By Jade Curson
“Music is actually a very small part of what I do. But, if you want to get really philosophical straight away, it occupies a lot of my heart. Not a lot of my clock, but a lot of my heart.”
It’s a gloomy Monday afternoon in Highbury when I meet Jamie Lenman to talk about his latest record, Devolver. As well as working towards the release, he has also been preparing for his upcoming all-dayer ‘Lenmania’, all while still managing to put in a few days a week at the design agency for which he still works. Although he describes his current state as one of “fevered activity”, he appears to be taking it all in his stride. “If I’m not doing that, if I’m not juggling six or seven things, I tend to get a little bit bummed out. So even though at the moment as you see me, I’m very stressed, that’s also weirdly my optimum level. Best when stressed.” He pauses for a fraction of a second before adding: “I should have called the album that!”
The idea of functioning better under pressure is something of a cliché, but for Lenman this really does seem to be true. For a man with so much on his plate, he exudes a genuine air of relaxed confidence; surprisingly so, perhaps, for someone on the verge of releasing a record like Devolver. While it may not be as unexpectedly experimental as 2013’s Muscle Memory – a fever dream of a double album that was half extreme blistering metal and half banjo-infused folk, with the odd swing number thrown in for good measure – it’s definitely not the work of an artist trying to play it safe.
Certainly, there are a few tracks, such as ‘Personal’ and ‘Waterloo Teeth’, which will satisfy longtime fans of his old band Reuben, but there’s also a lot that might catch an unprepared listener off guard. From the funk-heavy bass of ‘I Don’t Know Anything’, to the 80s radio-ready synthpop title track, to the downright theatrical feel of ‘Bones’ (and let’s not even get into that trumpet solo), a first listen of Devolver is one hell of an experience, and it takes some time to get past the oddness of it all. Where do you even begin to start putting together a record as eclectic as this?
“I actually tried to make it the opposite of that,” Lenman confesses. “Devolver is my most concerted effort to try to have a very compact confined cohesive set of songs that stay within a certain vibe. Because it seemed to have spread out with Muscle Memory, and then with this record, because you had the riffs and the melody together, it was more of a devolution. But then I realised when we were recording it, like ‘oh man there’s that weird jazz one, then there’s the funk number…’ and I just thought ‘oh god. I’m just incapable.’ So I failed on that front. What a shame. I picked the title before I made the record.”
He may not have produced the cohesive album he’d planned, but it would be grossly unfair to describe Devolver itself as a failure in any sense of the word. While some of the more off-kilter songs may not be what fans expected, they are surely destined to become future favourites. In the Reznor-esque opener ‘Hardbeat’, Lenman promises that “ten tracks into this LP, you’ll start to feel you might know me” and honestly, he’s right about that. Devolver manages to encapsulate a host of Lenman’s fears, frustrations and even grief: combined with the frequently veering musical style, Devolver is a deceptively complex body of work, and one that is more rewarding with every listen.
The way in which all the different elements and influences have been combined on this record may seem like a natural progression from the distinct split of styles on Muscle Memory, but the run up to the release suggests a very different approach this time around. His first solo album was dropped with very little fanfare, whereas Devolver had a dedicated promotional campaign, preorder incentives, a tangible build-up over a period of eight months. “Has it been too long?” Lenman asks. “How did you feel, has it been frustrating?” I assure him that it has not been too long – in fact, it’s been satisfying to see Lenman finally emerging with a renewed (and deserved) confidence during this campaign. I hesitate for a moment, unsure of how to properly explain what I mean by this.
“You can’t offend me. Go for it.”
I suggest that it seems as though this is the first time in a long time that he’s actually enjoying the whole process. “That’s just me getting more comfortable. I couldn’t hear any offense in that by the way.”
I point out that it suggests he came across as an utterly miserable bastard before this album. He laughs at this.
“But I was! During the creation of Muscle Memory, right up to the release of it I was having a very low period, and getting back into the music was terrifying for me because I didn’t know how it was going to be received. And playing live was nerve-wracking, although I had my buddies around me. They were always my backing band, but it was like being a [real] band and I needed that comfort around me because I was terrified. And then the touring wasn’t quite so bad. I don’t need that much support anymore. We had a really positive reaction.”
It might seem odd that someone with such a considerable and devoted following as Jamie Lenman might be cowed by the idea of touring. But as he explains, a string of unpleasant experiences touring third Reuben album In Nothing We Trust had worn Lenman down to breaking point, and became a significant factor in his decision to call it a day with the band – and, for a while, with music in general.
“In the early days all I wanted to do was play live,” he explains. “Certainly at the start. And the other two, because they weren’t so involved in the writing, playing live was their favourite bit. So we would just play shows at the drop of a hat. We didn’t even rehearse for a couple of years because we knew it all so well. It was great. And then when you start to get a little bit more involved… you can’t just bang out ‘Suffocation Of The Soul’. It’s seven minutes long and it has a backing track of computer drums, and what you’re playing is very difficult. To be frank, it was outside my comfort zone but I loved that music and I wanted to write my own. Then playing live became difficult.
“But also by then there was a weight of expectation. By that time, people had invested almost ten years in this band. And they would stop coming up to us afterwards and saying ‘I really dug it, I really loved you, great to meet you’, and they would start saying things like ‘I travelled 30 miles and you didn’t play XYZ. I’ve been buying your records for eight years and you couldn’t even play my favourite song’. And that was happening a lot. And I would go out onstage and see everyone and their beaming faces, but what were the chances that I’m going to play your favourite song? Are you going to come afterwards and even break into the dressing room to have a go at me? A grown man got into our dressing room on one of the last tours to berate me for not playing his favourite Reuben song.
