Interview: Johnny Foreigner

“Champagne Girls I Have Known” off the 2007 Arcs Across the City EP was searing and swerving. Alexei’s carefree (or less?, you can’t even distinguish-but who cares seriously-it’s just brilliant) vocals and Junior’s precision, hyperactive drumming screeched the musical ADD iron horses in my head to a stop. Then a “what…the…” pause caused by screaming from their bassist, Kelly, which gripped the ears and demanded attention more than Courtney Love’s twisted self-conceited dreams could ever aspire to. Since 2007, Birmingham’s Johnny Foreigner has never gone too far from iTunes. Last.fm‘s got my back. Alexei took time out of surviving winter to give us quite the interview (and endless love to the Philly and Chicago scenes). Check the end to see the music video to quite possibly the best track of the decade, in my humble opinion.

So the last time we met was back in Chicago, before you all went in search of pinball. I stayed back to watch the rest of Sky Larkin‘s set as part of the mini-Flèche d’or reunion where I had photographed. First and foremost, how was your Christmas holiday? (Hopefully not stuck in a terminal in Heathrow.)

It was pretty sweet thank you! Jun and Kel did family stuff and I went and stayed with my girlfriend and got a radio control truck with flashing lights all over it. It was totally snowy and the ice made walking anywhere a massive scary mission. (Tho it was awesome for my truck) I’m pretty sure I expanded my stomach by eating turkey and chocolate for 48 hours solid. The hot water boiler in my house died over summer and I’ve just had a plumber tell me that if it had been working over Christmas, the pipes are so old that the temperature extremes would have meant my whole system would have exploded. Which I’m taking as my magical Christmas blessing in disguise.

So in lieu of telling us the true story of how your band formed, how would you tell the fictional tale of how you all formed?

Idk, it would involve superpowers and alternate realities and be not as good as Warren Ellis. Even the story we used to tell, about how we were all stamp collecters, has kind worn itself out now.

How I missed that you recorded Grace and the Bigger Picture [“Feels Like Summer”, below, was the first single] in Brooklyn is beyond me, nevertheless with Alex Newport. What’d you feel walking into the room to work with him?

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Ha, he’s in no way as intimidating as his sonic reputation would suggest. We only knew him thru his producer rep, he wrote to us asking if he could make the album and all we really knew was; he’s from the West Midlands and he made In/Casino/Out, this makes him a living god and there’s no way we can turn this down. It was only after a couple of days, we went home and youtubed his bands and were like WOAH. He’s definitely in the Steve Albini model of (traditionally British) producers that set up the studio, press record and let the band provide everything else, which was exactly what we wanted. We were both going into the project with exactly the same mindset so we never really got intimidated. After a bit, we tried to start using WUURLD OF SHITTT as a catchphrase but it was too much effort.

Your new EP You Thought You Saw… to me sounded less restricted than Grace, and as free creatively as your early EPs years before. How was recording this EP different than before? Is it an indication of where you three are going for the future?

They were both pretty natural; Grace was a bunch of songs we’d been playing for a while and we wanted to make an album that was pretty much live sounding, hence the In/Casino/Out obsession. Looking back I think that’s where the restrictions were; all the songs evolved in the mad tour bubble we lived in between the two albums, everything is loud and fast and short. The whole thing was pretty much mixed and finished inside a fortnight then we went back on tour, it’s a total time capsule piece of where our heads/hearts where at at the time. This EP was made over 8 months causally popping into studios or recording ourselves or me having 12 hour cool-edit binges, where we could concentrate on sounds and making songs bigger or smaller instead of trying to capture them as close to how they sounded live. I guess we’ve learnt that that probably makes for a better end product, tho the album we’re starting at the moment is a lot more loudguitarry.

Though I read you didn’t have much time to explore Brooklyn back in recording Grace, what’d you do with the free time during your first big America tour? What were you able to see?

The inside of a wrecked Winnebago. Often for up to 18 hours a day. Your country is waaaaay too big. We planned so much touristy stuff, had so many “Oh, you have to go see this…” conversations with people, and then we’d spend the rest of the night driving, stop in a car park about 6am, then drive a few hours later and get to the venue just in time for (or sometimes just after) soundcheck. This sounds bitchy but it’s not at all; we’ve been all over the world and we’re pretty immune to touristy-stuff, I’d far rather go to a city and hang round with the kids that like Los Campesinos! instead of seeing some well googled monument or something. We’re always excited to go to new places but its the people around you that make the environment and the range of differing ways people from different states are friendly and hospitable and courteous is definitely the way I’d rather remember America than a series of I heart shirts and postcard views.

What was it like being thousands of miles away in the States and hearing people sing your songs?

