(All photos by Jake Lewis)
It's 2008, on a balmy spring evening in the master boudoir of a 500-year-old, 11-bedroom Buckinghamshire mansion. Jason Luis Cheetham – better known as Jay Kay, Jamiroquai frontman – is at home, trying to get an early night. Usually, he'd be watching episodes of The Wright Stuff at this time, but he has a big day ahead tomorrow. Tomorrow, he'll be racing on Top Gear to recapture his spot from Simon Cowell at the summit of the show's "star in a reasonably priced car" league table – which he'll eventually surmount in episode nine, series 11. It's safe to say he places more meaning on this task than pretty much anything else. In fact, when the rest pays off and Jay Kay successfully pips Cowell the next day, the musician will make a declaration. "I don't give a fuck about the music!" he'll say, leaping about as part of a frenzied celebration.
Watching the whole YouTube clip – a gross buddy-to-buddy pre-amble with Clarkson, the mild xenophobia, fast laps and subsequent apoplexy – the puzzling mysteries of Jay Kay seem to dissolve, revealing a wanker. Then, you let the next YouTube video auto-play, and it's "Virtual Insanity". It's complex, groovy, catchy – that's a good song, right? There must be more to Jay Kay than meets the eye. Then you pay more attention. You hear the words, "Now there is no sound / for we all live underground" – a phrase that doesn't mean anything. You scroll his Wikipedia page; see he once lived in squats, is said to have been stabbed and you think yes, that is an impressive place for such an impressive career to have been launched from. Then you picture him frothing "good job my boys aren't here" through a bloodied nose, separated by a hotel lobby window's glass from the face of the paparazzi who has just head-butted him. This rally continues, until you give up, realising the whole thing is pointless.
The truth is, in the same way that Jamiroquai formed with a lineup that included a didgeridoo player, nothing adds up about Jay Kay. Nothing makes sense. A Mancunian with a southern accent? The collection of 90-odd Ferraris? Those multiple Grammys? A love of The Wright Stuff? It's impossible to understand who on earth the Space Cowboy is. A complex enigma? A paper-thin façade? From music fans to Big Breakfast presenters, we've all been asking these questions for decades, but none of us have found any answers. So, it seems to me, the only way to fully understand the man underneath the hat is to be the man underneath the hat. To spend time in his shoes; to echo his unmistakable look; to write music like him. So I'm going to do it. Yes, to complete the impossible. I was going to become… Jay Kay. I just needed to follow five essential steps.
1) THE MAN
Peeling back the layers of space psychology and technological autonomy that covered his appearance on Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson, I saw something that is unusual for Jay Kay – contentment. The pair nodded along as they discussed how they "share the same passions" – which is presumably the village mentality they both grew up on. So, this is where my journey to understanding Jay Kay would begin. I was going to Barnes: west London's village within the city, the garden of Eden for the wealthy.
I poke my head in antique stores; I skip between puddles; I ponder over various collections of mallard ducks for far too long. While it's nice here – like an alternate reality imagined by Hyacinth Bucket – I'm not sure I can picture Jay Kay with canned heat in his heels, strutting Adidas Gazelles across this bucolic cobbled stone. Then I see it: The Bull's Head. A jazz bar – in a village – serving live jazz with a side of Thai food on a nightly basis? This could be his spirit animal.
Inside the belly of the beast, pedestrian jazz plays over the sound of forks scraping. Sipping a beer and flicking through an issue of Barnes and Putney Time & Leisure, I hear a quiet duet of hums in the corner, which break into laughter. Two aging white men – red-faced with silky, combed hair – sit chuckling away.
Drawn to the sound of their rustic guffaws, I head over and take a seat. I join their chat about local Swedish schools in the area. Whenever I try to contribute or channel the conversation toward cars however (which is often), there's less shared passion and chortling, more debilitating silences. I was left alone. While this was a tailor-made spot and quintessential company, I hadn't fooled anyone. These guys had seen me coming from a mile off, and I looked out of place. Clearly, being Jay Kay is more than this. I have to go deeper.
2) THE MAKE UP
Say what you will about Jay Kay, but he is somewhat of a style icon. From his buffalo hat to his Adidas shoes a metre below, he cuts an iconic silhouette. Believe us: GQ named him the most stylish man of the year in 2003, and just look at the consensus from the internet:
The curiosity of these men and women; the lengths they'll go to so they can resemble this icon. It's inspiring. To think like the man, clearly one must resemble the man. So I head to one of London's finest sneaker stores.
How do I dress like a man with a wealth of £60m? It's an impossible question to answer so I shut my eyes and think. WWJKD? Of course: I don't need something any Jack or Jill could get hold of. I need something unique. I need my chair hat. I need to visit the Walworth Road, a strip of ten charity shops in Elephant & Castle filled with astronomically rarefied garments and knitwear.
As I go, store by store, hat by hat, I can't see much.
All hope seems to be fading, until a gentleman points toward a basket by the counter. And there, for a moment, the universe screeches to a halt. This… Is… It.
The man comes alive before me. I hear the pulse of sub-100bpm lounge fusion, throbbing. Jamiroquai starts to make sense. I have to head home. I need to make music. I need step three.
