SoberPunks Interview: Johnny Ultraviolence

Johnny Ultraviolence is a legend in the circles in which I move. Those among us with a penchant for extreme music – specifically the melding of punk attitude and rap with hard-hitting techno and gabber – will undoubtedly hold a soft spot for this man and the noisy gifts he brought us back in the 90s. Known simply as ULTRAVIOLENCE, he was one of the first guys to ever get electronic dance music into the hearts and minds of balls-to-the-wall rock fans, and even scored a tour with bald vegetable-enthusiast Moby in the process, as well as peaking the interest of some big record labels – signing a deal with well known Nottingham heavy metal record label Earache Records.

My first introduction to Ultraviolence was around 97 or 98, with his flagship tune Hardcore Motherfucker being blasted out to a dancefloor of mangled bodies at Halifax’s ill-fated rock/dance club and pillhead hangout Tramshed Zoo Bar.

Hailing from London and now living in Norfolk, Johnny’s unique sound was heard worldwide, and his influence on the music world, especially in the cyber and industrial scenes, is still felt far and wide.

In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to share a stage with the man himself, and feel even more privileged to be able to call Johnny a friend. Although not teetotal, Johnny has lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle and earned his stripes as an authoritarian on the subject of BOOZE and LOUD MUSIC. It’s for this reason I wanted to interview him for SoberPunks.

Oh, and I can also state – based on first-hand experience – that Johnny Ultraviolence gives the best hugs. He might make the scariest fucking sounds you’ve ever heard, but he’s just a big teddy bear really…

Thanks Johnny for agreeing to be interviewed for SoberPunks. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your music career?

Thank you. I got involved in writing electronic music as a teenager in the late ‘80s, and it got serious when I made my own record in the early ‘90s. I got a short lived major record contract off the back of that, but was best known for my albums as Ultraviolence for Earache Records. There was a period of about five years when I was gigging and releasing regularly and on radio and TV every so often, so I got recognised in the pub and sometimes in shops, which was lots of fun but it never got to be so often it was annoying…I loved it! The music began as a crossover between hard dance and industrial, breaking into very severe hardcore or melodic poppish music at various points. There was normally some sort of point or story to the music and I’m still really pleased with it. I did a few naff things to get started, but I found that the more heartfelt tracks were the more popular ones – so I stuck with those.

Ultraviolence kind of finished in 2001. I really wanted mainstream success or nothing and ended up with the latter! It got dragged out with a ‘Best Of’ album in 2005 but I’d really had enough, everything I wrote seemed to be tied up with a set of circumstances I wasn’t happy with.

I had a go at resurrecting Ultraviolence to run in tandem with a teaching career in 2012, which seemed to be going excellently, but I got M.E. and couldn’t carry it off.

I’m currently concentrating on photography.

Alcohol is obviously a huge part of the rock & roll lifestyle. Can you tell us a bit about the role that booze has played in your musical life, as well as in your personal life?

I wasn’t at all keen on drinking as my father was a heavy drinker and could be quite mean, but as soon as I tried it at 16 I immediately loved it and got drunk as much as possible! Playing music was always quite a good excuse to drink, although I didn’t really need one. I had quite a rock n’ roll lifestyle before I started making music professionally. I found it quite a good way to relax after writing music…I feel very, very intense writing and it was a good way either to unwind you or carry on the high into an evening out. I adored it!

On tour I wouldn’t really drink any more than usual but you could see that musicians who didn’t normally drink very much would do so out of boredom. I saw a few people doing the sorts of extreme things I’ve read about on SoberPunks, although all I normally did was make a bit of a fool of myself. I used to cycle a lot so was physically fit, apart from a recurring smoker’s cough.

I thoroughly enjoyed my drinking until around 2001, and as I grew unhappy booze didn’t make me happy any more, and I just drank to escape. In 2006 I gave up for a few years which cleared my head a bit and altered my perspective on things. I just drink at weekends or celebrations now – never on my own as that would make me very sad and frustrated in these downbeat years.

Being able to drink in moderation is a great thing if you can manage it, but it’s something which us ‘enthusiastic drinkers’ generally struggle with – and we usually end up either in a ditch with no trousers, or having to admit defeat and quit the booze entirely. How did you manage to moderate your own drinking after your break in 2006? Any tips?

Haha…you’ll be relieved to know my trousers stayed on the whole time!

Seriously, I’ve been around full on alcoholism with several people and they’re all dead now. The only thing any of them could have done to save themselves was to stop altogether. Seeing some of them changing to weaker drinks, making wild proclamations about the evils of drink – things like that – only prolonged an already lengthy descent which spreads misery and wastes a silly amount of time and money. I don’t mean that in a preachy way, it’s just that if you start adding up all the upset to all the people trying to look after an alcoholic – the long hospital stays and operations, police time, just everything – its astronomical! I’ve tried my best to be kind to these people but I think it went unnoticed. I honestly don’t think it was worth it.

