‘It’s been a long time since I was able to start a year and say: ‘I’ve got some new music coming out’ – it feels very special’

Matt James

 

Matt James, former drummer with ’90s anthemic indie-rockers Gene, has launched a solo career, and in February this year he will be playing his biggest show yet – a charity gig at Shanklin Theatre on the Isle of Wight, as part of a tribute night to my dad, show business journalist, John Hannam, who died in September last year.

In an exclusive interview, he tells me what it’s like to be starting out on his own, teases his debut solo album, which is due out in July and was produced by Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths, Morrissey, The Cranberries, The Pretenders, The Rails) and explains why he’s excited about visiting the Isle of Wight for the first time…

“I suppose that means there’ll be no returning hero moment with the Islanders lining the streets and waving palms,” he muses. “That’s what happens when I go to Guernsey and Sark…”

Q&A

Hi Matt. How’s it going?

Matt James: It’s going great currently, thanks. I’ve been lucky enough to be pretty healthy the past couple of years, when so many people haven’t, or have been affected in other ways. I moved from London to the country in 2015, which may have had something to do with it…

Thanks for agreeing to play my dad’s tribute concert – it’s great to have you on the bill. It means a lot to me, as Gene were one of my favourite bands and my dad liked them, too – in fact, he actually interviewed you before a gig at the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth. I used to get him to talk to bands that I liked, and he enjoyed music by a lot of bands that I was into….

MJ: It’s a pleasure to do the show for you. My sincere condolences for your loss. I know what it’s like to lose your dad. Thanks for asking me. It’s great that John opened his ears to your taste. I’ll definitely be doing the same with my kids. These things should work both ways, no?

Poster design by @tica_attica

The gig is in Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight. The South Coast was good for Gene, wasn’t it? You played Portsmouth, Southampton and Brighton several times. I was at most of those gigs, but you never made it across the Solent to the Island, did you?

MJ: We always returned to towns that liked us. There are mini music businesses and communities in every town, and you have to keep being good and pleasing them to preserve their loyalty.

I’m not sure why we never went to the Isle of Wight…Maybe the community there wasn’t up for us, or more likely I would think that our agent felt that we were covering the south by doing Portsmouth and Southampton. Anyway I’m really very excited about coming to the Isle of Wight now.

Have you ever visited the Island before?

MJ: Nope – I’ve never been there, which is rather strange, as I’ve travelled the UK extensively. I suppose that means there’ll be no returning hero moment with the Islanders lining the streets and waving palms? That’s what happens when I go to Guernsey and Sark… ahem. Joking aside, it’s time to put the Isle of Wight in my treasured memory bank.

Maybe you could play the Isle of Wight Festival as a solo act? That would be great…

MJ: I would certainly love to play the festival if they would have me. It always looks amazing on the TV. I’ve just booked my ferry for your show and that gave me a tinge of excitement. If I was returning to play the festival, they’d need to tie me to the boat to stop me bouncing off…

Shanklin Theatre, which is the venue for the gig, is lovely. You should feel right at home there, as you like a bit of old school showbiz and glamour, don’t you? Gene always had a sense of drama to them…

MJ: Yes – we loved old theatres and treading hallowed boards.  That’s why we featured the Royal Albert Hall on the artwork for our second LP [Drawn To The Deep End].

My mum was an amateur opera singer and I can remember being a small boy and hiding in huge curtain folds, looking out at her singing live. I internalised that very deeply. I’ve been lucky enough to play in some smashing places in my time, but it’s been a while. This will only be my fourth solo gig –  and on the biggest stage I’ve done so far.

‘I have made a stand for creativity, and I also wanted to tackle some tricky subjects. It’s what my life was missing, and lockdown gave me an unexpected opportunity’

Let’s talk about you ‘going solo’. After Gene and your next band, Palace Fires, broke up, you started a career in the wine industry, but now you’ve become a singer-songwriter. How is it being a solo artist? To quote a Gene song, are you, ahem, fighting fit and able?

MJ: It’s been a long, long time since I was able to start a year and say: ‘I’ve got some new music coming out’.

I’m sure you can imagine that it feels very special. I have made a stand for creativity, and I also wanted to tackle some tricky subjects. It’s what my life was missing, and lockdown gave me an unexpected opportunity.

