Interview: Jack Roberts
Published on March 6th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
In 1994, Liverpool singer-songwriter Jack Roberts released his debut album Longer on a Message through Sony, going on to play at Glastonbury, the Royal Albert Hall and as support to the likes of Crash Test Dummies, Robyn Hitchcock, Jah Wobble, The Tragically Hip and Jeff Healey. Then Britpop happened, leaving Jack’s eccentric yet fluid meditations somewhat by the wayside. But now he’s back, and what better way to announce your return than by singing “Ticket to Ride” to eleven thousand people at his hometown’s Echo Arena while shaving (yes, that’s not a typo)…
“Ticket to Ride” (live at the Echo Arena)
An ingenious twist, and typical of the man. Before his spellbinding performance in support of The Band of Holy Joy at The Social in central London last week, he showed me a video he’d stitched together of he and his bandmates Dan Murphy (piano) and Hayden John (electric violin) stuck inside a fridge, and a mic stand he made out of his old bicycle which doubles up as a one-string bass.
His new album The Romance, The Row and The Wreck – a title seemingly inspired by Jack’s writing process, which involves contributions from and emotionally inspiring rows with his wife Jill – even features a cello made out of a bin. He may now declare it an avenue he shouldn’t have gone down, but that engineering background has certainly left him with a neat stash of residual skills.
Rocksucker sat down with Jack and his manager Chris Watson before the Social show – which incidentally stopped a room full of people dead in their tracks, so commanding is his stage presence, enthrallingly Waits-ian his vocals and elegantly primal his all-round performance – and later departed grateful for the opportunity to pick the brains of such a fascinating character…
When’s the new album coming out?
We’re sort of on the cusp of putting it out now. It’s being released on a new London indie label called Tip Top Recordings and it’s planned for later this year. We’ve got the album done but we’re going to build it up first, maybe release a single first. I’m working on this video where the three of us are stuck in a fridge. (Jack shows Rocksucker some footage on his iPhone; it is indeed the three band members inside a fridge.)
Must be an exciting time…
It’s the album I’ve always wanted to make. When I’ve worked with other people, they’ve had their hands on the handles, so to speak, whereas this time I had my hands on the handles.
Do you mean the production side of things?
Yeah. It’s taken me fucking ages to realise that, if you’ve got a sound in your head and nobody else knows it, you should do it yourself. I think if you’re drawing, painting, singing or taking a picture, I think you instinctively know when it’s not right, whereas I think before I was always looking for the right things and trusting in other people’s ideas of what I should sound like. I’ve gone the other way of looking at it, and that’s why I’m happy with this album; it’s not ‘wrong’ to me, it’s how I’d like it to be.
I mixed the album myself, went over every little (imitates a hi-hat sound) again and again, and every (emits a sort of growly grunt) of my voice. If it’s not right then it’s my fault, but it’s right for me. For the first album, we spent a couple of weeks at Chipping Norton Studios in Oxfordshire, but I wasn’t in control. But with this stuff I am pulling the handle now, and I think that’s why I’m enjoying doing this again. I’m pulling the handles, and that makes all the difference for me.
Were there many people in your ear trying to get you to commercialise it up a bit?
We went through a few different PR people; some of them were right, some of them weren’t. But I think I should have had the bollocks to go, “No, that’s wrong.” I actually thought, “They might know something I don’t here,” but they didn’t. (Laughs) When I’m tapping on God’s window, that’s what I’ll say to Him. He’ll say, “You should have fucking done it yourself.” And I’ll say, “D’you know what, You’re right.” Can’t really blame anybody else.
If you’re building a wall then anyone could just put bricks on top of bricks, but if you’re doing something that’s supposed to represent what your thoughts are, it can only be you that does it. I’m not saying they’ll always be wrong, but in my case it was wrong; they didn’t understand what portion of the board they thought I should be throwing my dart at. And I didn’t know either.
Jack and his band performing the songs “Radio” and “You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead” at The Social, 28.02.12
Tom Waits feels like an obvious reference point when trying to describe your sound. Is he an influence?
I’ve always been aware of Tom Waits, and I could probably cover his songs easily enough – there are only about five or six different types of voices, and ours are probably in the same group – but what I’ve explored on my thing is the gentle side of my ‘barking’, as it were.
How much looking after does your voice require?
Well, I don’t smoke, and I haven’t drunk for a while, just to give it a rest. And I drink Chinese gunpowder tea; it looks like gunpowder, but you put it in and it opens up, and it’s lovely tea. I do probably drink too much coffee. I’m not sure if smoking makes a difference to everyone’s voice, ‘cause I’ve met loads of singers who smoke. In Liverpool, everyone smokes! I did used to smoke years and years ago, and my voice used to pack up in the middle of gigs, so I thought, “If I’m going to project what I want to do, I’ve got to stop smoking.” I’m not an eco-warrior, it’s just what suits me!
Do you multi-track your vocals at all when recording?
There are a couple of songs where I have, like “Skin Deep”, but one thing I’ve never been one for is harmonising; if I get near to it, there’s a magnet that turns around and pushes me away from it! I think that’s coming from Liverpool, where every band is full of harmonies. It’s just not my thing. With us, there’s just a piano, a voice and a violin, and if that doesn’t tell the tale then it doesn’t tell the tale. You could have a twenty-piece orchestra, but if the stuff’s shite, it’s shite with a twenty-piece orchestra. (Laughs)
Will you be shaving onstage tonight?
You saw that, did you? It’s funny, I’m just not that into The Beatles. They gave us that song and said, “Do it with our house band,” but I thought, “It’s gonna be like someone singing at fucking Pontins if I do that.” So I thought I’d stick my neck out. I was quite afraid going onstage because the guitarist with me had to come in halfway in and had to be in key, so just as we’re going on I’m saying, “What’s the note?” And he says, “I’m not telling you!”
As I was doing it [shaving while singing], I thought, “These won’t fucking get this.” But they did, so maybe people enjoy seeing people dangling, you know. I’d play with drummers again, and I’d even play with an orchestra, but the shaving was a turning point because I thought, “Pare it right down to fuck-all, and if the story that you’re telling works then we’re getting something out of that direction, rather than have loads of fucking people blowing trumpets.” Works for some, not for others.
The next logical progression should be shaving your head midsong.
Sawing my leg off or something. I’d do that!
How did “Heart Attack” come to soundtrack a Ricky Hatton Documentary?
He was going to be fighting Manny Pacquiao, when he lost, and I’d just got into putting bits of film together, stop frame animation, which I’d never done before. I’ve got a dummy which I call Eddy Fluff, and I put boxing gloves on him and he’s fighting Ricky Hatton. It’s not the version of “Heart Attack” we do now; it’s a very shouty, much faster version.
I like the artwork on your website, and the animation for your song “Mermaids” (above). Is there any more of it available online?
We’ll be putting more on the site after we’ve focussed on getting the music out, because that comes first. I’ve got another animated character called Len; I’ve got him standing in a place full of silhouettes of people watching him, with bits of footage of me talking that happened to have got recorded, and I call it “Talking Shite”. I had bits of footage of me talking shite and I thought, “I need to animate it,” so I synched it with Len as if he’s saying it. It just goes to show that there’s nothing new, because even though I thought, “No-one’ll have done this,” and of course they have. Ricky Gervais did it recently, of course. I’m not saying he copied me, by the way!
Jack Roberts, thank you.
You can listen to some of Jack’s older songs, including a couple of live recordings from his Glastonbury performance, at soundcloud.com/jack-roberts-music