“Whenever you write something, whenever you make something, you’re trying to discover a truth — “a” truth — whatever that is.” -Joshua Jones
Joshua Jones is a Welsh poet, artist and author, making music under the moniker Human Head. Currently signed to Beth Shalom Records, Joshua has released an EP and standalone single with collaborators Thom Weeks (Gnarwolves, Shit Present) and Rory Padfield to critical acclaim; his work has also been published by Circle House Records and nawr Magazine. Joshua spoke to PRXLUDES about his artistic vision for Human Head, his experiences in UK spoken word and DIY music communities, and some of the artists that influence his writings.
Hi Joshua! Tell me about some of the work you’ve been doing recently — how has your creative output been affected by covid?
I’ve been doing a lot of collage and cut-up poetry. During my Masters in Creative Writing, I wrote a book, and now I’m writing another book which is about being in lockdown, naturally. It’s [set] during lockdown, but not necessarily “about” lockdown — to be honest, I wanna read stuff about people’s personal experiences during this time, but I don’t care for a book that lists all the facts and events of it, trying to write a timeline or something. Just give me the personal take.
Stuff that I’ve been writing [about] so far has touched upon being autistic, and dealing with all this. There’s a lot in there to do with being on the spectrum. Me and my partner were together for a month before lockdown, and then we decided to move in together; my girlfriend and I have been exploring sexuality and gender a lot in lockdown, which I [also] want to write about. I feel like there’s a lot of different takes that deserve to be written about, and [that] have everything as a backdrop.
Has there been anything in particular you’ve been thinking of recently with regards to your process?
Something I’ve noticed over the last year or so, is that whenever I make something — whether that be a video, a collage, [or] I write something — it’s usually quite fragmentary, it’s got a collage style. I think that’s one of the reasons I love making collage so much; you’re cutting something up and making something new out of it; you take something, you break it down and you recontextualise it. I used to love downloading videos off [of] YouTube, and then cutting them up and making a new video out of them. I always get really drawn to stuff like that when people do it, whether that be in sound, or video, or whatever.
Let’s talk about your amazing new single, ‘Monsterhouse’ — I absolutely love it. When did you initially write the poem, and was there anything particular on your mind?
Monsterhouse [the poem] has been around for a while. I think I wrote it in [around] 2016; it’s got quite a lot to do with death, and I feel like that year, there was a lot of art to do with death, there were a lot of celebrity deaths… that was a weird year for it. That year you had Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave, you had Blackstar by [David] Bowie, A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie, A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead… those are the four that come to mind immediately. You had these massive albums by massive artists that were discussing things [surrounding] death, the death of a loved one, grief, hopelessness and memory. I’m not necessarily saying that I was thinking about those albums when I wrote it, but at least to me, there’s an interesting thread [there] — I wrote something about death in the same year that those albums came out. Clearly, a good time for a potential crisis. -laughs-
I didn’t realise it was that long ago; that was definitely a strange year. How did that translate into the subject matter of the poem — if it did?
‘Monsterhouse’ is mostly to do with my [great-]grandfather, who suffered from dementia. After the death of his wife — you could tell he was headed in that direction [before], but when she did die — he rapidly declined; the grief and broken heart did just bring it on a lot more. It’s a weird one, with dementia; they just forget everything. I did have in mind all that, the stuff that made him who he was. He was a soldier in World War Two — he served in Singapore — he was a husband and a family man, he was a choir singer [too] — he sang in Welsh and toured the world — so there’s all of these aspects of his identity, and also my personal response to seeing him deteriorate. I don’t agree with war, and guns, and weapons at all — it’s completely against my ideology — but it was still a part of his makeup, [it still] made up his identity. So I was mindful to say [that] this was a part of him, but without passing judgement; people didn’t go to war because they wanted [to], it was just expected.
Originally, I had this idea to portray his condition as a physical space. As his memory left him, the house became vacant. But I couldn’t decide whether the ‘house’ was his brain or his body, and then I felt I may have been doing him a disservice by trying to convey his being and his suffering into a fine art piece. I guess that’s still kind of happened.
