Jamie Lidell: Interview
“Over time, when I got my ego under control I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s about music.’”

On June 9, Jamie Lidell kicked off a US tour in support of his new album, Compass, on Warp records. Lidell’s sound borrows heavily from the heyday of funk and soul music, yet remains modern and experimental enough to catch the attention of the “weird shit” label. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t. A quick listen to the sacchrine, Motown-pop of “Another Day” off 2008’s Jim is more than enough to leave one wondering exactly how Lidell landed in the house of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Autechre. At some point in its 20-year history, Warp wisely realized it was more interested in pushing the musical envelope and staying relevant than it was in dedicating itself to any one particular sound. And it has worked quite well: Grizzly Bear, Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawk, Lidell, and Rustie, whose raved-out rap instrumental remix of “Another Day,” are testaments to exactly why having such a diverse roster is the way forward for the label.

It’s Lidell’s DSP-mangled beat-boxing, which is first heard on the Compass’s truthful, amazing opener, “Completely Exposed,” on which he admits “I don’t wanna be closed/ But opening up has left me completely exposed.” I can’t imagine there are many of us who haven’t felt that sentiment at some point. It didn’t hurt that Mr. Lidell enlisted Beck to assist with production duties. Between Beck contributions, input from label mate Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear), and the full support of Warp, Lidell was able to dig as deep as he ever has, both musically and lyrically, and push Compass to a place he had only begun to explore on his previous work.

We reached Jamie via telephone as he was relaxing in Turkey before a gig to discuss Compass, Beck, and his current live show, in all of its unpredictable glory.

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Jamie, how are you doing?

I’m doing really well, thanks. Just had a couple of days of sun here in Turkey, where we’re about to play a show … just catching up with a few old friends and generally unwinding after a few eventful and busy months. It’s been hectic, man, but it’s been good!

Yes, I can imagine that it has been. I just checked out your tour blog, and it seemed that there might have been a bit of anxiety about the start of the tour, back in Amsterdam.

Well, you know, there’s always a bit of anxiety because everything’s new and there are a lot of variables. I’m juggling and spinning a lot of different plates, wearing a lot of different hats [chuckles]. There’s a lot of warming up and getting everyone familiar with everything, getting familiar with it myself and getting acquainted with myself on the stage. Everything’s familiar, but also different, you know? It’s a cool time, but it’s a curious time.

The shows so far have been going well though?

Yeah, the shows have been going great. We haven’t played too many, really … 11 or 12 maybe, so it’s early days, considering the year ahead. It’s also a bit of a daunting prospect, but I’m really excited about it, because with shows like mine, I always like to leave a few kind of … not loose ends, but open ends. I’ve not quite got the most conventional of personnel either. I could just sort of fill in the gaps, hire a bunch of really pro session cats, romp through all the parts and you know … Bob’s your uncle! But I chose the more tricky road and it’s always rewarding.

What makes it trickier with the guys you’ve got?

They’re young players. Two of them are really young. My keyboard dude is only 20, he’s never been out on the road before. And in all fairness to his abilities … he’s not really a keyboard player [laughs]. He’s more of a guitarist and I’ve kind of slapped him behind the keyboards. Same with the guitar and bass player. I’m really the veteran; me and the drummer. We’re the old hands, really. So it’s a strange combination of talent and ability, with crazy enthusiasm. It’s a delicate thing – with people who’ve played too much, in a way you’re on cruise control, you know? It can be hard to shift focus and it’s not very malleable. With the players I’ve got, everyone’s really open to new ideas and are also learning themselves. They’re great characters and it really keeps the show on its toes.

Are you guys consciously changing things up on a nightly basis or is it more the chaos factor changing it up for you?

A bit of both. Chaos is kind of like a wind isn’t it? It’s like with your hair. You go out with the best of intentions, you’ve got your hair set … you’ve got like a boyish fop from the 60s and after the wind you end up in the 90s without even knowing it. That’s chaos.

“I ended up just mixing and matching all the things that make me who I am and just embracing that diverse range of shit that turns me on, rather than going, “Nooooo no, it’s a bunch of disparate elements that I’m just stringing together…””

That’s a good way of putting it.

Unless you’re going to constantly monitor all these things … there’s just no way to control all the forces. I’m a relative disciplinarian when it comes to being a band leader, but I’m also still new to bands. Talk about people having relatively little experience, I’m not the most experienced band leader. I try to take a leaf out of the great ones, like Duke Ellington and make the most out of what players have to offer. I’m not trying to force them to play something that clearly will never work. And that’s informing things like how an arrangement will transfer from the album to the stage … and hopefully by the time we hit the U.S. we should know all the tunes [laughs].

