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I'LL HAVE A MEXICOLAS ON THE ROCKS PLEASE! BY MYSTERY FLAME

Jamie Evans caught my eye (oh, and ear too!) in 2008 when his band Mexicolas released a wicked single called “Shame” and the album “X”. Both were a catchy, rocking affair that went down quite well with the press and the industry in general for its Foo Fighters-meet-The Stereophonics youthful verve. But at the beautiful 18th century Minerva Studios in Birmingham I find a solo artist who has matured a great deal and is ready to take the world by storm with a whole bunch of addictive tunes and a voice to die for. But let’s take it from the beginning…

MYSTERY FLAME: I understand you were born in Leeds. How did you end up in Birmingham?

JAMIE EVANS: I left home in 1999 and moved to Nottingham where I had a band doing straight forward rock, 70s style: nothing special, in fact it really didn’t go anywhere. But it taught me the ropes the hard way and made me realize that all I wanted to be was a musician. I came to Birmingham about 5 years ago because that’s where the label was. I was with them with the other band and with Mexicolas we thought it would be good to work under their noses, so to speak. It was the only way to show them that we were seriously committed.

MF: Up until not too long ago a band that wanted to be noticed still had to move to London, but today things have changed quite a bit, right?

JE: Absolutely! Birmingham is the second city in England and I think there is enough of a scene here to get things going. To be honest in London I’d feel too overcrowded.

MF: Were there local bands you worked in conjunction with when you first moved here?

JE: Yeah, there was a band that was sort of part of the furniture called Casino with whom we did a big Kerrang! tour across the UK and Ireland in 2007. The lead singer of this band, Adam Zindani, did an amazing amount of work getting a deal for his band with Polydor and so on (Adam is now the Stereophonics guitarist - ndr). He’s the only one I brushed shoulders with here in Birmingham, otherwise I keep myself to myself. I don’t even get the time to go out and catch bands as I am in this studio working all the time.

MF: The first thing I saw of Mexicolas was the documentary for Channel4’s “4-Play” series, I thought it was great! Who engineered that?

JE: It was our manager Steve (from In Exile Records – ndr). He convinced the guy who does the program to come down to this warehouse in Digbeth where the three of us lived and recorded and just film us. Very good times we had in there… We thought it’d be a great idea to get it documented properly. We didn’t even have the record together then, so it wasn’t done for promotion or anything, but we were happy to do something positive.

Channel4 Documentary

MF: And after that, the big hype happened: the press loved your “big sound”, with Kerrang! getting involved in a major way to promote the album “X” and big time booking agency CCA (Creative Artist Agency) signing you to their star-studded roster.

JE: Yes, at the time we were very much into that fold, and I did enjoy it, but from a writing point of view the last song of the album, “Spies”, already tells you where I was heading to; that type of more intimate stuff came more natural to me.

MF: To be honest I could picture you living the rock’n’roll life…

JE: Oh don’t get me wrong, I love rock music! I am in awe of bands like The Stone Temple Pilots and Queens of the Stone Age, I think what they do is amazing… But for me it got to a point where I was all a little too much. It was 2008 and we went to L.A. to do some gigs with The Cult, then came back in the summer to do the big festivals, like Rockness and Download in Donnington, then ended up in Japan supporting The Offspring: it was such an amazing year! But I kind of felt at the time that I was trying to fill someone else’s shoes, it just wasn’t me at all… I don’t know, it’s like here in the studio it really doesn’t matter how many tattoos you have, it’s just all about the music! You come here in the morning and you are just being creative. Plus, I was being influenced by the rest of the band who were big time into the rock’n’roll scene.

MF: It’s like you got caught up into something that was getting out of control really quickly.

JE: Yeah, yeah, totally! You know, the rockier tunes were great, I think what we did then we did it really well, but I just remember one day being backstage at Donnington with people like Bullet for My Valentine and feeling completely out of place: we weren’t really on the same pages ‘cause, y’know, when I get into the car I listen to something like Canadian indie music… I really try to find music that has some soul to it, that has some raw delicacy to it, and that’s what influences me when I write. I don’t know, I felt that that scene was a little too cliché, everyone has to have tattoos and drink as much beer as they can, and that’s fine if that’s who you are, but it’s not really me. I met Alice Cooper when I was really young and I remember being shocked about how sweet he is in real life; I have never forgotten what he said to me: “Don’t ever pretend to be something you are not, you will find your own voice eventually”.

