Even if you’re not familiar with James Johnston and Steve Gulick by name it’s very likely you’ve come across their work. Those photos of Nirvana everyone reposts on Instagram? There’s roughly a thirty three percent chance they were taken by Steve. Along with his photo work, Steve founded the magazine Careless Talk Costs Lives and recorded as part of Tenebrous Lair.
James has a musical resume as long as your arm, with Gallon Drunk, his own solo work, and as a collaborator with PJ Harvey, The Bad Seeds, Lydia Lunch (Big Sexy Noise), Faust, the filmmaker Ken Russell and become a respected visual artist.
Johnston and Gullick had previously collaborated in …bender. Their new album We Travel Time is a gorgeous collection of hazy, muted and, as fellow Shaman scribe Reza said in his review, ‘transcendental and meditative songs’.
They were kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about the album via email.
Can you tell me how the album came together?
James: Steve and I have been talking about doing more music together for a while, then he sent me a couple of ideas he’d done – this was last March when lockdown started. I put some violins and vocals on and sent them straight back. We were both really surprised at how it sounded, and just carried on from there.
It felt fresh and different. We were basically just doing it for the hell of it and it grew from there. No plan to it whatsoever. We never even discussed what sort of music we wanted to do, it just naturally grew from nothing.
How many instruments do you play between you? What was your first instrument?
James: We both play a lot of the same instruments on the record. Basically anything we had at home. Piano, guitars, autoharp, banjo, harmonica, organ, violin. I used a lot of acoustic instruments simply because they were easy to record and quick to set up, that kind of necessity all led to the sound of the record. My first instrument was the violin, I played it for a few years at school. The one I’ve got used to belong to my gran, it’s got a great cigar burn on the back that would have happened about 100 years ago. We travel time.
Steve: Wow, I didn’t know it was your Gran’s & had such great lineage – that’s wonderful!
My first instrument was electric guitar, I like how when it’s plugged in, you can make wonderful sounds just by touching it or blowing on the strings.
We both play a lot of the same instruments on the record. Basically anything we had at home. Piano, guitars, autoharp, banjo, harmonica, organ, violin…
The album has something of a nautical theme. Was that something you were thinking about as you were writing?
James: All the creaky instruments we were using fed into that, and a lot of the tracks feel like they’ve been set adrift, so the titles matched that. We were definitely aware of it at the time, plus it was there in some of Steve’s lyrics too. There’s a lovely video for Stormy Sea that visualises it all.
Steve: We’re latent seamen… I adore the sea (who doesn’t?), it simultaneously represents freedom & danger.
With you both being visual artists, does that feed into the music?
James: Hard to say really. I think the way I paint and the time I spend alone in a studio following an idea, and allowing chance, it affected the way I played on this. To just start, rather than have any fear of the blank page, lose yourself in it. A lot of it is in the texture too, something that’s a large part of both our visual work.
Steve: I think our visual sensibilities played a big part in the creation of this record, but more from the perspective of how our minds work as opposed to any kind of visual narrative.
How did the album come to be released on God Unknown Records?
James: That’s thanks to Steve.
Steve: I’ve known Jason (God Unknown Records) for a long time now, I’ve worked as a photographer with various band’s he’s played with & have shared a stage on a number of occasions, he’s always been supportive & when it came to this record, God Unknown was the obvious choice… I love the roster & I’m immensely proud to be part of it.
I think our visual sensibilities played a big part in the creation of this record…
What’s your home studio set-up like?
James: Laughably basic. I basically sat on the bed with a microphone next to me and that was it. Every time I opened the window a car would go past, birds, people talking as they walked past, all of that worked its way into the music. Clocks, rain. We just ended up embracing all that and made it part of the record.
Steve: I’m lucky enough to have a room in the house which houses my records, the piano & the other bits of musical gear I own… I record in there (have to stuff cushions against the bottom of the door in order to avoid driving other members of the household insane).
James: We both have our visual work, my painting and Steve’s photography, and that’s just an ongoing obsession that doesn’t ever really stop, but I really hope we make another record soon. I imagine it’ll just happen.
Steve: I’d like that James.
James Johnston & Steve Gullick collaboration album We Travel Time is out now via God Unknown Records and available to buy over on the labels Bandcamp.
Interviewed by: Neddal Ayad