Continuing yesterday’s fascinating chat with James Graham, we pick up where we left off. Lockdown. I promise we move onto other subjects soon, and won’t mention Dominic Cummings. Not even once…
Fran Slater: Last one I’ll ask you around lockdown, but we at Picky Bastards have been talking a lot about how we’ve been interacting with music during the current situation. Some of us are digging into new stuff, some are only listening to older stuff that comforts them. What are you listening to to get through it all?
James Graham: Fucking Pancake Robot! And Baby Yoda. My son has got a list of ten songs that are just absolutely melt your brain stuff and my wife and I are just sitting there and he’s just going ‘Pancake Robot, Pancake Robot.’ And it’s just like ‘no, not again.’
But I got a cheap exercise bike to help me and it’s been a godsend. I do like an hour a day on it while he’s napping and I’ll listen to some music or a podcast. So I have managed to listen to some new music that wasn’t aimed at a small child.
But also, actually, around six o clock after dinner we’ve been putting on some music for him because he likes to dance about and I’ve been trying to feed him some old classics like New Order and The Cure and stuff like that. He’s been enjoying that.
And on the bike I’ve listened to the new Perfume Genius which I like and I’ve discovered that Phoebe Bridgers album which I hadn’t listened to. I really like that record. It totally bypassed me and then I saw she was getting popular and I thought ‘aye, aye’ – when I see something’s getting popular I just try and stay away from it. But something made me go and listen to it and I really, really liked it.
And then there’s Mogwai’s new soundtrack record – I’m a big Mogwai fan anyway. I was always gonna be a fan of that. And there was the Arab Strap rarities. That was great.
But apart from that, I’ve not really been keeping up. By the time we’ve put Arthur to bed we just want to sit and watch a film or a boxset like everyone else is doing. And weirdly there was a week when I was listening to no music, and that’s when I wrote the song. Which was good in a way. It meant I wasn’t getting heavily influenced by anything else that what was coming out, you know.
Well that perfectly ties into my next question, actually. I just wondered if you get tell us a bit about your songwriting process?
Well usually – always actually – Andy will write some music and send it across to me. When it was the first record it would be that Andy would bring me a CD and then I’d go driving in my car to listen to it and then I’d pick him up and I’d sing him the song along to the CD in the car. And he’d be like ‘aye, that’s good.’ I always remember doing ‘Mapped By What Surrounded Them’ and we were in a place called The Colzium in Kilsyth, which is a big country park. Usually you’ve got people just going there to drink or smoke weed in their car and here’s me singing a miserable indie song to Andy in it.
So we used to do it that way and then I’d go and record round Andy’s house. But as technology has developed, he can’t be bothered hanging around with me any more so he just sends it in a file and I’ll just work on coming up with melodies and words that come out my head when I hear the music.
I let the music inspire what I’m gonna write. I know that sounds kinda strange, but I listen to it a lot and what comes out comes out. It won’t be the finished article that comes out, it’ll be snippets or sentences or lines that I’ll tie together once I’ve sent all my melodies over. Most of the time that’s how it works – I will sometimes, these days, write down things on the notes on my phone if they come to me. Certain things when I feel a certain way. But a lot of the lyrics do just come when I listen to music. Like I remember on the last record with ‘I’m Not Here’ – what came to me was ‘I don’t want to be around you anymore’ – that’s what came out when I heard it and with how I was feeling. And then the ‘I’m not here’ – I’m not sure if it’s a chorus, I don’t really know what’s a chorus and what isn’t with us – that’s just what came out in the moment. But sometimes I will look at my notes and stuff like that.
I’ll send my ideas over to Andy, Andy will rearrange some stuff, and will sometimes totally deconstruct the song to fit them around the melodies. That’s what he did on the last record. He deleted the music and just wrote new stuff. He didn’t tell me he’d done that. He just sent over the songs and it was like, ‘all the stuff I’ve done is the same but you’ve change everything else’. He basically flipped it on its head. The melodies I wrote influenced the music, rather than the way round it had been for all the rest of the records.
