If I remember correctly, there was a period of time way back in the 2000s—sometime very shortly after the release of Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose—when every punk in the world either was in a folk punk band or wanted to be in a folk punk band, and every band with an acoustic guitar and a violin was called a folk punk band whether they wanted to be called it or not.
This is not to say some great music wasn’t produced before, during, or after that glut. And yet I’d argue that of all those bands, only one truly managed to wrestle the two genres into some kind of musical synergy and realise the qualities of both genres—the soulful earthiness of folk riffs, and the raw urgency and power of punk and several of its subgenres. Instead of unplugging and paring back, Crazy Arm, from Plymouth, England, chose to become the loudest roots folk band in the world. Their debut album, Born to Ruin, was released in 2009. One song, “Kith and Kingdom,” had a gospel choir intro.
Apart from the qualities mentioned above, there was another element to Crazy Arm that many of those other bands lacked. Frontman Darren Johns employed a vocal cadence and lexicon harking back to the radical politics of an almost medieval, more rural, quintessentially British version of anarchist-based hopes and grievances—references to kith, kings, kingdoms, the land, lords, forests et cetera. As much as Crazy Arm’s sound owes to past and contemporary punk, it carries just as big a debt to political lore of old and generations of English and Celtic folk songs going back centuries.
Darren and co. carried the momentum of Born to Ruin into second album Union City Breath, released in 2011 and worth a listen just for the “gospel-core” break-down in the track “Tribes/Animals.” Two years later came a new approach—a purely acoustic album of mainly bluegrass and Americana. And then, for seven years, we heard little in terms of recorded output from Crazy Arm. This year’s Dark Hands, Thunderbolts is another hard rock rager and well worth the wait.
In 2009, I interviewed Darren outside The Garage, in Islington North London, for a fanzine I used to produce. Eleven years later, I contacted him again for this interview to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.
John: First question’s a big one: in what ways are you a different Darren to that Darren I spoke to outside The Garage eleven years ago?
Darren: A lifetime ago! I think that I’m pretty much the same, just more jaded and ten kilograms (twenty-two pounds) lighter. I was forty-two then and fifty-three now, but I’m still full of angst and anxiety, still angry and confused, still neurotic, and still obsessed with music. I’ve changed more over the last year than the last ten. I stopped drinking alcohol last February after years of fights, arrests, injuries, bad decisions, and seventy-two-hour hangovers. That’s made a big difference. But, to be honest, I think I’ve been in a state of arrested development since my early twenties.
John: Why the long delay between albums? You mention on Bandcamp poverty being a factor. Was that slightly tongue in cheek or were you genuinely a bit hard up?
Darren: It just kind of happened! Or didn’t, as the case may be. There is truth in the poverty statement. We could only afford mates rates for the album, which meant that we weren’t prioritized for studio time and Middle Farm Studios (South Devon, England) is a very busy place. We only spent twenty-one days in the studio over the four years it took us to make the record. We were up there for one single day in the whole of 2019!
John: Did that in some ways give you time to perfect the songs—make them more technical, add another trumpet lick here or there?! Or was it just frustrating as fuck?
Darren: Yes, it meant we could tweak the songs to our hearts’ content, add stuff, take stuff away, redo vocals, add new harmonies, add new instruments, step back, and reassess. Both of the interludes were recorded much later than the rest of the album. It was very frustrating at times, but it wouldn’t have sounded as expansive, or as good, had we knocked it out in six months.
John: The new album’s called Dark Hands, Thunderbolts? What’s that a reference to?
Darren: I read it in a book around six years ago but I can’t, for the life of me, remember which one! But on the liner notes to the album sleeve, I used a quote from the Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” I’m not a fan of either Sun Tzu, military strategies, or the so-called art of war, but the quote applies equally as well to direct action activism and the idea of a radical, grass-roots social movement that rises up and strikes with intellectual and physical ferocity.
John: I’ve seen a couple of very positive reviews already. Do you put much stock in those?
