Blowing minds with Brand New Friend
- 27/04/2018 -
Brand New Friend signed to Xtra Mile Recordings in late 2017 and with only around two years under their belts, this Northern Ireland four-piece have released their debut album Seatbelts For Aeroplanes. You can buy it now on magenta vinyl, CD and download. Do so. It's one of our best releases.
Below is a brief chat we had with Taylor Johnson, guitarist, singer and songwriter, a couple of months before the album release. Give it a read and just feel the exuberance! There's a reason it's so clearly in the music...
"You have dreams of going to the mainland UK and gigging and you never really think you’ll get the opportunity to do it and when you do it’s just, wow, completely mindblowing.”
This sentence isn't even the most effusive from Taylor Johnson, songwriter, singer and guitarist for Northern Ireland's Brand New Friend. It's one of many peppered throughout our 30-minute chat, full of his grateful asides and grinning disbelief. We may only be on a phone line, but I can hear his smile.
"What I’ve found growing up in the music scene here," he says of Belfast and his hometown of Castlerock "is that everyone's very supportive of each other and when a new band comes along, rather than feel threatened by it – which is, I imagine, probably how most music scenes are – in Belfast you're really encouraged. So when I was writing our very earliest demos and throwing them on the Soundcloud, I expected no one to care. People really did. People got behind us and really encouraged us to get out there, offered us gigs and helped us put on DIY shows. It really helped us in a massive way because when you’re a young band trying to find your feet and have never done it before, having people encouraging you so much is the best thing in the world. And I think in Belfast we’re really good at doing that, helping our own and looking after them."
There seems to be a real 'pay it forward', 'be more kind' element to the Belfast music scene, at least in the eyes of Brand New Friend.
"There’s a band called Hot Cops and they are sensational, sort of like Pavement meets Nirvana. They’d be a couple of years older than us. We’re a completely different style to them – we’re one end of the spectrum and they’re the other – but we both really like what each other does and we both have admiration for each other. So when we first started out we thought they they were the coolest band around, literally there was no better band than Hot Cops. They took us under their wing, gave us a lot of really cool gigs, and promoted us on their social media and just looked out for us and wanted us to do well. You can never repay bands who do that for you and now we’re in a position where younger bands are coming to us and asking us for opinions on their music and we try to be as encouraging to them as they were to us."
And so talk turns to formation. A four-piece, along with Taylor's sister Lauren Johnson (vocals, keyboards), Aaron Milligan (bass) and Luke Harris (drums), the siblings started out as an acoustic duo. But that didn't last all that long.
"I got a guitar for doing well in my exams. 'Well done, here’s a guitar.' I think the idea was 'we’ll give him this guitar and it will inspire him to keep working really hard' but it didn’t! It just made me want to stop working hard and write music and play shows! As soon as I got a guitar in my hand, I realised I wasn’t very good at playing other people’s songs, I just wanted to write my own, I wanted to get my own feelings on a bit of paper and release all the things I was feeling at the time. I wrote so many songs and my little sister Lauren, she’s a classically-trained singer and a pianist as well – she’s always been the musical one, the talented one – she heard my songs and I never expected her to like them but she just said 'wow, did you write these yourself' and I told her I did. It was like a lightbulb. I said 'Yeah, I did write these, and you’re gonna sing them with me.' I didn’t really give her a choice I just said 'You know Lauren, if you like this, you’re in the band. We’re doing this. We’re going to be a band.'"
And the remoteness of their hometown didn't even feel like barrier - when you want to do something, truly need to do it, you'll forget the walls are there.
"We live in a wee coastal town here called Castlerock, which is the furthest you can go before you fall off the edge of the world, so we didn’t really know anyone and decided we do this together as a two-piece. Her playing keyboards and synth, and me on an acoustic guitar. So we gigged around a bit and we recorded this EP called American Wives together. We couldn’t believe the reaction to it. It was just five songs we loved playing and recorded it on a nothing budget, we had absolutely no money. We were lucky to find our producer Rocky O’Reilly, who has also done our debut album. He did the EP because he believed in it and he had seen us in a grungy pub heard the songs and loved it. Aaron, who is now our bass player, was playing at our first ever gig that we played. It was in this tiny bar and the band we were supporting was Aaron, our bass player, and Luke who’s now our drummer. We kept in touch and then one day Aaron sent a message and said 'would you, one day, consider making Brand New Friend a full band like on your EP?'. And they came down to have a jam with us and it was as if they had been in the band with us from day one and written the songs with us. We couldn’t find four people who work together so well. It was all a load of luck. As soon as the boys joined and we were able to capture that sound of a full band it worked so perfect. Just the experience of playing in pubs with our mates, that was the dream to us. We never expected to write an album or go on real tours or sign a record deal, get management. To us, playing those small grungy gigs was just everything and anything that happened after that was a bonus. Every second we’re able to do this and avoid real life is the best thing in the world. We’ll ride this til the wheels come off!"
Advice comes in many forms, and sometimes the dispiriting words of a well-meaning or realistic champion can just be fuel to burn.
