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Heck interview with Jonny Hall ‘I'm a 30-year old scumbag with a crap job, no security and I can't think of anything else I’d rather do’

The guitarist and vocalist with the Nottingham-based venue wreckers recants his extraordinary and unusual life and the path that led him to punk rock nirvana

Remfry Dedman
Wednesday 15 June 2016 16:12 BST
Jonny Hall in the midst of Heck action
Jonny Hall in the midst of Heck action (Jennifer Mccord)

Utilising all the subtleties of a bull with a nuclear device strapped to its horns wreaking havoc in your ma’s china shop, Heck‘s reputation for battering venues and whipping the disenfranchised into a frothing frenzy is quickly passing into the hallowed metaphorical hallways of punk legend. These noisy oiks are four very distinct and individual characters that coalesce to form a juggernaut that is vehemently more than the sum of its parts.

Jonny Hall, with his scrawny hobo-chic looks and extraordinary Spiderman-like abilities to scale seemingly insurmountable surfaces, is a stunning visual focal point in a frenetic band brimming with stunning visual focal points. Born in Sheffield on 6th November 1985, he moved with his parents and older sister to Kuwait where his father worked as a computer programmer for a prominent retail chain. ‘My Dad's been out in the Middle East for about 35 years,’ says Jonny. ‘He’s always managed to blag himself a load of programming jobs, he never really knew what he was doing, he'd just go into interviews and manage to bulls**t his way into jobs. He moved out there and took my Mum with him but she didn't really trust the Kuwaiti medical system, so she flew back to the UK when having me and my sister. So I was born in Sheffield but never really lived there as such. I went to Kuwait as soon as I was old enough to fly and lived there until I was about 11.’

An example of Jonny's speaker scaling prowess at Download 2016
An example of Jonny's speaker scaling prowess at Download 2016 (Jennifer Mccord)

On 2nd August 1990, their lives were thrown into turmoil when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in an occupation that lasted seven months. ‘My Dad was on the last flight out of Kuwait, there was a flight that went out at about 1:30am and a flight that came in at around the same time. The Iraqi army took control of the airport and held the flight coming into the country hostage. All the Westerners got released because if you keep Western hostages, you're going to attract a lot of unwanted attention. My Dad was on the last flight out and I remember watching the news and seeing a British Airways plane on fire. I was sitting there, not really understanding it fully, but thinking, 'that might be my Dad.'’

Thankfully, Jonny’s Dad was safe, completely oblivious to the fact that the country he had just left was now under siege from an invading Iraqi force. ‘He heard the news on the radio halfway up the M1’ says Jonny, before somewhat understatedly musing, ‘it was a pretty weird time. The Iraqis were claiming to have weapons that they were threatening to use on Kuwait. The government’s advice was to take a little towel to school in case someone fires a chemical weapon. You dampen the towel, put it over your mouth and nose and then go somewhere indoors … and that's it! That's all you can do! We used to gaffer tape an X across our windows in case anything blew up outside our house. Apparently it was to hold the window together so that you didn't get as much shrapnel flying in from an explosion. And you just did it because there was nothing else you could do!’

With the political turbulence of Kuwait in mind, the decision was made to move the family back to the UK, where Jonny and his sister attended a catholic school. He pinpoints this as the first time he was alienated by those around him, a common theme that many drawn to heavy music can relate to. ‘Me and my sister come from quite a secular family, we’d never had any religion pushed upon us but our grandparents were very religious. It was confusing for us at that age because we got to see these kids go up and eat bread every day at church and we were like, 'I want a bit of bread! I want a biscuit!' And everyone said, 'No, you can't have any!' so we just sat there with no idea what any of this was. That was the start of feeling that we weren't the same as everyone else, which is a bit of a strange feeling when you're a kid. We never found it threatening or upsetting or anything. The attitude was, if I don't care about the fact that I'm different, then surely you are the one with the problem.’

