Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Interview with Jamie McDermott of The Irrepressibles
After attracting rave reviews across Europe The Irrespressibles are finally bringing their lush orchestration and heartmeltingly beautiful chamber pop to few select venues in the UK. On the eve of this, their very first UK tour, I caught up with the group’s founder and driving force Jamie McDermott (simply one of the loveliest people in the world) to trace their evolution and find out what’s coming next from what The Independent called “one of Britain’s best kept secrets”.
Me: Hello Jamie, for people who are new to The Irrepressibles how would you describe the group?
Jamie: Gosh (nervous laughter). It’s about exploring new ways of doing things in pop.
Me: What do you mean by that?
Jamie: It’s about being emotionally and creatively free. I write automatically and very emotionally about how I feel about things. I express my emotions and feelings very honestly as a gay man as well. I make music stood in the room with the orchestra, singing parts to the orchestra rather than scoring them. And in terms of the visuals as well I have visions of what I see, then I choreograph them, build sets and design the lighting that reflects that vision and fantasy.
There’s a European tradition, a connection with Europe that we’ve forgotten, something that we kind of see as elitist in this country. The idea of classical instruments as being an elitist thing...and by and large it is, believe me (cue an infectious outbreak of laughter) as a working class kid from North Yorkshire I’ve had my fair share of snobbery from some of these sort of people!
Me: You’re from sunny Scarborough aren’t you? And you’re playing there on this tour too.
Jamie: Yes, it’s a homecoming!
Me: How’s it going to be for you, going back?
Jamie: My music, I would say, is the epitome of Scarborough in that it’s so influenced by it. The old Victoriana of the fairground organs and the merry go rounds is a huge influence on the way that the music is structured and written. In fact some of the music could be played by a fairground organ. So in a way it’s the most passionate expression of Scarborough. Then there’s the lights and the mirrors...it’s very Scarborough. It’s my home town too and it’s where most of the songs are based.
After posing the question about whether forming the group was a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to the people that had bullied him at school Jamie went on to discuss his musical evolution, from getting a keyboard from his gran through to paying for his piano lessons with money from his paper round. These came to an abrupt end when young Jamie started playing Nirvana on the piano (shock! horror!) before going on to perform his own material for his teacher who rapidly came to the conclusion that the rigid structures of a lesson weren’t suited to such a free spirit. At this time music clearly gave him an alternative world, a metaphorical and literal shelter.
Jamie: “I used to go to the music room and the lovely music teacher used to give me the keys, so I could go in there and get away from the bullying. I’d go in and sit and play the piano. That’s where the association of creating that alternative world or universe really came from. I was obsessed with Mike Oldfield and Tubular Bells so I decided to create a piece with the school orchestra, Mike Oldfield stylee. I did this big piece of music called ‘How’ which is about 20 minutes long. I went to a very strict Catholic school and the Headmaster walked out (cue more raucous laughter) during the performance! I guess that was really the beginning of The Irrepressibles...when I was 16. Then I went on to study singing and wanted to be a rock singer, so I played and sang in rock bands and then started to write more of my own material, and that was very emotional. There was a lot I needed to express and deal with, cathartically I think. It’s been such an amazing therapy in my life and that’s where The Irrepressibles name comes from, transforming your emotions through music into something beautiful.
In Scarborough there wasn’t much music in the shops, there used to be Woolworths and another small record shop, so when I moved to London I discovered this little music shop across the road and I’d buy CDs on the basis of what they looked like...
Me: Ahhhh...I used to do that!
Jamie: Did you? Yes, it’s a good idea. There was a man with tits and it was Aphex Twin, I didn’t realise what it was until I took it home and listened to it and it was ‘Window Licker’, then there was a Beck album and David Bowie, Lou Reed...it introduced me to a new world and started to influence me. Also I just started to move away from rock and began writing with acoustic guitar and spent the next three years playing on the London acoustic scene, singing and getting more and more intense. But it needed something else to hold the emotion, so then I formed The Irrepressibles.
