Wendy James needs no introduction, she enjoyed massive success in the 80s and 90s with Transvision Vamp having huge hit singles and selling out venues. When the band folded Wendy recorded her solo albums which included working with Elvis Costello and Cait O’Riordan. In 2004 Wendy James formed a band named Racine and released 2 albums with them. Her latest album ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (which received 9/10 from XS Noize) is out now. Wendy recently took the time to have a chat with Mark Millar to talk about the new record.
You have recently released your album ‘The Price of the Ticket’. There are some great musicians on it. How did you get them all together?
WJ: Glen Matlock, I have known for a very long time because he is an old West London friend, so that was a no-brainer. I became friends with James Williamson from The Stooges via Facebook first and then he asked me to do some recording with him and we needed a drummer to make up the threesome for that session.
I already knew James Sclavunos from The Bad Seeds socially. Whenever we saw each other we had always said that we wanted to find a way to work together, so I immediately thought to ask James if he would also come to California to do the James Williamson sessions. So that happened and we recorded the two cover versions of the album with James Williamson. At that time, James Williamson brought in Steve Mackay who is always the saxophonist for Iggy Pop but primarily known for the amazing sax playing on Funhouse.
Lenny Kaye is one of my all-time favourite guitarists in the world ever. When I was reaching around for the perfect guitarist for the album somebody suggested that I call up Lenny because he lived around the corner. He lived a couple of streets from me in Manhattan. So we met for a cup of coffee and we got on very well. So that’s how the band formed.
Where was the album recorded?
WJ: The 2 tracks with James Williamson where done in Berkeley, California because that’s where he lives but the rest of the album was recorded in New York City because I live there and Lenny lives there, James Sclavunos is back and forth and Glen Matlock happened to be in New York at that time as well.
When you got everyone in the studio in New York, what was the writing process?
WJ: I wrote everything. I had written everything and recorded guides of me singing and playing the guitar. So in advance of the scheduled recording sessions, I sent out MP3’s to everybody so they could become familiar with their parts and start having ideas and do chord charts if they needed to and do preparation on them. Then for the recording session, we literally plugged in as a band and started investigating different ways to play bass lines and guitar parts and drum beats. We didn’t do rehearsals as they would know the songs already, we would start fleshing out the ideas.
How long did it take to record?
WJ: It took 5 weeks, and then another month to mix because the mix allowed me to do some overdubs. The actual period of time isn’t that long but it was stretched out over a longer period of time because of everyone’s schedules. When you’re getting a member of the Patti Smith Group, the Sex Pistols, The Bad Seeds and myself altogether, it takes time because some of these guys have fairly hectic diaries. But there is always a way.
It’s like a dream band, really.
WJ: It is for me because it’s a reflection completely of what I’m into; it’s the pinnacle, apart from playing with Bob Dylan according to my taste in music – The Stooges and the Patti Smith Group, it’s a complete reflection of where my taste is at.
It must have felt unreal playing with all those guys.
WJ: Well no not really, because that suggests that I’m inferior to them which I’m not. They are fellow musicians who I admire and whose work I have lived and been influenced by over the years. They are not heroes; I don’t look up to them. By the time you’re in the studio, these guys are appreciative of my musicality and the fact that I have written the songs. Some of them are even fans of Transvision Vamp from the old days.
They have watched my progress through the music business. So by the time you get to the stage of actually recording together it really is a very level playing field where everybody is enjoying each other’s company and being the best they can be. That’s the magic ingredient to any recording sessions to make sure everybody is of like mind and getting on well together.
You said when Transvison Vamp finished you had to do it in reverse and you had learned to write songs. Do you feel confident in your song-writing ability now?
WJ: Yeah, although it hasn’t been particularly noticed on a big scale I have had quite a long learning curve because prior to this I have released 3 previous albums in between working with Elvis Costello and now, so I am absolutely confident in myself as a songwriter and a performer. I feel that’s what I am in life – I’m a musician.
