It’s a balmy May afternoon and Johnny Hates Jazz (songwriter, Clark Datchler and producer/engineer Mike Nocito) are meeting SuperDeluxeEdition in a West London recording studio, to talk about Magnetized, their rather splendid new album. The pair are looking slim and relaxed, and insist on buying SDE lunch before we get down to the nitty gritty. But before we talk about Magnetized, we spent some time reflecting on the past…
SuperDeluxeEdition: Looking back on Turn Back The Clock, do you in any way feel aggrieved that you were pigeon-holed as sharp suited, slick, well-produced eighties pop?
Mike Nocito: The answer is no to that, because you can’t tell the public what to think. The biggest example [of that] I remember is Shattered Dreams came out in the UK and did incredibly well and it was exactly as you described, it was [perceived as] a little bit – not naff – but we didn’t have the coolest of image with the press. We went to Italy to do the first TV show there, and the journalist said ‘So, a pop Steely Dan…’, and we thought ‘Oh, you get a bit more where we’re coming from’. It’s not that we were trying to be that, but in different countries it was a very different perception.
Clark Datchler: That’s true, that was an anglocentric issue, but I have to say also, I think that there was an issue, in that we are associated with a time when music generally associated with the eighties had already emerged – in the early and mid-eighties. In some ways I think we were more related to that than our peers who emerged in the late eighties. In hindsight, I think that is not how we’re remembered. I think we are just remembered as an eighties band that did very well and sold a lot of records. But there is a sense that we were never quite given the kudos that people now think we should have been, and I quite like that. There’s more to discover, it’s not all said and done.
SDE: What happened with the band and the split? Personality clashes, musical differences?
CD: I remember it differently now that I’m slightly older and a teeny bit wiser, than I probably experienced it then. We had all be involved in music from years before Johnny Hates Jazz released Shattered Dreams, and so we were all in some ways preparing for that moment, and when Shattered Dreams happened, it happened relatively quickly. So we were in one way prepared, and in another way not prepared. You never know how these things are going to happen, especially with Shattered Dreams, because it was unusual for the time because it just went global – really quickly.
MN: We were signed to a singles deal with Virgin, so when Shattered Dreams hit number 40 and then took off and we almost got the call from Virgin to say, ‘when are you delivering an album?’, and we said ‘you haven’t asked for an album!” – it was almost as preposterous as that. And because Shattered Dreams was taking off everywhere, we were going away every day, or every other day, to promote it in Italy or Greece or wherever, so when we left, we turned the lights off in the studio. There weren’t technicians keeping the record going. So we were promoting and making an album, but in a different way than other groups, because we just did it all ourselves, so it made it unbelievably stressful.
CD: It was very pressured, and I think under those circumstances, you react to stress…. In my case it became a difficult situation to deal with and those things affect inter-personal relationships, or even [dealings with] people you’ve never met before. That’s not to say there weren’t some fantastic things about that time. I’m not saying it was all so bad.
MN: But aren’t bands supposed to split up anyway, if you look at rock and roll history..? [laughs]
SDE: Yes, but not necessarily after one album… [laughter]. Given the situation you’re describing, it makes it all the more remarkable that Turn Back The Clock is such a strong pop record – if you were under such pressure to come up with it in a short period of time. Were all the songs already written?
MN: No, I remember the last song [recorded], the penultimate song on the album, was done a few weeks before the recorded was mastered.
CD: Ironically called, Don’t Let It End This Way and that was a heck of a rush. But [the split] was definitely a symptom of the pressure at that time.
SDE: So looking back, do you regret the fact that you split at that time and didn’t go on to make further albums?
CD: There’s a song on the new album, called The Road Not Taken, which was definitely me writing a song which was in some ways cathartic. I’ve had it in my mind for a long time, of ‘what if’. What if I’d gone through a different door, not the one I went through. The point of The Road Not Taken, is no matter what your choices and decisions are, you have to deal with who you are now and what your situation is, move on, and make the most of it. Also, I think if you’re happy with who you are and happy with where you are, there’s no reason for regret. Fantastically, all these years later, we’ve come up with Magnetized – I really like the album, I think it sounds strong, and it some ways that’s the best way to answer ‘do we have regrets’ because we have this now.
MN: Yes, it’s impossible to answer. I’m very proud of Turn Back The Clock, the album. I can still go to Europe or America and still hear it played, so it’s had a life way beyond us, so that’s kind of satisfying.
CD: And also, I think we were heading towards that critical moment of 1990-ish. We don’t know what would have happened. No matter how good the second album might have been with the three of us, because the music industry was changing so radically, the music scene was changing…
MN: [interrupts, ruefully] We would have worked it out! [laughs].
SDE: Mike, you did go on a make a second album without Clark… [1991's Tall Stories with Phil Thornalley singing]
MN: We were sort of obligated. Even to me now, it’s not a Johnny Hates Jazz album. It didn’t feel like one. It was a case of ‘what else are we going to do?’. I can’t really listen to that record, some things happened from a personal point of view, my mother died right at that time, Calvin had that car crash [Hayes was seriously injured and spent a year in a body cast, recovering]. So I don’t want to go there. Maybe I should listen to it one day, but my memory is that is was so over produced.
SDE: Clark, you had your Raindance album, which I didn’t even know existed until I found it in a used record store, probably around six months after it was supposed to come out. What was the deal there, did Virgin just give up on it?
CD: What happened was that a single came out which they [the record company] chose called Crown Of Thorns – a bit of a heavy subject for a pop single. It did well in Japan, so the album came out in Japan, but it didn’t do well elsewhere. I ended up going back into the studio to rework it with Rupert Hine, and it became this album Fishing For Souls, which didn’t get released. And the irony of all that was there were certain songs on there that I think of to this day, less as Clark Datchler songs, and more as Johnny Hates Jazz songs. Raindance itself I think probably would have been destined to be a Johnny Hates Jazz track. There’s a song on Fishing For Souls called Broken Sprit, hands down that was a – I don’t want to say should have been – but if we’re going to talk in those terms, that’s the case. Even though I had separated myself from the entity that was Johnny Hates Jazz, there was part of me that was still very much associated with them.
SDE: [to Clark] Having left the band, was it a bit of a culture shock with your solo material, when you weren’t having top ten hits as a solo artist, or did you expect that on your own were always going to struggle to replicate the success of Johnny Hates Jazz?
CD: I have to be honest and say – and I’m not being evasive here, Paul – that I don’t really remember how I felt about it. I think what I was aware of was that the music world was changing, and I wasn’t prepared for that. But also there’s no doubt that the world didn’t know who I was, [although] they knew who Johnny Hates Jazz was.
SDE: The public-at-large will generally wonder where you’ve been for the last 20-odd years. What’s your answer to that question?
CD: Look, we’ve always been in music since both of us were very young, so we didn’t leave music, we just did things separately and got involved in different things. I focussed on my own stuff, and Mike was working more behind the scenes and has a whole history there. And do you know the nineties – one of the guys in A-ha said this a while ago – they said that the 1990s for them, felt like a musical ghetto – they were put in a musical ghetto. In the 1990s, if you were a band that had arisen in the eighties, you were given short shrift. So you had to just keep your head down and keep doing what you were doing, and then eventually things got a lot more positive, if you came from that background.
MN: We’ve never really pandered to what was going on around us. I remember when Shattered Dreams came out, it sounded quite different to other records. Virgin at the time were confused by it. But that’s because we make records for ourselves.
SDE: What happened in 2009/2010 that made you get back together?
CD: From my perspective, I decided to tap back into that part of me that came from Johnny Hates Jazz, in terms of song writing, so I started working on a song, which became Magnetized. During the process of that, it somehow opened the door in my mind [and I thought] that it was about time that I gave Mike a call, because we hadn’t spoken for 22 years. Not a word. And that didn’t feel right. Somehow, some catalyst needed to be there and Magnetized was it, for me. So I gave Mike a call and we meet for a coffee in Cambridge, where Mike is based. I didn’t get into ‘I’ve got this song, let’s make a new record…’, it was more like ‘How are you?’, so for quite a while we just caught up with each other. It was like we’d spoken the week before – it was very easy going.
SDE: Were you surprised to get that call, Mike?
MN: I was surprised and not surprised. The phone went, then ‘Hey it’s Clark’ – ‘Hey, Clark, how you doing?’ – that’s my memory of it. I didn’t think we’d do another Johnny Hates Jazz record. I thought, we’d been there and done that.
SDE: When you started to think you might make a new record, how much navel-gazing did you do? Did you discuss whether the world wanted another Johnny Hates Jazz album, or where you might fit in the pop landscape of 2013?
MN: One thought was, that if we’re going to make a record, it’s got to be as good as anything we’ve ever done. Of course, that’s not for us to decide, that’s for the general public, but in our minds it’s got to be ballpark with the best. Every band who has ever made a new record goes ‘this is the best we’ve ever done’, but how often is that the case? So we thought ‘okay, there’s the bar’. Once we’d decided to do it, we don’t know if it’s going to fit [into today's pop landscape] – we just make the best record we can.
SDE: Calvin was involved initially, but didn’t stay with the project. Is that right?
CD: We did a few shows with Calvin, and I remember clearly that I was writing some of the songs for the album at that time, and certainly we all gathered and listened to what I was working on. Formal recording of the album started after Calvin had left. We were about to embark on what turned out to be a heck of a lot of work. The album was, on and off, two years in the making – that’s recording not writing – and I think as well as the live stuff, that just wasn’t where he was at. For Mike and I, we just dived into it and conceptualised that we were going to have to put a lot of work into this, and I think that Calvin just had other priorities and other needs. D’you think that’s fair, Mike?
MN: I think it’s fair. It just wouldn’t have happened. If it was still the three [of us] it wouldn’t have happened.
SDE: How many songs did you record for Magnetized?
MN: Just the same as the first album, we recorded ten songs. That’s the other thing, we haven’t got tons of stuff sitting in a cupboard somewhere that we started [but didn’t finish], which is bad for SuperDeluxeEdition…
SDE: Exactly, the future deluxe reissue, it’s not going to have anything on it!
CD: Yes, we’ll have to record a bunch of new stuff for it.
MN: Actually, we’ve just done some acoustic versions and one was I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, from the first album. It’s very, very cool.
SDE: When – and where – is that coming out?
MN: When we finish it [laughs]. I was working on it yesterday.
SDE: I read that you were apparently unhappy with the finished production on the original I Don’t Want To Be A Hero.
MN: We rushed the record – we had no choice. It was a case of ‘this is the date it’s coming out’. It was mixed over a 38-hour period – no sleep – literally, the day before it was going to be mastered, to be cut. So we were never satisfied with it, even though it did pretty well.
CD: Also it was an anti-war song, so we could have taken that [in] different directions. It’s great to revisit it though. This is the thing about the acoustic version, it’s a much more sombre affair and it just works.
SDE: Mike, how did you approach how the new record was going to sound. It seems to sound exactly as you’d hope Johnny Hates Jazz would sound in 2013…
MN: You just do what you do. We have a high bar. If you’re going to sit there listening for months and months, you better like it! Each track has got to have its own little vibe about it.
SDE: Sometimes, for whatever reason, an artist will have a great sounding record and even though the songs might still be great, they will follow it up with an album that doesn’t sound as good, production-wise. You wonder how ‘in control’ artists can actually be about the sound of their records. I suppose it’s down to whoever is twiddling the knobs on any particular day.
MN: I know what you mean, but it’s unfair to say that, to blame the producer. I’d probably say [in your scenario] that the first album – that sounded good – the artist probably didn’t have much control, and then the second album, when they got full of themselves, they had more control. Why should artists be great at sculpting sound? They shouldn’t be, they’re great songwriters.
SDE: Is that how the partnership with you and Clark works?
CD: I think it always has. When Mike and I first met, which was in the early eighties, Mike was an engineer at Rak studios and I was signed to Rak, as part of a band, Hot Club, and then as a solo artist. It was Mickie Most who put Mike and I together. So from the beginning, I was a singer-songwriter and Mike was an engineer/producer, and it’s a combination that’s just worked. I have to say this, but Mike is a brilliant engineer, and brilliant producer. So for me, having self-produced, it was really illuminating this time, just observing his process. There was a huge amount of detail that went into every decision, sonically, I think, and from a song writing perspective it’s great for me. I put a lot of work into the songs – I spent ages over them – and likewise Mike in the production realm.
SDE: When you started the album, was it a case of ‘let’s do a few songs, and see how it goes’?
MN: No. We know how to make records – we did it before. It was never a question of ‘let’s see how it goes’. We’re either going to do this, or we’re not going to do this.
SDE: What does success look and feel like for Johnny Hates Jazz in 2013?
CD: There’s obviously different ways to measure success now, and we’re not precluding ourselves from the possibility of having a chart single – that might happen – but it’s not as dependent on that as it used to be. I think we’d like to do it again, do another album. We’re in the throes of planning some live shows and each step contributes to that sense of success, whereas in the past it was a little bit ‘all or nothing’. Now it’s so multi-layered and dependent on different things. Also, back in the eighties you couldn’t release an independent record. That world was controlled and heavily guarded by record companies. Now it’s completely different and we, literally, are our own bosses.
MN: We would of course like to sell lots of albums. If it doesn’t do that, then people didn’t like it. We’ve failed. We make records that we like and we hope other people like them as well. If they don’t like it, it’s not much fun, is it?
CD: The other thing is, we’ve had a very good response from student radio, who don’t know who we are. They’ve just heard Magnetized and have thought ‘wow, we like this’. So in some ways we’re engaged in a situation where we’re having to inform them who we are. We’re looking at this as a long process, rather than, can we have one hit single. There are no half-measures with us, this has got to do well. It’s as simple as that. We haven’t done this [just] to do okay. And I don’t mean from a financial perspective – that’s all good, we all need that – but we want to communicate with people, not just a few people, loads of people, all around the world. That’s what we did with Turn Back The Clock, we feel we can do it again.
SDE: One thing that comes across is the investment in the album. Not just the emotional investment, but the quality of the musicians on it, the artwork and packaging. I doesn’t have a ‘let’s do this on the cheap’, independent, feel to it.
MN: We would never make a record like that. It’s all in or nothing. We’re in Vegas, it’s all on red! Even getting Anne [Dudley] involved with strings. It costs a fortune to do [real] strings and when you’re paying for it yourself, you think, ‘should we not just mock it up on a machine?’
CD: That was an interesting one, because Anne obviously has this huge background, not just with string arrangements but with The Art Of Noise, and she did a few keyboard overdubs on some of the tracks, which is great. Our drummer Alex Reeves has played with Dizzee Rascal and is on tour with Bat For Lashes now. He’s of a much younger generation, but he’s a fantastic drummer and a fantastic bloke, and we do seem to have found a good balance of people who have had a longer background [in music] and people who are younger.
SDE: Is this a new era for Johnny Hates Jazz?
CD: I’ve already started writing other songs, but right now we’ve just got to focus on making people aware that this album is out.
SDE: And you’re going to tour?
CD: Yes, we’re at the final stages of planning right now.
MN: We’ll be playing the old stuff for the first time, so we won’t be sick of it!
SDE: There are a lot of young people in all areas of the music industry these days. Is it tiresome having to remind people who are you and where you came from?
CD: Two things there. One is that when we were younger, we were very aware of musical history – rock, pop, jazz and blues – because you sought out music, and there’s still a significant number of people who do. So there is a curiosity there ‘Oh you’re Johnny Hates Jazz’, when you meet a younger DJ, for example. And there is a resurgence and interest in electronic music, synth-pop. For example, when Hurts played Glastonbury last year, there were quite a few tweets – we were told – from people saying ‘are we missing something here, or are we watching Johnny Hates Jazz on stage’. I have to say that it’s not that Hurts sound like Johnny Hates Jazz – they don’t – but their attire and the synth-oriented perspective is similar.
MN: Do you know what, I’m proud of the old records and how they sound, still, on the radio. You get artists who were heavily into the sound of the time, which then dates it really quickly, but we never had that.
Clark Datchler and Mike Nocito were talking to Paul Sinclair for SuperDeluxeEdition. The new Johnny Hates Jazz album, Magnetized, is out now and Man With No Name will be the second single – you can hear the radio edit below.