Halfway through Lil Wayne’s most recent collection of dick jokes and sexual boasts, I Am Not a Human Being II, a warm and familiar voice emerges from the ether of squelching synths and 808s. It’s Jamie Lidell, singing the title track of his 2010 LP Compass, and, amazingly, for the first thirty seconds of the new “Back to You”, the sound of his voice and a gently picked acoustic guitar plays out, unchanged and unadorned from its previous incarnation, with exception of what is ostensibly the sound of Weezy lighting a blunt in the recording booth. Soon enough though, the rapper is ad-libbing over the British transplant’s emotive chorus, matching Lidell’s introspection with lines like, “Should I call somebody else? Cause, girl, it’s almost twelve and this dick won’t suck itself.” Even though we live world where Kanye West has Justin Vernon on speed dial, it is a thoroughly bizarre moment, and talking with Jamie Lidell a few days ago, it’s one that he finds just as funny.
Lidell has always had a sense of humor about him. When we connect, he’s walking through the streets of “Midwest, USA,” or more specifically, Chicago, which is “living up to its reputation as the Windy City.” He’s nearing the end of a five-week world tour in support of his fifth record, Jamie Lidell, which is either his first or second LP to go the self-titled route. (The follow-up to his breakthrough Multiply – and his most overtly backward-looking effort – bore the title Jim.) But the title fits, because in several ways, Jamie Lidell is his most quintessentially Jamie Lidell record. Unlike Compass – an underrated group affair featuring Beck, Feist and members of Grizzly Bear – and his earlier efforts made in collaboration with Mocky, Jamie Lidell was crafted mostly in isolation, in the privacy of his Nashville home’s basement studio. And left to his own devices, Lidell has chosen to make thrillingly maximalistc music, overflowing with nods to the sounds of his beloved Prince, Cameo, and “my 80s”. As Lidell told BYT: “It was time to get back to my roots.”
How did you come to be on a Lil Wayne record?
It was one of those moments in life where you think that nothing weird is going to happen again, but, sure enough, in pops a crazy e-mail. The craziest thing was that they sent us a demo version of the song with this crazy pitched down voice all over it – kind of sprayed like graffiti – saying [in a deep voice], “Property of Cash Money Records. ” Literally, every five seconds, there was that voice: “Property of Cash Money Records.” We had this hilarious combination of rough, demo-sounding shit and that voice all over it. And I got it while I was in Ghent, Belgium, which the least hip-hop zone imaginable. The only question was: Do I want to approve it? I was like, “Fuck yeah, this is hilarious.”
I’m actually kind of a fan of Weezy. I was really buzzing to be involved, just to hear him do some call-and-response on my song, getting involved with my lyrics. It’s weird, man. I hang out with Harmony Korine quite a lot in Nashville, and obviously he worked with Gucci Man on his film “Spring Breakers”, and not so long ago there was a picture of him and Weezy together. He’d opened me up to Lil Wayne. I’ve become quite a fan. It all kind of tied together. It almost felt like Harmony hooked it up, you know what I mean?
How did you come to be friends with Harmony Korine?
It was one of those random things. We moved to Nashville, partly on the advice of my friend Pat Sansone, who is the keyboardist and guitarist – sort of an everything man – for Wilco. He’s just a really sweet guy. He played on Compass. I’d met him many of times before that in Chicago; he used to come out to my shows, just because he was a fan. I never knew who he was; he would just hang around backstage, and he kind of got on my nerves. I was like, “Who is this guy, anyway?” Eventually we got to talking, and he turns out to be the nicest dude ever. He said, “You should check out Nashville if you’re looking for a place to live.” So my wife and I went there and we were like, “This place is stupid.” We weren’t feeling it at all. We called Pat and we were saying, “C’mon, Pat, you gotta help us. We’re dying here. Why Nashville?” He gave us a few number and said, “Call these people.”
