Nine years since cult heroes Reuben embarked upon an indefinite hiatus, Jamie Lenman has wound up becoming one of British alt-rock’s foremost statesmen.
The frontman/guitarist made his triumphant return to music in 2013 with Muscle Memory, a bipolar showcase of uncompromisingly heavy riffs on one side and folk (and occasionally jazz) inspired ballads on the other.
This year, he fuses the two together with Mississippi - a sludgy, electronic-enhanced ode to that most sibilant of rivers - and a UK tour to boot.
As he readies his finest licks ’n’ quips, we caught up with Mr Lenman to bear witness to the best first-guitar tale we’ve yet come across and perhaps the most superb/tragic onstage nightmare, too. Oh, and what it’s like to meet Brian May in your pants…
1. What was your first guitar and when did you get it?
“This is a great story; you’re going to love it. We’ll leave out the guitar I learned on, which was a big old classical thing that belonged to my mum - by the time I was nearly 12 I had been begging my parents for an electric for ages and my dad would say, ‘When you pass your piano grade 2, we’ll get you a guitar.’
“Which, on the one hand, is actually a pretty good deal: they were offering me a reward for working hard, and getting better at the piano is something that would have been good for me. But crucially, it also misses the entire point that I wasn’t interested in the shitting piano; I was interested in guitar, goddammit.
“So, anyway, stalemate. Then my teacher at school, Mr Wong, hepped me to a songwriting competition run by Yamaha and the Times Educational Supplement, and my best friend’s dad recorded me in his lounge singing one of my first songs, a bizarre and inappropriate-for-an-11-year-old blues number called You Love Me Best. I ended up coming second in the youngest age group, I got to perform my song with a real band of awesome session guys onstage in London, and I got to shake John Leslie’s hand (this was a bigger deal back in 1994).
“Crucially, though, whereas the winners in the older age groups got huge cash prizes, the youngest category winners got Yamaha music vouchers for their school, the idea being that it was probably the music teacher who’d written the song anyway. Not true! So you can imagine how gutted I was to have missed out on that, little comforted by all the snazzy new keyboards the music department could now afford.
“Imagine, then, my utter speechless joy when my school called me up in front of the assembly on my birthday and presented me with a fucking awesome all-white Yamaha RGX! I mean, technically I’d won it, but still amazing. It sounded and still sounds completely incredible, and I’d still be using it now if it hadn’t been so bashed about over the years, and in fact my main guitar now is one of my vain attempts to find another one of the exact model, but I’ve never been able to identify it - not even my Yamaha rep could. One day I will find another!”
2. The building’s burning down – what one guitar do you save?
“Well, it’d be a toss-up between my first one there or the one I bought to replace it - another white RGX with double humbuckers, but slightly different. My first guitar that I won used to be covered in stickers and paintings and had all these memories on it, but some guy I hired to fix the jack input decided to scrape all that off and paint it pillarbox red, which broke my heart.
“So now it’s my second guitar that still has all the memories on it - newspaper clippings, backstage passes from old shows, beer labels, etc. I wouldn’t describe the music I play as punk but my guitar definitely looks it. It’s taken so many knocks over the last 15 years and it keeps going - it’s held together with two metal plates I screwed into it and only the volume pot still works, but that’s all I need.”
3. What's the one effects pedal you couldn't do without?
“I don’t like effects and I’ve never used ’em, apart from overdrive, which is essentially just a louder setting. So, to answer your question, it would be my Laney Tube Fusion FX amp, which is a little practice amp that I had turned into a head when the speaker blew. The distorted channel on that is just the best sound I’ve ever found and I’m terrified that one day it’ll blow up and I’ll never sound the same.
“I’m still trying to find another one somewhere; even Laney couldn’t track one down for me. I did see one on eBay once but the listing said ‘As played by Jamie Lenman’ so I thought it’d be weird if I turned up to his house to collect it. Or would it have been cool?”
4. Is there a guitar, or piece of gear, that you regret letting go?
“My Akai HeadRush loop station. I used it a few times on the last Reuben tour to loop various parts, but it got a bit complex and I got rid of it. Now, though, I’m thinking that could come in handy again…”
5. When did you last practise and what did you play?
“Weeks and weeks ago, one of my own songs. I hardly ever practise, only if I have a show to do. I had a rehearsal coming up with my drummer to go over some new material, so I had to bone up. I think there’s gonna have to be some quality time for me and the old twangdoodle before this next tour though!”
6. Is there an aspect of guitar playing that you'd like to be better at?
“When I was a kid I always wanted to shred like the greats, but then when I discovered Nirvana it suddenly wasn’t so important any more. Still, when you hear people like Gary Moore or Brian May going for it, you think it might be nice to be able to do that.”
7. If you could have a guitar lesson from one guitarist, dead or alive, who would it be?
“It would have to be my man Brian from Queen. People sing along with big hit songs, sure, but who sings along with guitar solos? Only Queen fans. And maybe some Biffy fans! Simon [Neil]’s a fantastic guitarist. I met Brian once at a festival we were both playing - he was 10 feet tall and I was in my pants.”
8. What item of gear would you take with you to a desert island?
“I’d probably take my nice Gretsch resonator - it’s got a mellow sound and the resonator plate would be good for signalling planes. Wait, that’s if I’m stranded. I’m assuming I’m stranded on this island? You’re asking about music and I’m talking about survival. Too practical.”
9. What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
“When my group was really little, we did a battle of the bands in a youth centre, and for some reason the audience was all 10-year-old kids. I think there had been some kind of mix-up, or maybe the swimming pool wasn’t open that day.
“Anyway, they were not a kind audience. We were just playing on the floor, and the monitors were on the floor, and I was getting eyeballed so hard by this one kid that I fell over one of the monitors and landed on my head. My guitar fell off and the other guys kept playing - I was trying to stand up and still play but my guitar was loose, and I saw the sound guy running out from behind the desk and I thought, ‘Ah, he’ll save me’ but all he did was right the monitor and fuck off again.
“So, I held my guitar with both hands and just shouted ‘I am the captain’ again and again into the mic until the song was over. Amazingly, we won and we used the money to make our first EP. Jesus Christ, rock and roll is bizarre.”
10. What advice would you give your younger self about playing the guitar?
“Well, it’s here that I start to give really dull zen answers ’cause I’m super-happy with how everything turned out and where I am. I thought maybe I’d tell him to practise dem scales harder and become a shred master but grunge came along at just the right time and it felt good to abandon that technical bullshit. I’d probably just say ‘LOUDER!’”
Jamie Lenman tours the UK in April/May:
27 April - Birmingham, O2 Institute 3
28 April - Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
29 April - Bristol, Thekla
1 May - Manchester, Sound Control
2 May - London, Scala
4 May - Milton Keynes, Crauford Arms
5 May - Leeds, Key Club
6 May - Glasgow, King Tuts