Firstly, massive thanks to Kelley O’Death for reaching out to me and offering me the opportunity to discuss the Old Words EP with New Noise. While I obviously do talk about my songs at shows, I more often than not talk about politics and philosophy, so it’s very flattering to be asked to do a track-by-track. It’s also a little nerve-racking as these aren’t things I’ve ever really discussed at length in a public forum.
The Old Words EP is my second release this year, following the Come On Home, Hero single—available on CD, digital, and flexi 7”—released upon the triggering of Article 50 in April, (Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; the process by which a member state begins negotiations to leave the European Union; Brexit). The title track of Old Words is the second song taken from the forthcoming Aphorisms LP, recorded and produced by John Harcus of Pmx. The other three tracks were recorded live in session at Kesbri Studios, Bolton, by Ant Booth while out on tour with Goodbye Blue Monday in August of 2017.
The themes touched upon on the EP are explored further on the LP: narrative, counter-narrative, self-determination, transformation, life, death, loss, existentialism, meditation, depression, recovery, acceptance, transcendence, fear, love. I tend to write songs like I write most things, in stream of consciousness, and in the tradition of confession. Songwriting is part of a healing process for me, a way of slaying demons, and, at times, it is only once the piece has been written and recorded that it makes sense to me. Sometimes, it’s poetry, other times, it couldn’t be more direct and/or literal.
I’ve spent years playing with literary devices, conducting “thought experiments”—both academically and for “sport”—and have learned through experience that what Nietzsche said was pretty on point: sometimes the abyss does stare back. It’s easy to get lost in there, and songwriting is my way of fighting for light. As a songwriter—that in itself being something I’ve never been wholly comfortable identifying as until recently—a glib turn of phrase by Kurt Cobain on the “Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!” VHS tape, “It’s your crossword puzzle,” resonates with me. I guess, somewhere in there, my deluded self aims to land somewhere between the two. They betray two primary influences, both in themselves and in terms of philosophy and punk rock. The Aphorisms LP is my attempt to make some sense of my own experience through bespectacled lenses, coloured by lifetime lived with both. The Tragical History Tour itself has been rolling for 14 years—in many ways, my one true constant.
This song was written pretty quickly, and a demo version was released on Songs For Mum: A Compilation Versus Cancer, released by Make That A Take to raise money for Maggie’s Centres back in 2015. It became an important song for me quite quickly. For the most part, I’ve always played in bands alongside Tragical History Tour. Indeed, I was singing in a punk band called 13 Broken Fingers when I played my first [solo] show, standing in for the band. After Uniforms fell apart in early 2015, I started to tour more by myself, for the first time in years. The lessons afforded me by being in that band—and all before—opened a lot of doors and, for the first time really, my sole creative focus became Tragical History Tour. While grateful to be playing with Shitgripper then also, Jason and Ade are the creative force of that band; I just tune my guitar to B and play riffs. That contains its own meditative release.
When writing this song, in my head, I was telling stories to the dead: a conceptualised conversation with both of my deceased grandmothers, telling them how I’ve been spending my time since I last saw my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth, almost 20 years ago. Elizabeth shapes some of my earliest memories, and somewhere deep inside, I yearn for the innocence and purity of that connection. She lived with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia for many years before she passed, but as a boy, I never knew her any other way. I never met my father’s mother. She passed before I was born, and I wonder how we’d have connected. It’s also an attempt to make sense of my own journey, in relation to theirs and to the interconnectedness of all things, and a song of gratitude for the lessons that life has taught me. I’m one of the lucky ones; many of us never made it this far. This song is my attempt to remind myself of that, to accept reality as its present itself, and to honour the memory of those who knew all too well just how real the struggle is.
As a meditation on suicide, it’s an acknowledgment of the fragile beauty of our existence, of the choice between fear and love, and talks of my self-harming behaviours. These have presented themselves in various ways throughout my life. My first experiences of death came early, with awareness of suicide from early primary school, so I feel I’ve been acutely aware of the fleeting nature of existence from a young age. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m actually a fairly cautious person in regard to conscious life choices, but it hasn’t always been this way. I’ve been reckless, selfish, and narcissistic in many ways.
