Interview: Post-punk upstarts Desperate Journalist discuss their debut LP at the Lexington in London
At the risk of succumbing to the pitfalls of their moniker, the most promising band in the UK right now might be Desperate Journalist. The North London post-punk quartet of Jo Bevan (vocals), Robert Hardy (guitar), Simon Drowner (bass), and Caz Hellbent (drums) have been turning heads in the London scene with a sound that goes far beyond the Smiths-meets-Siouxsie first impression.
On January 22, they debuted their first full-length album — out now in the UK via Fierce Panda and released today in the States on Minty Fresh — to a sold out crowd at the Lexington in London’s Islington neighborhood. After strong support from a fuzzed-out Dressmaker and the brooding Terminal Gods, Desperate Journalist took the stage and immediately blasted into “Control,” the latest single and opening track off the new album. Bevan’s powerful and flawless vocals lead the way as Hardy’s ever present 12-string electric played counterpoint. His intricate jangle, littered with bursts and stabs of heavy chords, is a breath of fresh air in the increasingly stale world of indie guitar. Drowner and Hellbent pair up to form a powerhouse rhythm section, providing the structure and drive that left nary a body in the room stationary.
It wasn’t long before the happiest mosh pit in the last 20 years broke out and continued in the packed room for the rest of the night. The ghost of the early-’90s had arrived …and wasn’t leaving anytime soon. The band punctuated the energetic set with “Distance,” a moody piece on the struggles of transatlantic relationships. The follow-up, “Christina,” pushed the crowd right back to the brink with another powerful blend of pop hooks, heavy jangle, and emotional lyrics. When Bevan sings “I’m embittered and hitting out”, you feel it.
Two encores later (one featuring an unlikely cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”) and the exhausted capacity crowd reluctantly made for the exits. By the time most exited the Lexington, they witnessed Bevan outside post-show, with a newly formed throng of fans asking for autographs. It’s something she will have to get used to.
Before Desperate Journalist’s show, I had the chance to sit down with the band and chat a bit about the band’s recent formation, their creative process, and hiring drummers who have never played drums in a band before…
Pete Zeigler: How did Desperate Journalist get started?
Bevan: Well Simon and Rob had been in bands together for years and years.
Hardy: Then Simon and Jo had been in a band together for a while… who I was aware of and Jo and I were friends at that point. I always quite liked Jo’s voice and I was in another band that time but I always had it in the back of my head that I could do something with the way she sings.
Drowner: And then one day, as it happens, we were all just sitting about drinking and thought it might be a better use of our time to be actually playing in a band together.
Hardy: I play guitar, Simon plays bass, we had a singer, but we had no drummer. Caz said, well, yeah, I will learn the drums.
Drowner: Caz had never actually played drums before this.
Bevan: Yeah she was a guitar player and a singer but this is her first drumming gig.
Was there a vision as to what you wanted to do?
Bevan: There was a thought that there weren’t enough bands with guitars that were exciting in the same way as the bands we cared about so we had the thought let’s try and do it better ourselves.
Hardy: What I wanted that was something post-punk or whatever you want to call it but with songs. There was a while there where I wasn’t hearing any songs. Hearing bands that could be any other.
What do you listen to? Where are you coming from in that sense?
Hardy: Guitar-wise, Smashing Pumpkins are a big one for me, Nirvana, I like a lot of that American alternative. Then the Smiths of course. REM, early REM. Newer stuff as well but those would be the real influences I come back to.
Hellbent: Well, I used to be a goth as teenager so the Cure of course, I also like Depeche Mode a lot, a lot of that ’80s dark electronic. Also some indie like Bright Eyes.
Drowner: Lots of ’70s punk, new wave, also from growing up lots of ’90s Britpop and UK indie
Bevan: I like all sorts of things… I like emo, some stupid pop punk bands [laughs]. With a transatlantic childhood I ended up liking a lot of emotional American bands as well as British stuff. Bands like Texas is the Reason, Promise Ring, Mineral. I used to do a lot of emoting to Mineral. [laughs]
Another journalist noted recently that “This is a band that likely doesn’t jam a whole lot”…
Bevan: That’s right, we don’t jam at all [laughs].
