James Atkin has been working hard during the lockdown, conspiring with Richard March (PWEI) to pull together old friends from the 90s indie music scene to produce a series of cover versions called Tonight Matthew…? in aid of the charity Help Musicians. We caught up with him to chat about things past and present, the Tonight Matthew…? series, and his latest album release Aries Pagan.
Louder Than War: You’re married to Rachael from Fluke/Beauty School, where are you guys living now?
James Atkin: We moved to the Yorkshire Dales. It’s beautiful, there’s not a lot of action. I felt like I did my time in London, we wanted to get out – we did look all over the UK, at Cornwall and Devon, and just by chance we came up North – we went to the Lake District and then headed into the Yorkshire Dales and thought “this is pretty”, and just went for it. It was a bit of a crazy move, because we were still in that London party mode, it was a bit of a shock, but 15 years later we’re settled in. We live in a village called Clapham – Alan Bennett lives here as well which is quite cool, sometimes we see him in the local village shop. He’s a proper hero, just having random conversations with him in the shop about potatoes and things is quite bizarre.
Unbelievable was released 30 years ago this year. What was it like for you in the EMF heyday, you guys were pretty young and it was pretty fast and intense. What were the best and worst things for you?
Oh gosh yes it was. We are going to release a 30th anniversary boxset but this summer we were going to go out and do some gigs and some stuff to support that. Yeah it has been 30 years which is absolutely insane.
I think you’ve nailed it there, it was very fast and I was very young, everything was happening at about a thousand miles an hour. We did a handful of gigs, got some interest from a record label – which sounds incredible these days – we had three majors trying to chase us, and they wanted us to go to London to do a gig but we refused and said “no, if you’re interested come and see us in the Forest of Dean”. So we booked a gig in our local pub and we got all these record labels down. Within a space of months we were in a studio and then we booked a little tour supporting Adamski, which was quite mental – the tour was a three-week tour of the UK, it wasn’t glamorous in the back of a transit van staying at really dodgy b&bs, but by the end of that three weeks we were getting headlines and it was crazy; stuff like the front cover of Smash Hits which we weren’t really expecting, because we did think we were an indie band, that was what we were into, and then all of a sudden we were propelled into being pop stars. I guess the best bit was touring America – for guys our age, five best friends, touring America on sleeper buses, partying all night, sleeping on the bus and getting up in a new town just to do it all again, for six weeks at a time, and getting to make some really lifelong friends, one of them being Richard March from PWEI. We took a lot of British bands over with us, and a lot of friendships have lasted until now really. Worst things – I wish I’d enjoyed it a bit more, I was a bit het up, a bit younger, inexperienced. I was 20, when we got to America I remember having my 21st birthday and before that I couldn’t even drink, which always struck me as a bit of an odd one. I remember the rest of the band were partying really hard and I wish I’d joined in a little bit – I was so het up, I wasn’t a very confident frontman and I didn’t take the pressure that well, whereas if it happened now I’d really love it. But it was a whirlwind and it was a lot of fun, and it lasted a few years which was brilliant.
We played a gig with Stereo MCs last summer actually and it came to my mind that they did an interview where Rob answered the question “What was the worst thing about being in America” with “listening to EMF every night”. I brought it up with him and we had a bit of a laugh about it. They were a great band.
Those times were great. I was recently watching a thing about the Castle Morton rave -I was just up the road from Stroud as well in ’92, and I was thinking where the fuck was I then, why wasn’t I at that rave, because I used to go to loads of big parties then in 1992. And I realised, Oh I was probably touring the world then being a popstar, missing out on all this British free party culture that was going on. So that was the down side, I missed out on quite a few raves.
