What does ‘vintage’ mean? The word gets thrown around a lot these days. It seems to connote authenticity, and as such is oft-deployed to sell you things that are inauthentic; it feels synonymous with quality, and as such is consciously conscripted to describe something quite shit. It appeals to a sense of nostalgia, and can often be used as a crutch or a mask to hide behind. But there’s naturally another side to it too – for every full price pair of brand-new Dickies you find on the rail in a ‘vintage’ store there’s always the chance you might stumble across a truly magnificent piece of 80s power-fashion. For every ten bands that channel nostalgia for a bygone age with little introspection or flair, there’s an artist who not only speaks convincingly with classical vintage language, but uses it to create something fresh – and this brings us to John Myrtle.
Listening to John Myrtle makes you feel the confidence you can only extract from wearing your dad’s flannel shirts from the early 70s. He makes you revel in some sense of nostalgia, sure, but the songs would sound as sun-drenched and breezy as they are no matter how you produced them. They each possess their own wry sense of infectious honesty and steep emotional literacy and it’s a massive bonus that it’s all seasoned with tape hisses, clipped snares and watery Rhodes. The music’s vintage production choices are a condiment – it’s by no means its defining, core element, but a delicious dressing that brings out inherent flavour.
Producing delightful savoury scents atop the stove is Myrtle Soup, his debut full-length on Sad Club Records and his first outing since his 2019 EP Here’s John Myrtle. Across its ten tracks it warms the heart and settles the nerves and it’s clear that working with a longer runtime suits him. There’s far more room for him to settle comfortably into his groove, and it has allowed him to better explore a spectrum of perspectives – something that he did beautifully but briskly on Here’s John Myrtle. The EP featured songs tackling post-breakup fog, relationship weariness and suspicions of infidelity but found at its midpoint a song written through the eye-stalks of a slug – eating sprouts and observing suburban proxy-wars fought with weaponised gardening by curtain-twitching neighbours.
Releasing in June, Myrtle Soup only continues this trend. ‘Just Can’t Seem To Say Goodbye’ feels like a Kinks cut fronted by a Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake, ‘Magpie’ chugs along like a steam locomotive through the soundtrack of an imagined Tarantino film, and ‘Spider On The Wall’ lists the oddly judgemental observations of a spider sitting on the wall watching you get up to your disgusting human activities. Throughout, the album is touching, gentle and earnest in equal measure – a lightly steaming bowl of heartwarming, homemade pop. It looks forwards, backwards and internally, each viewpoint entertained with real authenticity – and it’s more than enough to lose oneself in.
Intrigued by his background, his approach to songwriting, and his vintage production stylings I sat down with John to investigate and tried desperately to stay on topic (with mixed results).
I’m always very interested in how this interrupted year has been for artists. How have the lockdowns been for you?
Well, I’m already a slow writer. So having endless time to try and write was pretty hard at the start. I shut down for a little bit. I played a lot of Cities Skylines.
I love that game.
That game is fucking great. Then it came to the point, you know, day 15 of Cities Skylines. I was like, “well, I better try and actually write some music”. So I did, and it kind of picked up from there. I record my music in my bedroom anyway, so I mean it wasn’t particularly difficult on that front, because it was all there for me to do. It was always in my peripheral – my recording equipment – and I was always avoiding it for a while. And then, you know, I finally was like, “okay, I gotta do it.”
What’s your city like in Cities Skylines?
There was a lot of contaminated water.
Mate, it was bleak. I didn’t feel good about it. For a minute, I kind of thought I could escape lockdown by becoming sort of like the overseer of a beautiful, harmonious place, and it just wasn’t that. So I was like, “you know what, fuck it.”
Could you tell me a bit more about your musical background?
I’ve played in bands and things like that since I was about 15. Just with school friends. I was playing bass back then. And then as I got older, I got heavily into bands like the La’s and the Stone Roses, and I sort of branched out and I thought I’d try and write my own songs and it has kind of evolved from there.
Onto the album then. How was that recorded? How did it come together?
I’ve had some songs for four or five years now, and I never knew when the right time was to release them. They were quite introspective, I guess – questioning a lot – so I thought that now was kind of the right time to do it. It was quite a reflective time, and I thought it was best to put them all together now, really.
Could you tell me some more about your production process and where your sound comes from?
Well, growing up being in bands at school, the done thing was just go into a studio. That was usually just a very random studio that you’d pay a few hours for with a working engineer or producer. I always kind of thought that was how you did it, and then when I first moved to London, when I was 21, I did that again with a random guy in a studio. I was just never satisfied and I felt very under-confident with my own expertise with engineering and just wires in general. I was always put off really exploring it until I got into the band Ween. Do you know Ween?
I’m familiar, yeah. Gene *and* Dean Ween.
I think it’s their album, The Pod. I listened to that and it was so damn weird and also hilarious. I found out that he did it on tape, and I just loved the fact that it was just very out there but done on their own terms. Around that time I got into Emitt Rhodes and his music is so up my street – y’know, melodic Beatles-y pop tunes. He did it all from home and I thought, “well, why am I wasting my time going to studios?”. That led me to look into alternative measures.
Unspecified alternative measures. That sounds somewhat nefarious.
