Right on track with The Goa Express – in conversation with James Douglas Clarke

Rising indie guitar band The Goa Express are the sort of outfit that give me hope for the future of live music.

The Manchester-based Burnley and Todmorden five-piece’s most recent single, ‘Everybody in the UK’, their ‘call-to-arms for togetherness in a world that increasingly looks to drive us apart’, was just the latest statement piece from a group that have been close friends since teen years, harbouring collective dreams of a rock’n’roll career, and determined to enjoy the ride.

That latest 45 came on the heels of the equally impressive ‘Be My Friend’ and ‘Second Time’ (the latter mixed by Ride’s Mark Gardener), all three songs making BBC 6 Music’s A-list, having already proven live favourites at numerous busy headline shows of late, those last two singles issued by happening London indie label Ra-Ra Rok Records.

They’ve also raised their profile through memorable support slots, including on the road stints with The Magic Gang and Shame; played to 1,500 or so punters at Latitude, their first mainstream festival performance; and put in the hours at a Zeitgeist club night at Manchester’s YES.

They’ve clearly come a long way since 2016 debut single, ‘Reincarnation of the Lizard Queen’, and 2017’s surf/psych-punk driven follow-up ‘Goa’/’Kiss Me’. But they retain the ‘play wherever we can’ spirit of their first two live shows – one involving three songs blasted out of a mate’s garage, the next above a vintage shop, the floor nearly caving in – their original maxim of ‘when there’s fuck all, you make do with what you’ve got’ still holding true.

Built around brothers James Douglas Clarke (guitar, vocals) and Joe Clarke (keyboards), Joey Stein (lead guitar), Naham Muzaffar (bass) and Sam Launder (drums, percussion), you only need seek out online footage of their live shows to see what they’re about. And it’s an intense arrangement, by accounts, but works on stage and in the studio, and while there have been occasional bust-ups, they reckon it all aadds to the burning chemistry.

Their stock rose somewhat in 2019 on the back of interest from Steve Lamacq, who gave them their first national radio session for BBC 6 Music in a BBC Introducing slot recorded at Abbey Road’s Gatehouse and Front Room studios. And it’s clear from talking to James that the band – who cite Spacemen 3, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, French existentialism and beat literature as key influences  – are having the time of their lives right now.

As their press biog points out, we’re talking ‘proud Northerners with a DIY foundation that aren’t afraid to look into the often-dim future and see themselves shining brightly in it, unforgiving and unpretentious’. And James came over as modest rather than bullish to me, not taking anything for granted, thankful for the breaks they’ve had so far.

They’ve also garnered interest from BBC Radio 1’s Jack Saunders, who had them on his ‘Next Wave’ segment. As for the tracks that have impressed me so far, I’ll point you towards the afore-mentioned singles and similarly essential B-sides, ‘The Day’ and ‘Overpass, first.

‘The Day’, a surging Teardrop Explodes meets Velvet Underground keyboard-flecked track that pulls out all the stops, was recorded in Sheffield with the Fat White Family’s Nathan Saoudi at his band’s studio, before they headed to another next door to make ‘Be My Friend’ with Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, The Fall). And the latter I see as their true debut 45, described as ‘a cheeky, snarling pop song, holding undertones of raw cynicism laden with psychedelic sunshine’, a high-octane belter reminding me of the fire of personal ‘80s indie favourites like Close Lobsters and The Mighty Lemon Drops.

As for ‘Overpass’, I’m getting Magazine, Wire and Jonathan Richman meet The Fall and Inspiral Carpets. And the fact that those latter two recorded singles with James’ near-namesake John Cooper Clarke has me hopeful that the lauded punk poet might be persuaded to join them for a couple of honed verses of his own on an alternative take one day. They describe that track as ‘a step away from those who’re always trying to get close to you. An avoidance of those that are always hanging round. A shout-out to individuality and an acceptance of rejection’. And like several of their tracks, it’s intense but also a singalong fans’ fave.

As for it’s a-side, ‘Second Time’ – a song that ‘unpicks the imperfections of youth, not dwelling on mistakes, letting them run their course’ – that’s where I started with James, telling him that’s my favourite, in awe at its infectious verve and passion. It’s a song you want to play time and again, capable of forcing the sun out from behind the clouds.

And then I added praise for more baggy-influenced follow-up, ‘Everybody in the UK’. Think Supergrass meet The Stone Roses. Another winner, and anthemic with it.

“Yeah, we hope so, and hope that as the summer months come rolling along, people will be singing it back to us.”

I could see that happening at Kendal Calling or any of the other outdoor events you have lined up. Have you played that South Lakes festival before?

