The big review: Reading Festival 2023
Don Broco, Sleep Token, Hot Milk and more fly the flag for rock at Reading & Leeds 2023.
Josh Franceschi was in his car when he realised something was very wrong. Actually, as he drove to his girlfriend’s mother’s house late at night on Christmas Eve 2021, it wasn’t so much that something was wrong as, “I felt like I was about to fucking die.”
Had he not pulled over when he did, it’s not improbable that it might have happened. With his pulse suddenly shooting up like a rocket, and breathing as if he had no lungs, Josh was having a massive panic attack, “a complete meltdown”.
“I've got my girlfriend sitting next to me, and she honestly thought I was going to die – that's how scary it was,” he remembers today. “I'd lost the ability to speak because I had a seizure in my face. It was fucking wild shit, man.”
Christmas Day was spent sober. So was Boxing Day. When he went to a friend’s house for a New Year’s party, Josh spent the evening absolutely judge. He can’t pinpoint why the Christmas Eve episode came on like it did, but having developed a tendency since the start of lockdown to bend the elbow a long way at the slightest excuse didn’t help. Older than he was, and coming into writing a new You Me At Six album, it was probably time to straighten some shit out, he reasoned. Booze was the obvious first thing to hit pause on.
“I went, ‘Until I feel really healthy, and more importantly, until I feel healthy [in my head], I just can't be near it,’” he explains today. “On New Year’s, that was the first time I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and gone, ‘You've grown up. You understand that you have this huge capacity to be self-destructive. And before you’ve allowed it to really ruin loads of beautiful things in your life you've gone no.’
“I was one of those people who, even on just on a normal Tuesday night, you’d better believe I was out,” Josh continues. “A lot of my friends who are musos would be like, ‘I'm home from tour this week,’ or, ‘We’ve got a show in London, come down.’ Me and one of my friends, we’d get into the habit of going to play football, do two hours of footy, and then we'd go out. Next thing you know, we'd be head-banging to Underøath and Glassjaw in my kitchen at 4am.”
Nearly a year on, at the end of December, Josh is recounting all this in the bar of Soho’s swanky Sanctum hotel, a stone’s throw from the offices of You Me At Six’s management. Though he’s no longer abstinent, sitting behind both a bottle of beer and a glass of tequila and soda (“It's interesting having this conversation with two different drinks in front of me. There's an irony to that,” he admits before we can bring it up), the time between then and now has been a journey of re-evaluation and growth, of having taken a big step back and to search for perspective.
“It probably had been a long time coming. I've been in so many different little ruts, and I've been really mentally sick but not physically sick,” he says. “It feels more obvious [something is wrong] when you're like, ‘Fuck, I think my body's about shut down.’ That's different to, ‘Fuck, I feel really shit today.’”
Step one was heading to the gym. Losing weight he’d put on over the pandemic was one goal. The other, bigger one, though, was discipline, to sharpen up his mind and behaviour, and get on top of things. In this, he hired a personal trainer, a man who’d walked down some very dark roads in his life, including "being on the wrong side of the law", to help steer the ship in the right direction.
“I was in the gym most mornings before 7am. And really quickly, my whole thing changed,” he says. “I definitely got in shape, but the goal was never to have a six-pack or anything. It was more about the discipline that instilled in me.
“I carried that into the whole album recording process, the writing process, the goals that I set for the band, for myself, for my relationship with my parents, my friends. It all had a positive knock-on effect. I felt like it was a blossoming period of my life.”
The record of which Josh speaks is Truth Decay, You Me At Six’s eighth album. Written in Cornwall, and then recorded in Black Rock Studios on the Greek island of Santorini (the same place Bring Me The Horizon laid down That’s The Spirit), it’s a collection that Josh says came from posing the question of identity. That is, what they started on didn’t really have any.
“When we started writing the record down in Cornwall, we got some stuff together, and I said, ‘Boys, I'm having fun, but what are we doing?’ And then we all went, ‘Yeah, shit, we don't really know what we're doing.’
“I said, ‘How can we make a retrospective You Me At Six record in 2022?’” he continues. “We started writing after [2021 album] SUCKAPUNCH. And because we’d made, at least by our standards, a very versatile album, kind of dipping our toe into lots of different genres, when it came to this, I was very aware that I felt the band potentially had lost its identity. Like, what are we to people? Who wants to be an all-rounder? I know who the best British metal band is. I know who like the best British pop band is. I can identify all these bands: that's Biffy Clyro, that's Bring Me, that's Architects. But I don't fucking know what space we occupy.”
Musically, Truth Decay is as classically You Me At Six as Josh says was intended. After Love In The After Hours is a fizzing melodic rock workout. Traumatic Iconic is one of the biggest-sounding things they’ve ever written. The aptly-named God Bless The ’90s Kids, meanwhile, is like hearing a story from an all-grown-up version of their Take Off Your Colours debut. But even with all this, these are glances over the shoulder – rather than a step back, it’s a record that throws into focus who the band are. As intended.
When Josh says his new-found discipline and perspective made it to the record, speaking up is just one example of what he means. Communication, and actually expressing yourself and being honest with it, is something oft overlooked. Frequently, it can seem like the simplest solution to speak up, but also the hardest to actually do.
“Often when we write, I take a line of, I don't want to be too vulnerable, don't want to be too open don't want to give too much away,” he says. “This time I was like, ‘Fuck it, write whatever you're going to write about.’”
