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Jamie Lidell

Notion 062 Interview: Jamie Lidell

With an experimental approach and an imitable sound, Jamie Lidell has always been a leftfield musician. After fifteen years in the biz, and with a new album about to drop, is this the time he makes it big? Not likely, says our Online Ed Seb Law, but that’s exactly the reason you should like it.

Here’s the full transcript of Seb’s interview with Jamie – you can read the piece in this month’s issue of Notion Magazine, available at WH Smith, all good independent newsagents, and here.

Seb Law: So you’ve been in your own studio for this record. How much did you enjoy that process?

Jamie Lidell: Well, I thoroughly enjoyed it because it was kind of a celebration of buying my first house with my wife. So here we are in this great house, and it has this amazing bonus of having a perfect studio environment: it’s a nice and quiet street, and the room that holds the studio is that old library room with one of those ladders that goes around. It’s just really a great space with a really interesting shape to the roof; a really pleasant place to be, and the absolute antithesis to your usual studio dungeon.

Just knowing that that was gonna be the studio it made everything in the process so much easier. I set up all the stuff that had been waiting in the wings, literally, in New York in our old apartment. I had all my gear stacked up around the house, and it drove us both insane, just trying to deal with all the clutter. So, it was amazing just how the room dwarfed the equipment. And I bought a 12ft 1980s 56-channel SSL console – for the first time I could accommodate a really large format console. It was the heart of the record-making process.

SL: Would you say that the studio and the console is the biggest influence on the record?

JL: Sonically, definitely; it’s a huge part of what differentiates this record from other ones, partly because it’s completely homegrown. I could record and mix everything in-house, literally! And I haven’t done that for a while – I haven’t done that since Muddlin’ Gear actually.

SL: So the last time I did it was thirteen years ago?

JL: Well, I mixed Muddlin Gear it was ’98. So it was insane to think that I’d not had a studio, really, since then. So it’s been brilliant having the studio at home; people would come in to work on the record and stay, we’d give them rooms. For example Justin Stanley who really helped me mix the record; he’s just a great engineer and friend and musician, He’d love coming by. He would literally be flying from our place in Nashville to Paisley Park to work with Prince.

And he described the experience in Minneapolis as being really harsh: he’d have to stay in a hotel, and Minneapolis itself is really cold and it’s really strange. But, in our place it was really, warm and easygoing.

SL: It’s Northern vs. Southern hospitality, I guess.

JL: Yeah, totally, exactly that. So yeah, I just loved it, it’s had a huge influence. Huge.

SL: Can you explain a bit about the console itself. I’ve still never been to a recording studio somehow, but in my mind, it’s like one of those Casio keyboards that you have as a kid that you can plug your voice into one input and then fiddle around and play with it.

JL: The idea, I guess…it’s a strange concept. There are 56 inputs, so you can have up to 56 microphones, for example, running at any given time, and then balance all of the volumes of those signals down to left and right, so you can hear it, record it, and play it back on domestic equipment.  So you’re basically just trying to gather inputs and balance them.

SL: Okay, it’s starting to make sense to me now.

JL: It’s just a huge balancing act, and this console just happens to be a very visual way of doing that. Nowadays, a lot of mixing is done inside a computer, whereas back in the day it had only ever existed on a mixing console, but now we have virtual consoles. So you don’t necessarily need an actual console. But there’s something undeniably very tactile about it: it’s a very hands-on approach, and there’s a lot of benefits from working that way. It’s a lot more immediate, you find that there’s a lot of happy accidents. And it’s also just a really good looking thing, there’s a certain sex appeal to it! It’s just really like…it just makes you feel like, “Man we’re making an album!” and everyone gets a little bit of a rush from the console. Back in its day, it cost nearly half a million quid: it was the pinnacle of technology.

