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Interview: Ruarri Joseph (William the Conqueror)

23 August 2023

After a modest, four-album career, as a singer/songwriter, Ruarri Joseph decided it was time for something new in 2017. Partnering with friends and former collaborators Naomi Holmes (bass) and Harry Harding (drums), Joseph was able to stretch his songwriting out, infuse a bit more grit, and tap into different influences under the name William the Conqueror. While Joseph tells me he isn’t familiar with The Frames, there’s similarities in the sincere passion in which the vocals are sung and the music delivered. The band’s fourth album, Excuse Me While I Vanish, has character and the songs are intoxicating travels through familiar terrain.

In the midst of a short promotional tour that found William the Conqueror performing at record stores in the UK, Joseph discussed some of the stellar tracks, how what the listener hears on record will be very similar to how the songs are performed live, and why an album’s sequence is important but not essential.

You’re celebrating the release of the album by doing some in-store performances, sort of a short little tour. Is this something the record stores were asking for or is it something you had planned to get word out about the album?

RUARRI: A bit of everything, really. It’s good to connect with the independent record stores because they’re essentially the people that are going to help you out the most in terms of promotion. Meeting the fans up close. We kind of do it every time. Every time we bring a record out, we’ll do something like this. It’s a nice way to get about. You often go to places that you’re not going to on tour as well, so just filling in some gaps I suppose.

I’m not a history scholar so I don’t really know the story of William the Conqueror. Is there something about his character or his traits or his leadership style that resonated with you to the point where you named the band after him?

RUARRI: It has nothing do with the historical figure. It’s the words. It’s the idea that somebody would have the balls to call themselves William the Conqueror because it encapsulates super confidence and super idiocy and that was kind of the crux of my youth, I think.

Were there any other names you were considering?

RUARRI: Not really, no, because the name just stuck in my head, it just seemed perfect straight away. There was no other alternative because it wasn’t necessarily going to be a band. It was just the name. The name appeared and I just thought I should do something with that. It was an experiment to begin with, just like, “What would somebody who calls themselves William the Conqueror write about?” And that was how it started. It’s not without it’s problems, being called William, but you look past that. Once you’re inside, then you’ll get it.

Do people just assume your name is William?

RUARRI: Yeah, but then I’ve had a funny thing with nicknames all my life so for somebody to call me William, I’ll answer to almost anything.

If the album were a book or movie, what genre would you describe it as?

RUARRI: It’s like a Charlie Kaufman kind of meta, strange, surreal, absurdist kind of thing with characters not knowing who they are. Something like that. Something mind bending, I suppose, but with a romantic edge to it.

There are multiple parts in the opening song, “The Puppet and the Puppeter,” that make me snap my head to the side. The first time it happens is about 54 seconds in when you sing, “Asking for me.” There’s the striking of a guitar that causes it.

RUARRI: I guess that means it’s working. I don’t know technically much about music, it’s often running off instinct, getting to a point in a song where that felt like the right thing to, so you just do it.

And it’s a fantastic opening track because it starts down this road and then you kind of speed up and slow down and you hit some bumps along the way. There’s a lot packed into that one song, a lot of different changes. Is that supposed to be the fireworks at the start of the album or set the tone for what listeners should expect?

RUARRI: When I wrote the song, it wasn’t like I was thinking that it was going to be the opener. I think we didn’t necessarily have an order in mind, but when we recorded it in the studio and listened back to it, it definitely felt like the right way to introduce an album. It was big and loud and long and different to stuff we’ve done before. It was just instincts. You’re just following your instincts. You don’t want to get too nerdy about these things, so you try and follow your gut and that’s what we did.

I imagine the way you recorded, the songs translate very easily to a live setting. It sounds very real on the album, no studio enhancements or trickery or anything.

RUARRI: A lot of energy goes into it. We record it live, we record everything live and then in a studio situation, you can just add little bits here and there to enhance it. In the studio you’re trying to recreate the energy you have live. We’re a live band, essentially.

This is your fourth William the Conqueror album. Will you wind up playing everything from the album live at some point or do you know that some of the songs only will go from the studio to the album and never be played in front of people?

RUARRI: I think a little bit of both. We always play a big selection from all of our albums and we’ve always done that from the very beginning. We were quite far ahead of ourselves in terms of the writing side of things. This promo tour, we’re just playing stuff off the new album, which is quite cool for us because that’s not something we normally do. It’s been really refreshing just playing this album and then maybe if we do an encore or something, we’ll play a couple of old ones.