Darren: I’ve noticed them too! Sure, who doesn’t? It’s good feedback like anything else. We live in an age where a need for validation is all-encompassing, especially with social media, and it’s hard not to be affected by public critiques of your work. I used to be a music hack, too, and I remember the relative power that you hold in your hands when reviewing a small band’s offering. I’ve certainly had my fair share of verbal and near-physical assaults because of some of the less-than-flattering reviews I’ve written. Essentially, though, any type of music is important only to those who gravitate towards it. So, in that sense, good reviews are just the icing on the cake.
John: You can’t mention the words “verbal and physical threats” and not give some examples! Can you remember any of the more imaginative ones?
Darren: [laughs] Okay. I remember one local band had a really dodgy line in right-wing bullshit. I reviewed them and they misconstrued it as me calling them fascists. One of their dads emailed me to defend them. Tragic. Anyway, a particularly hot-headed member of the band squared up to me in a nightclub soon after that. It came to nothing. The same dolt later joined the English Defence League (Far right, Islamophobic thugs). I felt vindicated.
John: You’re back to heavy rock after a previous album (The Southern Wild) of pretty stripped-back acoustic bluegrass/folk. Do you consider The Southern Wild as a standalone album or is that something you might revisit? Was there ever talk of bringing that album out under a different band name?
Darren: No, The Southern Wild is definitely a Crazy Arm album. The song writing is the same, it’s just dressed differently. We could easily have added drums and overdriven guitars and it would’ve blended seamlessly with the first two albums. With that album, we just wanted to reveal the roots of what we were doing and to document the occasional acoustic tours we’d started doing. We do have other songs in that style. Actually, “Dark Hands, Thunderbolts” is also the title of one of those songs, but it didn’t suit the album! We’ll put it out at some point. The only regret I have about taking so long with the new album is that, for seven years, some people thought we were now an acoustic band rather than a punk/rock/roots band. We can put that misconception to bed at last.
John: A lot of people with your politics—I’m just gonna say anarchist, democratic socialist, non-hierarchical anti-capitalist—delved back into mainstream politics because of Jeremy Corbyn (Former socialist leader of the U.K. Labour Party). Were you one of those people?
Darren: It was hard not to be swept along by someone who truly reflected radical left politics, but I didn’t join the Labour Party or go on the campaign trail. I did, however, attend his public appearance in Plymouth. I still stand by Corbyn, absolutely despise the smear campaign against him, woefully prolonged by the likes of Rachel Riley (U.K. celebrity who has consistently accused Corbyn of anti-Semitism), and despise what the spineless (Keir) Starmer (current leader of the Labour party) has turned the party back into. I do have anarchist leanings, but I’m well aware that a lot of people don’t fully understand what that means, so I’m happy to reach across the divide and hold hands with socialism. Corbyn’s sincerity can be seen in the way that he’s simply carried on where he left off before being shadow PM: supporting food aid programmes, campaigning for workers’ rights, and bashing the rich.
John: You mix a lot of Americana and bluegrass, but also Celtic/Gaelic folk. Is there one of those that you listen to more than the other?
Darren: I listen to all of it equally, all the time, depending on mood, activity, or convenience. I’ve been revisiting Scottish protest singer, Dick Gaughan, and Fairport Convention a lot recently. And I just watched an old Pogues/Dubliners gig on YouTube which brought back so many memories of seeing both of those bands in the mid-’80s. But the new album is more influenced by American roots/rock bands like Woven Hand, Constantines, and Murder By Death, and by the late, great Ennio Morricone, in terms of songwriting. Also, it’s worth noting that the origins of bluegrass can be found in English, Scottish, and Irish folk music. We’re all connected!
John: I can’t remember if you ever reference them directly, but a lot of songs invoke old English egalitarian movements like the Diggers or Levellers—there’re references to land rights, the song “Kith & Kingdom” on Born to Ruin. Are those group or periods of history that you’ve read about much? Is being from the South West a part of that?
