Riding a wave of sea shanty rock ‘n’ roll.
“This ain’t no ship for the weak no wave makers,” comes the throaty rasp from the depths of the historic, The Prospect of Whitby or Devil’s Tavern as it is more affectionately termed. Koozie Johns, lead vocalist and founder of the star-bound vessel otherwise known as Folk Grinder, is weighing up FLW’s potential to apply all hands on deck for the impending wave of promotional duties that will accompany the launch of their debut album, ‘Any Old Trollop, Same Old Port’.
Sitting below deck with the faint sound of the Thames lapping at the edges outside, FLW finds itself in the company of London-based duo Folk Grinder, who is currently peddling their wares with charismatic sea shanty tales of love and regret. Having met purely by chance in a pawnbroker in the heart of Shepherd’s Bush, the duo bonded almost immediately once it became apparent that they had a mutual love of all things music but, more importantly, Miro Snejdr was the perfect fit for the melodies swimming inside the mind-set of Koozie Johns.
“I actually stopped Miro selling his accordion,” croaks Koozie Johns before taking another sip of his nearby rum and coke. “I‘d been looking for an accordion player for some songs that I‘d written whilst still living in Los Angeles. I got very inspired by the sea and being away from England and that’s how it all started. So we decided to meet due to the songs I had written. I explained to him that I can hear an accordion as they have a shanty-vibe. What was even more bizarre was the fact that Miro had a bedsit near where I was living in Shepherd’s Bush at that time, so we started practising together and it sounded great. After we had been playing these songs with the accordion, Miro mentioned that he plays piano as well, which we combined with some songs I had with the shanties, and we developed this sort of sound. I didn’t realise that I’d find a guy who played piano as well! So that worked out and gave it another unique twist in terms of how the band came together.”
Was it always your intention for Folk Grinder to be a two-piece band?
“We tried it with a full band but it became too overloaded and I wanted to strip it back and have more of a skiffle-type approach,” continues Koozie in his gravelled tones regarding the birth of Folk Grinder. “I wanted to bring it back to basics. If a song is good enough, it will stand up being played with minimal accompaniment. Also, there is such a sea shanty vibe with it, and all of these bordello piano tunes as well tied in. I like having that vulnerability with it because there is no band which you can hide behind as it is just Miro and I. Occasionally, we do bring on guests [live] such as a guy who can play a bit of skiffle-snare on a couple of tunes, but mainly it is guitar and accordion.”
How does the recording process work between the two of you?
“It’s great as I can just ring him up and ask to rehearse tomorrow in my living room [they live five minutes apart] as we don’t go to rehearsal studios anymore,” responds Koozie. “My living room is setup like a rehearsal studio; I have got a mic stand and I’ve got a couple of power floor monitors and a piano in there, and that’s how we rehearse. I like it like that, as there is less people to argue with!” he finishes laughing.
After the initial meeting and recording sessions between the two of them, more coincidences ensued as a longstanding friendship between Koozie Johns and the legendary Kirk Brandon led to a working relationship being formed after the former Theatre of Hate frontman stumbled across the band during a live performance which, in turn, led to an informal invitation to open a few live dates.
“We had recorded some demos – an album’s worth of demos – and then we started rehearsing to do a few warm-up shows. Kirk [Brandon] calls me and asks if we want to open for him at this place called the Redeemer Club for a couple of shows after seeing us perform live. So that’s what we did, and that sort of kicked off the live side of Folk Grinder,” explains Koozie.
How did Kirk Brandon’s involvement come about in terms of producing your debut album, ‘Any Old Trollop, Same Old Port’?
“We played the aforementioned shows and Kirk approached me afterwards and relayed the story back about when Mick Jones [The Clash] approached him to produce a Theatre of Hate album. Therefore, Kirk wanted to return that favour by helping us with our first record,” comments Koozie on Kirk Brandon’s involvement. “He asked how many songs we had and I mentioned lots, so he said pick twelve and send them to me and we’ll see what we can do. I sent him fourteen songs and he picked twelve but we actually ended up recording thirteen, which is what’s on the album. As a singer, I have never been produced before, so that was an interesting thing for me with Kirk being a vocalist himself. I learned a lot in a short period of time regarding the production process, and it was a good experience to be less precious over things and to get rid of any kind of ego and to listen to advice in terms of how someone else is interpreting the songs.”
Was it a good working relationship between Folk Grinder and Kirk Brandon?
“We all got on really well and he [Brandon] loves all the old rock ‘n’ roll sailor vibe that we’ve got. His dad was an old Navy man as well. Yeah, so he loves all that stuff,” replies Koozie.
FLW understands that the album was recorded in a disused warehouse or something similar. Therefore, what can you tell us about the recording experience?
“Kirk’s got this friend in North London who’s basically built a huge recording studio in a disused toy factory,” explains Koozie. “There were old reel-to-reel half inch tape machines and old [recording] desks and we just recorded it how they would have recorded in the 1950s. So it was very basic, with Miro and I looking at each other using a couple of mics. It captured warts and all, I think. For example, if you listen carefully enough, you can hear a couple of my bracelets jangling, which in this day and age you wouldn’t have that happening. But I like all of that because it’s fun and it’s real.”
