It is barely conceivable that purveyors of alternative and indie pop music will not have come across The Band of Holy Joy in some shape or form since their first musical releases into the public domain in the early 1980s when they began life in New Cross, London.
The main vehicle of Johny Brown’s musical vision are still very much going strong. A box set of early recordings released on the Flim Flam Label has just been released and, this October, The Band of Holy Joy release a brand new long-player ‘Funambulist We Love You’. We caught up with Johny in a café-cum-bicycle repair shop to talk about past, present and future.
EIO40: Let’s begin sort of at the beginning; on the 2011 album ‘How To Kill A Butterfly’ you sing about the North “why I Ieft I’ll never understand”. You must have left North Shields at the age of around 20 to come down to London; what were you thinking?
Johny Brown: “I just drifted down here. I came down to make music because there was no scene in Newcastle, there never had been a scene in Newcastle. I had friends down here who were making music and making art and I just happened down. I ended up in a big squat with loads of like-minded musicians and artists.
I used to come down to London from the age of 15, 16, bunking on trains to come to gigs and I sort of came down for a week, then a couple of weeks and sort of ended up living down here. I love Newcastle and I’ve got strong, strong ties with Newcastle but for what I wanted to achieve the action was down here.
EIO40: Those strong ties might explain why you returned to take part in The Great North Run a couple of years ago. That must have been quite something, running through the streets of your hometown?
Johny Brown: I did a run in London a few years ago, round The Strand and it was great; Sunday morning, the streets were all blocked off and I thought ‘This is great’. So I thought the next run I’ll do is The Great North Run, across the bridge. I thought it was running by the river, you know. But you get on it [The bridge] and you cannot move, it’s a crawl and once you cross the bridge it’s like a motorway down to South Shields and you can’t see a thing. But then you hit this hill and it’s ‘Wow! You can see the sea’ and then I was flagging a bit and there’s my home town North Shields, the Priory at Tynemouth… It’s just awesome.
EIO40: The Band of Holy Joy have certainly been prolific at times; 1984 to 1992 and then from 2008. What happened in the gap and at what point did you worry that you might have to get what my dad would call a ‘proper’ job?
Johny Brown: I got a proper job 10 years ago; that’s funded the band to keep going. I managed to avoid any gainful employment until 2008. A lot of the 1990s went by in a blur. I was quite footloose and fancy free. But in 2001 I had a brain tumour and I crashed. That’s when the band went out the window. The band went out of the window first of all cause we’d been touring endlessly for fifteen years, guys living in each other’s pockets. It’s not nice, you need a break.
Then we got back together, played a few gigs and it was going quite well but it wasn’t what I really wanted. And then I had the brain tumour and for two years was in quite a bad place. I was still writing my plays and DJing and then I crashed big time. And that’s when I got a job, and took the band back in hand.
EIO40: How much of the experience with the brain tumour influenced your creativity?
Johny Brown: None. Absolutely none. It did drive us towards working for MENCAP, wanting to do something useful with my life. I’d been on tour for twenty, thirty years, I didn’t have a clue. I started to do some DJ workshops for the Elfrida Society. I didn’t know what a learning disability was, but I really loved it. I soon saw that the energy I’d been putting into running the band and looking after twelve nutters on tour, as far as looking after needy people, I saw that I could direct and channel all my energies into working with people with learning disabilities and making their lives a bit more worthwhile.
My whole thing is social inclusion, it always has been, and this is social inclusion on a really meaningful scale. Giving people the chance to do things that I’ve done; I’ve had a great life, lived the life I’ve wanted to live, and I’m giving something back now.
EIO40: Wikipedia lists about 40 different members of the band over its history. Has it always been a collective, on an easy-come easy-go basis, or are you just The Fall’s Mark E Smith in disguise?
Johny Brown: I’m the anti-Mark E Smith! If someone wants to be in the band they’re in the band; if somebody leaves someone else comes, it’s just the joy of playing with people. I don’t think I’ve ever sacked anyone from the band… I think I sacked Karel a few times – the violin player – but he always sort of clawed back. The band started as a social thing, and more and more people came and joined us: “oh, you can play trombone, come and join the band.” Having said that, the line-up we’ve had for the past five years has been pretty stable.
The band had always been a cooperative, people had an equal say, whereas this time I wanted to pay for it myself and have more of a vision in the band. It’s still an equal share between six people but I’m a lot more focussed than I used to be. Now we bring out about an album every year that sell about 300 copies and when we do our CD-r’s they sell about 100 copies and it’s great: we’ve got our own little audience.
We’ve never really been in step with anything; we feel a kinship with the indie world, we’re on a level with The Bitter Springs, The Blue Orchids now and The Nightingales and that’s just a really great place to be.
EIO40: How did the collapse of Rough Trade affect you as a band?
