The fresh prince of eclectic alt-rock shares the tracks that inspired his latest record
“I don’t really get nervous anymore,” says Jamie Lenman, staring right down the barrel of a new EP and the start of a UK tour. “I used to worry that if I ever didn’t get nervous, it would mean that I didn’t care anymore. Worrying about getting nervous… that’s how middle class I am! But I do still very much care. It’s just that I’ve been doing this a long time now”.
Forming Reuben in 2001, Lenman found himself at the front of the underground British alt-rock scene throughout the 00s before striking out on his own. Other bands followed (Devolver, Shuffle), as did a flurry of side-projects (illustrating for The Guardian, directing music videos for Frank Turner), but the last few years have seen Lenman working solo.
“I thought I probably had too many songs for an album, but we recorded them all, just in case,” he says, now six months on from The Atheist, and a few days from that album’s follow-up EP, Iknowyouknowiknow. “I had some big singles there, like ‘Words Of Love’ and ‘Crazy Horse’, so they were by no means cast-offs. But I just thought they could live better on their own. If you bring them all together now, and you listen to both records from one end to the other, it functions sort of like a big album, maybe like a double.”
Pitching ‘Crazy Horse’ as a grand confrontation of death and ego (“I’m trying to coax myself gradually into the idea of a universe without me, which is difficult for anyone to accept…”), ‘Words Of Love’ stands on one of the biggest choruses of his back catalogue. Perfect, then, for his summer live shows?
“Actually that song is the only one I am nervous about!” he laughs. “I’ve only played it live twice and both times my bass pedal has given up, which is very distressing…”
With a lot to unpack over both The Atheist and Iknowyouknowiknow, we asked Lenman to share the tracks that inspired them.
‘My God’ – Gemma Hayes
When my band did their first EP, we needed a live agent. Our first was a guy called Chris, and he was great. He really nurtured us, musically. He sent me to the offices of the labels where they had all these cupboards filled with the latest releases. We used to go and fill up bags full of amazing stuff, but Chris specifically sent me the Gemma Hayes record, Night On My Side. And that was quite prescient of him because at the time I was writing very jagged, angular, aggressive music. But it was like lightning when I heard it, and it’s stayed with me ever since.
How do keep up with new music now? Do you still try and seek out things that might push you in a different direction?
I get dragged very hard in different directions. After my band finished, I got dragged, by accident, by a strong current of revivalist pre-war folk and jazz. Which is why that Muscle Memory album happened. It was weird. It was so weird. But at the same time I got pulled hard into dub and ska too. Not a lot of people know this, because I didn’t make a corresponding record. If you look at my press photos you can see the whole 1920s America thing happening, but you don’t see me with dreadlocks, thankfully! For a long time I was mostly just listening to first and second wave ska and Jamaican dubplate. I’ve started a radio show on Total Rock and there’s a lot of Irish hip hop on that show at the moment. It all has to come from somewhere and I still rely on tastemakers really. I’ve got a couple of buddies, one of whom is actually Zag from Zig And Zag, the alien puppets. I sound nuts, right?
‘Life On A Chain’ – Pete Yorn
The trouble with Pete Yorn is that I love that album so much that I’ve been quite trepidatious about exploring his other records. I tend to do this – I find an artist who’s whose album is unimpeachable, and I rinse it. And then I’m so frightened that they might not be able to repeat it, so I sort of shun their other work. I’m still in that MusicForTheMorningAfter period with Pete Yorn.
‘Life On A Chain’ is just wonderful. He’s got a sort of tired feeling. He’s worn down at 21. But I really dig the vibe of that track, and I might have nicked a few bits for the EP. Don’t tell him.
‘Brick’ – Ben Folds Five
I first heard Ben Folds Five on Top Of The Pops 2, believe it or not. It wasn’t always oldies from the 70s. They used to have a mix of old stuff and alternate takes from the artists they had in this week, which was fascinating. It was also a lot of stuff that was maybe happening in the States that hadn’t reached the UK yet. Ben Folds Five was one of those, and it was ‘The Battle Of Who Could Care Less’ that I heard. I obviously got that album, Whatever And Ever Amen, and then as soon as I heard ‘Brick’, it hit like a brick.
