Interview: Jape….Frequent Flyer

Jape….Frequent Flyer

Once upon a time, Richie Egan gave me a call, and asked me if I’d like to play bass in his band. Naturally, I jumped at the chance, having heard his solo stuff before. Already on board was drummer Graham Hopkins and Paula Pee-Pee Cullen of the Chalets on backing vocals. We met up, listened to the tracks Richie had written, did some rehearsals in Matty Bolger’s shed, a shanty of some repute, as it was where the Redneck Manifesto recorded their first record, and went to the Four Roads for a few scoops after. What are you calling yourself, I asked. “Jape”, he said. “I think I’ll change the name”.

Back in 2002 that iteration of Jape played together just the once, in the elevated surroundings of the Gravity Bar atop the Guinness Storehouse, part of the Wonky2 festival. Wonky2 was a celebration of everything that was currently great in the capital, from visual artists to music, with No Disco’s very own Leagues O’Toole at the fulcrum. Leagues was trying to mark the thing that was happening in the city at the time, the sudden burst of energy emanating from local bands who had gone beyond the three chord thing, or if they were playing the three chord thing, they were playing the wrong chords. Maybe you wouldn’t have picked out Jape as the one to be going strongest nearly 10 years later, and I think, that had he stayed with the acoustic, the subtlety, and me on bass, that may not have been the case.

As the sun set, and the sky turned all salmon belly pink over the miniature city stretched out beneath us, Richie strummed and plucked an acoustic guitar, and sang his lyrics, even then oblique, odd, humorous, ironic. But this was not the music Jape ended up making. By the time Richie’s records started to come out, some of those songs had disappeared, and been replaced by electronica, beats, synths, pulsating basses, kinkier lyrics. The kind of softly murmuring, solipsistic, curly haired, I’m-a-bastard, song imp ouvre was never going to be his thing. “Toolbadours, we call them”, he says. “You know the type”. Expanding his palette musically was crucial, but for Richie that was always going to be the case. “It was a natural progression,” he says. “It started more quiet and ramshackle, is suppose. I didn’t really know how to program synths and computers back then, so it was a process of learning how to do that technical stuff, and then trying to meld that with the song writing. The electronic stuff was more interesting over time.”

That was a time of unbridled optimism for the country and maybe us musicians were mirroring that. Looking around at one’s fellow artists many of us felt that anything was possible; if we, collectively, could create acts like The Redneck Manifesto, Connect4 Orchestra, The Last Post et al, then with these people around anything was possible. It may have been a symptom of the Celtic Tiger’s candied blinkers, that everything was rosy and that we had created something meaningful and lasting, but that’s not how it worked out. We’d merely created a beautiful setting and sexy soundtrack for something passionate and ephemeral. Along the way, many people lost the belief that anything was possible. Reality did that. As they say, life is what happens when you’re trying to make records. However, Richie never lost it, and he never lost it because all he ever wanted to do was his own thing. The ebb and flow of a scene, the highs and lows, the inevitable dissolution and period of change meant nothing to him. He, as Jape, and also as the Rednecks, was too busy doing his own thing.

There were some seriously good bands around then. But, as he says, “there are shedloads of great bands now.” Seems like there’s always a scene, some evolve from times of penury and strive toward the grail of the record deal, some, like ours, are from a time of plenty, and have studios in their houses. Albums nowadays are released without an executive interference, sometimes too quickly. I suppose we’ll judge this current crop in a decade, but if we were to judge the players at Wonky2 by what they’ve achieved since, then Jape would set the high watermark.

Was the scene a help in getting the music out there?

“There was a lot of bands around at the time, and it’s great that bands influence each other, but you have to be your own island, in a way. You respect what other people are doing but you have to do you own thing. I think if people get too close then it’s not good. It leads to human things coming into play. Jealousy, stuff like that. You’re better off keeping people at arms length. That way you don’t get close enough to people to make enemies, you don’t get close enough to get to personal.”

