Who Are…Joanna Gruesome

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 09.16.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: Co-ed indie pop with roots in noise, hardcore and punk

From: Cardiff, Wales

Personae: Alanna McArdle (vocals), Owen Williams (vocals, guitar), George Nicholls (guitar), Max Warren (bass), Dave Sandford (drums)

Some bands meet in record shops and some meet through Craigslist ads, but Owen Williams bonded with his future Joanna Gruesome band mates at a rather unusual place: an anger management group. “If you just piss off a lot of teachers you get into those kinds of groups,” he explains. “A lot of the time they kind of draft you in through school.”

After initially forming late 2010, Joanna Gruesome cycled through a series of different sounds — including a twee phase that Williams says was a reaction to all of the ’80s hardcore they were listening to — before settling on both a permanent lineup and a style defined by its contrasts: Moments of winsome indie (mostly courtesy of ex-Evans The Death member Alanna McArdle’s lilting vocals) and exuberant noise-pop hove up against discordant, aggressive sounds equally indebted to riot grrrl, hardcore and fuzzy ’90s lo-fi.

As befitting their diverse influences, Joanna Gruesome cut their teeth touring with local indie outfits as well as what Williams calls “chaotic emo bands,” releasing 7-inches on underground labels Art Is Hard and Happy Happy Birthday To Me. Such activity — as well as riotous live shows that often involved band members jumping into the crowd as they played — pushed Joanna Gruesome to the forefront of the UK DIY scene and caught the eye of another label they admired, Fortuna POP! That label plans to release Joanna Gruesome’s first full-length, Weird Sister, in Europe (Slumberland is handling the US duties).

Annie Zaleski talked with Williams about their so-called anger issues, Weird Sister‘s dark crevices and whether their band name is really about you-know-who.

On how Nation Of Ulysses figured into their formation:

[Bassist] Max [Warren] turned up [to anger management one day] wearing, like, a Nation Of Ulysses bootleg T-shirt. That surprised me. That gave me a reason to go talk to him. I was like, “I love that band,” so we started talking. And he told me he played bass, so that’s that.

On their sloppier (and twee) early years:

It was a completely different lineup then as well, and we kind of existed in living rooms — and [played] really bad Field Mice covers and stuff like that. [Laughs.] It was pretty twee, to be honest. It wasn’t the kind of exciting music [we do now].

On how ex-Evans The Death bassist Alanna McArdle landed in the band:

Our original singer went off to live in Africa, so we needed a new singer. And we knew Alanna through this band called Playlounge that she was really good friends with. We knew she was in Evans the Death and we knew she could sing. She’s been great.

On their enduring love of DIY:

We played with a lot of cool DIY bands in Wales and England, like Facel Vega and Harbour. There were a lot of hardcore bands, really. Then we got into stuff like Huggy Bear, Tiger Trap [and] the Frumpies, and poppier stuff like Young Marble Giants.

On writing Weird Sister at a creepy Brighton, UK, hotel called Hell House:

We didn’t record there, but I kind of wrote the music there with some of the other band members. It was really weird; it was this sort of like kind of strange little hippie-ish hotel with these really odd guys who kept doing Ouija Boards and stuff like that. We didn’t really know what they were doing — hopefully they conjured something. We just hung out there for like a month and wrote all the songs.

On why their lyrics are so dark:

I really like the Alan Moore Batman comic. I was reading [the dark and highly influential Batman graphic novel] The Killing Joke a lot when I was thinking about lyrics. It’s got a zombie vibe, it’s sort of set in a circus and there’s loads of horrible things coming alive, and the joke is they’re screaming about shit.

I’ve never really thought about the lyrics too much. A lot of it’s just quite abstract. A lot of it’s just about crap horror movies and things. It kind of is from just being emotionally detached and just sort of purely this kind of horror-y [thing]. Some of it is about mental illness and stuff — I guess being in that hotel was quite an emotional atmosphere.

On their weirdest gig ever:

This is our second tour, but it’s still pretty early days. It was this show in a middle aged couple’s suburban home, because their kid had recovered from meningitis. They wanted some bands to play in the house. And we were on tour and were like, “Oh, we need a date.” And then he messaged us saying, “Come and play a house show here.” The guy [who booked us] was into [the] ’90s rock kind of thing, and somehow had heard of us. I remember he was wearing a Lemonheads T-shirt. We didn’t really know much about him.

We ended up with children running everywhere. It was really, really bizarre. It was probably the worst and the best show.

On the origins of their name:

It’s a play on Joanna Newsom. We couldn’t think of a name at first when we first started, and we didn’t really think anything would happen. Our friend Al, who’s now our manager, was suggesting loads of stupid pun names, and I think Joanna Gruesome stuck somehow. Then we just never decided to change it. It’s kind of a lot of bother, really. I always kind of forget it’s an awful pun. I think she’s aware of it. I have a feeling she is.

On Cardiff:

It’s weird, because I guess compared to somewhere — like, I don’t know, Manchester or London — there’s a very tiny amount of bands. In Cardiff, everyone knows each other, so everyone’s kind of helping each other step up.