‘I didn’t do my second album. I did my third one instead.’
As formulas for beating Second Album Syndrome go, the Jamie T solution could catch on. Because his second album, Kings & Queens, sounds like the work of a veteran who would much rather look at the world outside than fret about his career. Yet, on the other hand, it’s an album pulsing with the energy and vibrancy of youth. It also unveils, on several tracks, Jamie T… the accomplished singer. Neat trick.
But producing a follow-up to 2007’s Mercury-nominated, gold-selling and much-loved Panic Prevention debut album wasn’t as easy as it’s ended up sounding. Wimbledon’s Jamie Treays was still a teenager living with his parents when he wrote and recorded the majority of Panic Prevention; was still only twenty when his debut Virgin single Sheila became a key anthem for post-millennial doomed youth; was barely twenty-one when Panic Prevention’s mix of lo-fi song, urban beats, troubadour folkiness and an avalanche of cruel, funny, dirty and devilishly clever words had critics comparing Jamie to everyone from Mike Skinner to Bob Dylan and his first Top 10 single Calm Down Dearest had half the country weeping into its beer. Jamie might have already been playing with punk bands and recording his maverick mix of black and white pop on his bedroom studio since his early teens. But he still went from underground blog favourite to mainstream star in a matter of months. Any young man, even one as self-contained and unimpressed by celebrity as Jamie, might find the resulting expectation tough to manage.
The tale begins in early 2008. After touring the Panic Prevention material around the world for 18 months, Jamie was burnt out: ‘And that’s putting it mildly’, he grimaces. ‘I felt like a Vietnam veteran.
But when you get home there’s no tickertape parade.’
So Treays granted himself a month off, and also decided that he didn’t want to play live for a while. ‘In my eyes, I’d run Panic Prevention into the ground. I couldn’t justify playing the same twelve songs to the fans. They’d seen me do the same set three times. It was unfair on them.’
So he got it together in his new home, still a stone’s throw from his parents’ place in Wimbledon. ‘I did exactly what my Dad wanted me to do – got some cash, bought a house. Suddenly… I’ve sorted my life out. I’m rooted somewhere. I thought, “Shit! I’m only 23! Next it’s a couple of kids and I’m done!’
Jamie had been writing on the road, little bits and pieces recorded straight onto mobile phone, including this album’s haunting Jilly Armeen. ‘I went through an acoustic period. Basically… I discovered Bob Dylan. That ruined my life for a bit.’
Unlike most pop stars, Jamie T doesn’t play the ‘all my ideas are my own’ game. He’s entirely open about the direct influence other people’s music has on the newest songs he’s written. ‘I’m very inspired by whatever I’m listening to at the time. And I believe in tipping my hat to someone who’s inspired me. It sounds corny, but first and foremost I fucking love music. I consider myself a fan, rather than involved in the secret society around the back door of the backstage area. I hate it when people pretend that they’ve never listened to someone that they obviously sound like.’
So far as this life-ruining period goes, it wasn’t just Dylan’s fault. The boy whose musical diet we thought consisted exclusively of rambunctiously urban British punk, hip hop, jungle and Billy Bragg also got heavily into Joanna Newsom, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, a whole bunch of rustic Americana. ‘So I wrote a bunch of songs like that. But, basically, it was all quite mournful. And if you write a bunch of mopey songs, you tread a fine line between genuinely affecting and “Oh – just shut up, man.” It was dreary, to be honest. But I’d never really picked up an acoustic guitar before, so it was more about learning how to do it. And then I cheered the fuck up.’
Some of Jamie’s folkier leanings do provide vital evolution, light and shade on Kings & Queens, as evinced by Emily’s Heart, Jilly Armeen, Spider’s Web and the surprise presence of a ukelele. ‘That pissed me off, actually. Ben kept bringing it down to the studio and I told him not to because I hate little guitars and the people who play them. I was making a fashion point… loads of people playing little guitars at the moment to make themselves look whimsical. It annoys me. But one day I picked it up. Started playing it. Sounded alright. Ended up on the album. I promise to never fucking play it live.’
The next phase of musical inspiration came from punk… but not the British variety. Jamie had always had a thing for US hardcore and decided to completely indulge it. Bad Brains and D.F.L. blasted him out of his introspective mood. He’s made some hardcore-inspired tunes that he intends to release on EPs in the future, and his immersion in hardcore provided the inspiration for Fire Fire, the manic punk-rap tune and video that emerged on the net at the end of 2008. But this direction still didn’t feel right for the album.
In the end, Jamie went back to a kind of basics: hooked up with his friend and production partner Ben Bones, worked hard and played hard, did what comes naturally, and trusted to instinct and a growing maturity. ‘Doing a second album is hard for reasons we all understand.
