Interview: Jack Peñate

By on Wednesday, 23rd September 2009 at 6:00 pm

Jack Penate interviewI had the privilege of chatting with XL Recordings artist Jack Peñate before he and his band soundchecked for their gig at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel last Friday night here in D.C. In this insightful interview, he tells me how his latest album was unique in its recording and why working with producing legend Paul Epworth made him change his opinion of the recording studio. Jack even lets me in on the surprising inspiration for ‘Pull My Heart Away’. Have a read.

First off, welcome to Washington!
Thank you so much!
It’s so great to have you here, I was really excited to hear you were coming to our town.
Oh, great!
I came to know your music listening to 6music and other British radio stations. Is this the first time you’ve been to D.C.?
No, I came here when I was about 19 with my bassist, who is also my best friend from high school. We went across America doing the Greyhound [coach] thing. Yeah, we came here and did the White House and that sort of thing, but we didn’t stay too long. I don’t really know D.C. too well. I always kind of thought touring was the best way to see the world in a way, because music brings passionate people together, and it throws people together in a city. So it’s nice, even though I’ve been here before, you get to see venues, do meet and greets…

So you played Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia and the Mercury Lounge in New York before coming here. What were those shows like, are they anything like the ones you’ve played in London or in England?
No. It’s kinda like…they were kinda like the gigs we played back home maybe a couple years ago in the size and maybe what I need to do, which is hopefully make people talk about it. This tour is a lot about building things up. Hopefully…I kind of see the way I want my career to just grow, and people kind of learn about [me] through means that aren’t too unattractive, like huge budgets on advertising, which is, you know, how a lot of people get big. I like the idea of, at least for now, to do these kinds of tours, to just build up a fanbase. You know, people that really care about what you do. Instead of just momentary, they like you for a certain amount of time and go away. That’s what I did back home, I went around Britain over and over again, starting off playing off to a hundred people a night or maybe less, like 60 people, and then built it up to two, three thousand a night where it is now, and then playing to 20,000 people at festivals and stuff like that. I don’t know if that can happen here, but I know it can be done. So it’s always nice…this is my first chance to be able to start to do that here.

Had you toured at all in America before this?
No, this is my first time. I did CMJ…2 years ago, and then South by Southwest 3 years I think…no, that was 2 years ago as well. They were great, but they didn’t really feel like…they were huge festivals, there were so many people playing…
Well, the other ‘problem’ with those two tend to be filled mostly with industry types.
Exactly, totally.
We hear about them [bands] later, ‘oh that band was great‘, and then go buy the album but don’t get the same experience. Very few fans actually get to go.
Completely, exactly.

Like the other acts I’ve interviewed this year, you’ve been out on the festival circuit – even as far as Summersonic in Japan. Do you find your music is received differently in different countries? Do you have any particular memorable moments being on the road this year?

I definitely do think you can tell the different way people receive your music. Britain is…because I’ve built a proper career there, you know, people expect a certain thing from me, and I almost kind of feel like sometimes I have to be what I am there and what I’m perceived as. Whereas when you kind of get out and especially at the European festivals, they were incredible, people were loving it, and there was no cynicism, you know, they didn’t know about me, there were no hang-ups, they didn’t have anything they thought about me. And then Japan was insane! We played this gig, and there was a kind of typhoon thing while we were playing. On the song before the last one, the whole PA got flooded and blew up. The whole crowd were literally being pelted by lightning bolts…we played on the beach next to the sea, yet everyone was so cool. Instead of running away, they all just went more crazy, and I jumped into the crowd, and it was one mad sand pit in the rain. It was great fun.
Did you ever get the shoes you lost at Leeds Festival replaced?
No, unfortunately not!

Let’s switch gears a bit and talking about your new album, ‘Everything is New’, which came out here in America last month. You worked with producer Paul Epworth, who’s worked with Florence and the Machine, Bloc Party, and Friendly Fires. How did you guys get together for the project? What was it like working with him?

It was actually really pretty easy meeting him. It came through my manager who mentioned Paul and said, ‘what do you think about that?‘ And at first, I ‘m not sure, because he’s very British, and I didn’t really want the record to sound British. Then I met him and I started to tell him my ideas for the record. And he kind of wanted to do the same things I did, he wanted to kind of break out of what he thought he was perceived as, as the British indie person. He wanted us both to get bigger. We spent a day together in the studio, and in one day did ‘Tonight’s Today’ and got that to the record company, and XL loved it and said, ‘go and do the record‘. It was really simple. It just worked. I clicked with him. And then I had never had that before with a producer. He brought something out of me, and I brought something out of him, which was wonderful and really cool.