MF: The thing is, the public really picks up on it if you are not happy with what you do…

JE: Oh they do! And eventually I had to break it to the other guys, you know. I was so frustrated with the way that we were perceived: I just wanted to be recognized as a musician and what I really needed was going back to basis and find myself. I had been in bands for 10 years but I was always the youngest one, even in Mexicolas, so I have always looked at the other guys as peers, y’know, they had been there and done that and I had a lot of respect for them, so whatever they said I took on board. I guess that with the last two guys, Tim and Ben, I took too much on board because they were friends, we lived together, and that’s what you do in that sort of situation… But when it came down to really push each other, that’s when things started to fall apart: then you’ve got to try and save your friendship, try and save your career, try and get your inspiration going all at the same time and it was getting a little bit too much for me.

MF: Did you manage to save your friendships?

JE: No, sadly not. But that’s one of them things, I am a much happier person for what I did. I was completely honest with them so I have no hang ups about it and I wish them all the best.

MF: Basically, in spite of the golden opportunity that had fallen on your lap, you felt it was the right time to grow up musically and had no other choice but to break free and follow your own path… Hats off for being true to yourself! So tell me a little about your earliest influences.

JE: Oh my Mom had literally thousands of Motown records, so I got into that as a child. On a vocal level that’s where I got my inspiration from: I love black soul music. Then my Dad, who is from Romany gipsy blood, took me to see an amazing gipsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt at 7 or 8 years old, and that experience really opened my mind! I was living in Germany at the time and I was being taken to see some incredible jazz artists, who were saying: “You are a bit young to be into jazz!” haha… My Dad was in the Army and he’d go away for months at a time, so he’d leave all his guitars around the house and I picked them up and started to play almost to bond with him, y’know… I’d show him what I had learnt, then wrote my first song, and I built it up gradually until I got the confidence to go out there and do my own thing.

MF: Impressive! I can see why mainstream rock is a bit too restrictive for you.

JE: Yeah, especially from a musicianship point of view: I think, rock-wise, one of the most impressive bands around today are The Queens of the Stone Age. Josh Homme is an amazing musician! The sound he gets is so dirty and primitive but it is absolutely perfect and I think it’s his conviction that makes it all happen, I really believe in rock music you need a lot of that! Look at AC/DC, they never hid behind any gimmicks, they just plugged in and went for it, ‘cause Angus Young could play the guitar and Bon Scott could really sing, so there you had a bunch of guys who truly gelled together and had the same conviction. In the first Mexicolas album that conviction was there in drips, so it really never made sense to me, even though I wrote it. So this time, I just wanted to make a record that made sense from start to finish.

MF: You mentioned QOTSA, is it where you got the name for your band?

JE: Yeah yeah, in their first album there is a song called Mexicola. Also, I was watching a video of U2 live in Mexico and I think it’s in the middle of “Where the streets have no name” that Bono starts to scream: “Mexico-Mexico-Mexicola-Mexicola!...”. In some respects I wish I hadn’t called the band Mexicolas, and I could have easily changed the name for this new album, but I feel we made such a splash with the first record that it would be a shame for the fans just to turn round and say, look that’s no longer the name.

MF: Actually I thought you could just go out there and use you own name, like Paolo Nutini, because this is a 100% solo project…

JE: I see what you mean, but I guess I see it more like a Nine Inch Nail kind of thing. This new project is resting completely on my shoulders and on one hand it is a lot easier but, on the other hand, there are no excuses now! With the fist line-up we were always arguing about why we didn’t get any airplay and so on, nobody wanted to take their share of responsibility. With those things, it’s always down to either wrong timing and people are just not ready for your music, or you have just to try a little bit harder… Sometimes you have to stick with it no matter what and that’s what I am doing: what I want now is for people to listen to my songs and I am prepared to work as hard as I can to achieve that.

MF: Is your creativity mainly channelled into music or are you a creative person in general?

