Describing Desperate Journalist with just one genre label like post punk or indie doesn’t really do them justice. The four-piece from London keeps carving out their own niche with third album “In Search of the Miraculous”, combining different musical influences into their own blend. And it seems that singer Jo Bevan, guitarist Rob Hardy, bassist Simon Drowner and drummer Caz Helbert strive to ‘up the ante’ with every new release.
Their new album has a big sounding production, guitar work in the tradition of The Smiths and excellent vocals added as an extra layer on top. Singer Jo is a true wordsmith, writing lyrics beyond the average pop song. For “In Search of the Miraculous” she came up with a concept, inspired by an artist that made art his life – and he ultimately gave his life for his art.
The band also give a lot for their music. Desperate Journalist are not a band with a deep-pocketed major label behind them, they are signed to an indie label and are all working fulltime jobs to make it work out. Of course that makes it much harder in terms of finding time to work on music and to play live. However, as they tell us in the interview, they see an upside to this: it keeps them grounded.
Having already been good friends before founding Desperate Journalist, they come across like a tight-knit gang. To help them deliver their “big” sound on stage, guitarist Charley Stone joined their live line-up in 2018.
We had the opportunity to meet them prior to their gig at Hafenklang in Hamburg and chat about their latest album “In Search of the Miraculous”, being “dreamboats” and balancing full-time jobs with a band career.
“They call us dreamboats”
Many people might not know about your band’s background yet. How did you find each other?
Jo: I had been in a band with Simon, and then that died a bit of a death. Simon had also been in a band with Rob in Birmingham before they both moved to London, and Caz really just wanted to play drums.
We were all friends, sort of hanging around the same places in North London, talking about how we hated most of the bands who were playing at the time, so we just thought we’d have a go, did a rehearsal and went from there. It’s not a particularly exciting original story (laughs).
We all already liked similar sorts of bands, we liked seeing similar sorts of gigs, so it was a natural that we would coalesce into something that would work from the word go.
Rob and Simon are from Birmingham. Where are you from, Jo and Caz?
Jo: I am from the most boring part of the home counties in Southern England (laughs). A place not even worth mentioning.
Caz: I was in another band before, I kind of met Simon first, because my band had shared members and also played gigs with the band that he was in at the time. But I used to play guitar but I switched to drums because I wanted to play with them, and they needed a drummer. What else can I say – I am French?
What on earth made you switch to drums from guitar? Too many guitarists on this planet?
Caz: No! Not at all. I still play guitar with friends in other projects. It’s just that we’re friends and we were hanging out a lot, and they wanted to start something together, maybe start a band, and, you know “We’ll need a drummer. We have vocals, guitars and bass but no drummer”, and I was just like “Can I do it? Can I try?” (laughs).
You never played before? I mean, you have a very distinctive style.
Caz: No, but I think it’s because my sister played the drums. I learned guitar and my sister learned drums when we were teenagers. I just always wanted to play, it looked fun but I had never played it in bands before Desperate Journalist. That might be why it becomes a style I guess, but I was never professionally trained.
Rob: It’s one of the nicest things playing with Caz because often, when you play with drummers, they want to knock around loads of pointless fills and stuff and make it more complicated than it should be. But I think Caz kind of learned to play the drums along with learning to be in this band.
Jo: And to fit the songs particularly.
Caz: Sometimes also the limitation gives you a certain style I guess, because there are things that I can’t do. I usually follow the guitarist, and I can build around that; sometimes they tell me what to do as well (laughs), and I have to learn it.
Jo: Yeah, it’s distinct from the sort of everyone who’s been in a band in their hometown or whatever, who had some person playing the drums and wanted to be Keith Moon or John Bonham or something. But Caz just wanted to figure out how it worked, which I think is a much more useful approach for the stuff that we do, because it’s not just like “showy”, it’s appropriate.
Caz: And in time!
How did you develop the type of sound you have? Was it a concept, or it just happened?
Rob: Well, I mean, we actually consciously intended not to do what we’ve ended up doing (laughs).
