The Bombay Bicycle Club frontman lets us in on his new adventure.
Eight years ago, before the term “selfie” was even invented and when autograph books were still a thing, I forced a friend to head down to the HMV in Bristol with me so that I could get a signed album from my favourite band. Flash forward to 2017 and the cover of I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose is still Blu-Tacked on my bedroom wall complete with the scrawled Sharpee signature of Jack Steadman.
The album sleeve may still look the same as it did in 2009, but it’s safe to say that the Bombay Bicycle Club frontman has changed. Sitting down at the BFI bar on a rainy day in July, he tells me how his new appearance somewhat impacted the title of his debut album. “I drove past this place in Dalston a long time ago and just fell in love with the sign and thought ‘Well, it’s a barber shop and I’ve shaved my head; it’s called God First and I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel or either very spiritual jazz music,’ and yeah it all just kind of clicked. So I stole it.”
Released under the name Mr Jukes earlier this year, the record may seem like a drastic rebrand for the former indie darling, but jazz and soul have been a part of Jack’s life since he first picked up a guitar. Immersing himself even more in the jazz world, his discovery of Japanese kissatens allowed him to find the perfect records to fuel his inspiration, and the week before we meet marks his return from his 15th collection expanding trip.
What these trips have inspired is Jack’s ultimate expression of artistic freedom. Releasing a beautiful and bold debut album, full of striking samples and utterly hypnotic melodies, Steadman was able to push away from the confines of crafting indie bangers for a four-piece band, instead creating a stunning record that truly transports you into a different world.
Embarking on what he refers to as “the second stage of this whole thing”, a UK tour starts next month. Deconstructing the album, the live set will feature nine jazz musicians handpicked by Jack from around London, taking the record back to its roots, recreating God First sans samples.
Clearly the beginning of something great, I’ve already cleared space on the wall for the next record cover….
Bombay Bicycle Club went on hiatus nearly two years ago, how did it feel when that happened?
The first couple of months were quite weird, you suddenly had free time for the first time in, like, seven years. It’s the reason we went on hiatus really. It wasn’t because of us falling out or because we weren’t into the same music, which we always were, it’s just that we didn’t know anything else. The grass will always be greener and we all had these things that we wanted to do and we just set aside the time to do it basically. So my album is that for me, Jamie went back to school, Ed wanted to make his own record as well. It felt surreal, but it was the right thing to do.
And you went travelling straight after?
I did. I had this trip planned for a very, very long time and it was to go on the Trans-Siberian Railway to China and then take a freight ship to Canada.
Were you not scared about a Titanic situation?
They’re very safe. I think I wanted to romanticise it a bit to make it seem a bit less safe to my friends, but I think it’s totally cool. I don’t know, I always wanted to just have that kind of isolation and it’s the complete opposite of being on a tourbus surrounded by ten people for months on end. I really value my own space. I write music by myself in a studio and I thought it would be a really inspiring thing to do. But also just to clear my head.
So was Mr Jukes born on this trip?
I guess the idea for the name was; the idea for this project has been around for a long time. The music I was making in my spare time on the tourbus and just on the side of Bombay Bicycle Club pretty much sounds like this, so it’s been around for ages. But, yeah, it was on the ship that I was reading a book called Typhoon, a Joseph Conrad book, about a group of sailors in the turn of the century, I think, and the second-in-command is called Jukes and he keeps it cool during the whole thing while they’re descending into chaos.
You’ve said that you’ve always been into the music that you’re making as Mr Jukes, and I’ve seen that in the Bombay video for “Always Like This” you’re wearing a Hank Mobley T-shirt…
Exactly! It was the first video we ever shot so I think we’re like 16 or 17 and I forgot about that T-shirt, but it was good timing because I saw it just before this record came out and I was so aware of how many people were gonna be like “What the hell is this? What’s this new music that Jack’s making? Is he hopping on a bandwagon?” – because the UK jazz scene is thriving right now – so it’s like, “There you go, that’s the proof!” It’s been in my blood for ages. It was there for a long time and I think I always had a frustration, as much as I loved Bombay Bicycle Club, you know, I loved the music and I had a great time doing it, I always had that frustration of this other side of me that wasn’t getting to be put out there and it feels great to just finally be able to do that. Towards the end of Bombay, I wasn’t really listening to guitar music or anything like that, I was listening to funk and soul and jazz and gospel. I was trying to get that into Bombay in the way of samples and our last record was fairly eclectic in that sense, but you still had to write music to fit that framework of guitars and basses and my own voice, that’s a limitation, whereas this record was like whatever voice I wanted, I could just go and find.
What draws you towards jazz and soul?
It’s just what I started off playing when I was learning music. I was a bassist and that was how I learnt about music. I liked how free it was, how it was just about improvisation and the purest form of expression. For me there’s something quite deep and spiritual about jazz. It’s not exclusive to jazz at all, I think any band if they play live especially and you get in the moment, it’ll be the same feeling. I don’t wanna be one of those lofty, exclusive “Oh it’s only jazz that has this” kind of people, it’s a total lie, but you can definitely get further into that improvisation with that kind of music.
