Art pop collective The Irrepressibles have been favourites on Drowned In Sound since their incredible performances at Latitude Festival six years ago bedazzled many an unsuspecting reveller. Initially formed in 2002 by Scarborough born arranger, composer and singer Jamie McDermott, the band released debut LP Mirror Mirror in 2010 to a wave of critical acclaim. Its successor, Nude, followed two years later, again picking up a spate of positive reviews including a highly respectable 8/10 here.
Since then, the band have undertaken several tours both at home and abroad which included playing to 5000 people in Russia's Gorky Park. They've also just put the finishing touches to Nude: Forbidden, the final part in the trilogy of EPs created to accompany 2012's acclaimed second album.
DiS caught up with McDermott in his now-native London with Russia, YouTube censorship and the art of production among the main topics of conversation.
DiS: You've just finished a short tour to promote your recent EP, Nude: Viscera. How did it go?
Jamie McDermott: They were a success in terms of the audiences being really into it. They were very quiet so it felt like they were really engaged. That was good. We'd never done an extensive tour of the UK before. Originally with the first record we were a big band, and then with the visual side of it as well would needed to have been staged in a theatre. What's really interesting about these EPs is that we've deliberately made them in such a way that we can tour them. So the first EP Nude: Landscapes was just a minimal three-piece orchestra then the second one Nude: Viscera was like a rock record. It's just visceral rock made by a five-piece that's not about anything more than being in the moment. And the music's created in such a way that it can be in the moment. It's all very emotional and sometimes quite sexual, that sort of side to it, so it allowed us to be able to do those gigs in that way. Before The Irrepressibles I used to perform with just an acoustic guitar. When I was younger I played in rock and punk bands so it is something that's rooted in my past. I felt comfortable being that again. When we performed at the Village Underground in London it was a really big audience, and just being able to let rip and play that way in such a cavernous venue was really interesting and exciting. I'm always a mixture of being insecure and slightly paranoid so it was quite a releasing experience.
DiS: Was it always your intention for the EP trilogy (Nude: Landscapes, Nude: Viscera, Nude: Forbidden) to veer off into three contrasting musical directions?
Jamie McDermott: To try and put it concisely, Nude was originally meant to be a record of tracks I'd written and performed with just me and an acoustic guitar when I was about twenty. At the time it was called Nude because it was about a live performance. But then by the time I'd come to making Nude as the second record for The Irrepressibles it was very much focused on trying to tell my story as a gay man. I wanted to say something that was very honest and about creating an idea of beauty that was based on sexual beauty but with a pop iconography shape to it. I was interested in making videos that would tell the stories, and also making tracks that would explain the stories. I think my arrangements convey the emotions contained within the tracks. So in some instances minimal electronica was darker and colder and really explained the isolation. In other instances orchestration was the right thing to work with, so when I was making Nude as a studio album it became a collision of sounds that were electronic yet set in the 1980s and 1990s from a sense of time when they were written. As I was growing up I kind of set them in a time, then used orchestration in a more cinematic way to give them a sense of emotion. That's how the electronic symphonic collision came about. Then there were really minimal tracks like 'Not Mine' which is very guitar based, so my string arrangement was just cello which just didn't sit within the album very well. Then there were other tracks like 'Forbidden' that weren't really required on the studio album because 'New World' was there and it was saying the same thing in a similar sense. But then the story of 'Forbidden' about a boy falling in love with his best friend as a child was really important to tell so it needed to be released somehow. But then all of these three worlds - the minimal electronic stuff on Landscapes, the stuff on Viscera and also Forbidden - just didn't sit together. The idea of having a sequel to Nude seemed quite weird. So anyway, there were all these tracks and a lot of them had been written at an earlier age. I didn't really want to carry on making albums from tracks that had been written when I was younger so that came out alone as an autobiographical thing about growing up. It made sense to put out three EPs in addition afterwards. The other reason is that The Irrepressibles is an audio-visual project and with both the first two records I've designed these installation spectacles. For example, with Nude it was more contemporary choreography about emotions through the body involving a staggered projection installation onto which we projected the films I'd made and performed with them and dancers and things. With the EPs it not only allowed us to go out and perform in smaller capacity venues but also perform the work people had effectively listened to in advance and therefore receive a true representation live of what they'd bought on record. So last November we did a mini-tour around the UK and America of Nude: Landscapes. We just presented those songs as they appear on the EP and this time around we've done a similar thing with the songs off Nude: Viscera. We've always really focused on playing live exactly how it sounds on record but with more intensity and not have anyone let down by us.
