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The Sound of the Perennial Underground: A Far Out interview with Joshua Ben Joseph

When the modern media – and in particular those who cover the arts – talk about the ‘underground’, it’s usually some sort of exercise in self aggrandisation. Pointing out the next big thing just before it becomes the next big thing is a huge source of kudos to the back-patting bloggers of today.

On this occasion, however, it’s Far Out’s responsibility to introduce our readers to a man who has lived his life and loss almost perennially in the shadows of the real underground – the helpless subterranean dive bars of Manchester. 

Having spent many a year fighting crippling alcoholism, Joshua Ben Joseph is an infinitely talented songwriter extradited from the city’s Northern Quarter – an area that is almost a right of passage for musicians and artists looking to mount the first rung of the ladder.

But in 2019, we find Joshua sober, armed with a beautifully melancholic new record and coming off the back of a mesmerising (in our questionable opinion, anyway) performance at Northern Quarter venue, Gullivers – where he is thankfully now more than welcome.

Far Out sat down with him for a chat about life, death, Mark E. Smith and why Bob Dylan would get nowhere today.

So you’ve got a new record, Mary Midnight and Mary Monk, hope I got that the right way around…

“Well, it could work either way. It’s about my Mrs who died last year. In many ways it was quite a drunken, dysfunctional relationship, and the title of the record relates to those two characters – ‘Midnight’ when she was drunk and ‘Monk’ when she was sober. It’s a tribute to her. I wouldn’t be writing songs if it weren’t for her.

“They were written not about her, but for her. She was the only intended audience at the time. But they were written after her death. Some of it may even mock her death. But I think we were both on our death beds at the time. That kind of callous humour can sometimes get you through, but people around us didn’t understand that at all.

“It was her who first pointed out the themes of death and dreams seem to pop up in almost every one of my songs. But I think I’m trying to take the dreams out. I still don’t think the human brain is really programmed to contemplate its own death, even though supposedly we are the only animal that knows.”

And despite the darkness to the record, even the chorus of the first track almost has a euphoric quality to it?

“That track is almost verbatim what happened when she passed away. Everyone wants to give advice, including the student I mention who’s just got a psychology degree. The whole thing is true. Apart from visiting the rabbi, which I never did… Not seen one of them since I was 14.”

“I’m sure there was some euphoria that came from that. Bill Burroughs said all pleasure is relief. So that’s probably where that came from. The peaceful look on her face was like a relief from fear.”

‘Fixing to Kill (Hipster City Blues)’ sounds, on paper, like a departure – even tongue in cheek – is this the case?

“Well yes, but there are still no jokes there. Even if it seems like I’m satirising Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weird thing is when I play that one live it’s always the hipsters who laugh the most. They’re like the walking dead in The Sixth Sense, they don’t know that they’re the hipsters. I don’t know, do they even really exist? I doubt they will in a couple of years. It’s not a loathing, more a gentle mocking.

“It’s more of a thing like, people who aren’t really into literature reading Kerouac or Bukowski. They say they love it, but neither of those people would last two minutes in a Northern Quarter bar before they got their nob out or something.

“If Bob Dylan and Ed Sheeran turned up at an open mic around here as two completely unknowns, Bob Dylan would be denigrated for his silly voice and daft lyrics. Ed would be immediately hailed as a genius by most. No-one would obviously admit that though.

“Despite having never really left Manchester, it’s a hard place for me to live. I’ve never had a job, never even had a job interview. Well, before my alcoholism I was a fake psychic, like a dial-a-psychic. I was pretty good, but I don’t want to go back to that.”

Burroughs, Kerouac, Bukowski… Do you find the literary side of life a great inspiration then?

“Yes, I think I’ve always been more into writers than musicians. The rock ‘n’ roll obsession is why no-one has an attention span longer than three minutes now. Even politicians want to be rock ‘n’ roll.

“If you look at 60s bands like The Kinks, they were more influenced by literary art. That was a time before poetry died too, so they were lucky in a way.

“But then again, I never really read books until I became a Fall fan at about 18-years-old. That was what got me interested in the sounds of words. From there I probably read Clockwork Orange, and James Joyce and Hopkins became very important.”

I saw you perform at Gullivers a little while ago, shall we talk about the live side of things?

“Yeah I thought it was pretty bad that night. I wasn’t very good. I really do have trouble with the live performances. I never started performing anything until I was 30. And Robert [Paul Corless] is the only reason I started doing any of it.

“I was in a really bad alcoholic state, and for some reason Robert brought me in to do a demo, about ten years ago now, but it was a time when my alcoholism was getting worse and worse.

“I know people were saying ‘what are you working with him for?’, but he didn’t care. I might not be alive it it hadn’t been for that. The music feels like the only thing I can do of any value, so it keeps me going in a way.”

Joshua Ben Joseph’s latest LP Mary Midnight and Mary Monk is available to buy now through Eromeda Records and to stream via Spotify, Youtube and all other major services.