“I always had that frustration of this other side of me that wasn’t getting to be put out there, and it feels great to just finally be able to do that.”
A big part of the record is influenced by visiting jazz kissatens in Japan, is that right?
We played a show in Japan in Bombay and I immediately fell in love with it and went back a year later by myself. Someone had told me about a blog that this American was writing called Tokyo Jazz Site and it was a good collection of these places, but as soon as I stepped into one, and it was just a random one I chose near my hotel, I sat and had a beer and just spent a whole afternoon there and felt like I’d found my happy place. I know that sometimes happens to people in their lives, you just know that you’ve found the place where you wanna be forever and so I went back every year, and I still have since then. I just got back last week and it was my 15th time there.
Are you loyal to one or do you play the jazz kissaten field?
I was loyal to one for like eight years and then at the beginning of the summer me and my friend went to shoot this video and we went back and we felt like complete hipsters but it had changed a lot and we were like “Oh it’s not the same as when we first went.” He was playing like 90s hip hop and it was a bunch of Scandinavian hipsters in there rocking out and I used to go there when it was just really, really empty and you played jazz and you could just sit there. What appealed to me about these places was that you could just hear the music because in bars in London it’s often just background music or so loud that you want them to turn it down, so this place has kind of turned into one of them.
Anyway, the story is the records used to be really expensive in Japan and you could only afford to listen to them communally and it was sort of a very shared experience and each place would kind of have its own little vibe to it because it’s just a single owner and their space. It’s another thing that I think is unique to them compared to places here, where I haven’t really been to a bar that’s independent, that’s owned by a single person that represents their aesthetic and their style, it’s always usually a company that hires bartenders and it’s quite generic. You get cafes that can be very unique, but in terms of a place that stays open late and you’re just chatting to the one person that’s there every night. These people, they started them in their 20s and they’re in their 80s now and they’re still there every night and the stories they must have… In the 60s and 70s these jazz legends were coming to drink in their bars and they’ve got photos on the wall. If you’re a fan of the music it’s like the Mecca, I think, in the world.
What else inspired the record?
It’s quite a loose project really. I’d love to be able to explain the grand vision for it and the common thread but it was just me like finally being free to do whatever I want, which almost does lead itself to being a common thread. I had that set of guidelines for so long with the band that to finally free yourself with that, I didn’t want to think of a theme. It was just me sitting in my studio sampling a lot of records that I’d brought home from Japan or just bought over here and just seeing what clicks. And rather than me saying “Okay, let’s add the guitar and let’s get me to sing on it” I could be like “What would be the perfect little final piece to this puzzle? Maybe it’s Charles Bradley? Maybe it’s this other singer? Maybe it’s this thing over there?”.
How did you go about recruiting the other artists that feature?
Luckily I have quite a well established label, because I’m not the type of person who is able to schmooze people, which I think a lot of these collaborations happen via, especially if you live in, well I guess I live in a big city, but I’m thinking like LA, where people go to parties and they’re like “You have to check out my music, I’ve got to get you on my record” and they drive home in their Prius like “Yeah, I should check out that guy.” So, luckily I could just sort of not have to put myself out there like that and just rely on the music. The label would send them the track and these people were up for it just from hearing the MP3 so it was nice because it didn’t take any sort of schmoozing or persuasion, it was just a really pure just “I really like this track, so lets do it.”
And how does it feel to be embarking on a project without the band?
I thought it was gonna be scary but it isn’t. I’ve only got positives from it, which is that there’s no more comprises, and I don’t mean musically, because sometimes musically I think that compromises are a good thing, like you should always have that back and forth with a producer at least. I don’t trust people to make records completely by themselves. But in terms of the look of everything and how I interact with people on social media or whatever, it’s finally just me. Especially when you’re really close with your band, you’re almost embarrassed to be really heart on sleeve, because your friends are just like “What are you doing? That’s lame.” But yeah, if someone asks what you want the artwork or the music video to be like, it’s finally something that you love… I feel like all my videos have just been spacey as fuck and really psychedelic.
Do you have a fave song from the record?
Probably “Angels”, the one with BJ the Chicago Kid, which is the one we released first, just because I feel like it sums up the whole record and it’s like the perfect showcase of what I kind of want to be doing right now. It’s got this incredible sample on it, like loads of horns, but then it suddenly goes into outerspace on the second half, it goes like super weird and trippy. Yeah, that’s kind of just what I wanna be doing right now.
And so finally, what’s next?
We’re going on tour. It’s like the second stage of this whole thing because the album is so electronic and so many samples and, even though it’s influenced by things that are improvised, it’s all set in stone. And so I’ve just got this nine-piece band which I’ve sourced from all over London from the jazz scene. I kind of handpicked everyone, so I’m really excited. Just taking the record apart and seeing what happens, it’s gonna be a whole new thing, and we’re not gonna use any of the stuff from the record when we play live, it’s all just gonna be new. You know what I mean? In a sense that sometimes you go see a band and they’ve put like the sounds from the record onto the drum machine. We’ve just got live instruments. I can’t wait. And then after that I just wanna make another Mr Jukes record. I’m already thinking about it…