❉ Ex-Carter frontman on his new album, the mystical power of the album trilogy and more.
“We recorded it and mixed it in a studio that’s just ten minutes walk from my house. We were going in there everyday. It was a bit like going into work so I forgot that I was paying for it or that I would have to pay for it! I was just going in and hanging out with my friends really.”’
Jim Bob (James Robert Morrison to his mum) has been writing great songs for years; initially with cult favourites Jamie Wednesday, then crossing over from the indie charts into the top ten with Carter USM and for the last few years as a solo performer and writer. The latest album Thanks for Reaching Out contains his usual politically aware, observational lyrics and sparky tunes and follows on from recent albums Pop Up Jim Bob and Who Do We Hate Today.
Jim Bob and his Carter USM partner Les Fruitbat were recently immortalised as part of a Cold War Steve collage and the release of the video for the latest single depicting Jacob Rees-Mogg caused some controversy. A great interviewee and always interesting, I met up with Jim Bob to chat with him about the album and his previous career, taking in interesting points about accidental swearing, the mystical power of the album trilogy and the toxic nature of Twitter…
The new album sounds great. Do you consider it as the last part of a trilogy after Pop Up Jim Bob and Who Do We Hate Today and did it take a long time to write and record?
When I was writing the songs I didn’t think of it as a trilogy really. But Chris, who plays piano on it, kept sort of talking about it as though it was the third part of a trilogy. I started to think that that would make sense in a way. It feels to me anyway that if you do the same thing too many times it’s in danger of becoming boring or you get to know what to expect.
The same with doing gigs – I don’t like to play the same venue more than three times. I mean that was the whole trilogy thing. It kind of makes sense as well because it’s me and the same band playing. It didn’t take ages to record really. It seemed longer. We recorded it and mixed it in a studio that’s just ten minutes walk from my house. We were going in there everyday. It was a bit like going into work so I forgot that I was paying for it or that I would have to pay for it! I was just going in and hanging out with my friends really.
I feel you’re really responding to what is going on in the world with your lyrics.
It just happens really. I think it’s because I don’t have a troubled personal life. I’ve been in a very stable partnership for most of my life. I don’t feel like I’ve got a terrible problem that I need to share. It’s almost like a selling point that you have to have an issue or personal troubles that you need to share with everyone now. I don’t want to say it’s boring but many people are doing it aren’t they?
You’re writing about wider troubles?
Yeah. I’m sure other people are writing about the same things but it doesn’t seem quite so much. I mean one of the songs on the album is about Putin for example. It’s really about Putin at that moment in time when I wrote it. I had another song about Afghanistan and about what was happening when we pulled out of Afghanistan. Writing songs in that moment about what was going on at that time.
No one else is really doing it. Maybe Sleaford Mods or someone like that…
The dangerous thing for me is if I say people aren’t writing songs about this then invariably everyone will give you an example. Maybe someone that I’m not listening to. There’s a lot of anger in music… In rock music anyway. We seem to be heading in the direction we were heading at the time of Rage Against the Machine where there’s a bloke shouting! Men taking their shirts off and growling! Those kind of metal gigs now where the audience just sort of kick each other! The tunes sort of go when it just becomes a sound. I noticed it a few years ago. With some bands the singer spends a lot of the gig in the audience. The bigger the gigs get, then the less people at the back can see. So they’re just watching blokes playing guitars and drums wondering what the hell is going on. But it looks good on Instagram or whatever.
You’re touring the album. Smaller gigs?
Yeah. In my opinion we’re not doing enough. We’re doing four gigs in Britain in July. We’re doing some record shop stuff and we’re doing about five gigs in Europe and then a couple at the end of the year. When I look back at the tours I used to do, they used to sort of go on for a year.
Do you still enjoy playing live?
Yeah, especially as for quite a few years I just played on my own with an acoustic guitar. Mostly doing Carter songs. I didn’t get bored with it exactly but once I played with a band again I realised I didn’t want to go back to that. I get offered a lot of gigs like that and a lot of guest spots. You know, “Come along and do four songs with an acoustic guitar”. And at the moment I just turn them all down because I don’t want to be that person again
It’s a good band you’ve got at the moment including an appearance by the legendary Terry Edwards (multi-instrumentalist with Madness, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, The Blockheads and Julian Cope) on the album?