At the end of the album, there are 2 cover versions. Why did you decide to record those songs?
WJ: Those are the 2 that I did with James from the Stooges. When we were discussing what songs to do, his first question was, “What is your favourite song of all time?” And I said, Bob Dylan – ‘It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding’. So he said, “Well let’s do that then”. It’s 7 minutes long and our version is 5-6 minutes long because we play it much faster than Dylan did. His version was a lovely acoustic song.
And you know from listening to that song how many lyrics there are to listen to and learn and know off by heart. It’s a tricky proposition for anybody to cover Bob Dylan because he has already done everything perfectly. You can’t improve upon Bob Dylan, the most you can hope to do is to do a different version, not just a lame arse acoustic copy. Our barometer was the way Jimi Hendrix had taken ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and turned it very much into his own song, and big electric song.
It’s all connected because the other song is called ‘You’re so great’ which was written by Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith the guitarist from the MC5, who became Patti Smith’s husband, ironically with Lenny being my guitarist at the moment. After MC5 split up Fred was in a short-lived band for about 18 months which is one of my bands of all time called ‘The Sonic’s Rendezvous Band’. They were a bunch of guys from Detroit. They only ever went into the studio once and recorded ‘City Slang’, which is their only recorded single. The only other way you can hear them is from bootlegs recorded from all the live shows they played in there short life around the Detroit area. Fred’s guitar playing is phenomenal and his songs are perfect 3 and a half minute pop songs or big heavy rock n roll songs.
I thought it was a good connection for James Williamson obviously from the Stooges the other main band out of Detroit was MC5. James wasn’t really familiar with ‘The Sonics Rendezvous Band’ at all, so I introduced him to their music and he said “OK let’s do one of their songs of your choice” and I chose ‘You’re so Great’, because it’s a perfect pop song and I could see myself singing that very much in the style of those rock n roll girl singers. The good ones deliver a good pop-rock song with a bit of attitude which is what I’m known for as well. So that song seemed to be the perfect choice and that’s how we came to do those 2 covers.
Do you have a favourite out of the songs you wrote yourself for the album?
WJ: It goes in waves especially now that I’m playing live because you can hear some really working. I really love ‘Situation Normal at Surfrider’ which is the closing song and I remember writing that song in New York. Two of my best friends in the world is Chris and Tina from Talking Heads. I went up to their place for the weekend and I played them the little demo that I had recorded in New York over my iPhone to them in the kitchen (laughs) saying, “Listen I think I’ve really written a good sing here”.
I like ‘Farewell to Love’ because that reminds me of a June Carter Cash cowboy type pop song. I love ‘Indigent Blues’ which is the current single. That one reminds me of English pop from the mid-60s. When I wrote it I had the movie ‘Georgy Girl’ in mind. The theme tune was written by the Seekers. The kind of freewheeling mid 60s teenage girl who hasn’t really been affected by flower power or Carnaby Street, the kind of suburban teenage English girl who is starting to wear miniskirts kind of thing. I just had it in my head the theme tune from the movie ‘Georgy Girl’. Britain hadn’t overhauled itself into the swinging 60s yet, everything was quite conservative coming out of the 50s.
I really love ‘You’re a Dirt bomb Lester’, from a guitarist, Lou Reed kind of a purist point of view. The whole song is on 2 chords and it goes soft-medium-loud (laughs) with a couple of little reveries in the middle and it’s about my time living in New York. Before I lived there permanently I used to go and live there for however long my tourist Visa would let me stay.
