Jamie Lenman chats to Kate Bradley about his time with Reuben, his new material and his application to Oxford.
In 2008, Reuben split up. It’s a sentence which means very little to many people, and a huge amount to a dedicated few thousand. By 2008, Reuben had carved a significant niche for themselves with their dynamic hard-rock, but various pressures culminated in their “indefinite hiatus”. The phrase was too indefinite to stop Reuben fans hoping that the trio might get back together, and driven by this hope, their fanbase has grown noticeably since the split – this summer, 2000 Trees festival even put up a Reuben stage as a shrine to their legacy, and there was hope they might reform. That didn’t happen, but their lead singer and songwriter Jamie Lenman burst back into fans’ consciousnesses in September, announcing a solo album and UK tour this winter. I caught up with Jamie for an interview about the new material.
Muscle Memory is wildly eclectic – on the first half, the “heavy” side, different genres of metal compete, whilst the second half brings together swing, Americana, folk, acoustic and even a traditional British sea-shanty. Jamie explained the new influences. “I’ve been hanging out in Devon and Cornwall a lot, listening to those sailor choirs that hang out in the old pubs and sing all those brilliant songs. It’s a very British sound. Of course, there are American work songs, but you don’t want to get into things like the slave songs. I don’t think it’s my place to sing those, but the English work songs, I think I can say that they’re my culture and my heritage, so that’s why I did one of those.” Though the British influence is clearly present on the album, Jamie acknowledges American music as a big factor in deciding this album’s sound. “Americana, that was something else that I found in between my last record and this one. And Steve Martin, which is funny because a lot of people think he’s just a comedian, but really before he was a comedian, he was a banjo player, and he still makes banjo music and it’s great. And through him I’ve found a lot of old-time American folk music, and it’s really a very rich genre. So what you hear on the record is my summary of the tiny amount that I’ve heard.”
The splitting of ‘soft’ from ‘heavy’ on Muscle Memory is the real change from Reuben’s material, and I ask him why he’s taken this new direction in his songwriting. “We had the idea for this record when I was back in Reuben, because people would often say, especially with In Nothing We Trust, ‘oh it’s a great album, but it moves in too many directions’. While I’ve always thought that was an advantage, I did sympathise with people who were looking for a more streamlined listen. So what I thought would be good was if we keep the heavy bit, and we keep the soft bit, but we gave them each space, so that each could be free and you could have a more uniform listen.” Listening to the ‘soft’ side of the album, it’s hard to imagine Muscle Memory being described as a ‘uniform listen’. Jamie admits that the album has turned out more varied than he intended. “In the process of writing it, what we’ve actually ended up with is that [both sides] are very varied… What I wanted was to create two discs that had a similar vibe all the way through, and now I’ve ended up with a crazy hodge-podge of every genre ever. So yes, in that essence, I did fail.”
Despite this self-deprecation, Jamie Lenman’s new album has thrilled everyone who’s heard it. It’s an album to please everybody – for fans of Reuben’s sheer volume (and Jamie’s scream), tracks like “No News is Good News” and “The Six-Fingered Hand” will be favourites; for fans of big riffs and dirty basslines, there’s “A Plague on Both your Houses”. For those who loved Reuben’s talent for subtle harmonies, there’s “Little Lives” and “For God’s Sake”, and anyone who likes the big, catchy choruses can’t go far wrong with “Pretty Please”. Across the full album, the main continuity is the personal nature of the songwriting. “I would say 90% of it is autobiographical. It’s very rare that I dip into fiction. Slightly less rare are the philosophical or wider references, and there’s a little bit on this record about politics. But again, they’re only my views, so those are personal as well… But I’m aware that explaining art sometimes too much can rob it of the things people have got from it.”
I notice as we’re talking that Jamie still mentions Reuben a lot, and hasn’t tried to compartmentalise the stages of his career. Does this mean that fans should retain that hope of a Reuben reunion?
The answer I get isn’t “no, never”, but it’s close. “I’d have to say that the chances of [us] getting back together are pretty low. It would probably be most helpful for all those Reuben fans out there if I just said a flat ‘no’, and then they can stop thinking about it. But I can’t because there’s always a possibility, and I’m afraid that I’ll always give that answer, because as long as we’re all three alive, there’s always the possibility it might happen. But it’s certainly not planned, and I think if it could ever happen, we’d have to give it a lot more time. At the moment, especially because I’m releasing my own bloody record, what would be the point? There has to be some artistic merit. Unless you’re genuinely saying, “I wish it was 2006 again” – in which case, you have bigger problems than a band breaking up.”
Nevertheless, Jamie’s glad that the fans are still playing and replaying Reuben material. “I’m happy that the music we created during that period has stood the test of time. I mean, I say the test of time, but it’s only been six years. But I think creating music that doesn’t rely on people being in the moment to enjoy it is an achievement, and I’m very proud and very pleased.” I asked if he’d play any Reuben songs on the December tour. “When you go on tour, you tend to give precedence to your new material, obviously. But I’ll still be playing those old songs. I still like ‘em. They’re still great songs. If people wanna hear them, then I’d be a dick if I went on tour and didn’t play them. Can you imagine that?”
In a small, insignificant way, we have the University of Oxford to thank for Reuben – Jamie applied, but they rejected his application, so he decided to make music instead. The album We Should Have Gone to University suggests he may have playfully regretted that decision. “Maybe, y’know… honorary degree, Oxford University? I’m probably not quite owed it yet, but it’d make me feel better. I might even come back for it at some point.”
So, for all you Oxford Reuben fans – keep your eye out for Jamie at the next matriculation ceremony. It could happen.