One day in the late summer of 2019 I pulled into the car park of an old mill building in Belfast. As well as several gyms for muscles, an upholstery business and a tyre fitting workshop, the building is home to countless bands and musicians who use its cavernous old rooms as rehearsal and recording spaces.
Among those is Wynona Bleach who, on that day were in the process of packing their entire studio contents into the back of a van. With the calmness of describing how a cup of tea is made, they explained they were weighing everything to make sure they’d be allowed to take it on the ferry to record their album in an abandoned factory Portugal. As you do.
Nearly three years later and the result is a fantastic debut album, Moonsoake. Co-produced with The Coral guitarist and solo artist Bill Ryder-Jones, its twelve tracks capture the energy and sheer mass of Wynona Bleach’s live sound.
Guitarist and songwriter, Jonny Woods, explains the idea to go to Portugal came about almost by accident. “Michael, our sound engineer, heard the idea from me as a joke. He wanted to do it and he talked about it until we agreed to it, almost just to shut him up!”
Lead singer Melyssa Shannon adds that a meeting with the late Lyndon Stephens (founder of Quiet Arch Records and manager of Joshua Burnside, Ryan Vail among others), reinforced the idea. “He said you’ve gotta have a story. Anyone can do an album, you have to give us something that’s interesting to make us listen to your album over anyone else’s. We still thought, ‘Are we mental, packing all of this into a van when we could do it here in Belfast?’.”
They got the album and the story to go with it thanks to about a month in Portugal. Ryder-Jones spent two weeks of that with the band. His input as a songwriter was invaluable, notably in the album’s closing track Blue Jeans which Woods says was one of the tracks “deconstructed and reconstructed” by Ryder-Jones.
“We looked around the room and every one of us nearly has a degree in sound engineering; we all know how to mic a kit or patch in a desk. We didn’t want to get a producer who was techy, we wanted somebody who was a songwriter. Aaron (Wynona Bleach guitarist) suggested Bill Ryder-Jones. It was his solo career Aaron was more of a fan of. We all know The Coral but none of us was going in with Bill with a Coral mindset. Bill is a songwriter we all really respect. I certainly thought I needed help sculpting it more and I thought he was the right guy to cut the fat.”
It’s an album packed with big hooks, bigger riffs and choruses that’ll stubbornly plant themselves in your head. There are some nice touches too which offer a glimpse behind the scenes, like the stripped back acoustic snippet of For Real performed around the pool in Portugal, complete with splashing noises, which closes side one. Asked if those almost poppy hooks are the influence of Ryder-Jones Woods says no. “In the sessions he was all about the heavy ones. He was banging his head and going mad for the ones that were a bit more guitar.”
Hollow is one of the album’s stand out songs, opening with an unsettling, discordant, chaotically timed maelstrom.
“That one’s live, except the vocals,” Woods says. “That’s what that factory sounded like. Hollow is the real Wynona Bleach eking out; big fucking riffy tunes. We couldn’t not have it on the album. You have to have the big hook in the chorus, that was the only way out (of the chaotic intro).”
Woods and Shannon describe themselves both as “front people” of the band. Woods is the main songwriter, looking after much of the guitar and lyrics, while Shannon is the lead singer, connecting with audiences as the focal point. Shannon is modest, almost to the point of self-deprecation when asked about the dynamic of singing someone else’s lyrics.
“While I’m a musician, I’m not a songwriter,” she says. “I sometimes wonder, “What is my place here, what’s the point of me?’ but clearly there’s a point. I’m conveying the words.” Woods explains how he writes lyrics with Shannon’s delivery in mind, before she continues, “We just have a connection that’s beyond the words. We’ve been in a band since 2006, it’s always been this way. What we have works, we’re both front people.”
After recording the album in Portugal - and a last minute session in Belfast to record vocals for a chorus they thought they’d done in Portugal but hadn’t - thoughts turned to mixing and production. “I went in saying I didn’t want to mix it, I didn’t want that weight on my shoulders, to be producer and mixer like on our previous stuff,” Woods says.
The band’s manager smuggled Woods into an awards event in London in early 2020, in the hopes he might smooth talk his way into some interesting company. “I’m dressed up like I am somebody. Alan Moulder and Flood were there; I hung out with Debbie Googe from My Bloody Valentine; I met Daughter, it was great!
“It’s getting a bit busy, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I don’t know how to talk to anybody, I’m a bit freaked out. It gets so busy I can’t see my manager and I try to work my way through the room. This woman comes through the crowd and in her northern Scottish accent says, ‘I wouldn’t go through there if I were you.’”
