Interview: William the Conqueror

‘I think we just poured that sense of disillusionment into the way we played.  I certainly felt like for the longest time that we were trying to prove something to people,’ says William the Conqueror’s Ruarri Joseph.

Ruarri began his career as a solo artist, putting out his first album through Atlantic before setting up his own independent label Pip Productions and releasing three further solo records.

After a decade as a solo artist he founded the trio William the Conqueror with fellow Cornwall-based musicians Harry Harding and Naomi Holmes, and the newly-formed band put out Proud Disturber of the Peace in 2017.

On his new venture Ruarri’s songwriting took a turn towards blues, grunge and Americana, which subsequently saw the band head to Nashville to perform at AmericanaFest, and receive a nomination for Best Song at the annual UK Americana Awards.

Earlier this year the three-piece returned with their follow-up record Bleeding on the Soundtrack, and we sat down with Ruarri to get the inside scoop on their latest effort and the band’s plans for the rest of the year…

Bleeding On The Soundtrack is the second record in a trilogy, can you explain the thinking behind the series?

Well, working in threes is always nice, a little treble approach with a three-piece band. It also came from this thing I was reading. I had the idea of a trilogy in my head – child, father, mother kind of thing – then I read something by Herman Hesse about the three stages of development in life being innocence, disillusionment, and faith. The idea that we all go through that kind of journey.

Obviously, an instance of that was the first album (Proud Disturber of the Peace), which was all about childhood, then Bleeding on the Soundtrack is more about adolescence. The third one will be the transition out of adolescence and hopefully leading to some sort of acceptance of the ills of the world. Something like that [laughs].

Considering the album covers a different period in your life than Proud Disturber Of The Peace, did that affect the sound of the record?

We’re a three-piece band – guitar, bass, drums – and we’re not sort of techy or anything like that, so it’s not like the sound is ever going to differ wildly. It’s more about how we approach playing the songs.

With the first album, because it was about innocence I suppose, the idea was to get together in a garage and see what happened. We didn’t have a plan of what it was going to sound like, or which song were going to end up on the record or anything like that.

With this one, I suppose it can be quite frustrating sometimes when you’re out on the road. If you’ve got any sort of drive or ambition to have any kind of success as a musician, it’s quite a frustrating world. You find yourself butting your head up against a wall quite often, which is always the case and the same in any job.

I think we just poured that sense of disillusionment into the way we played. It probably feels a little more, angry’s not the right word, I don’t like the word angry, but it’s got some attitude in it I suppose. I certainly felt like for the longest time that we were trying to prove something to people.

Ethan Johns produced the record, what was the experience of working with him like?

It’s a great big tick on the wish list of life. It was just a real joy. He’s a great producer because he’s one of you, he’s a musician at heart. He’s been on the road, he knows what it’s like to play the same song every night for a month and have it be completely different every night. He’s looking for that kind of magic.

There’s nothing technical about his approach. You’re not there for hours doing take after take after take trying to iron out all the creases, it’s much more about capturing a moment. So, most of the takes on the album are either the first or the second take of the songs we did. It was great, it was really good fun.

What were your primary influences while writing the album?

Because it’s semi-autobiographical it’s kind of aimed at the teenage years, I suppose, I was going through what I used to listen to. Especially the stuff I obsessed over. So, you know, Nirvana, the whole kind of grunge era, but not necessarily listening to it thinking this is what I want us to sound like. It was more just trying to figure out what it was about that music that I was responding to. Why it captured my attention so much. So that was kind of fun going through that.

Most of it I listen to now and it doesn’t have the same effect at all. So that was really interesting, trying to figure out what it was about that stuff that I was that in to. And then talking those sensibilities – I saw the grunge era, it not really mattering, it seemed like they were self-conscious about what they were doing, which is the opposite of what I’d become as a musician.
I used to really want to please everyone when I was making a record, and it was nice to get rid of that, and just follow your instincts.

How would you describe your music to someone unfamiliar with the band?

I know we get lumped in with the Americana thing, which is fair enough. I mean, Americana to me is very broad, it doesn’t seem to be restrictive. But I think if you said the word Americana to someone, they might hedge towards the kind of country side of the genre. In Nashville, at the Americana Fest, it was very heavy on the country vibes. Whereas over here it’s a little bit looser, but still I feel like we’re kind of outsiders in the Americana world – no one’s kicked us out yet.

I don’t know… a power trio [laughs]. It just feels rootsy, that’s what I’d say. I’m always cautious about trying to describe it with those sort of genre adjectives. There is a bit of blues, there is a bit of folk, there is a bit of rock. There’s lots of everything in there. I don’t know, I struggle with that one.

How different an experience is it making music as a band, and do you see a time when you might return to solo recording?

