It was a cold day in August and the weather prediction was cloudy with a high chance of rambling and ranting. I have to interview Nat Johnson and the Figureheads. They are Nat (vocals/guitar), Kevin (guitar), Chris (bass) and Neil (drums).
One of the bar staff graciously puts a table for us outside, and we sat for a few minutes, with mouths agape towards the visually striking imagery that is the Sheffield rush hour. Some rambling about a half naked man appearing in some of Neil’s previous gigs goes on for a bit and then I remember I have to actually interview them …
(long interview, here’s a song to listen to…)
Who wants to talk about the name of the band?
NatJo: It’s not much of an interesting story. We couldn’t think of anything better (laughs).
Chris: We settled on The Figureheads very early, the rest was difficult (!)
NatJo: We talked about it for much and kept coming with stupid ideas. We almost went with Nat Johnson and the Lapdancers, but then we realised we couldn’t tell our parents we were called that.
Chris: And also you said it once on stage and nobody laughed, so we realised, probably in 20/20, that it wasn’t stupid.
NatJo: We just kept saying words.
Chris: We spent a fortnight emailing terrible ideas for names. The album name has a bit of a story…
How about the name of Roman Radio?
NatJo: That’s the name of my driver examiner! When I was seventeen I got into a car and he said “Hi! I’m Roman Radio and I’ll be taking your test today!”. It was a pretty memorable name.
Chris My driver instructor’s name was Mike Medina.
Neil: Funky Mike Medina!
Chris: Somebody told me they know him.
NatJo: It was in the Huddersfield Chronicle! His niece saw our album, got in touch with us and said “it’s my uncle’s name!”. Yeah, it’s about your uncle (!).
Any songs about him?
Kev: He’s a driving examiner, he’s going to a die a driving examiner. Once a driving examiner, always a driving examiner!
It’s in his blood?
Kev: His father was a driving examiner, his mother, he’s married to a driving examiner, the daughter, their parents…
NatJo: He failed me. And I never drove again.
He failed you?
Kev: His father failed you, his father’s father failed you…
Neil: Next time go with Funky Mike Medina.
Chris: Passed on the first time. And get a keyring!
Did you get anything from failing? A keychain?
NatJo: No, just sorrow.
Neil: And you stole his name!
NatJo: Oh, yeah! I reckon it was either an album name or a race horse, and I can’t afford a race horse.
You could always burn his soul with music, just like Geoffrey Chaucer allegedly did. History of the band and influences.
NatJo: I don’t like that question. I never liked that question.
Kev: I could do history of our old band!
Kev: We started in Monkey Swallows the Universe, years ago, 2003. It was just me and Nat playing terrible, terrible indie ditties in acoustic guitar.
NatJo: Wonderful indie ditties!
Kev: I was just thinking about what I wrote!
Kev: And then what happened?
NatJo: Then we broke up! I decided to do some stuff on my own, and then, I decided it was a bit boring to do stuff on my own and wanted a band and got these guys.
Kev: Guess who came back crawling, from their solo career? To resurrect me, from out of retirement for one last job.
Chris: About a week after you split up…
Kev: ‘Cause I was living on the streets, shooting heroin five times a day. Until I was born again.
NatJo: You finished?
Kev: I finished the heroin.
Chris: More like ran out.
Kev: I’m done. It was a passing fancy.
NatJo: Anyway… the songs needed more than just me. So I got everybody else involved and then remembered how much fun was to play with other people.
Kev: And now we get reviews like “Nat Johnson is pretty good but the band really detracts from her voice and songwriting and stage presence. The band is a hindrance. Nat Johnson solo!” It’s the sort of press we get. It’s the tone of a review we got recently.
Ah, screw the critics, I should say so, and I should know so. Influences of the band?
Should we skip it?
NatJo: Been saying the same things since forever, which isn’t necessarily truth, but I started playing guitar because of The Delgados and PJ Harvey. I don’t try to sound like them.
