The last time that cowpunk singer-songwriter Tragical History Tour (Derrick Johnston) spoke to us he was gearing up for his first ever show in Inverness and his first full album Aphorisms after 15 years of writing and performing. Now he’s back – with a gig lined up at Velocity Café this Saturday and Aphorisms out at long last – it’s time for a catch up...
Hey Derrick, hope these find you well – cheers for answering these! Last time we spoke was just under a year ago, where you were speaking about putting together your first album under the THT moniker – and now it’s out! How does it feel now that you’ve finally, as you put it in the last chat, thrown the albatross into the ocean after 15 years of the Tragical History Tour?
Yo Kyle, thanks for taking the time to interview me again, it's been quite the year since we last conversed in this format. Long story short, it feels great to finally have this albatross suplexed off of my back.
Tragical History Tour was never originally intended to be a full-time project, it started when my old uni band 13 Broken Fingers couldn't make a show, so to finally have a full-length album out after all this time is very satisfying. It's something that I built up into a monstrosity in my mind, a phantom to which I gave power, for no discernible reason.
That said, I'm glad I took my time with it, there's no way I'd have been able to make this record five, ten or fifteen years ago. For me though, the real work starts now; the record is no longer mine, it belongs to the ether and all who swim in her. There was a lot of trauma went into the making of this record, it feels very liberating to finally have it out there.
With such a deeply personal collection of songs on Aphorisms – some of which you’ve been performing for so long – now recorded and released for eternal posterity, I’d love to know how Aphorisms came together. With so many songs built up over years and years of songwriting and performing, how did you decide on the 10 that made it on the record? You said before that this album was about “how punk and philosophy saved [your] life” – can you elaborate?
When discussing (or “procrastinating”) about the record, my friend Dave Hughes told me “just pick your ten favourite songs and record them”. That sounded like great advice but something about it just didn't sit right with me, there was more that I wanted to say and the songs that I'd been writing immediately before we started recording resonated deeply with me, so I wanted to avoid a kind of cloying nostalgia for the past, whilst still acknowledging it. Accordingly, I'd argue that the first half of the record is somewhat analytical; surveying the wreckage of the past, trying to be accountable for and to it whilst trying to make sense of my own place within it all.
I've written so many songs over the last twenty years that it was really difficult to pin down exactly which ones would make the record. John (Harcus, producer) was helpful in that (and all other) regards; I sent him demos and we went through them together. We've been friends for almost twenty years and have made a lot of music together, so there was a comfort between us that allowed John to push me out of my comfort zone, to show a little more vulnerability, as I'm excellent, almost too good, at pulling on “the mask”. Picking these songs was an attempt to remove said mask, to reveal myself somewhat.
Three Two and Pink Couch were both originally Uniforms songs that I've played live in a THT style more than they were ever peformed by the band, as we split up before the EP was ever “properly” released, and they became an integral part of the narrative. John challenged me during the recording process, both ideologically and stylistically, and pushed me to give myself entire to it. “Song not self” is the cry. I wasn't going to put Pink Couch on there, it felt played out to me, but John pushed me to give it a go and I'm glad that I did. I feel it's one of the more transformative songs on the record, an anchor around which past and future is wrapped.
Three Two is literally about a near-death experience in Colorado; that experience galvanised my philosophy, although it took me some time to understand how these things were connected, internally. The record itself is largely concerned with how punk and philosophy have led to me to where I am, my two key influences. I've tried to reflect that on the record; the first half is somewhat trying to make sense of the carnage of the last fifteen years, the second half an attempt to reconcile and heal.
All in, there were around twenty songs in consideration for the record. Some of them were recorded as B-sides, some of them are still in the vault.
Looking more specifically, you’re back up in Inverness on Saturday and you’re playing a café this time – a bit of a different set up from the Market Bar last time! What differing experience/challenges do you find you have comparing playing bars to playing these quieter, more intimate gigs? Do you have a personal preference between these two as to what kind of gigs you prefer to play as THT?
I've played everywhere from the kitchens of university halls in Aberdeen to car parks in Orange County to squats in the Czech Republic, so I'm happy and comfortable playing pretty much anywhere. As a recovering alcoholic, I'm not particularly desperate to play in bars all the time but, that said, the drinking of other people and being around alcohol doesn't bother me, so long as I'm not consuming the stuff then I'm not particularly worried.
I understand that having some shouty tattooed person barking about transendence and the ills of the world is not necessarily what one desires on a Saturday night, so bar shows can be a challenge at times, but these are the things that I relish. I played up in Thurso recently and, while things started out fairly rowdy and disconnected, I think we made a connection by the end of the set.
I'm game for all challenges, I will literally play anywhere that people want to hear me; I love performing and sharing my songs with people, to be able to talk to them, to share stories, and to see their unguarded reactions as they happen. I feel extremely lucky and fortunate that anyone wants to engage and listen to my music at all, so I try not to take anybody's attention or interest for granted. However we can make human contact, I'll take it.
Last year you were in Inverness with Prevenge’s Chris Snelgrove, and this year you’re coming up here with Nana as part of a UK-wide tour – can you tell me a bit about her and her music? How did this joint tour come about?
Nana and I have been aware of each other for some time now, the folk punk scene is small, but we didn't become friends until last year. I was playing a show supporting American Muslim punks The Kominas in Glasgow and Nana was there, as she used to live in Glasgow and was over visiting friends. We got talking at that show and have become pretty close since, doing a short tour of Scotland together last December and making plans to tour the UK together this spring.
