BILLIONAIRE’s new release Cheap Credit! is out via Blue Mary Records. We caught up with John Sterry to chat about the album, his fascination with sensationalist tabloids, and playing Celine Dion’s Titanic track on cruise ships to terrify the guests.
Hi there, how are you and what are you up to today?
Hi. For most of the day I’ve been trying to make a video to a track for the new EP using old footage of the Tour de France. Makes me wanna ride my bike, but right now I’m on a train getting to a quiz night in the city. I heard one of the rounds was about megastructures so I’ve been googling pictures of the Hoover Dam all journey. I hope it comes up.
To those not familiar with you, how would you describe your sound?
I’ve been calling it lo-fi alt-pop in interviews, but I dunno if that’s really true. I call it Formula One music, whatever that means.
What are the 5 albums that have influenced you the most?
Talking Heads – 77
John Martyn – Solid Air
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs
Can – Ege Bamyasi
George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
Which other artists are you into at the moment and why?
I’ve been listening to a lot of the Fun Boy Three, just saccharine pop but done brilliantly. Father John Misty – just a funny man, and all kinds of weird chord changes in there too. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are great too, they’re releasing a truck load of music at the moment and it’s all good.
Are there any key pieces of equipment that you are using to define your sound?
I’ve got this old 80s casio mt-100 keyboard that kind of sounds like a bad cruise ship band, but with a bit of messing around through amps and pedals you can get some cool sounds out of it. That’s on everything I write at the moment.
My guitar is a Fender Mustang with p90 pickups – it’s got loads of switches and stuff that i don’t really know how to work, but it gives me loads of sounds that you can’t seem to get with anything else. It’s the only guitar I use to record with and it goes through a Fender Deluxe reverb amp. And a chorus pedal, I’m addicted to chorus pedals. I have to stop my wandering foot from pressing it, otherwise it’d be on everything.
What would you say some of the challenges artists face today in the music industry?
I think the biggest one is just trying to not go bankrupt. If you’re gonna do it you should throw yourself fully into it, but there’s so little money nowadays maybe you have to work a job you hate and that’s where things get difficult. Trying to keep motivated and inspired after having spent all week flogging carpets or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with selling carpets.
Where do you gather songwriting inspiration?
I read a lot of newspapers – generally crappy tabloid ones with sensationalist headlines. They’re completely bizarre and set the tone for a lot of the satire in my music. I like to think about big things – the economy, death, taxes and stuff, and then bring it down to the personal level. Use those ideas and try and work out how they affect us as people – within the home, in relationships…
Take us through your songwriting process. Are there any particular steps you take when putting your music together?
As for the lyrics, I tend to write in the first person, but from the perspective of someone else – generally somebody who genuinely holds the views that I’m trying to satirise. I gave up writing about myself when I realised nobody cares except me.
Sometimes I just make up nonsense words to the track and from there they can develop into an idea. If those words came to me in that way, they must fit the music in some way. People can get a bit precious with words and where they come from, sometimes you just gotta go with the first thing you think of and trust yourself.
Musically I don’t have much of strategy – sometimes I write the song from start to finish on a piano or guitar and record it as it is, adding stuff along the way. I think the most interesting songs are the ones where I just start with a blank project on my macbook and start with a beat or just a synth hook or something – it’s like a puzzle to solve to get to the other end.
What’s the best gig you have ever done and why?
I think with Billionaire, it’d be a show we played in Hastings underneath a wine shop, in the cellar. It smelt of damp and the walls were wet but the crowd were centimetres from our faces and they were so into it. We had projections onto us of nuclear explosions and a guy trying to have sex with a tree. I wanted to carry on Ken Dodd style for hours but we hadn’t rehearsed any more songs. Lazy!
And the worst?
I did a solo gig on a pier recently. I was on a little stage where they were doing the raffle just after me. Everyone was there for the raffle and seemed quite annoyed that they had to wait while I finished my set. Everyone was just eating ice creams and chatting. It was freezing as well.
If you weren’t a musician what would you be?
A professional Irish Dancer
Do you have any particular gigs or festivals that you dream about playing?
We played Glastonbury last summer but only a small stage. I’d love to go back and play one of the main ones, obviously. Red Rocks in Arizona looks amazing, just a big amphitheatre in the desert. If all else fails I’d be up for playing covers on a cruise ship with my Casio keyboard. Maybe do that Celine Dion tune from Titanic just to freak everyone out.
If you could perform alongside any other band or artist, living or dead, who would it be?
Do you mean to play on the same stage? Maybe Bob Dylan. Everyone who works with him says he changes the way he plays the songs every time he plays them. I think it’d be good to be kept on your toes like that as a musician, you don’t want to go stagnant and be bored out your skull pretending you’re really feeling it.
Do you have any information regarding upcoming releases, projects or gigs in the pipeline that you would like to tell us about?
The Cheap Credit! EP has come out, which I’m really excited about. I feel the sound I wanted is fully formed on it.
We’ve got a couple of really cool festivals in Kent we’re playing – City Sound Project and Unfest, plus we’re doing a Sofar Sounds session which is exciting.
Cheap Credit! is out now via Blue Mary Records. Buy here.