‘I wanted to write some songs that would fit on a Chesterfields record – that was a good challenge’

The Chesterfields at The Black Sheep Bar, Ryde, Isle of Wight – Sept 2022. Andy Strickland is on the left.
Photo: Sean Hannam

 

I first met singer/guitarist Andy Strickland in 1987, on the Isle of Wight, at his family home in Ryde, when I was 13.

My dad, show business journalist, John Hannam, was interviewing him for a local newspaper article about his jangly indie-pop band The Caretaker Race, who’d just released their debut single, Somewhere On Sea. Prior to that, he’d been in Creation Records act The Loft.

I’d tagged along, because, like my dad, I loved the song, but I was also keen to meet Andy – as well as being in a band, he was a music journalist, which was my dream job.

This interview with The Caretaker Race, by John Hannam, originally appeared in the Isle of Wight Weekly Post, in 1987.

Now, on a late afternoon in July 2022 – 35 years after our first encounter – I’m interviewing Andy, and we’re somewhere on sea, in a Ryde hotel bar. But, rather than The Caretaker Race, who split in 1991, we’re actually here to talk about his latest project, playing guitar in Yeovil-based The Chesterfields – another indie-pop band who formed in the ‘80s, and who have just made a brand new album, New Modern Homes. Although this isn’t the first time Andy has been part of the group…

“I played with them a bit in the early days, after The Loft split,” he says, over a pint of Isle of Wight-brewed ale.

“I kind of knew them, because they’d come to a couple of gigs we’d done down in Bristol. I think they booked us for a gig, which was about a week after we’d split up. That was the first gig The Loft didn’t do – Simon [Barber – bass and vocals], who’s still in The Chesterfields, ran a little club in Sherborne, Dorset. It was by the railway station and was called The Electric Broom Cupboard.

“I’d also interviewed the band for Record Mirror. I’d started The Caretaker Race, but, in 1987, Simon rang me up and said, ‘This is a bit of a long shot, but we’ve just got rid of our guitarist – do you fancy standing in?’

‘We played on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’87. Halfway through the set, I realised my guitar lead wasn’t long enough – I’d never played on a stage that big’

“I didn’t know how it would work, as they were based a long way away from where I was, but then Simon said, ‘The first gig’s Glastonbury Festival and it’s in three weeks…’

“I said, ‘Oh – that’s interesting…’ He said the next night they were playing an Oxford ball with Desmond Dekker… so he kind of lured me in with the promise of decent gigs.”

And how were the shows? “They were great. We played on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’87. Halfway through the set, I realised my guitar lead wasn’t long enough – I’d never played on a stage that big. By the fourth song in, I was required to do some backing vocals and, as I marched to the microphone, I couldn’t get there – the roadie picked my amp up, charged towards me and plonked it down so I could do the final ‘bah-bah-bah’, or whatever it was.

“I did a little tour with them, but then they got Simon’s brother in, who was a really good guitar player. I didn’t play with them again until recent years.”

The Chesterfields

Q&A

So, how did you end up rejoining The Chesterfields?

Andy Strickland: Simon, Helen [Stickland – guitar and vocals] and Rob [Parry – drums] were playing in bands around the West Country and they started doing a couple of Chesterfields songs, which went down really well. I saw them and said to Simon, ‘If there’s an appetite for it, you should do it’.

‘We played with The Primitives at The Knitting Factory, in Brooklyn, New York – it was sold out, it was hot and the crowd loved it. It was fantastic’

He was always reluctant to do it, because Davey [Dave Goldsworthy], the original singer and frontman, died in 2003 – he was killed in a hit and run. Simon didn’t want to do anything that might upset anyone, but, eventually, he asked the family and we did a little UK tour in 2019, which went really well.

Before that, in 2016, we got asked to go and play in New York, at the New York Pop Fest – that was brilliant. We played with The Primitives at The Knitting Factory, in Brooklyn – it was sold out, it was hot and the crowd loved it. It was fantastic. The crowd was a young one, which was really odd.

Chesterfield band member Helen’s surname is Stickland. That must be a bit confusing…

AS: Yes – it’s not a typo and we’re not related. Although her husband did used to live on the Isle of Wight, which is even more confusing.

So, now there’s a new Chesterfields album – New Modern Homes…

AS: After the 2019 tour, we thought there might be an appetite for a new record, and then while we were talking about it, lockdown happened, which gave us an opportunity to write some songs.

John Parish (PJ Harvey) co-produced it…

AS: Yes – he produced the first Chesterfields album, back in the day, and he also produced some of my early Caretaker Race records, so we all knew him. We talked about what we were going to do with this record – we knew we were going to record it in Somerset.

