INTERVIEW: Alex Johnson of Petty Youth – “We’re a balls to the wall smorgasbord of caustic dandyism”

INTERVIEW: Alex Johnson of Petty Youth - "We’re a balls to the wall smorgasbord of caustic dandyism" 2

Petty Youth are set to headline the first XS Noize/Tin Man Heart gig collaboration on September 5th in McHugh’s Basement, Belfast. The trio has built a loyal following over several years through their distinctive sound, looks and live performances. XS Noize caught up with drummer and lead singer Alex Johnson for a chat ahead of the show:

If for some reason someone hasn’t heard of Petty Youth, fill them in. What are you guys about?

We’re a balls-to-the-wall smorgasbord of caustic dandyism. Expect blues-soaked, glam-tinged, punk-wrought, garage rock ‘n’ roll played with gusto, pomp and tongues wedged firmly in cheeks.

The driving force of the band has always been you and Eoghan – how difficult is that brother/band relationship? The Gallaghers make it look so easy…

I suppose you could say I’ve never known it any other way! Other than times where I’ve jammed casually or filled in on drums for other groups I’ve always been in a band with my brother – since we were wee kids in fact. I suppose in one way it’s incredibly handy to always have another musician at your disposal, especially one as frighteningly talented as him, and we probably take that for granted too much of the time. However, tempers do of course flare naturally as the “working environment” of songwriting and practice is incredibly honest. You aren’t afraid to say if you think something sounds shit for fear of damaging someone’s ego, which often causes hostility, but it’s in those ecosystems that the rawest rock ‘n’ roll is written after all if history is to be believed. That being said, some Gallagher brother scenes from the “Supersonic” doc did bear an almost uncanny resemblance to Petty Youth practices, gigs and recording sessions which I’m sure many outside will attest to!

Do you still write, record and rehearse a lot of your own music in a shed in your parent’s back garden? How beneficial is it to have access to a studio like that for a young band?

We do! We’re incredibly lucky to have a pair of music-loving, mad (and let’s face it) hippies for parents who allowed us to commandeer their shed a decade and a half ago and gradually turn it into a sort of headquarters for all our musical projects. “Studio” is perhaps a bit of a stretch in terminology – garden shed filled to the brim with amps, drums, microphones, tangled leads and beer bottles is perhaps more fitting now but we have recorded many of our projects in there including a lot of the early Petty Youth stuff. It’s now mainly used for writing, practice and preproduction but it has been featured in various Petty Youth videos including “Caught Up On You” and “Take Me Away” – the latter complete with my ma’s Christmas fairy lights to add some pizzazz!

All jokes aside, we are under no illusion however as to the fortunate position we’re in compared to others in having access to even to a humble space like the shed over the years. As teenagers then, living off the bus routes in the countryside and without the funds for practice room rental, we would’ve found it extremely hard to get any sort of musical project off the ground at all. The shed has given us the opportunity to hone our craft and play and sing loud (and mostly badly in my case) at almost any hour of the day and night throughout the years without complaint from neighbours and only cows as our audience.

Your home turf is Belfast and County Down, but you’ve always done well in Dublin. How did you approach the challenge of building up a fanbase in another city?

I don’t think we’ve necessarily tried to build a fanbase or “break” another city (or anywhere, really), it just so happens that there are some cool people in Dublin who seem to dig us and that base builds every time we play. It could be that there is perhaps more of an appetite for the style of music we play in Dublin, but I also feel the fact that many of the gigs we have played there have been free entry shows in busy areas of town and in bars that are known to play rock ‘n’ roll has been of huge benefit. People are more inclined to check you out if it’s free in any way and you’re playing music loosely associated with the venue they’re accustomed to, so the barriers to them actually enjoying your set and becoming a fan are fewer than normal. We also have to give a shout out to our pal and all-round legend Robbie Brady of Psychotic Reactions for routinely inviting us down for killer gigs that we always come out of smiling. Keep an ear out for his shows in Fibbers if you’re ever in town!

We’ve started these gigs to help bands from all over Ireland build ties, share contacts and arrange shows together. Do you think more should be done to help bands get around Ireland more easily, gig more regularly? Should doing that be the responsibility of DIY promoters/bands or official bodies like the Arts Council or similar?

I think it’s a great initiative that you are starting and it would be fantastic to see bands from different parts of Ireland bill swap and gig in areas of the country they haven’t before, building ties along the way. But in terms of what more should be done and to whom the responsibility is owed? Short answer – I don’t know. 

