You’d imagine it would be hard to lose something that has 18 legs, a combined weight of over 80 stones and more instruments than the Moscow Symphony Orchestra , but Dublin’s finest avant-garde instrumental music collective The Jimmy Cake have been conspicuous by their absence for half a decade.
Sure there was the odd live appearance, like Electric Picnic -07, but no national tour since 2002 and the lack of anything resembling a new album was beginning to put a bit of a My Bloody Valentine sheen on the entire scenario. Fret no more, however, as the greatest musical menagerie in the universe are back with their finest collection of songs to date, in the shape of the elegant, elegiac Sceptre & Crown, alongside a brand new website. Bruised and bloodied after a truly epic creative process, they remain delightfully unbowed, refreshingly unpretentious and deliciously irreverent.
These are people who have spent so long in each other’s company that it’s not just brothers John (drums) and Vinny (guitar) Dermody who finish each other’s sentences, but Dara -Dip’ Higgins (bassist) and Paul Smyth (piano, keyboards) too. The most obvious emotion surrounding the four is relief, that after five years of toil and turmoil, The Jimmies are back with the hauntingly evocative Spectre & Crown, their first release proper since 2003’s Superlady EP.
‘It was just taking so long that it became a real albatross around our necks,’ Vinny sighs. ‘But that’s gone and we can feel free about working on new material. It’s one of the reasons why we haven’t been gigging either, because we were getting very selfconscious about having the same material for so long because we haven’t had the creative energy to put into new stuff. Whether we can still do that or not we’re about to find out.’
The reasons for the album taking so long are manifold, but are primarily down to a combination of logistics and cold hard cash, as John explains: ‘It was as much about nine people being available, because we all have full-time jobs and other responsibilities. If we were a five-piece band with half as many ideas and another 15 grand, we could have released something ages ago.’
The initial work on Spectre & Crown began in a rehearsal room in Dublin city centre, where the nine decamped to write their third album proper (following 2001’s Brains and 2002’s Dublin Dead, Everybody Gone). ‘We went into this rehearsal space, thinking that we were going to write a particular album. As soon as we got in the space, we realised that wasn’t going to happen, for a few reasons,’ recalls Paul.’ First of all, every time John hit a snare drum, it was as if someone had fired a shotgun. So, everything started to sound quieter.’
Indeed, there was a faction in the band who felt that the entire album should be smaller and more intimate than the bombast that had gone before. It’s wasn’t the general view, however, leading to ‘gentle Machiavellian machinations,’ laughs Vinny. ‘Everyone was trying to pull the album back from the brink of folkitude.’ Over the course of this album’s creation, there were a number of line-up changes within the ranks: some people left, others joined, some of the new people left again. Band members moved house, got married, had babies. Life went on.
‘We now have a couple of people in the band who know nothing but these tracks,’ explains Vinny. ‘The only process they’ve been part of is the grinding, attritious nightmare that was the last couple of years, trying to get this record out. So for their sake, we’re very anxious to get writing again and to start playing again, before they quit.
‘It must have been very difficult for the newbies, joining an established band with so many strong personalities, at such a tough time. ‘They came slap-bang into the middle of a very drawn-out process which involved quite a bit of bickering, which to us is perfectly fucking normal, but to someone coming in from the outside, it could look like, -Jesus, these fuckers aren’t going to last two weeks’,’ laughs John. ‘Mostly it’s pretty good fun being in this band but those couple of years were troublesome, all work and no play.
‘Vinny grins: ‘We’re exaggerating for comic effect. It wasn’t that bad.’ Admitting that they ‘ended up with a very different album from the one we started recording’ (Dip), they also have a vast amount of material left over, which they’re going to revisit over the coming months, albeit’ in a completely different style,’ Vinny explains. ‘We’ve decided the next record is going to be clarinet and accordion free, possibly with three synths, and no piano.’
