Alex James: The Great Escape

Jamming with Joly and Berkoff
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I went to see Steven Berkoff about turning one of his plays, East, into a new kind of musical. I've always been mesmerised by musicals, I'm sure I must be gay. East was written in the late Seventies and has played around the world ever since. It's brilliant. I took a pile of Meat Loaf, Black Sabbath and Maximum Punk CDs with me, round to his house. We had a blast of Bat Out of Hell in the sunshine and smoked a few roll-ups. It was looking good. It felt good. The more I talked about what it might sound like, the larger the piano that was in the corner became. Soon it seemed to be taking up the whole room, so I said, "Maybe we should have a go with the piano?" My man was all for it. I noticed some sheet music on the stool as I pulled it out. It was very advanced, possibly it was Schubert, but it definitely wasn't "1001 Hit Songs for Buskers" or anything like at my house. I pulled the cover off the piano.

It said Steinway & Sons on the front. I forgot everything I've ever known as I opened the lid of that piano. I get freaked out by expensive instruments. I've never spent more than a thousand pounds on a guitar. They're like ball-point pens, electric guitars, the mass-produced ones are very well designed. You never need a better electric guitar, all you ever need is a better idea or another distortion pedal. But pianos are different and it was very nerve-racking to be at the buttons of 50 grand's worth of Steinway. I did a C major. It sounded amazing. He started rapping the script and I went up to an E-flat major. I'm sure no one's ever played those two chords next to each other on that piano, it's too rude. It was wicked, though. We were jammin'.

I've got a show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in March. And I went to see them next. My first thought was to stick a massive choir in there and turn the lights out, but when I got there and had a look at the Paul McCarthy show, I realised that I could do much better. Ivona, the urbane head of the gallery, explained that I could do whatever I wanted. She was standing in front of a vast canvas of a dismembered corpse, which had the words "Cut off peanos" scrawled on it in very mad crayon. I saw what she meant.

I'm in a pop group called Wigwam. It's taken a while but it's starting to get quite exciting. Dom Joly is directing the video and we meet in pubs around Cirencester to discuss it. Making films is great fun. I'm always dazzled by anyone who can listen to a song and dream up an idea for a video. Talented young directors tend to start their careers making pop videos, because the budgets are quite small, but they get a chance to express themselves. The good directors move on to commercials, which cost about 10 times as much to make, and if all goes well they end up making feature films.

Dom has got us dressing up as cats in this video. It's going to be good. I've been chasing around trying to get a costume. I tried on a fat ginger tom at the National Theatre costume hire shop in Kennington, but it was too small. I've got the Puss in Boots costume from the village pantomime on hold, but I'm going to try my luck at Angels on Shaftesbury Avenue. If you're in Soho, watch out for giant cats.

alexjames@independent.co.uk

Comments