Yes, hopefully you’ll have hit your stride by then. Speaking of which, with Compass, it seems like you’ve kind of figured out how to combine your various influences in a way that has clicked. Does it feel that way for you? Like something happened on this album that hadn’t necessarily happened on previous ones?

Yeah. I’ve really put a lot of my heart into it. I’m glad that people are feeling it … I mean not everyone’s feeling it by any means … but it wasn’t a reaction specifically to the fact that I was essentially getting typecast as this neo-soul Brit. Those words send shutters up my spine in a way, you know what I mean? Man, I’ve been making music for 15 years and I’ve got a lot in me, I’m not a one-trick pony. Not that I’ve even got anything to prove, but I found myself at an interesting crossroads after doing an album like Jim. I thought to myself, “Who am I now, what is it that I have to say and how do I want to say it?” I ended up just mixing and matching all the things that make me who I am and just embracing that diverse range of shit that turns me on, rather than going, “Nooooo no, it’s a bunch of disparate elements that I’m just stringing together…”

Well, no. This is how I think about music. Call it naive, but it would be missing something for me not to approach it that way. That’s how I felt after Jim , like there was this huge part of my love of music just being left on the sidelines. This time, I sketched the beginnings of the songs quickly, and just tried to make sure that I kept it visceral. I wanted to try to get an overview of the record, quickly.

Do you think the album would have turned out much differently without the involvement of Beck?

[contemplative pause] Yeah. I mean … definitely. He’s a brilliant, creative person, full-stop. He’s a very intellectual gentleman, who loves many things. He’s very well-read, very smart, and a very sharp companion to have on a project like this, y’know? In the beginning, we were trying to write music together and that was a little intimidating, to be honest. His approach to it and mine are very different. He can write lyrics to a song in a hot minute and it takes me a little bit longer. I’m not that kind of musician.

He’s very guitar-based. He has a guitar around his neck and that’s how he constructs a song. He’s very old-school songsmith in a way. I construct songs with my voice, and I think one of the things that inspired and allowed me to write my sketches so quickly was because I knew Beck was going to be waiting at the other end to check them and work with me on them. Just knowing that he was on board really upped the ante and made me pull out some of my best work, I think. He gave me a lot of confidence, in the end.

That must have been a good feeling.

In a way, he took the role of old-school producer. He would just kind of step in and make a session at [famous Los Angeles recording studio] Ocean Way come together. That is not to be under-estimated, that kind of role.

It seems like with the change in paradigm in the music business a lot of the tradition al roles have fallen by the wayside, in some cases to the benefit and in some cases to the detriment of the end result. What’s your take on this? How have things changed since you first started making records?

It’s definitely a case-by-case basis, because each individual produces with such a wildly different approach. Someone like Rick Rubin might just pop into the studio once a week, and just listen to some stuff, whereas other producers might become collaborators who methodically analyze every sound and lyric. With Beck, he never really forced any aesthetic on me; he wanted my sound to come out. We only did a certain portion of the production together, because I found out relatively quickly that the material I wanted to write and the way I wanted to do it, in the end I had to go and do it on my own. It just felt that personal.

After I had sketches and we’d done an Ocean Way session and you could kind of squint and see an album, at that point I kind of cut loose, y’know? A bit further down the line, I asked for the help of [Grizzly Bear frontman and Warp labelmate] Chris Taylor, because I realized what I was working on was turning into something on which he would have authority. He really helped me a lot too, and had a different approach again, y’know?

I haven’t made that many records. I haven’t witnessed that many producers doing their thing. My favorite style is actually someone who brings out your essence; someone who gets it. Like someone who gets you, and knows when you’re being real and knows when you aren’t, and tries to encourage that real side to come out, rather than what they want for themselves. Ultimately kind of a selfless producer, who feels what you’re capable of and [helps in] bringing it out.

“I construct songs with my voice, and I think one of the things that inspired and allowed me to write my sketches so quickly was because I knew Beck was going to be waiting at the other end to check them and work with me on them.”

Well, since so much of music production seems to be turning into one guy in front of a computer doing it all, it’s kind of refreshing to hear that you’re still in support of the “traditional” role of the production process.

I think it’s dangerous for a vocalist to produce … and edit … their own vocal. It’s impossibly tricky at times. I have done it at times, but I do quite enjoy sidestepping that procedure. There’s an inevitable self-loathing that goes on when you listen to that stuff, thinking, “This take or that take?” How can you really be objective? It’s really good to have another set of ears that you trust. It’s important, I think it’s really important. It balances a record out.