After 4 ½ months of international condemnation and warnings, a military intervention led by the US drove the invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait; the operation was codenamed Desert Storm and lasted 43 days. Jonny returned to Kuwait with his father and sister but once there, they found that there was little left to return to. ‘I remember going back to our house and it had been turned into a bunker by the Iraqi Army. All the windows had been bricked up and all of our possessions had been destroyed and thrown into a single room. I remember going through a huge pile of stuff to see if there was anything salvageable. We picked out a couple of bits we could still have, a couple of toys that weren’t too damaged and went to a new place. We lost pretty much everything, which I know changed my Dad's attitude to possessions; he never really tried to re-acquire a lot of the things that he had lost as a result of the war. It proved to him that nothing like that ever actually mattered, which definitely rubbed off on me as well, materialistic urges just disappeared. It made me understand the fragility of any given situation, anything that you own can disappear overnight, all it takes is for someone to decide to invade the country you live in and all the things you have are gone, so what's the point in owning anything!?’

Jonny Hall in action at Hevy Fest
Jonny Hall in action at Hevy Fest (Jennifer Mccord)

This relaxed attitude towards material possessions is something that has served Jonny well in his time with Heck, a band not known for being cautious with their instruments. Drum skins are regularly pierced, amp cabs routinely wrecked and guitar necks often snapped, all in pursuit of the most intense unadulterated catharsis. ‘The thing about guitars is they get fixed,’ Jonny says. ‘Ultimately all it is a bit of wood. I wouldn't spend a lot of money on a guitar; I just see it as a tool that enables me to play a song. I like playing nice guitars but I wouldn't buy one because there's no point. Ultimately, everything is there to do a job and if you break it, you fix it. Obviously that mentality was instilled in me quite early on, expensive things never appealed to me because we had it and we lost it. It’s a great mentality to have in a band because you have to get used to having nothing for a long time.’

Shortly after returning to Kuwait, Jonny’s parents divorced. ‘My Mum was a nurse back in Sheffield and she left my Dad because she'd fallen in love with another nurse called Shirley. My Mum just didn't find men attractive anymore and that was it. She fell out of love with males and started falling in love with females. I’ve never understood why you would abuse someone for being gay. When I found out my Mum was gay, it was fine. It doesn't change anything at all. The fact that anyone, in this day and age, could ever have a problem with someone being gay is just absolutely mind-blowingly ignorant. I just don't understand it, I don't understand how anyone can have a problem with anyone else's personal choices. As long as they don't harm anyone else, as long as you don't cause physical or mental anguish towards another human being, then there’s no issue. So my Mum stayed in the UK with Shirley, my Dad got re-married and my sister and me moved across to Bahrain with him.’

Jonny Hall does his best Jimi Hendrix impersonation​ in Burnley
Jonny Hall does his best Jimi Hendrix impersonation​ in Burnley (Jennifer Mccord)

Jonny shows no animosity towards Shirley, embracing her and her family as part of his own; in fact, it was Shirley’s brother who broadened his musical horizons and first inspired him to pick up a guitar. ‘He was a few years older than me, the first band he ever showed me was Mansun, which was essentially my introduction to ‘guitar’ music. There’s a bonus track on their album Attack of the Grey Lantern called Take It Easy Chicken and he just picked up a guitar and started playing it whilst proclaiming it to be the best riff ever. It’s a piece of piss really but at the time, everyone was trying to play it and I thought ‘I reckon I could do that'. So I picked it up and I started playing it and I was like 'Yeah, I can do this guitar thing!'’

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It wasn’t long before Jonny was craving music a little heavier, harder and faster. ‘A mate of mine put on the first Slipknot album and it all escalated from there. Slipknot went into Amen, Amen went into Will Haven, Will Haven went into SikTh, SikTh went into The Blood Brothers … then I heard Glassjaw and that changed everything! I loved Daryl Palumbo’s voice, I loved his delivery and the emotion he put in to it, almost like painting pictures with music. I heard Worship & Tribute and it will forever be my favourite album, I don't think anything will ever surpass it for me. Your first favourite album very rarely gets topped!’