Darren: Those movements have always been a part of my lifelong political journey, but I haven’t read about them for years. It was more down to artists like Dick Gaughan, Chumbawamba, and New Model Army than being from the South West. We did play the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset a couple years ago, which is an un-co-opted celebration of working class and trade union history. I used to play an acoustic version of Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” many years ago—a song about the Diggers, communal land rights, and revolution, although the Diggers were from the South East.
John: I remember in the last interview you mentioned the animal rights activism you did in your youth and that you’ve got a “criminal record longer than my arm.” Do you have any stories or regrets from that time?
Darren: No regrets whatsoever, apart from getting caught and fined, obviously. I’d do it all over again if I had the stamina and the nerve. There are so many stories, but I’ll tell you about the time I embarked on my first animal rights direct action. I was sixteen or seventeen, living at home in the suburbs, when I noticed a man walking into the woods behind our house with a rifle over his back. He also had a dog. Assuming he was about to hunt rabbits, I got my small rounders bat and followed him into the woods. I lost him in about three minutes, probably on purpose as I was shitting myself. I wrote a chapter for a book called Some of Us Scream, Some of Us Shout a few years ago, which is a collection of memoirs written by anarcho punks. My chapter outlined a lot of what I got up to in those early days, from when I was about fifteen to twenty-five. I’m happy to send a Word file of it to anyone if they message us on our social media.
John: Speaking of animal rights—the new mainstream interest in veganism. On the one hand I guess any increase in plant-based consumption over meat is good, but on the other hand I see some people associating veganism with some of the pricier, processed “fake meat” options, thus giving the movement a kind of bougie, upper-middle lifestyle choice image that puts people off. What do you reckon?
Darren: I think it’s always been that way, just on a much smaller scale. In the ‘80s, only health food shops had specialist vegan/vegetarian food and it was crazy expensive. And the only vegans apart from the middle class ones, were us Crass-obsessed punks. The range of choice now is bewildering, which means there are tons of cheaper options, and a lot more working class people being turned on to ethical issues around animal consumption. I don’t really spend much time worrying about the bourgeois lifestyle vegans, as long as there’s an upward trend and the issues of animal exploitation stay above ground, being talked about, and challenged. I think you’ve got to remind yourself of the bigger picture.
John: How many people are in the band nowadays and how many members have passed through the ranks in total?
Darren: There are currently sixteen people in the Crazy Arm extended family: five drummers, three bassists, two violinists, two harmony singers, a keyboardist, and a trumpet player, alongside Jon and me.
John: Is the lineup fixed for live shows or is it a matter of who’s available?
Darren: It’s totally fluid, so we see who’s available or more suited to whatever kind of show/tour it is at the time. The acoustic lineup is always different from the rock lineup. We’ve played a couple shows/festivals where certain members hadn’t met each other ’til that day! It certainly keeps us on our toes. There are five ex-members, all still friends, all still working on music. The fact we’ve lasted sixteen years baffles me.
John: I might be getting my U.K. punk eras mixed up, but I associate you guys with the Household Name Records (London-based label, stalwart of the ’90s/’00s U.K. scene) era and also the early Specialist Subject (Bristol-based label) years. Who’re you knocking about with these days in terms of other bands?
Darren: We straddle both those eras, for sure. We started in 2005 when Household Name and Deck Cheese were the popular punk labels. In fact, Jon’s old band, No Comply, were on Deck Cheese, while my old band, The Once Over Twice, were on In At The Deep End Records. Crazy Arm toured with Bangers, The Cut Ups, Random Hand, Sonic Boom Six and Apologies, I Have None in the early days. They’re all still good friends of ours. And we released the Little Boats 7” on Household Name for Record Store Day in 2012.
Moving on, we struck up a wonderful relationship with Larry & His Flask over the last seven years, from touring across the U.K. and Europe with them. We miss those guys a lot. We haven’t performed so much over the past two or three years, but we always have the best time when we play with the like of Sam Russo, Austin Lucas, Harker, Sweet Empire, and The Skints. The last time we played with The Skints in 2019, we spitballed about touring together. It’s a marriage made in heaven!
