Thursday, August 16, 2007

Jacknife Lee's self-titled album is released on Fiction on Monday

U2 and REM producer Jacknife Lee vowed he’d never be in a band again. But he is.

To hear him tell it, Garret “Jacknife” Lee’s career has been one of unalloyed failure. As the Irishman, best known for being the producer of huge-selling records by U2, Snow Patrol, Editors and, soon, REM, releases his fourth solo album, it seems that talking about it is pointless. “The idea was to have one idea in each song, and to make every song sound the same. But I failed in that, because they do sound different,” he sighs.

Lee, 40 this year, is no softer on his previous attempts. “The first wasn’t really a record, I was learning to make noise without being in a band. The second one is really sh*t. I shouldn’t have been singing. It’s a mess. The third one was really confused. I was caught up in the spoken word thing. I had no intention of releasing it. And I hate writing lyrics. I’m never doing it again, or singing, or making an album again.”

Promotional duties out of the way (and, despite its creator’s protestations, Jacknife Lee’s is an enjoyably cynical set, with some excellent tunes such as the stomping Making Me Money and the self-explanatory Bands), Lee actually has plenty more to say. For a start, he’s glad he isn’t a full-time musician.

“I feel bad for bands. Once they leave the studio they have to deal with labels and press and all that,” he muses. “People used to do two albums in a year because they weren’t doing eight hours a day answering the same questions.”

The concept of an interview escapes him, let alone having a photo taken. “When I was in bands I never really thought about talking. It seems a little vulgar,” he says. “It’s a problem with our culture in general. Everybody’s overly eager to expose themselves. Why does Stephen Fry, a man I admire, seem compelled to do pop-psychology television shows?”

Lee didn’t follow the traditional route from tea boy to producer. After a few years as the John Lydon lookalike guitarist (with orange hair) in the unashamedly reductive rock band Compulsion, he met up with DJ-producer Howie B (“a great mind”) and learnt to record with computers, which he adored. “The utter dumbness of rock’n’roll, which I love, had been removed through the same technology that made dance music possible.” After an early mash-up featuring one of his old records was mistaken for his own work, he felt compelled to have a go himself. Reaction was positive and plans to run a B&B in France were put on hold. After a couple of false starts, including an aborted album session with the similarly inexperienced Kasabian, he finally hit the big time with Snow Patrol’s Final Straw.

“People in bands liked it, because there was a lot going on,” he says.

Word spread. “U2 called. I was brought in for the Eno-esque role of the Great Confuser, throwing out mad ideas.” He played on and partly produced How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

Not everyone appreciates his approach. “I did a session with Rick Rubin, but he didn’t like to be confused,” Lee says. “He does all the work before going to the studio. I try to encourage bands to go in with no songs at all, which scares the hell out of record companies who don’t know what they’re paying for.”

His first brush with the business was in the Dublin band Thee Amazing Colossal Men nearly 20 years ago. “I try to remember my first experience of being manipulated and ignored,” he recalls, “Our producer was very insensitive. Other people played on our first album. It was made by other people and had our name on it. “I work for the band not the record company. When I finish mixing a record it’s the best it can be,” he says. “But yes, I do discuss it with the label. There’s no point telling an interviewer afterwards.”

Lee now works at home in a sunny converted barn in Kent, his wife, two daughters and a friendly black Labrador at hand (though his Celtic complexion means he doesn’t do sunshine). “Recording studios are not designed to make musicians feel comfortable, but to make technicians feel comfortable,” he says. This spot now welcomes a stream of unlikely visitors. Recently the Hives came to record, followed by a flight-case containing their stage-wear and personalised T-shirts. “That was great because when you work with a new band you can forget their names,” admits Lee, “Dressing up to play music isn’t normally done, but perhaps it should be.”

Martha Wainwright (“An amazing woman in red high heels, guitar in hand, walking down the lane”) most impressed his children. “The boys who come just mumble when my little girls say ‘sing a song’. She just sang all the time,” he says.

He obviously appreciates not being the centre of attention. “It’s interesting being with people in the media spotlight, though. Bono is probably the most normal person I’ve ever come across. Nothing affects him at all. And REM aren’t strange. They’re just your proper artists,” he says.

His other extracurricular projects are far from stadium-indie: the sublimely named, perpetually delayed, Savile Robots and the “possibly offensive” Pikey Christ – their logo a centaur, half-horse, half-Elvis. And, with Snow Patrol’s Gary Light-body, Listen . . . Tanks! “It sounds like battle songs from the Franco-Prussian Wars,” he claims. “

Somewhat warily, he complains that music’s traditional role as an escape route has been eroded. “I’m sure that designing a piece of software to turn your lights on and off from your mobile phone will get you the same amount of f**ks and money,” he jokes.

He tried to get his new record taken off iTunes, preferring the traditional album format and mistrusting the site’s poor audio quality.

But Lee is no grumpy old man. Eventually he endorses even his own work. “My record was cheap to make. The artwork is interesting. I don’t have to live off it, which is really liberating. I’m happy it’s out.”

For now he’s giving his own children a musical education. “We’ve abandoned all the Disney music. To get them into Kraftwerk I dressed them up in tinfoil as robots,” he claims. “I’d like to put out a compilation album for parents who are sick of kids’ music though.” That should be another hit.



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