I read that it took a year to get everything together for the album. Is that true?
Yeah, it was a lot…it took us about 8 months recording, purely because we wrote a huge amount of songs. It wasn’t it was like we were lazy. Twenty, twenty-five tracks were written, and I wanted to carry on writing as long as possible to make sure the record sounded complete. So yeah, it took time, but it didn’t matter, it was about the overall product.
It’s always better when it’s a labour of love and it’s something you’re proud of. And you have a better handle on what you want to produce.
What do you think is the most difficult part of the writing/recording process, if there is one?
Most difficult part…for me, with this record, it was when to say stop. In fact, I kind of really fell in love with producing and the idea of production and sounds. Paul is obsessive about being a producer, so I really got into it too. So the hardest part of this record was to be like, look, we’ve got to fucking put a stop to this, we could carry on doing this for the next 10 years, you know what I mean? ::laughs:: That was the hardest thing. I had such an incredible time doing it. It was really lovely. I had been touring for 3 years before that, and I felt I’d become a little bit jaded by the music industry and the press and everything, so I thought I wanted to get away from everything. And it was amazing to get away from everything but do it in a studio, instead of kind of running away to, I dunno, a foreign country and sit around and do nothing. I was still in London but I was able to hibernate in this little studio we were in, like a shed where we did everything. And it was amazing.

The album is a departure from your first album, ‘Matinee’. Was this a conscious decision? How/when/why did you decide to take a musical turn for the new material? Did you look to anyone in particular for inspiration?

I’ll start with the consciousness…I think everything is conscious when it comes to songwriting. Everyone writes thinking. So obviously I was thinking, okay, what do I want to do? And what I did want to do was write a record that was felt like me at this point in time. So in no way was this record done clinically, it was done completely with absolute love. And basically I wanted to change…the big thing I felt was I wanted to learn and do was to change the style, the way I wrote songs. Because you know the first record was very much ‘singer/songwriter’. I wrote the whole record – me, an acoustic guitar, and a notepad, and then I took the songs to the two boys in my band, Alex and Joe, and worked them out, and that was it. It was very kind of linear. It was song, ::makes dur dur sound for effect::, done, record, out. You know? And I kind of realised by listening to so much other music and listening to Fela Kuti and Dr. John or other music that has a lot of atmosphere and a lot of rhythm, I love that kind of music so I wanted to bring that into what I do. So what happened was that, I think the reason the record sounds different is because I was looking to write songs in a different way. It was more about maybe a bit…obviously, I still wanted it to still have hooks and still be pop, but I wanted it to be about atmosphere more than anything else. And I wanted the whole record to sonically have a real identity. And I wanted it to have a space to it, around it. Incredibly open I wanted it, so it went all around your head and not just in front of your face. The first record was very much there ::gestures with putting his hands in front of his face:: and I wanted this one to swim around you. So yeah, that’s why. I wrote a record that I wanted to hear. And I felt I had nothing to lose. I felt like if I came back with an album that was like ‘Matinee’, that time was over. I didn’t want to ever repeat myself. And this was what I wanted, I wanted to write a record for myself. I didn’t care about anyone else or what anyone they said. Funny thing is, when you do that, people on the whole say nice things about you!
I think it came out at just the right, perfect time. Because right now, atmospheric music that transports you somewhere, and also dance music that gets people up and dancing – I don’t know if it has to do with the credit crunch, but people want to have fun again. I’ve definitely noticed that dance music and the whole scene is blowing up again.
I think realism…we had a big bout of realism in lyrics, in Britain especially, ‘I go down to the pub, and I do this’ and all this sort of stuff, and I think people don’t want realism anymore. They want to run away from the truth, which is a lot of people feel fucked.