“We left all the clicks in there, especially with my accordion as it has no built-in pickup or anything,” adds Miro. “When I had to switch the different keys, I had to switch the button and you can hear the button click. We recorded in this way, because we didn’t want the sound to be too polished.”
“It’s more intimate that way as well,” continues Koozie. “Miro and I could sit with an acoustic guitar and an accordion, with no microphones or PA, and sing you a song and grab your heart. I know that we could do that.”
Folk Grinder has already grabbed the hearts of FLW with their mesmerising sea shanty bordello rock ‘n’ roll, as repeat listens of their debut album reveals great tales of intrigue that are often steeped in a personal history as Koozie attests, “I’m singing my heart out, as I’ve gone through things in my life to write these types of songs.” Such stories seem to roll off the tongue with apparent ease for Folk Grinder’s leading man due to something of a nomadic existence with more than a tale to tell. In fact, FLW reached the conclusion that if ever the desert island question arises, then Koozie Johns would be first choice as guest of honour.
“I drew inspiration from the sea, and I can kind of relate to what it must feel like being a sailor living away from home because of travelling a lot and being on tour as a musician. I am just singing about real situations. Sometimes I have written half a song and it’s inspired by a past situation, and by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve actually gone through that situation with the person I’ve been with at the time, and that’s strange. There is a song on the album called ‘It’s All Over’ and the first line is, ‘Another sunny day in southern California, I sit on a porch looking out to sea’ and I was sitting on a porch looking out to sea in Southern California when I wrote that with an acoustic guitar. Then I left it for a bit, and then I finished it, and everything I wrote about in that song actually happened in terms of that particular relationship. I didn’t intend for it to happen that way, but that’s what happened.”
“You do realise that he is really singing about me!” quips Miro.
A stint living in LA, with a view overlooking the ocean, was the perfect residing spot for a period of time. However, it was the persuasive call of his homeland that saw Folk Grinder’s main troubadour pack his bag of anecdotal tales and head for colder shores because England was definitely dreaming.
“I would be sitting there day in, day out looking at the ocean and it was great but I am really passionate about England and I started missing the green grass of the Cotswolds. I started missing all these things about England. But I have always had an attraction with water as my grandfather, during the Second World War, was working with the fire brigade on boats around the dock areas. I’ve always had a fascination with the sea, as my uncle stowed away to sea when he was a teenager, and all these stories are passed down. So I can just look at the water for hours.”
With the clock ticking and sentence soon-to-be passed in the Devil’s Tavern for the latest miscreant seen to be caught smuggling, there remains a couple of queries regarding hopes for the band’s first album and the future of the Folk Grinder vessel.
“There’s quite a bit of interest,” replies Koozie regarding ‘Any Old Trollop, Same Old Port,” so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. The [music] industry is so different now in terms of what it used to be. It may prove better for us to stay independent or it may prove better for us to have a little help. But we do want these songs to reach as many people as possible. I’m happy that we recorded it in this kind of way with analogue, as I have not recorded like that for years. When you record to tape, you have to get things right as there is no fixing it like you can with digital. So I liked the pressure of the recording. It was freezing cold as well, with us wearing scarves but that added to the atmosphere and made the record what it is. Kirk [Brandon] has done a really good job.”
“We do want people to go to the gigs and sing-along and see them really enjoying themselves when they hear the songs, and that is the aim really. Whether we need help or we help ourselves centrally, only time will tell,” adds Miro concerning the band’s longevity.
“At the end of the day, the people that know out there, they’ll get it, they’ll know what I’m singing about and what we’re playing and what we’re trying to get across.”
I’m singing my heart out, as I’ve gone through things in my life to write these types of songs.”
Koozie Johns, Folk Grinder
FLW - From the Tapes
Koozie Johns of Folk Grinder informs FLW, in two parts, of his first trip to Oslo, Norway.
“I can’t remember which year it was, but I think it was 1981 and it was towards the end of my competitive swimming period when I entered a big competition in Oslo. I stayed with this really crazy, nutty Norwegian family in Oslo. When I arrived there, we were all picked up by the designated families in terms of where we’re going to stay. So gradually everyone gets picked up apart from me. All of a sudden this guy comes up on a motorcycle and he talks with the officials there and I get pointed out, and then I’m with him! So I’ve got my bag on my back and I get on the back of this motorcycle and off we go. He doesn’t say anything to me and we’re speeding off going through red light after red light and then, by the third red light, a police siren starts up and a police car starts following us. He then goes off road through this woodland area, until he loses the police car and arrives at his house. His father was some kind of artist who did all this scenery and landscapes by using inks on blotting paper – it was quite good. So yeah, he dumped me off in the house and said ‘You sleep in here. I’m going off to a party, I’ll see you tomorrow’. His parents weren’t in the house or anything, so it was just me there and I went to bed thinking that this is really odd hospitality. Then he came back during the early hours of the morning, blind drunk, falls over me and throws up in the corner and gets into his bed! So that was my first night in Oslo.”