London-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Jack J Hutchinson has announced the February 2022 release of his new album ‘The Hammer Falls’. We caught up with Jack to talk about the album and all the trials and tribulations of recording an album with restrictions in place because of the pandemic. Other subjects discussed include how Jack’s amazing bassist Laz went through quite a change after watching ‘Sons Of Anarchy’, the personal nature of a song very dear to Jack, and exactly what Jack’s post-tour ritual involves. Catch-up with Jack, below.
A lot of musicians are saying that their first gig back knackered them out! How was yours? Did you prepare for it by getting back into shape or was it a case of muscle memory kicking back in?
You know what, I was on this super-healthy kick over the last six months and part of the reason for that was that we did some summer shows and the first one that we did was Loverocks Festival…and we were absolutely fucked after it! My drummer Felipe said to me after that show…” We got about three songs in and I thought that I was going to have a heart attack!”. Because you’re just not used to performing…I’m actually quite sad, I set up my living room for most of last year as a kind of stage; I had my Marshall stacks in there, and I kind of used it as a form of exercise, but it doesn’t really capture the energy that you need to put into a proper live show. So the first couple of shows back were tough, but then I thought, right I need to get back into shape, so it was back to the gym and lots of running. To deliver a proper rock show does take a lot of physical strength…maybe I need to go back to the stuff that I was playing like ten years ago…quiet acoustic stuff! Sit on a stool for the next tour! It’s so much easier…
It’s not just the physicality of performing, as the singer, it’s also about controlling your breathing, etc…
Lockdown gave me a bit of time to really work on my voice, which was something where if I’m being honest, the singing part was an afterthought with a lot of my music previously. I only really became a singer because of bands that I was in previously, the singers were all knobheads; not turning up for gigs, pulling girls before shows, and then not doing the show. So I ended up singing off-the-cuff. During lockdown, I had a few singing lessons so that’s held me in good stead over the course of this tour, and I think that I’ve actually got better vocally as the tour has gone on. Usually in past tours, by this stage, my voice would be shot…I also gave up booze during lockdown so that’s helped. Before I would be in the bar afterward getting hammered with people, now I’m on the Lemsip and honey!
Whereas now the other guys in the band can get hammered on your behalf and not have to worry about their voices?
I think it’s just a case of being more professional, and realising that I have just written an album that is full of high-tempo rock, and you can’t really get away with boozing over the length of a tour. There is an art to it. I haven’t played music like this in quite a while, music that is really full-on, and I need to do justice to these songs consistently night-after-night.
With your name being on everything, there is no hiding place, more responsibility on your shoulders…
I think so, yes. I stupidly named my act “Jack J Hutchinson” after myself, so there is no place to hide, but that’s also a good thing…because I hate naming bands! We actually tried to name this band at one stage, and my bassist Laz came up with a list of something like 15 potential band names, but we just went with my name as it’s so much simpler. But yes, you’re right, if I release something that is not up to scratch then it falls on me. Laz and Felipe don’t get the same slap in the face if we underperform at a gig, it’s always me that gets it. Maybe it helps you up your game if it’s your own name that’s on the cover of everything?!
One thing that is obvious to anyone looking in, is that with the three of you, there is a strong “band” vibe, how long have you all been playing together?
About three years now? And that was kind of fortuitous as I had been through a whole load of different line-ups trying to find a bunch of guys that could back me, and be “Jack J Hutchinson” and going out and doing my show. I wasn’t really looking for musicians as I had been through enough arguments with other guys, and I was thinking about just hiring some people to come in and do the gig, get paid, and go home. Nothing more to it than that. But once I got Felipe onboard initially, we just got on together and became really good friends; we forged a great friendship over our love of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and then Felipe introduced me to Laz. When I first met Laz he was very prim and proper, he looked very young, had spiked gelled hair, and his website had a picture of him in a blue suit, so I thought that maybe it might not be the right vibe. But I met him at a point where I had been binge-watching ‘Sons Of Anarchy’, so he went on tour with me and he was like “I’m not going to spend any money on this tour, I’m saving all my money…”, but then he blew all his earnings on tattoos, and shaved his hair into the mohawk that he has now…and transformed himself into this scary-looking biker!
