Lesley Jackson catches up with the drummer of Leeds' hottest band, Wintermute, and chats with Ben Johnson about rock socks, 'Robot Works' and why moody performers are just no fun.
Wintermute, apparently, is a very common name in America. It is also the name for an artificial intelligence in William Gibson's 1984 cyber punk novel 'Neuromancer' and of course, the name of one of the best bands currently playing in Leeds. I was a bit of a late comer to Wintermute, I didn't see them until 2007 at a gig in the now deceased Dr Wu's in Call Lane, but I remember being riveted right from the start. Although they may be associated with the indie genre, they are much more than a youthful dirge and a miserable lead singer; quite the opposite in fact. Their live performances are energetic affairs with lead vocalist, Dan Howard, keeping the audience well entertained with a strong, lyrical voice, jerky guitar and the rest of the band following suit as they lose themselves and the audience in their lively and bouncy performances. I asked Ben about the thinking behind performing live:
"It annoys me slightly when bands go out of their way to look bored and moody on stage. OK, I understand if it suits the music, for example Interpol, then it works; but for me, there's nothing more exciting than watching a band who actually look like they're into it and having a good time. Being in a band and playing the sort of gigs we get to play is such an awesome opportunity, you might as well rock out and have a laugh with it. I think this kind of energy feeds off the band and into the audience and if you're watching four guys having a laugh and throwing themselves about, then you're going to be more connected to your performance. Our music has a lot of energy and pop to it anyway so most of the time we just can't help ourselves!"
'Dead or Not He was Wearing Sunglasses' is Wintermute's latest single and is among a list of songs with a curious name, such as 'Gambling or Playing Cards' and 'Shark vs E-boat.' Ben told Art Fist where the song titles came from and recording their forthcoming album 'Robot Works.'
"The song name is one of Dan's, I think it's from a book, wherever it's from it's pretty funny. We try to come up with titles that are either absurd, in-jokes or just plain silly. We had a song called 'Sex Mistake' for a while, but we decided to change it at the last minute... which was probably for the best. Robot Works is 12 songs, played quite straight like we do live with a couple of little niceties added for texture. It was all recorded live and it sounds like a live record when I hear it. It's obviously been well produced, but considering that the complete length of time it's taken us to do it, from recording, mixing and mastering, it's only taken us around two weeks, which is quite something in this day and age. I reckon it's better for it though, the record has a lot of urgency and energy, which is what we try to aim for when we play live. James Kenosha produced this in two stages, we did six tracks in the beginning of 2008 and we added the rest a year later. But it all fits snugly together like a warm rock sock."
Leeds is Top for Music
Wintermute were formed and still reside in Leeds. Ben, Dan and Dave met at Leeds University, "lived together in the first year, formed a band and rocked out. Chris, our bass player, came through an advert and now I can't remember a time when I didn't know him." With the current outpouring of music from Leeds, with some bands hitting the big time such as The Kaiser Chiefs and The Pigeon Detectives, Ben talks about the importance of Leeds both to Wintermute and how it is currently influencing British music:
"It's everything, it's not just the great music scene, but it's also where our home is and where all of our friends are. There's a mutual encouragement and appreciation amongst bands which other cities don't seem to share. I think it's this sole reason why the media keep turning to Leeds over recent years, and why it's become the most musically fertile city in the world right now. It's not just Kaisers and Pigeons anymore, this year you'll see Dinosaur Pile Up, Pulled Apart by Horses, Grammatics and Sky Larkin get really big, and being good mates with these bands makes the whole thing even more affective. I'm finding it hard to open up a national music magazine or newspaper at the moment and not see our friends in there. It's brilliant! Leeds has a fantastic DIY ethic, it's a place where anyone can decide to put on a gig at somewhere like Brudenell or Packhorse and at a reasonable rate, get friends to help out with artwork, drop flyers off, post on local forums, set up My Space and Facebook accounts all off their own back. The constant stream of students means that the creative and aspirational side of the city is constantly thriving with new, young and talented people."
Rocking Out Full Time
So after the album launch, playing at Leeds festival described by Ben as, "absolutely glorious" and "bloody mental", what is in store for Wintermute now? Any chance of giving up the day jobs and becoming rock gods full time?
"That's a luxury only afforded to a lucky few. I think if the band can reach a position of touring Europe and further afield then we'd probably sell our own mothers to do that, and obviously that would take a much stronger commitment. Playing live and rocking out with friends is the best thing about being in a band, so to do that for a living, well, it beats just about anything else I can think of. The album is out in April; we're going to tour it around the UK, and then Ireland in May; there's talk of some European gigs in June and July and then hopefully do the festival circuits. It's all exciting stuff. Every year seems to be a fresh start for this band and I'm quite excited to see where 2009 takes us."