Jagwar Ma know you should never make plans with a raver too early after a big Friday night. At this year’s Glastonbury, they weren’t too surprised or disappointed to see the John Peel tent nearly empty when they started setting up for their show early on Saturday afternoon. They knew people had hangovers to nurse. They assumed it would be a quiet one. They were wrong. “At some point the whole tent filled up with what they told us was 8,000 people,” says keyboardist and beatmaker Jono Ma. “That was life-changing for me, playing to a crowd like that.”
“It was a Sword in the Stone moment,” adds frontman Gabriel Winterfield. “Nothing went wrong. Little things always go wrong at a gig, but this was seamless.”
Lured in by the ecstatic groove the band showcased on their debut record ‘Howlin’, released earlier in June, the Glastonbury crowds were rewarded for dragging themselves out of their tents with one of the weekend’s biggest parties. Jono and Gabriel were joined by bassist Jack Freeman as they turned their early afternoon set into an all-out rave that pushed psychedelic guitar and old school house piano into a massive wall of sound.
What the gathered masses didn’t know is that the show almost didn’t happen at all. In the months leading up to the festival, Jono had been laid out by a mysterious and debilitating chronic illness. He lost 20% of his body weight. As he watched the crowds dance, those memories rushed through his mind. “A couple of weeks earlier I was in a bed. I wasn’t sure whether I was ever going to be able to play live music again.”
Watching the Glastonbury crowd lose their shit was the culmination of a journey that started in the suburbs of Sydney. Jono and his brother Dave grew up with a father whose hobby was training racing dogs, living in what Jono calls a “shitty fibre house in a shitty suburb, with six or seven greyhounds at any given time”. They escaped into music and art, with Dave eventually finding his way to England where he was essentially known as an extra member of Foals for a while, creating all the band’s early artwork and most of their music videos into the ‘Holy Fire’ era.
Gabriel, meanwhile, had music in his blood. His dad was a professional session musician who also played live in a jazz duo; one of Gabriel’s earliest memories is of standing at the side of the stage watching him play. Gabriel first got started platying guitar at the age of four. By the time he was 12, he had gotten heavily into Nirvana and Hendrix and had decided that if he was going to play guitar, he’d have to try out singing, too.
Growing up, the pair would regularly see each other playing around Sydney’s small venues circuit. Jono was in an electronic techno band called Lost Valentinos, who were reviewed in NME (“A skittering shitstorm of punk fury, disco beats and psychedelic excursions,” apparently) but whose major claim to fame was probably being forced to add the ‘Lost’ to their name in 2007 after they were hassled by Bobby Womack and his group the Valentinos. Gabriel learned his trade in Ghostwood, a band with shades of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Traces of both sounds can be heard in the music they make now, particularly live. “I’ve got that muscle memory from playing those shows, for sure,” says Gabriel. “I guess you carry those experiences with you.”
When their individual bands went on hiatus they both continued to write and record. In 2011, Jono worked with his brothers’ mates Foals on the early sessions for ‘Holy Fire’, taking the band to record in the wilds of the Australian outback and pushing them to experiment with new synths and instruments. Meanwhile, Gabriel was writing sixties-influenced songs that he eventually hoped to record. When the time came, Jono was the natural choice for a producer. Jono had other ideas. “When he came in I played Gabriel a track I had,” he says. “It was [2012 debut single] ‘Come Save Me’ without the vocals, and Gabriel had an idea for what they should be. We just recorded it and put them on, and then that became our first track and the beginning of the band. It’s grown organically since then.”
What started as an inadvertent collaboration has been tagged as a sort of “baggy revival”, hearkening back to the 80s ‘Madchester’ scene. Jono argues that relationship has been overstated, even as he accepts they share DNA: “It’s funny, I heard that during the recording of ‘Screamadelica’, Primal Scream were really into Phil Spector. Shaun Ryder was really into Sly and the Family Stone, and the Stone Roses were obviously really into Hendrix. They’re three of our favourite artists. Then you have the whole Chicago house and Detroit techno acid house scene, which influenced Madchester and us as well. We have common ancestry.”
The pair kept writing in Sydney, but when it came to recording the album proper they decided they would benefit from distance and isolation. They found it in a remote studio in La Briche, France, which Jono had helped to kit out with friend. “It meant we could go and live there and just focus on making music, which is what we did,” says Jono. “That’s where the record really evolved and we defined ourselves as an act.”
The band were aided at various points by Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, who’s an old family friend of Jono’s, and by the producer and mixer Ewan Pearson, who took them to Berlin’s 24-hour techno sex club, Berghain, to introduce them to the European brand of endurance clubbing.
Back in April, a couple of months before ‘Howling’ would be released, Jagwar Ma supported The xx on their Australian tour. Once they got back from the trip, however, things started to get heavy for Jono. He started feeling unwell, but assumed it would clear up. After six weeks, he was only getting worse, and the band were forced to cancel a string of live dates when Jono was advised not to fly. Meanwhile, his doctors were baffled. They prescribed him one lot of medication, and then when that had no effect, they prescribed him others. “Nothing was working,” he explains. “It was really frightening. And even though I’d made the record, I thought I might not be able to be a touring musician ever again. That was really fucking scary.”
Making ‘Howlin’ had opened up a world for Jono that suddenly threatened to shrink back to the size of a hospital bed. “There was a moment where it looked like I was going to have done all the work and not get the reward of seeing people having a really good time to it at the end,” he says. He claims his doctors still don’t know what helped him recover, and personally credits the thought of missing out on Glastonbury as the Lourdes-like touch that got him back on his feet to dance a joyous victory rave. They’ve seized each day since. That’s another thing Jagwar Ma know. “You know what they say,” Gabriel says. “If life gives you lemons, have some fuckin’ tequila.”
Originally published in NME, 17 August 2013.