So that, combined with how difficult it was to play the actual music, just made me hate it.”
But even during the salad days of Reuben, before his enthusiasm for the band gave way to the mounting pressure of fan expectation, Lenman already seemed to have a contentious attitude towards the music industry in general. The most notable example of this would be ‘Return Of The Jedi’ from the second Reuben record: seven minutes of embittered tirade against an industry he felt was failing musicians who were trying to establish themselves. “I’m famous for writing songs about how angry I am at the record industry,” he laughs. “Because I was! I’ve come to terms with it now, me and the record industry are cool.”
I’m not sure I buy it. While Lenman may have lain to rest the gripes he had in Reuben, Devolver is littered with veiled and not-so-veiled resentments and criticisms of today’s musical landscape. From the sweetly-delivered but brutal “If you cannot dance or act or sing, you can still get big. If you cannot do a fucking thing, you can still get big” in ‘Body Popping’, to the dark and dramatic condemnation of reunion culture in ‘Bones’, Devolver is a record that betrays Lenman’s on-going cynicism of the industry.
“The culture in music at the moment, where bands are expected as part of their life cycle to do albums, split, final tour, greatest hits collection, reunion tour, more albums – it’s all just a scam,” he begins. “And people know it’s a scam now, the secret is out. They know they’re going to go to the farewell show and then the reunion show. And I’m guilty of it. I went to see Refused when they came back to do a reunion show.
“But then they put out albums” he laughs. “No one wants that record, because you’re never going to recapture that magic. And it says in that song ‘Bones’, you can dig Elvis up, you can fucking dry clean his spangly Elvis suit, you can comb his hair, prop him up – he won’t do fucking ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, because he’s dead. And I know he’s there in front of you, I know that’s his skull and all his mummified remains, but that spark has left him. In the same way that it’s left Refused, and it’s left Nine Inch Nails.”
It’s no secret that Nine Inch Nails have been hugely influential to Lenman throughout his musical career, so it’s unexpected to hear him talk so dismissively of Reznor now. “Oh, he’s dead!” he exclaims after I mention their recent set at Riot Fest. “He is dead. He should have stopped when he did that farewell tour. I saw the tour after they came back and it was like ‘The Nine Inch Nails Experience’. It was like a really good tribute act. And since then it’s been disappointing.”
But as quick as he is to call out his heroes, he’s as quick to emphasise that the blame for this lay as much with the industry as the artist. That aforementioned cordiality is growing thinner by the minute.
“Really they make all their money out of touring. And you can’t tour for very long without new product. You have to have a new single. Who’s going to write a piece about your tour if you haven’t got a new record coming out? If you want to go on the road, and you want to play to audiences and make your living, you have to have a record out. And maybe it gets to a point where it doesn’t really matter quite so much what is on that record. In the old days you might wait 5 or 6 years before that record comes out because it’s got to be perfect. These days, they just want a fucking CD in the shops.
“And I know it sounds silly to say ‘oh we’re forcing these artists to put out crap’ but it is. The system weights it on an album release. You’ve got to put out something so you can tour. And I think that might be why we’re seeing these cruddy albums. Because if Metallica didn’t need to put out a record to tour, they would tour until they felt like they had 10 or 11 great enough songs to put on a record. And then we’d get a fantastic record instead of an obligatory one.”
Before I know it, we’re right to the heart of the matter and the new album. Devolver is not just something he’s been idly tinkering with at weekends, it’s a throw down; a challenge to the complacency of his musical heroes – Trent Reznor, Refused, Metallica. The musically left-field moments scattered throughout the record aren’t just borne of Lenman’s self-confessed inability to adhere to a consistent style: they are also the product of a desire to constantly push himself creatively, to avoid the precipice of indifference over which he has watched his contemporaries descend.
“I’m always looking out for the signs of my own obsolescence and irrelevance. I’m worried about it! I know I’m only 34 but at the same time, I’m fucking 34 – I don’t want to be the old guy going ‘hey, remember me from ‘Scared Of The Police’? Here’s my new joint, kids!’ I don’t want to be that. And Trent is a good example of this because he’s got so much stature and he’s done so much great work, and I wonder how he feels. Does he really think that ‘Not The Actual Events’ or ‘Add Violence’ are pushing things forward? Does he really think they’re his best work? He just seems a bit vacant. And I hope that I never get to the point where I’m just like ‘ehh that’ll do’.”
When considering the strength and creativity of Devolver, it’s hard to imagine anyone accusing Lenman of dialling it in. But just before we part ways, he makes it clear that he’s more than ready to face any detractors that might come his way.
“I will gladly call out my heroes. I will say to them, ‘you are making bad music. Make good music. I can hear that you don’t believe it.’ And the only argument against that is your own good music. They can say ‘and what?’ and you can say ‘and this, motherfucker’, and slide the CD across the table. And I think that’s healthy. And if someone said to me ‘Lenman you are letting yourself go, your last album was piff, I didn’t believe it’, first of all I would want to hear what you were bringing to the table, and then hopefully I would hear something good and I would go ‘you’re right! Good!’ and then that would inspire me to make a better record.
“It’s for other people to decide whether I fall foul of these things or not,” he adds. “But no one could argue that I’m not trying.”