Amazing band. It’s the first time Terry Edwards has played on anything of mine – he’s played with so many people hasn’t he,. He was amazing. He just came in and nailed it very very quickly.
I don’t want to get too controversial but did anything happen with Jacob-Rees Mogg’s twitter DM asking you to take the video depicting him down. I believe it got two million plus views? How did you feel about the whole controversy?
It was weird. When I made the video it was sort of inspired by Boris Johnson dressing up in police uniform, etc. That was the song. Then I wanted to sort of put someone in the car doing that. That picture of him lounging around in parliament works really well so that’s why he was in it, mainly because he fits that character and that kind of character.
When it sort of got picked up and started happening on twitter it was quite exciting and then it got almost scary. The only time that has happened before was when I put music to a Matt Hancock thing. A little joke thing with Matt Hancock which had people liking it or sharing it and saying ha-ha this is funny. With this one it was more people getting angry and personal and sending their messages to Mogg. I felt like I was in the middle of it. It was a bit strange. That was for two or three days and then it was gone.
You’re not trying to cause controversy?
No but it’s good. Years ago, when we were Carter, we did things like having condoms on the front cover of the Only Living Boy in New Cross and posters to go up. Out manager at the time – he loved controversy. I don’t know. It’s good when it happens. There’s something pleasing about it. We did that a few times with Carter.
So with that Carter cover and poster condom thing a vicar complained to the record label. That made it even better! The fact that it was a vicar! And when we did the “Don’t Buy Cliff Buy Carter” thing which we did for the Impossible Dream posters Cliff Richard’s management actually got in contact.
It’s good when it’s funny. But there was a point with this Mogg thing where it got weird. Do you know Jack Monroe the writer? She just commented on it then everyone started having a go at her about something totally unconnected. So all my twitter feed was just people having a go at Jack Monroe which wasn’t good.
Is it a legal thing with the Mogg thing? Can he get you to take it down?
I honestly don’t know. I sometimes wonder if it’s even him. Does he do his own tweets? It seems a bit sort of unlike him doesn’t it? Unless he writes them out and somebody types them for him. I can’t imagine that he’d be typing. It seems too modern.
So going back to your background and influences – were you in bands before Jamie Wednesday and Carter?
Yeah, I was in bands right back to school. Well, hanging around with people who also wanted to be in bands. Maybe one of us had a guitar or something and we’d call ourselves a band. Going right back to when I was 14 or something I was wanting to be in a band and then after leaving school I was constantly in bands. It was when I met Les Fruitbat that I started to do gigs. I think before that I’d just been going into practice rooms and people’s bedrooms.
Did you try to play as many gigs as possible at that time?
With Carter, yes. It was like every band I’d been in before. I’d play the same sort of local pubs like one or two places maybe. We’d play there every month or something and then we sort of realised “is this really what we want to do?” Playing mostly to your friends? So there was a point with Carter where we’d try and get gigs anywhere except for London. So we played quite a lot up north maybe playing to six people and then going back and playing to twelve people and that’s how we sort of built-up a following without releasing records or getting in the music press or anything.
You were always big in the north with Carter, weren’t you?
Yeah. I wish I was from somewhere up North or Scotland because there’s no regional loyalty in London. I don’t know if it’s because no one in London is actually from London? If I play London although it may be the biggest gig, people will be travelling from outside London to get to it. It won’t be like a London crowd and that has always been the same.
Carter were big with their first three albums weren’t they? Chart hits, massive gigs and a huge following that I think has endured.
Well people are sort of surprised that we headlined Glastonbury for example. They wonder how that was possible. Because at that moment we were probably the biggest live band in Britain. That was why. It wasn’t because they put us on as a joke or something. I mean obviously it went the other way. We didn’t stay big.
It’s obvious to say but you were in the middle of two scenes. Madchester and Britpop?
