INTERVIEW: Jay Aston of Gene Loves Jezebel

Brexit, Tottenham and the small matter of the new album Dance Underwater...

Gene Loves Jezebel has just released the album of their career thirty years after the seminal ‘House of Dolls’ album which in 1987 should have been the album to catapult them to the big time. As a long term fan I’ve followed the band from the early days, through ups and downs, splits and reformations and all along that journey they’ve never once let me down.

Sadly though it’s been a while since we’ve heard a new studio album from Jay’s version of the band – a line-up that is missing only twin brother Michael from the ‘House of Dolls’ days. It’s been 30 years this year since ‘House of Dolls’ and 20 since ‘VII’ their last studio outing of original material. Why has it taken so long and how the hell did they manage to produce an album of this quality in such a short space of time? We called Jay to find out…  

After a short chat bout Perth and one of Jay’s musician friends who hails from here it’s time to talk ‘Dance Underwater’.

Mark: So how are things with you?

Jay: Yeah good, there’s a heat wave at the minute for some bizarre reason.

Mark: Must be global warming. The new album ‘Dance Underwater’ is stunning. You must not only be pleased with how it came out but also how it sounds too, the production is amazing.

Jay: Thank you very much. It’s a weird one, because I’d been working on a lot of solo things acoustically, I like to do things live, and get that ‘living on the edge’ vibe. We do still do the odd Gene Loves Jezebel gig, usually once or twice a year, and when the boys get together the boys always get really trashed and say “we just did three encores we must do another album”. And then they get on a plane go back to where they’re from and that’s the last we ever hear of it till next time. So last time I said to them “stop fucking about, if you want to do an album let’s do a pledge and see what happens”. If the fans want to make an album in a proper studio with a [roper producer then we’ll do It. So we did, well Perter Rizzo did the bass player, so I had to put my solo thing on hold, we went into the studio with Peter Walsh who did ‘Desire’ and also a couple of our albums – ‘House of Dolls’ and ‘Heavenly Bodies’ which was our favourite album, this new album’s now our favourite album. And it just went really well, we did it at Barrie Barlow’s studio just outside Henley on Thames, he’s the Jethro Tull drummer, an awesome human being. It just went well, we put our noses into it, tight budget, great producer, and bang! The songs sounded great and we were really pleased. Toni Visconti did the strings on one of them – ‘How Do You Say Goodbye to Someone You Love’ which might just be one of the best songs we’ve ever written.

Mark: I think so, I loved that and I think the final track also ‘I Don’t Want to Dance Underwater’.

Jay: Yes that’s a funny one that, because Pete Rizzo normally just plays bass and adds some parts, but we also work together in another project called ‘Ugly Bugs’ which is very theatrical. But his song writing’s really come out, I showed him how to sing because he never used to sing at all, and I can’t really go into much detail but he lost a family member and he had some bad stuff happen to him and he wrote some really dark lyrics which were the basis for this song originally, though it did change shape a little. And it was his title ‘Dance Underwater’ and it’s pretty much about, though he’d have to speak to it directly, but it’s about a very dark period in his life really. I had to change some of the lyrics a bit to make them less foreboding, and it changed into a very beautiful piece where you’d never spot it was a ‘suicide song’.

Mark: For me it also has that sort of epic vibe that songs like ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ have?

Jay: Yeah, yes I get that, thanks and I’m a huge Dylan fan, anyone who writes a lyric has to be a Dylan fan. It’s got a great melody, I put some nice melodies in there, changed a few lyrics but it’s a ‘Pete’ song, and Peter Walsh is involved in that too, he’s got a great sense of melody and arrangements. And James Stevenson came up with a part of it too, I love his EBow solo in it. James Stevenson really shines on this album, I’m constantly amazed by that. He had such a short period of time to get through so much work.

Mark: The whole band sounds great, they really do.

Jay: It’s the chemistry…

Mark: It’s still there isn’t it?!

