It wouldn’t have been difficult if, after beating national treasures Manic Street Preachers and cult hero Cate Le Bon to 2014’s Welsh Music Prize with their debut album ‘Weird Sister’, it went to Joanna Gruesome’s collective head. Instead, they’re using the platform the success of their debut has afforded them to give back to their hometown and the scene that spawned them, as songwriter/guitarist Owen Williams explains. “Max (Warren, bassist) and I are putting a deposit down on a new DIY space in Cardiff next week. Partly because I hate most venues, I do really want to help start an autonomous, radical space that we all enjoy spending time in. After our first album, we donated some money to DIY Space For London, and we’re trying to get the same idea off the ground in Cardiff and contribute in an active way.” The new space is set to be called Castle Lane, although Gruesome guitarist George Nicholls threw the name The Chuckle Hut into the ring, a suggestion that’s… on the back burner.
The band’s second album ‘Peanut Butter’ was already written before their award success, and has since been previewed with a three-night London residency back in January and a set at the BBC 6 Music Festival in Newcastle. “I feel a bit detached from it now, as I wrote the songs about a year ago, but it definitely feels more like a flowing album than ‘Weird Sister’, and is more representative of our tastes and how we operate as a band than the last album”, Williams explains. “We’ve become a bit closer to a hardcore band as we’ve developed, and we definitely emphasise those aspects live. One thing I like to do is re-use melodies and parts from earlier songs, and I find the idea of being self-referential really funny. More in melodies than lyrics, but there’s definitely nods to some of our old songs on this album.”
Williams emphasises the idea of ‘Peanut Butter’ as a complete record, where ‘Weird Sister’ brings together songs written over a number of years, and some from before the band even existed. “The songs ‘Jerome (Liar)’ and ‘Psykick Espionage’ were written for our split releases with Trust Fund and Perfect Pussy respectively, but when we started to think about how the album was going to fit together, there were some gaps and those tracks seemed to slip in perfectly.”
The band’s kinship with Bristol-based Trust Fund, led by Ellis Jones, has given Williams the inspiration to write more autobiographically on the new album. “I had very specific ideas about what I wanted our very first songs to be about, with very violent lyrics and lyrics about zombies and vampires and comic books, all very cartoon-ish. This time, I wanted it to be a bit more grounded in my own emotions and everyday stuff that happens, and I think becoming really good friends with Ellis has inspired some of that, as he writes about stuff that is personal and important to him. For the most part though, it’s still just artificial pop lyrics and doesn’t aspire to be anything else. There’s loads of stuff about food on this album, I don’t really know why. There’s also some revenge fantasy stuff,” he laughs, “so the weirdness hasn’t completely gone away!”
“They're definitely not supposed to be read, and we do treat the melody and the lyrics as instruments in themselves, more than a platform for storytelling,” Owen confirms, playing down the role of Joanna Gruesome’s lyrics in defining their make-up and ideas as a band. “I definitely agree that our lyrics can be quite evasive, but I don't think that there's necessarily a way lyrics should be. A lot of people say that your lyrics should be a method with which to impart something, or to be really political, but for us I feel like we are political in nature, but that side of us becomes clear in different ways, through how we conduct ourselves as a band and how we operate rather than the subject matter of our lyrics themselves.”
The band kept the same producer and labels as they had for ‘Weird Sister’, wanting “to work only with people we trust”. “We know Matt [Johnson, Suburban Home Studios / Hookworms] our producer really well, and I think it's important to feel comfortable with someone you're entrusting with such a big task, and as he's our friend, I can argue with him over things and it's not awkward.
“In terms of the labels, I think a lot of bands who have achieved a similar level of success to us, however much that is, they would maybe try and jump ship to a 'big indie', but that never really crossed our mind. Slumberland, Fortuna Pop! and Turnstile from Cardiff who are sorting a European release for the album are really great labels, and for us, it made a lot more sense to have three smaller labels that we respect and that we like all of the roster rather than be on a bigger label who didn't understand our intentions.”
Coming from such a staunch DIY background, Joanna Gruesome have had a bit of trouble with how to approach and respond to certain offers and opportunities their increased success has brought them. “I think there's been the occasionally slip-up where you go along with it all a little bit too much without thinking, but if anything it means you have to be extra vigilant with what we do and what we say yes to. If the music press decides that they like you at some point and you get more exposure as a result, you're gonna get a lot of bullshit offers in, and one thing we've learnt is how to navigate all of that.” It’s this kind of defence against playing “'the normal rock show' in bullshit, black box venues” that made the band choose three nights at Power Lunches over a single, bigger London show to launch ‘Peanut Butter’.
“A lot of bands who get to a similar level of success as us either have used DIY as a stepping stone, or they've become popular without doing any of that stuff, and a lot of those bands don't give a shit. We try really hard to avoid slipping into that kind of mentality, and want to constantly give back to the scene that we're really invested in and that we started out in. We can't convincingly call ourselves a DIY band anymore - we have three record labels helping us out - but our ethics and our way of conducting ourselves as a band is still really indebted to that.”
‘Peanut Butter’ may take Joanna Gruesome to bigger places and further away from their DIY roots, but the band aren’t planning on forgetting about them. “We're in a position now where we're working with a lot of people that we trust, and we have enough sway in order to carry on doing things our way and choose the kind of shows we play and curate the line-ups. There's a lot of responsibility if you allow yourself to get into a position where you're working with more people than just your bandmates, but that also brings a lot of potential for helping out the scenes and spaces that you care about, which we never plan to stop doing.”
Joanna Gruesome's new album 'Peanut Butter' is out now.