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Interview: Jamie Lidell

9th October 2008

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Jamie Lidell, the bespectacled, soul-belting, noise-sampling connoisseur, has travelled back and forth across the world while blowing into coconuts to bring you his funky third studio album, Jim.

Jamie LidellSelf-taught with a little help from the “dodgy guy around town,” Lidell honed his talents across East Anglia before jetting off to chilly Berlin. He’s about to tour with a full band for the first time, and some new lamé outfits no doubt, but where did Britain’s brightest harmonious kid start out? In an ice-rink with The Prodigy, obviously. “It was my first big gig,” he says. “So that was a major learning experience for me.”

Lidell met a guy in Brampton, when he was still playing rave tracks, who he says - in his best cockney accent - pinned him down with an “Oi mate, you got a sampler? We’re gonna make tracks ok?” and the rest is glittering history. “He showed me the ropes - how to sample, get some breaks in, and he put me on his stage. He was running a dodgy party and The Prodigy were playing.”

Only 16 years-old at the time, Lidell had managed to combine his first rave with playing one. “I hadn’t been to a rave so I was like ‘Why is everyone so into this music? Ecstasy? Ah. You mean people will dance to any old crap?’” Clearly happy to joke about himself, Lidell constantly drops odd phrases into the conversation and references a superfluous schizophrenia. But beneath the laughter and mischievous eyes is a man that takes his music extremely seriously. “I just want what’s best for the music and I try to stay focused on that as a priority.”

But back in the day music was still a hobby for Lidell. He didn’t have a band, he didn’t play gigs, and he didn’t have that much motivation. “I just had a laugh playing my guitar with my mates. Some of them wanted to sing and I’d do a beat for them, you know? I was really into it as a relaxing hobby, something I could get my head into when everything else was s**t.” 

It was only when he sent a tape to his friend, who proceeded to play it to an A&R guy in London that Lidell began falling into the techno scene and embarked on his journey to Jim. He fled to Brighton to work with Christian Vogel on their rave project, Super Collider, before tiring of the “bunch of lay about punks” that inhabit the south sea and landed in Berlin to be with his girlfriend and work with Mocky (Peaches, Feist). Together, they started taking a more melodic route compared to Lidell’s electronic past. “I’m one of those guys who just falls into a crew. Here in Berlin my crew is Mocky and a bunch of musicians. The best way I can integrate myself and expand and grow with those people is to make more musical orientated stuff rather than electronic stuff because I feel like I’d be isolated if I did that.”

Despite Germany’s experimental vibe, with such luminaries as Kraftwerk and Can, Lidell ended up producing some of his most soulful music there. But now he’s bored again and is on the cusp of moving to Paris. “I’m a little bit sick of Berlin. It’s had too much activity and I think it’s past its prime for me.” Plus, he also favours the more traditional studios of Paris compared to the cold Berlin ones. He just doesn’t want to fall into the trap of making cheesy pop music.

“The French have awful Chanson [corny French ballads] that’s just fucking terrible and they insist on filling the radio with it. It’s like their national pride. I’ll probably fall in with some of the electronic players and try to make some kind of hybrid funk.” But it’s hard to imagine how more hybrid he can go, when he’s already mixed a variety of disco-funk noise into Jim and glazed it with exploding harmonies that James Brown would be proud of.

Three songs recorded in Paris, tracked in LA and polished off in Berlin; Jim took over three different countries to match Lidell’s spontaneous personality, and of course his pernickety approach to production. “I don’t have a great studio here [Berlin]. I have a nice post-production space and a pre-production space. And while doing the tour in 2006 with Beck, I met Justin Stanley, who I got along with really great and he always said that I was welcome to go to his studio and have a play. So I did that once and I loved it. It’s a really small, approachable place in LA. It’s like a home studio - nicely equipped with a good sound. It really beats Berlin in terms of the sheer amount of Vitamin C in the air, or Vitamin D or whatever you get. The vitamin-enriched mind-state from being in an organic LA setting - I needed that to infuse these songs I’d been writing with Mocky.”

And it wasn’t just countries that were in abundance with Jim. Lidell and Mocky produced it, but Stanley played executive producer because according to Lidell, when you work on something as a co-producer, you have a financial investment to make it work, and this enforces a trust between you.