DiS: Is it something you'd look to repeat again in the future?
Jamie McDermott: I always wanted The Irrepressibles to make distinctly different albums. Mirror Mirror and Nude are very different to each other, so the third record will be about something else completely separate again. I never want to make the same record over and over again. I know it's a lot safer to do and it means you maintain the same audience but I don't really want to do that. I've spent a lot of time being a control freak so with the third record I'd like to be a little more collaborative. I've loved having the collaboration of people remixing my work, being really extraordinary. I've been involved in everything from arranging to writing the lyrics, performing the vocals and even designing the visuals with The Irrepressibles. I wanted to do something that was very different in pop music while also saying something in a multi-media way. This time I'm going to just see what happens. I do a choir which generates music through methods of improvisation and its very inclusive. We've done it with people who've not sung before. I'm very interested in the world of improvised music and what's happening and changing within sound as much as I am with what's being innovated within R&B music. Also really interesting pop music where there's some great innovation going on there. I'm pretty much open to anything, so as soon as I get my teeth bitten into something I will go with it. In the past it's always been pro tools and sounds within it. So for example when I can't work with a band every day I'll create my own opera and add some symphonic electronic elements to it. I've always worked with what's in front of me so I'll probably get involved with something and then make it happen, if that makes sense.
DiS: Do you prefer playing to a live audience rather than recording in the studio?
Jamie McDermott: I love recording electronic music. I do vocals for other artists as well and I love the process of working in the studio. I love the production process. But generally speaking I love performing live, being in the moment.
DiS: Are there any songs in place for the next Irrepressibles album?
Jamie McDermott: I've got a lot of stuff to say with the next record. I don't want to go into what it is but it's not going to be the same as Nude or Mirror Mirror. It's going to be a different message.
DiS: Your music had already been described as "chamber pop", "baroque pop" and "orchestral minimalism" among other things even prior to the three recent EPs. Have you always set out to encompass and transgress as many genres as possible with The Irrepressibles music?
Jamie McDermott: Certainly. Even with the name "The Irrepressibles". Sometimes it can be a little confusing, although I think I am like that. As a person I'm not very specific about one thing. It's always been the same with me about style as well. I think it comes from being very quiet when I was younger. A lot of things happened to me and I became very isolated. And then I went to my first festival and took ecstasy which made me realise what it was like to actually talk and externalise. I've always felt like an outsider stepping into an inner world, and I've kind of manifested that inner world. At the same time, I've always been OK with somebody else taking charge and telling me what to do. Work with their ideas and manifest them too. So I think redefining myself and the way that I work has always been quite easy for me to get involved in. Whether it's healthy or not I don't know.
DiS: Your music has been met with mostly favourable reviews from all sections of the press so far. Do you pay much attention to what other people write about your band?
Jamie McDermott: Yeah, I do to be honest. I'm a very sensitive and emotional person. I tend to look quite unhealthily at our reviews, particularly if someone doesn't like it. But then at the same time I don't deliberately set out to write music just to appeal to critics either. I was brought up in Scarborough, North Yorkshire and come from a working class family so honesty is the main characteristic in that part of the world to the point where it can be quite hurtful. I've always really held that true and never got involved in intellectually constructing something or crafting it in a way to achieve a certain result
DiS: You played a show in Gorky Park last year, which was quite an audacious thing to do considering some of Russia's attitudes towards confrontational art and the whole Pussy Riot thing. Looking back, how was the experience?
