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JOHN c Paul Grace 5

Inhabiting the subtle world of JOHN

21 September 2023, 09:00

Original Photography by Paul Grace

On the cusp of releasing their latest full-length, indie-punk duo JOHN tell Kate Crudgington about cutting back the unnecessary, changing scenery, and the value of cinematic collaboration.

Formed as an antithesis to rock and roll bravado, aptly named duo JOHN began life in London’s Crystal Palace a decade ago.

Firmly rooted in a DIY ethos, John Newton and Johnny Healey’s desire to progress under their simple moniker has been matched by a tenacious community of fans who have helped the pair achieve a solid reputation in the UK live music scene. Unexpected success also came in the UK’s Official Vinyl Singles Chart earlier this year, with AA-side release “Theme New Bond Junior” / “Hopper On The Dial” reaching the number one spot.

Despite only having four arms, four legs, and two heads between them, drummer & vocalist Newton and guitarist & backing vocalist Healey take great pride in their core abilities as a musical partnership to create their instinctive form of art punk. With three full-length records released to date: Godspeed In The National Limit (2017), Out Here On The Fringes (2010) and Nocturnal Manoeuvres (2021), the pair are now gearing up to release their latest effort, A Life Diagrammatic, which marks a shift in sound, location and perspective on what it means to make music on your own terms.

“I moved from the city to the coast, which means I was confronted with new imagery, new places and new subject matter,” explains drummer & lead vocalist Newton, who relocated from London to Brighton whilst making the band’s upcoming record. As he says this, he laughs at the distraction of a man “making funny noises” outside of his window “with a beer in his hand,” before continuing: “A Life Diagrammatic is not a concept album, per se – though I think there are ideas that run through each song – but there are distinct locations and moments that I tried to capture in certain songs, albeit relatively indirectly."

This skill in not being over descriptive about their music is something that Newton and bandmate Healey have honed over the past decade. Carrying a sound that’s equal parts inspiring and accessible, and has seen them support the likes of IDLES and Metz on tour, it will come as no surprise that Newton is proud of how JOHN have sustained themselves over the years. “A lot of people comment and find positivity and enjoyment in seeing how JOHN grows throughout each release,” he remarks, "I'm just really proud that A Life Diagrammatic still feels like a progression.”


“We made a concerted effort to change the production team on this record, to kind of mirror that progression,” Newton comments, when asked to expand on this progression. “Tom Hill, the producer, Seth Manchester the mixing engineer and Frank Arkwright the mastering engineer; they all really helped with this expansive, slightly more cinematic influence. We're very proud to have achieved that, with the limited amount of arms that we have. Tom was someone we've worked with on some live sessions, Seth was someone who has produced lots of albums that we had loved. And Frank, bizarrely, ended up being a kind of friend-of-a-friend of my dad's, who lived quite close to where I grew up. So, we followed these little connections and made educated choices based upon how we wanted something to sound.”

This cinematic influence permeates A Life Diagrammatic. From gritty anthemic opener “At Peacehaven” through to the brooding, industrial-tinged closer “The Common Cold”, it has a potent, momentous energy that surpasses the volume and the energy of most records created by a duo.

Two-piece bands are naturally limited, of course, but it just means they have to think outside the box. As proud as Newton is of the band’s development in sound, he counters it with an endearing dose of humility. “Having said that, I also believe it's a real strong point sticking to these limitations. They enable us to make good decisions based on what we can do, but also, really grind up against them. So I think that's become a kind of a feature of the band. It really affects the sound of what we do, because we know very well what we can, and what we can't do.”

This understanding extends to who the band decides to collaborate with. As well as working alongside new producers and engineers on A Life Diagrammatic, JOHN enlisted the talents of actor and long-time fan Simon Pegg on the brief, scratchy sound-bite “Media Res”, former Bad Seed and Magazine man Barry Adamson on the urgent, literary-laced “Riddley Scott Walker”, and Leona Farrugia, vocalist of rising Anglo-Maltese quartet ĠENN appears on the relentless “Service Stationed”.

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“It's never a case of a shoehorn for the sake of gravitas or stature,” comments Newton about these additions. “It's a much more organic choice to get people in to honour the song or the album. It became apparent that there were certain areas that might be interesting to open up for collaboration. For example, on "Service Stationed" we knew Leona was a perfect candidate because of her amazing vocal ability. [Her range] offsets my probably more limited vocal capability. We could hear that working and we're good at recognizing ideas in the studio and running with them.”

“Barry [Adamson] and Simon [Pegg] are both people who have worked in a cinematic way too, so these were concerted, conceptual decisions to have them appear on the record,” he continues. “Barry comes across as a narrator, which is perfect for the four lines in that song. It’s something that leans towards the visuals through the lyrics and the reference of the song title, which is based upon a novel called ‘Riddley Walker’ by Russell Hoban which I'm interested in.”

Hoban’s acclaimed text, published in 1980, centres around the aftermath of a nuclear explosion in the UK. It’s narrated by the teenage eponymous character, who speaks in a dialect unique to the fictional dystopian setting he exists in. It’s an idiosyncratic piece of work, and the lasting effects of it inspired Newton to pen “Riddley Scott Walker”.