I’ve loved being a wine merchant and still do, but, if I’m honest, music is what I’m best at. Even when wine folk ask me about it, I always say: “I like wine almost as much as music!” I missed it so much, but I did need a long break.

You’ve released two great digital singles as a solo artist so far: A Simple Message and Snowy Peaks. Your debut song, A Simple Message, has a political message and a Gene-like sound – it’s down to the organ and the country-rock guitar – and the second, Snowy Peaks, is an anthemic love song. What can you tell us about those tracks? What inspired them?

MJ: I decided as I was starting from scratch as a solo artist that I would share quite a few tracks from the LP before releasing it, to give me a long build. There are three more songs to go before the LP is released in July and that feels right.

A Simple Message was the first one and, if I’m honest, it’s the one that’s most like Gene on the LP. For those people that know Gene, it has a Long Sleeves For The Summer-type jazzy drum shuffle and Steve Mason-esque guitar, although Steve [Gene guitarist] isn’t actually on that song – it’s me and Perry [Peredur ap Gwynedd] from Pendulum.

I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea making it the first release, but, in hindsight, it has worked out really well. It’s a decent song, in my opinion, with some understated charm, and I remembered that’s what worked for Gene with our first single, For The Dead.

The song is about how populist politicians rely so much on simple messages that are often completely inadequate instructions for people that need to determine quite complex and important issues.  I think it was Joseph Goebbels that called it ‘the big lie…’

Snowy Peaks is a simple love song I wrote for my other half – it was the first song I wrote for the LP, but it’s been through quite a few versions. I like what I ended up with, but now I’m trying to work out how to play it live on my own, so I’m changing it yet again.

Steve Mason plays guitar on Snowy Peaks, doesn’t he?

MJ: That’s the fella! Steve was a fan of the song and he kept me on my toes by getting me to try and improve it. He sent me off to write more bits when I thought it was finished.

I love writing with Steve – we are obviously quite long in the tooth in that department. He plays on four songs on the LP and Kev [Miles – bassist] from Gene is on five, which feels good. I was very careful not to make the LP ‘Gene without Martin’ [Rossiter – singer], though, so there are other people on it, too.

You’ve also been recording with keyboardist Mick Talbot (Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played with Gene…

MJ: Yes – Mick plays on five or six songs, and I was very privileged to have him involved. What a legend he is and what a talent – not to mention he’s so nice and made us all chuckle with his quips and stories. Having him in the room with Kev, who is also a master of comedy, made the proceedings such a fun time.

‘Stephen Street has been advising me since I first started writing and learning to sing for the first time. He is someone who I trust implicitly not to bullshit me, but to also be nice enough to actually listen’

Mostly it was me and [producer] Stephen Street working, but when people showed up it changed the vibe and provided some injections of energy and goodness.

Stephen has been advising me since I first started writing and learning to sing for the first time. He is someone who I trust implicitly not to bullshit me, but to also be nice enough to actually listen. With so many people releasing music and vying for attention these days, it’s so hard to get anyone to listen or take you seriously – especially when you’ve been round the block like I have. That’s where I’m so lucky that I have a past and some music mates.

I’ve known Stephen for 30 years. He ended up producing the LP after initially aiming to do just a few tracks. We got some momentum though and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I didn’t – and don’t – feel under any pressure at all to be successful. It really was just the pure joy of making music together. Hopefully that shows on the record. Now that it’s made, I’m chuffed if people want to check it out.

 

‘I don’t feel under any pressure to be successful. It’s really just the pure joy of making music together. Hopefully that shows on the record’

How and where did you make the album?

MJ: I wrote the record on my iPhone using GarageBand. I have a garden office and I worked in there.

I wrote 20 songs for it and 10 have made the LP. After it was written, we went to various places to do the drums and finally ended up at Stephen Street’s studio, The Bunker, which is a room he has at Damon Albarn’s studio in Latimer Road, London. It was nice to be in that kind of environment again. Damon came and said hello – he was nice.

We ended up using some of my original demos, as they just had a unique vibe that didn’t need to be recreated. It’s a nice mix and match of demos and new recordings, but Stephen is a master at mixing, so he polished it up very well.

