Paint Something: Desperate Journalist Interviewed

The London purveyors of chiming, literate guitar-pop talk to Gary Kaill about drawing on a nerdish love of leftfield '80s indie, avoiding onstage shape-throwing and wedding sweeping sonics to an intimate lyrical dialogue

Everything about Desperate Journalist screams ‘then’ and everything about Desperate Journalist screams ‘now’. You’d have to have been in hibernation to miss our growing preference for yesterday over tomorrow. The list of bands still to reform shrinks to postage-stamp proportions while genres once snootily dismissed attract breathless, revisionist regard. While the shoegaze prime movers lead the charge, the appeal of classic Brit indie grows and its stout foot soldiers bring up the rear. Dig out your battered and beloved indie disco favourites and, now that the kids have cleared out and the mortgage is all but paid, you can revisit it all again in person.

Still, the market swells to accommodate the also-rans, the small fry and the better-than-you-remember-actually. And while a handful of acts are forced through necessity to ply their trade on multi-act, all-day line-ups, enough of them keep the bills paid on their own terms to suggest that a preference for the previous generation’s endeavours is more than mere weak-kneed nostalgia.

Cue Desperate Journalist. Their references to the past are done with care and guile, and the way in which they sculpt a tried and true template is what gives them identity and a sliver of enigma. They borrow just enough to colour and support their own ambition and burgeoning creativity. If chiming guitars and throbbing bass take you back to somewhere you’d rather not revisit, fair enough, though if songcraft way in advance of much of the indie (current or past) landscape and a singer who really, really can, might give you cause to rethink, do just that.

Released by Fierce Panda at the start of the year on an original print run of 300 vinyl copies now long since gone, Desperate Journalist’s self-titled debut attracted across-the-board approval, and deservedly so. Jo Bevan’s lyrics were deliberately small scale and fired by a vivid, scenic poetry: glimpses into relationships and their end and memory being the bastard that it always is. Rob Hardy’s expressive, melodic guitar and a rock solid rhythm section (Simon Drowner on bass and Caz Helbert on drums) suddenly reinvigorated the idea of anthemic guitar pop.

"One of the things we seem to have managed to do, something we really probably wanted to do without even knowing it," says Hardy as he and Bevan talk to tQ on the phone, "is to have picked up a group of people who really like us. We never had any big PR or a press thing. You know, we were never a buzz band. NME don’t like us and that’s fine because we don’t like them. But we do feel that we’ve managed to achieve something without any of the usual trend bullshit."

In October, the band released the five-track Good Luck EP and left their hometown of London to supplement their 2015 live schedule (including a well-received spot at the Indietracks festival) with a series of dates supporting Finnish apocalyptic post-punks Grave Pleasures. There are more dates planned for the start of next year but for now the emphasis is on album number two. "We’re about halfway through writing that," confirms Hardy. "It’s going really well. We’re pleased with the album, but it kind of came about accidentally: it was half written before we knew it would be an album. But now we’re just hungry to get on with a second."

With the live thing, you play with a real focus. It’s not like you’re chilly but you genuinely never look at each other. Jo, you didn’t shrink away – you were up at the crowd but you barely registered them, which was very powerful. That’s not just rehearsal – that’s a spirit and connection at a deeper level, yes?

Jo Bevan: I think that’s true. I think we all care about the band a lot. We’re all a bit obsessed with it. Also, I hate talking while I’m on stage. I don’t get stage fright or anything but if I had to say anything, I’d feel like I was back at primary school doing a recital or something. There’s an intensity and you have to know what you’re doing. If you have to focus too much on getting the songs right, then that could water things down.

Rob Hardy: We’ve all known each other for quite a long time, from before the band started. Simon and I have known each other for a decade at least. We’re such good friends and we know each other so well, we don’t necessarily need to bother doing some of those, "Yeah, we’re having a good time!" poses. We’re more like, fuck off, we’re playing our instruments, we’re playing a song we know well, we’re doing our own thing within a unit. And that should be enough. And for me, I know that I will never ever look at the audience anyway as it just cripples me with fear if I look up. We do it because we believe in it and it’s ours. I suspect none of us could ever be session musicians.

JB: Absolutely. I sang in a friend’s band for a bit where someone else wrote all the songs and the melodies and the lyrics. I did two or three gigs and I just felt awful and that was because it wasn’t mine. It felt dishonest, like I was lying.

RH: The only way you can avoid either falsely putting on a big, outward show or not doing that and being very withdrawn and insular – and they’re both poses, ultimately – is to trust who you’re with, what you’re saying and be honest.

Let’s talk about ‘progress’, as horrible as that sounds. The new EP feels distinctly different in some ways: tone, sound, approach. It feels like five songs written after the album’s songs. I think the first song, ‘Good Luck’, and the last, ‘Perfect Health’, are the best indicators of a subtle shift: one just guitar and vocals; the other a fuller, smoother sound.