Jay: Well it’s funny because as soon as Pete and Chris started playing, and of course they’re on the ‘Immigrant’ album so they’ve been playing together since then. James just said ‘My God it just sounds like ‘us’ doesn’t it!” as soon as they started playing. They’ve a great rhythm section, we’re great friends, we’ve been through some ups and downs but we like hanging out, it’s a real band you know, everyone plays their part and they’re all important parts of the sound.

Mark: I’ve been a fan of the band for years now and still manage to keep up to date. I remember buying ‘Promise’ when it came out, heck I’ve even got a mint copy of ‘Shaving My Neck’ (The band’s first 12” from 1982).

Jay: (laughs) that’s quite rare that is! Very rare.

Mark: The last time I saw you though was way back on the ‘House of Dolls’ tour. You’d just done a signing at the now close ‘Selectadisc’ record store in Nottingham where you were playing that night.

Jay: It’s sad a lot of record stores have gone, but some have started to open again…

Mark: I have this weird story about that day. I’d just been in the store and you’d signed it for me and I was on the way home to drop it off and get ready for the show that night. I was walking past the Royal Concert Hall and bumped into Barry Humphries, walking with this gorgeous woman, all unkempt in this long leather coat.

Jay: Wow! (laughing) that is bizarre!

Mark: The only thing I had with me for him to sign was the Selectadisc carrier bag with your signed album in it, so I passed him the bag and he laughed at the fact I was getting him to sign a carrier bag; and he had a look inside and commented what a fine looking bunch of boys you looked as he signed it. So there you go, the Barry Humphries stamp of approval…

Jay: (laughs) awesome!

Mark: Apologies for that anecdote I got to tell Barry that a few years ago when he did some press in Perth and he laughed so I assume he remembered it! I still have that bag.

Jay: (laughs)

Mark: For me the best thing about the new album, and I guess the reason I digressed and went back to the ‘House of Dolls’ era is that you’ve flawlessly picked up on that sound. I’ve loved your output since then but really the past album proper as Gene Loves Jezebel was 1997’s ‘VII’.

Jay: Twenty years ago, yes.

Mark: And before that a few more years back to ‘Heavenly Bodies’ and then 30 years ago to ‘House of Dolls’

Jay: Yes, exactly.

Mark: And when I listen to ‘Dance Underwater’ I just think, and I know you sort of touched on it briefly before, but when it’s this damned good why has it taken so long?

Jay: Well it’s a long story. We left Beggars at first because we needed more money so we went to Savage Records and then they went bust, they were a label that also had David Bowie on there too, but the guy who was funding the company just pulled the money out. So by that point we were exhausted with it all and we needed a break. I was doing solo things and James was doing stuff with The Cult, he went on tour as a second guitar player, and Peter was raising a young family and Chis was off with Hugh Cornwell (The Strangers) and then of course there were the things happening with my brother and who was using the name. And we were reluctant at first to even call this a Gene Loves Jezebel album because we felt that my brother had damaged the name so much by touring in the US and using our name, playing our songs etcetera. But we got a label and an agent and they said “you’re crazy this is a Gene love Jezebel album” and of course it is. And the lawyers said they would deal with any nonsense from him because he’s very mischievous trying to hurt us all the time. But we’ve just been out, done some gigs with The Mission in Europe and in Germany on our own and we were in Portugal the other day. And we’ve been mixing, as you can imagine, ‘Desire’ with all the songs like ‘Cow’ all the stuff we’re known for. But it’s the new songs that really stand up, and you never really know that until you play them live you know. We did ‘How Do You Say Goodbye to Someone You Love’ and I don’t know if we’re the only band that’s ever done this but  it’s a brand new song and we did it as the last song in the set, that’s how good it sounds. And I had a stranger, a couple came up to me after one of the gigs in Holland, not fans of ours but of the Mission’s who did us a favour, they were touring and we asked if we could jump on the tour, so we could warm up for the big Festival in Leipzig. And they said that sometimes you hear a song that really just knocks you off your feet and they had lost their son a couple of years before, and just before that a BBC plugger had told us “you know this song will be played at every funeral”. It’s actually a solemn song when you get into the lyrics, but I was speechless, I just didn’t know what to say.

