Birmingham’s Johnny Foreigner are one of the most loved and respected underground indie rock acts in the UK today, and known to some for their often incredibly long song and release titles. Forthcoming fourth studio album ‘Johnny Foreigner Vs. Everything’ may well be their most simple named and ambitiously driven records thus far, and who knows, it might just put them on the map a little more once it hits the shelves next week. We had a chat with lead vocalist and guitarist Alexei Berrow (or simply just Lex) about the forthcoming release and a few other things whilst we were at it:
Jon: Hello Lex, how are you today?
Lex: Curry-full and slow.
Jon: So you’ve got two releases gigs for ‘Johnny Foreigner Vs. Everything’; one in London and the other in Birmingham. What are your feelings towards playing hometown gigs? Some bands hate them and some love them?
Lex: I find home shows kinda awkward, but they’ve gotten easier. When we first started touring and came home for a night, I’d always get split between like, the me who plays in this band that all these kids have come to see, buzzing off the fact that it’s a hometown show and they’re proud to be there, and the me that feels bad that my friends have just paid £7 to hang out with me for the night when I’m either puke nervous, screaming on a stage or wanting to go to sleep in my own bed. It’s got easier in that most of our friends who still come watch us like our band/play in bands themselves, so they know the score. We’re not like, a make up and stage show kinda band, but there’s still a weird clash in the way the different groups in the room see us and respond to us. I guess like the million other awkward moments you don’t think of ’til they first happen, we’ve all learnt to embrace the chaos (get really drunk).
Jon: To be honest I’ve never seen you use a pick live, and it’s fairly uncommon for guitarists to not use a pick on metal strings. What made you choose to not use a pick?
Lex: ’cause my mum said! Seriously, when I was 14 and starting to be interested in music, I found plectrums awkward and weird. Like, why does there have to be something between my fingers and the strings? She was a classical guitar teacher and she said it was totally optional. By the time I was like 18/19 and started bands and stuff, I’d figured out it wasn’t true for electric guitars but I’m lazy and didn’t want to retrain my hand. It used to annoy me, ’cause there’s stuff like drilling and pinch harmonics that I totally can’t pull off as well as plectrum players, and two years on tour destroyed my nail. But now, I really appreciate it ’cause I can do bits of fingerpicky stuff, and the nail is a lot more resilient and undeformed now.
Jon: I’ve seen both you and AlcoPop! say that this album has had the most money invested in it to be recorded/produced. What changes and extra options did that give you as a band whilst recording?
Lex: Whilst it was the largest recording budget Alcopop!‘s ever given, it was still comparatively tiny. The finished product came in under £1500, which is roughly what a day’s recording in New York and Brooklyn costed our previous corporate funded label before. It changed the whole nature of recording, we took five months (including two tours) and we used our practice space and Dom‘s parents spare room. The lack of money was the only drawback; Alcopop! has an awesome Tony Wilson approach, they paid Dom and left us alone until we finished it. We played everything to our advantage as much as we could and gave ourselves the luxury of no time limits. It was a different kind of pressure than we’re used to; we were used spending three weeks in an alien environment spitting songs out, whereas this time the only pressure was to make it sound right.
Jon: For the album, you’ve incorporated people’s recordings of their stories/musings, which you started collecting at earlier this year. How did that idea come about?
Lex: Again, lazy. We knew we wanted a pool of samples and found noises we could, and this seemed like the least effort/most fun way to get some. I wish I could say it was part of our great punka ethos to involve people, and in any case it’s awesome it turned into that ’cause I’d be made up if I could do the same thing for my favourite bands, and that’s pretty much how we judge any kind of interaction. But really, lazy.
Jon: With your releases, you’ve always seem to push for something unique, what influenced you to make the releases that way? Especially hand making all of the 12″ record sleeves for ‘You Thought You Saw A Shooting Star…’, that would have taken a lot of time and effort to create them all?
