INTERVIEW: Desperate Journalist - “There’s a joke in the band that there’s no guitars on this record. It’s simply not true.”

INTERVIEW: Desperate Journalist - “There’s a joke in the band that there’s no guitars on this record. It’s simply not true.” 1

London band Desperate Journalist have recently released their fourth album, ‘Maximum Sorrow’, possibly their best yet. XS Noize caught up with Jo, Rob, Caroline & Simon to discuss the LP, unorthodox chord progressions, touring again and some of the most inspirational albums that lit the touch-paper in their respective musical journeys.

Desperate Journalist

Thanks for taking the time to speak with XS Noize. Congrats on the release of your fourth studio album ‘Maximum Sorrow.’ What's the reaction been like, I suppose, from the most important people, your fans, on the new album in the last couple of weeks?

Jo: It's been pretty good.

Caroline: Very positive.

Simon: Obviously, because we haven't played any gigs, all of the reaction we’ve had has been online communications. But there’s been good reviews and lots of nice comments on Twitter and Facebook, so yeah, pretty good.

Rob: It's really weird to judge because obviously, we are not playing live, we are not seeing any people, so it's kind of a bit removed in a way, but yeah, all good.

Hopefully, that will not be the case in a few weeks and a few months. You’ll have a couple of gigs under your belt.

Jo: Hopefully.

How would you say the ‘Maximum Sorrow’ album differs to, or is it an extension to the theme and the tone of the 2019 album ‘In Search of The Miraculous’?

Rob: I would say it's quite different. There’s a joke in the band that there are no guitars on this record. It’s simply not true. We have dialled a lot of that back and focused on the rhythm section and some of the melody. The guitars have taken a bit of a backseat, whereas, on the last album, we had thrown every guitar you could imagine at it and put it on every song we could. For me, it felt really different to write it.

Jo: Yeah, and on recording, the plan was to do something more considered in layering things. So the approach that we took to recording was quite different. With every album we’ve done, we sort of know what we are doing better each time in the studio. This one felt like we kind of levelled up a bit.  In terms of lyrically speaking, the last album was almost like a concept album because it was centred around that one concept of Bas Jan Ader. For this one, I wanted to do something more multifaceted, so each song is about something distinct from the rest of the record. We also wanted it to sound as though each song was its own little vignette. Not a massive, massive departure but something different.

Caroline: We recorded this one in a different studio, so that kind of changed the whole atmosphere around making the album and having a different studio engineer to this one. He helped us do what we came in to do and guided us differently from what we had previously. So I guess that also gave the album a slightly different sound. We spent more time than usual to get a really good drum sound. I can hear that when I listen back to the album now. I’m happy.

Just picking out one of the songs, ‘Armageddon’, one of my favourite tracks on the album. The intro has almost that ‘Running Up That Hill' beat from Kate Bush. Was that a respectful nod to the wonderful Kate Bush herself?

Rob: I don't think it was conscious particularly, more unconscious. I said this in an interview the other day. A skeleton of the drumbeat was on the original demo that we did. It was almost more like, what is it Caz likes to play? The inspiration was more Caz’s playing than anything else, smacking tom-toms. She’s got this brilliant, drum-machine-esque quality to her playing. It was more of that.

Simon: Obviously, I know that song. I hadn't listened to it for ages. It's not something I would tend to put on, so I saw the review and put it on. I couldn't believe how similar it was.

Caroline: I had not noticed that until someone mentioned it in a review, and I was like, “Really?” Throughout the whole writing of the album, recording, practising, and everything, I had no idea it was like ‘Running Up That Hill.’ No one said it.

Simon: It was only us and one other person really that was involved, so no one said.

Rob: And weird, because we are all into that and know the song really well, and we usually are,  and I am particularly super self-conscious where influences are coming from, sort of noticing it is almost a distraction from the beginning, but this time I didn't at all.

Jo: Yeah, I listen to her a lot (laughing). I guess there are some other songs that do that gallop thing, so maybe that sort of melds into one.

It's not a bad thing to be compared to at all.

All: No, no, no.

Rob: Totally not complaining.

