‘I was really quite sad about never doing music again – I think it’s what I’m best at…’

“I’ve got pheasants following me around – they’re not pets, honestly,” says Matt ‘the Hat’ James, former Gene-drummer-turned-singer-songwriter, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers on the phone from his garden in the East Sussex countryside, shortly before the release of his debut solo album, Breaking The Fall.

Despite the local birdlife, he hasn’t turned into an eccentric rock star recluse, although after the demise of Gene and his next band, Palace Fires, several years ago, he did leave the music business to pursue a career as a wine merchant, but he’s recently been tempted back into it, and, in 2019, he started writing songs on his own for the first time and rekindled his passion. Three years later, the results are now out in the wider world.

“Having the record out there is the best feeling – I can’t stop looking at the vinyl,” he enthuses. “Musically, I think it’s strong enough to win over new fans.”

It’s hard to argue with him. Listening to Breaking The Fall, which is one of our favourite albums of the year so far, it’s clear that he’s got his mojo back.

Although it’s a debut record, it sounds like a best of collection – 10 memorable, varied and, at times, very personal and emotional, songs that embrace folk, country/ Americana, soul, indie-rock, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and ’60s pop. 

‘Having the record out there is the best feeling – I can’t stop looking at the vinyl. Musically, I think it’s strong enough to win over new fans’

Occasionally it recalls Gene –  the country-soul of A Simple Message and the anthemic ballad Different World – but most of the time, it’s the sound of someone experimenting with different styles and enjoying being in the studio again after a long time away.

“I’m sort of trying everything out – I have thrown it all in there. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction,” he says. 

Stepping out from behind the drum kit to put himself in the spotlight for the first time, Matt has relied on some old friends to help him out.

Former Gene band mates Steve Mason (guitar) and Kevin Miles (bass) are along for the ride, as is keyboard player, Mick Talbot, (The Style Council, Dexys Midnight Runners), who played live with Gene and on radio sessions.

Production duties are taken care of by former Gene associate, Stephen Street, (The Smiths / Morrissey, Blur, The Cranberries) – sonically, the album is rich, colourful and diverse – and there’s some guitar work by James’s friend, Peredur ap Gwynedd (Perry for short), from electronic rockers Pendulum.

We got Matt to talk us through the writing and recording of Breaking The Fall, share some of his thoughts on the songs and let us know what it feels like to be back in the game… 

Q &A

I was expecting the album to open with a big song, but the first track, From Now On, is quite low-key, with a country/Americana feel. It’s stripped-back…

Matt James: I deliberately wanted that – it suits the nature of the lyrics, which are about coming home. It’s a little folky number and the song is a metaphor for me returning to do music. That’s a general theme on the album.

I didn’t want a big bang at the front – I wanted it to be like the Badly Drawn Boy album [The Hour of Bewilderbeast] with something little at the beginning, before one of the big tunes.

The song sounds like it has an accordion on it…

That’s Mick Talbot doing an accordion sound on the keyboard. He’s multi-talented and he’s good to hang out with – he’s so funny. He has a brilliant sense of humour and his stories are immense. He’s full of energy and the moment he plays, it lifts any room. It was quite a moment having Mick there, because I hadn’t really seen him since he played with Gene.

Champione was written about your dad…

MJ: Yeah – he was someone that I loved but he was plagued with problems, and it was quite difficult being his son. Throughout his whole life, he continued to go downhill, and he ended up getting quite desperate and being very needy of everyone else, without going into details.

‘I’m more likely to better communicate the things I want to talk about in my songs  if they’re about highly personal subjects. That’s the great thing about writing – it’s a cathartic experience’

He was a difficult character – the song starts off being quite angry. I call him “champione of none” but I end up forgiving him. When someone has passed away you have the choice to remember the good stuff – if you want – but it’s tempered with the difficulties. I now think of him fondly most of the time, but I really wanted to get it out in this song.

I’m more likely to better communicate the things I want to talk about in my songs if they’re about highly personal subjects that are unique to me. That’s the great thing about writing – it’s a cathartic experience.

High Time is another autobiographical song. It’s about the serious road accident that your pre-Gene band, Spin, were involved with, back in 1991, and it also mentions the first time you met Martin Rossiter – who went on to front Gene – in the Underworld, in Camden…

MJ: Yes – that song and Champione were two hard ones to write.  I’m quite glad I did it – I hadn’t done it before and I didn’t know how it would feel. I was determined to put some real emotions and some reality in them. On those particular songs on the LP, I think I’ve made that connection the best. There are touches of comedy in some of the lyrics.

