“Just believe you’ve yet to touch on the best of us,” Alexei Berrow and Kelly Southern sing on the opening track of their band’s latest album. They might be a decade into their musical career, but with ten years worth of song writing and performing to celebrate, and with their fifth studio album ‘Mono No Aware’ about to see release, there’s every sense that Johnny Foreigner are thriving more vibrantly than ever.
“Ten years makes us veterans, doesn’t it?” Alexei inquires. “That’s crazy!” From pub basement shows, to opening for their heroes in Parisian concert halls, through 28-hour train journeys across South Africa for festival sets, Johnny Foreigner have been there and seen a hell of a lot. And their journey is far from over. Whether they’re asking friends and fans for places to crash between gigs or balancing their creative drive alongside day jobs, the future, it seems, has never looked brighter.
“It got to the point about five years in where I was sort of worried that someone else was going to be like ‘this isn’t fun anymore: I want to stop and have a life and do adult things,’” Alexei recalls. Now all in their thirties, all in long term relationships, and one band member a parent, the quartet have done a lot of growing up in their time together – and it’s affirmed the band as an integral part of who they’ve all become. “Now we’re ten years in, I feel like no one’s ever going to say that,” the frontman asserts. “We’re trapped in it together, forever.”
Forever may seem like a long time, but a decade in the band are showing no signs of slowing down. Whether they’re holing up in their rehearsal space to record, or piling into a van to perform across the country, the group are, for all intents and purposes, “like a family”. “It’s like this amazing Smashing Pumpkins quote from D’Arcy [Wretzky],” Alexei illustrates. “Being in a band is ‘like being married to four people you never even wanted to date.’”
Having worked together and played together, travelling across the world while practically living in each other’s pockets, that solidarity comes naturally – and it’s part what makes Johnny Foreigner such a force to be reckoned with. Following a decade of adventures together the four-piece are both older and wiser. “We don’t enjoy sleeping on floors as much,” Alexei laughs. “And we understand how money works a bit better, so everything’s a little more stable.” Planning tours and budgets so they’re not solely reliant on merchandise sales to put petrol in their van, juggling their art with their obligations has become second nature.
“The first few tours we did seemed to last forever. Now we’re super aware of it, having nine days left until the real world approaches, and it comes faster and faster.” Dealing with more responsibilities in their day-to-day lives, the band’s sprit burns with more vitality than ever. “We still get an identical buzz when we write songs, and when they get sung back at us,” Alexei enthuses. “It’s nice to know that whatever spark it is that powers this band is still there.”
Driven by a passion for their art, and an honest love for the music they create, it seems only right that this group have managed to stand the test of time. Catering to “the demographic of hypothetical teenage us,” Johnny Foreigner are continuing to live out the dream that drew them together in the first place. “We started out wanting to be the kind of band that if we weren’t in, then we’d fall in love with,” they explain. “Now we want to be the kind of band that if you’re just getting into bands, you’d fall in love with.”
Writing the songs that they always wanted to hear, and revelling in every moment they get to spend doing so, the four-piece are somewhat reluctant to venture too far into what makes them tick. “It’s sort of like if you’re a magician and you see how someone else doing a magic trick, then that element of magic is gone because you know how it works,” Alexei characterises. “I kind of think in my head that if I take apart what it is that makes us write songs, and how we write them, and how we progress, then I’ll see behind the magic and the spark will go.” Keeping their craft close to their chest, the group are simply happy to be able to keep doing what they do so well. “As long as the hypothetical teenage us’ are impressed, then we’re doing okay,” they chuckle.
Releasing their boldest record to date, the Birmingham quartet are scaling new heights. Taking its title from a Japanese term that loosely translates as ‘the awareness of impermanence’, ‘Mono No Aware’ is a venture through everything that was, is, and hangs in the balance for the four-piece. “Being aware that stuff fades, everything’s dying, everything’s moving on, and the sadness in beauty – that’s totally something that we wanted to capture with this album,” Alexei depicts. “There wasn’t really a smart English phrase to use for it. Then we found this, and that’s exactly it.”
Already joking they regret the name (“it’s a bit annoying because we’re going to be answering questions about this now for the rest of our lives”), the quartet truly couldn’t be prouder of their latest efforts. Recorded over several months from their practice space in Digbeth, the album is the essence of who the band are. Scattered with references to people and places around their home city, the group are bearing their hearts on their sleeves – a stark contrast to the made up metropolitan setting of ‘You Can Do Better’.
“There are only so many songs you can write about being in a taxi home from Snobs,” Alexei laughs of the decision. “But when we started doing this album it just made so much sense to go back to what was happening to us and our friends again.” Set along the streets they call home, inspired by feelings and friends they encounter on a regular basis, the record is a window into the lives of the four musicians who made it. “It could be slightly alienating to someone in Cape Town or New York or wherever when you’re referencing Pigeon Park and no one really knows what it is. It’s just a stupid sounding word,” the frontman ponders. “But to Birmingham there’s a whole context associated with that. People can listen to it and totally get it, and it’ll make it that bit more special.”
“I’d rather concentrate on making the people that are into us feel like we’re writing about us and we’re writing about them,” he continues, “rather than trying to bland everything and write about a generic train station or generic meeting point or something.” Singing about subjects close to home, far from alienating their audience, Johnny Foreigner are opening up their world to anyone who wants to enter.
“This is probably the one record that I sat down and rewrote, and rewrote, and rewrote,” Alexei divulges of the process. “Everything else we’ve sort of gone in, done it, and it’s done. If you make mistakes, that’s part of it, that’s part of the art.” Taking a near painstaking care to ensure they did themselves justice, it’s not just the writing process that marks a change for the band.
“‘You Can Do Better’ is straight up rock songs, and ‘Johnny Foreigner vs Everything’ goes on for about six days,” Alexei taunts of their past releases. “They all seem very much ‘this is this.’” Switching between stripped back melodies and raging pop hooks, ‘Mono No Aware’ is the group’s most dynamic album to date – a feat which came completely instinctively. “This record didn’t have those kinds of restrictions. It felt just as natural to be sat working out three part harmonies on an acoustic guitar as it did layering forty guitars onto something.”
As instinctive as their need to write is, the group are aware that reaching ten years as a band isn’t something that comes easily. “By some grace of God, or luck, or talent, or whatever, we have the ability to write songs that some people will come back to,” Alexei modestly conveys. Placing their creativity on record for the rest of the world to hear, the band couldn’t be more thrilled. “It’s not our record any more, it’s other peoples’, and they can take whatever they want from it,” they state. “If they want to see it as a super hopeful statement, they’re welcome to do that. If they want to see it as some people in their mid-thirties still having emo problems, then they’re welcome to take that as well.”
Taken from the July issue of Upset, out now – order your copy here. Johnny Foreigner’s new album ‘Mono No Aware’ is out now.