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At One With Chaos & Abandonment: The Irrepressibles Interviewed
Joseph Burnett , June 19th, 2014 08:50

Joseph Burnett meets The Irrepressibles' bandleader Jamie McDermott to discuss their Nude album and EP sequence, his extraordinary singing voice, and exploring gender and sexuality through song

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The first thing that hits you when listening to Nude, the superlative second album by London-based art-pop group The Irrepressibles, is the vocal power of lead singer and songwriter Jamie McDermott. McDermott's capacity to wrench heartfelt, overwhelming emotion with every word that emerges from his mouth brings to mind Antony Hegarty, with whom he also shares a penchant for lyrics that openly and honestly explore issues surrounding homosexuality and gender. Over the past few months, The Irrepressibles have been touring incessantly, including a trip to Russia - home of some of the most homophobic laws in Europe - and have also returned to the material on Nude for three EPs that showcase the wide tapestry of the band's sound. Nude: Landscapes, Nude: Viscera and Nude: Forbidden contain alternate versions of tracks from Nude as well as new material and remixes, but they differ wildly from one another, together creating an alternative vision of McDermott's inner and outer world from the original album. The Quietus met with Jamie McDermott to discuss these three differing soundscapes, the honesty of his lyrics and that remarkable voice.

How are you? It seems like it's been a busy year for you…

Jamie McDermott: [Laughs] Yeah, I dunno. It's sort of like heaven and hell at the same time, it's been pretty extreme. For a lot of musicians at the moment, it's like you're making music and managing to get by living on very little. I live on a council estate, which is really quite rough and harsh, and the next extreme is getting on a plane getting booked at the Academy Of Music and hearing opera being played! It's quite extreme for musicians.

Nude, your second album, was released to considerable acclaim in 2012. Could you tell me a little bit about its creation?

JM: It was quite difficult, because we knew we needed to make the second record as soon as we could, as the first had come out in 2010 and there was quite a lot of pressure to make the second. I wanted to make a very different statement, but also to make it in a way that wasn't contrived. The idea was to do something that was both visually and lyrically honest about my sexuality. I wanted to make something that kind of communicated the experiences I've had growing up as a young gay man. I took songs that I'd written from various times, when I was a lot younger, and felt I could give them an arrangement that would set them in a time. I used 80s and early 90s-style electronics and then, as with Mirror Mirror, I used orchestration, but instead of orchestrating it in a very polyphonic way, I wanted to make something that was a bit more American and filmic. A use of strings that doesn't have a specific style, so I used the strings in a way that was a bit more about memory and time, rather than being set in time.

That's how the record came together, but when we handed it over, we had a difficult process because the label decided they didn't want it, so we had to find a different way of releasing it. And that was a really big challenge. We'd made this thing which, for the time, was very honestly gay in a way that many artists weren't really doing in terms of mainstream music. Now, there have been a lot of artists that have done similar things, even people like Goldfrapp - who's done music that deals with gender and homosexuality - which is fantastic, but at the time, it was a bit like "woahh… ok".

So it's been quite a difficult couple of years, but the finishing line was, for me, performing at the first ever gay wedding in the UK, singing 'Two Men In Love', and performing out in Russia, being part of the movement and meeting with the LGBT resistance. It was really interesting to be involved with the LGBT movement worldwide, including with our videos, which is hard to do with no budget [laughs]. People say "It doesn't look aesthetically very good", and it's like "Yeah, but we don't have any money!"

Could you please give me a bit of background on The Irrepressibles, and how the band was formed?

JM: We've had about two or three incarnations of the band. The first one was back in 2002, and we were a band for about three years until two of them got married and decided to move away. It had been so intense, trying to make a budget work, but we had a great time, running nights such as at Candid and putting on interesting artists. I then went on to do a site-specific performance choir, but someone was trying to do something similar to the Irrepressibles and put an advert on Drowned In Sound, so I got a bit angry and decided to put a band together again. I put an advert out, and ended up with more orchestral instruments. As someone who isn't trained as a composer, I didn't really know what they were, so would just have a listen and then, once they were in my head, I could just sing parts and figure out what to do. That band started in 2005, and we eventually got signed in 2010.

You've recently released three EPs, also called Nude, that sort of reimagine and transform the songs from the Nude album, whilst also combining them with unreleased tracks. What made you decide to return to the Nude recordings?

