"My mate says I never quite got the hang of my photo face,” smirks Jamie T, nervously shuffling in a knackered cafe seat, fully aware that he’s about to come head-to-head with his wide-eye nemesis in just a few minutes. “The trick is,” he begins, pulling the last cigarette from a now-empty packet, “to have one of these in your mouth. It’s the only way.” He actually seems remarkably at ease for someone about to confront one of his fears. Plus, today his Ray Bans and 50s quiff combo are on point. Add a smoke into the equation and the camera won’t do any harm.
It’s easy to cast Jamie T (né, Jamie Treays) as having a reluctant approach toward the press cycle. Not evasive, as such. Like the aforementioned photos, he’d just clearly prefer to be doing something else. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he openly described his discomfort at “having to sit, and talk about [his music] and have someone pick that apart in some way.” It’s a statement that he’s echoed throughout his career. Years earlier, in another interview with the Guardian, he had said: “What annoys me is, though, is when people ask me what my songs are about. It fucks me off. Find out for yourself! I fucking wrote them – listen to them. I don't want to sit here and talk about them.”
Treays’ hesitance to discuss his art is relatively understandable. His debut album, Panic Prevention – which employed samples from a self-help anxiety tape quite literally meant to prevent panic – sounded like a progressive form of therapy. But then came the interviews, and the surely exhausting need to recount the specifics and motives behind certain decisions. Plus, with more press came more fame; not the most conducive result for Treays, who has been noted as stating: “Pressure-wise, if anything gets too much, I just run away. I still get freaked out when people know who I am, it's still uncomfortable – although I love performing”. This experience amplified when he took a five year stint away from the spotlight. Less a break, more a complete disappearing act, he returned as an even bigger enigma than the one who seemed so effortlessly ahead of his time on his ragged debut and the chart-bothering follow-up Kings & Queens.
Now, Jamie T is returning again. This time with new album Trick, and, camera lenses aside, a more laissez-faire attitude. Today, he is happy to analyse the ins and outs of how this record came together. Perhaps it’s fresh in the mind, or maybe he’s being polite. The spiel of Trick centres around “claustrophobic London summers”, but the album’s theme doesn’t stem from personal experiences. Instead, it’s inspired by the Gaspar Noé film Irreversible. “There’s a scene in that, at the very beginning, with a fat man sitting in his apartment. It’s really claustrophobic and sweaty. There was something about that style of summer – almost like a New York summer,” he says. He then applied this mindset to a Londonised aesthetic – the way barbecue smoke fumes rise out of every plot of green, the way drivers threaten to crush each other’s skulls because someone failed to indicate left. The delirium and aggro vibes of a city that’s used to hibernating in coats – that’s the feeling imbued within Trick. “It’s interesting,” Treays says, “the darkness of a city in the hot summer.”
Trick builds on the initial thematics that brought Treays to public acclaim, which were intrinsically tied up in an impressionistic portrait of London. The most visible track in his canon, “Sheila”, samples the John Betjeman poem "The Cockney Amorist". His work is littered with references to London’s small-street landmarks, Thames side railway stations, and the characters that flit between the two. But what’s different about Trick is that, musically, its aesthetic is darker than that of his previous work, sitting in harmony between those landmark debut and sophomore records, his third effort Carry on the Grudge, and that dark, sticky, city in the summer narrative. It’s appropriate to talk about, given our chat is taking place as he’s sheltered himself away from London’s most unrelenting heatwave. This Hackney Road cafe’s air-conditioning is non-existent, and there’s a delightful medley of coffee machine whirring, thick-fumed traffic sludging by outside, and the familiar smell of sweat. Trick itself mirrors this scenario. There’s very little breathing space, whether that’s from the boisterous choruses of “Tinfoil Boy” and “Drone Strike”, or the sinister nighttime edge of “Solomon Eagle”, which could easily soundtrack a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remake.
It verges on the bizarre at times, but it also contains some of his best songs to date. And far more importantly, it also reveals a different side to Jamie T. He’s less fearful of the retaliations from saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result, Trick is stuffed full of strange tidbits that can seem like big risks. The militaristic perspective of “Drone Strike” might seem cack handed, for example. But it’s the sound of him having fun. At one point, he uses his voice as a sample, impersonating members of the army. “That’s me and my friend!” he beams. “Even yesterday I was writing a song, and I needed a sample. So I just made one up. I pretended I was some American rapper.” He does the same on the Clash-sounding "Tescoland", which starts with Jamie’s voice speaking from a supermarket tannoy, announcing, “There’s a clean-up needed, blood on the floor”. Anyone in a creative rut, as he was, doesn’t tend to treat their records like the scene of a black comedy.
What else has changed? Before, he’d shut himself off and refuse to listen to anybody else’s music – especially if it was just coming out. “I was always quite worried, while I was younger, that I didn’t want to listen to anything current,” he says. “Because I didn’t wanna sound like anyone else.” Now he listens to grime (“Less than you’d think,” he admits, although NOLAY’s “Netflix & Pills” recently blew his mind) and the in-your-face thrash of labelmates Slaves. It’s a tough life for new guitar bands, he claims, because nobody’s especially interested. He cites his friends The Maccabees – who recently split-up as an example.
“It’s hard. It’s not easy," he begins. "They’re not living in fucking mansions. It’s tough work. And nobody’s putting money behind these bands. They’re not able to tour without getting themselves in huge debt. It’s harder than maybe it’s perceived. It’s a longstanding job for a decade or more. There’s that whole game where people say, ‘I wish that band had split up. Their first album was so good.’ But it’s their job! That’s what they know how to do! You don’t tell an architect, ‘That’s a really good building. You should stop. I don’t think you’re ever gonna beat that flat. You should probably just end it'.” He lets out a cackle that just about manages to drown out the background noise of the cafe.
Free-spirited on record, forthcoming in conversation – this isn’t the Jamie T that most would have expected. But there’s a sense that he doesn’t have to answer to anyone, these days. Five years ago, he evidently hit his lowest point – a creative rut that he managed to escape from. He’s also addressed every question imaginable about said rut. What could possibly harm him now? And in fairness, his “hostility” towards questions can be mistaken for honesty. When asked what it’s like to change musical direction so drastically, as he does on Trick, he seems confused, but not in an evasive way.
“I always struggle with this,” he says. “It’s part of press. They say it sounds completely new. But when I hear things, it kind of sounds like the b-sides. I always say – and it’s vaguely true – if you wanna know what someone’s gonna do on their next album, listen to their b-sides. They’ve tried it and they’ve fucked it up a bit!” At this moment, he’s simply explaining exactly what’s in his head. And that’s always been the case. Only now, he has license to be completely fearless. Take photographs out of the agenda and he might be the happiest he’s ever been.
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