Jamie T: ‘I hated education. I think public schools should be banned’

The indie-rock troubadour who soundtracked the urban sprawl of the Noughties has returned with an auspicious comeback album. He spars with Mark Beaumont on British identity, the war in Ukraine, private education, and how this former outlander finally found his tribe

Friday 22 July 2022 10:27 BST
Jamie T: ‘You shouldn’t pay for education'
Jamie T: ‘You shouldn’t pay for education' (Reuben Bastienne-Lewis)

Jamie T is telling me to f*** off. We’re discussing his five-year absence from music, and at first he mulls it over in an introverted mumble. “You go quiet for ages, you gamble everything,” he says, head lowered over a pub table. “Because if you go quiet for ages, then you release something that’s s***, or worse, something that just falls between the cracks – that's a lot of pressure. A lot of pressure on a single human being.”

In an instant, his eyes widen, full of fight-back fury. Because when Jamie T turns on you, it’s like a horror movie jump scare. It’s a wolf cornered, Gollum un-ringed, the devil inside showing its face mid-exorcism. “So when you say do I enjoy the mystique? I’d say f*** off. Yeah? F*** off.”

Ever since “Sheila”’s melodic parade of drunks, dealers and addicts established him as the most renowned rap-punk troubadour of the urban sprawl back in 2006, the now 36-year-old Jamie Treays has developed something of a reputation for being prickly with the press. How much of his sporadic antagonism is an affectation, a defence mechanism or simply toying with interviewers for sport is hard to quantify. A decade since our last beer together, Treays greets me warmly outside a Covent Garden pub, more bearded and bespectacled than when last we met, but his endearing nose-wheeze of a laugh still ever-ready. Taking a corner table, we small-talk about his ambitions to play in South America and his recent live comeback, warming up at west London’s Subterania for 600 fans before headlining the John Peel stage at Glastonbury, opposite Paul McCartney. If Macca was there as the boomers’ generational icon, Treays held a similar position for the millennials onsite. His electric, motormouth bursts of rabid street poetry and bare-boned urban ballads, incorporating punk, soul, folk and rap, epitomised the fast-evolving excitement of the early streaming era; in the indie-pop sphere, tracks such as “Calm Down Dearest” and “Sticks and Stones” have become revered modern texts.

“It was only the second gig we’ve done in five, six years,” he says. “The second gig, going to headline the John Peel stage, that’s insane, it’s a complete whirlwind. It was just a bit of a shock to the system. I was quite worried about how we were gonna pull a crowd at all but the tent was rammed out. I was saying to my friend the other day, theoretically, I’ve played on the same bill as one of The Beatles.” Between the stage fright and the relief, though, he didn’t hang around to celebrate. “I went home after that. When I play gigs, especially ones that are high pressure, I’m such a bag of nerves I don’t want to hang around beforehand, and afterwards I'm so happy if it goes well that I just want to get out before I make a fool of myself.”

But when talk turns to the stresses of returning, six years on from his acclaimed fourth album Trick, particularly for an artist whose 2007 debut Panic Prevention outlined his deep-rooted anxiety issues, he begins to snap back. Over the next hour he’ll shift between amenable and combative, leaping by turns for the jocular and the jugular. Trigger topics include politics, British identity, class and the pandemic (“a terrible time, probably the worst time of my life, but I'm not gonna talk about it…I’m glad it’s over”). He’ll wind up the tension with a barbed retort to a question he doesn’t like: “I’m alternative? How f***ing dare you, you f***ing b****!”. Or: “What do I make of [Partygate]? I don’t f**ing give a s***… Don’t talk to me about stupid s*** like that”. Then he’ll defuse it with a belly laugh or good-natured about-turn – “I’m only joking, it’s an interview!”, “I’m just parrying with you, this is my job man” – and ask for the question again.

On the topic of the mystique that develops during lengthy breaks, for instance, he warms. “I got brought up in a way, with my management company and s***, to not do anything until you think it’s really good,” he explains. “So don’t put anything f***ing blasé out just to keep your momentum going, stop and take the time and release something that’s good. That does come with a stipulation, a point that I didn't read in the small print: you’re gonna spend quite a lot of time with people going, ‘What are you doing?’… I'd much rather have my life where I was releasing music on a regular basis. The mystique thing is a fallacy. It’s actually very hard to deal with not releasing records as often as other people. There’s nothing I enjoy about that at all.”

If Treays is worried about his fifth album, The Theory of Whatever, falling through the cracks, his fears are misplaced. Just as he returned after a previous five-year hiatus with 2014’s inspired and exploratory Carry on the Grudge, this is an auspicious and wide-ranging comeback, taking in hallucinogenic ballroom ballads (“Thank You”), barrelling pop songs that sound like The Smiths going emo (“A Million and One Ways to Die”) and gothic synth raps akin to The Cure writing their distorted version of a John Hughes movie theme (“’90s Cars”).

