INTERVIEW: Jamie Lenman (March 2014)
Following several years of radio-silence punctuated only by the occasional gig or internet track, former Reuben frontman Jamie Lenman came roaring back onto the musical landscape last year with a fearsome double A-sided single, Fizzy Blood/Pretty Please. Subsequent album Muscle Memory stretched across two discs and placed the man’s head and heart on full display for all to see through one side flamethrower hardcore and another encompassing folk, country, swing and practically everything else in between. Never one for doing things by halves, he even contributed the artwork.
While I’m sure he’d hate to hear it (or at least dismiss the notion as sentimental claptrap), for many there seemed something oddly poignant about his return. Deserving contenders though they undoubtedly were, Reuben sadly never found a mainstream audience, yet they remain one of the most respected British rock bands of the last decade - and certainly one of its most fiercely beloved cult acts (see here for my previous article on the band). Part of their appeal lay with their sheer approachability as individuals, as embodied in Lenman’s affable onstage persona: as the excitable rock-geek liner notes for Very Fast, Very Dangerous suggested, they were always very much the everymen of British rock, the sort of band who you suspect would be out in the crowd discussing the merits of the latest Nine Inch Nails album if they didn’t have to be up onstage.
Fast-thinking, passionate, witty and never short of opinions, it’s no surprise that Lenman makes for terrific conversation. I’ve met him a couple of times over the years, including a rather embarrassing incident at a friend’s birthday party in 2012 when he happened to walk into the room just as I’d started spinning a Reuben record, as if summoned like Batman (more on this later). I’m not sure that I entirely agree with his characterisation of Reuben’s lyrical content below, since references to the creative process (in Agony/Agatha and now Fizzy Blood), touring fatigue and various other bands (No-One Wins the War, Crushed Under the Weight of the Enormous Bullshit) are scattered throughout their catalogue. Equally, Reuben’s long-form DVD, What Happens in Aldershot Stays in Aldershot, detailed the lack of glamour associated with life in an underground band with disarming candour. However, you’d have to forgive him for wanting to correct such common misconceptions, particularly if they threaten to pigeonhole the sheer range of his musical ability. He also proves remarkably patient when addressing many of the rumours or conjecture which sprung up after the band’s dissolution, which is where we come in...
There seemed to have been so little fanfare surrounding the break-up of Reuben - from the outside, it just appeared to happen one day, and that was that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed like the break-up of the band was entirely amicable and it had just stopped being a functional possibility given the financial circumstances - is that a fair analysis?
Well, you’ve said a lot of stuff there, so I’d like to answer it all in turn if I may! Firstly, it’s been said to me a lot of times there was no fanfare about the break-up of the band, and I’ve always taken issue with that. None of us were people who.... we never approved of, like, these big grandiose farewell tours and the ‘last record’, that kind of business - we saw that as a bit false. So although it seemed on the outside to have happened all at once - I mean, it’s not like we could post a news update on the website, “Just had huge argument” six months before we split up, you know? So... I mean, how could it not come out of the blue - the only way I could think of it not coming out of the blue was if we were regularly updating everyone on how it was falling apart. Which, on the other hand, we sort of were, because if you listen to all those songs - people said “Oh, I didn’t see it coming”, and we were like: “Really...?!” On the last record, one of them is called Suffocation of the Soul - that should’ve given people a clue!
So I feel like the reason we didn’t do a farewell tour or any of that ‘fanfare’ as you called it was that we couldn’t look each other in the eye at that point; we hung on to it for so long that it also annoys me a bit when people say “Oh, they just finished it on a whim” - that’s not the case. We hung on to it as long as was humanly possible until we were down to our fingernails - and then finally when our fingernails gave way, we lost it. So by that point, it would have been absolutely impossible to do a farewell gig or a farewell show - it was not workable. We did it until it was completely impossible. And it wasn’t just because of the money - the money was obviously a problem, but there was... I dunno, there was loads of stuff. Obviously there was tension within the band - you know, it’d been really hard for the last ten years to just rattle around in a van with two other boys with no money, so obviously we nearly killed each other... but that happens to all good bands, you know? The bottom line is that we did it until we couldn’t possibly do it anymore.