Through the people that he introduced us to, we met this real estate agent, who happens to be an amazing woman, and her husband is Roger Moutenot, who worked on all the Yo La Tengo records. We went to out to get drink with them one night and the Black Keys turned up and Harmony was there with his wife. Basically, we met everyone in the first week we were in Nashville. They were all super nice and we all got along. And we’ve stayed friends. We hang out with Harmony and his wife quite a lot, and Patrick Carney and his wife – we were at their wedding. They’re really nice. It was super weird that we met everyone in the first few days. It’s a Nashville thing, I suppose. It’s a small town.
Have you seen “Spring Breakers”?
No. When it was released, we were in L.A. and the weather was beautiful, so the idea of sitting in the cinema didn’t really work for me. But I’m looking forward to it. Good for Harmony, man. He’s such a dude. He such a crazy freak, man. My God, he’s awesome. He really is. [Laughs] He’s a character. He’s an animated guy. You know what is about Harmony: He carries this self-release. He’s got this incredible ability to sell you an idea. By the end of a conversation, you’re totally hyped up. And it’s a real genuine thing. He’s genuinely fucking hyped about stuff. It’s infectious You’ve got to ask yourself: How did he manage to get all those actors on a film that was clearly not a high budget affair? It shouldn’t even have been possible. I think about Skrillex doing the soundtrack too. People are going to be scratching their heads over that film for a long time.
“Compass” was one of a few ballads from your last record. This time around, there aren’t really any. Why?
I did have a couple of ballots knocking around when I was making this record, but every time I’d slip them into the playlist, they sort of brought me down. The ballads I had in my head felt like they were from a different record. I’m already schizophrenic enough without them. Throwing a ballad with a totally different vibe on the album felt like a token gesture. And I felt like there were still some sweeter moments on the album – like “Don’t You Love Me” – that sort of take it down enough and make it work. It was a tough call, but I just felt like, “Why not no ballads? I haven’t done that before.”
You’re getting back to performing solo on this tour.
That’s right. Solo. Power. Pressure. Full force.
Was there a relearning curve to handling everything yourself?
Definitely. Doing a solo show is really one of the hardest things to do, because, obviously, there’s no one backing you up. It’s going out into battle without anyone else – real Rambo shit. [Laughs] It’s good though. It’s pure. When you start cruising and getting the audience on board, it’s really intense. It’s very personal. It does sound like an act of Rambo, doesn’t it? This time, it’s personal. I really like it though. I like the challenge. I like the contrast. I have to switch it up. Sometimes bands do my head in, and sometimes I really miss the band.
Who’s keeping you company on the road?
Our crew is six people. It’s me and my wife, my tour manager, a roadie, a light guy, and projectionist. It’s not really solo. I’m not like a DJ – I just don’t turn up with a memory stick. I make real-time electronic music. I’m still doing all of the loops and that crazy stuff. It’s a lot of set-up, actually.
You made Jamie Lidell primary by yourself as well.
I pushed the album maybe 90% of the way to completion. The last 10% is really hard. I had a lot of help with the record. I was always working with my keyboard friend, who helped me lay down a lot of the track’s essentials. I also worked heavily with Justin Stanley, who helped me produce and mix the record. I couldn’t have done it without him. You get into a really dangerous position – especially as a vocalist – trying to do everything on your own. It’s just a little bit nuts. You’ve got to watch out.
There’s a lot happening on the record. There’s maxamilistic quality to it. One element that jumps out, though, is the 80s touchstones. What attracted you to that aesthetic?
I’m a child of the 80s. I think a lot of people’s take on the 80s is different than mine. I spent a long time in Berlin, taking in that neon, ironic 80s that was coming on a bit strong for a while – electrolash, they used to call it. For me, I just love all those synthesizers – Cameo, the Time, the Gap Band. That’s my 80s. It has a bit more of a soul, boogie kind of vibe. I kind of miss that, man. It was also the way a lot of those Michael Jackson and Prince productions went down. I associate that sound with good songs and good songwriting, and not so much the neon lights, although that stuff is cool too. I just wanted to use synths. I’ve always loved a lot of keys. It was time to get back to my roots.
I saw a recent interview where you said, “I would never sign a major deal, even though I could have.” Why is that?
