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Back for his sixth interview with Pennyblackmusic, Joe Gideon tells Ben Howarth about his new album 'Armagideon', recorded with Jim Sclavunos and Gris-de-Lin. Having set out to write a set of lighthearted songs, he ended up with an album themed around the upcoming end of the world.
It is now more than ten years since Joe Gideon and the Shark released their debut album, ‘Harum Scarum’ – introducing the world to Joe Gideon’s “spoken-word stories of surreal woe”, and being judged “amazing”, “witty, intensive, dynamic and musically inventive” and “funny and moving at the same time” by various critics.
Pennyblackmusic had been championing Joe Gideon’s work for some time before then. We first wrote about his earlier band Bikini Atoll in 2003 and followed them through two albums on Bella Union. Bikini Atoll fragmented shortly before being due to play our bands night in March 2007, but Joe Gideon re-emerged with his sister Viva (‘the Shark’) playing a combination of drums, keyboard and guitar. I still have my copy of their demo CD, which they gave away free at that show. Over the next few years, myself and a few friends hardly missed a show – support slots, showcases, free shows in random pubs; it didn’t matter, we were there.
After a second album, ‘Freakish’, Viva moved on (she has moved to the West country and is now a successful actor), but Joe Gideon returned in 2016 with a stripped-down, bluesy solo album, ‘Versa Vice’.
It has been quiet since, but earlier this year, we started to get the first taste of Joe Gideon’s new music (recorded with Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos and multi-instrumentalist Gris-de-Lin). In place were the now-customary post-punk blues riffs, sardonic half-spoken vocals and playfully surreal lyrics, but now with a more expansive sound, hummable melodies and a sense of a band who didn’t stop and think what people would think. The resulting album, ‘Armagideon’ will be released in late-January, but it feels – to these ears – like a realisation of the promise we saw at that fantastic show almost thirteen years ago.
Having finished preparing an evening meal for his children, Joe Gideon sat down to discuss his new album, his new label and his plans for touring the UK and Europe between January and March next year.
Pennyblackmusic: First question – tell me a bit about the name of the album, and where that came from?
Joe Gideon: Wow – well, that was like a gift, wasn’t it?. A name that was waiting to happen.
But, in truth, I was reading Marlon James’ book, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and there were a lot of references to ‘Armagideon’ in that. And I just thought, ‘I’m having that’. Also, the Clash used to have a fanzine that was called ‘The Armagideon Times’. So, it seemed like a pretty good name – and also some safe reference points for anyone who spots them.
Although, in truth, I don’t have any strong leanings towards that book or that band. It’s just – ‘I’m Gideon’, and there you have it. And, also, the crucial bit is that the title seemed to fit in with the theme of the songs. I was on the hunt for a unifying title, so it just came out from that.
PB: So, when did you start making the record – what was the process of putting it together?
JG: I started writing the songs about three and a half years ago. There was one song that kicked it all off, this little ditty – almost – called ‘Scaredy Cat’. That song seemed to set the neurons firing and made me think that I wanted to write fun, fantastical songs – nothing heavy, you know. But then, with that thought, I ended up writing lots of songs about the end of the world, so go figure.
I spent about six months writing all the songs and then felt that I was ready to present them to the band.
I’d worked with Jim Sclavunos on my previous record, so he was the first guy I asked. He was totally up for doing it and then Gris-de-Lin, a keyboardist-saxophonist-singer had been playing with me on the tour for that album, and we had been great friends for some time. When we toured my solo album, the three of us had got to know each other really well. It seemed like a natural evolution for us to make the next album together.
PB: Compared to that previous record, ‘Versa Vice’, this one has a much fuller sound, more going on with the arrangements. It sounds like that was a natural evolution from the tour, rather than a deliberate change in approach.
JG: Yeah, exactly. That’s how records produce themselves, really. The personnel, circumstances, environment. Where you happen to be and what machinery you happen to have. So, with ‘Versa Vice’, my solo record, I didn’t have much, I just had an eight track. I really had limitations and that created the dogma of how to proceed.
While with ‘Armagideon’, it just seemed obvious to utilise the creativity of these two great musicians as much as I could.
Jim is such a great percussionist. And Gris-de-Lin is a great pianist. We discovered that she could play the saxophone, much to her annoyance, when we were touring the last record. I had needed someone to play the clarinet, which she couldn’t play, but she said she could play the sax. She dusted it down, she hadn’t played it in years, and from there we made sure we got her to play loads of it on the record.
PB: So presumably she will need to dust it off again for the next run of shows, will she?
