A Life Diagrammatic



Brace Yourself/Pets Care Records
Release Date
September 22, 2023
Europe except Germany


1. At Peacehaven
2. Media Res
3. Côte D’Adur
4. A Submersible
5. A Whole House
6. Service Stationed
7. Construction Site/Summer_22
8. Trauma Mosaic
9. Riddley Scott Walker
10. The Common Cold



Limitations are key for us,” says John Newton, drummer and vocalist in JOHN. “I never view being a two-piece as a minus – it’s a key idiosyncratic element of what the project is.”

For the last decade, and now over four albums, the duo of Newton and Johnny Healey have constantly redefined and expanded the role, function and parameters of what a guitar and drum two-piece can be. No more so is this apparent than on their latest A Life Diagrammatic, a record that harnesses the punch and intensity of their blistering live shows with the band’s increasingly textural, cinematic and expressive sensibilities. “We knew the direction we wanted to go in after the last record,” Healey says of 2021’s spatially expansive Nocturnal Manoeuvres. “We had started going a bit more towards soundscapes rather than straight-up noise and four to the floor structure.”

The band went to record some demos with Tom Hill and the result was so good, with the room capturing the sound so perfectly, that they knew they had landed on something immediately. “We realised there was a really fresh honesty to it,” says Newton. “So we spent a lot more time digging in deeper with subsequent sessions.” But they were also keen to retain that core essence of the original recordings. “There was a lot of really nice capturing of accidents in the studio,” Newton says. “There was a lot of honouring the process because you don’t want to over sterilise stuff.”

Seth Manchester (Big Brave, Battles, METZ) was then brought in to mix the album, with Frank Arkwright (Mogwai, Arab Strap, Squarepusher, Autechre) mastering it at Abbey Road. The aim being to merge the powerful live presence of the band whilst also honing in on some of the more varied dynamics at play. “We wanted to further explore the space and ambience of our instrumentation,” says Newton. “To offer an album that deliberately pushes and pulls in a multitude of directions throughout its duration.”

And the resulting album does just that. From the opening ‘Peacehaven’, the album locks into a groove that marries taut and explosive rhythms with an immersive textural approach that owes as much to eruptions of noise as it does moments of restraint. This sense of balance, contrast and duality is fundamentally at the heart of JOHN. They are an outfit who on the surface are stripped back to a bare bones essence, a format perhaps lazily synonymous with just primitive rock, yet their work is richly layered and multifaceted – resulting in something that eschews and evades easy genre categorisation.

This is crystalised in the band’s name too. It may appear to be a simple play on the pair’s name but, as ever with the band, search harder for deeper meaning and you’ll be rewarded with something that contains not only artistic thought but also a mission statement that has been integral to the band’s creative process over the last decade. “It’s a statement against colouring the music with superfluous attachments,” explains Newton. “It says: ‘we’re not going to be sensational’. It doesn’t mean to say it’s not intensely theatrical but I think there’s enough theatre in the actual energy that’s on the stage.

This approach is perfectly embodied by the guests who appear on the album. For many bands, if they had managed to bag A-list actor Simon Pegg to appear on their album, it would be something that was shouted about or placed front and centre but here, on ‘Media Res’, the band almost bury Pegg on a grainy, scratchy monologue-led track. It’s a piece that is influenced by Brecht-ian theatrical methods “aimed to strip away needless aesthetics and to encourage the audience to take an active spectatorship in the theatre”.

The same can be said of Barry Adamson, who appears subtly on ‘Riddley Scott Walker’. For JOHN, it was what Adamson, who is a fan of the band,represented that was more key to his inclusion rather than shouting about a name. “It’s great to have someone who understands a similarly cinematic approach to music,” says Newton. “Especially having created music for David Lynch’s Lost Highway and his own imaginary film score Moss Side Story.”

The band’s cinematic tendencies nestle up beautifully alongside their instinctive rawness. On ‘A Submersible’ the track evolves from almost ambient shoegaze, backed by sparse drums and Newton’s low-in-the-mix vocals, and steadily grows into something more animated as Newton grows angrier and his vocals transform into a growl as the song explodes into something engulfing – creating its own distinct narrative arc.

Even a track such as ‘Service Stationed’, a ceaselessly propulsive track with an infectious hook and vocal refrain that results in a neat 3-minute radio-friendly number, possesses an inescapable atmospheric presence amidst all the pummelling guitars, pounding drums and guttural vocals.

A Life Diagrammatic is full of these kinds of juxtapositions that have been central to the band’s ethos. While you may find evocative imagery anchored to physical places or themes that touch upon everything from overproduction to industry and its impact on nature, you won’t find it served up in neatly digestible soundbites. “There’s multiple themes but it’s not a concept record,” says Newton. “I live and die by a text by Italo Calvino on exactitude, which is essentially saying: what words am I using and what is someone getting from that? It’s essentially about the total inability of language to accurately describe something in totality. That’s what I’ve really taken into writing lyrics. I find it like this really nice puzzle to solve.”

In an age of band’s jumping on buzzword bandwagons and serving up obvious and tired opinions as revelatory statements, Newton’s more nuanced lyrical approach is a refreshing antidote. “Thematically, there is very little interest in hammering home opinion or emotion in a direct slogan-bound manner,” says Newton. “There is a big contemporary enjoyment of very, very direct lyricism which I hate. It lacks artistry. I think that there’s a talent to be able to say something but not in a really forceful way.”

This kind of indirect poetic lyricism is matched by Healey’s guitar playing, which avoids predictable and conventional blues-based rock riffs and instead offers up something more expressive and lyrical. For this record Healey effectively gave himself a new sonic language to work in. He completely changed the tuning of his guitar so that when muscle memory went to strike a familiar chord, the sound it returned was different, which rewired his thinking about how to shape and construct the music. “It’s the same as if you’re an artist and you’ve got shapes that you rely on,” says Healey. “So it was changing that up to make it more interesting and test the boundaries of what I could do.”

The band have a rich history of independence and doing things for themselves and as a result they have shaped every aspect of JOHN with great thought and detail. They formed their own label Pets Care Records and built up such momentum that they were invited to support bands such as IDLES, Mclusky and METZ and by the time of their second album, 2019’s, Out Here On The Fringes, they found themselves in Top 40 of the Independent Vinyl Chart and featured as Album of the Day on BBC 6Music.

This spirit continues and given Newton’s background as a visual artist – he has a master’s degree in Contemporary Art Practice from The Royal College of Art, London – this side of the band is integrated on a deep level. “I tend to build all the surrounding artwork and ephemera at the same time as we write the songs,” says Newton. “That helps me and Johnny build the type of world that the album lives in.”

The album’s front cover is perfectly reflective of its contents – a photograph of the inside of a discarded household boiler. “It quite literally displays an object of production and replacement,” says Newton. “The sun reflects on its bronze internal component creating a natural spectrum, and perhaps draws attention to the honesty and beauty of the raw material itself – despite being interpreted as an object that is unwanted and unvalued.”

It’s this level of thought, ambition and scope that makes JOHN such a captivating and genre-defying band, and A Life Diagrammatic such a rich and evocative listening experience. And the album artwork is perhaps a perfect metaphor for the band itself: a surface level glance may only reveal the basic function of an ostensible two-piece rock band but undertake a full service and you’ll discover a wealth of complexity, technicality, skill and function. Or quite simply, as Healey himself says, “we’re not just a rock band. There’s more to it than that.”