Interview: Johnny Foreigner - By Volume

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You Can Do Better

Interview: Johnny Foreigner

We spoke to the Birmingham indie-punks about exhaustion, festivals, and Jay-Z. Author: on March 31, 2014
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Fresh off the back of new record You Can Do Better, Johnny Foreigner’s UK tour brought them to Wakefield’s The Hop, where they filled the room with intense emotion and rampant noise. Support acts The Spills and Brawlers set that benchmark for the Birmingham five(!)-piece to break, a challenge they relished and overcame with tantamount brilliance, including a “Blink-182 version” of old hit “Eyes Wide Terrified” and some classic rock-paper-scissors action. After the show, we caught up with the band and chatted about the tour, the album, and what it means to be honest about your city.

Hi folks. I saw you at Tramlines 2 years ago – you played in the Frog and Parrot about three centimetres away from me, and then the following day in the field. I presume you preferred the sweaty indoor shows like tonight?

It’s nice to do those big things. Like, the sound’s great, and it’s nice to be able to see the sun. People shouldn’t really see us in daylight unless they’re that far away. You always get a better atmosphere out of a smaller room, I think.

Do you play many of those shows? The Hop Leeds is a folk venue with a balcony, so this seemed like an odd choice, but the crowd tonight were great.

Yeah, we thought it was going to be a bit awkward to be honest, but it’s definitely not the same as the Hop in Leeds. The closer people are the more connected you feel with them. You can just look up and see them reacting whereas at festivals there’s always a bit of a lag and everyone’s off the stage. It’s kind of better if they’re just in front of you. If you can sweat on them that’s a good sign.

Just a quick question about Tramlines. You know the festival’s not free this year. I wanted to ask you what you think about that sort of thing. Is it possible for a festival that started like that to stay true to its roots?

I think for stuff like that to work, for festivals like to that to keep working, they kind of have to constantly be on an upward curve, and every year has to outsell the year before that. And if that’s the price of doing it so that they can compete with Great Escape or Camden Crawl to have that kind of pull to get those bands then I guess it’s kind of inevitable. Like, grassroots music festivals are great but the only way the city will get noticed is if you get the big bands that people who don’t usually go to shows are like, “Oh, those guys are going.” But £27 for a weekend is still absolutely peanuts for a weekend of live music, especially when it’s a small enough place to walk around and get from venue to venue. It’s not like Great Escape where it’s like a mile away and you have to tactically arrange who you’re going to queue up for.

Yeah. Last year there were paid venues and not paid venues, so it was a bit interesting.

That’s kind of like what happened with Great Escape. Like, obviously people just say, “oh, we’ll put someone on and just get some extra bar money.” So Great Escape tried to co-opt that and the result of that now is that the little bands like us are always on Alternative Escape and Great Escape is always for the big bands and there’s a massive divide in it, instead of it being everyone doing their own thing.

But you’re playing 2000 Trees this year. What about ArcTanGent?

I don’t think we’ll do that this year, it’s bad form to ask after you’ve just been on the bill! But I’ve heard they’re going to pull a lot more American bands over this year, so that’s interesting. ‘Cause I thought ArcTanGent was amazing; every band that was part of our scene was there on that weekend. So I think now they kind of have to pull stuff from further afield.

You’re going to Southampton tomorrow, right?

Yeah. We’re kind of cheating, though, sleeping in Birmingham tonight.

I feel like I’m getting to know Birmingham just through your lyrics. I was reading the lyrics to “Le Sigh” yesterday and ended up looking up what Snobs is.

Oh no, we’re making it worse. Now people are researching the place. It’s like a cheap Wednesday night place. My uncles used to run various nights in Birmingham and they managed Duran Duran, so their club ripped off Studio 54 so they had glass mirrors and stuff, and when Duran started getting hype everyone would just go to this club and there’d just be random Brummies puking up on the toilets and stuff like that. They had musicians who would rehearse there during the day in exchange for doing menial stuff like the doors. So all the musicians built this new club where it’d be a run-off, they’d shove all the students and all the people new to Birmingham so they could drink shit booze and all the more snobby people would go elsewhere. So that’s what Snobs is.

Do you still feel part of Birmingham? “Le Sigh” is kind of about it but…

There’s a bunch of bands we’re still friends with but it’s kind of the same bands we were friends with years ago. I tried last night to get into more B-Town bands and systematically went through everything but I just don’t like any of that shit, man.

