On The Record: the Desperate Journalist interview
Hopes were high but – and this is what that big old bastard reality can do to you – expectations were low. With a handful of singles to their name and their Christina EP suggesting that maybe, just maybe, here was a new band with the savvy to convert heritage leanings into something properly shiny and new, Desperate Journalist were still prime meat for us seasoned doubters. A barrage of Rickenbacker chime, a brooding rhythm pairing, Jo Bevan's weighty alto: here was componentry seasoned and prime. But borrowing from the past usually attracts rates of interest unaffordable to all but the properly gifted. Surely the London four piece didn't have the audacity to maintain the illusion across an entire album?
Read 'em and weep. Released back in January, Desperate Journalist makes a mockery of its influences and, because it puts song craft before atmosphere or texture, it swerves novelty by some distance. Bevan and her band mates (Caz Helbert on drums, Simon Drowner on bass and Rob Hardy on guitar) revitalise indie guitar pop in a manner equal parts dismissive and respectful. Make no mistake: this is enlivening pop, not by-numbers rock. At its most potent (the breathless 'Control') and its most reflective ('Remainder' – a beautifully judged gear change), Desperate Journalist avoids the usual pitfalls: cod anthemics, watery balladry, over-cooked protest.
With the album receiving rave reviews across the board and their growing live reputation seeing them start to increase movement outside of the capital, we talked to Jo Bevan about the band's origins, their heady influences and why musical accomplishment in the indie field really is nothing to be scared of.
Let's do the clichéd stuff first. How did the band come together?
Simon and Rob had known each other for years and years in Birmingham. They had been in bands for a long time together and were really good friends. Then they moved to London and met me through going to the same sort of gigs and having a few mutual friends and stuff. Then Kaz… - actually, I can’t remember how Kaz met everyone. But she started going out with Simon, which is how we all started hanging out in a big group.
So we just sort of fell into each other's' social circles, and then we were constantly at the pub bitching about how there weren't any good indie bands. So, conveniently, we all played instruments and we just had a rehearsal to see if a band would work. And yeah, it kind of all came together. Oh, Kaz hadn't played the drums before so she wanted to give that a go. She used to be a mean guitarist, so this was her first gig playing the drums.
Wow. Just like that? A wiser man than me once said that the best way for a drummer to become a drummer is to at some point have played another instrument in a band.
Yeah, yeah. I agree completely. It kind of prevents any of the classic clichés of drummerliness, I think. You know, lets you just try to play the songs?
It brings to mind that story of how, when Throwing Muses had their first practice session, David Narcizo sat down, frowned at the kit and said "This looks hard…"
(Laughs) Yeah, I think it's really exciting when people are just so musically adaptable. I don’t think I could do that. I think I've tried to play the drums once. My dad used to play and he taught me when I was very young - some really basic stuff. So years later I'm like "Yeah, yeah, of course I can play the drums!" And I can’t. I just can’t do it. My brain just wasn't made for it.
It's just that one wire somewhere deep within the brain and it's either connected or not.
Yeah. I think that's it.
Did you always sing, though?
Yeah. And I've always played instruments – well, I played the French horn, actually. But I've always sung, from a young age. Me and my sister had singing lessons and our family was always pretty musically minded. I did classical training up, I think, to Grade 5. So, yeah, I've been doing it all my life and it's the one thing that, despite me being a largely disorganised and useless person, I've always had some confidence in.
Often you find that singers with voices that are tonally non-typical, like yours, rely on the novelty of that tone or sound at the expense of tunefulness. Listening to the album, your technique suggests you’d not just 'given it a go' a few months before recording.
Oh. Thank you! Yeah, it means, I guess, that I can write melodies that are pretty challenging because I learnt all the 'muscle stuff' a long time ago. It's sort of second nature stuff. It makes it more interesting from a writing perspective. I mean, obviously, I'm not saying I'm the world's most technically advanced singer! I just mean, being able to sing the songs, it isn’t a concern, which is really nice.
That's actually really interesting, because you have a very particular way of framing your words and your vocal melodies. You extend words, often in very non-linear way, so that they almost fight the sharp, taut structure of the band's melodies. In many ways, it's like early Smiths: Morrissey not being led by the band but singing off and around the backing. It kind of creates drama.
Thank you. I take that as a massive compliment. I mean, obviously, we're all big Smiths fans; I'm not going to lie about that. But when I was growing up, I was such a music nerd. The Smiths were my absolute favourite band. I was always trying to investigate why I found them so satisfying, musically: the feel and the cadences and the way it's all structured. Why is this so much more magical than all of the other bands doing things that are, ostensibly, the same thing? I think that, that way in which the vocals and the backing interrelate is a very big part of it. So, yeah, if that's something we've managed to achieve, then that's amazing.
It's interesting to consider that whole notion of 'classic' Brit indie pop, certainly in the light of a band like yours. I wonder it maybe we unfairly disparaged much of it at the time, certainly in the light of the risk-free flavour of the current Brit guitar pop scene?
