St Leonards-on-Sea | On November 25th 2021 Justin Welch his phone rang. The manager of The Jesus and Mary Chain asked if he was free to join the Darklands tour. With the next gig on the following day. The former Elastica – and current Piroshka – drummer didn’t hesitate for a second: ‘I always believed I was going to be asked to join them one day’. He prepared for the set while on his way to Copenhagen. ‘I have been a fan for years and have always played in noisy guitar indie pop bands. The Mary Chain’s sound was at the heart of all of them.’
Hester Aalberts | Pictures: Courtesy of Justin Welch, MEW, Julian Hayr, Mel Butler & Scott von Ryper
Welcome to The Jesus and Mary Chain! How were the first nine months for you?
So far it is been great! I am really enjoying it. We have played some fantastic shows to wonderful audiences. Mary Chain fans are really loyal. It is almost like they have this small army following them around. The other night in Glasgow the mosh pit consisted of mostly young kids. The band is clearly spawning a new generation of fans as well! And there is still a lot of love for The Jesus and Mary Chain. Having said all that, I am not going to pretend it has been easy. I am aware that I am following in the footsteps of a long line of great Mary Chain drummers, so I have a reputation to uphold.
You suddenly had to step in, due to the abrupt departure of Brian Young. How did you manage to prepare in time?
Well, I didn’t really have any time to prepare. I got the call and then I was packing my suitcase to catch the next flight to Copenhagen the following morning. I was sent a setlist with about twenty-four songs on it, ten of which were from the Darklands album. I just sat with my headphones on, making notes and watching a ton of YouTube videos, then making more notes and then more notes again. This was all while I was sitting in the train heading to the airport and then on the plane.
Copenhagen is a bit of a special place for me. I have been in a few crazy situations in that city. I did a similar thing with Suede a few years ago. Simon, their drummer, was ill with TB so I stepped in for a couple of shows. Tivoli Gardens and Vaga, both massive shows and both without much preparation.
Anyway, when I arrived there, the JAMC-management had booked a rehearsal room for us to have a quick run through to see what would work and what wouldn’t. But to be honest, it felt like the band where still in shock after Brian’s midtour exit and weren’t really up for it. So I just changed my notes once more and told myself: ‘I am walking into a ring of fire. Whatever happens on stage in next ninety minutes will just have to be what it will be …’. The audience were on fire that night and I enjoyed it. We got away with it and off to a good start, I think.
According to previous drummers it requires a skilled drummer to bring Darklands to a good end: it was recorded with a drum machine and humanly almost impossible to reproduce.
In some ways they would be right in saying that. Only this band are in a very different place to when they wrote that record. So my feeling is to approach it like many bands do when performing an album in its entirety: don’t worry if it is not exactly the same, because it will still sound new and fresh if the band are enjoying recreating it. To be honest, I don’t think fans expect it to be exactly the same. Songs evolve over time and people change, feel different and sound different than they did 20, 30, 40 years ago. And so do the listeners. Just because the drums are programmed on the record, to me it does not feel impossible to recreate it live. I have never found playing along to machines that difficult. I learnt to play drums by playing along to programmed stuff. I didn’t know the difference between a live drummer and a drum machine for years. And being a kid in the eighties, everything was programmed. I had a hand-me-down record player of which I would just try and emulate Steven Morris or the Beastie Boys or whoever. I think it put me in good stead for later life, playing to click tracks and to sequencers. In my studio at home I still have a couple of drum machines and an Roland TD30 electric kit.
Knowing the difficulty level you’re faced with, do you get a lot of STOPs by Jim during gigs?
So far not that many, thankfully. Inevitably, I made a few fuckups when I started playing with them and probably will make a few more in time. But I think the band is sounding good right now. And at the end of the day we are human and it’s only music. We occasionally have a Mary Chain moment, but I think people like that feeling of not knowing what you are going to get when you go to a Mary Chain gig.
I remember a Happy Mondays show at Brixton Academy one time. Shaun [Ryder] was so out of it he just didn’t know where he was: ‘Hallelujah Hallelujah!’. Rowetta was lip syncing the words to him to try and get him back in time, but he had no idea what was going on. It was so bad but brilliant at the same time, because we were all in the moment. That’s what makes a memorable show: ‘We were there so who cares’.
What was your first thought when The Mary Chain asked you to join?
‘Fuck! I just got the Mary Chain call!’
I have been a Mary Chain fan for years. I just think if you’re into guitar music you cannot ignore them. At some point in your education you have to listen to the Mary Chain. They have to be on your radar, so to speak. For the most part I have always played in noisy guitar indie/pop bands and the Mary Chain’s sound is at the heart of all of them. Somehow it feels right. I always believed I was going to be asked to join them one day. It was clearly written in the stars.
