“You start to question how much of what we do is an expensive ego trip, just putting off the real world for another year to play rock band,” frontman Alexei Berrow deliberates. It’s certainly been a lengthy journey for Johnny Foreigner. In their decade long history, the Birmingham quartet have released four albums, a number of EPs, and performed everywhere from their hometown to Johannesburg. Holing up in their rehearsal space, they’ve spent the past two months working on album number five.
“We’ve been sleeping in our own beds and trying to maintain a normal life at the same time,” Alexei chuckles, “but it’s been the most intensive project we’ve done.” Battling with broken technology, illness, minor explosions, and a partial roof collapse, it’s not been an easy ride, but at long last, the record is finally nearing completion. “With ‘You Can Do Better’ I tried writing from other perspectives, moulding events to better suit my narrative,” he recalls of the group’s last record. “For this, I really swung back hard in the other direction.”
Opening up on record isn’t something the group take lightly. “Some songs are like spells, and I feel like if I say what/who/when they’re about then the spell breaks,” Alexei reflects. Looking back on some of the moments that inspired their music, it’s apparent why the group keep the more personal details hidden. “I had my second police-car-accidently-tries-to-remove-my-legs incident,” he winces. “Literally centimetres away from death, both cars steaming write offs. I called a cab and went to work. Shit just happens, and it’s terrible, and we deal with it. Can’t go on, must go on.”
Back on their feet, the band dove into preparation for their new album. “A few months after the crash, I was all hyped, writing a million riffs,” Alexei enthuses. “We had this perfect bed of a song. I started the lyrics – to the friends I made this summer I might never see again – and got interrupted by a message from one saying another had suddenly died. I left it in, he would probably hate the song anyway, and now it’s part of that sad tapestry.”
Disaster and turmoil seem to be things Johnny Foreigner encounter on an all too frequent basis. “We’re of the age now where tragedy is regular, and it was weirdly refreshing as a songwriter/emotional vampire to get used to that,” the frontman expresses. “The drama’s still there, it just doesn’t only happen in taxis and nightclubs. There’s birth and deaths and marriages and divorces; the stakes are higher because we’re all supposed to have our shit together at this point in our lives and sometimes we just… don’t.”
Despite their apparent disorganisation, the quartet are suitably pleased with their almost-finished new record. “Subjectively, I’d like to say this is our ‘Dog Man Star’: tragic pop songs and pretentious instrumentation. Or our ‘New Adventures In Hi Fi’, where we know the formula well enough to know when to mess with it.” Comfortable enough with who they are and where they want to be, the band aren’t afraid to push boundaries.
“When we first started out we were driven so much by the idea of what a band should do, what they should mean to those who connect to their music. We were so angry at all these mid-level bands we thought were shit but got to play to bigger audiences than us, and treated their fans like punk never happened,” the group grumble. “So much of that was reacting to what was around us, wanting that position but on our terms.” Playing in small pub venues ten years down the line, a lot about the group’s ambitions have changed.
“That drive is gone now; either we weren’t good enough or we weren’t lucky enough, but that feeling that we could sit on the bill of Warped Tour and show up all them tattooed bands with their scripted ‘greatest town ever’ speeches kind of died. The dream is over, innit,” Alexei quips. “That’s not to say we’re dissatisfied, not proud of where we are, but that internal drive has been replaced with wanting to prove right all those that believe in us.”
“I look at my musical heroes of my teens and twenties, the humans that were writing stuff that felt like it was literally piercing me, and 90% of them never played venues bigger than we do,” the frontman marvels. “But I’m pretty sure they all wanted to, and that failure to achieve maximum fantasy, even though there were kids like me at every show worshipping away, is part of what ruined them.” Still writing, releasing, and performing together after all this time, even if not on the scale they initially dreamed of, Johnny Foreigner couldn’t be prouder of the band they’ve evolved to be.
“We’ve kind of diffused that anger into making our distinctly non-academy show, and our defiantly non-daytime radio pop songs, into what we think is the coolest,” they enthuse. “So many bands of that era split up. They went broke, or had a bum contract, or fell in love. We’ve weathered all of that. We all consciously chose to both have cake and eat it. Because why else would you have cake?” Dessert foods aside, Johnny Foreigner have a serious point to make here. “Aim better, if not necessarily higher,” they advise. “We want to be a band people can be proud of loving, but I think the impetuous to do that had to change if we want to be a band we’re proud of too.”
Adding the final touches to their new record, the band are feeling pretty fulfilled. “I’m confident that I can write songs that some people will want to hear, and a few years ago that’d be reason enough to put an album out,” Alexei declares. “Now we feel beholden; to everyone still into us generally, and specifically to our loved ones, to justify still being Johnny Foreigner in 2016. Turns out that kind of pressure is way more intense than the time/adult constraints we negated being so DIY about it.” The demands upon them may be strong, but the group remain undaunted.
“There’s a lot you learn from making your own mistakes, and we’re just as much a product of that than our successes,” they divulge. “It’s been a surreal start to the year anyway, but we keep returning to this monster,” they tease of the new record. “Every day there’s stuff to do, but it gets noticeably more finished.” Keeping the album title under wraps, but hinting at a release date for June (“though as ever we reserve the right to be casually late”), the quartet may have given up the dreams of mass stardom, but they’ve no shortage of ambition when it comes to their own personal expectations.
“I hope people who love our other records will love this as the rad next chapter of us honing our craft and progressing through life with them,” Alexei conveys, before taunting “I hope we get BRIT nominated. Be satisfied with whatever the middle point of that is.”
Taken from the April issue of Upset – order your copy here.