As for me… by 2006 I’d been having problems with booze for a few years. I was fed up with hangovers, making a fool of myself, having very short days, long term health worries and a multitude of things which far outweighed the amount of fun I was having with it. A doctor told me it would be a good idea to give up, and I pretty well LEAPT at the chance. I’d given up smoking the year before, and at 35 any attempts to live fast and die young had very much failed, so I wanted to live as though I would be carrying on to old age instead of just for the moment.

The biggest challenge I faced giving up alcohol was boredom, especially in the pub. I love horsing around and talking silly, and I had felt too self conscious to do that without a drink. It kind of went away after a bit though. I took up serious cookery which make mealtimes exciting without a drink, and around the same time I moved in with my (now) wife which made me generally much happier.

Not drinking can really change the way you see drunk people. I think one of the biggest myths about drink is that it acts as some kind of truth serum… haha… no way… People just talk more and more crap and their faces get uglier, too! Going out in the middle of Edinburgh, where we lived, on a weekend night was just crazy. It was like Dawn of the Dead; stumbling, shuffling, bad attitudes like some kind of a ‘wrongly made person’ factory production line. It was really similar to gabber raves in Holland where everyone is off it on E and speed… just carnage really!

A couple of years later I fancied having a drink at New Year so I asked my doctor. As I’d moved it appeared that they didn’t even know I didn’t drink, so it was like “Yeah, why not!?!” Anyway, I enjoyed that, and it was all fine, so I gradually went back to drinking – but mostly just at weekends. Drinking on my own is a big barrier for me not to cross, and also I just stop drinking if I feel myself getting in a bad mood. I don’t get it right all the time though – and discussing this at length does make me question if I’m doing exactly the right thing.

You mentioned that taking up serious cookery helped to make mealtimes more exciting without booze. What are Johnny Ultraviolence’s signature dishes? Care to furnish us with a killer recipe? I hope they have names like DISTORTED BASS DRUM POTATO AND LEEK SOUP with HARDCORE BREAD AND BUTTER, or 260BPM STEAK WITH SCREAMING GABBER FRIES..?

Ha, well as luck would have it – one of my blog posts from a few years ago was a recipe for Ultraviolence Naga Bird Sauce, and on my Facebook page you’ll see a test bottle of Ultraviolence Masochist Hardcore Chilli Sauce! Unfortunately it was way too costly to put into production, but there you go…

One of the best things about being an experienced cook is that you never have to make the same thing twice, you can just make it up as you go along.

Here’s a recipe for ULTRAVIOLENCE SCORCHED EARTH SAUCE, exclusively for Soberpunks! It will be very hot, but super tasty…

Ingredients

10 dried Naga Chillies
1 Tin of Tomatoes
100ml Red Wine Vinegar
100g Brown Sugar
5 Cloves Garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon Treacle
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
1 tablespoon Fresh Rosemary, off the stem
Juice of 1 Lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Xanthium Gum (optional)

Method

  • Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a slight boil, stirring regularly
  • Reduce to a low heat until bubbling a little. Cook for an hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so
  • Turn off heat and allow to cool for 10 mins
  • Blend thoroughly and transfer to airtight container. Close the container after sauce has cooled
  • Store in fridge – eat within two weeks

That should rock! I’m salivating writing that…

You’ve lived a pretty epic lifestyle what with writing, recording, and touring as Ultraviolence, and I bet you’ve witnessed some real messiness on the road. Tell us some of your nastiest booze stories! I bet the tour with Moby threw up some gems?

Haha, well maybe but I can’t beat some of the SoberPunks stories I’m afraid. I think the fact that the Moby tour still gets brought up, twenty years later, shows what a big favour he did choosing me as a support act. He wrote a charming hand written letter saying how much he liked my track ‘Heaven Is Oblivion’, which was a really up, melodic piece, quite unusual for me.

I was so happy to be asked on the tour. Moby kept himself to himself mostly on tour, and of course we traveled separately. He’s a genuinely modest person – not hanging around before or after soundchecks and shows. I did speak to him for a little while in Glasgow just after soundcheck though; after I’d pleasantly thanked him I asked him why he was playing guitar based music on the tour, instead of the electronic dance material he was known for. I sort of slowly realised something was up and he said “you already asked me that!” And indeed I slowly remembered it was true, that I’d previously met him ‘for the first time’, but was so pissed I’d forgotten all about it! I still feel like a bit of a twat for that – he’s really someone I respect and look up to but it mustn’t have seemed like that from his point of view. On that tour I also tried to piss in our van’s petrol tank at Watford Gap services. I forgot about that as well until I was reminded a few weeks later, and I didn’t believe it to begin with but now I think I can vaguely remember it!

