by Paris Fawcett
Photo: Daniel Gray
In the heart of Leicester is a small bar called The Cookie. The exterior warm and quirky as its centrepiece – a large retro cinema sign – hangs proudly over the door. But inside dwells a darker beast. Echoes of screams reverberate around the room as a sparse collection of people lounge on sofas and around wooden tables; glasses rattle slightly as the floor below vibrates. Just below their feet lies The Cookie’s basement. Unbeknownst to most in the bar: one of the best, most exciting metal bands in the UK is sound-checking in the basement below. Still in the underground despite the wave of success that has come their way in the past year, Employed To Serve are working tirelessly to usher in a new generation of exciting British hardcore music.
Fronting that band is Justine Jones, a woman whose smile alone radiates enough kindness to fill a room, but becomes a instigator of pure chaos when she puts on her band’s signature windbreaker and steps onto the stage. Once the lights come up and the equipment is packed away, Jones’ efforts turn to Holy Roar and helping to run perhaps the most consistently excellent record label in the UK right now. Filling every part of her life with music, it never for a second feels like Jones is fuelled by anything but passion for sharing what she loves with the world.
“At the moment the UK scene in general is at its strongest and it’s just really cool to facilitate these bands,” Jones says straight after terrifying the bar half to death from below their feet. It’s clear that she’s putting her successes post-2017’s Warmth of a Dying Sun to good use: intent of dragging other bands up with her. “It was only a couple of years ago where we were opening up for everyone so it’s nice to go full circle.” Something that becomes clear while talking to Jones is how much she wants to talk about other bands and heavy music, delivering answers in a way that incorporate the scene at large, before firing the question back to find out what you think.
She’s the modern rock-star: swapping ego for kindness, pouring everything she has into her craft, with an end goal of building up the scene to one she’s always dreamed of living in. There’s the overwhelming sense that, for Jones, the wider metal community is every bit as important to her as her own band. As if music were an equal force to life itself – you live and breathe it because it’s the thing you love most in the world. What starts as an exploration of her state of mind in 2018 quickly becomes a look at how the scene has changed over time and what has made this year so fantastic for heavy bands. It’s all part of the Justine Jones tapestry.
Jones refers to the time between 2013 and 2017 as the “dark years” of UK rock music, citing Architects, Bring Me The Horizon and Reuben – the last of which split up a decade ago – as some of the last champions of the genre. “Bands like that were just releasing amazing albums, and then I feel like there was almost dark years where everyone just wasn’t. I switched to deathcore just because they were the only group of bands I felt were producing anything exciting.” She takes a moment to consider any artists she might have missed, but confirms” “There wasn’t that many exciting exciting young bands about, and globally there wasn’t any up and comers. It was just the legacy acts headlining everywhere.”
The impossible task of infiltrating an upper echelon of legacy acts is one that Employed To Serve have mastered, achieving the inconceivable last year and winning Kerrang!’s album of the year award – a title held by Green Day, Architects and Bring Me the Horizon in the years preceding. Jones gushes as she recalls finding out the band were on the magazine’s ‘Albums Of The Year’ list: “It’s phenomenal, when we got the news through I was like ‘sweet, what number did we come in at?’ and they had to tell me three times, ‘no, the album’.” Her disbelief is understandable, considering that no band playing basements has won the award in the last 20 years (if ever). “Those bands are obviously far bigger than us. I’d like to say that we sell out stadiums but unfortunately not. I feel like the magazine’s taken a massive punt on us and it’s really benefited us, we’re very grateful for it.”
What Justine describes as a ‘punt’ was seen as a seismic shift to others, an exceptional album from Employed To Serve was picked up and lauded for the quality that it was. They’ve become part of a lineage of artists doing their bit to smash the glass ceiling for bands that sound like your toaster being put through the washing machine. Stemming from the likes of Meshuggah and Every Time I Die is a line of bands such as Vein, Code Orange and Turnstile that are doing that one thing that sets them apart from their contemporaries and succeeding because of it. “I do feel they [Code Orange] are very prolific right now, I feel like they’ve paved the way for heavy music and reminded the general press and public that heavy bands can climb still. Like I said, going back to Architects and Bring Me the Horizon, they’re the last big bands from when I was younger that have stayed big and kept climbing. Every band since then has for whatever reason split up or just not quite got to headlining status. So to see Code Orange do that, a young band who have worked hard… that has just opened the gates for everyone else.”
In addition to a powerful surge of creativity, the new wave of hardcore bands are bringing with them the principles of teamwork and camaraderie that inspired their own existence. It’s always been a flawed yet well-intentioned ideal of the hardcore punk scene that you help each other out, whether by supporting the musicians around you or maintaining a space that feels safe for all.. Take Vein and Sanction building each other up and touring with each other for years, or Every Time I Die curating gig lineups that not only give large platforms for the next best band to leap off but also introduce the world to bands still in their infancy.