It remains one of the great scandals in a way that Reuben never broke through - everyone thought you would, everyone thought you deserved to, but you seemed to end up being one of the great casualties of rock music in the music industry over the last decade. It really felt like there was no rhyme or reason to it, and in a way the people who did end up breaking through were simply the last acts standing at the end of it all: Biffy Clyro and Frank Turner. Did you feel hard done by in any way?
Right, but the thing you have to understand about Biffy Clyro and Frank Turner: Frank Turner has got Frank Turner as a lead single, and Biffy Clyro have got Simon Neill as a lead singer, both of whom are handsome fellows... whereas I look like a bag of spanners! And the music that we were making sounded like Botch mixed up in a bag with Weezer, you know what I mean? We weren’t playing marketable music, and we didn’t have a marketable image - I’m never going to be on a poster in Just Sixteen, which I think Simon and Frank have, you know? [Laughs] Plus, the music we were playing - if you look at what happened to Biffy and Million Dead, they were of-a-piece with Reuben, weren’t they: they were playing aggressive, angular, heavy metal, right? Not, like, Maiden metal - angular post-hardcore. And both of them - Frank and Biffy, for whatever reasons - smoothed that sound out to enormous success. Plus, as I’ve said, they’re easier on the eye than myself - so when you look at those reasons, it’s no wonder at all. You know, an ugly metal band - how’s that going to get into the Top 40?! I don’t blame anyone for that, and that’s fine. It just wasn’t commercial.
Well, you say that, but certainly to me, Very Fast, Very Dangerous is a fairly poppy album in places..
No, I’d agree with that, yeah.
But there was always a certain gallows humour to a lot of what you did - calling the compilation album We Should’ve Gone to University immediately springs to mind. Did you regret any aspect of it - did you feel like there were decisions you could’ve made differently, or were you happy with the artistic choices you made?
Well... in terms of artistic choices, there’s loads of stuff where I feel like, “Oh, I could’ve done that differently” in terms of, oh, I should’ve put an extra verse on that song or should we have used another liner style... But in the whole, I like all of it - and I have to say, I’m very pleased with what Reuben achieved. You know, in my mind, when I was a kid - and even now, when I think about it - there was a Plan A, and there was a Plan B. Plan A was obviously to become the biggest rock band in the entire universe and have a mansion and a diamond plectrum or whatever - to live off music and be a fantastic rich rock star. That was Plan A, right? Plan B was always to be one of those bands that release three underground albums that were really important to a lot of people, they inspire other music, and are recognised by their peers and the rock community as being innovators - or at least, honest musicians. That was always Plan B - and you know what? Dude, I can’t be annoyed with Plan B.
What Reuben ended up being was like all the bands that meant the most to me - like Far, like Failure, like... all those other bands, I can’t think of any that aren’t huge! The bands that I love the most - Barkmarket, things like that - they’re bands like Reuben who maybe didn’t make it to mainstream, but they stopped before they went crap and they’ve got a really short catalogue of really good records. To me, that’s a huge success. I don’t know what Plan C was - there wasn’t even a Plan C! But I feel really good about Reuben.
Maybe you’ll end up becoming a bit like Kerbdog - after being one of those bands who were touted for big things but never broke through, it’s only ten to fifteen years down the line when they really get their due and start being recognised as a really influential band. Are you happy with that as a legacy?
I’m over the moon with that - I mean, Kerbdog is a great example of one of those bands that I’m on about: a very small catalogue, but all good stuff. And while your Mr or Mrs on the high street won’t have heard of them, people like me - kids like me when I was 15 and into rock - they were the world to me, and I still listen to those records today. And if Reuben can be mentioned even in the same sentence as Kerbdog - that is a huge success to my mind, so I’m overjoyed with that kind of status.
[n.b. Since this interview, Lenman has fulfilled one of his own life’s ambitions by supporting Kerbdog at a live gig.]
After Reuben broke up, you seemed to go into a kind of self-imposed exile whereby you avoided music completely, and were absolutely resolute in that. Why was that - was it bitterness there towards the industry, were you exhausted by the whole thing, or did you just put the armour on to shield yourself emotionally?