3) THE MUSIC
After a few texts to musician friends, I'm a little confused: nobody seems to want to make Jamiroquai tunes with me. Thank God Jamiroquai is a creative autocracy. I open Logic Pro X, get out my guitar and start playing along to a samba beat. It's not bad. Well, actually, the whole thing is a bit… shite? So I try some other bits, and everything I do just sounds like a Skunk Anansie B-side. Isn't Jay Kay more of a curator of the kind of session players you'd find hidden in practice rooms at ACM than a "from the ground up" kind of guy, anyway?
I need inspiration. So I take five, open Spotify and hit shuffle on Jamiroquai. This stuff is so strange – it's like a cultural time capsule from the late-90s/early-00s. I don't know what it is, but I'm getting lounge… Not lounge jazz, I'm getting my parents' lounge. Eleven years old… Murder, She Wrote on UK Gold… Cheaters on Bravo… Christ.
The Sky Digital menu music! Jamiroquai sounds exactly like it. Soon I, auteur, am ripping some era-defining TV guide menu music from YouTube. There it is on my Logic Pro project file, ready to be tampered with. At this moment, the Sky Digital music is self-indulgent nonsense and, like Jay Kay, I'll make it a hit. With one or two touches, it's just the job of prophesying and vocalising left. Now more than ever, I need to become Jay Kay.
What does Jay Kay sing about? It's said that he sings about the world, mankind, climate change, technological autonomy and sheep clone Dolly. But it doesn't sound like he does. It sounds like he just writes a load of really current references and abstract terms that sort of sound real, then mushes them together.
So I pick cards, one by one, placing them into order. My fingers shake as I clutch different words. Eventually before me, collage stands. Then, like Joseph Smith cradled over stone plates, carving – the words come out of me.
I'm a robot
Microchips and cronuts
Y2K is on the way
And Tiger Woods is makin' putts
Transmitting me high
Thunderbolts and crime
I'm a robot
Microchips and cronuts
Y2K is going to make
A jalapeno figure eight
Nature for dinner
Ask Jeeves what he's servin'
Compelled by prophecy, I jump for a microphone, and start recording.
A yelp, screech and "yow" later, and "I'm A Robot" is a thing. It's sensational. I'd simply let my hands brush a piece of discarded trash, and it has turned to gold – this must be what it feels like to be Jay Kay. And it is gold. It's gold that's too good for just my ears: I need to take it to the people. So I pick up a boom box, throw on a sports jacket and pull the hat on. It's time to perform, baby.
4) THE MOMENT
On the streets, people are astounded by my demeanour. Yes, Jay Kay has the power to literally stop a crowd by simply walking through.
But this isn't all about the impression, I'm here to perform. So I push my headphones in deeper, increasing the volume of "I'm A Robot", singing the tune to myself. This is my moment.
Surfacing, I soak in the sweet vibes of London's purest spot. It's hitting rush hour, so I guess that's the headline slot.
From Barnes to Boxpark, I'd made the full journey in a day. I would say I'm nervous, but that's simply not true: Jay Kay doesn't get nervous. I approach the shipping containers, switch the amp on and, hearing those first few piano chords, I take a deep whiff of the freshly cut plastic lawn. It's time.
Whistling through my lungs and into the open air, I sing.
Looking up as the song sounds its final notes, I flash a smile to the masses. A departing note, of kinds. A handful of people look away. The rain falls onto my fur hat and it sinks onto my head. I overhear the signals of train delays echoing around the steel exterior. I pick up my amp, and leave. It's time for one final step.
5) THE MEANING
Sitting in Pret, I'm wet, spent and humiliated. I don't even feel shame about my silly outfit or the hundreds of people who just saw me, singing at the top of my lungs, shuffling awkwardly like the father of the groom at a wedding reception. I'm humiliated because I've failed. It feels as though I've learned nothing about Jay Kay. All of this peddling and chasing the intricacies of his being has led me down a rabbit hole and now I probably know less than I did before. Maybe Jay Kay is just one of those facets of life that we have to accept we're not going to quite understand?
Like, say, this coffee. This coffee is kind of like Jay Kay. It's not great. But am I enjoying it? Sure. Would I take more if I was offered it? Yeah, why not. Or an egg protein pot. Again, a bit like Jay Kay. It's little and it's weird – but it just pops. It makes me happy.
Actually, you know, Pret as a whole works – it's OK! It doesn't matter that there's something a bit tacky or gross about it, I can still count on it for an average, dependable lunch.
The more I look, the more I see they're not too different, Pret and Jamiroquai. Entities from humble beginnings. Misunderstood colossuses loved by many. When Pret showed up in the late 80s with a name that those of us who didn't do GCSE French thought read like a philosopher from the future, selling strange variations on bog standard lunch snacks, and Wimpy, Harry Ramsdens and McDonalds laughed their asses off in response, do you reckon the cafe stood back and took it? NO! And now look at them – one of the most successful, recognisable brands in Britain! So who can blame them for going a little overboard and revelling in it? Jamiroquai combined cosmic vagaries with tinny funk and synths – yet after disappearing for about seven years, they sold out an upcoming gig at London's O2 "in 30 seconds", according to … their own PR. It's almost like both this cafe and the band I've tried to embody are both commodities that, despite their shortcomings, we're all inexplicably drawn to, right?
Oh my god. It all makes sense to me now.
Jamiroquai is Pret a Manger! And today, I am Jamiroquai.
Jamiroquai's new album Automaton is out on 31 March 2017.
You can find Oobah on Twitter.