And then on the last record, once we’d figured out all the rough structures and the demos for the songs, we went and rehearsed them as a band and really tried to make it sound like a live experience. We’ve never done that before – we don’t usually don’t spend that much time in the rehearsal room and go straight into the recording studio. But this time we really wanted to sort these songs out together and make sure we could play them live. Which obviously really helped when it came to playing them live.
And I think you can really see that that paid off, right. I mean you’ve always been a good live band but there seemed to be something more to it this time…
Aye. For me I think it’s the best we’ve sounded and played. I think we stepped it up. And I think the songs themselves suit the live arena more than, maybe, some of the older records.
Well I’d say the old songs still fit in really well on this tour. But that kind of ties in to something else I was hoping to ask you about. There is a different sound to each of your albums and I was wondering whether it was a conscious decision to change it up each time or whether it was a natural progression?
Andy definitely makes a conscious decision and he would be really bored if he just repeated.
If you look at the progression through the records I think you can see that. The debut record was a debut record and we’d never made anything before so it is what it is. But the second record was a lot harsher. It was a reaction to that first record I think, from Andy’s point of view. He was wanting it to be harsher and more in your face – and I think we were feeling that way in general as well, to be honest. We were even more angry than usual on that one.
And then on the third one he was wanting to play with new instruments and new technology. And yeah, I think as we go on and progress I’m glad that there’s a growth in the records and it’s not just the same. I think that’s good for people who discover us now, too – they’re gonna find different records and they’re not just going to listen to one and say that’s the only one you need to hear. And I think to really understand who were are as a band you have to listen to all the records. I think you can see a natural progression through the records. For me that’s a great thing. Each of the records documents who we were at that point in our lives and we were different people at different times in our lives. But there’s the one common thread. We’re different people but at the same time we’re the same people, and I’m really proud that that comes across.
So it’s definitely Andy – I want to try and better myself every time as well, but Andy will not be happy. He probably wouldn’t do it anymore if he didn’t think he could challenge himself.
I think bands need someone like that, right? I think so many of the best bands and artists are always changing and trying new things and there is often someone guiding that.
Yeah and I think a band like Radiohead are a massive example of that. You look at the output over the years and the left turns they’ve taken and it’s just amazing, they’ve totally taken you by surprise. Mogwai for me as well. And then there are bands whose sound has not really developed but they’ve got that one great album and then maybe 3 or 4 good songs on another record. You still like and enjoy those bands for what they are, but I prefer to see acts that challenge themselves and grow. I just hope that we can be that kind of band. You’ve got to try.
Well I think I’ve got no chance of getting an answer from you for the next one, but I thought I’d try it. I see a lot of debate about what your best album is among your fans, which probably makes sense when they all have a different sound. I see a lot of people ranking them and discussing which one of their personal favourite. I wondered if you had an opinion on that? Or a favourite?
Oh, I couldn’t rank them. I think the favourite is always the last one and I’d have said that with every record, to be honest. But I have such an affinity with every record. Every record is me.
It’s nice to hear that, though. I know some musicians say they can’t look back at their early work and I’m glad that’s not the case for you…
Ah, totally – I mean, I’ve hated myself on every single one of them. Na, I’m really proud of them – they’re a snapshot of who I was. I always like to think that when I’m really old and I’m looking back, I’ll be able to look back and the albums will give me the memories of who I was at that time.
I mean, I don’t really like to go back and listen to records once they’re finished. I leave them alone so I can move onto the next thing. And even listening to that live record, listening to the different songs from the different times – it really did take me back to the time that I wrote them and why I wrote them and made me look at the person I was. And the person that I am now. And I think that was good. I enjoyed that. Well, at certain points I enjoyed it.
So yeah, I’d say I definitely don’t have a favourite but sometimes my focus is on one more than another. Like recently someone on Twitter mentioned one of the songs from the third album and it took me to that album and I felt all the feelings that that record was meant to evoke, you know.
Talking about some of the older songs, then, I’m wondering about your setlists and how you put them together. Why do certain older songs make it and is there a reason why certain songs get dropped from the list?
