The musician behind Manics, Stereophonics, and Furries steps out of the shadows with debut album
Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield calls him the ‘Cogan Cannon’.
He’s renowned for backing up some of the biggest bands in the business as an in-demand session and touring musician.
Now Welsh multi-instrumentalist and producer Gavin Fitzjohn is taking centre stage – well sort of – with his first album.
However, for the man who has performed with an array of stars, including Welsh notables, the Manics, Stereophonics, and Super Furry Animals, as well as long-time touring partner Paolo Nutini, it’s under the enigmatic moniker ‘299’ that he’s releasing his debut collection of songs – ‘The 299 Game’.
The album is a long time in the making, first coming to life a few years ago while he was making his way across the US as a touring musician, even running away with the circus at one point.
Constructed in a succession of hotel and motel rooms, the album is filmic and widescreen in its approach, intoxicating and dangerous in its allure. There are flecks of ‘60s vocal groups and Tom Waits-style melancholia tied up in Fitzjohn’s deliberate American drawl.
Here Gavin tells us the story of the epic road trip that influenced his songs and how the likes of Paolo Nutini, James Dean Bradfield and Kelly Jones have shaped his music.
What’s the story behind your debut album – ‘The 299 Game’?
A few years back I was touring the States a lot as a musician. I found myself in lots of different towns and cities – Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Joshua Tree, Tampa, New Orleans and meeting a lot of interesting people, I also had a lot of time on my hands. I began to write and record songs in hotel rooms that would eventually become ‘The 299 Game’. I could only use what I had to hand, basically a guitar and whatever percussion I could pull together within the room – boxes, coins, bowls etc. I thought a lot about the great American road trip and what that really means, what I was experiencing and where that fits in.
It was a really exciting time for me but in many ways felt quite isolated and removed from the real world, most of the songs were written in the middle of the night and confront those emotions that weigh heavy at 3am, things like nostalgia, regret, love, guilt, mortality. The sound of the record is a kind of distorted reflection of the desert, tiny forgotten towns and the surreal characters I was spending time with.
I heard you literally ran away with the circus?
Yeah, it’s pretty wild looking back at that time. One of the jobs I had was touring a lot of the Southern States of the U.S as a musician with the circus, you’ll find references to this throughout the album. I was hanging out and drinking with Russian acrobats and Colombian guys who had a ‘wheel of death’ act. It was a trip. I was playing 8-10 gigs a week, so the schedule was pretty intense, I think I was probably a little bit frayed around the edges at this time.
Why record as 299 and not Gavin Fitzjohn?
I think there’s a few reasons. The songs were from a very specific time and place and now it almost doesn’t feel like it was Gavin Fitzjohn that wrote those songs, I feel like they belong to someone else. I guess it feels like a character, a very real character. Also, I’ve hit a point in my career where I want to be making a lot of music, I absolutely want to continue to work with other artists but I have a lot of other projects I want to get out there. 299 has such a specific identity I think he needs his own name.
And why ‘299’? What’s the significance behind the number?
I went to the Texas State Fair and someone was selling a ring, as in a jewellery ring. It had written on it “299 Game”. I found out it was a ten-pin bowling ring and that 300 is the perfect score but scoring a 299 is ‘The Imperfect Game” and if you score 299 then you get this ring. I loved that, the idea of celebrating the perfection of imperfection, almost but not quite and that really became the ethos behind the whole project and my perception of the whole trip more widely.
I was having an adventure, the great American road trip, it was fucking awesome but I’m still me, I still have the same anxieties, I still look at the world through the same dark eyes, I’ll never be able to escape me – nothing will ever be perfect. It extends to the music too, the songs are rough around the edges for sure but that’s how they were made and they were perfect for that very moment. I thought a few times about re-recording bits to tidy it up but it didn’t feel honest. I still have the ring by the way.
Is this a concept album and an attempt to capture something truly filmic and widescreen in scope?
I knew I wanted the record to have a very specific sound and I knew I needed the sound to reflect the environment I was in, so the big imagery is all there – the endless highways, the desert, the vast landscape, the dive bars, I mean that’s what I was experiencing but something is wrong, the images are just out of focus. 299 was always a shadow for me, a menacing, commanding figure so although there are a quite a lot of sweet elements in the music be it rooted in country or maybe ‘60s pop there’s an unsettling, sinister edge to them.
It’s not a concept record in terms of lyrical narrative, I generally write more enigmatically but it’s a concept in terms of sound and character – it’s a big, uneasy sound. I want the listener to put on their headphones and take a trip, I want people to hear the engine start, to not give a fuck, to feel the stuffy regret of a hangover, to confront themselves.
How would you describe the music you are making on the album?
Oh man, I don’t know. It’s been freeing to not be too concerned about how acceptable the record sounds in comparison to everything else that’s out there at the moment so maybe the phrase ‘lo-fi’ has to be in the description somewhere, but I can’t help but feel that does the album a disservice. I think limitation can be a really helpful thing when making music, I could only use my voice, a guitar and the objects lying around me in the hotel rooms or the places I crashed at – you have to get creative when you don’t have many tools. I think it was only possible for the 299 to be born at that time, I don’t think I could have created him if I was in my studio with a big palette of sounds and instruments at my disposal.
Tell me about PNKSLM, the label you’re releasing the album with?
The songs sat on my hard drive for a while but every time I pulled them out I knew I needed to do something with them, so last year I decided I would send them out to a few record labels. I made a list of labels that might be suitable, about 15 I think. I was aware of PNKSLM and knew a few artists they had released so they were the first and only label I sent the tracks to – they replied saying they loved the tracks and they were really keen to put the album out. It’s run by two lovely guys out of Stockholm and I couldn’t be happier, it feels like the right home for 299.
How does it feel as somebody so used to backing up bands to put yourself centre stage?
It’s a funny one, I’ve always written songs and I sang and played guitar in bands as a teenager but obviously found my way into music professionally as a session player. That role is great because you can create and contribute without certain pressures and commitments that artists face. It’s something I really enjoy and wouldn’t want to move away from doing that. It’s the same when I’m working as a producer, which I’m doing more and more now. I get to work with artists to mould and interpret songs and put them down onto tape to create a piece of art – It’s something I truly love and it feels like a very natural role for me. However, I think it’s a very natural progression to want to put something of yourself out into the world.
I think if I were to release a more straightforward record by Gavin Fitzjohn then perhaps I would feel more nervous but the 299 doesn’t intimidate me really, I don’t think “I should have done that” or “I should have changed that section” because the album feels to me like it’s always existed and in a way doesn’t feel like mine to worry about.
We know you from your many appearances with the likes of Paolo Nutini, Manics and Stereophonics – what have you learned from these guys to bring to your own music?
I’ve been really lucky to work with some amazing musicians and you learn from everyone. I first started working with Paolo in 2007, so we’ve grown up together. Paolo is one of the best singers and lyricists I’ve ever heard, he is absolutely the real deal. I think Paolo has definitely had an effect on me as a writer, perhaps by osmosis, when you spend that much time with someone you naturally begin to take on aspects of each other’s creativity and he approaches music much in the same way as I do.
I’ve worked closely with James on the last few Manics’ records and his solo album as a producer and musician and we have a great creative relationship. They’re very clever guys and have a very clear vision about what they want to achieve and they make bold decisions which I think is really important. That’s something that all these artists have in common, the idea of having a clear vision about what you want to create and a strong work ethic to achieve it. Kelly puts a massive amount of thought and effort into the Stereophonics and his solo live show, he knows what a powerful experience that can be for a fan.