'I’d lock myself in a room and scream': meet Employed to Serve, British metal's great hope

Born in anger (and Woking), singing about social media and mental illness, Employed to Serve are pointing the way for teenagers who lack ‘a road map’

Justine Jones stands on the lip of the stage, hair hanging over her face. Her microphone cable is wrapped around her hand like tape binding a boxer’s fist. To her left and right, her band – Employed to Serve, the most exciting British metal band in decades – flail around, constructing a filthy, thrilling noise. She throws her head back and screams: “Everyone is selling themselves short!” The front row, predominantly teenage girls, yell the words back to her, as they have done all evening.

They come from the song Reality Filter – a highlight of the band’s recently released third album, Eternal Forward Motion – about the pressures that social media pile on young people. This and similar fevered, political tracks, such as Force Fed, about the decline of civil discourse, and Harsh Truth, about male suicide, have made the band heavy music’s brightest new hope.

“This world young people are growing up in is completely different from the one our parents knew,” Jones says. “We can’t afford to buy houses. We can’t afford to have children. Young people are plagued with worries about the way they look, what they eat, how popular they are. There’s a mental health crisis. There’s no resource for treatment. There’s no roadmap.”

Before finding music, Jones dreamed of working for Pixar. She enrolled on a degree course in east London, and did her dissertation on the psychology of colour used in Pixar’s films. She realised she loved making cartoons – but maybe not enough. “To do animation you have to love it,” she says. “I guess I just loved it. And I loved other things, too.”

This included music. “It was all Justin Timberlake in the beginning,” she says, “then Destiny’s Child. Genius pop music. I got obsessed with the way those songs were constructed and wanted to understand how they were made. I was very nerdy about it.” Is she nerdy about everything? “Completely! I live to Google how things work.”

Jones grew up in Woking, with weekly bursts of Kerrang! magazine and the grubbily great music TV channel Scuzz providing respite from teenage life in a small Surrey town. “It was an escape into another world.” She met Josh Redrup, now the bassist for fellow rising British metal stars Palm Reader, and they threw themselves into this new world, spending £16 a pop on CDs at their local HMV. She needed the stimulus – at school she was struggling. “I was hyperactive,” she says. “I gravitated towards anything noisy. Drawing and music were the only things that could calm me down and make me concentrate.”

Justine Jones of Employed to Serve performing at All Points East festival, May 2019.
Justine Jones of Employed to Serve performing at All Points East festival, May 2019. Photograph: Roger Garfield/Alamy Stock Photo

It was then that she joined Woking Christ Church, the town’s local youth club. “I’m not Christian, but Woking is,” she says. “There was this youth leader who would encourage us to form bands. We’d do gigs in front of our parents. We’d practice at this place where the Spice Girls used to practice. They had a plaque on the wall saying as much.” She laughs. “Looking back, it was all a bit silly really, but it gave me the confidence to think I might be able to do this.”

She started on guitar, then moved to bass. “Then I opened my mouth and just started shouting. I’d lock myself away in a room and just scream, and it sounded pretty good. Eventually I learned how to do it without it hurting.” She discovered heavier bands than the Blink-182s and Sum 41s that had provided a gateway – the Chariot, Converge – and met some kindred spirits: drummer Robbie Back, guitarist Richard Jacobs and bassist Marcus Gooda, as well as guitarist and co-lyricist Sammy Urwin, who is now also her fiance.

She wanted the band to sign to London independent label Holy Roar, responsible for nearly every innovative UK heavy band to emerge since its inception, including Gallows, Rolo Tomassi and Conjurer. The label was apparently named after head Alex Fitzpatrick – tripping on LSD and listening to Slayer – had a vision of a lion with the face of Jesus. “We got signed,” she says. “Then they needed an intern, so I started working there. I’ve had a job there ever since.”

Jones describes Eternal Forward Motion as a “humanitarian” record. It sounds like the end of the world – her scream is like a velociraptor stepping on an upturned plug – but is concerned with making it better, sharing stories for the empowerment of the kids who make up the front row of her band’s show. “We’re young people singing about what it’s like to be young in this world right now,” she says. “The music is angry because there’s lots to be angry about.” If you can’t change it, at least you can shout about it.

Employed to Serve play ArcTanGent festival, Saturday 17 August


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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