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Escape Velocity

Positive Force: An Interview With Jam City
Christian Eede , March 19th, 2015 12:19

On his new album Dream A Garden, Jack Latham has taken a vocal stance in addressing political apathy and capitalist exploitation in his most direct work to date. In an in-depth conversation, Christian Eede meets him to find out why he's trying to translate his anger into optimism

Confidence in British politics currently sits at an all-time low as a sizeable chunk of the UK's younger generation resigns itself to a cycle of apathy, trust in the so-called powers that be slowly eroded by a wave of shattered promises, unrepresentative voices, capitalist greed and disregarded protest movements. The pervasive political blather of 21st-century governance is enough to wear us all down, to retreat, to give up. "No hope, no future, a constant war raging in the peripheries," read a message accompanying the announcement earlier this year of the second album from Jack Latham, better known as Jam City. It went on: "They want us to be sad, they want us to be selfish, they want us to be unhappy, so we Dream A Garden, its weeds quietly gatecrash this world."

And so, we have Dream A Garden. Born of an active desire to push back against those aforementioned evils, Latham offers an alternative to the "you're shouting at me, so I'm gonna shout louder" form of protest, as he puts it, that we've largely come to know. "At Earthly, we played a loop of David Cameron denying the housing crisis existed and people were booing him," Latham tells me of his Earthly IV party, which took place at London's Corsica Studios earlier this month. "Then it dropped into Ward 21 and everyone went nuts." That experience just about captures his approach to this new album. Protest should still, of course, be a very impassioned beast, but, Latham asks, "how do we make fighting oppression beautiful, calming and healing, as well as angry?"

Dream A Garden is an attempt to get to grips with that idea, its nine tracks unashamedly and unequivocally baring his motivations. 'Crisis', for example, takes aim at one of today's most ubiquitous symbols of the pockets of gentrification sweeping across London in its lyric: "You sigh under a pink sky, spit at another Foxtons sign", while 'Unhappy' sets its sights on the most corruptive elements of online porn: "And he says 'soon, we'll get used to treating each other like the ones you - that you watch on XTube.'"

It's fair to say that the latter, revealed last October, days before Latham's first ever Jam City live set at Unsound festival in Kraków, initially left a number of the most vocal people online slightly nonplussed, its post-punk leanings firmly on sight and Latham's vocals far more apparent than on previous efforts. "Different to what you might expect" seemed to be the majority verdict, particularly in light of his 2013 Club Constructions Vol. 6 EP and debut album, 2012's Classical Curves, which sparked a wave of similar production aesthetics and only now appears to be getting the status it deserves. That album, however, lacked something for Latham, he tells me: not quite grappling with the human element of the greedy, consumerist society we find ourselves in, and the prevailing notion that the personal is the political.

The third instalment in Latham's Earthly mix series, shared a few short weeks before 'Unhappy', was as good a hint as any of what was to come though. Blending less club-friendly selections in The Cure, Joni Mitchell and The Pop Group, among others, with quotes from writers and activists such as bell hooks and Angela Davis, as well as from the opposition, as it were, in David Cameron's measly post-riots response and 'vlogger' Zoella's mind-numbing ode to shopping sprees, going back to Earthly III now makes Dream A Garden seem a considerably more telling listen. As Latham says, this album is the logical next step; a move to leave no doubts as to his intentions and to, most importantly, contribute to a more optimistic conversation on how we can truly open up new, radical outlets of expression for all. Leaving the last word to Latham on that note, "if you're coming to the next Earthly party and you think it's OK to grope girls, please tear up your ticket now".

I've noticed some people describing Dream A Garden as a U-turn or a new start, but do you think that has been overstated?

Jack Latham: I understand that people are gonna think it's different. I'm expecting that, it's natural. To me, it's not necessarily a U-turn, but it's more just like the path has bent slightly in another direction, so it's not a totally different thing, but it's just the next thing. I always say that the people who really know me, when they first heard it, they were like 'oh, of course'. There was a lot of guitar on Classical Curves. It was just processed slightly differently. It's what happens when you take that sort of sound and you allow it to be vulnerable, to change and unravel and spill over into something else.

