On Nov. 7 Birmingham, England-based indie rock luminaries Johnny Foreigner release their third and finest full-length, the titanic quasi-concept album Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything. As fronter Alexei Berrow told Stereoboard here last month, the hotly anticipated record -- which sold out of deluxe pre-orders in fewer than 12 hours -- is less autobiographical than the prior two, and concerns itself with "the alternate universe theory; for every decision you make, there exists a world where you made the opposite. There's also internal monologue in the merits of experiencing stuff versus capturing it for posterity. There's some meta-fiction. The overall story is the world's only happy shipwreck, where, instead of drowning, everyone gains the power of flight."
Perhaps it was Mr. Berrow partially freeing his songs from the confines of real experience, perhaps it was that the band contrived the entire album from start to finish on its own terms and timetables, but no matter the reason, Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything is an immaculate, career-defining effort. The band circled the wagons and recorded the 17-song magnum opus ("a musical catastrophe in three parts") over the course of five months with longtime friend and collaborator Dom James in bedrooms and a warehouse space and James' studio. In our interview below with all three members of Johnny Foreigner, Berrow plainly states that the album is a put-up-or-shut-up proposition, with the future of the band potentially on the line. We've been wanting to interview the three ever since we initiated our microscopic coverage of their exploits nearly five years ago, and Berrow, drummer Junior Elvis Washington Laidley and bassist Kelly Southern were gracious with their time and did not disappoint. Our full review of the record is forthcoming, but for now enjoy the trio's remarks below. Pre-order Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything from Alcopop! Records right here. A North American exclusive album listening party will occur at Precinct in Somerville, Mass. this coming Saturday, Oct. 22, at 8:30PM sharp; details here.
Clicky Clicky: Interesting that some of the music released ahead of the album wasn't promoted as being part of a record. Was there a conscious decision made to not say something like, "'What Drummers Get' taken from the band's forthcoming record Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything," in promoting Certain Songs Are Cursed, for example? Did you just not know what was going to make the final cut?
"Vs. You," it made sense to use the first version [for the EP]. "Certain Songs," the song, happened super-fast, like, I wrote it one night and the next day Dom forgot a flux capacitor and left me in the studio for an hour while he went back to fetch it. By which time we'd realised that "frisbee-ep" sounded better than "frisbingle" [hmmm... maybe not? -- Ed.]. We were prepared to leave them all off the album, which is, like, a weird stupid fantasy I have where we promote an album with completely stand-alone singles like in the '70s. And then Dom re-mixed "What Drummers Get" so it sounded more like the record songs, and everyone else was like, gwaaaaaaaaaan. Also, as much as I ever talk about lyrical specifics, that [song] and "With Who, Who And What I've Got" are kind of about the same situation, which, if this record was a comic book, would be the opening scene. So it kinda felt right.CC: The new album's title itself is interesting. Maybe we're setting up a false dichotomy, but for a band who named its record Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything, the music still retains the optimism of your past releases (well, except where certain affairs of the heart are concerned). It really hits home on the astonishingly wonderful "Alternate Timelines Piling Up" in the lyric "Those nights you say you want your old life back? Let's go get it." If Johnny Foreigner were not optimistic at all, what would the music sound like? Ministry?
Junior Elvis Washington Laidley: I was actually torn on leaving "What Drummers Get" off the album and putting "Hand..." on instead. [Our manager] Gareth shot us straight down on that one, though, think it's his favorite song since "Jump" by Van Halen [Bahahahahahahah! -- Ed.]. The final cut did seem to take a while to decide, after first listens our label, manager and press all had different favorites and still do, I think. Good sign.
Kelly Southern: I think I might have been the only one concerned that we'd be criticised for putting songs on the album that had already been released. One [song] I think might have been passable but two... I was kind of with Jun on wanting "The Hand That Slaps You Back" on the album, as well as another that didn't make the final cut. Originally, I thought if we were going to make an album that was 18 songs long, they should be all new songs. Don't get me wrong, I'm so glad "Drummers" and "JF Vs. You" made it on there, because now I know they fit in perfectly with the other songs. I don't think you should take other people's opinions into account when making these kinds of decisions. As cheesy and cliched as it sounds, you have to make the album you want to make, because at the end of the day, you're never going to please everyone all the time. Oh God, that answer was really cheesy and pretentious, urgh. Sorry.
