James Righton’s new stage set-up provides clues to his latest sonic chapter: wearing a pristine white suit, he positions himself behind a matching achromatic Yamaha CP-70 as a custom-made floor-length folded mirror reflects the musician back at himself from various angles. It’s an arrangement with meaning, symbolising the stripped-back, introspective nature of his new record, The Performer – Righton’s first body of work released under his own name.
“It felt like this album was the first time I wasn’t making a record I wasn’t hiding in,” Righton explains of his man in white. “I wanted it to be a far more direct record, so no hiding behind reverb or delays, keep it really dry, one vocal mainly, real clarity of sound.” Where his time in The Klaxons saw him bear the Day-Glo flag of new rave, his 2016 solo record under the moniker, Shock Machine, took a maximalist approach to cosmic bliss. Both gave Righton a vessel to express himself while retaining a sense of distance. This time around, he’s tearing down those façades.
Having become a father four years ago, The Performer sees Righton change course both professionally and personally, questioning his evolving roles and exploring ideas of performance, identity and after-party ennui with newfound clarity and focus. Sonically, this mindset elevates Righton’s latest work to new depths as the musician digs into fantasy in order to make sense of reality. Luxuriously self-produced – with a cameo from the ever illustrious James Ford – Righton’s ornate songwriting come wrapped around elegant key-changes, subtle lounge nods and mirrored whimsy – all tied up in a shimmering Wurlitzer waltz. It’s a lesson in building a wall of sound with a minimalist groundwork.
Speaking with Righton below, conversation takes us from the burning opulence of the Fitzgerald’s Riviera to Frank Zappa’s sizzled Cosmic Debris. Such is the highly personal and introspective nature of Righton’s new music, each track, riff and tonal change has an anecdotal footnote that eludes to a deeper story.
Alex James Taylor: What made you want to create music under your own name for the first time?
James Righton: It felt like this album was the first time I wasn’t making a record I wasn’t hiding in. With the Shock Machine album, it felt very transitional, it felt like part of me was still in The Klaxons. I didn’t feel like I’d fully extricated myself from the band and I still had doubt over whether I could do it. I just felt that it wasn’t as certain to me what I wanted to be. As soon as I started doing interviews for the Shock Machine album I knew exactly what I wanted to do next. It was really clear: I wanted to make a far more direct record. Lyrically, I wanted it to be about my world – macro and micro – and sonically I wanted it to be a far more direct record, so no hiding behind reverb or delays, keep it really dry, one vocal mainly, real clarity of sound. I didn’t want anything competing for sonic space. I was having a lot of fun making the Shock Machine record and I do really like it still, but there were tracks where I was just putting another synth, another keyboard, another, another. I actually started listening to records that I go back to all the time, Abbey Road, for example, or Sound of Silver, and I was like, “Oh man, there’s so much power in the space.” The fact you can hear everything and it’s not all fighting for your attention. So with this record, I tried to do that by having the bass and drums really solid, and then, in the middle, lots of things coming in and out to make it interesting, but nothing fighting each other.
AJT: Do you think that you have to get to a certain point in your life before being able to properly expose yourself like this?
JR: 100 percent. There’s no way I could’ve done this at twenty, at twenty-two. You have to have lived a bit in order to expose yourself like this. I could have only made this record now, at thirty-six, definitely.
AJT: Did opening up in this way scare you at all, especially as you’re in quite a public relationship?
JR: When I did the Shock Machine record, yeah. I think I felt like I would be judged unfairly, so I hid behind a pseudonym. But I really couldn’t care less now [laughs], I’m a little bit more comfortable with everything. I have an incredibly supportive family. My wife’s family, for example, are all writers and actors, they make stuff, and some things work – as in people like it – and some don’t. Your job as a musician or actor or whatever, is just to make stuff and then it’s up to the public to decide if they want to buy it or go see it, or whatever. But you can’t control that, and if you chase that, it doesn’t bring you any kind of happiness really.
AJT: The Performer sees you question the role of the performer, the frontman, the musician. You’ve been in music for a hell of a long time, how has your relationship with performing and making music changed across this time? Have you had periods where you’ve fallen out of love with it?
