UK three-piece William The Conqueror’s latest album release Bleeding On TheSoundtrackcaptures the dynamics of their incendiary live shows to perfection. Being simply labelled as an Americanaact hardly does the band justice as they extend way beyond that classification with their fusion of folk, blues and good old-fashioned rock. Produced by Ethan Johns, their second album should uncover their collective talents to a wider audience and gain them the exposure they richly deserve. Lonesome Highway spoke with leadman Ruarri Joseph in advance of their sell out shows at Kilkenny Roots Festival in May.
In the first instance, can I congratulate you on your recent release Bleeding On The Soundtrack. It’s a breath of fresh in an often over analysed recording industry. A blistering rock album, no more and no less?
Ta very much!
Your decision to abandon your more alt-folk solo career must have been a tricky ask, given that you had built a core following and had Atlantic Records on board?
Only tricky in so much as it was like quitting my job to take a leap of faith. Artistically I felt I didn’t have a choice really. I’d written myself into an alt-folk corner I had no interest in occupying.
The formation of William The Conqueror has also allowed your band mates Harry Harding and Naomi Holmes to ‘cut loose’. They were also on board during your solo career. Is the dynamic stronger now as a formal band collective?
The band dynamic means we’re all intertwined to the project in a new way. But our chemistry and friendship has always been strong.
They are both exceptionally talented players, where did you all initially hook up?
In and around the Cornish music scene, I guess. Harry I met at a recording project for a mutual friend. Naomi was in a band with Harry and I met her coz she was living with Harry at the time. Small world in Cornwall. We jammed a couple of times and it was clear we had something pretty cool.
Having witnessed the band perform on a number of occasions over the past three years, I sense a growing confidence and togetherness in each successive performance. A well-oiled machine at this stage?
Thanks. We don’t rehearse actually so not well oiled, just reliable. Like a Volvo.
The songwriting credits are all Ruarri Joseph. Are the arrangements also you own or do the others contribute?
I did a lot of arranging because of circumstance at the start but we discovered one of the best ways of working was for me to put demos together that we could learn and gig immediately. Then the gigs would refine the arrangements organically over time.
Bleeding On The Soundtrack and its predecessor Proud Disturber Of The Peace, both replicate your live sound. Was there ever a temptation to flesh out the sound with overdubs or tracking?
We do from time to time and we’re certainly not closed to it. PDOTP had some brass and some overdubs but BOTS was written with the intention of being just the three of us for the bulk. Having said that, there’s some strings and keys on it. It’s about whatever feels right at the time I suppose.
Were the songs all written after the release of Proud Disturber Of The Peace or were there some that didn’t make the cut or were considered unsuitable for that album?
Most of the songs were written back to back with the first album, but obviously new ideas pop up and get integrated as and when. The idea from the start was to have all three albums in a gig-able state so we can call upon them live and figure things out together.
The new album was a collection of songs that you had performed live and subsequently recorded. Did the same method apply to the previous album, were they acid tested in your live shows to get a feel for how they might work in the studio?
Acid tested indeed. It’s by far the best way to figure a song out.
Tell me about Ethan Johns coming on board to produce the album. He most certainly nailed the production, defining exactly who you are as a band. Was he supportive of recreating your live sound rather than adding any bells and whistles?
He insisted. It was us trying to add things and him helping us believe in what we did. He’s a musician and performer first, so he knows when you’re being genuine and when you’re holding back or pushing too much. It was a real honour to have worked with him.
I believe the album was laid down in one take. Was this the challenge going in to the studio?
Some of it was, but no it wasn’t our intention. That’s Ethan setting the tone and making you feel so comfortable that you play at your best right from the get go. Then Dom (Monks, engineer) had miked things up without us knowing and was catching everything we did. The first takes were often the ones that we didn’t know were being recorded and so weren’t overthinking.
I’m sensing a lot of different directions on the album outside the obvious, including New York Punk, Dr. Feelgood bass lines and harmonica riffs to name but two. Had you got particular artists or albums in mind heading into the studio?
Not really. Obviously you’re always influenced by the things you like but we try not to be conscious of it in the studio.
The artwork is most impressive also, who takes the credit for it?
Mysterious fellow called Cal Hoon. I wish I could tell you more about him.
You’ve referred previously to the Herman Hesse three stages of human development, innocence, disillusionment and acceptance. Have you ticked all three boxes with the two albums or can we expect the trilogy to be completed?
Part three is written and we perform things from it from time to time. We’ve every intention of completeing the trilogy. Hopefully with Ethan again.
Artists often make reference to the cleansing effect of writing, a means of contending with skeletons in the closet, that have been parked and not correctly dealt with. Has you’re writing, particularly on the WTC albums assisted in coming to terms with past issues?
Hell yes! I didn’t realise there was so much to deal with! Three albums and a novel later…
Is there a temptation to experiment going forward and possibly tap into a wider audience? I could foresee a Kurt Vile/Adam Granduciel direction well within your potential, or is that straying in too wide a direction?
A wider audience would be good for many reasons but I don’t think it’s down to us changing direction. We could do with a bit more luck maybe?
You’ve often spoken about your father’s devotion to all things Dylan, and your exposure to his music from an early age. What does your father think of your change in direction from more acoustic to more a grungier sound? Supportive or raised eyebrows?
Well he didn’t call me Judas!
And the Dylan influenced album title, did that get family approval?
That was an accident! My wife spotted it but actually it fits perfectly for many reasons.
Interview by Declan Culliton