JO MARY’s guitarist Sam has just been hauled out of the murky water of the Birkenhead Docks. By the looks of the scum on the dock wall and the rubbish floating on the surface, it wasn’t a pleasant dip. Which makes Sam’s decision to jump in in the first place all the more strange (all in the name of art, they claim). In Jo Mary’s view of the world, however, strange is the new normal. And you’re gonna love it.
Watching Sam wading in the detritus of the dock water was oddly poetic, mirroring their emergence as a band over the past two years. Something’s been brewing in Wirralian waters ever since Sam and his sidekick Ash started taking the band seriously, fermenting just under the surface. Now, the band are emerging, Renton-like, from the depths, wading through the plastic bottles and faded crisp packets and coming into their own, the noisy garage jumble they make starting to infect ears on both sides of the Mersey.
“It was my step dad who really got me into music as I know it now,” Sam tells us after he’s dried off, pint in one hand and ciggie in the other. “Him and me mum took me to see Faithless when I was about seven. It was boss, but I was far more interested in guitar music. He made me a CD of songs he thought I’d like and Radiohead’s Idioteque was on it. It became a bit of a problem really. I absolutely loved it, but it gave me horrendous nightmares.”
It’s easy to see why this track would incite fear in a seven-year-old, with its possessed drumbeat, Yorke’s manic vocals and haunting screams which echo in the background. For chief songwriter and core of the band Sam, music has been an ever-present force. It’s something which has soundtracked his life in more ways than even he can think of, given him drive and a focus, and sat there at the forefront of his mind. “Without music I’d be dead by now.” This may sound somewhat of a cliché but it’s far more than that for him. “I’d still be doing something else, but I think I’d be very lost.”
“Probably be doing a lot more drugs!” chimes in tambourine man Ash, who joins us just as Sam declares that his ambitions have led him to this point. “I’ve always wanted to be a rock star.”
Swapping school for a life of writing, playing and recording music, Sam’s walls are adorned with artwork, a leaving letter from school, and abusive noise complaint notes from angry neighbours from his childhood. Showing us through his record collection he singles out Dylan, Joy Division, The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and Radiohead as his major influences. All artists who match pop melody with outsider experimentalism and deeper lyrical substance. “If the band weren’t around me I’d still be a solo artist. I’ve always made music since I got my first easy-learn guitar, and I always will do.”
But the band is not exclusively Sam. After the dock exploits, we’re now sat in the house where the majority of the band have lived for the past year, along with a couple of close mates. It seems nigh on impossible to get the whole lot of them together, with a full turnout only really coming when in holy union onstage after dark, or hiding away in a cramped practice room. Joining Sam is bassist Mike (who’s actually called Dan, but with no reason offered up as to why he’s called Mike, we just have to roll with it), all-round hype man Ash on percussion, and drummer Luke. The latest addition to the band, guitarist Ochan, is here in spirit if not in body. Around us, bright pink spray paint adorns the walls, a collection of bongs sits in the fireplace and everything from Simpsons art through to signs taken from abandoned theme parks cover up the rest of the space, leaving hints of yellowing magnolia just peeking through. The frenzied splurge, everything in its right place, reminds us of the band themselves: chaotic, verging on shambolic, almost to the point of breaking at times, but knowing just the right moment to pull it all back.
“The first incarnation of the band was when me and the original guitarist managed to bridge our hatred for each other after finding a mutual love of Radiohead,” explains Sam. Creating moody, psychedelic blues-infused rock ‘n’ roll, the first manifestation carried the influences of Neil Young and The Velvet Underground on their sleeve. It was this initial promise which drew the attention of Bill Ryder-Jones, who the group supported at an early stage. “I always saw the lads growing up,” explains Ash of his origins in the group. “The core three of them were always in bands and I always told them to stick together. I jumped in the van to the Newcastle gig [supporting Ryder-Jones] and it sort of took off from there.”
Ash is very much a larger-than-life figure: extremely likeable, friendly and chilled out, but once onstage and armed with his trusty array of tambourines, he becomes a catalyst for madness. “I honestly couldn’t imagine being in a band without him now,” Sam explains. “Before he joined I was a much shyer performer, but with Ash he really seems to have brought out my confidence. I can’t play without him now.” The band’s early shows saw them hiding behind masses of hair, often quietly spoken and keeping their sets calm and collected. Now, the sets are pretty much the opposite: louder and more raucous, often ending up with at least one member of the band semi-naked. To witness Sam and Ash in full flow, flesh beading with sweat and rolling around amid spilled beer and precariously-placed pedals on the floor, you’d think they were trying to mop up as much dirt as possible. It’s also completely captivating.
“We’re just a big bunch of mates really. We play together and hang out together. The first night we met our guitarist Ochan he was quite reserved, but by the end of the night we were all in the bath together getting bevvied.” There’s a playful energy that just oozes from them which you can’t help but absorb, telling you to fuck it and just go along for the ride. Even those hesitant in the initial few songs have let go by the time the band have plunged into their noise-inspired eight-minute cover of Sister Ray.
But it’s not all fun and games in the life of Jo Mary. They’ve been putting in some serious slog behind the scenes. “Our sound has come on a long way and we’ve really started to connect as a band,” Luke tells us. “I’d never played the drums before Jo Mary so I just taught myself because there was no one else to do it.” “We were lucky enough to jump in the studio with James Mellor,” Sam adds. “I’ve never really been able to afford pedals, so getting into a studio with amazing gear and a guy knowing exactly what guitar sound will suit each song was just class. We’ve recorded two EPs in the space of two months and our sound has already come on so much.”
These two EPs – Songs To Shit To Volume 1 and Volume 2 – find Jo Mary in rude health. The grooves that started out in the vein of Mac DeMarco have shifted towards the frantic end of the slacker rock spectrum. In many ways, it is a very British sound, bound by its meat-and-two-veg rock ‘n’ roll limitations. Simplicity is the key to Jo Mary’s appeal, however. It’s the authenticity and grit embedded deep in their DNA that keeps you coming back for more. So much so that, when they leave the bits of studio chat in at the beginning of latest singles Chewed Up and Spat Out (with Mike as the inevitable fall guy), you kind of know it was deliberate, but it all makes complete sense.
We meet on one of the band’s final days in their current abode, and they have big plans to set up home in a much more ambitious setting. “We’ve just set up a record label [Eggy Records] so no one can fuck with our music. We need a headquarters and a place to rehearse, so hopefully we’ll be able to find a warehouse space which can house all of it as well as a place to live.” With plans to form Birkenhead’s long overdue answer to Warhol’s Factory we’re not sure what the next step entails for Jo Mary; but we’re sure they can bring it to life with their very own sleazy glory.
Songs To Shit To Volume 1 is out now, with Volume 2 released on 13th October.