For Folk’s Sake Interview: Jeremy Warmsley

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For Folk’s Sake: So you just got back from a ukelele festival.  What was that all about?

Jeremy Warmsley: A friend of mine is a promoter in Manchester and he put on a ukelele festival – it’s pretty much as straightforward as it sounds.  I played, along with a band called Meursalt, Sparky Deathcap, Kathryn Edwards and Jam on Bread.  Meursalt’s a Scottish Band and they’re quite big on the blog scene.  Unfortunately I didn’t catch their set but I did see Sparky Deathcap – I’ve come across him before.  He played in Daniel Johnston’s band at the Union Chapel last year.  Anyway he had written a rock opera on the ukelele specially for the event.

That sounds brilliant.

Yeah it was incredible.  It was about a guy who drives a van that delivers frozen organs to hospitals, and he gets caught in a town by a snow drift and meets a girl and falls in love with her.  It’s pretty awesome.  He had a projector and he projected drawings he’d done while he was playing.

So it was a good weekend?

It was actually only one night.  There were about 70 people there for the day and it was really chilled out.  Mushaboom promoters do a lot of good stuff in Manchester.

Last weekend was your Heartbreak Ball at the Slaughtered Lamb.  Did you make the cupcakes yourself?

No, my girlfriend made the first batch of cupcakes, and then one of the  people came along saw that I’d said there’d be cupcakes and made a batch too which was really amazing, and my bassist’s girlfriend brought her birthday cake.

Great, so now we’ve cleared that up, how did you feel about the gig?

Yeah, the gig was just great.  I think Gossamer Albatross, Slow Club and Stars of Sunday League each played the best gig of theirs that I’d seen.  They were all great performances.  Johnny was great as well, playing on his own.  I think people seemed to really enjoy the day.  Loads of people were saying they were hoping we’d do it again next year.

In the past you were involved in putting together Songs in the Dark – first in Cambridge, then in London.  Can you tell us a bit about that?

I did that with my friend Simon, who’s in a band called The Woebetides, and it started off because we wanted a platform – a regular place we could play that wasn’t an open mic night, and we could get on people we knew who we thought were talented.  It was very studenty – lots of pretentious poetry, comedy acts.  It was really nice, and we carried on doing it for about a year after we left uni.  That was such early days – I think the only song of mine that dates back that far is “Five Verses”.

Has anyone who played at Songs in the Dark gone on to do well?

When we took it to London Emmy (the Great) played a night, and so did Johnny (Flynn).  So did Jamie T, and Jack Peñate.  Simon still puts it on in London, and it’s doing quite well, but when I was still involved in putting it on we’d just moved to London and we didn’t know anyone.  It was so different to doing it as part of the student community.

So with Songs in the Dark, and the Heartbreak Ball, and your “New Thing” video show online, you seem to like showcasing music.  Why is that?

It’s just something that seems to have happened quite naturally.  I’m not trying to set myself up as some kind of svengali, I just enjoy seeing other people perform.  I also do a lot of production stuff, like I produced some stuff with Gossamer Albatross and I’ve been working a bit with Jay Jay Pistolet.  I’d say that’s much more important to me than this idea of being a channel to present stuff.  It’s just good fun.  I like the idea of making little obscure videos of people playing in slightly odd places, and if I’m doing that it makes sense to get a few people together rather than just making it a massive ego trip.

Maybe every month or so I go on MySpace and go through all my friend requests from bands, and it’s amazing how many really, really good musicians out there who will probably never get a chance.  They’re lost out on the information super highway.

So your second album, How We Became, came out last September, and you released “If He Breaks Your Heart” as a single last weekend.  What’s next?  Can you tell us anything about this elusive ‘lost album’?

That’s actually what I’m kind of working on at the moment.  Basically two years ago I wrote this thing, it’s 25 minutes long and I suppose it’s really one continuous piece of music split into six different things.  I suppose it’s basically a rock opera, or something.  That sounds really horrible and pretentious but it’s not.  It’s doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s basically just a narrative song that happens to be several tracks rather than a short story, and it’s about two kids who find a magic world in their back garden in classic children’s adventure style, but it gets a bit deeper than that.  So I wrote that and demoed it, but I never really got a chance to finish it off and now I’ve got a bit of time so I’m going to finish it, and then decide what to do with it.  I’ve got the next album to think about, so it might be part of that, or it might not.  I don’t want to say anything for sure at the moment.

