DJ Mange: You mentioned online that the first studio recordings were live jam sessions which you’ve referred to as The Basement Tapes. Is that the same recording session that gave us tracks like “In Heaven” and “Dance of the Alien Sex Fiend”. Is this session different from “The Lewd The Mad The Ugly And Old Nick”, (with extra tracks) or “The Legendary Batcave Tapes” (in which Nik mentions the date as 7/10)?
Johnnie Ha Ha: It was a long time ago, but I think all of the songs you mention were from 2 studio sessions where we did just improvise over a basic idea. The first line-up featured Stevie Savage and another guy called Tony Cook, who used to invent the most awesome special effects boxes and was a true eccentric. Most of the stuff that influenced us were weird low budget movies like Eraserhead, Tourist Trap (which is where the dummy idea came from) and Basket Case, Hammer horror stuff and stripped back American stuff like Iggy, New York Dolls and Alice Cooper. Nik was an Alice/Iggy fanatic whilst me and Yaxi were more into punk and heavy metal of the 70s and 80s. After a few weeks, it was clear that Stevie wanted a much more professional band to play with and Cooky just disappeared into the ether. So, to fill the sound out with more effects and bass end, we got Chris (Mrs. Fiend) to come into the fold and give the sound some low end along with the drums and drum machine.
DJ Mange: ASF and Specimen, like many early bands that fell under the deathrock/batcave label, seem to have a distinct glam influence in their formative stage. Was this something you started to notice fell by the wayside as the scene progressed through the 80s and into the 90s?
Johnnie Ha Ha: I don’t think ASF were glam in any way, except maybe some of Chris’s tops – we were punk style gone creepy, more akin to The Cramps and Alice, there were never any diamante earrings or feather boas in our dressing up box. I’ve never been a fan of blokes preening and wafting about in corsets and fishnet tops, I think we had too much aggression and anger and Nik was an original West Ham boot boy so he was never gender ambiguous. I think Specimen’s drag act stance worked for them really well in The Batcave, but not so well out in the provinces. I remember on the Batcave tour, Nik seemed to be more popular with the audiences than Ollie, as Nik wasn’t aloof and untouchable, he was just a child-like car crash of a character whom people naturally warmed to.
DJ Mange: The tracks on your youtube channel feature guitar and bass, which you’ve mentioned having little experience with playing, and heavy amounts of drum programming. When did you start experimenting with this style of making music?
Johnnie Haha: I started creating music again about two and a half years ago in direct response to The Fiends last LP, Possessed. To be honest, I didn’t like it much and I thought I could do better. But after about 6 months of doing cover versions of all the songs I’d loved over the years and then regurgitating some old stuff from 20 years ago, I began writing new stuff. I was learning how to use the Garage Band program on my iMac which is incredible, I’m still learning. Then one of my oldest friends from childhood started to send me lyrics. His name is Eddy Pearce and he was the singer in one of the first bands I formed, Rigor Mortis. We have always been close, in sensibilities if not geographically. We have always had a musical rapport and love the same singers and bands. I don’t know what my new style of music is, Dark Wave maybe, I’m not that involved in the scene, I just do what I like and it seems to be working. A few DJs have played some of my stuff and I’ve had a lot of nice comments from people on various Goth groups on Facebook. I decided a while ago, that I’m not interested in trying to sell my songs, these band sites are a con in my mind. Some artists can obviously make money marketing their music, but I’ve seen so many youngsters desperate to get somewhere and keep forking out money to have new avenues and marketing streams opened to them – at a price. I just give my stuff away on Sound Cloud, I’m too old to fuck about thinking I’m the next big thing, Coz I know I ain’t.
DJ Mange: Are you working with other musicians for new material, and is it possible this could coalesce into something like a release later down the road? Most of the youtube tracks are great for dancing to.
Johnnie Ha Ha: As well as Ed I recently hooked up via Facebook with Bari Goddard, who was the singer in a post punk band called Knives. He also sang backing for a few tours with Then Jericho and has worked with Jimmy Sommervile as well. Bari is a fantastic singer with a great range and is also a professional photographer working as GOD Photography. He has a page on Facebook, check out his work. We first met years back after I’d left the Fiends and me, Stevie Savage and Bari recorded 3 songs as Telekiller which you can find on my You Tube page. I am in the process of getting Bari to do the vocals on a couple of my songs as he can sing me out of the water any day. My lovely wife Abigail also features on a few covers I’ve recorded and even some of her own compositions, she has a lovely voice and favours the more ethereal side of Goth type music. Like I said before, I won’t go out of my way to try and get any sort of deal with anyone, I just do it for the crack now. I think my songs are good to dance to because I am a drummer, the guitaring, especially some of my lame solos, leave a bit to be desired. Also a couple of ladies from Facebook have been kind enough to do a vocal track on one of my songs, one in a Mid Atlantic style and the other in an opera style (thanks Gwen and Morgan). I feel more of that happening in the future.
