Fresh from a UK tour with Pretty Vicious and Irish dates with Feeder, Castlerock’s BRAND NEW FRIEND release their debut album. ‘Seatbelts For Aeroplanes’ Friday 27th April.
The band, who began as a duo with brother and sister Taylor and Lauren Johnson started off playing and writing when Taylor received his first guitar for doing well in his GSCE’s. After releasing an EP ‘American Wives’ they hooked up with Aaron Milligan (bass) and Luke Harris (drums) and developed a fuller, punchier sound which transformed the gigs they had been playing to much more energetic affairs. Playing their first Irish tour in January 2017, they soon followed on with shows on the BBC Introducing Stage at Hull (during its City of Culture year), festivals and support slots with local bands. In the meantime, BBC Radio Ulster and Radio 1 were taking note and giving support and the new year kicked off with a sold-out show at the Duke of York in Belfast. Mark Millar recently caught up with Taylor Johnson to talk about how the band started, their debut album and the forthcoming support slot with Snow Patrol.
Hi, Taylor so how did Brand New Friend get together?
The band started with my little sister and me. I was writing a lot of tunes, and I started gigging at friends house parties – basically anywhere there was a microphone or somewhere that had people willing to listen to me. I wrote this tune one day called I Love You, Goodbye which was way out of my vocal range, but I could hear a girl singing it, and I thought “who better than my little sister?’ Because she has always sung in choirs and was always the talented one and I was the guy who didn’t know what he was doing. I’m just a chancer who only knows about three chords on a guitar, but Lauren is genuinely musically talented. So I brought the song to her and asked her if she would be interested in singing it – she did, and I said to her; “you don’t have a choice now you are in the band, this is now a band and this is what we are doing.”
We met the boys (Aaron Milligan (bass) and Luke Harris (drums) at a very early gig we played where it was Lauren and me with an acoustic guitar, and she played the keys, we had no bass or drums. We supported this band who were quite heavy sounding and very different to us and that happened to be Aaron and Luke’s, group. You couldn’t make it up it’s ridiculous – we supported Aaron and Luke! After the gig we kept in touch – they were really nice guys, and we had a natural rapport with them. Then one day they said to us “have you ever considered making the band a full-time thing?” we said; “not really but let’s try it.” and they naturally joined the band. The second day they came down to practice with us I was like “wow ok I think I now understand these songs.” And that was it we have been Brand New Friend as a full band for a couple of years, and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind really.
The band will be releasing your debut album ‘Seatbelts For Aeroplanes’ soon. Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas how it would sound and what you wanted to write about?
Not really to be honest. The way our album came about was the most beautiful natural thing. We were gigging a lot, and I got a bit of advice from my friend Owen Strathern who was in the band General Fiasco – who is a massive influence on us and one of my favourite bands ever. I remember chatting with him one night when Lauren and I were doing an acoustic gig before the boys joined. He said; “if I can give you any advice it would be this when you write a tune and if you like it go and record it there and then. Don’t wait because then you will lose the energy and essence of what the song is about.” So that was the attitude we took from very early on, and that’s what we did.
By the time we started getting interest from labels and people started to talk to us about going and recording an album – we had already it done. We didn’t think it would be an album we thought it would be a couple of EP’s or whatever but we had naturally built up a repertoire of songs. When the label did come in for us, they heard the songs, and instead of asking us to go away and rerecord them they liked them enough to say ” we’ve got it, this is it. Don’t touch it. It’s perfect”. So because of that, the album is still quite lo-fi, but it stays true to what we are. It’s not dressed up or fancy its very to the point and simple. It’s us playing in a room live – the album sounds like us in practice. But I think it benefits from that and not being dressed up, we made a record by accident. (laughs)
What inspired the album title ‘Seatbelts for Aeroplanes’?
