Interview: Desperate Journalist

The post-punk quartet discuss the inspirations behind their excellent second LP Grow Up, plus info on tour dates

Interview: Desperate Journalist Building on the promise exuded by their impressive 2014 eponymous debut, London based post-punk/indie rock types Desperate Journalist issued one of the year’s best LPs with their second disc Grow Up (review) back in March. Inspired variously by ‘The Smiths, R.E.M., The Cure, Cocteau Twins, the Manics and a million and one other bands’ according to bassist Simon Drowner, the group’s combine Rob Hardy’s punked-up 12 string jangle, Drowner’s strident foundation lines and Caz Helbert’s rapid-fire drumming with Jo Bevan’s strikingly expressive voice.

Staying with listening choices then, what music have you been listening to recently, any new discoveries? Jo: ‘Education, King Nun, Omni, The Hecks, LIFE, Chastity Belt’, Simon: ‘Calva Louise, The Empty Page, Gaffa Tape Sandy, White Trash ex of The Computers', Rob: ‘Xiu Xiu are a new discovery for me despite not actually being new’, Caz: ‘I only recently discovered Waxahatchee and also Soviet Soviet’.

Boasting one of the most inspired band names of recent times, the quartet take their moniker from a 1979 John Peel Session track by The Cure. Originally titled Grinding Halt, the track was swiftly reworked into Desperate Journalist In Ongoing Meaningful Review Situation (video) as a response to NME hack Paul Morley’s recent slagging of their debut LP Three Imaginary Boys. How did you settle on the band name? ‘Jo chose it. We settled on it over quite a long period of time, it wasn’t a quick decision’ Simon recalls. ‘I can’t remember what other ideas we had but I doubt they were as good. I like to think we grew into the name’.

A superlative wordsmith, Jo’s lyrics range from heartfelt tenderness to vicious putdowns. The latter category provides some of the abrasively funniest lines since Morrissey was in his pomp, with recent single Why Are You So Boring? (video) providing a prime example, skewering a former acquaintance in brilliant style: ‘Flicking back your hair/You vociferously blare your schoolboy rights and wrongs/Well I could break your face/Emancipate the human race/Can one evening last so long?’ Which writers/musicians influence your lyrics? ‘I don’t set out to write like anyone in particular but there’s no point in lying and saying people you admire don’t seep into you and influence how you write’ the singer responds. ‘I love the grim wit and sharp observational tone of people like (music journalist/lecturer) Vivien Goldman, Terry Hall, Morrissey et al, and on the other hand the kind of more abstractly expressed emotion by people like (Talk Talk lead singer) Mark Hollis, Liz Fraser and Ian Curtis of course. Non-musically speaking I have always enjoyed the stark beauty of Modernist poetry eg. T.S Eliot and Sylvia Plath. I’m mostly drawn toward things that are about the power of the sounds of words as evoking feeling rather than clever-clever linguistic acrobatics, though I enjoy the latter as well, as a card-carrying pretentious ass’.

A hallmark of the band’s records is how clearly the vocals are placed in the mix, with Jo’s stentorian voice in perfect earshot at all times. Has it always been important to you to have the vocals and lyrics cut through so strongly on the tracks? ‘Yes, because I hate not being able to hear the words of songs, shoegaze excepted!’ the singer states. In tandem with this upfront approach while the outfit's propulsive live energy and barbed guitar lines have seen them widely described as post-punk, the quartet’s tracks are all very strong melodically. Has this always been an integral element of the band? ‘Yes, we never consciously tried to be a post-punk band, that label was given to us later’ Simon states. ‘We all love melodic indie bands. ‘Melody and melodrama’ was how we originally tagged ourselves’.