The artwork on the sleeve is brilliant; it really caught my eye. It looks fantastic. Who was responsible for the design on the sleeve?

Jo: I was. The main image, the central, darker image, is from a project I did at Art School many years ago. It's actually a photo from the inside of the club, The End, which used to be in Central London. I had this project where I’d take lots of pictures of abandoned clubs and then print them, sort of mess around with the ink & smudge them, I used some images from that, and then there were some other photos I went around in Soho and took at night during lockdown when there was no one around. So, I did that for the back cover.

I was gonna ask where the back cover was taken. I was guessing somewhere around Soho.

Jo: Yeah, it's Chinatown. Around the back of The Prince Charles Theatre.

There's a quote on the inner cover. Excuse my ignorance if I don't know this one - “That's right, things aren’t so bad, look at that parking lot, Larry, just look at that parking lot.” Where's that from?

Jo: That's from the film ‘A Serious Man’, a Coen Brothers film. It’s based on The Book of Job. It's almost like that comedic look at that in the ‘60s America in a suburban Jewish guy’s life and all these horrible things before him, but then he keeps going to spiritual leaders. They all keep giving him either platitudes like “look at the parking lot, things can't be so bad”, or things that don't really make any sense. I enjoyed this. Yeah, it was kind of true in a way that you should stop and smell the roses, but also, it's kind of a bit pathetic at the same time (laughing). So it just appealed to my sense of humour.

For the four of you, outside of music, in terms of literature or physical artwork, would that be brought into your writing quite a bit?

Rob: For Jo, a lot. Kind of by the nature of how we write. We make music, and then Jo will do the melody & lyrics. We don’t get up to thinking in that kind of way too much, but Jo does.

Jo: Yeah, I mean, I voraciously consume and then spew out all the cultural things, so it's just innate in the way that I think and write. I’d think of an image or feeling, and then there’ll always be something that immediately comes to mind, but then I wouldn't necessarily consciously reference, but there would be something that might come out the way I think about it, and therefore the way I would eventually, poetically express it.

Another song I was going to pick from the album is the opener ‘Formaldehyde.’ What's the inspiration and back story in terms of the lyrics and the music?

Jo: That was the last song to be written for the album. That was something I was just messing about on the keyboard. This very simple badly played chord progression. And then sung this rudimentary thing over it, not really thinking about it too much. Once I’d added all the harmonies and the chorus, we sort of thought it could work quite well. It's very texturally different to what we’ve done before. There's not much going on in it, but then it's quite nice to start the album with something that's like a massive departure from really guitar-heavy, melodramatic music that we’ve put out before.

Rob: And it's the first piece of music we’ve released that Jo has written herself entirely, without any input from anyone else, so that's kind of really nice. There are chord sequences there that I would never have thought of using.

Jo: Chromatic! (laughing)

Rob: Yeah, it really sort of jarred me at first. I was like, “this is not us! I don't understand, what's going on?” and that sort of thing. It's nice when it came to fruition. It was kind of completely unexpected and very last minute. We recorded it, and it sounded great. The way Jo put those harmonies together, in particular, I was really pleased with.

Simon: I was strongly in favour as soon as I heard it.

Caroline: That's true.

Simon: I was pleased when Rob came around (laughing).

Jo: As was I (laughing).

Simon: I love the chords. Yeah, it’s good to have something different.

Caroline: I love the harmonies and the words to it. It's really nice also to start the album with it. For me, it really sets the tone in a completely different way. Yeah, it works.

Rob: We had an inside joke that it was the aperitif for the rest of the record. (all laughing)

You touched a bit on this earlier. Between the four of you, what tends to be the general process between the writing & the music and getting into the studio to record? How did it work for this album, more specifically?

Caroline: The usual way we work is that Rob would write some demos and then send them to us or play them at rehearsal. So either he brings a guitar riff or part, and we play it in the studio, but more often, he would send us a demo, and we’d try it out in the studio altogether and then come up with more or less the song. Then Jo would make some notes in the studio, try some vocals on it, and eventually come up with the melody & the words for it. That's usually how it works. That process was very similar, for me anyway, Rob and Jo might say something different, but for this one, the only different thing was that it was interrupted by the lockdown, so we were working on the songs and then putting them together, all instrumentation and then lockdown started, so we had to carry on that process over the Internet. Sending each other bits that we put on the computer.