I’ve kind of got a lot of different strands of what I do as a musician.  I’ve got the folky side, the indie-rock side, the electronic side, the orchestral side, and I want to stop trying to do it all at once – I’m going to try to focus on making things a bit more coherent rather than everything being mashed together.

One of the interesting things about both your albums is how varied the songs are – both in style and subject matter.

Yeah, and I think it’s great to have range, but when I think of my favourite artists they developed that range over the course of a career rather than doing it in the course of one album.  If you think of an album like Harvest by Neil Young, that’s a mix of acoustic songs,  electronic songs and orchestral songs all on it at once, and you know that’s a great album, but it’s not as good as, say, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, which is pretty much the same the whole way through the album.  I think if you focus on just doing one thing really well you’re going to get a lot better than doing a whole bunch of different crazy things.

Do you think perhaps your impulse to mix together a whole bunch of styles comes from your excitement about all the different kinds of great music there are?

Exactly.  I sat down, and I wrote what I thought was going to be my third album, which is much more concentrated and considered – it’s basically my guitar album – guitars, rock and roll.  I played a couple of songs from it at the Heartbreak Ball.  That might be my third album, or I might do something else.  I’ve got lots of side projects on the go as well.  I’ve kind of put a band together called Little Words, which is kind of west coast harmonies – that kind of acoustic – much more song-based, which we might start writing some songs for.  We’ve been doing some covers things – we’ve done a Magnetic Fields thing, and we did a Tom Waits and Daniel Johnston night as well.

And then I’m working with my friend Tom Rogerson from Three Trapped Tigers, who used to play piano in my band – he plays on my album too, and he co-produced Emmy the Great’s album.  Three Trapped Tigers are an amazing rock band – they’re really heavy actually, but also very melodic and beautiful.  Anyway Tom and I have a side project called Green Lights Mean Go which will hopefully release something this year.  We’ve got about two thirds of an album written.

So lots of stuff is waiting in the wings then?

JW: Yeah exactly.  I kind of feel I’d like to do something a bit different to just pumping out a bunch more songs.  I’ve been working pretty solidly as ‘Jeremy Warmsley’ for about five years now, and it’d be nice to think about something else a little bit.

So a question about your ‘process’ now, how do your songs get written?

In as much as I have a method, which is to say that every song is different and there are always exceptions, not quite a majority of my songs are written in the same way.  That is, whenever I’m walking around and thinking about things, as most people do when they’re walking around, or sitting on the tube or whatever, or just having some quiet time, I’m always kind of looking at what I’m thinking, and saying ‘would that work in a song?’ on a second-order level.  That’s a bit sad really – it’d be nice to have some thoughts that aren’t being debased by my creative direction.  But if I have a thought of something that might work in a song then I make a little note of it, and then maybe every month or so I’ll sit down with a big list of ideas, and I’ll have a look at them and choose a couple and just fiddle about with them with a guitar and a piano until I have something resembling a song.

I don’t ever have any problems generating music.  It’s the lyrics, and the idea of what the song’s going to be about which is really the crucial thing.  The hard thing is to think of what’s a good subject for a song, from there the process of converting the idea to a bunch of lyrics is pretty straightforward really.  You just think of some interesting ways of saying whatever you’re trying to say.

Emmy the Great has said in an interview that it’s kind of like doing a crossword – you find a couple of lines, like answers, but you have to work out how to make those fit in with the whole.  Is it like that?

There’s this fantastic book by a guy called Keith Johnstone called “Impro”, which is about teaching people how to be creative again after they’ve forgotten how.  As a child everyone’s really creative – making up stories and drawing pictures, and one of the things school does is teach you to stop doing that so that you can be a hard-working, useful member of society instead of daydreaming about robots all day.  And in the book he says that one way of getting people to become creative again is just to give them three images and tell them to connect those images into a story, and that’s sometimes what writing a song is like.  You have a line, and then you think of something that rhymes with that line, and these two lines are related in some way, and you have to think ‘these two lines are both related, and both sound good, what song would they make sense in?’