Metal, punk and post-hardcore were hardly readily available in the Middle East however and it wasn’t until the advent of internet piracy that Jonny had access to a far larger library of music. ‘I would take a few CDs back from the UK and listen to them over and over again because that was all I could get. Then Napster and things like that came along, more music opened up to me. I remember trying to download a Lostprophets song and someone had put Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come instead. This used to happen quite a lot, people used to upload songs saying they were one thing when they were in fact something else entirely. So I remember downloading New Noise, thinking it was Shinobi vs Dragon Ninja and I was just like 'I have no idea what this is, but this is the best song I’ve ever heard!' So I started listening to heavier music, it was the only thing that really fulfilled my need for a release of energy. My attention span was terrible and I just needed to run around and do stuff all the time.’

Despite the instability of the Middle Eastern countries the family now resided in, there was a certain stubbornness instilled in them to stay where they were. When asked if they’d ever considered moving back to the UK, Jonny simply says, ‘We never deemed it necessary. I remember watching TV, we had Sky News and there were little banners scrolling across the bottom of the screen saying 'The British foreign office urges all British nationals to leave Bahrain due to civil unrest' and I remember looking out the window thinking, 'there's nothing going on here! I don't know what they're talking about.' When you put things into perspective, the worst that could happen is something blows up and you die and you don't know anything about it. You know, s**t happens! I know that makes it sound trivial and I don't want to belittle people who are in war-torn countries, absolutely not! It is an awful thing to have to live like that. But when you take a step back and look at it, there is nothing you can do about it. It is where we lived, it was our home and if something's going to happen, you can't change that. I wouldn't wish that situation upon anyone, but when you’re there, you just get on with it.’

Jonny at the launch of the band's Signature Brew beer, Bullhorn
Jonny at the launch of the band's Signature Brew beer, Bullhorn (Jennifer Mccord)

Jonny was taught a British curriculum in Bahrain all the way up to his A-Levels. When it came time to look into furthering his education, he looked to a city just 50 miles from his place of birth in Sheffield. ‘I chose Nottingham because I wanted to do a degree in physics and astronomy, mainly because I was good at it. I was very good at blagging my way through exams, which was definitely a trait I picked up from my Dad. I looked at the gig listings for (esteemed venue) Rock City and there was a Pitchshifter gig with support by SikTh happening in my first term, and that was it! It was weird, even without visiting Nottingham, I just felt like I wanted to go there, there was something about it.’

It was in Nottingham that Jonny found the rest of the guys in Heck, or Baby Godzilla as they were called before legal troubles surrounding the rights to the name forced them to change it. The members of Baby Godzilla also played in a rock n’ roll covers band called Butch of the Cassidy’s, and drummer Tom Marsh reached out to Jonny when they needed a last-minute replacement for their guitarist. Jonny was aware of Baby Godzilla and their debut EP, Npag, and during rehearsals asked to jam some of their songs. ‘We played them for a bit and then they asked, 'Do you want to learn some new songs?' So I learnt seven songs, which were the beginnings of the Oche EP, and I played my first gig with them in April 2011.

Jonny in front of the crowd at Download Festival 2016
Jonny in front of the crowd at Download Festival 2016 (Jennifer Mccord)

Jonny’s initial experiences with the band weren’t all plain-sailing though, as is apparent from the experience he recounts of their first ‘European tour.’ ‘We bought a van for £500, drove down to the channel tunnel, the engine blew in the car park while we were waiting to get on the train and that was that! Van was dead, tour cancelled, we thought we could maybe just about limp home, but the wheel-baring went while we were pulling out of a service station. An AA man came out and said, 'If you drive that on the motorway, you will die'. So we got dragged home and that was our first European tour! It took us 36 hours and we played 0 gigs.’