AB: Ha. Thas' a really hard question to answer. Cos the optimism, I think, is a big part of who we are as people. I guess, you have to be, to put so much stock into a collection of sounds. I think if we weren't optimistic, we'd just sound like a crap spineless version of us. Even the saddest of our songs still (to me, at least) provide a little warmth. I've never listened to Ministry, rectifying now... [link]. Ahahahahahahahahahahahahaaa no.CC: I had to laugh at your question to Facebook fans over the summer about how long of an album was too long, considering the record was already rumored to be titled Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything. Seems like if you are going to have "everything" in the record title, you should really hit fans with both barrels, yeh?
JEWL: I think the music would sound like self indulgent white noise :o) or dubstep.
KS: I'd say a mix of our 'fake release' album and this (complete with subtitles. I'd like to think we'd retain our sense of humour, if not our optimism).
AB: Yeh, totally. I think that argument stems from quantity vs. quality. And its been a compromise for both previous records, but we (and Dom) decided at the start of this to give ourselves as much time as we needed. It got to the point about a month in and we were still feeding Dom new demos and he was like, fuck it, lets make a double album. It's split into three parts cos we like to be overdramatic and grandiose, and I guess that makes it easier for people to take it in, but yeh, to answer your question, this was always going to be a sprawling huge record.CC: Ballads are certainly nothing new for the band, as we know well since one of my all-time favorite songs is "All Mosely Gardens." Each of the Best Before releases included one. But in the last eighteen months or so -- since around the time of the death of Mark Linkous when you released the "The Most Beautiful Widow In Town" download -- you've really been working up a lot of quieter, more subdued material. Is that just because of the places and situations in which you find yourself writing and rehearsing? Did any of the recent, more slow-core numbers start their lives as uptempo guitar pop?
KS: We did have the big debate about whether we were taking the piss by releasing such a long album (it was supposed to be even longer!). But I know damn well had we cut it down to 12 or whatever songs to keep within the realms of an 'acceptable' release length, then it would have been the wrong decision. I think separating it into 3 parts will help people digest it a little better. To be honest, long or short, we're utterly happy with this album, I'm sure other people will dig it too! (Y'see that, that's optimism. Going back to the previous point, you can't be in a band without it).
AB: To an extent we're always influenced by the environment; loud fast times = loud fast songs, etc. Also, the happier my personal life, the sadder the songs. No fucking idea. Also, practically speaking, it's way easier to make a song that doesn't require mic-ing up a drum kit or sorting thru distortion sounds. Jun bought this tiny 8-track from Japan, it has these awesome mics built in, and we ended up like, making them in bedrooms when we had time to kill. I'd say the 8-track takes 70% of the blame. And, nah, I think the tempo of it when it appears in my head is the tempo it should stay. And sometimes we naturally speed up or slow a little, but never drastically enough to change the original toneCC: You've always had a pronounced sentimentality -- or, in the parlance of our day, "emo"-ness -- in your songs. Do you ever get the urge to write without that sort of attachment, and turn out something like Franz Ferdinand's emotionally detached dance-floor stompers? Are you able to turn off that part of your brain when you guys are writing? Is the sentimentality mostly an Alexei contribution, or do Junior and Kelly get similarly invested in their writing?
JEWL: The little 8-track changed my thinking on the ease of bedroom music, I had visions of people literally staring at .wavs and bars and listening to the same loop for hours, I would have rather played in the studio for hours on end, but whilst touring Ireland a while back, I got all tripped out and just literally played around with it, it ended up being the b side ("For The Chains"). That started off way faster then naturally slowed down when I heard Alexei's vocals on it. "(Don't) Show Us Your Fangs" was a similar story, but that started off way slower. Fruity Loops [the software -- Ed.] is the blame for me, now I can literally sit and stare for hours and try and create something usable, something I've had a few years off from since the "Sword Buried" age lol.
"A King's Heath Story" would be a great fast-pop song. "Sofacore" works well slowed down; "Eyes Wide..." sounds great played as a punk song. To be honest, we needed more ballads for acoustic sessions as we could only play "Sofacore" and "Salt, Peppa...!" It's funny -- we have a plethora of slow songs now but what do we do for acoustic sessions? "Amy-freaking-Winehands." That's how we roll.
