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'Finger in the Weird Pile, Finger in the Pop Pile': Exit_International Talk 10 Years of 'Black Junk'

Thursday, 16 September 2021 Written by Laura Johnson

“The studio fee from us was handed over in cash and a phone call later it was turned into ketamine,” Scott Lee Andrews recalls, mulling over the recording of Exit_International’s cult classic debut ‘Black Junk’. This year the abrasive noise-rock trio are celebrating the album’s 10th anniversary with a reissue, and both Andrews and drummer Adam Thomas are happy to take a tumble down memory lane.

“From a drug perspective, ketamine is probably not the kind of thing that you’d expect—without using a fucking hyperbolic press term like high-octane rock ‘n’ roll—to be recorded on, because it does have the potential for things to go in the opposite direction,” Andrews explains through cigarette smoke over Skype from his home in Australia. “But from our perspective, the focus was very much there.” 

 “We had enough project management to do the trippy stuff we’ll take towards the end of the day,” he continues. “The stuff that you needed to be compos mentis about, we always did that before midday. That’s the tipping point isn’t it? Start 11 o’clock and by fucking midday anything can happen.”

‘Black Junk’ delivers a killer blend of noise and melody, with almost every track boasting a genuine earworm chorus. Notable mentions go to the raucous live favourite Lights Out, the demented Sherman Fang, with its unique drum intro, and hip-shaker Bad Ass. Andrews sums up the band and his songwriting style as having a “finger in the weird pile, finger in the pop pile.” Bridging the gap between the two states is how Exit_International stood out in a scene filled with bands happy to operate within the confines of a single lane. 

Whether watching them perform live—bring earplugs and be prepared for a pit—or listening to their records, you are left in no doubt that they have complete confidence in themselves and their music, and that shit is infectious. “There’s nothing like being convinced. Being convinced by someone is so powerful,” exclaims Andrews. “That’s how cult leaders exist, because they fucking convince people. It may not be right, but they have belief in what they are trying to execute. Conviction is there in spades.”

When I first saw Andrews play he was fronting early 2000s South Wales favourites Midasuno at a long-closed Cardiff Bay venue called MS1. After buying an actual CD of their single Lacerate/Break I was hooked on their unique alt-rock style driven by a pop sensibility. At the same time, Exit_International’s other bassist and vocalist Fudge Wilson was playing in noise-punk outfit The Martini Henry Rifles, who melted my face one night at 10 Feet Tall in the Welsh capital. 

For a 17-year-old just getting into a burgeoning scene, these people were local rock royalty. Similarly, that’s why drummer Adam Thomas made the decision to leave his band The Red October to join Exit_International. At one point, we all worked at the same Joke Shop in Cardiff city centre, but that’s a story for another day. “We just wanted to be the biggest band in the fucking world,” admits Andrews. “Like anyone that’s got any common sense and drive, ultimately the goal is that you don’t have to work. And ironically the three of us were working together in our day job.”

“Physically we looked different from each other, personally we were very different,” he adds. “We were three weird people who just happened to click and people believed in us. And ironically we weren’t trying to be anything apart from ourselves.”

When pushed on if he truly believed they could reach the heights they were aiming for, Andrews explains their approach succinctly: “Probably 70% ego and belief, 30% reality. But if you’re not willing to challenge reality, then you’re not going to get anywhere in the first place. Belief will usurp everything. You want it that bad.”

Having cemented the current line-up in early 2009, following the departure of original sticksman Richard Morgan—who also worked at the Joke Shop, obviously—the three-piece committed to rehearsing twice a week, every week, and it was in the practice room that the triangle was formed. It continued as an unofficial symbol for the band, appearing on the cover of ‘Black Junk’.

“Initially I was nervous, because I’d followed Scott’s music for years prior,” remembers Thomas. “Fudge, too, I’d seen them both in their respective previous bands, both amazing bands, and I wasn’t from that cloth. I’d been in scrappy hardcore and punk bands, but nothing that had made any waves. So, initially I did feel a bit in their shadow, but as far as actual power struggles and ego, it was discussed up front that every vote was three ways. There’s a three thumbs up rule generally. If there’s one thumbs down it’s a no. And that goes for booking shows, absolutely everything the band decides.”

It was a new approach for Andrews, who had held the reins in his previous projects. “You learn how to create something that is not disposable,” he said about the familial dimension of the band. “It’s super powerful. It’s had a profound impact on me.”

The trio entered the Newport studio of producer Carl Bevan in spring 2011 to record their first full-length release. “We’ll get in and get out, and you stay with me,” he told them. Extensive pre-production was done at Wilson’s now defunct Soundspace Studios in Splott, Cardiff, prior to joining forces with Bevan. They wanted to record 12 songs in just three days, as Bevan had done their four-song EP in one. According to Andrews they just “did the math”. They managed to squeeze 13 onto the album. 