"'It takes minimum seven years to break a band and get them a record deal.' I remember my dad telling me that and I was thinking 'well, I’m at year one here, in seven years I don’t know where I’m going to be'. So seeing what we’ve done in two years is mindblowing, but if you stop to think about it too much, it’ll drive you crazy. We just try and live in the moment as much as we can. When we’re not on stage, we feel uncomfortable. Even if this wonderful incredible stuff hadn’t happened and we were stuck in Castlerock playing to our parents in the local pub, we would still be doing it because we love it."
Brand New Friend's debut album, Seatbelts For Aeroplanes, is out now and should be crackling in your ears and adrenalising your person right now. It's such a combustible, fleeting power pop punch that does a lot more with each of its two to three minute songs than you'd expect.
"This album, compared to the EP, this is what we sound like live. This gave all the songs their energy and punch. The EP was just me and Lauren and on the bass and drums we just got a couple of friends to fill in who didn’t really know the songs. For what it did, it was beautiful, but that’s not a fair representation of how we are now, and the album really is. The rest of the songs were all written in Castlerock in the last sort of year and they all chronicle...in a way it’s a concept album. The opening track, the journey I hope it takes you on, is from the start of a relationship to the end of a relationship and that was me and my first girlfriend, everything we did together, falling in love for the very first time, and the most incredible highs you get, and it leads to the last half of the album which is where things maybe don’t work out the way you hope it will with your partner or with whoever. It’s a coming of age album, what you think is going to be incredible sometimes isn’t and that isn’t the end of the world and you learn that eventually. So I think there’s a bit of hope in it too." Taylor pauses. "I hope that wasn’t a wanker’s answer!"
Far from it. Insight into a songwriter's attempts to tackle the everyday, the experiences we all have and the chances to build our lives going awry or triumphing over all are all we have really. The more philosophical a songwriter gets, the more detached music can sound. Not a rule of course, but instant connection blazes significantly through our nerves and senses. Nevertheless, Taylor is more than a little modest about his abilities, another quality – knowing there's plenty to learn and achieve having already made an impression.
"As I was saying Lauren's the real musician, the boys in the band can really play, and I’m the chancer. Everything I do in music, I’m winging it. I was never taught to play or write songs. I do it by instinct, feel. I couldn’t tell you the name of any chords I play so what you’re getting is exactly what I want to convey but I could never explain how I’ve done it or why it comes across that way. I just did it purely on feeling and every song I‘ve written is exactly how I felt, so I think it’s just so honest and people get that. It just happened to chronicle this period of my life which coincided with me growing up in all sorts of ways."
The band all write their own parts and Taylor is eternally grateful for that.
"They always write their own parts, always, and their contribution is what makes it a Brand New Friend song. They’re also some of the best players I’ve ever seen. Aaron has such an ear for melody – he could release an album of bass parts and I would listen to it. Luke hits the drums so hard and I love how he plays. And little Lauren’s just a genius. What you hear as the end result is four people working together. I’m just lucky the guys trust me to come up with the ideas."
If you hadn't picked it up, Taylor is an excitable young man. He knows this, and the people around him know this. It's a lot of what gives their music such pace and fire. It's infectious. And of course it extends to all of the industry stuff that's almost just happening to them, guided by management and, now, Xtra Mile Recordings.
"If there’s something potentially exciting happening, they don’t tell us because they know what I’m like and they know my head will explode. If they told me they got us a gig in a pub in Belfast, I’d still be excited about it, so the day they were gonna get us this deal they know I’d just self-combust. I was just sitting in work one day and I knew our management was considering talking to labels and they didn’t tell me who. They phoned me up one day and said they’d talked to Xtra Mile – and I knew about Xtra Mile because I’m a big Frank Turner fan, and I love Get Cape as well – and Xtra Mile are one big family and their ethos is perfect. He called me back later that day and said it was done. I think we’re a great fit."
We do too. They tell a different side of the Xtra Mile label story. This youthful abandon and exhilaration just to be part of this whirligig parade we call the music business comes through in everything they do. It's early days yet to have something so accomplished in two years, an album of incredible fuzz-pop, it's really exciting for XMR to be right at the beginning, to see where it goes and to have something so immediate with no barrier to entry. Talking of which, Taylor ends with a lovely insight into everyone's favourite, Frank Turner, whom he has since met. We hope he *did* tell him this story. And based on Taylor's attitude, it certainly won't be the only story to tell in the coming years for Brand New Friend.
"I’d just turned 18 and I didn’t know what I was doing. I saw Frank was playing the Ulster Hall. It’s a legendary venue. I’ve always been quite driven and find ways to do things even if they seemed unlikely. So I found Frank’s email address. And I sent him an email saying 'Frank, you don’t know me, but I’m an upcoming singer-songwriter from Northern Ireland and I love you to bits. Can I support you at Ulster Hall?' And he flippin’ replied to me and said 'Yes mate, no problem, just send me a Soundcloud with some of your tunes so I can send to my management and I’ll get you booked'. I wrote back to him and said I’ve never recorded a song before. And he goes 'Errr... right, that’s gonna make things difficult then!'. But just the fact he took the time out to reply to me when I was a nobody random kid with an acoustic guitar. I never forgot that and I thought that was the loveliest thing in the world and if I ever get to meet Frank, I will tell him and how much it meant to me. Imagine Frank emailing you back and you’ve only written two songs in your bedroom! It was the biggest lift in the world."
PS. And so they did meet.