I wouldn’t say I’d consider that to be a disservice — if anything, that goes to show the kind of impact he had on you, and the way you portray it is just a reflection of that.
I had this thought of identity, and how we choose to remember a person; how we want to be remembered, what makes up our identity, what makes up our memory, and how we preserve that — what do we choose to preserve? I talk about the house, medals, [his] sword; I remember he had next to his armchair [a] tin, and he’d break up blocks of Cadbury’s… I remember stuff like that, the tin, his medals, his photographs, everything. But [if] someone asked me, I’d say a person’s memory isn’t in objects. I had all that in mind, and it got me thinking about my own mortality, [and] how I’d want to be remembered, thinking to the future and thinking “fuck, what if that’s me one day? What if I forget everything, and I don’t recognise my own family?” It’s terrifying.
It is terrifying. If you’ve listened to any of The Caretaker’s albums — they make me question things like that sometimes.
Yeah, especially if you’re aware that it’s happening as well, and you’re like “fuck, this horrible thing is happening to me, and I can’t do anything about it”… Is that worse than going through it and not being aware of it? Especially if it gets [so bad] that you forget you have dementia.
I’m interested to hear about your journey from writing poetry into doing the stuff you do with Human Head. When did things really catalyse for you?
My parents say I’ve always written stuff, even as a kid, but I can’t remember. I started writing poetry seriously when I was in my first year of university in Southampton. A friend introduced me to Arab Strap, and that changed everything for me. Hearing Aidan Moffat’s Scottish spoken word over music kind of gave me the validation I needed to write and perform poetry. And he is unapologetically Scottish in his vocal delivery, which encouraged me to never hide my Welsh voice in my work.
I’ll need to check them out. How did you first start getting involved with spoken word communities?
I used to do a lot of open mic nights and slams and stuff, which I fucking despised. -laughs- It just wasn’t really my thing, but it was necessary, to be honest; if you want to do local gigs and get your name out there and stuff, you kind of have to. There’d be the ones who’d be doing like a “Slam — poetry — voice!”, and there’d be people doing a hip-hop thing… It did put me off spoken word for a while, and made me think my style was really weird, and [that] it didn’t really fit that sort of thing.
But when I found poetry communities on Twitter, and people involved in the DIY, indie publishing scene, I was like “oh okay, this is more my thing”. For example, I showed this person involved in the indie publishing scene a few poems, and she was like “this reminds me of Frank O’Hara”, and we were discussing his style of writing — this New York drawl and quite conversational tone — which I really liked. If he was still alive and doing gigs, it would be “anti-slam”, so completely against the stuff that’s popular now, which I fucking love.
Talk to me about how you developed your style from there…
Even from the very start — without sounding like a dickhead — I don’t think I fit together all that well. I remember the first gig that I was booked for, I freaked out so [heavily] that I bailed and said “I can’t do it”. So the promoter [asked] me “do you wanna do my next gig”, so I was like yeah, fuck it, I’ll do that — so the one that should’ve been my second gig was my first, and my stage fright was so bad, man. I was so freaked out [that] I didn’t know how to start my set — I didn’t know how to be like “I’m about to start, listen to me”, so I just screamed. I let out the biggest fucking wail.
That’s the best way to start a gig. -laughs-
Everyone was not paying attention, not even looking at me, so I just screamed, and everyone jumped out of their skin, and [the venue] went quiet. I didn’t even say anything, I just went into my first poem. I’m a bit cringed out by it — it wasn’t planned — I didn’t even know I was gonna do that until I was like “shit, I just screamed”. -laughs- That was at a DIY zine fair — there were people selling zines, DIY knitted stuff, handmade clothes, and there [were] acoustic artists and poets in a separate room. It was a cool space, to be fair.
So that sort of thing, I fitted in, but when I started doing more “purely poetry” stuff… Looking back on it, I don’t think I was 100% perfect. It’s weird; I felt more comfortable on stage opening up for a band, even though I was more of a sore thumb, because they’d be all bands and I was the only poet there. But it felt like more of a fit for me. I supported Listener in Southampton, which was quite cool; I’ve played with Cassels and Crywank a few times, and stuff like that. I just felt more comfortable doing that sort of thing.
