Up against depression, bulimia, and epilepsy, the Northern Irish quartet fearlessly committed it all to tape to make the most cleansing and restorative debut album of the year
North Irish quartet Junk Drawer will release their debut album Ready For The House this Friday, a record stuffed with garage-rock riffage, breakneck transitions and lyrical catharsis. This potent concoction has already seen them garnering fans and picking up a Northern Ireland Music Award for Best Single for “Year of the Sofa”, but the album is set to take them to the next level.
Although, you get the feeling that Junk Drawer find any kind of attention or acclaim a bit of a surreal joke. After all, they named their band Junk Drawer: “Like the concept of the junk drawer that everyone has in their house where you just store all your random assortments of unneeded materials,” they say, “it kind of suited the sound.” They’ve also previously released an EP called Their Self-Loathing Debut and band leader Stevie Lennox had a hand in compiling two sets of music from Northern Irish bands, which they decided to call A Litany of Failures.
This self-deprecation is emblematic of Junk Drawer – and perhaps the whole Northern Irish scene, they suggest – and is what makes them such approachable personalities and surprisingly open songwriters. Wearing vulnerability on their sleeve is by no means a necessity, but it’s far from a gimmick, as the band has spent the last few years dealing with various mental health issues in and around them, which comes out in a kind of purge when they get together in their practice space.
Currently in quarantine, the band’s brothers, guitarist Stevie and multi-instrumentalist Jake Lennox, find themselves isolated together in their shared flat, while bassist Brian Coney and drummer Rory Dee are also holed up together across in East Belfast. While Stevie and Jake are trying to stay creative during these times, they’re finding it tricky, as they’re used to working in combination. “Usually the ‘magic’ doesn’t happen until we’re in the room together, just playing,” Stevie says. “Everyone has their moment at some point; I wouldn’t say there’s any song that isn’t collaborative in some way.”
“It means you don’t really get to rest on your laurels, because everyone else is writing all the time,” Jake adds. “It’s encouraging to be working with people that really want to write.”
This goes some way to explaining why the majority of the songs on Ready For The House push past the five minute mark, with a couple stretching to seven or eight. “Although we love the short pop song template, we’ve got a history of just building on ideas,” Jake admits. “I like the long-form stream-of-consciousness sound that comes with that.”
This stream-of-consciousness aspect is key to Junk Drawer’s appeal, and is what helps them get to honest personal truths – while ensuring it’s sonically gripping at the same time. They cite the likes of Mark Kozelek and David Berman as influences on their lyricism, and both brothers contribute words and vocals to the band’s songs, although they see differences in their approaches. “I get poetic and angsty, where Stevie’s a bit less down with the emotional vulnerability,” Jake claims. Stevie agrees, saying: “You have to read between the lines a bit more to get to the brutal truth in my songs.”
Both approaches are honoured by Junk Drawer’s lack of adhesion to normal structure, instead following their singers down the rabbit holes of their minds into pits of misgiving and self-loathing. In the three years since they started working on Ready For The House, they say they “did a lot of learning as a band and as individuals.” This has included some tough moments for both of the brothers, who have had to deal with different but equally debilitating issues.
For Jake it was bulimia. “I was at the end of university, it was a really stressful time and that’s how my mental illness manifested – that and depression,” he says. “There are lines on the album that are painful to revisit.” One of the most explicit is on “Mumble Days”, where he sings “stomach acid hurts my singing voice.” “If you’ve ever thrown up multiple times a day, it hurts even trying to talk,” Jake explains. “I just remember that being a distinctly difficult thing to do, to come to practice, and it hurt to sing.”
“Mumble Days” also brilliantly displays how Junk Drawer use their music to explore and extract these issues as a team, as it dynamically pulls us through Jake’s wrung-out mental and physical state before resolving into a beautifully resonant finale where they make the simple affirmation “I’m gonna pay my friends a compliment today / and I’ll try to be more.” “It’s like that glimmer of hope you have at the end of a really sad period,” Jake says. “You see reasons to keep going on.”
While Stevie takes a more oblique approach to his own issues, there is still plenty of pathos to be found in his songs, largely revolving around his epilepsy. “I was having a really bad bout of that, which fed into the feeling of ‘am I ever going to get anything done?’,” he reflects. “You get locked in a brain fog; I had a lot of communication issues. I’d go for a walk and bump into someone I know and realise I can hardly string a sentence together. It just made me not want to see people.”
This is where the caustic “Year of the Sofa” comes from – a song about “reclining into that feeling and living your fantasies out in box sets instead” – as well as album closer “Pile”. In “Pile” Stevie sings “If you find me wandering, please stop to ask me why, because I’ve lost myself to myself,” which comes directly from a time when he’d forgotten to take his medication and found himself drifting out of a gig, stumbling alone through the streets of Belfast, barely able to cling to a thought.
Yet, again, Junk Drawer turn this dour event into a moment of sonic inspiration, as they layer on the vocal takes, while guitars roil and crackle all around: “That is exactly what a brain fog feels like; some positive feelings, some negative feelings, all these thoughts swirling around your head.” It’s a moment that could be interpreted any which way from wholly positive to entirely dejected. This openness is part of Junk Drawer’s appeal, not prescribing any certain feeling, but allowing conversations to form around these displays of honesty.
Waving the banner for improved communication around mental health has become more of a common theme in rock music in recent years, but Junk Drawer are right there on the front line. “I’m really glad that this conversation has happened in the last couple of years, and I feel like this album digs into that directly,” Stevie says. “On a more straightforward note it’s just one of those ‘lads, talk about your feelings’ albums.”
If you’re thinking Ready For The House sounds like a heavy listen, well we haven’t even touched on the churning euphoria of “Temporary Day”, about “the one day where you don’t feel like absolute shite”; or the psychedelic drawl of “Ego Death in Akron, Ohio”, a song that muses on the idea that “you can be miserable anywhere,” as Jake notes.
There’s also the static-shock wail of the eight-minute “INFJ”, which is about “another mild depressive episode… a lot of personality claustrophobia,” according to Stevie. In fact, “INFJ” brings psychology to the forefront, as its title is taken from the Myers-Briggs personality test, this specific personality type being known as the ‘counsellor’ due to its idealistic, compassionate and sensitive nature – unsurprisingly, three of the four members of Junk Drawer have found they’re INFJ.
And it’s this feeling overwhelming empathy, rather than gloom, that comes resounding out of Ready For The House. In conversation, in their songs, and – I’m assured – on stage, Junk Drawer are pure positivity. They’ve excreted their negative feelings into sprawling songs so that they can get a handle on them, and, now external, they’re an offering to listeners who might be going through similar issues. Or, you know, you can just enjoy the drones and the riffs and instrumental shifts, completely ignore the lyrics and just vibe – Junk Drawer would be more than fine with that.
An album that’s packed with painful and cleansing lessons, Ready For The House starts with “What I’ve Learned/What I’m Learning”, a two-part behemoth which catapults into its thrilling second half with the immortal line “I have arrived / I know the secret to contentment now.” Of course it’s tongue in cheek, reflecting the invincible feeling that comes with a dose of psychedelics, which fades just as soon as the high does. But, it also contains a grain of truth, as Junk Drawer have undoubtedly learned plenty over the course of the last few years – and, while they might not be approaching contentment quite yet, they’re certainly drawing closer to acceptance. “I think the secret is to accept that there isn’t really one. Find your personal truth, that’s pretty much the underscore of the album,” Stevie reflects. “But also learn to get better medicated as quickly as possible.”