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JONNY COLA AND THE A-GRADES: LOVING THE ALIEN, MUSIC WITH ROCKS IN INTERVIEW BY CHUMKI BANERJEE

 
One of my great regrets is arriving to popular music in an era of relative homogeneity, big labels courting conformity and a certain bland consistency, I only experienced some of the most exciting, stimulating musical movements, second hand.  Having grown up with classical music perhaps my expectations and emotions were inflated, extracurricular explorations of supposedly subversive, perniciously perverted ‘rock and roll’, under cover of piano practice, doomed to disappointment. So, I took matters into my own hands, obsessively twiddling oscillator knobs, recklessly, ruthlessly cutting up and re-stitching my father’s blank tapes (destined for his annual, Eurovision ritualistic adoration), in an attempt to create more stimulating aural landscapes,  electronica engendering, encouraging enduring love of strange mutations which, in my rather backwards way, led to music which really fed my imagination, for example, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Joy Division, The Doors, Bolan, Blondie, Banshees and of course Bowie.

 

I have been praying all my life for music, once again, to break scandalously free, in all consuming, abandoned intensity; dance music, flicked finger in convention's eye, fired a flame, but ultimately turned out to be fling, fizzle rather than futuristic, fantastical furore it could have been. And though often experiencing utter elation, as I continue to prod and probe, music of the future and music of the past; in my time there has been no throat tearing, heart rending, passionately persuasive, musical rebellion; marauders taking this nation forcibly by storm, irrepressibly riding rocket to core of our souls. So, I am always overjoyed to hear something new, insurgent, inflammatory, threatening insurrection, which twists Bowie knife, daring to deface stereotypes, carves its name on my heart, such as Jonny Cola & The A-Grades, who afforded me pleasure of this interview after I was unexpectedly overcome by their music. As biography, eloquently whimsical 'about' section of Jonny Cola & The A-Grades Facebook entry, reads beguilingly like cross between 'Man Who Fell To Earth' and Terry Pratchett's 'Soul Music'.

Picture tarnished, etiolated to tawdry, demoralised, descended to despondent South London Square, cut price electricity, faded lamplight illuminating streets of despair, barely halo glow in darkly glowering night of neglect , damp tears staining its downcast face; Raised in wonderment to random rain of gentle glitter, scattered sequins premonitory precipitation heralding thin white duke, luminescent  skin stretched translucent  and tight, swirled from smoke into our space and time, to ride awhile on  this mortal coil, 'Jonny Cola' incarnated in humanoid guise. Stroking strings of his otherworldly guitar, sound waves of present and past, vibrate, unite, dull blue glint , amplified to incandescent white, breaks hour glass of time, flowing out in clear eternal, timeless note "... sounds a pure E, and all the pigeons in London rise in a vast cloud, blocking out the setting sun and fanning out to the suburbs. With a wail of feedback, Jez seizes up his guitar. Marco slams the kick and Simon spits out a growling, rumbling bass riff ".

Thus are Jonny's A-Graders summoned, called into being  and as they make their own highly addictive "Music With Rocks In", as predicated by Pratchett, but in their own words, "... it all just melts away - the wasted years, the disappointment, the overpriced and substandard food and booze and trains and clubs and drugs and the rest of it, the fear of getting stabbed or shot or simply ignored, the terrible over-privileged sons of sons of sons running the whole shoddy debacle from a high-security bunker in Belgravia or Mayfair or Hampstead Garden Suburb... For a moment, for just one tiny little fraction of an instant, it all just disappears..." . Given that music strikes me in exactly the same way, Jonny Cola & The A-Grades sensibilities and influences igniting my passions, I am mortified that it has taken four years and two earlier recordings, trapping their talents for posterity; debut album 'In Debt' and 'Postcode Wars' EP, plus various singles, for echoes of this momentous inception to reach me in form of their EP, 'Halo', which I reviewed for Mudkiss in March: "...drowned in sound of enigmatic era when Ziggy ruled the world, uncanny Stardust sprinkled vocal emerges, spine tingling spectre, echo from ashes of the past. Jonny's voice bears more than passing resemblance to a first musical love, Bowie, spookily evocative, this band tugs the knot his voice forever tied in my heart.... The A Grades are touched by ripples which still permeate from streams of change that Bowie and Bolan set in motion, riding its waves, plunged in plundered melodic structures, expressively invoking its distinctive accent...." (www.mudkiss.com/chumkimarch12.htm)