JM: Well, Nude originally was a record that I'd made by myself as a solo artist, just with guitar and voice, and it was very similar to Nude: Viscera, the second EP. So, when I came to do Nude as a studio album with The Irrepressibles, it was more focused on telling my story as a gay man growing up, so sonically I wanted to bring in elements of electronica as well as carry on the lineage of Mirror Mirror. So, it became a very different record and some tracks didn't fit. It wasn't that they were outtakes, they just didn't fit. There was also a kind of time limit, we needed to get the album finished. But tracks like 'Not Mine' and 'Forbidden' were part of the same message, and I've always wanted to make statement albums and not just the same album over and over again. I want to make different sound worlds with specific messages. So, I felt these songs needed to be released in some way, but they didn't combine into one second record, like a Nude Two.

The stuff that was more rock and more visceral came from a time when I used to be an indie-rock kind of singer. Then there was the stuff that I'd performed solo, versions of 'Arrow' and so on, that were very different versions that I was actually quite nervous of performing without the other musicians. But I did it in Paris, and people were actually quite moved by it and said I should perform that way. It ended up online and people were asking where they could hear these versions, and so there was a reason to release them as well. And then there were the electronic tracks, like 'Forbidden' and 'Edge Of Now' that needed to be put out somehow, especially as we'd had these remixes done. For example, Ghosting Season, the Mancunian duo, did remixes of 'Arrow' and 'Forbidden', and I really love their work, as well as iamamiwhoami, who remixed 'New World'. It seemed like the right thing to do, to create these three EPs, kind of like a band doing a live album, a kind of add-on.

It also allowed us to perform in different ways. A lot of people expect to hear a replication of the album [when it's performed] live, and Nude is symphonic and electronic, with quite medium-scale production values. So, it's quite difficult to replicate onstage. I don't want people to come expecting one thing from the album and then hearing something else, so the idea is that if we release these EPs, people will get an idea of what to expect on tour. So we toured Nude: Landscapes in the UK and the US and then took Nude: Viscera on a more extended tour in the UK. And we're about to do a more expansive tour in the USA. It's kind of blown up a little bit, so we're going out to Tel Aviv and Greece… Eventually, we'll come back and do the full Nude spectacle, so we can do the more visual side of my work as well. It's really nice, though, to play onstage and just be in the moment, rather than as part of something that's very choreographed and set. That's very tight, whereas with just piano and strings, using loop pedals, and with the "rock" EP, there's a chance to be in the moment, which is just great. And I can sing more! Because I fucking love singing [laughs].

You've kind of touched on this, but does each EP represent a different facet of The Irrepressibles, in some way?

JM: It's interesting, because some bands set out with a very specific idea of what they want to do, with a clear mission, but I never did that with The Irrepressibles. The mission statement was always to be like the name is: unrestricted. It can be quite confusing to people, because we've kind of moved from what was a rock-pop style into something that's more electronic or whatever. There isn't a sound of The Irrepressibles. Somebody mentioned that there is a sound that you can hear throughout everything that "says" The Irrepressibles, but in terms of style, I'm completely at one with chaos and abandonment.

Also, I think I've been very much a control freak with The Irrepressibles, but I'm still very interested in collaboration and it's been very interesting to have people remix stuff. I just gave them free reign, and it's the same when we do music videos. We've just done some music for a Shelly Love film. She's making a trilogy of films based on the Forgotten Circus, and I've just written some music for the first short film, which was, in a way, more in the style of Mirror Mirror. It's nice to suddenly be in a room full of orchestral instruments and write just by singing parts while I'm in the room, before going into the studio working with electronics. Maybe it's because I'm gay, but I'm very open! [laughs]

What made you decide on which songs should be performed in a certain way?

JM: Mainly, it was just informed by what they were. On the first EP, people wanted the orchestral version of 'Arrow', before I'd built it up with electronics, so that was already there, same with the live version of 'New World'. Then I was asked to do a cover by an American film company, and I'd never wanted to do covers, so it had to be something that meant something emotionally to me in this time, and 'Always In My Mind' seemed right. I love that song, the sentiment is so powerful.

What is the meaning of each EP's title?

JM: With each title, it kind of has a double concept, it some ways. Nude: Landscapes is to do with expanding the landscapes with loop pedals. All the arrangements are being built on top of each other, so there's a sense, for me - and I know this sounds kind of spiritual! - of there being a line put into the loop that is then a memory that you then build upon, and it becomes a reflection of the memory. I actually really enjoy that way of arranging. I've always done it, really, but the loop has allowed me to really expand that. In 'Arrow', for example, the ending is massively orchestrated: it's got loads of different lines that are to do with emotions. When it's the electronic version, it's quite difficult to hear that, unless it's through a really big speaker system at a concert. So, it's nice to release it in this way. All the arrangements on Nude: Landscapes are to do with expanding landscapes, taking something from minimalism and expanding it into a landscape to do with time and memory.

