Jamie Lenman Interview at 2000 Trees

"I was confident whatever I did to it, it wouldn’t harm The Beatles."

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Jamie Lenman

Sitting on a bowing bench with our knees just millimeters from one another, the humble personality of Jamie Lenman stares you in the face. The beating sun does nothing to dissuade him from being a charming, witty and captivating person, despite being in a full dress suit and likely boiling. As the interview begins mere hours after his first set, he gestures behind me to point out ‘There’s my wife’. She had joined him onstage earlier that day for a rendition of It’s Hard To Be A Gentleman during Jamie’s acoustic set that opened Lenmania II. He reveals that ‘[they] didn’t even rehearse! Close harmonies like that are really quite difficult. They sound deceptively simple but there’s a lot of weird cadences, but she’s got a really good ear. She’s not really a singer, she’s actually a performer, she doesn’t sing, and it means a lot to me. I see her every day, we don’t always sing every day, but it means a lot to me that we can sing together; she’s the love of my life, so sharing that with people is wonderful, even though the song is about another girl!’.

Moving into the interview proper, Lenman’s focus shifts towards me and he seems genuinely invested in what it is we talk about. He is a very kind hearted man, easy going and ready to dissect art and his own work. When asked about the day’s interviews he responds; ‘Yeah the interviews have been great, everybody’s well researched… [laughing] a couple not so well researched. That’s all I want from blogs, journals, just do your research! If you’re going to slag me down, great! I read a really well informed slagging of the record [Shuffle], and I couldn’t disagree because whoever it was had made their case, clearly listened to it and even though it was [laughing] hurtful, I had to stand by it and I think the journalist in question should stand by it because it was really well considered, and I read a very complimentary review that they clearly had just read the press release and listened to the singles and it’s like, ‘come on man’… So I don’t mind if you slag it [or me] off as long as you’ve done your research, then that’s good journalism.’

On the topic of negative reviews, Jamie eloquently muses; ‘I just sort of- I think a lot of the time when I’ve read negative reviews, and this goes for positive reviews as well; you can tell if a person has made up their mind before they’ve gone into it [the album], because sometimes we all do that and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else, and I would hope that if I was doing something with the responsibility of writing- whether it’s a blog or online rather than print because that’s how we consume our media these days- you have a responsibility, I [would] have a responsibility to put that out into the world, and I hope that if I were in that position I would be able to remove myself to give it a fair hearing shall we say. So that’s the only time I get annoyed; when I can see ‘Oh, you had it in for this at the start’. Or if they put no effort in. That’s the only thing that upsets me, if it’s, as I say, a well written slagging, I just sort of think ‘Well done on your journalism’. And that’s what I’m looking for, I’m not looking for what they’ve said about the record. It says more about the journalist, the review, one of my friends who reviews, James Hickie, who writes for a number of publications is a beautiful reviewer, he’s a great writer, and he can sum up an entire career in five words! Sometimes pretty brutally, but there’s a real art to the review. I’m not just saying this because you’re a writer, but in the same way there’s an art to writing a song; to coalesce so many feelings and thoughts in three minutes, to do the same thing if you only have a paragraph or two is an art, and I’m not sure it’s taken very seriously. You do get great compendiums, the Rolling Stone compendium of the interviews, but you don’t often get compendiums of the reviews, and NME used to give great reviews, some of them were a bit stupid, some of them were really funny, and Vice used to do some really good reviews and it really is an art in itself. And I’ve slightly side stepped your question and I apologise, but when I read someone’s review of my record, I’m not so much paying attention to what they’re saying about my record, I’m looking at the review as a piece of art in itself. That said, the overwhelming response I’ve read – yours included – has been very positive, which is great, but more than that I just like to hear that people are understanding it. That’s what I want. And if you didn’t like it, as long as you understood it, then I’ve got my case across. You don’t have to like it, but it still means I’ve done my job well; you’ve understood and we’ve communicated, and as long as you’ve understood me then I’ve done my job well. God this has got very highfalutin!’ It was indeed highfalutin, but it seemed to make sense given the passion with which he spoke, the investment in the artistry of both his and my own craft. Plus, with a suit that sharp how could you not be?