JR: Massively. I think in anyone’s life, music means the most when they’re in their teenage years. That is the bit that sets the fire, where you’re like, “Fucking hell, I wanna be in The Strokes.” I was an obsessive Nirvana fan, and then heavy metal, etc. You know, you just get into things in an obsessive way, and you want to consume everything. That was me until my early twenties really. Then after the second Klaxons album, around that time I kind of switched off really. I didn’t really listen to much and fell out of love with music.
AJT: It was a weird time for British music then, it was a sort of transitional phase.
JR: Amoeba, the record store in LA, did these amazing psych-folk compilation records from the 60s, 70s…
AJT: Like Nuggets?
JR: Kind of like Nuggets but deeper than that. So it’d be like outsider folk psych music, like Dr Hook. Awesome stuff. I got big into that during that time. Then, I started to hate music, and that was the three or four years of making The Klaxons’ third album. I really didn’t want to listen to music, I was done. Then I got back into it when I started Shock Machine, I fell back in love with the records I loved growing up. So Abbey Road, Todd Rundgren, ELO. I went back to these records without any kind of shame that I wasn’t discovering something new, or that it wasn’t some out-there new act that only about four people knew about. It’s fine to listen to these records, it’s fine to listen to ABBA, because it’s fucking great. You shouldn’t always be the guy who’s always trying to educate with this new thing, the one who’s going to impress your friends. So I got back into music through that. Now I’m at a point where mainly I listen to the music my daughter wants to listen to.
AJT: How old is your daughter?
JR: She’s four-and-a-half.
AJT: What music is she suggesting then [laughs]?
JR: Well this is very funny because Third Man, Jack White’s label, released this incredible vinyl for kids where you can draw on it and it’s got a story, it’s awesome. That was her way in, so I taught her how to put it on the player, and she’d listen to this record that had like, Harry Nilsson’s The Point, with like Carole King songs, some Van Dyke Parks. It was like music for kids to respond to that wasn’t patronising and that adults liked as well. After that, she started picking out vinyl and wanting to know the stories behind them.
AJT: Wow, she’s started early.
JR: She’s started really early. She picked this Moondog record out once, Viking of Sixth Avenue, and on the cover is this Viking with a massive white beard on the streets of New York. My daughter’s like, “Daddy, who’s this?” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s Moondog.” “Who’s Moondog?” “Well he’s a kind of avant-garde musician from New York in the 50s and 60s…”, “Why’s he called Moondog?” And I’m like, shit, I don’t know, but you have to know when talking to a child [laughs]. So I read inside and I found out that it’s because he had a dog that howled at the moon. Before you know it, you’re like, this is really cool, because my daughter, without even hearing this, has a bit of a back story about the music and artist. Then she’d listen to it and like it or hate it. She’ll get in loops of just listening to one thing obsessively for like six months. Her favourite artists she asks for every day, are Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, The Beatles, Elvis… what’s the other one? I mean, those are pretty good. She loves Bjork too. Oh, this is the best one. So recently I got a new tour manager, we were talking about music and he brought up Frank Zappa. Now, I’ve never really got into Zappa because there’s so much, but he gave me the gateway album to Zappa, Apostrophe. So now I’m kind of in and I’m pretty fucking obsessed. It’s the most amazing album. Bonkers. Lyrically it’s a bit weird, but musically it’s on another fucking level. But my daughter is obsessed with this album, I just randomly played it in the car and she responded to it.
AJT: I love the idea of her bringing up the musical virtues of Frank Zappa in the school playground to a load of confused children.
JR: I know! She does it all the time. Her mates at school know like Frozen and all that, and my daughter’s chucking out Zappa records [laughs].
“I think in anyone’s life, music means the most when they’re in their teenage years. That is the bit that sets the fire, where you’re like, “Fucking hell, I wanna be in The Strokes.””
AJT: The role of fatherhood plays a pretty significant part in the record, how did having a child change your outlook and mindset? I imagine it must narrow everything to this one human being and your immediate family – suddenly that’s all that matters.
JR: It’s all that matters. It’s nice in the way that everything pales into insignificance compared to that one thing. But where you might worry about making an album, worry about the reviews…
AJT: Well, it sounds like she’s your harshest critic.
JR: [both laugh] She’s my harshest critic for a fucking start. I try not to worry, but when you have kids you constantly do. Like when she started school, I was so concerned that she wouldn’t have friends, that I kind of befriended all the other parents to try and encourage her. She didn’t need my help [laughs].
AJT: Literature has always played a vital role in your music, I wanted to chat about some of the texts that influenced this album. I’m a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan and I know that his relationship with Zelda was an inspiration for the record.