Yeah, I think I would. I do all the writing on my own, so that hasn’t changed. The only difference when I’m writing now is that I’m thinking more about the others while I’m writing. Whereas before I didn’t have that. As a solo artist, the main thing I’d be thinking about is, “can I play this on my own,” which is normally what I’d end up doing because I couldn’t afford to take a band on the road.
This is kind of liberating to not have to worry about that kind of stuff. Naomi and Harry have such unique styles of their own anyway it’s kind of cool to design songs around what our natural inclinations are.

I wouldn’t say no to recording as a solo artist again, I just felt like I needed a break from it.

You’ve returned to the West Country, do you think that environment has any bearing on the music you make?

No, not really. I always have this thing that I could be anywhere really. I moved around a lot as a kid and music was the consistent thing that I took with me, it’s quite an internal thing.
Down here the traditional music would be the folk stuff, but I often get lumped in with that kind of surfer category of Jack Johnson-y stuff, but again I don’t really feel like that’s what I’m up to either.

I love living down here, and I love writing down here because the space is, it’s a nice space to occupy when you’re trying to be creative. But I’m not writing about the landscape, I don’t write anything specific to the location of where I am.

It probably does affect it somehow, it’s just not something I’m conscious of. Especially the William the Conqueror stuff.

As well as an extensive UK tour coming up, you’ll also be performing at SXSW this year, what do you hope to gain from it?

I’ve been a professional musician for 12 years, you sort of learn to manage your expectations of things. In the early days, anything that came up like that, anything that was novel and different you’d get super excited for, and so often they’d end up in disappointment [laugh]. It takes a few years to manage your expectations.

I don’t want to sound negative about it but I think you’re better off thinking of those things in the present when you get there and enjoy it for what it is and get what you can out of it. But I try not to plan ahead, that can get you into all sorts of anxiety down the line.

It doesn’t seem to be getting any easier, being a musician and trying to make a living out of it. Not that I’m complaining about that, it’s just something I’ve noticed. But that’s the biggest thing, managing expectations. I mean, I’m going to Austin, that’s cool.

I’ve heard that it’s so busy and so diverse there I wonder how anybody is supposed to stand out, which sort of leads you to believe it’s about who you know and whether you network with the right people, rather than what the show’s like. I’ve been disappointed enough.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your career?

When you’re in it it’s harder to notice the changes because everything happens so gradually. The first thing is the money. I kind of fell into being a musician accidently, but I was right on the cusp of the olden days when record labels would throw money at anything that had a bit of talent in the hope they might have a hit somewhere in their repertoire. I feel like that’s how I got in, I was given an advance and made a lot of promises, whereas you just don’t hear of that happening anymore.

I didn’t have a following, I didn’t have a fanbase, a website, I didn’t have anything. I just had some demos and was really hungry to get out and play. Of the back of that I landed a record deal with a major label, but that wouldn’t happen nowadays.

These days the expectation is you have to have all of that stuff before you even approach these guys. You have to have your fanbase, you have to have your social media going. There’s so much work required before you even approach a record label. 12 years-ago you could just send a CD off and you might get listened to.

The whole 360 deal stuff, labels didn’t do that back then – where a record label takes a cut of everything that you do, merch, live publishing, and the whole lot. That was something that was introduced about a year into me being with Atlantic. They tried to change my contract. The money kind of disappeared when the internet took over. We’ve been trying to adjust, but I don’t think anybody knows what’s going on anymore – probably never did [laughs].

I’m really aware I can come across as being negative, but like I said before, I watch young bands get swept up in the excitement of their chance at fame and all that kind of stuff. You become kind of hardened [laughs], it come across as negative but it’s not.

What do have on repeat at the moment?

I’m sort of out of touch. When I’m working on an album I try not to listen to music. But I listen to things I know I can’t do. I’m listening to a lot of funk and soul at the moment. I love The Meters, stuff like that. I listen to that because it can’t influence me because I can’t play like that. I’m getting a lot of fun out of that and Vulfpeck – they’re kind of inspired by Muscle Shoals and a Meter’s approach. They’ve pitched themselves as the ultimate backing band. They’re sort of white geeks from Minnesota or something, but their musicianship is off the charts. Great fun to listen to.

Forthcoming tour dates

13 April Ramblin Roots Festival, High Wycombe
17 April Thekla, Bristol
18 April The Deaf Institute, Manchester
23 April Heartbreakers, Southampton
25 April Prince Albert, Brighton
26 April Fat Lil’s, Witney
27 April The Cluny 2, Newcastle Upon Tyne
1 May The Hug and Pint, Glasgow
3 – 5 May Kilkenny Roots Festival, Ireland
8 May The Lending Room, Leeds
10 May The RAFA Club, St. David’s
15 May The Musician Pub, Leicester
18 May The Old Bakery Studios, Truro
21 May The Lexington, London
23 May Hare & Hounds, Birmingham
24 May The Bodega, Nottingham
30 May Red Rooster, Suffolk

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