Yeah and grunge. I think Britpop was probably the end of us. Most of the good Britpop bands hate to be called Britpop though don’t they?
With the new album you’ve also got the mix tape thing with the cover versions. (Second disc ‘This is My Mixtape;’ a collection of cover versions recorded especially for the album.) That looks good.
With the last two albums I did a download of cover versions. I just did them at home and I wanted to do some stuff live with the band. It’s songs that I like and in most cases songs that I can sing. I don’t want to destroy things. There are some songs I tried that just didn’t work. There are things in there which are semi-connected like doing Dexy’s Geno for example. It was a song that everybody in the band liked. I just remember everybody singing it in the van after we’d played Birmingham when quite drunk. And there are at least two members of the band who are very big Squeeze fans so that’s why we did a Squeeze song.
And you make reference to the Squeeze song Up the Junction in the lyrics to the first track on the record.
Yeah, I love Squeeze.
One of my favourite cover versions ever is Carter’s version of the Pet Shop Boys track Rent.
Yeah I think that was probably the best one we did. I think maybe because it was the first. I think when we started doing more cover versions we started to run out of ideas. Or just doing over versions ‘coz that’s what we did.
You’ve been a successful fiction writer. How’s the writing going and are you still doing it?
I haven’t done anything book wise since I started music again. Nothing at the moment. I have got an idea…I mean it’s quite a simple idea at the moment… of doing some sort of lyric based book. I’ve written a lot of lyrics and a lot of people say the lyrics are good or whatever. I was thinking of doing something where I kind of write about where the songs come from or what makes me write them and maybe delve into that but then include the lyrics. That’s an idea and in theory it gives me a starting point. Writing a novel is such a big deal so I’m terrified of doing that again.
I read somewhere that you don’t really enjoy writing because it’s hard work.
The first novel I wrote I enjoyed it but it took ages. It took six years or something but I kind of enjoyed the process. And the second one I quite enjoyed. Then when it became a thing that I was getting a certain amount of money to do and somebody was publishing it it started to become less fun and more hard work. With the last two I sort of struggled and actually hating it at moments. I think a lot of writers are like that aren’t they? They have to do it but they don’t like doing it.
On your blog I used to always like reading your end of year things. The films you’d seen, the books you’d read, the gigs you’d been to. Great end of year lists.
Yeah, we still do that.
You should do a newsletter like Stewart Lee.
Yeah that’s an idea. Substack or something? With the blog a lot of the time I want to say things but want to say them in a more thought-through way than just on Twitter. I ‘d be slightly worried though “Have I revealed too much there” or it might just come across that I’m moaning or something.
Was it Streatham where you grew up?
Yeah I was born in Streatham and lived there until I was about 18 and then lived in Herne Hill and lived in Mitcham for a bit. All pretty much in that little bit of south London and I now live in Crystal Palace. Always been thinking of moving away like most people who live in urban areas. Living by the sea or on top of a mountain or something. It used to be good for going out or going to gigs and stuff but I don’t go out so much. When I did the end of year thing and I did the gigs of the year I’d been to one gig excluding ones I was at because I was playing! it’s a hassle going out, ha-ha.
When you were young were you in the middle of punk in London?
Yeah I was still at school when punk happened so I went to gigs towards the end of punk really. So I saw the Clash, XTC and Wire people like that. But then when I was really into music it was probably more New Wave. I loved the Jam, Elvis Costello. That sort of time. Those things have really stuck with me. Records from around ’77 to ’78 that I still play now and that I’ve played ever since. Albums that I still play. The first Talking Heads album. To me it’s their best album I liked a lot of their other stuff but don’t think they were ever as good as that again. Or the first Television album. It just seemed perfect but I think it’s a lot to do with being a certain age maybe. They get to you at a certain time. It always feels like a lot happened in a short space of time The end of the 1970s into maybe the first five or six years of the ’80s, and then after that things just seemed a bit slower.
I agree. Up to about ’82 – ’83?
Yeah, so many different and exciting things in music.
Any other Jim Bob projects coming up?