Mark: It’s a wonderful song and one thing I’ve always loved about the band is that ability you have always had to capture the mood, whether it’s the ‘clear blue sky’ sound of a song like ‘Summertime’ or something more solemn as you say. That and the fact that you always defied ‘classification’.

Jay: Yeah, I always thought that was a strength, but some people say that was the great weakness (laughs)

Mark: It’s hard, that was always the great appeal to me but I guess some would argue if you can’t describe what you sound like to someone does it hold you back? Do you think that it did?

Jay: Well I think they like to package you some way, you know. It makes it easier to put you in a box and for us it was the fact that I didn’t want us to sound like anyone at all. I wanted the songs to all sound different for the band to sound different, in some ways it maybe hurt us ,but on the other hand it’s kind of like Darryl Hall and John Oates – who you can’t really put anywhere, they don’t fit anywhere and neither do we, and that’s just the way it’s turned out. Anyway it’s a bit late to worry about it 30 years later! (laughs)

Mark: (laughs) it is a bit late

Jay: I mean, we’re a rock band, we a pop band, we’re very alternative, it depends on whose writing the songs. We’ve all got different favourite music, we all touch corners where we like the same music here and there, but it’s a special group really.

Mark: So where did it start? Where does your love of music come from?

Jay: I can remember from a very young age loving to sing. My parents always liked a lot of music but they used to play that Rogers and Hammerstein, all that stuff from that generation. But my Dad was always singing in the shower, we were quite a poor family, but a big Catholic family and my parents always had a great stereo system. Music was always big for them and I had older brothers so all the hippie stuff. But weirdly enough one of the first records I learnt a lot from musically was The Seekers from Australia because they used to do so much Folk Music in their songs and my oldest brother who was like 9-10 years older than me used to play The Seekers endlessly and I love Folk Music because I love songs. But the Beach Boys were big for me, when I first heard Led Zeppelin they blew me away. But there’s less bands as I get older, but there’s tons of singers: Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Joy Division – it’s a long list of anyone who’s got their own thing really. Lou Reed, Bowie as a singer, I loved him as a singer but with his records I think it depended in who he was working with. I never bought any of his records tough! Then the obvious ones – The Beatles, The Stones, the older I get the more I like the Stones, but because none of my brothers were into them I never heard them that much apart from the singles we all heard of course. But as I’ve got older I’ve dug in more to Mick Taylor and I really love that era of the band, it’s unbelievable. There’s so much music out there, it’s a beautiful thing.

Mark: Not so much recently though?

Jay: No. It has been poor, I agree.

Mark: Getting back to the new album, one of the things I most enjoyed was that there’s a lot of variety on there, it kind of reminded me of the ‘House of Dolls’ vibe that it drew in and breathed out a lot of influences and sounds. You’ve got the dancey feel on things like ‘IZITME’

Jay: Yeah that’s very dancey, that’s a very odd song that actually ‘cos it nearly didn’t make the album. James has got a very good ear for my songs, and when I did a solo album, I said here’s 30 songs you just pick 10 and that’s what he did. And for this album I wrote a song called ‘Palestine’, and then I thought well it doesn’t really fit the vibe of the album as it was political, but it was my politics and I don’t let that colour the band. Not everyone has to agree with my politics so I thought maybe we should do something else. So we’re all sitting round, Peter Walsh and the whole band were sitting round and I just went literally through tens of songs on my I-phone, and they just picked up that song that I’d written some time ago. And they can be critical at times, but with that song ‘IZITME’ they just all went ‘that’s amazing’!  And I said ‘OK let’s do it’ and that was that.

