Interview: Johnny Foreigner in the studio: “We got there in the end

Johnny Foreigner in the studio: “We got there in the end”

Ahead of tonight’s Curtain Call 2016 show, we catch up with Alexei Berrow as the band piece together album six.

Johnny Foreigner are currently holed up in a warehouse behind Birmingham’s The Custard Factory. Occasionally you’ll find someone glancing up, checking for a crack, a drip or anything that would suggest the roof is about to collapse. It happened at a nearby unit recently and the band is keeping an eye out. Ceiling issues aside, the band are finishing up work on album six after a year of “growing up.”

The songs are sounding “massive” but it’s tough to gauge just how far away the finish line is. “We tried to make a board but it looks like a mental game of noughts and crosses,” laughs lead vocalist Alexei Berrow during a fleeting break. “I’ve spent so long in the studio, the other day I realised I had a beard,” he continues. “Everything is coming together, it’s all sounding pretty rad and we’re happy.”

The band - Kelly Southern, Junior Laidley, Lewes Herriot and Alexei - have left themselves plenty of open doors to explore with this new record. 2014’s ‘You Can Do Better’ was a to-the-point punk record whereas its predecessor, ‘Johnny Foreigner Vs. Everything’ was a sprawling anything-goes epic. Both were marked as triumphs. Better? JoFo can do anything.

“In my head ‘You Can Do Better’ is a soft reboot,” starts Alexei before pausing to ask, “can you apply that term to bands?” A moment passes before he decides, “I’m going to anyway. We had Lewis (who joined as an official fourth member after the release of ‘Vs. Everything’) and we wanted to make this thing that made us sound like a two guitar band. Everything up to up to that point felt like we were writing songs in our old style and just plonking that extra guitar in.” That was the one rule for that record and the band stuck to their guns. “There’s barely any keyboard on ’You Can Do Better’, there’s barely any samples. We’ve gone through that possibility now though,” he explains. “This record isn’t as sprawling as ‘Vs. Everything’ but it’s definitely more diverse. We’ve broken out the keyboards and boxes to make funny noises on.”

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‘Le Schwing’ (from ‘You Can Do Better’)

“We’ve broken out the keyboards and boxes to make funny noises on.”

Alexei Berrow

With no rules and time very much on their side due to them working in their own studio, Johnny Foreigner found the approach to album six frightening.

“We work well under pressure. If we know we have a deadline, we’ll have a decent product at the end of that. Take that away and you’re just left with a song. You’re in a room with a load of toys and you’re asking, ‘which is the best toy?’ and then, ’out of those toys, what is the best sound on that toy?’ It was ridiculous.”

The scary abundance of time soon twisted into something helpful as the band began to figure things out: “We had so much time to play around with stuff that it’s a lot more obvious now what should be where. We got there in the end.”

“Essentially our songs have a pretty basic formula so it’s nice to have the time to try to extend it and make it more interesting,” ventures Alexei. “We probably wouldn’t have that if we went to a real studio. The trade-off is the drum sound isn’t quite as good, but they’re not really the things anyone picks up on. If we’re making amazing songs I think that’s more important than having the perfect, realistic hi-hat sounds.”

“There’s certain things we did on the last record that I listen back and cringe a little at now,” admits Alexei. “I have that with every record but I was so happy with ‘You Can Do Better’ that it took twelve months to come down from and look at objectively. I was so in love with its idea that when the album was done and we finished the tour, I didn’t really want to do it again. It felt like we needed our space to go away and think of stuff and,” he breaks off before sighing to himself. “Oh god, I’m like that fucking Bono quote,” he exclaims before echoing, “I’m going to ‘go away and dream it all up again.’ But I think we need that - we can’t just record for the sake of recording. You can’t just be a band just for the sake of being a band. There has to be some sort of artistic thing behind it, even if that only makes sense to us and twenty people on Tumblr. You need to have that thing pushing it forward.”

‘Salt, Peppa and Spinderella’ (from ‘Waited Up ‘Til It Was Light’)

“You can’t just be a band just for the sake of being a band.”

Alexei Berrow

With every member of the band in a stable relationship, they can’t just jump in a van and go on tour. “If you do something, it has to be worthwhile. It’s still a sacrifice that our partners bear the burden of more than we do but it has to be worth something. You can’t just keep on doing the same thing. Well, you could,” he adds. “There are bands that do but I’d rather do something rewarding. It took us a while to find that thing to push it forwards. Then it was just a case of hearing the record in your head, the process of extracting it and making it a real thing. That’s the fun part.”

Following on from the “stereotypical always-on-tour,” second record, the “We have some more time, let’s mess about with acoustic instruments,” of ‘Vs. Everything’ and the “Marvel shattered-mirror universes,” of ‘You Can Do Better’ that saw Alexei explore what-if scenarios in the lyrics after only focusing on real life beforehand, album six sees JoGo go back to what they know: harsh realities.

While the band are finishing up their next chapter, it’ll never be at the expense of what’s come before. They’ve developed a culture of moving forward while cradling their history. “I think there’s a place for nostalgia,” states Alexei. “I don’t like it when you see bands and they’re like, ‘oh, we don’t play that song anymore’. That song was the reason why I loved you and if you don’t play that song anymore, does that mean that love was wrong?” Despite admitting that he’s probably over-thinking those interactions, Alexei applies his logic to Johnny Foreigner. “I can totally understand it when people come and see us, they want us to play the songs they know. That’s why people come and see bands. A band is almost like a person and you hang around with people because they’re your friends. You have an emotional connection that goes beyond the situation but if your friend is someone who only goes on about that time in 2008, that’s not the sort of person you want to be friends with. If you have that history and you can do awesome stuff now, that’s the best position to be in,” he offers. “We’re fortunate enough; we’ve played a bunch of shows these past few months just trialling these songs and they went down so well. Either our songs are really good or are fans are really polite. I’m hoping it’s both.”

‘Eyes Wide Terrified’ (from ‘Grace And The Bigger Picture’)

“Either our songs are really good or are fans are really polite. I’m hoping it’s both.”

Alexei Berrow

The album is still being put together but the band are hoping to release a couple of tracks sooner rather than later to tease their return. “We’ve been away for so long, we should lead people gently back to us rather than slamming an album in their face but that’s the plan. Whether we stick to that, we’ve pushed stuff back so much because it’s got to be right more than it’s got to be on time,” he says before explaining that the band got burned over some planned remix sessions for their ‘Grace and The Bigger Picture’ album that never happened. “It wasn’t that we thought the record sounded bad, it just didn’t sound finished.” Listening to the people around them, it’s the one time JoFo have been led astray. “I can listen to it now and I can hear the holes in it and the bits that should have been. It’s not embarrassing, but that was an opportunity we had, that millions of bands don’t get and we kinda blew it a little bit.” Refusing to make a mistake twice, Alexei explains, “I’d rather have people think we’re lazy or that we split up. I’d rather anything than putting something out and it not being as good as it absolutely can be. Man, I really do sound like Bono when I talk.“