There was some serious attention seeking going on when I called James Taylor at his home studio in Kent.
It wasn’t down to him though, but his Cairn terrier, Heidi, after he shut her out of his studio in a bid to answer my questions.
“I don’t know why, but she’s quite possessive, quite yappy and jealous. I’m going to have to shut her up.”
Don’t be alarmed. His weapon is nothing more than reason. Next, I hear in the distance, “Heidi, I’m doing an interview!” He soon relented though, so I had an audience of two on the phone, a four-legged friend on his lap. Well, he is a fan of Bach, after all.
James 0 Heidi 1.
With my two interviewees finally settled (and let me tell you, Heidi answered none of my questions, putting her up there with Toots Hibbert as one of my more challenging respondents), I tell James I’d forgotten until researching his past that it was broadcasting legend John Peel who introduced me to his music.
The former Prisoners keyboard player had not long before formed his own four-piece, their first LP a collection of re-interpreted cult film and TV themes with a very ’60s feel, including inventive runs through Alfie, Blow-Up, Goldfinger and title track Mission Impossible. It’s amazing, I tell him, how many artists from different walks I was introduced to via Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show, proof that it wasn’t all about indie, German industrial bands, punk and reggae in the mid-‘80s.
“It was a good time, wasn’t it? It was nowhere near as saccharine and fascist as it is now. As long as you were doing something interesting and exciting, that was enough. These days it’s about kids coming out of college with PHDs in writing pop songs, which completely misses the point. Peelie was amazing, and got us started … completely.”
Funny he should mention that, as my previous interview was with Gerard Langley, whose band The Blue Aeroplanes emerged during that same era, their frontman now also head of songwriting for the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) in Bristol, his past students including George Ezra.
“Well, there’s a lot of money in education. There’s no money in making records anymore. But there are certain things you can’t teach. I’m not a teacher, but all my band teach. Millions of students want to learn how to be a jazz or rock musician. There’s money in all that.”
Heidi had some choice words about that too, but I couldn’t work out what she was barking about, and James carried on.
“It’s the art of survival, but for me I like composition. I can compose and orchestrate and write music, and it doesn’t have to be for an album or a commercial project that gets sold to the public. There are different ways of being a player. The main thing for me is to get on stage and try and make a nice exciting evening.”
I tend to steer clear or rail against covers bands, but that was James’ way in. The first record of his I bought was that Mission Impossible collection, with opening and closing tracks Blow-Up (penned by Herbie Hancock) and The Stooge on a lot of my cassette compilations around then. Meanwhile, the first JTQ single I bought – the following year, by which time they’d switched from the Re-elect the President label to Urban – was their Starsky and Hutch theme revamp.
But between those releases came The Money Spyder, the band moving away from being a covers band, creating a soundtrack of their own, albeit to an imaginary spy film. There were still plenty more re-imagined covers to come though.
“We had a bit of a hit with that first album, and then came a record deal and the question, ‘Do you write?’ To which I thought, ‘Well, no’. I then started writing and some things stand up to these classics, but most of the time my set will include my compositions and other people‘s too. You just want to maximise your punch on stage rather than be an out and out covers band. Also, if we’re doing a Booker T and the MG’s cover, if anything we’ll do it more like the Sex Pistols – really punky! You just put your own stamp on it.”
A case in point was that cover of Tom Scott’s Starsky and Hutch theme, originally titled Gotcha, for which James ‘made the groove more English’, as he put it.
“Yeah, the original had a very LA kind of drum groove – very technical and flash. We kind of straightened it out.”
Along the way, they were seen as originators of the emerging acid jazz scene, and after putting out records on Polydor and Big Life were recording for Eddie Piller (who started Re-Elect the President) and Gilles Peterson’s Acid Jazz label by the mid-90s. Looking back on their early influences, was James already a piano or keyboard player before he discovered Booker T. Jones, Small Faces, and that Hammond organ sound?
“Yeah, I was into The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at 12 years old, but having piano lessons so was learning J.S. Bach and so on. I still love that now, and still love The Beatles and The Stones. But then I found Booker T., although I was already subliminally aware of that sound, drawn to it from ‘60s and ‘70s TV shows, thinking, ‘What’s that keyboard sound?’ Then it was explained to me about the Hammond organ and the Leslie rotating cabinet, and I was hooked, man – I saw then that was my route through life!”