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Ultraviolence: This next one’s called WEEING IN A VAN’S PETROL TANK AT WATFORD GAP SERVICES!

One band I loved touring with was The Exploited. I was, and still am, a huge fan of their music. There was a lot of tension as many of the punks didn’t like us, apart from in London where my crowd turned up too and it was a seriously wonderful night. But one evening I got really fucked off with punks standing around looking bored in my set. I think it was the only really bad gig of the tour so I threw a full glass beer bottle into the audience. I quite often did that so thought no more of it. I found out a year later that it had hit a mixing desk or something, and the club owners were well fucked off with me. I’m still too scared to say where it was as well! Haha…

Anyway, Wattie was fab, he was really friendly and looked after us. He was always willing to give autographs and chat with fans and always checked the ticket prices with venues, things like that. I’m especially bringing it up as he had lots of bad press which as far as I can gather must be FAKE NEWS!

What’s your view of the music industry these days? Are we still seeing new acts that are able to break the mould to the extent that Ultraviolence managed to back in the 90s?

I think so… I’m listening to United States of Horror at the moment, which I think is more popular than I was, and is pretty harsh and original. I’m not so sure that many bands want to break the mould, as it were. I never had that intention, I just made the music that came naturally to me. The fact it didn’t fit into any particular category became much more of an annoyance than something to be proud of, but looking back I have to say I think its quite cool!

There’s a bit less segregation with musical genres nowadays so maybe it’s a bit easier to get on, but an act like Ultraviolence would definitely still have to slug it out building up a following rather than relying on DJ play and dance festivals. I had to work stupidly hard to get any sort of record deal and it would still be hard to get on, but there are the advantages of online promotion – even if that means that more people are doing it. Looking back I sometimes find it a bit hard to believe I got anywhere at all. I managed myself badly; I was on a small independent label specialising in heavy metal, I had no regular agent or anyone else doing anything at all really! I would advise anyone trying to do anything similar to play live as much as possible and build a team of a manager, record label, publisher and an agent. Nobody told me any of that, so I only did the bits I felt like!

Have you seen a shift in the role of alcohol throughout the industry, both with artists and fans?

I haven’t had a huge amount of recent experience, but I think the rise of cheap booze means that people go a bit less mental on the rider. People who cane it are going to drink loads anyway, rider or not, but I don’t think people who don’t will gulp it all down when it costs so little to get wasted anytime. I used to have 20 Marlboro cigarettes on the rider… one night a promoter misread it and got me 20 packets of cigarettes as well as vodka, wine and beer!

With audiences there seems to be less Evian swigging. I think people more mix drink and illegal drugs, whereas people in the 90s would generally be on E at dance events, and booze in traditional venues and rock clubs. Again, the price of booze is less, as are drugs so I gather. My knowledge runs out there…it isn’t my world any more.

And finally; what’s next for Johnny Ultraviolence? Any plans to make a return to the music industry, or is photography the new punk?

Well, I certainly still love music, but I also have M.E. which means I have around 20% of the energy I did when I was healthy, and maybe 40% of what I had when I was drinking heavily.

Writing music from scratch is very tiring right now. I used to love having a million things to concentrate on with loud sound and flashing lights, but now it just makes me really, really tired – and I can’t do it for more than a couple of hours without getting completely exhausted.

Conversely, with photography the process is peaceful. I go out for a few hours where its quiet and there are nice animals for me to take pictures of, and I can just spend an hour or two on the computer processing the images and really get somewhere without wrecking myself. So its going have to be that for now. Should I get better then I’ll see what is possible, or should it carry on like this for another few years I might suck it up and make music occasionally – but realistically it would have to be for fun. My photos are great though… check them out at http://www.jonathancaseyphotography.com – very different to my music but that’s the way I like it.

Thanks for the chat. It’s made me think a lot about drink. I’ll always have this habit of getting a bit addicted to things, and so I have to focus to make sure they are interesting and creative – otherwise distractions like out of control drinking are always tempting.

Johnny Ultraviolence

A huge thanks to Mr Ultraviolence for giving up his valuable time to chat with SoberPunks. I’d highly recommend checking out some of his AMAZING photography on the link he mentions above, or on his Facebook page here.

Sloppy kisses.

J

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One thought on “SoberPunks Interview: Johnny Ultraviolence

  1. jamescaterracing says:

    Great stuff! One of the best and weirdest gigs I ever went to was Carcass with Cubanate as their support. It seemed like most of the crowd HATED Cubanate – piss-take rave dancing and stuff was all going off as I stood taking in a brand new experience. It was probably the real turning point that got me into electronic music as well as metal. To have seen The Exploited and Ultraviolence together would be like that on steroids! Fuse the two and you’d probably get a more serious and angry Petrol Bastard!

    Liked by 1 person

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