High Time is dark and atmospheric…

MJ: It’s a difficult subject matter – I wanted a sombre, driving feel and I was thinking Johnny Cash. The song is about random events – good and bad. Things that you don’t have any control over, but they can completely change your life. It’s an interesting concept.

The title track is one of the darker and saddest songs on the record – a big, anthemic ballad. Why did you choose that one to name the album after?

MJ: It was mainly because of the lyric – me returning to music. I’ve never written songs completely on my before. I’m a pretty happy guy and I’ve got a good life… but I looked at myself and, under the exterior, I was really quite sad about never doing music again, because, if I’m honest, I think it’s probably what I’m best at.

People I knew were making a stand and doing their music, and I wasn’t doing anything, so I took a decision to reverse that. That’s what Breaking The Fall is about – it conjures up the sadness of it. I’m drawing under a line under it, but it’s a long journey back and I think I will improve a lot from here.

When did you first start writing songs on your own?

MJ: 2019. The first song I wrote was Snowy Peaks – it was a joyful one. I wrote the verse while I was on holiday and it was sort of a love song. I played it to Steve Mason and he said: ‘That’s really good, but you need another bit…’

That was the turning point. I wrote a lot of songs for the album. It was a bit like with Gene, when, for some albums, we would write 20 or 25 tracks. I remembered that you have to do that to have a strong record. After I finished the album, I had songs left over and I’ve written quite a few more.

The album is very varied in styles. Born To Rule has mariachi horns on it and a bit of a Spaghetti Western feel..

That’s me experimenting – I’m sort of trying everything out. Perhaps on future albums I’ll take more of a single direction.

 

I think the two songs that most remind me of Gene on the album are A Simple Message and Different World

MJ: Yeah – I didn’t want to do too much like that. I was aware of it. I was channelling Gene with A Simple Message – I had that kind of guitar style…

It was also the first single you released from the album…

MJ: Kev said that song was his favourite – I knew it was a strong song. It’s definitely one of the best on the album.

On Different World, I was channelling Burt Bacharach and Dusty Springfield – that’s sort of where I was coming from. Whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know…

I can definitely hear that.

MJ: It also has a strong and simple lyric.

Sad, which has a soul feel, is one of my favourite songs on the record. It has Mick Talbot on keys, which gives it a slight Jam and Style Council vibe. The chorus is great…

MJ: My niece, Olivia, who is still at school, sings backing vocals on it. She stepped up… she loves musical theatre. She’d never been in a recording studio before and it was really good fun. She came up to London and it was a great day – she sang on two tracks, Sad and Snowy Peaks.

‘On Different World, I was channelling Burt Bacharach and Dusty Springfield – that’s where I was coming from. Whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know…’

The last song on the album, Fireships, starts off stripped-down, but it soon builds and turns into an epic…

MJ: It’s a song about a breakup – I’m wallowing in self pity. Many people will understand that. I really do like the end section – it’s probably my favourite bit of music on the album. I’m a real sucker for an anthemic song that builds.

It’s a nice way to close the album. The whole record feels like a complete piece of work – 10 songs, bang-bang-bang and no messing around. It works well on vinyl too  – five songs on each side. Like the old days. I think too many acts make albums that are overlong. Ten or 12 songs, at a push, will do me just fine..

MJ: I agree – you don’t need to outstay your welcome. Put them on another album or an EP. I think 10 is about right. It felt good for this record. I don’t think I put even the best songs on there but it’s the 10 that worked at the time. I know I have some other really strong songs.

Let’s talk about recording the album. You made it at Stephen Street’s studio, in Latimer Road, West London, but do you also have a home studio?

MJ: I have my drum kit and guitars in my office, but the only thing I record on [at home] is my phone. I went to proper studios to record the drums – not at Streety’s because he doesn’t have a drum room.

Steve Mason and I tend to send things to each other via WhatsApp – he recently sent me an absolutely brilliant riff that’s really bluesy. I love it!

Steve, Kev and Mick all came to Streety’s studio in Latimer Road – Damon Albarn does his Gorillaz stuff there upstairs – we saw him around. He was nice. I haven’t been in that world for so long.

How did it feel being back in it?

MJ: It was really nice, but there were times when I felt a bit shy being back in a recording studio.

How was it working with Stephen Street?

MJ: He’s a real grafter – he puts a proper shift in and can put his hand to anything. He works his arse off until about six o’clock at night. I remembered that from when I worked with him in the Spin days – we were signed to his record label.

