On the back of their most critically acclaimed album in years, The Soul of the Hour, Gallon Drunk frontman James Johnston talks to Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman ahead of bringing their infamously fierce live show to Liverpool.
Gallon Drunk is a band that you can safely say have had their ups and downs.
Fêted by the music press in the early 90s they toured America with Morrissey while latterly opening for Moz at the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Gardens. Meanwhile, their 1993 Sire Records-released second album, From The Heart of The Town, gained a Mercury nomination.
Throughout the rest of the decade record company problems dogged the band, and singer James Johnston joined Nick Cave‘s Bad Seeds (a common reference point to the band’s music) where he played on and toured Abattoir Blues and Dig! Lazarus! Dig!
With James exiting the Bad Seeds in 2007, Gallon Drunk reformed and released an album almost straight away, the excellent Rotten Mile on the obscure Fred label. Then nothing. The illness and untimely death of bassist Simon Wring cast a further shadow on their future.
In 2012 they released The Road Gets Darker From Here on Cloud Hills, a label run by an all-analogue recording studio in Hamburg. The Road showcased a different sound for the band, whereas before the band had melded together a mix of garage, rockabilly and dark jazz, this album had more of a rock edge and in a lot of ways was more commercial and straightforward than previous releases. Touring the album in 2012-13 the band stretched out songs, both old and new to give them space to breathe.
This experimentation has given birth to The Soul of the Hour – again recorded at Clouds Hill. Seven tracks of beautiful, honed music, each track polished ’til it shines.
Highlights include the crushing garage rock of The Dumb Room and The Exit Sign, the latter holding a debt to early Stooges or Playing With Fire-era Spacemen 3.
The Speed of Fear closes the album with a deranged James Brown-meets-Can slice of psych-funk. Despite only lasting for seven tracks the album is snapshot of a band fully realised in its own powers, stoked on self-belief and playing some of the best music of their career.
Ahead of their gig on Saturday at the Shipping Forecast, Getintothis caught up with their main man James Johnston to reflect on dark times and future days.
Getintothis: The last two albums have quite a few rockier tracks than in the past. The Stooges isn’t an influence that would have been apparent in the first couple of albums, when it seemed impossible to go through a review of yours without mention of the Birthday Party, but Iggy and co seem to be being mentioned a bit more these days. Who would you say has been the biggest influence on your sound?
James Johnston: The messy early records were influenced pretty heavily by the Alex Chilton classic Like Flies On Sherbert. Big Star‘s Third is still an influence, as are Gil Evans, James Brown and assorted krautrock such as Can Neu! and Faust, who I played with for a few years. The krautrock stuff is probably more apparent now.
Getintothis: Having reached eight albums, does it get harder and harder to choose a setlist? You have a back catalogue a lot of bands would kill for.
JJ: We only play a couple of old ones now, the last two records are so exciting to play, and also the tracks are getting so extended there’s hardly time!
Getintothis: The last two albums recorded at Clouds Hill have definitely been slightly apart from the previous ones, sound wise, have you thought of making a radical departure and playing stuff from only those two albums?
JJ: We’d happily do that, and it’s heading that way already.
Getintothis: There are some great jazzy tracks spread throughout your various albums. Have you thought of making a whole album of jazz? The re-working of You Should Be Ashamed to include a free jazz ending is inspired.
JJ: Glad you like it, that element is being draw upon for the gigs now, but on album we seem to be heading toward more of a focused sound, but who knows for the next one.
Getintothis: If you had to pick one track off this album that makes you feel truly proud or evokes something special, what would it be?
JJ: The opening track that Ian and I wrote (Before the Fire). The whole band’s playing, and Johann (Scheerer)’s recording sound so great, best thing we’ve ever done by a mile for me.
Getintothis: The new album comes in an incredible vinyl package, with beautiful prints and a picture disc 7″. All the early singles came with some jokey, cheesy covers (mice, ducks, cats) How did this work with some quite dark and abrasive music? Who was responsible for those?
JJ: Me really, apart from the singles compilation and the front of the first one that Mike did. Albums looked so earnest at the time, so it was fun to juxtapose these angsty records with daft throwaway covers. On the other hand I love album artwork in general, and this one sounds so special that it had to have something fitting. The painting’s by Ian‘s brother, so it’s all very “in the family” too, literally.
Getintothis: Your show at the Kazimier in Liverpool last year was incredible. Do you have any favourite cities that you like to play?
JJ: Yeah, we like playing there. Frankly we’ll turn up and give our all wherever we’re asked. You can never really tell when it’s going to be a special night, so anywhere really. Budapest on this tour and Hamburg last night were both really good.
Getintothis: You’re playing Liverpool on Record Store day, I heard you were recording something for this, but I haven’t heard anything since. Maybe next year?
JJ: There’s no new recording, but definitely next year. I think we’re releasing a single version of Before The Fire, with a cover of it by Johann‘s (Clouds Hill producer and label owner) band on the other side, but keep an eye on our website for updates on that. In a bit of a tour blur at the moment, big drives / late shows.
Getintothis: Wouldn’t be a Liverpool interview without a Beatles question. Favourite Beatles track?
JJ: The White Album‘s my favourite. I think George‘s songs are really beautiful in general too, but I’m not an expert on The Beatles. I think it’s daft when people claim they hate certain bands, such a pose, it’s all music, and it’s all about the context in which you listen to it.”
Gallon Drunk play the Shipping Forecast on Saturday April 19 with Man In the Dark and Cavalier Song.
Further reading on Getintothis:
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Manchester Apollo.
Morrissey: Autobiography review.
Record Store Day, the vinyl revival and the music in our mess age.
Linda Perhacs returns from wilderness for Liverpool show at Leaf.
Record Store Day 2014 in Liverpool – what’s on.
GIT Award 2014: The Kazimier, Liverpool featuring Lapsley, Africa Oye, Bill Ryder-Jones, Mad Brains, Forest Swords & more.
Astral Coast 2014 add Bird, Lapsley, GhostChant and Lucid Dream to line up
Astral Coast reveals headliners Bill Ryder-Jones, Tea Street Band and By The Sea