They were really are beautifully made in Oxford; hand-made consoles…it’s something that will never happen again. That level of craft, expertise, care, and to be honest, downright lack of corner-cutting: they over-did everything. There’s no just one of each component, there’s two of each component in every channel because they had an early form of automation in it so that you could record what you were doing in an analogue way – it’s obscene! It was the Rolls-Royce of consoles back in its day! So it was a real pleasure.

It was the same console that was used to mix Opposites Attract [by Paula Abdul] which is hilarious. I actually worked with Jeff, the guy who did additional programming on Opposites Attract, which was really random. When I had him in the house with that console, it was taking him all the way back to the ‘80s. And a lot of this album has been weird like that. Prince, for example, is a big advocate of the SSL: a bunch of my favourite Prince records were probably mixed on the same console. Not exactly the same, but the same series. So yeah, it’s a very prestigious thing, with an undeniable sound. And it’s just awesome to have it in the house.

SL: When I was listening to the record that there’s a lot of those ‘80s samples, tics, cues and references. Did these come directly from the console, or is this a part of your journeys into sonic exploration?

JL: Definitely the console, but also the Compass tour, and in general: I’ve collected a lot of synths, and they were just gathering dust in New York. We used a couple, but finally I just got to set everything up in Nashville, and those keyboards have a pretty undeniably ‘80s tone to them. But those fat poly-synths were my favourite sound: you hear them all over Prince at the time, but then you also hear them on Van Halen! Everyone who was using synths back in the day would use these ones – that was all there was, the only choice they had.

It’s funny actually what people would say about Prince.  Basically, he would just go down to Guitar Centre or whatever back in the day and go “Give me the best of what you got!” So in those days, you’d get a Linn drum machine and a Prophet 5, and nowadays you’d walk away with some other work station or some other things all built all into one. So back in the day it was all really strange and very limited by early electronic pieces that were very boutique. So it’s funny how things have changed. Slowly but surely things are going back to that mould. The synth tones and the poly-synth, they really have their roots in the ‘80s.

SL: What would you say the effect has been on your music as you’ve moved from the urban-ness of New York to Nashville, which is kind of country music and a bit more chilled out. How’s that affected the album?

JL: To be honest, Nashville has afforded me space, literally and metaphorically: mental space, to really get on with it. When we met Harmony Korine for example, he was one of the really key players in getting us to move ahead. We were talking, and it was when we had to decide whether we wanted to move or not, he was like “Ah, ya gotta come, Nashville is great! I do all my work here.  You’ll be just focused and there’s no distractions. You can always leave Nashville and just travel around and you’ve got something to come home to.”

We really thought about those things and those are all things that feature in our lifestyle now. And all of that lifestyle filters through into the art you make. We’ve found a place that’s good to create; it’s a great place to create. You don’t to have the distraction of all of Friday night when you can go out to this, this, and this. But at the same time we’ve got a great house that can really accommodate people. We actually saw more of our friends – this is totally bizarre but it’s true – more of our friends that lived in New York, almost, in Nashville than we did in New York.

SL: Because they were looking for an escape?

JL: Yeah! And we actually spent quality time together in the house. We wouldn’t go out; we would cook. And it’s great, actually! To not always be running around in a capitalist sort of domain. But at the same time, New York is incredible, and yet the pace of it, and the options and the diversity and the culture. We do miss it.

SL: You said something about lifestyle always impacting on the creative. How much would you say maybe your records are a kind of psychogeographical portrait of the cities you’ve lived in?

JL:  I can see how that might work. But I think each person’s experience of a place is quite personal: so my New York is probably quite bizarre! I was only there a couple of years. And when a place has so much going on…I grew up in a really small village. I’ve noticed in my life, in my travels, that I still turn big places into villages. New York lends itself well to that; it’s broken up into villages, and it works like that. It’s huge but you can keep yourself in little bubbles, if you want. So effectively, I never really often went north of 23rd, and I didn’t really go east – so NYC was a very small geographical space for me to occupy.  And I like it that way.

