Jamie T has been away, and done a lot, but now he’s back. And he has a lot to say.
Well, out of some 180 songs, give or take, written in the five-and-half-years since the release of 2016’s Trick, the man born Jamie Treays zeroed in on those that counted. If only one in 14 of his new ideas was a keeper, that keeper had to be killer. So the singer-songwriter has drilled down, honed in and focused on 13 vital, pin-sharp, melody-rich, spikily provocative, visually vivid and narratively expansive tunes.
Well, the lyrics on the South Londoner’s fifth album run to almost 4000 words. That’s short story territory. In fact, think of this album as a baker’s dozen short stories. These are songs about British hell, the psychogeography of wee hours London, vandalising luxury cars of the mind, the migrant crisis, Brexit, celebrity drug dealers – but never, crucially, too on-the-nose and always, brilliantly, wildly imaginative in their lyrical truth-telling.
There is, too, help and inspiration from a range of the musician mates that have long gravitated towards this singular artist, stretching back to his having released Adele’s first ever single, Hometown Glory, in 2007 on his own label.
This is The Theory of Whatever, the sound of Jamie T being rigorously tough on himself, and on his songcraft. Bunkered in his East London home studio, writing and rewriting, playing all the guitar and keyboard parts himself, he pressed down on his coal-black imaginative fuel to produce, eventually, a multi-faceted diamond of an album.
“I was struggling to find my direction with the record for a few years, really,” he admits. “And I got home one night, very, very despondent about everything. Because I think I ended up as a bit of a lap dog to my manager, asking him: ‘Do you like this, do you like that?’ Poor manager can’t help on that shit, you’ve got to like it,” Treays adds, as prosaically plain-speaking in conversation as he is poetic in his lyric writing.
“So I went home one day, and I found this track that I had recorded, pretty much fully finished. And I was really upset, because I realised that I’d spent the last six months asking other people to tell me if something was good. Then I heard this track and I just immediately knew I’d kind of found my path.”
That song is The Old Style Raiders, the first single from The Theory Whatever. For sure, it’s a lean, taut indie-rock anthem with a heads-thrown-back chorus you can hang your hat on (“toe the line! / Hard to find! / Told to fight for something you love in life…”) But the verses contain worlds. To quote just the one couplet: “Was it your father or your mother’s booze / That made you fall apart?”
“It’s got hope in it,” answers Treays when asked what makes The Old Style Raiders his album’s opening statement. “It’s fighting to find something that means enough to you that you love. The fight to find that, and to carry on striving, to find something you love enough to hold on to.
“Rather than kid love or movie love or, gushy love or lust love, whatever you have when you’re younger – it’s actually trying to fight for something that means more than that. It’s the struggle to find that.”
The words, he remembers, came in a torrent, “written in oner, which isn’t always the case”.
The key thing, though, was that the song was a pathfinder, a direction forward for a boundlessly productive artist who will freely admit that, for a minute there, he lost his way creatively.
“To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d done it,” he acknowledges ruefully, of a track he’d demo’d on his laptop and found lurking in a folder. “But also, I thought: this sounds like me. Whereas a lot of things I was doing didn’t sound like me at the time.”
Taking the song to the Wandsworth studio of his old friend and producer, ex-Maccabees guitarist Hugo White, gave the song wings. “Hugo just made it sound bigger,” he says simply.
Bigged out, but dug in, fiercely, on Jamie T’s vision. The album opens with 90’s Cars, on which he raps, scats and sings over an interpolation of This Mortal Coil’s version of Alex Chilton’s Kangaroo. A timeless cover of a timeless classic, now given a timely rerub.
“I’ve always loved that song and I’ve had it in my mind for a while. But it took me a long, long time to write that song.” Explaining why it starts the album, he highlights on the opening line: “Live between the corners of my sheets…”
“A friend said to me once: ‘It’s like you’re drawing a picture of someone and you’ve chosen to draw the little finger first.’ It’s very weird! But you have to grab hold of whatever you’re visualising. And sometimes it can be a really small idea. That’s how I build albums. Start off with a little simple idea, but you stay stringent to that simple idea. And you build everything around it. I’ve always found that.”
A Million & One New Ways to Die is another where Treays very much stuck the landing. A clattering post-punk rush of bruised romance, it’s built for a heady singalong when Jamie T finally gets back properly on tour. Altogevva now: “Rise cruel to be kind / Victim no way / And I don’t want to make you mine / Cos I was always high / Wished shit away / You and I made / A million and one ways to die.” The truth hurts, but so does love.