When you do your first, everyone decides that those twelve tracks ARE you, and that that’s all you can do. So you have all this stuff in your head like, “I’ll show them! I’ll do this!” And that’s all bollocks as well. You have to just keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s going to evolve anyway.’
Everything on Kings & Queens – aside from one guitar part on Emily’s Heart and upright bass on Man’s Machine, which also boasts additional production from Stephen Street – is played by Jamie and Ben Bones. Treays takes care of drums, bass, guitar, ukelele and piano. It was recorded in a variety of studios in London, including Jamie’s trusty bedroom set-up and Moloko in Hoxton.
‘We spent a month-and-a-half at Moloko and that was a special time. It was last Summer. We found this great bar. We’d turn up to work, go and have a double vodka, lime and soda, and then go and write some music. We had to leave eventually. The studio became somewhat less important than the bar.’
Slowly but surely, and with the first album attitude of perfectionism mixed with experiment and pure fun entirely revived, Kings & Queens came together. ‘The way we work drives Virgin insane. They’ll ask to hear something and I’ll send them fifty tracks. Half of them are ten seconds long. They can’t make any sense of it and I’m going, “What? Don’t you get it?” The way me and Ben work is almost impossible to understand from an outside perspective.’
One of the most noticeable things about Kings And Queens is a greater emphasis on guitars, in a rock, punk and folk context. Much of the hip hop and urban influence that permeated Panic Prevention is missing. ‘I just got heartily sick of writing rhymes. I wanted to write songs.’
Also, Kings And Queens does not have a concept or a central theme:
‘Although it did originally’, recalls the contrary young tyke. ‘But it got scrapped. It was going to be all about courtrooms. And minstrels and troubadours. But I got bored because it was starting to restrain me. There’s a bit of the theme left on Hocus Pocus. But nowhere else. This album is all over the shop.’
He readily accepts the suggestion that much of this album is influenced by The Clash. Jamie’s never made a secret of his love of the Westway Wonders, or that the Clash albums he adores are Sandinista! and Combat Rock, where the death of punk, the rise of right-wing politics and the inevitable split of the band saw their rebel rock defiance increasingly undercut by a resigned, elegiac sadness… the first time that The Clash’s music possessed a form of miserable beauty. ‘Who doesn’t want to write a song like The Clash? I was listening to Sean Flynn from Combat Rock the other day and it is such a horribly sad song. Towards the end their lyrics became quite depressing, but in a lovely, wistful way. It’s a definite influence on me. What can I say? I keep going into record shops to buy fresh, new, upfront music… and come out with handfuls of Jam and Specials seven-inchers. Stuff I already own. It really pisses me off. Ha!’
So the kinship with the big Brit Boy Bands of the post-punk era remains key. Suggest to him that Kings & Queens is more mature and radio-friendly than Panic Prevention though, and he’s not entirely in agreement.
‘Mature? Yes. Radio-friendly? Maybe. I dunno… someone said to me the other day that my new stuff was more clean. I said, “Look… I made my album with my best mate in a fucking shed. So please don’t tell me that I’ve cleaned my fucking act up.’
But there’s nobody screaming ‘FU**ING CROISSANT!’ this time around. ‘No. If I’d put skits on this album then I would’ve been expected to do it on every album. So I chose not to. This time, it’s a set of songs.’
And what songs they are. Short, sharp and punchy, mainly. Slow, dreamy and haunted, occasionally. Still pungent with the whiff of London streets and messy times, but less celebratory, more troubled and increasingly poetic, veering suddenly from the in-your-face facts of life, to cultural comedy and, inevitably, to surreal, anxious night-time imagery. It often sounds like the connection between the darkness and street violence of the early ’80s and the obvious similarities to the tense, recession-hit Now, as a generation of kids raised to expect abundance and money find themselves thrown out of work by obscure mistakes in distant financial institutions. Nothing as direct or as dull as protest rock, you understand. Just snapshots of stressed young England from a precocious talent who has quickly evolved into an acute, self-possessed artist.
Kings & Queens is exactly the album that Jamie T’s admirers hoped he would make… full of the gutter poetry, anger and humour of the first album. But tougher, more focused, more confident… and with even better tunes. Jamie is happy with his work, and typically defiant and self-deprecating in his ambitions for it. ‘I made Panic Prevention four years ago. If this one doesn’t sound different then it’s a shame. This album was a process of freak-outs, then confidence, and then just… getting through it. If this album could achieve any one thing, it would be that it forces people to fuck off and let me get on with what I do. And for people to accept that I’m not going to do the same thing over and over again. There are artists that we all trust to do that, and I want to win the right to be one of those artists.’