The Mojo Fins – Interview – 2014

I was always intrigued by the Mojo Fins, ever since they first sprung on the Brighton guitar scene in the early noughties, their name to me an attractive proposition that suggested something akin to the 'blues' or roots music… Of course, the definition of mojo pertains to having 'charm' or casting a 'spell', and although this usually refers to sexual attraction, it is actually a byword for almost anything  – 'I got my mojo working…" As it happens they have almost next to nothing to do with the blues, but in terms of musical ability they definitely have their mojo on, as heard on the recent 'Circa' album, their third long player in a career that has encompassed major tragedy along the way…

"It's got a dull origin," claims Stephen Brett, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist with the band, "but at the time Jeff Buckley's 'Grace' was everywhere, and there's a track on there called Mojo Pin. His music caught the imagination of many people, and at the time I was obsessed by who he was and his music."

Stephen has just become a father, and inevitably the conversation takes a detour down that route as it is obviously something that now demands much of his time… "He's adorable, I love it, and I feel a complete addiction to him," he beams.

Back to 'Circa' though, an excellent album that sees the 'Fins come to musical fruition, a ripening of their sound that has always had a melancholy meets euphoric dichotomy. With the help once again of the Manic Street Preachers producer Dave Eringa (he produced their previous album as well as as the four-track 'Spirit EP') they have fashioned their best yet, and Stephen is pleased with it. "There is no point persisting with something unless you feel you are getting better or pushing things in a different direction, and I think we did both of those things. So, yes, I am proud of it."

Along with original members Dave Russell on drums, Steve Hoile on bass and keyboards and 2007 recruit Adam Luke Atkins (guitar), they once again decamped to the legendary Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales, apparently the world's first residential studio (1965) and subsequent home to dozens of hit records by the likes of Queen, Oasis, Black Grape, Stone Roses, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Maccabees and many many others. "It's a pretty unassuming place, it's not like a London studio equivalent, say like Abbey Road. It's built out of a farmhouse, and it's still a working farm. Kingsley (who owns it) goes to attend his cows and comes in to regale us with stories and tales of excess… he'll pop up in the middle of a take and let you know what he thinks! He's a complete character, an amazing guy. But that suits us, you're not afraid to put your cup of tea down somewhere you shouldn't…" Was it different or easier this time around? "In purely relationship terms we felt like family. It was the third time we had been at Rockfield with Dave. Bearing in mind it doesn't take very long to feel comfortable with him; he puts you at ease quickly, and he's an incredibly open person, an amazingly caring person and a talented person. But he's also a complete goofball who’s prepared to have a laugh which makes things fun.
"Creatively, it was only different in as much we were trying to make a different sounding record. The second record ('Shake The Darkness') we put out was more conventional in its set up, and a lot of it was tracked live. Although some of the songs on 'Circa' fall into that mould, a lot of it is more of a studio construction. This time around it was as much about looking for qualities of sounds as it was about performances and therefore we felt we were taking more of a lead. The first time around he was the expert in capturing guitars and drums and introducing us to what a recording studio and producer could bring to an album.”
It's a long way from the first two track handmade demos that the band produced back in 2003 and 2004, when they also featured Jon Chandler, another childhood friend of the other members, all of whom are Brighton born and bred. Jon was also a songwriter and guitarist, like his best friend Stephen, and together they shaped the bands sound until his tragic death in 2007.

"We formed properly not long before 2003, although for a long time it was just Jon and I. Before the first CD I still remember walking around town with guitars on our backs and going in venues and asking for gigs. We didn't have any recorded music then, and we were thinking we could play a couple of songs there and then; this is what we are like, and it worked! We got gigs at The Lift (now The Hope), the guy who ran it (the semi-legendary American Jeff aka Disatronaut) took a shine to us and we ended up doing monthly gigs there. He even put our names on posters before we had even agreed that we could do it!" As someone heavily involved with music bookings I tell Stephen that not once in my life has anybody just turned up with their instruments and auditioned on the spot… "People should do that, it worked for us!" he laughs.

"Jon and I had been friends for a long time before that; I got to know Jon through my brother, and Dave through Jon. We all went to the same secondary school, we had a musical connection. Initially it was jamming together with a couple of acoustics, and we ended up writing a lot of songs together – we used to kid ourselves we would be the next Lennon & McCartney!" However, thoughts of further education flickered into view and Stephen ended up going to Queen’s University Belfast for four years ("I did a lot of playing guitar…")  thereby temporarily ending his musical relationship with Jon. "My parents are Irish, and I always thought I would settle there. But it just so happened that when I came back to Brighton , there was the opportunity to re-connect with Jon and making music became quite realistic."

