A new Jamie T album is always a big deal. His latest, ‘Trick’, brims with punk, hip-hop, giant choruses and youthful excitement. He tells Rhian Daly about turning 30 and learning how to “give less of a f**k”
There are few voices in modern music as distinctive as Jamie T. Since the Wimbledon native (full name Jamie Treays) emerged in 2006 with the ‘Betty And The Selfish Sons EP’ and, a year later, his debut album ‘Panic Prevention’, he’s been synonymous with keenly observed character studies of lairy lads and troubled youths set to a boisterous punk-rap hybrid that merges The Clash with Beastie Boys. That debut took its title from a self-help tape series for anxiety sufferers, something the then 21-year-old experienced first hand. His second album, ‘Kings & Queens’, followed in 2009 – exuberant and infectious, effortlessly justifying all the acclaim and accolades heaped on him first time round.
Then he disappeared.
After five years seemingly in the wilderness (he was actually holed up in his Hackney studio, starting but not finishing tracks), Jamie returned in September 2014 with his long-awaited third album ‘Carry On The Grudge’. It showed a very different side to him – one that those who’d eagerly, impatiently awaited his return probably weren’t expecting. It coursed with dark tales and morbid themes, full of women who “didn’t die quite right” and psychotic voices in your head who want to “f**k the world”. He sounded like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, barely any of that early roguish charm able to shine through the bleakness. In interviews and photo shoots around the record he would clutch his guitar like a comfort blanket to ward off those debilitating nerves.
Today, sat in that same Hackney studio complex he hid away in for so long, he seems to be in a much better place. He sits in front of his computer, puffing on cigarettes and surrounded by discarded Coke cans, cracking jokes and putting on voices to add dramatic or comedic effect. “It’s hard to say, really…” he considers when asked if his life is in a good place now. After a minute, he’s ready to answer. “I’m in a good place generally,” he replies.
His anxiety, once so crippling, is mostly under control these days. “I’d say I’m better than I have been in the last six years,” he says. He reckons having lived with his anxiety for so long has made him “give less of a f**k” about it. “It’s just you know what’s going on a bit more,” he shrugs. “Nothing’s so much of a shock.”
His new way of coping is to treat the things that trigger his anxiety as a job. “I don’t treat writing music like a job,” he’s quick to clarify. “That’s what I do all the time and it’s part of who I am, I suppose, but [interviews and photo shoots] are like a job to me. If I think of it like that, it works a lot better because I just do it and then I go home and it’s not really a thing. There’s nothing like releasing an album to make your anxiety go through the f**king roof.”
In January this year Jamie turned 30, a prospect he described as “terrifying” in interviews when he turned 29. He doesn’t seem all that bothered by it now, though. “It’s alright isn’t it? It’s just a thing,” he shrugs after jokingly chiding NME for bringing it up. “I was probably talking about it in the context of music and in music you’re old if you’re not 22. People think you’re ancient, but I don’t really feel ancient.”
Since stepping back out from the shadows two years ago, he’s completed three records – ‘Carry On The Grudge’, 2015’s ‘Magnolia Melancholia’ EP and new album ‘Trick’. Is he making up for those five years he spent out of action? “Making up for lost time… I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it,” he ponders, lighting up another cigarette. “I’m still, as a songwriter, feeling the effects [of the struggle around ‘COTG’] and spiralling the other way, like ‘Write this, this and this.’ I’m trying to find my middle ground between [disappearing and constantly releasing music].”
Reaching the start of a new decade of your life, as Jamie just has, is usually prefaced by deep soul-searching and reflecting on what you’ve done with your life so far. One specific time in his life is coming even more into focus, with the 10th anniversary of ‘Panic Prevention’ looming on the horizon. It’s an album he’s proud of, but he hasn’t listened to it in a long time. “Once a record’s out I’ll never listen to it again,” he says, although he does frequently go through his archives of half-written tracks, just to see what’s there. “I keep meaning to go over everything again and listen to it all, but I can’t bear to do it quite often. That’s the problem with making music from a young age – you’re like, ‘What was I doing?!’ I don’t know if it’s good for the soul.”
His label recently asked him to trawl through everything on one of the dusty computers under his desk to find some unreleased tracks for an extended reissue of ‘Panic Prevention’, but Jamie’s less convinced of the merits of doing that. “I need to dispel the myth that there’s some kind of Prince-esque vault somewhere of just amazing stuff,” he says, finishing his sentence in an exaggerated, hushed tone. “It’s not the case – they’re all pretty sketched-out, crap ideas. They’d be on the record if they were any good. If I do find a good track in there I’m gonna go, ‘I’m having that for my new record,’ so I dunno if that’ll really work.”
There’s no doubt there’d be an appetite for a release like that, though. Few debuts are genuine classics, but ‘Panic Prevention’ deserves the tag. The attitude and energy of the album, all scrappy, cocksure confidence and lurid tales of young London, made Jamie a genuine star upon its release in 2007, taking him on world tours, into the Top Five in the charts and going gold within a year of release. It remains the record he’s most strongly associated with and songs like ‘Sheila’ and ‘Salvador’ still spark mayhem on indie dancefloors across the country. It’s testament to the enduring quality of the album that you can still hear its influence in some of Britain’s most exciting new artists, like Slaves and Rat Boy.