Nana is from Pescara, Italy and plays smart, witty, firey, angry, righteous, fun and silly acoustic folk punk that is arresting both in its no-nonsense jarring melodic sensibilities and its forthright honesty. Nana reminds me a little of anarcho folk punk legend Johnny Hobo and The Frieght Trains, or, if I'm being narcissistic about it, a little of my younger self; she's an absolute force of nature who tears it up everywhere she goes and she has my utmost respect. She's just spent the thick end of the last six weeks touring by herself around the punk squats and anarcho squats of Europe. We've got a split release coming out for this tour and I'm heading to Italy to tour with her later this year, before I head to Canada for the return leg of my adventures with Snelgrove.
Since we last spoke, it’s not just THT you’ve been busy with – you’ve also been gigging and recording with Uniforms. How has it been having a different musical output with Uniforms in your life? When you’re writing a song, how do you decide if it’s more appropriate for THT or Uniforms ?
I never expected Uniforms to play again, I thought it was done. That's one of the main reasons that I decided to throw myself headlong into the process of THT; to do the album and play in as many places to as many faces that I possibily could. That said, however, I couldn't be more happy that we're back together. Sobriety is directly responsible for the reunification of Uniforms, without the soberness of myself and Jamie, this would never have happened. I'm grateful every day that it has, it's a beautiful story that I actually find quite overwhelming, but know that nothing that is happening is by accident.
As regards songwriting, I generally write all of my songs on a nylon-stringed classical guitar and I can generally tell right away what project the song will be for. I'm exceedingly fortunate in that I've been writing songs for a long time now and can usually discern what project what piece will be for. There are always crossovers though, but most songs are written acoustically first. I'm not the only songwriter in Uniforms either; Jamie or Ade will send me a song with a basic structure and/or lyric and I'll work it out according to the vocals, because I guess, like it or not, that's what a lot of the songs are shaped around. I lack that input and agency when it comes to THT; I'm basically alone and exposed.
That said, this is almost exactly the position that I've worked so long to get to; all I ever really wanted was a functional band, a venue and a label that caters for our interests, to be able to make music and to tour. I have all of those things and feel like one of the luckiest people alive. It's been a graft but, for once, I can begin to allow myself to take stock of what we've done and where we've been. It's humbling and my gratitude is endless.
Things have also been all hands on deck with your label Make That A Take – with the label breaking through 100 releases (congratulations on that)! How have things been going with the label? I understand this year’s already shaping up to be a typically busy one (with new Uniforms, GBM, Kaddish and more on top of all the releases already out)!
Thanks a lot, it's been a mission! MTAT has been rolling for twelve years now since we formed drunkenly at a house party show at my old boy's back in the summer of 2006. We run Conroy's Basement in Dundee too, so things have been exceptionally busy. I'm very lucky to have a super supportive collective who've been keeping things ticking over in my absence, I absolutely couldn't do everything I do without their love and support.
We've got a bunch of things in the pipeline this year, release-wise; the new Goodbye Blue Monday EP is just about good to go, the new Uniforms 7” is coming out in August on MTAT / TNS Records, the Please, Believe LP is just about to go to press, as is the new Kaddish LP. We've also got new releases coming from Holy Snakes, Stonethrower, Get It Together and a bunch more, plus some really cool stuff that we're working on but can't really chat about yet.We're also in the midst of sorting out everything for Book Yer Ane Fest XII (November 30th through December 2nd), so it truly is all go.
As I said earlier, if there was a plan (there wasn't), then I think we've fulfilled it; we have a label that functions, a space to call our own (almost!) and we can help put incredible music made by wonderful humans out there into the world. To me, that's success. I've already knocked back some offers to buy the label but it ain't happening, at least not yet! (lol)
So now that Aphorisms is out, and with an upcoming Uniforms 7”, 2018’s shaping up to be a busy one for you (and that’s just musically, before everything else on top of that!) What hopes have you got for the rest of this year?
This year is shaping up to be pretty much the busiest year of my life and large swathes of it are already accounted for. I've been to England half a dozen times already this year and will be back several times more over the summer as I attempt to play shows every and anywhere.
I'll be playing a bunch of shows/tours/festivals throughout the UK this summer before my big trip of the year begins; Uniforms are doing some UK dates in late August/early September then I'll be hitting Ireland/Scotland with my friend Kaleb Stewart of Gainesville, Florida punks As Friends Rust before touring from Dundee to Rome in early October, where I'll meet Nana and spend a couple of weeks touring throughout Italy and Slovenia. I'm still awaiting some details and confimations but, all being well, I'll then fly to America for some shows before heading to Toronto to meet Chris Snelgrove. We're then going to spend three weeks touring from there to Halifax, Nova Scotia before flying back to Scotland for Book Yer Ane Fest.
I've tried not to overburden and overbook myself too much, as who knows what's going to come popping up now the record is out, but I'm very much looking forward to embracing all of it; the travel, the tiredness, the love, the hate, the burnout. Touring is an absolute privilege, travel is fatal to prejudice, and I'm very much looking forward to pushing myself out of my comfort zone and taking the Tragical History Tour to places we've never been before. I'm just grateful to still be here.
The Tragical History Tour rolls up at Velocity Café on Saturday night. Support from Nana and Kevin Douglas. Doors 7.30pm, entry by donation. www.makethatatakerecords.com