Having fallen to earth, crash landed on this planet, Jonny Cola & The A-Grades brought welcome water to my musical drought. Unlike Mary-Lou, I am already loving this particular alien and though I can't promise not to scream, would love to see behind the mask, if you would proffer me privilege of peeling it back for a moment to probe at your privacy. Please forgive and indulge my curiosity in asking questions which I am sure you have faced on many an occasion but which I, in my ignorance, am not blissful:

CHUMKI: Though you describe yourselves as having a psychic link and indeed, you sound as if joined by invisible umbilical, I am sure it is more than fate and blind faith which has brought you to where you are now, both as individual musicians and as a band. Who are the current band members and what do you each play? How did you meet and come together as a band?

MAURO: Hi, I play a Les Paul Gold top.                                                 

SIMON: Hi, I play bass.

MAURO: The others are Jez who plays guitar (and shares live keyboard duties with Cola) and Marco on drums.

JONNY: Marco tells me he plays a Tama Swing Star, and wouldn't mind a vintage Ludwig. I assume these are drums.  Mauro and I have been friends for over a decade. We met the others over the last few years in various other bands.

CHUMKI: Do you have 'day jobs' or is the band and music your full time pursuit? How does that work out in terms of having the ability to achieve musical ambitions whilst staying monetarily afloat?

MAURO: Most of us do.  It doesn’t’t make it any easier, put it that way – definitely a hard balance to strike at times, especially as trying to get a band off the ground and release your own output on physical formats is quite costly!

SIMON: Unless you’re well off, choosing to do the band full time is just gonna mean signing on and eating beans on toast every night! We have to pay for rehearsals somehow I’m afraid, but of course we’d love to do this full time one day.

MAURO: Further to Simon, an ever-increasing amount of bands coming through seem to be from well-off backgrounds, mysteriously...! (No, I don’t think this is a positive development)

CHUMKI: What are each of your individual musical backgrounds, loves, inspirations and influences? Did any of you train formally as musicians? If self taught, how did you teach yourself? Do you read and write music or play by ear?

JONNY: I was taught to play keyboards by my stepdad's mother's lodger, had four or five church organ lessons and did a music GCSE. That's the extent of my formal training. I can read music, just about, but frankly life's too short.

SIMON: I started fiddling about on guitar when I was 13. I had a few lessons, but mainly self taught from chord books. As for inspiration, it was definitely Britpop for me.

CHUMKI: Describe the instruments you currently play, why you chose those particular ones and what your dream instrument would be.

MAURO:  Oh hello again, yes Les Paul Gold Top, but I’d play any Les Paul, except a Custom probably ‘cause they’re so sodding heavy.  Mine’s heavy enough!  I like those ‘50s style guitars like Gretsch White Falcons (to look at, I’ve never played one) but I gather they go out of tune all the time and are massively high-maintenance, so what I play is good for the wear and tear I put it through.  But mainly I like guitars on an aesthetic basis.  It’d be good to have less expensive tastes.  (Jez plays a Fender Tele to combine with my Les Paul, otherwise he’d play one too!)

SIMON: My bass used to be a Fender Squier Jazz, but now it has a better (unbranded) neck and better pickups. Most importantly it is a nice shape and colour - turquoise.  The massive chip on the bottom also gives it character.