I read in an interview somewhere that you’re not scared of any of the Birmingham bands. They don’t unnerve you.

Lex: Yeah, and I think that’s kind of messed up. Like, we’re in our 30s and we should look at local bands and be like, “fuck! They’re so much better than we are.”

Kelly: It doesn’t matter though, really, they’re just doing their own thing.

Lex: Yeah, but I just think in terms of a regenerating talent pool, there should be new bands by now that can do what we do but better, or whatever.

Junior: Bands like The Spills.

Does that keep you going. Do you still feel like you’re from Birmingham?

We all still live there, so yeah, and we have that accent where people just instantly know where we’re from and take the piss.

[exaggerated Brummie accents for roughly a minute]

But the affinity does kind of still influence the songwriting, but it’s much more like home than a specific scene. I feel like it’s interchangeable now. One of the things with You Can Do Better is that it could be set anywhere, it could just be a generic identical city with the same looking high streets and the same tower blocks on the outskirts and for us it happens to be Birmingham, whereas the first album is just ra-ra-ra this city is shit.

You said that you lied on the new album?

I dunno, it’s like an actor lie or an author lie. I’m 33 and I’m in a stable relationship, I don’t have that much beef with anyone, it feels wrong to kind of try and make my life seem something it’s not, so I got into the idea of creating different personas, different versions of me to write the songs, and that just made everything a lot easier. I had this terrible mental block after Vs Everything, because that was meant to be like, versus everything, so what am I gonna write about now? And having that idea that I could put myself into somebody else’s head… there was this little block in my head and having that little workaround made it easier. It’s cheating, but, like..

You never did that before?

No, I had this total punk ethos that you should always write about what you know and then it got to the stage where I’ve been writing about what I know for the last ten years and it’s the same Travelodge and it’s the same tour bus and it’s the same box of shit! It’s kind of good but it gets to the point where it’s boring and I’d rather have some sort of artistic growth. Punk is all well and good but it’s totally idealistic and you set down a path you can’t really change off because it’s not punk? So if you’re stuck like that you’re gonna die a punk. I’d rather be a pretentious asshole.

Was the exhaustion after Vs Everything universal or was it just Lex?

Nah, just Lex. [laughs]

It was also musically a more encompassing record. But I presume Lewes coming in revitalised everything?

That’s totally true, though. Seeing his naive excitement at driving in a van with a television stuck to the wall. So we just started playing the same places and it feels new. We need to get someone else…

Are you gonna end up with 20 members?

Haha, yeah. But we were quite tight beforehand and it’s been really natural having Lewes join full time.

Lewes: Because I’d been listening to the albums so closely beforehand it was really natural.

Lex: He was the only guitarist in the city that could have done it in that amount of time. Because we forced you to listen to everything for five years. The idea was just to have a bigger sound for festivals and then he just never left, haha.

A few of the songs from your earlier days sound like absolute belters now.

We went through a phase before we were signed where we just recorded everything so we didn’t feel that bad about spending an extra day adding 80 different guitar tracks on it. But now we have an extra guitar player and we can replicate that. There are so many songs we can play now.

I loved the Blink-182 version of “Eyes Wide Terrified”. You guys hate playing it or is it just that you need a breather?

Today it was literally… We can’t play any faster than that. My brain couldn’t process the hand movements. We hope it sounded okay! It’s fun. I don’t know if people are bored of hearing “Eyes Wide Terrified” and “Salt Peppa and Spindarella”. But the response to it’s always really good.

You should play “Lea Room” more though.

Oh, god. We did that acoustic version in a hotel room once and it sounded phenomenal and then the next day we couldn’t remember how to do it at all. “How did we do that, it was incredible! I was like, looking at my guitar. What is this strange thing of wood and wire?”

Okay. Two more quick questions. 1. If you could have anyone in the world cover your stuff, who would it be? And 2. Cavell Nurses Trust – how did you get to supporting them?

1. Jay-Z. And Beyoncé. Doing “Salt Peppa and Spindarella”. Or Queen doing the whole of Arcs. I’m going to write to Brian May – I know how to revitalise your career, buddy.

2. We support the nurses because it doesn’t matter how many times you tweet the same thing that’s righteous and true, it doesn’t change anything, and we wanted to be more direct about our support. And so rather than making something political we thought we’d set up a BandCamp.

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