- Fri, 2005-02-25 15:34
Former Transvision Vamp star Wendy James is back in style as Racine. With a self penned, performed and produced new album, Racine No. 1, and the awesome futuristic pop single, Grease Monkey, which precedes it, Wendy is fully embracing the DIY punk ethic. Released on her own label PIA-K Recordings, and distributed through Pinnacle Records in the UK, Grease Monkey is unashamedly different, edgy, fresh… and totally ‘now’. Frankly, it frickin’ rocks!
“I Like Music because… it makes sense of my whole reason to be alive.” Wendy James, Racine
From children’s home and adoptive parents to global pop stardom and accomplished musicianship; from clarinet lessons to gatecrashing The Clash gigs, and from Brighton to New York – Wendy James has always known what she’s wanted and gone out there and done it. Perhaps that’s part of her appeal – being one of those amazing women who has the guts to seize their dreams and loves to learn. From the upfront punk pop of Transvision Vamp to the eclectic style that is Racine, ultimately Wendy James is an author – of her work, of musical ‘literature’, of style, and, more importantly of her life.
When Wendy decides to do something, she does it. It’s that simple. So she left home and school at sixteen, enrolled in an English Lit course, met Nick Christian Sayer carrying the new Suicide album under his arm and a bottle of amyl nitrate, formed Transvision Vamp with him and experienced global fame and success with I Want Your Love and Number One second album Velveteen, Wendy was on the cover of every style and music magazine. I remember, age 14 myself, gazing at the covers and totally digging her style, ethos and the raw and fresh music the band were belting out. Many festivals, tours and hit singles followed, including the hugely famous Baby I Don’t Care followed, but a tired Wendy and Nick decided to split up.
Wendy picked up the guitar and started to write. She bought some equipment and built a home studio. She learned the equipment, the drum machines, the bass ... all of it. She wrote and demo'd and wrote and demo'd until some of the songs were keepers.
Just as Wendy took it on herself to become a true musician, she knew, if you want to make the music you believe in and not have to go through twenty phone calls to get one thing done, you start your own label. So that’s what Wendy did, and PIA-K Recordings was borne, as an idea.
With the demo for Racine Number One completed, Wendy bought a plane ticket to N.Y.C. She had wanted to live in N.Y.C for some time and had stayed there for months at a time but now it was for real. She flew out and crashed with her old keyboard player on w.14th street . Racine was now at home in America. And now, Wendy is back in the UK promoting her finished album (out 28th March 2005), with its stylish mixture of old-skool break beats, saxophone licks, reggae grooves, breathy vocals and clipped lines, Racine No. 1 is mesmerisingly cool and…well, marvellous!
I Like Music caught up with the v. talented/stylish/gorgeous Wendy James at a lavish London hotel to talk good music, Grease Monkeys, gay men and Godard over coffee and a cigarette.
ILM: Your album Racine No.1, leaked out in the UK late in 2004, will be released worldwide (excluding north America) on 28th March. Can you give me your own description of it?
Wendy: It’s Godard-rock. The reason it’s Godard-rock is because, one of the main influences in my life is Jean-Luc Godard, the film director. And the way he takes different styles of movie-making, puts them together from an almost observational perspective, it gives you the viewer such space that you can really get in and discover the characters for yourself.
Rather than like a Hollywood movie, which bashes you over the head with fake emotion, syrup, treacle and effects, Godard is so sparing in his trickery that, what starts off as a seemingly cold observational movie, probably ends up being one of the most intimate experiences you will have, because you are allowed to discover for yourself. There’s nothing fake there. What’s in his frame is designed to be there. He doesn’t introduce layers and layers of bullshit to soften the edges. It’s raw but considered.
So I’ve decided my style of music is Godard-rock! It’s stylish, but it’s earthy. It’s instinctive, it is action but in real time, rather than Matrix style effect.
ILM: Your first single Grease Monkey is out on 21 March 2005 on 7", CD, 12" and DVD. What gave you the inspiration for that and can you describe its vibe?
Wendy: Well my demo started off as a very Buzzcocks style guitar thrash around typical Blondie-like chords. That was the demo. As a writer I’m more interested in storytelling than I am going on about emotions. So Grease Monkey, of all the lyrics on the whole album was the most difficult to write, even though, to the listener, they probably appear to be the most simple. It’s all about lusting after somebody, and that presents more of a challenge to me lyrically, because it’s been said so many millions of times, "I’ve met this guy and he’s thrown my world upside down" kind of thing.
So on a simplistic level, that’s all the lyrics started out as, but I called it Grease Monkey, and of course Grease Monkey is a car mechanic. So then that opens up a whole visual imagination for me to play with about the Grease Monkey himself. And without being blatant and obvious, and going "ooh your muscles are so big," I don’t really want to be that frank about it, but it was a way to infer that kind of animal, carnal desire without being crass.
And then, the way the music ended up was sounding nothing like the Buzzcocks thing at all. What happened was, I always find my drum loops first, and then I mess around with the bass, and I found that kind of oscillating bass line, and then that immediately reminds me of how it feels when you’re in a nightclub.