“No, although it’s not too far from us. I don’t think any of us have even been there, but we all love the Lake District. It’s absolutely beautiful. We spent loads of time there as kids walking. And I know quite a few people from that end of the country. I don’t know what to expect from that, but we’re hoping for some nice scenery and sunny days.”

The latest single’s promo video was filmed not so far from Kendal, the band seen throwing pebbles by the water’s edge and also watching a stock car racing event.

“That was in Carnforth. That was great. Luckily, the rain held off. When we arrived, it was dead windy and it was absolutely bucketing it down, us thinking, ‘Not another music video where we’re stuck in the wind and the rain, all our hair getting messed around!’. But the weather turned the corner for us.”

Well, either way, it goes with your Northern territory.

“Absolutely. You never know what you’re going to get!”

You say the key message of that single is togetherness. And we all need a bit of that right now, don’t we?

“Yeah, togetherness, but also – with our more abrupt nature – if you’re not together, don’t stick around. If you’re not on the right side, do one!”

Well said, that man. You and your bandmates have stuck by each other for a long time though.

“Absolutely. We all met in year eight at school. In fact, the others met in year seven, when we were 13 … now we’re 24. So it’s been a good portion of our lives, pretty much half our lives.”

A certain Joe Clarke plays keyboards for the band. Are you the big brother?

“Erm … I think I have to adopt that role sometimes. But I’m not the sternest in the band … and I’m definitely not the most organised. I’m not the most ‘on it’ sort of person. But yeah, I guess so. I guess I maybe adopt that role sometimes.”

Are you more the frontman?

“Yeah, I do the singing and all that sort of stuff … and make sure everyone’s doing their job!”

You’ve had plenty of good support of late, in influential circles. Not least with Mark Gardener, of Ride fame, helping out. Is that a band you were into?

“Yeah, we all were. We all quite like that sort of shoe-gazey stuff. Yeah. We all sort of bonded over that when we were quite young, so that was pretty surreal. He had a nice set-up down in Oxford. I remember walking through the fields in the heat of summertime to record it. A nice few days. He’s got some mad guitars, some quite cool guitars. We stayed in some tiny, weird Airbnb farmhouse that had a farm shop and all that.”

At this point, I mentioned being at a one-day festival at Upton Court Park, Slough, not far from my old patch, in 1991, Ride topping the bill, with support from Curve, The Mock Turtles, Slowdive, 1,000 Yard Stare, and Ratcat, the headlinersd at the height of their success back then. And with that, James let on that he was hoping the band could get in to see them play Manchester Academy when they played there (that was in late April).

Steve Lamacq has also got behind the band, playing The Goa Express on his BBC 6 Music show.

“He has, and we did a session for him. We recorded ‘Second Time’ at Abbey Road, and he picked up on us. He’s been sound and he’s mates with a friend of ours, Paul. And there are other familiar faces around that sphere where we haven’t been introduced yet, but I’m sure we will as time goes on.”

Recording at Abbey Road must have been a big moment.

“Yeah, that was good fun. We recorded it, then were sat on it for a while, before Mark mixed it. And we enjoyed having a bit of time away, taking everything with open arms.”

You’ve also built up quite a live following.

“We have. The live shows are always dead fun to play. Some go really well. We’re on tour for a full month soon, then we’ve got the summer seasons and festivals to look forward to. So towards the end of the tour, we should be as close to being perfect as humanly possible.”

I hear you got a good turnout at Yes in Manchester a while ago.

“Yeah, we did the ZeitFest, and for some absurd reason played that festival three times on the same day, with our first show at noon, a second at six, then our final show at three in the morning. The second was the best, the third a bit of a write-off, but it took some balls to go and do it … and we had them.”

That’s true. No one really wants that slot, surely.

“No one wants to do three shows in the same day. That was the main problem!”

Think of it as your Hamburg years, all part of your apprenticeship towards the big time.

“Exactly. We were burnt out after that. Oh, my God!”

Is that right you’ve got Burnley roots? Is that where you all went to school?

“Yeah, spot on. Me and Joe, my brother, are from Todmorden, a small town just next to Burnley. And we all went to school in Burnley. That’s how we met everyone else.”

I’ve told people this before, but recall driving through your old neck of the woods en route to cover a football match once, playing Revolver on my car stereo, and it seemed like everyone I saw along that stretch of the road, and all the scenery I experienced as I came through neighbouring Portsmouth, fitted those psychedelic moments on that amazing LP so well, the imagery of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ seemingly perfectly written for my surroundings.

“It is quite a weird little place. It’s hard through the winter, but as soon as the sky and the valley opens up, it’s absolutely stunning. But the winter months are tough.”

You were perhaps far too young first time around to have been influenced by some of the bands I hear in you when they first broke through. I also hear the likes of Fontaines DC, but then there are the ‘80s and ‘90s indie influences, with at least one of those bands from your part of the country, Colne’s Milltown Brothers.