‘I’m basically a wine merchant who’s putting music out’

He took the demos for my album – he went through everything and picked what he wanted. Some we rerecorded completely. Streety produced the whole album, but it’s not a big-budget production – I couldn’t afford that.

Perry from Pendulum plays guitar on the record…

MJ: He’s a mate and is a super talent. For someone who is quite a metaller, he can play so much – he can shred it and go super-fast, but he was a session musician for many years, playing on so many different records, like Natalie Imbruglia.

Matt James performing at Shanklin Theatre, Isle of Wight. Picture by Embracing Unique with Laura Holme.

The album’s available on vinyl and digital. Any plans for a CD version?

MJ: Not at the moment – I’m basically a wine merchant who’s putting music out. I don’t have any management, but everyone’s helped out and stepped up. I feel that it’s very early days.

I think the album will be a word of mouth record…

MJ: Musically it’s strong enough to win over new people. Some Gene fans will be supportive but they’re fans of Gene – they’re not fans of me. They might wish me well, but they like to hear Martin singing! [laughs].

I’ve got to find my audience – I’ve drawn a line in the sand and I’m making my way back. Every little thing that comes in just cheers me up. It’s not like I’ve just been signed by a major label and they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to do bloody well, mate, or you’re out on your own…’ It’s a nice feeling – let’s see where it goes.

Breaking The Fall is out now on vinyl and digital (Costermonger Records)

https://musicmattjames.bandcamp.com/

https://musicmattjames.com/

https://gene.tmstor.es/

‘We wanted to get back to some ‘60s stuff – good, danceable grooves’

Back To Business is a new collection of groovy, hipshakin’, organ-heavy instrumentals by duo Bangs & Talbot – pioneering acid jazz DJ, musician and producer, Chris Bangs, and mod keyboard wizard and founding member of The Style Council, Mick Talbot.

The two of them have made their first album together in 20 years and it’s a scorcher – just the kind of soundtrack for a long, hot summer.

Talbot lays down some great Hammond, Wurlitzer and Rhodes piano, while bassist and drummer Bangs ensures the tracks always have a great groove – from the jazz club vibe of Sumthin’ Else to the Latino-soul-meets-West-Coast-Beach-Beat-sound of Surf ‘n’ Turf, and the explosive Kookie T, which, with its blaring brass and high-octane Hammond, sounds like the theme to a car chase scene from a Swinging Sixties action-thriller.

Marvin Gaye’s soul classic, How Sweet It Is, has been reinvented as a cool shuffle – Brand New Heavies’ guitarist Simon Bartholomew provides some tasty licks –  while Stingray pays its respects to gospel and evokes the atmosphere of legendary California club P.J’s. 

It’s Alright takes a trip to Detroit, with fuzz guitars, and the jazzy Leela’s Dance has more than a touch of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five about it.

“A lot of our past stuff was influenced by the ‘70s, but Chris wanted to get back to some ‘60s stuff – good grooves that were danceable,” explains Talbot, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers.

“That’s the great thing about a lot of this album – it’s either head-nodding or dancey. It’s got a lot of different grooves, but most of them are quite immediate.”

He adds: “I’m not always sure what all the influences are because on a lot of the tracks Chris puts an infectious rhythm together – he likes playing bass and he also plays drums, guitar and keyboards. 

“Sometimes he suggests stuff and asks me to adapt it – I’m not precious. He might do a slide on a keyboard on one of his demos,  I’ll get the gist of what he wants me to do and redo it all, and then he’ll say, ‘I really miss my slide!’ So, I say, ‘Put it back then!’ [laughs]

Bangs & Talbot

‘Chris tries to paint a picture with sound – each track is a vignette of a movie’

“Chris does a lot of different things – he’ll give an arrangement to the horn players of him singing what he thinks they should play, so you get a funny demo with him singing, thinking he’s a saxophone.

“He tries to paint a picture with sound – each track is a vignette of a movie. It creates an atmosphere and conjures up an image, but, Chris is so poetic he wants to tell you what that image is.”

Q&A

Did you make the record during lockdown?

Mick Talbot: Yeah – but there were various times when there was a little bit more freedom. We wanted to try and capture the atmosphere of half a dozen people playing in a room, but that wasn’t possible at the time. Chris and I were only in the same room on two occasions – the rest of it was all done [remotely] with musicians we know.

