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'WE GOT THE JOY' - INTERVIEW WITH BAND OF HOLY JOY BY DEN BROWNE

Photo: "Troubled Sleep" cast at Shunt, incl. Inga Tillere (3rd left), Chris Brierley (4th L), Andy Astle (3rd right), Johny Brown (1st right) by Karen Robinson.
 
Den Browne celebrates the release of Band of Holy Joy's new album "Paramour" with Johny Brown, Inga Tillere (soundscape & visuals) & Andy Astle (guitar) from the group. Most groups with their kind of history & track record are content now to do greatest hits sets or settle for "Heritage Artist" status, confirming that their best years are behind them. Not so the Band of Holy Joy. The introduction of sonic & visual elements to the  group's palette has opened up whole new areas to explore & refine their vision. As always Johny Brown's got an endless whirl of stories, rants, theories & ideas, so let's get going...

DEN: How did you get involved with Band of Holy Joy? How long is that? And where's the name from?

JOHNY: I was knocking about with an extremely eccentric neuro-chemist called George and the film maker Brett Turnbull in the New X Gate area of London around 82. We were squatting in a big old house with the industrial band Test Dept and comedian Vic Reeves.  Most of the time was spent at parties and various other no-good pursuits but in-between there was a desire to make some kind of sound that matched our love of Velvets, Brecht, Brel and the Modern Dance music of the time. DAF, Cabs and all that. I was writing, bang into Burroughs and English kitchen sink and Appolinaire and all that. But just wanting to find my own way with words.  We filled a basement full of junk shop instruments and a few Roland boss drum machines. Arrived at some kind of  concrete folk sound. George fell by the wayside and other characters joined up. A genius called Big John in particular.  We started putting on gigs in the basement of churches, old wine bars, Soho transvestite bars. Filched the name from a Brendan Behan book. "The Band of Holy Joy" were a temperance society, stood on the street corners of Dublin, Belfast and Liverpool and all those places.  Preached against the evils of drink. We drank loads. And partook of all the other contemporary evils too. We re-appropriated the name. It seemed to fit well.  That’s how we started anyway. Way back… It was something like that.

DEN: What else have you been involved in musically before?

JOHNY: North Shields Punk band that lasted the duration of 1977 they were called Speed.

INGA: My interest, as well as confidence in doing music was cut short around the age of 7 when I was thrown out of music school for gloriously roaring some banal Latvian kids' song out of tune. That and the rather humiliating experience of music teaching under the soviet education system pushed me steadily towards painting and drawing. I remember winning some art competition in Riga about 20 years ago with a true Social Realism style painting of a man sweeping leaves in the park and then moving steadily towards painting landscapes with green and purple skies over the rooftops of soviet estates.

My interest in doing music was reignited with Radio Joy, our online station. We started off with a computer, broadband and destiny media player, and everything sounded as if it was coming from the pits of a well. In those days I would put together some sounds in GarageBand but it took ages and each show had to be prerecorded whereas now with Ableton (courtesy of Jonny Mugwump) everything is much easier.

ANDY: I started to play the guitar when I was 12 - I had one of those epiphanous moments - "I need to play guitar" - pestered my parents & got a Spanish guitar for Christmas. A door opened. Never stopped. Never lost the interest, the desire or the excitement of playing.

DEN: The line-up of the group & the song-structures are fairly traditional ... can you tell us more about how you adapt your soundscapes to the group's songs?

INGA: This is something we haven’t done yet apart from 'This Heart of Man' on Resonance 104.4FM and 'Shake The Dust Of Your Feet' on Radio Joy. On both occasions my soundscapes provided additional textures, which were not too overbearing and added another dimension to the songs weaving around Chris’ beautiful violin. This is very much what I try to achieve with my visuals. They are a personal, emotional and intuitive response to BOHJ lyrics and sounds blending imagination with reality and creating another world, which can be dreamlike and surreal at times but is also rooted in and stems from everyday experience.

DEN: There were some great visuals & projections at Shunt last year (culminating in great 60s style psychedelic light-show) - are these part of the live show too?

