As published in 3D World Magazine – copyright those guys
Jamie xx Interview by Huwston
Born Jamie Smith, Jamie xx is a key player in the UK music scene that has ushered an influx of ‘bass music’ across clubs’ speakers the world over. As part of The xx he’s turned a generation of dancers back on to ‘guitar music’ (or vice versa) and won a Mercury Prize in doing so. His latest project, a remix album of Gil Scott-Heron’s album I’m New Here sees him adding US Soul to the mix. And now for something completely different…
In 2010 XL Records released legendary poet, Soul singer and proto-Rapper Gil Scot-Herron’s I’m New Here, his first studio record since 1994’s Spirits, produced entirely by label head Richard Russell. Bleak at best, the album depicted a man ravaged by time spent in prison, drug addiction and a life of going against the grain. Helmed across the world as a landmark for its uncompromising look at modern life from the eyes of a man who never fit in, I’m New Here has now been completely flipped by Jamie xx and unintentionally serves the purpose of delivering Scott-Heron’s sermons at the church of what’s happening now.
“I didn’t really have a plan for each song but I had some concepts for what I wanted it to sound like in the end,” says Smith. “And it was basically all inspired by growing up with pirate radio. The amount of different genres that are played on pirate radio but the obviousness you get when you flip on a pirate radio station you instantly know that it’s not commercial in any way.”
It’s an album that’s hard to think of as a ‘remix album.’ With all of its quirky spoken-word interludes and studio outtakes included, there feels like a real synergy in the recording process, though the two only met briefly a few times. Smith also says that whilst he’s never really listened to remix albums before, he jumped when the opportunity arose.
“I went to a few of his gigs and we hung out before and after but because it was quite intense – he was always about to go on stage or had just come off stage – so we never really got to talk that much about the actual project,” he says.
Offered no direction by the label or Scott-Heron himself, Smith was let loose on the parts from the original album and, save for the occasional FM dial tones and static hisses you can hear on Your Soul And Mine, the modus operandi of We’re New Here comes as quite a surprise.
“It’s the genre of pirate radio, which is a bunch of different genres,” says Jamie. “When I do remixes I basically take everything but the most obvious element of the song and create a new track underneath, so it’s always slightly more like a new production rather than a remix. With XL they are very open to let the artist do what they want, if they don’t like they‘re not going to release it but luckily they liked what I did.”
Smith’s production on We’re New Here injects some much-needed warmth in to the original, though he is a fan of the former album.
“It worked so well as a whole album, every track complimented Gil’s vocals,” he says.
On his interpretation of My Cloud there’s a sensitive, almost lullaby-esque mood created that harks back to songs like Your Daddy Loves You from 1974’s Winter In America. Smith sought not to create a throwback to any of Scott-Heron’s earlier work and any similarities are unintentional. He did however keep a few things all in the family:
“With some of the tracks I sampled some kicks and snares and drum samples from some of the people he worked with in the 70s like Bernard Purdie, who was in his band for a while, so there was little clips of stuff that relates to Gil a lot, amongst other, newer sounds.”
Similarly, on the album’s closer I’ll Take Care Of You he incorporated the work of his current band mates The xx.
“I wanted to put a little bit of Romy and Oli on the record just because we have been working together since we were fifteen, I always want to keep our little group of friends and making music a part of what we do. On the last track, Romy did the guitar bit and there’s a vocal sample from Oliver, which was recorded when we were sixteen.”
Ahead of his next groundbreaking release, the soothing steel-drum club jam Far Nearer for the Numbers record label, Jamie xx is wearing a lot of hats. He’s completed grime mixes for BBC Radio 1, assisted Adele’s second assault on the world by giving her Rolling In The Deep a club booster and remixed the comeback album of one of the Godfathers of Rap, so what happens when the rising star of the underground (he hates that word) wins the Mercury Prize?
“It was very nice,” he says, as bashfully as ever. “It was probably the award that we would have most wanted out of anything, ever. We have been following it since we were kids. We feel very honoured. But as for our normal lives, they’re not really affected,” says Smith, with the kind of reserved manner he has kept throughout the interview.
Being at the top of a heap of high profile projects has seen Smith have to step up his appearances in the public arena. Whilst he’s very quiet, he’s also very clear, giving direct responses and generally having a good go at every question thrown at him. Does he like it?
“No. I’m not very good at it. I used to be able to get Oli and Romy to do that stuff (PR), but it comes with it.”
Suggesting that everyone is a part of the current wave of music where commercial and independent scenes collide, he won’t be labelled a leader of the movement.
“I think now, as far as I can see, in my world, especially in London, genres are getting so convoluted and mixed up and because of the internet they’re open to a lot of different people and it means that you can be listening to and making pop music at the same time as appreciating and making more underground music and deeper stuff just for the clubs and I think it’s first time we’ve actually been able to do that,” he reckons, continuing “You can hear underground – I hate that word – dancey stuff made for small groups of people now popping up in massive pop songs. For example Britney Spears’ new song has some crazy dubstep breakdown in it – I’m not saying it’s good – but it’s basically influenced by what was happening in Croydon 10 years ago.”
Sonically bridging the gap between live and electronic, rap and sung vocal, poetry and House music, does he see the irony in a guy who pays the rent with beeps and buzzing sounds remixing an LP which contained a manifesto to “Turn off everything that rings or beeps or rattles or whistles”?
“I never thought about that to be honest,” he half-laughs, “I guess it’s kind of cool.”
We’re New Here is out now through XL/Young Turks/Remote Control/Inertia