CHUMKI: As a band, your music has been variously described as Indie, classic pop, alternative rock, as strongly influenced by that peculiarly, inspirational British phenomena, 1970's glam. For myself, I struggle with identifying influences because though music that surrounds us is bound to inform musical taste and styles, each musician is unique in interpretation, extrapolation and expression. So, in yours, probably erroneously identified by me, I hear whispers gathered from a wide and colourful palette, spanning time and tastes. However, Bowie's influence appears to stand out immediately, from vocal timbre, melodic construction and instrumentation to sartorial styling. Has he been an influence and if so, how conscious and deep? What other artistes have consciously or subconsciously (to the extent you are aware), informed elements of your compositions, your musical style?

MAURO: I think we all agree on Bowie, he’s one of the acts we all have in common.  We all have preferences for different eras, my favourite is possibly “Station To Station” actually.  Ooh other influences… I guess I’ve been coaxing the band into rougher rock’n’roll territory over the last year or so, and no one has protested too much so far!  (Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, Cheap Trick, Ramones, Mott the Hoople etc) Sometimes it’s in terms of what you WON’T be up for musically, which is equally important.  That’s probably what I bring to the table.

JONNY: Bowie-wise, my favourite album is probably Lodger, for its playfulness. I've always loved pop music and it's a source of great amusement to me that I've ended up essentially fronting a rock band.

SIMON: I love the classic ‘72 era Bowie, and things like ‘Can’t Help Thinking About Me’ which he did with The Lower Third in the 60’s.  So many other influences, but I think it’s fair to say mine are largely British.

CHUMKI: You have a very particular sound as a band, is that something you have worked at or did it evolve naturally? Did you all have a similar idea of how you wanted to sound?

MAURO: We worked at it so it would evolve naturally!  We generally take things on a song-by-song basis.  I think we all pull in slightly different directions, but that’s what you want, really.

SIMON: I’m never quite sure if we all have the same sounds going on in our heads, but it doesn’t’t really matter anyway, as long as it all fits together! We definitely don’t try to sound like anyone in particular.

CHUMKI: Your lyrics are descriptively quirky, particularly ear catching, 'Halo' irrevocably captured my heart with lines like: "....something is growing on the top of your head... is it a halo....", "... light from my eyes ...scorching pinholes in the pavements..." delivered in vocal spookily reminiscent of Bowie. How do you arrive at song lyrics, the story of each song? Do you all get involved in developing lyrics and themes or is there someone who leads the process? Is that voice naturally so invocatory or have you, like Bowie, developed it specifically? Who wrote your delectably imaginative biography, the start of an alter ego filmic fantasy?

 

 

JONNY: That'd be me. The lyrics tend to come in fragments, building up from a feeling rather than a specific narrative idea. Although they're autobiographical, there's a degree of fictionalisation that goes on, and I deliberately mix up people, places and events. Partly that's ‘cause real life rarely sets things up in the right order, but it's also so people don't know that I'm writing about them! I've been accused of impersonating Bowie before, but it's certainly not something I set out to do. What would be the point? At least some of the similarity is down to geography anyway - that suburban accent, in tension between South London and the Home Counties. 

CHUMKI: How do you go about composing your songs, what are your inspirations, how do you arrive at and keep track of melodic and lyrical ideas; the age old question, melody or lyrics first?  Is each song a standalone creation or, for example, when planning a suite of songs for an album or EP, is there an unifying theme, such as on 'Postcode Wars', which you decide in advance, or do things develop organically? I know most bands say equal song writing credits apply but do you all have equal input at all stages, from bare bones of a song, development and instrumentation or is there one, or a few, who mostly instigate new songs and the song writing process?

JONNY: I guess the usual pattern of songwriting for us would be that I send the boys a rough demo - either on keyboard, in which case it's usually quite pretty, or on guitar, in which case it's confusing and unlistenable. Either way, I keep it simple ‘cause I don't want to influence what the band do on it. We then bash it around from the basic chords in the rehearsal room, record that on a little digital recorder, and then develop it further. There are sometimes unifying themes, yes - and occasionally I'll write to fit a theme. Postcode Wars was at one point going to be considerably more thematic - indeed, I came up with the original idea for Ripples with that release in mind - but we didn't go that way in the end. 

