A Quietus Interview: Jamie McDermott of the Irrepressibles, Alexander Geist, Ebe Oke and MJ Woodbridge (March 18th, 2015)

It’s been a busy couple of years for The Irrepressibles’ Jamie McDermott. The critical and commercial success of the band’s second album, Nude, a celebration of and reflection on male homosexual love, has shot the singer to new heights of recognition, resulting in a series of well-received tours that have taken him and his bandmates around the world, from the United States to Russia and beyond. Last year saw a series of EPs expand on the premise and aesthetic of Nude, often stripping away the album’s lavish electronics and symphonic textures to reveal the heartfelt lyrical honesty underneath. Now residing in Berlin, McDermott will be back on UK shores on March 20 for a one-off spectacle at Islington Assembly Hall, London, which will see The Irrepressibles recreate Nude in all its glory, bolstered by support from genre-pushing queer acts Ebe Oke, Alexander Geist and MJ Woodbridge. The Quietus caught up with Jamie, Ebe, Alexander and MJ in September to discuss what audiences can expect from the show and what it means to be a gender- and sexuality-bending musician in the 21st century.

How are plans for the show coming along?

Jamie McDermott: Speaking for myself, we’re just doing the elements that will make up the main show, because at the moment we’re touring Nude: Viscera, which is more rock-focused with strings, but also doing some Nude: Landscapes. Hopefully, there might be some more videos, so that’s something else I’ve been doing, but I know that Ebe has also been rehearsing for the show.

Without giving away too much, what can people expect from the Nude spectacle?

JM: It’s going to be a full event. We have music that’s kind of part of the arts and culture aspect of music, more acoustic, more symphonic at the beginning. We’ve got Ebe’s music, which he’ll explain himself, but which has elements of classical music and queer avant-garde tradition. And The Irrepressibles’ set will move from moments that are with just piano and guitar and other stuff that’s more rock, more visceral and more sexual, with electronics. It will be audiovisual, so something that’s not only explained through sound, but also through video work and movement. It all helps express the message of Nude, which is my story as a homosexual guy growing up, a discourse on sexuality and art.

It sounds like it’s going to be a ‘big’ show. Is it the most ambitious one you’ve done?

JM: It will be the biggest one since we played Mirror Mirror [The Irrepressibles’ first album] at the Barbican, so this is us bringing the big spectacle of the second record to London, and after that show’s finished, we’re going to the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen for MJ Woodbridge and Alexander’s performances. So we’ve got a lot of different artists who are part of the new movement of LGBT artists in music, or at least artists who happen to be LGBT.

I was going to ask – is there a new movement of LGBT artists in music, or are you all artists who happen to be part of the LGBT community?

JM: For me, with Nude, it was necessary to say something very clear and confident about being gay and working in art, and, with the event, it’s become a beacon for a little moment of artists who are so different, but are able to be honest about their sexuality. There are so many artists around, from Owen Pallett to Antony to Grizzly Bear, and it’s all happening now. It’s a movement, I think, and we’re just one part of that movement.

Alexander Geist: I think, in the queer community, there are people who don’t necessarily have homosexual sexual identities but are still part of that community, and it will be great to have people like that involved.

Ebe Oke: I personally don’t feel as though I’ve fully found my tribe yet. Although I relate to the LGBT community I don’t feel adequately represented by it. My sense of gender and sexuality is mutable. I’m a sky person and lean toward sapiosexual tendencies.

It sounds like it’s going to be quite different to shows you’ve been doing of late, Jamie, with much more stripped down shows…

JM: I think it was really important for me to do that, because a lot of people thought Mirror Mirror was all about flamboyance and things being decadent, which it wasn’t, it was about the European tradition and flamboyance, but more in terms of art’s connection with fashion and how there’s a connection between the visual and sound. With Nude, it was interesting to strip it back and focus on the elements to make it more visceral. When I look at the spectacle, it’s not coming back to something that’s grand, it’s more hearing all of it and it may be one the last concerts of Nude, so it’s a bit like, ‘Here is all of it, and this is what this work was about’.

That suggests you might be working on new material. Is there anything you can tell at this point about that?

JM: I am working on new music, but I don’t know if I want to talk about it yet, because I don’t want to jinx it! I’m not in any way precious or arrogant in any way, but it’s always such a strange process for me, making music…

How many musicians are currently in The Irrepressibles?

JM: It varies. Sometimes there’ll be three, sometimes there’ll be five, sometimes there’ll be eight. When we started doing Nude, we didn’t work with a woodwind section anymore, but it will still be a large ensemble.

How did you all end up crossing paths with Jamie and getting onboard? Who wants to go first?

AG: I’ve known Jamie for a long time, we have mutual friends, and I saw The Irrepressibles when they were a four-piece before the first record came out seven or eight years ago. I opened for The Irrepressibles last summer, and we’ve worked together for some time.

EO: I first discovered Jamie’s music at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s club years ago. He’s become a trusted friend and confidante. His empathy and capacity for feeling is astounding.

I’ve listened to all your musics, but what will your performance involve on the night?

