic and alchemy. You have got to push against the norm. You have got to take things to the edge always. If you are not prepared to do that, don’t be in a band. PB: You have got a really prolific work rate. Do you reject much material? JB: We reject a little bit. We always have a core of fifteen or sixteen songs, and then it is a case of working on the songs. Lyrics will change. As a song grows, it can have five different lyrics. It is trying to find the right one. We will work and work on a song until it is done. Some things you know straightaway it is not going to work. Other songs you work on for months and you get nowhere. Other songs you think are great and you forget about them and then three years later remember them. PB: How did you get Terry Edwards involved in making ‘Fated Beautiful Mistakes? JB: I just asked him We had been to see Richard Strange doing his Lou Reed songs, and Terry was on stage with him playing everything, the alto sax, the tenor sax, guitars, but actually on this album it was Sean Read who was the prominent saxophone player. Sean was Kevin Rowland’s right-hand man in Dexy’s and also Edwyn Collins’ right-hand man. He plays most of the saxophones on there. Terry plays the flute and a bit of alto saxophone on there, but the great saxophone solos on there are Sean’s. We just saw Terry and loved him. I interviewed him on the radio. Terry is a hero in London, an absolute god, so I got his number through Richard and asked him if he would come and do some stuff for us and he did. PB: And on top of that you have done this solo album. Who is involved? JB: I wrote the songs, and played the guitar. From there I started off with Katy Carr. Katy came and played the ukulele and I built it up from there. Jon Clayton played a lot of cello on there and also added some 60’s organ which I wanted, but all the samples and field recordings and the crashes and bangs I put on were all me, so it is my record. The album also features David Coulter. David Coulter was in the Band of Holy Joy in the 1980s, and he jumped from the Band of Holy Joy to the Pogues, and from the Pogues to Tom Waits, and from Tom Waits to being Marianne Faithfull’s right-hand man. He is the musician to go to. He has played with Lou Reed, and his last big gig was with Blur. He has played with everyone. He is a really old friend. He lives in San Francisco in Oakland and I said to him, “I have got these really weird little songs, these scrappy little songs. Would you like to do something with them?” and he said, “I would love to,” and he just played freestyle guitar over them. David added a lot of graft to them. PB: They sound like they were recorded on really old junkyard instruments. JB: I used really old guitars. The songs are all about little offside things, whereas Holy Joy is all about life and death. They are much more abstract. They are about people who wear raincoats. Goths, punk badges, bad tattoos. PB: ‘Gut Feels’ is much more funny than a BOHJ album. They have their moments of humour but it has got a sense of the surreal. JB: It is the antidote to the Band of the Holy Joy. It is really kick about tongue-in-cheek. These songs would not make it onto a Holy Joy record. I just wanted to take a chance and get them out. PB: Were the songs on ‘Gut Feels’ written over a long time? JB: No. Really quickly. Once I thought I was going to do them I just got the guitar out and it was bam, bam, bam. I started to write songs on my own fora lot of the Holy Joy CDRs. They have a lot of my songs on with James recording them and putting guitar over the top and me playing along, but this is the first time that I have stepped out and said, “I want to do my own record.” James is a teacher and Peter has a steady job. We don’t get to tour very often. I am 63 years old now. I am going to retire in two years. I want to keep working, but I am going to have to retire. I want to keep playing. I want to go out with my guitar, so this is a gateway to me going out and doing lots of little gigs everywhere. PB: Who did the art work for ‘Gut Feels’? Did Inga do it? JB: No, I have done it. I have done everything on this record. It is my record. Inga is Holy Joy but this is me. She would have done a great sleeve, but it wouldn’t have been me. I wanted it to be purposely scrappy. PB; You are clearly buzzed up about this, but is it scary going solo? JB: Yes, definitely. I have always loved Holy Joy and it is scary because it hasn’t happened yet, has it? It is to happen. We will see what happens. PB: Why do you think that you have gone solo now? JB: I have these songs. I was going to record them for a cassette originally, and I could live with that. I have got a website johny.co.uk, which I hardly ever use and I want to use it more. The record is a way of getting my website working. I can have my radio station on there. I can have my art on there. I can have my music on there instead of everything going out as Holy Joy. PB: Thank you.

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Johny Brown - Interview

Johny Brown - Interview

Johny Brown - Interview

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Band of Holy Joy frontman Johny Brown talks to John Clarkson about his group's latest album 'Fated Beautiful Mistakes' and his forthcoming debut solo album 'Gut Feels'.


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