London Punks JOHN Want Fans To Question Everything On Fiery LP ‘A Life Diagrammatic’ [Q&A] | THE NOISE
London punks JOHN start a fire on their latest album, A Life Diagrammatic. It is a searing and muscular collection of songs that harness the punch and intensity of the band's blistering live shows with its increasingly textural, cinematic, and expressive sensibilities.
Recorded by Tom Hill at The Bookhouse in South London, mixed by Seth Manchester (METZ, Big Brave, Battles), and mastered by Frank Arkwright (Arab Strap, Squarepusher, Autechre), JOHN's forthcoming album, A Life Diagrammatic, continues the band's subtle evolution in recent years as they continue to redefine and expand the parameters of what a guitar and drums two-piece can be. "We knew the direction we wanted to go in after the last record," the band says of 2021's spatially expansive Nocturnal Manoeuvres. "We had started going a bit more towards soundscapes rather than straight-up noise and four to the floor structure." This level of thought, ambition, and scope makes JOHN such a captivating and genre-defying band and A Life Diagrammatic such a rich and evocative listening experience.
The Noise had the chance to talk with drummer and vocalist John Newton about the record, what it means to be punk in 2023, and the message of their music.
Tell me a bit about the message behind A Life Diagrammatic. What are you trying to say with this LP, and how does its message bare its teeth throughout the body of work?
John Newton: We've never been fans of direct/hardened messages, so we tend to write from a close-to-hand perspective, inviting listeners to dig a bit deeper into some of the scenarios, locations, and experiences running through different tracks. There's something more lucid about it — rather than simply tacking on political or social commentary as a grasping attempt at contemporary relevance. A Life Diagrammatic coincided with my move to the south coast of England, so in line with the above statement, it felt natural to include some of the new locations encountered. There's a fair few nods to the ceaseless industry that clashes with the natural reality of the coast. I've always enjoyed trying to capture imagery without images, there's a real challenge to direct the "cinema" of a song with only sound and words at your disposal. We were also lucky to collaborate with similar cinematic figures Simon Pegg (Mission Impossible, Shaun of the Dead) and Barry Adamson (Magazine, Bad Seeds, The Birthday Party) to help direct this intention.
The society we live in NEEDS labels and boxes to make sense of itself, yet the punk community and the artists who live within it historically have aimed to break down those barriers avidly and the notion of being put in a box. However, what does it mean to be punk in 2023 if you had to define it? What are the community's motto and goals in this age, and do you think they've changed or stayed the same since its origins?
All my favourite artists have a subtle way of digesting their everyday experience and mangling it into new forms, whether that's through "punk," a "sculpture," a "novel," or a "film." I think there's a responsibility to employ a level of depth beyond the simple forms that capital thrives off. There seems to be an incredible popularity for very direct statements in music, and don't find it to be a very enjoyable experience, especially as it is more than often co-opted to be used as a convenient sales narrative. I think there's a responsibility to try to think outside music "industry" fenceposts and conventions. It's always been more about communicating ideas for us.
Did you set out to make this body of work, or were y'all just writing and realized, "Oh, this is turning into an album?"
We began writing a body of songs after 2021's LP Nocturnal Manoeuvres, and our label partners, Brace Yourself Records, suggested that we test these out as demos in the studio — with Tom Hill on the dials at The Bookhouse Studio in South London — to see which direction we were moving. Having heard the results, all parties were clear that we simply needed to follow this process and dig in deeper, casting off the notion of demos and leaning into the fresh sound that Tom had helped achieve. We undertook subsequent sessions, which enabled us to add to the initial recordings whilst adding new songs. It was helpful to have time to digest in-between in order to build an album that we felt flowed cohesively and conceptually.
What was the hardest song to write? This can mean either technically or lyrically or anything. It can be open to interpretation.
I think a song like the album closer, "The Common Cold," has a lot of technical challenges with the breadth of dynamic that the song has, moving from a haunting Morricone-esque scene to a more out-and-out industrial grind. You need to ensure this is really clear and well-constructed within a live setting. We also introduced the use of some drum samples on this album, which was a great way to stay playful and on our toes after a decade. It's added yet another progression, but it does mean that I'm becoming a bit of an octopus live, juggling drums, vocals, and the sample pads.
What is your favorite track on the album? Do you have a favorite to perform live?
There's not really any favourites here. We tend to really try to focus on building the scene of a whole album in order to make a complete experience rather than focusing on singularly. On live terms, another track developed from the playfully produced drum samples previously mentioned was "Trauma Mosaic." It's a song that shows a real dynamic construction and one that is very satisfying when it reaches the crescendo. We knew that it would work well in the real-time and space as soon as we completed it. It's since become a stalwart in the live set.
Obviously, music is subjective, but if there was one thing that you hoped listeners took away from the album, what would it be?
I think we just want to encourage people to "double-take" — to look and question their routines of quotidian life (and music). It's so easy for traditions to simply be accepted within the avalanche of everyday obligations, even when they're oppressive. We've always championed the creative arts as playing a very important part in the health of our communities, and we hope that our stance can encourage others to understand the holistic benefit, instead of constantly judging on the numerical/financial terms dictated by a neoliberal system.
What is the most challenging part about being a musician and making the music you make at this point in your career?
Tying nicely into the last answer, the lack of wider celebration for the arts (particularly in the UK) is very frustrating. There is not enough realisation that grassroots arts is a very successful solution to many social problems that have increased in a constantly accelerating society. To bow down to more financial terms, the arts are also an incredibly successful ambassador/export for the UK, and the red tape that has been wrapped around the country post-Brexit is an absolute travesty. They have shot themselves in the foot. It has now ripped a future of opportunities away from anyone who doesn't have significant investment available from day one. It's quite frankly disgusting, and that's not hyperbole.
If you could talk to the version of you from the beginning of this project's journey, what would you say?
Keep enjoying and challenging yourself. Following and exploring the whims of your idea is key… Oh, and cut your hair.
What are you hopeful for in the rest of 2023? It doesn't have to be solely music related.
We have a very busy end to 2023 / start to 2024 supporting the new album live. This begins on release day with a series of in-store performances in UK record stores. We follow this up with the 15-date debut tour in the U.S. and Canada through October, and then move on to proper UK dates from November through March.
We'll also be playing Pitchfork London mid-November with Fucked Up & OFF! so it'll be nice to be sharing stages with like-minded heads. We'll have to see what else we can fit in around all these activities — maybe a run or two to keep fit and sane amongst all the movements. Exercise is always a very good way to keep check on our mental health at home and on the road.
Do you have anything you'd like to say to any fans or anyone reading this article?
We know full well that we're pretty new to most over that "pond," so we're hoping that we can spread the word of the U.S. dates through October 2023. We hope you'll give us a warm welcome. Despite being proud of the recorded back catalogue of four LPs, it's always been a live band, and it's been great to be valued for the energetic performance that is a JOHN show. Perhaps it's a reason why we've been able to join similarly energetic bands such as IDLES, METZ, Mclusky, Viagra Boys and Cloud Nothings over on our side of the Atlantic. Come say hello, yeah?