Sunday, January 09, 2011
Jamie XX interview
So the story starts like this. While we were on tour with The XX last year, I got asked if I would be interested in writing the sleeve notes for a Gil Scott-Heron v Jamie XX remix album and in November last year Jamie and I met up to talk about the project. I got a sense from him about his thoughts on the album, which is a really amazing body of work, lush, emotive and far more coherent than most remix albums.
I spent some time buried in the sleeve notes and in the end I’m really happy with them. They became one of my most detailed and in depth pieces that I’ve written in a while, musing on the cycles and patterns that engulf both participants. In the end though, I didn’t quote directly from the interview Jamie and I did, instead using it to understand more generally where he was coming from. So I’d like to share it in full here.
Jamie XX on “We’re New Here”
Blackdown: So how did the Gil Scott Heron remix album come about?
Jamie XX: It came about because of the Florence remix that I did, Richard Russell and people at XL were into it, and the Gil Scott Heron album was his project, the first thing he’d done in a long time. So I was really honoured to be asked to do it.
B: Was it daunting?
J: It was daunting but I felt like I could do it because I’d been listening to Gil for ages anyway and it’s something I really wanted to be involved in, because of the history and because it was one of the first things my parents played me when I was little.
B: Wow, that’s quite political for a small child…
J: They used to play their old records at dinner and stuff and it was one of the records that used to come on.
B: So do you remember the impression Gil left on you when you first heard those records?
J: I don’t know about an impression… it’s just that my love of music began listening to soul music and jazz music, so that was one of the things that made me want to get into music.
B: I’ve always felt that there’s a special psychological state for music that you’ve heard as a child. It affects you in different ways to similar kinds of music you hear later on. It’s similar to your teens, where the music you hear then is very intense because it’s the soundtrack to building who you are as a person.
J: I don’t know if I felt that then, but I definitely feel that now, thinking back, reminiscing.
B: Oh yeah, it’s definitely a retrospective thing. So were you aware at the time how socio-political he was?
J: Well I never really listen to lyrics, I don’t think I could even recite a full XX song. So it wasn’t the politics but the music.
B: It’s funny because “I’m New Here” seems to be less political than his earlier work. It’s much more overtly about him. I mean one of my favourite Gil Scott Heron moments is when he starts a track with “well the first thing I want to say is ‘mandate my ass’” before he starts talking about Regan. But this new album seems much more about his struggles.
J: I went to his gig in Brixton yesterday and he talks a lot in between each track, and one of the things he said was that he stopped worrying about all the problems in the world, because he wants to enjoy himself and the best thing in life you can do is enjoy yourself.
B: It’s quite a statement from someone who’s made a career out of satire and social and political commentary.
So you get past the shock of being asked to remix an album by someone who’s records you listened to as a child, then what? How do you approach it?
J: Initially I was thinking more about the transition between the tracks. It was when I’d just started to DJ, so it felt like a mixtape but with all my own productions. The end product isn’t like a mixtape because the tempo’s are all over the place, but I wanted to show how he influenced me by putting some of the older tracks on there, rather than just the brand new music [from “I’m New Here”]. So we used some unreleased stuff that was recorded in the 1970s. They sent me that half way through making it because I wanted to use some of his old stuff… you can tell the difference in his voice, it’s changed so much. The older stuff is much more vocal rather than speaking, singing and more melodic I guess. And it was slower in tempo. So I didn’t have a plan for the older and newer stuff, I just wanted the whole album to sound like one piece of music. We tried to do that with the XX album too.
B: It’s a really hard thing to do, I guess because you end up having to make top down decisions about sounds you do and don’t use…
J: I don’t know if I made a conscious decision about it but in my head I knew how everything was going to sound. If I was making something that wasn’t sounding right I knew how to get it to sound right.
B: Some of the styles of music, especially the lyrical side of hip hop, a lot of people credit him with having an influence on. But other styles you use, like dubstep, has other more prominent influences. How did you approach those tracks?
J: That was pretty much completely removed from Gil’s influence and so on those tracks I used Gil’s vocals the least, so it was just more to show my influences. I just wanted it to be a 50:50 split of him and me, so I could change what he was doing quite a lot and still get away with it.
