The Irrepressibles – An Interview with Jamie McDermott
The Irrepressibles are on the road again with the latest in the Nude EP trilogy. Olivier Joly talks to Jamie McDermott about his musical influences, playing live in Russia, and YouTube slapping an inappropriate age restriction on one of their videos just because it is about two men in love.
Jamie McDermott (Click image to enlarge)
It’s a rainy Sunday evening and I am waiting for Jamie McDermott at The Premises Café on London’s Hackney Road. What looks at first glance to be another local Turkish restaurant actually hides one of London’s best music rehearsal studios. The walls are covered with framed and signed photographs of everyone who played here: Jarvis Cocker, Nina Simone, Adele, Blur, Madness, Scissor Sisters, Amy Winehouse, Marianne Faithfull, Courtney Love, Paul Weller …. the list goes on like a Who’s Who of the music industry.
The Irrepressibles have been busy recently. They released the first of their Nude EP trilogy, Nude: Landscapes, last October, and followed it with a tour of churches and intimate venues. The second, Nude: Viscera, is out this month on Valentine’s day, and the third, Nude: Forbidden, in March. They are now preparing for the second round of performances, which will see them play in venues across the UK, Europe and America.
What was the idea behind the Nude EPs?
The Nude album, which came out in 2012, is very much my gay history, my coming of age record; most of the songs on it I wrote when I was 18. It’s a very mixed album sound-wise and includes elements of electronica as well as symphonic and orchestral sounds but also darker country and rock elements. With the EPs I wanted to take the album apart, split it in three and release songs that were from different sonic worlds. While some are different versions of existing tracks, there are also quite a few new ones.
The first EP, Nude: Landscape is about minimalism expanding into orchestration, but there’s no orchestra – just piano, guitar, violin and cello, and we performed it in small churches and intimate venues. The second, Nude: Viscera is – as the title suggests – very visceral. It has more of a rock/grunge sound and is made up of mainly new songs. The third and final EP, which comes out in March, Nude: Forbidden, is very much an electronic record.
Mirror Mirror and Nude are two very different albums. Did you see producing such different albums as a challenge?
Mirror Mirror was made with lots of musicians and instruments, so I was composing with that in mind. It ended up having many different sounds, sometimes baroque, sometimes exotic and sometimes cabaret. With Nude I wanted to make a record that was both of its time as well as being about time, so I used lots of electronic sounds that sounded of a date in time and allowed me to say something about the ’80s and ’90s, while using strings in a way that was less about style and sounding baroque but more timeless.
The video for ‘Two Men in Love’ has been age-restricted on YouTube. Did you ever see it as a political song?
Yes, I guess in some way it is making a statement by saying two men in love are normal and beautiful. But for me it’s just a song about love, love between two men. I made this video because there are kids out there who kill themselves for being gay and I wanted to make something that would communicate directly to those kids and tell them “it’s ok to love”.
That’s why it was very depressing that the video was age restricted on Youtube, especially as there is absolutely no sexual content whatsoever. It’s crazy that it can’t even be challenged. It’s just so very ‘big brother’ of them. Lots of fans have signed petitions but there’s a big difference between a government’s laws that you can actually challenge and change, even in places like Russia, but a company like Google you can’t. They are this huge hand of authority that just says “No!”
What’s your take on how LGBT issues are changing in this country, and how that compares to the backlash in others?
We are very lucky here. Equality in terms of marriage and gay parenting is getting better and is a beautiful thing. I get very broody and I think a lot about having children. Knowing that I can get married and have kids fills me with complete happiness. If only homosexuality could just be completely accepted as normal within our culture in general, gay and straight people would become much more relaxed about their own sexuality, which would then transform into a general sense of well being.
The one thing that depresses me is that there are gay brothers and sisters in Iran, Jamaica, and Russia who have such horrific lives. We performed in Russia last year and played in front of 5000 people at an open air concert. And to be honest, we didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen to us. We screened the video for ‘Two Men in Love’. We had a huge argument with the technical team, who first refused to show it. But when we first went on stage the technicians didn’t even turn the sound on. They just didn’t want to. They knew that I was gay and their prejudice meant they wouldn’t help us to make the performance happen.
The night before we’d met members of the LGBT resistance in Moscow who told us about how people were getting beaten up just for being gay. Having met them in person and seeing what life was like for them, makes you even closer to it. And that’s Russia. Russia’s like heaven compared to other places. The stuff I read sometimes about what goes on in places like Iran. I don’t even know what to do with that information. It is so dark and deeply sad.
When did you start writing music?
At first I would play on pots and pans, and then I got this keyboard from my grandma. I would make up songs on it without knowing what I was doing. So one day my mum took me to the music shop and decided I should learn to play the piano properly and that’s how I started learning classical music. I quickly discovered musicians who really opened my mind like Mike Oldfield and Jean Michel Jarre. At the time I would also be writing music for the school orchestra, although I didn’t actually know how to score it so I’d have to ask the teacher to help me.
And then when I was 15, there was this boy I first fell in love with who had a band and needed a singer. I decided I wanted to be in his band just so I could be around him. And that’s how I started singing … very badly to start with. I sounded like a cat. Then I got into grunge – I wanted to be Kurt Cobain, and then I wanted to be Chris Cornell, and then I fell in love with Jeff Buckley: I wanted to be him and be with him. He was so beautiful. His music really moved me.
Many of the songs on the albums were written when you were between 18 and 20. They obviously are very much about what it feels like to be gay at that age. How does it feel to release them now?
The songs have always been with me in some way or another. I always look at writing songs and music as having something to say and I’ve always been honest about sexuality and emotions in my music. Obviously you can’t feel the same way about coming out when you are 30 as you did when you were 18, but the main difference for me is that I’ve become a better arranger – so now it’s about orchestrating and setting them in the context of an album.
I started working with orchestral instruments at university because I wanted to challenge pop music and do something new rather than just standing there – to come up with an antidote to what was going on at the time, the manufactured music. So I started to orchestrate by singing parts and I’d design lights and sets and direct how the orchestra would perform. And that’s how the Irrepressibles were born.
How did you come up with the name?
With all the restrictions that were all around me – whether it was in the music industry or to do with the place of homosexuality in pop music, the name came quite naturally. We wanted to be wild and uncontrollable and free to do what we wanted without following any rules.
Is there anyone in particular you would like to collaborate with musically?
Bring Donna Summer back from the dead and I’ll sing with her! In more realistic terms I would really love to collaborate with bands like Aphex Twin and Peaches – that would be really interesting, I could definitely experiment with my voice with them. And there is one man I’d really love to work with: Holly Johnson. I know him now and he’s a fan of my music. That would be brilliant.
You must have been approached by musicians who would like to work with you.
Yeah I have, but I can’t talk about it yet because there’s stuff coming out. Interestingly enough, people who have approached me about working together have generally been from the electronic music scene, which is great as I’m really into it but I’m never in only one place. I’m interested in all sorts of things. I can easily just go on stage with a rock band as I would with an orchestra. Musically, I’m what you’d call completely versatile – I grew up with all kinds of music.
What a lot of musicians seem to do is make the same record over and over again – they do it maybe out of fear or maybe it’s just the sort of sound that they like to make, but I’m not interested in doing that at all. I’m interested in changing, evolving – or maybe not even evolving actually, just changing. Just being irrepressible, I guess.
Nude: Landscapes is out now. Nude: Viscera out is on 14th February. Nude: Forbidden is out on 24th March.
The Irrepressibles will be touring around the UK, Europe and the USA in March. Click here for dates and tickets.