Jamie Lenman is reinventing British rock (again)
To mark the release of his new album Devolver, we catch up with Jamie Lenman to discuss where he began, where he's been, and what he wants to do next
Back in 2007, if you were an outsider looking in, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jamie Lenman was living every young musician’s dream. Riding high on the success of his band Reuben’s third album, Lenman was selling out headline tours and found himself at the centre of mounting public attention. It didn’t take long for the pressure of increased scrutiny to take its toll, and in 2008, the band split for good.
“Only right at the end was it daunting,” Lenman tells Metal Hammer today. Sat in a disused room of a North London pub, Lenman is recounting us with tales of his musical past and how, eventually, it would all come crashing down. “[Success] seemed to follow a very shallow gradient,” he says. “The venues would get gradually bigger and only on the third album [2007’s _In Nothing We Trust_] did I suddenly feel like we got a lot more popular. [That's] when I suddenly felt under tons of pressure – the expectations were huge, which paid its part in me going ‘Uh, see you later’.”
Lenman and his bandmates were young – really, really young – when they first started off in Reuben. That they were, in essence, forced to grow up in public is also something he cites as applying increased pressure on the band. “To an extent it was growing up in public, because if you’re 19 and you want to wear a cool new shirt, [you can say] ‘How does this look?’ and your mates go ‘No, that’s bad, don’t wear it again’” says Lenman. “But if you’ve worn it in a photoshoot, and people say ‘Oh, look at your fucking stupid hair!’ You’re like, ‘Oh, god’. So it was like an intensified adolescence. Even [when] I left the band at 24, 25, I was still a teenager really, because the band kept me young. It kept me away from the responsibilities of university, and a job, and real world. I’d wake up at 4pm and go to rehearsal then do a gig and come home at 3am. It’s not a real life.”
Back in the early 2000s, the British alternative scene was in fine fettle – bands like Oceansize and Biffy Clyro were enjoying bigger and bigger audiences for their experimental sounds, while the likes of Hell Is For Heroes and Yourcodenameis:milo rocked their way into the UK Singles Charts. Reuben soon found themselves in the middle of it all.
“We just sort of got thrown into it,” recalls Lenman. “We had our manager – who was just a local music promotor from around where we lived – but because he was a promotor he knew all the agents. He ran a small venue, so first of all he would start putting us on there, which was great, and then when he got to know us and found the merits in the music, he was our champion. Because he knew the agents we got smushed on with bands like Antihero. We just started getting on those tours because we started mixing in those circles.”
“[Musically], we found ourselves in the middle of the scene,” he continues. “You had the bands like Oceansize and Biffy and Milo and Million Dead who were very interested in pushing musical boundaries and making intelligent, structurally complex music. But then you had bands like Hell Is For Heroes, and to some extent Hundred Reasons who – and this is not to do them down, because we were 50/50 on this – none of their records really pushed any boundaries, they were just fucking good rock songs. Big old riffs, you wouldn’t hear any 7/8 and you wouldn’t hear a second coda in their records, but you didn’t need to – you don’t always need to be innovating and pushing that bubble. So we found ourselves between that. In our records, looking back, there was some stuff where we were really trying to push things, and other times where we were just doing big fat verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and they’re both valid.”
Next year will mark 10 years since Reuben announced the “indefinite hiatus” of their band, which would eventually be accepted for the permanent split it was. What are the chances of 2018 seeing the long-awaited Reuben reunion many fans still call for?
“There’s no chance at all,” says Lenman frankly. “We called it an indefinite hiatus at the time because we did sort of think maybe when the pressure’s off we’ll do something again, or at one point we thought we could do a yearly gig – a Reuben-fest – just play the old songs that people liked and have new bands on the bill. I think that would’ve been cool, at one point I would’ve been interested in that.
“I sort of thought when I started my own solo career that people would shut up about it,” Lenman offers with a wry smile. “But they haven’t, they still want it, and I’m outspoken on my views on band reunions – it’s not always a bad idea, but it mostly is, and it usually does down the toilet pretty quick. There was sort of a spark of like, maybe one day... but over the past 10 years that’s just dwindled to nothing, so I’m now saying no. I do like nostalgia, but you’ve got to keep a safe distance from it. You can’t allow it to influence your decision making too much.”
At this mention of nostalgia, the conversation takes a curious turn. “Without wanting to get too political,” Lenman continues, “I think a lot of that is why we’ve had things like Brexit, because Brexit was voted for by fucking octogenarians who wanted the death penalty back. That is the fat end of the nostalgia wedge. It might sound alarmist and a little bit exaggerated to go, ‘Listen, one minute you got the Pixies reforming and the next minute we’re breaking away from the European Union’, but they’re connected. Stop digging this stuff up. Bands: fuck off! Do 10 years of great work and then I don’t want to see you again – you have a very specific place in time. So when people say ‘Ah, I’d really like to see Reuben play a show,’ on the one hand I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’d be cool’, but on the other hand, it’s not going to do anyone any good.”
