13 Questions with Richard Lomax from Johnny5thWheel&thecowards

by HST UK on April 27, 2012

Some interviews come completely out of the woodwork; an opportunity suddenly presents itself through an elegant third party. In this case a press release from the immensely talented Anja McCloskey alerted me to the curiously named Manchester based band Johnny5thWheel&thecowards. After listening to their music I immediately liked their intense fire, and flair, but I wanted to find out more.

Richard Lomax from this triumphantly ragtag bunch of musicians spoke to HST….

HST: Johnny5thWheel&thecowards, let’s get the obvious out of the way first – explain your band name?

There are various circumstances that contributed to the name but one of the strongest was the idea that the band would remain anonymous. For early gigs we all wore masks and had these grand plans that ‘Johnny’ would be this big mysterious figure… Part superhero, part scientist.

The name avoids the usual tiresome chest-beating that seems bound up with mainstream music now. This approximation of the Rock’n’Roll spirit that some musicians try to put on doesn’t really do them any good creatively. The Rolling Stones already existed you know. We’ve always been more interested in the sounds we were making and experimenting with them. I feel the name a strong indication of us as a creative unit.

Another favourite is from a friend of ours, Ollie Mason who played on the album: “Do you know how brave you have to be to call yourself a coward?”

HST: Who’s in the band?

When we first started at the end of 2009, it was just myself and Andy (drums/accordions) – we played a lot as a duo but the recordings were always going to be grander than that. We had a lot of friends come in and have fun playing with us on the first album, a lot of excellent musicians from our favourite bands… The Murmurs Of Tension, Ottersgear, Victorian Dad, etc. Everyone was in the ‘band’ at that point. We were a collective who would turn up for shows with whatever musicians we had kidnapped that night. We numbered between two and fourteen at most I think. We’d all wear masks so crivens knows who was in the band. Someone at Tasty Zine had a theory that Guy Garvey was playing drums for us at one stage.

After a while, with people hearing the album before they saw us, the line-up settled a bit and is currently Frank Beaver (organ), Stevie Guy (vocals), Dave Watkins (bass), Andy and I. We still occasionally have friends coming in and playing. Mark Mace Smith (Manchester poet) often joins us on percussion or beatbox and young Tom Metcalfe is playing guitar.

HST: Your 2010 album ‘TalesOf…’ could be thrown into the genre envelope broadly marked ‘folk’, it’s a wee bit more than that, what do you say when people try to categorize your music?

Going back to the last question and how it was just the two of us to begin with. That acoustic sound, our early refusal to use electric guitars which was part of an experiment to move away from the electric guitar music I’d made in the past, the fact that a lot of the songs are so story driven… Any of those reasons could contribute to why ‘folk’ feels like the easiest-to-digest label to stick on it.

Obviously if you listen to it next to a Carthy & Swarbrick record, it’s really not folk but how would you describe it? There’s elements of skiffle, classical, psychedelia, jazz, swing, even metal on that album. If you listen to the current single, it’s probably about as unclassifiable as we’ve gone so far but they’re just words aren’t they. An easy way to sell art to people. I like to think of it all as pop music which would be a term that would stand up if the current state of ‘pop music’ in the mainstream wasn’t in such dire straits.

HST: Record Store Day has recently passed, what is your attitude regarding how your music is consumed, are you a vinyl romantic?

A Vinyl Romantic? I like that term. Yes, I’d describe myself as that. I go to the record shop and can lose myself for hours searching for ‘that’ copy of ‘that’ album. Of course this behaviour would be called eccentric today when you can just type a word in the internet and have your tastes immediately sated. Against the grain of convenience.

But it’s for the enjoyment of the whole experience… from mention of artist or record to record shop to home to large sleeve art to reading the large sleeve notes to displaying bits of your personality to guests through your collection to sharing the experience of putting the record on in company or alone. As an experience I vastly prefer the physical one I just described to the laptop party which some folks listening ventures have become. That anything and everything is available instantly is feeling a bit cheap these days.

That’s not to say I’m a complete technophobe or that I don’t see some of the benefits that digital music consumption has afforded but it does feel like we’ve lost something. Something I’m keen to hang onto.