I think we all said when we first started let’s not be an indie band. Within almost the first rehearsal and the first song we wrote, it became clear what we were doing and were going to do. I tend to write the beginnings of the music, and I just can’t get away from doing that sort of indie stuff.
Jo: Well, you are a guitarist (laughs).
Rob: Yeah, and particularly in the early days we were super excited about “There is one guitar, there is one bass, there are drums and there are vocals and we will not adorn it with anything”. I think there is a limit to what you can do with that.
And I was getting into twelve string guitar, which then makes it even more indie, and because we like similar-ish bands or at least cross-over on certain bands, it just ended up with this thing. It wasn’t a concept at all, it was the exact opposite, really.
Rob: Actually, when I say we’re an indie band, I don’t think I am being quite correct. First and foremost we’re kind of a pop band, but kind of arranged it in a slightly alternative way.
Yeah, I looked on which labels people attach to you and it was like “indie goth”, “post punk”, obviously, and another version of it “indie goth dreamboats”.
Caz: Oh, yeah “dreamboats”, that’s the label that came up with that.
Jo: They like to add very florid descriptions of us, where possible. They call us dreamboats loads.
Simon: I wouldn’t use anything to define what we do. They’re just words that can give you an idea of the type of thing. We’re not goth, but we are dreamboats (laughs). We’re not like just a post punk band, or anything.
Rob: Yeah, genre isn’t really that useful to anything beyond wanting to get a vague idea of whether or not you might like it. From a creating point of view it’s weird to create within a genre; you write a song and you might sort of push it slightly more in another direction because that’s what the song asks for. It’d be really odd to sit down and write and go “I’m gonna write a goth song!”.
Jo: Yeah, I dislike to do that.
Caz: You can tell when you have done that.
Simon: There are a lot of bands that do work within a genre. They are a goth band, that is their world, but we’re not.
Eight Days a Week: How to make it work
“Making it” in music might always have been unlikely, but with the changes in the industry it is even less so. What’s more, Desperate Journalist live in London, which most definitely doesn’t bring living costs down and they all work fulltime jobs and have this band. In true indie spirit they also create their own artwork, take care of logistics, plan tours and many other things. They truly are autarkic.
You all have fulltime jobs, how do you make it all to fit. I mean, the “work-band-life-balance”?
Caz: Oh god, yeah it’s really hard.
Jo: It’s a real conflict in my life! (laughs)
Caz: That’s why we don’t tour as much as other bands because we have to work full time. We have a certain amount of holidays that we can take from work, and we can’t go over that really. That limits us once we’ve got to the point where we don’t have any holiday left; we can’t play any more gigs.
Simon: That’s why we for this little tour, instead of doing a week or two in Germany, we just picked the places that have gone down well in in the past. And that’s what we’re playing now in Hamburg, Stuttgart, Cologne.
Rob: But I think it’s increasingly common, actually, for bands to be working and sort of tour on the side, because you can’t…
Caz: …live off the music.
Jo: You cannot be on the dole and be in a band and get anywhere. It is so much more expensive to do everything. Especially where we live – so much more expensive to do anything to exist. It would just be unworkable. So we have to…
Caz: … just to pay the rent. (laughs)
Rob: There are some weird positives, in a way because I think it does sort of mean that instead of being this sort of other thing, and living this completely weird and obnoxious lifestyle, you are still grounded in being a “normal” person. We have to be “normal” people most of the time. Perhaps some of that comes out in our songs. We’re not just massive show-offs like trashing hotel rooms and all that, we’ve actually got to live a normal life as well (laughs).
Behind the scenes of “In Search of the Miraculous”
The band approached “In Search of the Miraculous“ a bit different from the first two albums. With Rob and Jo being the primary songwriters, the bucket usually stops (or I should rather say starts) with them. Previously, Rob would start new songs by doing home demos that the band would then flesh out at the rehearsal studio. This time around, he had a clear idea how the songs should sound.