c-jpenate3I heard your latest single, ‘Pull My Heart Away’, for the first time on your MySpace page. I really love it.
Oh, thank you.
And I’m really glad it’s getting a lot of airplay on British radio. It’s very different from the other songs on the album. Do you feel it’s a better representation of you as an artist, or is there another song on the new album that you feel says ‘this is Jack Peñate’ the best?
I think that song, ‘Body Down’, and ‘Tonight’s Today’, I think for me, those three songs on the record represent me as truly as, at the moment, I would like to be seen. The tracks still have a kind of melancholy about them, but they’re almost joyous. For this second record, I had all these different ideas about what I wanted them to be, and I said to Paul at the beginning, ‘I want them to be melancholy and joyous’ like ‘Teardrops’ by Womack & Womack, that was my reference point. And a lot of Talking Heads is like that as well, like ‘Naïve Melody’. So those three songs, they have that, they’re really soulful. And ‘Pull My Heart Away’ is definitely one of my favourite songs on the record. When I was writing the record, a lot of things in my life changed. I moved…it sounds kind of funny, but I moved out of home, I still lived with my mum until I was 23, because I really didn’t want to leave because she lives all alone. So that song is about that. It’s about leaving her. And it’s hard, but sometimes it needs to be done, because otherwise you might start to resent someone, you know, that kind of feeling. So yeah, it has that a lot of personal meaning.
I’ll never think about that song the same way ever again. ::grins:: It has even more meaning to me now now that you’ve told me what it’s about!
And ‘Tonight’s Today’ is about me becoming a little too obsessed about going out and having way too much fun. And then it goes the other way around, because you hate yourself when you wake up every day at 5 in the afternoon with sore bones and a terrible head. You know, I took it to another level.
I imagine that is totally doable in London, with the crazy club scene.
Oh yeah. It’s drug fueled, drink fueled, sex fueled. It’s everything. You realise when you get out of London, you kind of think London is like every other major city. And then you get everywhere else, and then you think, fuck, it’s not. People can actually control themselves on the whole. Yeah, we’re disgusting. We’re a disgusting little city, that’s why I love it. Always have been for the last 500 years! People losing the plot. We love it. It’s an island, that’s why! Everyone feels stuck, there’s nowhere to go. And we’re surrounded, and you can’t swim anywhere, you can’t get away.
Haha, that’s what I like about London, I’d like to move there someday.
You should! Wonderful city. I’d definitely recommend it. I reckon a year’s enough. ::both laugh::

So I’ve been following you on Twitter. What’s this about you being back in the studio? Are you working on stuff for a new album? Or are they a stop-gap kind of thing?
I don’t know. I never stopped really. To tell you the truth, before this record, the new one, the studio – I really didn’t understand, I wasn’t in love with it. I was in love with songwriting, and I was in love with performing, but I wasn’t in love with the studio. The first record was like, go in, press record, get some mikes up, and that was it. And then I went in with Paul, he showed me about sound, and how sound can manipulate, and ways of bringing out emotion that isn’t just through the vocals or the lyric, also through the sound of a guitar, or a kick drum. So yeah, I really love the studio now. I find it as important as live and writing. So I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to feel out of the loop with recording. So any free day I’m having at the moment, I want to try and write and record as well. And if we get a day off somewhere, maybe we can work at a demo studio and record. So it doesn’t end.
Do you write on the road?
I’m trying, but it’s hard. But yeah, I definitely try.

What’s next for Jack Peñate? Or should I say, what would you like to do that you haven’t already done?
Play Coachella. I’d love to do stuff like that. There are kind of festivals – yeah, I mean, that’s kind of boring because that’s work stuff. ::smiles:: I’d love the chance.
Aww no, everyone from England I’ve talked to that has gone [and played] to Coachella, they all want to go because California is this great sunny paradise!
Yeah, the bipolar opposite of Britain! Complete opposite. And I’d really love to build up a really, really great fanbase in Britain, America, and Europe. And one that actually cares. I find it hard to think about the future and what I want…
::smiles:: You’re so young!
I want to do things really well. I want to feel proud. I would love big success, definitely, I think everyone would. But I’d only ever want it if I felt it was done with integrity and that I was proud of myself. I don’t want to do well and not feel proud of myself. That will make you unhappy really.

I know this is only the fourth date on the tour. So what’s your next stop then?
Back up to New Jersey – Hoboken.
So back up north. Doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason…
Yeah, there is none whatsoever! But it’s fine. ::grins:: I don’t mind. We get to read in the bus, and watch ‘Masterchef’. We love it, it’s the quarterfinals now so I’m going to go watch it after the soundcheck. We’re really excited about it.
Do you like to cook?
Not really, but my girlfriend is amazing. We love food. We’re all a bunch of foodies.
So…thank you for doing this interview. And good luck with everything!
Yeah yeah, thank you very much!

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