Rebellious Lightning: An Interview With Darren Johns From Crazy Arm
Foot-stomping Americana flies the flag with pride in the robustly populated group Crazy Arm. Faithfully supported by spices of Punk and Rock, it is the incorporation of their spaghetti western devotion that sees a new star etched on their banner, as they share fourth album Dark Hand, Thunderbolts on January 29th.
The extended family of the genre-melting outfit is scattered across the UK in Bournemouth, Leeds, Swansea, Bradford and Exeter but their base is situated in the port city of Plymouth. "The music scene was great down here, but we'd lost a couple of our best venues over the years due to City Council redevelopment, so it was never easy," states vocalist and guitarist Darren Johns as we chew the straw.
"It feels strange not having been to a show in nearly a year after going to, or playing, gigs weekly for 37 years. I'm not sure how many regional bands will exist when things return to relative normality. The pessimistic, melancholic part of me feels that we'll never see those good old days again, but the little optimist in me says, don't be so fucking daft."
With the band reaching its fifteenth birthday, Darren reflects on variances in the industry and whether he tastes the sweet honey of modern practices or feels the sharp sting. He speaks of genuine thought, "I frown upon everything! The big one, of course, is streaming. I think it's awesome, and Spotify is how I listen to virtually everything. But I'm also aware that, as an artist, it's taking the royal piss out of me. In 2005, when we started, CDs were still popular, vinyl was very niche, physical magazines prospered, and MySpace ruled the cyber-roost." He could never have envisaged where we are now, with all aspects of an artist viewed through the complex prism of social media."
"In some ways, it's pure punk rock: a level playing field, easy access to all music no matter how independent or under-the-radar, no need for labels and other intermediaries... In other ways, it's a corporate prison where we're all trying to shank each other while the prison bosses are laughing all the way to the bank, with reams of personal data stuffed into their grubby pockets. So, to summarise I admire and frown upon all the new music industry changes in equal measure," he reviews.
Four years ago, the stability of a constant line-up ceased as a collective of 16 people took shape, including five drummers, three bassists, two violinists and two harmony singers, who they can call on when in need. "Jon (guitar) and I are the core members, and we make virtually all the band decisions, but everyone is invaluable. We've done some shows and festivals where some band members had never met each other until that day! It certainly keeps things fresh and keeps us on our toes."
Stylistically, they challenge themselves and develop while maintaining their expansive sound. Darren gushes, "We've got a couple of fantastic new harmony singers, Tia Kalmaru and Becky Saxton, who add a lot of texture. But I think the most obvious development has been our love of film scores, especially the spaghetti westerns of Ennio Morricone. Horn maestro, Simon Dobson, has contributed some amazing trumpet on a few of the new songs. Other than that, I guess we're just getting older, and evolving with our years. I'm 53 in July. Retirement is looming. (Spoiler: no it isn't.)"
Our honest chap confesses that the effects of their last work nearly saw the end for the Crazys. Luckily, the belief was upheld that there was still more to offer, more to say. "I remember having a conversation with Jon a year after our last album, 'The Southern Wild', was released during a period of band turmoil, and I said that maybe we should call it a day. He reckoned that we should at least do one more album. So here it is. We started recording at Middle Farm Studios, Devon in December 2016 and finished it in August 2020, although we only spent 21 days in the studio over that whole time. Which is insane."
"We were hampered by finances, studio availability on mates rates, long periods of lethargy and the fact that everyone had other commitments. So we definitely can't blame the delay on Covid. It did make things difficult in getting over the final hurdle, but we managed it. Trust us to release nothing for seven years and then put out an album during a global pandemic!"
Single Fear Up is a ferocious dream; enabling the urge to dance wildly in a rowdy pub. Johns shares his views on the number: "I'm glad it works for you! It's our favourite song on the album. The title is US military slang for a State's use of the spectre of violence to keep citizens obedient and afraid. But the song itself is more about refusing to succumb to other people's judgments. The enemy isn't always right-wing institutions and corporate greed. Sometimes it's a lot closer to home and can instil the same kind of ire. Musically, it's a tribute to Ennio Morricone and Constantines: two towering influences of ours."
Track The Golden Hind is a skewered ode to his hometown. "It's the first song I've ever written about where I was born and bred. Plymouth is a Brexit-majority, small and big 'c' conservative town with a reputation as the rump of Devon. But I still love it, like you would a sick relative. The title is the name of the galleon that the privateer and slave trader, Francis Drake, sailed from these shores to ransack the world and pillage the Spanish."
And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Meds addresses his lifelong struggle with depression and over 20 years of medication. "I've tried to taper off meds many times, but the drop in serotonin is too much to bear. There's an amazing book called Anatomy Of An Epidemic by Robert Whitaker that's well worth reading if you want to know about the spurious workings of the psychiatric industry and the truth about psychotropic drugs. Health Is In You! is a pro-feminist call to disarm. The phrase 'man up' really grinds my gears, and I felt the need to address toxic masculinity, including my own, in a song,” he illustrates.
The Cretan bull image used as the album artwork is a symbol that represents strength and fertility. "However, I see it as more of a metaphor for international unity and resistance. The Minoans were the first civilisation in Europe, so it's also a reflection on the wilful idiocy of turning our backs on the collective power of the European Union." In short, it's a pro-revolutionary statement and a pro-Remain allegory.
As the sun sets on our time, we consider how best-laid plans for 2021 are destined to fail so it is possibly best to make few, apart from pushing Dark Hand Thunderbolt into the virtual world. Darren closes, "As soon as things change, we'll be out there with some incarnation of the band, touring and playing shows, and doing our best to arrange a European jaunt under the crappy cloud of Brexit."
"We're down to play 2000 Trees festival, but I'm just reluctantly counting down the days until it's cancelled. And we're booked to play Til The Fest in London in October, with loads of brilliant bands. If all goes well with the vaccination roll-out, we'll turn that date into a UK tour. Watch this space!"
Article by Beverley Knight