Music interview: Folk Devils get fired up again
Folk Devils might only have had a short history as a band in the early to mid-1980s but their powerful fusion of post-punk and swamp blues left its mark on the independent charts in the midst of Thatcher's Britain.
Band founder and lead singer Ian Lowery sadly died in 2001 but thanks to the reissue of BBC sessions from the era and a compilation, Beautiful Monsters in the past two years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the group – and now surviving member Kris Jozajtis, Mark Whiteley, Nick Clift and John Hamilton are out playing Folk Devils’ old songs such as Hank Turns Blue, Evil Eye and English Disease with a new touring line-up.
“At a personal level I hadn’t paid much attention to anything the Devils had done for a wee while,” admits Jozajtis, who now has a day job as a teacher in the Scottish new town Cumbernauld, “but it was nice to hear the stuff again – particularly the remastered recordings.
“It got picked up by [the record label] Optic Nerve. There was a lot of behind the scenes work with Nick Clift and David Lowery but because there was a long lead-in – they scheduled date for September  – I thought we could maybe do a gig in London [to coincide]. I put out the feelers and everybody was up for it. We treated it pretty seriously, we rehearsed properly over the summer and then did this gig last September and the whole process was strangely life-affirming for a bunch of miserable b****rs like ourselves. We really enjoyed that gig. I think we surprised ourselves how easy it was to get pretty tight.
“As soon as we did that we had an offer of another gig in Preston which we did in December. We acquitted ourselves with more than a little credit for both of those and on the back of that I thought ‘Let’s see if we can do some more’.
“Geography is not our friend in all this – we’re quite far-flung from each other – but I think in intense little bursts it seems a really enjoyable thing from our point of view and actually I think we all felt we never quite got the recognition we were due and this is a nice kind of way to reintroduce people to what we’re about, some of still sounds pretty relevant to me anyway.”
Jozajtis had played some of Folk Devils’ original vinyl releases to his children over the years (“My older son Michael, he’s now 19/20, and he developed an unhealthy interest in loud guitars and shouting”) but beyond that his focus had been on academia, rather than music, until recently.
“I remained really proud of it but at the time it seemed like young man’s music,” he says. “But coming back to it I don’t know whether it’s the times we live in, but the anger that’s implicit without it being particularly politicised in what we were doing kind of made sense. I don’t think we’ve ever been a band that lends itself to nostalgia and we were never really big enough for that anyway. We had a pretty devoted hardcore following but weren’t nearly as big as some of the other bands at the time.
“We were also operating before the American guitar bands like the Pixies and Nirvana came out. We found out much later that we had a bit of an influence on Kurt Cobain, he used to ring up a DJ in Seattle who played Hank Turns Blue and he kept asking for the record. We were chuffed when we found that out because we did definitely feel a kind of connection to what he was doing and what we tried to do.”
To maintain the band’s relevance they’re now working on new songs. “I’ve never been one for just repeating things,” says Jozajtis. “Initially there was the Beautiful Monsters compilation and the Peel sessions, we drew on that material. I guess now we’re thinking it would be nice to refresh things. There’s a few songs that we haven’t played live in this unit that we might introduce from the older material but I think we can all see ourselves that we’re not all going to be living in a squat together like we used to. I think having the idea of it being an ongoing creative project is quite important, there’s a collective will there to keep this moving forward wherever it takes us.
“The nice thing about this [new UK tour] I think we’ll have quite a lot of time together so hopefully we’ll maybe get one or two new tunes into the set with a combination of rehearsals and soundchecks to keep things fresh for ourselves.”
Of the original band’s reputation as a volatile outfit, Jozajtis says it was “a double-edged sword”. “It certainly made us a pretty fearsome live proposition, at our best when we were properly focused I think we were a pretty exciting live band. When we played in Holland and Germany we had to play longer sets, we had to rein in the anger and the fire, and actually we played pretty interesting sets. At the same time some of that volatility I think hampered our progression within the music business. I’d say there were times when we didn’t take the opportunities that were being presented to us, we probably p***ed a few people off, we weren’t really our own best friends.
“We didn’t have particularly strong management at any period. It was interesting management – we had Ray Gange who got using moving and later Nick Jones – but in some ways we probably could have done with someone who brought us to heel a little bit rather than letting us get on with being crazy young men.”
Jozajtis feels Dave Hodgson has adapted “really well” to the role of fronting Folk Devils’ new line-up. “We booked the September gig last year before we even had a singer and we thought we’ll get somebody or maybe a string of people. Initially there was somebody that we thought was suitable which prompted my suggestion of ‘let’s do a gig’. That fell through pretty quickly but we thought ‘the rest of us are coming, let’s find someone’ and it just turned up out of the blue. The whole thing of if you commit to something the universe kind of opens up for you it sounds like hippie nonsense but it worked in this case because Dave turned up.
“He knew Ian and he’d been in bands of a similar ilk back in the day. When he came to the first rehearsal there was a lot of enthusiasm but we weren’t entirely convinced. When we talked about it we said ‘Listen, I think he can come to terms with everything because he’ll get better’ – it wasn’t like somebody coming in and blowing our socks off but he showed so much commitment and the chemistry works, as a person he just fitted in.
“He didn’t try to be Ian, he was really laid back and controlled about it, but there was a real commitment and a real insight into what Ian was about and he made it his own. He totally sold us on it, it feels like a band rather than somebody who’s a temp or making it up as he goes along. It feels really good and he’s got involved in all sorts of ways so I’m excited to be spending a bit more time with him.”
Folks Devils are touring with another band from the post-punk era, Inca Babies. “Neither band are really about nostalgia,” says Jozajtis. “Without wishing to be disparaging, I think pop bands who had big hits at the time tap into that ‘remember when’ thing whereas for us it’s not really that. Having a band of a similar ilk to feed off will be good. I think there will be a bit of competition as well, which will be nice, trying to blow each other off stage at each gig. That’s always good because it put you on your mettle.”
Folk Devils and Inca Babies play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on Thursday July 20. http://www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk/whats-on/folk-devils-inca-babies/