It was the same in Berlin. I only hung out in Kreuzberg really; I never really made it to Mitte or Prenzlauerberg and I didn’t make it to Neukolln – Charlottenburg might as well have just been Kreuzberg. But Kreuzberg wouldn’t have existed without its surroundings, and the fact that you could take that train a bit further and go to that crazy shop. That’s what we wanted to know was there. And that’s the thing that you miss in Nashville: when you want to leave this little bubble, you can’t – you’re trapped there. But Nashville’s weird because it’s changing and the demands of the Nashville-ians are changing. I think the word’s out a bit on Nashville, to be honest…

SL: Yeah, I guess because it’s quite close to the eastern seaboard, as well. You can get to New York and Miami quite easily…

JL: And LA as well. Being in New York, LA is a bit of a bitch. But in Nashville, you’re kind of halfway there. But going back to your question, I think you’re absolutely right, the records are portraits in a way. And my thing of turning a big place into a small place, I think it might just be the way that I happen to do it to stay sane or something. I don’t enjoy running around too much. I’m quite a homebody in a way, I’m quite a hermit. I think you have to be.

SL: It makes it understandable and digestible as well. You have your area, you have your network.

JL: I like locals! My wife’s always telling me I really like to have a local restaurant and the local this and that, and it’s maybe that’s coming from an English mentality.

SL: Would you ever come back to the UK?

JL: Yeah, I would! I love coming back to London. Every time I come back, I get good feelings. I tend to sort of claim that I’m an absolute nomad and don’t have a sense of home anymore, and I think in a way I really believe that. But there’s something about England which will always be my home: there’s this calm that comes over me when I see the landscape. Sometimes takes me a while to catch back up, but I miss the humour and there’s something about the way people are. I’ll definitely come back; I think my wife would be harder to persuade, she likes the warm weather! So it’s a tough one.

SL: As you’ve gone through your recording career, it seems like you’ve done more collaborations and worked more widely as your albums have kind of gone on. Whereas this one – it’s obviously not just about having your own studio, but it feels like you’ve done things more on your own terms.

JL: Yeah, definitely. It’s weird because just saying it to you then is the first time I realized that I can mix a record on my own since Muddlin’ Gear! Back in those days I wasn’t really considering that I was a mixer, I was just making the mix because I had to. It wasn’t something I considered the same way. So it’s super liberating now to feel like I am (in that Marxist way) the owner the means of production.

SL: You have your own factory in your house!

JL: It’s exactly that, and it’s something that I really value. I have my standards sonically, but I feel like I’ve been around long enough to know what makes what sound, and I’ve always been very curious about that. That’s why I use authentic, old equipment. Not because I’m nostalgic, but because I feel like that’s the best tool for the job. It’s like in photography: an analogue photographer knows that there’s a difference between analogue and digital. You can shoot with a digital camera, of course you can. But that little 5, 10% that’s missing; it’s something I’ve been into recently. You can get 90% of the way with a lot of equipment. And the fight for the remaining 10% is what it’s all about, in a way; it’s a strange struggle. It’s a strangely, having just mentioned Marx, it’s a strangely bourgeois pursuit, in of way. On the one hand I feel a bit guilty that I spend too much time pursuing these things. But at the same time, that’s the quality with what I do. And being able to do that in the comfort of my own home; I try not to take that for granted.

SL: That’s interesting, that comparison with digital photography as well because there is a difference. If you look at closely digital photography, it’s tiny dots on the page, whereas with proper photography, the image isn’t diluted. Presumably it’s similar with sound quality?

JL: Definitely. Although I will say if I wanted to take that analogy all the way with my own recorded music, I would’ve done it on tape. And I didn’t. I would love to work with tape, but my method doesn’t lend itself particularly well to tape work; it could though. But yes, you’re right there. To some, to the younger generation, they prefer digital. They actually do; they don’t like the fuzziness. We will, I think, see in generations down the line that there might not be a nostalgia for those things.

