“When you’re talking about concepts of death and love and war and revolution and passion and betrayal…”
JOEL HEYES of Byronic Sex & Exile and Goth City talks to Nick Awde
Alhambra Live Magazine #007
Support independent writing, buy me a coffee at buymeacoffee.com/nickawde
— Web: www.byronicsexandxile.co.uk
— Joel Hayes was interviewed at Alhambra Live’s goth festival Bats in the Attic 2022.
— Next up at Alhambra Live is goth music festival Corrosion Fest 23 on March 10-11, 2023.
ALHAMBRA LIVE is one of the biggest grassroots music venues in the North West. Based in Morecambe on the sea Promenade, its adaptable spaces (and unique Lake District views) make it a vibrant hub for all-dayers and weekend festivals (Goth, Mod, Ska, Northern Soul…). It is also a home and hub for gothic music with Corrosion club night and the CorrosionFest & Bats in the Attic festivals. For more info, contact Fiona +44 (0)7771 200 873 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick Awde: There’s a lot of thought that goes into what you do…
Joel Heyes: I’d like to think so. There’s a few basic principles at play but yeah, I like to give people more bang for their buck where possible.
So where did it all start for you?
I have been performing for 23 years now. Probably did my first gig when I was 12, and since then there’s been a journey through [laughs] pretty much more or less every type of gig possible since then. I was supporting the Wonderstuff and the Mission when I was a kid, 13-14, and then we had a band that performed in the youth clubs and pubs and clubs of West Yorkshire. I spent about 15-20 years in industrial punk goth band Action Directe. We played a couple of weekends at Whitby Gothic Weekend and Infest, and Morecambe Goth Festival as well in 2004 – that was the second one. And over the years I’ve set up various new projects of which Byronic Sex & Exile has proved to be the most popular and durable of the lot. That’s mostly my main project now and it’s a lot of fun to be able to do things properly after so many false starts down the years.
What are the ideas that have gone into Byronic Sex & Exile, because it’s a concept as well as a band, isn’t it?
I think the main idea was taking romantic goth seriously as an art form and to reconnect gothic rock to the culture which which spawned it. So that means reconnecting it to the line of gothic fiction and other forms of gothic media, of which obviously there’s a very long tradition now, especially in the UK. So early on there was already a strong literary dimension to what Byronic Sex & Exile was about. Now it’s broadened out into a method of exposing all the different facets of that original direction, and it’s proven to be a good vehicle for quite a lot of ideas and concepts. So it’s three full albums in, several mini albums as well, because there’s no shortage of material for inspiration and it’s a big world out there. So that’s the process, to embrace the ideas that are out there, to try to take them seriously, to try to make great art out of them.
I did a lot of one-off or semi-permanent projects around particular types of music or types of issues that I was looking to explore and Byronic Sex & Exile was just one of those bands really. It was one of those projects where I came up with the name of it first, did the first single which was ’Crimes of Passion’ back in 2015, and about a year later I got round to finishing three more songs to make it into the first EP. Then it lay dormant for a couple of years until I got the idea of taking it into more of a sort of active campaigning live act of goth, and so I considered a few ideas for getting a band together.
But instead I decided to give it a go myself as a one man project – and it worked perfectly from the first gig in 2017. Since then it’s just been getting on with it in the spirit of acts such as Nosferatu, London After Midnight and the Horatii in addition to my general deference for bands like the Damned, Lords of the New Church and these kind of 80s/90s goth rock acts – trying to make it not a bland mumble, which a lot of modern stuff can be, but to make it as vivid and [laughs] interesting as possible in the course of making this music.
And that progress has been documented by the EPs, mini albums and albums. How does producing the recorded material balance performing the live stuff as a one man band?
There’s dozens of idea and projects I’ve always got, and the past five years has been pretty full of products. To me it’s important to engage with the idea and give it its full credit and due, and then move on to the next one. For full albums, I give them the full spectrum of manufactured outputs such as physical CDs and professional mastering, whereas EPs or singles – like the one I did this year, ‘Salome’/‘LS Woman’ – are things that can be put out digitally. They don’t take too much time to produce because they’ve much less of a lead-in time than mastering, distributing and printing CDs.