The EMF period lasted about 5 years, we did a couple of really great albums and then I think we lost our way – I think we just grew apart from each other as individuals and we lost focus, quite a lot actually, and it just basically fell to bits. Stupid really but we had sold a lot of records so we were getting quite good budgets to go off and record the third album. We made a double album with lots of fillers on it, and we recorded it in France and spent loads of money on this record, which was just really incoherent. Some of the fans still like it but feel a little bit that I can’t listen to it. It’s amazing how, when you’re young, in the space of 3 or 4 years, you can change so much. So from that first record Schubert Dip to the third album we changed considerably and there wasn’t one thing in the band that was holding us all together – I suppose we all had different interests and that tore us apart a bit. I’ve got quite a good relationship with most of the band, I think that’s probably because of the history of what we went through, but there’ve been moments when we just can’t stand each other and can’t talk to each other. It’s very much a love hate thing with EMF – it’s something I’m really proud of but then sometimes I just can’t go near it. It’s an odd one.
What have you been doing with yourself in the years since?
Bentley Rhythm Ace was Richard March’s band with his working partner Mike Stokes. I was just there from the beginning, at the point where they turned up at my flat in Camden to say they had a gig at the Rocket up the road, we haven’t any equipment, what should we do? We got a shopping trolley, put some bongos in it, went to the hardware store, bought some painters overalls – I think we painted “East 17” on the back or something stupid – and ever since then I got heavily involved in the live stuff. I did consider myself a member, and the other guy was Fuzz Townsend – Fuzz and I have always been connected to Bentley Rhythm Ace and we’ve done gigs over the years, to the point where the last Bentley Rhythm Ace gig we did, we were on a boat going over to Amsterdam, Mike couldn’t do it, Richard turned up and didn’t have his passport, so me and Fuzz had to do a Bentley Rhythm Ace gig without the actual original proper members! So it’s a bit like that. But after 25 years what do you expect?
I’ve been making music non-stop and I’ve had a few little projects. I got really friendly with Justin from Elastica and he and I made a few records. I had another band that got signed to Polydor. They’re probably quite big achievements but compared with what I did with EMF I don’t really think about it too much. I’ve always been involved in music, and then after a while I met my wife, Rachael, she was the singer in Fluke, and then we decided we wanted to get out of London so we disappeared up North and settled down. I actually did a teaching degree and went and got a job and became a school teacher, which is what I do now. So my day job isn’t really that glamorous, I’m a secondary school teacher and I do things like chase kids around playgrounds for smoking, stuff like that.
They must love it that you were in a band and have that history?
Yeah they do. It’s really funny, it puts your relevance in place – these kids weren’t born before Unbelievable was hitting the charts. Parent’s evening gets a little bit strange! You get asked for autographs? Yeah, you get parents, and even grandparents now! It was a bit of a novelty being an ex-pop star in a teaching environment with all the teachers and the staff and students, that’s kind of worn a bit thin now. I think everyone’s got over that and I think I’ve got over it now, I never really think about it when I go into work. I’m a music teacher, I teach a lot of A level 6th form students, but I also get pulled in to do cover lessons so I could on a daily basis be teaching maths, RE. I’ve done some pretty wild ones like Home Economics too!
Unbelievable has been used in quite a bit of advertising, is that still going?
Yes, thankfully it still does quite well. We have good years and bad years, it gets used and then doesn’t for a couple of years, and then all of a sudden a big sync will come through and it’s a nice little bonus every now and again. It helps when you’ve been furloughed.
You very recently released your fourth solo album?
So for the last five years I’ve been doing some solo records and I’ve been recording them purely on my own in my studio in the Yorkshire Dales: producing it, writing and recording it, and releasing it all on my own as well has been quite liberating. My new album Aries Pagan was just about to drop as the Covid thing happened – the only thing it really messed up was that I couldn’t do physical copies of it, no vinyls or CDS, so I thought I would just do a digital release. But it seemed a bit off asking people for money when people are really struggling, so I thought I’d just give it away as a free download, because music is going that way anyway – I think I’m living in the 90s if I expect to make money from music as such. So I thought I’d give it away as a free download, and then I thought why not tie it in with this Musicians’ Union charity called Help Musicians. So what I did was make it so that people can grab the record and then they can donate if they wish to help musicians. It’s been really successful, to be honest I thought people would just download the album but people have been really generous. Most people have donated £10 which is the price of an album, some more some less, it’s been really successful. I’m just wondering whether it’s been more successful because of that, because people are quite generous and like to help in a positive way like that. Mostly. I mean the news is looking pretty grim at the moment. I just fear for my family and my friends, that there are people out there like that. And Facebook is awful, I’d love to come off Facebook but I don’t know what other platform I’d have for getting records and stuff out there if I didn’t have that. There’s just so much foolishness in what people post.
