Subverting Notions of Twee: A Conversation With Joanna Gruesome's Owen Williams

Subverting Notions of Twee: A Conversation With Joanna Gruesome's Owen Williams

The members of Joanna Gruesome started off young, coming together as teenagers in Cardiff. At the time, they were just looking to have some fun playing a couple shows and putting out a seven-inch or two. Fast forward a few years, and Joanna Gruesome have worked their way up through the DIY network in the UK, and are beginning to gain renown around the world for their scrappy, wrecklessly energetic indie pop. The five-piece band-- made up of guitarist/vocalist Owen Williams, singer Alanna McArdle, guitarist George Nicholls, bassist Max Warren, and drummer Dave Sandford-- merges past and present, punk and pop, sugar and spice on their debut full-length, Weird Sister, released this September on Slumberland. Their songs contain traces of hardcore, riot grrrl, NME's 1986 C86 guitar-rock compilation, and more, swirled with fresh pop melodies into a pungent haze made personal with Williams' and McArdle's astute lyrics, which range from intimate expressions to screams of frustration. We talked to Owen Williams about the origins of the band's sound, its oft-discussed name, the state of Cardiff’s music scene, and rejecting the label of twee.

Ad Hoc: You guys are still based in Cardiff, right?

Owen Williams: No, we formed in Cardiff, but we all went to university. So I live in Brighton; some of us live in London.

Ad Hoc: Was your trip to the U.S. for CMJ your first time here as a band?

OW: Yeah, first shows outside of the UK actually. We only played in New York.

Ad Hoc: Did you have a favorite venue in New York?

OW: I liked Shea Stadium. That was the funnest show. We were playing 2 or 3 shows every day, so it was really hard to take anything in.

Ad Hoc: How did you get started as a band? I heard a story about you guys meeting in an anger management class?

OW: Yeah, yeah, we sort of did. We all just got drafted into the same anger management class through school and shit, and then formed a band.

Ad Hoc: Did you play music before? How long have you been playing guitar?

OW: I guess I’ve been playing for six years. I was in a few hardcore bands in Cardiff, but I used to play bass all the time. I was playing in hardcore bands a lot and more stuff that sounded a bit like Archers of Loaf or Garden Variety or something like that. And then I started what was originally meant to be a pop band.

Ad Hoc: You can definitely hear the hardcore influence in there. 

OW: Oh yeah. We just try to put in loads of sort of...I can't remember what those beats are called; they're sort of like blast beats. I guess originally, we started sounding like the Field Mice or the Pastels, and then as the band progressed... Our drummer is hugely into hardcore-- he’s just going faster and faster, and I started writing songs that sounded like '80s hardcore bands. 

Ad Hoc: That jump you guys made from light, sweet pop right into really rough, punk, lo-fi stuff—did that emerge when you started writing songs together? 

OW: At some point, I must’ve just decided to put in elements of dissonance and hardcore, and made the band more of a punk band or equal as punk to a pop band. That must’ve happened pretty early on; I think our first few shows were quite soft, but before anyone was taking notice of us that was happening.

Ad Hoc: Do you all work on the songs together?

OW: I write them all on my guitar, and I bring them to band practice. We don’t even practice very often anymore. I tend to write it all and then travel around the country teaching each member their part individually. Then Alanna and George tend to contribute quite a lot. But I guess I write the main body of the songs.

Ad Hoc: Does Alanna write the lyrics?

OW: Yeah, she writes some of them. She writes the shout-y parts.

Ad Hoc: They get very aggressive, which is fun. The image of pulling out someone’s teeth on "Secret Surprise" is terrifying but awesome.

OW: That song is quite funny because I wrote it, and it was a really nice song, and then I took it to band practice, and Lan started shouting over it, and all the lyrics became really violent.

Ad Hoc: Oh, wow. Talk about anger management. How did you guys pick the name of the band?

OW: Well, when we started, we thought we wouldn't do anything-- we’d just release a 7-inch and maybe play a few shows. So we didn't need a name or anything. And at this point, I guess I didn't even think we'd play any shows. So we were sitting around, and our friend Alec, who sort of manages us now, was like, “Why don’t you call it Joanna Gruesome?” And we were like, “No, that’s stupid,” and then it stuck. At a certain point we couldn’t be bothered think of anything else, and now we’re kind of cursed with it. But I quite like it, I guess.

Ad Hoc: I like it, too! I’ve heard mixed reactions to it, but I like it.

OW:  Some people are really offended by it. I've heard people get really angered by it. But, I don’t know-- I kind of think band names are pretty arbitrary anyway.

Ad Hoc: Yeah, to some extent they are. Do you think Joanna Newsom knows about you? What do you think that she would think?

OW: I was wondering this. I reckon by this point somewhat. Although, we haven’t received any cease and desist letters or anything. I think she would find it funny. She seems like quite a nice person. Everyone kind of assumes that we really hate her, but I’ve always been a big fan of her.

