Yet as Joey steps away from his character and the world of Netflix’s fantasy drama, he reveals an artist who is just as measured and ambitious, though with a decidedly human twist. Off screen, Joey leads his band The Amazing Devil on a mission to making music that “sad people can listen to at train stations”. It is this, and so much more. Listening to their latest third album Ruin, it becomes clear you can take the man out of cinema but you can’t take cinema out of the man as their music weaves complex tales that transport you on a journey to somewhere ‘other’.
Joey tells me that he balances his two art forms in a “one for them, one for me” sort of way. The Witcher being one for ‘them’; music-making being one for him. However, as his presence grows on and off screen, and season two of The Witcher lands on 17th December, Joey contributes to composing the soundtrack while the boundaries of his creativity seem to blur.
Step inside this muted series where we see Joey waiting in the wings ready for something heavier and more profound on the horizon. Photographer Bex Aston and stylist Annabel Lucy prepare us for the darker, grittier season that lies ahead. Join us as we lift the curtain to reveal the inner cogs of Joey Batey, and you’ll find that, contrary to his fantastical character, something much closer to the earth exists.
Re-join The Witcher for season 2 exclusively on Netflix on 17th December 2021.
How is the festive spirit treating you?
I haven't even thought about Christmas. I'm such a one-day-at-a-time person in general. I'm going to try and get back home for the first time and see my family. I've not seen them in a good couple of years now - this will be the first Christmas where I'm able to actually travel up north and just sit in a cottage on the Northumberland coast - go sailing and all that. My dad built boats so I'm going to get in one of his boats and go see the dolphins out in the North Sea. That's my Christmas.
You studied Modern and Medieval Languages at university – would you describe yourself as much of a nostalgic person?
My best friend Madeleine with whom I make a lot of music with our band, The Amazing Devil, often says that I remember things in the wrong order. I remember things that haven't happened yet. I feel like I'm constantly slightly out of joint, out of time, because half of my life is doing things like this - press and The Witcher and big shows - and then the other half is cuddling up with my pals by the fire, reading books, painting on the floor, and playing music together. Getting the firepit out in the garden and sitting in our sleeping bags. It makes us all sound like we're living in the wrong century. I'm not quite a technophobe, but I don't like social media and a lot of the modern world feels a bit alien to me, so it is always so lovely to come and enjoy the little things. I'm such a simple guy and I don't need much to make me happy. It sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? 'let's sit on the ground and tell sad stories'. Maybe there is a slightly nostalgic quality to the way I live.
Has your relationship with social media changed since the success of The Witcher?
Not at all. I was not using it before The Witcher, and I still don't use it now. I think I posted something for the first time the other day, it was 18 months since my last post. Although you get loads of fans of our music and of shows like The Witcher - and they're all very, very positive - it's still self-preservation, really. Social media gives me a headache, but in my soul. In spite of the fact that we're all deeply connected, I never really feel like it's authentic or real, and if I'm completely honest, it fills me with anxiety. So, I learned very quickly not to go on it or look at anything that I'm in. I just try and do my best at the jobs that I do and hope that it's finding a home somewhere.
Have you ever felt an increased pressure to share more of yourself online as the popularity of your character, Jaskier, has grown into a fan favourite?
I haven't felt any pressure because I think any pressure that's coming my way is from people that I don't particularly respect or have much time for. Anyone who says you need to be posting more is not really the kind of person that I want in my life, anyway. I tend to try and surround myself with people who are kind and honest and funny and have the same sort of temperament as me. Anyone who is putting any pressure on, you just go ‘thank you, but no thank you’. Being able to step away from those sorts of people is a hard decision to make, but, as my sisters always say, you need to put your own gas mask on before you can put other people's gas masks on. Since the show has come out I’ve slowly been training myself to put my own gas mask on first.
I’m interested to know your journey into the industry, because you studied at Cambridge first?
I started acting way before university. I left home at the age of sixteen and lived in northern France and did the French Baccalaureate - I found a family who looked after me for a year, and that's when I started to enjoy acting. My own family also ran a little theatre company up in Newcastle and so I helped out with that. Then by the time I got to university, I was a pretty terrible student because I spent most of my time drinking at the theatre bar, but it was only then that I actually landed an agent; one happened to come up to Cambridge and see me in a production and I started filming things whilst I was at university. I was doing dissertations on the Eurostar because I was filming a period drama in Belgium - it all got a bit mad. By the time I was wrapping up my degree, I had a choice to make: go into translation - I was very interested in translation, particularly translating comedy - or I accept a role at the Royal Shakespeare Company. For better or worse, I went with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and later did shows that went to Broadway and since then I've not really stopped. And so therein lies the one-day-at-a-time sort of thing. I kind of like that I don't really know what I'm doing tomorrow. That's the joy of it, and you've got to try and find as many of those little moments of joy as you can.