Johny Brown: I’m really not sure… We had the option to do a third album with them, but I’ve got a feeling Geoff would have ditched us I think. I don’t think ‘Positively Spooked’ sold as many as he would have liked us to have sold. It sold quite a few, we were on track and in retrospect is was quite good.
Rough Trade folded, Geoff wiped the debt off we had a publishing deal with Chrysalis who let us use their studio and we amassed about 30-40 songs, 10 of which went into ‘Tracksuit Vendetta’ and it was ex-Rough Trade staff who set up Ecuador Records but it didn’t happen, ‘Tracksuit Vendetta’, for whatever reason. Then we sort of dwindled out… but during that time we toured Russia twice, we played around the world.
EIO40: After ‘Tracksuit Vendetta’ everything seemed to go quiet. One of the most appealing factors of The Band of Holy Joy was its disparate nature and there was nothing to fill the gap.
Johny Brown: There came a time I think where the NME just tightened up. The moment The Stone Roses came along it was game over. I’ve never really been able to explain it, but from then on everything became ‘format’, all with the eye on success whereas we really were a cry of pain, a cry of perversity and pleasure from the back of beyond.
EIO40: You got involved in the soundtrack to the ‘McLibel’ film. How did that come about?
Johny Brown: Franny was the drummer in the Holy Joy, basically, so when she made the film she used the music from Holy Joy tracks. Alf mixed them in the studio, took the vocals out and used them as backing tracks. I was hardcore vegan at the time, about four members of the band were vegan, Franny was vegan, I had friends who were A.L.F. Franny made the film, she was absolutely committed.
EIO40: As well as leading The Band of Holy Joy, you’ve written plays and have a radio show, Bad Punk [on London community arts radio station Resonance FM]. How does that come together; is it a similar process to putting an album together?
Johny Brown: It’s totally different. Me and James do it every Friday night. We do soundscapes, we bring actors in and writers, poets, and they do text over our soundscapes. We just take our favourite records – African funk music, Egyptian jazz, punk rock, put it all together and its just us having fun.
And then every now and again I’ll do a proper radio show, bring someone on and interview them. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years. It was one of the first things that gave me focus after my brain tumour. Every Friday night I’d do a show. They gave me a month of Fridays and said if you’re good you can do it.
And Resonance… it’s the best radio station in the world and I really enjoy it. I love radio. I’ve set up a radio station with MENCAP down the road so they can present their own radio shows. Its great, they’re communicating, their confidence grows.
EIO40: How did the collaboration with The Bitter Springs arise?
Johny Brown: I’ve no idea. I’ve really no i… actually, I do know: we’ve got an uber-fan in New York whose absolutely obsessed with The Band Of Holy Joy and he’s also obsessed with The Bitter Springs and he’s also obsessed with Morten Valance. He paid for us to go to New York about ten years ago and he introduced us to The Bitter Springs. I’d never heard them and I loved it. I like that strain of English bohemian, literary but quite working class music. That’s my bottom line.
EIO40: The new album ‘Funambulist We Love You’ sounds a very joyous record; the most seamless and coherent album you’ve released.
Johny Brown: Absolutely. We’ve been working towards this for the past ten years. ‘Love Never Fails’ was a smorgasbord of different sounds but I want albums to be really streamlined, to say something and be distinct from the last album. And I love making albums, I still believe in albums. If I was 21 I’d be making 23 second songs, thinking that would be it. This album we’re starting to nail it, and hopefully the next album we will nail it. ‘Funambulist’ is us making a nice poppy indie record.
EIO40: So what can we expect over the next few years from The Band of Holy Joy?
Johny Brown: I don’t know. I really don’t know. We’re going to make an electronic album, I know that; that’s on the cards. We’re going to make a ‘More Favourite Fairytales’ 4 or 5 which will purely be about London, now. But there’ll also be another album like ‘Funambulist’, which is more poetic and pop. The radio show will go on.
EIO40: After all the trials and tribulations along the way it seems as though now The Band of Holy Joy are right where they want to be?
Johny Brown: We’ve found a level we can work in. There’s no big expectations but we have the work ethic which allows us to do that, yes. We’re still curious, we still want to make really good records, and that’s the bottom line.
Interviewer: John Hartley
The Band of Holy Joy’s new album ‘Funambulist We Love You’ is released on Tiny Global Productions on October 27th and is available for pre-order here
‘The Clouds That Break The Sky’, a 3-disc box set of early studio albums is out now on Tiny Global Productions.
A plethora of recordings by The Band of Holy Joy can be found at bandofholyjoy.bandcamp.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song John Hartley has turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free. He is currently raising money to support men’s mental health charity CALM (@theCALMzone) at http://brokendownrecords.bandcamp.com/album/the-broken-heed