Discovery: Joanna Gruesome

Published September 16, 2013

ABOVE: JOANNA GRUESOME

That another UK-based indie pop band with a cute name had signed on to release a record on the Oakland twee institution Slumberland wasn’t news so much as it was another day at the office. But Cardiff-based quintet Joanna Gruesome made clear pretty quickly that it wasn’t just another group of kids aping C86 sounds, but something far more sinister and endearing in equal measure.

As much as Joanna Gruesome lived up to its initial goal of creating a fairly standard twee band, the twists it’s taken in the years since first coming together have landed it a gooey mix of treacly indie pop conventions and the bursts and bleats of a youth spent playing in hardcore bands—think Field Mice cassettes cut up and interspersed with grating no-wave squalls. On the eve of the release of the band’s first proper LP, Weird Sister, guitarist Owen Williams spoke excitedly on a Skype call from his parents’ home in Cardiff, measuring the mild successes they’ve achieved to date and explaining the roots of his band’s beautifully bifurcated sound.

NAMES: Owen Williams (guitar, vocals); Max Warren (bass); George Nicholls (guitar); Alanna McArdle (vocals); Davi Sandford (drums)

AGES: 21 (Williams, Sandford); 20 (Warren, McArdle); 19 (Nicholls)

HOMETOWN: Cardiff, Wales, UK

BEGINNERS: I went to school with my friend Matthew. We were friends in high school, I still don’t really understand how he got into emo and hardcore, but he introduced me to this kind of music and then he was like, “Let’s start a band up!” So it was him [that got me started], to be honest. I was tagging along. I got really into the DIY hardcore scene around Cardiff. And [Joanna Gruesome] all met through this DIY circuit.  There was a pretty vibrant hardcore scene then. There’s not so much these days. There were some really good revolutionary sounding bands around there. Most of the hardcore bands moved to London.

“DON’T BE UPSET”: We met Alanna [McArdle] in an anger management group in 2010. We all got sent there. We were in school at that point and we all got sent to this thing where if you were bad in school, they sent you to anger management courses, and we all met on one that was focused on musical therapy, where you’re all bound together to produce little songs with the group.

A FEW LUCKY BREAKS: Originally, me and Max had just gotten into indie pop/twee music, so we started a twee band and we’d hang around in our living rooms doing Field Mice covers and stuff like that. It was just a thing we did for fun. We never really thought we’d play a show or anything.  Someone knew me from an old band and asked me to play a show. I think it was a boy in this band Zoey Van Goey. Eventually we practiced a lot and played a show and we enjoyed it. Then we put an EP on the Internet, and quite a bit later a few people liked it and offered us shows. We got onto the label called Art is Hard and did a split 7″. From there it all progressed naturally. [Slumberland] got in touch after we signed an album deal with Fortuna Pop, because they have a sister label relationship going on. Bands assigned to Fortuna Pop get pitched to Slumberland in some form, so I emailed them saying that I’d love to do Slumberland. Then they were like, “Yeah, maybe,” so we sent it to them. It was a dream come true, really.

ON WRITING POP SONGS: I was reading something that [fellow Slumberland signee] Tony Molina and said recently: hardcore bands are really good to play in, and they’re really fun to play shows in, but there’s a real difference when you want to write and record a pop song. It’s a very different way to make music, and I was very interested in that. I’ve always loved pop music, so I felt like it was only a matter of time. You don’t turn a load of people off if you play a pop song to someone, they like it, and you introduce these aspects of hardcore and noise. I think that’s a lot easier for people to digest. You’re not just hitting them with a hardcore song.  I write a pop song and then I see which bits I can add a dissonant chord to or a hardcore drum beat or a bit of noise in the background. I write the song naturally as it comes out and then afterwards I see how I can make it all up.

DIY OR DIE: In the UK, the DIY scene is the best I’ve ever seen it. Especially over the Internet, there’s so many great bands. Each time I go to a show, I see another amazing band. There’s so much stuff going on. It’s definitely still a part of how we operate as a band, we never wanted to get a booking agent or anything because we thought if our friends are putting on a show in a basement, we don’t want to say we can’t play unless they give us 200 or we run it by our agent or something. I feel like Slumberland and Fortuna Pop are really supportive about that, they were DIY labels. It’s definitely in our blood.

GO YOUR OWN WAY: It’s really easy to book a tour right now. The Internet has completely connected everything so promoters and labels can put you out, it’s a really strong infrastructure. My dad played in a DIY band called the Puritan Guitars, and he was telling me that they had to write letters to promoters and then maybe you’d hear back a few days later. You’d have to go down to the phone box and call everyone on the list, I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it would be. It’s nice to be in a much more convenient era.

JOANNA GRUESOME’S WEIRD SISTER IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS FACEBOOK PAGE.