JOHNNY SANDS is a name that will be familiar to those who are au fait with the Liverpool music scene. Indeed, since making Liverpool his permanent residence, Johnny has been a very busy man indeed, often seen dashing about town in his distinctive Nissan Figaro. He’s become something of a mainstay on the local creative scene, helping fellow musicians by putting on gigs and open-mic nights and being the go-to support artist for many visiting bands over the last few years. His most recent release – the evocative, piano-flecked single Arno Arno – sees Johnny emerging from the shadows and stepping firmly into the spotlight.
As a teenager, Johnny Sands regularly used to travel from his then hometown of Burscough to Liverpool “because it was the cheapest train fare!” he jokes. “Actually it was because of shops like Quiggins, which used to sell leather jackets and the sort of cool and weird clothes you just couldn’t get in Burscough.” Johnny was soon bitten by the Liverpool bug, and after a visit to The Beatles shop he’d soon replaced all the posters in his bedroom of his teen idol Alan Shearer with ones of John Lennon. “I think maybe if you come from Liverpool you don’t quite get the draw that the city’s musical heritage has for us outsiders. I mean, it’s something you’ve grown up with, you’re proud of it, but, as it’s always been there, you accept it as a fact of life – but for outsiders it’s like a magnet, drawing us to the city.”
Johnny began writing his own material and, in time-honoured fashion, took the well-trodden musical path to London. It was an experience he found incredibly exciting, but, as he explains, it was a place he didn’t really feel a huge connection with. “I’ve always been one for adventure and new experiences. London was great, but it can be quite daunting and impersonal when you’re young. And I just didn’t feel the same rapport with the people or the city as I did with Liverpool.”
Johnny continued to regularly visit Liverpool and, after handing a demo to a local promoter, he was offered a gig. “I ended up gigging all week, and thought, ‘Right, I think this is where I’ll lay my hat…’ and I’ve never looked back!” After one gig at the Barfly he was approached by another aspiring local musician, David Berger (now of Outfit), who asked Johnny to play on his album. “It’s hard to believe now, but it was actually a punk album, on which David planned to play almost every instrument!”
The pair decided to work together and to start afresh with a clean musical slate, and they soon discovered they both shared a love for cinematic leftfield electronica from artists such as AIR. “Being a duo we thought it was a good starting point, and so we bought a stackload of synths!” Johnny remembers. “It never even crossed our minds to have a drummer or a bassist; we wanted to approach it all from a different angle. In fact, we had so many synths we decided to recruit another synth player.” Known as Vandal In Berlin, the trio were soon being tipped for big things and started to attract some serious industry interest, but Johnny’s own situation was changing. “I decided to embark on a different path; family time and constant gigging seemed incompatible at that stage in my life, so I decided to take some time out.”
During this period, however, Johnny never stopped writing and producing music, and – in a slightly surreal turn of events – he also found himself crowned the Best-Dressed Man In Britain in the GQ Men Of The Year awards. With the award came offers of professional modelling contracts in London, but again Johnny wasn’t quite convinced it was the right move. “Yeah, it was great but also a bit weird,” he explains. “I mean, I’ve always been heavily into fashion, but I was reluctant, because a) I didn’t fancy the moving the family to London, and b) because I didn’t want new people to come across me and label me a musician/model. Even though I was a musician first, which I guess is probably the right way round to do it! Saying all that, it was great going to the GQ Awards and getting a whole new expensive wardrobe of clothes as part of the prize!” However, music remained Johnny’s key focus, so much so that he admits to selling most of his newly-acquired expensive designer threads on eBay to fund the purchase of yet more musical instruments.
After a period in which family life took priority, Johnny slowly began to perform again, often with just a guitar and a melodica, landing support slots with big names Alt-J, Django Django, Zola Jesus and Wild Beats. However, he baulks at the suggestion he was ever an ‘acoustic artist’ as such: “Grabbing an acoustic guitar and performing is great: it’s convenient and spontaneous, and after my break it was a good way to dip my toe in again. I’d also been putting on and hosting open-mic events at Leaf and Heebies, which has been amazing in terms of fostering a creative community. But acoustic music really isn’t the sort of music I’d ever been that interested in recording, simply because I love experimenting with sound. I’ve always been influenced by the likes of The Blue Nile and Talk Talk, and one advantage of having some time away was being able to reflect on the sort of music I wanted to make.”
So, is the music he’s currently recording what one might call the sound of the ‘real’ Johnny Sands? “At this moment in time, yeah, but I doubt if I’ll ever be completely satisfied. I mean, you never are… and that’s what gives you that drive, isn’t it? To get better, to keep going, to strive. Once you’re satisfied, where do you go?”
New cut Arno Arno, inspired by the Arno River in Florence, certainly has the air of an artist taking things to a completely new level, confident in the type of music he wants to make. “After working with David [Berger] for years – which was really intense – it gave me loads of experience and insight into working in studios,” Johnny explains of his new direction. “I got to know exactly the sort of sounds I liked and, as a result, I now find it much easier to produce what I want in a studio. This time around I wanted to work with a really good engineer, and I teamed up with Jon Withnall [I Am Kloot, Half Man Half Biscuit, Elbow, Feeder], who I knew would help give the album its own sound, but one which was unique to me. It probably took about a year to get together. Jon was great because he works fast and he managed to help capture the spontaneity, freshness and energy I wanted, which is a huge skill in itself.”
With the album recorded it was important for Johnny to work with people who were not just willing to help put the album out, but also people whom he trusted and who believed in him – enter Dave Pichilingi and Jack Launer of Baltic Records. “I’d sent Dave a few tunes and he seemed really into them, he kept asking if I had any more… so I’d send him a few more tracks until eventually he pretty much had the whole album. He was really keen to release it on Baltic Records, and I’d seen what they’d done with Bird – who were brilliant – and it really took them to the next level, so I knew they’d be a great fit for me.”
The album, titled Films as a nod to his love of 60s and 70s cinema, is slated for release sometime later in the year, and will mark the end of several years of good-natured toil. Given the journey he’s gone on to put it all together, I’m intrigued as to what ambitions Johnny has for the album. “Well, isn’t the next stage supposed to be global superstardom? That’s how it’s meant to work, right? Seriously though, ever since I’d picked up a guitar I was just totally driven to make music, and in many ways I wasn’t bothered where it took me I just knew it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So we’ll just have to see what happens next.”
Arno Arno is out now on Baltic Records.