There’s the air of the inevitable about John J Presley. His fuzzy, yet refined form of garage blues has been compared with Nick Cave and Jack White, while his last two singles – both released by Killing Moon Records – wouldn’t sound out of place being pounded out by The Black Keys. For a man without an album he’s got a fairly impressive set at his disposal – think quality, not quantity – that can be found online in all the usual places. Let’s face it, he’s even called Presley. I caught up with him holding up in Highbury, London, shortly after he’d returned from supporting the Jim Jones Revue on their farewell tour, on the day his latest single, Honeybee, was released.
How’s Honeybee going? It’s great single, have you heard how it’s doing after being released this morning – are you monitoring all the sales charts?
Ha, glad you like it, but I don’t get involved in all that kind of thing. I just sit back and ignore it,really. I have no idea how it goes, I see a few things on social media but that’s about it.
How did you come to release Honeybee after Left? Is this part of a grand plan leading up to an album?
Honeybee was just my favourite song at the time. It just seemed to sit quite well in a recording session, it had a nice groove to it – it sounded single-ish. We hope to get an album out after putting the singles out on Killing Moon – we’re just waiting for someone to offer us a home for the record.
So what’s the relationship with Killing Moon?
We’re just releasing these two singles with Killing Moon and then we’re hoping to find a home for the album somewhere else. We got involved with them as it was a friendship, really. Quite natural. We wanted to put out a singe and they wanted to put it out.
You’ve just returned from supporting the Jim Jones Revue on their farewell tour, how was that?
That was a beautiful tour, the European part was just magical. Long old drives through the Spanish hills and up through Bilbao, France, Italy. It was amazing … it was gorgeous … loved it. A great three weeks.
How did you find playing those kind of venues? The Forum gig must have been one of the biggest of their careers, have you ever played similar venues before?
I have, not to the same extent as in every night, but I have played in front of that many people before. But yeh, it’s amazing how much you don’t see from the stage. It’s almost more intimidating to play a smaller gig when the audience is right in front of you and they can see you and they’re breathing down your neck. But they were beautiful shows, some of the venues in Europe were magical.
Speaking of bigger shows, how was Reading? There’s a video online of you playing a sun-soaked set on the BBC Introducing stage.
That was a strange situation. It was light. You’re used to playing gigs in the dark with spotlights on you and having a nice soundcheck, then you’re put on this forum where you’re being filmed and it’s daytime. It was quite a strange situation, but you just kind of melt into your songs.
You’ve been compared with Jack White, The Black Keys, Nick Cave, Tom Waits … these are all massively successful musicians. Jack White headlined Glastonbury this year, The Black Keys will play the O2 next year: it’s not impossible to think you could be playing gigs of a similar size in future. Are you prepared for that, is that something you’re looking for?
Everything happens very gradually and very slowly, it’s almost not such a big leap to play such venues and such places. You play in front of a 100 people, 200, 300 and 400 and it kind of builds up gradually over the gigs. It’s hard to make any plans because next week I could be on tour, I just don’t know, it can be that short notice sometimes. I can’t see too far into the future with music, I just try to focus on what I’m doing at the time, taking every gig as it comes.
But the O2 wouldn’t put the fear of god into you?
No it wouldn’t. I do get quite nervous before I play – only apprehension – but as soon as you’re on stage, you could be playing anywhere. It’s quite strange how a big stage seems like a small stage, it’s quite an easy experience, weirdly. It’s easier to play bigger venues, the sound is better with more time to prepare – you get so much confidence from the sound on stage. You try not to think too far into the future but, yeh, hahah, that would be good.
Any plans to tour in 2015?
Yeh, I think we have plans for a UK tour in February 2015 and then possibly a European tour in spring.
Any venues lined up?
It’s all in motion at the moment with the agents, but definitely some gigs in the UK and then on to Europe with bit of luck. And then festivals as well, of course.
What’s the deal with the band? Is it a solid lineup? do they help with the song writing or are you a dictatorship?
Haha, yeh, completely dictator. Like James Brown. It is a steady band, we do bring other people in every once and a while when someone can’t play a gig, but credit where credit is due, even in the writing process if somebody has an influence then of course they’ll be credited, but for the most part I’ll write it.
So first and foremost it’s your band?
Yes. The gig will always be me and someone else, sometimes I play solo, so yeh.
Do all your songs come to you in the same way?
Sometimes I can walk down the street and something pops into your head. It’s beautiful when that happens, you just want to grab a piece of paper and scribble it down as quickly as possible, but for the most part it’s guitar- or keys-based, just riffs. Then I’ll have a lyric book and jot lyrics down. That’s kind of a constant thing, I’m always jotting lyrics. Sometime you have weeks when you don’t come up with anything and that’s a little scary and then, all of a sudden, you’ll have three in one day. It’s quite weird.
You’ve said that you hate playing other people’s music, but is there one album or song you wish you’d wrote?
Hmmmm, oh god … one song? I’ve actually started doing a cover, Heartattack and Vine by Tom Waits. I kind of wish I’d wrote that … the lyrics on that, I like that.
So Heartattack and Vine, is that going to be released or something held for gigs?
Probably just bring it out at a few gigs.
You’re based in Highbury, London, but you come from Birmingham, is that a big bit part of your identity?
Not so much anymore, I’ve lived in London for almost two years now. Birmingham will always have a part in my life, but I felt like I’d reached the point of having to leave. It was a healthy move. You can make music wherever you are.
You said you’re looking to get someone to sign up for the album? Is this the plan for next year?
I hope to get it done within in the next six months, or at least down and recorded. That would be beautiful. Songs are all there, they just need to be put down in a nice studio with a nice producer.
Any producers in mind?
Haha, I have a few in mind, actually, I don’t know if they’ll have me! But yeh, I’d like to work with Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds, that would be nice, or Liam Watson of Toe Rag.
Interview by Craig Scott. Photographs by Rachel Lipsitz. October 2014 for Rockshot.