With Nude: Viscera, it's kind of two things. One, catharsis, so on a track like 'Not Mine', it's something that's very in the stomach and emotionally there, but also in the same sort of place there's sex. So the song is all to do with sex and the visceral, really. They were all written at a time when I was discovering my sexuality, or that were about the end of something. 'Now That My Lover Is Dead' and 'Not Mine' are about the end of a relationship, and they're quite bitter and visceral. It's exploring sex and sexuality, and it's interesting to perform that way, viscerally, onstage, and it just be about not being restrictive, which electronic music can be. I always find electronic music to be like orchestral, because in a way it's quite mystical and magical, but it's also more elemental, like furniture or glass orbs: it's got a shape to it. Working with orchestration is often more linear, where rock music comes from there [points to his stomach].

On the electronic record, Nude: Forbidden, the electronic tracks are all focused on time and memory, and their connections with sexuality. It's darker, and [tied in with] the videos. So, the video for 'Forbidden' is about a boy discovering at a very young age that he's in love with his best friend, whilst 'Edge of Now' is a fucking dance of defiance, with lots of different people from the LGBT community dancing completely naked, so it's not about lifestyle, y'know, putting clothes on to say, like, "I'm a lesbian, this is how I dress, because that's my choice". No, it's stripped bare, completely naked, "this is physically who I am, but this is my sexuality depicted in the video". It was interesting. We had straight guys in the video as well. It's also one of the earliest songs, I wrote it when I was about eighteen, and it's about the bullying I'd experienced. I was bullied viciously, and so it's about trying to break free from the restrictions and constraints people try to put on you. So it's connected to 'Arrow', and to the album.

I have to ask you about your voice. I saw you at Snape Maltings two years back (singing in David Toop's opera Star-Shaped Biscuit), and I found it to be extraordinary, and it's the same on record. How do you achieve such an amazing vocal prowess?

JM: There are a couple of ways of approaching the voice, I think. The way I approach my voice is very Afro-American in its technique. I was trained in rock, soul, gospel and jazz, and was originally a rock singer, and I learned what's called "head-voicing" in Afro-American style, which is just the voice that resonates in the head. In classical music, it's called the countertenor, but it's slightly different in its technique. I was never classically trained. In classical training, a lot of it is to do with control, physically, and it's a very different approach. In Afro-American styles of singing, it's more about letting the diaphragm or the body release, so it allows me to move from head resonance into something that's within a larynx mix, more like a jazz crooner. I never use baritone, I don't really know how to do it. As I used to be a rock singer, I sometimes push my chest forward to use to full voice.

It's all bits that are to do with Afro-American styles of singing, but I think in the context of working with string instruments, it's become a little bit more like a classical countertenor, even if it isn't one. I could never achieve the control, I don't think, in terms of singing so many notes per second. I tried to learn some Schörnberg. Lore Luxembourg, who was also at Snape, tried to get me to sing some Schörnberg, and I was like "Ummmm, I can't read music!" [laughs]. It was very difficult, but she was very adamant I should try. I've always sung, since I was a child, and a lot of singers tend to develop a thing called "singing Tourette's" - we basically can't stop singing, all the time! [laughs] It's obsessive, you're always in your voice, always exploring what it can do, and exploring emotions with it.

You've mentioned your sexuality. Do you feel LGBT artists have a duty, of sorts, to speak out about LGBT issues in their art?

JM: I don't think they have a duty. There's a lot of amazingly talented gay artists, but, I dunno… I can't really say what other people should do, but, for me, it's really upsetting to hear that kids have killed themselves because they were being bullied for being gay. I was viciously bullied, and still do get it - I got hit not long ago on tour, in the street. I get heckled all the time. In this country, we're very lucky, but there's still a lot to do and say. For me it's like, why not express your experience fully through art and music? 'New World', the video and song, are what I experienced. To say that message clearly was important. It's fun to just make music, but I think it's important for LGBT people to make work that communicates their life expressively. I've always thought of pop music as being about communicating something.

Has the reaction to your lyrics been a mostly positive one?

JM: We've had messages from the National Front, we've had Christian groups, and all kinds of things said online. But we've never experienced anything in a big way. When we went to Moscow, it took the technicians eight hours to deal with things technically, we nearly couldn't go onstage. When we did, they refused to turn the sound on, one of the drummers had to throw his sticks to get them to turn on the video for 'Arrow'. I dunno… I'm just kind of in it, I can't really intellectualise it. I've always made music that is honest, I think it's part of my personality. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I've kind of left behind the emotional worry about what I'm saying, because I get so involved in the creative process.

The Irrepressibles' album Nude and the three Nude EPs are all out now

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