It’s basically all about how I can get things out in what order, [laughs] and give it the time it needs. Last year, for example, the Unrepentant Thunder album was always going to be the main album for that year and I got the UK tour and festival dates planned around that. But I also wanted to get the Yorkshire Gothic EP out because that was on my to-do list of all the things that couldn’t get done during Lockdown. So May last year  I did the acoustic tour of Yorkshire for that release, and then as soon as May was over it was straight back into working on the album. So it takes a bit of concentration to get things organised, but really it’s a matter of the best way of doing the idea justice because some need less attention than others, some deserve much more of a project to hang them on. So it’s up to making those judgements.
In terms of live performance you’ve also got that range to choose from, in fact we can actually look at you as a singer-songwriter that’s very much in that troubadour tradition.
One of the great things about the way the project has come across, is that exactly that singer-songwriter element. Some gigs have almost been like protest singer acoustic gigs. Obviously there’s more of a performance element with loads of noise and feedback, so it’s somewhere between all that. Sometimes it can be a folky person, sometimes it can be a darker kind of vibe, so it can go in any direction.
There’s also a lot of theatrical elements to the live sets which I can choose to do or not do – using props like swords and candles over the years has been very useful. It’s a matter of what’s right for the material but it also gives me a lot of scope for the live performance itself. So pretty much the last three tours and the upcoming tour as well are much more orthodox rock shows than I’ve done previously. But that’s definitely not always the case, because I’ve always got the option to do something else in a different vein – like next year we’re going to see much more of a stylised show with a far more definite theatrical theme.
How does it work with collaborations and working with other people outside of the band?
To be honest, I probably do a lot less of that than I used to do, because BS&E takes up so much time and energy. No one else is involved in the recording, mixing, performing of BS&E, but there may be the odd occasion where someone may perform a particular thing. I can think of one example where someone did some stuff for me which I have sampled and put into the machine, but generally that sort of thing isn’t really calculated into BS&E. It’s just keeping the freedom to be able to do exactly what you want. For me, working in bands such as Quasimodo, Viet Bong or Action Directe is good because it freshens your focus on things, but generally speaking I’m pretty comfortable not collaborating these days. I’m happy to get on with BS&E and do the work it needs.
So tell us a bit more about the folk-stroke-protest side of BS&E.
There was a lot of that in the Yorkshire Gothic album last year  which was focused on on the myths and folktales of North and West Yorkshire. I went to the places where the myths originated and did impromptu outdoor shows of the songs from the album that were set in each location. There was Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, York, Fylingdales, Pickering, Thirsk, Ilkley Moor, loads of fun to do. That involved things like being able to perform ’51st State’ by New Model Army outside of the Fylingdales American military base in North Yorkshire, which was one of the things the band were writing about when they wrote the song in the 80s. I’ve got film of the tour and one day when I get time I will knock it up into the travelogue it was meant to be. I’m not quite as comfortable doing shows that way, but I enjoy doing them. And having the option to do an acoustic show is good to have, if the offer arises.
The ability to do live gigs outside is handy too should Covid-style restrictions ever come back. Talking of which, we’re still picking up the pieces in the aftermath of Lockdown and almost everyone is trying to work out the best way to coagulate their audiences in terms of gigs and festivals. How did Lockdown work out for you, because a lot of people probably jumped at the extra time to get down to recording, but I’m clearly talking to someone for whom recording and live performance is not a case of one or the other.
No, it isn’t. The second album Cu Foc came out in April 2020 and there was a whole UK tour lined up for it. It got cancelled because of Covid and it was one of these things, at the end of a year-long project of writing and recording it, that I knew there was no real scope for me to reschedule because it would mean I’d always have it blocking the way to the next thing. That album is a great album but it’s never been performed in front of a live audience. It just didn’t happen and probably never will now.
I did managed to console myself with a few Facebook events, short online gigs – and then there were clearly a few opportunities to do livestreamed full gigs like the set for Tomorrow’s Ghosts in October 2020 that was filmed at the Fox & Newt in Leeds, which was just myself, the cameraman and the sound tech, and in March last year  I actually able to do a full livestreamed gig at Wharf Chambers in Leeds. So that was it really – like everyone else it was difficult to do a full gig under those conditions, and they were incredibly boring to do without an audience to bounce off, it’s very difficult. Obviously lot of people were adversely affected and became very depressed over not being to able to perform for so long, but I was seemly always booking gigs during Lockdown even though very few of them came to pass.
So I was ready to push things quickly as soon as we were able to come out of the restrictions. The acoustic tour in May last year was the first time we were able to go out there and do shows, even if they were social distancing outside and therefore just about legal under the terms as they were. I was able to do indoor shows more or less straightaway as soon as they were allowed again.
