Coming Full Circle: An Interview With Band Of Holy Joy

jonny mugwump tales to the inimitable Band of Holy Joy enjoying their renaissance, the perks of chaos, and the rural and city divide

It’s Thursday 28th April 2011, and I’m stood at the back of St. Pancras Church at 8pm. I have hastily and somewhat unexpectedly been put into drag. A woman, dressed as a man, is stood at the front at the pew of the church and we are about to be married. Devils and witches are sweeping across the walls – poetic visual disorientation at its strangest and wildest. It is the night before the ‘royal’ wedding, a turgid elitist blowout that will apparently lift The Country’s spirits while the rest of the sceptered isle drifts towards a new-right apocalypse and brutal class war not seen since… well, since the last time the Tories were in power. The gig had been booked and organised months before the grotesque nuptials were announced. The band in question has already outlasted several of these farces, and will undoubtedly blaze through several more. The singer, the mainstay of 30 years of post-punk-folk-cabaret, has seen it all before. The singer was only looking to celebrate the onset of Spring with his band who stand elegantly and savagely prouder, louder, more distinguished, more fun, more fucking determined and sounding more fine than at any point in their entire career to date. He’s used to turning things like this to his advantage though.

‘Ah hey, no way, I’m not having them spoil my night in church, absolutely not!’

‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

‘I demand that the show goes on!’

‘And how, pray, will the show go on?’

‘We have songs of pain and songs of misery, songs of protest and songs of joy, songs that I say must be heard and shared and enjoyed and disseminated virus like through the barren streets.’

‘Will that be enough?’

‘Listen… I have a barrel of Blood Wedding punch, which is begging to be drunk.cYou must attend, all of you, and for all those not quite sane people who refuse to flee the city, I demand you join us…’

The singer is Johny Brown, and the band is The Band of Holy Joy.

Band of Holy Joy were formed by Newcastle émigré Johny Brown in 1984 in New Cross, South London while he was sharing a squat with Test Department, in what was then a thriving post-punk scene. Early experiments revolved around cheap junk shop instrumentation and rudimentary electronics before Johny and collaborators hit on their defining and defiant punk-folk-cabaret overload. Band of Holy Joy reached a commercial and critical peak of sorts after signing to Rough Trade with Manic, Magic, Majestic in 1989 and Positively Spooked in 1990 – both excellent metaphorical allusions to the band’s unique spirit – before record label collapse and general crazy times led to an extended hiatus. Johny moved into freelance journalism, focussed on playwriting and production alongside the occasional musical interlude. There was a brief resurgence in 2002 but it was in 2007 that Band of Holy Joy began to find new feet, and over the last couple of years they’ve hit one of their most prolific periods. They’ve also incorporated two different radio shows, multi-media and theatrical projects and – I say this not just as a critic, but as long-term fan – burned across stages with the finest line-up and sound since they formed nearly 30 years ago.

Prior to the gig, I met up with Johny and Inga Tillere (visuals and soundscapes, and responsible for pushing the band in an entirely new visual phase) at a Turkish restaurant in Stoke Newington, near to the home that they both share. Joining the couple is newest Holy Joy recruit James S Finn (bass), a brilliantly gifted and softly spoken multi-instrumentalist and engineer. The band’s remaining core – not counting a host of collaborators, accomplices, dissidents and comrades – of Chris Brierly (violin), Andy Astle (guitar) and Bill Lewington (drums) are absent.

Band of Holy Joy now have a 30 year heritage to draw upon. How would you compare a snapshot of the band from 1984, 1990 and now?

Johny Brown: Holy Joy now is like Holy Joy 84 in a lot of ways. We’ve got Radio Joy which is our own record label… In 1984 we were making cassettes and releasing records and little packages and booklets, and doing gigs in really weird places like old theatres and stuff. And we’re at that stage again now – putting out CDs and downloads, and it’s quite a cottage industry again. We’re playing different venues and doing all sorts of projects, and [original drummer] Bill is back in the band. It’s full circle.

It strikes me that you’re happier in this context, with full control over your sound, release schedule and not at the whim of the industry?

JB: I love it now. In 1990 it was straight – straight product, straight touring etc. In 1990 most of the fun was off-stage. I wasn’t very happy when it was at its peak, but now the fun is onstage. We have good collaborators, and it’s a beautiful low level, and you’re in control.

Let’s start with the new single [which is a double download on the aforementioned Radio Joy label], ‘On the Ground Where John Wesley Walked’/ The Black Middens’. Folk is obviously a prominent element of your sound – although always with a very urban edge – but it strikes me that these two songs… well, they sound a lot more rural than what you may have done in the past. Is that deliberate?