SL: I feel like there’ll be an increase in nostalgia, because people are trying to look for something that isn’t easily available. Everyone listens to MP3 now, but vinyl sales have increased because we understand and actively look for that kind of tangible quality.

JL:  It’s true. I’d love to see what happens. I’d love that to be the outcome, actually. It’s like with the SSL – one of the things I like about them so much is that there’s an incredible craft and human intention behind those objects. It’s something you can actually see and touch, not like with an iPhone or something that’s all locked away. You’re interacting with something that is closed. With those things though, they’re mechanical. They’re human designs, really, and a lot more tangible. And you really appreciate it;  you curse when it goes wrong, which it does. But you appreciate it, and you understand why it goes wrong, because it’s old. And it’s amazing that it still exists and works.

SL: And they’re fixable as well! You can go into the machine and try to fix it. Whereas with an iPhone, when it goes wrong you just look at it with hate…

JL: And try to use an iPhone 30 years from now!

SL: It’s not going to happen.

JL:  And there’s plenty of consoles that are still going strong. And if you look after them, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be going for another sixty years. That’s the thing. That’s what we’re missing a lot now, and it really disturbs me a little bit. The excellence in audio equipment is restricted, apart from things like microphones.

SL: When you play live, you always seem to be about a free-jazz kind of approach: the chaos of everything melding together. How will your studio approach be transposed to live shows?

JL: That’s a good question. I’m still trying to work it out because I want the show to combine, just like I feel like this album combines, the best of what I’ve done up to now. That’s strong songs with  a simple impact on that level. There’s a deep sonic care and concern. There’s an integrity that goes back to my original electronic explorations and general love of sound. With the live shows I wanna keep the same kind of balance. I want it to be generous, I want it to not be boring, but I want it to be live and there to be an element of edginess to it. So I’m gonna try to just balance really insane freestyle with very focused sound; to try to get the best of all worlds.

SL: So that you don’t know what to expect?

JL: It’s a journey into the unknown.

SL: That’s a Jamie Lidell gig!

JL: But you’re not always in the mood for that, are you? Sometimes you want something that’s gonna be really satisfying. It’s like going out for a meal; you don’t always want a big surprise, you might be up for a Sunday Roast – something that’ll be good and really satisfying. Maybe I’m gonna have an interesting appetizer, a nice solid main course, with something of a surprise for dessert. Maybe it’s a bit like that: planning a show is like planning a meal. It has to have a bit of a weight to it, and a character.

SL: At what point in the recording process did you decide to self-title the record?

JL: Right at the end. It wasn’t something that I did without thinking though. I had other names, working titles, but none of them felt right or sat well. And it was a discussion that was floating around: “why not self-title it?” It’d be a bold move. This record really does take on all the things that have been troubling me in music since I started. How do you write this song? How do you make it sound right? All these things I’m slowly getting a grip on. I feel like it’s almost as if it’s my first album, that I can sign and just go, “Right, now I think I’ve really got something.”

SL: That’s the thing. I was reading back through some of your old interviews earlier today. Back in 2002, there was a lot more quotes along the lines of “I’m gonna try this and see if it works.  I’ll go back to the studio and add a bit of guitar, or freestyle it.”  But with this record, it feels a lot more, really what you’ve just said now. It just feels very much more like you’re in control.

JL: I hope so! Everything on the album feels like it’s really me, which is a great thing to be able to have achieved, I think. You can only self-title a record once! I feel like it’s a long time coming, and it’s about time at the same time.

SL: I read somewhere as well that the record is about word shape.  Can you elaborate on what that means?