Your father had a drum kit. Did he teach you how to use it?
Yeah! He purchased a small second hand kit from a friend of the family when I was about ten years old. I remember it being in the spare bedroom. Looking back it was just an excuse for him to reminisce about the sixties, when he once played drums in a band. There were actually two kits: a red Beverly and a blue Olympic, both sparkle finish. Although I didn’t get on with either, unfortunately, and as my dad wasn’t the greatest teacher – he could hardly play himself at the time – they were both sold. My parents said if I practiced they’d look at getting me a kit one day. (Practice on what exactly?). It wasn’t until a year later, when I went to secondary school, that I met a friend called Lee. He had a kit at his nan’s house. That is when I really started showing an interest in drumming. We both used to bunk off school, hang out and play drums all afternoon. His nan didn’t care that we should be in school, and with tea and biscuits on tap it made the perfect practice room. Those afternoons worked out, because I know after all these years Lee is still making a living from drumming and teaching. Funny; we were probably the only two people in that school who did anything musically. And for the record: my dad is a much better player these days. He’s still drumming and loves it.
Was music a big part of your upbringing?
Absolutely. My parents have an extensive record collection. They also have two juke boxes still full of records. Music was and still is a big part of our lives. They’re both big Motown, soul and blues fans, a lot of that kind of stuff. Let’s not forget bands like The Who and The Faces, which were played regularly back then. It was quite a party house at times, so the stereo would be cranked up and family and friends would love it, drinking dancing. Any excuse to turn the music up.
Did you ever have drum lessons?
I was a self-taught drummer for many years. I left home and moved to London at 16 and got a job. For about a year I paid for a weekly one-hour lesson at Drum Tech, run by Francis Seriau. His school was really small back then, nothing like today, with just two practice rooms. The studies were taxing and hard work. After a while I couldn’t really afford them anymore. And I moved to London to have fun: I just wanted to play gigs, so I stopped going. But as soon I started touring, I realized these mentoring and drumming exercises started to come out in my playing. They really helped with my stamina and techniques. Thanks, Francis!
What bands did you listen to in your teenage years?
I was introduced to lot of new music when I started playing gigs around the age of twelve, thirteen. Coming from the Midlands there is a huge Mod and Ska following, so The Specials and The Jam are like gods to most people. These were the type of band we were spoon-fed as kids. Apart from my mate at school there weren’t many drummers around, so I ended up playing in bands that were much older than me. I was playing gigs a couple of times a week. Pubs and Working men’s clubs all that kind of stuff. They were into eighties pop bands and commercial stuff mostly.
I liked some of it, but preferred darker music like Joy Division, New Order, The Simple Minds and Japan. There was a record shop in my home town of Nuneaton called What Records. I discovered, if I saved my school dinner money most days, I could buy records from the bargain bin.
I used to buy all sorts of shit, just because the cover looked okay or the band on the cover might have something to say. One day I bought this record which had a dark blue cover. This particular record – Reel to Reel Cacophony by Simple Minds – was a massive turning point for me. I would play it to death. I guess partly because no one I knew got it like I did, so therefore it was mine for the taking. I discovered new land for the first time.
Musically, everything was coming to a boil in London back then.
Thinking about it, I moved to London at just the right time, when there were loads of musicians around. I moved over there with a couple of musician friends from back home. We rented a one-bed flat in then untrendy Leytonstone, East London. It was full of our music gear: drums, amps … We had two single beds in the bedroom and a single bed in the living room with all our equipment around us as furniture. So you can imagine how cramped it was. It was fun at first, but I soon started to get bored and wanted something more. I had a job at a place called Music Box. They made music for TV programs such as Transmission & Raw Power. The people there were great and took me under their arm, inviting me out to gigs and parties after work. London was a good place to live in the early nineties. Most people you’d meet were in the same boat and looking for something else.
I started answering all the Drummer-wanted ads in the back of the NME & Sounds music papers, hoping to find the same likeminded people to play with. I had no intention of joining most of the bands but found it to be a good way to practice and also a way to get me out of the flat on evenings. I must have gone to loads of these auditions, many of them were at a rehearsal place called the Premises on Hackney Rd. One ad jumped out at me, for a band who’d previously only used a drum machines. They turned out to be a very early version of Suede. I don’t know how many people went to their audition, but they asked me to join and I became their first drummer. Things were starting to simmer. All of a sudden everyone I knew was in a band.
I didn’t stay with Suede for too long, but I knew they had something – something different from the rest of the bands I would being seeing and hearing. My departure from the band was amicable and we are still good friends. They eventually found their drummer with Simon [Gilbert]. When Justine [Frischmann] left, she found me for us to start Elastica.