Jamie McDermott: There was an interesting thing with that, because it's a difficult time for bands and one of the only ways you can survive is if your music's used in films, theatre or commercials etc. We had one of our songs; 'In This Shirt' off Mirror Mirror; used for a Peugeot advert over there which just so happened to be one of the biggest selling cars in Russia so we became quite successful as a result. Apparently people are getting married and kids are playing football to it in Russia! There was an audience there so we played to 5000 people in Gorky Park. Obviously people were aware of the second album being so heavily focused on gay rights. However, the technical team obviously weren't as they spent the whole of the day doing nothing so that when we arrived on stage no sound came on. We basically had to stop everything and ask for the sound to be turned on front of house. We had a lot of really hardcore fans out in the audience. People that are really passionate about the music. Prior to that it was scary getting over there. I was mostly worried about my band because they were so adamant to go, and actually even cried on the train. I was just worried about anything happening, particularly from the safety aspect. It's difficult because Moscow is a big cultural city, and the Russian people are incredibly creative and intelligent. So we were nervous about going there, and then when we performed there were issues with the technical team who wouldn't allow us to play the video to 'Arrow'. We knew there'd be problems when we spoke to the local LGBT Resistance who told us how difficult it was to organise any kind of protest over there. And we also spoke to several allies in the audience that said similar things, but we used the argument about some of the guys in our band being straight as a way of persuading the sound people to let us put our video on. So eventually we showed the video to 'Arrow', and you could see people in the audience who were quite visibly shocked. But then other people were really elated that we made such a statement. Some of the messages after the concert said it was like having a night of freedom. It's difficult because on one hand we wanted to put on a performance showing some kind of resistance that might actually turn people's heads into seeing it as something quite beautiful. We've always tried to extend the beauty of homosexuality rather than it being about an aggressive sort of affront. We're not like that. We want people to think of it as more than just a sexual act. So that's what we tried to do in Russia. It wasn't about trying to wind people up. It was about potentially opening people's minds up a little bit. When we spoke to the LGBT Resistance about showing the video we wanted to be very careful about doing the right thing to help the cause rather than just be aggressive.
DiS: Do you see yourselves returning there in the future?
Jamie McDermott: I don't know whether we'd get back into Russia now after that performance. I don't know. If we can then we'd do it because one of the reasons to be there is to support the LGBT Resistance. I would go back tomorrow if I could. I mean, we have fans in Iran even. I've spoken to them at length on line. It's very difficult over there for them. So it's good to be able to make something of beauty that explains things in a way that might make people change.
DiS: YouTube imposed an age restriction censorship on the 'Two Men In Love' video last year. Did this impact on the number of views it received, and ultimately reduce the chances of it being playlisted elsewhere?
Jamie McDermott: The video hasn't gone as far as it would have done in terms of reaching people, which is very sad because the reason I so adamantly made Nude was borne through hearing about kids being bullied at school and killing themselves for being gay. It's a really dark and sad record in some aspects, but at the same time it's also us doing our little bit to say actually, it's cool to be gay. It was my way of explaining stories that I'd been through as a kid and saying you can get through that rather than just standing there and telling it on a video. The reason I made Mirror Mirror was as a reaction to Pop Idol and what it stands for aesthetically more than anything else. If you want to wear ridiculous outfits and crazy make-up and stand on stage singing skewered pop songs then why not?
DiS: The Hidden Cameras made a similar statement late last year with their 'Gay Goth Scene' video.
Jamie McDermott: Yeah I've seen that. It's a wonderful video.
DiS: Looking back and using the power of hindsight, is there anything you'd change with either Mirror Mirror or Nude? Are you as satisfied with those records now as you were when they were first released?
Jamie McDermott: Yeah, absolutely. I would completely re-record both albums! To be fair, William Turner Duffin's production on 'In This Shirt' is incredible. He managed to take what was a recording of literally three microphones and make it sound like that. He loved the track and really worked hard to make it sound as it did. Dimitri Tikovoi did a perfect job on 'I'll Maybe Let You' and also 'Nuclear Skies' as well. It's really really wonderful. I think everybody involved did an incredible job. Sam Miller did a great job mixing the album, and the same with Nude as well. Sam's work on that record was fantastic. It was hard producing Nude myself, very difficult making something that people would hopefully find sonically acceptable. And it's been difficult producing these last three EPs as well. I would prefer to collaborate with another producer but financial times are hard so it's something I've learned to do myself.