B: One of the things that ties it together seems for me to be the use of epic synths and melodies, throughout. Is that something you use with The XX?
J: A little bit but we definitely have to be a bit more restrained with The XX. But XL made me feel I could do pretty much what I wanted with this, they’re always amazing to work with. It was actually a bit more of a struggle than I thought it would be: afterwards I had to write letter to Gil, because he wasn’t sure about some of the tracks on the album, because of when they were recorded – the old stuff. But it all worked out in the end.
B: Did you have to write a letter by hand?
J: Yeah he doesn’t do email. I had to write to him to explain my concept behind the album and why some of the older stuff was on there. It was pretty simple and after I wrote that letter to him he said “Jamie knows more about this than I do, so let him do what he wants…” which was nice.
B: There’s a track on the album about writing letters that he never finishes. Did he write back to you?
J: No he spoke to Richard Russell. Now that would have been something to keep!
B: So have you met him?
J: Yeah I met him last night after his gig and I met him in New York, he was supposed to play a secret song in the middle of our set at the Bowery Ballroom. He turned up before the sound check and everything was fine but then he left and came back too late to play his bit. It would have been cool but we got to meet him then. So I’ve been to a few of his gigs and hung out with him afterwards.
B: And so what’s that like, knowing you now have this slightly abstract connection through the music of your childhood?
J: Well he didn’t know that until I wrote that letter to him about it all and it’s quite hard to talk to him. He doesn’t talk to many people in an open way. He talks to Richard Russell. So I found it pretty hard to talk to him so I don’t think we ever got to the stage where we were taking about how he influenced me. He wasn’t rude or anything, he was a very nice guy.
B: So how did you deal with the shorter tracks on the album? Some people would have felt the need to turn them into 5 minute pieces…
J: Well, before I started making more UK dance music, I was making hip hop and using breaks. And he has interludes on the [original] album so I wanted to use those as the breaks in the record. One of my obsessions is collecting records and finding samples, even though I hardly use samples anymore. So that was a good excuse to use some of the things I’d found. So I just put a drum break under a few of them… it was a way to use my records.
B: And what is the spectrum of UK dance music that is influencing you right now and how you made this album?
J: I guess it’s more going out and being in clubs. I wanted the album to sound a bit like being in a night club, certain elements of it. Going to Plastic People: that was an influence. All the genres that get played in Plastic, that’s pretty much it.
B: The funny thing is to me it sounds more coherent than the actual original album, production wise. The original album is multiple people whereas obviously yours is one piece of work. What holds the first one together is Gil Scott Heron, not the production so strongly.
So how did your parents react?
J: They were amazed, as they have been with everything that’s happened in the last two years. They’re very happy a bit shocked I guess. They haven’t heard it yet though, I haven’t really seen them since I made it.
B: How do they receive your stuff generally, will this direction be a shock to them?
J: I’ve only just moved out from home and I was always playing my stuff really loud and they were getting annoyed so they know what it sounds like.
B: Something I was thinking about, which is quite crazy, is the idea of your life and Gil Scott Heron’s crossing now, in 2010. Yet Gil Scott Heron started on this path, this trajectory, so far back, before you or I were even born. All his life he’s been doing what he’s doing and for some reason your paths have now crossed, here.
J: Yeah, one of the things I admired him for was that he is appreciative of brand new music. He’s got a good understanding of what’s going on.
B: So how were you aware he was into this kind of stuff?
J: I wasn’t aware, I just kind of went for it and then after he approved it he named certain bits of the album that he particularly liked, and I was impressed. I hope when I’m his age I can still be that on it.
B: Yeah, because on average most people feel more strongly about music in their teens than in their 50s. Though I think for people like you and I, if we’ve got this far with music in our system it wont get out. There was a Polish composer, Gorecki, who died this week and there was a quote from one of his students that said they’d asked him what the secret to composing was and he replied ‘if you can go two or three days without music you don’t love it enough…’
J: Yeah I’ve never really thought about it but I can’t think of the last time I had a day off listening to music.
B: Sometimes I walk down the street without my headphones and I feel guilty! Like I’m being unfaithful to a love in my life. So I put my headphones back in…. So, do you get offered projects of this size quite often?
