James Sullivan – Light Years

MORE KICKS’ frontman JAMES SULLIVAN, first solo record, Light Years, is out November 5 on Stardumb Records.

On the lead single, Lea Bridge, he sings of life in north London as Lou Reed would have sung about New York had he now been in his mid-20s. The music on Light Years is more ragged but no less intense than the songs Sullivan makes with MORE KICKS. For fans of Guided by Voices, Bob Mould, and The Replacements. Aren’t we all?

LIGHT YEARS is a whistlestop tour of blitzed-out fuzz (‘Totally Bored’), paranoid drum machine twitches (‘Getaway’), stadium-sized reflections (‘In The End’) and lo-fi 60s pop nuggets (‘It Won’t Do You Harm’).

How did this record come together?

In 2020 I was supposed to be all over the place with my band More Kicks. We released our debut album at the end of 2019 and had lots of things being booked, festivals, tours etc. We managed to do a three-week tour in February 2020 then came home full of excitement for the next 12 months. Then the obvious happened and it was all gone. I was scrabbling around for work and generally just trying to keep my head above water.

By the autumn, I had set up a small recording space for myself which I called ‘Chewed Up Recordings’. It was a room opposite the warehouse where I lived with 25 other people, about 1.5m x 3m. I had a desk, an 8-track reel-to-reel which had been half-repaired, a farfisa organ I picked up off eBay, my guitars and a few bits of analog gear that I’d been buying for a couple of years. So I decided to keep myself entertained by writing one song every day for 10 days and recording it all myself in that room. An ‘album’.

Each day I would finish working in my room in the warehouse and then walk over to Chewed Up and write something. After 10 days I had 10 songs which were fairly schizophrenic in style. They definitely didn’t sound like More Kicks songs. It seemed like a good challenge. So for the next month or so I recorded them piece by piece. Two of the songs needed a proper drummer to play them so I asked Kris from More Kicks to help out and I recorded him in our practice space, Rockaway Studios. Paolo from More Kicks also played bass on one of them because he obviously plays bass far better than I do. A couple of friends also helped on a piano part that was beyond my capability, plus a violin part because I can’t play violin.

Then it was done. I recorded and mixed everything on 1/2″ tape in that little room and then wondered what to do next.

Chatting with Stefan from Stardumb Records one day I mentioned my little lockdown project and he got curious. I’d made a video for one song ‘Lea Bridge’ where I taped my phone to the front of my bike, pressed record and cycled around north London – around the same route that the song’s narrative takes place. Somehow, Stefan was intrigued and wanted to hear the whole thing. Fast forward a few months and it’s coming out as a full record on LP and CD on Stardumb and I’m coming to the Netherlands to play a couple of gigs – Cafe Koos in Zwolle and Left of the Dial Festival in Rotterdam. Basically, it’s just escalated from a slightly desperate idea to an actual tangible, physical thing. Proof that keeping busy is always a good plan, I suppose.  

When did you decide to start asking for opinions on the new songs?

No one heard a single note of it until it was 100% finished. It was my way of taking control of something in my life when everything else had spiralled completely around me. More Kicks remained as busy as we could be – we rehearsed when Covid restrictions would allow and I wrote the second album during this time too, which we’ve just finished. But the beauty of making ‘Light Years’ was the speed and total control I could have. When I started to rehearse for the gigs that I’m playing with a band I had to learn the songs from scratch because I had no idea how to play them. I’d written them and then immediately recorded them so I really had no clue what I’d played on the recording. 

I love the collaboration of being in a band but in that moment it wasn’t really possible. It’s a dangerous policy to ask for no feedback or opinions on anything but I had nothing to lose. If it was shit when it was finished, I just wouldn’t have played it to anyone and it still would have been a good project to learn more about recording and keep busy.

How great is the urge to stay creative?  To keep writing songs and lyrics?

It’s less an urge and more a compulsion, I think. I can easily go months without writing anything. It’s much easier to not write. But the second I write something that I like, I feel 100% better in myself. That tells me everything I need to know. Of course I want people to hear the music and enjoy it, but actually I’ve learned that it’s just vital for my own happiness that I’m writing and making music as much as possible.

As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?

