An Interview with Jamie Lidell
Baron Von Luxxury
Jamie Lidell is a Brighton-born Berliner whose Motown-style vocals and modern production made Multiply (Warp) one of the most critically acclaimed albums of this past year: electronic music bible XLR8R magazine named him “Artist of the Year.” Merging electronic beats and sounds with those of classic soul, Lidell has created a new future-retro R&B; that simultaneously evokes and revitalizes the sound of a bygone era.
I’d heard that Multiply was originally supposed to be released as a CD and DVD package, and after watching Lidell perform at the M3 (Miami Music Multimedia) conference in Miami, I understood why. Live, the songs take on a completely different form, as Lidell performs them alone, sampling and looping his own voice, gradually creating a complex live multitrack accompaniment. No guitars, no drums—heck, no other people. And no repetition—the set changes every single time he performs it.
I met Lidell after his performance. Over the blare of a thumping house soundtrack, we sat at the Raleigh Hotel’s poolside café. I haven’t had a chance to do any fact checking on this, but I suspect we were the two tallest, skinniest, and pasty-white-iest people in all of Florida.
—Baron Von Luxxur
THE BELIEVER: So what do you think of Miami?
JAMIE LIDELL: It’s an excessive place. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much…
BLVR: … skin?
JL: Yeah, a certain kind of plastic.
BLVR: But you’ve been to L.A.
JL: Yeah, but even that felt a bit more—I mean, it always happens around beach resorts, a certain kind of money gravitates to the scene. The gold goes to the water. People love to wear it, show it off, roll with it. For me, I just find it disgusting. I can’t laugh at it after a while. It’s actually just decadence—it’s just fucked. And I wonder how people get to that stage where they can afford it: how do they afford all these Range Rovers and Hummers and this and that? They’re expensive things! I can’t afford shit. I haven’t got anything and I don’t really care, but if I wanted it, I couldn’t get it. Someone was telling me it’s all on credit.
BLVR: Yes, we Americans do that rather well.
JL: I was thinking, if I had to cruise down this strip, if I had to take me as an individual to a decadent level, what would I go for, what would my car be? And I don’t know! I used to be into that when I was a kid, I was obsessed—“Look at that Ferrari!” Why the hell does that mean so much when we’re younger?
BLVR: I guess it represents power, because you don’t have any when you’re a kid.
JL: Well, a tractor has a lot of power, too.
BLVR: This is true. By “power,” I don’t necessarily mean the ability to churn the land, though. It’s a sort of badge that expresses to the world that you are somebody.
JL: Like wearing a crown, elevating yourself to a social class.
BLVR: It’s the same instinct that leads people to wear brands. If you have the word “Prada” on your person, it implies that you’re in some way associated with the millions of dollars in advertising.
JL: Well I am, unfortunately, more and more, because my gigs are sponsored. I’m doing a lot of gigs in Eastern Europe for no money, to sort of cleanse myself in a way. I’m teaching a bunch of kids in Zagreb. I just want to keep it real before it gets Clear Channeled out.
BLVR: I had a bunch of questions before I saw you play, and then I saw you play. And they weren’t exactly rendered irrelevant, but the performance is so different from the record.
JL: Not to everyone. Well, I suppose with this album I’ve found a load of new people who are interested in what I’ve just done. Some of them are a little shocked to hear the disjointed flow [of the live performance], the lack of band, some of the warmth not being there, and so on.
BLVR: I’d read that you originally wanted to put out the DVD and CD at the same time, which makes a lot of sense. The complete Lidell package consists of the songs being performed, as well as their being recordings.
JL: Exactly, that’s how I had it before I finished the recordings—all during that time I was out doing the live show.
B: How did your unique live setup come into being?
JL: I spent a year out of music, learning programming. My friends were worried because I wasn’t making any music. I was like, “Come over and check out this machine I’ve made!” I got into Raymond Scott and automatic music makers, and I kind of got lost in there for a while. I’m probably going to go back there because it had a lot of potential, but somehow at the time I didn’t have the harmonic theory to back up the ideas. But now I’ve gotten a bit more, so maybe it’s time to revisit that.
BLVR: Were you following a specific idea as you were learning to program?
JL: The live machine was the only thing I had specifically in mind.
BLVR: When you say “the live machine,” you mean your gear onstage, which I understand is centered around a laptop running MaxMSP.
JL: Yeah, it’s a modular form of programming that’s more Lego-style than it is straight raw code, which I couldn’t handle. It’s been around since the ’80s—it was used for a lot of MIDI stuff back in the day. It’s basically a compositional tool.