“It’s the slightly darker side of record production,” he states earnestly. “The fact that people are getting something out of it financially, it’s a very practical thing. I’ve had to learn that over the last few years as things have become more successful, but you have to look out for the balance between business and friendship.”

Lidell is known someway for his fondness of elaborate costumes and glittering props. So it’s unsurprising that he also likes to play with some weird and wonderful instruments. He has incorporated sounds in some strange ways with Jim; a talk-box, a Moroccan coconut flute and an auto-harp all take pride of place on the record.

“Don’t know if you know the auto-harp?” He drops in. “It’s a kind of guitar that has all the chords on it and you just press them down and strum, and it’s got about 20 strings on it. Anyway, there’s a digital version of that, which is a fun instrument.”

And for album track ‘Rope of Sand’ he ended up running around the studio with a speaker under each arm. “You get the sense of the sound actually in the air - moving around as if it was a little preacher flying by. It seemed to set the ambience for that song nicely, emulating something outside. There was a bit of scene setting in the studio for a while. I love that shit. I really like the idea of sourcing sounds from interesting places.”

One of the most interesting is the coconut flute. “It’s basically a really cheap instrument,” he enthuses. “It’s just a wood pipe shoved into a coconut and then the coconut acts as a kind of sound bell and amplifies tone and then you blow into it with this crude reed. It’s a really cool way of sounding like a saxophone without having the might of the saxophone, like a little kid’s sound. It’s basically a duck lost in the undergrowth.”

The success that Lidell has encountered is partly due to his refusal to make anything seem dull. From his outfits to his instruments to his explanations - there’s not an inch of his career that he hasn’t donned-up with excitement. Even the reason for album title Jim is so intriguing that you need a minute to mull it over. “I am Jim. Jim is a part of me.” He declares quite matter-of-factly.
“I didn’t want to call it Jamie Lidell. I can’t really justify calling it that because it’s not all of me, it’s just a very selective part of my schizophrenic outpouring.” If you’re still following, Jim is the nicer side of Lidell.

“People do call me Jim, and they seem happy to call me that. I’ve never heard anyone say ‘Jim you owe me money’. It’s always ‘Jim, hey. How’s it going Jim? Do you wanna hang out?’ So Jim is the nice me.” And although it has a confusing concept, Jim is more focused than Lidell’s previous album Multiply. Perhaps it’s because of the Californian vitamins, or the numerous collaborations (Gonzales, Peaches, Alex Acuña), or even the greater range of tones.

“It’s just a much more focused production in general,” says Lidell. “Basically I’ve taken everything I’ve learnt with Multiply and tried to learn from all the lessons I’ve gleaned. I held back in terms of the electronics."

There are not as many synthesizers. I held back the urge to add a lot of synthetic elements to it because I felt it wasn’t really helping the songs, but it does take a little constraint because obviously that’s the kind of background I’m coming from, I’m an electronic artist essentially.” You could say that Multiply is one side of Lidell’s quirky personality and Jim is another. Or “one foot in the dandy,” as he likes to call it. “Jim is definitely on the dandious occasion of music. It’s half way there isn’t it, Multiply? If you took a song like ‘Multiply’, or ‘What’s the Use?’, or ‘What is it This Time?’ they could fit on the album Jim. There’re a few strong deviations, stylistically. There’re a few things that could fit and a few things that couldn’t, which is why I said it’s one foot into the world of Jim. Jim is a dandy, so it’s one foot into the world of dandy.”

As for the live shows, they will be stepping up a level with four more members and absolutely no cut corners. “It’ll be lights, camera, action from Pablo Fiasco,” booms Lidell.

“There’ll be bass and drums, guitar and bass, keyboards and vocals and a guy who plays two saxophones at the same time. And me of course, with various vocal acrobatics and electronic instruments and samplers and shenanigans that were going on in my solo shows, beautifully woven into the mix with the traditional band format.” He announces all this with the smoothness of a door-to-door salesman or a circus ring master. He speaks with confidence, never faltering or thinking too long about what he’s saying. But what we really want to know, is what he’s going to be dressing up as. “Oooh there’ll be a bit of dress up I’m sure. I can’t help but to wear something a little bit elaborate,” he coos, poised as ever and refusing to give anything away. There’s no alternative but to catch him on his upcoming month-long glam-fest.

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