Lex: Yeah, this was a stoner communication error that led to Jack Pop ordering 500 blanks sleeves instead of just 50 like one of us was probably supposed to tell him or something. Each one took about 30 mins, from stenciling and cutting and drawing and taping and writing to finish. It was a super happy accident though because so many people sent in photos. We had a little pile of fanmail in the Wichita office, it was a proper goosebumpy privileged popstar moment picking them up and I’m glad we were able to cut their memories into pieces and send them off to each other. We’ve always tried to make stuff that was less boring than – a CD. Up until now, where we’re very definitely making the album, it just seemed a bit too dull to release a series of CDs when we had a label willing to make frisbees and stickers and stuff instead.
Jon: In your blog you’ve been supportive of Record Store Day, will you be trying to get involved next year if possible?
Lex: I feel like I’ve been sort of cast as a talking head on Record Store Day when I’m not so much supportive of RSD as I was unsupportive of the one dickface who talked shit about record culture. I’m kinda sad that we need a RSD at all ’cause for me, every day in a record store is record store day. It seems kinda incongruous, like “grandparents day” or “everybodybuyproductstoday day”, and for every artist who uses it as an opportunity to produce something special, there’s a whole bunch of profit hungry artless pointless exclusives and repackages from the dinosaurs. But, y’know, I accept that’s because I’m old enough to remember a whole bunch of indie record stores and come from that culture that’d regularly and willingly spend food/rent money on imported CDs, and every time I go into Banquet or Probe or Polar Bear, I still have that mentality. So, if RSD is what it takes to keep those stores open all year for me to keep fuddyduddying around in them, then that’s fucking awesome, and I’m sure there’ll always be someone somewhere making something I’d want from it. We don’t really move in the kind of circles where we’re invited to join in such benefits, but I totally have a song squirelled away should we ever be asked, and the b-side will be a cover of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, but with “Christmas” replaced by “Record Store Day”.
Jon: For the most part you’ve worked with the same artist (Lewes) for your album art/t-shirts. Do you feel that benefits you as a band to have a consistent artist for your work?
Lex: It’s not so much benefiting as much as it’s just the way our band is; Lewes is as much a part of this as anyone else, he’s like richey manic only a better musician. Seriously, he’s a sweet guitar player and has a standing invitation to come out with us, but he always has something better to do. So I guess, we’ve grown better together through familiarity, but it’s never been a conscious lets-use-that-guy again decision like most bands would work. Lately our Safrican team, Ben and Anja, have both done some awesome stuff for us, and I guess that awesome co-visionary band-artist relationship is more something we have with them. Whereas swapping Lewes would feel just as wrong and unnatural as jun or kel. He’s as responsible as all of us. I frequently feel awful about this, he definitely gets the least credit, or at least, chance to show it off, and he’s stuck with us even though we consciously put ourselves in a position where we wouldn’t have the chucks of (other peoples) money to give him like he deserves. Making the book for the record was an epic time consuming process, as big a project as the record itself, and Lewes had an innate understanding of the gravity. Pretty fucking proud of it. You should also check out thedarkinventory.blogspot.com too.
Jon: What are your feelings to piracy and albums leaking early? With this release especially you’ve tried as hard as possible to make sure the album doesn’t leak before release day, how important was it for you to make sure it’s heard for the first time on release day?
Lex: Super important, but, “heard” is literally all. I’ve probably gone on enough about how this album and campaign is the our cumulative best shot at proving we can both have and eat cakes. Release week is when the wider world will cast its casual eye over us and decide what sort of ride we get this time; be that promoters deciding fees, agents with crazy overseas tour plans, mysterious TV people giving us syncs. We basically have to make the biggest splash we can ’cause that wave and the ripples it causes over the next few months will decide if we have an amazing jetsetting year of fun or abject misery and a bankrupt record label. So, whilst we’ve done our best by creating our greatest album ever, the Plan For More Gin On The Rider + also, court cases, could all come undone if the record leaks and is reacted to in dark shady corners of the internet instead of our social tubes where The Man is going to be casting his bitchy eyes. And it’s those fans, those amazing beautiful people who care enough to post flattering stuff on Facebook, that are the ones most susceptible to downloading a leak.