Mark: It’s a very immediate song, very upbeat.

Jay: Yeah it’s very happy, we did it in rehearsal the other day, and we almost played it live, but we’ll do it in London when we play there next week.

Mark: I love the way the album changes from tracks as immediate as that to the more wistful numbers.

Jay: It’s a funny album because we did it so fast, we didn’t have time to mess around. So we worked fast and hard and it’s only in coming back here, we were in Portugal yesterday, driving, James actually put the album on to play to the promoter and it was the first time we’d all listened to it  since really, and we were all like ‘wow’ song after song – they’re strong songs! But Dance Underwater he’d actually missed off the CD, James is not that tech! (laughs) and he’d managed to miss off one of the songs on the playlist! And the promoter was like ‘fucking hell’. So it’s been incredibly satisfying, I’m glad we made the album. It almost didn’t happen and it’s just totally reenergised the band, everybody’s buzzing again.

Mark: So after an experience like that and the feedback from fans and media, we loved it by the way, does that mean there will be more?

Jay: Well we think so. This album’s been written mostly by me and Pete and it’s usually James and I that write most of the stuff but Pete has suddenly come into his on and that’s energised us all really. This is the first album where all of us, the Producer, the whole band has been at the mixing desk dancing. Usually one person is saying, “I don’t like that” or “not that song”. Barrie Barlow’s name is on ‘Ain’t It Enough’ because the way I wrote that song it could be a Joy Division song but the way the band played it, it could be a country song, that’s the depth.

Mark: And the track listing is great too the way it twists and turns, moving from mood to mood.

Jay: I suppose albums are quite difficult to order I know we went back and forward a number of times trying to get it right. I managed to detach myself a lot from the album and when it came to mixing I said I’m not even going to listen to it, I said you mix it and I’ll listen when it’s over and several weeks later they’re sending me mixes and I’m “no,no,no”. Then it was track listing and I said kick off with ‘Charmed Life’ to surprise people as it relates to our past directly and I think the words work really well.

Mark: I just can’t believe you managed to put together an album that good together under such time constraints.

Jay: Oh thank you. It’s a weird thing I don’t want to blow our own horns but there was a radio show in London that played ‘Summertime’ for the first time alongside some contemporaries, there was a Blondie song, a new Alarm song and I thought we stacked up really well.  It was refreshing for us to finally realise we had made a special record.

Mark: We’ll have to get you Downunder, we had The Mission down were for the first time in a few decades a few months ago.

Jay: That would be awesome, yeah the last time the Mission were over Wayne might not have remembered much because they were rather out of it or so he told me!  They were a hard partying band back in those days!

Mark: The album is released on June 30th worldwide?

Jay: September in the US, and I’m not sure how they’re pushing it over there but yes June in the UK and Australia. The label have been on to us from the States and they’re excited so hopefully we’ll get some gigs. And we’d love to come to Australia, I came over on a promo visit once, came over did some radio interviews, an MTV thing and that was it.

Mark: So have you played the US in recent years?

Jay: I’ve done some acoustic shows on my own, because that’s something that challenges me. I went out with Trevor Tanner from The Bolshoi, we were supposed to get me Trevor and Nick from Flesh For Lulu but sadly Nick died of cancer, it would have been great for the three of us to go out as songwriters. But when Nick died it got cancelled and then a few years later the Promoter called up and said what about you and Trev? But Trev’s really hard to get hold of and I was fearing from the worst but from day one we just laughed, we only did the east coast but we got on so well. I love Trevor he’s such a talent and he was doing primarily Bolshoi because that’s what they wanted even though he writes all these great new songs these days, but you strip away all that production and the songs are amazing, he’s a really great songwriter but it gets a bit lost in all that 80’s production, all that funky bass and delays.

Mark: I loved ‘Away’ of course their biggest hit.

Jay: It’s about his sister you know, Tracey Tanner.