Yeah it’s absolutely fine. I’m not worried about that at all. There are songs on Light Years where the lyrics are literally taken word for word from a diary I was keeping while I was having some cognitive behavioural therapy. I’m not shy about it at all – I’m proud that I could take something so negative and make something out of it. I don’t know what other people do to release those feelings. Exercise, seeing friends, talking to family, reading, these things I suppose? I do all those things too but it’s not the same. Music just happens to be my way of dealing with my brain.

What’s the gig you will always remember? And why?

I went to go and see Guided by Voices when they played in London in 2019. They hadn’t played in London for about 15 years and I’d never seen them before. That was the closest I’ve been to feeling like I was in a cult. It felt like a total triumph of perseverance and compulsive productivity. They played for about three hours, about one million two-minute songs. Robert Pollard was chugging tequila, high kicking and somehow singing like an angel aged 60+. 

I love how they were just a band in their late 30s in Dayton, Ohio. They were teachers, guys just doing jobs and getting together at the weekend to watch basketball, drink beer and then play music in the basement, recording it on a cassette four-track after the basketball had finished and there was still beer left. Then after years of making records just to send to their friends, Matador somehow hear one of them and give them $100,000 to make a record. They go back to the basement, make the record ‘Alien Lanes’ for free on the cassette four-track and keep the $100,000. And of course it’s absolutely amazing.    

Lyrics are too often taken for granted.  What is the line of text or are the lines of text that you hope listeners will remember?  And why?

I could tell you that answer with More Kicks stuff because I think about that more and take more time with it. With ‘Light Years’, I had one evening to write the song by the rules I’d imposed on myself. So by the time I had written the basic song and was writing some lyrics I was always quite tired and impatient to finish. But I had to write out all the lyrics for the LP artwork and I was pleased to see that I liked most of them.

I always quite like it when lyrics contradict one another. There’s a song on the record called ‘It Won’t Do You Harm’ where the lyrics of the verse directly contradict the chorus. The verses are quite romantic and dreamlike, the choruses suggest that it’s a cynical ploy of self-help on my part. But then in the middle section we finally get to what feels like the truth of the matter and I just speak directly. I don’t think songs have to tell a story or even have a coherent narrative. How often do we think in cohesive narratives? It’s more important to just get the mood of whatever you’re feeling across. 

We can barely see what’s coming in front if it’s coming at all 

But I hope you know my pride had the sense to fall

When you hardly speak then you’re hardly wrong, or so I thought

I left it for another day so it won’t do you harm  

Cassettes are back. Which 5 five songs would make your first mixtape?

I guess the correct answer is: ‘It depends who I’m making it for’. But I’ll just be selfish and try to reflect stuff I’ve been listening to for the last year or so.

The Replacements – Little Mascara. The best song title ever and I think that will be the title of the mixtape as well. Get ready to scream along to the outro: ‘CRYYYYYYYYYY… CRYYYYYYYYY’.

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band – I Won’t Hurt You. The creepiest, most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. At the height of the first lockdown I did a cover of ithttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rK5UVy8x38 just for no reason and I think that probably was the seed that eventually grew into ‘Light Years’.

John Cale – Half Past France. If I make another record on my own I want it to sound like Paris 1919 by John Cale. I just need to fit the London Symphony Orchestra into Chewed Up Recordings somehow. The point where he sings ‘People always bored me anyway…’ and the drums kick in makes me want to cry with happiness. 

Woods – Strange to Explain. In another context, that chorus could be sung by every failed X Factor singer in the worst bars of every town. In this context with that fragile Neil Young-esque voice singing it, it makes me weirdly happy to realise that you should not be afraid to sing the cheesiest, poppiest melodies possible in anything you do. Through your own filter it will work, just don’t worry about it.

The Modern Lovers – She Cracked. Because I think the mixtape got a bit too mellow and this is a totally bulletproof, unstoppable monster from a twisted genius mind. My sometime band Suspect Parts used to cover it with Chris Brief, our drummer, singing it and it literally never fails. ‘EAT SHIT!’

They expect ‘the roaring 20s v2.0’. What kind of party are you looking for?

After the 18 months we’ve all just had I really don’t care. I just want to be in a city I don’t live in, with a couple of friends and a lot more strangers, three or four gin & tonics, I’ve just played a gig and I stink, the promoter is now DJing Ramones and Dickies songs while people hang around half-dancing or going out to smoke cigarettes. My stuff is packed away and I have nothing else to do that day except finish my gin & tonics and walk exhaustedly to wherever we’re sleeping. I miss it all so much. 

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