Well, I have to say, this is one of the rumours that sprung up which has always half-amused me and half-annoyed me! There is this sort of theory that I went into ‘exile’ [laughs], but I didn’t at all - you know, I did some recordings with other people, I did a song with Sean and that went onto the internet and people listened to that; in fact, I did a Kerbdog cover... you know, I even played a show at one of my wife’s cabaret projects, so I didn’t divorce myself from music at all - I just didn’t promote it excessively in the public eye because I had no vehicle; I had no record coming out or anything. It is true that I did sort of... okay, maybe there was a year after the band finished where I didn’t do any music, but I was burnt out. After that, I started getting back into it.
I think what confuses people about this is that at the same time that Reuben finished and I quit music - although I’ve just said that I didn’t quit music! - is the same time that Facebook and Twitter became huge, and I’ve always hated all forms of social media; I despised and distrusted Myspace when it came along, and I feel the same with new social media. And now everyone, even people who’ve never done anything - just Tony who works in the Chip Shop - he’s got a Facebook page that makes himself sound like he’s in a rock band, right?! Everyone on the planet now promotes themselves as some kind of celebrity, which is just ludicrous - and because I didn’t do that, you couldn’t find me on any of these horrible sites, people thought I must have become a monk. But I just have never been interested in all that bullshit - and even now, the accounts that I have on these awful websites are official only; I don’t have any contact with them, I have a friend who takes care of them for me. You know, they’re a necessary evil. But I think those things went together - it’s mostly that I wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter all the time going “LOOK AT ME!” that people thought I’d retired, but I hadn’t. Like I say, I was still dabbling with music for fun, and obviously I concentrated on my job as an illustrator. But it’s funny, that - people say, “You went into a convent for five years and learned how to raise lentils!” ...No, I’m still here!
It’s interesting though that, as someone who was in an underground band and is still an underground artist, you say you want nothing to do with social media - when that’s how most leftfield acts help sustain themselves these days.
Well, I can’t really say I want nothing to do with it and then have my own Facebook and Twitter profile - I wish that they weren’t the way that information gets across, as I prefer the days when we used to send out literally thousands of hand-mailed letters to people. But that’s just not how to do it these days - you have to strike a compromise between how involved with this sort of stuff you want to get if you dislike it and how many people you want to reach. And I do want to reach people with this album I’ve just released, so I’ve had to get involved with it - but I can’t stand on the high ground and say “It’s all crap, you’re all dickheads”, because I’m on it; you type me in and I’m there, so I can’t really separate myself that much. In that regard, it is a good tool to use - but still, you know, you won’t find me posting pictures of my breakfast. “Let me tell you I had some fucking good breakfast so it isn’t lost to the world!”
Mind you, having said that, there was a section on the Reuben DVD where you gave us all an in-depth analysis of your cereal cupboard, I seem to recall...
- I’ve already done it! See, I’ve already done it...
I came to see you in
on the last tour, and you seemed genuinely surprised
that so many people had turned out. Given what you’ve said about Reuben being a
cult band - and there was a real love out there for them, together with
you as a frontman - why was that? Birmingham
Well, because it’s not Reuben, is it - Reuben is a different thing from... first of all, it’s a different thing from me as a person, and secondly it’s a different thing from Jamie Lenman the solo act - which isn’t quite the same thing as me as a person... Again, it’s a product. You know? It has to be - it’s got a logo. Who’s got a logo?! Frank’s got a logo of his name, and I’ve got a logo of my name - but that’s weird; even doing that’s weird, isn’t it?! So that’s why - because number one, you can’t guarantee that all the people writing on the internet about that old band actually translates into ticket sales, and number two, you can’t guarantee that the people who liked that old band will automatically like my new stuff. And what I was pleased about is that I don’t think anyone came along expecting to hear all the old Reuben stuff - and of course, I did play some Reuben songs because they’re still my songs. So that was heartening - I was afraid that if people did turn up because of Reuben they might be expecting some kind of nostalgia rubbish, but it’s only been, what, five years, right?