JB: More rural and less city. Yes, it’s deliberate – we’re leaning towards rural songs at the moment. Well, it’s rural with the city bleeding over the rural, and the rural spreading into the city – the two mixing. It’s container trucks, and docks, and the far north. And Latvia has a lot to do with it too – the light there and the time we spent there [Inga’s home country where the two recently spent some extended time].

I wrote it on guitar five or six years ago when I was up north in Cumbria. Foot and mouth was happening, and they were burning big charnels full of animals, but then once everything got cordoned off nature started flourishing. So John Wesley comes from those fells around Cumbria where he used to walk 200 years ago preaching, so it’s a poem about the fells. But it’s also about a certain time in Britain now where everything’s a bit weird, a bit curdled around the edges and a bit chemically imbalanced, so it’s a modern rural poem. I started it on guitar and the band have taken it and it’s become a live thing, and now James has taken it somewhere else. It’s become a piece of soundscape.

On The Ground Where John Wesley Walked from Inga Tillere on Vimeo.

And this is a different approach to last year’s Paramour?

JB: Paramour was the sound of the shadow of us coming back from New York – traces of The Velvets, and Eric Anderson, and Phil Ochs. What we’re working on now is The North; not even a real North, [but] an idea of the North. A kind of toxic landscape, very bleak but with nature pushing through and flickers of light.

This is interesting as Band of Holy Joy do walk in something of a haunted landscape. It’s one of their more idiosyncratic elements, almost like a kitchen-sink occultism.

Obviously hauntology has become a dominant theoretical model over the last few years…

JB: Well, we’re certainly not hauntology – there’s ghosts in your head, but they’re real. It’s more like being possessed by the past and being possessed by visions of the future.

If anything, Holy Joy is more psychogeographical?

Inga Tillere: I think psychogeography is a good comparison – I kind of see each song as a manufactured landscape. Some of those layers might be real or past memories of things that have happened, and some are totally imaginary. It’s a blend of those things that make up each song.

JB: A Manufractured landscape…

This question of landscape has rollercoastered to magnificent effect in recent years through line-up changes, collaborations and most vitally through two extraordinary radio shows – Mining For Gold, which has been broadcasting late night Friday’s on Resonance FM for nearly seven years, and the more recent Radio Joy, which transmits live (in pure DIY style) on a Sunday night from Johny and Inga’s home. You really have to hear both of these shows to appreciate their sheer audacity, inventiveness and gung-ho don’t-give-a-fuckness.

How would you delineate between the two different shows?

JB: Inga is more in control of Radio Joy, and I think Mining For Gold is more fluid. Ostensibly it’s a soundscape show, an art show – it’s a mixture of art and text but as radio shows go it’s more fluid than most. Even as Resonance show’s go, it’s more marginal than most, and long may it remain so. It’s a haven for the most obscure artists and musicians.

IT: Radio Joy is more of an offshoot of Band of Holy Joy, because that’s closest to the vision for where you [Brown] wanted to go – to have that form of expression so the station is almost part of the band.

JB: Yeah, that’s spot on. It came out of a frustration of wanting to do soundscapes within the band. We wanted to transmit, we wanted to communicate, so Radio Joy became a really vital way of expressing ourselves using text cut-up, soundscape and electronic music and just wanting to broadcast and connect. You know, every Sunday is like a gig – like a Holy Joy gig. We get ready for 8pm and off you go into the night. You launch off. It’s another facet of Holy Joy and Mining for Gold – it’s a radio show but we have production and live acts and well. It’s an unusual radio show; haphazard, half-arsed, sometimes deranged and intoxicated, but it is a radio show, I think.

It IS a radio show. Mining for Gold can sometimes drift peacefully and beautifully. Or it can be a one hour blast of sheer punk noise, or performance poetry: live bands, interviews or outright fucking chaos as long as it’s a sincere noise. Mining For Gold is always unexpected and walks a knife-edge feeling like it could collapse at any minute. And indeed, sometimes it does, but it’s never anything less than compelling. It can be elegant or it can be outright crazy. It’s everything a radio show should be. I’ve participated many times before, reading Calvino mic’d up alone in the car park in the dead of night, whilst poets and musicians and artists have been holed up in different corners and rooms all being controlled by Johny, whilst Inga conjures up all manner of eerie ephemera from her laptop in the main studio. Anything that comes to hand is fair game, be it bicycle bells or yard brushes. The show often breaks out of the small confines of the main studio to incorporate whatever is necessary; whatever feels right at that moment.

JB: Actually, Mining for Gold is pretty straight right now. We have a lot of live acts on.

IT: A lot of the time it’s a battle against what constitutes people’s conception of what radio actually is. Sometimes it can weave in to a Radio 4 kind of thing…

James S Finn: Believe me, I engineer the whole of Friday night at Resonance, and Mining for Gold is the LEAST Radio 4 like show on there.