INGA: Yes, visuals are part of the live show now. It all began rather randomly from helping out with the flyer and poster design, occasionally a bit of website until sometime in 2007 when BOHJ were about to play a North inspired acoustic set at the Papageno I offered to supply some visuals, mainly my black and white photos from the Moors. Doug Rouxel helped on the night and provided some invaluable projection tips, as did Jaime Rory-Lucie later on who simply is all things video. Next I knew we were putting on a song play at the Shunt Theatre with visuals from Andrew Kotting, Danny Pockets and myself. I think you are referring to the ‘light show’ of yet another song play by Johny – 'Troubled Sleep'. It is roughly based on the story of Sid and Nancy, although it could be anyone living out that glitzy dizzying lifestyle of a moth spinning around a great big candlelight. One of my favorite writers Akutagawa has this beautiful quote: ‘The moth were born from the deep darkness in a sudden brilliant flash, but no sooner did they touch the flame than they fluttered to their death as if they had never existed’. I shot a lot of Troubled Sleep footage in New York, mainly Coney Island whose fate somehow resembles a strangely beautiful death of a moth.

DEN: Any desire to take what you do into something like film-making?

INGA: I would like to see myself more as an artist who is working with photography and video, and occasionally sound.

DEN: Other creative activities?

JOHNY: Radio Joy man…  love pushing out the sound and the noise and the word every Sunday night.

ANDY: The Ukulele Orchestra ... this takes me back to my creative roots ... 70's Art School ... Leeds Polytechnic Fine Art Dept. There I met fellow student George Hinchcliffe. We, along with many others, followed the classic English career path of fine art student to musician. Leeds was a fantastic time & place for me. Very "off the wall" students & tutors - Performance Art was a real force there at the time - & a great deal of music going on. Green Gartside of Scritti Pollitti, Marc Almond, Dave Ball & Fad Gadget all contemporaries on the fine art course, with the Gang of Four & the Mekons up the road at the University.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain came into being when George & I met up again in London in the mid-80's. George proposed, over a pint or two, the idea of a band that could do a world tour with hand-luggage, & The Ukulele Orchestra of GB took its first steps. You couldn't find a uke for love or money then. Can't move for them now! The rest is well documented history - international reputation, A-list fan club ... Sold out the Royal Albert Hall for a BBC Prom last year, although I'm no longer a regular playing member. From tiny ukuleles mighty oak-uleles grow! I'm still in contact with them & very proud of my part in their history.

Dave [Ball] was an art school mate at Leeds. After he & Marc had travelled the full arc of Soft Cell, Dave & I got back in touch, & with Ginny Ball formed 'Other People'. A short-lived but intense recording project - we released one single, "Have a Nice Day"  ('84 , I think)

DEN: You've done some solo recording & gigs, I think?

ANDY: I do write my own material & play solo gigs, & this is where the link to Johny Brown & the Band of Holy Joy forms. I had been aware of Johny for several years - we had at one time a common stamping ground in South East London. I recorded two solo albums between '97 & 2000, "How Swings the Moon for You...?" & "IODINE TIME", pretty dark personal stuff. A mutual contact suggested I send Johny copies for his "Mining for Gold" show on resonancefm. Johny invite3d me in to do a show - we stayed in contact & did some subsequent 'Mining for Gold' shows. Some time later, Johny - seemingly out of the blue - offered me a gig as 'guest' guitarist with Holy Joy. That was 2007. I stayed on board, becoming a full-time member of the band. Johny & I have been writing new Holy Joy material together since that time.

DEN: Favourite Holy Joy moments?

JOHNY: I love Band of Holy Joy as it is now. I love the guitar and the violin mixed with Inga’s visuals. We’ve quietly worked at forging a new sound and it’s just starting to happen. Some of the shows we did at Shunt really dug deep. We are working on a new recording and it has a real Northern vision about it. Far north. It’s a million miles away from the sound we started with years ago and I love it. It just means something different.

Age is a fucker isn’t it… but it’s a great thing too.

We did a gig for a mate called Connas recently, a lad I grew up with. A top DJ - he was one of the Prodigy’s tour DJ’s and was an old Rezzerection DJ. he lived life to the full. He’d died of a heart attack and the gig was a benefit come memorial for the family. The feeling that night was just immense. It’s weird when the songs become something else to what they were written about. You start out as quite reckless and carefree, young and feeling immortal, you don’t really give a fuck do you? A lot of it is about how much damage you can do to yourself and those around you without caring. Blasé. Then all of a sudden you’re finding yourself on a hospital bed and mates around you are dropping down. You can’t help but look at yourself and your words and the music you make in a different light. Aye, the gig that night meant something else.

