Band Of Holy Joy Festival On Sunday

Johnny Brown of Band Of Holy Joy talks to Jonny Maybury about his eclectic underground one day festival to be held in Tottenham, London, on Sunday

This Sunday post punk survivalists Band Of Holy Joy helmed by the irrepressible Johny Brown are throwing a wildly eclectic all-day festival The Devil Has A Hold On The Land at Bones And Pearl in North London.

With Band of Holy Joy closing the day, the line-up runs through ramshackle through eerie lullabies (Anne Garner) Northern indie-pop (Hector Garrett), Pagan folk (Ben Cello Band) spectral noise (Steph Horak), Kirsty Allison’s (sometimes accompanied) spoken-word Cold Lips project and a soundclash between the decaying radiophonica of Howlaround and Time Attendant’s contemporary concrete. Oh yes plus there will be performance from actor Tam Dean Burn and ritualistic craziness from Mystery Cult No. 2 and DJ sets from Ali Makieavlli and Subterraneans.

We caught up with Johny Brown to discuss the interlocking and parallel strands that are Band of Holy Joy and his prolific one-off eruptions of multi-media collaborations.

Starting with the event on Sunday, what is the intention and what was your curatorial approach to The Devil Has A Hold on the Land?

Johnny Brown: A sign for these times, a blood wedding to follow the good wedding, a bit of mugged vinyl rather than a cup final, an initiation into the mysteries and a dance beyond tomorrow… Ah I just wanted to put a whole host of likeminded souls and spirits from different wyrd crafts and ill disciplines into a great space and make a mad bloody racket. It’s my birthday and I want to take the chance to celebrate something that isn’t under the spell of the corporate mindset, the new jargon, the static time, so I’ve gathered some disparate and lovely bloody-minded characters from the far-flung corners and I’m putting them all into the one building for the evening. We have an art initiation ceremony from Mystery Cult no 2 (the gang behind Liminality) Some dubbed out Balearia dancing from Ali Makievalli and Subterraneans, a preview of a play, Hymn to the Anthropocenic Man from Tam Dean Burn and all these quite singular acts ranging from folk rock through possessed glitch to sheer wanton noise. I’m shitting myself.

You’re just fresh from an installation at Fact in Liverpool entitled An Hour in Paris 1968. What was the genesis of this piece?

JB: An Hour In Paris 1968 is something James [Stephen Finn, multi-instrumentalist from BOHJ] and myself worked on through our BAD PUNK radio show for Alan Dunne’s MA/68 Time Tunnel sound art project in Liverpool. Loud hailers were placed throughout the city centre on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 riots, to broadcast related material by Mark Stewart, John Hyatt and others. Most weeks on our radio show James will lay a soundscape down and if we haven’t got a guest I will read / write a poem from a book I’m compiling called The Hours. We applied that to the Liverpool project, hopefully the project is progressing to the Berlin station Radio On: another happy riot torn beach under the pavement Gitane-smoking existential hour with BAD PUNK.

Whilst guiding Band of Holy Joy since the early 80s you’ve worked steadily on other projects with one-off collaborations and these have become increasingly prolific over the last few years. What is the separation between a collaborative project and a Band Of Holy Joy album – I’m going to speculate that it’s something to do with song?

JB: I’m not sure, Band Of Holy Joy has a kind of spirit about it that has endured, something to do with loneliness and connecting, experience and dreaming. The songs reflect that and somehow the music the band plays keeps mirroring it too, it’s a constant and that hopefully defines the band. The band is a pretty straight concern, regular rehearsals, traditional failings, usual hassles, absolute love of playing shared between members, occasional moments of pure illumination and, dare I say it, Joy.

The other projects are much more open and acerbic, inspired and mutable, they are rooted in poetry and theatre and beyond a purely selfish desire to get away with writing weird in your face provocative shit they provide a platform to collaborate and have mad adventures with like minded souls.

Also, the subject matter of Band Of Holy Joy is pretty personal, humanist and observational whereas the starting point of the theatre material is that we rip the arse out of the counter culture and its icons in a kind of ironic, impersonal but much loved manner.

These non-BOHJ collaborative endeavours seem to exist more as live events rather than recorded concerns, feeling almost like a guerrilla attack. Is this a conscious thing or is it just circumstantial?

JB: It is conscious and though we’re not averse to it being documented we would much rather it wasn’t. The event and the moment is the thing and yeah, there is definitely a subliminal guerrilla warfare thing going on… well no, fuck it, often it’s outright Art Terrorism being deployed. We don’t mind engaging with hearts and minds, but we’d much rather search and destroy, if you like. My stance is that we create a piece, learn our lines and our loops, go into the space, and make as much impact as we can in that particular moment of ‘now’ to hopefully get something powerful across and leave some kind of impression to reverberate. I hate going back to something once it’s been done, particularly if it was successful, I always want to move on to the next thing as quickly as possible.

And following on from that, how does a Holy Joy gig differ to the collaborative projects. Does it feel very different for yourself?

JB: Absolutely different. Band of Holy Joy are well drilled and rehearsed. They are all about putting a straight shift in. They are wearing their hearts on their sleeves and have tales to tell and they want to perpetrate a certain noise and feel. The collaborative projects are so different, they are messy, scrappy, open to unforeseen circumstance and there is no safety net whatsoever, it is pure chance and fate and having to trust your gang of four or five collaborators in whatever strange room you might find yourselves in.

BOHJ have been operating since the early 80s (growing out of a squat with Test Department amongst others) and over the last couple of years there now seem to be a parallel lines approach to releases. On the one hand you have regular albums with your most consistent line-up since the band’s formation which come out on existing independent labels (the most recent of which Funambulist We Love You being one of the ‘poppiest’ in the band’s long history and then a programme of handmade archival releases that throw all kinds of different contexts into BOHJ’s history. I’ve been really enjoying this phase of the band’s existence as it complicates things in all sorts of strange ways, also highlighting musical styles that you might not be associated with (the first disc of latest release Electric Songs Of Faith And Devotion is a live synth-pop album). Is that a conscious choice to put the archival material out yourselves in such wonderful bespoke packaging and in parallel to new material.

JB: Absolutely conscious. For me, with the archival releases of the past two years it’s Band of Holy Joy as it was originally intended to be, and as it was when we were first involved in the cassette culture scene of the early 80s. It’s a straight communication between ourselves and a small group of like-minded souls who have no expectations other than a demand for a certain amount of outsider strangeness and sad humour. Once every couple of months we release a double CDr box, hand burned and packaged by ourselves. One side is brand new material often rooted in electronics/ noise/ loop/ spoken word. It gives us a chance to mess up and not be held too badly to account. The second CDr is a bit more of a difficult proposition from a purist’s point of view as we take a Holy Joy record or live recording from the past and strive to place it in a different context altogether i.e. MMM reframed in Cuba. We use field recordings and sound collage and remaster everything very loudly and wickedly at Trace Recordings. We can experiment fully and what a great fucking Joy that is. Some of them are great some are absolute fails and you can tell something crafted beautifully by Inga [Tillere the band’s in-house designer and visual artist] as opposed to something packaged amateurishly at my own hands but I love both approaches. Anyway, it’s entirely the opposite approach of say curating a box set of old material with utmost care for say Cherry Red Records in the hope of making a few bob, these are more like wilful archival desecration missions.

I know it’s the wrong thing to do but I love fucking with the Joy time frame too, stirring up old demons and shining a light on ghosts from the past, twisting the past in a really grotesque manner and making quite authentic artefacts totally inauthentic and inappropriate. We’re picking up threads of the past I guess but we’re hopefully weaving the weirdest carpet you’re ever going to get a chance to fly on. I don’t know I just love the whole process of it all; recording the new material, mis-curating the old then ordering the raw materials and putting it all together, writing to the seventy people who’ve bought. Updating the Tumblr site with attendant images and buyers thoughts. There’s a direct connection which I had missed for years. It was born out of necessity, the need to fund the annual Holy Joy record but it seems to have grown into a thing all its own. I hope we can maintain it.

On the other hand, we have seemed to have fallen into very good company with Tiny Global Records and the record we put out once a year is still the main focus and purpose for existing. We feel very at home there amongst the Nightingales and Blue Orchids, the incredible Stuart Moxham and the Bitter Springs, it’s inspiring to be aligned to these gangs of kindred spirit who are all still carving out dirty runes on the same twisted glam pagan independent terrain.

So whilst meddling with time streams, with such a long fertile and ever-shifting history, apart from obvious changes (line-up, age, technology, industry) how different does Band Of Holy Joy feel in 2018 compared to 1984?

JB: Vastly different; I mean I should hope so. When we started the artistic focus, I guess was Max and myself being young wide eyed broke vulnerable, bookish, wanting and lost in the London of the day, all the lyrics and sounds revolved around that notion.

Furthermore, we had a gift for romanticising and glamourising our situation and could quite easily make the tragic look magic and I realise the power it had in the eyes of certain folk, I sensed the power we had actually and understood London really well then and we made the absolute most of our situation. Now the artistic focus is of much older folk who are settled /stuck /stewing in London and maybe don’t understand it so much, probably a whole lot more cynical and embittered, still broke, still wanting, still bookish but a lot more uncertain, maybe that’s it, maybe not…

The London of 1984 afforded plenty of time and space to work your craft, which was just as well because we didn’t really know what we were doing. In the London of 2018 we understand our craft a bit better which is also just as well, because time and space is just not affordable, the love has to come in spurts.

What remains a constant though and what has always been a thread in Holy Joy is the need to observe and comment and the want to articulate and express feelings of the present situation one finds oneself in, to analyse and romanticise, to skewer condemn and praise, to attempt to raise some meaningful wordplay out of the shite and garbage that is foisted upon ourselves and to stand abashed on a stage to express all this, and try to do it in style. Nothing remotely has changed in that sense.  

The Band Of Holy Joy’s festival The Devil Has A Hold On The Land takes place in Tottenham on Sunday

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