Former Two Wounded Birds frontman and songwriter Johnny Aries is now based in New York and playing guitar for The Drums, but he’s also found the time to make his debut solo album Unbloomed – a wonderful collection of jangly, melancholy indie pop that harks back to the sound of The Smiths. I talked to him about ’80s gloom, disco and hanging out with Andy Rourke…
UK indie-surf-rockers Two Wounded Birds were one of my favourite new bands of the last few years, combining the thrill of early Jesus and Mary Chain with the sounds of Phil Spector, Link Wray and Dick Dale.
However, things went wrong for them shortly after they released their self-titled debut album and they sank beneath the waves without a trace. But now frontman and singer-songwriter Johnny Aries has resurfaced as a guitarist in The Drums and also written and recorded his debut solo album Unbloomed in Brooklyn, New York.
What happened to Two Wounded Birds? Where did it all go wrong? You split up just as you were on the verge of big things…
Johnny Aries: Ah, well. The wounds were fatal. The band was built out of a relationship and once that was destroyed, it kind of destroyed everyone else, too. It’s still a sore point for me, but, ah, I don’t know… There were so many songs I had planned for the second album – which I still have – and I just don’t know what to do with them all. Who knows? Maybe one day… I’ll never say it’s completely done in my heart, but for now I think I’m going to make records on my own – and with other people.
Which leads us nicely to your debut solo album, Unbloomed….
JA: It came about pretty recently. When I moved to New York, I had an idea in my head that I wanted to make another record after the Two Wounded Birds one, but I kinda felt displaced and out of a creative loop with myself. So, I thought I’d live there for a while and absorb my surroundings. The bulk of it was written and recorded earlier this year. I recorded it in several spots in Brooklyn.
Why did you relocate to New York?
JA: I was flying all over the world, touring with The Drums, and it just made sense to move to NYC, so we could all be in the same area. Plus I was going through some personal turmoil and I thought it’d be better to have a fresh start…
Some of the tracks on Unbloomed remind me of The Smiths – particularly This Grave Is My Bed Tonight and Bodybag…. Morrissey would kill to have written a song called This Grave Is My Bed Tonight, wouldn’t he?
JA: Ha! That’s probably the best song title I’ve ever had. I was feeling a little sorry for myself that day. The song is really about feeling the world’s on top of you and about to swallow you whole. Which it is most days… I’m a fan of interesting, melodic music so I’m naturally a big fan of everything associated with The Smiths. The appeal is the lyrical content and those silky guitar lines. I don’t think anyone else has summed up human emotions as accurately…
You recently recorded a cover version of The Smiths’ Back To The Old House. Why that song? Did it inspire the sound of your debut album?
JA: I chose that song because it was apt at the time I recorded it. It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever conceived…
Is it true that you’ve been hanging out with Andy Rourke – the former bassist in The Smiths?
JA: Yes. Me and Andy are working on some interesting plans together. He has a great musical brain.
What was your intention when you set out to make Unbloomed? What did you want it to sound like and what mood were you in? It’s quite a melancholy record in places…
JA: I just wanted to make an album that didn’t operate in such a narrow corridor as my last one. I love that record, but it’s so particular with its sound and palette. I didn’t want to do something like that again. Unbloomed is a bit more expansive – I’ve allowed myself to just go with certain things. I didn’t want it to sound like Phil Spector this time, even though I love that and I’m definitely going to make another record that is indebted to that era, eventually – but not yet. It’s a sad record, I suppose. It deals with all the changes in my life ever since the band broke up and I moved.
The song Human Nature reminds me of The Cure and Joy Division, or early New Order. There’s quite an ’80s gloom-pop feel to the whole album….
JA: Human Nature is my favourite song on the record. I’ve really been enjoying synth bass sounds and minimal arrangements. It’s something which I feel fits my style of songwriting and vocal. I’ll take ’80s gloom-pop, ha!
The track We’re Just Girls and Boys has a slight funk feel…
JA: Yes – it does. I’m getting into disco and I just like the sound of the LinnDrum, so I made something a little different. It’s probably the most different track on the record, but I had fun moving in a different direction with that one.
You Belong To Me is one of my favourite songs on the album. Musically, I think it’s the closest track on the record to Two Wounded Birds. Do you agree? With the haunting organ and the twangy guitar, it has a kind of ’50s ballad feel…
JA: That song has had at least three lives. There are a few different versions of it, but I thought this one [on the album] was the one that sounded the prettiest. I agree, it’s the closest thing to Two Wounded Birds. I love that organ – it has a David Lynch quality to it, which is something which has been a fixture on this record.
What music are you into at the moment?
JA: I currently like Sunflower Bean, The Garden, Elvis Depressedly, Madonna, Rick James and Part Time.
So, what’s next for Johnny Aries? How’s the rest of the year shaping up?
JA: I’m going to play some shows for the release of the album here in NYC, then I head out on the road with The Drums for the new album tour. I’ll be doing a few one offs here and there and hopefully coming to Europe early next year to promote my record.
You’ve joined The Drums as a guitarist. How’s that going? Isn’t there a new album – Encyclopedia – out later this year?
JA: It’s going great. The new record is out in September and I have some contributions on it, so I’m pleased. I think it’s a complete, great sounding record. It’s like Disney!
Unbloomed – the debut solo album by Johnny Aries – is released on August 26 via French Kiss.