Interview with Jamie Lenman: “This time, I was 5 years heavier and 5 years more banjo!”
Jamie Lenman is a shining beacon of light for intelligent, truthful underground rock music in the 21st century. Ex-frontman of the much-loved and much-missed Reuben, Jamie has now released Muscle Memory, a double album showcasing his heaviest material to date on disc 1, whilst demonstrating his love for jazz, swing and folk on disc 2. Speaking just hours before an absolutely crushing performance at 2000Trees festival, he spoke about myths, industry and expectation.
How has your 2000Trees experience been thus far? People have been waiting for a long time for you to get here, in one form or another (Reuben were due to play the festival in 2008 but split up a few weeks beforehand)…
Yeah, well that’s a funny thing isn’t it. I’ll answer the first part of your question first, I’ve only been here for an hour and it seems like a really lovely vibe. I don’t like festivals at all, either going to them as a punter or playing them. I find them quite uncomfortable, I like my home comforts. But it’s a very nice vibe here, it’s a nice mid-sized festival and the bands are great.
In response to the second part of your question, I try not to think about that really because they were waiting for a band which is a different thing. I don’t disassociate myself from Reuben but at the same time I certainly would never say, “Well it took six years! Here I am!” cause it’s not really the same thing….but I am pleased to be here.
There was quite a gap between the last Reuben record and releasing Muscle Memory. Did you need to have a break from music for a little bit?
Well, I think so. I think I’d be within my rights to call what happened (with Reuben) a “mini-breakdown.” Actually, let’s call it a burnout. For a year after the band finished, I didn’t play any music at all, but then it all started bubbling back to the surface just the way it had before. You know the way to stop that annoying verse playing round and round on a loop in your head is to finish it, right? So I finished them off and my friend Dan said, “Why don’t we jam them out?” and it all went from there. It just took a very long time because I only had the evenings and weekends and we were doing the album bit by bit.
Did you always envisage Muscle Memory being a double album with two very distinct styles on each disc?
No, it’s funny, we thought about it when I was in Reuben. It wouldn’t have been quite as heavy because the songs we were talking about putting on it were only as heavy as a Reuben song which is heavy but not that heavy in the scheme of things. So there would’ve been a version of it had we carried on, but then the band split up. When we started jamming out with my friends (what would become Muscle Memory), the stuff we were coming out with sounded the same as In Nothing We Trust (Reuben’s third and final album), which is not really a problem because I like In Nothing We Trust, but I didn’t want to come back after five years with something that sounded pretty much the same. So I thought for this first one back, if it is going to go into the public-sphere, let’s make it interesting. I revisited that idea I’d had, only this time I was five years heavier and five years more banjo! So it came out better, it just wouldn’t have been as good with Reuben but only because we would have been five years younger.
Yeah, absolutely, in terms of how brutal the first disc is particularly…I suppose you touched on elements of that with Reuben but…
Little bits, things like, We’re All Going Home in an Ambulance on the third record, that was fairly brutal and I was proud of that. I always listened to the heaviest music out of Reuben; I think that was about as heavy as they wanted to go so I could sneak a little bit of it in, whereas, with my friends, because they don’t have a stake in it, they were just up for absolutely anything. In a band it’s an equal partnership, so everyone has to like it but in this one, they’ll play it even if they don’t like it. They’re just doing me a favour.
Was that part of the reason for calling this venture Jamie Lenman as opposed to forming a new band from scratch?
Yeah, there were a couple of reasons. Number one, I don’t think being in a band is something you can do beyond the age of thirty. Well, starting a new one at least, if you’re already in the Stones, fair enough! But just being in a band, to me, feels like something you do in your twenties…whereas if you go under your own name…to be a solo artist is a different thing, isn’t it? I think there’s a lot more scope there, there’s no confusion. But also I just wanted everything to almost have no brand. I almost called it “Jamie Lenman’s album” but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere! I just wanted it to be as simple and direct and as “What you see on the tin” as it could be. I mean Jamie Lenman’s not a great name…I wish I was called like, River Nighthawk…that would be better wouldn’t it! But Jamie Lenman will do.