The band fully demoed everything at Rob’s house, including Simon’s bass parts and drums that Caz played in on a keyboard. Jo, again, wrote all the lyrics and melodies, but this time she created a concept for the album based on a true story of an artist that gave his life for his art.
How did you arrive at the album’s concept?
Jo: On the previous two albums it was how I was feeling at the time. This one, I’d just started a job at an art gallery, and I picked up this book about Bas Jan Ader, who is this artist I’d seen some images of when I was studying art at university, but never really investigated fully because it was performance art that I never quite really got a handle on. I thought it was all just a bit pretentious.
Some of the photos of his work was really melancholically resonant to me, as a teenage Smiths fan, as you might imagine, and I had these images I really liked, and I thought “Ok, now I’ve got this place where I work that’s got loads of art books, and maybe I can use the opportunity to understand it a bit more fully”.
So you think he’s still alive? [Rumors among fans and followers say that he is still alive.]
Jo: (laughs) No, he’s definitely, definitely dead!
I started reading this book about his life, a really interesting book. I think it’s called “Death is Elsewhere”. It’s very, very in-depth about every phase of his artistic practice. I sort of got a handle on what he was trying to do, and how he tried to make his art his life, but also the tragic consequences of that.
I was going through a very turbulent personal time, and I wasn’t quite certain about what the outcome of that was going to be. I am very self-aggrandizing (laughs) between his stuff and what was happening with me and thought this is a good way of funnelling how I feel into all these images that he created, and exploring it in that way, instead of making it all about bloody me again.
Rob: I think there is something different about this album, on a sort of meta level as well. When we were writing and recording and taking to touring the second album, both Jo and I were sort of on a bit of a downward thing. When we were writing this, we started on a more of an upward thing, like there was that sort of hope.
Both of us slightly struggled with the idea of what are we actually were going to write if we like feel slightly better about the future. There was a lot of, sort of, wrangling with us, trying to come up with stuff and work out what it is we were going to do, when we couldn’t just do a scattergun approach of how miserable we were. If that makes any sense (laughs).
Jo: Yeah! Yes, that’s very true.
How much time did you spend in the studio?
Simon: The recording was six days for all the parts, and the mixing two or three weeks. It was efficient.
Jo: I think we learned loads from previous album we did, and also the EP afterwards, which was us sort of exploring sounding a bit bigger and more kind of “beefed up”.
Simon: With “Grow Up” we kind of spent seven days recording and about three days mixing. Because again, it probably goes back to how do we do the work-life-work-band-balance; we can’t go to a studio for a month, we just take a couple of days here and couple of days there.
Rob: Although, what I think was different about this album is that we did a lot of that studio process that you expect a band to do normally, but we actually did it at mine. We spent an awful lot of time there, particularly me and Jo, like Jo sort of messing around with backing vocals, and messing around with melody, changing words, and then we were recording it and re-recording it again, and me then slightly changing the guitar parts to go around all of that.
We did a lot of that, what bands often do in a studio, just in the evenings.
Caz: We just recorded the songs that were going to be on the album and picked the songs before going in the studio. That also made a difference.
You produced it yourself and you own the copyright.
Caz: Yeah, our label Fierce Panda is licensing it from us.
A lot of DIY then. Talking about this DIY-aspect, do you finance everything with your day jobs?
Everyone: No! No! No!
Caz: We don’t earn enough money to finance the band (laughs).
Simon: We don’t put our own money into the band.
Jo: We started putting our own money into paying at rehearsal studios and obviously buying our own instruments and stuff, but now the band fully supports itself, which is really a great place to be in and actually sort of the only thing that I thought we could possibly do in this sort of current climate in the music industry, unless you are U2. That’s sort of all you can hope for.
Rob: I mean, recording has been possible because of our friend Keith, who’s managing a studio. He basically give us the studio for free. We wouldn’t be able to do what we’ve done without that. I mean, we would probably have found another way to do it…
Rob: It wouldn’t have been as good, and then we would have put more money in.
Jo: So we are very lucky in that we know somebody who is a really good friend who runs a studio that we can use when he has downtime.
