INTERVIEW: John Doran | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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There are very few publications that I can claim to read religiously just for the sake of fun, but The Quietus is one of those few online platforms. Its founder, John Doran, says that the site caters for the “intelligent music fan between the age of 21 and, well, 73.” The site’s broad demographic works because The Quietus never feels like it’s actively trying to be trendy or keep up with the fads of the day, instead focusing on often long-form features and reviews that try to delve a bit deeper into pop culture.

The Quietus has only been around since 2008 and Doran’s new autobiography, Jolly Lad, tracks his life from being a choirboy just outside of Liverpool to his dark days of alcoholism and drug abuse, the joys of fatherhood and beyond.

Doran will bring his readings tour to the region, with extracts from Jolly Lad as well as additional spoken word elements including a segment entitled Area Forecast, Doran’s own version of the Shipping Forecast, but about bus timetables. Also joining him on tour are close friends and Norwegian noise rockers Arabrot, who will be providing some ambient soundscapes. Brace yourself for an eclectic evening of thoughtful and insightful spoken word and music. Just like Doran’s publication.

As he gears up to tour the north east, I caught up with John to ask him about Jolly Lad, touring with Arabrot and his work on The Quietus.

In the preface to Jolly Lad you say you’ve placed some of your columns for VICE Magazine into more of a flowing narrative. What inspired you to do this in the first place?

When I finally decided that I needed to tackle my ongoing poly-drug use right at the end of 2013, I could feel it in my bones that I was going to get quite depressed when I quit. I work really hard and don’t have much of a social life so having these weekends once in a blue moon where I could get utterly trashed and listen to psychedelic music were really important… something for me to look forward to and an excuse to blow off steam. But it was becoming too much being my age and having my family responsibilities, just going from having a really sedentary life for three months and then doing an absolute ton of class As all in one short space of time.

I thought back to when I set the Quietus up and how having this project had been the main thing that helped me quit drinking. So I looked around for another project and putting out a book just seemed like the easiest thing for me to do… but how wrong I was. So at first I printed off all 66 columns and tried reading them back to back to see what an anthology would be like and it was fucking appalling. One column on its own was OK but read one after another, with all of that wise cracking, jokey, sardonic column writing style, page after page was really irritating. It was like being trapped on the night bus with some drunk guy who insists on ‘entertaining’ you all the way home.

So I spoke to my friend Natasha Soobramanien about my dilemma. She was the first person I met at university in 1989 and has pretty much spent the intervening time persuading me to write (outside of journalism). She offered to help me edit the book and even though she hasn’t actually written any of it, she played a really important role in helping me shape the book into a proper narrative. She’s a great writer herself so she knows what she’s talking about. Her novel Genie And Paul is fantastic if you’ve never heard of it.

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“One column on its own was OK but read one after another, with all of that wise cracking, jokey, sardonic column writing style, page after page was really irritating”

Was it at all difficult to write Jolly Lad? A lot of the content of the book, particularly during the first third, is pretty dark and I couldn’t imagine it would be easy to revisit some of those periods of your life.

I have a tendency to do things without worrying about the consequences first. Ironically this is all tied up with my alcoholism and drug use. For most of my adult life I’ve been almost pathologically unconcerned with what will happen to me in the future and it’s been very hard to train myself out of this. When I agreed to the book, I simply didn’t stop to think about what it would be like and it turned out to be one of the worst experiences of my life. A lot of the book comes from this idea that I used to spend a lot of my time in pubs telling stories and what happens to those stories after you stop drinking.

When I was writing for VICE – I knew a lot of the material was dark or had black humour but it was still deeply ingrained into a story telling tradition and I was almost at one step removed from the process – these stories weren’t really about me, they were about an imagined version of me. Writing this stuff over and over again and editing and editing this material stripped all of the facade away and I was just left poring over the unpleasant truth of what I’d done with my life and it was a really distressing experience. For the first time ever, I was forced to confront just how much I’d been lying to myself and other people round me and how utterly ill and degraded I’d become.

People may think it has a cathartic effect but that wasn’t the case for me – in the short term I just became very depressed. As I allude to at the end of the book, when I wrote the first draft I tried to come off anti-depressants at the same time and I had a nervous breakdown. I had a serious conversation with my doctor about spending some time in a psychiatric facility as a voluntary patient but luckily it never came down to that – after three months of wretchedness I turned a corner and was able to have a second crack at writing the book. (The first draft I wrote last year was fucking garbage… it was like the Unabomber’s manifesto written on tequila and poppers.) Life is such an experience of flux, it’s hard to make any kind of definitive statement. For example, last year I considered writing this book to be the second worst experience of my life and swore I’d never write another one. Now that it’s done and I’ve seen the artwork and the tour’s taking shape, I’m already starting to feel slightly more positive about the whole thing and I do have a second book planned.

On the tour you’re bringing Norwegian noise rockers Arabrot with you; how do you envisage their music sitting alongside your spoken word?