BLVR: Do you have a name for the live machine, the way someone might name a boat?
JL: I once called it the Pocket. Then I thought I’d call it Maxi-Me. I’ve thought about calling it Gordon. I had a good mate called Gordon.
BLVR: I was struck by how you used the mixer during the show. That’s one thing I haven’t seen so much in a live setting—you were really using Gordon like an instrument, if you will, or another band member. How did you develop that technique? Was it out of necessity? Did it come from touring with bandmates and being like, “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I’d like it if you did that a little differently”?
JL: A lot of it is practical. I’d run out of money in Berlin and I needed to do gigs, which is why I set about being my own booking agent and tour manager. I thought, “I won’t be able to get any money if I go on tour with a band,” and at the time that was a fairly major priority. I thought, “If I’m going to continue making music, I’m going to have to get on the road and bang it out.” So I did it without the computer, without Gordon. I just started doing it with delay pedals and other gadgets. And I was like, this is cool. I can run with this. I knew I needed a practical setup that was small, flexible, and my own—something I was doing that nobody else was doing. This was about four years ago, and it’s been a continuous process since then. I try not to go mad, but it’s always evolving. It’s a little bit daunting.
BLVR: You mean the complexity of the gear, or the fact that it’s mechanical and so it may fail on you?
JL: Actually, yesterday during sound check my computer had a hardware problem I’d never seen before, and I was like, OK, this is bad. I just opened the computer and started pushing bits around. And I saw one of the pieces was out of place, and I thought, “Wait a minute, this must be an important thing.”
BLVR: It just looked important?
JL: It looked like a crazy bridge to the motherboard, so I just fiddled around with it, and sure enough, it was loose. Suddenly, everything was good again. I got really lucky. But I had a show on my last American tour where all my gear went down ten minutes into the performance. So I just did the rest of the show on the mic and got characters out of the audience and did a jam with them. I did three a cappella songs, and I got a guy who did beatboxing really well, a young kid. The crowd loved it. We did some sing-alongs. It was the highlight of the tour. Suddenly I was really exposed, but it was like, who cares? People were really happy. I was happy. It was great.
BLVR: After an experience like that, it’s like nothing else can go wrong.
JL: The reason I concentrate so much on live music is because I predicted records were going to take a dive and I couldn’t make a living that way, so I needed a unique live thing to give me some hope of staying in the game.
BLVR: Is there someone you look to whose career you use as a role model for your own?
JL: Actually, no, that’s something I’ve kind of lost. But back in the day, I used to look up to Prince. When I was growing up, I needed an idol, and it was Prince. He was incredible at anything he tried his hand at. And I liked the fact that he was a pompous little git and did things his way—an impossible man. When you’re a kid, that’s quite empowering—you can be a freak and also be successful. If it makes you happy, do it, whatever it takes.
BLVR: It’s interesting that your reasons center on his personality, because there are clearly strong musical parallels between his work and yours.
JL: I’ve been asked in the past, “Hey Jamie, what made you think of fusing electronic music with vocals? It’s such a weird idea.” And I’m like, “Um, have you guys ever heard of Prince? Didn’t you hear him doing that back in the ’80s with drum machines and soul all in the mix?” He covered so much new ground, and he seemed constantly able to reinvent himself. Up to the point where he did the Batman soundtrack, and it was all over. But now he’s back!
But even a man like Prince, a man like Stevie Wonder, they’ve had burnout. Brian Eno is different because he fills the limelight in a different way, by being a “man in the back.” So he’s able to maintain his status, desirability, and freedom and be that creative force, so that when people say, “We really need a crazy inspired moment in this song.” “Well, what about Eno?” I’m sure he comes with a heavy price tag….
BLVR: He probably just shows up with his flash cards.
JL: Yeah, Maybe he doesn’t charge a lot—maybe he pulls out his flash cards and says, “How much am I going to charge in this session? Ah: two pounds. You got lucky. Let’s do it.” I’d like to think of him as a man who extends his philosophy even to financial matters.
NOT WEIRD ENOUGH TO BE WEIRD
BLVR: You’ve said that, at first, people told you Multiply was “not pop enough to be pop, but not weird enough to be weird.”
JL: That was what the label told me when I turned it in—that was the concern.
My friend Mocky got me back into songwriting. Seeing my skills as a crazy soundmaker, he suggested that perhaps my antennae were too open to shit. Pop is a good way to focus. Look at what a fucking genius piece of work Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” is. He had a new genre of music going on there, kind of like crazy new-school pop. It just set new standards. Somehow, that’s a constant reference point.