But I was surprised, yeah - I can never tell, but surprised as well as... the word ‘humbled’ is overused, especially by disingenuous Americans, but I was humbled. And really grateful: really happy, and that was the best thing about doing that tour. I find live performance quite difficult, and to see the people - ‘the people’! - to see the audience, and afterwards to say hello to everyone and to sign everyone’s CDs or whatever, that was the best thing about it. Yeah, I was surprised - there’s no guarantee, is there? It could have been a shit album, or they could have just not got it, but thankfully I think the people into that old band - who at least at that point were my audience for this tour - have been well-versed enough in bizarre music to catch hold of the record I’ve just put out.
We’ve got mutual friends. Now, psychologically - I don’t know if you’ll agree with this! - but it’s been suggested to me that you’re a bit bloody-minded by nature, and have always gone out of your way to do the more difficult thing when it would be easier to put out, say, Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin as the first single instead of something like Blood, Bunny, Larkhall. Your live set was very cleverly-structured, interspersing five or six of the older tracks throughout - given that analysis of your character though, was there ever a doubt that you were going to go out and play Reuben songs, or did you initially think you wanted a completely clean break?
No, not at all; not at all. That was a question I got a lot at the start of this whole campaign and I’m glad it’s disappeared now - I’m not saying it’s a bad question, but a lot of people did assume that I wanted a clean break to draw a line under Reuben and say: “No, this is a different thing”, whereas what I wanted was the opposite, really. I don’t see the music that I’m making now as very different at all to the music I was making in Reuben. Everyone who liked that band was aware that I wrote it all - they were my songs, although Jon and Guy contributed their own flavour to things - they were very similar, so at no point would I seek to distance myself from Reuben or not play those songs in my set. I regard Muscle Memory as my fourth album, you know - I did three with Reuben, and I’ve done this one on my own - so they’re going to turn up in my set. When you go and see a show to promote a new record, most of the show will be that new record, that’s what people are excited to hear - but god, you’ve gotta play the classics; I love those songs, and I love playing them.
I don’t know whether I would say I was bloody-minded - the example that you pull out of putting out Blood, Bunny first and Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin second, to see that as bloody-minded takes two things for granted. Number one, it takes for granted that I wanted big chart success - when in fact what was wanted was to scare everyone with the first single, right?! So that is the wrong thing to do if you want to get into the charts, but if you want to show everyone how horrible your new record is, you put out Blood, Bunny first. And secondly, it assumes that we thought Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin had the chance of chart success, which I don’t think we did by that point - we put it out because it was a nice song. So it all depends on what you want to achieve, you know - I certainly don’t do anything to be difficult, but often the thing that I want to do happens to be the difficult thing. And people would say that all the time, especially with things like single choices - they’d say “Why don’t you put out the commercial one”... But ‘the commercial one’? No-one knows what’s gonna be a hit. Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody, right? [Laughs] It’s seven minutes long, and there’s an opera section! Who the fuck knew that would be number one, you know? One of two number ones - and the same when they did it ten years later with Innuendo; again, it’s seven minutes long, it’s half heavy-metal and half flamenco instrumental. It’s absolutely nuts; you can never tell what’s gonna be commercial.
Maybe you should have put out Return of the Jedi and it would’ve been your breakthrough hit...
Well, exactly! It would have had exactly the same chance, wouldn’t it - and the singles I’ve chosen these times, you’ve just got to abandon... I think we were still trying to do it on the first Reuben record, but after that... no, I tell a lie, we did expect those singles off Very Fast, Very Dangerous to be commercial successes, but after that we were proven solidly wrong! [Laughs] We just put out the songs that we liked the best, and these singles I’ve put out this time - you know, half jazz-metal, half-whatever... there’s nothing to say they wouldn’t get to number one! I strongly believe, logistically and practically, that has no less chance of getting to number one that the latest hit by, fuckin’... Adele or whatever, d’you know what I mean? You can never tell what the public is going to get into, so I just don’t think about it anymore.