That came about when Lauren my younger brother Logan and I flew over to Newcastle to watch this band we love called The Front Bottoms. And on the flight home, there was a lot of turbulence, it was quite a rocky flight, and we all thought we were going to die at one point. I remember Logan saying to me; “what is the point in us wearing a seatbelt?” and I said; “what do you mean?” He said; “think about it, if we crash into the Irish sea right now this seat belt isn’t going to save our lives, what is the point of this seat belt?” and I thought; ” I’m having that title its class!” So I wrote that down straight away because I thought that was an excellent metaphor for a relationship I was in at the time. I was in a relationship that was more of a comfort thing – it wasn’t real, but in my head it was. So I thought the metaphor really worked and it flowed naturally from there I guess.
Was it an enjoyable experience recording the songs that became the album?
Yeah, I loved the whole recording process entirely; it was so easy. We were in recording with Rocky O’Reilly. He heard about us through the demos that Lauren and I did in conservatories and our friend’s bathrooms – anywhere we could get a bit of reverb and a bit of echo. Rocky heard the tunes we were putting out on Sound Cloud and for whatever reason – God knows why but he saw a bit of potential in them and could hear the songs through the whole lo-fi aspect of them. And because he supported us from very early on when we went in to do the full band thing with him – he just totally got it. We were hanging out with Rocky and just happened to be recording some songs in the middle of it. It almost felt like every time we were in the studio with him we were chilling out with our mate – talking about football and having the craic. It felt like a mini holiday everytime we went in there, but at the end of it, he happened to press record. The whole thing was so simple, It was hanging with our mates and playing music together, then suddenly we have an album. It was a really happy accident. Working with Rocky is a real dream.
What would you like people to take away from listening to the album?
I would hope that there is a bit of comfort in it. The order in which we put the songs on the album makes it a concept album almost in a weird way. It sort of chronicles my first ever proper relationship from those first early moments to an unfortunate end. I like to think that within the sadness of it and within those dark times that we all experience growing up people can take away a bit of light from it and a bit of hope that despite the hard times if you keep going and get to the next day it might be a little bit easier.
Does songwriting come easily to you?
Yes, I would say they do only because the songs I write are honest. I think if I was deliberately trying to write in a particular style and I wanted to convey something specific or if Brand New Friend had a real image attached to us it would maybe be more difficult but the thing with this band is I write purely what I’m feeling when I’m feeling it. Every track on the album is a true story about real people who I have encountered growing up. I wouldn’t ever claim to be like Radiohead – writing profound songs about life and the modern world. It’s mainly songs about growing up with your mates and learning about what that means. From that sense lyrically I’ve never had an issue because I’ve always written down things from when I was a kid. I have always loved the English language, and I love people I find them fascinating. I have always written short stories, and all these songs are a retelling of stories from Castlerock where we grew up and Belfast and Northern Irish people in general.
What music has influenced Brand New Friend?
It’s a bit of a weird one because the four members of the band are so entirely different. We all come at it from entirely different angles. For me, my favourite band ever is a band called The Mountain Goats from the United States. They are very lo-fi with songs about love and life – they were never a huge band, but they left a profound effect on me. Lauren is big into Paramore and Beyonce and all the great female-fronted acts – which is great because that brings another side to the band. Aarons’ uncle was in a band called Paranoid they were a heavy Seattle Grunge type band – again they sound nothing like Brand New Friend, but that comes across in Aarons playing. Our drummer Luke is into bands like The National and The Felice Brothers, Ray Lamontagne and Damien Rice – really chilled acoustic stuff which is weird for a drummer. So we’ve all got different things going on. When it all comes together, I cant tell you who we sound like because we all bring something different to it.
Brand New Friend is supporting Snow Patrol on their Irish shows it must be pretty exciting as you are a fan of the band.