There was never a vision to completely pack everything up. Things began naturally moving in that direction and before you know it, it's quite late in the process, when you're really finishing up the record, that you can see where you're at and see where it's different, but where it has similarities as well. So, to me, it's still very much connected to the first album sonically. I don't think I'd describe it as a U-turn, but maybe just a 90-degree turn.

I've also seen a suggestion that Dream A Garden is the result of you having something to say, but do you feel that possibly does a disservice to your past work?

JL: Not necessarily. I guess Classical Curves, in some ways, was trying to talk about the world that we live in. But, it's quite superficial - I don't mean that in a bad way - in that it only really grasps the surface and you find it's a record about being repulsed and fascinated by the glossy surfaces of a certain 'high-end', hyper-capitalist consumer society, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. It lacked a certain vocabulary to try and talk about things on a more personal level; talk about how that world and its accompanying visual culture are part of a larger system of violence and suffering that affects all of us on a really intimate level. We don't really have the luxury or time anymore to just be repulsed and fascinated by it; it's time now to really be clear about what side of the line you stand on.

In that interim period between Classical Curves and work on Dream A Garden, can you trace a particular turning point that led to what you've ended up with?

JL: I don't think it was just one thing. I didn't have a lightbulb moment. It came out of gradual changes in my personal life and the lives of friends around me. I was also really lucky and privileged in the sense that I had the time to be able to think about things more and I was lucky enough to have the kind of friends that could put me onto the right path in terms of the educational process. I'm still not there yet; it's a slow learning process, with things beginning to clarify in my mind as the record was getting made.

A particular shift I can see with the campaign around this album is that you, yourself, are more visually present than before, so was that an intentional act?

JL: That was a serious decision. I think one of the things that I found getting into producing and DJing is that it seemed to afford you quite a lot of anonymity and autonomy and, initially, that was quite nice because you could make music and escape certain things; the focus was just on the tunes. But, at the same time, I think that can get a little out of control at times and the anonymity, the desire to not be seen, you begin to question that. I think that because of the culture we live in, we place such emphasis on idealised bodies and faces that, even in the underground, we're beginning to confuse producers with celebrities and models. You are forced into having a visible public profile, especially if you're a woman. So, it's inevitable that some people are gonna want to hide - why should they have to come out of the shadows? But, it begins to become a problem when you steal someone else's identity as a way of dealing with that.

So, if I'm going to be singing these songs and trying to put forward a message of being comfortable with yourself and learning to love yourself and others, I obviously have to start by being in the video and singing on the record; no alter-egos, no pseudonyms, just having an image that I'm happy and comfortable with. You make the music you want to hear, and you make the images you want to see; fuck the standards.

I suppose anonymity is a constant in electronic music, particularly where, for example, you find that there's a growing number of male producers using female monikers and hiding behind that.

JL: I think this is a symptom of how alienated men have become from women in our society. What is that impulse to hide behind a female alias? Gender roles are frustratingly narrow for men too, so I understand the want to create some version of yourself outside of that, but what we end up with is this disguising of identity and male privilege with the narrowest possible idea of what 'femininity' is. Like you said, it's anonymous.

Women are presented as nothing but beautiful, silent objects to look at, costumes to put on. If it feels like it's easier for a male artist to take a female name purely for aesthetic purposes, rather than actually collaborate with them and write a song together, then we've got a serious problem. Capitalist advertising culture and pornography, these are avenues in which women are reduced to objects and it's disgraceful, but this kind of thinking is so embedded and normalised in our culture that it's beginning to appear in our tiny, little corner of underground music. If we could have more open public conversations between men and women about this then maybe we could put a barrier up in our scene against all those mainstream ideas and say: "No normative culture here, this is the underground - please go away."

There's some very gentle, unoppressive moments on Dream A Garden, for me, but, at the same time, it's a 'statement record', so were you conscious of this in combining these two often inverse ideas?