Mark: well I never knew that. Talking of siblings, and I don’t know how to phrase this delicately so I’ll just ask.

Jay: Uh huh…

Mark: With Michael are you in touch at all?

Jay: Not at all. I don’t want to say too much, but no not at all. I have this email box called ‘Spike Bile’ for the stuff he sends me. I don’t think of him at all really. He puts so much stuff online, nonsense about us I just ignore it. I don’t think he’s well basically. If it was you and I falling out, we could fall out and then fall back in, talk about it, but when you’re dealing with an irrational human being you can’t talk about it.

Jay: I’ve got a very good friend who got tickets to see The Cure at the Albert Hall doing the first three albums which was great by the way, and though I’ve never been a big fan of the Cure I don’t mind them, actually he’s a great guitar player I didn’t really realise what a great player he was. But it was great and there was a girl next to me who manages Placebo, she used to live next door to me when she worked on reception at Beggars and she said “oh my God I can’t believe you can’t get on with your twin brother”, and there were five other people in the box sharing with us and they all had either a twin or a sibling they didn’t speak to anymore! It was bizarre, but it’s not uncommon. But it’s difficult for us because people don’t realise on a lot of the songs he’s not actually singing on them or he’s miming to my vice and stuff – they just have this vision of ‘the twins’. And that’s something the record company marketed a lot at the time as well. But as I said we were never ‘Wham!’ we were a band (laughs)

Mark: (laughs)

Jay: But it is what it is, there’s a story there. I said to him once whey do you take credit for songs you didn’t write? You weren’t even in the Country when I wrote ‘Stephen’ you weren’t even around for the ‘House of Dolls’ album you just came in to do some vocals at the end and you got the most publishing on it! It’s bizarre! He’s got people playing James Stevenson guitar riffs, nicking Pete Rizzo basslines and my lyrics, it’s weird. If you look on YouTube it’s bizarre to see him shouting my lyrics, ‘Desire’s a hard song to sing you can’t shout it!

Mark: It’s that time in the interview now where we get to ask you a few searching questions. If you could have been a ‘fly on the wall’ for the creation of any great album, just to see how the magic happened, what’s that album for you?

Jay: Oh, God. (laughs) That’s so hard, but it would probably be Brian Wilson, a ‘Pet Sounds’ or something like that. That’s really something I’d love to see, how they layered that, ‘cos the wrecking Crew’ when they talk about all the records they worked on the one person they talk of as a real genius is Brian Wilson. They did all those great albums, from Glen Campbell to all the hits by the Monkees, but the one person when you see them talk is Brian Wilson, they’re in awe of him. So that would be good or ‘After The Gold Rush’ by Neil Young that’s another big one for me, they all talk about ‘Harvest’ but for me ‘After the Gold Rush’ is a far superior album for me. There’s loads of others I’d love to see.

Jay: We went to a studio once near the Tottenham ground which was nice as I’m a Spurs fan, I can’t remember why, maybe it was cheap! But they had the piano that they actually recorded Bohemian Rhapsody on. They had this little room it was in, such a wonderful bit of art.

Mark: They did alright this year Spurs!

Jay: We did, we should have won the title really but unfortunately Harry wasn’t fit all season so we missed out. Do you follow a team?

Mark: I’m a lifelong Liverpool fan. I like to think my moving to Australia is the main reason we’ve not won anything for the past 27 years…

Jay: (laughs) I don’t mind Liverpool. They’ve been close a few times. I like Klopp a lot he’s just got to get that defence sorted out hasn’t he? They had the best record against the top six this year if we went off that they’d be top of the league! They were just fucking up against the Burnley’s! Klopp and Pochettino are very similar, they are high energy, high intensity and don’t take any nonsense, they’re good for the Premier League those guys.

Mark: It’s funny I seem to talk about football with a few musicians recently, The Cult, Glenn Hughes…

Jay: Ian’s a big football fan. I met Ian many years ago when he came to London with the Southern Death Cult as it was then and he stayed on my floor as he had nowhere else to stay. But the last time I saw him years ago in LA he didn’t seem well to me.