Insanely flattering. Especially cos our label rushed the EP onto iTunes US a couple of days in, so it got better and better. It made all the debt and stress and everything worth it a million times over. We tour all the time in the UK, people are used to us playing and we’re used to them singing, and its completely awesome, but to have the same effect on people who haven’t been exposed to us in a country where we’ve had no luck with actually music industry stuff just wrecks our heads. The bare fact that we can implant these 3 minute soundtracks into peoples lives to the extent they sing them back to us with more passion than us, it’s like a beacon that we’re doing the right thing.

Were there any opening artists that caught you by surprise while here?

It was mostly just our two bands, but Gentle Ghost from Texas were amazing, like Trail of Dead playing Wolf Parade songs. We played a house show on a day off in Philly, and there was this band called Bonjour, and they were probably the best band I’ve seen all year. I spent the whole set goosebumping, like, I think they do upbeat Algernon Cadwaller better than Algernon. Their record is half done and they’re all in other bands and it might get finished this year. That whole Philly scene is amazing, I wish we’d have been able to scour other cities for the same basement show punk community vibe, but its the bands that make it special; Those Guys, Omar, The Skateboards, By Surprise, Everyone Everywhere, Algernon, it sort of amazes me that no outside medias ever tried to blow it up to the mainstream but I guess there’s no money to made from declaring new Seattles anymore.

What do each of you go through to prepare before a show? Any traditions?

Sing the Top Gun theme really loudly. Seriously, that’s it. Make someone go get us towels and bottles of water, that’s more a diva-fit than a tradition.

Alas, you missed out on performing in Chicago. If you get the chance to perform in the city, name the ideal lineup for your show?

First on – Billy Corgan solo set. No songs written after 1999, no drastic reinterpretations and no talking in between songs. If unavailable will accept Owen, providing he doesn’t “forget” how to play “Never Meant”.

Chin Up Chin Up or Maps & Atlases or both

Jim O’Rourke singalongasolo set

Shellac (not a massive fan but some histories shouldn’t be obscured by taste) if unavailable I guess Rise Against fill the same criteria. Sorta.

The Sea and Cake. You know the Glass EP? How much does it sound like less full on Billy Corgan/Flood production. Is that just me? Anyway, I’d make them play “Traditional Wax Coin” and see if Billy’s vulcan ears pricked up.

Kinsella family hour – everyone’s happy again now right? So lets have Cap’n Jazz with a little more gusto plz, followed by the pop highlights of Joan of Arc interspersed with a few Ghosts and Vodka songs, that one amazing Friend/Enemy track, and the best parts of all the Make Believe albums. Then Nate can sing a few songs about sexing, Davey can play “A Picture Postcard” (cos it mentions Birmingham, see?). For the encore please, the entire Owls album (including all the Japanese extra tracks) but with that Ryan guy drumming (sorry Mike)

Wilco, Austin City Limits 2004 lineup.

I had to argue in my head for a while about putting Wilco on after Cap’n Jazz, but I’ve had A Ghost Is Born on repeat all week.

There’s no real room for us to play so we’ll just do the merch.

Kelly mentioned a bit of the trouble leading up to the tour, then fans coming out of the woodwork to support you. How was the response to releasing your early music online to support the America tour? What’ve you all taken from it?

It was amazing. Tbh, we thought we were kinda fucked, then spent the evening refreshing Hotmail and watching our bank account and egos inflate. It was totally heartwarming to know that people cared so much. That’s not to say we’re not superproud of the stuff on bandcamp, we dug up a load of old art and stuff to go with them and they’re pretty rad packages, but it was a very last minute desperate gamble that we were pretty sure would fail until it had been running for a few hours. In the end, it paid for the first leg of tour and some merch, which we sold to finance the rest of it. We’re still a few grand out of pocket but we knew we’d come out poorer for unless we pulled a bank heist on the way. I think in the long run, it’s taught us that we can potentially sustain ourselves without any big corporate arseballet behind us; we raised a ton of cash using nothing but our own investment and work ethic, it felt a lot better than any royalty statement or contract advance we’ve received.

Given all the early material, what’s one old song that you’d like to re-record or finally record?

I don’t think it’d ever happen, them songs are trapped in those environments and times and remaking them now would seem like fakery. We have a never-ending list of new songs to record and going back seems like an unnecessary ego trip.

In Chicago, we’ve got the Lawrence Arms and their drummer Neil Hennessy. They’re a three-piece and Neil took the helm and sung one song in their entire discography (‘106 South’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ls2oShm9vYg). What’re the odds Junior will have his own moment in the mic spotlight?

Jun has an amazing boyband perfect voice, he’s got a bunch of songs with him singing but they’re pretty much all rude injokes about our friends. Hopefully at some point!

With a new label, America tour under your belts…what’s the big plans for 2011?

Record more, tour more, mostly try and work ourselves out of the americadebts. The new album is pretty much written in my head and the next few months we’re going to learn it for real. It as a title and everything but I don’t want to jinx stuff yet…

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