James Johnston is a great example of how you can become a successful musician whilst always sticking to your guns and only making the music you really want to be making. His band Gallon Drunk is as underground and cult as you like, and yet they have found themselves playing US stadiums supporting Morrissey and other major acts.
They’ve never broken through into the mainstream though. Not because they’ve been unlucky or haven’t got the breaks, but fundamentally because they’ve always made music that appeals to a core of dedicated fans, music never commercial enough for the popular radio playlists.
Here’s the thing though… When you keep doing what you love and keep making music with integrity and dedication to your art, great things can happen. James ended up playing with a bunch of cool bands, including a stint with Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, and is now part of PJ Harvey’s latest amazing line-up, touring the world and recording her newest album.
Aside from all this, he has a solo album on the way and Gallon Drunk is still going strong.
Intrigued, we caught up with James for a chat.
Gallon Drunk has influenced many other bands while remaining quite cult and underground. Is it something you are aware of, proud of, or indifferent to?
If anything it would be something I’m proud of, if it’s indeed true. Given the nature of some of our Gallon Drunk records I’m not surprised that it stayed fairly under the radar, it’s not easy listening, but obviously it’s very rewarding that people seem to think a lot of our records, and the recognition and support meant we could continue recording and releasing music. The last two records in particular I really love. Hooking up with the label Clouds Hill in Hamburg enabled us to fulfil a musical vision properly, with a superb sound. And that teamwork with the producer and owner of the label Johann Scheerer then led to me recording a solo record that’s coming out this year, again on Clouds Hill, and of anything I’ve done over the years – this is the one I’m most proud of.
You have attracted an eclectic audience over the years, such as rockabilly fans, indie rock fans and just people who like your band without connecting to any particular scene. Why do you think that is and how do you see your audience these days?
I suppose the band had a strong image when we started. We all lived together, and as often happens ended up looking fairly similar, and that seemed to attract a certain crowd even though the image was fairly at odds with the sound of the band, so it soon gravitated to being more of an ‘alternative rock’ sort of audience, whatever that is. We weren’t wilfully avoiding being part of a scene, we were naturally a bit detached due to what we were doing, and maybe how we were as people. These days it’s even more eclectic than ever, which is great and how it should be. Hopefully people just come along because it’s an exciting band to see, not because it’s any particular style or brand, but I imagine most bands would say the same.
Your new bass player Leo Kurunis has settled in very nicely, it seems, and the last couple of gigs I saw at The 100 Club and The Lexington were as good as ever. How have you been dealing with line- up changes over the years and do you have any regrets about how some relationships have ended?
No regrets at all. The line-up changes were mostly amicable and necessary, apart from our dear friend and bass player Simon Wring who passed away five years ago. As I said, the last Gallon Drunk album is one of my favourites we’ve done, and those songs really stretch out live, the last track The Speed Of Fear often went up to 20-30 minutes live and I absolutely loved doing that, it felt like the obvious conclusion to what we’d been doing for years but taken further.
How you interact with your guitar on stage is very much a Gallon Drunk trademark, so to speak. You play the notes, but it’s also almost a performance tool. Was it like that from day one or is it something that you developed as a front man also playing the guitar?
It was always more of an interjection of noise than rhythm, from day one. We wanted a lot of space and dynamics and that became the job of the guitar and organ. Plus I didn’t feel at all comfortable playing and singing at the same time when we started, and that developed into a style over the years.
What are guitars to you? Do you collect them, mod them, love them as objects or is it just a tool to create your music with?
I’m not a guitar perv particularly. In fact the one I really like is a Jaguar, mostly because it’s reliable, and I don’t use it with Gallon Drunk for fear of breaking it, plus it’s not really the right sound. With Gallon Drunk the guitars are mostly tuned to open E, (just E and B) and sometimes cheaper guitars work really well in that tuning, are more expendable. Squier Strats work really well, and the feedback’s gorgeous!
Was there any point in your career where you felt you deserved to have more commercial success?
Well, it would always have been welcome, but I think we’re fairly realistic about the commerciality of the band, particularly the sound early on. But it’s about people being exposed to a band, and we haven’t been particularly lucky with labels and promotion, until recently that is. The focus has always been on the music.
The last 2 albums are great and heavier sounding than previous. Is it a conscious direction, something you wanted to explore or more how the band just sounds these days?
That’s what we were after, and the way they were recorded. Having a little more time and freedom in the studio with Johann made a huge difference, and there were certain things about the Gallon Drunk sound that I wanted to get away from and free it all up. My experience playing with Faust, Big Sexy Noise and The Bad Seeds all fed into it, particularly the more “Krautrock” sound that filtered into the last record, that was a very conscious decision.