John: Something I really like about your lyrics is that they’re romantic and earnest, but not cheesy or overly priggish. Are there any writers—music-based or otherwise—that you take inspiration from?
Darren: Cheers! It’s a delicate balance. There are so many but the main ones for me are Joe Strummer, Exene Cervenka (X), Shane MacGowan, Joni Mitchell, Dick Gaughan (Scottish folk singer), Leonard Cohen, John Grant (formerly of Czars), Vi Subversa (Poison Girls), Bry Webb (Constantines), Kathleen Hanna, Chris Hannah, Ted Leo, and Ewan McColl (English/Scottish folk singer). And then there are the amazing words of Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, and Kurt Vonnegut. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
John: I just finished Mother Night by Vonnegut today! So good. I need to check some of those out. Have you listened to Chris Hannah’s podcast thing on Patreon? He’s an excellent speaker, great sense of humour.
Darren: Good work! Vonnegut is a neverending source of realist and surrealist inspiration. I’ve heard bits of the Chris Hannah podcast that a friend has played me. I haven’t listened to any others, except the brilliant Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review [BBC Radio], which Jon would always play in the van. I should listen to more.
John: I really like “Brave Starts Here” on the new album—it kind of reminds me of both Johnny Cash and, in the solo, Queen! I’d say that’s a typical Crazy Arm song, because it uses three or more genres and it seems despairing and hopeful at the same time. Do you set out to do that when you write a song, like, is it conscious or do the songs just evolve like that?
Darren: I just go with the flow and it usually goes everywhere. All our songs are in open tunings which inevitably lends itself to writing in a rootsy style, but, within that framework, there are still so many variables. Which is why “Brave Starts Here” sounds like bluegrass and “The Golden Hind” sounds like Fucked Up. I try not to have any preconceptions when I pick up an instrument—but it does depend on what I’ve been listening to, watching or reading, or what mood
I’m in. I’ve now got about 3,500 fragments of music stored on my computer—stuff that I’ve written and recorded on my phones over the past ten years or more. The range of styles and influences is limitless, so when I dip into it, there’s no guessing what combination of ideas is going to come out. It’s pretty overwhelming at times. I’m a digital hoarder.
John: In regard to that versatility and range of influences—do you even think of yourselves as a punk band outside of how you operate and the ethical aspect? Like when you pick up an instrument you’re thinking, “I’m going to write a song,” rather than, “Time to write another song for my punk band.” I mean, you mentioned Fucked Up—a punk band that isn’t really a punk band these days, but still slay. Propagandhi are more or less straight metal these days. Is that the secret to longevity and identity? To chuck any genre constraints or formula out the window?
Darren: I do think of ourselves as a punk band, but in the same way that The Clash, Fugazi, or Chumbawamba would call themselves a punk band, regardless of which direction the music was going. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s all in the attitude and ethos, and a restless desire to push forward. For better or worse, genre-splicing comes naturally to us, but I like to think we still have a distinct sound. I’ve written tons of music that I don’t think would work in Crazy Arm, so there is a limit to how much we let in. But Propagandhi, straight metal? Surely not?! Despite what they might say, I think hardcore punk remains at the core of what they do. They’ve just become technically astounding musicians along the way!
John: Do you write or at least envision all the instrumentation in your head before the other members lay down their bits?
Darren: I find it impossible not to envision the whole song as I’m writing. For the new album, I used Jon’s old multi-track recorder to write everything, including doing rudimentary drums using little finger pads. It’s obviously messy in places, but it captured the essence of what I was looking for. Then everyone would interpret the rough demos, add their own personality, and write certain parts where I hadn’t really developed anything.
