JAMIE LIDELL at the Opera House (735 Queen East), tonight (Thursday, June 5). $17.50, free for first 30 wristbands/badges. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Unpredictable future/retro soul chameleon kicks off NXNE’s onslaught of up-to-the-minute music from around the world
He’s a UK-bred artist mining 60s soul and R&B, so it’s no surprise that the press is having a field day comparing Jamie Lidell’s new album, Jim (Warp), with the work of everyone’s favourite soul singer train wreck, Amy Winehouse. What is surprising is that Lidell doesn’t seem to mind the comparisons at all.
“No, I quite like them actually,” he admits through a mouthful of food from his adopted home in Paris. “I just don’t like when they say ‘Jamie Winehouse.’”
Lidell pauses. Chews.
“Actually, I’m lying – I quite like that one, too,” he laughs.
When Lidell released 2005’s Multiply, his second full-length album, many were shocked to find that the man best known for quirky minimal techno had instead turned in a collection of songs based firmly in classic soul and 60s rhythm and blues. Even his record label, Warp, was unprepared and unsure how to market it. But reviews were positive, and soon his history with bleeps and bloops was overshadowed by his new persona of smooth (but still defiantly experimental) UK soul singer.
Winehouse’s success proved that there’s an audience for this kind of revivalist R&B, and Lidell found himself being wined and dined by much larger labels than the techno imprints with which he made his name.
At the end of the day, though, even the legendary Rick Rubin wasn’t able to seduce him away from his forward-thinking UK label.
“Rick Rubin works for Columbia now, so it was more Columbia courting me through Rick. I was suitably wooed – went over to his house, enjoyed a pomegranate tea with him and chatted music. That’s the way he likes to do it; he doesn’t like to talk shop. He was just sizing me up.
“The unfortunate thing is that although he’s a key tastemaker and A&R guy, the old machine is still very much in place, and the old guard were not so enamoured of me or the prospect of taking me on, so they put in a really bad offer. That tarnished the whole experience and made me wonder just why Rick was doing this.”
The idea of a Rubin-produced Lidell album is certainly drool-worthy – he’s one of the few producers in the world who can handle classic stripped-down “real” music as expertly as easily as he handles modern electronically informed urban artists. Nevertheless, Lidell’s partnership with expat Canadian Mocky works for similar reasons – Mocky has produced both edgy electro hip-hop as well as rootsy soul like Feist’s – and also provides him with a songwriting partner who’s proved invaluable in focusing Lidell’s manic energy.
“My process is quite instinctive, but that sounds kind of pretentious. I just don’t have much classical training, and Mocky does. It takes the two of us to make the magic happen. I like to think I benefit from being ignorant, and Mocky is more like the provider of knowledge, the man holding the light while I scrabble around in the dark, but that scrabbling around process is what yields an interesting chaos – you need them both.”
Instead of writing in the studio, the pair holed up over the dour grey Berlin winter with “wooden instruments” (i.e., piano and guitar) and a Dictaphone and slaved over the skeletons of the songs before making any attempt to lay down overdubs and embellishments. When the time came to go into the studio and flesh out the songs, they tried inserting sprinkles of Lidell’s trademark sonic weirdness, but at the end of the day those textures were pared back to a subtle splash here and there, evoking Sly Stone’s psychedelic soul more than anything related to experimental techno.
“I tried to apply the right amount of seasoning to what I thought was a very delicate dish. Sometimes I think it should be more electronic, sometimes I think it should be less pop and more psych rock – I change every hour.”
Long before the current wave of one-man-bands who use looping devices to build up songs live, Lidell was touring the world with a mic and machines, looping his own beatboxing and singing his own bass lines, improvising wild and raw soul freakouts.
This time around he’s put together a proper band, who bring their own eccentricities to the stage. His sax player, Andre Vida, occasionally blows two horns simultaneously à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Willie B, borrowed from Johnny Dowd’s band, shocks and confuses audiences by playing drums and bass lines on organ foot pedals at the same time.
“Organ bass – it’s quite frightening really. You laugh at him, thinking it’s some kind of novelty, and then you try and do it and it is impossible. So we’ll be making some of the impossible possible.”
Filling out the band is the irrepressible Taylor Savvy on bass and Canadian jazz vocalist/pianist Denzal Sinclaire on keyboards. This lineup allows Lidell to approximate the traditional sound of the album much more easily, but introduces new challenges when it comes to his experimental side.
“I’ve got a little solo part of the show where I’m rocking my machines like the old Lidell show, and I’m trying to coax the band into it, slowly but surely, sampling them and such. I want to get more of that going, because it’s a crowd-pleaser and I love it. It makes me feel like we’re living in the future even if we’re clearly living in the present.”
This friction between live sampling experimentation and music steeped in tradition brings up connections between the evolution of Lidell’s career and that of experimental techno/pure pop wizard Matthew Herbert, who has also allowed acoustic instruments to come to the foreground while continuing to experiment with sampling.
“Obviously, Matt has been a massive inspiration for me on many levels, but the live show was bloody awkward, wasn’t it? He didn’t do it particularly well, I’ve got to admit. In my personal humble opinion, [the sampling] was a bit of an afterthought, but at the moment, in my show it’s a bit of an afterthought, too. In his case it was bloody hard, because he was trying to sample so many people, and he really just used the Kaoss Pad [a DJ effects unit] to give the impression of sampling. I really want to integrate it on a fundamental level, which is quite a different thing.”
Even if he wasn’t convinced by Herbert’s attempts to remix a big jazz funk band on the fly, Lidell doesn’t shy away from admitting the debt he owes him for leading him down the road toward wooden instruments and real musicians.
“He offered me the opportunity to remix a track from Bodily Functions. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a studio at the time, so I had to beg, borrow and steal equipment to make it happen in the three-?day turnover he gave me. Because of this, I had to rework his song in more of a band form, which was kind of new for me. In doing so, I stumbled across a sort of rich pool, an oily reservoir if you like, of pure liquid gold, just hanging about in the strata of my mind, waiting to be tapped into.
“There I was, digging for gold, and why not? When you find it, strike it rich, live the dream – and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Even before the techno years, Lidell had already spent some time fronting a funky soul band, so in many ways this is as much a return home as it is reinvention.
To some it seemed like Lidell’s transformation from laptop twiddler to crooner came out of nowhere, but before he threw himself wholeheartedly into proper soul music there were clues that this might be where he ended up. His project with Christian Vogel, Super Collider, featured him on vocals, channelling a sort of Prince vs industrial dance vibe.
Part of the inspiration for Lidell reinvention of himself into a frontman came from the sizeable Canadian contingent that have found niches for themselves overseas.