28 May 2014

JONNY HALiFAX and The Howling Truth gets down on The Bestial Floor

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Down on The Bestial Floor is where Jonny Halifax (tafka Honkeyfinger) cyphers the oxideized elements of Beefheart, Howlin' Wolf, Mr. & Mrs. Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sabbath, James Blood Ulmer, Elmore, Melvins, R.L., Junior, T-Model, Elvis n' them, Funkadelic, Johnny Dowd, ZZ Top, Yoko ... I could go on but yeah, you get it. He's kickin' the envelope's ass, delivering a sonic palate cleansing. He's rocking hip-deep in funking greasy noise and dirty rock, while reaching past the roots and through the stars for far, far outer space. Especially in your headphones. And that's what we like. Halifax composes deconstructed, imploding future blues with a strong base in the '70s tradition of getting down, infused with modern heavy sonic weirdness.

I've told you before about Honkeyfinger. A number of times over the past five years'ish. Every release has been tensile strong, both musically and design-wise. He's done 180 gram singles...slabs of his own savage one-man lap-steel and bass drum band, always terrifically stylish and heavy, and wonderfully weird. Check out the video for his first ever track. I've scared more than a few people with this ;0)

Jonny Halifax does just what he did as Honkeyfinger, but it's five-years new and improved, more melodic yet more primitive, too. It's large economy-sized. The sonic landscape has been expanded with new textures, new dirt, more outward creep.  It's a dense listen at times, commanding eminent domain, but if you take it in chunks you'll find something wild, some heavy country, something outer-blues-metal-funk of the mind and booty.

I did a fb message interview w/Jonny Halifax. Here's what's up::

DeepBlues:: It's been five years since the Honkeyfinger album Invocation Of The Demon Other (which btw is a wonderful title.) What have you been up to, Jonny Halifax?

Jonny Halifax:: Yes! Feels like a lifetime of sorts. In fact it is - My daughter Yma was born later that year. So the last five years HAVE been quite a journey. Invocation was probably an unusual album to make as a debut, and because of that it took quite a while to figure out exactly what I had made?

On one hand the first part of it was a pretty pure realisation of the embryonic Honkeyfinger live sound. . .Heavy Psych Blues stripped back and monstrously amped up. I had the intention to try for some kind of early solo John Lee Hooker sound but played through the hijacked gear of Black Sabbath or Blue Cheer. Then there’s the latter part of those Invocation recordings where I was getting more ambitious and pushing further out with loops and effects pedals and bass harmonicas etc. Probably inspired by what Tom Waits was doing on Real Gone and doubtless whatever cosmic skronk I was listening to at the time.

So the next few years had me catching up with those recordings and figuring heavier and more freaked out ways to play this stuff live as a one man band. I think it’s a format that necessarily lends itself to tripping yourself up - why else would you do it? So inevitably you run out of guitar pedal combinations to try, and need to write some more songs. Difficult second album.

So I got fed up with being a one man blues band, albeit a pretty heavy, and pretty psychedelic one. Stopped playing so much, and gradually wrote an album through recording. Myself. The main difference to making Invocation was thinking beyond what one person could play, but what sounds one person could bring together to make sounds they liked. So I got a few 70s Rhythm machines like Suicide used and lined up all the FX pedals and kept riffing until some interesting sounds came out. It felt more like painting a dozen or so huge canvasses of apocalyptic psychedelic visions than just ‘making an album’.

That was actually almost 2 years ago now . So . . Learnt the new songs and started playing live with my old pal Marvin Kingdom who’s played guitar in about 8 bands with me since 1991. We did a tour with Jim Jones Revue as still named Honkeyfinger, and played with The Magic Band (sadly without Don Van Vliet).

I think becoming Jonny Halifax & The Howling Truth came about after opening for Scott Biram in Scotland. Scott’s always called me by my real name “. . aka Honkeyfinger”. He says to me afterwards “Why the fuck you call yourself Honkeyfinger when you got such a cool name man?”. Also I liked the idea of name that sounded like some demented acid fried religious cult since there was so much howling and ranting on about that kind of thing on Bestial Floor.

So I’ve also started up Greasy Noise Recordings recently, which put out the Honkeyfinger Beasts EP on cassette, and the Howling Truth album on CD and now Vinyl. I do all the artwork which is hand printed in small runs. Hopefully there’ll be a few more releases on ancient formats covered in thick layers of ink from my greasy and noisy friends in the coming months. True DIY production. About the only thing I didn’t do with Bestial Floor was press the damn thing from lacquer myself. Next time. . .

DB:: Does this poem have anything to do with the title of the new album?

The Magi
By W. B. Yeats
Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

JH:: W.B. Yeats - Yes it does. It’s from the last line ‘The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor’. 

I’d been reading a fair bit around the themes of apocalyptic religions, and different outlooks to human existence on the planet in the face of all the present doom prophecies. Having recently become a parent I probably became a bit too darkly fixated on the demise of humankind and exactly what constituted our ideas of ‘civilisation’. 