There’s a studio next to Wookey Hole called Axe and Trap, which is run by a great guy called Ben Turner. We started recording there last summer and John came down for a couple of days.

We were so relaxed and we thought we were doing demos, but John said they sounded great and that he would mix them at his place, with a few little overdubs. We went to John’s studio in Bristol in November last year. We were lucky to get a really good studio and great engineers. John had a two-week gap and we fitted into it.

The first single, Our Songbird Has Gone, came out on 7in vinyl…

AS: The first batch that went up on Bandcamp sold out in 10 hours.

‘Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens heard the song and got in touch. She said, ‘I love this! Who are you guys?’

Part of the lyrics feature a list of bands and acts that influenced The Chesterfields, including The Go-Betweens, The Smiths, The Fall, Orange Juice, The House of Love, Aztec Camera, Gang of Four…

AS: It’s an actual list – a few years after Davy died, his widow sent Simon some bits and pieces. One of the things she sent him was a little book that’s mentioned in the song. It had lyrics and drawings in it and a list of Davy’s favourite bands.

Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens heard the song and got in touch. She said, ‘I love this! Who are you guys?’ They were one of Davy’s absolute favourites. A few of the other bands who are mentioned in the song, like The Darling Buds and The June Brides, have also been in touch.

You’ve written three of the songs on the album: You’re Ace From Space, Mary’s Got A Gun and Postpone The Revolution. Were they all written for the new record?

AS: They were. I’m writing bits and pieces all the time, but I wanted to write some songs that would fit on a Chesterfields record. That was a good challenge and, to some extent, I think it’s worked. Certainly John thought they fitted well – he would’ve said if they didn’t.  It also gave me a chance to sing. Helen also wrote a song, so there’s three different writers and singers on the album, which is quite unusual these days.

What inspired You’re Ace From Space?

AS: I think it came from craving some freedom during lockdown – imagine just being up there, in space, on your own for a bit. It was a bit of space – literally.

‘Postpone The Revolution is a song about young people not really giving a shit. Why aren’t they out there, getting rid of this Government?

Mary’s Got A Gun is a story song, about two characters – Mary and Vinny…

AS: Yeah – I just started playing the guitar riff one day and I came up with the idea of Mary having a gun and thought, ‘Why would she have a gun?’ So I came up with a story about her buying it, from a book dealer in Hay-on-Wye, and hooking up with this guy who had a van, and they’ve got a secret hiding place…

I’ve always wanted to go to Hay-on-Wye and visit the bookshops…

AS: I’ve never been, but now I know you can buy an illicit firearm there, I’m very keen to go…

What about Postpone The Revolution?

AS: It’s a song about young people not really giving a shit. Why aren’t they out there, getting rid of this Government? I occasionally say to my son, ‘When I was your age, I was marching for X, Y and Z…’

It’s another of your songs that mentions the sea. I was listening to The Caretaker Race album, Hangover Square, recently. That has quite a few songs on it that mention the sea and seaside towns. That record still stands up today… 

AS: That’s very kind of you to say so. Stephen Street did it and we were a good band.

That album reminds me of The Smiths at times. I’ve Seen A Thing Or Two sounds like Back To The Old House – the guitar on it is very Johnny Marr… And so is the guitar on You Always Hurt (The One You Kick)…

AS: Yeah – that’s very Johnny Marr. Stephen Street didn’t say we’d gone too far… but he did play the album to Morrissey. The other guitarist in The Caretaker Race, Andy Deevey, used an Echoplex. I’ve Seen A Thing Or Two was written about a church in Ryde that you come past on the train. There’s a reverse echo on it – Stephen played it to Morrissey and he was like, ‘Oh, what’s that? How did you do that?’

I remember Stephen telling me that Morrissey was very much taken with Andy’s Echoplex. It sounds like a ghostly buzzsaw thing going on in the background.

The Chesterfields

Let’s go back to The Chesterfields. So, you’re pleased with the new album?

AS: Yeah – really pleased. It’s the first thing I’ve recorded for so many years, so to have three songs on it and for it to sound so good… There’s some lovely guitar playing on it – not just mine. Helen’s great – she plays very punk-rock, but writes these really beautiful little lines. It’s great fun playing with her.

One of my favourite songs on the album is Mr Wilson Goes To Norway...

AS: We’ve got a great video for it. Purely by coincidence, the lad called James [Harvey],who did the video for Our Songbird Has Gone, was going to Norway a few weeks later, so we got him to do some travelogue stuff for it, while we just larked around in a deserted high street in Sherborne, Dorset.