There’s a couple of tracks on the album that really sound like you feel after a hard night clubbing. Cakewalk is the other one and it really sounds like 2am and you’ve had one drink or drug too many, and it’s time to face the music. Before you go outside and throw up, there’s like that brief moment when you’re sitting on the sofa at the back of the club, glazed and expressionless and staring, and it’s kind of comfortable. You can’t move, because if you move you’re going to get headspins, but it’s just that sedentary moment when everything’s alright with the world in your little corner. And that’s how the bass line suggested itself to me on Grease Monkey.
So then you’ve got two elements, you’ve got the kind of sexed-up club vibe and then you’ve got four to the floor, which is really quite a gay sex sounding drumbeat, mixed in with too many drugs on a bassline, mixed in with the animal desire of the Grease Monkey. So basically I became a gay man for this one.
ILM: You taught yourself to play the guitar, drums, keyboards … how was that experience? What was the most fun to learn, and the most frustrating?
Wendy: Frustrating is probably on guitar, because I have very high expectations of myself that my fingers don’t always adhere to. So I make more mistakes on the guitar than any other instrument. Only because I’m trying to do lead and rhythm and play it quick and in one take. I can’t really construct a guitar out of getting one verse right and then patching it up, I don’t want to do composites, I like to do one take.
And there’s so much innuendo. When you’re playing guitar it’s how you play the rhythm, it’s whether you’re hitting down or hitting up, and all your little pick up notes, and every guitar is played slightly different. Sometimes it’s the silence inbetween the little pick up notes that make the rhythm, so you have to hit the silences just as precisely as the noise. And it’s just the tiny little detail in getting a guitar take that, as I’m sure any guitarist will tell you, after the 20th take, one of them is going to be the one. So it’s frustrating because that’s what I have to keep doing the most, but the end result is the pay-off.
ILM: I imagine you to have a fabulous studio and creatively inspired New York pad, would that be a true assumption? Can you describe it?
Wendy: It was part of my moving policy to not work at home. So I’m doing all my demos for Racine Number 2, with just me and my guitar. Then I’ll go through an intermediate stage where I’ll flesh it out in like an eight-track and then I’ll demo again, which will serve as pre-production, and then the final production, so there’ll be three stages. At the moment I’m at the stage where they’ve invented this little microphone to put on top of your iPod, so I can just stick that in and record my demo that way.
For the recording of Racine Number 1, I just went to Matt Azzarto in New Jersey. It’s nothing flash but it’s old style – a couple of old sofas he’s gathered from various relations, it’s just a nice vibe. It’s in an old warehouse on the waterfront. He’s got the fundamental recording equipment – overdrives and copycats and enough effects. And the whole purpose of this was to be inventive, rather than having a multi-million dollar effects patch bay by my side. Blues guitarists never had all of that, some only played with two strings.
ILM: Which track did you have the most fun laying down from Number 1?
Wendy: Well, I’m pretty pleased with The Last American Hero actually, but that might be because it’s the most recent. But, even if I say so myself, I was quite impressed with my abilities on that one. Because, that really is being a magpie, taking samples from other places and constructing it. It’s nine minutes long, some of the horn arrangements are just kick-arse, so even I was surprised by that, it’s something else.
Cakewalk was very pleasing. They all became very exciting at the time to make, because none of them were like the demos. So, even though I had a structure and a tune and a melody and time link in hand, I had no idea where the song was going to go. And when you start discovering a new bass line that then leads to a new way of playing the guitar part, and that makes you play the keyboard part in an entirely different way. So it’s like "wow, that doesn’t sound anything like it did," so it grows organically. So you sit back at the mixer and go "fuck – I don’t know how that happened!" Because you’re so captured in the moment, there really is no plan, you’re just going by feel. It’s the most satisfying time, minute for minute, that a girl can spend.
ILM: Do you care more about the reaction to your music now (as it’s purely yours) than Transvision Vamp’s music?
Wendy: It’s pretty special to me now when people say they like it. It’s a little bit thrilling I must say. It’s not going to sway my life one way or the other as a person. I need a certain amount of people to like it in order to proceed. Although, I will go ahead anyway, so the amount of people travelling with me might change depending on how successful or not the record is in the real politics of it. But if people say they really like that song, it’s like "do you really?" and it’s just nice.
Whereas, I was never invested that way with Transvision, because they were Nick’s songs.
ILM: It must be easier to sing songs for which you’ve written the lyrics for, because you can really feel it.
Wendy: There’s just more coming out of you as a person if it’s coming from something you invented or felt. I often think that about actors. As undoubtedly talented as many of them are, they are still saying someone else’s line, so there is a cut off point somewhere in the depths. It’s not like when you’re an actor and you’re performing – well the word ‘act’ says it all. You either ‘are’ or you’re acting and I guess that’s what method was about, but even then you’re still acting.
