Johnny Powell and the Seasonal Beasts
YOU get those bands that come along…
and provide fascinating music, wonderful insight and complete depth. That is the case with Johnny Powell and the Seasonal Beasts. I speak with the band – Johnny takes up most of the responses – about their new album, Twice, and some of the inspirations that go into it.
I ask the band which artists they grew up around and why Twice’s recording and creative process had a unique edge; if they have precious memories from their time in music; why this week has been an emotional one for the band – they tell me how they got together and what their future holds.
Hi, guys. How are you? How has your week been?
Hi, Sam. It’s been an unusual week for us...
Our percussionist is moving to France…today! So, it has been an emotional period for us all. We had a farewell (for now) curry together on Monday evening and it is the first Tuesday evening we haven’t rehearsed at the cabin for quite some time. Things are changing…
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourselves, please?
Well, we are Johnny Powell and the Seasonal Beasts (the other members being Ffion Atkinson, Roger Burnett and Paul Mill) and we play what is becoming known as ‘Modern Folk’, music it seems. There has been a string of strange genres thrown our way from ‘Freak-Folk’ to ‘Outsider Indie’. It must be hard to pin down.
We try to be very mindful with the music we produce and the lyrics are particularly important. The ‘Seasonal Beasts’ reference is taken from the beautiful Sea Song by Robert Wyatt. I hope he doesn’t mind.
Heave-Ho is a song you uploaded to BBC Introducing earlier this month. What is the story behind the song?
Heave-Ho is a reference to generating motivation during tough times. It’s like a war cry I guess; a physical and verbal method for shifting your mindset from feeling low, scared or tired, to being ready to face consequences or to see some humour in a very dark situation. Part of the lyrics are based on my own mother’s mental-health, which was incredibly difficult to understand.
It is from the album, Twice. Can you reveal the main themes of the album? Why did you decide to record in a cabin in the Pennine moorlands?!
We used to rehearse in a huge semi-derelict mill on the moors in Old Town, above Hebden Bridge, which was an incredible experience but, literally, sub-zero temperatures – you could see the water vapour pouring out of our mouths as we sang and played on all of the videos.
All the tenants were evicted for development and shortly after our percussionist, Rog, moved to the cabin and allowed us to play regularly and record at his home. It felt like our home, too, in many ways: we would cook for each other and sit on the floor and eat by the fire…imagine having a real fire after playing at the mill! We felt very fortunate. The sound and atmosphere of the music were like nothing else and we wanted to recreate that on the album, which is why much of it is recorded live.
The tracks on the album deal with a wide range of subject matter, but all of the tracks seem to emphasise the power that the mind has to destroy and create something beautiful. Working with it sensitively, developing and understanding it; digging up old memories and observing present thoughts and considering their value - trying to make use of it in this precious life whilst protecting it against our usual tendencies and bad habits. There is, also, an element of coping with separation from those you love; the deep bereavement you feel when a long-term relationship ends and learning to lead a life with a completely disintegrated basis.
That sort of experience and retreat reminds me of Bon Iver. Did you find the recording and writing easier and more natural there?
Yes. We were very much at ease there. In all honesty, I think it was a sanctuary for us all in many ways. It was so conducive to the development of the strong friendships we have made. We would often arrive in the snow - the tracks unpassable by vehicle; so we would have a long snowy walk under starlight along the moorland hill to the cabin; arriving back to Rog cooking us a meal. I (Johnny) had my own pair of woolly socks hung up there that I’d ritually put on upon arrival.
The log fire would be going and we would rehearse by candlelight. We wanted to record exactly as we performed in hope that the connection we had would come across on the album. Hopefully, it has. We left most of the natural background noises in the recording, too.
Which artists did you guys all grow up listening to? Do you have similar tastes?
Ffion: When I think of music in my childhood, my head fills up with Kate Bush, who I have never stopped loving. I also have strong memories of my parents playing traditional Folk music themselves, particularly my mum with her Irish tin whistle. She often played it as an escape from my brother and I, which I couldn’t handle at the time (lots of clothes pulling)…but I get it now.
In the band, we have equally wide-ranging tastes but all appreciate integrity. We enjoy listening to a lot of the same artists and, when we disagree or are faced with something new, we are all respectful.
Johnny: Oh; so much to fit in, so I’ll keep it simple! I have an older sister and I remember her walls were covered with NME band cutouts from the '90s, I used to hear all sorts of cool stuff but the most memorable was a tape of Pixies’ Doolittle album which I played to death for years: the loose but controlled anarchy felt so liberating! When I bought my first electric guitar, I think I got a little obsessed and learnt every single track.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Mason
My folks used to listen to '60s’ Rock, mainly - my dad would play and sing me The Beatles’ tracks on a battered old acoustic which I still have. It was so strange hearing the real versions as I grew up. My real introduction to Alternative music was through my friend's parents, a wonderful hippy couple, with shelves of vinyl - I won’t go into that though as I’ll never stop…
Paul: I grew up listening to all sorts. It was the time of Nirvana, Faith No More and bands like that but, also, listened to Kate Bush and Prince a lot. We had a lot of Elvis in the house, too, as my dad was really into him.
