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Escape Velocity

Walsall My Soul To The Devil: John J Presley Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , December 9th, 2014 12:30

Ahead of his gig at The Lexington in London this Friday, the Midlands-born bluesman tells Julian Marszalek why there's nary a "woke up this morning" to be found in his dirty guitar music

It's difficult to ascertain what hits first. Is it the voice that's been soaked in tar and rolled in molasses? Or is it the down-tuned guitar that possesses the ability to sustain beautifully overdriven notes and hammer out punishing riffs while sounding as if it's been repeatedly punched in the face and dragged by its collar through the dirt and grime of London's filthy gutters? What is certain is that the cumulative effect of John J Presley's considerable talents as a vocalist and guitarist coalesce to create a beautiful noise that at once grips and beguiles, as befits a natural-born storyteller.

Presley's music is very much rooted in the blues, but the noise he makes is a world away from any number of chancers whose imagination came to a sudden halt the moment they woke up this morning to find that their woman and dog had plum gone left them. No, this is an altogether darker variant of the form, one that finds itself rubbing shoulders in the twisted and twilit worlds of Tom Waits, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. As exemplified by his two coruscating singles, 'Left' and 'Honeybee', Presley doesn't just sing his songs; he inhabits them and in doing so invites the listener to be complicit in his shadowy tales.

The Quietus' first encounter with Presley was during a particularly hot and sweaty summer night in north London, where a solo slot supporting Howlin Rain marked him down as one to watch, but it was seeing Presley in full flight with his band - keyboardist and harmonium player Danielle Perry and drummer Tom Glendining - as they supported The Jim Jones Revue on their farewell tour that the music really hit home. Delivering explosive nuggets that detonated with a hypnotic ferocity, the trio easily overcame any notions that this was just something to fill the time until the main attraction hit the stage.

Whereas the John J Presley of the stage makes for an intense presence and experience, the man The Quietus meets for a coffee in north London is a far more softly spoken and considered individual. Born in Walsall 27 years ago and relocated to London two years ago, via Liverpool, Presley has started to make waves in a very short space of time. Sipping his drink, Presley considers the enduring appeal and influence of the blues on white folk in England.

"It's a question that's been asked for the last 50 years or so," he says. "It should be hard to identify with it but maybe it's the hard-working aspect of it or perhaps it's the fact that someone else's life is harder than yours. But it's also the simplicity of it. Music is so produced these days and the simplicity of the blues still really cuts through."

But while Presley harnesses the power of the form, what makes his music remarkable is that it's refreshingly free of the cliches that often blight the genre to the point of parody.

"Well, I definitely don't play 12-bar blues," he states. "I give the music a lot of space and I use a lot of drones as well. I'm a sucker for drones. A few years ago my music was very much the cliched blues but I think you have to go through that to get to the point where you find your own sound. I like dirty-sounding guitars that manage to sound quite beautiful at the same time."

Presley acknowledges that his love of drones and alternate tunings stems from his long-held admiration of Mogwai, an influence that holds to this day, and that his gateway to the blues came via The White Stripes, in particular their cover of Son House's 'Death Letter' which led him back to the source. Encountering Son House's music via a compilation album, Presley says that this was the first time that pure blues music truly spoke to him.

"I checked him out and the second I heard it I was like, 'Wow!' I just love the way he plays. I don't think he started playing guitar until his late twenties, and he'd made records in the ’30s or ’40s, but he wasn't big until the 1960s when he was found working in a hotel. I love that story, but I really love his guitar playing."

What was it about his guitar playing that had such an effect?

"You can tell that he has nothing to do with musical theory. It's down to the feel," says Presley. "I don't really hold with musical theory as it sucks out all musical creation. I tried it but it wasn't for me. It's not like Beethoven ever went, 'Oh, I should only compose music like this!' But that's the beauty of Son House - he doesn't know what he's playing, he just created this amazing music."

It's a policy that's worked well for Presley thus far. On top of that, he's also been keen to eschew the traditional band set-up to create something that's his own.

"We tried playing with a bass but the frequency just didn't sit well with the guitar. It sounded way too 'rawk'," he explains.

"The Fender Rhodes turned out to be a far better fit and we then got a harmonium from a friend of ours," continues Presley. "We played it one New Year's Eve at his party and really liked it so a few weeks later we were like, 'Can we borrow it for a recording session?' And then we kind of had it on permanent loan! When we heard the results we knew we needed it so in the end we bought it off him. But it's one of those instruments that adds character.

"I knew I wanted something else because that guitar-drums set-up of, say, The White Stripes or The Black Keys can get one-dimensional. The combination of the Rhodes and the harmonium gives the music a real distinction and a really beautiful sound. We tried to add some subtleties into the sound that you might not hear on first listen, which again helps take this music away from the cliched view of the blues. We're trying to orchestrate things in the way that bands like the Bad Seeds do. The great thing with the Rhodes is that you can be really delicate with it but when needs be you can really hammer it."

With a surname that's in seemingly short supply and second only to Christ, The Quietus is forced to ask if Presley really is his name – or is he simply being provocative?

"Oh God, yeah!" he exclaims, almost spluttering his coffee in indignation. "Presley is my real name. I don't think I'd have ever used that name if it wasn't mine, otherwise the shoes would be too big to fill."

He allows himself a laugh: "I mean, I suppose it's like calling your kid Jesus, but then again Jesus Presley does have a ring to it! I hated my surname when I was a kid because everyone took the piss and called me Elvis. They are big shoes to fill. But then again, you've got to live up to something."

If his name has acted as a subconscious motivator, then it's certainly worked. In addition to securing a support slot with The Jim Jones Revue, a three-week experience that taught him the value of self-discipline, Presley has taken his music to a wider audience with a slot at this year's Reading Festival as well taking to the airwaves thanks to the support of Xfm's John Kennedy and Zane Lowe of Radio 1. Satisfying achievements to be sure but, as Presley admits, there's still more to be done as he continues his ascent.

"I'd like to find a home for the album," he says finishing his coffee. "I'd like to get a full body of work out there, but it's a question of finding the right label and the right people to work with."

With the fine music he already has under his belt, one suspects it's simply a matter of when and not if.

John J Presley plays the Lexington with Bob Log III on December 12, before heading on tour in February; keep an eye on his Facebook for updates

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