We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

‘White Noise,’ the debut single by Viewer, has just been played on Radio 1 by Huw Stephens, who’s making very enthusiastic noises. The video is racking up the hits on YouTube by the second. Nothing so unusual about that in itself. New bands get airplay all the time, get masses of hits on YouTube. Some get tipped as the next big thing, others just get a song played and that’s it. The difference is, I don’t normally know the artists.

On the face of it, he’s an unlikely up-and-coming pop star. Yet at 33, Andy Johnson, the voice of Viewer and a man with a face that looks like it’s seen some living, is standing on the verge of something big. And it’s all a little strange. As he tells it, though, it’s life as usual for him (even if he doesn’t bust moves outside his local Indian takeaway as a rule – as he does in the video), and what’s strange is the way those around him are getting hyped – rather like his record.

So when we meet up for a drink, as we do every few weeks, and as we have been doing off and on for years, of course we talk about the latest events in his life, but mostly we ramble on about books and music and current affairs and the state of society and popular culture – same as ever. It’s definitely a good sign, and it’s clear that these early hints of success aren’t going to his head. But then, why would they? He’s hardly having to do heavy press or being called up by MTV or the NME, and he’s not exactly getting rich off it. At least not yet. It’s not all about the money, of course – although as he’ll be the first to admit, some money would be nice, and he’s chuffed that the early airplay will at least pay something in royalties.

Perhaps it’s his age, or perhaps it’s that he’s generally pretty well grounded and cynical. Andy’s been making music for years. Up to now, his projects have broadly reflected his listening tastes: guitar-based pop with a quirky edge, given to lyrical wordplay and clever rhymes (the press release for the single refers to ‘his witty kitchen-sink commentary) has, to now, been his forte, drawing influence from bands like Sparks, Pulp, The Divine Comedy. However, this latest venture couldn’t be more different. In many ways, the same is true of his collaborator, the quiet and rather enigmatic Tim Wright, who’s been in the industry producing electronic music since the 90s under various guises such as Tube Jerk (by which he’s produced not only a substantial back-catalogue, but also earned considerable respect in the techno world), Germ, and Pin. This is, however, perhaps his most overtly commercial project. After all, the guy does list Bauhaus, Swans and Throbbing Gristle amongst his influences, alongside Led Zeppelin, Butthole Surfers, The Fall and Killing Joke. Not yer average technohead’s fodder.

I’ve actually known Andy for a good number of years, and so in some respects it’s strange for me to witness this change in fortune. But no, I don’t begrudge him this taste of success, not least of all because I have immense respect for him as an artist, and as a person. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say he’s worked hard for this, because his involvement in Viewer was quite a chance event in many ways, and he’s one of the least fame-hungry people you could ever meet. However, he has most definitely lived it, and he’s endured a succession of mind-numbing admin jobs and years of skintness while honing his craft as a lyricist. While some may consider his refusal to pursue a career, I personally applaud his policy of no sell-out. That’s what’s meant by keeping it real.

The single is a rant against nanny state politics, and in many ways isn’t all that different from a night in the pub with Andy, as he swipes against the smoking ban (it’s not just the ban he has issues with, but its application and the strange details – not to mention the contradiction of a government reliant on the taxes on tobacco for funds, and not just to the NHS) and the relentless erosion of personal freedoms in the interest of ‘protection.’

Another future classic that’s been tearing up the dancefloors is ‘Sunrise,’ which opens with the lyric ‘Hell is a nightclub.’ It’s not only an even better cut than ‘White Noise,’ but also perfectly encapsulates the contradictions that make Viewer such an interesting proposition. Yes, a dance track that features lyrics that berate the inherent shitness of club culture, going down a storm with the very people it’s pointing the finger at. That’s what I call subversion. Yet another track, ‘Dumb it Down,’ is a fairly savage attack on popular culture and lowest-common-denominator media.

Writing the lyrics, in particular to ‘Dumb it Down,’ is a challenge he relishes. Sue, he can spout, but keeping things succinct and fitting them to a dance beat is a whole other discipline, even from indie-pop lyric writing. He tells me how he had a whole set of lyrics penned for ‘Dumb it Down,’ then realised that for the song to work, he had to really strip it back: to dumb it down. Having had a preview of the track, I have to say he’s done a brilliant – and in places hilarious – job.

The world needs articulate lyricists right now more than ever. What’s more, in a time when music is becoming evermore specialist, and the polarity between mainstream chart music and everything else increasingly marked, bands with such immense crossover potential and broad appeal – while retaining credibility – are rare indeed. Viewer: ones to watch.

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