The Redneck Manifesto were always like that, they were that good that they didn’t subsist merely on the oxygen of a scene, they didn’t need to. They had a song called ‘Please Don’t Ask Us What We Think Of Your Band’, which kind of told what you needed to know about their place in the scheme of things.

“I always find it strange when people talk about scenes, when you talk about scenes, there’s always somebody left out. If you talk about a group of individuals then nobody is left out, and that’s kind of the way I feel about it. Everybody should do their own thing, and if it’s good, people will catch onto it.”

It seems as if that’s what has happened with Jape, Richie having show patience over the years as he honed his skills is now full time with Jape. “Jape has been a living for the last two or three years, believe it or not, through sheer luck. With the album coming out it’ll be good for at least another year.” He says, completely seriously.

It’s not easy trying to make music your living. Your ability at the job doesn’t directly correlate to your earnings, unlike some careers. And what’s more, people who seem really bad at it can still somehow make millions. It’s probably best not to dwell on that. “My main concern is being able to pay the rent and continue to make music, anything outside of that is a bonus.”

And what about your ambitions? How big do you want it to be? Letterman Show big? “I wouldn’t mind if I was huge but I wouldn’t mind if I was small either. You can’t will that into existence, all you can do is try and write a better song than the last one, and if you’re lucky enough to be big, then sweet, but until that time I’ll continue making music for the sake of it.” The vagaries of the music business don’t bother him, the hot or not media generated bullshit, the instant success of web-darlings, the awards. He tried having a London manager and record label. “It just wasn’t me”, he says. “it’s smaller now, but it’s much better”. To thine own self be true? “A lot of people I admire just do their own thing, because then you don’t go out of fashion, you just keep doing what you’re doing, and there’ll be times when you’re up and times when you’re down.”

And who is it you admire?

“Bill Callahan, Cass McCombs, songwriters that have an interesting take on lyrics. Then I really like listening to dance music and techno.”

Even without drugs?

“Yeah, even without drugs. Four Tet. Paddy MacAloon.”

Funny you should say that, because I’ve been talking to three or four different people in the last while, and Prefab Sprout came up. They all hate the Sprout. Why do people hate the Sprout?

“Do they? Paddy McAloon is a cool motherfucker. I read a great quote form him once. Bob Dylan believes in god. Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in god. Richard Dawkins is never going to win an argument against Bob Dylan. Steve McQueen, what a record. ‘Desire As’ sounds like the XX.”

The eighties seem as if they’ve come back around again, haven’t they? Good and bad.

“Nothing that’s ever been here ever goes away. The seventies is still here. Everything that happens just keeps going. Certain people get really into it, and others just take bits from it. I grew up in the eighties, so it’s always been ingrained. I was always into melodies. My friends were all into metal, and I was listening to Simon and Garfunkle, so I was always the nerdy kid. I still listened to the metal but I never got into as much as my mates. I was listening to…the Blues Brothers, REM.. basically pop music. I like pop music. It’s cyclical, and you just have to do what you feel is right at the time. Like the Rednecks, for example, we’ve pretty much being making the same music for the last whatever.”

He shakes his head. Yeah, it’s been that long. I did a gig on the same bill as the Redneck Manifesto is the Funnel Bar back in ’98, and they’d been going for a bit then. “It’s like when someone makes a table, the next table is a bit better than the last one, but it’s still a fucking table, and with the Rednecks, we’re honing that table making to best we can. For a while we tried to do the opposite, but we thought, hold on, this is what we’re good at doing, we should be doing this. And the sound, it does come around and I remember about three years ago, the Rednecks sound was not cool at all. Post rock was shit. I don’t really consider us a post-rock band, but I know people use that word about us. That shit was not cool, and now I think it is cool again.” I agree, having recently seen Adebesi Shank’s set in a full tent at Castlepalooza, recalling Redneck gigs I had been to before, loud and crazy, but always precise, the crowd loving it, the band animated. So animated bassist Vinny was jumping from the stage, to the crowd and back again. I watch that and think of my knees, think of the twinges I feel every time I try to throw a shape.

Richie agrees; “Have you seen that Bill Withers documentary?” Not yet I haven’t. “He said something I really related to; he said my showing off days are over. He’s not into showing off any more. I thought, yeah, I know what you mean.”