Tell me about the Human Head writing process — is Human Head predominantly a musical project? Have you written poetry before with the instrumentals in mind?
Human Head is essentially an umbrella for creativity. I don’t make music myself, but Human Head is an umbrella for collaboration, essentially; one day it may not be music, it may be that I’m working with a ceramicist [and] I’m doing poetry with ceramics, or someone who embroiders, or something. It’s purely collaborative, it’s an art project more than a band.
I was really inspired by Joan of Arc — they’ve been pretty divisive, people either love [them] or hate [them] — as that band is basically an art project operating an open-door policy. This gives them the freedom to constantly evolve and experiment. This is what allowed them to stay fresh and exciting for over 20 years. Have you seen [the] Noisey documentary, called ‘Your War (I’m One Of You’)’?
I haven’t seen it yet, I’ll need to check it out.
I’ve watched that documentary, like, ten times. That documentary [covers] 20 years of Joan of Arc; if you were a punk kid from Chicago, you listened to Joan of Arc. That was it — they were adored. But Tim [Kinsella] alienated his entire fanbase because people expected Joan of Arc to be Cap’n Jazz 2.0, and he got bullied by the press and everything, they were shit towards Joan of Arc. It was so divisive, because they were so experimental [and] so art-rock — there’s a lot of experimental music that does get popular, [but] a lot of the time, it’s still accessible in some way, or at least the artist [has] thought of the listener to some degree (even if they won’t admit it) — with Joan of Arc, they’ve never thought about the listener. It sounds like they’ve made music for themselves — I know that every artist says that… “yeah, okay, so why is it on every pop playlist?” -laughs- — to the point where all their jokes are inside jokes, that no one will get; it’s really obscure and obtuse. Maybe it’s because I’m a dick, but I love how alienating that can be, and how difficult that can be to get into. And I’m heartbroken they’re calling it a day!
You have 100% sold Joan of Arc for me. -laughs- How does that ethos relate to your compositional process with Human Head?
I kinda feel that with regards to Human Head stuff. It’s completely for me; it’s what I want to say [about] what I like, and I’m collaborating with people that I give a shit about, and they give a shit about me and my art. So, Human Head is for anyone who wants to get involved. [But] whenever anyone says they “like” it, I’m like “fuck, really?” -laughs-
I think people don’t give themselves enough credit — your material so far is brilliant. There’s one track I particularly like on your debut EP — ‘Look Shocked’ — that’s incredibly danceable…
What’s really funny is that one of my favourite songs of all time is ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless; you may not know the name off [the top of] your head, but when you hear the riff, you’re like “yeah, I know this song”. It’s the best dance song of all time. I just wanted to make my own version of a dance track. ‘Look Shocked’ samples Belinda [Carlisle]’s ‘Heaven Is a Place On Earth’ [too]. -laughs-
Let’s talk about the writing process for that debut EP, ‘No One Lives Here Yet’. How was the project conceived?
That EP was made with Thom [Weeks] from Gnarwolves. We’ve been friends for years. It was a bit weird really; I was a massive fan of Gnarwolves when I was 15, 16. That’s when I started going to shows for the first time. In my hometown, there’s nothing; like, if I wanted to go to a gig, I’d have to take a train for an hour and 20 minutes to Cardiff — it’d be like £20 for the train, a tenner for the gig — sometimes I’d go up from school, [and] if it was a weekend, I’d go for the whole day, I’d make a day out of it. I’d have to save up. A gig would be an event for me; by the time I’d gone to a gig, it would’ve been £50.
