Since we premiered The Irrepressibles’ video for ‘New World’ back in August, we’ve been getting increasingly excited about its parent album, Nude. The record finally arrives in shops – both ‘physi’ and ‘digi’ – this week and, oddly, its release has been preceded by very little fanfare or acknowledgement, which – to be brutally frank – is shocking. We’re talking about an album of such beauty, subtlety and lavish arrangements that the thought of it coming and going unnoticed is truly sad-making. Doron Davidson-Vidavski caught up with Jamie McDermott, the wind beneath The Irrepressibles’ wings, to chat about the inspiration behind and the challenges of being a musical embodiment of the maxim: we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.
PlanetNotion: For the uninitiated, how did The Irrepresibles start its way as an ensemble?
Jamie McDermott: We started in 2002. Coming from making rock music, I wanted to subvert this and create a new sound without drums or electric guitar and start working with stringed instruments and instruments connected to the voice. I was a working class boy at university and I was introduced to reading about art, fashion and popular culture. I became fascinated by the work of Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood with the Sex Pistols, The KLF, Andy Warhol with Velvet Underground, the dadaists, the fluxus movement and Kenneth Anger. I was like a child in a sweet shop. I wanted to create a new kind of pop music at a time when everything was becoming this manufactured light entertainment music that we have in full throttle today. So I started to team up with other creatives – fashion designers, film-makers and makeup and hair artists, choreographing the band’s movements and creating these spectacles of performance inside installations and lighting designs. Eventually, I was commissioned to create performances for Latitude Festival, the V&A and the South Bank. Then I got a record deal and what was an arts project also became a pop band.
PN: When the first EP ‘From The Circus… To The Sea’ and, subsequently, ‘Mirror Mirror’ came out, many were quick to pigeon-hole you into the Antony & The Johnsons cranny. How did you feel about that?
JM: Two gay men singing in a high register! We both sound very different. The music we create is very different. But the music says that. It’s just lazy journalism. He does make great music, though! My deepest respect to beautiful Anthony.
PN: Roy Raz’s PAG video for ‘In This Shirt‘ was made without your prior knowledge but has had an incredible response all over the world. What did you and the band make of it?
JM: My heart was in my mouth! It was everything I could have hoped for the song. I always wanted to make a homosexual video for the track, which was an important point in my life – the end of the most important gay relationship of my life, but the label wouldn’t support me making a gay music video. Then Roy just did it. I discovered it on the internet. It is an incredible piece of work and I am very grateful to him for making it.
PN: Would you consider collaborating with him on more visuals in the future?
JM: Yes. We’ve had a couple of meetings in London and have spoken about some plans.
PN: You recently said that, with Nude, you “wanted to create a very honestly gay record”. When you started work on the album, what themes or experiences did you draw on in order to translate this idea into songs?
JM: I wanted a sound that reflected my gay heroes, to make something that showed the darkness, the deep emotions, the violence and the beauty of homosexuality and make it into a sound. Of course, the album has many other sonic references from my childhood, growing up in the 80′s – early 90′s in the Catholic church. All of this was instinctive, as it always is with my work, and in no way considered. I always create from my emotions and the real stories of my life. I wanted to have a very positive emotional sound for homosexuality – a snap shot of my time growing up.
PN: The album was preceded by the singles ‘Arrow’ and ‘New World’…
JM: Yes. I originally wrote ‘New World’ for a friend, to say: come out and be free. I was 19 years old. I felt impelled to communicate this message to all those who are suffering bullying, with a new arrangement, one that takes the sound of ghosts of gay men’s voices coming across the landscape as a kind of doo-wop quartet. The sub-bass and dark electronics of the 80′s and the sound of a sunrise at the end bring it into the positive future. I really feel that young gay people need other gay men and women to be clear about their sexuality and strong in it, only then will they feel there is true representation of their lives in pop music.
PN: And who is Sebastian in ‘Arrow’?
JM: Arrow is about my boyfriend as a child growing up. It is about the persecution he and I suffered and many gay men do. It is about both of us discovering our sexuality as young men and, through this, becoming affirmed to become strong gay men. It is about finding each other and growing together – “two bodies entwined”. Sebastian is the saint depicted with arrows in his side, who has become a kind of patron saint for gay men. He’s depicted in many images, including works by Pierre et Gilles.