I’ve got a story about this actually. I got this mixing desk from this guy on eBay, because I didn’t know how to use a mixing desk or anything like that but I thought I’d try and get it on the cheap. Originally, I kind of wanted to copy how Oasis did their demos, and I found out they used a Seck mixing desk. So on eBay, there was one for thirty quid. I go and get it from this weird guy in a garage. It was a very strange affair. I took it back and it fucking went up in smoke. There was kind of a fire in my room for a little bit. My housemates were like, “what the fuck are you doing with all this stuff?” And I didn’t know what I was doing myself. I just had all this random gear, and I had started a fire. It’s come on a lot since then.
Yeah, absolutely. I do quite like this spectrum. There’s the artificiality of recording with a rent-an-engineer in a studio on the one end, where you feel stressed and it feels really rushed – you don’t necessarily produce your best work and you don’t build a relationship. And then on the other side is home recording and starting fires in your bedroom.
Which one is better?
Every now and again, you throw in a song from a very left-field and usually non-human perspective. An example of this would be ‘Cyril the Slug’, from your EP.
It’s funny, isn’t it. Sad song, sad song, song about a slug, sad song, sad song.
I’m fascinated by that. What’s the process in deciding how to present a song in terms of its perspective?
I think all my songs are somewhat drawing from my own experiences – even the bug ones – but I’m also maybe trying to imagine that I’m someone I’m not. It’s like, what if? What if it was the case that I was a slug, you know? In the place where I grew up, there’s a lot of people that compete with gardening, in a one-upping kind of way. Like, “oh, yeah, so did your geraniums not grow so well this year?” So it’s a bit of a fuck you to that. I mean, I can’t not be from where I’m from, but I could write about it in a stupid way. I think ‘Spider On The Wall’ was a bit like that too, because it’s looking at myself from a different perspective, really. Being a bug. I think all the songs really are me kind of acting in a way, or like trying to be a character- like being someone in love, or being a fucking spider.
There’s a couple of moments on the album that feel a bit more experimental, and those are the two instrumentals – ‘On the Hob’ and ‘Soup’s Up’, with the bubbling and the beautifully automated panning from left to right.
It was my friend Charlie that did the panning, that wasn’t me.
I thought you were going to say that was your mate Charlie that did the bubbling.
Oh no, I did the bubbling.
How did you do the bubbling?
With my finger on my lips.
It sounds very authentic.
I really, really hope that doesn’t put you off now when you hear it. When I was doing it, I was on my own in lockdown during bubble noises.
Was there that moment of “oh, what the fuck am I actually doing?”
Like, I’ve gone from being the mayor of a city with a contaminated water table to standing in front of a microphone going (bubble noises).
I mean, that’s actually true. That happened.
Could you fill me in a bit more on the process behind these tracks?
With the whole idea of the album being a sort of homely bowl of soup. I quite liked those tracks being made of homespun sounds, like I didn’t find those sounds on the internet or anything like that. They made me feel like I was in a sort of weird kitchen. Like, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s just you at home.
It’s just vibes, man.
Yeah, it’s just vibes. It’s quite nice to have the sound of this weird psychedelic soup being made in your room.
Are you excited for the album to come out?
Ah, absolutely. Yeah, definitely. I feel like it’s been too long without me having released anything new. The fact that it’s going to be an album as well is great. I’m so happy with it.
What’s the live side of it like?
So for the gig in June I’ve got a full band. The plan is when the record comes out, we’re gonna do a tour, but obviously a bit later on because of COVID so we want to make sure it’s doable. I think I’m going to get a keys player this time. I want to get keys player in and also get those bubble noises on some sort of sample pad, because I’m not doing this live, mate.
I’m not doing this live. People will leave.
That’d be too far.
That’d be too far.
The instrumentation on the record, was that your live band?
It’s all me, man.
It’s all you, all of it? Wow.
It’s all me. The whole thing is…me?
(John seems unsure for a moment)
I’m just making sure that’s right, before someone gets annoyed. Yes, it was all me. The EP has a couple of people doing things, but this one was all me. Pretty much. No, it was, it was all me, but mixing done by a couple of friends and things like that. It took a long time, but I had a lot of time.
So what’s next?
Definitely getting back to gigging, get a tour under my belt, see the whole of the UK, say hello to everyone, and then the next record, man. I’ve got to keep churning it out. I can’t rest on the laurels.
Yeah. What is a laurel?
I don’t know, someone said it today. I was thinking the same thing as you. I might Google it if you don’t mind.
OK. “A laurel is a wreath worn on the head and it’s a symbol of victory.” OK, don’t rest on them. But if you’re wearing a laurel in victory you’d probably fucking take it off anyway. Like, you’ve got your laurel on. You wouldn’t then sleep with it on, that’d be weird.
Yeah, that’s crazy talk. What a bizarre phrase. The other one is ‘have your guts for garters’. I’ve never known what that meant. It’s been twenty-five years.
I don’t know either. I say it though.
That’s not a question I ask everyone. But I think it will be from now on.
Words: Ed Hambly // Photos: Jody Evans
John Myrtle’s new album ‘Myrtle Soup’ will be out on June 18th via Sad Club Records. Stream the most recent single ‘Spider on the Wall’ and pre-order the album via Bandcamp.