Well sometimes it’s because I can’t sing them. We were playing eighteen or nineteen songs a gig and my range is from really down low to really up high and it’s hard to do that three nights in a row. So sometimes I’ve had to limit that. Other times it might just be that Andy felt a song wasn’t working, or then there were songs like ‘I Became a Prostitute’ that we all really like and we all want to bring back in but we wanted to make it sound better. And we don’t want to go through the process of trying to make it sound better in front of audiences, we would rather go ahead and sort that out ourselves. Songs like that will probably come back into the fray once we get that chance. And sometimes you just forget.
Well in that case I’ll quickly remind you now about ‘I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want’…
Aye, well that’s one that was a staple on that fourth record tour and it’s a shame in a way that when you’ve got a new record, and you just want to play the new songs, and some songs just fall away. It’s not that you don’t like them anymore or anything like that it’s just that you’re out wanting to play new songs. But yeah, I’ll note that one down. It’s noted.
Fantastic. I’ll keep an eye out. Right, I’ve just got a couple more questions now James. I know we talked a bit about it at the start, but I just wanted to ask a bit about the passion of your fans. You seem like a pretty humble guy, so how does it feel coming to terms with the level of passion of the fans who are in the fan groups on Facebook and Twitter.
How do you deal with seeing the lengths that they go to to get to your gigs and the level of support that you have there in general? How do you react to that?
It kind of fuels you, sometimes. To be honest. I never take it for granted. And I don’t want these to sound like stock answers, which I’m aware that they can. But there’s something about it.
Being the kind of band that we are, I’ll be honest, I never thought that we were the most welcoming – that we could be quite standoffish maybe – or that people would think that from the music at least.
But there’s something about it that’s brought people from different backgrounds, different countries, different races, different religions, different everything – and it’s brought them together. And I think that fan group itself, to me is…Well 1, it’s something that I never thought would happen and 2, it makes me step back and think that I can never take this for granted. It can be easy, I think, to take this for granted once you get stuck into the cycle and the loop of it all. But when you see the passion and the love that people have for the thing that you yourself love most in the world, to do, well like I say – it gives you a fuel. Definitely me, anyway – it fuels me to think ‘don’t be complacent with this’.
I mean, I make music for myself and I’ve always said that. It’s to help me. But when you see it start to help other people, that really takes me aback you know.
I can imagine. I mean, I’m a big music fan and I follow bands and I go to a lot of gigs and I think on your last tour I went to four gigs, personally. Which is, for me, a lot to go to in a tour. But when I saw those same people at the same gigs, and then I go in the Facebook group and realise that isn’t just coincidence that they’re at the same shows as me. They were at every gig on that tour – even in Mexico, some of them. I mean for me it’s mindblowing, so for you I can’t imagine…
Oh it is. And it’s comforting as well. There’s something about looking out and having familiar faces and people that you know looking back at you.
When do you think that all started? When did you notice it?
There’s always been people, and people in the Facebook group, who were coming to the gigs all the time. But I think it was with the fourth record that it started to galvanise.
Social media has got a lot to answer for, but in this case it really did bring people together you know. And I think I saw that, and I noticed it, and I really wanted to get involved with that.
I’m not on the Facebook group because I think it’s important for me to take a step back and, like we were saying when we were talking about the tournament, people should be free to talk about what they love and what they don’t love in certain places. And that fan page is definitely one of those places. They shouldn’t have to worry about me going ‘err, what you talking about?’ – although they might have my dad doing it!
But what I did do is I met some of these people, and I really like the people in that fan group – there’s people that I’ve met when I’ve been having really bad days on tour and then they’ll remind me of what’s good. And I think they need to know that. Without them, this band wouldn’t have the opportunities that it’s had and wouldn’t be where it is today. And for us it’s an inspiration to keep doing what we’re doing. I mean the lengths that some people have gone to and the things that they’ve done for us – I mean the reason that more people are coming to our gigs – we could say it’s all down to the music, and without the music there obviously wouldn’t be any of this, but that group and those people shouting from the rooftops has got more people to like our music. Without them I don’t think we would be anywhere near where we are. We’re not filling stadiums, but we’ve definitely got further because they’re spreading the word.
