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INTERVIEW: Johnny Normal

Hi Johnny, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Hello, I am good thank you. It’s been a very busy year so far with gigs, my radio show, song releases and the like.

From all the albums out there, what led you to rework “Kings of the Wild Frontier”?

Kings was a really influential album for me. I was a boy when I first heard it and it blew away every other kind of music I had known growing up, it was so fresh and exciting. I never would have considered covering such an iconic piece of work until, out of the blue,  Adam Ant himself contacted me in September 2010 and asked if I would consider recording Kings of The Wild Frontier in my own electronic style. It was a surreal moment, having one of my heroes say that to me. He said he was a fan of my music and it would be interesting to see my take on his album, created in the Johnny Normal style. Of course I was gobsmacked and I accepted. Then I started to worry about how the hell I would actually make a good job of it. Initially it was going to be released with Adam’s re-mastered anniversary re-release of his Kings of the Wild Frontier album, as part of the box-set. This was very exciting as you can imagine, as well as a massive honour. I roped in a Birmingham-based guitarist ‘Psycho’ Pete Walsh and backing vocalist/bass player Izzie Voodoo and we started work on a very ambitious project.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

There isn’t a single release, just the entire album, 12 songs, so no video planned, other than the promos on Youtube. https://youtu.be/_GYlhLfnxNw

How was the recording and writing process?

Long! We started laying the initial tracks down in the studio during 2011 and Adam kindly invited us to perform some of them on tour with him over the next couple of years, playing them in front of audiences up to 3000 people, performing them to open his own concerts. How weird is that? But the audiences gave us a great reception and that motivated us to record them with even more enthusiasm. Adam was very supportive throughout the recording process and we discussed ideas and directions for the recordings.

We set about laying down the tracks in the studio to make the album, but in March 2014 this was dramatically halted when I became seriously ill with Swine Flu (and then a series of near-fatal complications) and I was in three intensive care units and four hospitals for most of the year. That was rough for everyone involved and it looked for so long that I wouldn’t make it. Throughout my coma, my family had the uncompleted Kings of the Wild Frontier album playing next to me, which gave me some kind of familiar link to the outside world, and I am sure that helped keep me alive. When I came round Adam phoned me a few times and we chatted about taking it easy and pacing my recovery, not to rush back too quickly.

I was discharged from rehab in September 2014, very weak and having had to learn to walk, talk and eat again. At home I continued rehabilitation and physio-therapy, and after a while I started to look at the album again. Adam stayed in touch but his renewed popularity in the public eye made sure he was getting increasingly busy with his own forthcoming album and tour, and I guess he wanted a different direction for the box-set release, more focused on his recordings rather than our electronic covers, and he decided he couldn’t give us the time the project needed. By chance, Marco Pirroni had heard the album progress and said he would love to be involved. He saw it as something fresh and new, and that made us genuinely excited to have him on board. Along with Psycho Pete and Izzie Voodoo, during 2015 I spent hours and hours in the studio and we managed to complete the album and made it into something very special. We are all very proud of it.

Its more than just an album, it has my heart and soul in it.

What was it like to work with Marco Pirroni and how did that relationship develop?

Marco is every bit the reluctant rock hero. Enigmatic, humble, but with a cutting sarcasm that cuts you dead. He has a wealth of anecdotes and stories that are truly fascinating.

I contacted him a few years back and asked, cheekily, for advice about putting some guitars on a couple of my synth-based tracks. He replied by recording multiple guitar tracks for my material that were amazing. I never used them commercially because it wouldn’t be right to use them in that way, he recorded them to help me think about the direction of the songs so I wasn’t going to just try and profit out of his work and his name. I met him in 2013 when I interviewed him for Louder Than War magazine. He was such a challenging and interesting person to interview and the result was really insightful.

For this album, Marco was very enthusiastic with his performances in the studio. It was relaxed and friendly, he was accompanied by his lovely partner and in between takes they chatted comfortably with the team about music and general stuff. My guitarist Psycho was concerned about fitting Marco’s guitar playing in with his own guitar work, but actually it all worked really, really well. Both sets of guitar are different and give a powerful aura to the songs. As an Ant fan, it was incredible to be in a studio watching Marco Pirroni recording guitars on my album tracks. Very bizarre. After a very successful recording session, we all went for dinner and it was wonderful talking about Bowie, Roxy Music, The Pistols, The Ants, all kinds of stuff. It felt like we were in some kind of rock documentary, without the cameras. Special moments.