‘It’s a pretty grown up record that we’ve made, very pretty, very considered and very layered, which is great, but I think we need to get our balls back,’ is how John puts it. Paul is even more definite: ‘We need to drag this record down the back of a lane and beat the crap out of it.’ It’s the ‘tight, enclosed, claustrophobic’ nature of its genesis and the bloated time-line involved in its gestation that they need to batter into shape rather than the music, however. Spectre & Crown is by turns mouth-dryingly gorgeous and teeth-rattlingly powerful, resonating long after the final track has disappeared.
They’re justifiably proud of it, with Paul noting how ‘the production values jumped up by a thousand percent’, Vinny enthusing that ‘the songwriting’s far stronger’ and Dip opining that their musicianship is better than ever. Indeed, when the four try to describe the album, it heralds the funniest moment of the day. Dip: ‘I think this album has a theme, and is almost a concept album.’ John (grinning): ‘No it is not. Just because it sits well, that’s not a concept record: that’s just a nicely arranged fucking record.’ Vinny (guffawing): ‘It’s like the journey of an innocent nun into a wardrobe of skeletons.’ Paul drags the conversation back from the brink of hysteria: ‘It’s a very unfashionable record, to its credit, I think.’ ‘The way we worked, we removed ourselves from any sense of zeitgeist or contemporary, popular opinions,’ agrees Vinny.
‘The album does not reflect anything but the mania of the people who were in that dark room, making it.’ But The Jimmy Cake were never concerned with being flavour of the month or jumping on anyone’s band-wagon: they’ve always had enough ideas (and bodies) to create their own. ‘We were never particularly floating on the crest of a wave of fashionability,’ muses Vinny, ‘but people still compared us to certain bands.’
‘Which they will not be able to do this time,’ interjects Dip. ‘Unless Godspeed You Black Emperor! release a Genesis covers album in a couple of years, I think we might escape that this time.’ Surely the fact that there are nine individuals, all with their own ideas, is both a blessing and a curse. How do they ever manage to find consensus in the ranks?
‘There is a basic compromise that has to be there,’ explains Vinny.’ You have to understand that you’re not going to get your vision: all you can do is chip away at the collective vision and get the bits that you want in. You’ve got to be clever about it because if anyone gets Bolshie about it, everyone will say -no’. You can’t insist on anything: it has to be by degrees and by compromise.’ ‘I think this album is the sound of that compromise,’ agrees Dip.’ It started off being one thing, morphed into something else, then changed again during the recording process.”
“I think everyone has an understanding that whatever anyone brings into the room, what comes out of the room eventually will be a completely different animal but it will be all the better for it,’ notes Paul. Or as John puts it: ‘Anyone coming in with a serious and clear vision of what has to be done is going to end up very fucked off if they’re expecting it to come out the other side exactly the way they saw it.’ Long-time fans of the band will probably be surprised to hear that Sceptre & Crown almost ended up featuring a singer for the first time ever on a Jimmy Cake track. These would have been no ordinary vocals, however, but the unique tonsil talents of Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples.
‘He was well into it, and was scribbling bits of lyrics down for it,’ recalls Paul. ‘He was going to record it at his studio in France and I was even going to go over at one point for a weekend to work on it. But time crept on and I hadn’t heard anything, so I phoned him and he sounded like he was standing in the middle of a construction site: he was having a 24-track studio installed. He then found himself in the middle of writing what will be the next Tindersticks album. They were two great excuses for not doing it.’
Staples, however, is very interested in working with The Jimmy Cake on future collaborations. Indeed, he’s not the only singer they considered, as Vinny explains. ‘We decided to pick some of the best vocalists locally available to us and write stuff for them. We had all these amazing ideas but we had no fucking money, so you can’t realise some of that stuff.’ Recording an entire album of vocal collaborations is not something they would rule out in the future.
For now, however, they’re proud of Sceptre & Crown, relieved that it’s finally hitting the shelves and looking forward to what Dip describes as ‘starting again’. ‘In many ways, this is almost a quasi-year zero: we’ve been off the radar for that long,’ John agrees. ‘The relief of being able to hold the album in our hands is great,’ smiles Paul. ‘After that, who cares what happens?’
Photography by Lili Forberg. Photoshoot location courtesy of The Bald Barista, Aungier St, Dublin 2.