Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Point Of Origin: My Interview With Jolan Lewis (The Foetals, The Pink Teens, Temple Songs)

At a certain point in the last 3 years, Jolan Lewis became one of my favorite musicians. That so many people aren't aware of his talents (yet) matters little to me; I spent most of my youth trying to explain who Robyn Hitchcock or Andy Partridge were so I'm used to loving music that doesn't quite have widespread appeal. There are, however, so many more people now who are aware of Jolan Lewis and his skills thanks to the music he's made in Temple Songs, The Pink Teens, and, now, The Foetals, that I'm thankful that he's reaching a wider audience. I suspect that the warped pop of Meet The Foetals, reviewed by me here, and out now on PNKSLM, is going to get the tunes of this Jolan Lewis project some broader form of attention. If you've heard "Fine" or any other number of the numbers from The Foetals LP then you'll understand why I think that now is the time for Jolan Lewis to expand his fanbase beyond Mancunians, a slew of U.K. music press types, and general fans of skewed British indie.

Having recently been sidelined with some grim health news, covered below, Jolan Lewis had to briefly postpone the release of Meet The Foetals until late in 2015. Now that it's been released and garnering some degree of acclaim, Jolan is doing a bit of press to get the word out. I was thrilled, honored, and delighted that he decided to participate in this interview with me.

Glenn, kenixfan: How did you first get into music -- influences, early attempts? Am I right in highlighting what I hear as a set of big Sixties influences in your music (Beatles, psychedelia, garage rock)?

JOLAN LEWIS (THE FOETALS, THE PINK TEENS, TEMPLE SONGS): When I was a kid, maybe 10 or 11 or so, my parents gave me their record collection -- it was pretty good, a lot of Cramps, Buzzcocks, Bowie. By the time I was 16 and had met the guys who eventually wound up in Temple Songs, it turned out that they were the same kind of people. We had Ween, Captain Beefheart, and Can in common, so I got them into garage and outsider music, and they got me into obscure American punk. My first band was called Horse Hair. We put out a couple of releases on a local label called Hearing Aid. I went through a big psyche thing for a few years, but I'd become mostly bored of it by the time it had become the hip thing it is now. Garage and psychedelic music is not something I listen to all that much anymore, but I guess that being so obsessed with it when I first started learning how to write songs means that there's always going to be a thread of that in whatever I do.

Glenn, kenixfan: As the main-man behind Temple Songs, The Pink Teens, and The Foetals, can you explain a little about how each band came together, what personnel were involved with each project, and what separates each project? Why not simply continue on as Temple Songs, for example?

JOLAN LEWIS: I hope this whole thing makes sense -- Temple Songs was, for the first 2 releases (the self-titled EP and 15 Bygones LP), just me on my own. I was living in France at the time they came out, and it picked up a very minor amount of "buzz", or whatever you want to call it. Eventually, I moved back to Manchester and got some of the friends I'd made in college together so I could play it live. That was Andrew Richardson (drums), Jean Hughes (guitar), and Dave Hardy (bass). Now, these guys had come from pretty much a punk background, so the sound changed pretty drastically when we tried to play the lo-fi dream-pop stuff I'd already released. We just kind of stuck with that sound, it felt more natural.

That went on for a while, did okay, but eventually I got bored and wanted to start a project which was just me recording on my own again, so I did some stuff under the name Pink Teens. I put out a couple of tracks and a split cassette with Fruit Tones. I started to realise that Temple Songs had kind of become something I wasn't wholly interested in... We told everyone we were changing our name, but in actuality, we all quit Temple Songs and joined The Pink Teens. I know that's effectively the same thing, but psychologically, for us, it helped us to be able to move on and start from scratch. Eventually, Dave quit, so our friends Tom McClung (guitar/keys/sax) and Alex Hewett (bass) joined.

Temple Songs had been an attempt to make music which was 50% pop and 50% noise, and when we switched to Pink Teens, the idea was that we would downplay the pop side of stuff and focus on the more experimental, "free" side of things. But still, most of the time when I write a song, it's a pop song, so still I needed an outlet for that, which is why I started The Foetals. Again, that first record is just me playing everything, but I guess my track record indicates that it will become more of a "full band"-kind of thing. We played one show before I got ill -- Andy was on drums, his brother David was on bass, and Tom (who is at least as much of a Beatles nerd as I am) was on 12-string guitar.

Glenn, kenixfan: On a track like "More Than I Can Bear" by The Pink Teens, there's an effect that I find as a listener in a lot of your best songs and it's one where -- for lack of a better description -- it sounds like when a record is being played and maybe the vinyl is slightly warped and the track is almost imperceptibly speeding up and slowing down. How on earth do you pull this sort of thing off? How to you make that "sound" that's is so uniquely yours, no matter what project we're talking about?

JOLAN LEWIS: I've always liked that woozy kind of sound, like a Walkman running out of battery. See, I appreciate that there are correct applications for "hi-fi" sound... Steely Dan wouldn't be anywhere near as good if their records sounded like Paris 1942. But we're not Steely Dan, and a lot of the records I admire -- private press records, obscure garage, outsider music, whatever -- have this hazy quality which enhances the fact that you often don't know much about the artist. I guess I go for that to some degree. There are various things happening; tremolo arms, vibrato pedals, tape delays, mixing down to the most beaten-up tape I have lying around, that kind of stuff. I think I bend the neck a lot when I play.

Glenn, kenixfan: One of my favorite releases of yours has been the "I Can't Look After You/She's Away" single. Each cut is pretty much perfect in my book. Can you describe the recording process for those tracks? Without ruining the magic, how did you make the songs sound like lost tracks from some Nuggets-era band even while preserving the carefully crafted pop of each song?

