Nothing More: “Music is very personal to me”

Before their show in Hamburg (here our report) Nothing More front man Jonny Hawkins found time for a chat with us:

So, how’s your day been so far? Hiding in the warmth?

Well, I just woke up maybe an hour ago. I didn’t sleep last night – I don’t know why. It’s just like that, we’re at the end of the tour and you are just exhausted and beat up… once show time comes though, it’s like a switch, the energy is back – but the rest of the day, nope….

So you’ve been touring in this tiny can when even the sound equipment guys for this venue has a bigger one…. back in 2015 you had a proper tour bus…

(Laughs) yeah. We we’re sharing it back then with WILSON and this is our first really big headlining tour in Europe – we had one before but it was a lot smaller. And so we really wanted to make sure everything can come out successful and there is a million different ways you cut corners with touring costs and this was one of them. So yeah, we are all pretty tired because of it – I hope next time we are in a bus, sleeping in bunks at night. We are all tired.

Guess you’ve now been sleeping in that van…? Or also hostels, hotels and such?

Hmhmm…a lot of hostels, some hotels but most of the time we were driving through the night or getting just a few hours of sleep at the hotel and then driving – so sleeping in the van most of the time. My back is all fucked up from the drives… I need a chiropractor once I get home, someone to crack it…

So when you were first planning that tour, how did it feel for you?

Headlining is still a different deal compared to going on tour with another band… When we have a good night it feels way better because we know they are all here for us. We saw that on a few shows of this tour – it’s more encouraging and it made this hard work and exhaustion kinda worth it because we knew that this was our foundation that we’re building on. When you’re playing with another band it’s really hard to gage how well you’re really doing somewhere. And now it’s really clear. So we’re doing good, we have a great following now and really excited fans and really exciting shows, so I can’t be more thankful.

So did you expect it to go that well, or were you doubting?

Yeah, the first three shows…I didn’t know what to expect to be honest because we hadn’t been here in a while as we’ve been working on the last record and so I didn’t know how much was gonna go away or stay. And so we came back and the first two or three shows were actually some of the smallest shows of the tour, so when we played them I was like „well, hmm“. They were still better than at our last headlining tour, so I was like „well there is progress, there is still more people than there was last time“. But they were the smallest ones of the tour and the tour kept going and we were like „wow, 500 people a night“ instead of just 150 or 200 a night.

That’s still more than I have seen with bands of your popularity…

That’s good, yeah…so it got more encouraging along the way.

That sounds pretty good – but if there was one thing to change about the tour, except your sleeping situation, what would it be?

That‘s number one…that would be more sleep. But man. I don’t know, it’s a good question. I think maybe (silence) … God that’s all I can think of now – it is just more sleep….other than that it’s been pretty good, I would add energy drinks to our rider. We have beer and orange juice and all sorts of stuff but for whatever reason we haven’t had energy shots or drinks and we have those in the US all the time…guess it’s just not on our rider here…I like those before out shows, just a little bit to get a little boost.

You already mentioned that you took your time for the album – usually bands nowadays seem to try to put out me music as quick as possible due to all the competition out there. So did you have all the support to actually take that time or have there been critical voices along the way? Have you had moment where you thought the process should be going faster?

Yes…all the above. I mean, once you start getting past six months the label starts getting nervous and the management starts encouraging you to find ways to speed it up. Your own mind starts playing tricks on you and kinda starts freaking out „maybe the stuff isn’t good enough“ but honestly, we’ve done it, we built it for so long on our own, that in my mind I have a very strong faith in doing quality versus speed. You know, because I’ve seen plenty of bands get it out quickly and it’s really not that great….and I honestly think that quality will supersede any amount of time you spend on it. Now if we were a new band, it is easy to forget about us. But I personally believe in the quality of our last two records, the latest one and the last one, that there is enough there to sustain people to wait a little while. Once a record is done it‘s done, and you can’t change it anymore! So we try to eliminate things that would cost us time that are dumb, that are just efficiency problems, but when it comes to the actual creative part and the writing part, you really can’t speed it up sometimes if you really want it to be good.

Were there any efficiency problems?

There is always some that we can focus on to get better at. Sometimes how our workflows is working, where you pass on stuff to each other, and pass the ball back and forth. But for the most part we were pretty efficient with this record, it was just the experimentation process that took some time.