Spitfire covered a song by Phil King, former member of Lush/Mary Chain. Sheer coincidence or your first link to The Mary Chain?
Hold on … we did, but can’t quite remember what the track was called. I’ll text Jeff, the singer from the band. He’ll know.
That is right! The Ballad Of Jet Harris. It was the B-Side to Minimal Love. I have known Phil way longer than I have known Jim or William. Jim came to a couple of Elastica shows, so he tells me, and also a Lush Roundhouse show I seem to remember. We also have a bunch of mutual friends. We lived in the same area of north London, back in the nineties, so we’d see each other around. I don’t think I met William until he came to a Lush show in LA.
You were part Elastica. How do you look back on these six years?
Those were one of the craziest years of my life and the most fun at the same time. We did so much in such a little amount time, achieving more than most bands could ever dream of. I am so grateful we’re still alive and still friends.
After the split up of Elastica you worked as a drum teacher for almost a decade. Quite a change!
It wasn’t a conscious decision to become a drum tutor at all! After Elastica split, my wife MEW and I moved out of London to Devon. We were skint. The band left me in a lot of debt and I needed to find work. I would do odd maintenance jobs on friends places, painting and decorating. That kind of thing. Then one day a friend asked me to give him a couple of lessons. Being self-taught myself for many years I didn’t really know how to approach it. But I gave it a go and after seeing some good results from my first ever student, I realized I quite enjoyed it. I started to think maybe this could be a good source of income. I could use drum teaching as a means to up my game and finally found myself ready to study the instrument. There was so much I didn’t know, so it was like I was learning to play all over again. Only this time I had a better understanding of what I was doing. An opportunity came up to teach in schools so I took it and it just grew and grew. I must have taught 500 students, maybe more, in those years! I can proudly say a large amount are still playing drums, some for a living.
You were part of the Lush reunion tour in 2015/2016. How do you look back on that?
Interestingly, I was driving some backline gear for Chrissie Hynde to the South Bank when I bumped into Pete Bartlett, the sound engineer, previously the Front Of House engineer for The Mary Chain and Lush. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, so whilst having a catch up he dropped the ‘You know Lush are reforming’-wink! You should call Emma…?’
A couple days later I was on a session at Rack studios for Hip Hop act called Hawk House. I was on a break and had been thinking about what Pete had said to me and decided it was a good time to call her. I don’t think she answered first of all, but called me back soon after. Emma was like Ummm, we don’t know what we’re doing yet, but I will talk to Miki [Berenyi] and Phil [King]’. I said I’d up for it and that was where we left it.
Back in the day, Chris [Acland] was one of my closest friends. We hung out all the time together. We partied, we holidayed and had a great time. We were close and the Lush camp knew it. I think once they’d talked it through, they knew I was the right person. I think Chris would have wanted to mind his seat for him.
Emma called me back and said: ‘We’d love you to do it … ‘. Chris was a very special person and loved by all that knew him. I was honored to be asked. I just hope I did him proud when playing those Lush shows.
Lush singer Miki Berenyi formed Piroshka after the short resurrection of Lush. You are the drummer. How does that work, knowing you’re currently touring with The Mary Chain?
So far the two haven’t clashed. We finished a bunch of dates in the UK in October 21 and it was a couple of weeks after that I got the call to play drums for The Mary Chain. Piroshka have never really been a massive touring band to date. Having said that, I would like to do more dates but it just hasn’t worked out. So for the time being we’ve decided to focus on being an album band until we can make touring work for us. We’ve now released two albums on Bella Union (Brickbat & Love Drips and Gathers) and are currently working on the third. I guess if we come to that bridge we will be able to work it out.
Do tell more about Aircooled, your other band?
Ollie Cherer and I started Aircooled just for a bit of fun during lockdown. Now there is three of us involved. Ollie (Gilroy Mere, Dollboy, ATL), Katherine Wallinger (The Wedding Present) and myself. For live we sometimes have my wife Mew (Elastica) on extra synths and Riz (Future Sound of London) on vocals. For many years I have wanted to put a band together that would work in a similar way to that of the bands I was in when starting out. Most bands I play in now are of a serious level so they can be function properly. They have to have some kind of structure when getting ready to play shows: a week of rehearsals beforehand, play the dates and then that might be the last you see of everyone until next time. With Aircooled, we all live in the same town so it makes it easier than most bands I am involved in to get together and rehearse. I call it my drumming gym. When I am home, we normally rehearse on a Monday night for a couple of hours. It keeps my stamina up, so then hopefully when I get to play with The Mary Chain I will play well and feel good. The album is called St Leopards it is just come out on the great new Label Music Not Dead. It is available to download stream and pressed on very cool orange vinyl for the purists out there. Hopefully you will like it and maybe we will support The Mary Chain some time. Ha!