Rob: We never particularly specifically set out to be super DIY. We never really thought about it, but I guess we’re all quite obnoxious and I am not sure we’d particularly put up with anyone telling us what to do (laughs).
It was almost just a given that we’re always just going to do it ourselves as much we could.
What are the “roles” in the band? You, Simon, were the guy replying to our interview request.
Simon: Yeah, I do a lot of that, a lot of replying to e-mails, and booking gigs.
Jo: You’re the most sociable person.
Simon: I plan stuff, like where we stay on this trip, stuff like that. And Caz as well does kind of like…
Caz: …logistics, I like to do.
Simon: And you look after the money.
Caz: I do finance, yeah I do (laughs).
Rob: Yeah, I think we have a really good split, at least from my point of view. I may be shot down.
Meaning you can focus on “creativity”.
Like Spinal Tap?
Rob: Kind of yeah, I’m just incompetent. I couldn’t bother with that organization stuff and spend time writing songs and thinking about how it’s going to get mixed and all that. I just couldn’t do both and I don’t have time. And all the inclination, I’m just not that way inclined. I think, similar for Jo, perhaps slightly less.
Jo: I just have to think about cosmic treads of the universe constantly and transcribe them into lyrics. It’s difficult for me.
Rob: It kind of ended up working perfectly because as a unit we’ve got kind of people that we all trust sorting everything out that needs to be sorted out. They seem to be kind of enjoying it too, and we really don’t. We don’t want to do that, so we end up spending that time as individuals doing the things that make kind of sense for us to do (laughs).
Jo: I mean it seems to work.
Simon: Yeah, it’s pretty boring, isn’t it?
Jo: We all get on quite well, so sorry (laughs).
How to build an expansive sound
To wrap it up; I’d love to talk a bit about your gear. Rob, you are playing a 12-string Rickenbacker, and I also saw a white Strat with weird looking pickups. What did you do to it?
Rob: I didn’t do anything to it. It’s the Ed O’Brien Sustainer guitar. It’s just a nice basic Strat, and you flick a switch and it holds the note forever, and I probably used that more than the Rickenbacker on the new album. And it’s first time; everything we’ve ever recorded has always been the Rickenbacker apart from one or two tiny bits in the background.
And what kinds of amps and effects do you use live?
Rob: I blew up my old amp a few weeks ago, which was like this little Fender Excelsior, which I loved, really cheap 250 quid valve thing, uncontrollable in some ways but a really good little thing. I am now using a Fender Supersonic, which I’ve only had for about two weeks, and this’ll be the first gig I’ve ever used it for, so we’ll see! It’s just a little bit more controllable, which is good, and then I use a lot of effects.
What are your go-to effects?
Rob: I am running everything through a Jangle Box Compressor which adds this quite, some will say harsh I say very pleasant, hi end to it, which kind of gives everything that sparkly thing. I use that always, since the beginning, and I think if you haven’t got a compressor it doesn’t quite translate on a Rickenbacker; that sort of “sparkly” thing, that sort of hi end that I always wanted, so I use that all the time.
Then I’ve got a Time Factor [delay pedal from Eventide], it got two delays on it . I have my one big delay, sort of your standard quarter note, and then I have one quieter delay on, which is pretty much on all the time, down as a really close, random delay. I was always using a CE-2 by Boss for my modulation [classic Chorus pedal] but recently just got the new DC-2w Waza Craft. And then I use an Electro Harmonix Mel9, it’s like a Melotron, I use it for choir on some songs, strings on some of the songs.
Caz: People think we use synths.
Rob: It does most of the synth sounds, not always, but that’s where the sounds come from. And then I’ve got a Pog [Electro Harmonix] which does octave up and octave down. And then everything goes through an, again, Electro Harmonix, Cathedral reverb, which is just always on.
And you Simon?
Simon: A lot less than that. I play a Fender Jazz Bass at the moment and I’ve got a Fender Jaguar and an Italia Maranello. At the first album I played Italia Maranello, the second album was Jaguar and the third album Jazz.
