Maximum Joy are the best post-punk band you may never have heard of. Early-80s contemporaries of the ravenously-revived The Pop Group, the Bristol fivesome stood side-by-side with Gang Of Four and PiL, or US contemporaries like ESG and Liquid Liquid, in merging the defiant attitude of the by-then-jaded and bloated punk generation with worldly influences from jazz, hip-hop, funk, dub and disco. But, as prolific archivist Tom Hull recalled in his Recycled Goods column, “only Maximum Joy had Janine Rainforth.”
The band’s natural frontperson, Rainforth made her indelible mark on music over 30 years ago, so to hear her voice once again – fleshed out by age and experience – is haunting, not only because of the tone of her new material. “I’ve never stopped writing and playing; singing; experimenting with sound in different capacities” she tells us.
Rainforth’s new work comprises rich, blurry lullabies which flow sonorously through space, dripping searching keys over shuffling rhythms and, of course, Rainforth’s piercing but pining vocal. It’s a sweeping, ambient sound which recalls another strand of 80s alternative in the otherworldly ethereal wave of Liz Fraser’s work with This Mortal Coil, or even the contemporary avant-pop of Zola Jesus or Glasser.
“I won’t ever lose my original musical roots, so funk, punk, reggae, jazz and hip-hop still inform me” Rainforth says, “I love large bass sounds and good rhythm, but those influences are perhaps more in the background now. In terms of musical influences I’ve changed camps a bit and added a lot more – it feels like I’m drawing from a broader spectrum, that’s quite exciting for me.”
It’s also very brave. Releasing these long-gestated ideas into the public sphere, and especially returning to the stage after over two decades, took some guts. A recent gig saw her personally invited by that rampant shaman Mark Stewart to support old allies The Pop Group at Islington Assembly Rooms. “It was a great pleasure to be asked” she says, “we all go way back, to when we all hung out in Bristol as teenagers trying to look – and sound – cool.” And Mark’s support for Rainforth’s work has been everpresent. “Mark’s influence on my career is mainly that he’s been a constant in it really, as a mate – we check in with each other about stuff. He’s great at encouraging and fanning flames of tiny ideas into roaring fires!”
While the two’s lives and careers have existed at distant parallels, this was a far cry from the early Maximum Joy shows where Rainforth cut her teeth. “Early Maximum Joy gigs were a gas; punk had just blown things apart and we were hot on the tails of it, and maybe as a result it was easy to get gigs in quite incongruous places: small working men’s clubs up North, Italian communist – with a little ‘c’ – festivals, which were basically like village fetes, with us turning up to play to the families eating their dinner, al fresco on the playing field! And remote German youth clubs, in the Black Forest near Dachau, with babies, dogs and hippies in the audience.”
It’s difficult to underestimate the impact this post-punk first generation, with its pioneering lack of respect for boundaries across genre and culture, has had. Rainforth is modest in acknowledging her own band’s lasting influence. “Maybe in the experimental/noise/atmos end of things, and the rawer end of things too. There’s a whole plethora of post-punk type bands now, they’ve all gone on to evolve their sounds from their own influences. Maybe Maximum Joy is one of those influences?” As Rainforth forges a new musical future, it’s important not to divorce it from her fearless and catalytic past.
Rainforth appears at Dublin Castle, Camden, 17 July