While we were locked down, I did a few remote sessions, but I always go to my friend Ernie McKone’s studio, in Muswell Hill, where a lot of my vintage gear is, like my old Hammond, Wurlitzer, Clavinet and Rhodes –  he maintains them for me.

All those ancient things need care and attention – they get a bit sick if you take them on the road without souping them up – and he’s got the space for them. The colours on my palette are all there – the five or five principal sounds that I gravitate towards.

Mick Talbot

‘All my ancient gear needs care and attention – it gets a bit sick if you take it on the road without souping it up’

I did a remote session for a fella in New York – having been around for quite a while, it’s amazing to me to think I’ve just done something that’s on an album in New York and I didn’t have to go there…

The shenanigans people used to go through when they were doing an international project in the old days – they were scared of putting analogue tape through X-ray machines because you could wipe it quite easily. You couldn’t leave it in your hand luggage. Now I just do a session and, with a little ‘ping’, it’s gone thousands of miles and it’s on someone’s track.

How did you first get into playing keys? Are you self-taught?

MT: I’m a mixture of things. My nan was a piano player and she played by ear. I was quite enchanted by that and I asked her to try and show me some things, and she did, but she couldn’t really show me much because it was hard for her to explain the instinct – she just did it. It felt a bit mystical to me.

She told me there was a lady round the corner who taught piano, but I had the horrors about that because I wanted it to be like how my nan did it – like magic. She said, ‘If you’re keen, you don’t need to stick at it,’ but I did it for three years and it benefited me more than I thought.

Once I’d got the rudiments, and I got more of a personal taste for music, the fact that my teacher was principally a classical one, I wanted to try and apply that to the playing that was on the records I liked to buy. By the time I was about 12, I started trying to form school bands, so I stopped going to piano lessons and tried to develop what I’d learnt.

When you were growing up, were you listening to soul, jazz and funk? Have you always been into that?

MT: I liked all the English ’60s bands as well, but I guess they were R’n’B or soul-influenced. My mum was quite a fan of Motown, so, when I was really small, that was playing a lot.

My dad was more of a modern jazz fan, which I got to understand more as I grew older. He was good at sussing out records that would bring us together – he got me a Sly & The Family Stone album and said, ‘Some people think this bloke is jazz, some think he’s rock and some think he’s soul – they’re having trouble defining him, but I think he’s good and I think you might like him, but I don’t like all your music…’ We bonded over that.

When you and Paul Weller formed The Style Council, people had trouble labelling you too, didn’t they? You embraced so many influences: soul, pop, funk, rap, jazz, house music, European café culture, classical…

The Style Council

 

MT: We were only drawn to things that we actually liked – it wasn’t a calculated thing. We didn’t come into the studio one day and go, ‘We haven’t done anything that sounds like Kraftwerk yet.’

To me, it all seemed to make sense  – the more you look into music and go a bit deeper… The European influences, for instance – elements of Debussy, Ravel or the Romantic Classicists –  a lot of that music, in turn, influenced people like Duke Ellington, Burt Bacharach and Thom Bell of the Philadelphia sound.

‘The Style Council were only drawn to things that we actually liked – it wasn’t calculated. We didn’t come into the studio one day and go, ‘We haven’t done anything that sounds like Kraftwerk yet’.

Prior to forming The Style Council, you were in mod revival band, The Merton Parkas. When you were growing up and listening to soul, was it then a natural step to becoming a mod? What attracted you to that scene?

MT: When I was really little, I can remember that I liked that look, and then, in London, in the mid-’70s, just prior to the punk thing, there was a real explosion of energy with Dr. Feelgood –  they influenced a lot of the punk bands with their attitude and their look. I liked that on the sleeve of their first album [Down By The Jetty], it almost looked like they were from another time, like the mid-’60s.

Fast forward a couple of years and I saw The Jam just before they got signed to Polydor. I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a band for my generation’ – no pun intended – who were more of my age than Dr. Feelgood and they had some affinity with that ’60s mod thing and they were playing a few soul covers in their set.

I did see a lot of the early punk bands, but I thought their image was artificial on some levels – I knew a lot of weekend punks who dyed their hair green with food colouring and washed it out before they went to their respectable job. I thought it would be nice to be someone you could be all the time, and there’s no doubting that there’s a generation of bands who were so influenced by The Jam.

‘I saw The Jam just before they got signed to Polydor. I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a band for my generation’ – no pun intended’

Of the first five bands that surfaced with New Wave or punk, I felt The Jam were the most honest. A lot of them were trying to say it was Year Zero and that they weren’t influenced by anything, whereas The Jam weren’t shy about saying they were influenced by The Kinks, The Beatles or Wilson Pickett. It wasn’t like they’d just been dropped there by a spaceship in 1976.