 

There’s a new digital single, High Time, coming out on February 4 – just before the Isle of Wight gig. What can you tell me about that song?

MJ: Yes – February 4, which is just before your gig, so you can learn the lyrics and sing along. The song is about however much you try to control your life, it still throws dramatic unexpected events at you that can be good or bad, but have the power to swerve your life journey…

The song references a terrible road accident I was involved in 1991, with the lads from the band Spin, and also the random event of meeting Martin Rossiter a few months later in the Underworld [in Camden] completely by chance. That time it had a good outcome.

We were actually out with Stephen Street that night, so that’s another interesting link. There’s a mild religious element to the song too. I’m not an overly religious person, but I’m not an atheist either.

So, the album’s coming out in July…

MJ: Yes – July 2022 is my big moment. There are 10 songs – five on each side. I am making some vinyl…

It will be released on Costermonger Records, which is the old Gene – and one other band, Brassy-associated label, started by music journos Keith Cameron and Roy Wilkinson.

I always thought it was an amazing label name and I was sad when Gene stopped using it and changed to Polydor. They had signed us of course, so it wasn’t an option to use Costermonger anymore. Keith and Roy won’t be involved right now though, other than they are mates with trusted musical ears.

‘The album will be released on Costermonger Records, which is the old Gene label. I always thought it was an amazing name and I was sad when Gene stopped using it’

These days, with digital releases, a label doesn’t mean quite as much, unless you are in a stable of acts, but for the vinyl I wanted a label name with gravitas. I’m honoured that they’ve allowed me to resurrect it and start those catalogue numbers again. COST11 is coming soon – I’ll save the LP title for now… Who knows there may even be other acts on the label one day… it comes from a place of friendship but it’s mainly just me at the moment and Mrs James, who helps with the artwork.

I have had some help from the guys at Demon too, who did the Gene re-issues [in 2020], and some PR pals will be helping. It’s all very informal and fun – I’m loving it. I would say that eight of the 10 songs on the album could be singles – it’s that kind of record.

The fourth and fifth singles will have B-sides that are not on the LP. We consider those to be perhaps the best chance of piquing the interest of people who don’t know anything about me. Erm, so that’s nearly everybody!

Finally, we should raise a glass to my dad. Can you recommend a decent, affordable red wine?

MJ: Absolutely. I’ll bring one with me to the gig. If it’s a red, I love Bordeaux, something like Clos de L’Oratoire Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe. Chin-chin and all due respect to John for his great life achievements.

Matt James’s new single, High Time, will be released digitally on February 4. You can pre-save it here.  His debut solo album is due out in July this year.

Matt will be appearing at Sunday Night at Shanklin Theatre – a tribute to John Hannam: Sunday February 6 2022: a night of live music in memory of legendary Isle of Wight journalist and broadcaster, John Hannam, who died in autumn 2021.

The gig will feature My Darling Clementine, Matt James (Gene), Andy Strickland (The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields), Matt Hill, Brian Sharpe, Bobby I Can Fly, Chris Clarke, Amy Bird, Bob and Bertie Everson.

Proceeds will go to the British Heart Foundation and the Wellow Ward, St Mary’s Hospital. Tickets are available here. 

‘Lockdown is a great opportunity to reboot and sort out your priorities…’

Dr. Robert

If you’re looking for a new album to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown, then may we recommend the soulful, jazzy and folky Humanism, which is the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys. 

Recorded in Spain last summer, it’s a warm and colourful collection of songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. It could be just what the doctor ordered…

Monks Road Social, the loose musical collective headed up by Blow Monkeys frontman Dr. Robert, made two of the most diverse and richly rewarding albums of last year – Down The Willows and Out Of Bounds. 

Recorded over two 10-day sessions in the residential Monnow Valley Studio in Monmouth, Wales, both records made our best of 2019 list and we described them as: ‘two of the most eclectic collections of songs we’ve ever heard – from jazzy comedown ballads to Balearic beats, to soul, psych-rock, folk, drum and bass, country, blues, indie-rock and funk, they’re a melting pot of musical ideas.’