There was little room for experimentation, “fannying about” or “sprinkles”, but that was an intentional move. Just like their songs, Exit_International wanted the album to be a snapshot of where they were at that very moment, and to capture the balls-to-the-wall performance aspect they’d so carefully fostered.  

“I think there’s a shelf life on when you can put the lightning in a bottle,” Andrews continues. “The longer it gets drawn out, doubt comes in. We knew we had the songs, we knew they were good enough. It was just a case of putting a lid on it. Minimum fuss. We knew Carl could execute it, and we were ready.”

Things didn’t go exactly as expected, though. The first mixes of the record came back with no bass on them from an EQ perspective, no bottom end at all. For a record featuring two bassists and zero guitars, that was an impressive feat. Andrews started to question himself —are we to blame? Should we have picked this up at the time?  “You hear about the chemical haze, but the reality of it was that someone’s got to fix it,” he says. 

For a band that had always been hands on and independent, it was the worst case scenario. “We could have had a part in that, for the ability not to call it at the time,” he adds. “Probably because we were high as well. But we weren’t driving the ship, we were pointing the captain in the fucking direction. It just happened that we were all pointing in the same direction, which was going south until we turned it north.”

At a remove of this many years it’s clear that the album’s assembly post-recording was vital to its appeal. Having gone through various studio processes with Midasuno, Andrews  had honed the skill of deciding a tracklist and he put it to work neatly on ‘Black Junk’. “I’m a big fan of structuring an album for cinematic purposes,” he says. “I think it’s probably one of the strongest things I admit to, being a musician. I fucking know how to structure an album. Which I think is a really hard thing to do if you don’t get it right, because it can affect the listener’s perception. But start to finish, the ducks lined up.”

“The lyrics, there’s so many layers to it,” he continues with a smirk. “Even though it is quite a straightforward record, there are an incredible amount of in-jokes, potentially cancellable in jokes if “the woke” were smart enough. But then it kind of backs up the MO of the band, that we were smarter than everyone else then, and it looks like nothing’s changed.”

There was a time, though, that Andrews admitted they were too smart for their own good. Their second album, 2013’s ‘Our Science is Golden’, couldn’t repeat the trick. “One mistake looking back is that we tried to apply the rule that if ‘Black Junk’ was our ‘Bleach’ then the next album needs to be our ‘Nevermind’.”

Andrews confesses that they got in their own way trying to orchestrate something to meet that brief, and he quickly learned that though repetition can be deadly, if something works you shouldn’t be scared to do it again. He can now look back at the songs that were rejected by the band for their upcoming third album and see why: they were written solo, not collaboratively. Given the thousands of miles that separate them, it’s a sticking point.

“Geographically we need to be in the same place for a predetermined amount of time to be able to do the exact same thing which we’ve always done, which is basically go into a room with nothing and come out with something,” he insists. As the trio’s plans for a UK tour this September were scuppered by COVID-19 travel restrictions, it’s unclear on how long it’ll be before that can happen again.

While there’s been an ocean between them, each member has been focusing on separate projects. The reclusive Wilson is always working on something, though rarely releases anything, and if he does it’s under different monikers—check out Negative Energy Vortex by Wild Bore. Thomas, meanwhile, is a drum teacher, and has toured with the now defunct Estrons, among other acts, as a session drummer, while continuing to work on his own music, including his band Bodyhacker.

Andrews has also been hard at work since things quietened down on the Exit front. He put out numerous releases under his Jaws of Deaf moniker, formed Mutation with one of his musical heroes Ginger Wildheart, and started a new solo project turned band Strange Unit. Most recently, he’s worked on a mini-album with Todd Campbell, a South Wales producer and member of Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons, and his partner Robyn Griffith, the former drummer of Evarose. All the while he has been filing ideas in a special folder that currently holds what could be the bones of the next Exit or Strange Unit record.

Alongside the inclusion of the Japanese bonus tracks, Exit’s initial anniversary plans included remixing as well as remastering ‘Black Junk’, but that was derailed when Bevan’s hard drive “turned into flames” when plugged in for the first time since the original sessions 10 years ago. Dave Draper, Andrews’ “go-to guy” who’s “done The Wildhearts, and got turned down by Nickelback” was tasked with doing what he could with what remained. Dealing with the masters gave them a smaller space to work with frequency wise, but they were still able remove more of the top end, bolster the low end they love so much, and add what they really wanted more of: “Bollocks and volume.”

It may be cliche, but the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” applies here. Andrews agrees. “I think it did exactly what it needed to,” he says. “It’s an incredibly pure album. Zero fuckery, and we were able to execute everything live really honestly.” Ten years on, ‘Black Junk’ is still a wonderfully vicious assault on the senses.

'Black Junk (Remastered)' is out on September 17 through Say Something Records.

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