The UK is having a resurgence of indie and rock music – there has been a lot of new interest in bands such as Bristol based IDLES, who won the 2019 Kerrang! Award for best British newcomer and were nominated for Best Breakthrough Act at the Brits 2019. Shame, a band based in South London, have in the last year performed in the US and Japan, with upcoming concerts in Iceland. Coming out of concerts, I’ve heard discussions of “the rebirth of British punk!”, and it’s hard to not agree. After all, we live in an age of discontent, of political campaigns and division – it’s not a reach to think that punk music can arise out of this.
However, this label of “punk” does not appreciate the new music as it is crafted now. An up and coming band that takes great pride in their craft is JOHN ( often stylised as JOHN (TIMES TWO) ), a two piece band hailing from Crystal Palace, London. The duo consists of John “Johnny” Healy, who plays the guitar and John Newton, who plays the drums and sings. Speaking to John Newton, he describes the duo by saying: “we very much are and always have been a live band. The performance is important to us – being on stage is a good feeling, when the energetic music transfers to the crowd.”
JOHN has been compared to other bands like IDLES, with whom they went on an EU tour with last year and has also been placed in that label of punk. “I don’t mind what words are used,” John Newton tells me “We understand the history of punk and we are interested to work with that, but we want to push that forwards and not stay in that same category. We’re aware of the genres and believe it’s not helpful to be worried about what other people label you. It’s more important to focus on the lyrical content and the music. I think that, particularly with the new album, we’ve tried to push what those genres can do.”
The album being referred to is their new album, Out Here On The Fringes, which drops October 4th. The title refers to their base of Crystal Palace, and its place of being on the fringe of London. The roaring vocals and poetic lyrics paired with the heavy sound evokes a feeling of dystopia and disrepair. “That’s Crystal Palace” John says, laughing. “No, Crystal Palace is a very nice place, but it has a lot of concrete evidence of Brutalist architecture. The cover of our first album is a disused stage in Crystal Palace Park.” I asked why JOHN wanted to use this image of the fringe of the City. “We are always thinking about how to be sustainable, but when you get to the fringes, the outliers, that’s where you can see the overproduction, the material we have created and that’s where it can get overwhelming. It’s like, I’ll walk out of my house and see a pile of rubbish dumped on the side of the road. It’s these small things that happen in unsurveilled places that reflect the bigger, political problems.”
They recreate this bleak, brutalist landscape through their sound, their lyrics and even their song names. There is a sense of unity in how the landscape is presented throughout the album. When asked whether this was a conscious decision on their part, John replied “It’s not consciously a concept album, but because I write the lyrics, some of the music and I do the artwork, it’s important that all of those elements come together as a journey. It’s important that there is a sense of feeling of the same songs. We’re especially glad with the track Midnight Supermarket – we believe it really helped bring that image of dystopia together.”
“Comparing it to our first album, each song on this album feeds off each other and creates an imaginary landscape. It’s not like out first album wasn’t unified, but those songs were the first we wrote together so they are less consciously connected. Creating connections between the songs was very intentional in this album, to create that dystopian journey.”
This album also features collaborations with other artists, seamlessly woven into the overall sound – Chloe Herington, Saxophonist for Knifeworld/Chromehoof appears on Future Thinker and Rosanna Dean’s violin cuts through the percussion on Dog Walker. These collaborations are a signifier of the intent to push beyond the repetitiveness expected of the genre, yet they began quite naturally. “With Future Thinker, we were recording, and we heard some kind of saxophone. We looked at each other and we shared that desire, so we got hooked up with Chloe through a friend. We couldn’t have found a better person, she’s incredibly talented and is already ingrained in the London noise rock scene, even having played with GOAT. She knew exactly what we wanted but it wasn’t like we sat down and said, “this is what we want to do”. We gave her the section and asked her to do as she pleases and yeah, she really delivered.”
“That’s how we make songs, you know, we’re in service of the songs. You don’t tack bits on, you follow your nose, and when you try things out, you see if it works”.
Another area of experimentation for the duo lies in the visuals. Drummer/Vocalist John Newton gives as much of a priority to how the album is perceived visually. “Absolutely everything is important. I would want to understand and have control over what we’re putting next to the music because it has such a large effect on how the album is read. I’m lucky because I can physically control the visuals, coming from an art background, and it helps with creating songs, when I write lyrics I take inspiration from the visuals. When making an immersive album, we’re lucky that we are in control of the visuals, the music, the quality. It means we can make it, as some people would say, more cinematic and evocative.”
The cinematic element of the album is particularly present on Midnight Supermarket which takes a turn from the thrashing percussion and powerful vocals and is a slow-paced instrumental. On the first listen, it flowed so naturally that I didn’t realise that the album had slowed down as I was fully immersed in the dystopian landscape.
Written by guitarist Johnny Healy in response to Newton’s title, the choice to immerse the listener in a dreamlike space was a conscious one. “We used field recordings, and that helps signpost to the listener that this is where the song is heading. The title and the sound takes you to a very particular place. The guitar adds to the mood – it reflects when you’re a bit bleary eyed under the bright lights of the supermarket. We’re really about that song on the album because we want to push that further.”
The addition of the ambient track was a pleasant surprise and reflects the duo’s desire to push the limits of the labels they’ve been assigned. Rather than progressing into the ambient genre, the duo want to be more conscious of embedding a common message or image within their albums. “We both have very broad tastes and while we grew up playing rock and punk, I take just as much inspiration from avant garde writers as I do from punk writing. Crossing borders is helpful when writing an album – looking around is more important than just sitting in a genre. We love playing within the movement of the traditional rock band as there is a lot of space within that to experiment, but I do think we look at ways to put albums together to actually say things. We’re conscious of doing that and that might involve more ambient moments. We can’t say for sure till the next album.”
“We don’t plan it out. I was listening to Thom Yorke and he explains that you have to keep yourself not knowing, just ready. So that when something comes, you’re already waiting. It’s like a drug because you’re waiting for something that’s not coming. And that’s what we want to do, to set the potential for something to happen and then capture that moment. Just follow our noses and keep ourselves surprised and I guess that’s how we will carry on working”
Finally, when asked if he had a particular track to recommend to new listeners, Newton responded, “well since we’ve spoken about it so much, I guess Midnight Supermarket. But really, you should listen to the album as a whole. It’s a journey and we are very proud of how it all flows together.”
JOHN’s new album, “Out Here On The Fringes” came out on the 4th of October. Available to order at RoughTrade.