by Hannah Ashcroft
Ruarri Joseph on the process of finding himself, landing in an LA ghost town, and the power of threes
William The Conqueror began when Ruarri Joseph, a singer/songwriter in his own right, decided to retire his solo career after catching a glimpse of his own tour poster and realising the picture before him didn’t really represent reality. ‘It just seemed totally alien to me,’ he admits. ‘It didn’t seem like anything I’d done necessarily spoke of who I was.’
Soon after, he began experimenting with bassist, Naomi Holmes, and drummer, Harry Harding, examining themes from his childhood through the lens of a teenager named William. Starting out with secret gigs, Joseph emphasises the importance of playing those small venues and going back to their roots. ‘That was the cool thing about scrapping being a solo artist and starting completely from scratch, and building from the bottom all the way up. You’ve got no one looking over your shoulder. It takes away the insecurities I suppose.’
After their debut album Proud Disturber of the Peace, the band worked with esteemed producer, Ethan Johns, for their follow up, Bleeding on The Soundtrack, and recently signed to Chrysalis Records. Initially planning to make their latest release, Maverick Thinker, in a home studio, they were later persuaded to make a trip to Sound City Studios. The intention being to immerse themselves in the vibrant musical culture and artistic scene of Los Angeles, but, instead, found themselves in a ghost town as the pandemic hit.
Despite the strange circumstances, William the Conqueror continued with their work. The album was self-produced by the band along with recording engineer, Joseph Lorge, who also, after the band were forced to fly home early, played the guitar solo for the title track. ‘Having an engineer you can trust, you can focus everything about yourself on the performance. He knew the studio inside out.’ Though the location may have changed, they took their customary recording approach of tracking live, capturing the spirit and integrity of their shows without losing themselves in the production.
For a three-piece, William the Conqueror live up to their name and fill an incredible amount of space – commanding your attention with the depth and vitality of a much larger outfit. ‘It was an economical thing to begin with,’ says Joseph. ‘I have this thing about working in threes. I like the format.’ So far, Joseph hasn’t been tempted into arranging beyond their current numbers, with the recorded output staying mainly faithful to their on-stage sound. ‘There’s something quite nice about some kind of creative restriction,’ he says – ‘it makes you think outside the box.’
Continuing with the theme of threes, the album trilogy is also a nod to Swiss poet, Herman Hesse, and his theory of the three stages of development. ‘Working in threes is always nice – a little treble approach with a three-piece band. I had the idea of a trilogy in my head – a child, father, mother kind of thing. Then I read something by Herman Hesse about the three stages of development in life being innocence, disillusionment, and faith – the idea, that we all go through that kind of journey.’
When it comes to songwriting, Joseph takes a more relaxed approach which is evident in his colloquial vocal tone and conversational manner. ‘My favourite kind of writing is the stuff where you’re not really aware of what it is that’s going down on the paper at the time.’ The band’s recent single, Move On, was written in this way. ‘It came from the idea of being overwhelmed – drowning in ideas and not knowing where to begin.’ Together, with a roving bassline and restless high hats, the imagery depicts twists in the roads and towns by the coast. It was a retrospective realisation that the song was about a hitchhiking trip his mother had embarked on in her youth.
While most of us have been twiddling our thumbs awaiting a vaccine, Joseph has been keeping himself busy during lockdown. When not writing songs, you can witness his other creative efforts through the band’s latest music videos including Wake Up – made entirely of 1920s horror movie footage. ‘That’s what you have to do when you’ve not got a budget for a music video. I’ve got the internet and iMovie – what can I do?’
Maverick Thinker’s second single, Jesus Died a Young Man, is an ode to some of Joseph’s early religious experiences and features staggered guitars and a mantra-like chorus that wouldn’t feel out of place at a faith healer show. Joseph’s vocals are dry and almost conversational – culminating in an exasperated wail, amidst the pounding rhythm section. ‘I was quite lost and looking for something to show me the way out of curiosity. Had I encountered a really good teacher, I probably would have fallen for it because of that charlatanism – drunk on the spirit, hands in the air kind of stuff,’ he says. ‘There’s something particularly sinister about televised evangelists – it’s a sort of next-level possession.’ Accompanied by a video featuring a channel flickering between swaggering televangelists, news channels and predatory nature clips, there’s a definite cynicism and an unsettling air.
Like The Burden from their previous album, Quiet Life is a softer, more introspective number, but this time through a maternal lens. With the motherly theme in mind already, it was purely coincidence which threw this track together. ‘We were on our way back from somewhere and my mum phoned to tell me that she’d shattered her wrist. Her breaking her arm forced us into the situation where we had to talk about things and so it was kind of serendipitous.’ Short and sweet, it has a stripped-back, percussive quality with Harris blending mellow vocals on the reflective chorus. The band had been gigging the song for a while before its meaning became apparent. ‘It suddenly clicked it was about leaving home and the impact leaving home would have on a single mother.’
As well as writing, recording and releasing music, Joseph has also authored an accompanying novel as well as producing a podcast adaptation. ‘The music and the book – they fit together. If you read the book and listen to the record, you can hear things crossing over.’ Originally intended to be a screenplay, he realised he wouldn’t be able to fund the soundtrack, which consisted mainly of Bob Dylan and Nirvana. It’s a particularly nice way to familiarise yourself with the music and the inspiration behind it. But, mainly, it’s just a great listen, with Joseph voicing multiple sides of the same character and the band providing a laid back soundscape.
After first seeing them play live at Gullivers in Manchester, it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that the band don’t actively rehearse for their shows. ‘It kind of sort of happened by accident. At a certain point, we realised that there was this extra energy whenever we did get together for a show. It must be something in the structure of the songs or the chemistry between us.’
There’s a dry humour in the lyrics, often tinged with a sense of irony, and, yet, Joseph articulates poetic verses like it’s simply a stream of consciousness. Holmes and Harding occasionally break out into glorious three-part harmony – a beautiful contrast to their gritty and overdriven live sound.
Although always a pleasure to watch, it feels like a live streaming platform would not do a William The Conqueror performance justice. It would be difficult to imagine a flat laptop screen capturing the thrill and atmosphere of a live show. ‘It’s a funny world of live streaming. William has kind of become something of a persona or character that exists – not being inhibited or insecure. And William wouldn’t do live streams,’ Josephs explains. ‘It’s about sweating on your neighbour and it’s about the community. It’s a different feeling.’
With live music on hold, there are no current plans to launch the album in an official capacity. Although, we can keep our fingers crossed for some sort of socially distant live event in the future – and with the confidence that it’ll be worth the wait.
New album, Maverick Thinker, is out on Friday 5th March.
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