When asked about communication in art, Jamie affirms that it is ‘[His] top priority. It really is my top priority, and that communication could mean anything from ‘Here’s how I felt when I had a breakdown last year’ to ‘Let’s dance now’. You know even in the live situation, if I shout ‘1, 2, 3, 4!’ and jump up and down and everybody does it, then it’s a very raw and visceral communication, very instantaneous, very gratifying; like eating a burger it hits you straight away. Or slaving away for twelve months or longer on a song and you’re trying to distill a lot of emotions into it and ten years later someone will come up to you and say ‘I heard your song  and it meant a lot to me’. That’s a sort of slow burn, that’s like a good carb that you still get nourishment from, so it’s all about communication, that’s at the root of all art isn’t it, communication? And I had a little thought a while ago and I thought, ‘If I could speak to people better, if I could use language better verbally, maybe I wouldn’t need to build a sculpture or paint a picture or write a song. And maybe, does art get in the way of communication? Because if we were better at talking person to person with our language, we wouldn’t need art, maybe art is a bit of a crutch. Maybe it sort of aids communication, but maybe sometimes it gets in the way I don’t know. But it is still my favourite form of communication.’. He then shouts over my shoulder towards Floorboards who are passing by to compliment them on their earlier set saying how much he ‘really dug it’.

Moving onto his latest release, Shuffle, it felt apt to ask about how it was that Jamie approached a task like updating The Beatles for 2019. ‘With caution. I know it doesn’t sound like it because it’s very bombastic, but particularly my producer [Space], he really pulled the reigns back on that one [Tomorrow Never Knows] because The Beatles are very much a sacred cow to him. I mean, they’re my favourite band,  I don’t really regard them as sacred, I was telling the guy just here [Séan Reid from Already Heard] that with songs that robust you don’t have to be gentle with them, you can slap them about and break em down and tape them back together again, they’re indestructible. You can’t destroy a Beatles song. So I was confident whatever I did to it, it wouldn’t harm The Beatles. It might harm me! And I think that’s what my producer was worried about, I wasn’t worried about hurting The Beatles so that was my main priority. And of course some people have down very bad versions of that song; Phil Collins’ version isn’t that good, even though I love Phil Collins. It’s a tough one to get right because on the record [Revolver] it’s quite one dimensional, it’s just the one long song, and if you listen to the demo version it’s even simpler and they really pulled it out with all the tape loops and it’s a groundbreaking piece of music. I just sort of – I had to make sure – and this is funny considering what we were just saying, I was communicating through music and he [Space] just didn’t get it. We have a very Sympatico relationship but even he was like, ‘What are we doing?’ and I had to sit down and explain verbally what I wanted and after that he was like, ‘Right, I get it, let’s do it!’, so I had to explain to him verbally and then we made the music, so we back formed it. I had a sort of confidence, he was very ginger about it, then when he understood what I wanted he was able to follow me deep into that rabbit hole. And we just layered it and we had lots of loops and took however much time we wanted for the freak out, and Paul McGann comes in there, and however much time it needed, then let’s finish that and cut into the next bit because it’s all one repetitious thing isn’t it? I built in a lot of sort of different sections to flesh it out because the real song is very simple, but as I say it’s a very stretchy canvas, you can do whatever you want with it. It will snap back into shape.’

It wasn’t quite like that for every cover however; ‘Some of them are very difficult. I only had a very rough idea of what I was going to do with Handsome Stranger, my friend Hannah’s song, I just knew it would sound good in a calypso form,and I dabbled in that sort of folky type stuff, samba rhythms on Muscle Memory, but not with Space, because he’s so worldly with his influences and his musical background so we did whatever we wanted, and we had Edwin who was hanging round the house who plays a mean trombone. Otherwise it would have been me and it wouldn’t have been as good! And we had Stu Henshall, who is famous for the [Great British] Bake Off, who did double bass, so it just all kind of came together in a big Potpourri. Others I had planned fairly meticulously, it was quite difficult to get a grip on Moby Dick [for The Pequod Meets The Delight] because I wanted it to be different from You’re The Boss, which is a play, which is people acting as characters and there’s sound effects and it’s supposed to be as if you’re… it’s like a movie without the picture right? Whereas Moby Dick is a book reading which is a different thing, and so with that we had to tread a fine line between something that was completely flat; just me in a room, which wouldn’t have worked, to something with just a minimal amount of sound effects. We had the sound of the ocean, and when I speak as different characters I hope people don’t take it that I’m a terrible actor – which I am! – I did it purposefully a little bit flat, I didn’t do those larger than life characters. Like Ahab, is a huge character. You can go all the way if you’re acting him, whereas just reading him, I gave him a minimal inflection, and the same with the Captain of The Delight, there’s only very little difference between him and the speaking voice, the narrator, and we messed about with the stereo feel just slightly to just raise it from someone mumbling, but to make it different from the play. It was a very hard line to tread but I think we just about managed it.’