But although I was pushing at the door and working out how to deal with the challenges, I wasn’t interested in just doing a few shows here and there, it had to be part of a coherent project. So for the Unrepentant Thunder album and tour last year, it started at Infest in August and ended at Tomorrow’s Ghosts in Whitby in October. I had had the album ready, 12 gigs planned and basically it was just a matter of biting the bullet and making it happen because otherwise the whole thing would have had to be rescheduled. But I was willing to head my best and see if it would come off in practice. What I saw doing that was how people were coming to the shows and it was the first time they might have left the house in god knows how long. Some came to see me on the December tour that followed, and that might be the first time they’d been to a gig in 18 months/two years. Then they might go to Goth City or to see me at Whitby, and that would be the first festival they’d been to in two years.
By that point I was knackered, because I was feeling like I’ve turned all their lights back on and then everyone’s suddenly more energised than I am. They finally see they can get back into it and I’m already to looking to book a holiday! In fact the tour that’s about to start this weekend [July 2022] will be my third tour this year, because everyone is so keen to see live music again and we’re keen to support venues of course, so it’s a reciprocal arrangement. During Covid I was lucky enough to be able to take my chances when they came up and found the windows of opportunities that around to do it.
Not to compare with other gothic bands, but is there something in particular that you’re channeling in BS&E’s music when you’re performing live?
All you are looking for as a performer is to have a direct line to your energies, to your inspiration, the muse or whatever else you want to call it. Where is all this coming from? A creative place should be a positive place and that means removing all the obstacles and the barriers that prevent you from having direct access to that. So you have to clean out all your mental pipes and just get on with the job.
Good gigs are always markedly different from bad gigs because bad gigs are always the ones where there’s something in the way. It would be the sound or the gear or something that’s annoyed you and put you in a bad mood or whatever. It’s about being able to throw open the doors and let the whole project speak for itself. That’s what I’m channeling, what you see with BS&E live is just that idea in action on stage, to communicate vivid concepts and ideas that the audience can taste in a weird way and they can really get into them. [laughs] There’s nothing really subtle about it, it can be in rock songs, poetry, ballads or anything in between, it’s just all on the floor. And that’s how I like to do things.
Obviously the words are just as important as the music that frames them, so are there any running themes in BS&E or does it vary according to the research or political thrust or whatever you happen to be doing that holds it all together?
There definitely isn’t a running theme, the lyrical content isn’t contrived. Well, I have probably been guilty of trying to force the message into a song or two on previous occasions, [laughs] but that simply isn’t the case with BS&E. What it is about is trying to trying to express the idea that happens to be whatever idea is relevant to the theme of the moment. On each album, I can’t really think of many songs which are entirely outside of the concept the album links to, but for singles the songs are different and separate in terms of themes. What I do think is that the style of everything has to be poetic, it has to be sensual, romantic in a way, it has to deal with the theme and giving respect – there can be humour in there but it’ll be very dry.
When you’re talking about concepts of death and love and war and revolution and passion and betrayal, it has to be done in a direct way – or rather an emotionally direct way. It has to come from an almost subconscious place because you can’t really force this stuff to make sense. When I write lyrics it mainly will be taken from whatever couplet or idea or title that I’ve compiled over a long period of time, because then when you are truly inspired, you can go through them and give with the ideas in real time.
What you have to do is the opposite of playing live. With playing live you have to be present in the room connected to what you’re trying to say and connecting it with other people. I think lyric writing is slightly different because you have to develop a distance from what you’re trying to say. I would prefer to be, if not out of town entirely, at least somewhere quiet with my headphones on, probably with a pint and a notepad, and I’ll just listen to the tracks making sure that all that vibe fits the words that I’ll then write. But to make that process work, you have to have some ideas in your head beforehand. It’s good to have the inspiration topped up by being already mentally engaged with the ideas that you’ve got, and also focusing in a non-direct way on how the lyrics will come out in the music of the live performance. That’s the kind of combination that I like to get.
So that’s shown us Joel Heyes as performer, recording artist and songwriter. Shall we now turn now to JH the festival organiser?
I run Goth City Festival and it came basically out of the unaccountable absence of a goth festival in Leeds, a place which probably has the longest unbroken tradition of goth music in the UK due to the bands that I don’t have time to mention but we all know who they are. It started as a multi-day cultural festival to explore that legacy and the current scene in Yorkshire and the UK, but after the past two years of Covid we’ve now compressed this down to a weekend-long festival with a multi-stage format – and that’s gone down very well. The latest one in our new summer format ended just a few weeks ago [July 2022] so I’m still coming to terms with all the work that went into that one. [laughs] It’s part of the gothic ecosystem and also part of the same grassroots festival ethic that’s at the Alhambra as well with CorrosionFest and Bats In The Attic, where I’ll be playing this August.