So, thankfully, we came up with a longwinded plan that explained our dilemma to these people and gave them actual practical tools to help us, instead of begging them to abstain. But our feelings to piracy are the same as anything on the internet: it’s neither good or bad and it’s way too late in the game to be arguing morals, it just is. A lot of bands couldn’t use our plan because it involved fucking up search engines and the like, and they’d benefit from the casual intake of people who downloaded the record and started supporting them. But, at this particular point in our career, it’s more important we try and raise enough money to fix our stuff and go tour. As soon as the record’s actually in public domain, it’ll spread and there’s nothing anyone will ever be able to do about that. which is fine by us ’cause it gives us an excuse to put more effort into artwork and designs and physical product, and fine for the majors ’cause it lets them get away with shady things like 360 deals and shitty anti-piracy campaigns. FUNDS TERRORISM for fucks sake.
This is a truly awesome time to be into music. We’re well aware that were we to exist in the previous generation, we’d have houses and cars and things by now, but complaining in the face of such amazing world-changing progress is a luddite dick move.
Jon: The song ‘Henning’s Favourite’ was quite critical of the indie scene, especially of the styles of the music and clothing back in 2007/2008. Do you feel the issues you had then are still apparent in the scene now?
Lex: Heh. To be honest, that song felt dated when we recorded it. Now we’re bitter enough to see that whatever the fashion, there’ll always be idiots. I mean, it was more about reasoning; we wanted our band to be big so we could get out of Birmingham, these guys would want their band to be big so they could brag about it in Birmingham. I can see the same clones now when I DJ that I did when I went to such interchangable midweek indie clubs, they have different hair and ask for a different shit band but they still have that German word that translates as “a face that you want to punch” that I can never remember. But, aside from killing the Trinity dancefloor with Cursive when my girlfriend leaves me on my own, I don’t really know what constitutes the “indie scene” anymore; those guys are into chart stuff with way less self-concious irony than when we went out regularly. If I had to guess, I’d say that the sheer amount of different cliques and styles has fragmented so much that indie kids, whatever they are, put a lot less stock in how people dress. We had a sole metal nightclub four blocks away from all the mainstream clubs, and each weekend there’d be fights and scuffles between our idiots and their idiots, and now, five years later and I DJ to both crowds in the same room and there’s nothing really worn for shock value or to stand yourself out; tattooes, piercings, hair dye, it’s all become part of the same scene that brings rock to X-Factor and the police to our club every night. I guess the only good thing about it is at 1:30 in the morning with some chart shit that everyone knows the moves to, and neither of our “sides” have to be secret about wanting to fuck the others.
Jon: The new album pushes a lot of the styles you’ve incorporated in previous releases a lot further than before, the whole album seems to give the impression you’ve grown a lot between ‘Grace And The Bigger Picture’ and this, what was the writing period during this album like?
Lex: Easy! Writing is always the easiest part of this band, I can just relax and get high and pluck things out of my head. We had hectic tours at the start and end of 2010 but pretty much nothing inbetween, so I built up a massive backlog in head, and up until the end of the year we didn’t really have spirit to learn them ’cause we had no money to record or release properly. Jun brought a tiny 8-track in Japan so we used that for loads of little projects, but all the big songs I hoarded. I tried to write us out of the plot a bit more, but the record starts with melodrama on a beach in spring 2009 and ends in a messy houseparty late 2010. It’s as obliquely personal as I’m ever going to get, but, stylistically, I think that’s the point of being (or trying to be) a professional musician; learning how to use all sorts of techniques and sounds and bending them into your own creations. I hate the idea of bands who get three albums in and break out the acoustic guitar direction. It feels like giving up. I hate the idea of us turning into one of them. There’s no acoustic guitar anywhere on this record (well, there is but it’s sampled and sped up so nyerrr) but the range of styles is no more than what we listen to, and us pillaging as many little moments and tricks as we can remember.
Jon: Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?
Lex: No man, I have so rambled on enough. Be excellent to each other.
Johnny Foreigner will release their new album ‘Johnny Foreigner Vs. Everything’ on November 7th 2011 through Alcopop! Records, which can be pre-ordered from here.