How did the Tonight Matthew…? idea come about? How have you managed to round up so many people? It’s got someone from pretty much every band on my 90s playlist (and if you could possibly persuade the Mighty Lemon Drops to get back together please, that would be great…)
It’s been great hasn’t it! Honestly, it is a case of picking one of your favourite songs and thinking “Who would I like to be in it?”. How it began was with me sitting in my studio thinking, Jeez have I got to sit here all summer and not go out and do any gigs, no playing – and you’ve got to remember being quite isolated and a person of my age gigs are your social life. Some of the people that have performed on the Tonight Matthew…? have been friends for 30 years, really close friends – you make connections with people , they’re a big part of your life. So from a selfish point of view I was sitting there thinking “what can we do?”, and I thought “right, let’s try doing a cover version with a few friends”, and it was just going to be a one-off. Every so often I go through periods of being obsessed with The Cure, and I was thinking of some really cool Cure songs but I thought we should go for something really cool that people know. So I spoke to Justin from Elastica who’s a really good friend, Richard from PWEI who has become more and more involved and taken it to the next level, Frannie, and my mate Oliver. It was just a one-off, a little trial, a let’s see what happens, how can we do this, because logistically how’s it going to work? And it was really simple and really easy. I won’t bore you with the logistics of it, but it was a case of “I want to do this, what do you think?” and everyone says “yes, that sounds good, let’s do it!”. A week later Richard said “shall we do another one?” – he’s really talented in production and engineering and he understands music a lot more than I do in terms of how to put things together. So we’ve evolved into roles where he’s doing a lot of the production and music and I’m doing the video and visuals for it. And then we have a little chat, pick a song, who do you want in it, get out the black book, who haven’t we seen for a while – and we’ve thought of some of our oldest and dearest friends like Fuzz and Mary. And Rat and Miles. That’s the one that really kicked off actually. We got a couple under our belt, and then – we do this Shiine Festival every year, and last year on the Sunday they had all the Birmingham bands; the Wonderstuff, Neds, Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus Jones, and we thought, well wouldn’t it be amazing to get all those. To some people they’re like the big five bands – for a period in their life it was all about your Jesus Jones, your EMF, your PWEI, your Wonderstuff, your Neds Atomic Dustbin, and we wondered is that going to work? So we approached Miles, he’s been a friend for a very, very long time – in fact my parents were friends with his parents which is really weird, they were best friends when they were teenagers – but it’s grown into this mental thing and it’s getting bigger names all the time.
What I also like about it is it works well visually, and it’s clear you’re all having a great time – little touches like at least four of you jogging in time on the Talking Heads one.
It’s amazing how much people are up for it, willing to try stuff, but I guess musicians just love showing off don’t they, so it just kind of works.
Tell us a bit about the charity Help Musicians
It’s an emergency fund set up by the Musicians Union and other people in the music industry as well, to help struggling musicians. It gives grants of £500 which people can just apply for, which helps musicians just a little bit if they’ve lost gigs and stuff like that. I’ve spoke to a couple of people including people who’ve done the Tonight Matthew….? who have actually been given these £500 grants, so it’s obviously getting out there and helping people. If you’re a musician at that stage where gigs are vital and everything’s been taken away from you, it’s really tough. We just wanted to do our bit really.
How has the Covid crisis affected you personally, what have your days been like?
