With virtuoso guitarist John Bailey at the helm and Corrupt Moral Altar frontman Chris Reese behind the mic, Utopia turned extreme metal on its head with 2021’s brain flaying Stalker. And now they’re back with Shame, a record that again, doesn’t so much defy genre straightjackets as rip them to shreds.
Rich Holmes caught up with Bailey to talk tours, jazz trios and imposter syndrome…

John Bailey isn’t your typical extreme metal guitarist.

Jazz and classical are more his thing.

Which is why the likes of Aled Jones and Russell Watson hire him to bring his six-string magic to their stage shows, and why he teaches jazz guitar at The University Of Liverpool.

But with old uni mate Chris Reese, De Profundis bassist Arran McSporran and a host of guest players, he created a chimera of jazz, mathcore, grind, tech metal and fuck knows what else in Stalker, Utopia’s debut.

Shame, its follow-up, was unleashed in February. Like its predecessor, the album was a real labour of love… and not without its challenges.

Simply finding musicians to join McSporran, Reese and himself in the project was a major hurdle.

“It’s really hard music,” Bailey explains. “You’ve got to be able to play it, you’ve got to be interested in this kind of music and want to do it for free.

“It’s unusually hard music for anybody… people can have a go at it and then get to the point where they think they can do it, but there is such a consequence to missing a semiquaver, for example. It disaligns stuff that is already feels really disaligned. It’s either played right, or it’s completely wrong.”

Shame was eventually self-released, as “trying to get a label was a nightmare”.

“We just couldn’t get a reply off most people,” says the guitarist. “Because it’s not one thing or another, this music. It doesn’t belong on APF. It doesn’t belong on Church Road.”

The final result, however, was spectacular. Shame bagged our Record of the Week, for its  ‘jarring time signatures, jaw-dropping fret-runs and mind-warping musical concepts’.

Yet there were moments that felt (almost) accessible.

The enthralling Waking Visions was a case in point…

Bailey takes us through the song’s birth: “I think the idea was to set up a hook or a riff you could identify, and go, ‘oh yeah, I can hear a riff for once’ and then break it down into uncomfortable stuff!

“It’s kind of optimistic and then it just goes really unoptimistic and grim. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. It’s always swinging in terms of moods, but I’ve tried make it natural.

“There was actually an American Polish jazz trio called The Waking Visions Trio and I thought ‘waking visions’ was really nice and kind of psychedelic. Your thoughts are sort of projected on the inside your mind anyway. Who knows what everybody else is going through? We’re all neurodiverse.”

In contrast to Stalker, which was heavily influenced by philosophy and the work of Russian film director and screenwriter Andrey Tarkovsky, Shame focuses more on “raw mental health”.

Bailey describes Withering Away And Laughing as a purely cynical self-appraisal. “People just can crumble in on themselves and it can be so tormenting, that you lose all sense of appropriateness in terms of what’s funny.”

Shame? “It is something we hold on to. You should give yourself a break from self-criticism, impostor syndrome, being too hard on yourself, or constantly reflecting on things that you’ve done, and just let it go and crack on.

“But I’m the worst person for that, because I am super ambitious and I try super hard to get things that I want in terms of my career. I’ll do whatever it takes to get something done. Utopia… obviously there’s no money (in it) and it’s really hard to do it, but I’ll make it happen one way or the other.

“I’ve been a classical soloist at Birmingham Symphony Hall, sitting in the front with a spotlight on me in front of 3000 people. It’s brutal, stressful and hard work, and all the while, you are going, ‘What have you done? What are you doing here? You total dickhead! Look at what you’ve done. You’ve got to go into that chair by yourself… and don’t fuck it up!’”

Next up for Utopia is a slew of UK dates in March, hitting many of the venues they were originally due to play in 2021, before that tour fell through. And they’re backed by seemingly inhuman drummer Jay Walsh, who also played on and produced Shame.

Recently whittled down to a four-piece (“it lends itself more to the jazz side – you wouldn’t traditionally have two guitars in a fusion band”) the band are ‘gig ready’ and played at the Show No Mersey show with the likes of Conan and Crepitation on February 2.

“The setlist is What About Me? to start with, and then The Bus Station Roof and Happiness, all from the first record, and then Machiavelli, Withering Away And Laughing, Social Contracts and Waking Visions from Shame. So it’s pretty full on it. It’s going to be intense. There’s not much breathing room. There’s no time to think. It’s half an hour of total concentration.

“But that’s the point of the band. It’s just ridiculously complicated!”

Utopia’s play The Lubber Fiend in Newcastle on March 8, Ferret in Preston on March 22, The Holroyd in Guildford on March 24 and The Hive in Rotherham on June 21.

Check out Shame here.