Rog: Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshee; Talking Heads and Led Zeppelin.
When did Johnny Powell and the Seasonal Beasts come together? Can you recall when you all started playing together?
Myself (Johnny) and Paul have been playing together for quite a few years now but, previously, it was more experimental with Electronica, electric guitars and all sorts of unusual equipment. We started playing with Ffion and Rog in the winter of 2016 and released our first E.P., Five Past Lives, in the spring of 2017.
Rog’s style of percussion is unusually intricate and an art in itself and Ffion has a wonderful voice with delicate inflexions; so it seemed natural to go quieter, completely acoustic and make the tracks barer to allow people to witness the minor detail.
Do you have any gigs lined up? Where can we see you play?
With Rog leaving for France, we are hoping to organise a few European tours eventually but, for now, we just have two gigs booked. They sound like fantastic events, though. The first is on Sunday, 17th June at the wonderful Grayston Unity in Halifax at the Acoustica Festival – the owner, Michael Ainsworth, has brought some incredible acts to the town over recent years (Jeffrey Lewis played there last week). It’s a tiny venue, but the day festival is in the courtyard at the back.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rob Lycett
The second gig is in Totnes on Friday, 28th September at the Dartmouth Inn. This is a Blackbird Collective show: a fantastic bunch of musicians and music lovers who have recently started putting on some brilliant shows in Devon.
We will probably book a few more in soon so people can keep an eye out at www.johnnypowell.com if they like.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rob Lycett
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
We have already started writing tracks for the next album and will probably record later this year…but where?! Maybe France!
…2018 is a little uncertain at the moment. When Rog has settled we will hopefully go over and play some gigs in France/Europe at some point.
A lot of sources have raved about your music and put their weight behind it. Does that give you the drive to keep recording and playing?
It is nice that people enjoy it but it doesn’t offer much drive in that sense. One of the things we’ve realised is that we are a sensitive band and find that we are happiest when we know we are dealing with intimate venues, friendly promoters and, simply, spending time relaxing together.
We have had to turn down a lot of gigs as our music is very delicate and easily los; so it is almost pointless travelling unless we find the right environment and crowd. I believe the thing that really motivates us to keep performing and writing is that we like hanging out together.
Have you each got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
Johnny: We did a little tour of the South West last year and one of my favourite experiences was staying with our friends, Matthew and Ali in Harbertonford, and sneaking in a wander around Totnes and a trip to the beach, which we had all to ourselves.
Ffion: I would second that; being made to feel so at home with Matt and Ali and walking around Totnes - such a vibrant town. It felt like we were meant to be there…
Our album launch for Twice is what I would choose, though. After a lot of stress and hard work, the night unfolded wonderfully. We created the environment we had envisioned months before: everyone (us and them) was at ease and the sound levels were just right. It was a magical culmination of everything - which was all the more important given Rog’s imminent departure!
Paul: I think the South West tour was a wonderful thing to be part of and we played some of our best music then. However; I have memories of the gig in Andy’s piano shop in Haworth and it was just lovely. We played acoustically to a small amount of people and the sun was setting as we played (ok; it was by a road, but it was still nice...). The audience were also encouraged to not clap after each song but to just take on board what we had played and let it sink in.
Rog: Playing in my first-ever band and, halfway through a gig, hearing someone shout “Kill yourselves!" from back of the venue.
If you could support any musician alive today, and choose your own rider, what would that entail?
At the moment, I’m listening to Mount Eerie a lot…so that would be my choice (Johnny). Although, I’m not sure if he’s touring. His work is very penetrating, intensely emotional and carries a great sadness and insight with it on his recent releases.
As a rider; I never really need anything to be honest, but a friendly sound engineer is always helpful.
Ffion: Peter Broderick. He is so joyful, playful and wise with an experimental and open-minded approach to life and music. His generosity is infectious and he can inspire change.
Most importantly, perhaps, I think we would LAUGH.
Rog: Damien Rice and champagne!
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
I don’t think I’m best placed to give advice as I’ve never had much success...
For me; music always turns into a chore or a job unless I see it in a way where it may be able to help people, including myself. It can be worryingly self-indulgent if you are not aware of the reasons you are doing it. I guess, in light of that, I would say: be kind to your band members and the people you meet, listen to them and try to enjoy what you are doing – take breaks when you need them and don’t be afraid to lose yourself in the music – that’s where the moments of beauty creep in.
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
Yes. I don’t really play much music, to be honest. I run a lot. I study dharma and have recently loved the fact that Belle and Sebastian named their latest trio of E.P.s after one of my favourite Buddhist texts, How to Solve Our Human Problems.
Ffion: Walking and cooking, which I promise to do more!
Paul: Walk: it’s the only thing to do. I always think about music; so it might as well be in lovely settings. If not, then some qi gong.
Rog: Whittling and drinking beer.
Finally, and for being good sports; you can each choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Johnny: Clouds – Neva Dinova
Ffion: I Hold Nothing - Mount Eerie
Rog: The Blacksmith - Eddi Reader
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