HST: As a music listener, how do you go about sorting through what deserves your full attention? I’m finding it increasingly hard to fall in love with a band/album these days. I’m not sure if this is a case of getting older, when you no longer idolize pop and rock stars as much, or because I’m neck deep in music – like piranhas, songs and albums bite at my ear lobes. How have your experiences as a music listener changed over the years?

Well it is true, I’m no longer waking up early on the day of release of the new Super Furry Animals or White Stripes album. We don’t respect the famous so much because ‘fame’ has been dragged about and ridiculed so in the last 10 years or so. Maybe it’s been longer than that but never more so than now has it been less desirable, less ‘cool’ to be famous.

That idolatry becoming an empty thing hasn’t changed me. I still know in my gut what music I can fall in love with by hearing it. I only saw Jeffrey Lewis for the first time a couple of years ago and I felt the same way I did when I heard Pavement, Love or Kristin Hersh. I felt it the other day when hearing tUnE-yArDs for the first time.

It’s probably a combination of the factors you’ve listed. I no longer get my music recommendations from mainstream music magazines or Top Of The Pops or whatever but I still listen to 6Music, I still find music through other musicians talking about their influences or my friends giving me tips about something they think I’d enjoy.

I still fall in love, the muscles just take a little more exercising than when I was 14 I suppose.

HST: Talk us through the creative process, how does a song come together? Do you sit in a room and ‘jam’, or do you work from an initial rough idea or melody?

I tend to write compulsively. Only when I need to as forcing it tends not to work so much… the results can feel forced but when ideas come I can play for hours in my own head searching for how it fits together. It really is different for every piece of music we make which may go some way to explaining why they are all so disparate.

We don’t ‘jam’ as such. If you jam, people tend to pull from influences too close to their surface to come up with anything interesting. You have to jam for long enough to divorce your brain from what you’re doing for it to work.

‘Jamming’ is saved for the problem children, the songs that just won’t resolve, settle down and become themselves. When that happens they tend to get marched into a studio and endlessly played until we’ve reached some strange Duende-like state and then something will grab my attention – a new drumbeat… for example, there’s a track on the new album called ‘I’m Not West’ that started off in some horrible faux trad-country style. Andy and I must have been playing one chord progression for close to 4 hours before we stumbled on THAT idea that made it work which in this case is a drumbeat that switches between the Can-Can and belly-dancing music.

Initially it is the melody that tends to grab me and I am particularly enamoured by words and stories. When one or both of those is worthy of my attention, the rest tends to flow out once I’m in the correct headspace.

HST: What is your take on ‘covers’. What is your favourite ‘cover’ song? Do you have any ‘covers’ in your setlist?

Covers are fun. As long as it’s one a set or so… Reinterpretations are better than straight copies but then everyone says that don’t they…

Three of my favourite covers that spring to mind are:
Jackie – Scott Walker (Jacques Brel)
I Heard It Through The Grapevine – The Slits (Marvin Gaye)
My Little Red Book – Love (Burt Bacharach)

We have a few covers we like to break out every now and then… ‘Pure Imagination’ by Newley and Bricusse is one, ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’ by the Inkspots is another. We put on a gig dedicated to 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields where a bunch of bands and poets performed the whole album in its entirety so there’s a whole tract of about 8 songs from that we can play as well…

HST: I was at a gig last week in Norwich and was shocked by the amount of booze band members (who shall remain nameless from bands that will remain nameless) were downing before they performed. What are your pre-gig rituals? Do you sip honey and lemon to soothe the vocal cords or do you neck pints of ale?

Probably somewhere in between… we’re not straight edge but all that fake drunken swagger is part of that Rock’n’Roll cliché that’s been explored to death by some excellent artists and it doesn’t really interest me any more. Music, especially gigs, and alcohol can be bound up with each other but I wouldn’t expect to see us downing tequila shots on stage any time soon. That said it’s unlikely we’ll be playing sober as you’re just not loose enough to perform without a drop or two in you.

HST: What’s happening in the Manchester scene at the moment, off the top of my head I can only think of WU LYF have broken through to a wider audience, looking up from the South I can’t see many more bright lights. I’m sure I’m not looking hard enough, so tell me what am I missing?