What is “the blues” to you?
Soul music, simple, raw and direct. From John Lee Hooker to Nina Simone and on to whacked-out Miles Davis, PJ Harvey and on.
You’ve played and contributed to other bands and side projects and still do so. I understand you also played on the new PJ Harvey album? How did that go?
Yes, over time I’ve played with some great people, and the new Polly record is superb. I’m thrilled to be a part of it. It’s a killer record. It was a lovely surprise to be called in for it, and the entire process was an absolute joy, I loved it. Even the recording being in front of an audience, it brought a tension and cameraderie to the studio that made it all the more exciting, and that comes across on the album.
How has the digital age affected your band and your ability to earn a living from making music?
We never made a penny from sales until recently, so it was always from playing live, and that being a real strength of the band has played to our advantage. Playing with other bands over the years has helped us keep going, and brought in a freshness to the music. It’s like anything, you have to adapt and find a way to face fresh challenges and keep it all going in a positive way. I adore playing live, so the focus shifting even more that way isn’t a problem. Frankly it hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to the band – but even if it doesn’t draw in income, it helps get it out there, and people tend to judge music by what it is more, rather than what it’s marketed as or how it’s reviewed or judged. But obviously we want and need people to buy music, the industry is still in flux but it’s also led to more focus on quality and value for physical product, and Clouds Hill have a very strong aesthetic when it comes to vinyl, and the last GD record looks beautiful, and that led to us selling a really decent amount of records this time.
My driving concern at the moment is the solo record, and people getting to hear it. It’ll be out later in the year, and there’ll be live performances to go with it which i’m really looking forward too. It’s a very heartfelt album that’s been a lot of time in writing. The sound of it blows me away, there’s a choir and strings on there, all recorded on 2 inch tape, Ian from GD on drums and Johann on bass, and this beautiful sound and space. It’s lush in was that some Lee Hazlewood or early John Cale records are, but simultaneously intimate, and very direct. So let’s hope, in answer to your question, that the digital age is kind this time! I really want people to hear it.
Are you a full time professional musician or do you sometimes need to earn a living doing other things? What about the rest of the band?
I am a professional musician, with all the ups and downs that go with it. We all are.
In the old days, the press used to fabricate and hype “scenes” to sell their papers. It would also benefit the bands to some extent. Gallon Drunk was associated with a few of these, like the Camden scene and others, which must have helped reaching new fans. These days it’s all supposed to happen on social media. There is amazingly good music out there but it is very fragmented: there are no “movements” to speak of, at least not for guitar bands. Do you have an opinion on that and how new good bands can make progress?
It was all bollocks and everybody knew it, it was as much about where journalists or bands drank as the music that came out, but it gave the papers something to push and it did get recognition for bands, as you say. Often a bit misleading and quite a few really good bands did suffer a bit from association with certain dodgy or fabricated scenes, when they could easily and more beneficially been judge on their own strengths, and music. I’m probably the wrong person to ask as to what a new guitar band should be doing, I should probably be asking them instead!
Do you think “like-minded” bands should try to get together and aim to create collective awareness of their music somehow?
That seems to be happening with the Quietus and “noise” bands at the moment, and in London that ties in with the promoter Baba Yaga’s Hut that grew out of the wonderful Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle. John Doran’s enthusiasm has helped push a lot of bands forward, and brought recognition to older bands that led the scene years ago. So it does work.
New generation of musicians are also expected to be good at marketing and do the work record labels used to do, like hire PR, be social media gurus, etc. and finance it all. What do you think of this and can a songwriter be at his best creatively when he/she has to spend so much time doing all that?
A fucking nightmare. Thank Christ I don’t. At least it might be a distraction from agonising over lyrics or chord changes, something else to worry endlessly about. Definitely not my forte.
Do you think you would be able to build the same career if you started as an 18-year-old today?
I can only guess that the obsession and compulsion to lose yourself in music would be the exactly the same, and then take it from there.
What advice would you give a young artist starting now?
Follow your instincts, listen, and don’t get put off when things fuck up.
What can we expect from Gallon Drunk and James Johnston in 2016 and beyond?
Well, the next release from me will be my solo record, out later in the year. There’s a Clouds Hill 12″ that came out yesterday that has a track Dark Water from the album, plus a live track St Martha’s. It’s a split single with a new Pete Doherty track on the other side as we’re both on Clouds Hill. As Terry and I are involved in the PJ Harvey record and tour there won’t be much from GD for a while, but we’ve released two records fairly recently so it’s an ok time to take a breather. The next recording will be another solo record, so I’ll probably start writing that while I’m away, or just stare endlessly out of a bus window…can’t wait!
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