J: Not of this size. I’ve had a couple of massive pop things, but nothing I’d actually want to do.
B: A case of ‘thank you, but no’ …?
J: Yeah haha. So this [Gil] was an out of the ordinary thing.
B: Sometimes you just have to find a way to make them work, which was sort of how we felt when you guys asked us to come on tour with you. “Hmmm, we’re going to have to find a way to make this work…” … So did you think about using any other musicians or vocalists on the remix album?
J: Yeah when we were in Atlanta, the tour before the one you came on, a rapper called Kill, who lives in Atlanta…
B: Was he the guy who was trying to get you to go to strip clubs?
J: …that’s the one. He recorded in the back of our tour bus a verse on my laptop which was going to be on the track “Home” but it was just a little bit too gangsta for the album. I also recorded some stuff with JJ, the Swedish duo, they’ve got really beautiful vocals. And also Romy and Oliver are on the album, in certain bits.
B: There were vocal parts where I wondered if you’d taken Gil’s vocals or someone else’s and pitched them up…?
J: Ah no that’s just other samples. I tried messing with Gil’s vocals a bit but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
B: There’s some loops on “Running”, reminds me of Moodyman. So did they record especially for the project?
J: The thing that Oliver did was actually when we were in school, before The XX were anything and we were recording in my bedroom, him doing ‘oooh’s’ and harmonising them. And on the last track there’s a Romy riff that I recorded on my iPhone when we were jamming. It’s the same file… pretty bad quality but it sounds alright.
B: Sometimes bad quality can go either way, it can sound terrible or add a roughness to it.
J: Yeah I think it works.
B: So for people who bought The XX album but maybe have not heard Gil Scott Heron, how do you think they’ll react to this?
J: Um, I don’t know. I’m worried about it, because XL have been doing a lot for it… I just thought it was going to be a remix album under the radar, but they’re promoting it and doing limited releases and stuff. I hope people like it but it’s definitely not what I think XX fans would be into.
B: It would be quite amazing if you got a few XX fans to listen to Gil Scott Heron though!
J: Yeah that would be great…. Yeah I never really thought about the people that would be listening to it when I was making it but yeah that would be really nice. I’ve done a few interviews around this album and they’re about an hour long and I always end up having to try to be far more insightful than I was when I was making the record. So I find myself babbling on about things that probably didn’t really happen.
B: That’s the nature of music journalism. A journalist’s medium is the word. A producer’s medium is music. Music journalists often try and impose ‘top down’ theories onto albums whereas the reality was you were probably more thinking ‘is this sound in key?’ ‘should I re-edit this arrangement…?’
I think it’s interesting though, there aren’t many people in your position, who are big in the indie world but listen to Rinse and go to Plastic People etc. Yet you fit these together…
J: … Yeah I’m trying, but I think it’s kind of a hindrance though: when I’m DJing people expect me to play indie music. And when this album comes out people in the indie world are going to think ‘why is he trying to make underground music?’ and people in the underground are going to think [laughs] ‘why is he trying to make underground music?’
B: Yeah…. So I’m quite fussy and musically, from the underground side of things, I don’t think anyone will complain about this album plus everyone loves Gil Scott Heron. Indie people? That’s not my world so I don’t know how to deal with that problem haha… Going against the grain is good though and it’s not like you’re making free jazz.
J: One thing I want to mention is Richard Russell’s influence. He was one of the pioneers of rave music and this is club music. The stuff he was into and is still into, just adds another element to the chain… he’s in between me and Gil.
B: Yeah totally, rave being the meeting of on one side funk breaks and hip hop samples and on the other side, house and techno styles which came from disco. People like SL2 and Prodigy, which XL are famous for were really part of that convergence of influences that made up rave. And of course your Florence remix, which was what got their attention, had echoes of rave and house’s past in it, back to Candy Staton, Jamie Principles and Frankie Knuckles. Does Richard see all this symmetry?
J: Yeah he does and that’s a big thing for him actually, it’s one of the reasons why he asked me to do it as well. He likes things to be very clear and coherent.
· Other interviews I've done: Burial (brief), Burial (in depth), Skream, Wiley and Skepta to name but a few.