Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Jack Latham used to tell fantastical stories about his old jobs, like the brief time he marketed 'chrome body extensions' to the fashion world, or his year as a corporate spy for a sportswear brand. These were ecstatic truths that said more about the world that his music as Jam City inhabited than any autobiographical information could. Debut album 'Classical Curves' was a world of marble, steel, and glass, of skyscrapers, corporate lobbies, and privatized plazas. It was the world of late capitalism, where financial algorithms replace human beings. And it was seductive.
Today, Jack Latham is on a different path. No longer does he feel he can simply represent this world: he has to challenge it. "There is a place for holding a mirror up to the world that you live in," Latham explains in a North London pub, "But I've done that now, and I still feel the same as I did then. I'm still not happy with this world."
His new album 'Dream A Garden' is rooted in the present day realities of the 99%. It's an album for the disenfranchised, the unemployed, and the underemployed. It's an album for the sexually harassed and for the racially profiled. It's an album for young people being told it's their fault that they were born in this cultural climate. It's an album for people who know that the next rent increase will push them out of their homes, yet who find themselves surrounded by unoccupied, unaffordable apartments. In the video for lead single Unhappy, Latham walks through his hometown sporting a white denim jacket with his own patches sewn on. Two words are emblazoned on his back: CLASS WAR.
But where there's anger, there's also optimism. 'Dream A Garden' is an expressive album that paints a dreamlike version of our tangible reality, and it places the human back at the heart of this world. Where things were cool, smooth, and stripped back on 'Classical Curves', here sounds are warm and saturated, layered up until they begin to buckle under their own weight. Keyboards, guitars, and Latham's own voice weave around one another until they become one and the same, a mirage where nothing is quite what it seems. Latham has slowed his tempos down, too, but the grooves still burst with the energy of the bashment and DJ Mustard tracks that he'd been DJing out around the record. "I just desperately wanted to slow things down; I'm sure a lot of us want to," Latham says, "I was getting stressed out by these super hype club environments. Let's take it down a bit: same energy, less hype."
'Dream A Garden' won't tell you how to change the political, military, socio-economic, and media climates that shape our world. Latham doesn't have any answers – no one does – but he does ask a question that few musicians seem willing to: what if another world were possible?
There's a lyric in Unhappy that I interpreted in a few different ways: You can prove it in your music / The will to disconnect. Can you explain what you mean by it?
Jam City: "It's about making music, and how making music can afford us with the ability and the means to escape something, to disconnect with our world. We can disconnect from the ugliness of it, because it's too much, it's too oppressive, it's too unpleasant. Or we can disconnect from it as a refusal, and say that we don't agree with this, that I don't want to replicate any of these ideologies in my music, I want it to be free from that.
"Music and art is a place where we can do that. I'm on an independent label and most of the people I play shows with are in the same position. There's no one breathing down our neck about what we can say or what we can't say – so we may as well just say it."
Even artists on independent labels tend to be quite self-centred in their music – they all talk about the same vague or generic experiences using the same vague or generic language.
Jam City: "[Laughing] Well, it's white men talking about not having to ever deal with anything other than their own experiences."
Exactly – and there's so much of it. I felt like the lyric was talking about musicians disconnecting from the world around them, rather than engaging with the bigger picture.
Jam City: "This little corner of electronic music has historically been a male-dominated scene, and so when men – particularly white men – disconnect, and they're the majority representing underground or even mainstream music, then we're in trouble.
"I don't think it's being wilfully blind – my skin colour, and the fact that I was born this sex, means I wouldn't necessarily have had to think about those things. That's how privilege works. [But] it's those people, more than anyone, who need to take responsibility for their actions and speak up, and to illuminate something that goes unsaid for so long.
"I was talking to a friend the other day. She performs, and she said, 'I get sick of being asked, What's it like being a female artist?' I really feel for her, because I wish we lived in a culture where that was the de facto question being asked of any other artist. 'What does being a man mean to your music?' You'd get some interesting responses. Or not – but people would have to start thinking about it."
"I was talking to a friend the other day and she said, 'I get sick of being asked, What's it like being a female artist?' I really feel for her, because I wish we lived in a culture where that was the de facto question being asked of any other artist. 'What does being a man mean to your music?'" – Jam City
When you announced 'Dream A Garden', you issued a press document that quite bluntly and quite unambiguously lays out your intentions with the album. And even when you can't hear your lyrics, you're still posting them online for everyone to read. Do you feel a responsibility to be transparent about what you're saying?