Rob: Yeah, I mean, I think we did. It was broadly similar; apart from this album, it was thirty times harder to write than anything previously. The process was slightly different as we would normally have a rough demo, mess around with it, take it to the studio, change it, blah blah blah. It was a bit less of that this time as the demo had to be more sort of fully-fledged.

What made it difficult to write this one, purely because of the lockdown or for other reasons?

Rob: Nothing really to do with the lockdown. I think it was just sort of a classic thing that happens to bands at various points. What the hell else can we do? This sound that we’ve got makes us but keeps me kind of interested in terms of writing it, so just trying to square some of that circle was particularly tricky this time around.

Jo: We also started writing way before lockdown.

Rob:  A few months before lockdown. I think the last record was one of the more organic ones in a way that we’ve done, and we rehearsed that a lot and messed around with it a lot. Where with this one, we didn't have quite the opportunity to do this, but on the last one, it felt that we chucked the kitchen sink at it, and for me anyway, in terms of writing, I was a bit like what can I write now that will not just be a worse version of something we’ve previously done? Finally, we cracked it open.

You wouldn't know the struggle that went on as a listener, and as a fan, you don't know those struggles I guess that you guys go through.

Simon: I’m in the band, and I didn't know about it either. (all laughing) But I’ve heard about it since. You should’ve opened up, man, yeah (to Rob). (all laughing) - talk to me.

It's good to talk, Rob, it's good to talk. (all laughing)

Rob: Yeah, the number of demos I deleted before it even got to being sent to anyone was just ridiculous this time around. It was probably two albums worth of things that never even got heard by anyone else.

Jo: There was one song in the album called just “No” because you didn't like it (laughing). I can't remember which one it is.

Is that gonna appear on a B-side in the future?

Rob: Maybe, maybe.

Simon: It would be deleted now.

Rob: I do seem to have a bit of a ‘bonfire’ complex where I delete everything immediately.

Caroline: For a previous album, I saved ‘Be Kind’ like that. You were gonna get rid of it. It was in one of those deleted folders, we came around, and Rob was like, “OK, if you really wanna listen to them, just have a listen”, and I just stopped on that one and said, “this is great, we’ve gotta work on this one” and yeah turned out to be a single, so there you go.

I’ve seen you play live a couple of times actually in 2017 and 2018. I think one was in Shoreditch, one was in East London somewhere, but the whole band has a fantastic stage presence, and you seem to have built up a great strong fan base on your live shows, and you’ve also toured in Europe. What's the reception like in Europe when you compare playing in London or Manchester?

Rob: I don't know if the reception is necessarily that different. The people that come and see us are people that come and see us. I noticed when we were in Europe, perhaps, that more people might just come along to check us out without necessarily knowing who we are and then go on to appreciate it. I noticed that less here.

Jo: Yeah, I mean, generally, promoters treat us better. (laughing)

Lee: Treat you better in Europe or The UK?

Jo: In Europe. I mean, in the UK, we usually get like four beers. (laughing)

Caroline: In terms of the audience, it's really good everywhere we play. I mean the last gigs we did, I don't remember thinking that one country was better than the other.

Simon: I'm gonna be too honest and say it's all good, but neither in the UK or Europe do the crowd go particularly wild. That could be improved (laughing).

Jo: Maybe some pyrotechnics (all laughing).

Simon: In general, I think our type of fans quietly appreciate it, and you don't realise how much they’ve enjoyed it until they post about it the day after or something.

Jo: A very introspective lot (laughing).

I think the Shoreditch gig I saw you guys were upstairs at The Old Blue Last and it was so packed up there. The atmosphere that night, I remember, was really good, and anticipation of you guys coming on, the crowd seemed really up for it that night.

Rob: Yeah, I agree. I think it's often because we all work. We can't just constantly tour, so it's kind of nice when we get to play because you do get the sense of anticipation of, oh good, they’re coming to play again. Play in some obscure town which we sometimes do, which no one else ever plays.