The tour that’s coming up in the autumn, I don’t know. We always mix it up. We don’t have a set list. We’ll have, we call them guides. We’ll just write a load of songs down and change it up every night.

I think that’s part of the live experience. I think it would get stale if we just did the same thing every night. Also, interpretations of the songs, songs are there to evolve. You don’t want them to be the same so whether that’s singing differently, doing the part in the middle for a little bit longer, ending it differently, starting it differently, all this kind of stuff, that’s where the live experience is the best one.

If a band or an artist is all about the creating and all about the art, and not necessarily making hits and selling tons of records, then I think you can do what you want. Maybe there’s something to be said for being a band that had one hit and that’s all anyone knows, then I suppose you’ve got to play it and you might just have to handle the fact that nobody wants to hear your other shit. We’re not in that position so we can do what we want.

I recently interviewed Kevin Rowland from Dexy’s Midnight Runner and while they’ve put out a number of albums and have had singles on the radio, they are often considered a one-hit wonder. It’s a blessing and a curse because they have to play “Come On Eileen” every time they play but people wouldn’t be coming to see them were it not for that hit.

RUARRI: That’s the Faustian pact, isn’t it? That’s sadly the way it goes. Someone like Tom Waits. if you’re a fan of Tom Waits, you literally don’t care what he plays. He can play anything and you’d be happy. I don’t know why that is, but as I say, we’re not either fortunate or unfortunate enough to be in that position.

In the press release for the album, some of the things mentioned that caught my eye including referencing Seattle as influence as well as artists like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and The Band. Are those references you made or is that what the writer of the press release hears in your music?

RUARRI: Oh, I don’t know. We’re at a stage where people can do searches online and find all sorts of crap about us. I mean, people keep calling us a folk band. I don’t know where they’re getting that from because we’re not a folk band. Nothing against folk, but we’re not that, so I don’t know. I mean, Dylan, Seattle, Roy Orbison. All that sort of stuff is probably stuff I’ve said before. I kind of grew up with that in my head. I don’t know where this specific bio got its information from, but yeah, they’re all familiar terms within the William world.

Would you say all of those references – and others – are the ingredients in the recipe of your music? Like, for instance, if you had never heard Pearl Jam – and not like you sound like Pearl Jam – but if that band didn’t exist, perhaps that ingredient would be missing from your music and maybe it would sound differently than it does now?

RUARRI: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We were talking to someone the other day about this, about how one of my idols is Tom Waits and his album Alice. There’s no sonic reference to Alice on any of the stuff we’ve done, but in terms of how to put a record together, in terms of the diversity of the songwriting and how you can jump from style to style, it’s that kind of thing that I’m interested in. It’s not necessarily the sonics of something or the production style. It’s more the ethos, I suppose, of going in, going into making a record, which is why Bob Dylan is all about whack it down and leave as soon as possible. You’re capturing a moment. Pearl Jam is just about doing it live. You take all of these elements, and you throw them all into a bag and see what happens. That’s what we’re doing.

Do you have any other projects that maybe allows you to scratch different itches, like do you have a punk project or a metal band on the side or something that allows you to try something totally different?

RUARRI: There’s those elements in William music from when I was younger. I did the punk band thing in my teenage years, and I don’t know that I’ve got the energy for it anymore. I really enjoyed it and I like the punk sensibilities. But it’s nothing to do with the style of what punk music comes from the stereo, it’s more about what goes into a punk album before you’ve made it. It’s the attitude. I love the attitude. That’s what we’re kind of looking at. The instrumentation is down to what we’re able to play. I only play the guitar and the keys and we three voices and kind of limited on our technical abilities. Like you say, we’re making the best out of what we’ve got.

Is it just the three of you on the album or do you have other musicians playing on it?

RUARRI: It’s just the three of us, apart from my daughter sings backing vocals on a couple of the songs, which was lovely to get her on because she’s got a great voice but she just won’t admit it.

The closest comparison I can make is to The Frames and maybe some of Glen Hansard’s solo material. When I was looking at the other recommended artists that Spotify calls out on your profile, two names stuck out to me – Israel Nash and Hamish Hawk.

RUARRI: We used to be on the same label as Israel. You don’t want to don’t start a conversation with us about Spotify and algorithms of fans. It’s been a nightmare for us, that shit. We don’t get involved.