We all laugh, but this goes to show the dynamics and the ambitions at play. Johny, Inga and James are entirely representative of the band and their comrades as a whole – restlessly exploratory, constantly questioning their own motives and performances, striving to create something as sincere to the moment as possible. With so many ideas and personalities at play you can see how wild things can get.

Radio Joy, on the other hand, is more focussed – more specific in its transmitted intentions with narratives, stories and guests with tales to tell. It’s the Band of Holy Joy stretching out to the moon, exploring structures that can’t happen within the confines of the song. But as with everything Holy Joy do, the edges dissolve, bleed away and integrate. Radio Joy has also mutated into a live project – a blending of theatre, song and multimedia exploration. This has manifested itself in Troubled Sleep, a fictional account of Sid and Nancy’s last days filtered through the ghosts of The Chelsea Hotel which played out over several nights in the Shunt theatre and club space, an extraordinary and hugely missed labyrinthine tunnel system that runs underneath London Bridge. A second piece, A Lucky Thief In A Careless World, was commissioned and debuted for the Naked Lunch At 50 celebrations at the British Institute in Paris. These post-cabaret events in far-flung venues build on an already strong mythology, outcasting the band galaxies away from the traditional stale rock music narrative.

A hardcore creative asylum has built up around the hub of the band – freaks, outcasts, writers, musicians and poets, outsiders one and all – elegance and vehemence- controlled chaos- anarchy within a uniquely rolling framework…

IT: Well, it’s nice and unique to us to be presenting work that you wouldn’t find anywhere else especially from our European colleagues.

JB: Yeah, we’re really lucky. We’re able to feature Eddie Woods, Den Browne, Nina Zivancevic – a whole marginal underground.

You still have a very strong commitment to live performance. How does this feed to and from your studio-bound work?

JSF: Some of the energy of the live performances runs into the recordings, but not the other way. In the live performance you have an audience there and an energy to work off, as there’s an interaction there that you don’t have in the studio.

Back at St. Pancras Church I witness the finest Holy Joy gig I’ve ever seen – overloaded with blood and fire, pathos, humour, violence and occasional scenes of outright anarchy with audience heckling, baiting and constant surprise…

JSF: To be honest, I don’t really enjoy playing the old songs. It carries the weight of history of being a popular song, and of having a fan base who want to turn up and sing along to songs, as opposed to us being in the moment and interacting with the audience and it being a happening, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.

IT: It frames the band as well, and drags it back to a particular era. It’s about breaking out of all that and transcending that. It would be really easy to go back and do all the old songs over and over again, but we don’t want to do that.

After the St. Pancras gig, I tell Bill what an amazing show it’s been, and he tells me, ‘Yeah it was good but we want to be so much better’.

JSF: I mean, why bother doing the same thing over and over?

James, you’re work up to now has been based in more abstract and electronic avenues. What’s the hook for you?

JSF: Well, it has a similar feel to the electronic improvisation I’ve experienced – the structure with Holy Joy live always feels incredibly fluid. You have to option to change the rhythm, change the volume, manipulate the tempo… It’s the theatrical quality that Johny brings that holds the whole thing together and that’s also exactly what the musicians play off. Johny provides the narrative and the energy.

The night draws to a close and we’re all pretty drunk by now. I’ve been pushing all night trying to uncover something – why THAT sound? With all those collaborators, all those individual and collective influences, histories and obsessions – after 30 years what gives rise to that still very specific noise? Why does that work, and why is that choice made?

JSF: Well, we’re folk music, and what I mean by that is that it’s a reaction to contemporary culture. In that sense, I think the band is completely folk, and that’s why it’s evolved so much over the years – because it’s not just the culture has changed, but personal situations, tastes, line-ups. All of those things are going to influence the overall sound of the band.

He’s right of course, but I’m drunk. I start yelling about how their songs are entirely relatable in some respects – everyday worries and concerns, universal themes of heartbreak and emotional wreckage, the daily socio-political – but all filtered through the band’s own unique sense of magic realism. The weirdness and wildness of the landscape they stagger through, the askew vision like a crash between Coleridge, Brecht and David Peace, the literary allusions and poetry, the strangeness of it all… when Johny suddenly has a breakthrough.

JB: It’s fuckin’ Wuthering Heights isn’t it?

We all collapse in fits of laughter

JB: Well it is, isn’t it? The landscape with the monster – we’re the monster on the landscape!

That’s my answer. That will do, for now.

Long may they lurk.

Mining For Gold broadcasts live on Resonance FM every Friday night at 23.30. Radio Joy transmits live every Sunday from 20.00 onwards. Radio Joy will be debuting a new live piece, ‘Beuys Will Be Beuys’, at The Vortex on June 10th with Hong Kong in the 60’s, Misty Roses, Anne Pigalle and Father Murphy. Tickets are available here.

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