When it comes to Heck’s appeal and their underground critical success, particularly since the release of this year’s debut album Instructions, Jonny has remarkable insight into the chemistry that has endeared them to legions of hardcore fans. ‘I'm a terrible guitarist,’ he says, rather self-deprecatingly, ‘but I'm good at being in a band. I put everything into what I do and for me, music performance is about putting yourself out there. As long as it's true to yourself, as long as it's your personality coming through, it doesn't matter what it is, if people don't like it, then people don't like it. If you're lucky, people will like it and we've struck lucky which I think is down to the combination of all our personalities coming through in the music.’

Jonny Hall and Matt Reynolds together at Download 2016
Jonny Hall and Matt Reynolds together at Download 2016 (Jennifer Mccord)

Like many of the greatest bands, Heck are a gang, made up of four very strong and distinct individuals; it’s the key to their brilliance but it can also prove to be a tricky balancing act. ‘It's a difficult dynamic to juggle, me and Matt used to clash a lot early on. We're both front men and I don’t mean this in a negative way, but that role requires a bit of ego. It's very easy to look at someone else doing what you do and go, 'I want to do better than that.' We used to have some fall outs about stuff, there have been some very explosive moments during our relationship. I threw a glass at him once whilst we were on stage, which is a particular low point for me morally, because that's awful behaviour. There was always this tension between us but all it took to sort it out was getting drunk and talking it through.’

Thanks to the magical relationship healing properties of hard liquor, Heck have managed to make a name for themselves as one of the most incendiary live bands in the UK and with Instructions finally released, they now have a fistful of stunning songs to soundtrack the bedlam they cause. For Jonny, Heck is not merely an outlet for catharsis, but also a chance to live the childhood that he was not able to have. ‘I felt like I never got to enjoy my childhood properly, because of the situation that I was in. With Heck, I get to be playful, I get to be a bit juvenile and it’s a lot of fun. I'm a 30-year old scumbag with a crap job, no security, I’m probably about to get kicked out of my house and I can't think of anything else I’d rather do. When people in bands get to my age, they often want to settle down and that's just never been a part of my life. I've never been settled, I've never had security, I’ve never wanted a house or family or kids, I don't want any of that! It doesn't make sense to worry about things you can’t control. All we’ve ever wanted to do is play, we’re very romantic in our ideas about what music should be. It’s DIY, you go out, you do it and no-one's going to f**king stop you because no-one can. If you have the right attitude, no-one can stop you doing anything.’

Heck, from left to right, Paul Shelley, Matt Reynolds, Jonny Hall and Tom Marsh, at the end of their triumphant set at Download 2016
Heck, from left to right, Paul Shelley, Matt Reynolds, Jonny Hall and Tom Marsh, at the end of their triumphant set at Download 2016 (Jennifer Mccord)

Heck and Black Peaks will head out on a co-headline UK & European tour starting in September


Sept 4th, Huddersfield, The Parish

Sept 6th, Bristol, The Fleece

Sept 7th, London, Boston Music Rooms

Sept 8th, London, Boston Music Rooms

Sept 9th, Sheffield, The Plug

Sept 10th, Edinburgh, Electric Circus

Sept 11th, Aberdeen, Cafe Drummonds

Sept 13th, Wolverhampton, Slade Rooms

Sept 15th, Cardiff, Club Ifor Bach

Sept 16th, Swansea, Sin City

Sept 17th, Exeter, Cavern

Sept 18th, Southampton, Talking Heads


Sept 20th, Belgium, Antwerpen, Kavka

Sept 23rd, Netherlands, Den Bosch, W2

Sept 24th, Netherlands, Zaandem, Flux

Sept 25th, Denmark, Copenhagen, Pumpehuset

Sept 27th, Germany, Berlin, Cassiopeia

Sept 28th, Germany, Cologne, MTC

Oct 1st, France, Paris, Le Boule Noir

Instructions, the debut album by Heck, is available now. Special thanks to Jennifer Mccord for the use of her fantastic photos that accompany this piece.

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