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Escape Velocity

Elegance & Savagery: The Jim Jones Revue Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , May 7th, 2013 07:59

London rock & roll firebrands The Jim Jones Revue play a four-night residency at the Sebright Arms this week. Ahead of the gigs, they sit down with Julian Marszalek to discuss the rigors of touring and the importance of drawing inspiration from relevant current issues

It's hard to tell what hits hardest first: is it the sheer volume of the music that threatens to overwhelm, or could it be the visceral ferocity of the performance? In any case, the result is glorious chaos. Amid a sea of flailing arms and bopping feet, tables and chairs are flung in all directions, making space for minds and bodies to explode into frenzied dancing. All around, the sheer amount of energy released from the audience takes on a cathartic, almost magickal quality.

The cause of these explosive scenes is The Jim Jones Revue. This is a band that doesn't so much start a set as combust from the first note, and keeps on burning with a coruscating intensity until the final notes are wrung from punished instruments. In between shredding his larynx, frontman Jim Jones – formerly of the criminally underrated Thee Hypnotics and Black Moses – takes to tables as he coaxes a series of overdriven chords and notes from his guitar. To his right, guitarist Rupert Orton lets rip with a series of serrated riffs and breaks, his sustained attack refusing to let up throughout. Behind them are the solid rhythm section of bassist Gavin Jay and drummer Nick Jones, while the barrelhouse piano of Henri Herbert rolls like a runaway train hurtling at speed along a greased railway track.

Even at the Quietus' first encounter with these reprobates in the upstairs room of a Leytonstone boozer just before Christmas 2008, it was obvious that The Jim Jones Revue were destined for greater things. They may have played to about only 100 people that night, but they could've entertained 10,000 without much more effort. Since then, they've released three albums – an eponymous debut, its follow-up Burning Your House Down, and last year's The Savage Heart – and with each album they've built and expanded what's gone on before it. While the first album, an unholy blend of Little Richard and The MC5, was a sledgehammer of sound with a mix so violent it could've been arrested for affray, The Savage Heart showcases a band willing to explore and expand its vernacular. It's recognisably them – the volume and the power are certainly present and correct – but there's a newly found subtlety and dynamic range that the band's previous incarnation had barely hinted at.

But it's been a far from easy journey. Along the way the group lost a key band member in circumstances that almost brought about their premature demise, but his replacement ensures that they still maintain a schedule that would terrify bands half their age (and, let's face it, half the talent) into getting the jobs that they've been avoiding. Indeed, it's a programme so hectic that this interview is taking place well over two years since it was first planned.

The Quietus meets with Jim Jones and Rupert Orton in an East End café not too far from their rehearsal space. Though they've both enjoyed a recent break from band activity, the pair are freshly returned from the Kliko Festival in Holland, where they shared a bill with fellow rock & roll evangelists Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and compatriots Little Barrie. Their next batch of dates across Europe have been finalised, but before all that is the not-so-small matter of a four-night residency at East London's The Sebright Arms - beginning tomorrow, Wednesday 8th May - which will see the band augmented by a variety of guests as they return to their roots.

The first music that I got into as a kid was 50s rock & roll, thanks to my mum spinning Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits. When did you first encounter that music and what effect did it have on you?

Jim Jones: I heard it first generation, too. It must have been some time in the 70s when they introduced the hi-fi, the music centre. My mum and dad got one with the cassette deck, turntable and the tuner, all in one, and it was the future. And when they got that, I inherited the old Dansette, the thing with the lid that smelled of valves, and there was a box of records that went with it. Luckily for me there were a lot of good ones in there, a load of 78s and 45s that included Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Larry Williams and a bunch of quite random stuff that was quite good, too. They belonged to my dad and uncle, who'd grown up through the 50s and the early 60s.

Rupert Orton: The first music I remember hearing was rock & roll by osmosis. It was glam rock and watching it on Top of the Pops – Slade and The Glitter Band and things like that. I didn't know that that was directly related to rock & roll, I just knew that I liked it, but I was too young to put the references together. When I heard rock & roll, I think it was something like 'Jailhouse Rock' and a load of 45s, similar to Jim's experience. I thought, right, this is all starting to connect! I still hear the really early Elvis stuff and even the glam stuff, like Slade or Suzi Quatro or whatever and it still sends a chill down my spine.

JJ: They seem so perfect when you hear them. There's nothing like them, and they just haven't got anything wrong about them. All the right ingredients are there.

RO: Yeah. You had Chinn & Chapman and all the other guys writing and producing this stuff and they all knew how to make the perfect rock & roll record. I think that on our first album [The Jim Jones Revue] it all kind of unwittingly came out. It wasn't contrived. Even on The Savage Heart we were determined to embrace Gary Glitter, we weren't going to cut that off. It was like, it fucking worked then, and it still works now. OK, he's got his problems, but from a production point of view, [the stuff] he did with Mike Leander. We were telling Nick [Jones, drummer], 'You got to embrace your inner Gary Glitter!' and he was like, 'oh my God!' There's elements of that, but I think it's something that we've absorbed and it naturally comes out whether we want it to or not.