Just keeping on the live stuff, you’re playing Rough Trade East?

Jo: Hopefully.

And Manchester in September. Can you put into words how much you are looking forward to not just playing this album but just being able to play live again?

Rob: Terrified? It's been a long time.

Caroline: It's really been a long time. It's really strange. I keep thinking it's not gonna happen. It's some sort of dream. I can't quite comprehend that it's actually gonna happen. So I don't know, I’m probably anxious, super-excited, a mixture of everything really.

Simon: I want to get it out of the way (all laughing). Not in that way, but it's just, it shouldn't be 18 months. I don't want to build it up into a big thing that it's not. But yeah, I really want to just.. play. So hopefully, it will go ahead, and then we can take it from there.

Rob: I think for us as a band it would be really important to do so. For me, it's been really odd to record and release this album without doing any playing live. Not that we would play lots of new tracks before the album coming out, but we would’ve played the singles, maybe one or two others. I guess it's what I’ve been saying earlier. It's been a funny thing only witnessing the reception effectively online and not getting that feedback loop. I think I actually haven't noticed how much I personally enjoyed this before.

Caroline: It hasn't felt as real for some reason if that makes sense.

Simon: After the album was released, or even before it, I was looking at things like looking how many had sold because I wanted some sort of proof that people were enjoying it or having an interest in it, so yeah.

I’ve mentioned Manchester and London, are there any festivals or gigs lined up for the rest of this year outside of these two?

Simon: We were booked to play Kendal Calling, but that was cancelled, and there are no festivals.

Caroline: Sheffield gig in December. In 2022 we’ve got Bedford in January, Bristol, London, quite a few. Hopefully, more will get booked slowly.

Simon: Yeah, all the venues are booked up this year, as well.

Rob: Having that level of uncertainty that we’ve been living with for a while, it's been really difficult to book gigs and all of that sort of stuff.

One of the songs on the album ‘Poison Pen’ has some great lyrics on it. Why is it the only song with no lyrics on the sleeve notes?

Jo: (Laughing) I would like to say that there is a good reason.

Lee: No meaningful, deep reason behind it then?

Jo: It's because I was designing the record sleeve, I accidentally left it off (all laughing), and I didn't realise until it was too late and it had all gone to press. There are no mysterious facts behind it, I’m afraid.

It makes it more intriguing Jo for the people, wondering why it's not there.

Simon: It's on the CD.

Caroline: Yeah, we’re re-pressing some more single black vinyl, and it will be on there.

The actual title of the album, what's the story behind ‘Maximum Sorrow?’ Is that a lyric from one of the songs, or is there something else?

Jo: No, it's again taken from the world of conceptual art. There's an artist called Kevin Bewersdorf who did a lot of really interesting internet art, and he did this big project called ‘Maximum Sorrow’, which was done in the late ‘90s-early 2000s. It was essentially using a lot of stock imagery, corporate imagery and re-appropriating them in sort of a slightly tongue-in-cheek, almost spiritual form. A comment on this utopian idea of “The Net”, as it was then called. It was sort of half-serious, half-sarcastic, which is a particular post-Generation X approach to art. He is quite a spiritual person, and he deleted this online catalogue to reduce his entire online presence to a single web page, which is just this pure blue, and it's like a bit of a candle burning. Before this, he was doing these animated GIFs, mandalas and things. So I really liked that as an approach, and I thought that because the album is also about these various themes, it's all quite internal and ruminatory. Also, as a millennial, there's loads of different information that's constantly being fed into my brain, it kind of fits in terms of tone and the aesthetic. It kind of made sense to me.

Has he heard the album?

Jo: I’ve no idea. Every now and again, even since I learned about his existence, I sort of wondered if it was ok. I tried to look him up. I think he recently, like a few years ago he did a bizarre, ostensibly a seminar on how to be a famous producer of art, but then it sort of ended with him doing this sort of group prayer, and no one was quite sure whether it was kind of in earnest or not and I haven't seen anything from him since. So I’ve no idea. I think he’s quite reclusive. He seems like an odd guy.