After that Wonky show, Richie played with some other people for a change, doing Martin Finke’s album, touring with Nad Navillus, being the bassist in David Kitt’s band for a while, and, as well as building up a repertoire of not-fit-for-publication stories from the road, it seemed as if he took Kittsers mantle, the beats and bips behind the plucking and hushed vocals, and took it elsewhere. He used words and lyrics that no one else would, and that’s what makes him stand out. The snappy rejoinder at the beginning of ‘Floating’ must be what caught the ear of Brendan Benson, the self deprecation, the keen sense of irony and place, the lack of artifice in his prose. When Richie writes about the love, it’s about popping his cherry to ‘November Rain’, rather than long walks by the canal hand in hand and oh-how-I’ll-let-you-down-I’m-a-bastard-isms of the toolbadour canon. He does his own thing. Always has, always will. It’s actually that simple, it’s what marks him out from the rest, the fearless, steadfast belief in what it is he’s doing.

But it’s never all that easy. With Ocean Of Frequency, there was a crisis, but not one of belief in himself, rather it was a test of confidence, and whether Richie had the courage of his convictions. On listening back to the finished record, it occurred to him all was not right: “I listened to it over and over again, and if you’re getting bored with listening to something, then there’s something wrong. I had this record, I thought it was finished, but I was just going this is not right, there was something wrong with it. Couldn’t put my finger on it. So I left it, went off and did the two VisionAir EPs with Niall (Byrne, fellow Redneck), and didn’t even listen to it. Two months went by, I came back to it and I was able to go okay; that’s shit, that’s shit, that’s good. So I took some of it, maybe half, and wrote a whole load of other songs, took them and recorded them and got it mixed again in France and then stuck it together and then that was it, that was right.”

You must have been pretty sure of yourself to do that…

“It was really hard, really hard. Because I didn’t have the money to get it all redone. So I said I’ll record them myself, and then I’ll ask Dave Odlum if I could pay him for the mixing after the Electric Picnic, and he said cool, that was grand and thank fuck for that. It was a fucking nightmare to be honest with you, I was there just thinking, fuck, I’ve wasted a shitload of money here….but…you got to go up your own ass to smell the shit they say.”

They say that? Really?

“I just want to keep going, you know, make the next song better than the last one”.

Any chance you might just make the perfect song, in that case?

“Nah. There’s always something. There were times with the Rednecks, in the past, where it was like, man, we’re just jamming, we’re just doing the same song again. But what you just have to do is to keep gong because it all comes back around again. When you get older I think that shit happens less because now when we jam, we’re so fucking happy to be playing together, we’re so lucky to be alive. One of us could die. When you’re playing together it’s like we’re lucky to have this jam. When you’re a kid you’re like, bollocks it’s Tuesday night I don’ want to go out jamming, I’d rather go drinking or something. But when you get older you go fuck it, when we’re in there we just need to make something happen. “

After all that there’s no question that the end result is exactly what Richie wanted and there’s no trace of the trauma on the record. Ritual was rightly lauded when it came, picking up accolades and gonks, topping polls. It reminded me of the time I got Thirtysixstrings, the Redneck Manifesto’s first record, and stuck it on, and the feeling I got; the amazement that someone from Ireland, Dublin, the scene I was involved in, could make this music. It seemed important. Ritual was like that, it was so good. This album is as good, perhaps, but it’s Richie himself who has raised the bar. Were it not for the fact that Ocean Of Frequency is supposed to follow on from the award winning Ritual, this would be a stellar record, one that would get people talking and noticing. But they’re already talking, and noticing, so as far as Jape are concerned, it’s more of the same.

After this, Jape will hit the road in support of the album, playing New York in October and even going as far as Australia in December. In between those dates The Redneck Manifesto are heading over to do some shows in Japan. I can barely contain my envy. “As a musician, it’s always been an ambition to do a gig in Japan. And here I am, I’m 34 now, finally doing it”. That reminds of Richie moaning to me nearly a decade ago, about not yet having a solo album and being nearly 25. It could be the only impediment to world domination is the extent of Richie’s ambitions, and I’ve no doubt that one he gets to do that gig Japan, something else will come along to aim for.