JL: I think that's the only way you can do it because otherwise it just drains you. It's incredibly important to learn about these issues as I'm finding. But, it can suck your energy dry and be really demoralising, and that's just thinking about it. So, then the question is: 'How do we offer an alternative?' How do we make fighting oppression beautiful, calming and healing, as well as angry? I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way, that music helps them get through the day and it's a coping mechanism, a way of transcending daily struggles and feeling like there are other voices out there that understand what you're going through. So, it's the same thing; you have to acknowledge that violence, but come at it with a force of peace and be unoppressive, as you said.

So, putting forward a sonic demonstration of the messages that you want to put across…

JL: Yeah, when we get politically angry and get angry at the stuff that is happening in London where there are people getting forced out of the homes that they've lived in for decades because there's a bunch of pricks that are just greedy, greedy, greedy and don't give a fuck about families or any of that, and when we find ourselves getting angry at politicians, bankers, warmongers, maybe there's a way that we can make that anger beautiful and turn it into a positive force. It can be warm and intimate rather than a case of 'you're shouting at me, so I'm gonna shout louder'. It's important to find loads of different emotional avenues of political expression.

You laid out your intentions with this album very early on, so the themes were always very upfront. Was it important that the agenda was on the table from the start?

JL: I think so, because there's nothing more frustrating, as an artist, than when you're misunderstood. People can have different interpretations, but when you put all this effort into making a record that was, for you, an attempt to deal with, and cope with, quite an oppressive political reality which we're all living under at the moment, to have that ignored would be a total waste. To have the privilege of this small but existent platform in which I can make music and it be heard by people, I'm trying to say things and reach out to other people. It's all too easy in the system we live in for art products, and music specifically which does have a political message, to be completely glossed over, or eaten up and forgotten about. So, I think, sometimes, you do just have to be more upfront about it.

Quite ironically, when I approach these kinds of ultimately optimistic ideas, the natural reaction for me is to ask how you deal with the kind of cynicism that so many, sometimes including myself, will come back with, perhaps saying that those concepts are idealised or unrealistic?

JL: I do idealise and I am unrealistic. I'm completely unrealistic and ambitious. It's way more fun that way. I don't know how to change the world and an album isn't gonna do that. That's not really the point, so it's pointless getting cynical about my work. I hate that thing where people see the violence, the unfairness and exploitation, disagree with it wholeheartedly, then say, 'Yeah, this is terrible, but what are you gonna do? That's just the way it is'. The hardest thing is to say: 'Well, what if? What if it wasn't like that? What if it doesn't have to be like that?' You don't have to have an answer and I don't necessarily have one. I'm saying that I'm pissed off and a lot of people I know are too and they're really depressed and unhappy. I love seeing people use their practice, be they an artist, a musician, a journalist, to push back and say, 'No, fuck off mate, I reckon we can do better than this'. Let's have a go; at the very least, we can then have a conversation about it.

I was in New York at the time of the Ferguson protests, and you won't believe how many people started off as spectators, filming on their phones, only to end up shouting and marching with us for the rest of the night. Cynicism can wear off very quickly; it's a luxury. If you're cynical, that's exactly what the people in power want because then nothing will change. You'll just accept and then you'll probably vote Tory in the next election. Allow yourself to not be cynical is all I can say. I know it's hard, because I can be very cynical too. But, it's gonna be a beautiful noise we'll make trying to reject cynicism and imagine a better world. Even if it doesn't go anywhere, it's gonna be a beautiful and wild ride, so anyone that wants to join me, you're more than welcome [laughs].

Honing in on the visual imagery of the 'Unhappy' video and the mini-site launched alongside the album announcement, one of the elements seemed to be around the warped, conventional gender norms established under capitalism, so does that form an important basis of the issues you're challenging?

JL: I guess I would consider myself a feminist. I don't think I could always have said that, but I've luckily had people in my life that have steered me in the right direction. I think it's important though, that if you're a man and you call yourself a feminist, you have to ask yourself where your voice fits into that debate. I guess what I believe is that there is a massive unanswered question around men's mental health, and it's an issue that's inseparable from the misogynistic, patriarchal culture that oppresses women. bell hooks talks about this in The Will To Change and says that in order for men to gain the privilege of being the dominant ones in the patriarchal system, they have to be effectively broken down and surrender their sensitivity; they are brutalised into joining an army that doesn't care about their wellbeing. That's definitely not to say that we should prioritise men's mental health over women's in that debate, but rather that, as a man who deeply loves and respects the women in his life, the most powerful and helpful thing you can do is take a look at yourself and your male friends. Living in the UK at least, we're dealing with the complete privatisation of public space and what comes with that is a proliferation of ideals from rich white men in advertising that are deeply sexist, racist and classist.