Those artists are, similar to you, hard to classify, so I think, if nothing else, that’s how you fit in with them. You’re all unique and doing something that is just different enough to avoid an armload of comparisons.

RUARRI: We’ll take that as a compliment. A radio DJ said that we don’t belong to any kind of scene. And I thought, “Yeah, that’s about right. We don’t really belong to any scene.” I mean, maybe it was a nice way of saying we don’t have any friends.

Does help you or does that limit your opportunities?

RUARRI: It’s kind of cool. It doesn’t help pay the mortgage very much, but it’s cool to be out on your own and doing your own thing.

Speaking of paying the mortgage, is music your full-time gig?

RUARRI: We all have jobs. We didn’t used to pre-pandemic. I think we made a pretty good go of being musicians full time, but the lockdown and COVID and all that just shafted everybody, I suppose. And since then, we’ve just been doing what we can to survive. And the music is still part of that survival.

I have to imagine the pandemic was extremely difficult for the livelihood of many artists, yourself included.

RUARRI: It makes you reflect on whether or not music should even be something that can be commodified. If you’re lucky enough to be able to make a living at it, it kind of happens by chance or it certainly did in my case. You just kind of go along with it, and then when you’re suddenly not able to make a living out of it, it doesn’t make you want to stop making music. It’s a little bit of a sort of creative, artistic dichotomy or dilemma even. Does it matter that we don’t get paid? I mean, yes, when you go on tour and you’re away from home for two months at a time, then it matters. But the actual creation of it? I don’t know. It’s a weird one. It’s a strange one. I think that’s a lot of what we were trying to figure out in the writing of the record. It was the imbalance or the juxtaposition of these different ideas. I’m not going to stop making music, but you sort of felt ugly for commodifying it in the first place.

Is the closing song, “In Your Arms,” meant to tie a bow on the entire package? It’s a nice and gentle way to wind down and finish the album.

RUARRI: I think that was always going to be the last song. I think that just felt right. There’s an intimacy to it. It’s like a bit of a cuddle at the end of your big, long journey. The sequencing is important because even though it’s a slightly more abstract and less linear thing than, say, a movie, this idea that the way that songs have been plucked out of their album context and individual songs on Spotify and Playlists and all this kind of thing, like with a movie, you don’t pull out a scene and just watch that scene. Maybe you do, maybe that’s how it works on YouTube now. You can watch scene by scene and pick things apart.

The sequencing is important if you’re trying to construct, not necessarily a narrative, but a sense of an experience of some sort. Much like a show, I say we don’t write a set list, but we have a guide and as we’re going along you can just tell whether or not that song is going to work and so you’ll switch up or think, “I’m feeling from the audience that they want this one or that one.” So, the sequencing is really important. It’s not essential, but it’s a good fun thing to think about, for sure.

Are there ever any battles on what songs make it onto an album or where they land in the sequence?

RUARRI: Oh, no, we don’t battle anything. We’re very good friends. The fun part is figuring it out. It’s an exercise in trusting each other and trusting each other’s opinions about things and whatnot. I’m not such a control freak that I’d want to take that away from anyone.

Do you think a decade from now you’ll look back on this as the lockdown/Covid-era of the band and this album is reflective of that?

RUARRI: It doesn’t feel like a lockdown album. I think I’m trying to put the idea of lockdown from my mind altogether. It just seems like such a dumb thing to have happened to the world. I think the only thing that I ever think about when making anything is that I want to be able to stand by it when I’m older. I had a solo career that I look back on and don’t have those feelings about and I can recognize where I went wrong and how I could have done things differently.

So the William project, the main focus is whatever we do, I want to be able to stand by it in 10 years’ time. Don’t compromise the creativity, essentially. I’m hoping I’ll look back with an element of pride, but nothing to do with Lockdown.

What do you think about the music industry now as opposed to when you first started 15 years ago?

RUARRI: I think that if you want to succeed in the music industry, you’ve got to be pretty naive, and you’ve got to go headlong into stuff and network and meet everybody and do everything.

I think if I wasn’t already in the music industry and it wasn’t already the thing I was doing, and if I’d written some songs and thought, “Maybe I’ll have a go at making a career out of this” and then somebody told me what I had to do in order to do that, and everything was about social media and your image and your numbers and your stats and your algorithms, I think I’d say, “You know what? I’ll just keep it to myself.” It’s such a weird business to get into. Unless it happens by accident when you’re older, you’ve got to be young, because you have to be a little bit blinkered to the realities of it.

 

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