Once Reuben had split, Lenman spent a year out on a “creative gap year” where, he says, he did absolutely nothing in the way of music at all. “I had a 9-5 in King's Cross which I did every day of the week then when I got home I’d have dinner, watch TV and go to sleep. It was great,” he recounts. But it didn’t last for long. “Slowly, slowly, slowly, the little songs [came back].
"There’s a song on the third Reuben album about how writing a song can be tough, because it won’t leave your head until you’ve fucking finished it. And so towards the end of this little gap year, all the little bits of songs I’d never quite finished wouldn’t go away, so I had to concentrate and sit down – because it got too noisy – and finish them. I managed to shut it out for a blissful year, and then the songs came back in my noggin. Then I was complaining to my drummer Daniel that the songs wouldn’t go away and he was like, ‘Well why don’t we just jam them out and see where they’re going? Then at least you can finish them, you won’t be pissed off anymore and you can get some fucking sleep’.”
These songs would eventually provide the basis for Muscle Memory, Lenman's 2013 solo debut. The record was an ambitious effort: a double album, one side which was, as Lenman calls it, “metal as shit”, the other a collection of soft folk jazz.
What was behind the decision to serve it in two halves?
“People would say of the records I would write with Reuben, ‘This goes in too many directions’,” says Lenman. “I could see the value of having a more refined, cohesive, linear listening experience that wasn’t quite so broad. So what I was trying to do was separate the heavy stuff and the soft stuff [so] each disc would make more cohesive listening. What actually happened was that they were both batshit, the soft one even more so. The metal one is a little bit more even, it goes sludge to tech to doom to punk to hardcore – there’s all the genres of metal on that metal record. But on the soft one, it’s just nuts.”
His double album wasn’t the only striking part of Lenman’s return. With his comeback came a bold new image. Does Lenman think it’s important to look the part as well as sound the part? “These days, I think it’s much more important for a solo artist to have a definable image than a band,” he says. “When you’re a band you’re a gang, you’re a group, you’re a hodgepodge and you’re not always going to look all the same anyway. But I think as a solo artist I think it’s important to have an image because it’s a much more concentrated form of music, and that’s why I put my fucking face on the album cover – not because I love my face, I just think it’s important for you to see the artist and know who you’re dealing with. And if you look at the videos, the videos I like to do don’t really have a narrative, they’re just focused on a strong central image and I think that’s much more important for solo artists.”
The new album is equally as strong a statement of intent. Scattershot in its approach – as Lenman’s best music always has been – it pays reference to his past while fixating firmly on the future. Where does Lenman see its place within his back catalogue?
“I called it Devolver because I thought when I was putting it together, that after Muscle Memory it was a bit of a back step, because I’d separated out the riffs and the melody on purpose, and now with Devolver I was putting them back together,” he explains. “But the irony is that since I selected that title I’ve realised that actually Muscle Memory wasn’t really going forwards – it’s [more] a weird little side step, it doesn’t really represent my musical evolution because I’m not going to go on from that point.
“Devolver makes much more sense after In Nothing We Trust, shall we say. I think it is at the front of what I was doing. I was expecting it to feel like a bit of a throwback, and even though it does sound more like Reuben than Muscle Memory does, it’s also moved on in those areas in that my songwriting has got more personal, there’s more synthetic elements in it, and still reaching into new areas. So I think it’s at the front, with Muscle Memory a little behind and to the left, and everything else in a straight line behind it.”
Lenman talks warmly throughout the interview about bands who nurtured his own musical growth over the course of his career; of “big brothers” Biffy Clyro, and long-time friends Billy Talent who “took a chance” on Reuben when they paid for the band to join them on a European tour. It’s these experiences which he cites as one of the key reasons behind him launching his own Lenmania festival later this year. The festival, as well as boasting a few better-known names, is serving as a showcase for the younger bands Lenman wants to help find a greater audience, and is his way of giving some of that support back to the next generation of bands.
“I learnt from Hell Is For Heroes – and other bands, but Hell Is For Heroes [were] the most distinct [band] because they were so much bigger than us at that point – because we had no profile, they just said ‘We like you, come on tour,’ and that’s exactly the same view that Reuben took to our support acts and I still take now. Something like Lenmania is a great example, and I’ve been trying to do something like it for a long time, to curate either a festival or a stage where further up the bill we’ve got some big hitters but lower down we have bands I don’t think many people know, so if people come along and see them, awesome.
“If I like your music, come on tour,” is, he says, his philosophy. “Even if I don’t particularly like your music, if I see that you’re doing valuable stuff and I think other people would find it interesting, come along.”
So, what’s next for Lenman, a man who started so young and has already achieved so much? “What I want to do with all the albums is just to reach more people,” he says. “For more people to be aware of the brand – the me – even if they didn’t dig it so much, that’s still valid. I just want people to hear it.”
“I’m not a young whippersnapper no more, but I hope I never turn out a record of fluff just because,” he concludes. “I’ll always make sure that it’s worth people’s money if they’re going to pay for it, or come to the show and buy a ticket. I want to keep making interesting, intelligent, challenging music on some level, and I want that to reach increasing numbers of people. That’s always what I’m looking to do.”
Jamie Lenman's new album, Devolver, is available now via Big Scary Monsters. Lenmania is taking place in London on 11th November.