An example. One night, Josh couldn’t sleep, so he got out of bed, sat at his computer, and just began to write. On the way to the gym with drummer Dan Flint a few hours later, Josh asked if he could read him what he’d written. Dan asked what it was about, to which Josh replied that he’d read it first, and then the drummer had to tell him what he reckoned it was.
“I think I got about five or six lines in, and he pulled the car over as we were driving and went, ‘I want you to finish it. And I want you to read it to me all over again,’” recalls Josh. “I did and he went, ‘Alright, this is about us. It's about us five. This is about young men, just not being able to communicate, not being able to say what they mean, finding it difficult to receive information about others that they love and care about.’
“I'm not talking about them four vs. me, I'm talking about us five, I'm talking about, ‘Fuck, isn't it amazing that we went through all these life-changing moments together; good, bad and ugly?’ And we're learning how to be a man, how to project our happiness, or our anger, or our disdain or confusion. Ultimately, the biggest victory for this band has been our longevity with its original line-up, that’s worth looking at.”
Elsewhere, he touches on themes of closed-up masculinity, about people he knows starting new relationships while others are ending, friends not looking after themselves, looking at life as lived in very real terms. Do you worry what people are going to think if they clock a song’s about them?
“I don't care,” he says. “Because I know, on this record, it's not laced in anger or sass like it sometimes has been in the past. It's just real. I'm not being cruel. I can be mean about myself, but I'm not being mean about others. In the past, I've definitely been guilty of that. When we’ve done anniversary shows, like doing Take Off Your Colours, or the Sinners… shows last summer, I’ve been singing and going, ‘Fuck, you were so angry. What happened?’”
In talking about this in your lyrics and to a journalist in a bar, you’re showing your hand in quite a big way. Do you worry about giving so much of yourself away so publicly?
“Inevitably, if you show somebody your scars, you're worried they're gonna think it looks bad, or it looks ugly,” he says. “But I can honestly say that I've been I've been at the bottom enough times, to know what it's like. I literally walked down to the beach and walked right to the edge of the water in my clothes, my shoes, and thought, ‘I'm just gonna walk.’ I've been there. I understand true sadness.”
That’s a lot to share, mate.
“Why? What’s the worst repercussion from that? I don’t want it to become a thing where I’ve said this, and then it becomes the next thing everyone asks about, even if I’m doing an interview in Poland or somewhere, but at the same time, that thing of not being open with trauma is really unhealthy. Men don’t know how to communicate or express these things, and that’s why you end up with so many men being so self-destructive. Toxic masculinity is like, ‘You have to be ultimate all the time, if you fall, you’re weak.’ And that’s really bad.”
This is the crux of the point Josh makes across our long conversation. There shouldn’t be shame in having these moments – and there is absolutely nothing shameful in what he’s talking about – but pride when they pass, and that almost everyone has them, and that you’ve got up again.
For illustration, he points to a documentary on Tyson Fury. As a boxer with two World Heavyweight Champion titles to his name, Fury is as good an image of a strong, tough, ‘real’ man as one could ask for. Even he is not immune to the shadow of the black dog: in the documentary, he talks openly about the day he got into his car with the intention of crashing it into a wall.
“If he can be honest with his pain, how empowering is that? How real is that?” says Josh. “I'm never going to be the first tortured musician you've met, or like someone that's riddled in insecurities, anxiety and sadness. Unfortunately, that comes with the territory, unless you are what I would call superhuman, to be in that position and not have crashes. But I think what's different is normalising the crashes, and showing it doesn’t make you weak. You’re just human.”
Though it would be wrong to paint what Josh talks about as a redemption arc – that isn’t how real life works, and as he says himself “Humans are a never-ending work in progress” – he is nevertheless in a good place. He’s healthy, both physically and upstairs. Relationships are good, he’s happy with his current living situation on the south coast, where he can walk his dog for miles along the seafront, and regularly meets up to play football with members of Architects, Royal Blood and The Xcerts.
He also feels wiser. Smooth seas not making for great sailors, he’s learned a lot about himself, and how to apply these lessons. And that’s strengthened the bonds he has with other people.
“I can turn up today, for example, when I went to a photoshoot, and everybody in my band knows my dog’s been really ill this weekend, and how important that is to my life,” he says. “Ten years ago, I would have walked in, and I wouldn't have wanted to have those conversations because there would have been a feeling of, ‘Come on, mate, get over it.’ But now we have more experience in life to understand how loss, loss of identity, or loss of happiness affects us every day. Some days it's alright to wake up and go, ‘I feel shit’. The amount of times in our band now, and in my friendships, where we will sit there and listen to each other for hours and hours – that’s something we were just not functionally able to do years ago.”
And though Josh says he doesn’t want to be a poster boy for anything, that’s he’s “just telling my story, my experience”, he knows what sharing can do for those who look to his lyrics for solace.
“I'm not here to be ‘that guy’, because I'm just about trying to get through it by myself,” he says with a warm smile. “But my inbox is full of messages from people, and I'm living out other people's fucking shit as well with them. And I'm sure I know there are a lot of my mates that are in bands are like that as well.”
“I've come to accept that the pursuit of happiness is a relentless work in progress, I've become comfortable that I'm never going to be happy for sustained periods of time. It's going to be fleeting. But it’s how you navigate those low moments that’s important.”
He comes back to Tyson Fury again.
“He’s normalising the crashes,” he says. “And he’s going, ‘Hey, you know what? What's even more important than that is the comeback.’”
You Me At Six's new album Truth Decay is released February 10 via Underdog Records / AWAL Recordings. They play the main stage of Reading & Leeds festival on August 25-27.
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