By being part of the Holy Roar team, Justine Jones also adheres to these tenets of hardcore, constantly on the lookout for new talent and building up bands to achieve their full potential. A look into the record label’s recent releases shows albums that have gone on to define the British underground scene such as Conjurer’s Mire, Rolo Tomassi’s Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It, and Jord by Møl. Balancing band life with curating the sound of British heavy music feels natural to Jones; “I think they coexist very well. I’m constantly away, or try to be away, so by doing that I see all the new bands and get excited by them. Conjurer is a prime example, probably about 2 years ago they opened for us and Grieved in Birmingham and before then I had just heard about their live show and they had a demo that just didn’t do them justice. I couldn’t get into them through that and after seeing them live I was just blown away, it was one of those ‘Oh yeah you shouldn’t be an opener’ kind of things. We just try to take all the good UK bands we can.” As our conversation continues, The Cookie starts to become a place more befitting of a hardcore gig as it fills up with metalheads in band t-shirts; Employed To Serve, Rolo Tomassi, Conjurer are spotted donned on peoples clothes: all exceptional bands; all Holy Roar alumni.
Holy Roar seems less of a job for Jones and more of a natural way to spend her time. Why would you want to do anything other than surround yourself with the music you love? “A lot of touring is just dead time, I wait to play for like forty minutes every day. There’s time that’s travelling to and from and after soundcheck where you’re just waiting around basically, so in that time I can just kick up and work”. The most fulfilling part of all: getting to see other bands succeed. “You spend like three months doing an album campaign, talking with their press or doing press in-house so you work behind the scenes a lot. And when you actually go to the launch show or you start seeing the reviews come in, or people post on Instagram and Twitter about how excited they are, that’s the most fulfilling part. Also bands like Rolo Tomassi selling out the Garage – which is their biggest sell out show. It just made me feel very proud to be part of something that cool. It’s just seeing a friend succeed really.”
Working for a label that has current and past alumni featuring the likes of Will Haven, Touche Amore, Boss Keloid and Bossk allows you to see everything that makes a band the best and embody it. When talking about what makes a great band, tenacity is the one attribute that Jones immediately blurts out: “I look for people who are always wanting to tour – even the toilet tours of the UK – because everyone’s got to start somewhere. That’s where you pick up your ‘lifers’, the people who see you from the beginning and follow you through everything”. She lists self-awareness and open-mindedness as two more traits that make a band great, rounding it all off with perhaps the most important quality which is “of course, just having good music taste.”
It’s hard to disagree with Jones when looking at the current scene as a whole. Those succeeding are the ones doing tour after tour like Employed to Serve; breaking the traditional mould of music releases like Code Orange; having the awareness to treat your fans well. Ultimately the success of these bands relies not only on their commitment, but on the demand from fans, which Jones thinks is stronger than it’s been in a long time. “I think everyone’s hungry for it. Everyone’s hungry for new music and also on a gig-goer level I’ve noticed people buy more merch and stuff. I think that part of the ‘dark years’ was because of the backlash from downloading and bands being like ‘I can’t afford this’. Obviously you do expect to be skint a lot of the time but when it’s to the point where no one’s picking up your stuff, you’re just gonna die out. I think people have realised that and they’ve become more into picking up multiple bits of merch from bands because they’ve realised that’s how they continue. On a label level we’ve got a monthly subscription club, the model is really popular and you realise that our people want to continue to support.”
The mainstream have their beady eye on the scene too, with Power Trip’s ‘Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe)’ becoming a WWE theme song, and Deafheaven’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love being praised by everyone from Kerrang! to Pitchfork to the NME. It’s an exciting time all around for heavy music and as Employed To Serve end one album cycle and begin a new one, they’re gonna ride this wave as much as they can. “After our previous album Warmth of a Dying Sun far exceeding our expectations in terms of how it was received, it’s just made us hungrier to achieve more. When we started the band, we wanted to release a record through Holy Roar because that was our favourite label, we wanted to play with a few of our favourite bands like Throats and Vales. We met a lot of our goals really quickly and we just keep setting new ones so I think we’re going to continue with that.”
“I wanna take it as high as possible,” Justine says defiantly as the conversation comes to an end. Rather appropriately for a woman whose life is dedicated to music, she closes the chat with a message to those wanting to be a part of this shift. “I have to remind myself every day how lucky I am, but it’s totally achievable for anyone interested in it. If you’re a nice person and are willing to help out others, you’d be surprised at how far you can go, I think having a dog-eat-dog mentality is really detrimental to succeeding in life. Whether you’re into writing, film or music, if you make friends with people you’ll be surprised with how many opportunities come your way.” It’s a message that so many will tell you but means a surprising amount coming from Justine Jones, someone who has infiltrated the rock scene for the better in the past few years, providing not only nasty music of her own but a whole roster of bands. Doing her own bit to change the landscape of rock forever.
As the night unfolds and the hardcore show takes The Cookie to school on the darkest, dirtiest parts of what a few people and their instruments can do, Employed To Serve make so much noise that the sound booms out of the basement and down the street. Passers-by can’t help but stop and peer in at this monolith of noise. And if that’s not a fitting metaphor for how heavy music is beating down the door to the mainstream, nothing is.