By Mark Glenister
One could hardly accuse John Newton of sitting on his laurels during the past few lockdowns, not only have he and his bandmate Johnny Healey recorded a new JOHN album (to be released later this year), and bought out various new merch – John himself has been busy writing not one but two solo albums under the guise of Total Wkts. The first album ‘Running Tracks’ was written and recorded at his parents’ house during Lockdown Part 1, it is an album full of distorted vocals, snatched pieces of conversation and a variety of influences ranging from haunting charm to industrial grit coursing through its veins. It felt as far removed from the hot sweaty noise that JOHN produce, yet at the same time felt very comfortable and somehow familiar.
As the first single ‘Odermatt’ from the new Total Wkts album ‘No Holiday’ is released, I sat down with John, albeit virtually to talk all things Total Wkts.
So, Total Wkts album number 2 is on the horizon, having listened to it, there is a marked difference between ‘No Holiday’ and ‘Running Tracks’. Was this down to the change in location for recording, or was down to your confidence in doing a solo project?
I was aware that it had changed location, and obviously the first one was me trying to digest being in the sealed off environment where I grew up in the countryside. I think like with any music I am trying to make, I am trying to create some form of visual in the audio and whether that’s signposting of lyrics to direct people’s thoughts, that’s kind of what you do when you write songs. So, I was aware that it was a change of location, and therefore the images kind of change. Now, whether you realise that is a different matter, although there are tangible audible changes, whereby I have sampled things from certain things, that might be a neighbour singing in a nearby building that I managed to record and resample as a backing vocal. And that was purely incidental, trying it out and realising that it fitted perfectly with the song.
Do you think some of that was because you had moved to Brighton for a while?
Some were certainly informed because of coming down here last summer. But it’s not really like a distinct location concept album, I didn’t want it to be like that, there is nice difference and also you just start playing with a song – the thing with Total Wkts its always supposed to have been that the song grows as I progress through it. So, you literally rather than writing a song and recording a song, it’s very much like making a song through the process of making a song. So I’ll start with something, and then I’ll maybe think Ok we’ll move from this part to this part, so it grows more in a sort of call and response to the things I already have. Rather than the JOHN stuff where I have written with Johnny in a room, and then we sort of progress it from there. So it does have a different process for sure, and I guess it’s like trying to follow different interests at the time. It is hard to say why the 2nd album sounds like it does, and why the 1st album sounded like it did. It could literally be down to certain moods or what I am listening to at the time.
Certainly to me it sounds quite industrial, it has a harsher edge to it perhaps than the first album
I think it does, there is louder stuff on it, and maybe that was me progressing. I had some loud moments on the first album, and a few more experimental dreamy tracks. The second album still pushes in that direction but there is definitely a more industrial feel to it, and maybe that is from being in the city, or perhaps its just a posthumous kind of reading – its too easy to say oh that’s more industrial because he is back in the city, maybe.
There are at least one or two tracks that wouldn’t look out of place on a JOHN album, what are your thoughts on that?
I think I am always going to like loud energetic music, it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision to kind of like ”oh he has made a quiet album, from his background in a loud band’ It was never my intention to deliberately cast off my interests and make an acoustic album.
Which a lot of artists tend to do, when they release a solo project it can be so far away from their normal sound
Exactly, I think I like what I like, and I wouldn’t want to stray from a sense of energy, again I want to make what excites me. I like high tempo music, I’m not sure why, but I do. The first one certainly wasn’t an attempt to make a quiet album, that’s not how I write, it was literally a case of this organic growth. So, coming up with a little line, responding to that, then that moves into a chorus, just enjoying that methodical adventure of a song. So, being really present inside a song, expanding that and enjoying that process. I think I mention it in the press release, you spend too long thinking about perfection, especially when you record how something should be, how it should fall in a finished context. But with this stuff, it’s my attempt to fuck that off really, and just be really in the moment with it, and just enjoy it and the residue of that process is the song. Obviously, I wouldn’t put something out that I’m not proud of, but I trust myself to get to a point where I am happy to put something out.