It's funny, isn't it? Whatever path you're on is the right one, because it leads you to the moment that you're at right now.
Yeah, we don't live in a multiverse world. You've got to just trust that whatever it is you're doing, as long as you're happy, that's the goal, right? Success doesn't necessarily mean fame, or money or any of those things. It's more about just sitting around and enjoying those times with your friends or family; learning and becoming a better person and trying to do the best you can. I'm aware that this is sounding very much like a Miss World speech but it is how I live my life and not everyone does that. It takes a lot of will.
I get the impression you’re a bit of an old soul. What do you love about the past?
I don't think I'm drawn to the past. I tend to try and stay present as much as possible. You can end up thinking about the past or the future way too much. When you stop and just sit down, enjoy meeting new people, or even if it's something as simple as literally sitting down and enjoying your coffee in the morning, rather than grabbing it and running to the next thing. Trying to involve that sensory experience of the world in the present moment takes a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline but there's no point worrying because we’ll all get hit by a bus at some point!
Do you meditate at all?
No, I think the closest I get to meditation is probably listening to music. Or creating or writing music. But during the pandemic, obviously the tragedy of it was horrendous, but it was funny because I'm such an introvert anyway, so when everyone said you're not allowed outside your house I was quietly going, ‘oh, great - this is wonderful’. I wrote the entirety of The Amazing Devil's third album Ruin during the pandemic, which was really difficult because you're missing all that external stimulus. But I think the closest I get to meditation is listening to new music and discovering artists that can take you outside of the four walls you're trapped in.
Speaking of your band, was that third album, ‘Ruin’, already in the pipeline, or did the pandemic kind of kickstart that?
No, it had already started. I'd written about a third of the album by the time the pandemic hit. The way it often works for me is that I do ‘one for them’ and ‘one for me’. So, a show like The Witcher is one for them. It's one for these huge studios that are almost godlike in power these days. Then I get to go away and do my thing with my friends. I think I wrapped on The Witcher season two and then went into the studio to record our third album like three days later. After about two weeks of producing the album, Madeleine, my best pal turned and said “Joey, you need to go on holiday. You need to take a break because you're shivering and it's 24 degrees outside. You're just exhausted”. She's in charge of me - I'm in charge of the band, but she's in charge of me. I'm sort of incapable of taking a holiday, so as soon as I got home I started building a desk. I do a bit of carpentry when I'm bored or try to learn a new language. But by the time I'd finished my holiday, I came back with new energy and new stuff in my head. The album was a bit piecemeal at first, and then found its own voice as we finished it. I'd actually gone away to Canada for a job for two months, so we had to finish the album on the other side of that. It's a hard balance to strike when you're constantly going. I want to do something that's good for my head and my heart, and I want to do stuff that makes other people happy as well, like The Witcher. Striking that balance can sometimes feel like you're being tugged in two different directions. But often, it's about having discipline with yourself and saying, ‘look, well, I'm not going to do any acting work for these five months until I'm happy with where the music is at’.
What are the challenges of being a completely independent band?
Finding the money. Albums are very, very expensive to make but thankfully, we've got a really lovely fan base who buy the album from us rather than streaming on Spotify which makes my heart sing. £11 is a lot - that's more than pocket money for some. We've had big studios and recording labels come to us and wanted to sign but what I love is being one of three producers in the room. Having total creative control because in a lot of my life, I don't have full creative control. Having that time and space to go, 'am I doing this right? Am I not? Is this a terrible song?', that's really rewarding. It means that I can come back to the big stuff where I don't have control and feel relaxed and go with whatever vision is being thrown at me.
You received your first composing credit on the second series of The Witcher. Has composing for the soundtrack deepened your understanding of the characters and world?
Before starting season two, the composer Joe Trapanese and I met on Zoom and I basically said ‘look, I want to help write the songs, I want to be involved’. I was involved a fair bit in season one, but I wanted to be involved from the get-go on season two. Joe is so open and collaborative. Then the pandemic hit so we suddenly had so much more time to explore these songs. I think we wrote a tonne of versions - we were constantly back and forth with each other trying to work out what song would best suit not only Jaskier's journey and own character development, but to reflect the darker grittier season two. The show is getting darker and stranger, and we wanted to step away from the pop-y, happier bites of season one and actually get into what makes Jaskier tick and what he wants to do as an artist. It's not going to be everyone's ringtone as ‘Toss a Coin to Your Witcher’ was, I think, but I'm proud of the freedom that we were given by the producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and the executives to pursue a more three dimensional, more textured character decision.
You recently said on Instagram that through your band you “fight to make the music you want”. What is that and what do you think is missing from the mainstream/commercial industry?
