Just before Mostly Autumn went up on stage at Sheffield’s O2 Academy to close the HRH Prog X festival, I was able to have a quick chat with Bryan Josh, guitarist, vocalist and driving force behind the band, to ask about the new album Graveyard Star, his experiences of lockdowns and the pandemic chronicled on the album, and any immediate future plans.
So, Bryan – the new album, Graveyard Star is coming out. How have things gone? Are you pleased with it on a personal basis?
I am very pleased with it. I can see from the outside of this one and it’s got so much more to it. It’s an album I’m very, very proud of it. I think the songs have real strength and clear concepts – because it was written and soaked with the strangeness and emotion of what happened from the beginning of last year onwards. The album follows that storyline. The opening title track was actually written just before the first lockdown and then the other songs went on from there.
The opening track, Graveyard Star, is a very emotional, multi-faceted song which is clearly about loss.
Yeah, we did lose a number of very, very close people at that time. I found that in March, when things locked down and everything, all other inspiration initially just disappeared. There was no sort of motivation to do anything new. But then what we found was that we started writing about what was happening at the time and coming out, and that’s what pushed the album. As a result, the album reflects our personal experiences. I’m sure a lot of people will be able to relate to that too. It ‘stinks’ of that awful time as well. You know, it really just took you back there and it was really ‘in it’!
That’s what makes it so powerful a listen for me. You’ve got the first lockdown, then the summer opening up. But then you have the subsequent ups and downs and then the next lockdown just after Christmas – where you can feel those dreams of freedom, and a return to normality being dashed, etc. However, the album has a lot of defiance and optimism by the end as well.
Yeah, that was happening. I mean, Back in These Arms is where the whole album changes and becomes more positive. There are hints of it in the earlier Spirit of Mankind song, despite that being written in the depths of last winter, but with a view that there was a hope of coming out of it this summer. Writing a song like that was almost cathartic. It was like, yeah, we are going to come back and I’m going to be able to hold my mother again, because we are very close, and the children will be playing together again. It was like some kind of beacon of light at the end.
So, although it is quite a dark album, it is more descriptive and provocative about what was going on and how we were getting through it. The reprise of lines from Skin of Mankind on Turn Around Slowly take on a more defiant feel. The words are us talking to the virus. This is the world you used to know, but you’re on your way out! It switches it around back to us!
It’s really special that you pay tribute to Dame Sarah Gilbert on the final track and the work of the Oxford vaccination team.
Absolutely. That woman is a pioneer. She’s a genius. You know, she was ahead of everybody really.
The Plague Bell is a very haunting introduction to Skin of Mankind and it almost sounds like a Western theme or a piece of work by Enrico Morricone on the guitar, over a spritely drum beat by Henry.
Yes, I know what you mean, that riff was very detuned and quite deep. But it’s like a tune that comes in carrying the emotion of what that song was saying. It’s a bit like Pandora’s Box all of a sudden. The Plague Bell and Skin of Mankind are really just one song, but we decided to split it into two for future use.
Razor Blade seems to be a very personal statement. What was the thinking behind that track?
That was all about being sat in the front of our old van. I was on the driveway and I’m gonna have a drink. We were in lockdown. Everything was just mad and then we lost two people on the same day. And I just wanted to get out of this, yeah? And the idea of going on a long drive, you know, like when we’re gigging abroad.
But then I started thinking about those two people who we lost (Val and Tracey) and the song turns into thinking where they would have been at that point and it’s about wanting to let go. “Take me off the razor blade” – those words just came to me naturally, I didn’t write them specifically – and it’s saying just take me off this situation, get me out, just lay me in a field of barley, you know? Just put me somewhere where there’s some air and space and where there is something going on. That was the kind of vibe on that very emotional song.
That is then followed by This Endless War and you can feel the real passion and emotion in that song, especially in Olivia’s vocals.
It’s phenomenal from Olivia, and she wrote that song. It’s kind of related to the song before, because one of those people we lost used to speak to somebody every night on the phone. “I’ll always be the answer to my call.” That’s what’s related to that. I mean people don’t have to see that. You can read into it what you want on your own personal level. But that is the feeling for me and that’s the heart-breaking thing about it, and Olivia just delivered it – scorchingly!
You play many great guitar solos on the album, but I think that one at the end of The Endless War is probably my favourite one at present. Any views?
It just all came complete and finished on the first take and it happened to fit with Olivia’s singing so well. That happened a lot on this album as well. Most of the album was recorded in isolation, because that was all you could do at the time. So, it would be myself and Olivia and then I’d be laying all the parts down on keyboards and guitars as demos. Then I’d use the voice recorder on the phone to just sit outside with a fag and a drink and relax and listen to it. When I went to the studio at the beginning of this year, and then in and out over the next five months, I’d be trying to recreate what was on the phone. Sometimes you don’t achieve that, but we did because the feeling and emotion were so rich. In fact, almost every performance generally ended up as being a first take. I’ve got to credit the whole band for doing such a great job!
