The Joanna Gruesome extracurricular schedule – seances, trips to pagan sites, etc – is exhausting.
As much as some people want you to believe that guitar music’s dead – it’s not. However, it can be very boring. You know, identi-kit acts being chucked together and writing pointless pop. Joanna Gruesome continue to prove that not only can you release two incredible albums, help to foster a DIY community and play in multiple bands, but you can do it all whilst writing catchy power-pop anthems.
Formed in 2010, Joanna Gruesome released their fantastic second LP ‘Peanut Butter’ last year, an album that’s a punk riot, combining feedback, riffs, melodies, shouting and harmonies to create one of the best albums of 2015. Mid-way through the year vocalist Alanna unfortunately left the group, with the remaining members bringing in Kate and Roxy to bolster the line-up. This doesn’t seem to have slowed them down, with guitarist and songwriter Owen Williams telling me the biggest change was “Less space in the van, but they are legends obviously so doesn’t matter.”
While Joanna Gruesome may be the main focus for everyone in the band, it’s by no means the only one. All members have another project, including Owen’s band Caramel. He says that having both bands can be “overwhelming”, telling me that “Writing a J. Gruesome album in itself is kind of like writing a power pop album and a hardcore punk album at the same time, so writing stuff for Caramel on top does involve a fair amount of concentration… Also the J.G. extracurricular schedule – seances, trips to pagan sites etc – is exhausting, And then there’s working out what you’re going to wear!” Luckily though it’s not all stress and Owen thinks the fact that he, Roxy and Max play in other bands together helped them “gain that vital telepathic connection” leading to, among other things, no onstage outfit clashes.
The other bands they’re in give them a sense of community and the support of like-minded musicians. At an Art is Hard event last year – a label they’ve released on before – I saw most of the band milling about during the day, playing or just hanging out. It gave the event a family feel, and Owen confirms this: “I think boring, apolitical bands tend not to have friendships with other bands or bother to position themselves within those kinds of communities. So they tour with bands they’ve never met or listened to, play sponsored shows and probably take no interest in the operation of their band. I think the communities we’ve been involved with attempt to reject that model.”
He says it’s “healthy” for bands to be fostering these communities, with proof of this being the sheer brilliance of all the acts involved. It helps nurture positivity and support, the kind exemplified by the community space that the band are currently trying to set up. They’ve got a location in sights and “fingers crossed” as Owen adds, they’ll be able to secure it. The aim is to create somewhere that counters the kinds of venues that Own criticises are “a rented black box that would much rather be functioning as a bar and nothing else”. With truly independent and community run venues hard to find in their main base of Cardiff, Owen tells me: “People obviously want politically and aesthetically exciting spaces, places where you are very unlikely to find bands of bearded men in plaid shirts playing on stages draped in brewdog and jack daniels flags; i.e. places that won’t result in psychic death.”
As you may have guessed, Joanna Gruesome don’t mince their words. It’s refreshing to chat to an outspoken band, helping to be the remedy to a lot of what they feel is wrong with music, or the world at large. Trying to remain “politically conscious about how the band should operate in the real world and how our feminist/anti-homophobic principles and so on should inform our decisions and actions”, the band’s lyrics are often misinterpreted as about being about these themes. Instead, Owen tells me that they’re “pretty much all standard espionage / revenge fantasy pop lyrics.” The explicitly political is instead the personal, not that these are necessarily mutually exclusive as Owen tells me: “I actually have been writing a bit about my own gender , processing my own feelings about it being non-binary, about being male assigned, performing femme, etc… And in a world that’s still super hostile towards these ideas, simply writing about one’s own gender in this way can obviously be a political, feminist or ‘queer’ act.”
There are not many other acts, at least not many others that have won the Welsh Music Prize, that you can imagine tackling gender, politics and more in such a head-on way, but Joanna Gruesome are different – and they’re punk in the purest sense of the word.
Joanna Gruesome play the Exchange on 18th March.
Check out ‘Sugarcrush’ right here: