It was back in the late seventies and early eighties that John Parish was to be found, playing either drums or guitar, round the lesser-known music venues of the south of England in various small-time punk or new wave bands with names like The Headless Horsemen or Automatic Dlamini. Following that, John went on to teach music performance and recording technology at Yeovil College in Somerset (a trailblazing course, as it turned out), while producing albums by successful indie bands like the Chesterfields and the Brilliant Corners.
Even then, John stood out from the rest as someone not only steeped in natural musicianship, but also as a person of single-minded determination and vision. So it’s no surprise that he is now a highly respected producer, songwriter and performer. The only surprise is that it took so long. But ask him whether he had some master career plan and the response is disarmingly downbeat: “I have no career structure whatsoever. I tend to do the most interesting thing that is on offer at any given time. Sometimes that’s my own thing, sometimes it’s working with somebody (or bodies) else. That’s all there is to it.”
At the end of 2001, critics and fans will be undertaking their annual appraisal of the Albums of the Year. You can bet your life that, among those slugging it out for the number One slot will be Sparklehorse’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Goldfrapp’s “Felt Mountain” and Eels’ “Souljacker”. It just so happens that John was intimately involved in the generation of all three. The Sparklehorse album contains a number of songs which were produced (and played on) by John in Barcelona. He also plays on several tracks on the Goldfrapp album (Alison Goldfrapp previously worked with John on his “Rosie” soundtrack), and, most tellingly, he has co-written and co-produced “Souljacker” and is currently on a world tour playing guitar in the inimitable Eels.
It’s ironic that all this activity, entailing enormous amounts of travelling and being away from home, has coincided with John’s discovery of the joys of family life at home in Bristol. John’s daughter Honor (after whom his home studio, Honorsound, is sweetly named) is an absolute charmer, and John’s wife Michelle is expecting another child shortly:
“I am a reluctant tourer though,” sighs John. “I enjoy playing the shows, but I hate being away from my family.”
It may also appear ironic that yet another album vying for the top slot, PJ Harvey’s “Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea”, has strong John Parish connections but doesn’t actually feature him. After a collaboration lasting over a decade, their careers have, possibly temporarily, gone in different directions. But my suggestion that John “quit” PJ Harvey goes down badly:
“I didn’t ‘quit’ PJ Harvey. PJH does not exist as a band apart from when on tour. I was not asked to work on the ‘Stories From The City ….’ album. Polly knew that I would not be interested in touring a record that I had not been involved in, and she also knew that I did not want to tour at all…..which does beg the question, how come I’m on tour with Eels now?”
So what is the answer to that question?
“Well, E & I met at Top of the Pops. Really. We got on, and talked about doing something together sometime. After Eels had recorded Daisies of the Galaxy, E started working on his ROCK record – and thought I might be the right person to drag in. I went over to LA for a week and we wrote ‘Dog Faced boy’ and ‘Teenage Witch’. After the ‘Daisies’ tour, E called me and we arranged the session for the rest of what became ‘Souljacker’. Having contributed so much to the album, it then felt only right to tour.”
It’s odd that someone as level-headed as John chooses to work with artists who have, at least, the reputation of being “difficult”. Or is that, with regard to E, a false impression?
“He’s not really difficult, no. He does know what he wants , and is not scared to say it. I actually find that position very easy to work with, as you know exactly where you are. I suppose, if you had opposing views as to how to approach things, then you might find him difficult …”
To the layman, “Souljacker” sounds as if it has John Parish stamped all over it.
I wondered how the collaboration between John and E worked out in practical terms?
“For some tracks (‘Dog Faced Boy’, ‘That’s Not Really Funny’, ‘World of Shit’, ‘What Is This Note?’), I wrote and recorded much of the music at home in Bristol. E then added lyrics & other stuff when I came over to LA last January. Some tracks (‘Souljacker Parts 1 & 2’) were already finished before I got involved. Some we wrote together in his studio (‘Bus Stop Boxer’, ‘Woman Driving’ …). We both work fast. The bulk of the album was written, recorded and mixed in three weeks. Our working day had to contain at least an hour’s croquet, which either myself or Butch would win. We took a day off to attend Jennifer Jason Leigh’ssurprise birthday party. I knocked a full glass of wine into her bowl of ornamental wooden carved plantains.”The artist with whom John has been most closely involved over the years is Howe Gelb of Giant Sand. John and his family like to hang out with Howe’s extended family and friends in Arizona:
“If I had to pick one favourite, it’d be Howe Gelb, with or without the rest of Giant Sand, for the constant spontaneity, originality of thought and process, and the way beauty would miraculously appear out of seeming chaos. That doesn’t mean recording him / them was the easiest or most pleasurable experience – sometimes it could be intensely frustrating. I’ve seldom felt as little in control of a session. But that is Howe’s way – you put your trust in chance…”
When John guested with PJ Harvey at the Reading Festival, she introduced him as “more of a god than a man”. This presumably means that relations between them are as strong as ever?
“Yeah, well, that was before I fucked up the intro to ‘Send His Love To Me’, wasn’t it? But yes, relations are good between us, even though I don’t much care for her last album. It’s funny, but I don’t really feel ‘not involved’ – even if we don’t talk for weeks at a time, we always have a very close relationship. We rely on each other as critics. We don’t always agree, obviously, but we know each other’s parameters so well that the other’s opinion is frequently invaluable.
I don’t doubt that we will continue (on and off) to work together on various
projects. In fact, my wife Michelle has often said that she expects Polly and me to end up as some dodgy organ and drums pub duo when we’re in our 60s. Well, my 70s, I suppose…”
The Eels world tour will take John well into next spring. Only then will we get the chance to hear the material he has already recorded for his solo project, “How Animals Move”.
“I was hoping for a March release,” says John, “but now there’s a new baby on the way, I’m putting it back until at least May. I’m planning to tour for a little while. It’s difficult to go out for long with a band the size I need to play this stuff, but I’m hoping to do maybe a month. That would include shows in the US.”
From Amplifier magazine