And then you were putting out the first songs and the reaction e.g. on Facebook was kinda split in two – you either loved it or disliked it. Nothing in between. How does it feel for you if you are excited to put it out and then the reactions were not all happy.

That was actually intentional – the two songs that we picked were specific. We could’ve picked „Who we are“, „Tunnels“ or „Fade in Fade out“ and people would’ve felt more like the last record. But we actually wanted to throw people off more. And „Don’t stop“ and „Go to war“ are very different from each other and different from the last record, so we wanted to have people the very least debating about it and now knowing what to expect from the rest of the songs. When you hear „Don’t stop“ and then hear „Go to war“, they are so different to each other, so you wonder what’s the next one is gonna sound like. So a part of that was intentional, and then the reaction we couldn’t have predicted how people would’ve felt but when people said that it, it made sense to me. Yeah, they do sound different. But I wasn’t worried about it because I knew once people heard the whole record, from start to finish, it makes more sense.

But isn’t that the general problem with concept albums, that if you grab something out of it and it stands alone, it’s hard to make sense to it because it’s ripped out of the story?

Right. A lot of times there is really good movies and the trailer wasn’t very good, but the movie is great. And vice versa – the trailer is amazing and then the movie turns out to be not very good. So I think the problem here always is just something that we have to deal with sometimes. It’s almost like anything you do, a song like „Fade in Fade out“ maybe couldn’t have any haters…if we put out something that sounded like the last record, it might appease the other people and then the other people would say „ah well, sounds just like the last record, it’s really not daring, it’s nothing new“ – so you always just gonna have critics. That’s what I have learnt.

Do you actually enjoy checking out what people are thinking in the comments sections…? Is it always a pleasure or sometimes a pain that you need to be out there?

Hah…that’s a good question. (Laughs) I do enjoy – for the most part – reading it because I like putting my finger on the pulse. Sometimes it’s not a perfect reflection because sometimes the most vocal people aren‘t always the representation of the whole. You know, the massive people aren’t making a comment – they are either buying the record or they are not buying it. And that speaks to me more if we have good sales and ticket sales – that’s the real test if the people would put money down and show up and so far that’s been really good. To me, it’s been a success. But when it comes to the comments, there is times where it’s really encouraging and times where it’s like really discouraging but sometimes people will make a point…but honestly, the only thing I don’t like about social media and the internet is that everyone has an equal voice which on the one hand seems like a really good thing because it’s more democratic in a sense, but on the other hand I feel like it’s not reflective of reality because it’s so anonymous. If we’re in real life and met somebody face to face and everyone saw that person and how it acted and treated other people and maybe their intelligence level was clear…You know what I mean? You would respect or not respect their opinion based on that…But when you have the internet everything is equal and looks the same. It’s very hard to gage. Positive or negative, sometimes I feel like people’s comments are just not based on knowledge. They’ll make comments about the music and I’ll be like „that’s not true“… (They just want to comment) Yeah, yeah… that’s just funny.

Here we go with Social media, sometimes it’s helpful – you asked on Facebook for tips for movies, books podcasts, so…

Yeah, I took a lot of the suggestions actually! I watched one series called „Big Mouth“ on Netflix, hilarious! It’s a cartoon about these teenagers who are going to adolescence and are dealing with hormones and not understanding them and being awkward – it’s simply hilarious! That’s been my favorite on the tour, and then a lot of my favorite comedians or some of the voices of the cartoon characters – so definitely check out „Big Mouth“! The other one I watched was „Mindhunter“, which is kind of a story about the process of the FBI’s behavioral science program to understand serial killers. And it’s like before they had the understanding – it’s like they are learning step by step and profiling these serial killers in prisons. It’s been pretty taboo at the time how they portrayed it in the show, because everyone was like „don’t talk to them – why would you give that awful monster attention“… (But that’s how to learn about them) Exactly! So it’s kinda interesting to go back in time and watch in unfold. It had a really cool ending to the show. It wasn’t super exciting at first, it was that kind of a slower build, but it was really good towards the end. And then – what was the other one? (thinking) I got a podcast that I listened to – I’ve always listened to Joe Rogan’s experience podcasts, and then I started listening to this other one. I am pulling it up so I can remember how it’s called (grabs phone): „The New Man“. It’s kind of a podcast for more for men, obviously, but it’s just about being the best you can be. A lot of it is relationship advice, a lot of it is personal advice, just overall well-being and being a better man. So I like listening to that kind of stuff.