It would be wonderful to live in such a musical utopia but depressingly it all comes down to money, doesn’t it? I don’t have enough digits on my body to count the number of times I have driven a hundred-odd miles there and back to play gigs to few people and get paid nothing for the privilege. That sort of stuff is okay when you’re young and the road trip with the lads in and of itself is enough to justify the effort but as we get into our mid-20s and with increasing bills to pay and busier lives it just becomes impractical, financially and otherwise, and frankly a practice not worth tolerating. 

I can see why, for that reason, promoters (particularly independent DIY ones) are more inclined to play it safe for smaller shows and get local artists that are likely to pull a crowd of their mates onto the bill rather than take a punt on a band from the other side of the country that, while perhaps extremely talented, barely anyone here has heard of and risk playing to the sound engineer and bar staff. On top of all that, we live with with the fact that the promotion of gigs itself seems more difficult now than ever as social media algorithms constrain audiences to pitiful amounts and the few people that actually do get targeted by event posts are so inundated by the sheer volume of digital detritus that they ignore them anyway! Whether this deadlock can be broken by the muscle of the likes of the Art Council etc I simply don’t know – I doubt bands like Petty Youth are likely to tick any of their funding criteria so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

All in all, it’s a tough environment out there for this sort of business and I guess the ultimate responsibility lies with keen promoters and bands across the country working together for this network to gain real traction. Baby steps at first but I guess where there’s a will there’s a way!

Humour is a pretty central characteristic of your music, do you use comedy as a way to make more serious points?

I feel the best rock ‘n’ roll ultimately contains elements of pantomime and humour comes naturally within that; see some of our favourite bands like Turbonegro, Anti-Nowhere League, Sham 69, Dwarves, Darkthrone, The Divine Comedy etc. There is nothing more cringe-inducing than a rock band that takes themselves seriously. We are no comedians but we do love to poke fun and take the piss to some degree in everything that we do – be it through our music, lyrics, videos and performances and I think that in “art” (if we can be bundled crudely into that collective) anything and everything is fair game, not least ourselves. There are points to be deciphered in some of the things we say or do, sure, but we have no intentions to save the world and we don’t feel it’s our responsibility to do so. Sometimes it’s okay to play rock ‘n’ roll for noise’s sake and that’s what we intend to do. 

Did you write “Too Pretty For The Radio” as a bit of a shot to the broadcast media covering Irish music – or was it just a statement on your own collective good looks and charm?

Haha! It was originally going to be called “Too Petty For The Radio” but we often found that people mistakenly called us “Pretty Youth” (an unfortunate Freudian slip) so I changed it to “Too Pretty For The Radio” as the connotations of that title seemed to cover a few amusing bases. Ultimately it wasn’t aimed at anyone or any outlet in particular, but more at the tendency to try to reinvent or replicate the past as far as the framing and promotion of emerging artists in this country goes. But it’s systematic of a wider problem here, particularly in Northern Ireland. We are – to borrow from Sebastian Horsley – absolutely obsessed with resting on our laurels until they become wreaths; or more sinisterly, resting on our wreaths until they become laurels through the profiting off of past tragedies. That’s really what the song was about (the lyrics aren’t exactly implicit!). It seemed to live up to its title anyway as we haven’t been played on mainstream radio here since! 

Petty Youth is just one of the projects the three of you are involved in. What are the other projects/bands and how did they come about?

We’re always keeping ourselves busy with different projects. I try to produce a bit of electronic music – traditionally reggae, dub, soundscapes, hip hop etc under the Operatah title but have recently been working on some more filmic, downtempo and psychedelic influenced stuff under a new project which will hopefully see the light of day soon. Marty plies his trade in covers/weddings bands as well as his new Fuzz Blues side-project ‘Wildhound‘ with Eoghan, while Eoghan has just joined the reformed thrash punk-rock ‘n’ rollers The Dangerfields on top of doing solo music and dreamy pop with In Gloom.

What’s in the pipeline for Petty Youth over the next few months/years?

We have taken a bit of time away from recording to write bags of new material which, as every band in the universe has ever said, we feel is some of our best and most raucous to date. We are booking in to record some of this in the coming weeks and are keen to give it the production it deserves so be prepared for new, zealous Petty Youth material before long! In the meantime – more gigs, more pints and plenty of jivin’. In the future – an album, tour and world domination (or maybe just east Down, whatever is more feasible).

Is rock and roll dead?

It’s as dead or alive as you want it to be. As long as we’re around we’ll be ready to apply the leopard-printed defibrillators to it at any signs of waning!


Catch Petty Youth, Overlockers and Red House live in Belfast on September 5th. More info here.

petty youth


Xsnoize Author
Mark Millar is the founder of XS Noize and looks after the daily running of the website as well as conducting interviews for the XS Noize Podcast. Mark's favourite album is Achtung Baby by U2.

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