AB: It's me wot does most of the initial writing. And, no, I dont want to analyse it less it drives me mad or I lose it, but the emo urge, whatever that gene is, is like the spark at the start of my mental songwriting process, as opposed to something I inject later on. I'm sure I could mechanically go thru and clean up the words and the URGHMYHEARTISBUSTED sequences, but it'd be a horrible technical exercise, even if I did believe it'd lead to better things for the band.CC: We think an obvious question from interviewers on this album cycle is "how important is Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything?" In case you haven't thought about it yet, your answer should be "well, [interviewer name, make sure you look into the camera after you say her/his name], it's everything." But we think a more probing question about the record is "why is Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything important at this stage of the band's career and given the current state of the (lack of a corporate) music industry?"
JEWL: I can't write lyrics at all, I've never tried but I'm sure it would be mega cheese with words about hills and shit. I dunno how Lex does it, to be honest, he turns producer with stuff, like "Supermorning," for example, I was stuck for months with this distorted piano repetition, wasn't going anywhere with it, but [add] a few words and it's a song.
KS: Yeah, lyrics have never been my strong point. I used to keep poetry books when I was younger, but it was mostly just pretentious nonsense. One thing I can't stand are generic lyrics with no depth or substance. Lyrical laziness. I need imagery, a story or that sentimentality. I love clever lines that stand out on their own. That is something Lex is great at.
AB: I think if we release this record and it does nothing for us, then it proves we're not a good enough band. It's one of the scariest thoughts in my head, but I'm so happy with it. It's not like when people say, 'O I wouldn't change a thing,' I mean, that's true, but this is exactly what I think we should sound like, it's what we sound like in my head. It's us without any adults at the helm and no involvement from the corporate world we so vocally shun. And we try and work outside it as much as possible, but simply put, we can't afford it yet. We're still a few grand in the red, and if this record bombs, then it'll likely take us with it. BUT THAT WON'T HAPPEN COS ITS GREAT. It feels like there are a lot of people waiting to be like 'O Johnny Foreigner fucked up, inevitable, how predictable.' Vs. Everything is us making these possibly imaginary folks eat their stupid words.CC: So Lex gave a very succinct summary of the themes of the album to Stereoboard last month that we don't need to re-hash. And I've had the good fortune to see a lof of the art that will be part of the packaging of the record. And in sum, it all makes me wonder whether the alternate timelines, the boats, all of that might have been at all inspired by the American television show LOST? Did any of you see the show? Because of the birth of my daughter I never actually saw the last half of the final season, so hopefully Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything doesn't provide any spoilers...
KS: Career-wise, we're not a hyped band with lots of money riding on us. We're just doing what we normally do and what we will do, even if no one really accepts this record. I mean, the first two records didn't sell heaps and yet look at us, here we are talking about our third. I'm not sure we have a career plan; we have our little circle of people that we're really fortunate enough to have believe in us and will buy our records. I don't think this album is an attempt for world domination or commercial or critical success -- at the end of the day, we're 110% happy with this record, and as long as the people that like our band do, too (and our label make enough money from it), that's the main thing. If critics -- be it magazines, fanzines, blogs -- come on board and like the album then ohmygod that's brilliant, but I guess it's always been our way to hope for the best but expect the worse. As Jun says, we can do it all again. And it's something we're proud of, no matter what.
AB: Heh, I marathoned it last year, but I dont think anything consciously slipped through. I've always been obsessed with branch theory, and I've digested a whole bunch of Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison and Alex Garland. But no polar bears. And boats are just the most romantic way of travelling... For what its worth, I'm the only person I know who thinks the end of LOST is beautiful and perfect.CC: The preparations for the album release seem burdensome, what with the proactive and concerted effort to outwit pirates on top of everything else you're doing. I saw your note to the Tumblr people, it was rather inspirational, like fans might actually be able to keep a proper leak in abeyance. Assuming a leak is successfully avoided or at least obviated by the current strategy, how does the band define success for the record? More touring opportunities? Bigger recording budget next time around?
AB: It's actually easier for us for once, cos there's no one in the chain screaming OGODWENEEDTHISNOW. The same as making the record; we don't have a competitive budget or industry presence, but cos we're taking so long, we do have the luxury of knowing that everything we do put out, songs, videos, art, whatever, is as good as we could make it. And the anti-piracy thing, which has worked like a charm, took a couple of joints and a half-an-hour clicking internets. Success = fixing Kelly's amp [still? -- Ed.] and being able to tour and not having any debtors to take whatever slim profit we make on it. Getting some tv syncs (if we had owned the rights to "Absolute Balance" like we own all our Alcopop stuff, we would be 100% financially sorted by now...), getting enough exposure that someone pays for us to come back to America, getting more festival offers. Surviving...CC: North American fans, of course, are constantly begging for your presence on our continent, and the band's position (that it's got to be something the band can afford to do) is known well and has been stated repeatedly. So the only question left to ask is, has that bridge been gapped? Can you reveal whether a feasible plan is in the offing that will get you over here for this album cycle without any of you ending up in debtor's prison?