Talking about well-being and relationship advice – it’s a good bridge back to the music. Your songs are always really personal, and intimate at some point. How thin is the line between it’s still really close to being too personal and it’s still okay? Do you have troubles to find that balance to know what’s the last step for it to be still okay and the next one would be too much?

That’s a great question. (thoughtful) Because I do struggle with that sometimes, I always have. Music is very personal to me and I found the most power there, the most healing there, most everything – rather than making it so abstract…there are times where we have to turn certain experiences into a little more of a metaphor to protect the situation and the fragility of it sometimes. We’ve done that in some songs like „Salem“ on the album „The Few Not Fleeting“, we’ve turned it into the metaphor of burning a witch, but it was really a personal experience in a group of friends with gossip and personal attacks on people. And then „Sex & Lies“- that was a few different experiences from friends of ours that all got turned into a story that seems singular but was actually a bunch of different stories. But then there’s songs like „Jenny“ where it’s about my sister and I’m probably saying one of the most brutal thing I’ve ever said to anybody – you know, basically saying „kill yourself or fix it“. And I had just gotten to that point where I felt like making that judgment call from song to song and I felt like I was okay with her hearing it, because I thought she needed to hear it, and I felt like I was tired – and so was everyone – of being in the in-between. And it was just like „in yourself, decide – get better or check out. Just do one“. Singers swim sometimes – I hate it. Nobody wants to be on either side, but sometimes you have to evolve or to change or to grow. So yeah, it’s a tricky thing! Sometimes the songs aren’t released right away, you know. „Still in love“ was a song I wrote right at the beginning of my separation, I was going through divorce when I started this record, and that was a really sensitive situation. But the song didn’t get released until maybe a year or a year and a half later from writing that song, so I felt okay with it because I wasn’t still in love when it came out. But at the time when I wrote it, I was – that’s how I was feeling, it’s a snapshot. But by then she had moved on and I had moved on – I felt okay about it. I didn’t feel like I was gonna destroy anyone in a vulnerable spot.

So there was not yet any stepping on someone’s toes with any song?

No, I do get nervous though sometimes. I was always nervous about that song, I was nervous about „Just say when“…My ex even texted me. You know, we talk hardly ever, I mean it’s civil but it just kinda opened, re-opened the wound, I think. She said it was a beautiful song at the end of her text, so it was kind of this bitter sweet thing…

Has there been a song that you wrote and then in the process of the actual writing you were like „nah, that just doesn’t work“ because it’s too close to your feelings or is gonna do something to somebody else?

That analysis usually comes like in the third of fourth re-write of the song, because we write, and re-write and re-write and re-write. So that usually comes later in the process, I try not to be judgmental. In the creative process, it flows a lot better and a lot faster if you do not judge things in the beginning stages. You just let it go. You just try to get the engine started, so judgments are retro-active, they’re the other direction, so we try to reserve judgments towards later in the process when it already had the bones formed and had already had some momentum. And then I’ll get like „okay, maybe we’ll change that word into this word” – even in the song “Jenny”…it could’ve been “Jenna”, which is my sister’s name but that little choice to make it “Jenny” – which is my aunt – made it more of a question to my sister, like “are you gonna turn out like aunt Jenny?”, who ended up in a mental facility and has never come back to reality – she just checked out. Or are you gonna be Jenna? So to say, putting the song into “Jenny”, it had a subtle – but I feel a powerful – effect in my personal message. And so little things like that are sometimes accomplished later in the writing process, but most of the time I’ve always been a pretty open person. I get angry almost when people cover up things or bury things because I feel like it’s almost gonna be more painful later than just dealing with a little bit of pain now and being real and as humans trying to learn. A lot of times people don’t learn because we hide everything rather than showing the world “hey, this is what’s fucked up” or “this is what I struggle with or been through”, and then we start figuring things out.

So, you’ve been nominated for three Grammys – where have you been when you got those amazing news?

We were in the van, all of us were asleep. And we slept all night driving, we’re exhausted, and Mark our guitar player got the phone call and his voice started escalating in excitement and shock. I basically just heard Mark’s side of the conversation, which was “Really? (silence) Are you serious? (silence) No way! That’s amazing!” (Laughs). I just heard those things and I was like “okay…?” – I started waking up thinking we got good news about something but I had no idea what. Then I found out and then I went back to sleep because I was so tired (laughs). But yeah, it was a huge amazing surprise. It’s been a pretty crazy tour because of that and a lot of other things.

