Were there any specific sounds or ideas that you tried to imitate on the new record?
I definitely took inspiration from whatever's in my ear at the moment. Moving to Nashville, it's weird because obviously there's the country thing, but my wife and I got really into this station called 92Q, which is like the R&B station of Nashville. And man, they play some jams. They play Gap Band, Janet Jackson, stuff I hadn't heard for a while. And it made me want to delve into that side of my own output. Obviously everyone knows I'm super into Prince. But Jam & Lewis, that's the key, that's what links Janet Jackson to Prince. [After leaving Prince-affiliated band the Time in 1983, Jimmy "Jam" Harris and Terry Lewis found success producing Jackson and others.] That was the kind of glue for this record. You could say my hope for the record was that Jam & Lewis would hear it one day and be like, "Damn, this ain't bad." I tried to get my PR company to drop it off with [Jam and Lewis's production company] Flyte Tyme.
Living in Nashville and checking out that radio station has been a huge deal for me. Hearing Zapp and Mtume, Gap Band and Janet Jackson. Basically the things that a lot of people really hated about the '80s, I really liked. Like putting drum machines together with soul. After drum machines got invented, everyone wanted to use them. Prince was always the one who made anything seem possible. He put drum machines next to guitars next to synths next to real horns, real drums, and it was all just kind of a real melting pot with him. So that's kind of my core blueprint. And I think he got so much of that from listening to "Atomic Dog" and George Clinton. George Clinton of course, he's like, "Nothing's good 'til you play with it." So that's I try to write music in that spirit.
"She Needs Me"
Was there a conscious decision to make it really funky?
Yeah. Moving to Nashville, having all of this studio space, "space" being the operative word, I could put all my synths and drum machines and everything in one place, in one room for the first time in years. So just having an old drum machine just ready to go, making a beat on a Mac, you just get a little vibe, you know, you just kind of start thinking to yourself, "What about something on top of this?" Plus I was playing with a keyboard player called Mr. Jimmy [a.k.a. Matt Rowland of Nashville band Ghostfinger], he's kind of got that exuberant '80s touch. Big chords and real hot licks and loads of [imitates car revving]. He's kind of like a church player, that kind of church gospel feel over a lot of drum machine grooves. That's a lot of that R&B from the '80s.
How did you find Mr. Jimmy?
One of the reasons I moved to Nashville at all was through this guy Pat Sansone in Wilco. So Pat was the guy who said, "You should check Nashville out." It wasn't anywhere near the list of top cities for me and my wife to move to. And similarly, I asked for keyboard players, and he was like, "Oh shit this guy, I just saw him play in Chicago." I interviewed him on Skype and he was a real character. It's hard to find keyboard players who can really deliver that kind of energy.
Were most of your collaborators based in Nashville?
A lot of people came in from LA, actually. This guy Justin Stanley was the most important character, he's credited as co-producer, he really helped me mix the record. I feel like I took the record 90%, I was confident in the songs, I felt like I had something, but that last ten percent is a real struggle. So having someone like Justin come in and just be like, "That's cool, but let's drop that," I just needed that. A taskmaster to see the big picture a little bit.
And that's the cool thing about the house. We have a guest bedroom. The studio is really relaxed. It's also pretty powerful, got a lot of nice gear. So yeah, he was there, and then a couple of characters from Feist's touring band, I've known Feist for a while, a keyboard player and drummer, both people I've known, Brian LeBarton and Lucky Paul. "Don't You Love Me," is a lot to do with crosstalk between Mr. Jimmy and Brian LeBarton. And then I had Jeff Lorber playing on it, which was really random, he's like a big jazz fusion dude. Came from LA as well.
"Don't You Love Me"
Was a lot of the music arising from jams with these people?
Totally. "Don't You Love Me" came about totally like that. We had Lucky Paul in the basement playing the drums, I'm just upstairs with all the keyboards. Everything was plugged in and running through the board and being recorded. But I tended to also write a lot of tracks with a looper. Songs like "You Naked," I wrote that with the looper actually, it was a long sort of twenty-minute, thirty-minute rambling recordings that had these real nuggets of gold in them. And I would find them and chop them down and flesh them out, you know. That for me is a very natural way of working.There's plenty of ways it was written: funk loops, jamming, sitting outside with a guitar and building a song up.
How did you learn to sing?
I guess just through being into it as a kid. I definitely got a lot of reinforcement as a youth from my mum, and teachers. My mum was a singer, so there was a lot of singing around our house. She still sings in philharmonics and stuff.
I had a couple of lessons when I was really young before my voice broke. Just because they were trying to get me to sing these big church things, carols and kind of English shit. But it was never really very focused. Then my voice broke and it was all screwed. I didn't sing for years because I thought it was just crap, silly. I wanted to make electronic music. I wanted to make really aggressive beats. Through my teenage years I didn't want to do any kind of vocals. Then later on, when I was about eighteen, I started singing again. Having a record deal in 1999, that was good for me, I was 26.
Did it take you a while to become confident as a singer?
Not really. I just enjoyed it. I never really gave any shit what people thought. I always quite enjoyed the antagonism. I quite liked winding them up. It's a powerful polarizer. People tend to either like it or really hate it. And plus it just really feels good to me. A physical experience. My wife's always reminded me of that. I come offstage sometimes, I look exhausted, very satisfied after an hour of screaming. It's therapeutic, it's good for the soul. I kind of get down when I'm not touring, don't have a gig.
Well, the new record sounds great.
It's definitely got that kind of bombastic, maximalist sort of R&B vibe. Which I think is a bit of an uncool vibe now. At the same time, I swear there'll be a revival. Dâm Funk is already doing it. Bands like Rhye, Inc., Frank Ocean, those guys. That new kind of R&B.