Back in 2012, Gab Winterfield - at the time one vague half of what would eventually become Jagwar Ma - decided to go all in. With producer pal Jono Ma having just completed construction of a DIY studio in a barn in the middle of the French countryside (as you do), he emailed the boss of the shoe shop he was helping to manage at the time. With just 24-hours’ notice, he put it simply. “Look, something’s come up and I have to go see this out”.
Following seven months or so holed up there, sleeping on mattresses in the studio (Bon Iver eat your heart out), Jagwar Ma found themselves with debut album ‘Howlin’’. Four years later, the pair, along with new addition Jack Freeman - who got the call up to join because, as Jack puts it, “I was the only bass player Gab knew in Europe at the time!” - have just completed its follow up, ‘Every Now & Then’.
So what’s changed? Technically, not much. The process and set-up is more or less exactly the same; they’ve lugged a few extra synths up those French hills and, as Jono puts it, “this one maybe has slightly more of a soul thing” going on, but apart from that they’ve stuck with what worked for them last time, cutting themselves off. What is different, though, is the band themselves.
“The greatest change was born out of our experiences”, explains frontman Gab.“The mental space we were in when we were making ‘Howlin’’, there was no band. I assumed that after we made that record, that I’d just go home and pick up a cash job, but now it’s like, ‘Well, what’s next?’” ‘Howlin’’ started life, after all, as a studio project; an album put together for fun. Suddenly, Jagwar Ma became a fully-fledged band, and ‘Every Now & Then’ is written as such. “I was conscious of how things would work in the live arena” Jono says, “not technically, but as far as having bits that people could sing and that kind of stuff. Not in a tacky way but actually like, this will be a thing that I can imagine, there’ll be some camaraderie.”
“Just throwing rocks at a tree for like two hours is so good!”
— Gab Winterfield
There are good and bad sides to this secluded process. Though they do draw on their experiences touring ‘Howlin’’ around the world, the band are very much in their own bubble in France. They’re 40 minutes from the nearest shop, the internet boils down to perching on a hay-bale (the one spot where they get a modicum of signal) and if any equipment breaks, it’s usually easier to just find something else to use than it is to wrestle with French shop opening times and laid-back approaches to ordering things in. This being said, there’s also plenty of inspiration up there. “It’s amazing how when you’re in that environment, just throwing rocks at a tree for like two hours is so good! There’s something really magical about that,” an easily pleased Gab says, while Jono notes the way in which “it’s healthy, because it strips you back to bare essentials like friendship, communication… and cooking. You’re not obsessed with all these social stresses.”
There are movie nights, mind. “We pop a big bowl of popcorn and run the laptop through the speakers so you get like, mad sound,” recounts Gab, who brought a hard drive stacked full of movies to use as wind-down time as well as inspiration; something they’ve used in their writing process both times around. “It’s also great and inspiring in a way, just seeing a finished body of work when you’re in the middle of something,” says Jono, “especially with films, because at any point in the making of a film they can go from being good to terrible. It’s amazing how this beautiful film can be shot, and then editing just screws it up because a producer said it’s too long.”
“Oh, we’ve made a fucking record!”
— Jono Ma
Film is a passion the group all share, and whether it’s the elements of their self-imposed exile they see mirrored in Withnail & I or their attempts to capture James Brown’s energy in The Blues Brothers, it’s clearly something that’s a big influence on their music; music that has always been colourful and visual in its nature.
That fear of wrecking something in the editing stage is something Jono in particular shares with film directors, too. It’s also one of the biggest problems he faces while hidden away. He speaks of the difficulty of actually finishing an album when it’s basically self-produced, and therefore completely in his control. “We’d booked in a mastering day, and in the four days leading up to it I was just like a panicking mess trying to finish everything,” he says. “The more you mess with things the worse it gets; it gets to a certain point where it goes backwards.” It’s at this point that it was time to return to society and, in this case, London. Again, this is a lesson learned from ‘Howlin’’. Both times, the band found packing up, taking a breath and returning to a place with, y’know, other people and stuff, hugely productive. This time around, a return to civilisation sparked additional last-minute tracks, created spontaneously right at the end. “On ‘Don’t Make It Right’, I just played a synth, played it to Gab, he threw a vocal down and it literally took a couple of hours and we didn’t over-analyse,” says Jono, adding that while this is something they are capable of, more often than not he’ll find himself poring over tracks to the point of madness.
The ability to work in this way drew inspiration from some unlikely sources, namely Noel Gallagher and Andrew Weatherall, who happened to be sharing their London studio. Gab recounts a time he was chatting with Noel (casual! - Ed). “Obviously it’s Noel Gallagher, and it’s easy for him to say this, but he said, ‘You know, when you get to my age you just don’t over-analyse - I made a record, I put it out, I’m gonna go touring and then I’ll probably make another one and then go touring again!’ The way he said it was so relaxed, but then he did write ‘Wonderwall’, so he’s okay!” Gab figures. Andrew too, was a big influence. “He puts out a remix every two weeks, and quite often they’re white label, and no one even knows they’ve come out,” says Jono, “he’s like, ‘Cool, done!’ then just moves on, doesn’t look back.” For Jagwar Ma though, it was more a case of Euan Pearson, who mixed the record, coming in and saying “look, it’s great, it’s done” before they were ready to surrender the finished piece.
Five days before this interview, Jono got his hands on the first test pressing of ‘Every Now & Then’, and it wasn’t until then he was able to finally relax. “Listening to it on a physical piece of wax and going, ‘Oh, we’ve made a fucking record!’” he says, “It wasn’t until that point that I could actually listen to it and enjoy it.” It’s this odd combination of meticulous, rigorous re-hashing of the methods they know worked the first time around, coupled with the steps outside of their comfort zone into spontaneity, that gives ‘Every Now & Then’ life. From giving a little control over to the likes of Stella Mozgawa (“a phenomenal drummer and a good friend”), James Ford and Euan Pearson for the live recreation of the samples used by Jono early on, to the possessive, no meddling nature of their time alone as a band, this record is more varied than it may first appear. A sporadic yet fully-formed statement that Jagwar Ma now know exactly who they are, the result is at once worlds apart and a close continuation of where ‘Howlin’’ left off.
Photos: Jenna Foxton / DIY.
Jagwar Ma’s new album ‘Every Now & Then’ is out now via Mom + Pop/Marathon Artists.
Taken from the new, October 2016 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe below.