Spiralled out across temp jobs and club nights, the galaxy that Johnny Foreigner inhabits has always been one of immuteable uncertainty. It's not unusual, of course, for the everyday life of the artist to filter into their work, often manifested in the bleeding heart, life-on-the-road complaint track. But nowhere else does the hard work feel like part of the reward; like few of their peers, the day-to-day grind of just making it work feels intimately stitched into the fabric of everything that Alexei, Kelly, Junior and Lewes create. "I've a confession," Alexei begins on Mono No Aware, the Birmingham quartet's fifth album. "It stings to admit: I can't foresee a day when we'll buy speedboats from this."
It's been ten years now since the band struck out as a three-piece in Birmingham (longtime artistic contributor Lewes joined as a second guitarist in 2012), and the joke about their breakthrough potential feels welcome, if a little bittersweet. There was a time - probably peaking with the single release of "Salt, Peppa and Spinderella", including a Bloc Party remix - that it seemed like Johnny Foreigner were going to be a Successful Indie Band. You'd catch bits of "Eyes Wide Terrified" spilling out of Topman stores, MTV2, XFM. But it never quite took off. In 2009 they released Grace and the Bigger Picture ("a joke title; the two things we were always missing"), one of the finest indie rock albums of the young century. But theirs wasn't a love for a stadium audience. Today, Alexei's pretty philosophical about the whole thing. "I used to worry that one day one of us'd get married or have kids and quit. But all that stuff has been happening and we still keep coming back to each other," he tells me. "Now I worry I can never quit."
In case you're unfamiliar with Japanese idioms, 'mono no aware' roughly translates to 'the sadness of things', specifically the emotional experience of life as a brief, transient affair. "The slow routine beauty of the cherry blossoms. Japanese for emo; It's us staring at the sea on the last day of a tour." Maybe it's part of their reflection on an exceptionally turbulent year. The band have spoken elsewhere of deaths and near misses ("literally centimetres away from death, both cars steaming write offs...") that have impacted their lives during the recording of this album, alongside the usual cavalcade of break-ups and breakdowns. Lyrically, it's forever striking the balance between recognising and exploiting those nadirs; between encanting something that captures the moments without cheapening their memory.
For Alexei, that process is a constant battle. "I see that as the point of good lyrics; taking something too personal, too awkward or awful to just objectively share on a status update and turning it into something memetic and relate-able. There's no obviously foreshadowing lines in Sparklehorse songs but you totally feel the unease and the sadness." Not that it proves such a moral quandry for other bands - the "dozens of freshly tattooed wankers filling bigger rooms than us with songs about how It Hurts Too Much etc just cos that's what's expected of them." But for Johnny Foreigner, a band who've always, in truth, sat closer to Mark Linkous than Mark Hoppus, an emotional engagement with life's box of stars remains unavoidable. "Whenever the really personal stuff sparks music in whatever cathartic process my brain uses, I'm constantly torn between thinking I'm spreading cheap myths about myself or my friends, or wussing out and essentially failing at my job. This is definitely an album about reclaiming those myths after trying to be all clever-clever on the last record."
That last record was You Can Do Better, an indie-punk battering ram that cast aside the lengthier excursions of its predecessor, Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything. If it feels like their sonic output fluctuates in terms of economy, it's not a coincidence. "It was definitely a conscious choice, YCDB being so basic and uniform. We totally cycle between stage records and studio records; and pre-deciding yr gonna make an album you have to be able to recreate on stage means drastically restricting the palette of potential sounds." Mono No Aware moves away from that philosophy again, with tracks like "Our Lifestyles Incandescent" venturing deeper into electronic territory. It suits them, perhaps better than they realise. "Studio records mean yr only limited by imagination and taste. It's a higher risk strategy for sure, but this time we let the songs dictate and (in our heads at least) we got the balance just right."
"YCDB kinda messed me up as a lyricist," he admits. "I tried to make it mostly not about me but I think I ended up showing too much. Y'know that Stewart Lee thing, Brechtian alienation? 'It's a joke, but coincidentally... it's also how I really feel...' I tried to approach it like a writing a first person novel; I used IRL events and relationships and details but messed them around so they worked better as fiction." For a band already drawn to the meta key, it's enough to drive your common-or-garden indie-rock lyricist careering into a black hole. "It definitely messed with my head way more than I thought it would, like peering into a bunch of alternate universes, but really I just wasn't convinced our IRL lives warranted writing about, that I had anything worth singing about. Getting old, getting used to that, getting used to having various ongoing drama both excellent and appalling, has completely swung me back round."
Bands have been treating rock music as therapy since day dot, of course, but the extent to which that experience is milked for exposure still seems to rankle with Alexei. "Songs / records / art shouldn't be over-shadowed by the creator's mental state or tragic backstory or controversial gender or whatever," he tells me, and I start wondering whether Laura Jane Grace's lawyers are about to turn up at my doorstep. The reference to gender certainly feels jarring, but it seems to be part of a larger distrust of manipulating band bios to commercial ends. "That's kinda the point of music, I think, to transcend all that jazz. But there's so many cynical bands trading off a carefully worded, media-friendly angle that just happens to be revealed before their record drops. We're pretty open but in terms of how we're perceived, there's always certain subjects I'd rather not be so overt or blatant with. Not because they're not worthy of discussion or acknowledgment, but cos we're automatically tainting the pot by profiting from the exposure of something that deserves unbiased discourse. To our internal collective conscience at least, it seems crassly exploitative."
Looking back at the ten years that have passed - and, perhaps, the ten that lie ahead - Alexei remains optimistic about the band, if increasingly disillusioned about the industry. "I'm not angry that JF no longer gets five-figure album budgets, cos it was madness in the first place, but the bridge between bands who fill pubs and bands who fill academies is broken as shit. There's a world of tourbuses and sponsorship and other people's money, and a world of post-DIY shows and kit-shares and no money... It's a shame, cos the route that lots of our parents' pop stars took is pretty much untenable; but you'd be hard pushed to argue that the quality of music has actually declined."
In 2016, Johnny Foreigner have given up giving a shit about what their music ought to sound like, and thrown themselves head-first into that cherished cliché: being themselves. "When we started out we'd take Cap'n Jazz and Distophia mix cds to producers and be like: this, please. But now I think I'm too immersed in the culture, the mythology of 'the album'. My favourite records are so inextricably tied to the people that made them that copying them feels like trying to steal someone's soul." It seems like Alexei is happy just being part of Johnny Foreigner, and no one else. "Um, apart from Kitty. Which is crazy impractical for a middle-aged Englishman."
Mono No Aware is out now on Alcopop! Records