ILM: As Jean-Luc Godard says, “Every edit is a lie.”
Wendy: Right. So I think what it comes down to in a movie is the scriptwriter and the director and the artistry of the light and cameraman. Shakespeare said something like “actors are the players.” But it’s the author that writes the piece from which the script is taken, that’s where the gold is. It’s the writer. Similarly, if you’re singing someone else’s stuff there’s a cut off point. My God, I think Bob Dylan is the best, but me singing Bob Dylan is never going to be the same as Bob Dylan singing Bob Dylan, no matter how well I do it.
ILM: Can you describe the Wendy James/Racine process of making such good music?
Wendy: It’s an instinctive vibe once I’m producing. When I’m working with songs (I’ll tell you about Racine Number 2, because that’s what I’m in the middle of now). I write the song and then on the back of my lyrics, I put "ok, it starts in the key of B" and a couple of notes like, "remember Kloot" or a couple of movie references or a book I should refer back to so, by the time I’m producing and will have obviously forgotten those notes, it’ll remind me why I wrote that, and trigger me back to the place I was when I was writing the song.
I’m not a quick songwriter, because I hammer out every detail in the songwriting stage, so writing a song will take me three weeks usually from its inception, and it goes through all sorts of different morphing. It’ll start off with chords and a nice melody and then it starts developing its own self, and I have to almost be the critical observer of when it sounds right and when it doesn’t. And I will play a song 300 times a day easily, over and over until it’s flowing. So the longest process is in the writing stage. Then it goes onto the iPod, or before that onto a Dictaphone. Then I write my notes. That’s my map, that’s how to get there. Then my middle stage demo (pre-production) will be getting the right kind of drum beat, getting a bass line that’s full of harmonies to the guitar, and just working on the arrangement. Because I’m not leaving those things open to suggestion, I’m not going to bring a bass player in and say ‘yeah, play what feels right’. That’s not going to happen, it all has to be for the good of the song. And so I’ll go through all the different inversions on the bass and the piano that I can to complement what my guitar’s come up with. Then you get to the final stage, which is, let's see how we can deconstruct it and let's just see where it goes. So the real intense stuff is in the writing.
ILM: What happened to the ill-fated Transvision Vamp's third album?
Wendy: It never made it to England. It came out everywhere apart from the UK. The brief history of that is, we made the record. We went on tour immediately and started at Brixton but then went straight to Australia and Japan and round America, and it came out in America and did better than the other two albums in America. But then we decided to split up, during which time the English record label had said they weren’t convinced about this record, we’re going to hold off on it and see how well it does in other countries first. By the time they were ready to release it, we’d already decided to split up, and so it never came out.
There’s a couple of good moments on there, at least video wise, there were a couple of decent videos made for it, and it did the best our records ever did in America. In the end we played Roseland in New York.
ILM: How does the music industry compare today to when Tranvision Vamp first came out in 88?
Wendy: I seem to be calling my own shots now. Everything seems to flow quite well. You made a record and found a record company to distribute it and licence out (although I set up my own record company too), and we sent the records out to all the different countries, and a large portion have come back and said they really like it and are going to work hard on it. So then the video was made, and now we’re planning the live stuff, and me going on little press trips to other countries, so it just seems like a process, rather than a methodical look at the industry. We’re just doing what you do when you put a record out.
But back then, there was that corporate cigar-in-the-mouth attitude of "we’re going to sign you and make you a star" and then of course, when that fades, it’s a case of "there’s nothing more we can do here." Whereas, this is just like, "hey, I’m a musician, I make records, I put records out and this is what I do." But it’s a very different way of conducting your life really.
ILM: Are there any contemporary artists who you’d love to collaborate with?
Wendy: Jay-Z. I’ve got to. And it can’t be some thought-up collaboration between record companies. It’s just got to be because we’ve got enough things in common that I can give him something, and he can give me something. And then, I’m telling you sparks would fly. Because I have got the same damn rhythm as the rhythm that goes through Jay-Z’s blood, and I just love that man. He blows my mind.
And I know he’s the same as me, because, you have to see the movie Fade To Black which is the documentary of the making of The Black Album, and he sits there in the studio for days and days and his head gets lower and lower and in the end, him and the two other people in the studio with him, they can’t even speak any longer because they can’t find that magic to propel them to that next stage.
Then on the fourth day Jay-Z stands up, like the Eureka moment, like ‘that’s it!’ and everything starts. But just that process of no, no, no, that’s not right. And it’s so perfectionist, but if you get all the perfectionist stuff right first, then you can freeform later, because it’s all inherently educated into your body. But you have to get it right first, and then you set it free and see what happens.
ILM: Can you describe your favourite place on earth?
Wendy: Wherever I am right now. No, I can be more specific than that. It’s either in the studio, in rehearsals or on stage, or travelling to get to any of those places.
Music is certainly where the heart is for Wendy James and long may that be the case. She’s certainly back at the top of her game with her epic and engaging sonic tales in her new album. And we can’t wait to see What Wendy Did Next….