Ned’s Atomic Dustbin frontman Jonn Penney leaves no stone unturned as we chat about climate change, the band’s upcoming shows for the anniversary of The Ingredients EP and their famous fans in Steve Lamacq and Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus.
Joining me from his home in Stourbridge—not, as his Zoom background would have me believe, in the idyllic surrounds of the Northern Lights—is Ned’s Atomic Dustbin frontman Jonn Penney. The 53-year-old musician is keen to reminisce about the band’s The Ingredients EP, which is to be played in full at four 30th anniversary tour dates this year (albeit a year later than planned thanks to coronavirus).
The band are playing two nights at Powerhaus (formerly Dingwalls) in London on 19 and 20 November, and two nights at the Town Hall in Stourbridge on 3 and 4 December. It’s the first time the original 5-member lineup has played in Stourbridge since 1988 and the first time they’ve played Dingwalls—their first London headline sellout show—since 1990. Jonn takes me on a trip down memory lane…
THE INDIEPENDENT: How did you feel when you had to reschedule the 30th anniversary gigs? And what can fans expect from these shows?
Jonn: It’s one of those things. There’s not a fat lot you can do, you just have to crack on and accept it and go with the flow. I was disappointed. But it’s quite funny because it makes you reevaluate all this business of, “Oh, it’s 30 years since we did this”, and “It’s 30 years since we did that”. The promoters were saying “Now we know it’s back on, shall we just stick with the same artwork?” and I’m like “Well no because it’s 31 years now, it’s not 30.” “Yeah, but it’s the same gig?” “No but it’s a year later, it’s 31 now.” I thought it was quite funny to put 31 on things.
THE INDIEPENDENT: In terms of what people can expect from the shows, what are you hoping to provide fans with?
Jonn: The point of the shows was always to celebrate our first EP coming out—The Ingredients EP—and the reason we’ve split the shows between London and Stourbridge is that The Ingredients EP was actually recorded in Stourbridge. That’s where all our roots were laid down. So Stourbridge Town Hall is a place we haven’t played since just after we first formed as a full complement of the whole original band, we haven’t played the town since about ’88. That was something that we were keen to do.
It’s also a stone’s throw from the studio where we recorded the first EP. This was a pivotal time for us, we took mixes from our local recording to our friends in London—press people that were into us and a couple of other movers and shakers—and they thought the mix was a bit dry and it didn’t really represent our live thing very well. So essentially, we took it to London and made friends with Jessica Corcoran in London who was helping out with The Wonder Stuff recordings. She remixed it for us and there was the sound of Ned’s on records—it was born there if you like. Then on the day that we released The Ingredients EP we were playing at Camden Dingwalls. So we thought let’s do a couple of nights at Dingwalls, which incidentally during the lockdown has changed its name to Powerhaus, but there you go!
THE INDIEPENDENT: Just to make it even harder for you to promote it!
Jonn: Right? But yeah, we have fond memories of sitting on the steps of Dingwalls doing our first TV interview that day and us all joking about ending up with thousands of copies of our first EP in our lofts when it all went wrong and no one sold any.
THE INDIEPENDENT: Well that definitely didn’t happen! I was very impressed to learn that you painted the studio in exchange for recording time.
Jonn: We were skint. We hadn’t got the money to do a proper recording. We’d just about scratched stuff together to get us through a couple of demos before, but it’s a whole different ball game. I remember Mat, one of the bass players nearly brained himself on a stairwell when we were painting—he had to pop to hospital and had stitches in his brow—it was quite hardcore!
THE INDIEPENDENT: Obviously that’s the old fashioned ‘tea making’ way—you put in the hard graft to reap the rewards. It’s arguably a lot easier for artists now, in the ‘digital age’.
Jonn: I have to try really hard not to sound like a 53-year-old, but I’m a 53-year-old. I have contact with a lot of young musicians in what I do day-to-day these days [teaching songwriting]. I do very often think they’re just not up against it enough. They’re not having to fight hard enough to do what they’re doing. I think it does actually impact on the stuff they write. I think with us it was desperate man, do or die.
THE INDIEPENDENT: What do you think have been the biggest changes for the music industry since you first started gigging?
Jonn: A big part of it is that unfortunately, for a lot of the bands these days, they can’t go out and win their own audience over in the way that we did—we were lucky to get the opportunity to support some of the big bands early on, and play to a bunch of strangers and win them over. Yes, you can do it online, you can do it releasing videos and stuff and there are ways and means of people hearing your music, but it’s not that bond of seeing a band live for the first time and being there early in their career and thinking “This band are going to be big”, and then seeing them become big. The band’s relationship with those people who got them to where they got to is a beautiful thing, man, it’s an amazing thing. I do think that unfortunately that’s missing for the bands that are trying to push through these days to a large extent.