A song which pushes Desperate Journalist’s sound into a fascinating new realm, the atmospheric drift of Purple is one of the standouts from Grow Up. What’s the story behind the song lyrics and was it difficult in getting the track to hang together so perfectly? ‘Lyrically Purple was a moment of angry creative self-doubt whereby I was feeling redundant in the face of my limited ability, my history and my age’ Jo explains. ‘I was thinking that any hope I had of coming up with - and therefore becoming - something brilliant was similar to a forlorn religious leap of faith’. ‘Musically it was surprisingly easy to get together’ Simon recalls. ‘Unlike a lot of our stuff it was fairly loose. I didn’t know exactly what the bass line was, for example. So the drums, bass and guide guitar were all recorded as live in the studio which gave it a natural feel’.

Possessing a strong sense of the visual, from music videos to the enigmatic sleeve art of Grow Up which features a teenaged Jo on the cover, all of the band’s artwork has been designed in-house. ‘I have done all of our artwork and merch designs, apart from the most recent t-shirts and single which Caz designed’ Jo explains. ‘We all have to agree on how something looks, but as someone who studied graphic design with the intent to make record sleeves it’s something I really enjoy. As for videos, I work with the wonderful Jason Weidner to decide on the aesthetic and style, and as he is so in tune with what we are about he just goes off and translates it perfectly as a director’.

The promo for Hollow, a mysterious dialogue-free short story shot in crisp monochrome supplied the lead video for Desperate Journalist's return to the fray with Grow Up. Was the clip inspired by any films or directors in particular? ‘Not as far as I know’ Jo recalls. ‘I came to Jason with the idea that it should be black and white, and involving a lot of outdoor space, and not a performance video. I explained what the song was about and he came up with the treatment and shot this beautiful thing - he has a very good eye for pacing and cinematography. I can’t see any particular references in there to directors or films as such. You would need to ask him I think!’

One of the album’s fulcrum tracks All Over is led by one of Jo’s most intriguing lyrics ‘Like the freight train coming for your head/Like the chest pain that pins you to your bed’ that builds towards its cathartic final chorus ‘It is amazing/It’s all over for you’, succeeded by Rob’s blazing Tom Verlaine-style guitar solo. While writers understandably want listeners to bring their own interpretations to lyrics, what’s the concept behind the song? ‘It’s a revenge fantasy, to put it bluntly’ Jo states. ‘I’m sure everyone has fantasised about ending someone who’s wronged them, and it’s a bit of a childish way of thinking, but I wanted to allow myself a moment to revel in imagining it, hence the big celebratory outro’.

The final track on the LP, Radiating a melancholy ballad which sees Jo backed by nothing more than a piano part is a departure for the band so far, is the cut an indication of how new tracks might sound? ‘In a word, no!’ Simon responds. ‘I like Radiating a lot, it really works as a closing track on the Grow Up album. Not to say we wouldn’t do another song with just piano and vocals’ the bassist explains ‘but the new songs all have guitars on, and they sound big!’

An inevitable getting towards the end of the year question then, what’s the best LP you’ve heard (so far) in 2017? Jo: ‘LCD Soundsystem and Big Thief’, Simon: ‘LCD Soundsystem and Idles’, Rob: ‘The War On Drugs and Big Thief’ Caz: ‘Conor Oberst’. As an acolyte of R.E.M. axe slinger Peter Buck, a guitarist hugely underrated these days, a final enquiry then for Rob. What’s the best IRS-era R.E.M. album in your opinion? ‘Reckoning possibly just pips Murmur to the post for me’ the guitarist responds, selecting the classic second LP by the celebrated Athenians.

Grow Up is out now through Fierce Panda

Desperate Journalist play:

Fri 6th October, Soup Kitchen, Manchester
Sat 7th October, Jumpin’ Jack’s, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Sat 7th October, Twisterella Festival, Middlesbrough
Fri 13th October, The Tin at The Coal Vaults, Coventry
Sat 14th October, The Cellar, Oxford
Thur 19th October, The Dome, Tufnell Park, London

Thu 26th October KOHI, Kulturraum e.V.Karlsruhe, Germany

Sat 13th January 2018, Butlin’s Bognor Regis

Tickets are available from here