Credited with reinvigorating the genre, The Longest Johns have made folk fashionable again. I spoke with founder member, Jonathan Darley (JD), ahead of their night at Oxford’s O2 Academy in early December.
You’re playing in Oxford, and we’re excited.
I’m originally from Oxfordshire – a little village called Aston which is only on the map because of the Pottery.
What can Oxford audience expect?
We've played in Oxford a couple of times before but they have always been smaller things. We have done the Oxford Folk Club twice, I believe. Once where it was very early days in the band and there were about 20 people and once where it was a bit further on and they had to turn people away at the door because it was too full. This time we are coming along with the full band which is going to be a whole lot a fun. A lot of singing along, a lot of great music and laughter and tears probably as well. The Longest Johns have always been a mash of powerful songs, funny songs and really emotional stuff, so it’s a proper roller coaster.
There’s a very special energy where there’s more freedom to play some of our lesser known songs and yet still every single person in the room ends up singing all the words back at you. It’s such a wonderful and special feeling.
How much is Bristol part of The Longest Johns’ identity?
Like most Bristolians, we're not originally from Bristol but it’s become part of how we are because Bristol is a very interesting and creative place. I don’t know if you ever heard when they put a water slide down Park Street (one of the central streets in the city). We were going in to perform at the Folk Festival on the same day, so we go into town and are working our way towards the Festival but half the city centre was closed because they were doing this big street party. We got to the bottom of the hill and they had closed that because of the water slide and then just off to the side of that there was a massive Turkish festival filling up College Green. For me, that’s Bristol; so many different ideas and cultures and people coming together and having a great time. There’s also something inspiring about going down to the water front and seeing ships like SS Great Britain and The Matthew, which has very much become part of our identity.
I was looking some of the elements of The Longest Johns’ online presence – gaming and sea shanties. It conjures an idea of a particular type of masculinity which isn’t widely represented popular culture right now. I’m calling it ‘nice bloke’. How does that sit with you?
It’s an interesting thing to address and think about. We’ve have had some people who've had that kind of idea and come to our shows and that’s not really what we're about.
We're not the most masculine blokey-blokes and frankly we're pretty left wing and very open. We've got a lovely gay and trans following which we wholeheartedly embrace. We want people to be accepted and welcome around us. Our whole thing with the music is community, and that’s what has kept me engaged and singing this type of music for so long – and what first really got me hooked in it. Music is something that can connect people and bring people together and we don’t need to divide apart because of it.
If you can have things that bring people of different ideas and ideologies together, and provide a ground where they can meet and talk and engage and be reminded of the things that connect us that’s very important and special. The community project videos we have done is a good example. It’s an open invite to as many people who want to take part and sing with us and be in a music video with us. All of those voices together make it unique and special.
As a band, you’ve uniquely combined tradition and tech.
We fell in love with the music because we loved making sounds ourselves, and then we steadily learned more about the history. We came into it as musicians and frankly nerds. Myself, Andy and Dave bonded over playing computer games together and so that’s always been part of our identity. For us there was a defining moment – at least in my mind – where we just having fun singing songs and kind of being drawn along by the history and then we were performing in The Louisiana in Bristol supporting Katie Sky. Her audience are fairly young teenage girls so we were like, this is going to be a train wreck. We started the set and the reactions were like, ‘this is weird I don’t like this’, but by the end of the first song everyone was clapping and singing along. That was my first realisation that this music is not just something I’ve happened to fall in love with but actually when people hear it and give it a moment to experience it, they really enjoy it. We'd been looking for ways get the music in front of people and our experience with the internet and social media created all of the different opportunities that have come along over the years.
I have to admit, I’m surprised you haven’t done a shanty-style Christmas song or carol since your EP in 2013.
We have done Christmas themed stuff over the years but not too often. We've talked about doing a Christmas album or another EP for quite a while. In fact, before Smoke & Oakum our plan was that our next release was going to be some form of winter or Christmas release. It’s still a possibility that we might do something more wintery or Christmassy along the line.
