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A Surprise Up Your Sleeve: JOHN Talk 'Nocturnal Manoeuvres'

Thursday, 07 October 2021 Written by Laura Johnson

Photo: Paul Grace

JOHN have a gargantuan sound. So big, in fact, that the band’s two members— drummer, lyricist and vocalist John Newton and guitarist Johnny Healey—might be considered alchemists. Their approach noisily brings together elements of rock, prog, punk and doom in a distinctive and eclectic style that sets them apart from their contemporaries, rendering them instantly recognisable to the ear.

With 10 years in the game and two albums under their belt, the London duo began to pen their upcoming third LP, ‘Nocturnal Manoeuvres’, prior to and during lockdown in 2020, stepping into the studio in November last year to record it.

The intensity found on their first two records—2017’s ‘God Speed in the National Limit’ and 2019’s ‘Out Here On the Fringes’—has been turned up to 10 on tracks such as Sibensko Powerhouse and Haneke’d. But Newton and Healey are also allowing things more time to resonate, a development that is particularly effective on the six and a half minute Nonessential Hymn.  

Stereoboard caught up with Newton to wax lyrical about returning to the road, writing their new record, to discuss the limitations of being a duo, and what the future holds for JOHN.

What is it like being back playing shows? How’s the response been to the new material? 

It’s really, really great to be back out after such a long time away. We had some amazing festivals with Green Man and End of the Road, and they led the way for kicking off the September tour dates, which were rescheduled from 2020. And that’s shunted up against the main album tour, which is in October. So it kind of all became the album tour, which is really satisfying. It’s a lot of hard work, but we’re really enjoying being back out and playing the new songs.

It’s difficult with having three albums now, there’s a lot of material to pick through. We’re aware that people are fans of certain songs and you can’t play them all in an hour, so we’ve got plenty of the new songs in there for this tour just because it’s celebrating the album, and it keeps it interesting for us as well. But there’s still room for material off the first two albums, and it’s really nice to see the legs those albums have still got. People are still finding them and still buying them, which is really satisfying, especially the first one, which was in 2017.

When you start playing new songs, there’s just the fact that people haven’t seen them before so sometimes you’re like, ‘Oh, people are standing still and watching. Are they enjoying it?’ They don’t know what’s coming next so it takes a while for those songs to mould into the live set, and people get used to them after they’ve heard them on the album. But it seems like everyone’s enjoying the increased intensity to the new stuff. I think it’s just another shift up and people are responding really well to it. It’s always nice rolling out new material, especially when you’re confident with it. It’s really nice having that surprise up your sleeve.

Your second LP went into the Top 40 of the UK Independent Vinyl Chart and was featured as an Album of the Day on BBC 6 Music with three playlisted singles. Do accolades like this mean much to you?

We’ve always both been fans of stations like 6 Music and KEXP in Seattle, and obviously it’s been pretty amazing to see regular rotation on both, just because we were fans when we were growing up. They both promote very broad tastes of music, which we both like to think that we have. We never wanted to be a band that hedged themselves within a rock community, so it’s nice to see it on broad terms within those media platforms. 

We didn’t expect the response to the second album, for sure, in terms of the radio plays, but it does mean a lot to us because it means your music reaches more people. But if it hadn’t happened, we’d have still kept going, we’d have still kept doing what we do. It doesn’t change things, but we are incredibly thankful for the support and we certainly didn’t necessarily expect it. 

Likewise, with the new album, there was no guarantee that they were going to get behind the new stuff because they did the second album. But it’s important to us. In terms of charting, that’s always been a lovely surprise. But I think the main thing is getting out into rooms and seeing people enjoy it, and that is enough for us. Anything else is a bonus really, so we’ll see where this one takes us. We just enjoy making the music and collaborating together, so that comes first, there’s no prerogative about it getting anywhere before that. 

You returned to producer Wayne Adams, who helmed your previous LPs. What is it about his methods that keeps you going back? 

