Interview: The Jim Jones Revue
There is an assumption in rock that artists make their most exciting music in their late teens and early 20s, but that early excitement soon gives way to something rather dubious known as “maturity.” The Jim Jones Revue are living, fire-breathing proof that this needn’t be the case. Jim Jones himself has been around on the London scene since the late ’80s, initially with Stones-meets-Stooges rockers Thee Hypnotics, and then with various combos including the more soul-injected Black Moses.
The Jim Jones Revue, which he formed five years ago with guitarist Rupert Orton, have been crowned “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world right now” by MOJO Magazine. They earned such plaudits fundamentally for activating rockabilly, boogie-woogie, blues and R&B with such feral garage-punk intensity that those vintage strains felt palpably alive, here and now, in the present tense.
Their first, self-titled album was an exercise in ear-splitting carnage, while 2010′s Burning Your House Down found Nick Cave’s towering drummer Jim Sclavunos at the controls, attempting to channel the quintet’s vital energy for maximum impact.
Two years on, their new album brings some changes. Again produced by Sclavunos, it allows for space in the sound – a little less sawn-off shotgun, a little more arsenic. At their East London rehearsal space, eMusic found Jones and Orton vibing with characteristic zeal about their latest creation.
How do you marry up your tastes in early rock and punk-rock?
Rupert Orton: We see no differentiation between Johnny Thunders and John Lee Hooker. You listen to John Lee Hooker, and it’s right in your face. He says he’s gonna fuck your wife and then kill you. Johnny Thunders was doing exactly the same thing, with a different delivery. To us, it made no difference.
Jim Jones: It’s like you take the rock ‘n’ roll beast, chop it into a load of pieces, then put it back together in a different order. Like, yeah, we’ve heard it in this order plenty of times – let’s pull off the tail and shove it at the other end and see what we get!
Your starting point might be old-school rock ‘n’ roll, but you would’ve been run out of town in the 1950s for sounding like you do.
Jones: Yeah, too disrespectful!
Orton: With the first album, we’d been into various studios where you get that cold, clinical sound, with everything separated. We didn’t have any money, and it was like, “What the fuck are we gonna do?” Then it came to us in a blinding flash: why don’t we just record it live, as we would in a rehearsal room?
We got a couple of mics and went for it for two days. That was a real statement of intent – this is what the band is like, take it or leave it. There weren’t any overdubs, and in places it turned into white noise. We thought the recording might get us a few more gigs. But it took off, and it was incredible where it ended up. But obviously we couldn’t make that record again, which is why we brought Jim [Sclavunos] in, to sonically define us a bit more, but still retain the energy and excitement.
So was it a conscious decision with The Savage Heart to change things up?
Jones: We wanted to go out into deeper waters, to see what we can find.
Orton: We both re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness last winter. There’s an interesting part where he’s looking for what he’s going to do with his life, and he looks at the map, and the Congo is white, because it’s uncharted, and he’s like, “That’s where I wanna go.” It was a bit like that with us. Where aren’t we? Let’s go there!
There’s a song called “In And Out Of Harm’s Way,” which is long – six minutes. It started off as an Eddie Cochrane jam, and it just mutated – we didn’t really have any control over it. It ended up as a sprawling, tribal spiritual. That’s a good example of how the songwriting went. And then, “Seven Times Around The Sun” is the only song we’ve ever recorded with no guitars on it.
It felt radical to you to have no loud guitars kerranging away?
Jones: People would say to us at gigs, “You guys could really do with a bit in the middle where it goes somewhere else for a bit.”
Orton: We got to know [pub rocker/punk sympathizer turned UK country luminary] Nick Lowe – he came to a show we did last year. We were like, Fucking hell, Nick Lowe! He produced the first Damned record!
Jones: We both ran up to him going, “How did you do it?”
Orton: Like, “Where were the mics? How do you capture that absolutely electric sound? It is possible.” So we approached him and said, “We’re making this new recordâ€¦”
Jones: He invited us to Leicester Square Theatre to see him play, and when we were chatting afterwards, we were like, “We’re in the studio now, we’d be honored if you’d swing by.”
Orton: He came down and he gave us his thoughts, and one of them was, I really like all the stuff, but it would be great maybe if there was some light that went with the shade. It was great to have his inspiration.
So what actually fed into the new vision on The Savage Heart?
Jones: We wanted to open things up. As much as we love high-energy rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s still the Jim Jones Revue, it’s now mutated into different forms. It’s more arsenic and less shotgun, but still with a bit of shotgun.
Orton: It’s not like it’s a concept album, but there are certain underlying themes in it. A lot of bands who go out on tour after their first record say, “Aw, well, all we see is the back of a tour bus, then we see a hotel, then we see a venue, so we’ve got nothing to write about.” We can’t really understand that, because we tour all the time, and our perception of what’s going on around us becomes deeper and wider.