How much did he get to influence the album?

Other than being one half of the writing partnership (with Adam), and performing guitars on the recording, Marco didn’t influence the shape or style of the songs. He liked the project and wanted to be involved because it was so different to the original and didn’t want to change anything. His guitar playing certainly added a steel edge to some of the tracks and suddenly it all came together, as if he was always in the band!

You have mentioned you wanted to pay a homage rather than creating something entirely new – what approach did you take to archive this?

Well, from the start Adam Ant and I agreed that if I was to have a go at covering such an iconic album it would have to be different. There would be no point doing a copycat version, a karaoke version but on synths… no point at all. It would need to stand alone as an album so if you had never heard the original you would assume this was the original. It needed to embrace the essence and spirit of the original Kings album, but with the DNA of the Johnny Normal sound embedded within. Of course, Marco’s guitars will be familiar to Ant fans, and its certainly a better album with them on it. So we respected the songs but gave them our treatment, and we are very happy with what we achieved. Very proud.

How much did your near-death experience have influence your music and yourself as an artist?

Following recovery from the coma, for several weeks I lay motionless, paralysed, with a totally empty mind. No pressure, no plans, no memories. All I knew was ‘this is my family’ and I was struggling to stay alive. Every day for four months I was certain I would die that day. Gradually my head ‘refilled’ with information and I could start thinking normal thoughts again. It was like I had been ‘re-booted’ with a new operating system… and from that point I had a new understanding of what life was about… live for the day… every moment is a piece of your future history (if that makes sense). You make memories every day. Things that bother others just didn’t affect me any more. I must admit that my return to the stage for the first time since hospital was daunting. I felt like I had never done it before. It was very odd. But it was at the Digital Darkness event in my home town of Birmingham, March 2015, that I performed again… and it was amazing. I also managed to release my own album ‘Robot Rock’ during 2015 , which was far better than I had hoped. So, I have a renewed fire in my belly now. I look at challenges differently and I don’t give in.

You also brought few musicians to help you – was there a selection process?

I actually had a different guitarist, Nigel Wakelam, until October 2010. Adam asked me to perform on tour with him and Nigel couldn’t make the dates. So my wife suggested that I contact Pete Walsh (who I had worked with on corporate events over the years). Pete was a sort of 1970’s-looking Hendrix-style guitarist and I thought “that would never work, those flowery guitars and my synths”. So, without much choice in the 10-day timescale available before the tour, I rang him and asked if he would help out, just for the gigs. I was amazed when he said yes. Then, when we had our first rehearsal I thought ‘Wow, that sounds really different. This could be something special”… and it was. He took the songs somewhere I had never imagined.

Izzie Voodoo is a lovely, lovely lady… a very talented keyboard player, singer, bass player, producer and performer. She performs with Tokyo Witch Hunt, Izzie Voodoo and the People, and also produces dance music under the name Diagram. Izzie has performed backing vocals on my ‘Robot Rock’ album and we have previously performed together. Izzie was my first choice for backing vocals on this project. She also plays bass guitar too.

Any plans to hit the road?

I doubt very much if our version of Kings will hit the road, Marco really hates live performing. However, we will probably drop a few songs into our normal Johnny Normal live set on occasions.

What else is happening next in Johnny Normal’s world?

There will be a Kings of the Wild Frontier ‘Listening Party’ event at Zigfrid Von Underbelly, Hoxton, London on Friday 17th June. Tickets from:  https://www.theticketsellers.co.uk/tickets/kings-of-the-wild-frontier-johnny-normal-album-listening-party/10040690

Johnny Normal is performing at Infest alternative festival in Bradford during August http://infestuk.com

and at Electro London synth festival with Wolfgang Flur in September http://www.electrolondonfestival.com


You can buy the Kings of the Wild Frontier album at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/kings-wild-frontier-feat./id1104973611?ls=1

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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