I’ve got a Bass Preacher, a compressor I partly use as a compressor but partly as a bit of a clean volume boost. I use a really cheap Behringer overdrive for my overdrive sound. I got a better one, and I just didn’t like it as much; it’s just the sound I like, the one I play on “Hollow” and stuff like that. And I’ve got a Russian Big Muff [classic Distortion Pedal from Electro Harmonix] for the big distorted sound, and then a chorus pedal which is a really old analogue chorus; can’t remember the name, Caz bought it for me, it’s got no label on.
You’re not really that much into FX?
Simon: I mean, to be honest, your average bass player just has a tuner and maybe – maybe – a distortion?
So you are several steps beyond that already?
Simon: No, I would have to get more. I usually use reverb but I don’t know; if it’s not suitable for the song, then I’m not just going to add loads of shit to sounds.
Caz: Just a drum kit.
Now, that’s a surprise!
Caz: No, I am very specific with certain things. It’s a Mapex Horizon, which I just bought because it looked amazing. It was glittery, and it was quite cheap and I got it, and it sounds really good; and I just tweaked it, I’ve got special Remo Power Stroke III drum skin that I use and made it all nice, spent time tuning it. I just got some new resonant which sound amazing, I’ll try them tonight; they are Evans EC, they mute the sound a bit, because I like the sound to be quite tight and not too “ringy”.
So you spend a lot of time tuning?
Caz: I do! I’ve been told by many, many drummers that it makes no difference, but I think it really does. I mean with that drum kit, for me it makes a difference, and often even sound engineers tell me “Yeah, I am glad you tuned your drums, because it does sound really good”. Maybe I was lucky to find this kit that sounds great.
And cymbals? No specials?
Caz: I use a Paiste 2002 Crash which was one of the first kind of fancy cymbals I’ve ever bought and I love it, it got really nice sound. It doesn’t last too long, but it’s quite warm sounding. And the hi-hats; I have old Zildjian New Beats, I got them second hand and then I got a new Zildjian K dark crash, which I’ve added to the setup and it sounds great.
My ride is one that I found. It’s a sweet ride and it’s broken, it’s got a bit that’s kind of cracked, but it really sounds good. I found it in the studio where we were rehearsing, and we were sharing with other bands. Then we had to leave the studio because the lease was all out, and someone left it there, and I picked it up, tried it, and it turns out new. It’s a really expensive cymbal; even broken it still sounds amazing.
And Jo, did you bring your Dulcimer? [Jo is credited with having played Dulcimer on several tracks on the new album]
Jo: (laughs) No I didn’t bring my Dulcimer, it’s really heavy! I haven’t had enough opportunity to practice it because you need a Dulcimer stand, I didn’t realize this – and that’s expensive. Otherwise you have to kneel down on the floor, and it completely ruins my knees, I am an old lady now.
What got you into Dulcimer in the first place?
Jo: I really like a lot of chimy, folky sounding things. I also like Dead Can Dance who I recently got into the last year, and I always wanted to play that instrument after hearing it over the years, it just sounds so beautiful and sort of choral. It’s a really nice instrument to try and play because no matter what you do, it will sound pretty. It got its massive amount of reverb in it, as long as you can keep it in tune. But tuning, those thousand strings, is really, really difficult and very arduous. But yeah, I intend to get better at it once I’ve been able to find a way of playing it without breaking my legs.
Live you only sings?
Jo: (laughs) I only sing, yes. I do have a pedal which is a [Roland] Space Echo guitar pedal. It’s a tap delay and a reverb which I think works really well for what we do, it’s very clear, and I can also control it. As microphone I use a standard [Shure] SM58.
With this we have to say farewell and leave the band to the procedure of getting ready for their gig. Hafenklang was almost sold-out and Desperate Journalist put on a great show, playing really tight and with lots of passion. If you have a chance to catch them live you should – highly recommended!
Photographer: ©Katrin Arfmann
Desperate Journalist pages