You are the twelfth drummer of The Mary Chain! This particular role seems to be cursed.
Don’t say that! At least I am not the thirteenth!
What makes you stand out compared to the other drummers? Do you have a particular style? Do you use certain techniques?
I don’t know if it is about techniques or style. I don’t think the Mary Chain are bothered about that too much. What they are interested in is the ability to fit in. The ability to understand what it takes to be in a band, and how get along with what can be seen from the outside as a dysfunctional family. When on stage It is not about me. No one wants to hear me play a drum solo. No one is interested in that, not even me. It is about all of us working together and being on the same page. That will decide if a gig sound and looks great. I think I understand what is needed to fit in. Not just with the band but the whole touring party. And comfortable with that.
The Reids are shy and somewhat to themselves. You seem quite the contrary.
We all need our space on tour and I respect that they do more than the others. You will be surprised to hear I get along with them pretty well. The conversation between us all is more flowing than you might think. Of course I know they have a reputation for being shy and quiet, but you just have to listen. Believe me: they have more to say than most people you will come across in life. One of the best ways to find out if you can get along with someone, and feel comfortable in someone’s company, is to go on a road trip. I think I am right in saying touring is exactly that: a road trip.
Loz [Colbert] compares drumming a gig to running a marathon and keeps in excellent shape. What is it you do to keep fit?
Loz is roughly my age, maybe a couple years older. So I am guessing, like me, he realized we can no longer party and play gigs like we used to and decided at some point to try and keep fit. That way you will be able to stay at the top of your game and run that marathon, as he puts it. Yeah, I too look after myself these days and exercise. I cycle when I can. I also attend a boot camp session, lifting weights on a Sunday morning and swim in the sea opposite my flat. But mostly I walk. My wife and I have two dachshunds, Nico & Lux, and we walk them for miles every day. I am no angel still. I drink and eat what I like and when I like. I never do or stick to a diets. I am just more mindful of the effects it will have on me if I indulge too much.
Touring can be a drag. Lots of time to kill. What routine do you have?
I always have a million and one things to do, so never find touring that much of a drag. Apart from being in airports. I don’t mind the flying itself, but its waiting around that drives me mad. I’m just not patient enough.
What is the JAMC-song you love most?
It is difficult to pick just one, because there are so many great songs. I have always loved Reverence. When that track first came out I used to drum along to it. In a weird way it has a funky groove to it. Not in a Clive Stubberfield way, but more indie rock, I guess. I definitely play it different now to back then. And I cannot ignore the buzz I get when playing songs like Just Like Honey and Some Candy Talking. They are so simple yet brilliant. A recent favorite since coming back into the set has to be Snakedriver. I really get into the heaviness of that groove. That one has to be a big winner for me.
You have a family back in East-Sussex. That must be hard sometimes when you are on tour.
Of course it is hard. If you love someone it is always going to be tough being apart for long periods of time. But we consider ourselves to be the lucky ones. We’ve been married for twenty years now and we’ve survived because we’ve worked it out. We have the key to the secret. My wife has been in bands and she’s been on tour, so she knows what life is like when touring. She knows it is not the constant 24/7 partying that people may believe and it can be pretty mundane at times. I enjoy touring, it is what I do and who I am, but it does not mean I have to be a dick whilst away doing it.
Do you still keep up with new bands and are there particular ones you like to listen to?
Absolutely! Although I buy mostly vinyl that is not guitar based, more rhythm based or music that is a little more chilled, something I may play at home. Simply because I am around guitar music most of the time and my ears need something different. The Four Tet records a good one, The last John Mouse album is worth a listen and if you want noise then I recommend my good friend Darren’s new band, They are called Borrowed Atlas and I played drums on their first single. They’re going to be great. And if you want a reissue recommendation, then check out John Ondolo’s – Hypnotic Guitar. It’s just been rereleased and I love it!
You gained quick JAMC-stardom because of your end-of-gig pic of the crowd. How did you come up with this idea?
I am not sure, really. I used to do it when I played with Lush. The crowd loves seeing what we see. I guess it’s a nice way to say thanks to the crowd for sharing the moment together.
Do you have the ambition to stay with The Mary Chain and deal with the drummer curse once and for all?
Ha! I will stay as long as they will have me. Don’t mention the curse …
Is there anything you would like to share with the fans of The Jesus and Mary Chain??
I think I have shared enough by doing this interview, right? I look forward to seeing some of you at one of our next shows. Bye for now!