Ad Hoc: I noticed that you tag everything on your Bandcamp as "not twee," or "we’re not twee," or "fuck twee." Why the twee hate?

OW: That was a weird one. I had a weird relationship with twee. When we started, when I wrote all that stuff on that Bandcamp, half of it was a joke but…backlash of being indie pop or twee. We were playing with a bunch of punk bands and we felt sort of lame, I guess. Since then, I’ve been back into indie pop, and I feel they can coalign together. So that was me for a day being really frustrated on Bandcamp. I think there’s a problem with the word "twee" because it implies something quite passive. A lot of reviews of our band for some reason call Lan really passive, and for one thing it’s not really true, and it’s a bit sexist on some level, I think-- this idea of someone being twee. We’ve had a lot of problems with it. We wouldn’t think of twee and indie pop as the same thing.

Ad Hoc: Yeah, it’s a very specific term to use.

OW: Yeah, and it started as a derogatory term for that particular kind of music, and it strips it of its political, kind of anti-macho elements. It’s a term that misses the point, really.

Ad Hoc: You’ve mentioned a couple times playing with a lot of hardcore bands. Is there a big hardcore scene in Cardiff? What’s the general underground music scene like in Cardiff?

OW: In terms of hardcore bands, a few years ago there was a stream of really great ones. Bands like Harbour and Facel Vega-- they did a lot of kind of Revolution Summer-y type stuff. A bit like Nation of Ulysses, as well. They were all really fun, but since then they’ve all moved out or moved to London, as there’s a lot of great underground hardcore bands around there. Generally in Cardiff, it’s really great. It’s a pretty small place-- compared to somewhere like Manchester, there’s way less bands-- but it’s a really nice, tight-knit community. Places like Spillers Records are the hub, and then Joy Collective, and promoters who put on loads of good shit. And there's some great bands. Bands like Gin Drinker and Twigs and Terrors, and people from Gorky's Zygotic Mynci playing and stuff. It's pretty cool.

Ad Hoc: You guys cite C86 as an influence. I heard it’s being reissued, so I was wondering what you thought about that. Do you think that it’s relevant to reissue something like that right now when there are bands like you guys that are working on a modern manifestation of that sound?

OW: I’m not sure what the NME’s plans are-- the reason. It's not like [indie pop is] having a massive reemergence right now; it's been going pretty steadily since then. Especially with Slumberland, too-- they went on a brief hiatus, but they’ve been putting out good shit pretty solidly, and it’s kind of outside the echo chamber of trends. I’m not sure what the relevancy of reissuing the C86 thing is. But maybe it’ll be ok-- it could get people into that kind of music. It would seem to make more sense to do a follow-up with bands that are doing shit now. But C86-2 could also be really lame.

Ad Hoc: They could call it C2013. Also sounds less catchy.

OW: Yeah, that's not very catchy.

Ad Hoc: I really like your album art, and it looks like the same artist who did one of your 7-inches.  Who did that art?

OW: It’s this guy Andy Hart, who’s really pretty involved in indie pop in the UK. I can't remember what else he's done the art for-- I think Fireworks and Smittens. Originally, because we did that 7-inch on HHBTM, Mike [Turner], who runs that label, got in touch with Andy so that he could do the art. We had a big saga to do the album art and we were seeing people, but we didn’t really like any of it, so we just went back to Andy, and then he came up with what we have, and we thought it was really great.

Ad Hoc: Yeah, It definitely captures some of the sense of your music-- the sweetness, but also the attitude and weirdness and darkness. You can also feel it coming across in the music video for “Sugarcrush” which is great. It’s so weird.

OW: I can’t watch that video. It kind of scares me. 

Ad Hoc: How did you guys start working with Slumberland?

OW: Basically, we played a show, and then Helen [King] who plays in Shrag and was helping Fortuna Pop! at that point came over to us and was like, “Yeah, do you wanna do an album with Fortuna Pop!?” and we said that was cool. We were getting that album ready and then, they have a sister label deal with Slumberland where every Fortuna Pop! band gets offered by Mike [Schulman] to license. I e-mailed him as well being like, “We'd love to be on Slumberland.” And yeah, he said he liked the album and decided to license it, which was really nice. And he’s been great, actually. He does it all, and he's so professional, but knows where exactly we’ve come from.

Ad Hoc: How long did it take to make the album?

OW: I guess I spent four months writing it, and some of the songs were earlier releases. And then it took us like 5 days to record it. And then one day of practicing. We’d never been into a studio before, so I expected it to be more of a huge ordeal. We recorded it in this place called Suburban Home Studios which is run by this guy MJ, who’s in the band Hookworms, and he’s recorded loads of good bands. It was nice, because he was genuinely really into the album and enthusiastic about actually recording it. And we had the same music taste and stuff, so it was really easy. But I agree with what Steve Albini said when he was like, [you don't need] more than a week to record an album. Because it's just nice when you get stuff done quick, and you don't sit around analyzing the snare sound for hours. So yeah, it didn’t take very long at all, really.

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