It struck me that the older songs in the set seemed specifically picked for their lyrical content, and what that maybe said about how you arrived at this point (and indeed your own attitude now) - tracks like No One Wins the War, Good Luck and the like. Was that the case, or am I over-reaching it?
No, you really are over-reaching it there! [Laughs] But no, why not! I have to tell you, in all honesty, not “nothing could be further from the truth”, but I did not consider it. I chose those songs because I think I did someone a Venn Diagram at one point: if you say one circle are songs I have a good idea people want to hear, and the other circle is songs I want to play, then where they intersect is where I chose the songs. And they were handy because the Reuben songs could often be soft and quiet within one track, whereas on this new album I’ve got heavy and quiet on individual tracks, so those tracks, putting them where they went, were useful to segue between the two. But I wasn’t trying to send anyone secret messages - I’m too honest for that, I say exactly what I mean... and not in the way that people on Big Brother use it as an excuse for insulting people; I hate that! They do that on the telly when they go “I just say what I mean!”, and what they mean is: “I insult everyone”. [Laughs] Whereas I say what I mean - luckily, I don’t think; I’ve insulted too many people and I would certainly think twice about insulting someone publicly! But what I’m trying to say is that if I had any message to give people, I wouldn’t do it through obscure song choices. Although that could be fun - unless you were saying obviously that what I was doing with the songs was inciting race-war, in which case we’re in quite the trouble...!
So, onto the new album - I feel like the first half of the record speaks for itself in the sense that it gets in there, gets the job done; it melts your face. It’s tremendous.
But you cover so much ground on the second disc that it’s possibly more instructive to look at individual tracks and see how they came about. So, first of all is my favourite song on there - Shotgun House. Do I detect a bit of a
Dixie jazz influence there...?
Well, Shotgun House is my most overt... not parody, not homage - cribbing, really, if you like! - of the work of a gentleman called C.W. Stoneking, who himself is recycling or reviving, depending on how favourably you look upon his work, the songs of the early twentieth-century American blues artists. So, what I mean by that is there’s this great Australian fella, and if he’s to be believed, he’s spent a great amount of time in
, and he’s just soaked up those delta blues and
pre-war jazz influences, and he then regurgitates them in his own songs, which
are just tremendous. And I spent a long time listening to him - not so much for
the original artists themselves, it was him: he had such a magnitude,
and it was him who got me strumming a banjo. And I think that song Shotgun
House, which I’m pleased that you singled out as I’m quite pleased with it
- that’s the closest I came to assimilating that sort of early
twentieth-century jazz. If by that you mean Dixieland, I have to admit that I’m
not schooled enough to know whether Dixieland is accurate, but it sort of rings
a bell, so I’ll go with that and I’ll say Dixieland. I think Dixieland is a bit
more up-tempo - I think what we’re talking about there is... it’s more delta blues
isn’t it, Shotgun House, but again I’m no expert, I’m afraid. New Orleans
The reason I mentioned that was because when you played it live you got the whole band involved and it took on that kind of a ‘Swinging 20s’ lilt.
Okay, thankyou - we’ve got a new arrangement planned for the next tour, so I think that’s going to be even more interesting!
That leads into the next one, Pretty Please, which I think is an astounding piece of writing. You’re touring with the brass now - is that a long-harboured ambition of yours?
Well, it is, but I didn’t realise that until it was suggested! You know, I always sort of thought vaguely that it’d be nice to tour with a swing band, but I’ve only got one swing track so it’d be a short set! Plus, you know, a twenty-piece swing band is expensive and it’d be hard to sell the tickets for whatever they’d cost - forty-five quid a pop. And when the label asked if I wanna do some more dates and I said I don’t really want to repeat the show that I just toured like the show you saw in Birmingham, they suggested getting a swing band in - and after we’d dismissed the idea of actually hiring a twenty-piece swing band, I said: “Well, what about just a small brass section to pad it out?” And that was very exciting - I thought, “Ah great, that would be a way to do it”, that would be a way round it to bring those jazzier moments to life in a live environment, so I am looking forward to it.
I suppose it’s all good as long as you don’t turn into Robbie Williams - that would be the ultimate nightmare...