That song is propelled by a classic, Libertines-esque guitar intro. “Well, I’m a big fan of Carl Barât so I wouldn’t be surprised if his influence was actually on that song. We’ve been writing together for his next record,” adds the effortlessly prolific Treays, who’s also a co-writer (alongside The Kills’ Jamie Hince), co-singer and guitarist on Love Spins On Its Axis, the new single from The Big Pink.
A Million & One New Ways to Die was a stand-out at Treays’ recent club show at iconic west London venue Subterrania. It was his first live show in over five years, with a thrilling, falling-down-the-stairs energy from Treays and his band, and the adoration was dripping off the ceiling. “The amount of love I got from that gig was a wonderful feeling. It gave me loads and loads of confidence,” he beams. “Still, he’s not ashamed to admit he was nervous beforehand – puking-in-the-bogs nervous. Puking twice, in fact. At least his second comeback show was more straightforward: headlining Glastonbury’s giant John Peel Tent, up against Paul McCartney. No biggie.
Yes biggie: St George Wharf Tower, The Theory of Everything’s second single. It’s a drum-free London blues, might be his best vocal on the album, suggests vintage Billy Bragg (“that’s fair) and is “probably most honest one I’ve ever done.
The breakneck Between The Rocks offers more vivid imagery, in a tumble of defiance that was co-written with White.
“I really wanted to work with Hugo, and I felt like he was a fan of mine already. So I thought: I’ll write my most Jamie T lyric! Just ’cause I wanted him to like it. So it was written from a place of love for Hugo.”
Having a close friend as his wingman producer was crucial, a desire to work with kindred spirits that reaches back a decade-and-a-half to that early partnership with old friend Adele. They wrote together, too, “between her first and second album. It never came out, but it was very good. I don’t know if I’d still be able to find it – that’s probably three laptops ago.”
That support also finds form on Old Republican, which benefitted from the input of Foals’ Yannis Philippakis. “He was very helpful on a lot of the record actually, just listening to it and being a good friend. He gave me an eye into what he does as a songwriter.”
Another friend helps out on British Hell, which suggests The Clash’s punk-skank turned up to 12 and features another inspired, leftfield sample: of 1981’s London Dungeon by US punk band Misfits.
“They wrote that in Brixton jail after they got arrested while on tour in the UK. So we sampled them and turned it into a different kind of idea, about being stuck on a fucking island and being Little Englanders.”
Aiding his scabrous portrait of contemporary Britain is Frank Carter, who sings the big, aggy chorus. “I love Frank with all my heart. I’ve always felt were like two sides of the same coin a bit, Frank and I. We went through stuff at the same time we were younger. I was like: ‘Oi, where are you?’ I hadn’t spoken to him in two years, I asked him to come around, he was here in 15 minutes, did the song and walked off! Wonderful man.”
There’s more, much more, where that came from, with Treays revealing more songs across spring and summer ahead of the album’s release in August. But for now, let’s leave off with the taut hip hop groove of Keying Lamborghinis. The story behind it is almost as interesting as the story in it.
“I originally wrote the song and recorded it with the piano sample and a drum kit. Then my friend Tom [Dinsdale] from the Audio Bullys stole it off my computer. And then he called me up about four in the morning: ‘Um, I think you need to come around.’ So I went round, and he had taken the song from what it was, and put a drum machine on it, and a bassline that completely changed the whole direction and genre of the tune.
“And that’s why I ended up as it sounds. We both sat there at four in the morning with this amazing new tune. It was a wonderful moment.”
Meanwhile, those fat electronics and Treays’ stoned-sounding rap are the beds for a metaphorical story of love – and separation – gone wrong.
“So I had fun imagining this girl showing up in your head, keying Lamborghinis and hanging out in oligarchs’ houses. There’s a couple of lines I really like: ‘I raise prices, strict dress codes / Put more filth on the street / But the filth only makes her feel more at home.’ I just liked the imagery, I thought it was fun.’”
Stay tuned, too, for more myth-making street poetry and hard truths won from hard times. As Jamie T freely acknowledges, making The Theory of Whatever has been a bit of a journey and no little graft. But that’s cool. Few things great ever came easy, and nor should they, right?
As he puts it: “Writing albums for me is very difficult to explain. I work. And I work, work and work and work and work. Which doesn’t suit a lot of people. To do an album, I have to go down every side alley to see if it’s a dead end or not, to get to where I want to go. To find myself in it.”
With The Theory of Whatever, find himself he has. Now, at last, we get to join him.