‘I knew a lot of weekend punks who dyed their hair green with food colouring and washed it out before they went to their respectable job’

And I guessed you carried that approach through to The Style Council, as on the front cover of your second album, Our Favourite Shop, you had a store featuring memorabilia, books and records from some of your favourite writers and musical artists. You were literally wearing your influences on your sleeve…

MT: The visuals on that record had far-reaching consequences – people were trying to find copies of books that were out of print… I’ve met people who’ve said, ‘I think I’ve got three-quarters of what’s in that shop!’

The nice thing about that sleeve is that 90 percent of what was on it was mine and Paul’s and the rest of it was stuff that we wanted that we got our designer, Simon Halfon, to source. It wasn’t put together by a stylist – it came off our bookshelves or out of our lofts. It felt part of our makeup.

I always love reading about who or what influences the musical artists I’m into – it often sets me off listening to them and discovering new stuff…

MT: It’s the same with me. As a kid, I’d read about The Beatles and thought that maybe I should check out The Everly Brothers or Little Richard – whatever they were talking about. I liked The Rolling Stones as well and they helped me to find out about Howlin’ Wolf and Solomon Burke. It’s a nice process – I guess some bands are more open about that sort of thing.

Are you a record collector? How do you listen to music?

MT: I listen to it on any format because the moment you rely on streaming –  I don’t want to get into the politics of that, but they don’t bloody pay you enough – there’s sometimes a grey area. Things are missing, like you particularly like a B-side of a 7in single, but it’s not on Spotify. Why haven’t they got the one I’m searching for? It’s an anomaly.

‘I’m not a music format snob, but I appreciate there’s something about magnetic, analogue tape and vinyl that is just warm and nice’

Wiggle Wiggle, the B-side of the Bangs & Talbot vinyl single, Sumthin’ Else, is on Spotify… What’s your hi-fi setup at home like? Is it a big system?

MT: No – just normal speakers. My brother-in-law found me an old Dansette – sometimes I like to stack up some singles on that. I don’t do it all the time, but it might be influenced by something, like finding a rare record in a little junk shop, and I think ‘I’ll definitely have to get that red plastic thing out again…’

I’m not a format snob, but I appreciate there’s something about magnetic, analogue tape and vinyl that is just warm and nice.

Mick Talbot in the studio for Monks Road Social

You’ve played with so many acts, including Dexys Midnight Runners, Galliano, Gene, Candi Staton, The Blow Monkeys, The Young Disciples, Monks Road Social, Wilko Johnson, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend… Any collaborations that stand out?

MT: It’s really hard to pick out one. It’s whatever I’m currently working on.

Different things have enchanted me for different reasons – there are people I’ve not recorded with, but I’ve worked with… I did Jools Holland’s Big Band for a while, when his brother, Chris, who plays Hammond, took a couple of years out. That gave me the opportunity to play with Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Edwyn Starr – all sorts of people. When you’re working with Jools, you’re never quite sure who you’re going to get. It’s quite spine-tingling when you’re playing with a legend.

It was a real thrill for me to work with Wilko Johnson – it was really mad, because I used to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1976, and then I ended up working with him. He’s so influential.

Through working with him, I got to work with Roger Daltrey, and out of that I got to play with The Who very briefly. I filled in for a charity event – we did a medley. It was thrilling to be sat behind Pete Townshend while he was swinging around – that was a buzz.

‘I did Jools Holland’s Big Band for a while. That gave me the opportunity to play with Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Edwyn Starr – all sorts of people’

There was one week in 2018 when the second Wilko Johnson album I’d played on came out, as well albums by Roger Daltrey and Ray Davies that I was on. They were all recorded at different times, but it was like three buses turning up at once.

People say to me, ‘What are you up to? Are you still in the music game?’ ‘Well, this week, I’m up to quite a lot, but next week it will look like nothing’s happening…’

Mick Talbot and Matt Deighton (Monks Road Social)

 

I’m really looking forward to the next Monks Road thing coming out, as it’s been put on hold for a while. We did the third album [Humanism] in Spain, but we ended up doing the new one in London, at RAK Studios, in one week. I love that studio – I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there a few times in the past couple of years and, for me, it’s second only to Abbey Road in terms of an old-school studio that still has every option available.

