Friday, 12 June 2009
Jamie T Interview
Billy Bragg once said, “I don’t mind being labelled a political songwriter – what upsets me is being dismissed as a political songwriter.”
Bragg had politics to write about. He musically came of age when Thatcher was doing one over on every working man that moved, Russia was giving off the nuclear farts of the decomposing Cold War, and people still believed in protest. These days British democracy means being governed by a slack-jawed mushroom who was neither elected nor validated by the public before he gained the authority to place the burden of billions of pounds of debt on its shoulders, nationalise the banks and remain in office while his entire cabinet – and the entire government – rot away around him in scandal.
Thus apathy has replaced activism in the universal attitude to the regime. Jamie T might carry the punk ethic and street serialising of Bragg into this century, but he point blank refuses to be directly political, in songs or in conversation. “I don’t talk about politics because I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he says, blue eyes flashing defensively on a pub terrace in Wimbledon. Presumably then, this is a one-dimensional view of suburbia – all beer, fights, fag and girls? “It’s sad to think that people think that’s all it is – beer, fights… I’ve got a wider perspective than that. I think it’s more important to know how you feel about a situation than to know what you’re fucking talking about. Your daily life comes from a lot of things, a lot of things can affect you, and I don’t think my life is just about beer, fights and cigarettes.”
A little riled, he slurps on his Kronenburg and leans back to light up, in illustration. This is Bragg in reverse: this is politics for the attention-deficient solipsists of a disenfranchised generation – and the only politics they know.
“If I find myself in two years in a mansion having a chat with Mariah Carey then I’ll write about that,” says Jamie of his consistency, “but until that happens I’ll write about the things around me. And no, it hasn’t changed all that much. I think you’d probably know if it had – you’d hear it.”
What you will hear on the Sticks ‘n’ Stones EP on June 29 and forthcoming album Kings and Queens is the same soundbitten street-life, wrapped up in cling-film choruses to sing along to. Jamie’s muses still scuff their shoes on suburban pavements and find mischief in their safe, symmetrical confines. His personal vaudeville is a stage for many players, guest starring, for this series, the gun-toting Emily, the cocky counsel of Joey, and the usual chorus of nameless mates with drug habits and attitude problems.
Four years since Panic Prevention’s schizophrenic mix of beats, punk and raw acoustics and the chain-smoking 23-year-old is still, by his own admission “a cheeky little git,” only now he’s got a top ten album, Mercury nomination, and Best Solo Artist award from the NME, no less. “I suppose it’s difficult when you have to deal with so many people’s opinions and people asking you who you are and what the fuck you think you’re doing,” he comments in a voice that implies he never gave it a second thought. “But once I came to the agreement with myself – early on – that I was going to do whatever I wanted, I didn’t worry about any of that. I didn’t feel particularly part of the limelight in any kind of manner, you know. I feel really part of being in a dark room for seven hours a day and writing music.”
Don’t let the south London accent and wide boy affectations fool you - Jamie Treays is a good boy come good. Raised by supportive parents and educated at private schools, he describes feeling like a ‘Vietnam veteran’ when he came back from touring Panic Prevention and wasn’t supplied nightly with a rider of carrots, hummus and pitta bread – hardly the diet of lager and snuff you might expect. He still lives in his hometown of Wimbledon, twenty minutes from his parents’, with his mate and the big brother who can be held responsible for his first musical outing. “My brother wanted to play the drums and I fucking hated my brother, so that’s when I decided I was going to play the drums to piss him off. He had a little cry about it,” says Jamie, “and after that it becomes your identity as a kid if you start doing something – it becomes what you do.”
What Jamie did was listen to a lot of records – a lot of ska and punk, and then a lot of garage and UK hip hop. But it started with ska. “Back then I was into a lot of Desmond Dekker and stuff like that, constantly trying to work out how it sounded so good – I still haven’t worked it out. So I spent a lot of time locked away, to some extent, having a lot of fun and going [he puts on a Dick Dastardly voice] “shut up, go away, I don’t like you! I like Desmond much more, you’re an idiot!””
Plenty of clean little white boys have appropriated music in their bedrooms. Few sign five-album deals with Virgin. Even fewer stop snivelling over acoustic guitars and write songs that become biting social commentaries better than any government white paper.
“I’ve always known I wanted to do music,” Jamie says, matter-of-fact. “I like doing graphics and a lot of that arty kind of shit. I’ve always been into that stuff, and that goes with doing it your own way. It’s better to do it your own way because if it’s not good then you’ve only got yourself to blame, and that’s what you want. Fuck pointing fingers.”
It seems Jamie T always left the finger-pointing and fisticuffs – political and otherwise – to others. Doesn’t he ever plan to turn his hand to the bigger picture? “We’ll have to see, won’t we? We’ll have to see. I’d rather talk about what’s going on at the moment than think about writing iconic epic songs that have world meaning. Leave that to Bono.”
Funny thing is, for all his apolitical posturing, Jamie T speaks for the streets better than any politician. Just don’t tell him that.