For example, we’d been doing some festivals in France last summer, and we were driving back to London on the Sunday, and we stopped at a service station, and looked at a TV, and we could see all these buildings on fire. We were like, [mildly curious voice], “It looks like Tottenham’s burningâ€¦”
So when we got back to the UK and switched on our iPhones, and it was like, “Blimey, it’s kicked off in Tottenham.” We both live in Dalston [also in North-East London], and we get back and there’s bricks and bottles and firebombs going off, and we’re in the middle of a riot zone – the biggest civil unrest this country has seen for 100 years.
So that sparked off lots of little things. It got our minds working, like, it’s only a little scratch from the veneer of civilzation, and suddenly you’re in complete anarchy – like Heart Of Darkness.
So you started writing explicitly political songs?
Jones: The song “Where Da Money Go?” was about how just a couple of years ago, everything seemed peachy, for some people at least, and now suddenly it’s like, “We’re fucked!” You know – what happened? Where did the money go?
Then we started thinking about how that joined in with that general feeling of unease, the feeling that civilization is that thin, and as soon as something happens to break through, we’re straight back to our deepest tribal roots.
Orton: It’s not like we’ve turned into Crass or something, it’s just these things affect you personally, even though it’s political.
Do you still live the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?
Orton: There’s a lot of non-sleeping involved in being in this band, but it’s usually because we’ve got to fly from Marseille to Copenhagen, via Paris, like we did last week. We decided recently that the things that drive this band are sleep deprivation, adrenaline, psychosis and extreme volume.
Since the last record, you’ve acquired a hot new piano player called Henri Herbert. He’s only 27, and is regarded as one of the best young boogie-woogie pianists in the UK. Yet, on The Savage Heart you seem to have moved away from that boogie-woogie feel. Is he happy about that?
Jones: Henri transcends boogie-woogie into these very dark uncharted corners. He’ll say, “This is a style that [1930's pianist] Albert Ammons was doing which almost sounds like Victoriana.” So we’re like, “Right, we’re having some of that!” It was like stumbling on buried treasure. No one uses that shit anymore! Who’s doing that?
When we were looking around for people, we’d seen YouTube clips of Henri, and we thought he wouldn’t be interested because he was so boogie-woogieâ€¦It turned out that he was at his wits’ end with that scene, and was chomping at the bit to spread his wings and try something new. Perfect timing! Planets totally aligned! So he came to us, and it was like letting him out of a cage. He was like, Whoosh! He was off!
As you say, though, there are still sawn-off shotgun moments!
Jim: “Never Gonna Let You Go” – that’s almost going into the territory of Black Flag, one of the hardest songs we’ve got. There were points when we were recording it, it felt like a rock ‘n’ roll laboratory, where Sclavunos would be like coming up with all these test-tubes smoking, going, How can we make this harder!
When most bands decide to try and upgrade their sound, they get in a new producer hotshot. You stuck with the same one. How come?
Jones: Sclavunos is a good guy, he’s got this great wealth of experience and advice to offer you.
Orton: He’s an interesting dichotomy, because on the one side, he’s a real stickler, an authoritarian, who brings a discipline in the sound, but the flipside is he’s got the whole avant-garde background, having played with some of the most out-there bands – Sonic Youth, Tav Falco, Grinderman and Nick Cave, Wreckless Ericâ€¦
I’d just been watching the Rowland Howard film, Auto-Luminescent [Howard was the guitarist in Nick Cave's early band, The Birthday Party]. There’s a story in it where they got the producer to put corrugated iron all round Rowland’s amp to make more feedback. We had this song “Chain Gang” where we wanted more feedback. I was saying, “Why can’t we get a load of corrugated iron like Rowland Howard?” And Jim said, “Rupert, I think you’ll find there were a lot of drugs being taken when they were making that record – it had no benefit whatsoever.”
Jones: But if we’d have still wanted it, Jim would’ve said, “What kind of corrugated iron?” If we’d have said, for this particular drum sound we need virgin’s blood on the drums, he’d go, [cryogenic New York drawl] “Our first question is, Which kind of virgins do we want?”
Orton: Four options! Like multiple choice!
Jones: [still drawling] There are three things to consider: one, are we comfortable with the repercussions with the law?
Orton: He really gets stuck in. On another song, Nick the drummer wasn’t stopping where he should. Jim’s a big bloke, 6-foot-8 or something. It came to this stop again, and Jim launched himself over Nick, and had him in a grasp, physically, to stop him drumming. It was like taking your job description to the max.
Jones: Throw yourself in front of a moving drummer!
Is The Savage Heart, for you, a modern, post-millennial take on all the music you love from the mid-20th century?
Jones: Yeah, and without trying. There is that thing of trying too hard. When you’re young, you’re who you are – the young pretender. You’re aspiring to stuff. Now I feel like the seasoned veteran. I’ve got nothing really to prove, other than I really wanna make great, exciting music, and play. I was thinking about it the other day: rock ‘n’ roll, you could look it at one way, as a dusty old relic, but then if you find the right doorway into listening to it, and you hear all the blood and guts that was there from day one, it just makes you wanna share that with other people. Like, I want you to feel and enjoy this, the way I do. You hold the door open so they can see the same thing you’re seeing. That’s our mission.