‘It was a real thrill for me to work with Wilko Johnson – it was mad, because I used to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1976’

We have a mutual friend, Matt James, who was the drummer in Gene. You’ve played on his debut solo album, Breaking The Fall, which is released next month, haven’t you?

MT: Yeah – that was really nice. He had a few of the old Gene boys [Steve Mason – guitar, Kev Miles – bass) involved. It was great to catch up and play on it.

Matt always had that vocal thing going on – I can remember when I was playing live with Gene, they’d sometimes get Dodgy’s drummer [Mathew Priest] in, so Matt was featured more as a vocalist and a guitarist.

It’s great that it’s always been in him and that he’s got round to doing his own album. There’s one song that’s quite Northern Soul on it and a nice one where I played an accordion sound, with a rural or Cajun influence, or a bit like Ronnie Lane.

So, what’s next for you?

MT: I’m halfway through working on an album with an act called BirdSMITH – they used to be called First Congress. They’re the vehicle for a songwriter called Tom Van Can – he used to be a director of independent films. I first met him about 12 years ago, when I did some stuff for a soundtrack. He’s focused on music now. They had a single out called Kiss It Better – it got played on Radio 2 a bit.

I’ve not seen Candi Staton for a while – she’s coming over for a handful of festivals, so I’m going to play with her – and the next Monks Road Social album should be looming soon.

I’m also working on a second album for what I hope is an ongoing project with Chris Bangs, and there’s a Jam and Style Council exhibition on in Brighton [This Is The Modern World]. They’re showing the Style Council documentary [Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council] and I’ll be there for a couple of days, doing a Q and A.

Nicky Weller [Paul’s sister] is curating it and she tracked down one of our early video directors who had lots of outtakes – there’s all sorts of things. Her partner, Russell, has been editing stuff – he sent me a film of me playing with The Jam at The Rainbow, in 1979. I had no idea anyone was filming it.

Were you pleased with the documentary? I watched it earlier this year, on Sky Arts, and I thought it was brilliant. 

MT: It was good – it was very hard to try and shove everything into one film, but they did a good job. It really reflected the personalities of a lot of people well.

Paul and I did a combined interview – the people who put the film together were hoping there might be a commercial DVD release, because they said they’re sitting on about half an hour of stuff from us that they couldn’t get in that’s really funny. It shone a light on some things, but it didn’t work in the film. I guess it’s all owned by Sky… it’s not my shout.

How was it talking about that time again? The film was pretty candid…

MT: Having to film it over a couple of days and dredge up seven years of your life was kind of exhausting… it was a bit of a blur.

A lot of it was shot at Paul’s studio – while I was down there, I played on three tracks for his album, On Sunset, which he was just finishing. I thought I played on two, but it turns out I’m on three. There was so much going on.

The Style Council got back together to play one song at the end of the film, It’s A Very Deep Sea. How was that? It’s a lovely performance…,

MT: I was really pleased it came together. I saw Paul play in London a few weeks ago and it’s in his set now – I don’t think he’s played it live for a very long time and it’s nice that’s put a new focus on it.

I had concerns about whether or not we should work up three or four songs, in case it didn’t click, as it had been so long, but Paul went, ‘No – just that one.’ He was very definite about it and he said, ‘If it works – it’s great, and, if it doesn’t, we don’t have to use it.’

I was really hoping it would work, but if hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, as nobody knew about it but us.

People might think we sweated over it for a long time – I listened to the song a lot at home – but, when we did it, we started playing it, Paul thought it was really good, his instinct kicked in, and he said, ‘Let’s take it now.’ We only played it through all the way once. It felt good – a real pure performance.

‘Having to film the Style Council documentary over a couple of days and dredge up seven years of your life was kind of exhausting… it was a bit of a blur’

Do you think the film has opened up the Style Council to a new audience? You were so ahead of your time and more groundbreaking than you’ve been given credit for…

MT: It can’t do any harm. I was at a family party the other Saturday and I was quite surprised at some of my wife’s younger cousins who were aware of us. I think a lot of that is down to the documentary.

Some of the political issues you were writing about back in the day are still relevant now, aren’t they? 

MT: Some of Paul’s more pointed lyrics seem like they were written about today, but they’re from 35 years ago. It’s astonishing how little things change.

 

Back To Business by Bangs & Talbot is released on June 17 on Acid Jazz. It’s available on vinyl, CD, digital download and streaming platforms.  

www.acidjazz.co.uk/

For more information on The Jam and Style Council exhibition, This Is The Modern World, click here.

‘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.