Why was there the gap in Leeds that you saw Goth City needing to fill?
It was probably symptomatic of how the UK scene was as a whole. I’m talking about the goth thing in particular, but pretty much throughout the throughout the noughties and the 2010s the goth festival circuit was more or less limited to Whitby effectively. That became the tent-pole festival for the entire scene and there was a great suspicion of anything else that wasn’t Whitby related.
For example, when they started the Morecambe Goth Festival in the noughties, it attracted the same kind of vibe and people weren’t really ready for anything else for a long time. [laughs] But in Leeds there were the right bunch of promoters and clubs and bands who arrived on the scene and they’ve coalesced well. The time came when it seemed to me to be the right moment to begin the process to fill that gap.
In my mind however, when we started on Goth City it seemed anyone with an events company and a bit of money could walk in to do something linked to Leeds goth and make a fistful of money out of it. We were keen to not do that, but to have a grassroots, community-led festival that raised money for a local charity – and that’s what we are doing. We’ve taken out the mercenary element and also the feuding elements out of the event by having it all for a figurative and literal good cause. That’s how we’ve run it.
[laughs] You’re not convincing me. You make it sound as if you just woke up one morning and did it, whereas in reality you must have bled buckets if only to overcome the mercenaries and the feuding…
I’ll admit it’s the same with everything else – everyone sits around and complains for a long time about how bad things are and then eventually you have to call everyone’s bluff and just go ahead and do it. It’s exactly the same spirit with BS&E – goth bands didn’t think they could tour, they didn’t think they could do more than six gigs a year, but in July it will be my eighth tour since 2018. You have to roll your sleeves up and see if they’ll work in practice, and when it does work in practice, suddenly it’s a massive case of putting your money where your mouth is and getting it done. Half the battle is summoning the energy to have the resolve to actually do something that you’ve already identified that you want to do.
Tell us about the charity because that’s as important as the music since it reflects Leeds as a wider community.
It’s PAFRAS, which stands for Positive Action For Refugees and Asylum Seekers. It’s a longstanding charity that helps provide food, basics, legal advice and other support for refugees in the city. We thought it was important that any money from the festival goes to a local charity where people could see it was going to a very particular cause, and to build that relationship over a number of years to make certain that things are done in the right way. That’s exactly where we’ve taken it and we’ve raised £17,000 so far for them since 2016 which isn’t bad.
The big difference between how we do things and how other charity festivals might do things is that they have a slightly more neutral approach where it’s self-contained thing – if there’s anything left over at the end then the charity can have it. But we cost the events beforehand in order to make a set sum of money for the charity, which dictates the whole structure of the festival. The bands play for peanuts, we’ve got a whole army of volunteers working for us, and the aim is to make like a couple of grand a year for the charity. If we don’t do it that way, then it’s not worth the effort to be honest. That’s where the priority of life is really.
Livewise, you’ve convincingly outlined the ethic that gets BS&E in front of audiences, but how do you see the rest of the grassroots live scene faring in its ability to survive post-Covid recovery?
The underground live music sector in UK is still in quite a dangerous situation due to various factors. There’s the fact that people are still hesitant to come out to gigs unless it’s for name acts that they don’t want to miss. Which means catching Covid in a 20,000-seat arena watching a massive band you wanted to see for years, or catching Covid in a small pub watching a local band. People are choosing their nights much more carefully, and as the cost of living crisis increases, as the expense of running live venues and running live acts increases, then unfortunately we are going to get to the point where people do start falling by the wayside.
It has to be a matter of hanging in there and getting this year over with, then things may start to go back to more of a normal pattern. It’s a huge problem that as soon as live gigs returned last year, 2022’s diary immediately got rammed full of events rolled over from two years ago. It’s such an incredibly compressed music calendar and it’s difficult for people to balance committing to grassroots gigs with Covid happening the way it is. A lot of bands are still having to cancel performances and it’s hard to navigate that situation without losing money. It’s going to continue to be difficult, but with the right attitude, people will hopefully be able to get through it all and still be here over the years to come.
— Bats in the Attic 2022 tickets: morecambe/the-alhambra-theatre/bats-in-the-attic
— McGothicfox Promotions Facebook: @McGothicfox
— Corrosion Facebook: @morecambegoths