Me: Growing up who were your musical heroes?
Jamie: The big influences were my mum, dad and step dad’s records. My big influences will be no surprise during those formative years, I was listening to Queen ‘A Night At The Opera’, I was massively into Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream, the big one from even younger, which is a big influence that you can see is, Jean Michelle Jarre. I was into Kate Bush too...
Me: Yes, I can see that, looking at footage of some of your live performances you seem to put in the same degree of thought to your ‘total performance’ that she did when she played live.
Jamie: Yes, certainly in the early years there seemed to be this total art that she wanted to create.
Me: Is there anyone out there that you particularly admire and would like to collaborate with?
Jamie: God, there’s loads. The next album’s very different to the first and it’s finished now, I’ve written it and I’d love to work with David McAlmont...actually I’ve already asked him!
Me: Is that on the cards?
Jamie: Yep, hopefully. Holly Johnson’s a fan from Frankie Goes To Hollywood and I’d love to work with him, I haven’t met him yet. And Boy George is a fan and I’d love to work with him too.
Me: Holly’s more of an artist now, I don’t think he’s recorded much recently has he?
Jamie: No, maybe we could work together on some visuals. I’d really, really, really love to work with John Paul Gaultier too. I think he’s a genius.
Me: He is. He did some records didn’t he, back in the 80’s?
Jamie: Did he?
Me: Yes, only a few. Not quite a rap but that sort of thing. I think it was called ‘How You Do That’ or something. Great sleeve covers too, obviously. I read somewhere that you’re a fan of Simon Bookish as well.
Jamie: Yes a big fan of Simon Bookish, he’s a friend of mine is Leo.
Me: Is he? I’m a big fan of too, it would be great to see the two of you collaborate on something perhaps...
Jamie: Absolutely, I’d love to work with him at some point. The next year is so crazy, we do the album then I’ve been asked to write some music for a new opera with Hotel Pro Forma who did the last one with The Knife. So I’m writing music for the next opera with them. That involves me writing choral music for the choir but also Electronica music, so you’re going to hear electronic music from me next year as well! Then I’m also working with another member of The Irrepressibles – William Turner-Duffin – who’s a sound designer and instrument maker and he’s building an instrument for the opera.
Me: Actually building a new sort of instrument?
Jamie: Yes, it’s based on a concept that I came up with as a composer which is to do with is to do with creating a real time relationship between the voice and percussion. The instrument itself will react to the voices of the singers, the computer understands pitch and it plays a correlating pitch across huge percussive instruments.
Me: Wow, sounds impressive.
Jamie: Yes, it’s quite wonderful. We’re having a model of it built right now, then we build the real thing and take it to Riga in February...on the plane! I also built a pilot commission for the V & A Museum, The Human Music box, that’s being rebuilt at the moment to realise my full concept and that will be presented at The Holland Festival next year on the 16th and 17th June and then we’ll tour it across the world.
Me: The Independent’s described The Irrepressibles as “one of Britain’s best kept secrets”. Would you prefer to remain adored by a few or worshipped by many?
Jamie: Well, I don’t think everyone will love The Irrepressibles (more infectious laughter)...
Jamie then went on to discuss one fan’s less than favourable reaction to a homoerotic video made for the band to accompany a song about him and an ex-boyfriend. In Russia and Poland the band’s music is used on an ad for Peugeot meaning that they’re “mainstream fodder” in those countries. People have been using their songs for wedding videos and stuff and have found the band without realising the depth of the work. Sadly one female fan found this particular video to be “disgusting”. Of course it isn’t, but there we go. Cue a bit of a war of the words between the rest of the band’s fans and this woman.
Jamie: She said she thought I was the greatest composer of this time but that my sexuality was my own business! The Irrespressibles for me is about wanting to explain to everybody – not just a certain proportion of the population – what it was like to be in love with another man. Obviously I want to reach as big an audience as possible but I’m not going to attempt to be mainstream. Some parts of the media rip the piss out of us really, saying it’s “over the top” or they use this word, “camp” as well, putting being gay into one area where it can be neatly packed away and laughed at.