DiS: Is production something you see yourself doing with other artists in the future?
Jamie McDermott: Maybe in a slightly more egotistical moment. I don't really know? It's always very difficult. I've just recently written some music for a feature film and I'd stand in the room with the orchestra adding parts and creating pieces of music. Sometimes I'm very happy and comfortable doing it, but then in the same breath if someone would say to me how am I informed to make music it would make me stop and think. There's so much outside one's remit of creativity that is so much better. There are so many incredible composers out there who've done incredible things and when you even begin to think about that it puts everything into perspective. I've always made something with whatever's in front of me. I've kept hold of the idea that I'm saying something honestly very much about my emotion, and therefore it becomes more valid. But the idea of producing somebody else's work and telling them what to do, I'm not sure whether I could do it? It requires a certain sort of professional confidence, and I don't know whether I could maintain that. I am literally insanely insecure one minute, then supremely confident the next. Being in The Irrepressibles allows me to stand on stage and be insecure in that moment and then the next minute feel like I could be something else.
DiS: If you could pick any producer to work with, who would it be?
Jamie McDermott: I've worked with some fantastic producers. It was amazing working in the studio with Royksopp. Those guys just blew my mind. I was sat in the studio with Torbjørn (Brundtland) and he said, "I'm just going to make a sound." So he'd go and draw a soundwave and I'd be like, "OK..." And I sat with him and watched him literally shape sound. I thought to myself I may as well give up! These guys were geniuses. I don't think I could even begin to do what they were doing. I would love to work with James Ford. He's done some really fantastic productions. I like a lot of what's going on in electronic music. iamiwhoami who did a remix of our track 'New World', their production is just out of this world as well. They just know how to shape sound in a way that totally blows my mind. I love stuff from that end all the way through to Steve Albini. It depends on the nature of what the music is. So until I knew what kind of stuff I was working on I wouldn't know who to work with. Learning that stuff is something which requires a certain ear, and as a songwriter it's difficult to know what to do. Having slightly delved into that by working with other artists - Rex The Dog as well - you just start to pick up new ideas. It's just so big. Music's so big! People should just buy it so that people can keep making it. Stop illegally downloading it and listening to it on YouTube.
DiS: The first time I heard your music at Latitude Festival in 2008 it reminded me of Jake Shillingford and My Life Story. Were you a fan?
Jamie McDermott: I've heard of that band. Someone has mentioned them to me before. I need to check them out.
DiS: Will you be playing any festivals this year?
Jamie McDermott: We haven't been booked for any of the big festivals. With the exception of Latitude, we've never really been asked in this country. If anyone wants to book us we'll be there in many different options! We're all fairly adaptable.
DiS: What about further tours and live shows?
Jamie McDermott: In the UK? We may do some more dates in the UK but it depends on what we're being asked to do. I think there's this stigma held over from the 1990s that if you have anything whatsoever to do with classical music its deemed as being really uncool. So it was really difficult for us with Mirror Mirror over here whereas in France and Italy everybody loved it. While Nude a lot of people seem to be wary of the gay thing, almost by way of it being "too gay" even for some. I don't give a shit, but it's hard to get the support because we are seen as being too niche. But yeah, we'd love to do as much as we possibly can in terms of performing. We love playing live. We're not aloof or exclusive. In terms of Europe we're going to Tel Aviv for the first time, which I'm excited about as they have a big gay community. We've also been asked to go back to Rome, and Athens again too. Hopefully we'll be going to some other places as well although nothing's confirmed as of yet.
DiS: Finally, are there any new artists you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
Jamie McDermott: I don't spend that much time listening to anybody. Check out Opal Onyx who we've just been touring with. They've got a new album coming out in the summer.
For more information on The Irrepressibles visit their official website.