JE: I did the artwork for the new album, I love drawing. As a kid I was really considering going into acting, I loved using different types of voices and so on… But playing the guitar and making music for me is a fascinating process. Everyday for me starts and 9.30; I come here and I could be sitting at the piano or I could pick up a guitar and sometimes nothing happens, but most of the time by 6 o’clock I would be half way though a new song… And sit there and think: “Where did all those words come from?...” That’s why really creative people never make much money because that’s not what drives them. That said, I have a record deal and I have to honor that, so I also work hard because I am aware that this is also business so I have to be commercial enough to be able to sell records for the label that is putting its faith in me. Actually it’s a good kind of pressure, because they understand that it is important to be natural with creativity and in return I show them I am committed and I have conviction. I have learnt from my mistakes and now I can channel all my experience into my writing. Actually, it’s good to do it the wrong way first: now I can see straight away who comes in here and has ulterior motives…

MF: I guess that being a bit of a looker must attract a lot of people who are hoping to make a quick buck off you…

JE: Oh no… (embarrassed, he tries to disappear into the sofa’s large cushions, chin on his chest, smiling like a kid - ndr) Well of course, but no… actually that stuff makes me laugh… You know, it’s my mom and Dad’s fault haha…

MF: You cant’ help it can you?!...

JE: No, seriously, that’s not important to me: I just want people to listen to me not to look at me. There are people out there who use their looks to get somewhere but I am a much better looking person inside, I know I am. Erm… could we change the subject? ‘Cause, y’know, it’s the music that matters.

MF: Of course! So tell me how you found your own expressivity with the vocals.

JE: It’s just about my own natural voice now, basically. I have also worked hard on the words, I love language and I always try to find ways to make the lyrics complement the music. For example, if I like the sound of a word, let’s say “haphazardly” (the name of the new single – ndr), I work hard in crafting a set of lyrics around it, but always making sure I am actually saying something from the heart and based on my personal experiences. I always work in layers, so a song can mean ten different things to someone else although it just means one thing to me, and that’s also down to the choice of words.

MF: So are you hopeful that the new Mexicolas will be well received?

JE: Well, I hope so. This time around it will be a little bit harder to latch onto some genre or other, hopefully. It is a much more hopeful sounding record, every chorus comes in and it lifts the atmosphere, it doesn’t go in all hard or depressing at all. I worked hard in trying to make the songs work, finding hooks to make them varied and memorable at the same time. I learnt a really valuable lesson from the recording process of the first album: I was left pretty much on my own devises production-wise, and I remember I just sat there and recorded literally hundreds of guitar sounds for each song! It was really overcrowded and when it came down to mixing the album, the guy found it impossible to work with: so I understood that if you get the parts wrong, the song just doesn’t work. I used to write the music first, you see, and fit the rest around it afterwards. So now it is a 50-50 situation where I write the music as I write the lyrics, and everything fits in perfectly and doesn’t need filling up by needless guitar parts. So this time there’s three guitars tops at any point, and for that reason there’s more space. The most important thing on the record is what I’m saying lyrically and you cannot put that across if you hide behind a wall of guitars, synths or loops! This time it’s all more honest, in fact it is a brutally honest sound that forces you to listen to what the lyrics are saying, which was a big challenge. I think the music on this record is like a good friend, it’s just there for you…

MF: It is also a really flowing piece of work.

JE: Yeah yeah, it really makes sense to me from start to finish. I demoed about 25 songs and, at the beginning, I was still shaking off the old Mexicolas heavy, grungy sound, until I got it out of my system and got to write something fresh. I’m glad I did that ‘cause, as I said, I want to move on and really push myself!

MF: So what are the old fans saying about the new material?

JE: Well we leaked the album out early as everybody thought we’d broken up and stopped, so after a year of silence, during which I have been working non-stop, we are giving people the explanations for the split and time to settle down. We put the album on e-bay for a couple of weeks and the old fans all said: “Wow, completely different, but what a great album!” No-one’s saying that it sounds like so-and-so anymore, it’s really a great response! OK, maybe the real metal-heads won’t like it, but then again, I think that a good song is a good song. This album really taps on emotions, there are certain songs that still make my hair stand up when I listen to them. One track actually made me cry: I did the first vocal take then listened back and I was a quivering wreck, y’know… It was so intense it just did something to me… And if I can get only 5% of the people to feel the same, I think I’ve done what I’ve set out to achieve.

MF: A true music lover appreciates all kinds of genres, you have no idea how many extreme metal bands really love Radiohead or the Cocteau Twins, for example.