I mean, it’s just the dream for someone who writes music. I remember how my favourite bands made me feel and how I wanted to get behind them, so to know that people feel that way about us is absolutely mindblowing. That’s the dream, you know. To have that affect on people. It’s amazing.
Well that’s fantastic to hear, thank you James. I only really have one more main question for you, and it’s probably about as predictable a last question as you could hope for. But what can you tell me about what’s coming next for the band?
What can I tell you about what’s coming next? Well, we’ve just done the live record and it was a download and we’re very, very conscious about record stores at this time and how they’ve lost out. You know, Record Store Day got cancelled. So we’re very conscious about what we can do to help, you know. So there’s definitely some represses. Well, there’s definitely one repress that’s going to be announced. It’s the one that everyone’s been asking about. I know that I’m probably shooting myself in the foot by saying that and I’m giving it away, but there’s one record that’s been out of print for a long time and we’ve finally agreed to get it back on vinyl with maybe a wee special edition to it, too. I think it’s getting announced at the beginning of June, so if you get in there quick enough you can share that news.
And there’s another thing coming that I can’t really talk about just yet – it’s not new music, but it’s something special that I think people will understand. We’ve been talking about that one, but I don’t know the actual plans for that at this time. I just know it’s in the works.
And then there’s t-shirt out at the minute where some of the proceeds are going to the NHS – it’s not music, but we just wanted to do something where we could do our bit you know. And then Andy and I are just writing. The aim for us is just – I don’t know if it’ll be a record – but we’ll have music to take to the studio next year, you know – whenever it might be that we can get in a studio again together with all that’s happening right now. But we’ll have all the work done in the background anyway. I’m actually really excited about that thing that I wrote the other day and it was nice to see Andy excited about it. It was an exciting song.
Should we expect another big change? A small change?
I mean it’s hard to say at the minute, but the feeling I got from that – it was big! But not in a pompous, stadium rock way.
I know what I’m writing about and where I’m going lyrically and what I really want to talk about in the record. It’s probably going to be the hardest record that I’ve had to write, if I’m being honest. Lyrically. You could look back and say it’s not exactly been a laugh for the last five records, but this thing I want to write about is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to go through. It’s gonna be heavy. I need to do it but I’m also terrified about doing it at the same time. Which will fuel the record.
And Andy just bought an acoustic guitar, I don’t think it’ll be all acoustic but he’s been enjoying playing that and that’s how he used to write all the old songs. He said he just wanted to try out some stuff on there and if we do end up using it’ll obviously be layered up to full band stuff, but it’s interesting just to be going down different avenues again. So there’s things going on but my main focus, as well as trying to figure out what the fuck’s going on in the world, is to do the thing that’s saved me before. To write.
Yeah. Well that’s good to hear. And as much as it sounds like you’re writing about some difficult stuff, it’s probably typical of a fan of your music to be excited to hear what that results in. Because I suppose some of your most powerful music is emotional music, isn’t it. So it’s good to hear that you’ve got something to put those emotions into…
It’s a weird one. I always remember after the first record thinking well, ‘what am I gonna write about now?’ There was a young, naïve feeling of ‘something bad has got to happen to me to write a record.’ I quickly realised I was full of shit because, you know, life definitely smacks you in the face. You should not go looking for bad things to happen to you because, as well as the amazing, brilliant stuff, life definitely has its massive ups and massive downs. There will always be something. I should go back to that 22-year-old me who thought that thing and just say ‘shut the fuck up, mate.’ I’d love to go back and do that.
But to be fair to myself back then I had just finished my first record, and usually when you finish a record or a tour or whatever there is a massive pressure to have to go on to the next thing. I mean the world’s not gonna stop for you. But now the world has stopped. I’ve still got that pressure that I put on myself anyway, but at the same time I’m not feeling it from other people. Which, in a way, is kind of freeing. In a way. But the world will get back on it’s axis at some point, so it will.
It will, indeed. Well thank you James, that’s all I had for you. It’s been a fascinating chat and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Thank you for asking me, I’ve really enjoyed chatting to you tonight.
Words by Fran Slater