Photo: Nicholas Sayers

Interview: Gag Salon – “We want to really get into the underbelly of the human experience”

With their debut EP now out in the world, Kristy Sawyer got to know the origins, inspirations and dreams of the rising British band

I met up with Joe Mumford, the lead singer of art-rock quartet Gag Salon, via Zoom on the day their debut EP, Get a Load of This Guy, was released. It also happened to be a few hours before their live show at the Lexington in London to launch the EP.

How are you feeling about the show tonight? 

I’ll be excited 10 minutes before we play – right up until then it will just be pure stress.

Let’s talk about the origins of Gag Salon. 

I met Seb [Bowden (bass)] and Ayden [Spiller (drums, percussion)] through playing in an old band called Palm Honey in Reading, which is the town we are originally from, just outside London. It’s kind of a commuter town. Tom [Dimmock (keys, synth, guitar, backing vocals, piano)] played in another band who were around at the same sort of time.

Then we moved to London, and Palm Honey ended. We kind of tried a few different projects with different people, nothing really worked, and Gag Salon sort of started just before COVID, and the first lockdown, we were doing a few rehearsals, but not in a super serious way. It was always kind of like: “oh, we will eventually do some gigs and we will eventually do some stuff” and then COVID kind of made us think: “oh shit no, this could all be taken away you know?”. So it kind of pushed us and as soon as we were allowed back in rehearsal rooms again we got everything together as quickly as we could, booking shows and the rest, it was just history from there. We have been playing gigs, recorded the EP, and now we are here, hopefully taking it further and further. Yeah.

I am curious, what is the formula for something working. Your other band didn’t stay together and then you tried a few others, but they didn’t click. Is it about the people? Is that the timing? What makes it work? What makes it feel right?

That’s a good question. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s kind of an intangible thing I guess but the previous one definitely ended because we started it when we were really young, like 17, 18 and you know, you change so much in that small bit of time between 18 and 21 or so. I feel like you go through such a big metamorphosis and your tastes change and what you want to do changes and we are all sort of pulling in different directions and what the industry wanted us to do and that just makes you second guess everything you are doing, every song you write is like, “oh, should we be doing this?”. It is the death of it. That’s it. Once you start second guessing yourself that’s the death of creativity.

Then the other projects, we were just a bit jaded and didn’t really take any of it seriously enough. I think you have to have fun, obviously, and you have to do it because you love it but at the same time, you’ve got to make the time to rehearse and you’ve got to put the hours in and write songs and if you’re not taking any of that, at least a bit seriously, at least treating it like you should have something finished, then it’s not really going to work out. But after all those years of sort of messing around, trying so many things, it just kind of clicked I guess and we haven’t really second guessed anything since. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

Because you brought up the industry and the pressures there. What did you mean, what were the pressures you were feeling that might have made you second guess your music? 

Yeah, for sure. So it was just because, when we started out and had a song that did quite well, that was like a very poppy song, you know, and it was kind of in the vein of a certain type of psychedelic pop music that was popular at the time because of bands like Tame Impala, but we were getting older and listening to more diverse music and listening to stuff that was a bit more avant garde. I think when you’re young, everything’s so exciting, everything’s so new that you immediately just want to do the first crazy thing you hear. You think, “oh, I want to do something like that, we’ve got to do a 10 minute long crazy damn thing.” I think stuff like that, then combined with the pre-established ideas people had about us as a pop act kind of messed with that really, and then the fact that the crazier music we tried didn’t go down so well.

When you’re young, you’ve got an idealistic view of how music works and how making music works and you think it’s all just going to be: write songs and everyone will just lap it up and you can sort of do what you want. And actually, what we’ve realized now is that it’s a bit more complicated than that. I kind of have more respect for combining experimental with pop song format, it’s a lot harder to take those avant-garde things and make them universally appealing. I’m more interested in doing that now more than before, when we were like “I want to do a 20-minute abrasive krautrock song”, but basically it was the kind of pressure of what people expected versus what we actually really wanted to do at the time. I think there’s a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes with that kind of avant-garde music.

Over the last seven or eight years, what are the bands you’re listening to? 