This happened to be Avril Mackintosh, who has credits working with artists from S-Club 7 to The Answer.
“Avril ends up talking to me for what feels like forever. She asked why I’m there and I explain why my manager smuggled me in. She says, ‘I work with a mixer, Andy and he’s brilliant, you should send him your stuff’. I woke up the next day and she’d already tried to phone me because they’d listened to the demos and both of them ended up talking to me on speaker phone, loving it. They become this fabulous pairing that ended up working on the album. It made it so much easier for me because I loved that offloading. They did four tracks and for me they are just the best ones. They’re part of my life now, they’re two lovely people who love their business and they’re great at it.”
The additions of Bill Ryder-Jones, Avril Mackintosh and Andy Bradfield (Spice Girls, Sugababes, David Gray, Manic Street Preachers) to team Wynona Bleach are definitely impressive for a band releasing their first album, but seen in context they are no surprise.
Moonsoake represents the culmination of years of hard graft for the five-piece. Just before changing their name they undertook a ten date tour of Russia, then self-released an EP under their new moniker. There has been a steady build both externally and internally by the band. Targeted gigging and strong releases have built a good fanbase, while smart networking has helped them assemble a structure of professionals around them. Few indie bands in Belfast have a regular sound engineer or backline tech; Wynona Bleach have both. Photographer Audrey Gillespie joined them in Portugal, capturing images on experimental lo-fi 35mm film that are presented on the inner sleeves of the record. They have management and now label support. Woods says at one point when he’s discussing their label deal “I have experienced mentors around to advise me”. It’s exactly how a modern independent band should build a supportive structure around them, and speaks volumes for their collective commitment and vision.
Woods admits, “I was thinking about vinyl the whole time I was making the record. Tracking it I was saying there needs to be a quiet song at the end of side two,” because vinyl tends to distort at the smaller inner rings in a way that wouldn’t suit their heavier tracks. While his initial photoshoot plan was curtailed by Covid, they plan to resurrect those ideas for album number two. That bigger picture approach is what sets them apart.
Mackintosh and Bradfield mixed Drag, Moonsoake, Graffiti and Flesh while Woods and Belfast-based engineer Jon Moorehead did the rest. The next problem was when to release - as the pandemic made gigging unpredictable and vinyl for production was in limited supply
“It was so hard to commit to anything,” says Shannon. “We went from wanting it out as soon as possible, to wondering if we should shop it around a bit more and try to get somebody on board.”
“There was a point in Portugal where the guy who owned the warehouse asked when he’d hear it and we told him March/April the following year (2020),” says Woods. “Because of the way the uncertainty occurred, we decided to shop it around to labels and try to get a record deal because we just thought it would be a drop in the ocean if we released it ourselves.
“In tandem with Andy and Avril mixing, I was mixing with Jon in Belfast… all the way through that summer of 2020. I thought at the end of the summer all this will be gone and we can release it in the winter. Winter comes and goes but then we got wind that Fierce Panda really quite liked it. They were really into it, they seemed like the right option because we were this indie band and we didn’t want to get lost in some major label machine. They gave a fuck more than anybody else. Now that we have that relationship they’re going to help us with the second album.”
Although they haven’t been able to gig for most of the past two years, the band’s focus has been on producing and releasing their album. However, when it was safe to do so they resumed regular rehearsals at their studio. I can personally attest to the fact that when they’re practicing the whole building doesn’t just hear, but feels the rumble created by the backline of Matt Killen’s drums, Woods and Aaron Black on guitars and Carl Gilmore’s bass.
Shannon says while she missed gigging during Covid, she’s returning to the stage a more confident performer than before. “The performance part, there’s no feeling to describe it. The lockdowns helped me forget a lot of the things I got caught up with in my own head. It’s easier to come back to it now and be more relaxed and think ‘I get to do this cool thing,’ and I’m not stressed about it or anything.”
They played in London in late 2021, with Mackintosh and Bradfield watching on, and return to familiar stomping ground of Belfast on 24th March for an album release show at The Ulster Sports Club, supported by Naked Lungs and Reasy Ajarro. “It’ll be a much more guitary night than we usually have, so I’m excited about that. It’s in the Ulster Sports Club which we’ve never played before and we’re hoping plenty of people come.”
Listen to the INTERVIEW with Jonny Woods and Melyssa Shannon from Wynona Bleach
Get Tickets for Wynona Bleach Thursday, 24 Mar 2022, at Ulster Sports Club, Belfast