Some songs formed differently, at rehearsals or one-to-one sessions with Jon. Ultimately, the song runs the show. So whatever sounds best will always win the day. I may have a whole song planned out, but all it takes is a better melodic idea, drum pattern, or bass line from someone else and I’ll defer to it in an instant. And I love it when that happens.
John: You mentioned one-to-one sessions with Jon. He’s been in the band since day one, right? Is he the person you most regularly get together in person with when working out a song?
Darren: Yep, Jon and I are the original, core members and we make all the band decisions. Only when we split is the band over! I’ve bubbled with him and his family during lockdown, so we meet up regularly. That’s how we were able to make our two recent videos that Jon edited, and that’s how we started our new side project punk rock band. We were going to call ourselves The Saps, but there’s a great little band from Chicago with the same name, so we’re still looking.
John: “And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Meds” is an inspired song title! Is mental health something you’ve seen—or seen being acknowledged more—among yourself, your family, your friends, the punk scene in general?
Darren: Absolutely. Mental health is a hot topic right now. Which is a good thing, as long as it isn’t ephemeral. And punk has always been a place where misfits, mentally or otherwise, can feel safe. I’ve addressed my own struggles with depression on all of our records and I’ll talk about it with anyone who’ll care to listen. In turn, everyone I know, friend and family, are also open about their psychiatric problems. It’s the only way forward. I’m just waiting for the toxic backlash, initiated by some old kneejerk, bad-taste punk band.
John: Probably some Ben Weasel-fronted shite. You mentioned quitting the booze and losing ten kilograms. Do you also exercise? I’ve noticed both those things—drinking less, physical health—mentioned more in punk circles, often in relation to mental health. Do they all tie together for you? Jimmy Watkins of Future of The Left has started this Running Punks online community thing that seems to have taken off.
Darren: I think being in my fifties means I have no choice but to stay on top of things. And it’s common, it seems, for people my age to assess the self-damage they’ve done and make amends! There’s a history of type 2 diabetes in my family, so being overweight is not an option. I’ve always cycled and lifted weights, so they’re my go-to exercises, although not so much on cold winter days. So, instead, I’ve been doing these hour-long night-walks recently—definitely a lockdown thing. And I even hopped on my cross-trainer machine last night. That was tough! The physical/mental health correlation is a no-brainer. It’s easier said than done, but if you can get all the important neurotransmitters firing—dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins—you’re going to feel better on every level.
John: There’s a couple of interlude tracks on Dark Hands, Thunderbolts—what was the thinking there? To give it more of a sense of being one entity or is it just that instrumentals can be rad too!?
Darren: A bit of both, and also to offset the heaviness of the main songs and create some light and shade. They’re among my favourite pieces of music on the album. We initially had the idea of making a double album with more interludes and a few extra songs, but we were taking so long to finish it as it was. There is, however, a bonus mini-album on the cards. Watch this space!
John: Would you say you’re pretty hands-on in the studio? Do you enjoy the recording/production side of things?
Darren: Very hands-on, much to our engineer Peter Miles’s frustration! We’re pretty long in the tooth now, so we know exactly what we want, and how we want to do it, and there are very few deviations. But that’s not to say we won’t listen to other, newer ideas. Jon loves recording, it’s his favourite part of being in a band. I do, too, but I still find doing vocals a little daunting—you have to give so much of yourself in such a calm, static environment. But Pete’s the best at bringing out good performances in me. It took me many years to feel confident about my singing.
John: What’s the “Golden Hind” (song title on new album)?
Darren: It’s the name of the galleon that Francis Drake sailed in from Plymouth to wreak havoc on the high seas and pillage the Spanish in the 16th century. He was an explorer, privateer, and slave-trader. Proper scumbag. So the Golden Hind serves as a metaphor for my Brexit-majority, big and small ‘c’ conservative hometown, and the fact that I’m a product of my environment, whether I like it or not. I do love the city, but in the same way that you’d love a childhood teddy bear that’s lost an arm, an eye, and all its fur.