Sometimes you build the meaning of the song out of the actual lyrics, and sometimes you have the meaning first then you generate the lyrics, which is a much easier way to work, but sometimes it just fun to have a good line, and have another good line, and think of a bunch of other good lines that all turn into a good song.  Hopefully.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, so I’m not sure all my songs would stand up to this kind of analysis, but every single line of a song should just be pure gold.  If you look at a Leonard Cohen song, every single lyric could be used as the header for people’s blogs about how their girlfriend has dumped them or whatever, which I think is a good balance.

Have you got any big trips planned this year?

I’m going to Germany in April, and hopefully Spain and Italy shortly after which will be great.  I’ve never really toured Europe so I’m really looking forward to that.  I did Japan last December, which was just phenomenal.  Actually, I’m going to put in a little plug for a restaurant in London called Abeno.  There’s one on New Museum Street, and there’s one by Leicester Square, and they sell a kind of food called okonomiyaki, which is a staple in Japan but it’s the only restaurant in Europe that actually serves it.  It’s a kind of savoury pancake with bits of shrimp or tofu or whatever you want in it, and it’s just absolutely extraordinary.  They cook it for you in front of you on this metal plate thing and it’s really delicious and unusual.  Basically I want them to become really massive so that they open a massive chain and they’ll have one in every city in the world, and then when I’m on tour I can have okonomiyaki every night.  It’s really cheap as well.

Great, we’ll give it a try.  Back to music, when did you decide this was the career for you?

JW: I started writing songs quite late, and I got into music quite late – I was 16 or 17 and I just became completely possessed by it.  I didn’t really spend any time thinking about or doing anything else.  I kind of fell into going to uni.  I really like that expression – over the weekend people kept telling me that they’d ‘fallen into’ really interesting jobs.  How do you fall into being someone who moves art around for a living?  So anyway I fell into going to uni pretty much by accident, and really spent a lot more time playing music at uni than working on uni stuff.  I think like most people who love what they do, I’ve never really sat down and thought about whether doing this for a living is a sensible thing.  It was never really a conscious decision, I just spent all my time doing it, and if you spend ten hours a day doing something, probably after a while you’re going to fall into a way of making a living out of it.  If I wasn’t making music and playing music I’d probably make a living teaching it, or playing in other people’s bands, or producing it.

And finally do you have any recommendations for FFS readers?

New stuff?

Well, you can talk about other stuff if you like.

I’m really excited about the new Grizzly Bear record.  I guess, new bands that haven’t really hit the public eye yet that I like: Gossamer Albatross, Three Trapped Tigers, Woebetides, all the band I’ve mentioned and all the bands that played at Heartbreak Ball (Stars of Sunday League, Slow Club, Johnny Flynn).  There’s a band called Mitchell Museum in Glasgow who I think are just signing their first record deal.  They’re absolutely extraordinary.  They play amazing day-glo pop tunes.

I listen to a lot of Radio 3.  It’s the only music station that doesn’t really offend on a regular basis, and they have a programme called the Late Junction where they play experimental music.  They played someone on David Sylvian’s label called Thomas Feiner who’s absolutely phenomenal.  It’s kind of like early Scott Walker before he went weird, but, a bit weird.  It’s hard to describe it.

I listened to a lot of John Fahey on the coach today.  He’s a 50s/60s experimental fingerpicking guitarist.  The first time you listen to it you think ‘what’s this country bullshit?’ then you realise it sounds like there’s three guitars playing, but there’s not, there’s just one.  He does really amazing melodies and ridiculous, convoluted constructions.  I think he’s a big influence on the way Johnny (Flynn) plays guitar actually.  I was listening to it today with that in mind.   That’s it, I think.

Well that’s certainly a good selection for people to look into.  Is there anything else you’re up to that you’d like people to know about?

Just one thing actually, it’s not on MySpace yet but I’m playing a gig with the Bobby McGees in Stoke Newington on March 28th.  It’s at Barden’s Boudoir and I’m quite excited about it.

Interview: Helen True

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