A fantastic pair of musicians to have alongside you…
Lovely guys, two of the best musicians that I’ve ever played with, and it’s such a relief when you have a good band behind you because you are not pulling it all together yourself. With some of my other acts, I felt that I was having to keep one eye on the rest of them to pull it together, but with these guys, I can just get on with my own thing of being the frontman, which is a relief…and a lot of fun. It’s a monstrous sound that they create, they’ve played in bands together for a long time, they’ve played together for maybe five or six years? They just got what I was about immediately, they got the vibe. If you are lucky enough to get two guys who get what you are looking for, and they are also cool guys and you want to hang out, then you’ve really struck gold.
You touched on your vocals earlier, the new single ‘Straight To Hell’ puts your voice through the wringer, especially those high notes at the beginning!
Yes, rather stupidly we’ve decided to do ‘Straight To Hell’ as the first track in the set! If you were backstage before the show you would see me doing all these vocal warm-ups to try and get into shape to hit that first line which is so hard! When I was a kid I was always mucking around, playing pranks with my mates, and I always did impressions of people, and it’s almost like that with the vocals. It’s almost like adopting different voices, I have them, I’ve used them in the past in the studio, but putting them into an outward-facing live setting…that was initially quite tricky. The producer on my current album, Josiah J Manning, was quite good at coaxing better vocal takes out of me, as was Josh Norton-Cox who also produced the album, he was fantastic and said “Well you have that voice, so you don’t need to just use it as the backing vocal, you can have that as the main chorus voice”. So this tour has been a challenge vocally as I’m singing in a different way, but I think that it’s worked really well.
It certainly comes as a shock to anyone not expecting it straight away…
I just get Laz to kick me in the balls as we are walking out!
Ouch! Will you keep it in the opening number slot or will you move it to later in the set?
I think I’ll keep it as the opener. I like the challenge. I like that we do three heavy-hitters at the start of the set, we actually do the opening three tracks on the new album, we segue from ‘Straight To Hell’ into ‘The Hammer Falls’, and then ‘Down By The River’. They are three quite different songs, and very vocally different, the problem is if you begin with easy songs, then an hour in, when you’ve been jumping around like a lunatic, you’re not going to be wanting to sing the difficult one as if you were Axl Rose!
One of the common threads that I keep picking up on at the minute is that musicians like yourself are not only glad to be back out there working, but also are able to give work again to album sleeve designers, poster designers, t-shirt designers, etc, keeping the wheels turning…
Yes, the guy that did the video for ‘Call Of The Wild’, Neil Collins, does a lot of music videos, but he’s also a wedding photographer, so that means he couldn’t work at all for a large portion of last year. So he kind of had to transform his business. We have a new video coming out in January – just before the album is released – that is directed by Kris Barras, THE Kris Barras, who is obviously better known as being a badass tattooed guitar player that makes great music, but he has a sideline now making music videos. So that was a lot of fun working with Kris.
I was really aware last year that it’s not just the musicians that were screwed, we have a lot of friends in the industry; sound engineers, lighting engineers, producers, mixers, roadies, merch guys, and they didn’t have an income for a long period of time. And like you said, that’s been part of the joy of being back out on the road, I’ve talked to a lot of the staff in different venues around the country, and they are so relieved just to be open again, and have live music back on. It’s been a lot of fun, but also quite emotional.
For so many people in the industry, it must have been a real worry that the grassroots scene would not return…
Well, Felipe went back to Brazil. He lost all his work and income from us, and we were at the beginning of a pretty hefty twelve months of touring when the pandemic hit, the number of gigs that I had scheduled for 2020 was insane! We were supposed to be going back to Brazil, we had gigs in France, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, we were in discussions about touring Holland, and all of that went, it was pretty heartbreaking, but we knew that there was a bigger picture here, so we just had to suck it up and deal with it. At the start of lockdown, I was doing these Saturday evening live gigs on Facebook with a tip jar kind of thing, and I was giving all that money to Felipe and Laz to tide them over because everyone just thought that the lockdown would only last three or four months. But once it became obvious that it was going to be more than a few months, Felipe went back to Brazil and I thought that was the end of my band. We rescheduled a lot of those gigs, and then we went back into lockdown and they all had to be cancelled again and I thought…” Oh god, maybe I should just get an online job, or even a job with Amazon!”, although me delivering parcels looking like this would be quite intimidating…people calling the police because Charles Manson has arrived at their door!
We have managed to survive though, and we had a bit of a moment at the Newcastle show when we had managed to get to eleven dates in, and we thought: how the hell have we done that?! We don’t tend to pat ourselves on the back, I think that’s a bit naff, but I said to the lads that we could be proud of what we had achieved…it’s been emotional.