PN: You recently appeard in David Toop’s Star Shaped Biscuit. How did that come about?
JM: I met David Toop through another experimental composer, Steve Beresford, who suggested me to David for his opera. The opera is all improvised with a libretto and a soundscape by David with a group of incredible musicians improvising the music in real time. So we’re all basically improvising the music in the moment. This is very exciting to me as a vocalist and composer. We did some workshops back in 2009 before Mirror Mirror was released and then recently we performed the premier in Snape, the concert hall set up by composer Benjamin Britten, last month. The opera is planned to tour this and next year.
PN: Is the experience of performing in an opera different to singing live on stage at an Irrepressibles show?
JM: Oh, definitely! With my music, I’m completely connected to my story that I’m expressing so I’m very vulnerable but it’s raw and real and easier to do by myself. In the opera I took on a character. So becoming someone else is an interesting experience but something I don’t do as a pop star.
PN: Do you fear that your music is or will be marginalised by the industry because you are not ashamed to promote the so-called ‘gay interest’?
JM: Probably, which is very boring. I mean, heterosexual music isn’t careful about saying the word ‘she’ when it is a ‘he’ or ‘he’ when it is a ‘she’ singing. So why should anyone who is gay be dishonest? It is boring of the music industry to be so conservative when so many other areas of society aren’t and when pop music is meant to be the vanguard of culture. For too many years gay artists have been marginalised when their music has been influential on other more acceptable artists. The same happened with the black community in the 20′s, 30′s, 40′s, 50′s, and 60′s, with white artists taking the credit for their innovations.
PN: How do you transform your written compositions into live performance?
JM: It all begins with the song for me. It is the manifestor of everything. A kind of séance with your past. I compose my songs initially all in one go – voice, lyric, chords and arrangements. I sometimes then further augment this by singing the parts I hear in my head to the orchestral players, sometimes scoring them, or spending time developing my sonic ideas in the studio. Often, I choreograph the band’s movements at the same time as composing the parts so there is a physicality in the sound, to connect it further to the catharsis of each of the individuals. Then with what I call ‘live spectacles’, I bring everything together. I light it with installations, contextualise it with set designs and, in the case of Nude, with film. For me, performance is a responsibility. You have all these people in a room paying to come and see you – to be taken on a journey. I like to try and add further weight and conviction to the meaning of the song, to try communicate the raw depths. Pop, for me, is one of the most artistic forms of music - when it works well it is closest to art – it is form and content in words, sound and performance. This excites me greatly. With The Irrepressibles, it’s my aim to create a world with every concert that expresses the meaning of the music.
PN: One of the best tracks on Nude is ‘Tears’, which moves your sonic direction towards a more poppy/dance feel. What was the inspiration behind it?
JM: ‘Tears’ is all about approaching the surreal pretentiousness of middle-class social etiquette as a working class person and an emotional creature seeing the real emotions at play so clearly. The track is also about being a performer and the depth of the isolation when you are playing out a role for everyone and you must be that role perfectly. I have always been a bit socially inept and felt like I couldn’t belong anywhere, hence why I spent all my time in the music room at school and this song communicates that feeling. It was released in July as part of a double A-side with ‘New World’ and was part of a competition, where other artists could remix the track and let it go on to have another life. If you look on the internet, you’ll find remixes, dances and artwork made by fans.
PN: Which of the songs on ‘Nude’ have you been enjoying doing live the most?
JM: All of them are great to perform live, actually. This is often our barometer, if it doesn’t communicate to the audience, or gets boring, it doesn’t go on the album. We’ll never be a band that just keeps making the same album over and over again. We’ve already done a few performances of the Nude spectacles, including ones in Rome and Portugal, where we were met with an incredible response. The arrangements are also invented for performance. I love performance and being in the room with the audience. It is a mixture of insecurity, shyness, movement, voice and engagement with the audience and my wonderful band. It is a very intense experience for me.
PN: Out of your musical contemporaries, are there any particular acts you would like to write and/or perform with in the future?
JM: Yes. I’ve been working with some electronic artists doing some vocals on some dance tracks to be released this and next year but I can’t mention anything about who, yet.
‘Nude’ by The Irrepressibles is out now on Of Naked Designs Recordings. The band play their Expanding Landscapes Into Nude show at Village Underground on 8 November.
Words: Doron Davidson-Vidavski