Wouldn’t try to compare you with them. And then comes a rant about criticism and blogging, but it’s all cool after that. It’s more me swinging and axe. (The band by now has asked Neil to get some pepper spray as I finish my rant saying “I’m a fan first, then a critic”). What you think of the current Sheffield Scene?
Chris: That’s a tricky question. Personally, I’m not aware of many Sheffield bands right now. A few years ago yes, there was a coherent scene. But in the past two years, probably because I haven’t really paid much attention, but I can’t think of anything, apart from the old ones I know.
NatJo: Also because we don’t go out as much as we used to!
Kev: About three years ago I could tell you all, but I have a three year old son now, so that explains the gap. I could tell you all sorts about the CBBC schedule.
What does your three year old think about Horrible Histories?
Kev: His more into Postman Pat.
Neil: The Postman Pat scene?
Kev: The whole Royal Mail scene was incredible three years ago.
Chris: The jokes (!)
I’ve never seen Postman Pat. My knowledge of CBBC is mostly Horrible Histories.
Kev: You’ve been paying too much attention to recent bands, really, it all has moved on. It’s all about CBBC, it’s where it’s at.
NatJo: Shaun the sheep is my favourite.
Kev: He’s good.
NatJo: Also the sketch show, I’m sorry I’ve got no head.
Kev: Kids tv, it’s just a vehicle for propaganda.
Kev: There is definitely a sociopolitical context in Postman Pat, in the recent series. The Royal Mail that he works for in Greendale, I think has been partially privatised cause he seems to work to some sort of parcel company. Every ten minute episode revolves around that he gets a delivery that has been subcontracted to him by this terrible private industry that he works for, and he spends ten minutes smashing up the delivery, ruining it due to his own incompetence. He’s always portrayed as the ex Royal Mail worker’s incompetence that causes all these difficulties. So as to create a groundwork for the actual privatisation of the Royal Mail through the portrayal of the incompetence of Postman Pat!
So that’s why I don’t get my packages?
Neil: That’s the more passionate I’ve seen you.
Kev: I’ve been doing a lot of research. The one thing standing between the privatisation of Royal Mail from an idea to actually happen has been the current series of Postman Pat.
NatJo: Do you want to stand up and shout about this?
Neil: Get a sandwichboard…
You’re more than welcomed to send something for our Sunday Soapbox…
Kev: I’ll refine my rant.
Neil: So you get the Sheffield Music scene then?
Yes, children’s television!
I was going to ask about the current antifolk and folk scene, but now I’m afraid to ask…
Chris: Does it still exist?
Well, Regina Spektor is antifolk and some stupid idiot said that Laura Marling is antifolk…
Chris: She’s more folk.
Chris: Adam Green’s done a new album…
NatJo: Do you think we’re antifolk?
Lyrics wise. Yes.
Chris: I don’t know what defines antifolk.
Me neither, but sounds cool.
Neil: We’ll be antifolk until folk becomes cool again.
Chris: Mumford & Sons are shite.
NatJo: Didn’t they say they created their own genre?
Chris: It was on Radio 4, on Front Row, someone in a program said that in a program they said they made a new genre called “Folk & Roll”.
Neil: Didn’t Steely Dan created “Folk & Roll”?
Chris: No, it was Mumford & Sons. It was on BBC Radio 4 (!)
Anybody wants to speak about lyrics?
Kev: Nat does all the lyrics.
Chris leaves for a few pints, so we stop the interview for a few minutes. We talk about Smokers Die Younger and how Neil survives playing and how it’s safe to be scared from some members of Smokers Die Younger but not him. They wonder how I survived interviewing them and that infamous rant about Dr. Who. We also talk about when a drink is “lager-esque”, that surviving a HEXA gig is “intense” and that I should never get in the way of female fans of HEXA, or risk an elbow to the ribs. After refuelling, we continue talking about lyrics…
Would you like to talk about the lyrics of January or Wasted?
NatJo: I don’t want to disclose, really, because some of the songs on that album are quite personal.
Kev: That’s what I want to know!
NatJo: I wouldn’t want to disclose about them.