THE INDIEPENDENT: I know you have contact with young artists as you teach songwriting, and obviously with the Ned’s when you signed to Sony you were very insistent about keeping your autonomy and releasing via Furtive. For those artists that are successful enough to be looking at signing to a label, or putting their first release out on an indie label or going DIY, what advice do you have?
Jonn: Sitting where I am now, I’m looking at some releases on side projects and things for myself so I’m amongst the whole business of DIY versus label. There are two things really, first and foremost, the thing I spend most of my time trying to drill into young bands these days is to plough your own furrow. For crying out loud, just do what you want to do. You do your thing and you don’t care whether it’s going to fit in with anything else. That doesn’t work, that isn’t trendsetting, that isn’t making the future for yourself. That’s toeing the line and no one gets anywhere toeing the line. If you think “we’re a pop-punk band and we write great pop-punk songs there’s an audience for us to go and target and play to”, too late. That ship sailed. You’ve got to create the next thing, you’ve got to follow your own nose, be yourselves and do your thing. If that thing means that it doesn’t fit in with large or small labels you just crack on and do it, but if people jump on board, if like a small label are really into what you do—and this is a crux, people have got to be really into what you do—you’ve got to figure these people out. 10% of nothing is nothing and if they’re going to take their percentage but they’re willing to put some time and effort into it and even money, you’ll soon see whether these people are for real and they’re going to really help you out. There’s a lot of skillsets there and it’s quite hard for people to be savvy, but if you build a team around you that’s the key—get your mates involved, get your mate who’s a graphic designer involved and get a good logo, get your mate who is good at organising stuff to come and tour manage you, or even manage you. I think you’ve just got to follow your nose and do your thing.
THE INDIEPENDENT: Speaking of people being really into what you’re doing, looking back on The Ingredients EP now, what do you think were the key ‘ingredients’ that made the release resonate so much with your audience?
Jonn: It’s strange, it’s really hard to put yourself back in those shoes in that day. We were so busy playing and just feeding off peoples’ reaction to what we we’re doing when we were on stage, we had no idea what a reaction would be to a recorded thing. We knew songs were going down well, but some of the songs on that EP were brand spanking new songs. The first song ‘Aim’ on there, that was the latest thing we’d written and it took on a little bit of a different turn for us because we adopted a bit of a skipping Manchester beat for it and we took the mick out of Manchester a little bit as all bands do when they’re coming through during a big scene.
But there are songs on there that were really old as well. ‘Grey Cell Green’ on there it’s quite an old song for us and I see the consequences now of what a strong song that was at the time. But when we did all of our first big shows with people like The Wonder Stuff and Pop Will Eat Itself and Jesus Jones and we were winning these audiences over, ‘Grey Cell Green’ was above all others the one song that won people over, but I wasn’t really aware of this. We were just on a snowball going downhill and not really noticing a fat lot about what was going on around us other than people were getting into it. So it’s a funny old mix when I listen to it back now.
There are songs on there that I’m not enormously proud of, but then I was 23 wasn’t I? I was where I was at, I was following my nose. It’s quite funny because we’re going to try and play quite a bit of old stuff at these gigs—we’ll play all the stuff we know people want to hear as well—but we’re digging into the past quite a bit, because it is a celebration of a time, that time just before we made it if you like. Looking at those old songs and playing them through is quite a bizarre thing to do when you’re 53, I can tell you now. You’ve got to think “Can I really sing these words, can I really go there?”, and I’m thinking yeah because we’re all entering into that nostalgia trip, aren’t we? We can chuckle to ourselves about what it was.
THE INDIEPENDENT: It must feel a bit like reading your own teenage diary.
Jonn: Exactly. There are some songs that in terms of rehearsing we’ve got halfway through and gone, “Nah, I can’t go there”.
THE INDIEPENDENT: In terms of rehearsals, then, were you rehearsing virtually throughout lockdown, or was it all put on hold until this year?
Jonn: We put it on pause, because it’s hard enough getting all the original heads together in a room anyway. And with lockdown, it’s not rock and roll but the reality is you’ve got kids at home and god knows what. And in fairness, probably about 85% to 90% of the set that we’ll play is muscle memory. It’s just the little tweaks that we’re making to this set to make it pertinent and relevant to the time we’re celebrating that’s different. And of course, now we’re back rehearsing and getting ready for it, those are the things we’re focusing on—those songs that we haven’t unearthed for a long time.
THE INDIEPENDENT: So with The Ingredients EP being that formative songwriting period for you, and going back to your teenage musings after all this time, how is writing your autobiography coming along?