Advertisements

Interview in State mag

also on state.ie

Interview: The Jimmy Cake

The Jimmy Cake

You’d imagine it would be hard to lose something that has 18 legs, a combined weight of over 80 stones and more instruments than the Moscow Symphony Orchestra , but Dublin’s finest avant-garde instrumental music collective The Jimmy Cake have been conspicuous by their absence for half a decade.

Sure there was the odd live appearance, like Electric Picnic ‘07, but no national tour since 2002 and the lack of anything resembling a new album was beginning to put a bit of a My Bloody Valentine sheen on the entire scenario. Fret no more, however, as the greatest musical menagerie in the universe are back with their finest collection of songs to date, in the shape of the elegant, elegiac Sceptre & Crown, alongside a brand new website. Bruised and bloodied after a truly epic creative process, they remain delightfully unbowed, refreshingly unpretentious and deliciously irreverent.

These are people who have spent so long in each other’s company that it’s not just brothers John (drums) and Vinny (guitar) Dermody who finish each other’s sentences, but Dara ‘Dip’ Higgins (bassist) and Paul Smyth (piano, keyboards) too. The most obvious emotion surrounding the four is relief, that after five years of toil and turmoil, The Jimmies are back with the hauntingly evocative Spectre & Crown, their first release proper since 2003’s Superlady EP.

“It was just taking so long that it became a real albatross around our necks,” Vinny sighs. “But that’s gone and we can feel free about working on new material. It’s one of the reasons why we haven’t been gigging either, because we were getting very selfconscious about having the same material for so long because we haven’t had the creative energy to put into new stuff. Whether we can still do that or not we’re about to find out.”

The reasons for the album taking so long are manifold, but are primarily down to a combination of logistics and cold hard cash, as John explains: “It was as much about nine people being available, because we all have full-time jobs and other responsibilities. If we were a five-piece band with half as many ideas and another 15 grand, we could have released something ages ago.”

The initial work on Spectre & Crown began in a rehearsal room in Dublin city centre, where the nine decamped to write their third album proper (following 2001’s Brains and 2002’s Dublin Dead, Everybody Gone). “We went into this rehearsal space, thinking that we were going to write a particular album. As soon as we got in the space, we realised that wasn’t going to happen, for a few reasons,” recalls Paul.” First of all, every time John hit a snare drum, it was as if someone had fired a shotgun. So, everything started to sound quieter.”

Indeed, there was a faction in the band who felt that the entire album should be smaller and more intimate than the bombast that had gone before. It’s wasn’t the general view, however, leading to “gentle Machiavellian machinations,” laughs Vinny. “Everyone was trying to pull the album back from the brink of folkitude.” Over the course of this album’s creation, there were a number of line-up changes within the ranks: some people left, others joined, some of the new people left again. Band members moved house, got married, had babies. Life went on.

“We now have a couple of people in the band who know nothing but these tracks,” explains Vinny. “The only process they’ve been part of is the grinding, attritious nightmare that was the last couple of years, trying to get this record out. So for their sake, we’re very anxious to get writing again and to start playing again, before they quit.

”It must have been very difficult for the newbies, joining an established band with so many strong personalities, at such a tough time. “They came slap-bang into the middle of a very drawn-out process which involved quite a bit of bickering, which to us is perfectly fucking normal, but to someone coming in from the outside, it could look like, ‘Jesus, these fuckers aren’t going to last two weeks’,” laughs John. “Mostly it’s pretty good fun being in this band but those couple of years were troublesome, all work and no play.

”Vinny grins: “We’re exaggerating for comic effect. It wasn’t that bad.” Admitting that they “ended up with a very different album from the one we started recording” (Dip), they also have a vast amount of material left over, which they’re going to revisit over the coming months, albeit” in a completely different style,” Vinny explains. “We’ve decided the next record is going to be clarinet and accordion free, possibly with three synths, and no piano.”