The band got into gear and although progress was slow at first they eventually signed a deal with Amazon Records, with a view to releasing an album, but leading off with the single 'Piñata Face', written by Jon. But tragedy struck on 7 May, 2007, one week before the release of that single. Jon, along with five others, died in a horrific motorway accident that made national news, and which still resonates strongly to this day. As well as Jon, two fellow musicians and two doctors died that night, as well as the driver of the rescue vehicle they were travelling home in (they were returning from a stag party when their minibus broke down).

"I don't think you can remove the fact you’re best friends with somebody. The initial things you feel aren't to do with a musical relationship. When I was told, I fell against a door; that is one of the few memories I have of that time. You have to start unpicking that over time to try and make sense of it… do you ever make sense of it? I'm not sure you can ever make sense of it. I think what complicated that whole period was that he was part of my life beyond being my best friend. There was a musical relationship as well that gave the story legs, if you like. It was a hugely publicised story at the time, which flung us into that spotlight. It became surreal; you end up talking about someone as a fantastic musician, and what happens is that after many years when you reflect on that and start to unpick it I realised I held it together in only a surreal sense and I didn't truly connect that with the fact he'd gone. When the media attention disappears, I guess you start to come to terms with the fact that the person you know and love just isn't there, beyond music, and that is what you are left with.

"And then you come back around again and think it was great that Jon was such a fantastic musician and I had that relationship with him because you can still remember him in that sense too, beyond the personal. There is music out there that he created that still exists.. .And you and I are talking about him now… they are all positives.

"I can't make sense of it even now, but what you can make sense of was that he was a dear friend and talented musician, and there will always be brilliant memories, and if music helps you connect with that, then I am very fortunate to have had a very special relationship with him on that level.  You can think about him, or sit and play Pinata Face on the guitar, which is what I do sometimes."

With the death of one of their members, it could easily have been the end of The Mojo Fins, and for while no one was sure what would happen next… "Nothing happened for a while, people just congregated in the pub on a regular basis to talk and be together. I don't think any decisions were made, but the fact we enjoyed making music together didn't go away. We probably decided to book a rehearsal and make some music, and I guess I started writing songs again, but I didn't want to make it with anyone else (other than the band), and we all felt similarly… that is how we found our way back in to playing.
"Brighton Live (the now defect annual week long celebration of Brighton music)  got in contact to ask the band if they would like to do a gig… "They asked us to headline one of their shows in September of 2007, which we wanted to do as some sort of tribute or milestone. We asked Adam to join us for it – he'd been in a band called Neenor, whose singer had died in the accident (Rohan Chadwick) – but we didn't know if it was going to be a one-off at the time…It is all a bit of a blur….
They played the gig, and with the backing of Amazon Records, decided to keep the name and here they are today (May 2014), still going strong and with their best work to date about to be released, a tour de force from a band that rarely plays live nowadays, but which seems to excel in the studio, an environment that Stephen is more comfortable in, reflective of the bands character. From the opener 'Longwave Reach’ to the closer ‘Hands of Flashing Light’, it's an album that ebbs and flows with fluid dynamism; euphoric rushes crystallise with delicate fragility, Stephen's voice a powerful, yet controlled instrument that is able to communicate the meaning of his intelligent lyrics with acute clarity. But it's a band effort all the way; Dave Russell's drums inventive throughout, Hoile's keyboards and synths providing appropriate light, space and texture, and the guitars of Brett and Luke-Atkins (who provides his first ever song for the band in the form of the nostalgic 'Grass') veering from the gently fingerpicked to the abrasive. Never forced, nor over thought, 'Circa' is the sound of the distilled essence of a band who can't help but speak from the heart. "The song (and lead single from the album) 'Introverts' is based on a book by Susan Cain – 'Quiet: The Hidden Power of Introverts, in a World That Can't Stop Talking'. The book resonated with me, and I saw her give a talk at the Brighton edition of TEDx. Her theory revolves around the idea that western civilisations are geared up to support an extrovert outlook and temperament, from school onwards, where often the person who shouts loudest, gets heard. Her book suggests that as a result we may be missing some important ideas."

On 'Circa', The Mojo Fins aren't shouting from the rooftops, but are nevertheless making themselves heard, clear and with the utmost compassion and love. They have found their mojo.
Jeff Hemmings