It hasn’t affected me at all really, is that terrible?! I know some people have had a really negative experience, but for me it’s been quite wonderful. My family have a very simple life anyway, we live in the middle of nowhere, we don’t socialise that much, we go to gigs occasionally, but we’re not big socialites going to pubs and stuff like that. The positive thing is it’s made me appreciate where I live. We can get a bit stir crazy thinking gosh are we missing out on life a little bit living out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s certainly come into its own having a little space and reconnecting with the family a little bit, which has been really nice – keeping the kids off school, which I can imagine has been a nightmare for some people, but for us it’s been a joyous experience. Maybe that’s an awful thing to say! I feel like I’ve really got close to my family, in our little bubble. It’s crazy times, isn’t it. But it won’t last forever. I wonder if it will be different though, if there will be a shift to a more simpler life afterwards.
What album is currently top of your playlist?
My wife always takes the piss, I’m so crap at listening to new music. The last vinyl I bought was that last Chemical Brothers album which is probably over a year old now. She will sit me down – we have a nice space with a big sound system – occasionally we’ll kick back a bit and have some beers and she’ll play me loads of new music and that is the only way, but then I’ve immediately forgotten who it is and what I like. I’m quite digging the new Fontaines DC, the new tracks I’ve heard off that album are jumping out at me, which is surprising because not a lot of stuff jumps out – I think it’s just me, not anyone else, I’m in my own little world up here. The last band I saw before lockdown was Fat White Family, they’re great, there is some refreshing newish stuff out there.
Two great bands, LTW has covered both of them at the Kentish Town Forum.
It’s a great venue isn’t it, it’s one of my favourites. We were always at the Town & Country Club (as it used to be) because we were North London boys really. I like the 100 Club too.
Aside from the people you’re doing Tonight Matthew…? with, who would you love to work with if you could?
I suppose they’ve got to be alive haven’t they! Bernard Sumner, Johnny Marr – and Ian McCulloch would be quite cool I think. They were massive when I was growing up. I’m still trying to get Adamski to do it too, I fancy seeing him in a video, he’s looking quite wild lately. He’s pretty out there, very cool.
What are your plans for the future? Do you see any projects coming out of Tonight Matthew…?
We’re going to carry on doing a few more and eventually we’ll compile all the audio and release it as a Bandcamp release or something, and if there are any proceeds left to go towards the charity then we’ll make sure. Lots of people have asked about an audio CD or something, so I guess that would probably tie it up. There was talk of a few shows – we’re all really good friends, so if we could get us all together to do a gig it would be quite something. We’ve got one gig in the diary with BRA at Shiine in November, it sounds really cheesy but it’s actually alright because it’s a real debauched weekend with lots of middle aged people really going for it when they should know better. BRA have the Saturday night on the centre stage and I think me and Richard might have a conversation around “look we’ve got all these guests is there anything we can do?”. Kermit was a member of the Bentleys at one point and Fuzz obviously is anyway, and what we’ll probably do is have a look at who else is on the bill that weekend – I bet most of these people will be on the bill anyway, so it might come together miraculously. I haven’t talked to the promoters yet but I’m sure they wouldn’t say no, maybe I’ll just surprise them!
How many more Tonight Matthew…? are you planning?
We’ll get to 10 and reassess it. At the moment we’re having so much fun, it seems quite simple and people are up for it and I think it’s still got legs at the moment so we’ll run with it as long as we can. If it gets to a week where we’re thinking, ah who can we have? and everybody starts saying no then we might have to quit. But at the moment it’s just idea after idea and every week gets wilder and wilder. At some point it’s going to have to stop. Mind you, at the moment the internet seems to be saturated with these DJ sets – it’s not so bad when you’ve got your doors open and you’re sat in the garden just listening to it, but I just wonder what people do, if that’s their thing. Although it seems like everyone’s thinking lockdown’s over though now doesn’t it, they’ve started going out and partying a little bit haven’t they. It’s quite scary.
But we’ve got some big names lined up for the coming weeks, which is really exciting and we’re really looking forward to that. We were going to rush the next one through this weekend but we thought let’s just spend a bit of time on it because we’ve got someone pretty special.
Watch the whole Tonight Matthew…? series here