INTERVIEW: Jamie Lenman | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“I’d received several warnings from people close to me and most of the people associated with the project – there were lots of people predicting the end of my career…” Jamie Lenman is looking back at the inception of his most recent album, Shuffle, released in July year. “I thought, there’s two ways this can go: it could be the disastrous epitome of self-referential, pretentious egomania, or it could be a bloody masterpiece. We didn’t quite get to the second one, though people reacted very well, and the people that didn’t particularly like it at least understood what I was trying to do.”

So why the controversy? Shuffle, the ex-Reuben front man’s third album, is a covers album. Or perhaps a better term for the record would be a reinterpretations album. Shuffle certainly isn’t what you would expect from a covers record; far from derivative or tacky, it’s an ambitious project that sees Lenman explore a whole variety of media, reimagining not only songs but television themes, film scores and the music from his favourite video game. There’s even a spoken word reading of a chapter from Lenman’s favourite book, Moby Dick, and a scene from his favourite short film, Always Crashing in the Same Car, acted out alongside its original star, Paul McGann. As the title suggests, this record isn’t meant to be enjoyed in chronological order, rather, it encourages the listener to take a dive into Lenman’s brain and explore the patchwork of his inspirations.

“As soon as you listen, you understand it’s not just a lazy case of ‘oh I haven’t got any songs so I’ll just bosh this out’, which is how people tend to view covers albums, which is a shame. I was hoping that with Shuffle I could turn people’s perceptions around regarding the covers album, and no longer see it as an in-between ‘real albums’ knock off, but as a credible piece of art. You never know, we might see someone else that feels emboldened enough to celebrate the music that shapes them in a similar way! Their team and friends will be able to say, ‘no it won’t wreck your career, it didn’t wreck Jamie Lenman’s career,’ to which their rejoinder will be, ‘what career in the first place?!’”

It’s very difficult to create art, but should it be easy? Nothing I’ve ever done that’s worth doing has been easy

Admittedly, on paper, the Popeye theme tune, two Beatles covers, an Adamski and Seal track and a reading from Moby Dick, sounds like an utterly bizarre concoction, but it genuinely works. You can’t help but wonder though, is Shuffle somewhat self-indulgent? “All of it!” laughs Lenman. “I think it’s really self-indulgent! Muscle Memory, the first solo record I put out, is half thrash and half folk – now that’s self-indulgent! It doesn’t mean it’s a bad record, it’s quite a good record, but it’s definitely not my best. Look at my second album Devolver: that’s very concise and taut and even though a lot of it is personal, I don’t think it’s self-indulgent, it’s a pop record with big riffs. Shuffle had to be self-indulgent by its very nature! If someone said it was an enormous failure I would have to disagree, but if they say it’s self-indulgent I can’t argue with that. I couldn’t have made it any other way!”

Though Lenman’s former band Reuben never quite broke through into the mainstream, they amassed a huge and loyal fanbase, and are often cited as one of the most influential UK rock bands of the noughties. Since then, aside from three solo records and a live solo album, Lenman has, and still, works as an illustrator, has hosted his own festival, Lenmania, and continues to collaborate with numerous artists in the alt. scene. Most recently, he’s worked with Justine Jones of Employed to Serve, Haggard Cat and Black Peaks, even stepping in as Black Peaks’ front man at ArcTanGent Festival while Will Gardner recovers from illness. To the public, Lenman is seen as quite the prolific character, so it’s a surprise to hear that the need to create art is not a natural instinct for him.

“The key to how I tend to work is, I need a deadline. So, if a commercial client says they need an illustration by a certain day, or if my label Big Scary Monsters asks if I want to record an EP next year, that’s helpful for me. It has to be suggested – if I’m left completely on my own with no external forces applied to me, like a ball on a perfectly flat surface, I won’t move. If someone starts me going with a whisper of a suggestion or a deadline, I start rolling and find it difficult to stop, but left to my own devices I do sit still and find it hard to get motivated. I suppose that’s been key to how I’ve managed to be quite prolific in the last few years.”

Unsurprisingly, one of the questions Lenman is asked most is if Reuben will get back together or if he will ever form another band. In fact, despite blessing us with some of the best alternative music in the UK in recent years, there was a time he almost stopped making music altogether.

“After the band finished, I sort of felt like I wouldn’t make music ever again, as it took so much out of me. I went for an entire year without making any art at all: I worked a 9 to 5 job, came home, ate dinner, watched TV, fell asleep, and on the weekend I went out shopping. I actually found it really satisfying! When I started to engage the artistic side of my brain again, with artistic process comes all the neuroses, and I had a tough time emotionally when I started making music again. When I wasn’t creating art, I was quite at peace,” he laughs. “It’s very difficult to create art, but should it be easy? Nothing I’ve ever done that’s worth doing has been easy.”

Jamie Lenman plays The Cluny, Newcastle on Monday 25th November



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