DJ Mange: The lyrical content of your new songs is less surrealist and has greater emotional depth. Did you have much lyrical input to ASF? Was this progression of style a conscious change?
Johnnie Ha Ha: The only lyric of mine which ever got onto a Fiend song was the line ‘Soldier lies bleeding where a church once stood‘ on Ignore the Machine. Nik wouldn’t sing anyone else’s lyrics and while I was in the band, he wrote good lyrics with lots of surreal double interpretations, I don’t think he has maintained this to the present day but hey-ho, 40 years is a long time to stay sharp and relevant I suppose. The fact that I am 60 as is Ed, means we have lived a bit and have had a lot of life experience, so the lyrics have themes and are not just meaningless soundbites, no Pink Cadillacs and rocket ships to Pluto for us.
DJ Mange: Were there certain influences or stylistic tradmarks in the ASF material that you take specific pride in adding to the mix? you’ve mentioned that Ms fiend didn’t know much about drum machines during your tenure, but are there elements you can point to that are missing from latter recordings, especially something you were pleased to see the outcome of?
Johnnie Ha Ha: I was especially proud of Acid Bath, I think the progression we made both in content and production quality was many steps further on than Who’s Been Sleeping in My Brain. It’s true, some of those songs we could never perform live in a meaningful way, but I think it’s the best Fiend product ever. We decided as well, that it wouldn’t have any gaps between the songs, just because everyone else’s LPs did. The whole of Acid Bath just drips with atmosphere which is down to the 6 week tour of Canada and the US we did in 84 I think it was. It had life experience woven into it. The biggest reason for me leaving the band was that when we went back in the studio to do a follow up, I wanted to step up a few more gears, more structured songs, more layers but Nik and Yaxi just wanted to strip it back again and rely on improvisation. I disagreed and pissed off and they released Maximum Security. Now I know a lot of people love this LP but I would have been embarrassed to be on it. It’s not where we should have gone. Water under the bridge though and they forged ahead anyway.
DJ Mange: Where did the use of tape loops or pre-recorded beats come into the mix?
Johnnie Ha Ha: The honest truth was that before the Fiends, I had decided to go fully electronic in the drum department. I sold a load of bloody good cymbals then realised I still wanted to hit proper drums. I had bought a Roland 8000 Compurhythm drum machine which you can hear on nearly all studio and live recordings from ASF, so I decided to merge the two things, not on all songs but some – it gave me freedom to fuck about around the kit while the backbeat was motoring along. When we played live, I operated the drum machine in real time with a foot pedal and changing beats and fills totally live, nothing was ever recorded and played back.
DJ Mange: Your current output could be is wonderfully diverse in style, but the ASF material (and indeed much of the original Batcave bands) had such a wide range of elements in the mix that some people have trouble understanding how all those bands were part of one scene. Do you think that music scenes in general have forgotten the “no rules” ideology of experimentation that early punk bands held to, and accepted a more formulaic appproach?
Johnnie Haha: You may be right with that notion, but I still come across a few strange nuggets among all the dull dross out there. I think Ollie struggled to get enough bands to appear on Young Limbs to be honest, that’s why the styles are so diverse. Some of our early stuff had rockabilly elements so some of the Psychobilly fans took to us. We did a co-headliner with The Meteors once, we thought we’d get killed but once Nik went into his lunatic routine, the Psyches loved us.
DJ Mange: What brought you back to creating msuic, and what’s the next step forward?
Johnnie Ha Ha: I think I answered that earlier – I know its’s not a very good reason and is a bit childish, but at least it re-lit my fuse which had been extinguished years ago. I have no plans at all, while I still keep getting ideas and don’t start to repeat myself, I’ll carry on. We musicians are all attention seekers, I am one of the worst I know, but it’s in my nature I suppose.
DJ Mange: Is there anything about your time in ASF that you want to clear up or bring to light?
Johnnie Ha Ha: How much time have you got? I’ve griped about things in the past but life is too short, we were kids in our early 20s back then, it really doesn’t matter now. I’m sad that me and Nik don’t really speak any more, it’s partly my fault, I have been critical of them and taken the piss but I have felt in the past that I have been written out of history a bit along with Yaxi and Ratti, but then again, ASF have been going for nearly 40 years and I was only a member for 4 years, so I can’t complain can I? Anyway, I hope people keep listening to my noise and any comments are welcome.