I tell James at this point how as a choirboy in the mid to late-‘70s I loved the sound of the church organ, at least when it wasn’t consumed with all that ecclesiastical stuff, not least when the choirmaster blasted out some Bach and that ‘vampire music’ we craved, filling the village church’s dark shadows.
“I discovered all that very late, about five years ago, really getting into church organ music. But a life in music is an education in that respect, finding things and thinking, ‘Wow! How did I miss that?’ I didn’t have the privilege of that education, and a choral education as a child is amazing. That’s different to every college kid wanting to learn how to play Led Zeppelin. I’m impressed. It’s just a pity a lot of those kids don’t take it further.”
James has mentioned a few of his keyboard heroes in past interviews – from Booker T. and Ian McLagan to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord, The Nice’s Keith Emerson and fellow Kentish outfit Caravan’s Jan Schelhaas. Was there ever a danger of him going down the prog rock path with those influences?
“Yeah, and there still is a danger of that!”
Maybe it wouldn’t go down too well with your old Mod crowd.
“Well, the Mods don’t really like us. They come and see us because I’m a Hammond player and kind of gave birth to us, so there’s usually one or two geezers in the corner looking a bit Moddy. But in the early days it was everyone, with a sea of scooters outside. That was a bit restrictive.”
When I got into your work, I also discovered Georgie Fame’s Mod credentials, on the Flamingo live recording and so on. So there are clear parallels there.
“He was the king of the Mods. But there’s a bit of an underlying political atmosphere with all that. We did a lot of gigs on the end of piers for people all looking the same, dressing the same. Once we broke out of that, things got a lot more liberal.”
Fashion and image-wise, you always came over as very dapper, very ‘60s. That probably helped your Mod credentials.
“Yeah, and I like what the Mods listen to. I like all that, massively. They have impeccable credentials, musically. It’s only where anything’s shut down. For example, where does James Brown stop being Mod? Night Train is very Mod, but is Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag? Where does it stop being Mod? What are the rules? That becomes pretty dull.”
Was discovering Jimmy Smith a big part of you blossoming out?
“Yeah. Absolutely brilliant. That was everything for me, but I felt he played too quietly. All those bands were amazing but really built for LA supper clubs. It was a case of, ‘how do you get a shot of adrenaline into that?’ So I was fusing much louder drums and funkier bass parts with all that. It needs to have that energy.”
In the early days, the band included James’ brother David on guitar. Did they play together growing up?
“Not so much musically. We were close friends, but when I got into music, he didn’t. I had about five years playing and touring with The Prisoners. By then I was 17 or 18 and he was 14. I’d left him at home. But I remember buying him a guitar and every time I came home he was really into it. One thing led to another, he had his own band, and then we started working together.”
Rochester garage band The Prisoners were led by guitarist/vocalist Graham Day, and played a substantial part on the underground psychedelic and Mod revival scene as well as the Medway scene. It was clearly where James got his musical grounding. Are they all still in touch?
“Yeah, we’ve done reformation gigs and the like. That all sort of hovers around, with occasional emails about doing events. They live just next door to me, so I bump into them, such as when I’m walking Heidi and Graham’s walking his dog. We have a little chat about how 35 years ago we were living in a little transit van!
“What I started to realise over time was that bands run in a so-called democratic way, the best you’re going to get is about five years, if you’re lucky, before you fall out. I thought if I really want to do this for the rest of my life it has to be my thing. That way you can call the shots and don’t fall foul of that dilemma of what happens when the band don’t speak to each other anymore.”
That initial move to form his own band came 30 years ago, and James has had little reason to look back from there. TV and cinema has continued to have an impact too. Was there a time when the money started coming in for that? And not just big breaks like being part of the Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery soundtrack. Was there always that thinking of how he could make a living from all this?
“That’s always been the backdrop. I make albums for Universal, also Warner Brothers, and another called Audio Network, supplying them with something orchestral, funky with strings on, or whatever. They then position that on TV shows and films, and we have 50% each of the PRS from that, which means I can carry on being a Hammond organist on stage in clubs up and down the country. That’s what makes it all possible.”
A bit like an actor having a passion project alongside the big bucks movies?
“More than that, on a normal day I’ll practise Bach then I’ll write some funk, put some horns on it, then practise some Beethoven, play some Hammond, then at the end of the week I might have a gig. There’s a whole broad spectrum of things you think about. I did a choral project recently, then there might be an orchestral piece, solo piano performances. It inhabits who you are really. And one of the things I am is someone who wants to get on stage with a Hammond and really kick up the dust! That’s one of the best things I can do with music.”