There was a point in time where I got really into a venue in London called Cafe Oto, which is specifically for free jazz and noise and experimental music, right. So you go in there and you’re gonna hear someone stuttering around on an instrument for like, half an hour, everyone sits and claps very politely. There was a point where I was really enamored with that stuff. Derek Bailey, who’s a jazz guitarist known for free improvisation, I think he does it really well. There’s a band called O Yama O, this Japanese, experimental rock band and they do things with toys and stuff. I really love a guy called Jim O’Rourke, who briefly played guitar in Sonic Youth and in my opinion, probably did some of the best Sonic Youth work because he’s a trained musician. He does experimental work but then he’s also done a bunch of pop albums which are probably even better because they have the best of both worlds. I would go down YouTube rabbit holes of lost Krautrock albums, and Library Music. Now I feel like I listen to so much less than I did before but I guess that’s just because my tastes are kind of distilled now. 

What about right now, where is the talent in your contemporaries? 

Yeah, there’s a band in London at the moment called Tapir!. Very good. They make kind of folk, psychedelic pop music that is really beautiful and has a timeless quality to it. There’s a band called The Moral High Ground which is fronted by Danny Smart, who’s actually playing some extra keyboards with us tonight at the Lexington, who’s a phenomenal musician. We met him as a sound engineer. They do balls to the wall guitar stuff, a bit like early Steely Dan, but heavy. She’s not a contemporary, but there’s a singer called Olivia Dean, she is brilliant. Really talented. I love her voice, it’s jazzy R&B. I think she’ll be a star within a few years.

Would you collaborate with her?

In a heartbeat. I’d love to play with her, I’d love to. But whether or not we’re quite at her level or in that world just yet, I’m not sure but the door is open, yeah. 

Tell me about your song “Don’t Eat Stuff Off The Pavement”.

What do I, Joseph Mumford, say about the song? I say: “Don’t Eat Stuff Off The Pavement” is generally pretty good advice. It bears no relation to the song itself though. It’s a sad song about nostalgia and living vicariously. I wrote it at the peak of Covid in 2020 when my brain was very much stuck in wistful mode, looking back on my school years and the days of our previous band, and feeling a lot of regret for bad decisions and friendships lost. Can’t take anything too seriously though, so I had to give it a stupid title.

What do you think inspired you for each one? Did you have an idea or do you think it was from that Encyclopedia of songs that you listened to over the last seven or eight years?

I think the main thing with all these songs is I wanted to do stuff that was really catchy and poppy but also make it sinister. But then, I think the reason that a lot of this music is good and the reason I still like it is because I tried not to think about it too much, I just did what felt good, what sounded good and really tried not to over intellectualize it until afterwards. I want to tell weird, unsavory and sinister stories to get people to engage with things that maybe make them uncomfortable. Like, “let’s look at how we’re all really bad or all the bad parts of ourselves, and we can come together and we all love each other for that it’s fine.” You know, it’s fine, it’s fine to be messed up and it’s fine to not always be a good person and stuff like this. I think people are not always so honest about themselves and quick to point fingers at other people. And that’s the main thing I want to do with this band, really get into the underbelly of the human experience. 

How different are the songs when you play them live as opposed to on the record?

A lot of them have changed quite a bit, actually. They are a lot faster playing live because of the energy, I guess you just get excited. It’s quite ferocious music, I guess. We did a good job of capturing the ‘liveness’ on the EP, because it was all recorded live in three or four takes, then the vocals afterwards and some effects and overdubs, but basically it’s just the sound of us in the room. 

I look at each recording as like, that’s what it was at the time and you’ve got to respect it for that and not try and get the perfect version of the song because this is never going to happen. Especially if you’re playing it at gigs for years to come, if you’re an active musician, a song is never really going to be finished. I think it’s good to just think of it as “that’s a snapshot of that time and that’s good.” Then you can move on and do something new. 

What do you think about Kate Bush and “Running up the Hill” making the top of the charts now?

I think that’s great. Annoyingly enough, we’re covering a Kate Bush song tonight, “Wuthering Heights”, which we planned months ago. Then suddenly, she’s had a resurgence through Stranger Things and now it’s gonna look like we’ve only done it because Stranger Things did it. But, she is a genius and any attention she can get is fantastic. 

So, the show is in just a few hours. What is left to do?

Tom has rented a van to get all the equipment to the venue. But he was parking outside and there’s no space, so he’s currently parked across someone’s driveway. So, we have to load our stuff, drive down back to Tom’s house, get his stuff, drive to our drummer’s house, get his drum kit, and then back up to the venue. So it’s gonna be a long old day and it’s boiling. So yeah, it’s gonna be intense.

Gag Salon’s Get A Load of This Guy EP is out now on Blitzcat Records (listen). You can find them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.