Interview: John Robb

The main chapters are on all the key, bigger bands, but there's a whole raft of other stuff that goes on just underneath the surface. The book also conceptualises goth and it goes into the deeper story.

As well as being the founder and playing and recording over the years with the brilliant post-punk band The Membranes and Goldblade, the punk band he formed after, John Robb has been the author of a number of books on various musical subjects that demonstrate his talent as a writer as they are written with authenticity. John’s latest book The Art Of Darkness: The History Of Goth takes an in depth look at the scene that grew out of punk but took the ethos to wonderfully dark new places. Whether you are are a fan of goth both old or new, The Art Of Darkness is definitely a must read. Gavin Brown caught up with John to hear all about the book and how it came about as well as hearing about his time in his bands and as an author.

E&D: Your new book, The Art Of Darkness: The History Of Goth, is out now, what has the reaction to it been like so far?      

John: It’s been really great so far, which is a relief because it was a lot of work to put that book together. It’s had lots of different reactions and my favourite reaction is when people say it turned them onto loads of music that they didn’t know about, which I think as a music fan, you’re always trying to do. The main chapters are on all the key, bigger bands, but there’s a whole raft of other stuff that goes on just underneath the surface. The book also conceptualises goth and it goes into the deeper story, so it starts before Rome and runs through the romantic poets and the lineage of that which goes into the goth/post-punk scene. People like that and  seem to be interested in the bigger picture that it paints. It’s kind of completely unpacking it and it goes beyond the cliched idea of people wearing black clothes and having white faces, which is the media, cartoon version of goth. I’m rightfully trying to paint a picture of this thing as very artful and there is an art of darkness to it!

E&D: Have you wanted to write about goth for a while?

John: I always liked the music because it can from punk, the big battle of punk and all these cultural universes appeared and I remember it all unfolded in real time. It wasn’t even called goth at first, it was alternative culture and alternative bounds in alternative clubs. It retrospectively got called goth, and I think it got done a real disservice, I think a lot of the media didn’t really like it and didn’t really get it. So a lot of those bands didn’t get proper reviews or proper understanding in the culture. When you see some media, a lot of these bands, were just chucked into one little mini chapter at the end as an afterthought, without without much appreciation of what they’re doing. I think, bands that Bauhaus rightfully should be restored to a position in the culture Why is Bauhaus treated as some sort of side issue. They made pretty remarkable records, actually, you step back and listen to them and they were very artful and very original, and very groundbreaking and influential over the years.

E&D: With the book did you want to mention shine a light on lesser known bands alongside the heavy hitters like Bauhaus, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Sisters Of Mercy?

John: Oh, yeah, there’s loads of other bands in the book. There’s bands like Play Dead and bands who came just after the initial explosion and it’s important to celebrate those, and also, bands who actually were pillars of the scene initially like Sex Gang Children, who were really big bands in the early days of this scene, but because they imploded really early, they didn’t get to the next level. Outside that world they became suddenly forgotten, but if you go back and listen to their records, they sound really great now, they’ve got that tribal thing about them, and it was good to get the spotlight put on them.

E&D: What was your first experience of goth music and culture coming from a punk and post punk background?

John: I think it would be unknowing because Siouxsie & The Banshees were there, but they weren’t a goth band to us growing up in 77/78, they were another great punk band that was appearing on the scene. Now, when you look back, they had a lot of tenants that would become staples in goth. Siouxsie will be the number one ultimate goth icon, even though she completely detests the term and wouldn’t consider herself goth at all, but musically, sartorially and probably ideologically, they were the inspiration of goth. If you go through in real time, there’s not like on a Tuesday morning, suddenly everything became goth. It’s just a very slow drift and development into something that feels discernibly different and you could argue actually, that goth was the direct line from the original punk. What is punk now is completely different to when it first started, it was originally quite open when it started, quite fluid in ideas, and also quite freaky as well. It was dangerous to dress like that and then it became more linear and more narrow what it was, whereas goth kind of still embrace those ideas, and there was an art school element to original punk as well. I think goth maintained those art school elements. I think it’s like the Byzantine Empire coming out of the Roman Empire!

E&D: Do you still think that subcultures like goth, and punk as well as still as strong and can still be dangerous today?

John: Yeah, I think what’s really interesting is, in the UK, we tend to coalesce cultures, we’re very good at matching the clothes to the music, and we do it quite quickly, then we discard it really quickly but the rest of the world really embraces it. You go to goth festivals in Europe, there’s like 20,000 people and you go to Mexico and its a huge scene or Brazil or Japan, or America and it’s really massive as well. It still exists in the UK, of course, but it’s more of a cult thing. I did a chapter in the book looking at both gaming, goth social media, goth film and TV, Wednesday, is the obvious one, because Tim Burton is the world’s number one goth, he grew up as a goth kid, and every project he does, he either makes it or frames it within a goth aesthetic, just look at his Batman films, it’s very goth and it’s set in Hotham city of course! Batman looks very much like an S&M goth. Social media is an interesting one, you get both influencers who take pictures standing in castles or in misty forests, dressing up in dark clothes, a very, very exotic look now because it gets more and more exaggerated as time goes along. The music is only part of that culture and sometimes they don’t post playlists or they don’t have any music on there, because the music isn’t really part of this styling, its the visuals, and I was talking to somebody about this the other day. People under twenty now, the visual aesthetic is much stronger than the music aesthetic. For us growing up, it was both the music and the clothes and the visuals and the whole thing was was entwined. But now, the visual thing is really important to our teenager and that music has become a soundtrack to the visuals whereas when I was a teenager, the music was actually the driving force, but I don’t have a problem with that, I think the aesthetic remains the same, but the way you deal with it changes as you go along. That was another important thing about goth, the theatricality of it and the idea that you were a blank canvas and a walking piece of art, and it’s as artful to dress up as something as make a piece of music.


