Ella Guru are Liverpool-based purveyors of some of the softest, most sweetly melodic and fragile music you are likely to hear this year. Pennyblackmusic caught up with the band’s leader and lead singer, John Yates, just before the release of their first single, 'Park Lake Speakers', in October 2004.

PB : Hello. Can you tell us what you are up to now?

JY : We’ve got one date lined up. [laughs] Oh yeah, that’s loads, isn’t it? It’s at the Union Chapel. We’re looking forward to that one. I guess we’ll do some more dates once the single’s out. Sorry, I’ve had three hours sleep, and I’m all bunged up and all sinus-y, hurt-y [laughs]. We’ve just made a video for our first single, which we’re not really in. Which was my choice. It’s beautiful – it’s just some black and white film. It’s shot in Brighton. It’s some old bag-man with all his worldly possessions, going round Brighton, coming across different people.

PB : Is that something the band got involved in?

JY : What happened was we gave that song to a guy our manager knows. He’s done quite a few videos. I was happy just to give the song to someone and see what they interpret from the song. I was more than pleased with the script. I just like other people getting ideas from the songs, because we have to paint pictures in people’s heads – it might be something they relate to, or… I don’t know, it throws up ideas in people’s heads.

This guy came up with the idea of this bag-man, people feel sorry for tramps on the street, I guess, and, like, think “poor them”. This video paints it in a way that, by the end, you see he’s actually better off than everyone else. He’s kind of happy there with all his memories and his possessions in bags and stuff. You see all the world going on round him, crazily as it does. And in the end it might look quite sad but it’s not really. It looks beautiful, and we’re just in one scene, in the background, sitting outside a pub. I’d quite like to stick with cameos, really. It makes it easier to do videos. Bands always go on about, “we hate doing videos”. I think it’s a matter of… I don’t know, if you’ve got the feeling to do it, it’s working it the way that you’d want to do it. Which we’re lucky enough to be able to do.

PB : So you won’t be doing any of the classic band-in-the-studio, cameras hovering above, videos?

JY : Well, no, not really. I mean, in the studio that’s more a natural environment. Where I have a problem with is set-up environments where the band are miming to the song. That seems to be the blueprint for a video by a band. I never get that. Everytime I see one of them it’s, “no way am I doing that”. You often feel left down by loads of bands that you might quite like, and then you see the video. And you know they don’t like it either, but they’ve gone along with it. You know they’ll never want to see it on the telly, because it’s like, “Oh, we hate that video!” It’s like a short film, the video we’ve done. And I want to get to a point where… it’d be nice to do a series of these short films. It’s the kind of thing that I’d quite like to be on telly, ‘cos we’re not in it, and it deserves to be shown, ‘cos it’s a quality little film.

PB : You’re quite interested in, to use marketing-speak, the complete audio-visual experience, then?

JY : Yeah, well, this bit’s new to us. It’s our first video, from scratch doing something we want to do.

PB : Is that ['Park Lake Speakers'] the first single proper after last year’s EP ['Three Songs From Liverpool']?

JY : Um, yeah. We released a limited edition 7” ['Augustus Golden'] around the time of our debut album ['The First Album']a few weeks ago, which was limited to 500 copies.

PB : How have you found the reaction to the album from the press and the public?

JY : The reaction so far’s been amazing, just really positive as I’d hoped it would be. We made something that we’re proud of and there’s no way I’d want it to be anything less than that. It’s early days and everything, but we’ve had quite a few reviews and they all seem to be amazing.

PB : How long were you working on it?

JY : To be honest, I don’t know how most bands work when they sign a deal and stuff, but I guess when bigger bands do that they have more money thrown at them, and have more time. Maybe to get it wrong as well. It was quite a condensed time, something like three months, but that was solid working. Going in there, it was like you want to work the hardest you’ve ever worked because it’s just something that you love doing, you know. I don’t know. It’s nice to go into a job like that, that you really want to be getting up for every morning and going in and carrying on, doing what you’re doing. So it was about three months, I guess, and then there was a massive delay before it was released. It’s been waiting most of this year, and now it’s finally out.

PB : One of the reviews I’ve read described you as a ‘late starter’ to music. Is that true?

JY : No, not really [laughs]. I don’t know who I said that to. I started playing piano when I was about seven, and then I started playing stuff like the clarinet. These are like kids’ lessons, and stuff, and you carry on until you’re about 17 and then you go, “No! I don’t want to be taught any more!” But guitar was the instrument that you pick up in your teens. It’s a nice solitary kind of instrument – you can sit down and actually play songs. So I’m playing that all the time, mainly because I haven’t got a piano in the house.

As far as bands go, that’s why it was kind of a late starter, really. Because I’ve played with some of the people in the band for a few years, just, quietly, you know. It’s just a period since about three years ago, when I said, “right, I’m going to do this”. I don’t care about the traditional band set-up and if it’s going to be this amount of people, let it be that. I just wanted to play with different people who play different instruments.

PB : Was it something that grew organically, or did you pick out the instruments you wanted?