For a while a lived in a hotel called the Gramercy Park hotel, which is now quite posh but in those days it was one of the fleapits that all the bands would stay in. I was holed up in a hotel for a few months literally living the dream; I was walking the streets of the Lower Eastside, Union Square where the Factory had been and it was the first time I really had the luxury of time to explore Manhattan and not be there on a work junket. I tied that all in with the true facts about the rock n roll journalist – Lester Bangs. The title of the song came from when I went to see a journalist called Chris Walcott who did an evening talking about his life as a music journalist for ‘The Village Voice’. He was telling various anecdotes of those times and after he had finished his talking, he opened up to the audience to ask him any questions they wanted to and somebody asked him “What was Lester Bangs like?” and he said, “Oh man, Lester was a real dirt bomb”. I had already got the song but I hadn’t settled on the title, so a light bulb went off in my head when I heard that word ‘dirt bomb’ – “Lester was a dirt bomb” – “You’re a Dirt bomb Lester”.
The album sleeve is really great. What was the inspiration behind it?
WJ: My friend Kim is a fashion designer from Australia who lives in Paris now and she often photographs her own campaigns. So being low on budget and not being able to pay £5000 a day to some flashy photographer I asked Kim to take some photos of me. So I went round to Kim’s place and took my clothes off (laughs) so that’s how that happened, so fuck it basically. I think I look alright.
Yes you do. It’s a fantastic sleeve; it really is very tastefully done.
I think it’s beautiful. I know that obviously, you can see parts of my anatomy but I don’t actually find it a particularly sexual shot in as much as you look at images of Rhianna or the way I was in the old days being flirtatious and provocative, looking at the camera and pouting with sexually inviting behaviour in your face. To me, this album cover is more like a voyeuristic moment of somebody in their own space. Much more like an art or fashion photograph or sculpture or just a female anatomy as it is in other areas of creativity but not the music business. The music business tends to be all flirtatious and sluttiness. I find that the shot on my album is more like a sitting for a painter.
Will you be touring with the album?
WJ: I’m getting prepped up; I have announced 3 shows already in the UK for May. At the moment I’ve got various people building me a schedule for May and then ill expand it out to Europe and hopefully I’ll get to America in the summertime.
Looking back at your days in Transvision Vamp do you have a favourite gig you played?
Well, there’s a few actually. I remember the Point in Dublin is a good one. We did a run of 5 at the Brixton Academy and 3 at the Hammersmith Odeon back to back and that equals doing 2 Wembley Arenas, audience capacity wise. I remember that being, you know when you’re on top of the world when everything is at the right time and the right moment, you’re on a wave? I remember those 10 days in London being extraordinary because the band was firing on all cylinders, we were tight, and we were well rehearsed.
The audience knew it, we were having hits, and just everything was together at the right time. My most extreme gig memory I remember playing a venue here in Paris called ‘Bercy’, which is a big sports arena. One of the French road crew was having ‘road crew wars’ – turf wars between the guys who were doing the loading and one of them got stabbed to death. I remember we had to step over the dead body to get to the stage. It was a good gig actually. All of my memories of being in Transvision Vamp are incredible and as a gang of friends, we remained what we always were – a bunch of friends from West London.
Would you ever consider performing with Transvision Vamp again?
WJ: No, no, no (laughs) musically I prefer the songs that I’m doing now but when I play live I am throwing in some Transvision Vamp numbers. We are doing ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, ‘I Want Your Love’, ‘Tell That Girl to Shut up’ and we do ‘If Looks Could Kill’ currently. And you never know I might mine some more. As for performing with the members of Transvision Vamp no, I think everyone’s getting a little bit old. Let’s just leave the memories intact. If I was absolutely aching to do it musically then, of course, I’d do it but I’m into what I’m doing now so I don’t really need to go back to the past because I’m enjoying the present.
So what’s next for Wendy James?
This year will see me grafting as hard as possible to make this album as known as possible around the world. Transvision Vamp was huge around the world in places like Australia and we did very well in Japan. The album is in its baby stages in the UK, it’s got to spread across the world before my job is done on this album and at the same time I’m starting to feel that burning drive to start writing another one. This year my priority will be to promote and play ‘The Price of the Ticket’, so I imagine in my downtime I will be starting to write another one, and whatever other adventures come up during that time. My life is pretty fluid, if something exciting happens then I’m free to say yes to it.
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