Why "Wr" Still in Love With Joanna Gruesome
Joanna Gruesome had an early hit with "Do You Really Wanna Know Why Yr Still In Love With Me?" After we spent time with them, the reasons why we're still in love are obvious.
Peanut Butter is the second album by Joanna Gruesome. Similar to their first, Weird Sister, it will combine a driving thrash of guitars with male-female harmonies, bringing a harder edge to the Slumberland lineup. There will no doubt be a tour, and, in fact, some show dates are already posted. "We've played the odd show," songwriter Owen Williams tells me, "but we're basically on a break until the record comes out.
What's always been remarkable about Joanna Gruesome's output, in addition to their blending of boy and girl vocals and the flourishing sound that has continued to stew together since they began in earnest from a Cardiff anger management course, is their album art. Breaking from their run of having comic illustrations, Peanut Butter will be the first release that features the band's photograph emblazoned on its cover. But always eye-catching, Joanna Gruesome continues to choose art that stands out amongst its contemporaries.
Their first EP, available only on mp3, with song titles such as "Sugarcrush", "Candy", and "Yr Dick", established their sound early: a driving, high energy noise pop feel with both Owen and vocalist Alanna McArdle singing together, with electric feedback giving a warm ambiance. The story of its cover will be familiar to anyone whose started a band: "We actually stole that image from a Nation of Ulysses zine, and then found some font on coolfonts.com or something." The image shows a Patty Hearst-looking woman staring off-camera, and duplicated, as if looking at herself. The faded photocopier style makes it look like a copy of a copy of a copy over a pink background. "I guess that's a really lazy thing to do," Owen tells me, "but at the time we really didn't expect the band would exist in any active way."
That was 2011. 2012 saw them with two songs featured on Family Portrait, an Art is Hard compilation, and a split cassette with Playlounge on a label they were starting with that band, Reeks of Effort Records. By the end of the year, they put out their first official single on a 7" called Do You Really Wanna Know Why Yr Still In Love With Me? It is fast, fun, and pretty, but the sleeve of the record is so sumptuous to the eye. We see the band's name in giant block letters with the two song titles at the bottom. And the art is an illustration, a two panel comic showing a woman on the left with a phone up to her ear, the cord curling out the bottom. To the right we see the man she is talking to, an older, haggard man with an indignant expression on his face. There is a man in the corner of the room listening in on the conversation, and you come to the conclusion that she is asking him the question posed in the title of side A.
I ask Owen how they came to work with this artist. "That was actually set up through Mike from HHBTM, who got us in contact with Andy Hart, a great man from Nottingham who had put us on in the past." Andy Hart has done album art for such bands as Pains of Being Pure At Heart and Sometimes Always. "He's great and I really like that artwork. I was very into Love and Rockets at the time so I asked him to do something in a similar style."
The contrasting black ink on a white page is the top volume voice in a quiet room, commanding the attention of everyone around. The tiny black lines used to shade the characters' faces is a remarkable attention to detail. Joanna Gruesome would go on to work with Andy again on their Sugarcrush single and finally on their full length, Weird Sister.
Both covers are in this same illustrative style, black ink on white pages, drawings of kids making faces. Sugarcrush was originally released on their demo EP, and re-recorded with a higher octane punch. The vocals were tighter on the single version and it ended up on the album as well, though the b-side, "Tugboat", did not, and is in fact, nowhere on their Bandcamp.
The front of the Sugarcrush single displays three kids sitting on a public bench, two boys smiling as if for a camera, with very UK smiles, and a girl with her hands to her the two sides of her face and her tongue out, epitomizing the problem of group photos, where one person believes either that they are in a funny photo and make a funny face, or they are in a serious photo, becoming the only one smiling nicely. The back of the 7" is another illustration of different people, and what sticks out about this one in particular is it looks like an illustration of a photograph from the '70s or '80s; the goofy glasses, the feathered bangs, and something about the cut of the shirts feels very '70s to me.