The other main talking point of the day was the return of Jamie’s own event, Lenmania. When queried how the preceding tour, The Road To Lenmania II, had gone he responded thusly: ‘The road is beautiful, the road has been really lovely, really good idea of my management to say why don’t we do a few shows leading up to it, around it and call it ‘The Road To Lenmania II’; it was a genius idea. Both as a sort of a natty catchphrase for people to get behind, and also as a concept, a mental concept for me to sort of work out what we’re doing in the run up to this sort of thing; Lenmania at [2000] Trees. So it was good for me philosophically as well as from a marketing perspective you could say, and to get to know some of the bands at Lenmania – cause the first Lenmania was a flash in the pan, it was one day, didn’t really get to hang out with anyone. So I took a bunch of them on tour with me, have got to know them much better, and I hope at some point I’ll get to know Loathe and Conjurer and Show Me The Body better because I admire those bands a great deal as well. I’ve said hello to Conjurer, not met the other guys yet. It was really lovely to have that run up. I’m not sure I’d do it again though, cause it’s two shows a day and I hadn’t really thought about that. You do it once for Lenmania, do a whole week of it… you can hear I sound a little bit like Rod Stewart. So I wouldn’t be in a rush to do it again, but it’s gone really great and I’m excited about tonight [Headlining Lenmania II at 2000 Trees].’

Lenmania is a rather eclectic event, so I had to ask how it was that such a varied line up could come together. ‘Well it’s a mixed bag: What generally happens, what happened the first time as well, was that I go in with a bag of bands that no one’s ever heard of, like weird kazoo trios from the antipodes, and I say ‘Can we book these?’ and my management [cautiously] say ‘We can book a couple of them, but how about we have some bands that anyone has ever heard of?’ and I’m like ‘Okay!’. Then they send me a lost of bands who are really happening right now, and it’s great for me because I love to hear new music, and short of going to gigs, which I do a lot, or people giving me CDs, that’s how I hear of new music. And my management who have got their fingers right on the pulse, I’m a little bit behind, they send me bands every now and then and say ‘What do you think of this?’, so when we got a Lenmania approaching they send me a big old list and I go ‘Oh! I like these guys, I like these guys!’. So, Frauds I already knew, False Advertising someone had played me, and Conjurer I had seen at Trees previously. But the other acts I’d never heard of until the management said ‘What about this?’ and I picked the names out of a list thinking ‘It would be great if we could get these guys’, so I’d never heard them before but I still got to pick them, they’re still my favourites of the UK scene, although I think Show Me The Body are from New York. So getting a little bit worldwide on Lenmania II! Lenmania’s gone International. But that’s really exciting, they all go through that vetting process, and no-one says no really to me. Which is great! I might say no to the management and go ‘I ain’t putting them on!’, but they give me a big list and it’s half and half: I pick some, they pick some, but I get the final say which is brilliant.’

And finally, to round out the interview, there was only one place to go. Anyone with a modicum of sense enjoys the music of Jamie Lenman, and the voracious hunger for more is difficult to satiate, so on the subject of his fourth solo album he said; ‘Well, the concept of an album – not to sidestep around your question like a politician – is a nebulous concept these days isn’t it? And I’m still quite wedded to it. The answer I want to give you is that I’m always working on material, original material, my own songs and I’m always fiddling about with other people’s songs, so Shuffle is the biggest expression of that, though I definitely won’t do another covers record any time soon, or maybe even ever again! But I am always writing, and whatever form that takes – it might be a single or an EP or an album or a double album or whatever, I would really like to get into that first thing next year. I want to give Shuffle its due because it’s been so much hard work by my record label and my management and myself to come to fruition, so I really want to luxuriate in that now it’s out. It’s only just come out. I’ve lived with it for maybe a year, but it’s only been out maybe a week, so I wanna really wallow in that at least until the end of the year and then next year I will start thinking about getting back into the studio, and I’ve got a bunch of songs that could come out in any format that I’m very excited about, and I’ll only really know when Shuffle is done at the end of this year. So I’m trying not to think about it, but these ideas are always coming through, I’ve tried to sort of put them aside until January and then I’ll work on them next year, but whatever it is it will be really exciting and worth your while and I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think about it even if you slag it because I know you’ll have taken the time to really listen to it and that really means a lot to me.’

Jamie Lenman will be touring the UK in November. Shuffle is out now via Big Scary Monsters.