On to one of the tracks ‘Office Dream’, how did that come about? as its quite creepy and unsettling, has a feel of a Hitchcock movie to it, and it did slightly freak me out listening to it late at night !
Wow, that’s great, that’s a really nice response! You know my interest in creating something a bit more cinematic, and to have achieved some kind of effect in music is some sort of goal.
The truth of it is, because I had 2 dream tracks on the first album, I wanted to have some sort of continuity with the second. I has had this dream one night of an office or studio that I used to work in, and next morning I thought it would be good to record what I could remember of that dream. So, I had literally just woken up, the dream was still fresh so I just said it as it was, you can hear the mistakes in it still. Having then worked on the music, and listened to the song, the main thing being that the song matched the retelling, so its as long as the retelling is. I was listening to the words and I always say ‘ur’ a lot in these type of interviews and I get really self-conscious of it. So, the idea was just to put a single piano note or key note on every ‘ur’, that’s why the song is subtitled 13 urs. It becomes then a diagrammatic style of writing, my intention was that you are dictated by that mistake.
Also, with the way the story is told, that must dictate the music around it, you couldnt have that track as a jolly happy pop song
(Laughing) I probably just don’t write chord patterns that are jolly, maybe I’ve indoctrinated myself into misery. Its interesting the historic association of certain chord patterns, as in why do some sound happy and some sound sad. I guess I was thinking of making something that felt a certain way, so there are certain choices with the chords.
Going to back to solo projects, this is far from vanity project, this feels like something you are very proud of – would that be correct?
In some ways I was really surprised at this coming out (first album) and becoming something, because that was never the intention. I got a random email from a guy called Graham who runs record label in Cumbria, its quite a diverse roster and a popular small label. He approached me to do something that whilst talking we realised with the confines of lockdown, we wouldn’t be able to do. However, whilst talking, I said I had a track I wanted him to listen to – His initial response to it was encouraging, and he actually took it onto Soho Radio as he was doing a guest slot at the time. The fact I got some confidence from this, some form of validation made me realise well this is good enough to live out in the world. So once I had the album ready I did the same thing, this time through a distributor of the JOHN stuff, and he really liked the whole thing and agreed to help me out. It was all very organic, but I have loved it and its great that people have wanted to invest in it. In terms of a vanity project, I don’t think it can be one if you don’t expect it to go out into the world.
Has Johnny Heard it?
I have sent him a link to it, and he has heard some of the tracks – its on our own label Pets Care, so as a co-owner I ran it past him before looking to release it. I think he is in to it, I wouldn’t want to presume but he is very supportive.
That would be a cheap tour, Total Wkts supporting JOHN, you’d be exhausted though!
God knows how I would set that up, I have had people who are far more technically proficient than me offering to help programme it. But, I am just happy to focus on it, it being something that I have made and released. We have enough JOHN plans to fill the time.
I think people who like JOHN will love this and get behind it, as I said to you the other day, I think this album will blow people away, it is such a step up from the first one.
Thank you, that’s so kind. It’s a funny one because I just carried on making these songs after the first release. I think I had about the bare bones of two tracks when the first album was being released on vinyl. So, I just carried on and ended up with 8 songs, similar process I sent them to people and they really liked it – I was surprised at myself for making another 8 songs that people enjoyed. So now it was key that it came out before any other JOHN plans, we’ve already dropped the hint that there is new JOHN stuff coming this year. So, it was key to get this out before all of that. I think people have still been locked away, so its nice to release something when people are looking for something to listen to and I think it provides a service for those people.
And with that our conversation turns to JOHN, and well, we will save that chat for another time.
In the meantime, John Newton has produced another slice of joy, and should spark the interest of people beyond the initial JOHN fanbase. In the weeks where we have had Mogwai go to No1 for a similar slice of cinematic noise, the new Total Wkts album stands next to that and is just as valid and important for these times.
The first single ‘Odermatt’ is out now, and the album ‘No Holiday’ is available on pre order now, with a April 2nd physical release date. Further details can be found at:
John Newton is also an Ambassador for Mental Health Charity My Black Dog – Further details can be found here: www.myblackdog.co