Interview: Desperate Journalist

Estimable London post-punk outfit chat about the making of their highly acclaimed new LP Maximum Sorrow!

Interview: Desperate Journalist Resurfacing with fourth album Maximum Sorrrow! last month, superlative London indie collective Desperate Journalist delivered the strongest LP of their almost decade-long career. Released to excellent reviews the disc saw the post-punk outfit venture into new territory. With a newfound emphasis on textural washes, atmospheric synth backdrops and spoken word passages, the set retains the melodicism of earlier releases and the group’s hallmark element, lead singer Jo Bevan’s outstanding vocals. Tracked at Crouch End Studios, London with soundtrack composer Rollo Smallcombe on engineering duties, Maximum Sorrrow! is the first album to feature the group assume production duties.

The follow up to 2019s similarly acclaimed In Search of the Miraculous the set came together quickly despite the obvious restrictions the planet has endured over the past 18 months. “We’ d been working on the music before the pandemic” bassist Simon Drowner says of the quick turnaround between albums. “It was quite a long process from the initial demos by Rob (Hardy, guitarist) to the album release. But we purposefully didn't announce anything until the day we released Fault because it seemed like the right way to go about things this time”.

“In many ways writing and recording it was no different to how we’ve done every record but we had a few stops and starts in terms of getting it recorded” Rob adds. "Rehearsing it was difficult and for some songs I think we felt less prepared than we might have wanted. However, changing studio was partly pandemic related but also gave us concentrated studio time over a longer period than we’ve ever had before. This allowed us to do some things that we hadn’t really been able to do before - mostly work on arrangements and sounds in the studio much more than we’d done previously”.

Building on the punked-up jangle of early releases that evoked alt. rock heroes Peter Buck and Johnny Marr, recent singles Everything you Wanted, Fault and album track Utopia feature a greater emphasis on guitar textures and use of synths. Were there any influences, or new equipment you picked up that inspired this direction? “I really struggled to write this record” Rob states. “Most of that was down to constantly questioning the point of writing anything that just sounded like a rework of something we had already done. Trying to find a balance between something that was recognisably us and interesting enough for me as a writer was really, really hard. One of the things that happened as a result was an increasing use of synths at the writing stage. This kind of kicked off an attitude when we were in the studio of using more synths than we’d perhaps intended, actively encouraged by Rollo our engineer. It turned out to be really fun and we were did some fun stuff with running various synths through the space echo pedal and through my guitar amp”.

“The guitar textures were sort of a natural extension of this” Rob explains. “I really wanted fewer guitars in general, probably as a reaction to last record which had more than should be allowed. I think some of my naivety with synths meant that some of the more synth-like sounds I might have been going for were done on a guitar. In terms of equipment there wasn’t much new really. I’d used some similar sounds in mixing before - shimmer reverb and reverse delays etc - but being able to control that going in shaped a lot of the sounds you hear on the record - most notably on Everything You Wanted”.

The album’s curtain raising track Formaldehyde, consisting of Jo backed by nothing more than an electric piano supplies an intriguingly downbeat opener. “This was the cause of endless debate” Rob recalls. “We settled on it going first basically because it felt cheesy and a re-run of Grow Up to put it last which was perhaps the more obvious choice” (Grow Up concludes with subdued piano piece Radiating). “Anywhere else it felt like it broke the running order too much. There was a regular band joke of that song being the equivalent of an aperitif, make of that what you will”. “I wanted Everything You Wanted to be the opener and Formaldehyde opening the second half” Simon adds. “But the others all liked Formaldehyde first, and I’m very happy with it that way in retrospect”.

One of the band’s greatest tracks to date, indie pop banger Poison Pen is a brilliantly excoriating jab at ego-inflated wordsmiths and the cult of DWEMS. “Charicature, yeah for sure / You write the eloquent charismatic poor / Oh, how we shiver to defend / the sweaty words of celebrated men”. “The lyric started out as a very drunken scribbled rant about Martin Amis” Jo explains of the track's genesis, “But then as the song progressed it became about arrogant, overrated male fiction writers generally, and how that connects to the trope of the difficult masculine auteur. And then once it was complete, and I’d listened to it a few times, I realised that I had actually been writing about Morrissey all along”.

Poison Pen along with Personality Girlfriend and What You’re Scared Of feature spoken word passages, the first time the device has been employed on the band’s material.
What inspired you to start using this technique? “I am an absolute sucker for “talky bits” in pop songs, and how quietly dramatic they can be” Jo says. “They can really carry the climax of a song emotionally without any melodic acrobatics. It felt like a good way of trying to layer what I wanted to get across over the guitars without being too obtrusive, it sucks you in, I think, and makes repeat listening more interesting. Also, on each of those songs there are already quite intense sung melodies so I didn’t want to over-egg it”.

In marked contrast musically the darkest moment on the LP What You’re Scared Of opens with a subdued guitar arpeggio before moving into more abrasive territory towards the close led by Simon’s coruscating bassline. “I guess I was vaguely channelling a sort of noisy Radiohead as that’s what I thought Rob was getting at” Simon explains. “The main thing was making it sound as heavy and insistent as possible, in contrast to the mournful guitars”.

