“This is our strongest album ever – it’s definitive Gallon Drunk.”
Swamp rockers Gallon Drunk are back with their first album in five years – the loud, intense and downright brilliant The Road Gets Darker From Here. As frontman James Johnston sings on new song Killing Time, “We’re still here and we’re fine.” I spoke to him to find out more….
Sean: Congratulations on a great new album. I can’t stop listening to it. This is your first album for five years. How does it feel to be back?
James: Frankly, it feels great to have the new album out. We’re all very pleased with the record. I think it’s the strongest album we’ve done in a very long time – possibly ever. It’s also very rewarding that more people seem to be picking up on the record, particularly as it’s such a personal one, for all of us. It represents a lot of what’s happened to the band as a whole, and I think that’s definitely one of its strengths, too. The whole way it’s been approached, and subsequently presented, has been from a very internal perspective, down to the artwork, the cover photo and the videos. This record really represents us as we are.
Sean: The new album is dedicated to your friend, Simon Wring, who died last year. Simon played bass in Gallon Drunk. What impact did his death have on the band? Did you ever consider calling it a day?
James: We never considered stopping – no. Simon had been unwell and unable to play for quite a while. We’d continued to play as a three piece, basically waiting, and hoping, that he’d be back with us when he was ready. But, sadly, that didn’t happen. We’d already begun recording when Simon died, and a lot of the record reflects a response to that. The album is dedicated to him. None of us will ever get over losing our friend.
Sean: So, what have you been up to during the last five years?
James: We all do other things outside of Gallon Drunk. Terry (Terry Edwards – sax, bass and maracas) has been playing with various bands, such as the Tindersticks, and I’ve been playing with Faust. We’ve all also been recording and playing with Lydia Lunch as Big Sexy Noise. We recorded two Big Sexy Noise albums, but, sadly, the label went under after the second one, which did well in France, but was never really released in the UK. It’s a real shame, as it’s an excellent record. Plus money went missing, as usual. It’s a fucking crooked old business. It always has been, and, seemingly, always will be. We have, however, still been performing live as Gallon Drunk over the last five years, but outside of the UK, so it doesn’t feel like such a huge gap to us. Nonetheless, it’s a joy to get back to it properly and especially with such a strong record that means so much to us. It’s our music – it’s us, basically.
Sean: You Made Me is quite possibly the best opening track I’ve heard on an album this year. Can you tell me a bit about the song?
James: That was one of the last songs we recorded. The approach we took this time was a bit like From The Heart Of Town (1993 album). We went in with the roughest sketches of ideas, mostly on a dictaphone. A couple of the songs, Hanging On and Stuck In My Head, were finished musically, but a lot of the others were rough ideas that exploded into life once Ian (Ian White – drums, maracas, tambourine) had put a drum pattern to them. You Made Me was definitely one of those. I had the riff, the breaks and the chorus parts, but once Terry and Ian were playing it the whole thing took off, and it was recorded in a couple of takes.
Sean: What were your main influences when you were writing and recording the new album – musically and lyrically?
James: Musically, I can’t really remember. A lot of what I listen to now has gone back to what I used to love years ago – records like Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones, Funhouse by The Stooges, Howlin’ Wolf, Link Wray, James Brown. On tour I tend to listen to Gil Evans a lot. Out Of The Cool and The Individualism Of… are amazing records. I still listen to the Velvets when I’m away too and things like Furry Lewis’ beautiful ‘60s blues slide guitar albums. When we’re on tour you’re guaranteed to hear Janis Joplin coming from Ian’s room, whereas Terry usually seems to be enjoying something deafening on headphones, judging by the vigorous nodding and smiling.
Sean: You recorded the album directly to two-inch tape at the analogue studio Cloud Hills in Hamburg, Germany. Why did you take that approach?
James: We had the opportunity to record in a wonderful analogue studio, so we took it. I like the way it makes you approach a take, too: “Tape Rolling!” – it feels precious. You know, you get a voice through the headphones or a shout through the door telling you there’s room on the reel for one more, or else you have to wait while the tape’s changed. It really feels like you’re trying to catch something before it escapes. It’s beautiful.