I didn’t know what it was about. I just knew that it was sad. It was the saddest song I’d ever heard. And that’s really amazing that you can feel the weight of emotion without really knowing what they’re singing about.
Ben Folds has often said that he prefers to let that one do its own talking, without wanting to unpick the lyrics too much in interviews. Do you feel the same way about your music?
I used to be very clear that I wanted people to know what my songs were about. But I think that was more to do with ego and self-importance than worrying about misinterpretations. These days, I am much happier for people to take what they want from it. I’ve had people come up to me say, “Oh, I love that lyric…” and then just spout off some gibberish that I didn’t write, telling me it really helped them with X Y and Z. And who am I to take that away from them? The only thing I worry about is that people might take something I sing the wrong way. The chances of anyone misinterpreting my music as any kind of Tory hate speech is probably pretty low, but I think you still have to be brave and trust that people have heads on their shoulders.
‘I Still Believe’ – Frank Turner
I picked this one for a number of reasons. I picked it because ‘Crazy Horse’ sounds like a Frank Turner song, right? So much so that I sent it to him and said, “why don’t you do this instead of me? If you do it, it’ll be a No.1!” We talked about it for a bit, and it didn’t come to pass, but he really dug it. So I picked ‘I Still Believe’ because I guess maybe I’d been listening to that at the time I wrote it.
I was actually down to direct the video for that one too. I sent in a treatment to the label, because I directed one of his previous videos, and I had this weird thing about babies in a church… I don’t know what it was, I think my sister just had a baby at the time. Then there was another one where he was being chased by a car. I’ve pitched a lot of videos!
That song is such a great rallying cry for the future of rock music – literally yelling that out in the chorus. Do you feel as optimistic?
No. I’m actually very worried. Well, not worried, but I am a little bit depressed about it. I don’t want to get too alarmist about AI, but we just had that watershed moment with the Drake song [going viral, despite being entirely AI-generated]. Then Grimes selling off her own voice. We’re on the way out, and I’m not even gonna say this shouldn’t happen, I just think that’s how technology goes.
I think before long, for a large swathe of the public, I’m going to be even more redundant than I currently am. Then there’s the trend of live artists not playing live. To an embarrassing point where some bands aren’t even f*cking trying to hide it. I went to see a show recently and the guitarist just stopped playing to tie his shoelace in the middle of his solo. I was looking around in the crowd and no one even gives a f*ck. I made the decision for this tour to go the other way – there’s no pre-recorded sound at all. It’s all live. But what that means is when I come on at a festival, without a soundcheck, maybe using someone else’s gear, and I play 40 minutes of live music after a band that just put their CD through the speakers… That’s not a level f*cking playing field. People go away saying, “Jamie Lenman was a bit iffy…”. So that gets me very depressed, especially having spent 30 years honing that craft.
‘Eleanor Rigby’ – The Beatles
My favourite Beatles track is a whole other conversation, but ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is the one that speaks most to both the album and the EP. ‘This Town’ is my version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – thinking about people in straitened circumstances who you want to help but you just don’t know how. I don’t know if Paul McCartney gave a sh*t about Father McKenzie, but it sounds like he does. It’s trying to get a handle on the immense sadness that people suffer, and it’s about Paul saying, “hey, this isn’t me, I’m thinking about other people. I’m trying to empathise”. I’m sad in a lot of my songs. But in ‘This Town’, I’m like, “look at all these other sad people”. So it sort of has a spiritual twin in ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
There’s me putting myself in the same bracket as The Beatles! [laughs] That’s why I called my 2017 album Devolver. I hoped someone might pick it up instead of Revolver by mistake! That’s how I get close to The Beatles – with a spelling error! The Gallaghers had to get f*cking bowl cuts…
The standard question for Beatles fans who have been in a band – did you watch Get Back? And did any of that dynamic ring true?
The answer is in your question. I didn’t watch Get Back because it did ring so true. It seems bizarre to me that anyone would want to relive that. Certainly no one who has ever spent torturous hours locked in a room with people that they otherwise really like, killing each other, just to try and nail a middle eight. From what I gather, there’s a lot of joy in those sessions – and I’ve read a lot of books about it. My producer gave me a whole book about the Get Backsessions just so I wouldn’t interrupt his mixing! But actually watching it would be too tough, I think, especially as I’m very much the Paul. Trying to like keep it light whilst at the same time being domineering. I sympathise, because he just wants to make it happen, but that does involve being a taskmaster.