When we interviewed Dr. Robert last year, he was working on a third Monks Road Social album, which was recorded in Spain, at the height of the Andalusian summer.

The good news is that it’s now done and dusted, is out this month, and, like its predecessors, it’s a stunning and diverse record. It’s called Humanism and, this time around, the Spanish sunshine has worked its magic, as there’s a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs. In these worrying days of lockdown, it’s a perfect soundtrack to ease your mind and take you to a better place.

Special guests include Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies), who belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, and actor Peter Capaldi, who sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.

Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sings on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shares vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lends her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.

Also on the album are drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.

We spoke to Dr. Robert, who was on lockdown at his home in Andalusia, Spain he lives in the mountains, south of Granada – to get the lowdown on how Humanism was written and recorded, and find out how he’s spending his time in the house…

Dr. Robert (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

Q&A

How are you coping with the lockdown and isolation?

Dr. Robert: We are doing fine. It’s pretty isolated up here in the mountains anyway, to be honest. We are more concerned about our kids in London, but, thankfully, they are doing okay.

Spain has been hit very badly, especially in the cities. People are used to interacting socially here in a profound way. To take that away from them has been very tough, but they have responded magnificently and, like in the UK, you just have to marvel at the bravery and selflessness of the health workers. We must never call them ‘low-skilled’ and they must not remain ‘low-paid.’ Our value system is all wrong and we can’t go back there now.

Any advice for staying sane? What have you been up to during lockdown?

DR: It’s a great opportunity to reboot. I’m sure everyone says that, but it really does sort out your priorities. It’s the simple things – the way the light bounces off a whitewashed wall, or the birdsong in the morning. It’s like a veil has been lifted. This has changed us – let’s hope we stay awake…

During the lockdown, you’ve been playing some acoustic tracks online, including covers of Fred Neil, Marc Bolan and Tim Hardin songs. Any plans to do some more performances?

DR: Yes, I’ll do more, but I don’t want to flood a crowded market.

Have you been writing any songs during lockdown?

DR: Yes. I was already working on a new Blow Monkeys album for early next year, to coincide with our 40th anniversary, so it’s afforded me more time to really figure out what it is I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album! And what do I have to say? “Love is all that remains of us,” to quote a poet from Hull.

Let’s talk about the new Monks Road Social album, Humanism – the third in a trilogy. What were the recording sessions in Spain like? 

DR: The album was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.

My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.

The main task is organisation and preplanning. My wife, Michele, is amazing. She manages The Blow Monkeys too. We had a great engineer called Ivan Moreno, who I ended up mixing the whole album with, plus the label boss, Richard Clarke, [Monks Road Records] has a very good antennae and always pitches in with interesting ideas. I’m just the ringmaster.

‘I’ve been working on a new Blow Monkeys album. The lockdown has afforded me more time to figure out what I want to say – without it turning into a triple concept album!’

How do you think this album compares with the other two? There are fewer folk, country, blues and rock/psychedelic songs on it. It has more of a soul and jazz feel, with some Flamenco influences too…

DR: Well, yes – the fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet.

Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.

Did you write new songs specifically for this album?

DR: I did – songs like Egyptian Magic and Step By Step – and there were others that I had from before that I thought would work with different singers, like Sulene Fleming doing Said Too Much. 

We are always on the lookout for people to add to the mix. A friend told me his daughter, Belle McNulty, could sing. I said I’d have a listen, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. She blew me away.

She did a fantastic job on On The Wings of the Morning and then she wrote the lyrics to a piece of music I had and we ended up with I Wish You Well, which is one of my favourite things we have ever done with Monks Road.

I just love working with great singers like Belle, Sulene, Romy, who is Matt Deighton’s daughter, Ximena and Angelina. It’s such a joy.

Were there any songs on this record that were left over from the previous sessions for the other Monks Road Social albums?

DR: Well, Step By Step emerged out of an remix of I Ain’t Running Anymore, and we had plenty left over from this session too – enough for another album to be honest.

Mick Talbot and Matt Deighton (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

Egyptian Magic is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it?

DR: Matt Deighton and I share a love of Tyrannosaurus Rex – the era when Steve Peregrin Took was still with Bolan, but just before he left. Songs like Once Upon The Seas Of Abyssinia and Blessed Wild Apple Girl – all that stuff.