E&D: What albums would you recommend for someone who’s just starting to get into goth though?

John: For me the template for the Banshees first album, I think it’s an amazing record. I think the tribal drumming of Kenny Morris, who is a really underrated drummer is incredible. When they first rehearsed, they took the cymbals off the drum kit and didn’t play in a traditional rock style, and it became about the sparseness of it and of course, there’s Siouxsie’s swooping, dark vocals which really set the scene with their powerfulness. Singles wise, ‘Bela Lugosis Dead’ is probably the most defining track. Again not created as goth but what’s interesting about them is they came from small town England and created something exotic, and brought an art school aesthetic to it. The track is amazing and, again, very sparse. A lot of both was very understated and minimalistic and there’s subtle shades in there. That song has a dark, dub vibe to it and it’s got a ghoulish, dark humour to it as well. It’s 9 minutes so it’s pretty epic and it’s very much a template record for what came afterwards.

E&D: Are you feeling a lot of the newer goth music that’s around at the moment?

John: You get a lot of electronic music, where it’s almost like going ago a techno club. A lot of dark electronic music that you can dance to. Goth was always about the dance floor and then you get goth influence in really unlikely places. Billie Eillish makes great pop music but there’s a bit of goth DNA in there because she was interested in that type of music. You get metal bands who cross it into metal and then you get bands like Soft Moon who’ve got a Cure/Nine Inch Nails type vibe going on. There’s a whole raft of bands taking bits of the culture.

E&D: Have you got any further ideas on books you’d like to work on in the future or are you working on anything at the moment?

John: Well, I’m actually there’s an old book that is out. It was meant to come out in the autumn but for some reason they brought it forward and and it’s is a collective works of journalism going back forty years and it’s called Do You Believe In The Power Of Rock N Roll. I’ve also been helping to write a book about how to run an indie label and I’ve also written a novel which if I ever get found to finishing off is a children’s book that’s not for children! Someone’s asked me to write my autobiography but I think you’ve always got have your story first. People wait all their lives to get the story right but then they drop dead before they write it so maybe I should do it while I still remember it.

E&D; As a journalist, who were some of the best interviews with that you did over the years?

John: I think the early Manics were great, because they write as a manifesto, they totally knew what they’re doing. They totally knew all the points and what buttons to push to cause the maximum amount of outrage, but in a very eloquent, super intelligent way with a sensitivity which was rare in most rock bands at that time. It was very multi layered and they were very interesting, especially Richey, you know, who’s a brilliant conceptualist, he did play guitar, but his job was to look good with a guitar, which I think is totally cool as well. Every single member of the band doesn’t have to be a brilliant musician, some people bring an art to a band, or a manifesto or an idea what they are, which is just as important as being able to play a guitar solo. Being a blank canvas and a work of art like I mentioned before. Like Jordan, who worked in Malcom and Vivienne’s shop is as important to the punk story just by what she looked like as any record that came out at that time. It’s the suggestion of freedom and the suggestion of having no limits.

E&D: Have you got any plans to do anything more with The Membranes in the future?

John: We’re gonna play some festivals with next year. There’s a whole album written bits it’s just getting round to getting it recorded. We toured all the way up to Christmas last year. This books gone a bit crazy, it keeps selling and selling and it’s just gone out around the world now so that’s where my focus is just now, it’s insanely busy haha! I’ve put it out myself so trying to keep track of it all is quite hard. The songs are there and the concept of what it’s going to be are there, I might even tie it in together with the novel I’ve written. I quite like the idea of having a book and an album as one piece.

E&D: What have been some of your favourite memories throughout your career with Goldblade?

John: I think some of the gigs. We played in Belgrade at this festival, just before the war actually, there was like 35,000 people there. That’s pretty crazy. We did a stadium gig in Russia where the audience went crazy or a mad gig Goldblade played in Macedonia with The Prodigy when we had to do a line check in front of the audience. and even when the kick drum was just testing, the whole crowd was jumping up and down, 5000 people! They hardly had a gig there so people were ecstatically excited to see any bands so they went totally berserk! Also playing in Algeria, that was pretty crazy, we were the first band to play there for 20 years. It was pretty haphazard, the gig and the country. We were there for eighteen hours but we never went to bed! We got there, did the soundcheck, did the gig and the woman who put the gig on said “do you want to see the city?” I was like fuck yeah so she just drove us around for hours then drove us back to the airport. It’s a beautiful city but there was nobody around apart from cops with machine guns and they said the city is safe but if you go outside Algiers you’ll probably get kidnapped so that was pretty crazy!

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