As I write this the thaw is just washing away a brief spell of icy winter, which if you live in The Netherlands means good times, and lots of iceskating. It’s raining now though, and the water washes away the good memories quickly, making place for that uncertain no man’s land between winter cold and the promises of spring. It’s at this state of being that I am listening to the new album by James Johnston and Steve Gullick, and it turns out to fit the weather perfectly.
We Travel Time is a cinematic affair, carefully treading that path between densely layered soundscapes and singer songwriter craftsmanship. If like me, you are a fan of James Johnston because he played in Gallon Drunk, and on a couple of Nick Cave And The Bad Seed’s best records, you might not recognize him immediately. We Travel Time does not have that raw darkness on display. In stead it is much more contemplative, meditative even at times. Once your mind is adjusted to this new reality -and opened up wide- it is also a very beautiful and enriching experience. You can almost hear these two friends and music business veterans enjoying themselves as they are throwing ideas back and forth each in their own lockdown environment. There wasn’t much studiotime involved in this album, and by consequence it feels very up close and personal, as if the listener is confined in lockdown with the artists, and going through the same motions.
Steve Gullick is most famous for his music photographs -check out his amazing shoot with early Pearl Jam on his Instagram- and James Johnston became a fanatic painter after burying Gallon Drunk, and some of this mindset, this “artist gaze” has definitely rubbed off on the music. There is a certain stillness in these songs, as they capture moments with photographic precision while adding subtle layers of sound like a painter might. It sparks the joy of creation, even in all its beautiful melancholy. It is a very fitting sonic polaroid of the times we live in, and I am glad I did not overlook it.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to James Johnston about the album after a brief encounter on Instagram, here’s the conversation:
Hi there, it’s such a pleasure to be able to ask you a couple of questions. I have been a fan of Gallon Drunk ever since someone tipped me that my own band No Man’s Valley reminded me of yours ten years ago. How have you been? Can you sketch me a picture of what you have been up to since GD’s amazing last album The Soul Of The Hour till now?
The last Gallon Drunk album came out in 2014, on Clouds Hill. We toured the album a lot that year, and it sounded great live. In January 2015 both Terry and I were asked to join the recording of PJ Harvey’s new album, which became The Hope Six Demolition Project. Before the album was released, I recorded a solo album called The Starless Room, and that came out on Clouds Hill during the PJ Harvey tour, so I never really did any gigs for that. Ian White from Gallon Drunk is on the solo album too. Polly’s tour went on for a couple of years, and during that time I started drawing and painting in the mornings in hotel rooms. Just really small stuff, but very regularly, so that by the time the tour ended I had a feel for what I wanted to do with painting, and had started to find a voice in the painting. I rented a studio space, and now go in there 5 or 6 days a week, and have done for the last couple of years. Until doing the new record with Steve, the only music I’d worked on was theatre music with Polly. We did The Nest, All About Eve, and we were working on something until lockdown brought rehearsals to a stop. We’d recorded them in her flat, and it really got me back into that way of working. I was playing the violin a lot on it, and improvising my parts as rough ideas recorded at home, and that all fed into ‘We Travel Time’. A different way of doing things, with very different results, and I found I loved it.
One last question about Gallon Drunk and then it’s all about your latest effort: what is its status? Will we ever hear a new album?
I did change the tense of the Wikipedia entry from “are” to “were” the other day, if that’s any kind of marker. It does seem pretty unlikely. Someone else will probably just change it back to “are”.
You have had an incredible career so far, and you have released many great albums. Looking back, what was the best album you ever played on?
They’re all so different, you can’t really compare them. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a great album, Hope Six is great, From The Heart of Town, the last two GD albums, there’s a lot of music there I really love. Some of my favourite music I’ve been involved with is on the new album, and Steve’s video for Big Star Falls is the culmination of so many things I really love.
On to We Travel Time. It is a collaborative album with photographer Steve Gulick, which is of course an interesting factoid; he does not have a musical background like yours. What brought you together musically?
We’ve known one another since 1991, and first recorded together as ‘…bender’ about 15 years ago. We did a couple of albums with the three piece band, and ever since have thought about doing more music together. We were in an art show together and started talking about it a bit. I’d been doing the theatre music with Polly, and really fancied doing something else recorded in a low-key way. It immediately felt exciting to work with Steve again.
We’re both quite focussed and driven, but there’s never anything competitive about the process, it’s just easier to get something really natural that way. The same with Polly. Steve’s a music obsessive with a million ideas, and whatever technical hinderance there might be, he’ll find a really interesting and unexpected way of getting something across.
I think we both really surprised each other with the ideas that we were both coming up with. I’d spent two years in the painting studio listening only to low volume classical music, so my outlook and source of inspiration was a bit different to normal too. We were both aiming for something moving, simple, and had to try things out to find out what it was. Nothing in the record was planned, at all.
What were the circumstances of writing and recording the album? How was it affected by the Corona pandemic?
We were both working from home, sending each other ideas, adding stuff, sending it back. Usually almost immediately. My set-up was one mic, so I tended to use acoustic instruments as it was quicker to get an idea down while it was fresh. Half the time I’d be playing something and an ambulance would go tearing past, crows making a racket, clocks chiming, all sorts of extraneous sound that bled into the music. We managed to have one day recording together at Steve’s place, right at the end.
Time travel is such an interesting verb and topic, it can be explained in so many ways. What made you choose We Travel Time as a title for the album?
It worked for a lot of reasons. We’ve known each other 30 years for a start, and there’s one song on there which was originally recorded 15 years ago, then we added new parts to finish it. Certain sounds can transport you too. There’s a specific clock mechanism on there that’s something I’ve heard since I was a child at my parents’ house. It’s also quite ambiguous, which fits perfectly with the mood of the album.
Comparing the album with your other work there is one big difference in my opinion; there is beauty and melancholy, but there isn’t much of your characteristic darker/uglier side. Do you recognize that? And would you have an explanation?
It’s what I wanted to hear, what I wanted to listen to. The same for Steve.
You are a prolific painter as well, and We Travel Time at times sounds like a painting to me as well, very atmospheric and with plenty of layers. Can you compare your approach in these two disciplines?
To avoid the blank canvas I just start on a painting, and with the music all the best ideas I had for the album came from a similar unconsidered and open approach. Get something down, then respond to it, try and disappear off into it. Often the initial idea gets painted over, or wiped from the music, and you’re left with something surprising, and not anchored to an immovable idea. You can’t see or hear yourself in it so much anymore.
What is success to you? Do you consider yourself successful, and what do you still wish to achieve?
I think the fact that I’m involved with a record like this, and that I’m able to work as a painter is definitely my idea of success. As for what I want to achieve, there’s always another piece of music to do, another painting to start.
Thanks a lot for your time, once again it means a lot to me. If you have anything to add, please do.
Thanks again Jasper