Changing cultural currents: A conversation about independence with Jamie Cullum

Joe Zadeh speaks to Jamie Cullum about his early starts making music, about recording, and about his mission to change the cultural currents for music in hard-hit areas across the UK.

Words by Joe Zadeh

19 years ago, a 20-year-old Jamie Cullum decided to put aside £480 (which was probably around two months rent at the time) to make his debut album: Heard It All Before (by Jamie Cullum Trio). It was a risk: prior to that Cullum had only been playing drums and guitar in bands with names like The Mystery Machine and Raw Sausage, he was still relatively new to jazz, and he could only afford to get 500 copies of the record pressed. But the quiet success of the record spurred him on to create more and more.

By the time he burst into mainstream culture with his second album, Pointless Nostalgic, Cullum was being dubbed “Sinatra in sneakers” and the “Beckham of jazz”. There was something not normal about him that instilled the ageing genre with a new found pluckiness. He’d grown up on Nirvana and Radiohead, dressed like a Camden scene kid, and had discovered jazz not through smoky clubs in the West End, but through a Herbie Hancock sample on DJ Shadow’s “BASIC Mega-Mix”.

Flash forward to 2018, and Cullum is looking back on a celebrated career that has spawned 7 albums and seen him crowned as one of the biggest selling British jazz artists of all time. Now on the verge of his eighth studio album, he’s become an ambassador for Independent Venue Week. So, we decided to catch up with him to chat about his everlasting love for jazz, and the venues that were important to him.

Hi Jamie, what are you doing, like, right now?

I’m actually at home in my studio, just finishing off stuff for an album I’m making. As you called I was trying to replace a guitar part on a track, which has never sounded good enough. So, I’m trying a different guitar, a different amp, a different mic. I’m a rubbish guitarist, but I’m going to give it a whirl… Until the kids come home anyway.

So you’re working on a new album then?

Yes, it’s as good as finished really. I recorded a lot of it at home this time. I’ve more or less delivered a finished record. But I’m just messing around with it, until they take it out of my cold dead hands. This will be the first record I’ve done where it’s entirely my songs.

What can you tell me about it?

I think a lot of people know me as someone who writes the odd song, plays jazz standards and does the odd cover. I think the thing I’ve connected with most – as an older man than when I started – is writing songs, and trying to write them from a perspective of where your head is at. I’ve been trying to write something that only I could make. It’s probably more personal than anything I’ve done before. I’ve worked on it with an amazing guy called Troy Miller, who worked with Amy Winehouse. It’s been mainly just me and him fiddling around on these instruments I’ve been collecting, faffing around until it sounds good. But it’s the best songwriting I’ve ever done really.

So, what made you want to get involved with IVW?

Independent venues were essential to me. People talk about independent artists, labels, and record shops, but independent venues get a lot less air time. I think people forget that running a music venue is not something you do to get rich. It is run by people who love the life of music, bands, and music making. The first gigs I ever saw were all in small venues. I wasn’t the type of kid going to see New Kids on the Block at Birmingham NEC. I was going with my two best friends to see bands like The Wedding Present in Bristol. When I think about that type of introduction to music in these smaller, un-corporate rooms… it felt like it existed entirely for the fans and the bands. I’m sure I’m romanticising it a little bit, but when I started playing in various bands in Bristol there were these venues I could go to that would put us on the bill no matter what. Or we’d drive to London and play the Amersham Arms in New Cross, the Hope and Anchor in Islington, King Tuts in Glasgow. You drive there with your gear, someone’s dad is driving, you get a 30 second soundcheck, you get onstage and play to ten people. It’s just essential to your growth as an artist.

What do you think of the current struggling climate for venues?

I’m suspicious of these bands these days that arrive fully formed. My experience was so much more trial and error. The good stuff blossoms in these smaller spaces. As a young jazz musician as well you could basically call up places like The Bulls Head in Barnes and just ask for a gig. They would ask how many tickets you think you could sell, you say 20, and they give you a Tuesday night at 7 pm. Your 20 friends come and hopefully, another 7 or 8 random people turn up. Suddenly you’re playing a gig.

What venues do you visit now?

I go to places like Cafe Oto in East London or Brilliant Corners. They are great places to see some independent artists who are unlikely to be playing somewhere like the Barbican anytime soon. I go and see the Sun Ra Arkestra once a year at Cafe Oto – that feels like a gift to the universe. That is where the union of that kind of music meets that kind of fan in that kind of venue. It’s alchemy. Take that away and everything becomes so corporate. I’m not saying all corporate is bad or big venues are bad at all. I’ve had amazing experiences at The o2, they serve a purpose. But if you take the independent venue part away from it suddenly all becomes all too similar. The character is gone.

I had an idea about 5/6 years ago because I was noticing that all of my favourite independent venues were closing. I thought what if someone decided to open ten independent venues in the most deprived parts of the UK. Just get some passionate people to put some money into it. Brand new independent venues, with a recording studio, somewhere to rehearse, and then the performance space. Who could we get to invest in that? Because I think that would also bring a sense of community to some of these towns where the only thing that seems to get built is a betting shop. A great independent venue draws culture and character and characters, and a bit of the right kind of danger.

I was reading an article the other day about the huge positive social, environmental and economic impact of a local cinema on a small town. Music venues play a similar role, I imagine.

Imagine if these places opened up two doors down from McDonald’s in all the towns that are supposed to be falling apart. It isn’t put in some cool part, it’s put in the place where the town is mostly grey and drab. Imagine the impact.

You’ve been championing the new jazz generation a lot on your BBC radio show. How does this new generation intertwine with the independent venue scene?

Completely. They exist with the independent venues. The things with jazz venues is that there are very few dedicated ones. A lot of jazz nights have been in pubs or restaurants, run by people who happen to be jazz fans. Now there is a new injection of excitement within jazz, and it has become part of the conversation in club culture. I think it’s because club culture has gone so retro, in terms of the sound of it: rave, 2 step, garage are all back. The way I got into jazz in the first place was through DJ culture, through beats and breakbeats. You see these jazz bands that are coming up now, from Leeds and South London, who are cross-pollinating with club culture. There is a great independent magazine called The Move which shines a spotlight on this generation’s club culture and there is a lot of jazz in there, and they don’t make any apologies for that. It’s just totally part of the conversation. That is healthy for jazz. Now kids are going to clubs to see DJs and jazz is part of that. It’s an exciting time because it feels alive and fresh.

Thanks Jamie

Jamie Cullum is Independent Venue Week’s third ambassador to be announced.

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