Jonn: I’ve put it on the shelf a bit. It’s quite weird because when it was lockdown I thought, “Yeah, right, I can get stuck into this book”. But I stopped enjoying writing it. I woke up one morning and thought, if I’m not enjoying writing this then people certainly aren’t going to enjoy reading it. So I’m going to come back to it, I will do, but what’s happened to replace that is that I started getting creative myself and my ambition to songwrite has returned a bit. That’s probably the more natural path for me to follow, it’s more familiar ground. I’ll come back and write about it later, I’m hoping, as long as I live long enough. Thanks for asking, though.
THE INDIEPENDENT: Do you think the reason you were struggling with it is because it was such a high-energy, memory-rich point in your life and maybe returning to that during lockdown when there wasn’t a lot going on was actually quite depressing?
Jonn: Yeah, I mean lockdown wasn’t the most optimistic of times was it? You’re not knowing what’s around the corner and my head was frazzled with all the things that were going on at the time. If you’re going to be reflective, you need a certain kind of atmosphere around you to be able to be reflective, don’t you? The way I’m tackling my book is I’m doing it a song at a time—I didn’t keep diaries so I look at a song and see what I remember about the time it was written, what it was about, and other things that were going on. It just wasn’t shouting at me what I was gonna say at the time. It will, I’m sure it will do, it just wasn’t the right time.
THE INDIEPENDENT: So in terms of the songwriting that you’ve been doing, then, is that anything to do with the Ned’s? Or is that just side projects, or working with other artists?
Jonn: It’s a side project. I can’t say much about it at the moment, other than that I never picked a guitar up myself before and I never put any riffs together. I’ve got a collaborator I’m working with, and it’s just been really rewarding to have come up with some of the chords and the riffs that inspire the vocals myself.
THE INDIEPENDENT: In terms of songwriting, you’ve talked in other interviews about your lyrical heroes providing you with guidance as a teenager. So do you have a favourite lyric, either of yours or someone else’s?
Jonn: One of my favourite lyrics is Joni Mitchell’s “Songs are like tattoos”. It’s so true isn’t it? They just kind of embed themselves at night. Tom Waits has gazillions of them too, but of course I can’t think of any now.
THE INDIEPENDENT: What about out of all the Ned’s lyrics, do you have a favourite line or verse that you’ve written?
Jonn: “Now I never said I’m the be-all and end-all / But you had to end it all, as soon as you’d seen more / I never said I was worth less or worth less or worth more”
THE INDIEPENDENT: To flip that on its head, you’ve obviously inspired other musical figures. I know Mark Hoppus from Blink-182 is a big fan. How does it feel to have inspired other artists like that?
Jonn: It’s a bit unreal in fairness, it’s quite a difficult one to grasp. I’ve seen those interviews when they’ve talked about playing ‘Happy’ in their first rehearsal and I’ve seen that Ned’s poster in the background of their rehearsal room. I’ve seen all those things, I’ve even seen Mark Hoppus talk about Ned’s. It’s an amazing thing but I guess everyone gets inspiration from somewhere. If you were to tell Julian Cope, or Andrew Eldridge or Ian McCulloch that they’d done that for me I’m sure they’d be almost as stuck as I would to describe what it means. Legacy is just an amazing thing, isn’t it? When I was younger I used to say “I’m not egotistical, I haven’t got an ego, I’m a down-to-earth guy.” But you can be a down-to-earth guy and still want to leave the biggest footprint on the planet before you go. Those two things can live together, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s just a fantastic feeling to know you’ve left that kind of mark.
THE INDIEPENDENT: In terms of support for the Ned’s, I know Steve Lamacq is a special guest DJ at three of the four events that you’re doing. So what is your relationship with him, and what does it mean to have them involved with the band?
Jonn: We go back quite a long way, Steve and Ned’s. I wouldn’t lay claim to us being his first NME interview, but we were certainly amongst some of the first ones that he did. Our press officer knew Steve from quite early days as well and she was friends with Mary Anne Hobbs, too. So I think that’s probably what brought about our first interview with Steve—that was at Brixton Academy, in our tiny dressing room when we were third on for The Wonder Stuff. And then Steve just got into us, he’s been a bit of a follower all along. I guess the relationship is in two really, because from what he says he’s a fan of the band, but he’s also a radio DJ. He’s got to be professional, he can’t go on air and play Ned’s all day. But it’s lovely to have him at the shows, because the playlist that he puts together on those nights will be the playlist of everybody’s lives at that time, so it makes a lot of sense to have Steve along.
THE INDIEPENDENT: I’m sure it means a lot to have his support. Just to return to the EP and the live shows then, I wanted to pick up on ‘Grey Cell Green’ in particular. Could you just tell me a bit about why you think that that song impacted so much in the United States, and why it was able to help you get a foothold over there?