I’d finished recording the collection of songs for the album, and was thinking of calling it ’In the Realms of Noble Savagery’ after the track of that name. That’s a track about the idea of our evolution into a supposedly sophisticated civilisation, where the heights of nobility, wealth and stature more likely disguise a history of savage exploitation and inhumanity. A kind of Heart of Darkness type in the 21st Century kind of thing. But then I picked up a Yeats book from the bookshelf I’d never seen before, and opened it at the last page which was the poem ‘The Magi’. Immediately that phrase resonated almost perfectly with the wider themes I’d been writing about on the album. 

There’s a lot of anger, frustration, and bile in the songs (in itself paradoxical) about the stupidity and greed of humankind, blinded by selfish ideas of salvation, and an apparent collective inability to act humanely on a global scale. There was something serenely existential here, and at the same time sort of hopeless, which summed up for me the mood of the album. The absurdity and contradictions of organised Religion phrased so elegantly, ending in the almost horrific brutality of ‘the bestial floor’, a kind of wake up call. Like the Francis Bacon painting of The screaming Pope in Head IV. So that stuck with me. I tried to rephrase it with other prefixes, but ‘The Bestial Floor’ pure and simply won out in the end. It still makes me uncomfortable to say it. 
DB:: I'm curious about your recording process. You record at home. What kind of set-up do you have for that? Analog or digital? Do you record live or do you build the tracks? Who else do you have playing on the album, and when you have other people recording with you is that live?

JH:: Yeah - I’m not sure if it’s conventional or not. It works for me at the moment. I record in the comfort of my work studio straight to hard drive through my FX board and then DI to sound card. The tracks I generally built as riffs, sequenced into arrangements with basic rhythms. Then wrote lyrics, weave around overdubs, see what worked as I went along. For some of the louder stuff I’d take a laptop to record in a rehearsal studio to get the real freakout energy. Most of the tracks were built in a pretty collaged type way. In a few cases - The Mountain particularly I hit on a fragment of a lead line take I’d recorded, then discarded the rest, and rebuilt it around that. The keyboard on Creeping Jesus and clarinet parts on Black Desert and Fever Rising were added last of all to tracks which were kind of fine as they were, but that little extra bit of colour helped tip them over the edge. They were pretty spontaneous - “Here, put on these headphones listen to this, improvise a few takes - go crazy.”

I’d say my process here is more like making a painting or a piece of abstract art. With Honkeyfinger it was much more of a live recording, because I’d written all the tracks to play live. With Bestial Floor, I wrote it whilst recording. The Demos ARE the album. It’s DIY. It’s inexpensive (assuming you have a computer). It’s immediate. You can change stuff if you don’t like it and you can experiment without the need for watching the  clock.

In the end I had it mixed by Mark Gardener over in Oxford, who has a great studio set up there with loads of Analog outboard stuff, where he ‘warmed up’ some of my harsher digital recordings. I wanted someone else to help with this process to give the mixes a bit more space and depth in the stereo separation, so that more than a few fuzz junkies (myself included) who like everything in mono and cranked into the red might want to listen to it.

DB:: So what's next? I see you did something for Record Store Day, and and you're selling an art print? Somebody should have you do a film soundtrack.

JH:: Yes I put out the Howling Truth album on vinyl for Record Store Day. Learnt to screen print, and inked the 300 sleeves myself with a different design from the CD. They’re all different colours, some messy, some precise, as I figured out what I was doing. So a proper DIY limited edition affair. I don’t yet know how many were actually sold at RSD, as that seems to become increasingly smothered by the old dinosaurs pushing out their back catalogue for the zillionth time, but the idea of it all is still great. Cassette store day in September!

So what’s new? Carrying on with the screen printing, working to realise the idea I had to make a series of artworks, individual sleeves if you will, for the main titles on the album, and then have a Bestial Floor art show. So far I have 1 print, with another 3 about ready to go. I’m sure somebody’s toured an album as a gallery exhibition, but it’s a new one for me, so I’ll be pushing that out later this year hopefully.

Also I’ve started Greasy Noise as a label, which originally saw the precursor to ‘The Bestial Floor’, the ‘Beasts EP’ come out as Honkeyfinger on cassette and download. The Archdrude Julian Cope took a liking to this which helped kick all that off. So there’ll be more Greasy Noise coming into the world soon with a few friends and some of my side projects coming out in a gloriously DIY hand made limited run kind of way.

Soundtracks Yes! No problem there at all. The opener of the new album ‘Black Desert’ is pretty cinematic, and there’s a load more of that I have recorded which will probably see the light through Greasy Noise soon. More is More. Come on!

. . .and The Howling Truth is now evolving into an act which is starting to generate new material as a live band rather than just me in the studio. We’re playing  a lot, and continually looking at ways to expand it musically with more improvisation, and more collaboration with the wider family of musicians and performers I know. The heavy psych blues riffing is a given, it’s adding more layers of freeform textural and rhythmic noise where the new fun is at for us. We’re out there. . or here . . . somewhere.

DB:: Thanks Jonny! I hope to see you again one of these days. One of the last times I saw you was at a Deep Blues Festival, and as I recall you managed to stop the rain and wind storm. Cheers!

The Bestial Floor is feral, heavy, groovy, and mind blowing. Isn't that just what we need today? Set volume between rump shake and obliterate.

1 comment:

Greasy Noise said...

The Howling Truth album mentioned here is now available at US Domestic Rates if you're that side of the pond.


cheers Jonny