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Jamie Lidell: Strange relationships

INTERVIEW! Electronic music innovator and songwriter Lidell feels no shame in admitting his influences – in fact, it's all part of the process of creating energetic stories and sounds. And he comes out all the more original for it.

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Photo by Olga Baczynska

From electronic innovator to Hi Records Prince of Pop and back again? Long preoccupied with exploring his own influences, Jamie Lidell has become an influence himself.

The Nashville-based Brit’s self-titled, self-produced latest on Warp Records – mixed and morphed in his own basement – shades closer to his early IDM work and Super_Collider electropop sounds while still maintaining the Al Green-isms of 2005’s breakthrough Multiply (Warp), with funky electro-bass and analogue-synthed futuristic 1980s robot numbers meeting bluesy piano and muted trumpet solos. The homecoming commences on Wednesday, March 20 at Kesselhaus.

I definitely thought of Prince while listening to the album.

Yeah, totally. The funny thing is maybe it happened recently for me when I listened to Kendrick Lamar. It’s awesome, actually. But I mean, it sounds exactly like Outkast for a minute, you know? At the same time, it does but it doesn’t; even if he would try and wholesale rip off an Outkast track, like, to the last thing, it wouldn’t be Outkast. You just can’t be someone else, no matter how hard you try.

And Prince often sounds like his influences.

You hear it from so many people: if you don’t try and be an original, what are you trying to do? As if you’re gonna actually invent something, you know? Why not just wear your influences on your sleeve and be proud of them and explore them and kind of blatantly use that in your art?

When you start out, you feel like that’s a disgusting conclusion, but the reason why you liked that stuff in the first place is important, you know what I mean? It’s just like saying you can’t paint your walls light blue because you got the idea off some other place. I was just exploring my influences really freely, I guess. And just kinda knowing with confidence that it would always be me in the end because the way that you bring those things out ends up making it yours.

Who else is in there?

I was trying to tap into that electronic soul thing that I grew up loving so much, you know, and I was like, “Man, what happened to that Jam & Lewis spirit that I just used to love that used to permeate pop?” I mean, you’d get that with, obviously, Janet Jackson…

It was a Rhythm Nation.

I mean, there’s no denying that I was one of those people who kind of lost Prince a little bit along the way, having really been obsessed with his output to the point where there was no other music for me. And it was weird later on when I kind of, not got bored with it, but, you know, the love affair ended a little bit. So I went on in search for other music. Part of that was just finding out the things that made Prince, you know, what he is.

So getting really into Sly Stone, getting really into George Clinton and Funkadelic, and just tapping into the things that made him tick. So, I mean, on this new record a big influence is [Clinton’s] “Atomic Dog”. Just the song “Atomic Dog” on its own. It’s so amazing. And I know it must have influenced Prince like crazy. And Zapp and all that stuff was coming out in 1979, 1980. That’s pretty early for Prince. So, it’s funny, you know. Sometimes when I think of electronic music, I almost forget about that stuff, that it was so important to me.

Multiply sounded like a throwback, but this is a different sort of throwback.

It’s going back to my kinda electronic roots but taking on-board all the songcraft and all the stuff that I got really obsessed with on Multiply and [2008‘s] Jim (Warp); I’m just trying to make something a vacuum-packed, satisfying song form. You know, make Quincy Jones proud, but make Sun Ra proud, make Prince proud – all of my idols, trying to remember the lessons that I’ve learned from them as best I can.

Was “Do Yourself a Faver” a direct reference to Stevie Wonder’s “Do Yourself a Favor?”

Well, it’s interesting between English and American there, ‘cause the English would spell it different than the Americans. So it’s like, “colour,” “favour”… sometimes when I get to emails, the simplicities of my spellcheck won’t tell me if anything’s wrong, you know, ending “I-S-E” words with “I-ZED-E,” as we say. I mean, uh, you’re getting into some tricky micro-linguistics. Um, so I just thought “Faver” was a good way of sidestepping it. Turn it into a new thing.

So it was a direct reference?

Yeah, you know, right.

Where are your lyrics coming from this time around?

A lot of the songs, I guess I wrote them more sonically than in the past. Definitely with [2010’s] Compass (Warp), I just wrote down really old-school lyrics on a piece of paper and then I worked out what the song would be around the lyrics. That way of working really is great ‘cause the music part comes quite quick to me and I find that lyrics are definitely the hardest piece of the puzzle.

But I made it harder for myself this time, definitely, by basically making music, freestyling out of the top of it, basically making shapes, you know, and not really trying to think, “Ok, I want this to be about this.” It was more just the sound. So I was kind of reverse-engineering the lyrics. And my wife was really awesome at helping with that ‘cause that is a kind of a bit of a psycho process.

You used to improvise live all the time. Hadn’t you freestyled before?

I used to do that with Chris Vogel when we were in Super_ Collider. You know, it’s almost like your subconscious is kind of emoting in a pure form. And it’s nonsense. And then later on you carve away some sense.

It’s almost like if you just scribble on a piece of paper, if you look at it long enough you can start to see little animals coming out or shapes or forms. When I draw, I like to do that too. Just not think, “I’m gonna draw a house and then I’m gonna draw a person.” I like to just kinda get in there and see what’s coming and encourage it. Not to say there’s no sense.

Was it all from an abstract place, then?

I think it might have been Annie Lennox – that’s weird – talking about trying not to be too obtuse with your lyric writing. Try to avoid too many, like, adventurous metaphors where you expect your audience to be kind of reading between the lines too much.

You know, you can say what you wanna say kind of pretty blatantly in a song and in fact, why not just put it down? It’s like storytelling – if your story is abstract, you’d better be engaging. But if you’ve got a beat and there’s a lot of other things going on, you’re already on your feet. It’s like, “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”. Do you really know what Michael’s talking about? 

JAMIE LIDELL Wed, March 20, 20:00|Kesselhaus in Kulturbrauerei, Schönhauser Allee 35, Prenzlauer Berg, S+U-Bhf Schönhauser Allee