Joby Fox's End of the War
The Belfast singer-songwriter on the heady days of Energy Orchard, releasing a multi-media album and his new single, 'Republican and Loyalist'
For those who aren't aware of you as an artist, enlighten us.
I got involved in music via punk, and formed a band, Bankrobbers, on the tail end of the new wave scene. We were well known for our publicity stunts. We ended up in court for printing our own £50 notes! We signed to EMI and moved to London in the mid-1980s after we were spotted on a programme called The Tube. In those days I didn’t really feel like an artist, I was more like a professional party-goer, hence the demise of the band. We lost the contract, but I still played and dabbled in electro music for a while with all sorts of drifters in London.
Then I met up with a few old mates from Belfast, including Bap Kennedy, and we formed Energy Orchard. The rest of the boys were all living in London, working on building sites and doing the 'Paddy thing'. We started playing our own stuff and some old Van Morrison and Them songs. One thing we had a lot of, as the name suggested, was energy. When we started playing it wasn’t long before every record company in the land were knocking on our door.
We landed a great deal with MCA and toured America and Europe. I wrote our only hit single, 'Belfast', but after years of touring and promoting, creatively the spark went. I left London and came back to Belfast in the mid-1990s. One morning I woke up and had enough material for an album. I started to record End of the War a few years ago, and I finished it in 2012. I plan to release the second single this February, and with a title like 'Republican and Loyalist' I've released it into the eye of the storm.
What is the song about?
It's about reconciliation, personal reconciliation as much as it's about republicans and loyalists. It's about realising that killing each other is the road to nowhere. It's also about a father who has lost his daughter in an act of violence, and about him forgiving the people who have taken her life. I recall the Enniskillen bombing, when Gordon Wilson said that he prayed for the people who had planted the bomb. It's about that level of enlightenment. It's about forgiveness.
Tackling such subject matter in song is always a tricky business. Did you find it difficult to condense your message into a three-minute track?
I always wanted to write a song that was candid and didn't shy away from the reality of growing up and living in Belfast, and I suppose I did that with 'Belfast'. But with 'Republican and Loyalist' I think I've done a better job. I have been much more visually provocative with the lyrics. I was hoping I could hit a nerve using the popular medium off the three-minute pop song, and that it might provoke some debate around the subject of conflict.
It's the second single from your album, End of the War. The project also incorporates film, specifically the self-funded feature, Lost Commandos. What was the inspiration for the film?
I wish we could all get to a place where there is peace, but there are some in our society who are lost and can't move on from the conflict. That's what the movie, Lost Commandos, is about. It's a metaphor for where we are now. It was shot in Belfast and partly in Stormont. I wrote and directed it, my partner produced, and it was shot by Ryan Tohill. There have been too many issues brushed under the carpet in Northern Ireland thanks to the 'don't mention the war' attitude. That's why sectarian politics still reign. There are 50 odd Peace Walls still in Belfast. Where's the shared future? It doesn't seem to be working.
It's a timely release, considering the current situation in Northern Ireland regarding political symbolism and tribal expression. Do you think there is still a place for music with a social conscience?
Yes, for sure. There will always be music and art that is escapist in nature, and that's OK. It has its place. But equally there will always be social, political writers working in pop, folk, dance music. I always felt that the message or the idea is the most important aspect of any artistic endeavour.
End of the War feels like a proper album, at a time when the long-play format is becoming less popular. Why the old skool approach?
On the album version of 'Republican and Loyalist', it starts off with a sample of James Coburn saying, 'This little revolution we're having here', and Rod Steiger saying ,'Revolution?! Don't talk to me about revolution!'. It's from my favourite movie, A Fist Full of Dynamite. The album is inspired by that movie, which presents a great humanitarian statement. That's what artists should do, they should speak up and remind us of what we could be.
Magical Mystery Tour is my favourite album and I took the same kind of sonic collage approach with End of the War. The album plays right through to the end with interludes between each track. There are lots of little sounds and pieces of music, which I hope provoke thoughts and feelings.
How has Belfast shaped you as an artist?
Everybody is influenced by their surroundings. I grew up in Andersonstown; I was eight when the Troubles started. I didn't know anything else until I got into music. It happened in a strange way because one of the first people I got to know in music was the son of a reverend from the Shankill Road. We would drive around in the early hours picking up band equipment, and it was always a good laugh when the soldiers stopped us and asked where we were from. They would eventually just waves us on, as if we were from outer space.
We both got a quite kick out of being different. I always felt, even in those days, that we can all get along. We are just human beings, after all. I hope, if anything comes of my endeavours, that I'll be seen as someone who is trying to make the point that we should all work together.
What are your plans for the months ahead?
I hope that with 'Republican and Loyalist' – which is out now and available from my website – I can share the humanitarian message. I have also re-recorded 'Belfast' with a more optimistic third verse, and I'm really excited about releasing it too in the next few months.
I'm also looking forward to working and producing more music, but I'm not sure if I'm going to stay in Belfast. I have a place in Denmark, and I have a few studio projects lined up there. I get about a lot. The last gig I did was a month ago in the Golan Heights, 40 miles from Damascus. I heard the bombings at night, and it was a real freaky trip. But hey, that's the story.
Joby Fox plays the Black Box in Belfast on Friday, February 8.