Yeah - well, I don’t know, Robbie Williams did it badly though, didn’t he? [Laughs] He did it badly, it was awful when he did it! When you say “turn into Robbie Williams”, there’s no reason that I wouldn’t do a whole album of swing tunes, but I’m not sure about an album of swing covers - I think that would be a mistake. One day, I will write twelve swing numbers - it might take me another twenty years, but I’d like to do it.
Another song I really love on there is A Day In the Life - you’ve talked about the evolution of Shotgun House, but what sort of influences went into this one? It seems to have a distinctive chain-gang flavour to it which really complements the subject matter...
Yes. Well, A Day In the Life is a bit complex, because what we ended up with... on that record you’re talking about Dixieland and jazz and it’s American music, really, isn’t it - even though I feel very English and look very English, it’s funny that that record came out so American. And that one blob of Englishness is that Day In the Life song - I did mention in an interview with someone else that if you research in any depth American music, specifically American music of the early twentieth century and then back into the nineteenth century, you end up looking at the slave songs, and field songs. I was reading the life of a former slave and got quite involved in those stories and some of those old songs, and I thought I’d sort of like to sing one - but then I thought it might not be appropriate because it’s not really my heritage. And so I looked for an example that maybe was more to do with my heritage - the obvious examples are the work songs of the fishermen and the tin-miners in seaside towns and port towns and tin towns. And coincidentally, over the last few years as I got afraid of flying, I’ve spent all my holiday time in various ports in the
- and usually if you go there, on any given night in
one of these towns you will end up in a pub with about thirty old fishermen
singing these amazing songs. And that’s what I did - I was regularly to be
found in these old pubs, singing along... UK ’s a very famous one, all these great regional
variations, and I thought: wouldn’t it be great to sing one of these?
This is slightly closer to where I’m from. South Australia
But still, you know, I’ve never mined tin and I’ve never trawled for cod, so to sing one of these songs, just as to sing about how I’ve been working all day in the cotton fields would be wrong, it would be wrong for me to sing about how I’ve had a hard day at sea - because I haven’t. So the answer was to write my own sort of homage or version of one with details of my own life, so that’s how that came about - I wanted to put an a cappella work song in there because I love them so much, but again, I would’ve felt a fraud singing ’em.
One of the songs which really jumped out at me when I first heard the album was a track that a lot of people don’t seem to have picked up on, which is Saturday Night. I’m assuming that’s autobiographical?
[Chuckles] Yeah. Yeah, it was, yeah.
Was that a particularly tough song to write and put out, given that it addresses a subject so close to home?
No, it was the opposite, actually - when my Dad did die, which happened five years ago now, I almost thought: “I hope I don’t end up writing a song about this!”, because they were huge emotions, and what happens if everyone else is thinking: “I wonder when Jimbo’s gonna turn this into a song”... which at the time, I thought would be crass. And the only example I can compare it to is Simon, actually: Simon’s lovely song about his mother on Biffy’s Puzzle record, which just reduced me to absolute tears - whenever I heard it, actually - I think that’s a wonderful song. So it can turn out beautiful. But it’s such a big thing and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, so I just tried not to think about it - plus, I wasn’t writing a lot at that time. Then right at the end of the album - so we were already underway recording the album - it just sort of spilled out, and four or five years after the fact, this song came out that just expressed everything I felt about it, and it was really simple. And in the same way that it sounds funny that a lot of my fondest memories of my Dad are in the last stages of his illness - a lot of people find that, oddly enough - this song that confronts his death so obliquely and so head on, you know, that I do enjoy singing it because it’s... this is going to sound like another cliché, but it makes me feel close to him. So in many ways, it’s a happy song - but I don’t think I’ll sing it again because it’s probably been said; the version that ended up on the album was the only take that we did. I think that crystallised it pretty well, and it’s fine where it is.
It’s interesting you should describe it just tumbling out, because it does sound more like a ‘thought’ than a song in many ways - it doesn’t have a definite structure of any kind; it just kind of wanders in quietly and sits really beautifully towards the end of the album.
Well, thankyou for saying so.