Egyptian Magic was inspired by a tub of hair product that my wife ordered from duty free on a plane! The lyric is a true story, which is unusual for me. Matt is a great player and does amazing harmonies. It’s pretty effortless between us. We hope to do an album one day.

Another of my favourite songs on the record is On The Wings of the Morning. It has some cool, funky ‘70s flute on it…

DR: Jacko Peake played the flute. He’s amazing and was in Push with Crispin Taylor and Ernie McKone, so there was a natural bond there already. I knew Jacko from my time playing with Paul Weller too, so it’s an old friendship.

I’m happy that On The Wings of the Morning turned out that way. I don’t think anybody in the country could play that groove like Crispin and Ernie. They are the best.

The first single, If I Could Pray, was written by actor Peter Capaldi – he also sings vocals and plays acoustic guitar on it. How did that collaboration come about?

DR: I met Peter a few years ago, as he comes to the valley in the summer, with his family. We started to play acoustic together at a friend’s party and our friendship grew out of that.

He was hanging out at the studio and then one day his wife, Elaine, mentioned he had a song. I was thrilled and we did it really quickly, which is always a good sign. He’s a natural – very unaffected.

What was it like for Dr. Robert to work with Doctor Who? So many doctors in the house…

DR: Although he’s obviously well known as an actor,  Peter actually started out doing music, so there was nothing forced. He’s a delight to work with and very funny too.

Peter Capaldi and Dr. Robert (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

The song  Said Too Much is a great funk-soul-jazz track – the trumpet, which is played by Juan Carlos Camacho, is fantastic. Where did that song come from? What was the inspiration for it?

DR: Words that cut too deep – spoken out loud in drunken rages. Those days are behind me now – thank fuck! I love that trumpet too – it’s so Spanish. He gently seduces you.

Is Apricot Glow a Matt Deighton song? It’s gorgeous…

DR: Yes – that’s a lovely Matt Deighton composition. We double tracked his vocal and it really seems to suit the song. It’s a fragile beauty.

Any favourite tracks from the album? You mentioned I Wish You Well earlier…

DR: Well, it changes, but I love Sequiso, featuring Funk From Mali – it’s a proper groove. And, as I said, I Wish You Well is a personal fave. City Lights, too, with Neil Jones from Stone Foundation. I get to play bass on his tunes, which is one of my favourite things to do. That song has a great forward momentum and his girlfriend, Celia Carballo, sings really well on it too. Mick Talbot weaved his usual magic on it.

Mick Talbot (picture courtesy of Richard Clarke).

I managed to record a solo track with Mick when he was just warming up – New Arrivals. He was just sound checking my cheap car boot Casio and came up with this amazing piece. I asked him if it was okay to use it, as he wasn’t aware we had recorded it!

You said you had material left over from the sessions. Is there another Monks Road Social album planned?

DR: Yes.We have enough recorded material for a whole new album. It’s up to Richard how he wants to use it.

You were due to play the first Monks Road Social gig at the Jazz Café, in London, this May. Has it been rescheduled and what can we expect from the live show?

DR: It’s been rescheduled for August 25, but that may be optimistic – let’s see. If we have to delay it again, we will. It’s going to be fun – chaotic and possibly messy, but fun. There’s nothing else like it really.

The Blow Monkeys

There’s a new Blow Monkeys album due, too…

DR: Yes – it will be out early next year and will be crowdfunded, hopefully.

What music – new and old – are you listening to at the moment? What’s your lockdown soundtrack?

DR: I’ve been writing lots, so don’t tend to listen to too much, but that Nick Cave album, Ghosteen, is astonishing, and Paul Weller sent me his latest one, On Sunset, which is very special.

Other than that, just a drop of Fred Neil and a pinch of Van Morrison. Oh and the new Dylan single [Murder Most Foul] – all 17 minutes of it. Marvellous.

What are you most looking forward to doing when things return to normal?

DR: Seeing my family.

 

Humanism by Monks Road Social is released on April 17 (Monks Road Records). 

http://monksroadsocial.com/

https://www.theblowmonkeys.com/

For more information on crowdfunding the new Blow Monkeys album, click here.