The 'Unhappy' video is a sci-fi film. Canela Blue Roan, who directed the video, and I wanted to take reality and distort it. She sees the world with far more clarity and imagination than I ever could, and was able to locate where these patriarchal, masculine ideals sit in the advertising environments we walk through every day, and expose how damaging they are to young men and women. Making the album, my personal space was invaded daily by the same violent, boring images, online and walking through the city. They're so unapologetic now as well, it's getting worse. I saw an ad for a gym the other day and there's this huge, muscle-y guy, totally exhausted, kind of post-workout/post-orgasm, and the tagline is 'punish yourself', and it's just like, men really don't need to be taught to punish themselves, they're on the brink already. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be punished, I want to be loved.

This is all reflected in just how high suicide rates are among young men.

JL: Exactly. This system is not working, nobody is truly benefitting. People may benefit with wealth, money, power, but they are truly broken people inside. Those issues that men have come from the very same system that is built around their dominance.

There's also the imagery of war and government control in the 'Unhappy' video. There seems to be a pervasive view that to critique the 'heroes' of the army and put that system under scrutiny is wrong, which I think leads to a dearth of critical thought, so was that an issue you were looking to tackle?

JL: Like you were saying about cynicism to change, it's the same with the military. We've been taught to believe war is an ugly but necessary part of human nature. I was 13 when we went to war in Iraq and I went on the protest in my town and there wasn't a huge number of people there, but I saw the footage of the mass protests in central London and thought, 'Nah, it can't happen', and yet it did. Look what happened - it was a fucking disaster and so many innocent lives were lost, and we're living with the consequences today. I understand the cynicism because we've got to a stage where our generation has grown up with fierce anti-war ideals, but they were just dashed away. That's what the line in 'Unhappy' is about: 'We'll regret growing up in total war'.

The point where it gets really dangerous is when we give in to that cynicism and war becomes normal to us. When war becomes naturalised, then you're living in a fascist state because it accepts that as the norm. I was reading a book - let me see if I've got it here - it's called Spectacle, Reality, Resistance, by David Gee. It was given to me by a good friend, and in it, Gee talks about that idea of war being sold to us as a norm. It's everywhere, in the movies we watch, computer games, on packets of food. I mention the book because it's putting it better than I ever could, so if anyone wants to understand this more, read this book; it's an easy read, not too big.

On a fairly bold note, with regard to the 'CLASS WAR' slogan on your jacket in the 'Unhappy' video, do you think that is what it will take to truly break these systems of oppression down?

JL: Well, the idea of a class war can mean different things to different people. To fight against fascism is a class war, to fight for gender equality is a class war too. Any system that is hierarchical is vulnerable to a class war, because it places one group at the top, and another at the bottom. It doesn't matter what background you come from, we all have the potential to be class warriors, as long as we truly believe in equality and see how these interconnected systems of oppression touch on even the most private aspects of all our lives. So, the record is about the personal effects of living in that system rather than setting out, say, a plan on how we can change it, because I'm unsure of what that would look like right now.

We can make a start though by re-orientating ourselves and our environments according to principles of love, support, community and understanding. That's why there's that banner of 'Love Is Resistance'. It's the starting point and it's the best starting point you can have because the people in power at the moment don't want us to be in love. The warmongers, the politicians, the bankers, the pornographers, the advertisers, they don't want people to be in love, because if we are, it complicates our roles as subordinates. Self-love can give us agency, if that makes sense. If you're truly in love, you learn how to not be selfish, and that frightens the people at the top who believe in greed.

Musically speaking as well, in terms of mainstream audiences, it only seems to be getting more and more homogenised and representative of one type of voice, particularly due to cuts to art funding, etc.