A lot of the music media like to put music in boxes and genres and to me, Muscle Memory almost sounds like a rebellion against that because there’s such a broad range of styles on the record. Is that a conscious decision or am I just reading way too much into that?
No, I’ve got no problem with putting music in boxes because it helps people doesn’t it? I think it even helps bands, you know, if you’re going on a bill of post hardcore bands and you’re playing like banjo tunes, even though that is sort of what I’m doing, it might not always work. What I was doing with that record certainly wasn’t an attempt to fight genres or anything. I put very little thought into that record. I didn’t mean to say, “Look I can do all these genres” and “Look how heavy I can be” and “Look how clever I am,” but they were welcome side effects if you will. I didn’t have an agenda.
Many of your songs throughout your career have been about how difficult it is to be in the music industry…
…I think this is a bit of a myth, I have a bone to pick with this, but continue your question.
Oh ok, well I was going to say, now that you’ve had a little time away from the music industry and come back to it, are those difficulties still there, have they got worse or have they got better? I mean this may be irrelevant if that’s not what you think…
No, it is! The problems I was discussing in those songs are still here and there are more problems. When Reuben was around there was very little money but now that money has disappeared. Eventually the digital streaming situations like Spotify, which don’t work great at the moment, they eventually will work. It should’ve started 20 years ago, but what can you do. And I’ve sort of come to terms with that. I’m not as angry anymore because it’s not my lifeline anymore. When I was in Reuben it was my career and now my career is something else, another branch of art that is still difficult to get paid for, but I just about manage it. What I do feel now is frustration for younger artists, the young bands that I meet now can’t afford to make an album in one go. They make three songs at a time, and then they end up putting them out as an EP and they still haven’t got enough material for an album at the end of the year. It’s got worse.
But to take issue with the point you made about Reuben writing songs about how hard it is to be in a band…I can see why Reuben have a reputation for being that band but there’s only three songs, that I can think of, that mention how hard it is in the music industry. Return of the Jedi, Freddy Krueger and Suffocation of the Soul, and I’m not even sure that a lot of people picked up on that last one. But those three out of, what, fifty songs? It’s not that much really. But what that means is that those three songs have resonated loudly, so you’ve got to call that a success. So on the one hand that’s cool, because people were obviously paying attention to those three songs, but on the other hand…I wrote about a lot of other stuff as well! I don’t want be known as “the moany band” but if people are listening to that point then that’s fair enough isn’t it.
Maybe it’s because, and I’m just being devil’s advocate here, a lot of bands didn’t talk about that stuff, certainly with as much honesty…
Well this was always the case, and I think you’re right yes, very few people are willing to lower that barrier between themselves and the audience and say “Look, this is how it is”. And no one likes to complain do they! I got to a point where people would say “How’re you doing?” and I thought, I got a stomach ache, I can’t pay the bills and I would just say to them “I’m shit!” If you’re trying to write truthful lyrics, what can you write about other than your own experience, and my experience was driving to Birmingham to play a show for £2 and then getting kicked in the arse when you’re loading your van. So that was my life and that’s what came out of the songs. It’s a miracle I didn’t write more songs like that.
What is next for you Jamie?
If I continue to make music, because there’s no guarantee, then it’ll probably be under the name Jamie Lenman. I don’t know what I’m doing past these festivals, there never is any plan really. The record coming out in the first place was a surprise to me. I wish I could say, “Watch out for this cool new track” but I just don’t know. It’s just if the muse takes me because it’s not my whole life anymore. If you’d have spoken to me 10 years ago, I’d already have the tracks for the next album, we’d be going in to the studio. But I’m just a bloke now, so who knows. I’ll let you know though, if something happens.Jamie Lenman
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