It’s a tough call. I just feel like there’s a lack of loyalty with the big guys. It’s just like how I don’t like hanging out with a bunch of suits. I don’t like being lied to. It’s hard enough with an independent label to get clarity and understanding. With a big label, you’re really disappointing them. It’s tricky business. It’s always tricky business, but with a major label, it’s full-on business.
I want to make the music that I want to make, and I don’t want someone coming in from A&R saying, “This is great, Jamie, but change this and change that and change this.” I mean, I could probably score some kind of major label deal, but with the times being what they are and me being almost 40, let’s be honest: What kind of prospect am for those kinds of labels anyway? What I make is homegrown. I consider what I do to be a boutique brand. I don’t shop on High Street very often, if you know what I mean, and for good reason. There’s not a lot of major label outfits that I buy. It’s not the 80s anymore. Things have changed.
What was the inspiration for the album artwork?
We want to get busy with some kind of illusion, to play with an abstraction. It was an idea that started with the guys we were working with, Flat-E. They’re an English design company that we did all the artwork and the first video with. We even designed all the visual projections for the live show with those guys. I’ve known them for a while. They’re a cool design company. They came up with the idea to scan my head in 3-D. We actually did it a couple of ways. We did the old school way, with kind of toffee on the face, just making a mold. Then we also did with the 3-D scan. In the end, we used the 3-D polygons. It’s me, but digital. [Laughs] Digital me. I wanted something simple and minimal, but also colorful. It’s kind of a strange combination: Colorful minimalism is almost a contradiction in terms, but I think what they did is exactly that.
It’s like the album: It’s got some charm, but it’s also a little cold. [Laughs] Those synthesizer are cold to a lot of people. They’re actually not really that cold to me. “Cold” isn’t the word I’d use, but I’d understand that compared to, like, an upright bass or brushes on a drumkit or the smoky sounds of an old soul record, it’s definitely a colder sound. That’s what kind of happened in the 80s, when people like Aretha [Franklin] and Chaka Khan went digital. When the drum machine came along, they made all of these crazy soul with drum machines and shit, but I’m one of the people that really loved that sound. I thought, “This is hot.” It’s just different. It’s all part of the rich sinew of music.
You’re obviously a student of musical history. Do you make much of an effort to keep up what’s out there now?
I do, to an extent. I’ve been really into Kendrick Lamar. He’s one guy that has stood out. It takes a lot to make me think, “Aw, yeah, you’ve got something here.” It’s pretty cool to have Kendrick Lamar, partly because I really miss Outkast, man. [Laughs] He brings back so much of that flavor, and he does it properly. He doesn’t do it in some lame, half-assed way. His productions and his ambition level are really high. That’s something that’s missing from music. A lot of people have this fucking DIY, throw-it-together attitude. We really need someone who’s going to bring back quality. Someone like Kendrick sets a higher bar, lyrically and sonically. I’ve been waiting for that for a while. Having the flavor is important – you can create that aesthetic, but have nothing behind it.
I think Joey Bada$$ and a lot of that whole crazy hip-hop crew that’s starting to emerge have got good voices and good flows. It’s a bit of a return to real meaty shit, stuff that’s really sound solid, because everyone also misses Wu-Tang and Nas and the good shit that we grew up with. We’re kind of like, “What happened to our generation? How come we don’t have anyone pioneering like that anymore?” But there are people coming through now. I feel like it’s a really exciting time for music. A lot of people are really worried about it, but I just think, “Man, there’s a lot going on.”
I listen to all that trap shit. I really enjoy Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne. I pay attention to Hudson Mohawke and that other kind of trap shit. Of course, I know electronic music inside and out, because I’ve been on Warp for fourteen years. I lived in Berlin for nine years. I’m pretty up on all of that shit. That stuff moves along in an interesting way. I like people’s take on it. It’s coming along, although not quite as fast as I had hoped. We’ll see what happens there.
I think James Blake is doing some beautiful shit too. I like all that chill electronic stuff – it’s really beautiful, you know? It’s an interesting idea to take it in that direction and it’s working well. And he’s an ambitious guy. [Laughs]. There’s plenty of good music, man!
Thumbnail photo: Lindsey Rome.