Kev: I don’t mind if it’s me.
NatJo: They’re not about you, Kev!
Kev: Some of them must be!
NatJo: It’s all about your ego!
Kev: Just one?
NatJo: No, I’m very sorry.
Kev: They are all about me.
NatJo: I promise to write one about Kev.
Do you think it´s very therapeutic to write about it?
NatJo: Yeah, I guess so, I really don’t know how else to do it. We’re writing new songs now, and some of them are about being in a band and the various feelings that go with it. Some are folksy, some are about having a bad day. Something like that.
Kev: About being corrupted by the fame and success of our band! That’s all you write about.
NatJo: Been struggling a bit lately, to be honest.
Kev: You got any more good references? Classic literature references? You don’t want classic literature references!
NatJo: There’s a new song called “Mick Kelly” who is a character from “The heart is a lonely hunter”.
Kev: Is he?
Kev: She? I haven’t read that.
NatJo: It’s about a girl with musical talent and eventually has to give it up for real life and it’s so sad.
Kev: Right. Which one is David Kelly? That’s who I thought it was! Was it a climate scientist who killed himself?
NatJo: I don’t know who you’re talking about. I’m trying to tell a story!
Kev: You sang that song about Raul Moat!
NatJo: No, I didn’t!
What was the book again?
NatJo: “The heart is a lonely hunter”. It’s about how horrible it would be to stop writing music. I’ve been struggling a little lately and only coming up with choruses. I’ve got no verses as I don’t have an idea about what the hell I’m talking about.
Kev: Could you make a song based only on choruses?
NatJo: Maybe I should…
Kev: Each chorus more rousing than the last.
It worked for Journey…
Kev: You got a co-writing credit?
Chris: Music, yes.
Chris: The credits in the album are incorrect in some parts…
Then we go on about how my copy of Roman Radio got nicked (by my dad, natch) and how I should get my revenge. We argue about if it’s exact revenge or extract revenge. Then we talk about IT Crowd and spoonerisms. We do ramble a lot.
How about the online community, you think it has helped the band?
Kev: I assume they’ve taken over from website forums almost entirely as no one writes in our forum. Ever. (laughs)
Chris: People doing events in Facebook is the most useful, there’s a lot of gigs I wouldn’t know about. Also you can calculate how much money you could get from how many people say they would go. (laughs)
NatJo: Well, it’s where I get new music from, that’s the way it is (chuckles).
Is the album experience dead or alive?
Kev: I’m behind the times. Im used to music in albums, so I like albums. Individual tracks are ok. The album is not dead. It’s the high concept album.
NatJo: I hope it’s not dead. I still buy them, not as many as I use to, but I like having a shelf full of stuff to look at.
Kev: You got books for that!
Kev: Short stories replaced novels, but came back, maybe the same will happen to albums.
Chris: I like that I can choose these days. Have an mp3 player with 5000 songs and put on random, or put Spotify. I like having the freedom to choose that or listen to album whole, so I don’t think it’s dead, it’s nice to have another option. And then put something else in your shelf.
Neil: The album needs to readjust itself a little to stay there, but it’ll be there. Maybe the song can lure you back, once you remember the album with that particular song. Or just put a record on and leave, go and have a go with the oven while it plays.
Kev: If you assume that people make album like we did ours, then we can’t say they have a narrative. We just said “oh, we have some songs, put them in order! Put the fast one first! Bung them around! Alphabetical order!”
Chris: Yes, sort that out.
And if you have an excess of songs, you could offer them as a deluxe edition.
Chris: Like the ones Pavement did. It’s the super special edition, with songs that weren’t included for a reason.
Kev: Special Edition Re-edition pre-issue!
Neil: As seen on CBBC…
Ah, on that bombshell, we’ll end the interview. Thanks.
Neil: Where’s my Doctor Who question? (referring to how the other members of Smokers Die Younger got a chance to talk about their favourite Doctor Who).
So…favourite Doctor Who?
Neil: The new one is very good, so they did the last episodes first so he could break into the character so when he did the first ones he was already in.