BLVR: Because that was a moment where, for a moment, it was hard to pin down—it all became, “Is it pop? Is it weird? Is it indie? Is it not?”
JL: Exactly. And that’s the most exciting thing of all—any crazy revelations in pop have felt really weird for a bit.
BLVR: When you’re writing, are you thinking about your indie peers and retaining the cred of the underground?
JL: I lost that after a while. I started to think about how much love the underground really gave me. [Long pause] I mean, they give me a lot of love but it’s also a vague dream concept, anyway. Where is “the underground”? Where are you going to see it? Venues change—the scene comes and goes. For me, if I had carried on doing a certain kind of underground thing, I would have felt—I just couldn’t keep doing the whole underground thing. I love these songs. I get up and I love listening to shit that makes me smile in the morning. What’s fucking wrong with that?
BLVR: One of the words I wrote on my reporter’s notepad as I was watching you was “risky.” There’s nothing safe about what you do. Did that come out of electronic music production, where, at the end of it, you have a product that’s very specific?
JL: Its weird, you’re right, I’ve always loved improvising. That’s how I write songs. Creativity has an improvised element to it.
BLVR: You have to surprise yourself to find the good stuff.
JL: Exactly. Improvisation has been with me since I was a kid, and, taking a selfish pleasure from that, I just thought, “What the hell. It might as well be something other people enjoy.” It is risky—I like that. Another practical reason for that is that you have to go out and play every day on a tour. I couldn’t do it if I thought I was going to do the same songs every day in the same order, like a full-on robot.
BLVR: What is your song “Music Will Not Last” about? I’m fascinated by the elusiveness of creative fulfillment. One minute, you’re really proud of something you’ve labored over, and the next you just want to rip it all to shreds.
JL: There’s a sense that, on a certain day, you want to destroy everything, even the ones you love. Humans are weird like that—you build an empire and you hate it as soon as it’s done. That’s because we’re never satisfied. The root of the problem isn’t music—it’s desire itself.
BLVR: Does that mean you need to destroy your empire for the next record?
JL: Well, I haven’t got much. My empire of dirt. I can probably dismantle it with one hand.
BLVR: Do you have thoughts brewing for the next batch of material?
JL: Maybe a Sony PlayStation-endorsed, Apple/Absolut Vodka, corporate sponsoring exercise with me.
BLVR: Maybe put you and Lenny Kravitz together—
JL: Actually, he did ask me!
JL: No, he really did.
BLVR: Wow—OK, that’s actually not too shocking.
JL: Yeah, so it’ll be me, Kravitz, maybe rope in some of the old guys—Jagger, Iggy. [Laughter] No, it’s a good question, but I’m avoiding it. I’m obviously concerned.
BLVR: What was the genesis of the sound on Multiply?
JL: I did a track for Matthew Herbert in that Motown style because I was having a hard time coming up with melodies. So I tried a familiar harmonic world to play off, and immediately that was it, I was off and running. That’s what it’s about: creating a scene, a setting where you’re able to run. It could have been an Eno card I pulled out: “Try to sing on top of a Motown track.” That time period meant a lot to me as a kid. I had my first love interest with Motown as a soundtrack.
BLVR: You mentioned you just finished Quincy Jones’ autobiography, Q. Any choice tidbits about the recording of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that you’d care to share?
JL: Quincy used to call him “Smelly.” When something was funky, Michael would say, “Gimme some of that smelly jelly!” And Quincy was just like, “Um, yeah.” He talks about “We Are the World” as well. He put up a banner that said “Leave your egos by the door.”
BLVR: Obviously Jacko missed that banner, because, in the video, he’s the only ’80s superstar who was shown alone in an isolation booth recording his part.
JL: I think Q was a little bitter because Michael tried to take a lot of credit where it wasn’t due. And that’s not cool. Quincy’s talent is he knows which people to call: “You know who we need on this track? Eddie Van Halen. Call Eddie. We need a gripping lead guitar solo on this.” That’s his talent.
BLVR: That’s part of what’s intimidating to people about creativity.
JL: Don’t try to do it all yourself! That’s the bottom line. Know your strengths and weaknesses. That’s what I’ve been trying to slowly drive into my own sievelike mind: “Look man, you’re not going to be able to do this and this. Just give up! Find someone who’s well into making beats with some kind of obscure tambourine, some Brazilian guy who’s all about that. Why should you pick it up yourself when there’s a kid who’s ready to rip, who can just inject so much life into it?”