You seem to be permanently on tour and you're easily one of the hardest working bands around. Is this down to necessity or instinct?

JJ: It's a bit of both, really. How else do you reach your audience if you're not in your 20s and doing something trendy? If you want people to embrace you, then you have to go out and do the work.

RO: I think there's also a traditional element to what we do which is entertaining people and playing. The Stones used to do three shows a day and tour for three months solid. And that's not really in comparison to what we do. The Stax guys used to do it as well. But it's not that hard. It's not like we're in fucking Afghanistan dodging bullets; we're out on tour playing music we love.

The thing about your live shows, apart from the intensity of the performance, is the almost evangelical fervour that goes with them. It seems that both band and audience are ready to testify and there's a real sense of communion. Is this a by-product of what you do, or was that always the intent?

JJ: We always intended for the shows to be visceral; that's the whole point. Everyone's on the same page in the band, and there's an understanding that if you don't all put your back into it and spill your guts then you're just a passenger, and we're past that. There's no place for that and we have a chemistry that works for us. But then it's a really fortunate thing that people like our music in that way. Our job is to make sure that we don't lose that chemistry. That whole rock star/audience separation seems quite ridiculous to us. It's unacceptable. It doesn't feel real.

RO: For me, I want The Jim Jones Revue to be the kind of band that I'd like to see. If we do a gig and people want to talk to us then we'll have a chat with them. That's the absolutely logical way of doing things; it's just the way it should be.

You're a band that exudes a high degree of masculinity on stage – and by that I mean that we're clearly watching men and not boys – but you always manage to get the ladies dancing. Is that important to you?

JJ: That happened at our first show and it came as a pleasant surprise for me. As you know - because you go to a lot of gigs yourself - with any music with an aggressive element to it, it's quite rare to see a lot of girls dancing. So you feel like you've struck gold. It's the perfect thing – you're doing music that feels tough but at the same girls are getting into it and dancing. All good rock & roll embodies that.

You're a finely turned out band. How important is sartorial elegance to you?

JJ: Well, we don't want to look shit, really.

RO: There's a traditional element to the band. The music is forward looking, it's relevant to today but there is this traditional element which again goes back to: what do you want to see when you watch band play? You want to see something special; you want to see a show. It goes hand-in-hand with getting up on stage and entertaining people. Rock music, when it's done properly, is as much a visual medium as it is an aural one.

The Savage Heart is the second album with The Bad Seeds' Jim Sclavunos on production duties and the first with keyboards player Henri Herbert. Just how badly was the boat rocked when previous pianist Elliot Mortimer quit?

RO: Very badly.

JJ: It could've ended it, really.

RO: Yeah. It happened right at the end of a tour in December and on the other side of Christmas we had our first tour of Australia lined up – The Big Day Out festival at the end of January – and we also had the US lined up and SXSW, we had a big UK tour. He said he wasn't happy in the band and that he didn't like the live work we were doing because obviously it was quite a gruelling schedule and we said, 'Fine, we'll find someone else to take your place, but we'll need a few months to do that', and he left at the end of that tour. Boom! He was gone! And he was in pieces. And the band could've finished there and then. It was really serious.

How do you pick yourself up from a blow like that?

RO: I didn't. I got on the phone as soon as I got back to London and I called and I called until I got Henri. It took about a month to get to that point and I not only got Henri but I also got a guy to cover us in Australia and a guy to cover us in the US as well. As far as I was concerned there was no way the band was ending. I got through to a number of people that created a trail that led to Henri. And he was the right person. But it could have been catastrophic.

JJ: When Henri first came out with us it was on a 'let's see how this works out' kind of thing, but by the end of the first month we all agreed that [clicks fingers] he's got it! We were just super lucky, because what he was looking for was what we wanted.

There's an incredible amount of space on The Savage Heart that wasn't evident in your earliest recordings. It's almost like you could climb into the album, and walk around the players and tracks like 'In and Out of Harm's Way' are miles away from where you started. How did you get to that place?

JJ: That's where we wanted to go. It's flattering to hear you say that, because that's what we were aiming for. We asked ourselves, 'What do we want from the new album?' It had to be different from the first two, and we've got to go somewhere that still feels valid to us, and it's got to be something that we care about and believe in. It took some work to get there, but we've worked quite hard to figure where we can go next.

RO: We mixed a lot of things into the creative process. Just from the writing side of things, we really wanted to push things out. We recorded in a residential studio which we'd never done before, and Sclavunos was really instrumental in bringing out the best performances in us. We then went to Edwyn Collins' studio to work in the opposite way from the residential studio, and it was a complete Aladdin's cave of analogue equipment. And then after that we took it to Jim Abbiss to mix it at a very modern studio, and there were all these different processes creating it into what it is. It was completely different to how we'd done the previous two records.

What does Jim Sclavunos bring to the party?