Did the eighteen months away from live music make you reevaluate your approach to the “industry”? For instance, is it clearer now that it’s all about the music, and getting out there to play live – rather than the business side of things?
I think at the moment we are just so grateful to be able to go out and play. It means that all the business meetings that we had prior to 2020, all the strategies for my last album, ‘Who Feeds The Wolf’, they’ve gone out the window for now. All we want to do is get some live dates under our belts. We’re actually having to take it gig-by-gig because we’ve seen a lot of tours having to be rescheduled, just taking it day-by-day. The whole thing is so fragile that you’ve just got to take what you can when you can. It has made me completely reevaluate the way that I see myself as a musician and the pressures that I used to put myself under were quite ridiculous actually. Looking back at 2019, I can see that after twelve months of touring, and boozing, I was completely exhausted, and that’s why I gave up alcohol. I can’t really describe it, but I got to Christmas 2019 and said to my girlfriend that I had to make some changes because I didn’t know what route that I was going down, so I’m trying to be healthier, and have a clearer mindset about who I am as a person, and the music comes along with that. It’s meant that I’ve written better songs I think. I have a clearer outlook about what I want to do as a musician, rather than…I don’t know how to describe it in any other way, but you know, being part of a community, being out a lot, boozing around London with other musicians, hanging out with record people…and the pandemic forced me to do none of that, just me at home with my guitar, writing songs. So the songs inevitably became stronger.
Given all the setbacks over the last eighteen months or so, when you sat back and heard ‘The Hammer Falls’ from start to finish, for the first time, what moment gave you the biggest goosebumps?
I actually just got a test pressing of the vinyl version of the album today, and when I checked it out it took me back to those struggles that we had recording it; dealing with all the different changes because of the lockdown. ‘Call Of The Wild’ was the first single, and we recorded that just as we were going back into lockdown last November, I had studio time already booked and then got the call to say that because of the new lockdown the studio would have to shut, and I got permission via a letter from the Musicians Union to allow me to record this song, so when I listen to that one and listen to the vocals, I think back to how we did that all in one day. We don’t usually record that quick, but we had one day to get it done, and I hear that urgency in that track. Music has always been for me about capturing memories, so when I listen to Pink Floyd ‘Wish You Were Here’ it takes me back to being a teenager and listening to it in my bedroom, so when I listen to my own songs it takes me to a particular moment, and hopefully when the album comes out it will be the same for other people.
One of the songs that I’ve been enjoying a great deal is ‘Angel Of Death’, what can you tell us about this one?
I wrote that about three weeks into lockdown, it was one of the earlier songs that were written for the album and I tested it on one of the Saturday night live streams, and I remember Laz and Felipe saying…”Stop playing the new songs on Facebook!”. It took me back to years ago when I played open mic nights and I would test songs out and see what ones went down well with the audience, and they would be the ones that I recorded, and ‘Angel Of Death’ got a great response from Facebook live. With this album, I’ve allowed Laz and Felipe a lot more ownership of the material, I’m quite stubborn and I like to be in control, but I would ask for their opinions, and one of the things that Laz suggested was that on ‘Angel Of Death’ we cut the guitar solos out, and I was like…” What?!…you can’t cut the solo’s out!”, I remember the deadly silence in the studio when he suggested it and everyone turned and looked at me clearly knowing that I was going to say “Fuck off!”, and I did!
I think it’s a good song, there is a heavy riff after the chorus where you have this melodic song, then you suddenly get this Black Sabbath riff slapping you in the face, and that was initially heavier. We did a mix of it that sounded, and I’ll be honest here…it sounded fucking stupid. When you are in the studio you do all this stuff but then you hear it back, and you think “Well, that was a bad decision”.
On that note, for you, what makes a song stand out? What makes your arm hairs stand on end?
That’s an interesting one that one. I shelve a lot of songs if they don’t achieve that. So the ten songs that usually make an album up are ten out of maybe thirty songs. and they have a moment, or several moments, that make your hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or have that guttural feeling of emotion. It can be silly things, there is a chord change in ‘Call Of The Wild’ for instance that I played wrong in the studio, and it ended up on the record; it’s on the guitar solo and I played the wrong chord and Josh [Norton-Coxt] the engineer/co-producer turned around and said…”Ooooh, hello! that’s quite nice, Jack!”, and we ended up re-doing it to make it fit. It’s a wicked moment, and I love playing it live because it is an emotional tug, and I think that the album has a lot of that. When I listen back to my previous albums there are certain songs that do have that, and they are the ones that we still play live like ‘Deal With The Devil’, ‘I Will Follow You’ which is the song about my Dad But on this album, I’ve tried to get ten songs that all have those moments.