“It is an incomparable novel,” he admits. “It's so wonderfully written, and there's a really vivid dystopian imagery throughout. It was a special book that really influenced me. It was kind of funny for me to jam it with those other two names: Scott Walker and Ridley Scott. It was just a whimsical idea, but sometimes, whimsical is the best route. There's an honest detail to realising an idea when it flies past your head. You just have to be looking, and when something happens, you've got to capture it. I think that's quite evocative of JOHN, in general.”

Whether they’re transforming fleeting thoughts into considered ideas, or ruminating on the contexts of other art forms, JOHN’s sound has been galvanised by these processes across the past ten years. They have worked consistently and conscientiously in order to create their records, including upcoming LP A Life Diagrammatic. “JOHN has never been a massive explosive flame,” Newton comments. “It's always simmered and built gradually, mainly because of the way we run the band behind the scenes, which grounds itself in a close-to-hand ethic.”

He talks about the influence of record labels like Discord in Washington, who were involved in all aspects and stages of a record’s release, which is what JOHN also strives for. “There's a lot of pride in that,” he continues, “but with that more subtle approach comes more hard graft. It's a double edged sword. But you've got to tread carefully, especially mental health-wise – which is something that we're very passionate about – because it can be very difficult.”

JOHN’s considered yet cautionary approach is unfortunately not exempt from stress. It’s a specific type of strain that comes with spinning multiple plates as an independent band. This strain is only made more intense by the sometimes crushing zemblanity of life. Newton and Healey woke up recently to find that the new van they had been using to drive around the UK for gigs and for Healey’s day-to-day work had been stolen. This put increasing pressure on their finances, both band-related and personal.

“It was almost comical in terms of the timing,” Newton reflects. “It happened when there were a series of things going wrong, it was almost like a London bus thing, you know?” Although they were initially hesitant to do so, the pair decided to ask for help and set up a Go Fund Me page as a short term solution. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with friends and fans donating far more than the target amount.

"Our band is called JOHN and it is a manifesto against the sensationalist approach of rock-based music."


“It has been a grind at times,” Newton admits about being an independent band. “Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of logistical legwork and there are a lot of moments when you feel like you're getting kicked in the teeth. But, the response [to the Go Fund Me page] was amazing. I think it’s symptomatic of the unique relationship that we have with the people who follow us. It’s an amazing community that has surrounded JOHN and enabled it to exist for so long. We really needed that positivity before we got into a busy album campaign.”

These reflections on the reality of life behind the scenes leads to an extrapolation on what it means to be “successful” as an artist today. Having records in the charts is an obvious measure of achievement. Having a well-connected manager or press team behind you also helps, but everybody’s definition of success is different. Everybody’s idea of what a band should or shouldn’t be is also different.”

“It’s a completely double edged sword and it is something that I'm particularly active in thinking about” Newton acknowledges. “Our band is called JOHN and it is a manifesto against the sensationalist approach of rock-based music. It was a very conscious decision to do something that was pretty stark. There's always going to be a level of fiction whenever you're writing songs or performing, but equally, I do find there is a responsibility with musicians to not over sensationalise things. I think it plays a little bit into the populist hand, and ultimately, capitalist tactics. I don't want to go hardball on people who do take that approach, but it's not something that I want to do. With JOHN, we do have our hands dirty with pretty much all of the details of our releases. I wouldn't want it any other way, because I enjoy those things.”

Newton relishes the opportunity to be involved at all levels. As lead vocalist and drummer, he is firmly in the centre of all things JOHN. “Some people just want to make the music and that's fine,” he continues, “but I like inhabiting the world that we are building around music.” Newton’s performance is elevated and inspired by this approach, as well as other theatrical elements, including, perhaps surprisingly, the ideas of twentieth century German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

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“Brecht stripped back a lot of the surplus elements of theatre, like costume and lighting, because he felt that took the audience out of action. They became passive and it became a kind of superfluous entertainment,” explains Newton. “I really resonated with this idea of cutting back anything that feels unnecessary. I think that's linked to what we wanted to do with JOHN. You know, I'm not going to dress up in a sombrero or have a certain 'expected' look as a rock band. I prefer that people’s [attention] should be directed by the energy, the lyricism and the music.”

Newton expands on this by dissecting the current trend in wider commercial music spheres of naming everything from brands to social issues in order to gain notoriety or attention. He speaks thoughtfully and without pretence. “There seems to be an interest in writing very direct lyricism about the contemporary, or about certain issues. It's a capitalist mode [of writing] and I don't think it's a successful way to engage people. Capitalism is hugely successful at enveloping any contemporary issue. When something becomes talked about, or something comes popularised, it becomes marketable. You can see that with sex, gender, politics. It can easily be taken and basically reworked to make money.”

JOHN’s music is influenced by the capitalist world we live in, but Newton feels that music – and art in general – is always more powerful when the idea or meaning behind it is not glaringly transparent. “I think you're more successful when you make someone do a double take and rethink things,” he continues. “That doubletake is a political act in itself, it doesn't need to be rammed down the throat. It doesn't need to be spelled out. The ability to actually make someone change their behaviour, or imagine something different: that is a political manoeuvre. I think that has to come through your veins and seep into you, and come out in an idiosyncratic manner.” That is ultimately the lifeblood of JOHN and that is why the band have survived, and thrived, over the past ten years.

A Life Diagrammatic is released 22 September via Brace Yourself Records and Pets Care Records

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