Thematically, it bristles with Treays’s customary tales of love and youth broken on the grinding wheels of modern life – the heartbreaks, the drink and drugs, the metropolitan dislocation. In framing such tales, though, Treays casts an even broader eye across the span of society in 2022 than masterpieces like Panic Prevention and Kings And Queens did more than 10 years ago. He peeks through the designer window blinds of “St George Wharf Tower” and the “oligarch’s houses” of “Keying Lamborghinis” as astutely as he dredges the gutter on “British Hell”, an Arctic Monkeys-like surf-rock portrait of the violence and brutality of street life, its chorus borrowed from The Misfits’ “London Dungeon” and sung by ex-Gallows frontman Frank Carter.

At the phrase “urban deprivation”, though, Treays rankles. “That’s not what I’ve been writing about at all. Just because I’m talking about people getting drunk doesn’t mean I’m talking about urban degradation and decay. I’m an upper middle-class boy from f***ing Wimbledon, I’m not talking about urban degradation. I’m talking about people going out and getting p***ed. If I want to talk about urban deprivation I’d do it in ‘British Hell’, which I f***ing did.”

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So there are songs about urban deprivation. “Well no,” he protests. “What I’m talking about in that song is I’m talking about… I’m talking about…alright, you’re right. Hahaha! You got me! One-nil.”

It’s a song that seems to be about the disintegration of British society. Has Brexit divided us to that extent? “No, Brexit made us divided [but] since Covid I think we are more unified now than we were before. Before that there was a lot of heavy s*** going on. These people were changing the country and f***ing s*** up. Do you remember how much everyone was at each other’s [throats]? Do you remember how bad it was when that s*** was going on? Covid came about and… I think the country is more solidified now than it was before Brexit, because everyone is in trouble now. Brexit brought factions between us all and people fighting, factions between everyone, old things started to rehash. And sadly, some of these things were just so misplaced, so unfortunately misplaced. People got f***ed over to f***…The people who voted for that were not all f***ing racists. They were f***ing normal people who were struggling in places that were ignored. And they were led by a f***ing dude who only wanted a f***ing referendum because he couldn’t keep his f***ing party in f***ing line, and then we all got f***ed by it.”

Treays, by the way, says “f***” a lot. Particularly when riled. Head lowered, voice simmering with anger, he side-tracks into an impassioned diatribe against “f***ing idiot” David Cameron and “f***ing lunatic” Tony Blair, punctuated by pint-rattling thumps of the table. “Those two people don't deserve the respect of this country…That is why David Cameron has disappeared, because he knows he doesn’t deserve our respect. He gambled the nation on the fact he couldn’t keep his party in line. That is what you call a fassyhole.”

Treays was a new recruit to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn (“There was a moment of feeling like it may have happened, there was a flutter there”). Unsurprisingly, then, he's no fan of Boris Johnson either. “I think the fact that he wrote two essays, one against Brexit and one for Brexit, proved the point that the man just wanted power,” he argues (we’re speaking on the eve of Johnson’s resignation). “He used Brexit to get into power and I think he had no intention of making the country better, at all. Next question.”

Is there a British identity now? Treays thinks not, unless Gogglebox or Love Island is on. “There’s an identity in solidarity…Those are the very rare occasions when we all feel we identify together. That is important, that’s what we’ve lost a bit. Everyone feeling solidarity together. The Ukraine conflict has somehow galvanised a lot of people. My mother and father are taking Ukrainian refugees in. It galvanised a lot of love in the country, a lot of hope in the country. I think we miss each other as a nation. We miss each other as classes, we miss each other as southerners and northerners and Midlanders. Everyone is yearning to connect and the only thing we have are these small little moments on the telly or the internet. There’s a disconnect and any moment – the Jubilee and stuff like that – is so important.”

So, is the cost of living crisis going to exacerbate the class divide, with the rich able to soak it up and the poor slipping further behind? “And then you’ve got the middle class…” Who are struggling too, I point out. Treays balks at the interruption. “Well, I must be completely out of that. I’m getting a chopper in a minute out of here, you f***ing d***. Don’t talk to me like I don’t f***ing know about this s***. Of course, it’s everywhere. Don’t try and talk to me about what I think about the cost of living crisis. I look after my neighbours, yeah? I look after my f***ing neighbours and my neighbours look after me. I’m not gonna talk to you about how that goes, but I’ve walked into people’s houses, my neighbours, and looked after them at bad moments. Don’t f***ing talk to me like I’m some f***ing Rolling Stone and I’m going to Paris.”

A sore point, perhaps, class. In his earliest years in music, Treays existed in a strange societal hinterland. He was attending public school by day and hanging around in car park boozers with teen punk tearaways by night, or singing songs about them in pubs and clubs.

My mother and father are f***ing great human beings who worked their a***s off to send me where I [went] and I will f***ing fight anyone on the f***ing street who wants to have a problem with that. I will fight you on the street

Jamie T

“I hated education,” he says. “I think [public schools] should be banned. I’m proud of my mum and dad, I’m proud of the fact that they sent me there – I’m as dumb as f***ing pigs***, man. I’m dumb as pigs***…I didn’t like it, it wasn’t a terribly nice experience for me, I just didn’t like education. I do not believe in private schools because I don’t believe anyone should be educated any different from anyone else. I don’t believe that you should pay for education. My mother and father are f***ing great human beings who worked their a***s off to send me where I [went] and I will f***ing fight anyone on the f***ing street who wants to have a problem with that. I will fight you on the street.”