Sean: This was the first time that you’d worked with a producer (Johann Scheerer). Why did you decide to do that and what effect did it have on the record?
James: I’d worked with Johann on the Faust album, Something Dirty, which was done in the same studio, so I already knew him personally. I totally trusted his opinion musically and I liked his approach and attitude to recording. I knew it would work with us. We all felt very comfortable – at least we did once I’d stopped freaking out and getting totally panicked about whether I had any good ideas in among the countless snippets I had on my dictaphone and on my mobile. I did later drop my phone in the bath, but, luckily, it was after the music had been recorded. Sonically, Johann was able to capture the sound of the band in the room – the full life and the full colour of it. The drum sound is great on the record, and that’s the driving force of the album – and of the band.Ian’s featured on the front cover of the record – not only because it’s such a great and informal photo that somehow captures the essence of the record, but because he’s been through a lot. We’ve all been through a lot, but look at him on the cover – he’s a bloody hero.Given the sound of the record, and the nature of its subject matter, it’s surprising how much fun a lot of the recording was. It’s often the case that the more intense a piece is, the more release and sort of heady madness you feel once it’s out and down on tape. So, there was a lot of laughter involved in the sessions.
Sean: It’s fair to say that there’s some typical Gallon Drunk voodoo-swamp-garage-rock on this album, but it also takes your sound into some new areas, too, doesn’t it? How would you describe the record?
James: Christ, that’s a difficult one. That’s more your department isn’t it? I can’t help but think of it more in terms of the people involved. It certainly has a unifying feel, which is due in part to the sound of the record that Johann got and the intensity. Anything that didn’t have that level of intensity got quickly dropped. We recorded about 14 songs in total. There are some great ones that didn’t really fit, so we left them off in order to have a really succinct and immediate album. There’s so many things reflected in an album of music that’s played by a group of people, that unless it’s a complete genre record it’s quite hard to describe. It’s more like trying to describe the feel of a party. The occasional punch up, laughter, tears before bedtime, spilt drinks and people disappearing off… Everyone would have a different opinion on what went on. I’d just say it was a definitive Gallon Drunk record and leave it at that.
Sean: Back in the early ’90s, you supported Morrissey on tour. What are your memories of that time?
James: That was a pretty odd experience. Morrissey’s guitarist Boz Boorer knew us and he took Morrissey along to see us play at the Scala in King’s Cross, London. It was still a cinema at that point – there was no real stage as such. We screened Get Carter, then played with the Vincent Price film Witchfinder General on the screen behind us. Nick Cave was at one of those gigs, too – we played there twice. Morrissey asked us to tour as a result of that and he got us on the bill at Madstock in Finsbury Park. (Infamous ’92 gig with Madness and Morrissey). We went down hilariously badly, as you’d expect. We got loads of coins and a few rocks hurled at us. I can remember Joe Byfield, our maracas player, picking up all the loose change as we left! For the US tour with Morrissey, we were on a budget of about five pence, driving all over the States in a tiny van. They were amazing drives – through the desert, mountains and Tornado Alley. It was pretty incredible. The venues were beautiful theatres. We played the Hollywood Bowl, but some poor, young guy in the audience received a terrible back injury from security, when he got on stage during Morrissey’s set. I remember us all standing round him backstage, helplessly looking on, waiting for a helicopter to get him out. We were playing a 15-minute set every night – that’s all we were allocated. Then it was back in the van for another 500-mile drive. Morrissey came to our backstage room a couple of times, coaxed in by his band. It was quite fun, all in all, but it certainly wasn’t a rock Bacchanal for us, unfortunately.
Sean: So, what does the rest of 2012 hold for Gallon Drunk?
James: We’ve got a lot of European shows lined up, mostly for the autumn. We’re also trying to get some shows together in the U.S, which would be great. We’re looking forward to playing the new stuff live. I’m starting to get a few new ideas down for the next album, too. There will be a couple more singles coming out, as well, plus a live 10″ vinyl release – such a nice format.
Sean: So, the road doesn’t really get darker from here?
James: I fucking hope it doesn’t. Not for a while, at least…