At the risk of indulging in a monotonous “drunkology” of the recovering alcoholic, for many years, I took reckless, harmful, and unnecessary risks with my health, happiness, and heart. More importantly, I was reckless with the hearts, health, and happiness of others. To that end, songwriting is one of the ways in which I try to be accountable, to accept responsibility for and take ownership of my acts and behaviours, and process things in a way that makes sense to and for me—to reconcile my self with myself. I’m still on the rollercoaster, but in there somewhere, I believe there to be hope. Transformation can be real.
Regarding choices, this song regards making poor ones and the consequences thereof. There are few metaphors here; this is one of the most literal and honest songs I’ve ever written. I’d never physically cried writing a song before. This was written in one intense burst this summer. It was recorded live, one take, at Ant’s studio a week or so later. I hope I never write another like it.
“This Is My Rifle”
There’s a cartoon on the internet somewhere of a mummy dinosaur telling her baby to “count to 30, just like when we play hide and seek” as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth. I saw that one morning, whilst listening to the latest Apologies, I Have None LP for the first time, and just utterly fell apart. Both speak to my apocalyptic and funereal fantasies. Those corresponding influences inspired this song, written around the same time as “Gratitude” I think, certainly after my European tour with Tim Holehouse this summer.
Lyrically, this song discusses my experiences with depression, something both common and yet unique. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the U.K., mental health issues impacts our society on every level, and depression is real. That people are discussing mental health and are working to remove the stigma around it is massively important, but I think it’s also important to acknowledge that there can be a schism between those who want to be seen to be talking about mental health and those who actually want to talk about their mental health. The need for wellness is universal, so I’m sure every person has plenty of their own examples that they can draw from here. I’d encourage everyone to use whatever tools they have at their disposal.
As someone who has lived with depression and a feeling of “otherness” for as long as I can remember, there’s nothing on earth I’d love more than to banish it forevermore, but that’d be an ostrich approach. I accept its existence, hovering around my consciousness, but I refuse to be defined by it. I worry that some people allow their issues to consume their whole being, that it becomes a safety blanket to wrap yourself up in. That doesn’t work for me, and while I wholly accept that suffering is part of existence, I don’t believe existence to be solely suffering. Many colours make the rainbow. However, I acknowledge this is simply my experience. Getting through the day can be a real and present struggle. Do what you can with what you’ve got, by any means necessary.
The title is a reference to “Full Metal Jacket.” My father was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal Artillery, serving 22 years. Retrospectively, he clearly wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder when he retired from active service. I was a kid at the time, so I didn’t understand this until years later. I actually kind of think of this as a pop punk song, like my version of something Greig [Steak] from The Kimberly Steaks would write, and to me, it resolves in a playful and defiant way. At its core, I guess it’s about the right to self-determination and celebrating life in your own way.
This song was written for Uniforms, and I’ve never had a satisfactory acoustic recording. It appears on the Roaster four-way split 10” with Sink Alaska, Question The Mark, and The Walking Targets, released via Make That A Take Records in 2013.
This is another fairly literal song. My father died suddenly in April of 2012. Uniforms toured the U.K. with Cobra Skulls between his death and funeral—complications under Scots Law meant a two-week delay—and flew to the U.S. to tour with Loaded .45 the day after. This precipitated the start of what was essentially my final breakdown until getting sober. The lyrics are pretty much lifted directly from the insurance documents I was sent following his death. The song is possibly my first tacit acknowledgement of using songwriting as part of the grieving process, although that’s by no means a guarantee.
The phrase, “What’s a punk to do?” seems to mean different things to different people these days, but it was my father who coined the phrase. I remember the morning those words first fell from his lips. It wasn’t pretty, I was a mess, but it perfectly encapsulated everything at that moment—if you don’t understand without an explanation, you’ll never understand. It may lack Socratic sagacity, but it’s as close to a unifying cowpunk philosophy as I have right now.
It knows what it means to me, anyways.
– Derrick Johnston
Photos by Gordon MacKenzie