JL: Yeah, and in the past, the kinds of environments that allowed, say, punk to happen and then rave, jungle, even grime, like music workshops and youth clubs, even higher education, have all been systematically dismantled. That obviously has a profound impact on culture and homogenises things.

I wanted to speak a little about titling on the album, like 'Black Friday' for example, which I'm guessing references those clips of people fighting in supermarkets late last year?

JL: It was written before that, but the lyrics come from the point of view of myself, as a consumer, as we all are. It's about how our emotional investment is exploited by consumption in the promise that buying something will make us happier, but it doesn't and we get hurt in the process. We often don't get anything in return, emotionally, for that.

Gail Dines makes this point really well in her book about pornography [Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality], where she talks about how the loneliness that so many young men feel in their lives is exploited by the promise of sexual intimacy via watching pornography. You consume the image, want to feel something, but ultimately you feel nothing. You don't get anything back. Your sexual and emotional investment is stolen from you, then sold back to you at half price.

Taking a more general approach to titling, you've spoken recently about Dream A Garden being an ultimately optimistic album, but there are words in there that are naturally viewed as negative: 'Unhappy', 'Damage' and 'Crisis'.

JL: They can have double meanings I reckon. When the riots happened in Peckham, and the street that you walk down everyday is suddenly empty and there's a line of riot police on one side and then the community, that you are a part of, is on the other, represented by all different walks of life, protesting about the murder of Mark Duggan, screaming at the police, in that moment, your sense of reality is completely altered. The energy that you feel from being united by a common cause, people demanding justice, is very powerful. So 'Crisis', for example, is about when those forces of anger and love coincide, when people come together and demand justice. You can't not feel optimistic in those moments, even if they are fleeting.

The riots were, of course, another example where those in power sought to sweep deeply set issues under the carpet.

JL: Yeah, we were told to just forget about it and there was 'Operation Riot Clean-Up'. There were so many voices in the community that were trying to say, 'Look, this is why this happened, and it's going to happen again', but the government response was, 'No, water cannons'. It was massively eye-opening for me, particularly with it on my doorstep, and you don't see things the same way after that.

With the intention of putting forward an optimistic outlook, that all obviously shines through with the idea of Dream A Garden as a title.

JL: Our dreams aren't colonised yet and all kinds of things are possible in them. Sometimes it's a coping mechanism where we dream just to get through the day, but there is an amazing, emancipatory quality in dreaming and imagining things, asking impossible questions. Just the act of putting ideas down on paper is a positive thing regardless of what comes of it, which is what I would say to other people who, like myself, might struggle to find a language to express their sense of disaffection. Just making that first mark on paper is a positive act in itself, it's affirmative.

It has been pointed out a little that your vocals are fairly low in the mix, submerged in the various layers of the instrumentation, which you described as a sonic choice, but were you also conscious of not wanting to force the rhetoric too heavily?

JL: It's definitely a personal choice and people will have their own thoughts on what suits their voice. I like to bury it in the mix with a lot of chorus and flange on it because that just sounds nice to me. It's all about finding a style that you're comfortable with, and that can be swamping the vocals in reverb or presenting them completely dry and upfront. I was listening to it again recently, and, in a way, it sounded like a voice that is trying to make itself heard, but isn't always heard. Sometimes it does break through, sometimes it doesn't. I like that effect.

How reliant do you think Dream A Garden is on the lyrical content in conveying the concepts that you're putting across then?

JL: I think allowing your vocals to be swamped or trampled a bit links with the idea that it's difficult to remain optimistic, but the initial impetus for using my voice was it being the most direct way to work out what I'm feeling and why I feel that way. I feel optimistic when I sing. It's the quickest and most emotionally resonant way for working out a lot of things. My way into thinking about these problems is very emotional, rather than studied. A friend said to me recently that she learned about political history by looking at the art of that period and having an emotional connection to that and I guess that works both ways. So, my way into writing this album was by being moved by the experiences that I've had, learned about or that people have told me about.

Dream A Garden is out on March 23 via Night Slugs