From Back in These Arms and then Freedom to Fly, it is easy to see the optimism and the feeling that we are coming out of the shadows as well. It’s a very emotional journey and very much a concept album, not too dissimilar to Dressed in Voices, for example.
Yeah, I know what you mean – that’s the closest thing to it, I suppose. It tells a story – in fact, a journey – which we’ve all made in our different ways.
And then there is Chris’s song, The Diamond, which he and Angela perform so well on. How does that fit into the concept?
Chris would have his own view on that, but I think the idea of the diamond breaking and the Graveyard Star dying link well together. He wrote it many years ago and I always liked it and thought it would fit in. It’s always nice to have some of Chris’s work on the album. It almost acts as a ‘refresher mint’ and gives the album a different feel and a different angle to look at things, as it were. He’s a brilliant writer.
The last track, Turn Around Slowly, rounds things off beautifully, with images such as “the black ship sails by” and the defiant reprise of Skin of Mankind, as you said earlier.
Yeah, it’s about things moving on. It’s like the overall conclusion of the journey and for certain parts of the song you sometimes think, ‘where the hell did that all come from?’ but it all seemed to fit together very naturally.
That’s the end of the standard edition, but for those fortunate to get the limited edition version (now sold out) there are nine more tracks on the bonus disc which are also of a very high standard and even hint at aspects of the main disc concept. I feel it’s a shame some of these great tracks won’t get a wider audience.
Yeah, it’s frustrating. You think it through for a long time, but ultimately you realise you have to do it, because you need to promote the general release and that goes further afield, internationally and such.
The limited edition helps funding but it is also a chance to give something to fans that they would find very special. It is sad because we were so close to releasing it as a double album, because some of those songs on that second disc were definitely meant for the first disc. But the way the first disc works, you just couldn’t fit them on – even though there are some that should be on it. The limited edition forces people to get it and it does feel special as a result, but you do wonder if you might have been able to press a few more thousand and still sell them out. It’s a bit of a balance.
I suppose some of these might make a live appearance at some point in the future, as has been the case on previous tours?
That’s the way round it – we are already getting messages from people who want to hear some of those bonus tracks.
Swallows is one bonus track getting lots of positive comments. What is the thinking about that song?
That’s another personal song about Tracey. She used to love to watch the swallows and the swifts arrive, and that’s what is all about. It’s a direct tribute to Tracey, as is This House for Val, which ends the second disc. For both of those songs, and even others, I wouldn’t rule out a few of them being out there or put on a live album at some point.
You’ve got a short tour starting in the Autumn and I would imagine many of the songs on Graveyard Star would start to appear live in time?
We currently haven’t booked that many more gigs at present, given the COVID situation, but we will start filtering songs in from now on and probably by next year there’s definitely an argument for a few special shows to do the album in its entirety. I do think it would work. It would be a lot of work doing it, but I think that might be a good option – as we did for Dressed in Voices and the Box of Tears live album that followed. I think it lends itself to that, doesn’t it? I think people are going to want that and I think we should deliver it and maybe even record it at some point.
One final question, Bryan – and a personal one. The album chronicles your feelings and emotions over the last 18 months, but how have things been from a financial point of view?
Yeah, there’s no two ways about it. It’s been tough – in fact, it’s been terrible at times. Everything stopped, so you’re finding ways to scrape through. Hopefully, things will get better. Generally, it’s the artists and musicians who are the last to come back, and even now, I’ve got a feeling we’re not going to get as many people coming out to gigs initially, as we’ve all been conditioned to live in a certain way for so long. I think that next year things should be better. I’m optimistic, but I suppose we still have a virus we’ve just got to learn to deal with it, and it might just take a bit more time. But we’ve got an album out now at least and we’ll see how the live stuff goes over the next few months.
I was chatting to Frank Carducci earlier and he was saying how the French government actually support their musicians to some extent by various support schemes, but the UK seem to be behind the curve on this one.
Yeah, there’s a lot of that support in France, Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium to help the arts, but it’s not really the sort of thing that happens over here in the UK. But, you know, we’ve just got to crack on and get on with it and make it through like, I suppose.
Thank you very much Bryan for giving me some time before your performance tonight – which I’m sure will go well and I hope Graveyard Star gets the attention it deserves in the months to come.
No problem – cheers!
[You can read David Edwards’ review of Graveyard Star HERE.
Images courtesy of Mostly Autumn]
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