John: Which is to say Plymouth used to be good and became a bit shitty, or it was always shitty and you just didn’t realize until you saw it through adult, enlightened eyes? At least you’ve got such nice countryside round your ends!
Darren: I’ve always been aware that we’ve had to struggle to assert any counterculture down here. But there have always been amazing people in Plymouth who’ve made and continue to make a difference, in all aspects of music, arts, culture, and politics. And yes, the location is pretty sweet, of course! We’ve got the sea on our doorstep and our back garden is Dartmoor. There are far worse places to be a neurotic, existentialist punk.
John: It’s strange because here in Spain, Drake’s referred to simply as a pirate—not that the Spanish didn’t commit their own fair share of genocides—but it’s a reflection of how a state’s presentation of a person or event becomes a shared, assumed “fact” when any other perspective is ignored or suppressed.
Darren: Thankfully, those chickens are coming home to roost. I was disappointed that our statue of Drake escaped the Great Topple! Although, last June, a bunch of idiots did take it upon themselves to pointlessly protect the war memorial from a raging mob that didn’t exist. We were too busy taking part in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in the town centre.
John: Covid aside, what kind of health is the South West scene in these days?
Darren: We’ve lost a few decent venues here in Plymouth over the last few years, but I think it’s pretty healthy. Lots of old and new bands, fair turnouts, some good places to play. But I’m probably not the right person to ask, as I’m knocking on a bit and haven’t got my finger on the pulse like I used to! I wouldn’t say there’s a united South West scene. Exeter do their own thing focused around the excellent Cavern; Cornish towns like Falmouth are out on a limb; and North Devon used to have a great DIY scene, but I’ve not heard much from there in years. I’m not looking forward to seeing who and what’s left when we all eventually climb out of our bunkers. Throw Brexit into the mix and it’s a recipe for the decimation of grassroots music.
John: Aside from a massive injection of money this government probably won’t even begin to entertain, what other measure might save grassroots music, in your opinion?
Darren: I think that only people power can save it. The Music Venue Trust, in particular, has been working tirelessly with its Save Our Venues campaign, directly funding establishments that are at breaking point. And high profile livestreams and crowdfunding campaigns have raised essential funds. The Tories certainly don’t give a shit about grassroots music and the Culture Recovery Fund is a farce. They never cared when venues were being closed down due to development, so why would we expect them to care now?
Essentially, though, like most creative types, I learned to play music because it felt right, not because I saw it as a viable career path. And we’d all still be making music and playing live if there were no proper venues. People will always find a way to communicate and share their ideas, one way or another, if the music, not profit, is the motive.
John: Alright, last of all, and feel free to ignore this one: In “Mow the Sward,” is that the opening riff from “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols in there just before the “fuck your views and fuck your advice”?
Darren: [laughs] It’s a common riff, especially in old-school punk and garage, but we do always refer to it as the Sex Pistols bit. So let’s say yes! There’s no denying that Never Mind the Bollocks is a perennial classic.
John: I checked out your other band Tripper really recently. Nice job. Really does channel Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu. I’m excited to hear more. I gather from the Facebook page Mike Watt produced it? How did you swing that? What’s he like to work with?
Darren: Thank you! Tripper are in the middle of making two albums, one on our own and one with Mike. Before I joined the band, they supported him in Exeter and he loved them. He talked to them about doing a collaboration, and true to his word, he sent over a bunch of skeletal songs on bass which we then filled out. He flew over from Germany to make the album with us in Plymouth. I’m the bassist in Tripper and I thought he would play my parts, but he insisted that I play everything, as he thought the band worked so well together and because we’d changed the songs so much. So he assigned himself the role of producer and played a bass solo on one song. He’s also doing lead vocals on another song. He’s some character, that’s for sure! It was crazy hot when we recorded in the studio and his manic intensity made it even hotter! But he’s a great guy with so many musical stories to tell.
John Miskelly is 35 and lives in Gijón/Xixón in the north of Spain. A number of his short stories can be found on the Razorcake website. He is on Twitter @JohnMisk.