AG: I’m going to have two backing singers and one musician. It’ll be mostly electronic music, inspired by late-70s and early-80s synth music. The lyrical output is inspired by someone like Morrissey, sort of wry and somewhat political and somewhat obnoxious, but sort of cinematic in scope. And you’re going to have a great time!

EO: I discovered The Irrepressibles because an ex-boyfriend took one of their early shows at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Jamie and I became friends and I worked with two of his former band members on my first record. You could definitely say that some of my music is quite minimal, but I think it’s actually quite varied. I don’t think I have one specific style. For the show, I’m going to work with a string trio and some electronics. I’m going to be presenting some music that I’ve written for my next record, which is going to be an electronic record.

MJ Woodbridge: I’m the new girl! A good friend of mine/manager got in touch with Jamie and he invited me for the night. My live show for this is going to be stripped back, possibly acoustic guitar and me on vocals, playing my original songs and some covers of big gay anthems that I turn into my style.

EO: ‘Big gay anthems’?

MJW: I do Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ and a Britney Spears song and a Mariah cover, which I kind of mash up into one of my original songs.

How do you three feel about this notion of an LGBT musical community? Is that something that was high up on your mind when you got involved with the Nude spectacle?

EO: I’m always excited to discover new queer artists. My understanding of being queer is that it deviates from the traditional stereotypes we’ve been conditioned with. I feel this queerness carries with it a sense of freedom from conformity but not necessarily. I look back at writers like Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, William S. Burroughs and artists like Claude Cahun and applaud them for their bravery in paving the way through such nebulous territory. I like to believe that the queer spirit is at an advantage for being somewhat ill at ease in the world and for often having a broad range of gender identities to perceive from. For me being queer is not limited to homosexual or bisexual people. Heterosexual people can also be queer. Although queerness is becoming more widely integrated into the fabric of our society, let’s not forget Alan Turing and Wilde who were prosecuted for being true to themselves less than a century ago. Let us also be fully aware that queer people are being hunted down and brutally executed in Africa and the Middle East. I want the scope of my conscience to include everyone.

One of the things I find really beautiful about Jamie’s work is how honest and upfront it is. Do you think it’s easier now to be that honest about one’s sexuality?

AG: I don’t feel like I have much choice about being upfront about my sexuality or gender identity. A lot of people decide it for you, but I’m certainly not going to beat around the bush. Things are different from one day to the next, and from one place to the next, you can be hassled or you can be adored, but all that matters is to hold on to who it is you are. Maybe culturally things are opening up, which is great, but you have to be aware of how culture works, and how it always finds something subversive and then gives it a marketing angle. We can be grateful for culture opening up, but be careful because you don’t want to be used to promote nachos or Burger King or something.

JM: I think it’s great, though, when a massive company makes a stand [for equality]. I think a lot of people have big issues with what they call the normalisation of LGBT society, but I think homosexuality is always going to be an anomaly, because we are by default one in ten. But homosexuality is about love, so it’s not unusual. You can be heterosexual and unusual.

When we spoke last, Jamie, you told me about how difficult it was to perform in Russia. Do you still get different reactions from crowds from place to place?

JM: I think now that heterosexual men are more comfortable with themselves and therefore comfortable with there being gay men who fall in love with other men. Things have changed vastly throughout the world but there obviously still are many places where it’s difficult. I just performed recently in Rome and I was concerned because they have recently tried to put a stop on gay marriages being recognised in Italy, which we think of as being a very modern country. So the concert became a bit more political, even somewhere like Italy.

Jamie’s music is very autobiographical. Do you three have a similar approach?

EO: My music is often autobiographical even if it’s not directly about experiences from my life. I incorporate various ways of writing that can include the induction of trance-like states often leading to lyrics reflecting the inner world. It gets fun when you find creative ways to weave the outer and inner worlds together. I’ve written a few character studies of people in my life. For instance, my song ‘Nissa’ is about a very dear friend whose work as a dancer and performance artist has had a significant influence on me as an artist.

MJW: My music used to be based on the whole LGBT thing but now it’s more personal and helps me discover who I am. It’s the journey rather than the end product. I don’t necessarily set out to write about specific issues – although I have – and I think my work is more conceptual.

JM: I think we now have the ability to be more graphic, be it in music or on television or whatever, and the great thing is this reaches a heterosexual audience and not just a gay one. It’s like when Jim Carrey was in I Love You Phillip Morris and he was getting ripped to pieces in interviews [for the graphic content] and he was like: ‘Is this still an issue? How is it still an issue?’

Finally – are you looking forward to the show? Nervous at all?

EO: Yes, I’m nervous. I’ve got some new songs that I am still working out parts for. If they aren’t ready we will perform them anyway and play with the uncertainty. I often throw improvised passages into my set. The setlist has changed a few times but we will perform some piano-led songs along with electronic works that are a nod to my next record. I work with an incredible ensemble. I’m very lucky!

JM: I’m always nervous before every gig! But for me, it’s such an important, cathartic process, so it’s a bit like a séance or therapy between me and the audience. You’re exploring things, some of which may be quite dark, through performance. It helps me find peace.

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