Jonn: I think possibly what happened was that we were still forming our sound. We were experimenting quite a lot with the way we went about songwriting. The one thing that we all have in common from the very beginning was that we wanted to sound different to everybody else. We wanted to plough our own furrow, we wanted to be unique. So we’d got five people in the room trying desperately to find ways and means of doing that. But possibly what suffered for that in the early days might have been the songwriting itself. We weren’t conventional, I suppose, in the way we formatted songs—which is a good thing, because we were trying to come at it from a different angle. We were always stitching two songs together that didn’t fit. This is where ‘Kill Your Television’ came from, we were taking the mickey out of ourselves because we were there yet again with two or three ideas in rehearsal that didn’t fit together. So we did a hatchet job and stuck a couple of songs together. That was very much the way Ned’s started.
I think what sets ‘Grey Cell Green’ apart is that it’s a much more traditional formatted song—the verses and the chorus are very distinctively what they are, the arrangement of it is quite straightforward, and the hooks are very simple. Over the years, you realise that so often with hooks, less is more, so we were probably trying way too hard in a lot of the other songs. In that one, for some reason, we must have relaxed a bit and just got into the groove of it. When I wrote it, what happened was I was starting to become aware of the environment. That was what ‘Grey Cell Green’ was about. A lot of people think it’s a love song. It isn’t a love song. I mean, people can have it as a love song. But what I was writing at the time was related to lots of people saying, “We’ve got to get in touch with Mother Earth. It’s in the trees. It’s all around us. We’re gonna get all conceptual and love the planet,” and I was saying, “Actually, it’s down to us. We’ve got to not chuck our crap on the floor, we’ve got to stop eating meat.” That was my thing. I was already starting to get worried about fisheries and overfishing and pumping chemicals into cows—and this is 1989! And then now, look where we are… It doesn’t please me to feel clever. It doesn’t, because nothing has changed, in fact it’s worse! I’m looking back thinking I could have pushed that point a bit more, possibly. But the past is what it is, isn’t it? But these days I do use it, I do you use it—if I say so myself, the concept of making your grey cells turn to green issues, I think that’s a decent hook for where we’re at right now.
THE INDIEPENDENT: Its environmental consciousness is definitely ahead of its time. I know you’ve talked before about individual responsibility and needing to look after your own actions, rather than be preachy. But how do you think that sits with being a band—obviously bands are role models to so many people? Do you think bands actually have a responsibility to be didactic?
Jonn: There’s a tough one. I think actions speak louder than words myself. There are five guys in my band. Can five people sit down and all completely 100% agree on exactly what we need to do to protect the planet? The business of saying “we’re going to wave this particular flag, and we’re going to say, ‘Look, folks, this is what we need to do’,” I think you’re on dangerous ground there because a lot of the time people don’t want to be told what to do. People can decide for themselves what they can do. So for me, at that time in the ‘90s, it was stopping eating meat, it was stopping eating fish. That was my small, little contribution. If we were touring now, then we’d have some serious conversations to have about the fuel that the planes are using, that we’re flying on. But would we all be able to totally 100% agree on that? I don’t know.
THE INDIEPENDENT: What do you think of bands like Coldplay, that have spoken about the environmental impact of touring?
Jonn: I think it’s a noble thing to do and a noble cause that they’re pushing. I’m not saying this as criticism, it’s just an acknowledgement—would they be as keen to say that when they’re in the position that we were in, whereby you’re trying to get yourselves known worldwide? In those years when you had to get out there and be in front of those audiences and play to those people to win their hearts over, would it be the same in that situation? Would you forfeit your chance to break the States because you’re using up too much airliner fuel? Maybe they would, who’s to say, it’s not for me to say is it? But I’m sure that would have been a painful, painful decision to take at that time. And the record label would have been like, “What? What?!”
THE INDIEPENDENT: I think you’re right, the statements mean more on a grassroots level. I am going to make you speak on behalf of the other four members of the band now as we wrap up: ahead of the shows in November and December, why should people come along to an Ned’s gig? What is it that makes Ned’s live shows so amazing?
Jonn: We mean it. We absolutely 100% mean it. I can speak for all of us. I want everyone to have an amazing time and I’ll kill myself to make it happen. And then I come off stage and I’m satisfied as well. The first line of the first song on this EP is “Been missing you baby”—the ‘baby’ is ironic by the way—but you know what, that’s pretty pertinent isn’t it just now? To the existing fans, I’d say we’ve been missing you, and I think you might have been missing us… and for new people, I’d say just come and see a band who mean it.
Get tickets for the gigs in November and December via the band’s website.
Interview conducted by Beth Kirkbride