You’ve spoken about how difficult it is to perform ‘I Will Follow You’, which deals with your Dad’s Alzheimers, was it a case of performing it once to see how it went?
I wrote the song and spoke to the producer, I dropped him a message at 10:30 at night on a Tuesday and said can I come in as I’ve written this song and I want to record it now rather than leave it. So we recorded it about two days later, and I seem to remember that we recorded the vocals and acoustic guitar live, just to try and capture the emotion of it. I said to the guys when I originally recorded that…”I’m not going to play this live, it’s going to be too difficult to do it”…and we played it a few times during those gigs just before lockdown, and I found it really hard. And I said that I would never do it live again, but I got a lot of requests for it, and we built the new setlist with six or seven songs at the beginning that are just punching you in the face and then ‘I Will Follow You’ is like a breath of fresh air. I think that it’s a really beautiful song and I’m really proud of it, so I’m glad that it has connected with so many people.
It is a stunning track, a real show-stopper…
We had a funny moment when we played it at Trillians in Newcastle. It was Halloween and it was a really rowdy crowd so Laz said maybe we should miss it out, but I like a challenge! I grew up around Burnley, and those North West crowds are tough crowds, you couldn’t go up and say “I’ve written this amazing song so you will shut the fuck up and let me do it”, there’s none of that, it’s up to you to win over the audience. So when we played it at Trillians, we did win over the audience. Initially, everyone was talking, but by the end of it – there were still some people talking – but there was a sense of achievement that despite that, you still managed to connect with some people.
On the subject of connecting with people; who was your first guitar hero?
Jimmy Page. He’s the person that inspired my entire career, I guess. As a guitar player, the guitars that I bought, the clothes that I wore, unfortunately, I can’t quite fit into my skin-tight dragon outfit now though! I bought a twin-neck guitar because of Jimmy Page. When I first got into Led Zeppelin when I was 13 or 14, the thing that struck me about the band, was how dynamic they were. The first album of theirs that I got was probably ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, but then I got ‘Led Zeppelin III’ which I was expecting to all sound like ‘Rock & Roll’, but it has ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ which to this day is still my all-time favourite song, I just absolutely love it. But then you have ‘Immigrant Song’ on there, and ‘Friends’, and I remember hearing ‘Friends’ and trying to work out how the hell to play it because it’s in this strange tuning. So Page inspired my creative spark to discover new things on the guitar, and be more creative writing songs, it’s about trying something new in my head that is hopefully going to touch other people.
We came back from the Newcastle show and had a few days break before the tour resumed, my girlfriend was away for the weekend, and this is my post-tour ritual: I stick ‘Almost Famous’ on, the bit where they are all going loopy on the plane and arguing with each other, that kind of genuinely happens on every tour, so I was watching that and flicking through my new Jimmy Page coffee table book looking at his Les Paul’s and reading about what guitar he used to record ‘The Ocean’! So, twenty years later, he’s still inspiring me. I’ve met him once, and it was when I played ‘BluesFest’ at the O2 in London. And I had used my fucking twin-neck guitar onstage! I was wandering about behind the stage, and it was all quite dark, and there’s nobody apart from me walking about, and Jimmy Page starts walking towards me with his girlfriend. In my head I’m like…” Be cool, be cool”, and I said “ Jimmy, how are you doing” and put my hand out and he shook it! He was very smiley! I told him how much of an inspiration he had been to me and how much of an honour it was to meet him, and he said “ Well it’s nice to meet you too”, and then he walked off. I strolled into my dressing room and my harp player at the time was in there and I just went…”FUCKING HELL! I’ve just met Jimmy Page!”, and he just replied…”Please tell me that he didn’t see you with the twin-neck?!”
Catch Jack on his final three shows of 2021, here:
17 November – The Black Heart, London
20 November – St Austell Band Club, St Austell
27 November – Mad Hatters, Inverness
Pre-order ‘The Hammer Falls’, here.
Portrait images – Rob Blackham
Live images – Dave Jamieson