It feels like a long time since Jamie’s written with the same kind of spirit that made ‘Panic Prevention’ what it is, but ‘Trick’, his fourth album – due out next month – finds him returning to that headspace. It’s bookended by dark and sombre moments; the record’s “foundation tracks” like the glowering ‘Tinfoil Boy’ or the sullen acoustic strum of ‘Self Esteem’ show the kind of album Jamie was going to make before deciding it was “too heavy”. The middle, though, is a bounding race through punk (‘Tescoland’, ‘Robin Hood’), hip-hop productions (‘Solomon Eagle’) and
huge, Oasis-y choruses (‘Joan Of Arc’). Where ‘Carry On The Grudge’ trod more sober ground, ‘Trick’ is brimming over with youthful excitement.
“I’m happy to still have that there. I was never trying to get rid of it. I was just trying to do something [on ‘COTG’] that wasn’t in the same vein,” he explains. “I never wanted to lose [that energy] altogether.” He looks away and draws his arm over his face, gasping theatrically, “Like, ‘That’s not me any more.’”
Not many artists will know the intense fervency with which each of Jamie T’s records are welcomed into the world. Sometimes a release from him feels like a huge, important moment on a grand scale, as with ‘Carry On The Grudge’. Other times, like on ‘Kings & Queens’ and now ‘Trick’, it’s more concentrated but just as significant. That’s in part due to the legacy he quickly created with his debut, but also down to what his music offers. Where other artists deal in heady escapism to get away from life’s mundanities and pitfalls, Jamie puts them front and centre. He’s a storyteller with a knack for building characters up before your eyes and, like his heroes Damon Albarn and Joe Strummer, he’s always got something to say about the world we live in.
Right now, he’s initially reluctant to talk about those views. “I’m gonna get myself in trouble!” he howls, slumping down in his swivel chair and fixing his eyes on the ceiling. “When I get asked [about politics] I just think about Noel Gallagher and Tony Blair. I think it’s an interesting time. I don’t f***king know.”
He sits up and spins slowly in a half circle, saying he’s found it hard to keep watching everything that’s been going on in the world recently, from the EU referendum to the seemingly constant terror attacks. “I find myself pulling my hair out in front of the computer and I drive myself mad,” he says. “It gets a bit too much and I think the world’s gonna end.”
On ‘Police Tapes’, one of the record’s most menacing, angry tracks, Jamie raps about “good and evil” and politicians patronising the public. He says he’s not trying to make a point about the differing sides, but rather explain how tired that narrative is. “We’ve just been through something as a country where the most interesting part, to me, was the despicable way politicians acted,” he says, growing more animated and angry. “It’s become very clear to a lot of people just how much spin is involved in all this sh*t.” He quotes a lyric that goes “I’m sick and tired of watching the news and everything being told to us in soundbites”. “It’s this kind of black and white view of the world where it’s like, ‘I’m not gonna explain what’s going on to you, but I’ll tell you this story of good and evil and freedom’, and I think that’s the most patronising sh*t. That really gets to me.”
On ‘Sign Of The Times’, a bruised ode to the fleeting nature of life, Jamie talks of the politics of the city he’s spent his whole life in. “Where have all the venues gone? / Lost them all to businessmen” he sighs on the track and he says now he’s seen London changing for the worse in some ways in recent years. It’s clearly something that’s been playing on his mind – another song that didn’t make the album, called ‘Denmark Freak’, picks up that theme and runs with it. “That’s about most of the places that I used to hang out having gone,” he explains. “I was on Denmark Street yesterday and the 12 Bar, where I used to hang out a lot when I was younger, has gone. The Astoria obviously went a few years ago, which was one of the best venues in London. It’s a real shame and it’s all incredibly important for our city.”
A recent conversation with Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett, who announced he’s to open a new venue later this year, has brought Jamie some hope that things might get better on that front. At a meeting with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s people, he was told there are plans to open a ton of new venues in the city. “That gives me hope and gets me excited,” Jamie says. “I heard as well they’re gonna put a venue somewhere on Denmark Street, 600 capacity.” Good news for his old stomping ground, but he says it’ll be hard to replace the spaces that have already shut down. “The 12 Bar was one of the few places in London where you could go down and go, ‘I’ve just started a band, can I have a gig?’ and they’d go, ‘Yeah.’ That’s quite hard to find, those kind of grassroots venues.”
In a way, and fittingly for someone so intrinsically linked with London, where Jamie’s at right now in his career reflects the changes in the city. “A lot of things are coming to an end,” he ponders, cracking a wide grin. “My twenties, my career… No, I’ve got one more album on my contract which, whether they pick it up, I dunno. I suppose the next few years are the end of something and the beginning of something.” Whatever he does next, be it boisterous anthems, gloomy ballads or something completely different, expect it to be every bit as important and essential as this often tumultuous, always brilliant first decade.