Track by Track: James Johnston and Steve Gullick guide us through their new album ‘We Travel Time’

As collaboartion go, the link up between James Johnston and Steve Gullick comes with an interesting pedigree – the former, frontman of Gallon Drunk and at various points a member of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and PJ Harvey and Lydia Lunch’s bands, the latter a photographer renowned for his images of many of the most influential alternative bands since the early nineties, and frontman of Tenebrous Liar. Thankfully the fruit of their conjuction, We Travel Time, effortlessly shrugs off any perceived weight of expectation. It’s an enigmatic, atmospheric wonder, unafraid of space and quiet, that combines ambient sounds with raw strings and stark piano chords to create a transportative, melancholic whole.

John Clay recently spoke to the pair for a video interview, which you can watch on our Facebook page, and with the album due for release next month via God Unknown Records, we reconnected to ask them to talk us through the record track by track.

First Light

James: We recorded all the parts for the album at home, and the most immediate and simple thing for me to use was the violin and build it up in layers. Apart from passing ambulances and slamming doors it was pretty simple to record. This was one of the first things we did I think. Very open and spacey. Steve’s piano and guitar turned it into something really soulful. We seem to gravitate to slightly broken sounding music, doomed seafaring soundtracks!

Steve: Yes – when we started it felt like we were making an imagined soundtrack, which was very inspiring as I’d become quite weary of writing & singing lyrics.

Blue Rider 

Steve: James sent this through one gorgeous spring morning as a beautiful minimalist instrumental, I added to the fragile mix & I feel we created a sound akin to that of a school orchestra.

James:  I had a book on The Blue Rider in front of me, and ended up with the lyric and title. I love wonky school choirs and school orchestra renditions of things, ever since hearing a hilarious, shonky, and rather moving version of The New World Symphony on a soundtrack to a George Kuchar film. It’s got the feel of staring into the sun.

Seven Seas

James: Steve sent over this great song, and at first I wasn’t sure what I could add without drowning it in unnecessary ideas just for the sake of it. I thought I’d try violin as it was easy to do, and no-one could hear me if it was utter shit. Quite a freeing thing instead of being in a studio situation. Violin can be very saccharine, so all the parts are quite still. I rather hoped it could sound a bit like the arrangements on a Lee Hazelwood record, then I put the more creepy harmonics on in the verses, which are a bit more John Cale.

Steve: A gentle song about love and rage, I’d always felt it could be so much more than I’d been able to make it, I’ll cherish forever the moment James sent his parts… sublime… thank you sir!

Poised To Fall

Steve: Another that developed from a James instrumental, it felt pretty finished when I got it, I didn’t want to clutter it so only added ambient guitar noise & vocals.

James:  I’ve no idea why I started with a banjo on this, but the whole thing ended up a rather trippy monologe. Steve added some really creepy chant-like vocals too, and that idea ended up on a few of the tracks. We were trying to get away from more familiar song structures. In my mind this was a bit like those Ike’s Rap Isaac Hayes tracks. Probably not to any other human on earth though!

When I’m Down

James: We definitely traveled time with this one. The original recording was done 15 years ago. Very weird to go back into it. Reminded me of how one scene in Orson Wells’ Othello apparently starts in Morroco, and in one cut ends up in a completely different country months later as he’d run out of money and had to abandon the film until he had the funds to carry on somewhere else.

Steve: This song has haunted me for years, I vividly remember recording it at my house all those years ago, the two of us huddled around the tape recorder… I’m elated that it’s finally seeing the light of day!

Stormy Sea

Steve: I’d initially recorded this on my phone, wanted to create a simple nursery rhyme type thing.

James:  Such a spooky little song. We ended up hacking this one to bits, adding things, taking away what we already had, but a lot of the original phone recording’s in there. As there’s no drums the whole thing is very trembly and shaky, just about holding together. That ended up really working with the animated video we did, which looks like an ancient kids’ tv programme. More doomed seafaring! Our forte.

Big Star Falls

James: Another one that sounds like it’s lifted from a soundtrack, love this track, especially the way it falls apart at the end. Very eerie sounding. No idea how it came about though. Like a lot of the tracks it started with improvising over a very simple idea, and all completely unplanned, as was the whole album.

Steve: Eerie as fuck… again, a fairly complete offering from James, I was left to ‘Big Star’ it up a bit.

John

Steve: A simple little love song to my dearly departed Dad – the percussion part is a plastic bin.

James: I love this one. I knew what it was about, but we didn’t actually mention the subject as we did it. It’s got a lot of Big Star 3rd to it, that was definitely on my mind when I added the strings. Such a beautiful and sad record, definitely a pointer for a lot of ideas for We Travel Time for both of us. 

Idiot Moon

James: I think Steve sent me the piano part to this first. Very slow and open like a lot of the tracks. We’ve both spent so many years making noise that it felt really exciting to do a record with a lot of space in it for a change, really try and react to what one another were playing rather than jump on an idea and blast it to pieces, which is of course also a lot of fun, but we both felt this record needed to be a bit different.

Steve: I’ll never be able to make conventional music, have now been playing for years & have managed to retain the ability to surprise myself – I just can’t control my fingers!

Swing Me

Steve: This took many different shapes during the recording process, we ended up totally stripping & rebuilding it – the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

James: I can’t even remember what it was like at first, it certainly ended up pretty odd sounding. It’s great emptying songs out, and just leaving remnants hanging there. A great way to work. I wish I could empty my flat out as effectively as we did this song.

We Sail

James: Another one that sounds like a swaying, creaking boat heading to some kind of blissful catastrophe.

Steve: I love how this turned out, I’d produced this gentle, swaying, seafarer – James literally made it soar.

We Travel Time

Steve: James sent this tune over complete with vocal harmonies, I was initially stumped, I added guitar & piano then tried various vocal / lyrical things but decided to strip most of it out, opting instead to keep it lyrically ambiguous & uplifting… we even managed to talk 10cc into adding some vocal accompaniment.

James: The whole record is pretty ambiguous really. Nothing’s really nailed down in the music either. It’s great to have the rain on there, a lot of natural sounds are all over the record, birds, clocks, cars etc. Anything that was happening outside the window blurred into the music. The trippy coda Steve added at the end is such perfect ending to the record, it’s like you’re falling asleep and half remembering what just happened.

We Travel Time is due for release on 26th February via God Unknown Records.

Introduction by Paul Maps
Photograph by Steve Gullick
facebook.com/jamesjohnstonhq / gullickphoto.com

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