JEWL: Success = being comfortable, being able to pay for shirts upfront, being able to go back to part-time work because we the band get a lil' bit o' money lol. Mainly though, travel everywhere that wants us and keep going.
KS: I would say success for this record is the same as it was for the others -- to me success means being able to keep doing this. Simple as. Keep recording, keep releasing, keep touring. The gigs we do where the crowd make the show (Summersonic in Japan, the second show we did in Brooklyn last year, Off The Cuff in Birmingham, for instance), if we have moments like that every so often, that's enough for me to want to keep doing this. Knowing there are people out there ready to invest their time, money, energies in us (our label, manager, press ppl, agent, etc.), and there are people out there that come to our shows, wear our tees, beg us to visit their country... that is success. Especially when we get to visit said countries and play to said people. Smiley faces ahoy.
AB: No plans. Sadface. And [American has] tweaked the visa regulations to make it even more impenetrable. I guess, we've never really made more than a drunken late-night pass at any labels, and no one's really got the money or the inclination to risk bringing a band as small as ours over. It's something that bothers us shitloads tbh. We grew up choosing US bands over UK bands, and last year just reinforced our (fairly biased) opinion that there's a whole bunch of people over there who'd be into us if they heard us...CC: Why won't Fat Possum sign you for North America? They've got Yuck and now Fanzine. Should I call them?
JEWL: I do think if we were debt-less, then we'd have more scope to use money to fund/help towards flights, accommodations to the promised land, etc. One big sync [that's, for those who don't follow the jargon, basically slang for the use of the band's music in exchange for a hopefully tidy fee -- Ed.] and everything could change in that department, were definitely going in the right direction at least, plus the album's awesome, so I see "Fringe" season 5 offering us $50K for 2 seconds of a song...
KS: Jun, big lolz. This album was actually made with syncs for "The O.C." in mind. Is "The O.C." still going? I want to come back so bad. Going through all the footage we took from the Los Camp [US] tour melts my heart. I'm not sure how we can make this happen. Maybe once we've paid our debts, we could move there for six months or something.
AB: I'm sorry, I think Yuck are the anti-us. Dull career musician pastiche that completely misses the spirit/point of all the awesome bands we both pillage from. We actually want to be on Merge so bad; there was a whole string of Superchunk coincidences on our last tour ("Amy Winehands" is mostly set in Chapel Hill) and when we got to chicago our friend Ryan gave me a signed copy of "Our Noise." And I started reading it in the waiting room at [RDU], and finished it as we landed in England. I wrote them a ridiculously (even by my standards) long letter and never sent it. I think, I want them to discover us for themselves, but if anyone feels like nudging the fates for us, please go ahead. ILU MAC + LAURA.CC: Johnny Foreigner has over the last few years been finding more and more ways to incorporate fans into its releases. There was the Every Cloakroom Ever EP with fan names on the sleeve; then fan photos on the sleeve of You Thought You Saw...; fans helping the band out with live performances (the horn section for the Grace DVD, Veeee playing bass in Paris); and now with fan audio contributions for Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything. I guess my question is is there anything left? Without a fan giving you a kidney or a gall bladder, I can't for the life of me think of a new and different way for you to have fan involvement in future releases. Is that something you sit around and think about?
KS: Like what Lex said. We have a toy ghost I'm going to send to Merge the moment Lex gives up on fate and hands me his 'Dear Mac and Laura' love letter to post along with it.
AB: Every time we do something like these, we have a panic that we won't think of something new. And we always do. To us, it's always been fun but a totally natural process; its relatively rare we sit around brainstorming. To be super cynical, we've effected a sliding scale for our band where the more you're into us, the more you can be involved in us, and it's kind of a reaction against the pledgemusic culture; like, 'hey you like our band, gizza tenner and we'll stick yr name on a list in the cd sleeve.' Or 'give us £100 and we'll invite you round our house.' That shit's savvy and effective but totally soulless; what if you love the band but can only afford the record? why should that put you in a lesser position than someone who has more cash and is doing it for some sense of kudos? We try and be inclusive as possible whilst clinging onto enough financial sense to cling on. Klingon.
KS: It's cool, we'll get everyone to record the next album for us. That's a logical progression, right?