One of the most distinctive voices in British music over the past decade…
“This album is a weird, important record for me on the basis of where I am as a songwriter.” Jamie Treays looks thoughtful. We are reclining in his daily place of work, a small, scruffy recording studio in Hackney. He is wearing a nicely appropriate, but seemingly uncontrived mix of mod classic clothing and a very un-mod baseball cap. Today, on a hot Spring day in 2016, Jamie T seems very at ease with who he is, and has been. “A lot of my identity as an artist was forged when I was about 23. And I really enjoyed writing songs in that vein. But this feels like the last record where I’ll do that. Getting my last enjoyment out of reminiscing about my past and being that 23-year-old. Being thirty feels like a good chapter ending and a good turning-point.”
Jamie’s fourth album, which takes its one-word title from album opener and single ‘Tinfoil Boy’, is a weird, important record. At beginning and end, it is the darkest, toughest and most pessimistic of his decade in the limelight. But in the middle, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll party album: albeit an edgy, punky reggae party where lost girls clash with 17th century prophets of doom, exiled Brits clash with deserted American cities, trad-rock guitars clash with speed raps and dubby basslines. A lot of Clash, then, in more ways than one.
“Everybody knows I love The Clash,” Jamie smirks, fully embracing his worship of early Mick Jones B-sides, “and I’m too far into this to be overly self-conscious anymore. ‘Robin Hood’ is basically ‘Hateful’ mixed with the idea of the song ‘Bankrobber’ and a little bit of ‘Jail Guitar Doors’. And the first line, “Riding in the back seat…”, is almost ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ by the Ramones, which I didn’t even notice when I wrote it. If I sit down with a guitar in the best mood I can possibly be in, that’s what comes out.”
You may recall that there was a five-year gap between Jamie’s second set Kings And Queens and 2014’s ‘comeback’ set Carry On The Grudge; five years in which Jamie suffered a crisis of faith and confidence, travelled the world to lose himself and find himself, and came back a more questioning adult troubadour with ideas honed and insecurities acknowledged, wondering if fickle pop youth would want him back.
But Trick arrives after a gap of less than two years, shot through with the kind of vigour and vibrancy that can only come from a man who has rediscovered his love of writing, recording and performing. Jamie is on a roll and has no intention of letting the moment pass. “The more making records is a day-to-day thing, the happier I am because I’m less daunted by it all. I’m my own worst enemy and my fears and anxieties can easily take me over. So it was important for me to get this record finished and out there because these days I’m thinking in terms of momentum.”
Like Carry On The Grudge, Trick is co-produced by Jamie and longtime collaborator James Dring, with Dring taking care of beats business while Jamie plays every other instrument you can hear. The pair also returned to The Premises in Hackney and the now sadly departed Moloko studio in Hoxton Square to record. But this time around, a third surprise recording location has brought something different to Jamie’s sound; a studio called High Bias based in the perfect American city to expand Jamie’s perennial themes of city sickness. “I became interested in Detroit and saw a documentary about it,” explains Jamie. “It has a weirdly post-industrial landscape. These figures might not be bang on, but… Detroit is built for 2.5 million people to live in and something like 250,000 actually live in it. So… it’s empty. You look at the place from the top of a skyscraper and the whole city’s green because all the gardens and plots are overgrown. So surreal!”
If you’re thinking a thought-provoking sojourn in what remains of the former Motor City sees Jamie incorporating shades of Motown and early techno into his spiky brew of multi-cultural English urban pop… think again. “Funnily, when I write abroad it has the effect of making me more Anglophile musically. When you step out of your environment you become more aware of your own identity. Hence songs like ‘Tescoland’. This record, to me, sounds quite English.”
When work on Trick commenced, Jamie did have a theme in mind. But art, digression and a creative desire to “shed some light in the dark” intervened. “The original idea was to write a Summer record, but not what immediately comes to mind when you say Summer. A really hot, oppressive London Summer. Claustrophobic and dark. And Trick certainly ends like that and begins like that, but in the middle it flows around a bit. I felt that a whole record of that vibe would be incredibly heavy.”
‘Heavy’ neatly describes the choice of first single and opening track. ‘Tinfoil Boy’ establishes the theme, names the album (“Summer times you feel like a trick/Like a hangman word that know one ever gets”), and glowers malevolently as it examines the dark underbelly of loyal friendship. As Jamie explains: “The song is based around the idea of unconditional love, and finding the heart to be there for someone, even if their behaviour is becoming an issue for you.”
A young dog can teach himself new tricks, and ‘Tinfoil Boy’ features the first appearance of a new Jamie sound source, inspired, as is so often the case, by a ‘70s-vintage icon. “When I was very young I started listening to Kate Bush and I loved these kind of cinematic things she would put together. For this album I got a couple of friends who are actors in, sat them in the vocal booth, and told them to say this or that in certain ways, and recorded tons of it. So I made my own samples, basically. The voice on ‘Tinfoil Boy’ is a mix of some of the things I got from my friend Florence in half-a-day in the studio. She says, ‘Wear me down/Use me up/You crack my lips/You burn in my chest/I don’t want you to see me cry/I don’t wanna give you the satisfaction.” Florence is playing the friend who is feeling used in that situation.”
Elsewhere on Trick, Jamie heads back into the dread zone of English history for both the song ‘Solomon Eagle’ and the album’s evocative, Biblically-inclined cover art. Eagle was a real-life Londoner, originally a Quaker musician named Solomon Eccles, who attained mythical status by spreading righteous apocalyptic doom on the streets of London as it perished in the grip of the Bubonic Plague in 1665. “People would take their dead to St Paul’s Cathedral, and Eagle would walk among them wearing a loin-cloth and a burning urn on his head telling them that the reason this was happening to them was because they were living in a den of iniquity, and that they were all going to Hell because of the shit they’d done within the city. I thought he was an interesting character. I almost saw him in the present day as a ragga MC – a prophet of doom berating us for our greed. I was trying to make it sound like a RZA production. Harder than it looks.”
Those who missed Jamie’s rap skills – though the man himself prefers to call it “fast wordplay” – on Carry On The Grudge will be delighted to hear the boy spit rhymes on the likes of the electro-flecked ‘Drone Strike’. “I did write Carry On The Grudge with a feeling of one arm tied behind my back,” admits Jamie. “I loosened my arm this time around and that’s been a liberation. Denying who you are in order to move forward is a good thing. But I was in danger of going too far and forgetting what I enjoy. And I’m suddenly sitting there holding a mandolin going, ‘What am I doing?’ The point of making records is to put new feathers in your cap. You’re not meant to lose things.”
Which is perhaps why a line from ‘Tescoland’ – an ironic dig at the mythical misunderstandings between Limeys and Yanks which Jamie describes as, “a Jam song dressed in Clash clothing” – feels like a neat summing-up of the last seven or so years of Jamie’s life and career: ‘Every plan I make is meant to take me further away/But I always end up back at home’. “What can I say?,” Jamie laughs. “It’s the love-hate relationship I have with London. I think that I would rather be anywhere else, but when I get somewhere else I pine to be back here. And that’s probably the same with my songwriting.”