JL: As opposed to writing lyrics first and then fitting them into the music after. So I would make the music with a certain freedom of approach, sometimes using my looper to get the party started, sometimes just listening to a drum machine and making a track that I thought had a character. Then I’d sing word shapes over it without any concern for what I was talking about; it’s how I used to write when all the Super Collider stuff. I love working that way. I hear that’s how Jacko used to work too; it’s a lot more about rhythm and feel. You’re just kinda flowing over the music and you’re freestyling. But you might not get any words; you might get some. Sometimes you get amazing words! But what you often get is word shape. You get, for example: ‘that one needs to be hard, that one needs to be hard, t’s or p’s.’ You end up thinking of your voice as an instrument or a drum or whatever. So in one particular section, it might need a lot of t’s; it just seems to really pop off, that combination of t’s. So you find the lyrics that fit that shape. It’s reverse engineering, really: you get the shape first, then you think, “What could I have been saying that would result in that many t’s?” When you finally do find a perfect balance, your melody lines sometimes can be very strange! Somebody doesn’t necessarily just sit down at the guitar and go, “Oh, here it is.”  I think there’s a spontaneity that comes across and it’s maybe not immediately obvious, but I think there’s also a history to it. And ultimately if you try to sing the line, it feels natural. It just feels effortless.

SL: You’ve worked on a couple things in the studio I think aside from your own record.  What’s your favourite thing outside of your own stuff that you’ve worked on this year?

JL: Two productions. One for a guy called Guillermo E. Brown and he recorded this morning.  He’s just recently signed to Plug Research, which is great news, but it was outside of the time we worked together. He was in my touring band for Compass playing drums, production, singing. He’s a gHe’s areat talent, and I really enjoyed working with him. I also really enjoyed working with Ludwig Persik; he’s very much more unknown. He’s a young New Yorker, like 22, and I’ve really enjoyed working with him because I feel like we really found a sound that was something that he was searching for and that felt like the first time I could really produce. With Guillermo he had sonically more of an identity.  Ludwig is the opposite. Songs are his forte. He’s absolutely the antithesis of me, really! He plays piano and guitar, and writes his songs in a traditional way. So by the time he comes to do work, his songs hold together nicely. Then we did the colour painting on top, so you can really start to imagine, “Oh, why don’t we put some guitars here? Put synths, like we just had a really strange percussion sound.  Ah, change tempo, leap here, and try to make it an upbeat thing.” I just really got in there as a producer, got heavily involved. It’s been really fun, just to see him now start to get a lot of attention from DFA and Secretly Canadian and people are starting to find out about him now.

SL: All the right people, from the sounds of things…

JL: Yeah, it’s really caught up with him: I see him as kind of my bright hope! And I really wanna keep cultivating that, I wanna do another record with him. I feel like I put a lot of myself into that, and Guillermo, actually, to be honest. I wanna do a lot more of that, keep producing. I was worried that I would hate it, actually. I was worried that I’d find the whole process really overwhelming and that I would feel out of my depth.

SL: But you’re doing it on your own terms.

JL: I can’t play instruments very well and it’s a frustration because I’ll hear a middle-8 for example and I’ll be like, oh I know how this should go. I can hear it in my mind, but just because I lack that actual physical ability, it takes me forever to explain. So it’s really good for me to have keyboard players on hand who understand my mind. Another thing that I pride myself on: I’ve done so much work with my voice, layering it and understanding that textual content, that I can really help Ludwig with his vocal. He’s got a strong character to his voice but it’s maybe hard for him to find the confidence to know how to do the backing vocals or how to enunciate. And I can really get down deep with the vocal stacks and stuff. “When you do this one, back off on the ‘s’, back up on the mic just a little bit. Let’s hear more of that shape coming out!” So we had this great relationship where he trusts me and we get these great results so it’s really fun. And there needs to be a lot of trust because you’re basically carrying someone else’s baby.

- Interview by Seb Law

Jamie Lidell’s 5th studio album ‘Jamie Lidell’ is out now on Warp Records.

This month’s issue of Notion Magazine is available at WH Smith, all good independent newsagents, and here.

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