Mark: Last time I saw The Cult I was more interested to see James. I didn’t even realise he was playing guitar with them!

Jay: Yeah, they’ve called him up a few times, he’s done a couple of tours with them. James just likes playing live. Chris and James play a lot live, but Pete and I tend to do a lot less.

Mark: Can music still save the world?

Jay: It’s the best hope isn’t it? It’s the one thing that can unite us I think. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to have much music does he? And one man can destroy the world. You know it’s a weird thing I said ‘Fuck Trump’ at the first gig l did and the place went nuts and I’ve done it at every gig since.

Mark: What does that say about the world that a guy with questionable business practices and a dodgy TV show can be in charge of the birthplace of Rock and Roll?

Jay: It says a lot about America. It’s not looking good is it? I certainly have fans who are Republican and even fans who were very happy about Brexit but I certainly wasn’t I was very upset by it and still am. ‘Cry For You One Day’ the song is actually about Brexit a lot of people don’t realise, it was going to be ‘Cry for EU’ you wouldn’t spot it, it’s deliberately not obvious. It’s sad.

Mark: I’ll be playing that again right away.

Jay: (laughs) Pete came up with the chorus because both of us are very pro-European and I said we won’t make it blatant, I’ll write some lyrics where they won’t quite be able to work it out, but we’ll know! (laughs)

Mark: It was just a strange thing for me as I still get to vote I couldn’t see the argument for backing out and why it was so critical now. We’re forced to vote in Australia but I like to vote in the UK to get my say.

Jay: It’s great that they force you to vote, people don’t enough over here.

Mark: Our problem here is a bit different there’s no one really to vote for! But if you don’t vote you don’t get to complain.

Jay: I spend a lot of time in LA, but I flew back for Brexit and I flew back for this one. It’s important to me.

Mark: It’s a puzzling decision really, we’ve been in there so long and the longer I’ve been away from the UK strangely the more European I’d started to feel.

Jay: My view was quite simple – you can’t change something being outside of it. If we want to change something now we’ve got no say, the irony of the whole thing is that we’ve never been made to do anything by the Europeans. As Tony Blair said “they never made me do anything I didn’t want to do”. It’s just a mess now.

Mark: And Teresa May seems to be performing particularly well… (Irony by the way)

Jay: She’s a fool, I mean triggering Article 50 so quickly and her language. At least half the population voted against leaving and she says it’s the will of the British people, it’s not the will of the British people. And the kids coming through that couldn’t vote will affect them. If I’d known half the country was against the vote I wouldn’t be using those terms and every time she talks now she just pisses people off.

Mark: I always think that Cameron made the crucial error by agreeing to resign if things didn’t go his way and underestimating that people would vote to leave more as a means to remove him from number ten than actually wanting to leave Europe!

Jay: It goes back to the Liberals really deciding to put them into power. Their natural allies were the Labour Party and they went for the Tories. It was doomed and now it’s a disaster.

Mark: Well I never thought I’d have my first conversation with you thirty years after I last saw you talking about football and politics

Jay: (laughing) I’ve met so many people in my life, musicians and the like and they all say “you’re not what I expected you to be”. I think they expect me to be Oscar Wilde or something! (laughs). No I’m just a human being like you and I like to laugh like anyone!

Mark: (laughing) And the traditional final question, easiest of the night: What is the meaning of life?

Jay: Ahhh, well that’s easy innit! When Tottenham win the League it’s the end of the world and it will all make sense! But until it happens you won’t know.

Mark: Well I hope not – that could well be next year and it wouldn’t give you any time to celebrate!

Jay: (laughs)

Mark: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to The Rockpit it’s been a pleasure and thanks for the music, you’ve really made my year with ‘Dance Underwater’

Jay: You too man, always nice to talk.

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