Chris: So, he gets progressively worse?
Kev: I liked Eccleston. A great doctor, but a terrible Lennon. And he was older than John Lennon than when he died.
Well, maybe he wanted to prove a point that if Lennon was from Manchester, he would still be alive. People from Manchester are bullet proof. Sorry, readers from Manchester, both of you.
Kev: Are they not Manc enough to survive?
NatJo: I liked the last one, Tennant, but I’m not really that bothered.
He looks like a chicken.
NatJo: I like chickens!
Anything else on tv?
Chris: Any badly done documentary on the tv will do.
So, if it’s a badly made documentray, what do you think about U571?
We discuss about Jon Bon Jovi. We talk about U571 sucking arse and being panned in the United Kingdom as the film suggests that it was a ragtag of Americans who got the Enigma machine. I spoil the film by telling them that Jon Bon Jovi gets killed.
Chris: If we’d known Bon Jovi gets killed I’d watch it.
Then he reincarnated into someone who plays soft rock.
Kev: He’s ‘Living on a prayer’.
Maybe that’s is hell for making ‘Bed of Roses’ in Spanish.
Chris: It’s pretty bad in English. I can only imagine in Spanish.
Yes. It made me want to hate Spanish.
Chris: It’s so bad you forgot your own language?
Neil: That’s the most damning review of a song. Making it hate your own language.
I thought about learning sanskrit
NatJo: And then he made a version in Sanskrit.
Neil: We should all learn Esperanto now.
That’s all, then?
Kev: I’m pretty sure if we finish the interview talking about William Shatner making a movie in Esperanto, we’ve covered everything, really.
Cool. Good interview. Anything else? Already talked about the Royal Mail.
Kev: Had to get it off my chest.
Neil: Yes, songs about Greendale too.
Pat fought the system and the system won. The passion of the Pat in Greendale.
Neil: Did he say Greendale? It’s based on several towns. A lot of towns do claim to be THE Greendale. They all want to be it. I remember I saw a little area in Central Park called “Strawberry Fields” in New York. I wanted to tell them “that’s not the one he talked about!” You could write “Strawberry Fields” in a piece of paper and take a picture in Paris. I wanted to say something but my British sensibility made me shut my mouth.
You were surrounded by New Yorkers…
Neil: Yes, might have guns…
So we end the interview on fake Strawberry Fields?
Kev: No, we ended with Shatner.
Chris: Now it’s ruined.
So, should we end in a bombshell?
NatJo (pointing to Kevin): Don’t you talk, don’t say anything.
Is anyone scared of the trend of using double denim?
Kev: Double denim, I read it, gossip magazines. It’s the future uniform. It’s not jumpsuits after all we were led to believe by 70s sci fi. It’s denim.
Chris: It’s all redundant.
Kev: Flame retarding, shiny denim. It’s not flame retarding.
Chris: What’s the opposite of flame retardant?
Neil: Prone to flame?
Kev: Flame compatible…
So should we be afraid that people are trying to emulate Jeremy Clarkson?
Neil: What a cock!
“And on that bombshell…”
Chris: You were steering the whole conversation towards that, didn’t you?
Yes, sorry. Incidentally, someone said that David Tennant and Richard Hammond look the same…
Neil: More than one person has told me that I look like David Tennant. Which I’m not sure about.
You look more like Chris Eccleston.
Neil: Then my sister said: my brother who looks like Richard Hammond. It took her weeks to convince me I don’t look like him. I lock myself away. 2 weeks in isolation.
Chris: You look more like Roy Schneider.
Yeah, Blue Thunder.
Neil: So yes, funny you mention those two people. I look nothing like them.
“And on that bombshell, we finish”
The band decides they’ve had enough about my stupid ramblings and throw me into a train bound to Manchester. When I get there, two goblins pick me up at Manchester Picadilly Rail Station. They escort me to a bar, where a man all dressed in black is waiting for me…
Images shamelessly nicked from Nat Johnson & the Figureheads’ Facebook and official website.