Damn, that sounds crazy; I take it things changed once you moved to Southampton…
When I first went to gigs, it was once in a blue moon, and when I went to uni, I [was going to] three or four a week. Being able to walk to a venue… you’re able to leave your house, ten minute walk and you’re there. The Joiners was literally behind my halls in first year. Sometimes, to save money, I’d go to my room between bands, down a can and come back. -laughs-
So anyway, I first became friends with Thom by going to gigs to see Gnarwolves. [I] saw them in Cardiff, saw them in Bridgend, [and] when I went to Southampton, I got involved in the local DIY music scene, and everyone knew each other. People I became friends with happened to be really good friends with the Gnarwolves lot; for example one time, Gnarwolves were on tour with The Front Bottoms, and they came back to a mates’ house, and we were drinking and smoking and shit… Thom [had] released a solo record under his own name, and did a weekend tour, and I put the Southampton show on in my living room. We just knew each other [through those things], and we really got on.
That sounds like an awesome time — Gnarwolves were a brilliant band. How did the collaboration between the two of you develop?
It was Christmas [of] 2017, I think. I was in Exeter, I was at the Cavern Christmas show, and his other band — Shit Present — were playing. We were chatting outside, and [he asked] how the poetry stuff was going. I [said] I had a bunch of poems written, and [didn’t] know what to do with them; I feel like I can make songs out of them, and he was like “I’ll make songs with you”. So I was like yeah, fucking sick, let’s do it.
So in the new year, I’d go over his house for the weekend, and spend the whole weekend cooking food, hanging out, drinking and making music. This whole time we were making that record, we were fucking blazed as well. -laughs- I remember with ‘Look Shocked’, he had made the beat and I was like “I’ve got this idea… what if we sample this song?” and he was like “nah, that’s stupid man”, and I was like “trust me”. And he was silent for 20 minutes, and he started giggling out of nowhere… I [asked] why he was laughing, and he was like “this works so well”. -laughs-
So, if I’m getting this right, the general writing process starts with the poem, and then the instrumentals tend to happen later with an outside collaborator?
With the EP, I had these bunch of poems to work on, and me and Thom happened to [make something] really naturally, and that was great. I did really want Thom to do Human Head with me, and do it as a two-piece, but he had work and other [projects] going on, which is absolutely fair enough. I want it to be sort of open-door; if someone approached me and wanted to do something with me, then I’d absolutely consider it. I love collaborating with people.
That happened with ‘Monsterhouse’. I had this poem for ages; I released it through Circle House Records — they did an EP of purely spoken word tracks — [and] I knew when I started Human Head, I would love to put music to that track. [Then] Rory Padfield approached me, and was like “I loved the EP, I love what you do with Human Head, if you want to do something together, I’m up for it”. I didn’t really have any plans for another EP, [and] I didn’t want to commit to a full EP, so [I said] I had this poem that I wanted to use for years, and he fucking blew my mind with his production on [it]. It was really interesting to trust someone with a poem so personal and let them do their own thing with it.
Do you reckon that’s the kind of approach you’ll keep taking with regards to Human Head?
When working on the EP, and working on this song, I felt like a director; I’d say the vibe I wanna go for, the mood, the sounds, everything that I want. There is a constant dialogue and communication, [but] I do feel like a director or something. So far, it’s worked; I really like working like that. I think the next thing I might do is gonna be a bit different.
Me and Joe Booley from Beth Shalom [Records] are working on an EP together, which is based on dreams, specifically weird lockdown dreams. I’ve read so much about people collectively experiencing fucking crazy dreams during lockdown — I’m not sure if you’d experienced that?
I’ve had weird dreams, sure, but I don’t keep a dream journal or anything. I think a nightmare/lucid dream I had during my first year of uni scared me off from that…
I did keep a dream journal for a bit, but I stopped, because I do that with everything. When I did keep a dream journal, the dreams I had were fucking mental. I was leading Leonardo DiCaprio by the hand around the indoor market of my hometown, showing him south Wales. -laughs-
As you do. -laughs-
When I started trying to pay attention, trying to write them down, I was surprised at how much I actually did remember.
What is it that makes working with Joe so special?
The music we listen to is really different; he likes Sigur Rós, and Keaton Henson, and Bon Iver, which are artists that I like, but they’re not ones I go back to repeatedly. He likes lots of crescendos, ambience, dreamscapes, which I think will be really interesting. I think we’re gonna go for something that’s quite ambient and dreamy, but I’m hoping it’ll go with what I like as well… I like harsh noise, industrial sort of stuff.