Within seconds, Treays has rolled down his metaphorical sleeves and is wistfully wishing to be Paul Heaton, “the best songwriter of all f***ing time”, guffawing like the best of pub mates. It’s the sort of lovable mood swing his new album pulls off too. Several songs toward the end of the record tackle feelings of aimlessness and confusion: “Between the Rocks” (not a crack reference, Treays is at pains to point out) and “Talk is Cheap”, an amorphous acoustic confessional about feeling “rudderless” in a post-break-up malaise characterised by “dirty sleeping round” and “doing too much coke”. They are the result of “a lost period” when Treays “didn’t know quite what I was doing”, but pulled through creatively thanks to the support of a circle of musician friends including Carter, Carl Barat of The Libertines, Yannis Philippakis of Foals, Matt Maltese, ex-Maccabees Orlando Weeks and Hugo White, Audio Bullys’ Tom Dinsdale, Willie J Healy and The Prodigy’s Olly Burden, many of whom ended up on the album. Surprisingly, rather than old acquaintances from the Noughties, these are mostly new friends, drawn into Treays’ orbit as he worked on as many as 200 demos over the past five years.

“I’m a singular singer-songwriter and it can be quite a lonely place,” he says. “I don’t have a band so it’s lonely. But through the kindness and love of these people being kind to me, I’ve managed to envelop a lot of f***ing people in my world, and it's really wonderful. From me annoying them with tracks every day or whatever, annoying them with demos, I've managed to actually build a little community around me of these bods that I love. I love all of their music and they’re all constant inspirations. When I played the gig the other day, they all came down. It’s mad seeing them all in a room together, all posturing off and peacocking each other. I was an outlander before, but I suppose I always wanted to be in a band, I always wanted mates [and] I found my tribe years later. It’s just wonderful.”

“Sabre Tooth” transposes the same sense of disorientation to a fictional victim of the migrant crisis. “It’s about refugees going from f***ing Syria and coming up to Calais, and by the time they get to Calais everyone’s fronting them off and saying ‘No, f*** off’” – Treays slams the table – “and they have to go back to their f***ing home after you’ve smashed the s*** out of it. We are responsible for these people migrating across the place and we are ethnically cleansing people by allowing wars to go on and let people be in situations where they are transient and not being protected, and that is awful.”

Then, with a mischievous twist, the album ends on “50,000 Unmarked Bullets”, the imagined romantic turmoil of Kim Jong-un. Seriously.

Treays grins broadly. “I wanted to make you feel sorry for Kim Jong-un, yeah? The whole idea of the song was ‘my father was a despot so I had to be a despot’. It was like a musical – haha! – trying to make you feel sorry for somebody that’s a dictator. I envisioned his life at the baccalaureate school in Switzerland, which he went to, I looked it all up. And I wrote a song about him falling in love with a girl and then having to be like, ‘Oh, I have to go home because my father’s dying and I have to kill my uncles’.” The song imagines Jong-un being tried in The Hague, but more worried about his girlfriend reading the transcripts from every bugged room he’s ever been in. “He’s more concerned with what his girlfriend thinks about him, and the transcripts never quite show the love they felt.”

Despite having weathered one half-decade break from releasing music before, Treays admits to having no confidence that anybody would be listening after such a long time away trying to write “something that makes me want to stand up for myself – not be shy, not be a wallflower. Something that I believe in.” As conversation turns to the struggles faced by alternative acts in the streaming age, he even starts numbering his own days in music.

“I got into this f***ing game when I was 19 years old,” he says. “I wrote ‘Sheila’ when I was 17 years old. I’m 36 years old, I’m still on the same f***ing record deal. This is my last album for the record label. How many years is that?” Seventeen years, I calculate. “I’ve been on the same contract for 17 years of my life. I’m an old man. In indie music, you have to imagine what it’s like for me.”

Jamie T performing in Edinburgh, 2007 (Steve Black/Shutterstock)

Look at The National… “I don’t give a f***, I’m not in The National. I’m old. I’m nearly done, man.”

You’re going to give up? “I’m not giving up. I’ve done pretty well for myself, man. I’m just being real about where I am at, trying to be understanding of where I am in things. I don’t know how long I’m gonna carry on with it because I don’t know how long I’m gonna write any music that’s gonna be good.”

I suggest, then, that Treays is driven by the artistic imperative, that he’ll keep going for as long as he believes he’s making great records. Again, he balks. “No, it’s to do with the charts and s***. It’s to do with money, you d***head. It’s to do with money. I want to be able to pay my mortgage, of course it’s to do with money, you idiot. Of course it is. Because otherwise I need to get another job, because I have to pay my mortgage, because I don’t want to lose my f***ing house. Don’t treat me any different to anyone who has a f***ing job because I pay a f***ing mortgage and it’s the same for anyone.”

A conversation, we decide, for another pub, another time. He needn’t worry though: on the evidence of The Theory of Whatever, the Treays dynasty is secured for at least another half-decade.

‘The Theory of Whatever’ is out now

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