Sounds interesting. Jo, you’ve talked about your passions outside of music, including art, literature. What about the rest of the guys, outside the musical world, when you actually have time, what's your main inspirations or passions outside music?

Rob: I don't think I really do anything else. I work in the day and by night occasionally. I don't have a huge amount of time. House plants - I do a lot of that. Yeah, not much for me, to be honest. Just music.

Simon: Yeah. Not much for me either. I DJ, and I promote gigs, which is obviously outside the band, but I like doing that stuff as well.

Caroline: I like reading. Well, I wish I read more these days. I don't feel like I have much time anymore, but yeah, literature I really love, films. It's difficult after work and the band to have time to do anything else, especially with the lockdown. The past year and a half has been very strange and full of anxiety, spent mostly watching Netflix series (laughing), that kind of stuff.

Rob: It is really difficult to do stuff outside of having a job and the band. To have anything else is quite tricky.

What was the first album that got you seriously hooked on taking music very seriously as a career in making music? It doesn’t have to be the coolest one. It can just be the first one that really got you on that journey of music?

Caroline: Mine’s easy. I think everybody would guess now. It's ‘Disintegration’ by The Cure. It is my favourite album. I just remember it really changed a lot of the music that I wanted to listen to and the things I wanted to do with my life. I remember at that time really wanting to make music, form a band. I just wanted to be a musician and live from it, but it hasn’t quite happened.

Did you get to see them play live, Caroline?

Caroline: Yeah, so I got into them in 2000, and I saw them when they did the ‘Bloodflowers' tour in Paris and then kind of tried to see them every time they played. Yeah. Got really obsessed with them, basically. Everybody knows that.

Simon: I’m still thinking about mine. (laughing). One of you two go first.

Jo: It's quite hard to pinpoint a specific album that I've heard and then thought, I wanted to make music. But I was just thinking about this the other day, actually, and the rest of the band will probably laugh at me because I am mentioning Peter Gabriel.

What's wrong with Peter Gabriel?

Jo: No, it's just a theme that happens quite a lot.

Simon: He totally invented the Womad Festival single-handedly…..(all laughing)

Jo: There was an interactive CD-ROM game that I had when I was about 10 or 11, called ‘Eve’, which he did in conjunction with many conceptual artists. In fact, I remembered the other day that the point of the game is you go through these different, strange landscapes & things. You click through, animations appear, but if you find certain hidden bits, it adds things to your inventory in a way that means that you can sort of tweak different recorded loops from some of his songs. That was my first experience of what it's like to build songs in a sort of modular way. It was really, really interesting and exciting to figure out how all the little nuts & bolts worked. That was definitely influential in terms of both music and art. That's something (laughing).

Rob: I find this difficult to answer because I’m not quite sure I ever, and still don’t, seriously considered that a career in music was a viable option in a modern age.

Jo: It's not? (laughing)

Rob: I think ‘Everything Must Go’ by the Manics was one of the first things that made me go. Oh, actually, I want to be in a band and kind of write miserable pop songs. Whereas previously I’d been into Nirvana like many kids had been, but it always felt a bit alien and a bit removed. I loved it, but I couldn't quite imagine myself writing those songs, but it was probably the Manics that were the first thing that made it feel a bit more real to me.

Right, Simon, you must know by now surely.

Simon: Just in total contrast to Jo’s answer, my answer is Oasis - ‘Definitely Maybe.’

Jo: It's not necessarily a contrast.

Simon: Yes, it is. Yours was a very clever answer. (all laughing). Well, my first gig was Oasis, and it was the first band that I loved, and then I immediately started playing the guitar.

Where did you see them play, Simon?

Simon: Birmingham, NIA, ‘Be Here Now’ Tour. I wasn't old enough for ‘Definitely Maybe.’ But it was the ‘Definitely Maybe' album that got me into them. They had it for like two or three years; they were a good Rock’N’Roll band.

Well, guys, thank you very much for taking the time this evening for chatting through the album and different bits and pieces.

All: Thank you.

Desperate Journalist

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