On the one hand, the democratization of music production is great because everyone can get involved, but on the other hand, the quality can be completely lost. Those roles in the studio were established for a reason…

Yeah, you definitely need expertise. This record was interesting like that because going to a studio like Ocean Way and recording drums takes a certain level of expertise, itself. You can’t just put a couple of mics up and think you’re gonna get it going, y’know? It’s a combination of acoustical knowledge, equipment knowledge, personal experience, knowing how to work with drummers… But it depends man. Some people are just crraaazy reclusive, and in their dark cupboard they can stick together these masterpieces. You know, I started that way. I kind of started like faceless techno bollocks. It was just me in a room with some synths and I didn’t care about anything other than making a beat here or there. I definitely didn’t want anyone else involved. In a way it was part showing off; showing everyone, “Oh I can do it all.” Over time, when I got my ego under control I was like, “Oh yeah, it’s about music.”

How’s your relationship with Warp?

It’s good. I mean ultimately, they leave me to my own devices when making a record. Creatively, I’m always very happy. There are certain times, being on an indie label, when I do get into a sort of competitive thing where I wish I had a corporate machine to pump money into promotion. Now and again I’ll find myself sort of getting jealous about some campaign that’s just splashed over every available space on the internet. It’s word-of-mouth, in my case. But you know, ultimately word of mouth is the winner. In this day and age, it might take awhile … and also with this album it might take awhile. I expect there will be a mild amount of alienation with this record. People who expect another Jim might not get what they want…

All these factors trouble my mind every now and again. Then I think, “Y’know wot? It never used to worry me, all this shit.” Warp encourage me to do whatever I want and be as creative as I want. It’s quite refreshing.

I would definitely agree with you there. Having just had its 20th birthday, that kind of longevity for an indie label is a pretty remarkable achievement.

Gotta hand it to ‘em man! They’re a great label and they’ve been good to me.

“Chaos is kind of like a wind isn’t it? It’s like with your hair. You go out with the best of intentions, you’ve got your hair set … you’ve got like a boyish fop from the 60s and after the wind you end up in the 90s without even knowing it. That’s chaos.”

That’s good, though I imagine you probably wouldn’t still be with them if they weren’t

[thinking] Uhhhhh … Yeah. I mean, there were times when I thought I wanted to have more, but in the end, I’m glad I didn’t. I was getting courted for awhile by Columbia and shit. I was kind of tempted, because there was a frustration where I felt the music I was doing should be getting out there a bit more than it was. But ultimate, with them it’s been a bit more balanced.

That’s a good way of putting it, and that’s kind of how I feel about Compass too. When I first heard it, I thought, “Yeah, ok, this one makes sense,” based on all I’ve heard from you in the past. And perhaps another label wouldn’t get that, or let you go there?

I appreciate that, because I kind of feel that way, too. But I don’t know, it’s not easily determined; some people just don’t get it. In the end, I had to do this record. It’s been great touring it too, just the nature of the material. It’s kept playing it really fun.

I don’t want to harp on a sore subject, but you mentioned there has been some negative reception. What are people saying to you that they don’t like?

Well, you know, I was disappointed by my Pitchfork review. For some reason I held out a lot to read that review, because….I don’t know, maybe I’m lazy and I don’t scour the internet for my reviews much. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it, but it really sort of brought me down when I read it. I don’t know, I think from a couple of the live shows, [the reception has] been a little bit confused, should I say. Not disliked, but kind of “huh…what’s this sound…”.

I think it’s a bit more of a challenging sound. It’s a challenging thing for people who have sort of gotten used to me being a certain kind of person, a certain kind of musician. In a way, as negative as that Pitchfork review was [6.6/10 grade - ed.], it talked about me being in transition and I was like, “Well, that’s true! I do feel that.” But that’s also a very banal thing to say because when are you not in transition?

Right, I was just going to say that…

Of course I’m in fucking transition! Every time you make something you’re in transition, to a greater or lesser extent. But I know what he’s saying. It’s a challenge to push yourself away from your comfort zone, and that’s what this album is for me, in a way.

It’s interesting that you say that, because I feel the listeners generally don’t look at it like that. If you’re a music listener and you don’t like something, it’s probably pretty rare that you say, “Well, maybe I don’t like this because it’s outside of my comfort zone, not because it’s actually ‘bad.’ ” Maybe if that happened more often, most people would find out that Kid A was actually good when it came out and not three or four years later.

It’s taught me that I’m still vain. I’ve still got an ego and I still want people to like everything I do. It’s never going to be possible, but it is a good reminder for me of that fact.