JE: Absolutely, and I can really appreciate the stuff that Slipknot or Pavement do, even more so because I cannot do it myself, so it just blows my mind!

MF: So who do you see yourself touring with, now that you have shifted into indie-rock territory?

JE: Ah, that’s a good question… right now it’s hard to say, I guess we will see in a few months’ time.

MF: Would you see yourself supporting dEUS for example? They are very eclectic and emotional, not to mention one of the best bands around as far as song craftsmanship is concerned.

JE: dEUS?!!... Did you just say dEUS?!... They are my absolutely favourite band in the world haha!!!

MF: No way! They are one of my favourites too, they are amazing… I saw them in the UK, Paris, all over Europe...

JE: Well, I tell you how much I like them. The first time I met my wife she told me that she had kissed Tom Barman outside the Birmingham club where they had played many years ago, and I thought: “That’s it, we are meant to be together!” Tom Barman is my absolute hero… I am also into a Canadian band called Broken Social Scene, they are great. At the moment I am really into either Belgian or Canadian indie music for some reason.

MF: So if you had to accept a label for your music, would “indie-rock” be ok?

JE: Yes, it would. But there are also other elements to it, so it’s more like “indie-pop-rock”. In some respects this record is heavier than the first one, because it was done with more conviction, therefore it sounds more convincing. And although I did it all on my own, it sounds more like a band, and it’s so pure, undiluted and definitely more mature. For this reason it certainly makes me punch the air more than the first record did.

MF: What is the idea behind doing an acoustic version of the album, which is what you are working on right now, I believe?

JE: I just like the idea of pulling my songs apart, stripping them down and see what other dimension they can reach. They can be released as B-sides or as another album, we are not sure yet. I just want the fans to be able to have another version of the songs and you never know, they might break bigger than the album itself… When it’s just a guitar and a voice there is a lot more honesty, it strips the bare bones of the song and there is no hiding behind anything. I have worked really hard in changing them, the melody and the lyrics are still there, but the vibe has changed completely: I will play some to you later.

Danny (lovely Dan Sprigg, who has worked with UB40, Ocean Colour Scene, Lostprophets, Cradle of Filth, Napalm Death amongst others - ndr), who has produced and engineered both albums for us, is helping me with this and it’s a really relaxed and enjoyable job. So far we have recorded 8 acoustic songs. We are also doing a dance remix of one of the songs from the album.

MF: Going back to my question about touring for the album, do you have any plans to do it by yourself?

JE: When the time is right it’ll be a question of picking the right musicians and go on the road, but that’s the last thing on our agenda. At the moment what matters to us is talking to people like yourself, the press, radio DJs, other artists and so on, just to get the ball moving and get the name around. We are giving the record away and for us it’s a positive way to push forward. We really want to establish a good fan base before we go out on tour. And if the record falls eventually into the hands of some management and get asked to support people like Paolo Nutini or Deus, at least we can bring on the table a good fan base. In 2008 we played in front of 11.000 people just on our own, so it’s not that I don’t miss playing live, quite the opposite: it cripples me! Sadly the way the industry is at the moment, you either get a record on Radio One or you pay 40 “grand” for doing a tour yourself. So I am definitely waiting: we hope that the break will come through radio-play. Y’know, I have put everything I’ve got into this album so hopefully this time music will do the talking. I am 30 years old, so it’s really a make it or break it situation for me…

We are off to hear the acoustic songs, and they blow me away! Joined by a happily grinning Danny, Jamie sits by the recording desk, turns the volume right up and totally immerses himself into the tracks: I can physically see the huge passion he has put in every single note. This guy’s voice takes me into Chris Cornell/Mark Lanegan territory more often than not (which is a great thing!) but there is such genuine warmth in his approach to music and that alone makes it individual enough. I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed the candid and passionate insight that Jamie gave me on the music industry of our times. He is not shy about wanting to break into the mainstream, but the difference with Jamie/Mexicolas is that this artistic project rests on honourable, solid foundations such as talent, musicianship and hard work. So I wish him all the best, hoping to see his album do at least just as well as the many rubbish prefabricated acts that sadly flood today’s market.

Please go to www.myspace.com/mexicolas for a wealth of info.

Mystery Flame reporting from The Minerva Studios, Birmingham - May 2010. Black and white photos:Lucie Evans