‘I’m thinking about doing a solo EP next year, but I need a kick up the arse…’

A couple of years ago, we had an idea about playing Indiefjord in Norway. Simon came up with that song and we said, ‘Well, if they’re not going to invite us to play after this video and this song, then we’re never going to get invited…’

Earlier you said that you write a lot of songs, so do you think you might put a solo record out?

AS: I think I will. I’m thinking about doing a solo EP next year. Given that there’s all this Chesterfields stuff going on and there’s also some Loft stuff coming out… I need a kick up the arse to make me finish stuff. I was watching Get Back – George Harrison is going on about how John and Paul are always telling him to finish stuff… I’m a bad finisher, unless I’ve got a deadline.

I’ve got lots of stuff. I pick up the guitar every day, play something and stick it on my phone. My partner gets a bit annoyed – especially if we’ve just gone to bed and I say, ‘Hang on – I’ll be back in five minutes…’ I’m just lying there and a middle eight pops into my head.

You said there’s some Loft stuff coming out…

AS: Yeah – Ghost Trains & Country Lanes is coming out on vinyl in January. It came out last summer on CD, on Cherry Red.

It’s everything, basically – all the singles, all the Creation stuff, all the Radio 1 Janice Long sessions, the Marc Riley and Gideon Coe sessions, the single that we put out on Static Caravan about 15 years ago and a whole live gig from The Living Room, back in the day.

I think it’s 30 tracks – on triple vinyl.  When we heard it was going to be a triple, we said, ‘We can’t have that – we’re not Yes!’ But the guy who’s doing it, Ian [Allcock], who runs Optic Nerve, said, ‘Trust me – it will be great’. He managed to get all the stuff signed off by the BBC. It’s a mighty tome – on coloured vinyl with a booklet. It will be quite a package. You can preorder it now.

‘I did start writing a book. I’ve got the title. It’s called And Then I Punched Tom Jones’

Have you ever thought about writing a book on your time in the music industry, as a musician, but also a journalist?

AS: I did start writing one and I’ve got the title. It’s called And Then I Punched Tom Jones.

Did you punch him?

AS: I didn’t, actually, but I thought about it. I was interviewing him for about the third time. He’s one of those people who, when you turn the recorder on, they just talk and you barely have to ask them a question.

I was in a hotel suite – it was just me and him, and I started to lose concentration, because he was just talking, and talking and talking. My head started going and I was looking at him and I thought, ‘Tom Jones is sitting there, if I hit him now, really hard, he’ll probably go over the edge of that sofa’. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. My mind just started to wander.

A few years later, I was in the pub with a bunch of guys from Loaded magazine and I mentioned it. They said they’d had a similar thing – that it was quite common. I don’t know if it’s like a minor version of shooting John Lennon or something – having an impact on someone famous and leaving your imprint.

The Chesterfields at The Black Sheep Bar, Ryde, Isle of Wight – Sept 2022. Photo: Sean Hannam.

 

I don’t think I ever had it with anyone else – in my Record Mirror days, I sat down and interviewed some big stars.

‘The Loft were the first Creation band on TV. We did The Oxford Road Show with China Crisis, Ultravox, Thompson Twins and Bronski Beat’

Was being a music journalist and also in a band a help or a hindrance?

AS: I don’t think it was a help, particularly. When The Loft were taking off, we did get a bit of stick – some of the reviews said we were a band of journalists and people assumed we had some sort of inside track, but we didn’t. We didn’t have a manager, a roadie or a driver – it was just us four, plus our mate, Danny Kelly. We were the first Creation band on TV – The Oxford Road Show. We were Janice Long’s ‘band to watch’ and we were on with China Crisis, Ultravox and Thompson Twins and Bronski Beat.

You were the only act who didn’t have synths…

AS: Yeah – we were. When word got out that we were going to be on it, the manager of The June Brides, who had been on the cover of the NME, rang me up in my little studenty house and said, ‘I hear you’re going on the telly’. I said, ‘Yeah – it’s amazing.’ He said, ‘I’d love to get The June Brides on – who do I need to talk to?’ I said, ‘I dunno’. But he said, ‘Oh c’mon, Andy – we’re all in this together. Who did you tap up?’

I said, ‘They just rang us and asked if we could do it’. He couldn’t believe it could be that easy.

We were in the right place at the right time, and Janice loved the band. She was such a big deal and she was so lovely. She got overshadowed by John Peel, but she did huge amounts for so many bands – The Chesterfields did sessions for her. She wasn’t one of those DJs who just wanted to be famous – she was all about the music.

New Modern Homes by The Chesterfields is out now on Mr Mellow’s Music. https://thechesterfields.bandcamp.com/album/new-modern-homes-2

The triple vinyl version of The Loft’s Ghost Trains & Country Lanes is released on Optic Nerve Recordings on January 20 next year. You can preorder it here. 

‘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.