RH: The intent, for me at least, was not to do with progression in any sense of the word. It was more about a reaction to what we’d already done. You could take that, in part, as a reaction to some of the press reaction we’ve had, always banging on about The Smiths and stuff. But, actually, it was more a case of us recognising that perhaps we had been a bit Smiths-y at times, so let’s focus on the elements that haven’t quite been picked up on enough or didn’t come across. Some of that Smiths stuff I do find a bit irritating but then again you’ve got to be a bit of a tosser to be annoyed about being compared to one of the best guitarists in the world. I’ll take that! That’s fine. But that aside, there’s a whole load of American alt-rock stuff in there that no one seems to have noticed. So I was keen to push a little the heavier guitars and the atmospherics, the softer stuff. We were just testing ourselves, I guess.

‘Good Luck’, where it’s just voice and guitar, reminds me of ‘The Living Dead’ by Suede.

JB: Really?

RH: Oh, I fucking love that song.

It’s its long lost cousin.

RH: Well, it’s really interesting that you see it that way because I didn’t really pick up on it when we were writing and recording but there are some Suede-isms in there on the EP, things that I’ve probably had in me for a while but didn’t realise. I’d have actually said ‘Leave Home’, with the guitar solo, has more Suede in it. But, yeah – interesting.

I can understand the irritation with the Smiths comparisons. You’d think anyone who can pull a melody out of a Rickenbacker could only have listened to Johnny Marr. That said, I’d be more inclined to point to you as a fan of early R.E.M..

RH: Oh, man. I adore early R.E.M.. The I.R.S. albums are my absolute favourites.

JB: I like the later stuff as well.

RH: I don’t dislike it. I just don’t care about it in the way I care about those first few albums, particularly Murmur and Reckoning. I love the way they’re so aggressive and yet so folk, almost, at the same time. It’s so impressive what they did because there were so many bands around at the time who were doing a similar thing but you look back now and they look just like pale imitations of R.E.M.. Many of them didn’t have that amazing, driving rhythm section and they didn’t have that snarling jangle that Peter Buck had. The other American band I really love from that time, and Jo always takes the piss out of me for, is Smashing Pumpkins.

JB: They are fucking awful. I’m leaving the room.

I get it, to a degree: all the grandiose, orchestrated bombast is cool. But Stipe was a politicised figure and yet he was also a poet – he didn’t hector or harangue but he was a watchful commentator. I’m not sure Billy Corgan had that vision or was such a compelling communicator.

RH: No, no, you’re absolutely right. No, for me, it’s more of a dreamy guitar thing and I did adore Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. I can get past Corgan’s irritating whingeing and the annoying lyrics purely because I think the guitars are so incredible.

JB: I can’t get past the annoying lyrics.

Jo, you’re a fan of a lot of bands from a distinctly leftfield, avant-garde pop sector. I’ve seen you talk about acts like The Sound, XTC, Momus. How did you make those connections?

JB: Well, I have a music-mad dad. He brought me up listening to Scritti Politti and Talking Heads and XTC – kind of weird post-punk-y things. The Smiths, of course. I would read his Q magazine from cover to cover every month. Also, I was very shy and so I would listen to records that stemmed from that through my adolescence. And now I’m a massive nerd. It kind of put me out of step with people in my age bracket but I’m quite pleased with it now.

What is it about The Sound, in particular, that you like? If ever there was a band who didn’t get their due, it’s them. Do you feel a connection with Adrian Borland’s outsider sorrowfulness?

JB: Oh, well… I really love his melodies, actually. They’re very accessible and yet they’re direct and aggressive. Of course, his lyrics are very introspective but he’s never flowery or wanky – it’s very economic. I really like that. I like things that are really emotive and yet really efficient. It always impresses me when someone can be very affecting but doesn’t have to be showy about it. I love The Sound.

There’s a technique or approach you use lyrically, certainly on the album: you write as if you’re addressing someone. It works as a pointed and intimate dialogue and I wonder if that’s what makes your lyrics so relatable?

JB: I see what you’re driving at and that’s really, really complimentary because that’s the thing that I’ve thought about: why I like specific artists. Often it comes down to the tension between a song feeling huge and cinematic but also really personal. Take a band like Talk Talk. A lot of their songs have lyrics that are almost impenetrably personal but then the gesture of the song itself is huge and earth-shattering. You feel close to the person singing it. And that’s consistent with much of what I aspire to do and so it’s good that that’s come across in some way.

You use poetic techniques and it’s not flowery, but often beautifully crafted. You sing of "cars calling in the dead of night" or "the highway happening". I’m reminded of another band from the mid-’80s who drew similar scenes: The Blue Nile.

JB: Oh, well, ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ is an amazing song.

Do you have to learn, as a lyricist, to be cautious? Are there ever times when you’re painfully aware that this is you out in public?

JB: I think about it to the extent that I try and make things relatable in a broad sort of way. They’re all very personal songs because I have a lot of feelings! I find it difficult to talk about them and singing about them is easier. It’s a better way of conveying things I need to convey. But yeah, I do occasionally stop and think: is this particular bit perhaps alienating or can I make the imagery a bit more universal? If you’re going to write pop songs, and I think that’s what we do, then you have to have some sort of connection to the listener.

Good Luck is out now on Fierce Panda. Desperate Journalist play Pet Sounds Bar in Stockholm, Sweden on November 21; for full details and tickets, head here

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