JOLAN LEWIS: After "Passed Caring", I think it was suggested that it might be beneficial to try making the next single sound a bit "cleaner", which I did try to do; the vocals are mixed a lot higher, none of the instruments really distort (apart from the feedback in "I Can't Look After You"). These are the kinds of songs which feel more like Foetals tracks to me now. I kind of wish I'd saved them. Like I said earlier, I think that the garage influence is always going to be there, it's just that sometimes it's more at the surface than others -- I never much liked the fuzz-blues, "I'm a Man"-kind of garage, as a kid it was always stuff like The Choir and The Dovers which I liked. The really melodic garage-pop. "I Can't Look After You" is kind of a combination of those 2 things, the lead guitar is all basic pentatonic minor stuff, but the chords aren't 12-bar blues.

Glenn, kenixfan: How do you feel about being labelled a Manchester band by the UK Press and others? Do you see yourself as part of some Manchester heritage of any kind?

JOLAN LEWIS: It's hard to tell -- most people around here like The Fall, a few people like The Smiths (but *no one* likes Morrissey or Johnny Marr)... The Buzzcocks are kind of a Manchester band... Joy Division are okay. All the late 80's/early 90's Madchester stuff, no one is interested in that. Even so, not much of that stuff has much of an influence on what Manchester groups are doing now -- the scene in Manchester doesn't really have one unifying musical theme, which is probably why there hasn't been much coverage of it. It's totally disparate, no one sounds like each other. But everyone likes each other, everyone collaborates. I can't help but think that there must be some cities where the experimental-noise-punk guys wouldn't hang out with the lo-fi, blue-eyed soul guys, or whatever. So in that respect, I'm more than happy to be considered a Manchester band, but only because of what's happening now.

Glenn, kenixfan: How would you describe your songwriting and demo-ing process?

JOLAN LEWIS: I don't really demo... to be honest I try to put as little thought into songs as possible. Tom from Francis Lung lent me a book called "Songwriters On Songwriting", it has all these people like Townes Van Zandt and Paul Simon, and it was a relief to see that they all pretty much said the same thing... kind of like, you don't "write" a song, it just happens. I guess it's slightly different for everyone, but for me, the chords, melody, and most of the structure come at the same time. So since I didn't consciously sit down and put it together, I feel like it's not really my place to go changing it -- I try to keep it as close to the initial thing as possible. I have to work on the lyrics, they come later. But a song like "Point of Origin" -- that took less time to write than it does to listen to. That's why I try not to demo anything... I want to stay as close as possible to the first time I ever played it.

Glenn, kenixfan: How did you end up on PNKSLM?

JOLAN LEWIS: I had become aware of them through Andy's brother David, who moved to Stockholm a few years ago. When I finally decided that maybe this album I had recorded might be worth showing people, they were pretty much the first label I thought of. I've always been involved with RIP Records, and still am, but I knew that this record was too lo-fi for their tastes. So I sent a couple of the tracks to PNKSLM, and they asked for the rest of them, I sent them over and they replied within a couple of hours saying they wanted to put it out. It was the least complicated thing in the world. I was always so impressed with their roster, I felt like "These guys really get it!", so it was pretty nice for them to be so interested in this little record I had made.

Glenn, kenixfan: I feel as if your recent health issues are, obviously, a private matter but since the news was posted on the Foetals' official Facebook page and mentioned elsewhere, I feel like I should ask how are you and what happened? What's the future prognosis in terms of your health and how will that affect your music?

JOLAN LEWIS: About a month after announcing the Foetals record, I was about to go into the studio to record the second one. I had a really bad flu or something, I went to a few doctors and got told different things, given antibiotics. My throat started swelling up, and eventually it got to the point where I was waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air. Then there was one morning where my throat pretty much just closed up. It was one of those things, you know, where the more you freak out then the worse it gets. Anyway, I managed to calm myself down enough that I could kind of breathe again, phoned a doctor who sent me to the hospital. I stayed in overnight and in the morning they told me it was cancer. It's some kind of leukemia, so it's in the blood, but it was also all over my chest and throat. They fixed the swelling pretty quickly, I stayed in hospital for about a month and then started chemo. I'm no good with the details, but it's probably going to be at least another year or so of intensive chemo I think. But right now I feel totally fine, not throwing up, eating again, I can go outside again if I'm careful.

The worst thing about all this is that I can't record. That's the only thing which really bothers me... I can put up with feeling kind of shitty a lot of the time, but I have a second Foetals album, the Pink Teens album, and a couple of other things ready to go, but I'm stuck here for the time being. I really can't stand being unproductive, but I guess I just need to wait it out.

Glenn, kenixfan: What's next? Do you continue you as The Foetals and with what line-up?

JOLAN LEWIS: I'll probably do the second Foetals record first, because it seems like it will be more fun -- the Pink Teens record is going to be complicated and probably stressful. I have about half of the Foetals third album written, and I have a few other things I had discussed doing with various people, so hopefully I'll find time to do that too. As I said, the worst thing about my current situation is that I'm pretty much stuck in my flat or at the hospital, so there's really no way for me to get to the studio... but this first Foetals record was done, from having about 3 songs written to it being how you hear it now, in two days, so if I can keep up that pace on the second one, maybe it won't be too long before I can put something else out.

An enormous Thank you! to Jolan Lewis for taking the time to answer my questions in this interview. And here's hoping that Jolan Lewis heals as quickly as humanly possible and gets back to the studio as soon as he can to record all those albums he mentioned.

Meet The Foetals by The Foetals is out now via PNKSLM. Follow The Foetals via the band's Facebook page.