Reminiscent of early period art rock era Simple Minds, the gliding, motoric groove of recent single Everything You Wanted features the most intriguing lyric sheet on the LP. “It was inspired by internet art mostly” Jo explains. “The work of Kevin Bewersdorf who created the project Maximum Sorrow! which the title of the album is nicked from and his Spirit Surfers (an online group art project) also the Nine Eyes of Google Streetview. I think that sort of internet-based romantic conceptualism is particularly evocative of how Millennials specifically such as myself, grow up feeling like there is some kind of sublime state which they are always striving to achieve but never reach. Crucially it’s very specifically relatable in that the aesthetic and tone of that sort of art is self-aware and slightly tongue-in-cheek at times, whilst still wholly genuine in its melancholy. It’s a very post-Gen-X, meta-ironic sort of thing. And it’s also obviously about how sad I am and stuff". With three tracks issued from the album plans are afoot to release a fourth single. “We’ll be sending The Victim out to radio and press” Simon states. “We’ll hopefully make another video with (regular video director) Nick JS Thompson for it too. It won’t feel like a ‘single’ if we don’t”.

A six-minute epic that will surely sound colossal live, Armageddon sees drummer Caz Helbert come to the fore as the track is underpinned by her thunderous drumwork. “Rob often writes demos with drumbeats and although I will always try to ignore them and come up with beats by listening to the guitar parts” Caz says of the song’s development. “For Armageddon the demo beat sounded great and really fitted the song’s atmosphere. I tried to recreate it in the studio but I added more toms to make it even darker, like a lot of The Cure’s Pornography drums such as One Hundred Years or The Hanging Garden. Once album reviews started coming in, people mentioned Running Up That Hill, and although I think Rob might have taken inspiration from it, I hadn’t actually realised it was similar until I read the reviews”.

“Some elements were on the original demo, Caz then adapted and bettered it as she always does” Rob states. “Generally speaking, and most specifically manifesting itself here and on Fault, I was keen on making the most of Caz and Simon as a hugely propulsive rhythm section while letting the guitars feel more languid and incidental. I’m sure there was some subconscious inspiration, Faith era Cure, The Queen Is Dead and Kate Bush, but to be honest the inspiration for the part was more Caz herself. She’s always been this amazing machine-like drummer and she’s always loved whacking the toms, put the two together and you get this drum part!”

A group with a strong visual identity, the sleeve for Maximum Sorrow! features what appears to be a shot of a doorway and several steps laid on top a distorted background while the back cover features a rain slicked street stringed with Chinese lanterns. “The main image is from a project I did at art school about nightclubs, it’s a photo of the sadly now defunct The End club in central London” Jo explains of the mysterious image. “I took all these photos and then printed them in highly saturated colours on glossy paper and smudged/splattered/generally fucked up the prints to make a kind of disorienting, seductive image. It was supposed to evoke the feeling of being excited and fucked up on a night out but also simultaneously slightly scary the experience could be. I had just moved to London you see. The reason for using this for the cover was that many of the songs are based in London and clubs are also being closed down everywhere here these day. Plus we are all in our thirties now so it was a nice melancholic but also striking image to use. Also, I feel like the cover as a whole conveys visually the sound we were going for, quite considered and elegantly laid-out but also darker and weirder in places than what we’ve done before”.

On the subject of visuals, the memorable clip for Personality Girlfriend shines a light on the band’s influences through its selection of 7” single covers and labels. Which members provided which discs for the clip? “It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me that I brought all the Cure singles!” Caz states. “Mine were Manics, Birdland, Ash, Echo & The Bunnymen, Metric, Madonna, Sex Pistols, and The Clash. Some of those are probably not visible in the final cut” Simon replies. “The ones Rob and I are looking through are all mine” Jo states. “As you could probably guess due to them being mostly forgotten Snakebite City, 2000s new wave of post punk / 1980s indie bands! Sadly the one I wanted to make the most prominent didn’t really show up much in the video, which was Romeo Trading Co’s Boybands In My Home; an unfairly unknown, flouncy-as-fuck indie banger. Check it out if you can”.

The 45 on the turntable used as a backdrop during the video meanwhile is Madonna classic Like A Prayer. A final inquiry then, what are the band’s members favourite single by the Queen of Pop? “Although I didn’t pick that record for the video, my favourite is Like A Prayer” Caz states. “I only know her singles and this one always sounded like the saddest one to me. It’s dark and poppy at the same time. And the video really struck me as a kid”. “I picked that 7” at random for that shot, I didn’t think it would be identifiable, but I’m glad it was!” Simon states. “I love all of The Immaculate Collection but always say Material Girl is my favourite for some reason". “Vogue for me” Jo replies. “Such a phenomenally exciting record”.

Desperate Journalist live dates:

Weds 28 July, Rough Trade East, London (In-Store show + Album Signing)
Sat 11 Sept, The Bread Shed, Manchester (supporting Liines)
Sat 18 Dec, Record Junkee, Sheffield
Sat 15 Jan, Thekla, Bristol
Sat 22 Jan, Esquires, Bedford
Sat 12 Feb, Bodega Social, Nottingham
Sat 19 Feb, Lafayette London

Tickets available here

Maximum Sorrow! is out now through Fierce Panda