Interview: John Newton of South London duo JOHN on his second LP under solo moniker Total Wkts in 6 months

We first came across John Newton back in 2016, growling into a mic and bashing several shades out his drumkit as one half of South London duo JOHN, who’d been booked for one of our To Hell With Good Intentions nights in Croydon by our co-promoters Frauds. Since then they’ve released two critically acclaimed albums, headlined venues much larger than the side-room bar that we called home back then, and seemed to be gearing up for another successful year when lockdown hit.

Finding himself back in his hometown during lockdown #1, Newton turned his attentions to solo project Total Wkts, releasing an album of the resulting songs, Running Tracks, in September, and on his return to the capital began work on a follow up. No Holiday mixes sampled offcuts with rasping beats, forests of gorse-bush guitar and haunted organs to produce a scrap book collage of the second half of 2020. We caught up with John to find out more about the new LP.

This new collection of recordings was created during the uncertainty of the past year – how has your lockdown been, and what impact has the current situation had on the way the record has turned out?
Having been geographically removed from my JOHN colleague Johnny back in March 2020, I just realised that I craved some kind of musical outlet, even without the usual instruments, spaces and production. From this, I built the challenge of creating something within limitation, without spending money (that I didn’t have at the time anyway!) on new gear. It was this understanding that built the ethos of ‘Total Wkts’ as a project, and the name deliberately echoed this – borrowed from a sign that I was running past most days back in March.

What are you most looking forward to when restrictions are finally eased?
Just the incomparable beauty of playing live in front of people, the transference from stage to crowd and vice versa. It’s a beautiful ping-pong game of energy, and one that I miss so dearly. We have obviously had some more positive news of this front recently, but my fingers are still crossed while I type.

The previous Total Wkts album was recorded in the town where you grew up, while this new set of tracks was created on your return to South London and features sound samples collected locally – what differences did you notice this geographic shift having both during the process and with the final product?
I think reading the difference of sound as being affected by location may well be something more post-rational. It certainly wasn’t something particular conscious, but there are, of course, specific samples / lyrics that gesture towards these different spaces. I’m always digesting my surroundings and I enjoy the challenge of trying to distil these moments or situations into the puzzle of words. 

One feature of the record is the emphasis of some elements that might usually have been edited out in the production process using a more traditional method – what was the intention behind this?
Because of a more digitised process, I was able to react quickly to accidents that popped out of the process, and this ‘in-situ’ writing was pretty satisfying, you just notice things appearing – details that you never anticipated. The songs are like methodical journeys, through which I just add and subtract, chipping away at the form as it develops. 

For listeners who might have come to the album via your band JOHN, what parallels do you think they might draw between the two, and what differences?
To refer back to the previous answer, JOHN is very similar in the sense that we are always waiting and listening to capture these small slippages that happen when we rehearse, play and record. We know that this is key in whatever music we are writing as individuals. There is, however, a simple practical difference in the nature of writing as an individual through an interface, and writing as a duo in a room, it’s just a different editing process when carving out a song. In terms of sound, I don’t really think about it too much, I can’t play guitar very well, so it was interesting that I began to gravitate towards distorted organs and keys to make (what I thought) was a decent noise. It all comes from the baggage of the past, the sum parts of the sounds and ideas that excite me. I just made sure I followed my nose, and grounded myself in the limitations when I started subjecting the recordings to traditional views of production process and quality.

How does the process of creating music as Total Wkts differ from working as a duo? Are there different things that you get out of each, and different challenges?
The limitations of two bodies playing live obviously drives a lot of decision making for our work in JOHN, we would never want to stray too far from the live form as this is what we love. We have obviously improved and developed to a point where we never think this of this a deficit, we just stick to our strengths whilst pushing the limitations as far as physically possibly. I think people recognise this in the energy of the live show (or they can come feel my t-shirt after if they don’t!). Total Wkts obviously lets me explore different amounts and types of layers, but I still think that this follows the stripped-back approach (developed in JOHN). Each decision is measured, I don’t just slap on layer after layer because I can, it’s got to be driven by the idea.

This has been your second album in just over six months – are you taking the opportunity to have a break or is there more on the horizon?
There’s no pressure to produce anything with Total Wkts, it’s just been a beautiful thing that organically appeared through my negotiation of the last year or so. It’s been great to see it make it onto vinyl and into record shops – I honestly wasn’t expecting that. We have, however, got so much stuff planned with JOHN over the next year, but Wkts is certainly something that I’d like to continue, as and when I feel the urge to write and record. Having spent the last fifteen years or so making creative stuff, it’s just a constant in my life, so I’ll guess I’ll just keep you posted!

No Holiday is due for release on 2nd April on frosted glass vinyl with an art print insert and digital download via Pets Care Records. Pre-order your copy here.

Interview by Paul Maps
Photograph by Leona Farrugia

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