The musician behind Manics, Stereophonics and Furries comes out of the shadows with his debut album
James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers calls it the “Cogan Cannon”.
He is renowned for supporting some of the biggest bands in the industry as a in-demand session and touring musician.
Now Welsh multi-instrumentalist and producer Gavin Fitzjohn takes center stage – well in a way – with his debut 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 longtime tour partner Paolo Nutini, it’s under the enigmatic moniker ‘ “ 299 ” he pulls out. his first collection of songs – “The 299 Game”.
The album has been in the works for a long time, it first came to life a few years ago as he traveled across the United States as a touring musician, even running away with the circus at one point.
Built in a succession of hotel and motel rooms, the album is filmic and big screen in its approach, intoxicating and dangerous in its allure. There are stains from ’60s vocal groups and a Tom Waits-like melancholy tied to Fitzjohn’s deliberate American drag.
Here, Gavin tells us the story of the epic road trip that influenced his songs and how Paolo Nutini, James Dean Bradfield and Kelly Jones shaped his music.
What is the story of your first album – “The 299 Game”?
A few years ago I was touring the United States a lot as a musician. I found myself in many different cities – Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Joshua Tree, Tampa, New Orleans and met a lot of interesting people, I also had a lot of free time. I started writing and recording songs in hotel rooms that would eventually become “The 299 Game”. I could only use what I had on hand, basically a guitar and all the drums I could put together in the room – boxes, coins, bowls, etc. I thought a lot about the great American road trip and what it really means, what I was the experience and where it fits.
It was a really exciting time for me but in many ways I 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 heavily at 3 a.m. , things like longing, regret, love, guilt, mortality. The sound of the record is sort of a distorted reflection of the desert, tiny forgotten towns and surreal characters I spent time with.
Heard you literally ran off with the circus?
Yeah, it’s pretty wild to look back then. One of my jobs was to tour many states in the southern United States as a musician with the circus, you will find references to that throughout the album. I was hanging out and drinking with Russian acrobats and Colombians who had a “wheel of death” number. It was a journey. I was playing 8-10 gigs a week so the schedule was pretty intense, I think I was probably a little frayed at the time.
Why register as 299 and not Gavin Fitzjohn?
I think there are several reasons. The songs were from a very specific time and place and now it almost doesn’t feel like Gavin Fitzjohn wrote these songs, I feel like they belong to someone. ‘another. I guess it looks like a character, a very real character. Also, I have reached a point in my career where I want to do a lot of music, I absolutely want to continue working with other artists but I have a lot of other projects that I want to do. 299 has such a specific identity that I think it needs its own name.
And why “299”? What is the significance of the number?
I went to the Texas State Fair and someone was selling a ring, like a jewelry ring. It had written “299 Game”. I found out it was a ten pin bowling ring and 300 is the perfect score, but a 299 is “The Imperfect Game” and if you score 299 you get that ring. I loved that, the idea of celebrating the perfection of the imperfection, almost but not quite and it really became the philosophy behind the whole project and my perception of the whole trip more broadly.
I had an adventure, the great American road trip, it was fucking great but I’m still me, I still have the same anxieties, I still look at the world with the same dark eyes, I will 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 this exact moment. I thought a few times about re-recording songs to put it away but it didn’t feel right to me. I still have the ring by the way.
Is it a concept album and an attempt to capture something truly filmic and big screen?
I knew I wanted the album to sound very specific and I knew I needed the sound to reflect the environment I was in, so the big pictures are all there – the endless highways, the desert. , the vast landscape, the dive bars, I mean this is what I was going through but something is wrong, the pictures are just blurry. 299 has always been a shadow for me, a menacing and dominant figure, so while there are a lot of mellow elements in the music, whether they are rooted in country or maybe 60s pop, they have a disturbing and sinister side.
It’s not a concept record in terms of a lyrical narrative, I usually write more cryptically, but it’s a concept in terms of sound and character – it’s a big, disturbing sound. I want the listener to put on their headphones and take a trip, I want people to hear the engine start, not give a fuck, feel the suffocating regret of a hangover, confront each other.
How would you describe the music you make on the album?
Oh man, I don’t know. This made it possible not to be too concerned about the acceptability of the disc compared to anything out there right now, so maybe the phrase “ lo-fi ” needs to be in the description somewhere, but I can’t help but feel this is doing the album a disservice. I think limiting can be a really useful thing for making music, I could only use my voice, a guitar, and the objects around me in hotel rooms or places I crashed – you have to get creative when you don’t have one. many tools. I think it was only possible for the 299 to be born then, I don’t think I could have created it if I was in my studio with a large palette of sounds and instruments at my disposal.
Tell me about PNKSLM, the label you released the album with?
The songs stayed on my hard drive for a while, but every time I put them out I knew I had to do something with them, so last year I decided to send them to a few record companies. I made a list of labels that might fit, around 15 I think. I was aware of PNKSLM and knew a few artists that they had released so they were the first and only label I sent the tracks to – they responded by saying that they liked the tracks and that they were really keen to release the album. It’s run by two lovely guys from Stockholm and I couldn’t be happier it’s like the right house for 299.
How do you feel as someone so used to supporting bands to put you center stage?
Funny, I always wrote songs and sang and played guitar in bands as a teenager, but obviously found my way into music professionally as a session musician. This role is great because you can create and contribute without some of the pressures and commitments that artists face. This is something that I really enjoy and I wouldn’t want to stray from it. It’s the same when I work as a producer, which I do more and more now. I work with artists to model and perform songs and put them on tape to create a work of art – it’s something that I really love and it feels like a very natural role to me. However, I think it’s a very natural progression to want to put something of yourself into the world.
I think if I were to release a simpler Gavin Fitzjohn album then maybe I would feel more nervous but the 299 doesn’t really intimidate me, I don’t think “I should have done that” or ” I should have changed that section ”because the album makes me feel like it’s always been around and somehow I don’t feel like I care.
We know you from your many appearances with Paolo Nutini, Manics and Stereophonics – what have you learned from these guys to bring to your own music?
I have been very lucky to work with amazing musicians and you learn from everyone. I started working with Paolo in 2007, so we grew up together. Paolo is one of the best singers and lyricists I have ever heard, he is absolutely the real deal. I think Paolo really had an effect on me as a writer, maybe by osmosis, when you spend so much time with someone you naturally start to take charge of the other’s aspects of creativity. and he approaches music the same way I do.
I have worked closely with James on the latest Manics records and his solo album as a producer and musician and we have a great creative relationship. They are very smart guys and have a very clear vision of what they want to accomplish and they make some bold decisions which in my opinion are really important. It’s something that all of these artists have in common, the idea of having a clear vision of what you want to create and a strong work ethic to achieve it. Kelly puts a tremendous amount of thought and effort into Stereophonics and his live solo show, he knows how powerful a fan experience it can be.