Kjetil is a dear friend. I first heard his group doing a track called I Rove about six or seven years ago which just blew the top of my head clean off and having interviewed him about ten times and running into him at gigs since then we became pals. He asked me to write the sleeve notes for his Murder As Art EP a couple of years ago and, inspired by the vignettes that Steve Albini used to write for the inner sleeves of Big Black LPs in the 1980s, I decided to write him a short story about a young man trying to tattoo himself instead. I’m pretty sure it was Kjetil’s idea to put me reading the track together with some of his music and that eventually became this massive project involving loads of musicians. I came up with the idea for the tour when I was having a manic episode – so in retrospect it seems like a slightly mad idea, even to me, given my lack of experience of doing live shows and tours and stuff like that – and I asked Kjetil if he’d like to do some shows and he offered to do the whole thing.

I’ve got to say that his enthusiasm for the project and his unshakable faith in what he’s doing is the primary driving force behind the tour. What you should know is that when Kjetil (and his girlfriend, the Scandinavian pop star Karin Park) were recording the music for the track Gun Lore which will feature on the HUBRIS LP, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and was undergoing experimental radiation therapy in Sweden. The fact that they managed to produce such an amazing track while he was undergoing such a psychologically, emotionally and physically punishing experience blows my mind. We’ve had one short practice in Oslo and it’s very much going to be something that develops on the road. Some of the tracks will be him creating ambient sound beds using tape echo and loops and other tracks will be more traditional and riff based. I guess some shows will be more successful than others but I’m told by musician friends that this is the nature of touring. We’re both very much nervously looking forward to doing a couple of shows in HMP Frankland if that comes off.

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“I guess some shows will be more successful than others but I’m told by musician friends that this is the nature of touring”

Alongside readings from Jolly Lad the tour also promises “incantations concerning murder, black holes, ghosts and regional bus timetables.” Can you tell us more about this aspect of the tour?

Well, it’s not all readings from the book… I will do at least one reading from the book per night but just to mix it up we’ll be doing a few other things – just so Kjetil and I don’t get too bored and we’re kept on our toes. One of the readings is called Area Forecast and is supposed to be like the Radio 4 shipping forecast but about bus routes in a local area and what ghosts are haunting the routes. About 20 years ago I’d go out raving and then while I was coming down I’d listen to a tape of the Shipping Forecast in a vain attempt to calm down but it would get mixed up in my head with all of these ideas about ghosts prowling round in the streets outside. The idea is that I’ll rewrite it every day depending on where we happen to be on tour so it’s different every day – so I need to get swotting up on the bus timetables of Sunderland soon!

Another one is a spell to draw down a black hole to destroy everything. I think a lot of the time when you’re a drunk you wake up every morning with gritted teeth, thinking, “What the fuck did I do last night? Who do I need to apologise to?” You know how people sometimes say, “I wished for a hole to open up in the ground and swallow me up” because they’re embarrassed about something they’ve done? Well, I’d be so full of shame I’d want a hole in the sky to open up and destroy everything. So I wrote this spell… I hope it doesn’t work. That would be quite bad if it did.

I couldn’t go without asking a couple of questions about The Quietus! When you first started TQ, did you ever envisage it would become as big and culturally relevant as it has?

No. Not at all. My aims when I started the Quietus weren’t very noble. I’d run out of road, as they say. My plan to become a music journalist hadn’t gone very well and this was my last ditch attempt to make a go of a career as a music writer before trying something else. A few months before we launched, during the Spring, my doctor told me I would definitely die by the end of the year if I kept on drinking and using drugs – so I just didn’t have any kind of long term plan for the future. But then I quit drinking that August and it took me over half a year to get out of the woods, in physical terms, as regards my liver. So when I didn’t die and after staying sober for half a year, it started to occur to me that I might end up doing it for a long time, and that’s when I started to take it really seriously.

I never think of the Quietus as big or relevant. I still think of it as a tiny website that no one’s heard of or that everyone hates and that helps me work hard at promoting it and coming up with good ideas for features and to seek out new music that no one else is talking about. I think once you start thinking of yourself as “important” you’re fucked really.

How are you planning to take The Quietus forward into the future?

That’s a good question. I’d love to address the elephant in the room – the shocking state of online advertising. We need to come up with a better payment model – maybe subscriptions and merchandise – so we can pay all of the writers all of the time. And also so we can pay ourselves better: I’m 43 years old and a dad and I don’t pay myself a living wage – sooner or later I’d like to be able to quit all of my other jobs so I can concentrate on just doing the Quietus and other writing projects for myself but that’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future.

What are you planning to do personally after the tour is over?

Good question. I feel like saying: never writing again. But I guess I still have to promote the book in London, do some press, hopefully read at some literary festivals, start work on my second book about the state of England in 2015. But more than anything I’d like to spend more time with my son – take him on a few steam trains and to the Natural History Museum.

John Doran will appear at Pop Recs, Sunderland on Wednesday 6th May, Sound It Out Records, Stockton on Thursday 6th May and The Old olice House in Gateshead on Saturday 23rd May.

Photographs by: Al Overdrive

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