JJ: He's the person we needed to help push us and take us out of our comfort zone. Having someone like him means we have someone we can trust to oversee everything so that you can feel free but also that you don't go too far in the wrong direction. He's always worked on stuff that's always had an interesting twist on it, in terms of experimenting; he played with Sonic Youth, and he's firmly ensconced in the Nick Cave camp, and he's played in The Cramps, and he's gone off in the out-there direction and come back from it very successfully. That's why we felt we had someone who had our back covered. It's like having someone overseeing the whole thing and making sure we don't screw up.

RO: But that's the important part of the record: it's still The Jim Jones Revue. We've retained our identity, the energy, the commitment and all the rest of it but we've pushed it in different ways.

The album also takes time to make social commentary, most notably on 'Where Da Money Go?' Do you see that as an artistic responsibility or a natural reaction to what you see around you?,

JJ: It's what we write about, what's going on around us. What we've always tried to do is to have content that's contemporary and current. If you're dealing with something like rock & roll then the obvious reaction is, 'Oh, it's rock & roll, it's pink Cadillacs' but I've seen those cars maybe once or twice in my life, and it's not a part of my everyday life.

I think as an artist you have to write about what's going on in your life and that was one of those things that you can't ignore. I remember from the time the economic crisis started and people were saying, 'Things are looking really bad. We're going to be fucked in about six months' time' and we were going, 'Really? Why? What's happening?' and then more and more you hear it and you see these countries going under and you see it happening with countries like Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. We travel to these countries to play there and we've seen it first-hand. And then when we were in America you started hearing phrases like 'The 99%' and you can't ignore that kind of stuff. It's part of everyone's world. We just happened to write a song about it.

RO: And I think it's also important that the lyrical content of the songs, right from the first album, has always been about personal experience and personal observation. It's not a new thing for us but as Jim says, it's not about Cadillacs. With 'Where Da Money Go', that was a reaction to what was happening around us. It's an expression of what a lot of people are feeling.

JJ: And it doesn't get too heavy politically. It's the kind of comment that anyone would make.

RO: It's a personal political statement, and [asking], how do I personally feel about this situation?

JJ: There were some other songs for the album that ended up being outtakes, but they carried on that theme, and some talked about the riots. And this wasn't just the stuff that we saw on our doorsteps in Hackney, but things that were going on in Moscow when we were there. Putin had just been re-elected and people were kicking off. They were organising themselves through Facebook and the internet and stuff like that.

RO: We played in New York on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and it just seeps in. Mind you, there's a funny story connected to that. We'd flown into New York the day before we were supposed to play a show in Brooklyn, and Ian Hunter was playing a show in Manhattan, and we're all huge Mott The Hoople fans. A friend of ours was singing with him and said, 'Come down, it'll be great', so we're screaming from JFK to get to the show on time and there are all these roadblocks because of the anniversary. And there are all these hardcore New York police going, 'Nothing's going through' and we're saying, 'How are we going to get through? We've got to see Ian Hunter!' so we said to the NYPD, 'Don't you know that we did Letterman a few weeks ago' and they said, 'Right - let them through!' Yeah, Letterman gets you through!

JJ: Yeah! It was like, 'American Express? That'll do nicely.'

RO: And we met Ian Hunter afterwards and it was amazing!

You're about to embark on your intimate four-night at The Sebright Arms. What brought that about?

RO: Well, we've got 'Seven Times Around the Sun' coming out on May 13, and we could've gone back to Shepherd's Bush Empire and done a show there. But much as we love those venues we thought, let's do something special. Let's do something no one's expecting us to do, and The Sebright Arms is literally five minutes around the corner from where we rehearse.

It's a tiny venue and it's like going back to where we started, it's in our home area of Hackney, and let's have some friends play with us and turn it into a memorable event. Emma Richardson from Band of Skulls is going to be on the first night. She booked us really early on, when Band of Skulls were first starting in Southampton. We've also got Holly Cook playing with us on the Saturday with the Rotten Hill Gang, because me and Jim did this film at Mick Jones' studio. And we've got loads of other great people playing too. We've also booked Daniel Jeanrenaud from The Marathon Bar. He's a real rock & roll legend because he used to play with the French band The Crawling Kingsnakes. Oh, and some special guests that we can't tell you about.

Your blog states that you're working on new material. How's that coming along, and when can we expect to hear the results?

RO: Don't know. It'll happen when it happens. We're just working away at it. It's a similar process to The Savage Heart. It'll all suddenly explode and we're working our way towards it.

JJ: Normally you'd wait until it was time to do the album, but when we were working on The Savage Heart we really felt that we turned a tap on with a new stream of creativity, and when it was time to go on tour it was almost a shame to turn that tap off. We've felt like we're trying to jump back to where we were a few months back. We want to keep that ethos, keep pushing and seeing what's out there and keep exploring. I don't feel that we've worked out what our limits are yet, so let's go as far as we can.

The Jim Jones Revue play The Sebright Arms on May 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th. A limited amount of tickets will be available on the door on a first come, first served basis.