“It’s a pretty grown up record that we’ve made, very pretty, very considered and very layered, which is great, but I think we need to get our balls back,” is how John puts it. Paul is even more definite: “We need to drag this record down the back of a lane and beat the crap out of it.” It’s the “tight, enclosed, claustrophobic” nature of its genesis and the bloated time-line involved in its gestation that they need to batter into shape rather than the music, however. Spectre & Crown is by turns mouth-dryingly gorgeous and teeth-rattlingly powerful, resonating long after the final track has disappeared.

They’re justifiably proud of it, with Paul noting how “the production values jumped up by a thousand percent”, Vinny enthusing that “the songwriting’s far stronger” and Dip opining that their musicianship is better than ever. Indeed, when the four try to describe the album, it heralds the funniest moment of the day. Dip: “I think this album has a theme, and is almost a concept album.” John (grinning): “No it is not. Just because it sits well, that’s not a concept record: that’s just a nicely arranged fucking record.” Vinny (guffawing): “It’s like the journey of an innocent nun into a wardrobe of skeletons.” Paul drags the conversation back from the brink of hysteria: “It’s a very unfashionable record, to its credit, I think.” “The way we worked, we removed ourselves from any sense of zeitgeist or contemporary, popular opinions,” agrees Vinny.

“The album does not reflect anything but the mania of the people who were in that dark room, making it.” But The Jimmy Cake were never concerned with being flavour of the month or jumping on anyone’s band-wagon: they’ve always had enough ideas (and bodies) to create their own. “We were never particularly floating on the crest of a wave of fashionability,” muses Vinny, “but people still compared us to certain bands.”

“Which they will not be able to do this time,” interjects Dip. “Unless Godspeed You Black Emperor! release a Genesis covers album in a couple of years, I think we might escape that this time.” Surely the fact that there are nine individuals, all with their own ideas, is both a blessing and a curse. How do they ever manage to find consensus in the ranks?

“There is a basic compromise that has to be there,” explains Vinny.” You have to understand that you’re not going to get your vision: all you can do is chip away at the collective vision and get the bits that you want in. You’ve got to be clever about it because if anyone gets Bolshie about it, everyone will say ‘no’. You can’t insist on anything: it has to be by degrees and by compromise.” “I think this album is the sound of that compromise,” agrees Dip.” It started off being one thing, morphed into something else, then changed again during the recording process.”

“I think everyone has an understanding that whatever anyone brings into the room, what comes out of the room eventually will be a completely different animal but it will be all the better for it,” notes Paul. Or as John puts it: “Anyone coming in with a serious and clear vision of what has to be done is going to end up very fucked off if they’re expecting it to come out the other side exactly the way they saw it.” Long-time fans of the band will probably be surprised to hear that Sceptre & Crown almost ended up featuring a singer for the first time ever on a Jimmy Cake track. These would have been no ordinary vocals, however, but the unique tonsil talents of Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples.

“He was well into it, and was scribbling bits of lyrics down for it,” recalls Paul. “He was going to record it at his studio in France and I was even going to go over at one point for a weekend to work on it. But time crept on and I hadn’t heard anything, so I phoned him and he sounded like he was standing in the middle of a construction site: he was having a 24-track studio installed. He then found himself in the middle of writing what will be the next Tindersticks album. They were two great excuses for not doing it.”

Staples, however, is very interested in working with The Jimmy Cake on future collaborations. Indeed, he’s not the only singer they considered, as Vinny explains. “We decided to pick some of the best vocalists locally available to us and write stuff for them. We had all these amazing ideas but we had no fucking money, so you can’t realise some of that stuff.” Recording an entire album of vocal collaborations is not something they would rule out in the future.

For now, however, they’re proud of Sceptre & Crown, relieved that it’s finally hitting the shelves and looking forward to what Dip describes as “starting again”. “In many ways, this is almost a quasi-year zero: we’ve been off the radar for that long,” John agrees. “The relief of being able to hold the album in our hands is great,” smiles Paul. “After that, who cares what happens?””