Me: Yes, sometimes that word is used as a bit of a weapon isn’t it, to dismiss things. What song or piece of music that you’ve written so far are you most proud of...and why?
Jamie: It’s difficult...there’s a piece like ‘I’ll Maybe Let You’ or ‘Splish! Splash! Sploo!’ that is written really quickly, with the band in the room, whereas a piece like ‘In This Shirt’ took a long time to shape. ‘In This Shirt’ is the one so far that has communicated with people the most and emotionally it’s probably the most raw. When I write lyrics I don’t actually sit down to write, I just sing and then I write down what I’ve sung. I think it was a very raw point when I wrote ‘In This Shirt’ and it has that intensity there.
Me: What’s your opinion of the X Factor? Harmless fun or soul sucking evil?
Jamie: I always pretend to be intelligent at this point and quote Hanss Eisler (laughs). He believed in music being a political force and he said that “If you give people the same they will accept the same”. If you look at what (Theodor) Adorno said about pop music too, it’s a way of giving light relief to the masses and preparing them and relaxing them before they then go back into the machine of work, day in, day out, day in, day out. It’s a way of sedating the masses. When music and culture fits into that structure, easy and digestible like a microwave meal then it’s fine but it doesn’t jolt anybody out of their normal lives. You know, you could kind of get really dark about it! It’s a sedation...I find X Factor like a sedation. Sometimes you need that but as the ‘mainstream food’ that everybody eats it’s a bit distressing!
Me: It is! I’m totally on your side.
Jamie: It’s like processed food...but challenge yourself to something more interesting.
Me: You’ve been playing live in London for a few years now but this is your first national tour. Why’s it taken so long to get out there?
Jamie: I could get myself into so much trouble here! On the record...(pauses for a moment)...it’s taken a while to get a deal in the UK. It’s taken artists like Anthony and Owen Pallett perhaps. The music industry is at a strange point where they’re very, very, very insecure about what they do, so it takes a while for them to become convinced of something a bit more radical. In Europe it’s crazy, they’re more interested in things that challenge, they’ve kept hold of that thing we used to have in the 70’s and 80’s, that interest in things that are unusual and pioneering. We did three sell out shows in the centre of Paris, there were queues of hundreds of people and we were on the TV and the radio. It’s a different kettle of fish out there and in Germany too, we’re about to do two shows in Italy...
When we did Latitude (UK music festival) in 2007 though we presented the orchestra in different parts of the forest and it was so moving for people that they just stood and cried...listening to one oboe! It was really insane. The piece was called ‘Gathering Songs’ and on the final day we gathered on the lake and all the individual bits of music that the musicians had been playing culminated into one piece and we ended up with 1,000 people on the bank...this was before we were known. At the end of the set we played ‘Forget the Past’ and people were just crying, there was this one woman in her 40’s and I just had to cuddle her...she was just crying. People said “we’ve never seen anything like this before or heard anything like this before”.
Me: What can the people of Birmingham expect from your live show at St Martin’s church?
Jamie: Well, we’re creating a unique performance for St Martin’s in Birmingham that’s about the space. We’re actually having some costumes designed now that will be presented in Birmingham too.
Me: And what’s next for the band over the next 12 months or so?
Jamie: We’re about to do the next album, which is very different, then we tour ‘MirrorMirror’ (the current album) again. The single ‘In This Shirt’ will be released in January in the UK, Europe and America, then we go to Riga for the opera. We should present the new album hopefully in the spring, then we present the new human music box at The Holland Festival in June and began to tour with that as well as the new album. So it’s single in January, new album in April. It’s going to create a very different visual aesthetic...I can’t tell you any more about that...
Me: Oh no, you’re tempting me now Jamie. Oh come on, just a little clue.
Jamie: No! I can’t tell you anything. Lady GaGa would probably nick it! Ha ha!