JR: I’m obsessed with that period of time in the South of France. There’s another amazing book by Somerset Maugham called The Moon and Sixpence, one of the greatest books ever written. My wife kind of got me into all this because she’s really into that period. I read Great Gatsby as a kid but never really got any deeper, but then I delved in and just kept going. The Moon and Sixpence is basically a retelling of Gauguin’s life from Maugham. Gauguin painted in his lifetime but didn’t get any kind of success, everyone around him knew he was special but he got no real acclaim. He ended up leaving France to live in Papua New Guinea, shut himself away and painted on caves. They’re amazing, you can still go see them. Also, it’s very controversial this book, but The Fountainhead by Rand, I thought it was one of the most incredible books ever. The far-right got hold of it and it became tainted, but I don’t read it like that, I read it as a book of not wavering and never compromising. The lead character is an architect who sticks to his design ethos no matter what, despite failure after failure. His life becomes worse and worse but eventually the world comes around to his way of seeing things.
AJT: It’s a similar theme to Gatsby, this laser-vision determination.
JR: Exactly, it’s like Gatsby. I always find that the best things are uncompromising. You can make things that are beige and OK, but like, really the good shit is singular.
AJT: Have you ever seen Fitzcarraldo?
AJT: When he’s so committed to making this opera house in the jungle and everyone thinks he’s mad.
JR: It’s funny because another group of people that are very Fitzcarraldo in their ways, is Soulwax, Dave [Dewaele] and Steph [Van Leuven], who I guess are my label bosses now, but firstly and foremost they’re really dear, old friends. They never do it easily. So I’m putting together a live show and it’s just me on my own. Every time I do a gig I could just hire a Nord piano and put the backing track on a laptop, but between me and them, we have to make it more than that. So I bought this CP-70, which is like the piano from the 70s that everyone used, and I’m singular to white, so I had to re-tolex it white. I got built a mirror and I’m then running the track from a tape machine. I’ve got a light show which is… basically I’m doing it as a massive loss [laughs]. A bit of them is rubbing off on me, because this is what they always do. They’ll like build a drum rig that costs more than they’ll ever make.
AJT: But that’s the thing, you get this one chance to be on stage and make an impression on an audience, I hate it when musicians don’t take that seriously.
JR: Why do it just OK?
“There’s no way I could’ve done this at twenty, at twenty-two. You have to have lived a bit in order to expose yourself like this. I could have only made this record now, at thirty-six, definitely.”
AJT: Exactly. Going back to literature, one of the tracks, Devil Is Loose, is heavily influenced by The Master and Margarita, can you tell me a bit about why that book stands out for you?
JR: Isn’t it amazing?
AJT: I’m actually reading it now and it’s amazing, but the Russian names…
JR: The Russian names. I had to go on Wikipedia a lot and just double-check. Again, my wife introduced me to that. About four years ago there was this amazing production of it at the Barbican by this theatre company called Complicité, which is Simon McBurney’s company. They did another one called The Encounter a few years ago, which was insane, it was using binaural heads, which is what Soulwax use. Basically, the audience wear headphones and the actors have these heads on stage, and wherever the actor is, it mimics that in the headphones. So like if they walk left to right, it makes the sound go that way, but not just left to right, like front, back, up, down. Really fucking amazing theatre company. I saw their production of The Master and Margarita and read the book and was just captivated, but it also resonated with the way the world is now. Obviously the book has been used in music before, like in Sympathy for the Devil, but it felt like there was this evil, dark spirit that was roaming Earth at the time I wrote the track, so it felt very timely.
AJT: Another key theme throughout the record is the use of this 70s sonic language, but specifically the Wurlitzer. What pulled you towards this sound?
JR: When I started writing the record I was living in Prague and in the studio I’d rented they had a Wurlitzer literally next to the desk I wrote at. So I’d go over to it and play the songs I was working on. I was just like, “Wow, this is so warm and interesting.” I’d go to it all the time. Maybe it’s because it’s got speakers in it, or the weight of the keys, or the size. When I got home to London I couldn’t stop thinking about Wurlitzers, so I managed to get one and since then it’s my go-to. I love sitting by it, stuff comes out. Certain keyboards you don’t want to go towards, but with that one, there’s magic in it.
The Performer is out on 20th March via DEEWEE.
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