Johnny Foreigner

Steve Gerrard
Steve Gerrard

Johnny Foreigner are a blistering Indie Rock four piece who have just released their fourth album, You Can Do Better. They’ve been whipping audiences up into a frenzy on tour with their fast and distinctive punk-influenced wall of sound, with Alexei and Kelly alternating on vocals. The band are: Alexei Berrow (vocals, guitar), Kelly Southern (vocals, bass) , Junior Elvis Washington Laidley (drums, keys), new member Lewes Herriot (guitar), and while on tour, Ben Rausch (visuals).

Alcopop! Records

New Album - You Can Do Better

Johnny Foreigner have had a great response to their new album You Can Do Better, and within a week of release fans were singing the words at their gigs.

We saw them tearing it up at The Borderline with a blistering set of the new tracks and old classics too. For the current tour they’ve expanded to be a five-piece including amazing live visuals played on a keytar.

Faster, shorter, louder

Having an additional guitarist - Lewes - has opened up new possibilities and depth they say. How would they describe the album’s sound? Alexei summed it up, and explained how the new album is such a progression.

I suppose one word, sonic-er. Faster, shorter, louder.

I think for this record we pretty much can play everything live because having Lewes in the band means it’s a lot easier to do big noisy guitar things instead of just having to resort to multitracking. So that was the foundation that was built on, knowing that we were a proper two-guitar rock band for the first time.

The record before that we definitely tried to do stuff knew we wouldn’t be able to play live. And our first two albums, I think we totally had that mindset that if we couldn’t reproduce it live then, almost like it wasn’t valid. I think we just accepted that we were allowed to cheat by the third album. But now there’s nothing really that we couldn’t do. Theoretically we could play this whole album back to back. And I don’t think we’ve been able to do that before.

Writing their songs

Alexei, known as Lex says there are different ways they write songs.

I just start with a spark, with a few chords, a vague melody or a half-thought, and then take it to the band and flesh it out from there. And then put off writing the words until the last possible moment. But a lot of the time Junior will have some kind of loop and I’ll just take that, chop ten minutes out of it and then that’ll become something as well.

The last two records we’ve done with our friend Don who we’ve grown up with, buying the same records, so we have a lot of shared reference points, and he’s just become a super amazing producer. So for this one he’s started his own studio in Birmingham, called Carbon, and we went there and tracked everything apart from the vocals. Things like the vocals we did at our own studio. And the record before that, we just brought Don to the studio and just kind of left him there. Set up all his stuff in a corner.

DIY recording and demos

The band have a rehearsal studio space to call home and be the Johnny Foreigner nerve centre.

It’s at a place called Candyland, run by lovely people called Nigel and Matt, who have been pretty much doing it, non profit, since we were born. It’s basically a slightly illegal warehouse in the city centre, and there’s about five or six different rooms in there. And we just pay to hire it monthly, it’s pretty much our home.

Here’s a rehearsal take of Le Sigh from their new album.

Demos and samples

Kelly told us how they make the initial demos.

We’ve done it in so many different ways. Junior has an eight track that we’ve recorded on before, sometimes we just do it on cameras, it all depends really. When we’re just doing initial stages which is where we’re putting songs together it’ll be on a camera or over an iPhone but then it will be put on eight track. Sometimes we’ve got a soundman that we’ve had come to our studio to record stuff for us as well.

Some of the DIY effects make it on to the albums.

We went from our home recordings when we first started, we got some mates to just run outside in the rain, clapping their hands and shouting something, we recorded it from three storeys up, that was a bit weird.

Samples on the album include sounds from a 90s Amiga game, but it’s clear on You Can Do Better that their songwriting has developed and its not just about sound effects. It’s something that’s borne out by the positive reviews, and how they see themselves developing too.

When we first started off we were almost more experimental because we didn’t really have the songs. So instead of spending a long time making a song we were like, let’s see what stupid sounds… let’s see what happens if we plug that into that and then play it backwards. It gave you a good grounding but a lot of that stuff was just for the sake of it, just some kind of fun noise as opposed to an artistic statement made out of kids’ steam train sound effects or whatever.

Visual adventures

Johnny Foreigner are hot on visuals and as well as their own artwork and customising all their gear, use visuals as a key part of their live show, with Ben ‘performing’ them.

We really like the idea of generating stuff as a gang, so whatever adventures we find along our way become part of the visuals and we carry them along with us. When we were in the States Alexei bought this little helicopter with a little camera built into it and a little hard disc and so we flew that all over the show and took footage of that and then put that into the visuals.

We ask for a small toy robot on our rider for the show and when people actually do that we work the robots into the shows and then they kind of carry on with us as we go forward into all the new places and new situations we’ll end up in. So it’s very much a group family type effort. We’ve got lots of other friends that have also collaborated and added to stuff with drawings and it’s this constantly growing, communal, bundle of stuff.

They have been touring the UK and Europe and have some more great shows lined up.

There’s South Africa, and then festivals in the summer and hopefully a few more UK shows towards the end of the year.

So which artists inspire Johnny Foreigner?

Two brothers in Chicago started a band called Cap’n Jazz and then from that they turned into a band called Owls, and then that turned into a load of different things. It’s a very incestuous scene and everyone plays on each other’s records and they’re just so talented, crazy talented.

But it’s also an inspiration in that they’re doing this stuff which I think is artistically way better than anything we could ever do, they’re like god-level to us but also no one’s heard of them and they still have to work shitty jobs. So it’s kind of nice to know that even the people that you really look up to and admire, and want to have that kind of level of talent, it still doesn’t necessarily mean that you can quit the real world.