Moke Screen

Like the Black Crowes, only not quite as stoned: Britain's Moke lights a fire

Some people hear voices. Moke's John Hogg hears entire songs. Often these cerebral symphonies surge forward and come alive; other times they lie dormant. "Sometimes you feel a bit lost. I've got all these songs in my head. I can hear them, but I don't know what they mean," says Hogg, vocalist and guitarist of the South London-based quartet. "But you want people to hear what you're hearing, because then it's like a secret that you've exchanged with everyone. It's like passing this little note, and that's half the fun."

The group's second album, the three-month-old Carnival, tells stories of hopefulness and better days ahead through Zeppelin- and Boston-inspired hooks as well as modern-day altrock hymns, boosted by glowing harmonies that light up a backdrop of guitars alternating between airy and gritty. The up-tempo, psychedelic "So Much Better" evokes a party that Lenny Kravitz would proudly attend. Produced by Paul Stacey (Oasis, Sheryl Crowe), Carnivalis a transatlantic experience that combines the steel of America with Europe's finesse. Songs like "Today" and "Strange Days" stand as radio-friendly, aggro-tinged poppers, while "Screen" could be a second cousin of today's downtrodden dirges until lush harmonies light up the song's dark corridors. Carnival's first single, "My Degeneration," takes a progressive-rock attack and sprinkles it with sonic Southern seasoning, while "Fluicide" wraps up the album on a power-ballad note, with an acoustic orchestration that gives way to a gradual progression of intensity capped by shrieking vocals and guitar fuzz.

"People are ever hopeful, aren't they?" asks Hogg of the CD's more spiritually upbeat songs. "Rather than think that the grass is always greener, the idea is to try to be positively hopeful. As you get older, you start reading between the lines, watching the news and just thinking, Oh my God, how did I bring a child into this fucking place? [Hogg has a young son.] But you go out and meet someone, or you hear this song, and suddenly you feel good again. You think life is amazing."

Johnny Morgan, Alex Evans, John Hogg, and Sean Genockey comprise London's Moke
Johnny Morgan, Alex Evans, John Hogg, and Sean Genockey comprise London's Moke

The son of a Nigerian mother and a Swedish father, Hogg first encountered rock 'n' roll when his neighbor introduced him to acts like The Who and Jimi Hendrix. When little Hogg was eight years old, his mother bought him his first guitar, and as he puts it, "My life literally changed after that." He also started playing drums, bass, and keyboards as he grew up, listening to the Jackson Five and the Beatles. Years later, when Hogg attended a local art college, he got mixed up with local bands, first as backup vocalist and bassist for a combo with much older members.

Combining wild years with too many beers amounted to the typical rock life. "I wasn't getting anything done," Hogg testifies. "I found that out. It was all about mates, drinking, drugs, parties -- that sort of thing. Eventually I could feel that I really needed to move on, so I started writing and recording." He joined a punk band and recorded two demos but soon quit and struck out as a solo singer-songwriter.

"It just made sense that all these people got things going on their own, like Hendrix or Marley," he says. "It seemed like you had to do all the things at once to make it. I never really had this outward desire to be a leader." Although he had recorded a 12-song demo on which he performed every instrument, Hogg wouldn't admit to himself that he missed the band experience. In 1996 he presented his music to guitarist Sean Genockey and drummer Johnny Morgan, both mutual acquaintances whom Hogg had seen play around town. Nine of those songs, including "Sleepyhead" and "Another Weekend," would be part of Moke's 1998 debut, Superdrag, which the band recorded six months after forming. Bassist Alex Evans, a school friend of Hogg's who had played in previous bands with the Moke frontman, also joined the lineup and began contributing songs.

Superdrag, co-produced by Moke and Dave Eringa (Manic Street Preachers, Headswim), earned praise from fans and the infamously fickle British press alike. American label Ultimatum Music picked up the rights to the album and rereleased it as a self-titled CD the following year.

However exciting it may have been for the band, Hogg still has mixed emotions about recording the debut. "That album is just a document of the times," he says. "We hadn't been together that long. It's basically what we sounded like when we first got together. We just did this thing, and that's how it came out. Whether it was right or wrong, it was very much what we were doing." Hogg now reports the writing is more communal, pointing to Carnival as evidence. "I wanted the band to be as involved as they are and interpret what I was trying to do, instead of saying, "It's got to be like this' or "This vision has to be this shade.' That's where the diversity came in."

Despite Hogg's feelings about Superdrag today, it became a stepping stone to the group's second appearance in the United States when it helped land Moke an opening slot for the Black Crowes on their 1999 "Souled Out" tour. "We were completely unknown, and these people would just stare at us," Hogg remembers. "But it was a lovely response. It wasn't like we were coming with these big hits from overseas." The band is also scheduled to open for G. Love & Special Sauce and the Goo Goo Dolls in the months ahead.

Now Hogg is focusing on the songwriting, hoping to take Moke to that next musical level. "I think it's important to stay on target." If not, Hogg says, "You'll look back one day and think, God, that was crap."

 
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