James Atkin is responsible for singing one of the biggest hits of the 90s, ‘Unbelievable’, with the band EMF. He went on to have massive success clocking up a No. 1 American single, platinum album sales and an Ivor Novello nomination for songwriting. James was also heavily involved with ‘Bentley Rhythm Ace’ seminal dance act. Last year James released his first album under his own name and is about to release his second album, ‘The Party Faithful’, this year. Mark Millar had a chat with James to find out more.
Hi James, what have you been up to recently?
I spent the summer doing loads of festivals with my solo outing. The last one in the diary was the Shine Festival in November. It was a nice way to finish the gigs. Then I just nestled down for the winter. I did some writing putting loads of new material together for a new album.
You have been releasing music under different guises such as EMF and Bentley Rhythm Ace. Why have you decided to release music under your name?
I don’t know (laughs). I took a few years out, and I thought, “I really need to write some songs again”. I started to enjoy writing songs. I think I did put a lot of records out over the years, but I was honing my craft a little bit. I could produce decent sounding records, but I forgot about the songwriting element a little bit, so I’ve gone back to my songwriting roots, which is where I started and started using all the skills that I got from making and producing records over the last couple of decades. It seemed natural, we moved out of London to the Yorkshire Dales with my wife and kids, so I’m not surrounded by any scenes. So it didn’t seem right to join a band or put a band together, but I still wanted to make music, so I thought I’d make a solo album.
Do you enjoy being a solo artist?
I do; yes, it’s probably the only way I can do it at my age now. Especially the song-writing process– it’s quite a solitary thing. I don’t know how I would react around a load of other people now. It worked when I was a bit younger with my older bands, it worked then, but I can’t really see it work now. Maybe I’ve got a bit stubborn in my older age. I’m more focused now.
What is your songwriting process?
It can start in a number of ways. The way it’s been starting recently is by picking up keywords or sayings. I used to program some drum beats and see what comes along, but now I’ve started with lyrics again, which I haven’t done for a long time.
I have been enjoying your latest album, ‘A Country Mile’. How long did it take to put together?
I reckon about 12 months. What happens is you get the first couple out of the way, and then you get the angle on it, and the rest falls into place. It comes quite quickly when I get on a roll. I have almost finished the second album already. I have it written and recorded, and a few of the tracks have been mastered. It’s all there. At the moment, I’m weighing up options on what way to release it. I really like the DIY approach of doing it all yourself at the moment. I did a pre-release through Pledge Music, which many artists are doing now. It’s a different game to what it was 20 years ago when you had marketing and press and radio. Those days have gone. You can do it all yourself these days. It’s really exciting.
I believe you are a music teacher in your day job; the kids must be pleased to have a pop star as their teacher.
(Laughs) The kids haven’t a clue who I am. Parent’s evening is a bit embarrassing because all the parents make a beeline for me. I’m a proper full-on secondary school teacher; I’m chasing kids around the playground for smoking. (Laughs) It’s quite funny touring worldwide being a rock star and then telling kids off for smoking behind a Portakabin. It seems a bit weird.
Tell me about the bands you were in that led to EMF forming.
All the first bands we were in were made up of EMF. Me, Mark, Derry, and Zac were all in the same school together, so every band we were in had one of those members in it and we kind of evolved into EMF. When we were in our 5th year in school, we were going out gigging in pubs. We put the work in even though we were still quite young when EMF happened.
EMF became very successful, even getting a number in America with ‘Unbelievable’. What are your best memories of that time?
We were touring America when ‘Unbelievable’ went up the Billboard charts and sent postcards home saying the song was in the top 75. A week later we were in the top 50, and I remember crossing the border from Canada back into America as we were number one in America, and we were partying and loving it. They are the fondest memories of being on a tour bus for weeks with your mates and being number one in the country you’re touring.
Yeah, very good times, and we got to take a lot of UK bands over to play with us, and I made some long-lasting friends. We took the Stereo Mc’s over there Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, and Pop Will Eat Itself. Yeah, it was good times.
Schubert Dip was a huge success then you went on to make the follow-up Stigma and your final album Cha Cha Cha. I think Stigma is your best album.
Yeah, we were on it when we made Stigma. The band was at its peak then. Schubert Dip was great, and there was a certain amount of innocence and freshness about that record. By the time we made Stigma that’s what we wanted to be doing. The band had been playing solidly out on the road, and we were really tight, and it turned out to be a great album. I wish we had kept that going. We lost our way a little bit when we got to the 3rd album.
Did the band split up because the 3rd album wasn’t a success?
No, it did make it hard because you have to be selling records to have a record deal, and you have to have a record deal to pay your wages. When you’re that age, you’re really confused; you don’t know why things aren’t happening the way you want them to. Simply we didn’t make an excellent record. Stigma didn’t sell that well either compared to the first album. We were all growing up as people and doing our own thing; the gang mentality had gone out of us. We were maturing and having girlfriends and going off doing other projects; we weren’t all living in the same town. When we made Stigma, we had our rehearsal complex in the Forest of Dean, and we used to spend hours down there playing and that all went. Looking back, I can see that’s how we lost our way in hindsight. After all that success, you lose yourself a bit, I think.
The band split up, but you are getting back together to play some shows this year. Does it feel odd playing shows without Zac?
Zac is always missed, and it’s quite hard to do shows without him. We’ve got a good friend called Steve who steps in to play bass; Richard from PWEI stood in at one point and did some bass. It’s without Zac, but it’s still got the core members. It’s still Me, Ian, Mark and Derry who are going to play the shows. We are only going to do a couple, just because it’s nice to do.
Will any of the EMF albums be repackaged and re-released?
There is talk about Shubert Dip being repackaged because it’s the 25th anniversary. It’ll happen if we get it together or someone has the energy to get it together. We are all quite busy, and I guess it would take a lot to take that on. Hopefully, I think Marc, the drummer, is quite keen to get involved in that. It was all planned. We were talking about it last year, but as time goes, we have all these great ideas then all of a sudden, it’s the 30th anniversary (laughs).
Will you ever record as EMF again?
No, I don’t think so. There is some material knocking about, but I can’t see it happening.
What music have you been listening to?
I don’t listen to much modern music anymore. My wife is always telling me to check stuff out. When it gets to Friday night and I crack a few beers open I always go back to New Order – Technique or the Cure or something like that (laughs).
So what’s next on the agenda for you musically?
I have a busy year ahead. I’m doing a lot of gigs with Bentley Rhythm Ace. The summer is looking packed with Bentley Rhythm Ace and James Atkin gigs and there is a couple of EMF gigs later on in the year and I’m hopefully going to get the new album out in July. That’s probably enough for a man of my age (laughs).
And some teaching in between?
Yeah, life’s busy. It’s good though.
Pre-order James Atkin’s second album ‘The Party Faithful’ from Pledgemusic HERE