JY : I kind of had this vision in my head, and then things would happen where we’d then come across the right people. I’d be, like, “that’s exactly what I’m looking for, that’s exactly what I’m looking for.” The group’s made up of me, Nick and Chris who’ve been playing together for a few years. Then Scott and Bob came along on pedal steel and double bass, and they’ve known each other since they were really young. Likewise Nick and Kate, they went to school together. The first single, the EP, was our demo, really – it was just us going into the studio with these people as we got them along the way. It became the single, eventually.

PB : How long has the band as an eight-piece been going together?

JY : About two and a half years, which has just flown by, really. You know, constantly playing, every week doing stuff. Stuff’s been happening all the time – we did our first gig and we got our management through that, and the management set up a label for us, and we’re happy with that.

PB : Is the label quite important to you?

JY : Yeah, that’s what our manager was saying, and that’s the way I’d like it to be. We’re the only band on Banana. We are Banana Records. It’s just a nice thing to be. We’re not just one of a roster of bands. It being an independent company and us being close to the people that are running it makes it so much easier than other bands. I’ve not been in any, but I’ve heard tales of bad relationships with companies. At least we have a communicative relationship, a good one where they listen to us.

PB : As far as your sound goes, everybody compares you to Low, Wilco and other Americana. Is that something you listen to, or had in your mind?

JY : It kind of is. I’ve listened to them in the past, but I don’t sit and listen to any of them now. Low are great, I love all their harmonies and stuff. They’ve got some beautiful songs. These claims get made, but we’re not aiming to sound like any of these bands. I’d be happy to play with them, but this kind of scene that goes on, around Americana, I don’t know… We’re British [laughs], we’re not trying to be Americans – they’ll say that because we’ve got a pedal steel, I think. But we use pedal steel in a way that’s not country anyway. It’s just a beautiful orchestral instrument. That’s what I think it is. But that scene that you’re talking about. It’s really expanding and encompassing more bands – if anyone even hints at it, it’s like, “Right, they’re Americana”. People need to put labels on things.

PB : But there aren’t many other British bands that sound like you.

JY : I guess that’s what it is, and I understand, I guess. We could be called a lot worse than that.

PB : Do you have any current favourite listening?

JY : Um… It’s hard to get really passionate about much new stuff, especially when there’s so much old stuff. I like really good songwriters, you know, like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Burt Bacharach. Just songs, you know, we’re a real song-based band. That’s what the most important thing is, rather than just being a band. That usually comes second-best in a lot of bands, second to what they’re trying to do “as a band”. I’m not going to mention names, I’m not going to get into a slanging match. [laughs] I could do…

PB : Three months is quite a short time in which to make such an accomplished record. Do you have to polish the music a lot to get it right, or was that something that came naturally?

JY : That’s something that came naturally. It’s quite an ambitious project that we did in that kind of time, but I like really good arrangements, so the natural thing comes with me bringing songs into rehearsals. That’s like a real natural process of everyone playing together. You just keep playing songs over weeks and weeks and they just develop and end up sounding great. And when you get to do an album you get a chance to look at arrangements and see what’s needed. That’s when you get the clarinet and piano coming in, after the band, and stuff. It’s something that I want to develop and carry on developing for the next album. There’s some really good arrangements. Rather than your guitar band sticking strings over the top of their middle eight, to make it glorious at the end. I want to make it real and glorious, you know? Make it beautiful.

PB : Do you come in with the arrangements to the rehearsals? How much of a say do the band have?

JY : No, I’m not strict like that. I know what I want but I’m not demanding in that way. I’m lucky because I’ve got people like Scott playing steel, and, just everyone really. See, after a while of playing together it becomes easier doing that, you know. People know where to play, and what to play and what not to play. And we’ll just go through stuff in rehearsal. Not taking it apart in a real, like… It’s just a really natural thing when we’re all playing together and the song just becomes the most important thing.

PB : How about your name – is it a Beefheart influence ['Ella Guru' is a Captain Beefheart album track] or is it do with the Stuckist artist Ella Guru ?

JY : Oh, no, it’s the Beefheart. Yeah, we found out afterwards that there’s the artist, who we need to speak to at some point, actually. I did see on her website, ages ago, that “we happily co-exist under the same name”, which was very nice of her, rather than going, “they’ve stolen my name”, or something. It’s not her name. We’ve both taken it from Captain Beefheart.

PB : What will you be getting up to over the next few months ? You talked about a new album.

JY : Well, this one’s just come out [laughs]. Although it’s been a while since we made it, and it’s actually about a year ago to the day since we went in to record it. I guess we’ll just let it take its natural progression. That’s been the way of it so far. We’ve not had massive plans other than playing the music. That’s what we want to do, play it to people. We just like playing live. Just going and playing music to people, and I think the crowd get as much out of it as we do, when the gig’s really good and it’s brilliant ‘cos we’ll feed off that and they feed off us. It’s breaking down the barriers between the band and the audience, rather than it just being the band up there that you’re supposed to worship, you know. It’s a much more close-knit thing. It’s just, either play or listen to these songs.

PB : Thank you.










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