Oh yeah, it’s ridiculous. My dad is very heavily involved in the band he helps us and drives us all around the UK and stuff, and one of his best mates growing up came to see us play way back when the band was a two piece. And I remember him saying to my dad; “they will support Snow Patrol one day.” Which is a ridiculous mental thing to say? My dad said to his friend;“wise up!” and his friend said; “I will bet you twenty quid they’ll support Snow Patrol.” so whenever my dad heard the news, he said;“oh shit I owe Martin twenty quid.” (laughs) So we have been weirdly interlinked with Snow Patrol from very early on and to be supporting them is fucking nuts! They are a band I adore and have met Gary Lightbody a few times over the years and have never been able to have a coherent conversation with him because he is one of my idols. Its a dream come true for us we can’t believe it. We want to make the most of every opportunity.
Do you think there is a healthy music scene in Northern Ireland?
I think its class. I love the Northern Irish music scene. When Lauren and I got started, we received nothing but help from other bands around us who I admired and grew up loving. They helped us in the beginning and always offered us advice and were very encouraging. As well as all the promoters out there and the guys at Across the Line. I can’t explain why but from day one people have had a tidal wave of goodwill towards our band and wanted us to succeed.
Do you have a record that you always return to?
I get slagged for it a lot, but I love the third Oasis album – Be Here Now. I know Noel Gallagher hates it but I think its amazing. There are tunes on that record which certainly changed my life. I remember listening to all their albums – they are all incredible, but there was something about that record that made me think; “oh my god I want to be in a band and play the guitar and be a singer.” There is something joyful in the record. Another life changer for me was Final Straw by Snow Patrol. It opens with the song How to be Dead I don’t think there is a better opener to an album than that tune. I always go back to a lot of Pavement stuff, The Mountain Goats and Neutral Milk Hotel.
How do you listen to music nowadays vinyl streaming or CD?
I still love CD’s I have vinyl too but I prefer listening to CD’s I’m not sure its because I was born in the nineties, but I would always go to HMV and buy a CD before I would buy a vinyl record.
What have you been listening to recently that you could recommend?
I have been listening to so much. There is a singer-songwriter from Michigan called Paul Baribeau. He released three albums in the mid-noughties which didn’t do much for him, but I think they are absolutely genius. They are honest fast-paced love songs. My little brother’s band – Sad Tomorrow has just released an album called Happy Birthday. I have that on repeat. It’s annoying because he is very talented and I know his band is going to be bigger than our group soon. I’ve also been going a bit old skool and have Aztec Camera on repeat as well – I love them in a big way. Yeah, I’m all over the place with a lot of different styles of music going on. (laughs)
Have you written any songs for the next album yet?
its funny you should ask we were talking to our management and label the other day via Skype and they said; “right Taylor what songs do you have for album two?” I said; “let me go away and check.” I write loads of songs, but I rarely keep a tally of how many I’ve got. I told them; ” we have forty-one songs ready to choose from for album two.” so we have to narrow down to at least twelve for our second album. The rest of the band haven’t even heard half of what I’ve written. So we don’t need to worry about record two I just need to think about album three now. (laughs)
‘Seatbelts For Aeroplanes’ is released via Xtra Mile Recordings on Friday (April 27th).
Mediocre At Best / Seatbelts For Aeroplanes / I Was An Astronaut / Milk Chews / Slow
Why Are You So Tired / Sleep On My Floor / I Hate It When You Have to Go / Girl / A + E
I Love You, Goodbye / The Blame / Cold
Irish tour (headline)
26 April – DERRY, Sandino’s
27 April – PORTRUSH, Kiwi’s
28 April – BELFAST, Black Box
Snow Patrol support
11 May – DERRY, Millennium Forum
12 May – CORK, Opera House
14 May – KILLARNEY, INEC
15 May – DUBLIN, Olympia Theatre
16 May – WEXFORD, Opera House
18 May – GALWAY, Leisureland
20 June – LONDON, The Garage (with Starcrawler)
23 August – BELFAST, Custom House Square (with Kodaline and Lewis Capaldi)
Further dates to be announced.