That's a tough one. I don't think anything's missing from the commercial industry. I think it's just that people sometimes listen to things because that's what they've been told to listen to. That's the power of Spotify algorithms and big studios. It does take quite a lot of mental and emotional effort to try and find music that is perhaps off the beaten track and enjoy independent artists. When we say ‘fight to make the music’, it's often in those big decisions to say no to money, and to say we think we can survive. Who knows, we might sign with somebody in the future, but I try and write songs that sad people can listen to at train stations, essentially. I like to write songs that have a beginning and a middle and an end, which I don't think songs these days have anymore. I like to write songs that are imperfect and complicated and at times hard to listen to. I don't think we've ever written songs that people pop on in the background at a dinner party. We write songs to be played in your headphones, not on speakers. It should be a personal experience that reaches out to you and hopefully, help people understand their own emotional difficulties and their own traumas. Hopefully it will rebuild people by examining those traumas and becoming stronger because of them, not in spite of them.
Did the experience of the pandemic over the past two years shape that sound in your latest album?
Indirectly. You can't help but put yourself into your songs but I often try and write from the perspectives of other people. This album is probably the closest I've got to revealing a bit of me in there. It's not all me by a longshot, but this is the first time we might be able to see a tiny bit behind the curtain.
What is the best on set lesson you’ve learnt whilst filming The Witcher?
Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture... That's an old Noel Coward quote. The thing that I've learned is to pick your battles. I ad lib and improvise an awful lot and I love to try and bring in a comedic energy that is British. Particularly with American writing, it can be quite jarring unless I start to change things and bring some personal flavour into Jaskier. But there have been times when directors go “I don't get it, that's not funny”, and you have to kind of back yourself and say, ‘I think it is, you've got to trust me here’. Other times, you've got to go ‘fine, cut it then, I don't mind’. Picking your battles is not only something that you do on set, but you also do it off set all the time. Like, do I really need to take a stand about this? Or do I need to put my gas mask on and just let it go loosey goosey? When you start to demarcate those things, you start to discover what's important to you, and as soon as you get that out, you realise that what's important to you is normally a lot simpler and less complicated than you think.
Are you able to easily leave it at the door at the end of the day?
No. I can't leave Jask at the door at the end of the day. It's really difficult. I'll come home and I'll maybe pop around to Madeleine's and she'll bring a bottle of wine and cook me dinner because she's adorable, and it'll be about two or three hours before she's like, “Oh, there you are, Joey”, because I'll still be in Jask mode. Every time I wrap on The Witcher it takes me a while to shake Jaskier off. I leave him on the roadside as I'm driving away from set: ‘see you next year!’. But it's really, really difficult to shake him because he is in many ways a better version of me. He's more extroverted, he's more confident, he's more self-assured. He is better with people. He’s me on a good day. So, it can be addictive to try and keep a little bit of him inside you but you've got to leave him at the door. Otherwise, you'll go mad, you'll burn out.
What do you hope audiences take away from The Witcher S2?
I'm hoping that people like it enough for us to keep telling these stories. I think it's better than season one. It's darker. I think Lauren's vision for it is becoming more evident and clearer and more streamlined. We get more time to actually explore these characters; we've got more time to see them without the monsters and without the sword fights. To me, going into season three, which is beginning next year, these characters will become more vulnerable and in that comes more challenges but more rewarding experiences.
If you could build your own fantasy world, what would it look like?
I frequently do. My friends and I play tabletop roleplaying games all the time like Dungeons & Dragons, in which I build entire worlds with them for fun. I also write novels in my spare time (which thankfully will never see the light of day...). I’m always interested in bringing as much Borgesian magic realism as I can, as well as more typical Lovecraftian horror tropes, into more standard fantasy or historical contexts, so most of what comes out of me is dark and weird and unsettling. It gives me a chance to go to stranger places than mainstream television or media allows itself to go. There’s a freedom in that. D&D and writing have always felt like more than escapes to me. They’ve become a way of understanding or confronting difficult stuff in your life and in the lives of your friends, stuff that can be addressed in a safe, fun, and loving way. D&D reminds me to really enjoy my decisions, even if they’re really… dumb.
What do you think the fantasy genre can offer the world? Why do we need fantasy?
At the least, I’d say escapism. It's really easy to focus on the silly stuff and the fun stuff – the magic and swords – and, if you're going into sci-fi fantasy, then the huge epic space adventures or whatever it is that you love. But if I've learned anything from playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, it's that these characters in these worlds can be conduits through which people can actually find new homes and new friendships, including new relationships and new senses of self-worth. It's a really good marker for self-discovery and discovery of new identities within yourself. Whenever I play Dungeons & Dragons, as I always say to any of the players that play around my table, the first objective is to have fun. The second objective is to tell a good story. That's infinitely transplantable into real life… I feel like I got very philosophical - I sound like an old man.
When or where in the world do you feel most alive?
There’s a beach on the Dublin coast in Ireland that I used to frequent as a kid. I’d spend hours on my own wandering the dunes and swimming out to the sand islands, talking to myself and telling myself stories. I think about that kid a lot. He reminds me that happiness is sometimes just going off on your own and finding a really good stick.