‘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/

‘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.