The North man, I just love the place. Played Iceland twice, once in winter, when it was dark 24/7 and then in summer when it was light the whole time. Really beautiful audience, in every sense. Fucking intense band performance, that we put in, both times. I remember the last few hours of the trip. I was sat in this strange restaurant on the outskirts of the city with the 1234 punk rock promoter Sean McCluskey and had just swallowed a tab of acid. It was raining softly outside and the sea was brushing up against the plate glass windows. There was a covers band who started playing a version of Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces" as a couple started fighting in the doorway outside. We couldn’t hear them but the violence was apparent. It was very sad and dread and kind of magic and beautiful. All par for the course for Iceland that. But then the BBC who were there making some kind of documentary walked over and stuck all this camera and boom mike shite in our faces. Really invasive, inappropriate behaviour. I would say. Weird BBC types! You know the sort! We had nothing to say and McCluskey and me, we just kind of stared at each other. Dumb as fuck but there, totally there with the sad violent magic beauty of it all.  And things kind of felt surreal and a bit over the edge for a moment. Quite irrelevant to anything this I know, but they’re the kind of moments I live for. Times like that with the Joy I just love.  Mcluskey had hired a jet for the whole trip and we all did six tabs each in the airport, Bill the drummer, his mate Heyward, myself… this is something like 1990 or something. It was that designer acid. Not very strong or halucino but enough in quantity to make the flight very dark and intense. There was a certain degree of paranoia in the air, mainly emanating from me. Landed at Luton, coach to Kings X, London stunk. We ended up in one of those early morning bars in Smithfield Meat Market drinking off that buzzy tangy edge. Aye, loved all those kinds of moments.

Six pints of Strongbow with Bill (Lewington - Holy Joy drummer) and all them kinds of stories come out.

DEN: Personal tastes? - tell us a few favourite albums and/or books/films

JOHNY: 'The Monocled Mutineer', Paul McGann as Percy Toplis, bought that on DVD in Spitalfields Record Collectors Market two Fridays ago: Class!

Subway Sect are just the best…That 'Blackpool' record he has just brought out. The one with the Bitter Springs on. I saw the play that the songs came from. Blackpool. I was there on the opening night with Paul Reekie who was a major Subway Sect head. This is somewhere in Edinburgh. This little theatre on Leith Walk. The director slaughtered the thing and took all Vic’s songs out. He fucking ruined the play in my book. Reekie was outraged and rightly so.  Paul is another one recently departed. (RIP) Check out Paul Reekie’s writing if you can. Underground genius in the truest sense. Used to scare the shit out of me. And buy the CD Blackpool. It’s the best.

James S Finn… A Newcastle country outfit called The Outfit, actually a family, the Rickards. Country Dirt…Inga has got me hooked on the Rolling Stones, Jacques Dutronc, and a French hip hop guy from about five years ago called MC Spleen…

I don’t like any of that neu-folk stuff that’s out, honestly, it’s just more William Morris wallpaper still. You want a bit heart, a bit spit still, a touch of vision like and some tangible memory and experience to get your head around. That’s what I want anyway. Joanna Winsome... A new guitarist called Russell Joslin is great, mind

Reading Jean Genet’s "Thief’s Journal" right now. Stole about five great lines out of it already. A magazine coming out of Chicago called Criminal Class Review is definitely worth checking out. They have some great new writers like Bill Hillman and Lex Sonne in there. And from Europe, Eddie Woods.

I tell you when you get to this age, books, records, films, you tube, all the cultural ephemera, sitting in café’s in Riga and places doing fuck all, women, bottles of wine… time wasting, day dreaming, if you’re not married off or dead already it just gets better and better… and more precious for sure. I’m just glad I’ve still got the Joy.

INGA: Apart from the BOHJ music I’m also inspired by the Restoration Workshop of Unprecedented Feelings – they were a collective of Latvian artists, labelled as pioneers of avant-garde and the Yellow Postmen (Dzeltenie Pastnieki). I also like all that gypsy punk stuff like The No Smoking Orchestra, Gogol Bordello and The Penny Black Remedy. In terms of films, it is the obvious choices such as Kusturica, Von Trier (loved The Idiots), Kurosawa, Bergman (both films and books), Cassavetes, Bertolucci, Tarr, Kaurismaki,… And of course photographers like Gregory Crewdson, Scott Irvine, Miroslaw Tichy, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Hans Bellmer to name a few. One of my all times favourite books is Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’.

So there we are ... truly there are no boundaries or limitations to where the Band of Holy Joy go from here. The new album 'Paramour' is available in the shops now, or from www.bandofholyjoy.co.uk

"Paramour" album available on itunes now for £6-32

See also: http://www.myspace.com/bandofholyjoy
http://www.bandofholyjoy.co.uk/radio.html 

Interview by Den
Colour photos by Karen Robinson
b/w photo by Inga Tillere