‘It’s A Sad Sad Planet’ – Evil Superstars
More people need to listen to Evil Superstars. That track really stands out on the record because there’s only really that and ‘Love Happens’, and the rest is this scratchy, horrible nonsense. Just a bunch of Belgians losing their minds in New York. Most of that album informs my previous record, King Of Clubs, in its sort of seedy nastiness, but then ‘It’s A Sad Sad Planet’ comes down like this jaunty, lovely, indie thing. And that’s much more what The Atheist is about. I was buried in a deep Belgian hole when I discovered Evil Superstars and I made this low-down grungy album, but every time I got to ‘Sad Planet…’ I was like, “Oh, and there’s a lightness here”. And I think must have informed what I then did with The Atheist.
‘What Do You Want Me To Say’ – The Dismemberment Plan
The one thing you can say about The Dismemberment Plan is that you can’t define them. You can’t fit that band in a genre. I wouldn’t know where to put them.
The same has been said about you.
They’re quite unique, whereas I feel like every record I make fits quite neatly in a particular genre. What confuses people is that those genres are different every time. I welcome the comparison to The Dismemberment Plan though – if I had an ounce of their creativity I’d feel pretty chuffed.
Is that a conscious decision, to move between genres like that in your own music?
What I used to do is write songs in all different genres, and then when we had 12 songs we made an album. And those albums would be mad. People would call us a weird band and call us indefinable, and I got a little bit fed up of people saying that. So when I had a little bit more control over things as a solo artist I didn’t want to repeat those mistakes. I thought a better way to present my music would be write a fast, aggressive song and put it in the fast, aggressive pot. If I wrote a ballad, I would put that in a ballad pot. Lo-fi indie stuff went in the lo-fi indie pot. And so on. And then whenever one of those pots got full up, I had an album.
Which pot is filling up the fastest now?
Oh God, you wouldn’t believe it. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I’m writing in lots of genres. I’ve been writing for other people as well, which helps to expand my own canvas, as pretentious as that sounds. But if I put out another record – and that’s a big if, considering the state of the industry – I would probably want to strike out in a very different direction. But then if there’s going to be a long wait for the next one I might need to remind people who I am. I’ve got four or five pots filling up at the moment.
‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ – Wilco
As someone who has past form with covers, I think covers are a great way of keeping a particular song alive. And that struck me when I started hearing other people play my songs. If you’re listening to your own recordings it’s like looking at your own face in the mirror. You can’t separate it from yourself. But if you hear someone else play it you’ve been taken out of the equation. So I always prefer other people’s renditions of my own songs. I’ve been to see a couple of Reuben tribute bands as well and that was wild. It’s really great just to see how people interact with the music when I’m removed from it. They play all the hits too!
I found this Wilco cover of a Steely Dan number on the soundtrack to Me, Myself And Irene, which I went to see when it came out. I wasn’t fully aware of how gross it was at that point – this was the very early days of the 21st century. But I was most taken with the soundtrack, and I bought the CD for a Cake track that’s not even on it. That CD was great though – that’s actually where I found Pete Yorn. For some reason, the Me Myself And Irene soundtrack is mainly just Steely Dan covers, and I just thought Wilco’s version of that track was brilliant. I don’t even want to hear the original in case it’s not as good.
‘The Filth Of It All’ – The Webb Brothers
When I went into The Atheist I was trying to do something that would sound like The Webb Brothers. A lot of close harmonies. I tried before on my song ‘Little Lives’, on Muscle Memory, which was sung by my brother and myself. But on ‘I Done Things I Ain’t Proud Of’ from the new EP, you’ve got that similar close harmony effect with a simple acoustic song. And it’s sad. And that’s me really trying to emulate The Webb Brothers. ‘The Filth Of It All’ is just so sad and melancholy, and their voices just go together so well.
I think for all of the tracks on this playlist I was trying to make my own version of them, to some degree. And it’s up for people to decide how well I managed that. Frank is the only one I know who’s heard the record. Everyone else here will probably never know that I’m tipping my hat to them…