Jam City: "Yeah, it's just drawing a line in the sand. I like the phrase 'remembering who the enemy is'. It's not us. This culture of consumer aesthetics doesn't do us any favours, it just makes us feel shit about our lives. I know I'm not the only one who thinks like that. I just want to be like, 'If you feel alienated by the cultural landscape that we live in, you're not alone, and you're not weird. There are forces outside of your control, and people in power who are exploiting you.' I don't think that what I'm saying is particularly extreme."
I don't find it particularly extreme either, yet at the same time I was very heartened to see you talking about this, because so few musicians seem willing to do so.
Jam City: "It's hard. I was lucky in that certain experiences I had, and that certain people I met throughout my life, have opened my eyes to a lot of things and given me the conviction to be like, 'I think I can talk about this, and I think that it's gonna ring true for some people'. But it's difficult – we live under a culture of neoliberalism, and it seems like there is no alternative to the situation we're in at the moment. I don't know how to end the system we're in, or how to change it, but I do know that it is possible, and that we have a lot more power than we realise.
"I guess that's where the title comes from: in order to reclaim, to begin with, we don't have to launch polemical tirades or join a socialist party or something like that – not that that'd be a bad thing – but we can literally start by saying, 'What if?'"
On your website right now, you bust all these adverts for protein supplements, and images of the militarised police, and things like that. Separately, these images are all disconnected, but when you put them together it makes sense of being part of the same thing. It maps them out and helps you locate yourself within that system rather than by focusing on singular issues. Understanding where you stand is where it begins.
Jam City: "It's identifying it. It's being like, 'I don't have to accept this.' It's hard, because that ideology is so embedded in our culture. I've grown up in a culture that's sexist, that's xenophobic, that's intensely consumer-driven and aspirational. And it runs so deep: where do you even begin to be like, 'No'?
"Art and music is where you begin. How you feel in an ecstatic club/rave moment, how you feel when you hear a really heartbreaking song – that feeling is your own. That little thread of energy – that's your voice. No one else owns that. That can be the starting point where you can formulate an opposition to the things that make you feel shit."
"I've grown up in a culture that's sexist, that's xenophobic, that's intensely consumer-driven and aspirational. And it runs so deep: where do you even begin to be like, 'No'?" – Jam City
'Classical Curves' explored potentiality rather than actuality. You would tell stories about how you had jobs in corporate espionage and high tech body modification. 'Dream A Garden' is more rooted in the reality of the present. You sing about spitting at a Foxtons sign in Crisis, for example – that's very real, that's not linked to fantasy…
Jam City: "But the act of spitting is! [Fantasy] is a coping mechanism. I wouldn't say that this is a protest record, but some of the songs – maybe not in the lyrics, but sonically – they attempt to turn the everyday nightmare into a dream, maybe smudging it slightly, reordering your environment. I like the idea of somehow finding magic [in the everyday world] and altering the landscape. There's this book by Sam Delany, Dhalgren, which is about young people who live in an abandoned city in America, where the contours are constantly shifting – so roads disappear, or lead to one place one time and lead to other places at other times. That really struck me. Living in a city, we still have a degree of autonomy to uproot and reroute things, and find tactics throughout it all. We've been placed in this maze and we've been forced to construct this fantasy – not to escape from it, but to deal with it. That's the relationship with fantasy on this record – the power of fantasy to disrupt the current order.
"One really important experience for me was when the riots kicked off in 2011. We were in Peckham, and to see a street that you walk down every day with all the glass smashed, and the police standing there, then an empty row, and then the community of people who live there, that you're a part of because you live there too, screaming at these murderous policemen that killed an innocent man, Mark Duggan… that's a powerful experience. It makes you see your environment in a different way. When there's a line of police along an empty street, you can't walk through anymore. You can't go to the shops. At that moment, there's a completely radical restructuring of public space. There were obviously unpleasant aspects to that whole uprising…"
But no less unpleasant than the situation it arose from.
Jam City: "Exactly. And to be in the midst of that, it's kind of dreamlike, in a way. We see that in the pictures of these burning cars – the city seems completely different. There's something of worth there, seeing what's possible in the dream state. It makes you have a completely different relationship to yourself and your environment."
Fantasy and dream in this sense isn't escapist, it's optimistic and full of possibilities.
Jam City: "It's a tool that we all possess, although it's hard because the world we live in tries to erode our imagination by selling it back to us. I guess the album is my attempt at documenting that and trying to imagine something else within this world that we currently live in. I would want to pass that on to other people: to recognise the power of your own dreams, no matter how impossible they might seem."
Night Slugs release 'Dream A Garden' on March 23rd 2015 (pre-order).