Jamie T: 'I love living out of a bag'
The hip-hop poet is ready to take to the road after relishing some home comforts
Friday 25 September 2009
Are you looking for the rock star?" the barman asks, as I walk into a Notting Hill pub seconds ahead of Jamie Treays, the Top 10 chart regular who least deserves the description. It was the 23-year-old's first hit as Jamie T, "Sheila", which announced that he belonged to a lineage of English realist pop alongside not only the Streets' Mike Skinner, but 1970s antecedents such as Ian Dury, the Jam and the Specials whose records he knew with precocious intimacy. "Sheila goes out with her mate Stella/ It gets poured all over her fella..." was a couplet for the times. On his first, Mercury-nominated album, Panic Prevention (2007), he was a rapper-rhymer more than singer-songwriter, adding to his breezy freshness. Lily Allen appeared on a B-side, and a new pop world seemed theirs for the taking.
Panic Prevention's follow-up, Kings & Queens, hit number two in the charts, showing that his young public still love him. But Treays is the same unaffected, motormouth music fan he was when I bumped into him when he was unknown at a London gig. Any guard he has drops long before the first pint has been sunk, as we sit outside so he can light up. His crooked-toothed grin and slurred voice, so like the London whine of the Clash's Mick Jones on record, range freely across a life still in some ways unchanged.
A year ago, it might have been a different story. Burnt out after 18 months touring Panic Prevention's 12 songs, he vanished back to the neighbourhood where he's always lived, Wimbledon. He'd just moved out of his parents' house. "I came back to boxes it took me years to unpack," he remembers. "I was sitting in limbo for quite a long time. I stopped writing music, because I didn't wanna do it. I decided there wasn't any point." His label Virgin Records knocked on his door for a while, wondering when he'd be back. He ignored them till they went away. "The album took a long time to make, I'm aware of that. I'm not sure if it was two years, two-and-a-half? I have these visions that I stopped writing, but really I wrote bits and pieces all the time. I think that's why I don't remember writing this album, because I wrote it without thinking purposefully. I realised the reason my songs sound the way they do, is because I don't know what I'm doing. I've never had a plan. I always find myself going back to my gut. The point is moving forward, or you'll drive yourself mad."
The way he describes returning to Wimbledon sounds deeply comforting. "I hadn't seen my friends for a year. It was lovely seeing them, and it was, 'Hey, where you been man?', just the same and normal." It sounds almost like a dream – walking into his favourite old pub and being greeted by his teenage mates, as if his three years of stardom and success never happened at all. "It's a bit like that, yeah. A double-life. It's always comforting and important to know people are there. If I'm away on tour somewhere, I know exactly where that person is now..." Has he ever been disappointed, by someone treating him as if he has changed? "Not that I want to talk about. It has happened, once."
Whatever Virgin thinks, Treays anyway rejects the idea that he retreated into his old life. "It's not a case of me hiding there. It's not like I'm driving a Rolls-Royce. It's not this big deal, of going away and having to come back to reality. To hell with reality – go crazy. I have no self-preservation, or wanting to live in the real world."
Kings & Queens' cast and turns of phrase are as colourful as before – "women from Wisconsin swimming in linen with another that's not their partner", and Katie whose "drunker than the bar". If the lover who swings a shotgun on Treays for straying in "Emily's Heart" shows his ease with fiction, the songs' life-hungry energy is real. Just as "Sheila" was inspired by his friend Holly, this time too, new experiences fed him. His undisguised middle-class background (including a spell at the same public school as Tim Henman) has always been the haven from which he's gone adventuring. "Wimbledon's a quiet suburban place where middle-class people bring up their children," he admits. "It's lovely as a kid to have the quietness. Then go into the city for the life."
Treays started haunting London's West End clubs with his first band when he was 15. Andy Lowe, manager of the influential 12 Bar Club, off the city's one-time Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, remembers his talent was instantly obvious. Treays recalls his teenage scuffling in the Big Smoke fondly. "We wanted to play shows, and were really into music, and couldn't get in anywhere. There's a night that's still running at the 12 Bar called London Calling that was playing the music we were into – you know, Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, the Clash. We played our first gig there, when we were 15. The guy who ran it, Barney, was really lovely, an old punk rock guy. Into giving people chances. We'd go there and run around like kids, and he'd look after us."