There’s nothing planned. Mind you this one wasn’t planned so I don’t know. Because I’ve got this in my head that it’s a trilogy I feel that I need to do something slightly different. I don’t know what that would mean or entail. Because I do like playing with this band that’s the thing. They are all fairly versatile musicians so they can do different things, so we don’t necessarily have to just go in and play it exactly the same. Also with song writing for me I always need something to write about. And if I’ve got nothing I can wait. There was a time when I didn’t write any songs for seven years and I didn’t feel the need or sort of inspired by anything.
Do you find it easier wring songs as you get older or harder?
What happens is I sort of get in a flow. If I write one song and if it feels like it’s part of something then I find it not that hard to write an album worth of songs but I can’t write beyond that. If I plan to write 12 songs I can’t write 13 songs. That’s a kind of limit so there’s never any spare songs there’s no bonus tracks knocking around but that was the same with Carter as well. We didn’t have any extra stuff. Everything we wrote came out.
Did you write everything with Carter?
I wrote all the lyrics but Fruitbat wrote the majority of the music. Quite a bit of it we wrote together.
Would you collaborate with people at the moment with writing or do you prefer to do it yourself?
Everybody collaborates with someone at the moment and that fact almost puts me off. I don’t know how well it would work because I haven’t done it hardly at all. So I don’t know what it would be like if I was in a room with Damon Albarn. Would we be able to write any songs or would it just be a waste of time? Because, the thing is, I record with a band and because there’s a lot of input from people, but I make decisions on how it sounds I’m less up for changing stuff. Which may stop me from collaborating because I wouldn’t like the things that people did maybe?
So as a lyricist who were your big influences?
Well, definitely Elvis Costello. Tom Waits. They’re the big ones. I like things like Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, David Bowie. Morrissey when he was with the Smiths. In fact Morrissey when he was Morrissey! While I love the Smiths I don’t listen to them as much now. I want to but I wouldn’t be able to listen to them without thinking about Morrissey. It’s kind of stupid but I don’t think there’s any reason why I shouldn’t be able to listen to them but it wouldn’t be the same. You’d be thinking when he wrote that – did he mean this? Some of the stuff that at the time people said was questionable I always gave him the benefit of the doubt.
I did. I thought he was just observing it and writing objectively.
In actual fact he was “a raving racist all along”.
Is Ian Dury an influence? There’s a reference to him on the album.
Oh yes, definitely. I suppose that was a collaboration. We did some stuff with him. He was on the 1992 Love album. we’d met him just before and he did a spoken bit at the end of a song on that album and then he’s in the Impossible Dream video. He was on a song I did with Fuzz Townshend from Pop Will Eat Itself as well. It may possibly be the last thing he did before he died. I think he was quite ill.
I suppose with the new single you’re going to have to take the C-word out for airplay reasons? Is there a radio play version?
Well, it actually got played last night by Steve Lamacq. Somebody said “Oh, you’re on the radio” and I listened back to it but I was really waiting for that bit thinking “Well what if they’ve got the wrong version”? And would that be a good or a bad controversy?
Before Carter reformed I was on a 6Music news thing and it was about bands reforming and they played like a vox pop recording of someone interviewed in the street. I thought I was off air basically and someone said, “Carter should reform… Mind you, they’re both probably in their sixties” and I just said, “Oh, fuck off you c**t!” Everybody panicked because they hadn’t turned off the mike but they managed to catch it before going out!
Live Jim Bob dates to celebrate the album’s release are on sale now:
12 July: Leeds Brudenell
13 July: Nottingham Rescue Rooms
14 July: Bristol Thekla
15 July: Brighton Chalk
2 December: Brixton Electric
❉ Tickets from seetickets.com
❉ Jim Bob’s new album ‘Thanks For Reaching Out‘ is released via Cherry Red Records on 30 June 2023, RRP from £12.99. The album will be available on vinyl, CD, cassette and digital platforms. The vinyl is purple in a gatefold sleeve with a 2024 calendar and the CD version comes with a second disc ‘This is My Mixtape;’ a collection of cover versions recorded especially for the album.
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre. His Twitter is @JamesCollingwo1