What is the writing process you follow? With such strong lyrical content do you find yourselves starting there, or with a musical hook? Where does it start?
Bevan: It starts there [points at Harvey and laughs].
Hardy: I guess I write the majority of the music at home, I can be sitting on five or six songs and some of them will be too bad to even bring to the band. I write for myself obviously but also I write to some extent for them. I know what the band is going to sort of do to things and how they will be edited down.
Drowner: You know things where we are going to go “No, that’s shit, not that one.” [laughs]
Hellbent: But in a positive way though…
Hardy: Yeah, a couple of years ago there were times where I would bring stuff to the band and they would say “Nah, don’t like that Rob” but that is getting rarer as I am able to do that myself. A lot of the times I will bring in that stuff particularly with Simon and Caz and we will chop it to bits and cut out every thing we can possibly cut out and its like keep on pounding it out and pounding it out. Its weird then that Jo can just come in and match up a lyric and melody to it at that point. Jo will do different things. “Control” for example, in my head there was a chorus, which is now the bridge and the chorus is now the intro. Stuff like that happens all the time. The only song we ever wrote together whilst jamming was “Kitten.”
Bevan: Yeah, “Kitten” was one.
Drowner: I think you might have had like four chords, and I was a bit like, ahhhh, and I think I played it about double or quadruple the speed and lets just do it like that.
Hardy: Kind of feel some sort of competitiveness in a way, I want it to be good enough for the band. I want to present the band with a completely finished thing and for them to go “yeah, good one” and it’s just done.
Bevan: But then also it would be shit at the same time and we’d change it [laughs].
Hardy: It is that process of constantly moving things around and editing at the same time, particularly chopping stuff out.
So Jo, at what point do you step in and say enough, I need to write lyrics here?
Bevan: We try to get it to a stage where it is a structure I can try to do some kind of melody on, and if I feel like I have something super strong that is a chorus, I will say “Yeah, use this part.”
Hardy: Jo will sometimes say no, I am not singing over that part, or be singing some kind of melody that we work with. I’d say overall it is really easy for us right now.
Recording, did you re-record any of the earlier released tracks at Dean Street [Studios in Soho, London]? “Distance” for example…
Hellbent: “Distance” was re-recorded entirely.
Hardy: I also remixed “Christina” and “Happening.”
Hellbent: “Distance” didn’t have real drums at the first version. “Distance” itself has some great lyrical content.
Bevan: Ahh, “the wide and freezing transatlantic night”
Overall, when you went back into the studio was there an effort to pare things down, production wise?
Hardy: We were keen to make all kind of “live-ish”. It was more a re-examination of the songs and what should be in them. You can’t really do much beyond that when you are trying to record four songs in a day, so you work within those limitations.
The videos — You have one for each single to date and have developed a particular visual look and feel. Are you working with a producer? “Christina” was the first…
Bevan: Yeah, that one we did all ourselves with the help of a few of our friends but now we have someone called Jason Weidner, he was just someone who came up to us at a gig. He works for a film production company and he just approached us after a gig we did at The Hope and Anchor and said I do my own film stuff and I’d like to make a video for you. We said “cool, but we have no money” and he said that is fine. So yeah, he is just a real serendipitous acquaintance that we made.
Drowner: We did “Organ” with him first, then “Happening,” and “Control.” There is going to be a new one soon.
And there is a video for “Mistakes” as well?
Bevan: There is yeah, that is one we did totally ourselves as well, although it hasn’t been officially released as such.
Drowner: At the time we felt like we had a bit of a gap in stuff happening and we just thought that maybe now would be a good time to remind people of “Mistakes” but there was no big release.
So the album is out in the UK, coming soon in the US [out today] do you have any touring plans for the States?
Bevan: It’s a possibility, we have no actual firm plans.
Drowner: It’s about demand and cash really, and by cash we really mean just do be able to afford to do it. We’d love to of course.
Follow Pete Zeigler on Twitter @thePeteZ / All photos by Pete Ziegler