I can definitely hear that industrial influence in ‘Monsterhouse’.
Well, me and Rory both love Daughters. That record, ‘You Won’t Get What You Want’… it’s a perfect title [and] a perfect record. We’re [also] both huge fans of Xiu Xiu, who really inspired the sound for ‘Monsterhouse’; both Xiu Xiu and Daughters, and a bunch of other bands and artists, released samples and loops for free through something called ‘Isolate/Create’ at the beginning of lockdown last year. So Rory took one of the Xiu Xiu drum loops, and used it to build the beat in ‘Monsterhouse’; he manipulated it beyond recognition, but it was cool because I fucking love Xiu Xiu and so does he, so we brought that [love] into the song. I think the EP has a lot of industrial vibes [too], but it’s really prevalent on this track. I was really pleased with that. I just love when you start doing [something] with someone on a whim and you just click straight away. He really got what I was going for; my ideas and his ideas gelled really well.
So, to wrap things up a bit; tell me a bit about what writing means to you, personally?
I write in attempt to get closer to the truth. I haven’t decided what the truth is yet.
…Brilliant answer. -laughs-
[I’m] kind of taking the piss a bit. Whenever writers are asked the question “why do you write?” and they always try and say something really clever, but when you pick at it [the argument] crumbles. So it’s just being a stereotypical bullshit writer; for example, when asked “how do you write?”, Stephen King said “it’s easy, I write one word at a time”. [People] are like “oh my god, it’s so clever”… -laughs-
But on the other hand, you have artists, musicians, writers who are overly sincere, as well. “This album is who I am, I’ve rediscovered myself”, and [then] the next album they put out, they go like “no, this is who I am”, and they do that with each one. Some people may see that as bullshit, someone else may see [that] they keep on finding something new about themselves, continually rediscovering themselves. Something that you learn when studying English — in my undergrad, I studied English and Media — [is] that there isn’t truth. For example, in history… history is written by the conqueror, by the victor, so what they present as truth may be true for them, [but] people talk about “the truth” as if it’s one thing, when truth can exist on a spectrum. That’s why we have things like white lies.
Or lies that people tell themselves…
What if there’s just different alternatives to truth? In one of my stories, I have an autistic character, and it’s a way for me to [explore] my own autism; that’s truth for me, but may not be for anyone else, because it’s my experience. Even if I am talking about my experience, experience gets warped and manipulated by time and memory. Say I wrote about an event immediately after it happened, [and] I wrote about the same event the day after, a week after, a year after, and then ten years after, each version of it would be completely fucking different. I guess what I’m trying to say is that whenever you write something, whenever you make something, you’re trying to discover a truth — “a” truth — whatever that is.
Check out more of Human Head’s work at:
- Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd, 2016)
- David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia/Sony, 2016)
- Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2017)
- Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL Recordings, 2016)
- The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners, 2011)
- Arab Strap – Elephant Shoe (Go!, 1999)
- Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) biography, Poetry Foundation
- Cassels – The Perfect Ending (Big Scary Monsters, 2019)
- Crywank – Tomorrow Is Nearly Yesterday And Everyday Is Stupid (independent, 2009)
- Listener – Wooden Heart (independent, 2010)
- Your War (I’m One Of You): 20 Years Of Joan Of Arc, Noisey, 2017
- Faithless – ‘Insomnia’ (Cheeky/BMG, 1995)
- Belinda Carlisle – ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ (MCA, 1987)
- Gnarwolves – Gnarwolves (Tangle Talk/Big Scary Monsters, 2014)
- The Front Bottoms – The Front Bottoms (Bar/None, 2011)
- Shit Present – Shit Present (Specialist Subject, 2015)
- Sigur Rós – Ágætis byrjun (Fat Cat/Smekkleysa, 1999)
- Keaton Henson – Monument (Play It Again Sam, 2020)
- Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar, 2016)
- Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want (Ipecac, 2018)
- Xiu Xiu – Girl With Basket of Fruit (Polyvinyl, 2019)