Wayne’s used a residential studio out in Wales, so originally we were talking about doing that. But unfortunately because of the circumstances it made it impossible to consider that. So we ended up going back to Wayne’s home studio which is called Bear Bites Horse in East London, which sounds fantastic. We know what he can do there. In some ways there’s a comfort there for us as well because we know the routine of how long things take. So within the tumultuous year that was happening it made sense to stick to comfort, because there were so many unknowns. We just felt that it was a lot easier to deal with.   

It would have been nice to be out somewhere residential working on something, you’re kind of hermetically sealing yourself within a period of time. But at that moment it just wasn’t possible. We still booked in just over a week to seal ourselves in with regards to putting the album together in London anyway. 

Wayne has developed with us as a producer. There’s this conversation that you can build and if you start interrupting stuff too much by working with different people then you might shut down some of those developments. I’m not saying we’ll always stick with him, we may look at other options in the future, who knows. But for these records we still felt like there was room to develop with him, especially with some of the things that were really successful on the second record so it seemed like it made sense to stick with him for the third. 

But I still think there were distinct developments that we made sure happened even though we were working with the same person. He’s always switching gear in and out of the studio and changing approaches to certain techniques, so I certainly don’t think it was limiting to him. It doesn’t affect the ambition of it too much. These are all conversations that we had.

Your sound has grown even more expansive. 

I think that we started sowing the seeds of that more expansive cinematic approach on ‘Out Here on the Fringes’. There are a few little moments that we really liked in a quite visual sense, so that was something that we wanted to turn the dial further on with this one. As you play bigger rooms you start to hear the potential for spacier or different sounds, whether that’s with Johnny’s pedalboard or with my drum sounds. I think we just naturally started to sound more expansive. We knew that there was a bit more room to be pushed on the third record, and we were aware that we really wanted that from this release.

Being a duo comes with its limitations. How do you approach that?

I think we understood that the duo thing is so idiosyncratic to the sound. There’s a way that you have to do things within the limitation, you can only write in certain ways. For example, because I’m drumming and singing it informs that I have to sing in rhythm with my body, and that informs the complete sound of the band. Likewise with Johnny, he’s very limited to the amount of movements he can make and it brings this quality to really being very picky about the dynamic shifts in songs. 

I think it would be all too easy to say, ‘We want to bring in a bass player or another guitarist’ to make it sound bigger, but actually it will ruin the strengths of what it is because of the limitations. So we’ve always been very dismissive, being like ‘Look, we don’t want to change that for a sense of scale’. I believe we can get just as loud with two people.

All the superfluous things such as crowd surfing or running around and getting involved, we can’t do that and that’s a choice. But if that’s what the band is then that’s absolutely fine, because the music is the most important thing to us. 

What’s your method for writing and recording? 

It’s pretty much always in the room together, just responding from either something that I start playing or Johnny starts playing. There’s a few rare occurrences where obviously we do go away and write things solo, but we never write a full song apart from each other and come into the room and patch in drums and vocals over it. It’s always a direct spatial collaboration.

Did any other media inform your writing?

I think there’s a lot for both of us. Because I’m the lyric writer, there’s more direct evidence of that because of the way that language works. The third track on the album Haneke’d, he [Michael Haneke ] is an Austrian film director and I just kind of liked the idea of putting a D on the end because his films are so effective, it’s almost like a small nod to ‘being Haneke’d’. In a lot of his films, he’s trying to provoke the viewer into a moral questioning or dilemma. So I was watching a lot of films which I think are incredibly relevant to any time, but especially this time at the moment with all the current struggles across the board. 

During the time of writing there’s always literature references.  I actually quite like when people read or link to external, non-musical sources. I come from a contemporary art background, I don’t necessarily come from a music background. So in some ways I feel more comfortable talking about it on those terms than in musical terms. Johnny, the way he writes, that often comes from guitar or score influences. 