What Andy producedfor the full length, out on Fortuna Pop in the UK and Slumberland in the US, was another set of panels with seemingly random illustrations of people from another era. The center is a young girl with cat eye glasses, a tilt to her head, and a striped sweater, special detail given to her slender neck. The top image looks like some sort of dance club, and the bottom featuring the aforementioned funny face; a girl pulling the sides of her mouth apart, her tongue out at you, the viewer.
"We had a few other ideas for the cover of that record but we eventually thought Andy would be the most appropriate." Owen says. "A lot of the lyrics on that record are about comic books and there are a lot of references to them. So I think Andy knew this and is into very similar stuff, so the cover is kind of aware of that and reminds me of discovering all of that stuff properly. I always tend to visualize album art while I'm listening to a record so it's funny when you've written songs and they kind of represent certain colours and imagery in your mind, and then you get the artwork back and you kind of reconfigure it all mentally."
Weird Sister won the 2013 Welsh Music Prize.
Last year, Joanna Gruesome put out two split EPs with other bands, breaking with Andy Hart since they'd started working with him on their previous projects. The Trust Fund split features a kind of collage/mixed media with a photograph child crouching at the mouth of a lake with material pasted over it. The songs include alternate versions of songs from Weird Sister, including "Satan (Desire Version)". The sounds of the two bands complement one another, uptempo electric guitar and warbly vocals, male/female harmonies. I ask him about the cover. "That was by Jessamy Hawke, who's a friend of a friend and designed the sleeve of a split record by another band I play in (King of Cats) and our singer Alanna's solo project Ides. It was actually an image we found on her website and for some reason or another we thought it would work."
The work Jessamy did for Ides, one must presume was for the single "Prisms", as it uses the similar mixed media style, a photograph of the gray desert of our moon, with a cutout of an anachronistic circle of blue water. In addition to Ides, Alanna posted solo demo material under her ownbandcamppage. The accompanying art is neither by Andy Hart, nor is it an illustration.
The split Joanna Gruesome did with Perfect Pussy featured a limited edition comic by Phil McAndrew, a cartoonist for Mad Magazine, who also did the cover. WhileWeird Sister's comic sensibility was inspired by Love and Rockets, this split, Astonishing Adventures! The Capted Crusader had a more cartoony superhero comic feel. "Phil's actually the brother of Ray, who plays guitar in Perfect Pussy. So that was solely arranged by Perfect Pussy. But we're big fans of his work and really like how it turned out. It was kind of nuts 'cos he seemingly had to speed draw a whole comic book in a really tight deadline. He definitely put in a lot more work for that split than we did." It features Psykik Espionage from the new album, and a cover.
And so we come to Peanut Butter. With a photograph of the band, and an abstract painted border, I ask Owen what brought them to this point. "We got in contact with Alex Humphreys, who's a illustrator [sic] we've liked for ages and plays in the band Sex Hands. The photo was taken by Meredith from Perfect Pussy and we liked it a lot so asked Alex to include it on the back of the record. But then we liked it so much we thought it would be better on the front, and it's kind of a ridiculous image of us so we thought it'd be funny. It was slightly inspired by the back of this Hysterics 7" which has a black and white photo of the band with an illustrated border."
The album lends itself to repeated listening. Their early press material has a quote from Owen stating "Lyrically, it's more obtuse and surreal but also attempts to mock trad masculine rock themes whenever things do get more lucid. But sometimes musically we embrace them by doing embarrassing guitar solos." We hope that regardless of what Owen and Alanna et al mock or embrace musically, they will continue choosing to support a growing artist community of friends and underground heroes, still setting a high bar for what record covers should be doing. We are instructed not to judge a book by its cover, but I like to imagine some high school punk boy in Coventry, UK, thumbing through the "Staff Picks" at some record store and seeing a comic album cover with familiar block lettering and saying to himself in his head, "This."