Alright, but how important are nominations like this for your personally, besides the publicity it brings along?

How important are the nominations aside of the publicity? For me personally… I have mixed feelings about awards – sometimes I think they reflect the best song or the best album, a lot of times I don’t think they reflect that you know. If the best song really won, I think you could truly remove all the politics and all the popularity from everything. Then it’d be objective, but that’s not really reality. (But how can you be fully objective with judging a song?) Right. I feel like it is incredibly subjective but I don’t think it’s entirely subjective. And so I think there are two sides to it, totally, and that’s where the popularity kinda plays to the subjective part. In the sense of a bunch of people like it, it’s resonating with them regardless of what you think about it as an artist or whatever. But then at the same time, it’s a tricky, it’s not a clear thing like “that football team won and this one lost”. But then again, it means a lot – I feel so more for the people that have rooted us on from the beginning. To them it’s like a professional validation on the highest level. And to them it’s all their belief in cheering us on is validated. And to me, that means more than anything because it just feels great. It’s amazing. You know, like seeing my dad super excited – that’s pretty cool!

Let’s look ahead a bit more – there’s been this trend in the recent years to record tracks with the support of an orchestra. So, when are you next?

(laughs) Man, I don’t know. We did have a lot of strings that we recorded on “Fade in / Fade out” at the end of our record, and then we had some on “Just say when” – we did double it a bit but it wasn’t a full orchestra or anything like that. But I mean, I feel like there is something very powerful about the classic nature of stringed instruments, they elicit a very emotive response that is almost hardwired into us at this point. So I think it does something powerful but I personally don’t feel inspired to go the “whole orchestra” direction, but I like incorporating strings when it has its place. (Also in live shows?) Yeah, yeah, maybe one day. It’s just one of those corners that we – nah, I shouldn’t phrase it like this. It’s more of an unnecessary thing at this point with how tight we are with space and time and the money and all that stuff, so…Maybe one day though.

The hard work is done, now let’s turn to the funny questions!
Thinking of Christmas, what’s been the worst present that you ever received?

Worst? (Or the most hilarious…) (laughs) The worst present I’ve ever received was socks… (The classic…) Yeah, socks – and the funniest present I’ve ever received was probably at a gift exchange and I think I got like…man what was it…I can’t remember…I got a really funny one one year (thinks). Well, I do remember one that I gave and it was an underwear-hat. I just took a pair of my underwear, tighty whities, and superglued a hat-build to it. And put a logo on the crotch and you wear it on the head, like a little underwear-hat. (Are you always that creative with presents?) Ah, no. Not always (smirks)

Now I’ll tell you always two words, and you choose one – but you do not need to explain your decision!

Chocolate or ice cream? Uuuh. (silence) Chocolate!
Cassette tapes or MPs? (laughs) MP3 though it depends on if it’s for actual listening or for ease of use, but yeah, I guess MP3.
Fake or real Christmas tree? Real I guess. I’m gonna go and get one with my girlfriend when I get home. It’s kind of annoying to have the real one but it’s the real thing! It’s worth that little bit of extra effort for Christmas I think.

Are you actually someone who easily gets into Christmas spirits?

Yes, I love Christmas. (big smile)

Last but not least: Which question have you always wanted to be asked but never have been?

(silence) Never really thought about it (laughs). I guess “What’s your belief on existence”… (so, what’s the answer then?) God…I think it’s a question that I can’t really answer with any kind of definitive Truth with a capital T, but I think the more I try to answer the question, the more I feel like reality is more of a clear validation of truth than logic. But sometimes logic can get you there better. So just because something is logical it does not mean it’s true. But logic has the power to supersede feelings that are illusions about reality and so when you use it as a tool rather than being a slave of logic, and you use reality as a feedback mechanism where you feel truth moment to moment, then I feel like you can kinda find that – it’s almost like a currant. And I feel like it experiences more about the currant and finding those little ones, like the flow along the way. So the biggest thing I’ve learned is that the ideas and reality are not the same thing but they influence each other. And yeah, so they go from there. And then it gets way more complicated.

Carina Ullmann

Carina Ullmann

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