They were the "mutton dressed as lamb, a fan of bands like the Jam Jam Jam Jam" eulogised on recent single "Sticks'n'Stones". The suburban tearaways sometimes needed help. "Denmark Street has a tendency, after dark, to become quite a different place. It can be quite dangerous. Two of my band-mates got nearly got jacked in its back-alley by this crackhead. And Barney came out, and read him a long poem. I have really fond memories of being allowed to do whatever we want – but with adult supervision. I still go there every now and again."
"Sticks'n'Stones" also describes a likely lad who "when there's no one left to fight... don't shine so bright." It's based on a couple of leary old friends. Self-described "featherweight" Treays, though, isn't the rampaging type. "I don't get into any trouble," he laughs. "I know my limitations! I know my place in town. No, I'm not a firestarter..."
The photo of Treays's old bedroom on Panic Prevention's cover shows him hemmed in by walls plastered with photos, stray LPs and their sleeves. Ian Dury and the Clash's faces stare back at him, icons of a voracious self-education. The young man who then seemed equally at home with hip-hop's contemporary urgency has now moved deeper into the past. He has consciously become a writer, not a rhymer, in the last year. His every waking moment seems to be soundtracked by his 1970s forebears. "I went through this stage of coming home from the studio, and putting Springsteen's Nebraska on from start to finish, quietening down, late at night. And I've really got into Van Morrison's "Moondance" when I'm in the shower. And I bought a load of Tom Waits a few weeks ago. The guy's a nightmare. Who gets harder sounding with age, except him? A mate played me [Charles] Bukowski reading the other day, with Tom Waits on guitar. It's a beautiful tune that mentions pleurisy, which I've had. It's a medieval disease that no one gets any more," he adds proudly. A few more years carousing in Soho and you'll get gout, I suggest. This old-fashioned Wimbledon urchin cackles delightedly.
Does he ever spend time in silence, I wonder? Left only with what's in his head? "I don't really, to be honest. It's a hard thing to do. I tend to never be in silence, until after gigs. Then I need it for about an hour. Me and my brother are the same, we can't go to sleep without the TV on. I used to go turn it off for him."
Treays's media-saturated world is hardly unique. But the boy whose teenage panic attacks inspired his first album title has found there are side-effects to working on his computer into the night, and the endless movies he uses more even than music now to relax. "I pick at anything. There Will Be Blood, romcoms, whatever. I have these terrible nightmares, though. Because I watch them in bed then fall asleep. What I hate more than anything is the loop music in the DVD chapter-selection. It's horrible going round my head, especially if I'm hungover. You know like at the end of Sgt. Pepper?" He imitates the sped-up second of chat on its inner groove. "I get something like that caught in my head, but off kilter and looping for hours, out of time, when I'm awake. It sends chills down my spine. Like nails on blackboard. Takes a while to go away. And I also have a problem that if I play something on my guitar, I have to hit the last note – the returning note – before I leave it. Otherwise, I don't feel right." He catches his chat spinning out of control, but hardly cares. "Enough about my mental illnesses!"
Treays heads out on his biggest UK tour next month. His Panic Prevention exertions left him feeling like a "Vietnam veteran", he recently claimed. "Bit of an over-statement," he concedes. "But I was back in civvies. No ticker-tape parade..." No self-preservation orders have been slapped on him, to prevent last time's burnout. "I enjoy being on tour, so it wasn't ever a problem. I love living out of a bag, it's something I've become quite used to. I like the feeling that, should I wish to, I can get in a taxi, and go anywhere. The only reason I feel responsibility not to, at all, is my band, who are my friends. That's the only pressure you have, is to be kind to your friends. That's the pressure of life anyway. The pressure of music isn't much."
It all comes back, in the end, to those old friends in the south London suburb that Treays never left: his source of songs, health and happiness. His manic adventures in rock genuinely seem to pale, next to them.
"You couldn't overstate how important they are to everything I do," he readily admits. "My best friend's from Northolt [in far-off west London]. But he now lives in Earlsfield [on Wimbledon's edge], which is good. It's good for me. You come home, someone slaps you over the head. 'You still think you're a musician, do you. When are you going to get a real job?'"
'Kings & Queens' is out now on Virgin Records. Jamie T's UK tour starts at Bristol Academy on 1 October ( www.jamie-t.com )
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