God, Dragons and Celine Dion; our chat with Major Napier
Johnny Ross, i.e. Major Napier, doesn’t intend to convey such intensity through his music; it just happens. “It’s subconsciously intense. I don’t intend it to be, but I realise that when I’m not doing it, its all I want to do.” You might not guess it from just listening to his well-crafted, off-beat take on pop music, but get along to one of his shows, and his fierce connection to his music becomes immediately apparent. As well as an impassioned stage presence, there’s a wonderful naivety and sense of adventure to Major Napier, something heavily influenced by Johnny’s upbringing in The Children of God, a segregated religious community situated in Thailand.
For Johnny, it’s apparent that Western society is something that he’s still coming to terms with. After all, his exposure to western culture was incredibly limited until his move from Thailand to Australia at age sixteen. The Children of God, whilst nurturing, based everything - socialising, schooling and entertainment - around their own community. No surprise that western culture was quite a shock. “I remember going to a petrol station somewhere between Melbourne and Ballarat and seeing Jerry Springer on TV and getting a family sized pizza, which was larger than anything I’d ever seen, and just being wowed by Westernisation.”
Johnny’s musical journey began with the music of the Children of God, what he describes as “pleasant, folky music”. However, like many religious groups trying to remain relevant to the younger generation, its spirituality became lost in an attempt to modernise. Ironically, it was this that appears to have turned Johnny towards Western musical culture. “They tried to develop it so as to retain their teenage population. When they did that it became crappy and so I’d be up late recording mix tapes off the radio.” We have a bit of a chat about religious musical modernisation in general and both agree something has been lost by this. As Johnny puts it “It feels really bastardised, it just feels like a marketing attempt rather than a genuine religious experience”.
As for Johnny’s first experiences of Western music it was the not so subtle sounds of the times pop superstars that opened his mind to the realms of sound that come with secular music. “Radio was my first really intense experience where I realised “Wow, there’s so much out there and people are making really insane music. To me, at that time, those people were [what you would consider] funny people, like Boyz 2 Men or Celine Dion.” Although music is just a small part of what Johnny has explored and discovered.
Our conversation twists and turns, on and off topic and somehow reaches its way around to the subject of the movie marathon he had with friends for his birthday just gone. We find some common ground in our love for a couple of the movies mentioned - How to Train Your Dragon and My Own Private Idaho - in particular the brilliance which is Keanu Reeves horrible acting and how animation should still be cartoon-like and not too real.
Life in Australia, and Western Culture in general, has obviously opened Johnny’s mind to new experiences, allowing him to explore his creativity. Johnny reflects and recognises he needed to leave life as he knew it with the Children of God to remain stimulated. “Growing up in Thailand, it felt really limiting in what you could do creatively. [By the time I was sixteen] it wasn’t mentally stimulating anymore, it was mentally exhausting”.
And gladly, Johnny came to Australia and explored music beyond those early encounters. Indeed if such a talent for production was lost to the pop machine it would be quite a blow. However, Johnny’s attitude to the music biz suggests this would most likely never be the case. “Management and labels aren’t the goals for me. Major Napier is the most truthful extension of myself so I don’t want to associate it with something that feels fabricated or that feels artificial or marketed”
So instead of busting out torch songs a la Whitney Houston, Major Napier finds himself mentioned in the same sentences as Aussie production stars like fellow Melbournite, and good friend, Oscar Key Sung. However, Johnny doesn’t pretend that there’s not still room for plenty of growth when it comes to writing. “The songwriting process for me is still so raw, I still don’t really know what I’m doing so when I’m writing lyrics I feel like the only way to do it is to be really honest.”
And it is this honesty, and a healthy dose of naivety, that make Major Napier so refreshing. His ability to combine seemingly cryptic lyrics with those that are much more direct brilliantly fuses curious quirks with accessibility. Two of the tracks of the recently released EP Please Stay exemplify this. ‘Sensitive Fuck’ asks “are you still playing Slayer and laughing out loud?” in conjunction with “Don’t it feel good to have someone in you?” Title Track ‘Please Stay’ pleads “don’t ever let me go, and don’t ever go away” whilst describing the writer’s tortuous situation of having “killer bees” in their bed and communists “taking up too much real estate in my head”. It is obvious that each song is deeply personal to Johnny and that lyric writing is a no holds barred process when it comes to Major Napier.
Complimenting this is his open attitude towards production and songwriting. He’s not afraid to think outside the box or try something unconventional when writing. In fact pursuing what he terms “bad ideas” is something he delights in. ““I write so many songs and so many of them are really not worth hearing. It’s fun though, pursuing those ideas that are really bad, because I find those ideas that you disregard, you’re disregarding them because they don’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard.” Offering up such an openness, both emotionally and in his approach to writing, Major Napier is a truly unique proposition.
- Josh Manning