CHUMKI: Your instrumentation is remarkably assured, inventive, integrated and evocative, each song vibrant with its own clear character, effects and changes in tonality sprinkled sparkling and apposite. How do you develop instrumentation, decide what is needed to best express each song? How long does it take to get a song to the stage you are happy with and, how fixed is your interpretation from that point on?

MAURO: Sometimes it involves a lot of passionate debate in the rehearsal room.  Sometimes it comes pretty easily.  If you were to ask about any particular song, I could tell you – they all have their own story!  I do occasionally make alterations to what I play live after we’ve recorded it, to varying degrees of success.

SIMON: We take our time on it. Eventually the right parts appear but there are definitely a lot of times where we’ll have a debate about a hi-hat or a floor tom. That’s what it’s all about!

CHUMKI: How do you record your songs? For example; what sort of recording equipment?; Have you a favourite studio?; Do you use an independent producer , engineer or both?; Do you like your recorded music to be a faithful reproduction of live performances? ; If so, how do you ensure that it is and if not, what informs the recorded version?

JONNY: I think what we aim for on record is the energy of the live shows. The most successful results of that so far, to my mind, would be the Halo EP - but that stands to reason, ‘cause it's the first release entirely performed by the current line-up. Jez produced it all too, so it sounds quite unified, compared to the earlier stuff. We're currently recording with producer David Ryder Prangley at a studio in Bounds Green, North London, and I'm excited with how things are sounding. I think David has pushed us in a really positive way.  

CHUMKI: Though I now live in Liverpool, I am London born and bred. My childhood to adult curiosity ride, London has always held fascination for me in all is guises,  glitter to gutter, gorgeously gaudy to dolefully desolate, perniciously disaffected to pecuniously affected, linked by egalitarian artery of the tube, pumping purposely purblind people in endless circles, suburbia to city , round and round. A vivid, vibrant entanglement of lives, histories and cultures, London continues to captivate. How does being based in London effect and influence your music, inspirationally and in terms of standing out from competition, getting heard?

SIMON: Being in a band in London is interesting because the sheer amount of us doing it! The competitive element is that everyone is so busy doing their own thing, so you have to fight for attention. But I don’t know of many bands doing what we do here, we have our own following now.  I’d say it is definitely an inspiring city.

JONNY: I'd say London is equal parts inspiration and disappointment.

CHUMKI: What do you think is the best way for musicians to get their music heard by as many people as possible and develop a following, given they have talent and are determined and dedicated?

MAURO: Yikes, I wish I knew!                                                                                     

SIMON: The cynical answer is to throw money at something that is just about to become fashionable, but we’re not going down that route so I’m not sure!

CHUMKI: Usually I am not that enamoured of cover versions, especially of songs I revere, even when approached with utmost admiration. So, when I saw 'Ship Of Fools' on 'Halo', I balked and blanched , because the Doors song immediately sprang to mind and, for me, they are sacred ground, defiled by any who dare to tread their steps. However, sacrilege was averted in the form of Erasure. Though loving Erasure's 'Ship Of Fools', that allegiance is not as uncompromising, so I plucked courage up , took a listen and actually really liked what I heard, electro pop taken on laconic, laid back, psychedelic ride, a revealing reinterpretation which rediscovered beautiful melodies underpinning the song. Why a cover, why that song, why that interpretation?

MAURO: Ha-ha, balked and blanched!  Wish I could’ve seen that.  I’m always up for provoking that reaction.  Anyway, that song, we were having a YouTube session round at Jez’s one night, and I stuck that one on and remembered how much I used to love it, remembered how much of an Erasure fan Cola is, and thought “We could have a go at this, it might suit our style”.  More so than their more upbeat material, anyway!  We’ve never played it live and probably never will, it was more of an experiment in constructing a recording from scratch without doing it the usual way.  Originally me and Jez wanted Prince-style drums on it, and there was a whole drum machine part programmed, but we came to the conclusion it was ruining it, so it went.  Made it sound more “floaty” and “watery” I guess, ha-ha!