I’ve always taken the view that the best songwriting is those where what’s going on in the music mirrors, reflects or parallels what’s taking place in the lyrics. To that end, I Ain’t Your Boy may just be the best song you’ve ever written. That’s the one that choked me up when I first heard - it seemed to just really nail that sense of dislocation you’re describing. Was it particularly cathartic?
Well, that’s very kind of you to say! That song was cathartic - I’d never used music for catharsis before and it’d never really happened, but I’d gone through a very low period and again it was almost like a burp; that sounds unromantic, but it all just sort of bubbled up and came out, and there it was. And it’s only when something’s out that you can really see it, and so I ended up writing those words and those big, sad chords. And it’s almost like trapping it in a bottle - somehow all the sad feelings, once I could see them and once I had trapped them in that song like you would trap an evil genie in a bottle, I did sort of feel loads better about it. Yeah. God, it was bizarre, because I’m not really that kind of person - and I never have before used music to cure me of feelings; even the song we said about my Pa, I’d already dealt with that by the time the song was out and I wrote the song more as a reflection - it didn’t make me feel better about him dying. But writing that song, I Ain’t Your Boy, overnight it did make feel better about myself - I’m glad you can hear that in there, and I do regard it as the best that I’ve written, not only for what it meant to me emotionally but because I’m quite proud of the structure and the chords, and I just think it hangs together very well. So thanks for picking it out - that’s very nice of you to say.
I once heard Reuben quite memorably described in a web article as “a band who always liked a good whinge”. The main subject matter of the band - and still to this day on your own album, to a certain degree - always seemed to focus on ‘being in a band’ or ‘being an artist’, and the various trials and tribulations involved. Do you feel more comfortable nowadays in the position you’re in, just doing your own thing?
Well first of all, can I begin to answer that by refuting the idea that we were a whingey band! Because I have heard that, and I don’t think that’s strictly fair. There were songs like Return of the Jedi and Suffocation of the Soul - and Freddy Kreuger as well, I don’t know if many people realised that - that dealt with how tough it is being in a band, but that’s three songs in, like, three albums (or four albums’ worth if you include all the rarities and stuff). So really, it’s not that whingey! But they do stick in people’s minds - and I’m glad that they stick in people’s minds, because we are actually saying it and still, people don’t actually say it: like, it is fucking hard being in a band, and specifically in the period when we were in that band when the music industry was turning inside-out, and support for small artists was disappearing like the fucking polar ice caps, it was even harder than usual to be in a band. Plus, as I’ve said, we chose to be in an angry, angular band that didn’t have a hope in hell. So I’d say that on the whole, not only were we not a whiney band - but if we were whiney, it’s just ’cos we were being honest! [Laughs]
These days, am I more comfortable? I have to say, yes I am. I didn’t expect the campaign for this record to become quite as extensive as it’s become - I thought I’d put the record out, play a couple of shows and it’d go away again. But I am comfortable, yeah, because I’m not a musician anymore - when I was in Reuben that was all I did, and again that’s why some of the songs are like: “It’s tough being in a band and going to a show”, because that’s all I did, that was my whole life. And you’ve got to write about your life, you can’t write allegories about a Hobbit or whatever - that’s what got punk started in the seventies! My point being that that was all I knew, so that was all I wrote about. Whereas now, all I know about is drawing the illustrations for children’s history books, designing cool infographics for various websites and doing animations and what have you - so I am more comfortable, yeah; I’m no longer really a full-time musician, so this is something that I can just keep at a bit of a distance.
You hint in the album liner notes that may you end up doing another one - do you think that’ll be the case, or will it just be something that happens if it happens?