Since we've been doing YouTube regularly we tried to do something special and fun for Christmas every year. We did Scrooge last year and a big Christmas medley the year before that. We have something very silly planned for this year, coming out at the beginning of December. I can say it’s an original song this year but it is very silly.
It’s our December issue, so I’m asking people what is the best gift you've received?
Personally, or as a band? We have had some incredible gifts that have been given to us as a group. This shelf behind me is full of the gifts that we have been sent. There’s one in particular which is going to be making its way into our live set; we do a song called The Hammer and the Anvil which is where we pull out a bucket and a keg and we beat on them. My bucket is now broken and is a health risk. One of our fans created and sent us this wonderful thing which is a mounted anvil with its own hammer. It gets a clicky sound when you hit it. It’s gorgeous. I think they pulled some of this off of a ship which they work on and they made this wonderful thing and sent it to us. There are so many other creative things that people have sent us – a big knitted duck and bees that are us; wonderful art pieces, it’s amazing.
What would be your karaoke song?
I’ve never actually done karaoke.
That’s because you’re not a frustrated singer.
I used to be. I used to be terrified of singing when I was growing up but that’s another story. I would probably say I would love to sing something by Jack Johnson who is very much the reason for me getting into singing and guitar in the first place. Better Together has always had a very special place in my heart.
And, what makes a good song for the band? Are they any current songs that you think you could draw out certain elements and make your own?
It’s been a subject of much debate and dilemma over the years. We do a lot of original songs and to some degree while you could say that doing an arrangement of a folk song is a cover there’s some form of history and legitimacy that feels like it comes with that. Some fit more genre-wise into our style but in terms of doing straight covers of more modern songs in what people would call a shanty or Longest Johns style has not felt as comfortable. There have been a couple of exceptions especially on YouTube where we feel like we have a little bit more freedom to be a bit more silly.
We have wanted to maintain something more authentic as The Longest Johns. We've been worried about straying too far into the realms of ‘here's a pop song that we've covered in this style’ because that becomes your identity. Now that we've four full albums in there’s more consideration for us to try other things – especially in that YouTube space. I guess even with the whole Wellerman thing, that very quickly became the gimmick. We had actually been singing that song for about a year prior to it hitting and it seemed like for us every couple of months or so our listening base would double because our video had gone viral on another platform. When it started to become ‘what brand can we promote by rewriting the words to Wellerman’ we quickly decided among ourselves that wasn't something that we were interested in. We turned down offers from the FA Cup and I think even Fortnite got in touch and we said no. It didn’t feel right; something just felt off. The identity of who we are, and who we wanted to be would have had to shift to do those things.
As a band you clearly have integrity. Looking ahead, what’s in store for 2023?
We've actually got a plan for all of 2023 already. We're set. We've got releases planned for lots of next year; we have a couple of very exciting projects that we are working on for other people and for our own releases as well. There’s one music video which is being worked on which we are very excited about. There’s also the community project, which we're planning to make more of a regular thing. We have previously done it at different milestones for different reasons but we thinking if we get the resources and systems in place we can make that a twice a year thing, which is very exciting. We will be working on writing our next major album, hopefully, at the start of next year and basically all of our YouTube videos for the next year are planned already as well. We have got a lot going for sure.
Well, I wish you all the luck in the world. Your enthusiasm is infectious.
That’s wonderful to hear. We started as a group of four friends who discovered this music and found such joy in it and ten years later that’s still the same. It’s such a delight and thrill that so many people are joining us on that journey. One of the most amazing things is we get emails and messages from people saying, hey I’ve started a group with a few of my friends because we heard your stuff and we loved it so much. Knowing that folk music is getting an extra wave of new people finding their way in. One of my favourite things someone has said to me was at a festival in North Leigh. We played the show and we were chatting to someone at the end. They were saying they had no interest in folk music and had always liked rowdy stuff but they heard us and they really loved it. We had served as like this gateway drug for them into a wider world of traditional folk music. For me that was like the perfect but slightly weird description. For The Longest Johns to be that is exactly what we want to do.