It seems like you put a lot of thought into how the band is represented with artwork, videos and merch.

Yeah, I put everything together in collaboration with Johnny. We’re always very, very keen to make sure that it’s a device that directs how you want the music to be read. It always seems bizarre when bands don’t want to, or don’t care too much, about what it looks like. I’m super passionate about that side of things. 

We’re always talking about certain ideas that run through a record and how we can manifest through the images. It’s really, really important to us. Similarly, we’re very passionate about what we don’t like in terms of music videos. We really like to come up with ideas trying to do the songs justice within their links to visual matter. 

What does the future hold for JOHN? 

We’re in discussions with our American agent, but everything’s so murky it’s just a case of sitting on tenterhooks and they see what is possible. I keep emailing and giving them updates, but it’s still very early days on that. We would want a decent amount of preparation to do that right anyway. 

It’s nice we’ve got Europe far enough away to prepare for that in March-April 2022. America would be fantastic, I think we’re both very excited about the prospect of doing that. As with many bands, hopefully venue sizes increase, hopefully more people get involved. We’ve got half an eye on working out some more shows next year, nothing completely concrete.

There’s always talk of support slots with maybe larger acts. We’re very privileged to be with a fantastic agent who really understands us and he’s always looking out for really appropriate things, it’s not just picking anything, it’s making sure that everything has the right feel to it, because we really care about how it’s read. We don’t want people lumping it into categories that people often do—lazy journalism. 

‘Nocturnal Manoeuvres’ is out on October 8 through Pets Care and Brace Yourself Records.

JOHN Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri October 08 2021 - BELFAST Ulster Sports Club
Sun October 10 2021 - GLASGOW Stereo Cafe Bar
Mon October 11 2021 - EDINBURGH Sneaky Pete's
Tue October 12 2021 - STOCKTON Georgian Theatre
Wed October 13 2021 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Thu October 14 2021 - MANCHESTER YES (The Pink Room)
Sat October 16 2021 - READING Face Bar
Sun October 17 2021 - BRISTOL Thekla
Tue October 19 2021 - OXFORD Bullingdon
Wed October 20 2021 - BRIGHTON Patterns
Thu October 21 2021 - SOUTHAMPTON Loft
Fri October 22 2021 - LONDON Moth Club
Fri October 29 2021 - NOTTINGHAM Bodega Social Club

Fri March 11 2022 - PARIS La Point Ephemere (France)
Sat March 12 2022 - LILLE Laeronef (France)
Sun March 13 2022 - COLOGNE MTC (Germany)
Tue March 15 2022 - AMSTERDAM Paradiso (Netherlands)
Wed March 16 2022 - BRUSSELS Ancienne Belgique (Belgium)
Thu March 17 2022 - ROTTERDAM Rotown (Netherlands)
Fri March 18 2022 - HAMBURG Headcrash (Germany)
Sat March 19 2022 - COPENHAGEN Loppen (Denmark)
Mon March 21 2022 - POZNAN POD Minoga (Poland)
Tue March 22 2022 - WARSAW Poglos (Poland)
Wed March 23 2022 - VIENNA Flex (Austria)
Fri March 25 2022 - BOLOGNA Covo Club (Italy)
Sat March 26 2022 - MILAN Biko (Italy)
Sun March 27 2022 - ZURICH Fabrik (Switzerland)
Tue March 29 2022 - BERN ISC Club (Switzerland)
Wed March 30 2022 - MUNICH Feierwerk (Germany)
Fri April 01 2022 - PRAGUE Cross Club (Czech Republic)
Sat April 02 2022 - BERLIN Cassiopeia (Germany)
Wed April 20 2022 - DUBLIN Whelans
Fri April 29 2022 - LISBON Time Out Market (Portugal)
Sat April 30 2022 - PORTO Hard Club (Portugal)

Compare & Buy JOHN Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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