Well, it’s always if it happens, it happens. I’m always saying - in fact, they might put it on my fucking tombstone, if I get a burial! - that there’s no plans. And there are no plans. It’s funny - it depends on which day I wake up. Sometimes I wake up and think: “Oh , I can’t wait to get into the studio with these new songs and put ’em out”, and I get all excited about what my next video’s gonna look like, and other days I wake up and think: “I’m gonna sell these guitars, and I’m gonna move to Bromley”. You know? Not that that’s anything against Bromley - it’s nice! So, I can’t tell. If you are asking me, ‘Will you do another record?’, the realistic answer, the truthful answer is today, like, “Probably”. But not for a while - I’ll probably get round to it, because when I finished the band I thought: “I’m never gonna make another record”, and eventually I did. So at the moment, like I say, sometimes I feel like I will and sometimes I feel like I won’t, but probably I will get round to it at some point. But there’s no plans - there’s no, like: “Right, 2015, here’s what we’ll do, we’ll hit ’em hard with a single! Then we put out the poppy one! Head out on tour!” There’s none of that because I’m not a growing concern - I’m not an act, I’m just a person.
Last one, then: I suspect we’ve already covered one of the answers already, but what are your Top 5 favourite songs that you’ve written, or what are the five that you’d most like to be remembered for?
Oh! Well, that’s a kind question to ask. Well yes, we have - we’ve talked about I Ain’t Your Boy, I’m very proud of that one... The other one that really vies in my mind for the most accomplished thing I’ve written is A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is on the last Reuben record - I really, really like that song. So those are my two absolute favourites.
In terms of the other songs I’d really like to be remembered for... it gets tougher to choose, ’cos all of them do bits and bobs... I suppose Pretty Please, I still regard that as an achievement because it came out sounding so good, so I’ll put that on the list. Aaaaand... [laughs] I can’t remember! Cities On Fire...? When I wrote Cities On Fire, which went on the last Reuben record, I was very pleased with that one; I really liked that one. And... errrr... the other... No-One Wins the War. I like that, that’s a good one!
All good shouts. Another one I would’ve perhaps thrown in there was Nobody Loves You, which up until I Ain’t Your Boy was the one I always held up as the high watermark of your songwriting.
- Really?! What an interesting choice! Some people hate that song...!
That’s odd, because when I saw Reuben on your final tour, you played that and it seemed to go over really well. It’s perhaps the same with Cities On Fire though, which I also really rate - it’s all completely subjective, and could change on any given day,
Well of course, and it’s interesting that you asked. Yeah, the thing with Nobody Loves You was that when I went to The Rock Box in Camden - this is my local record store and it means a lot to a kid if you end up with an LP in a record store - when our second album came out, John (who’s always worked there since I was a kid and used to give me cool deals on stuff) was like, “I don’t like that one with the strings on it...!” And I was like, “What...?!” I still had pretensions of chart success and I was convinced that was gonna be our big ballad, and he said: “No, that’s boring”. And in fact, someone else had written a review and they were like: “Oh! I really like this third Reuben album, which is weird because when I first heard them it was Nobody Loves You and I hadn’t heard a duller, more rubbish song ever”! But they’re all valid though, aren’t they, and it’s great - this other fella saying it’s the dullest thing ever, they’re both true. I haven’t had so much faith in that one, so thanks for redressing the balance - I feel better about that now!
Just before you go, I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but I was DJ-ing at our mutual friends’ birthday party last year and accidentally put on a Reuben record... at the exact moment you happened to walk into the room. Now, I didn’t know you were going to be there, and felt like such a tool afterwards...
Did you not? What was it...?!
Well, it was Blamethrower, which I regularly chuck in there when I’m DJ-ing...
D’you know what, that happens to me more than you might expect - I went to the Kerrang! Christmas Party, their office party last year and they put Christmas is Awesome on the decks! And I thought it was some kind of set-up, but they had no idea who the fuck I was; no-one knew I was there! [Laughs] So don’t worry too much, it happens more than you might think. But at the same time, thanks a lot - I probably get a bit of PRS out of that!
I have to say, you were an gent about it when I bumped into you briefly afterwards - it really could have gone either way though. You get the impression that had Billy Corgan walked into a room and heard a Smashing Pumpkins record featuring anyone but him on it, things might have turned out very differently...
Oh, dear! Yes, that’s a big problem, isn’t it? No, I think Blamethrower’s great - put that on the Top 5 as well. Banger!
Oh, dear! Yes, that’s a big problem, isn’t it? No, I think Blamethrower’s great - put that on the Top 5 as well. Banger!
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