Definitely. That's definitely a part of it. It's not like we're saying that everything was so much better in 1983, but that sort of guitar-based, melodic, alternative music was genuinely special. Not just the UK, either: American bands like REM and The Replacements, even the beginnings of post-hardcore, all of that was a really rich and exciting period. I think a lot of bands try and ape it in a way, but they don’t necessarily succeed in replicating the elements in those songs that were good. They seem to want to wear a musical t-shirt of it. The post-punk thing in particular, there are so many people doing a Birthday Party karaoke. That's a very mealy-mouthed way of registering my frustration!
No, that's spot on. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing young acts get the sound and the pose but not the reasoning or the 'political' foundation that fired the likes of Husker Du or Sonic Youth.
Yeah. But I think it's really refreshing that people are cottoning on to the fact that they’re really lucky to be here and are keen to communicate rather than the whole 'Oh, I'm such a tortured artist' thing. It's so boring.
Let me ask you about your lyrics. They're not straight narratives; rather, they play out as framed and detailed scenes. In many ways, they almost seem to form inter-linked chapters throughout the album. There's nothing more boring than asking what a song means, but what do they mean to YOU?
Oh god. That's a really good question. Thank you for asking about that because not many people have asked about the lyrics; it's good to be able to talk about them. Generally what I write about are memories or… things that upset me. Often it's like a combination of the two. A lot of it is, just broadly speaking, trying to turn things that are really worrying or troublesome into something useful. Like a song. So it's kind of like a cathartic thing, which I know is a vaguely trite thing to say but it is something that I find useful, and a lot of songs that I really love, by the bands that I really love, seem to manage that very thing. I also have a really terrible memory; my adolescent brain has blocked a lot of stuff out, so there's a large part, also, of trying to keep stuff in there. Does that make sense? Just trying to preserve things for posterity even if it's very personal.
There's a real feeling of sadness in many of the songs. Perhaps you need the lyric sheet to pick up on that fully. But that's not a bad thing. Sadness can be a very connective and fulfilling thing for the listener.
Yeah, yeah. Sadness isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can be a useful thing. Obviously, it shouldn't be relentlessly maudlin…
Because the music's not downbeat or particularly minor key, there's a cool counterpoint. I like how your lyrics capture a sense of time and of place. There are streets, cars, travel – it's a framework that helps make the whole very vivid.
That's really interesting. That's not something I'd actually thought about, how often that happens. But the idea of place and distance is really key. I moved around a lot as a child and it's something that is constantly in my dreams and in my memories. It's clearly a big thing whirring away in the back of my brain, this idea of snapshots of locations and being in transit. So it's really interesting that that has come across. Hmm. I've accidentally communicated something! (laughs)
Hopefully not more than you intended to?
Oh no, that's fine. I'm an open book! Of course, I wrote my absolutely awful teenage poetry, as everybody did.
What's the actual writing process?
Well, as a band we write songs in such a way that the music is often finished before I write the lyrics. So, I will have figured out the melody; I'll have bits and pieces of lyrics lying around – maybe even an entire lyric. I'll work hard to ensure that the words scan and flow and fit in a way that is appropriate and communicative enough for the song.
Would it be reasonable to assume that with the songs and the arrangements being so taut and pinpoint, the album didn’t come about via free-form jam sessions?
Absolutely not! No, I'm quite old school in a way. It's not exactly pen and paper, I have to say. Some bits are but generally I have this massively disorganised Gmail account full of drafts and bits and pieces of things I want to write about. I have to spend quiet time writing, so that is quite old school. It's probably from being such a big nerd about the kind of bands I like and reading my dad's Q magazines from cover to cover every month. So that's what I learned is what you do if you’re a singer in a band.
Yeah. I dunno. It kinda sounds really retro now, which is ridiculous, really!
Let's talk about the band. The band are great: a drummer with real feel, a bassist who smartly underplays rather than intrudes and a quite shit-hot guitarist. Bands with A Good Guitarist feel like a strange anomaly these days. He's bloody good.
He is! He's extraordinary. He's the best guitarist I've encountered. And he'll be really embarrassed that I've said that but it's true. I think, particularly with the kind of thing we're doing, it's supposed to be power chords and looking cool, having a load of effects and trying to be Kevin Shields. Not that Kevin Shields isn’t amazing, because he is, but that whole, apologetic 'don’t look at me' stance, you know, very shoegaze. I like a lot of shoegaze bands but that self-effacing thing doesn’t have to be the only alternative to being fucking Metallica. You can be good – notably good – and not be a dickhead about it. People don’t always grasp that.
There's a really beautiful descending break towards the end of 'Christina'. Which kind of confirms that maybe to be a 'good' musician, by default you also have to be a good writer.
I think one of the reasons it's good and not wanky is because Rob really wants to write good songs. He doesn’t want to be a solo-y show-off. He's focused on the song being right and he'll only play a guitar break like the one you mention if it gets the song to where it needs to go. And that's partly the reason we're already working on the second album. Rob just writes and writes, so we've already got lots of songs for it.
Finally, the album has had a unanimously positive response. As you're putting together your labour of love, it must be difficult not to worry about whether people will, in your words, get it. How does it feel to see that they clearly do?
You know what, it's a relief because we all care about it so much. We all put so much hard work and love into it that it's such a wonderful thing that people are into it. We were worried that people were gonna go "Oh, it's just some indie re-tread bullshit", so it's incredible that people have responded to it in the way we always hoped they would.
Desperate Journalist play a number of dates in October. For more information visit their website.