We have two members in Manchester, some in Preston, St Helens, all over the North-West. There’s lots going on all over. Wu Lyf have just been on Letterman haven’t they and that’s about as ‘wide’ as you can get – breaking wise. I mean it’s pure luck who becomes a world-eating global phenomenon but if you’re looking for decent Northern music I can recommend Ivan Campo, Liz Green, Louis Barabbas & The Bedlam Six, Denis Jones, Gideon Conn, India Mill, Ottersgear, Dan Haywood’s New Hawks, samandtheplants, Onions, Air Cav, I mean Spokes were shortlisted for the Mercury prize last year weren’t they? That’s quite ‘wide’…

It is interesting who is known down there from up here and vice versa. I often think record labels send London bands up here on tour sometimes as some kind of lesson because you have these bands from wherever the current ‘scene’ is in London and their entire world revolves around them and they come up here and they’re playing to 30 people.

HST: I’ve grown particularly fond of the Soundtrack to the film ‘Drive’. What director would you most like to work with, if such a project hypothetically was to arrive?

So feature-length? Jean-Pierre Jeanet and Terry Gilliam would definitely be the front runners and of course Lynch though I reckon every musician wants to work with him. Terry Gilliam definitely, we’ve watched documentaries about his films and he seems to have a similar level of obsession to us. I’m pretty sure our drummer Andy would add Jim Henson to the list too… (I know he’s passed on but it IS a wishlist).

If you’re talking shorts/music videos, I’m very jealous that the Horrors have just got to work with Pete Fowler whose art I’ve always admired.

Andy: There’s a fantastic graphic novel of an early Jim Henson / Jerry Juhl script called ‘Tale of Sand’ that unfortunately never got made into a movie. On reading it I can definitely hear us providing a soundscape to the largely dialogue-free fantasy, if it ever were to be completed… perhaps Gilliam could direct.

HST: You toured Australia in early 2012, how did this trip come about? What did you see over there?

I’ve toured Australia in some form nearly every year for the last 5 years I think. I’ve got a lot of family over there and my last band had a deal over there which is probably where the idea of playing over there started. I enjoy the frontier feel of the place and obviously the weather. When I first started going over there I was greeted with a wonderful warmth by the crowds and promoters, they’re probably a little more jaded towards me now. Either that or they’re learning from their English counterparts.

The last trip out there was very up and down. Some very extreme experiences. That’s all I’ll say.

HST: Richard, I noticed on the blog that you’re a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, tell us about what other writers you like and admire?

Yes, Kurt V is where it’s at for me. I love his warmth and compassion. Like for music, film and art I tend to use different writers to get my ‘fix’ in different areas. I take Kafka for my absurdity fix, Poe for my ‘goffick’ suspense fix and Camus for my existentialism – like medication. No self respecting ‘hip’ musician would let a question like this slip by without mentioning his love for the Beats so… yeah I also like Ginsberg, Bukowski and Kerouac. If I’m going with someone current then I read Will Self at the moment – his fatalism appeals to me.

HST: Lastly, the remainder of 2012, are you playing any Summer Festivals? Is your follow-up album ready to go in September? What else do you have planned?

I’m not really the outdoor type so festivals may or may not be happening… we are definitely playing Southsea Fest in Portsmouth. Everything else is just talk so I won’t say it in case is doesn’t happen.

The second album is good to go barring one possible descant recorder symphony on afore-mentioned problem child ‘I’m Not West’ and a bit of mixing which Andy and I always enjoy arguing over. It still needs a title… the working one is ‘…And That’s How Ladyglue Is Made, Son’ but I don’t think that’s going to cut it.

Reinforcing my compulsive writing I have about three different albums worth of songs that I’m working on the moment. Plans are being discussed but not made… I think I’d like to do one of those Monthly Journal type albums like Thomas Truax did where you record and release one song a month. The single, single, single, album way of working only really works if you have more than a Dominos coupon and twenty pound note in your budget…

Expect slightly darker material from future Johnny5thWheel projects I would say. The first album was written in a much happier place and I’m exploring other stuff now. It’s still fun but it’s nasty fun…


If you are interested in answering HST’s 13 Questions then hurry up and email us at: aprilmaymarch777@yahoo.co.uk

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