JG: I dunno…I dunno. We’ll be playing as a three-piece, and there are only so many hands you can use and loops you can thread up…
PB: Maybe just having a guitar-drums-sax sound won’t quite work…
JG: Well, that sounds like a challenge. I’ll have to do that now! But that is the fun of a three-piece, that there is a dogma, you are limited and you have to make the most of what you can do within that. And it’s amazing, if you set yourself that dogma, what you can actually do within those constraints. As I discovered with my last band, with my sister, when it was just the two of us, how much we could get going with just two people.
PB: I always thought that there was more going on with the Joe Gideon and the Shark albums, with two people, than there had been on your Bikini Atoll albums, with a full band. Almost as if fewer musicians actually gives you more space.
JG: I think that is what it is. And you’ve got fewer heads to convince, so the democracy of two or three is much easier to get through than the democracy of five.
PB: I’m interested that you’ve refered to the last album as ‘my solo album’, a few times. Do you see it this time as being more of a band – or is it still the case that you think of yourself as a solo artist and they are helping you out?
JG: I think of it very much as a band, to be honest. All the way through, right back to Bikini Atoll, I’ve always written the songs first, so they’ve always started out as my thing. And then it is about what the musicians can do to them. And that is exactly the same set up with Jim and Gris. They were heavily involved in making the music – so I see us as being a band, definitely.
We are all of pretty similar tastes and we trust each other’s opinions. And so, had one of us thought something was a bad idea, we would all tend to agree. We got on really well in the studio.
PB: You’ve said you wrote the songs quite a while ago now. Was it all recorded in one go or was the process spread out over time?
JG: It was stolen moments, over time. Because, you know, Jim and Gris are quite busy! I mean, Jim was promoting the last Bad Seeds record while this was all going on – a massive operation that spans two years. So you’ve got to take that into account when you see what his year was going to be like and what that constitutes – so it’s incredible really, that whatever spare time he had, he gave over to me and the project. And still is… it’s amazing really.
PB: And he is touring with you in February…
JG: Yes, exactly, before the next Bad Seeds bandwagon kicks off. As well as the touring early in the year, I’m also hoping there will be a couple of festival dates in between all his touring. Obviously, it’s understood that if he can’t make it, we’d have to get another drummer in. On the last album’s tour, he did almost all of it. There were just a couple of dates where we had to find another drummer.
PB: Going back to my previous question, was the recording process largely one track at a time, or was there a lot of reworking and revisiting tracks over the different recording sessions?
JG: The most important thing was to get the ideas down quickly, as soon as they came. Because it’s amazing how many of those ideas stay and end up on the final mix. So, it is important to fully carry out your imagination, as much as you can, within whatever time you have available. You never want to be thinking, “if only I had done this and that”, you just have to try it out.
PB: I was interested in your description of the album that there was one song, ‘Rule Roost!’, that you didn’t actually like whilst you were recording it. It made me wonder what even persuaded you to bring it to the band?
JG: Oh yeah, well it was one of the last ones I wrote, and I already felt I’d got enough, so that was my attitude. But when I played it to the band, they really reacted to the musicality of it. It was really great for them, so that really carried it through that session. But in the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure if it would really work… the lyrical themes are actually a bit nasty, for me, and I felt out of my comfort zone.
And then, really, at the eleventh hour, during the mixing, it came alive for me and started to work. I couldn’t believe it. So, there is a lesson there in persevering with stuff, because your least favourite song could end up being your favourite.
PB: It’s funny you say that, because it’s one where I actually felt it had most in common with your earlier work, I felt it could have slotted in next to some of the songs on the first Joe Gideon and the Shark album, stuff like ‘Hide And Seek’ and ‘Daughter of a Loony’.
JG: Oh really…yes, it is a bit like one of those. That actually makes me like it a bit better!
PB: As this album goes on, though, particularly in the last few tracks, it does feel like some new musical territory for you – even actually quite uplifting musically. Do you agree with that?
JG: Well, those tracks – ‘Quack No Duck’ and ‘Berit’s Cliff House’ – are different to how I normally write songs as I’ve used clear chord sequences. They are songs I could actually play through on an acoustic guitar, and it would still work as its own thing. Most of my songs are one-note tricks, you know, just basslines played on a guitar. Seldom do I come up with a chordal arrangement, but on these two, I would be happy just playing them solo at the top of a cliff, you know.
PB: You also mentioned in the album notes that ‘Berit’s Cliff House’ has taken on something of a second meaning for you, since you wrote it, and evokes some of your feelings about Brexit. How strongly does that come across for you?
JG: Well, the Brexit thing is traumatic. As a musician, it’s a disaster. And it is for so many people – I mean, my wife is a scientist, and she’s Danish. So, she’s Brexit’s least favourite person.
But I originally wrote the song about my mother. She’s the Berit in the song. She’s Swedish and came over here many years ago, and had often wanted to get back to Sweden, but hadn’t been able to do. So that’s where the chorus is coming from, the desire to get away from this “mean and green, pleasant and unpleasant land.” That’s what I was writing about when I wrote the song.
And then Brexit happened, and we all want to get away from this “mean and green land”. At least, that’s what it felt like when it happened. It was a very visceral feeling. Now, it’s still very alarming but, when you woke up after the result, you really felt it in your gut, didn’t you?
I don’t know, maybe you’re an arch-Brexiteer? (Laughs)
PB: No, I’m very much not! But I know what you mean, the shock of the result coming in.
JG: It’s quite funny now, watching repeats of things like ‘Have I Got News For You?’ before the vote. They’re attitude is to treat it so lightly, they are barely even registering that it might actually happen. And, now, it’s like, “Oh my God”.
PB: Do you think any of the political mood comes through on the rest of the album – underneath all the apocalyptic imagery?
JG: I think it does on ‘Rule Roost!’ That is a very topical theme, it’s all about refugees and people coming over on the undercarriage of a plane, trying to escape other parts of the world. There is also a little bit of a reference to paedophilia, in there, unfortunately, as well. But that song feels very ‘now’ – but I think that’s about it, in terms of the songs on the album.
When I write the lyrics, I am usually staring, through tears, at an empty page and then try and fill that page. With a bit of luck, I will get three pages of A4 out of it, then leave it alone and then come back when I can look at it as if another person has written it. And then I try and source ideas out of that and look for themes to sing about that I haven’t done before.
PB: I remember you saying when we spoke before that you spent a lot of time honing and re-writing the lyrics. I assume that is still the case?
JG: Very much so, yeah. The only thing that has changed now is that I am way more gung-ho with the guitar when I am creating the song. I used to have loads of tapes of riffs that I would come back to, but I have pretty much dispensed with all of that now. Now, I pretty much just jam and see what comes to me when I am going through the lyrics – and I am much preferring that, actually.
PB: There is one song on the record – ‘Salty’ – that you recorded in a single take. Did you write that any differently?
JG: No, I wrote that song in the same way as any other. But when I took it in to recording, Jim and Gris riffed off that instantly and because we had this basic set-up for recording, which was insisted upon by Jim and turned out to be a really good call, it meant that the instant spontaneous reaction to the song was recorded – and we kept it, without a single edit.
You might notice that my voice on that song sounds a bit different. I was really suffering on that day, actually, I had a really bad False Widow spider bite in my leg. I only discovered it later, but it had completely taken over me and was even affecting my voice. But as those moments of actually getting the band together are so rare, I couldn’t afford to waste it and just had to battle through. But, actually, I think what it did to my voice really lends itself to that song – it sounds sort of broken, and that really fits the theme of the song.
PB: So, I had a couple of ‘process’ questions to finish with. Tell me about your new label – apparently, they came on board after hearing the first single from the record.
JG: Yeah, that is exactly what happened, they heard the first single, ‘Expandable Mandible’, and it was like a flame to the moth!
Bronze Rat – my previous label – they put out the single. We needed to have something released, because we had a few live dates – playing with an incredible Spanish band, Guadalupe Plata.
After we had put it out, Cloud’s Hill – a German label – got in touch. They’d obviously been suitably impressed by it.
PB: Does having a new label change anything about how you work in practice?
JG: Oh, it has changed a lot. It changed the mentality – it’s really incredible to have a label like that involved, and to have a new take on how to do things. Also, it is a new territory – I’ve never really played in Germany before and now I have a few dates coming up there, which is really exciting.
PB: So, in your head, it’s a step up – a new push?
JG: Totally, yeah. It’s made me more focused. They are also very social media savvy – they have been really on my case about that. I need to invent a thirteenth hour in the day to actually do all this stuff.
PB: You’ve pre-empted what was going to be my final question, which was about your touring plans. You have the run of UK dates in January and February – what comes after that?
JG: Well, after the run of UK dates, we are then going to playing some EU dates – as loathe as I am to call them that – in March. That will also be with the band. Then, hopefully, there will be some more dates – a festival or two – to come after that.
PB: I think that’s it, unless there is anything I haven’t asked about you feel people really need to know?
JG: No, I think we are good. Other than that I really appreciate Pennyblackmusic being around after all these years – still slogging away!
PB: Thank you!