The Joy Hotel at The Great Western Festival ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆

by Jack Faulds

The Joy Hotel seemed an elusive bunch to me, their online presence not revealing all that much about their collective or individual personalities. Snippets of live performances sprinkled throughout their Instagram page were enough to temporarily satisfy my curiosity about them. But being the nosy-parker that I am, I had to know more! So, I headed down to the Mackintosh Church for their Great Western Festival set to do some good old fashioned journalistic sleuthing.

I was fortunate enough to catch the band’s soundcheck, the perfect place to look for clues. Juan Laforet (formerly of the now-disbanded Quiche) played a fanfare-style melody on his keyboard as I entered the main hall of the church. A stripy fur coat was slung haphazardly over a synthesizer stand, something you’d expect from a stage inhabited by the New York Dolls. Roses poked out from behind amps and microphones like the remnants of a bouquet-toss.

“I’m surprised there’s nae stained glass windaes!” remarked vocalist Emme Woods as she examined the architecture of the church. “I know! It’s Mackintosh for God’s sake!” added Juan, guitarist Luke Boyce noodling away at a bluesy version of the classic ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ riff. As I sat down at my pew, it hit me just how big the band was in comparison to other local bands that I’d seen. Seven of them up there, and half of them multi-instrumentalists! It was giving off something of a Wings vibe. After all, bassist Jack Borrill was donning a McCartney-style violin bass.

As I was searching the stage for answers, a peppy drum track played from the speakers – the sermon had begun. Bathed in a fiery orange light, the guitarists sang their introductory hymn, lush chord progressions and melodies filling the hall and enveloping the crowd in a unique warmth. Emme layered her Cranberries-esque vocals over this rich soundscape, which exploded into a head-bobbing rock groove with the help of Jack Boyce’s drums. This first song, ‘Good Time, I Decline’, was long and experimental with moments of chaos jutting in and out at every turn. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between their sound and Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ as Emme addressed the crowd with an Alex Turner swagger. The track swelled triumphantly to its conclusion and the groove tightened to a march, war drums and maracas signalling the transition into the next song – ‘While You’re Young’.

12-string acoustic guitarist Scott Flanagan gave a smouldering look as he strummed, the soft twinkle of Juan’s piano and delicate croons of Luke’s slide guitar sending the audience into a shared trance. Each member looked like they were session musicians for different acts, coming together to form a super group. 

Before I knew it, we were thrust into the third tune of the night – ‘Twenty Three (A Comedy)’. A choir of songbirds whistled in harmony, it was time to rise from our collective slumber. A piercing alarm clock sounded in the form of staccato guitar stabs and we were awake in no time.

Madness ensued. Bass breaks, piano solos, macabre tempo changes – you name it. Synthesizers roared like a tempestual wind, harsh droplets of guitar rained down on us. We were in the eye of an unrelenting storm, a complete tidal wave of sound. 

The dust eventually settled, and the last song of the night ‘Killing Time’ began. It became clear that we were being serenaded once again. Emme and Luke sang their lament: 

“Don’t need something to believe in. I’ve grown tired of believing. You give a sad song some meaning. I can’t keep killing time until time kills me.” 

They followed with a verse or two from ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’, taking me right back to hymn practice at my Catholic primary school. Emme turned to her theremin* and operated it with her hands, manipulating the frequency and pitch like a sonic puppet-master. Every musician on stage was a mad scientist, each of them adding something brilliant to this colourful concoction. Members of the audience departed from their pews to headbang at the front of the stage, lining up at the altar to rejoice. 

“One more song!” chanted the crowd repeatedly as the sermon came to a close. “We got time for one more?” shouted Emme to the event manager at the back. “It’s only Jesus here the morra!”

The encore was the perfect display of the band’s love for their craft. Guitarist Jenny Clifford climbed to the priest’s podium to preach, throwing up devil horns between each phrase. Luke shouted “Satan!” in a deep, bellowing voice and it seemed as if Lucifer himself was speaking. Juan slid to his knees for a menacing guitar solo, smiling maniacally as he shredded. The name they had given themselves made complete sense to me now. This was pure musical euphoria! This was The Joy Hotel!They left the stage in a swathe of reverb and distortion, grabbing their beers and blowing kisses as the sound dissipated. The applause lasted the length of another song, seeming to linger as the hall was slowly emptied. “There’s levels, and that was next level! How are they that good?!” exclaimed someone in the pew behind me, bewildered as I.