Indeed, and as he put it in a recent video interview, ‘The essence of what we do has always been to try and move the room’, as was the case when I first saw the JTQ play the Town & Country Club, Kentish Town, on a memorable night in late 1988, their set followed by former Boothill Foot-Tappers singer Wendy May’s Locomotion DJ set. I noted then how they’d became an octet by the end. Will it be just be a four-piece on this tour, without the added brass and guest vocalist?
“Yeah, that’s really a money thing. I’ve done expanded line-up shows with as many as 50 people on stage – a whole choir and strings. But to take a whole band up to the North of England … A lot of people don’t like the expanded version anyway.”
He mentions working with choirs, and the JTQ 2015 album The Rochester Mass (Cherry Red) was a notable one-off, recorded in one day with a 40-strong Rochester Choir, composing a piece of classical music, fusing funk with a religious mass sung in Latin … like you do. And then last year there was his Bumpin’ on Frith Street album, recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho (Ronnie Scott’s/Gearbox Records).
He’s back at Ronnie Scott’s for three nights in early March, after visits to Blue Note, Milan, and Jazz Club Etoile, Paris. But first there’s Preston Guild Hall’s LiVe venue. So what can we expect when he visits Lancashire on January 19th?
“Well, Pat (Illingworth), our drummer, is from nearby, Lancaster, and he’s a lary drummer and really kicks off. He’s a very explosive player and I find that incredibly exciting … quite shocking. Expect a lot of energy – it’ll be like Jimmy Smith on speed!”
“There’s still Andrew (McKinney) on bass, and on guitar there’s Mark (Cox), who’s been floating around for about 10 years and increasingly gets the gig these days and straddles the whole thing so well. And from Booker T. through to George Benson, it’s a nice combination. To be honest, my favourite set-up is the four-piece. That’s what we truly do. Sometimes the more you expand it, the less you’ve got.
“We often play Ronnie Scott’s, and while we take a full line-up we’ll still do half an hour as a quartet before the horns come on, and while the audience are ready for the change you never really capture what you were doing as a four-piece.”
Am I right in thinking you spent time in Sweden before your quartet line-up made it?
“I lived in Stockholm when JTQ took off, having piano lessons and enjoying being out of the UK. It’s something I look back on with really fond memories. And after years trying to make it, when it finally does, in a way you kind of sign off on your life and wonder later what might have been. But I’m not complaining. I like being a musician.
“I made the choice to come back from Scandinavia, but there was a beauty about life up there which I miss, and I haven’t been back in ages. I still have friends up there and talk regularly to people up there. But I’m such a lazy bastard, and spend so much time getting on Ryanair flights to wherever, so when it’s holiday time I don’t want to go anywhere!”
There have been a lot of corporate gigs over the years too, including one fairly recently with Kylie Minogue, I understand – booked to play a car launch for Ford in Paris.
“We still do corporate gigs, although they’re few and far between now. Those days are gone.”
Did you get to speak properly to Kylie on that occasion?
“Yes, we did. She’s a very beautiful woman, man! God, yeah!
“We’ve also done gigs for the Davos bank, up in the Swiss Alps. That’s a well-paid gig, and you think, ‘Well, if we do that, that pays for the next three months. We’d tour around Europe in a bus and the tour manager would fly us back to London for a couple of big corporate shows, which would pay for that whole European tour.”
Finally, you’ve worked with some big names over the years, from The Manic Street Preachers and The Pogues to Tom Jones and U2. Who’s still on your list to work with?
“George Benson. I’ve done gigs with him, and jazz festivals, but I’d like to make an album with him. He’s my favourite musician. I’d like to make a funk album with him. I like what he does a lot.”
Take him back to his roots, maybe? There seems to be a trend for it, from The Rolling Stones and Nine Below Zero going back to their r’n’b roots to Paul Young re-interpreting ’60s and ’70s soul. So why not?
“Yeah, it’s not something I’ve actively pursued, but I could make it happen. When we do a gig with him, I’m totally in awe of what’s going on. And the funkier edge of his set is the bit that’s interesting.
“He’s the one I’d think of first. I really love Herbie Hancock, but what would I do with Herbie? Having two keyboardists on stage isn’t really going to work.”
For ticket details of the James Taylor Quartet at Preston Guild Hall, head here, and for information about all James’ forthcoming appearances try his website via this link.
You can also keep in touch with the JTQ via their Facebook page. And there’s a lovely six-part video interview with James you can find via this Cherry Red link.
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