“Ah yeah, and Naham (Muzaffar, bass guitar), his family live in Colne.”

You certainly have the potential to be the next biggest thing from that area.

“Yeah … if we ever make it properly.”

That’s not in doubt as far as I can tell … not as if I’m always right about such things, mind. But you’re Manchester-based now though.

“Yeah, basically we all moved to university in Manchester, which was quite remarkable considering we were doing all the band stuff on the side. I can’t believe all of us still managed to keep the two things going. And we’ve lived all over town. I’ve lived in Moss Side, I’ve lived in Hulme and Longsight, I’ve lived in Ancoats, lived around Oxford Road, lived all over Manchester for the last five years.”

When you play Manchester’s White Hotel this month, that will be the closest to a homecoming then.

“It’s definitely a bit of a homecoming show. It’s pretty wild playing in Manchester, as you’d imagine. All our friends are out all the time and just want to go partying soon as you put your guitar down, so yeah, we’ll see. We’ll try and keep it a little bit sensible until after the show, then we’ll let our hair down a little!”

You mentioned university studies. Did you all get through?

“We did, yeah. We all got through and all did quite well, sort of commendable for everyone to have done that. We’ve had our moments of stress, but also decided we were going to do this from a pretty young age, and we still love doing it.”

Was there a band you saw around then that made you think this was what you wanted to do with your life?

“Yeah, probably the Brian Jonestown Massacre. We all went and saw them when we were like … I don’t even know, we were definitely way under-age for going out in Manchester, going to parties all night! We were probably 16. We got the bus up, and it was just one of them coincidental moments where every single one of us had a ticket. We were already all into music, but after seeing them we were like, ‘This is what we should do!’.”

Did that sharpen the focus?

“Yeah, and to this day we still love that band. I think they’re on tour soon, and when they play in Manchester, I assume we’re all gonna be there again.”

It sounds like your own early gigs were special, like that first one in a mate’s garage and another above a vintage shop.

“Yeah, and we have a similar mentality now. We’ll play anywhere! But being in Burnley, unfortunately – for whatever reason – it was sort of limited. I can’t think of any actual venues in Burnley (we could play) when we were at college. It was a case of, ‘Who’s got space? Who’s got a room? Who’s got a garage? If you need something doing at the weekend, we’ll come and play for you.’”

At that point, James is interrupted by what I assumed was either an air-raid siren or a peacock. What on earth was that?

“Seagulls, that, man! I’m not in Manchester at the moment. I’m on Brighton Marina, looking out at loads of boats.”

He was visiting his Dad on the south coast, enjoying time away before the tour, ready to head back north the next day, the band’s Great Escape festival appearance in the East Sussex resort still some way off at the time. And what’s next for the band? Is there an LP on the way? There have been a few singles so far. Are you building up to that?

“I think in terms of material, there’s definitely an album there. We just keep writing, non-stop, taking away surplus stuff that doesn’t sort of make the cut, filling the gaps. We just keep going. We’re all big grafters, and we’ll carry on grafting, playing shows, writing, doing things on our own, and hopefully the time will come.”

Are there day-jobs? Or are you giving everything for this?

“There aren’t really any day jobs. That makes it dead tough, but we’ve just got to try and keep our heads above water for the next few months. We’ve put a lot of time into this, and it’s not really just about the band. We all hang out, go and do stuff together. It’s more about the sort of life that comes with it. So yeah, much as we could do with some money, none of us really want to work. We want to do this.”

I get the feeling you’ll get there, and soon. What would the dream be? Three years down the line, where do you reckon you could be? And is there a band manifesto?

“There’s never been a manifesto. We embrace everything with open arms. I think the one thing we all wanted to do, fundamentally, when we started, was go travelling, see new places and meet new people. It’s never really been like a goal – I don’t like using that term – but I guess we’d all like to play in America at some point, see some weird landscapes and weird people!”

We mentioned influences, talking about the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and you’ve mentioned Spaceman 3 before, while I hear Bizarro-era Wedding Present guitars here and there, but also the crossover indie pop of bands like the afore-mentioned Milltown Brothers, and Supergrass too. I guess the bottom line is that you seem to know how to write some cracking hooks and great songs.

“Yeah, we just try and write things that are pretty catchy. Then as soon as they get stuck in your head, you’re screwed, aren’t you!”

The Goa Express’ latest tour details are shown above, with further dates lined up this summer on June 10th at Syd For Solen Festival, Copenhagen; July 23rd at Truck Festival, Oxford; July 24th at Tramlines Festival, Sheffield; and July 31st at Kendal Calling Festival, Lowther Park. For more details try the band’s Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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