CHUMKI: What current musicians and bands do you enjoy listening to and why?

MAURO: Girls.  And I can’t wait for the next MGMT album, if the last one is anything to go by.

JONNY: I like a bit of Hunx & His Punx and am very excited about the new Saint Etienne album.

SIMON: I went to see The Cribs this week. It was raw, loud and to the point. Also, I find Kunt & The Gang so wrong it’s right.

CHUMKI: What would be your desert island discs, those you could not live without?

SIMON: Something by The Clash. I think you can buy the debut and London Calling together as one. And National Treasures by The Manics.

JONNY: Brian Eno - Here Come The Warm Jets, Black Box Recorder - Passionoia, the Pet Shop Boys' version of Always On My Mind and Silly Games by Janet Kay.

MAURO: Whoa, THAT question.  That question usually makes me run for cover, there are far too many to choose from, and I’m much too indecisive!!  I can’t even choose my favourite Prince album, so me trying to answer this is probably doomed.  All I can say though is that I’ve just realised I can’t find my copy of the Ramones’ Rocket To Russia, and that’s causing me mild panic.  (Maybe one of my band mates has it…?)

CHUMKI: What have you got planned gig wise and new releases? Do you have a favourite song which you feel epitomises, most clearly articulates your musical style?

MAURO: Well, whenever we’ve left “Marlborough Rd” out of the set, I’ve gone a bit funny, so it’s not advisable.  Actually the one I enjoy playing most at the moment is “Straight To Video”.  That’s convenient, isn’t it?

JONNY: Things are slightly in flux just now, as I'm waiting for a kidney transplant, so we've pared back our gig schedule and won't be able to tour for a few months. Release-wise, it'll most likely be another EP, including Straight To Video, as Mauro hints! That's probably my current favourite too.

CHUMKI: Finally, talking of style, I love your casual glam/Goth look (sorry, couldn't find the right words). As hard core , long term, eyeliner, leather with touch of glitz, addict , never leave the house without, my mother resignedly telling friends and relatives, I was on the way to some permanent fancy dress party, I recognise symptoms of hardened users. Is your mode of attire and decoration your 'day to day' or something you don for performance, an adopted persona? Have you ever made your mothers blush because of the way you look?

MAURO:  ha-ha hardened users!  Love it.  No I don’t think my mother is capable of blushing.  It’s more a war paint-type thing for me, if I’m honest.  Gets me in the mood.  I have lots of different moods!  And they’re not always eyeliner moods.

JONNY: It's always good to dress up for a performance, but the lines between stage persona and everyday life are increasingly blurry for me. I think my day job colleagues are disappointed if I turn up to work without the remains of the previous night's slap smeared across my face.

SIMON: Definitely a ‘hardened user’, it stays on all weekend. When I don’t wear it, I get funny comments!

Thank you Jonny Cola & The A-Grades for your patience and persistence in ploughing through my interminable interrogation, believe me, there were many more questions I longed to ask but feared fatiguing you, so hope you are not by now comatose with boredom. I apologise for my tardiness in delivering this article, and for any mishearing, misunderstandings or mistakes in the above, feel free to roundly scold me.

And as you now hold responsibility for rousing musical rebellion, I expect you (Jonny) not to linger long in your hospital bed but to rise, stand and deliver. From all of us at Mudkiss, our thoughts go with you, wishing you courage and swift recovery, as you face another of life’s challenges, head on, to emerge newly reconstructed.

www.jonnycolaandtheagrades.net
www.facebook.com/pages/Jonny-Cola-The-A-Grades/294514278902

Interview by: Chumki Banerjee
Photos courtesy of: www.nikkiq.com / www.unit2london.co.uk