Jim Lea, the former Slade bass-player and one half of the mega-hit Holder-Lea song-writing duo, has a brand new six-track EP out: Lost In Space.
I caught up with Jim to discuss the inspiration behind the title track and the other songs on the EP, to talk about his appearance at Wolverhampton’s Robin 2 venue last Autumn and, of course, to hear a few recollections from the old Slade days as well as the challenges that life throws up outside the world of music.
“Lost In Space was written deliberately as a pop song. Of all the songs I have come up with, this is one of my favourites. The ideas portrayed in the song are of someone spending their life living in an inner world, virtually oblivious to normal life. Some might say I have unwittingly written about myself,” states the press release accompanying the EP.
So often, introspection is portrayed as being sad and angst-ridden yet Lost In Space is a very uplifting song with a great catchy chorus. Jim has certainly lost none of his knack for writing catchy uplifting choruses.
For such an upbeat song I put it to Jim whether there is a subtle inference here that being caught up in your own world can actually be a pretty happy place.
JL: “It is when you’re happy yeah but you have to find yourself first. You have to be happy with it. I think a lot of people do it to escape. It’s one of the autistic symptoms when people are being diagnosed. They don’t connect.
I’ll tell you who came out and spoke about it – Chris Packham from Springwatch. Millions of people must have seen that programme about it. I’m sure I’ve got grains of autism in me but I’m nowhere near as bad as him. He just lives in a tiny little cottage in the middle of a wood with his animals.
But to be quite honest for a big part of my life I was not a big communicator. I didn’t really do interviews at all. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I began to look at myself and went into psychotherapy and completely changed my personality. I almost changed my DNA.”
Is that partly why we are hearing more from Jim recently, I wonder. A new DVD, a live appearance at the Robin in Wolverhampton last Autumn and now a new EP. Are we seeing a new Jim?
JL: “Yes, yes. This is the new me. I’m obviously not bothered about talking to you at all. You seem quite a nice chap! I’m a lot more relaxed about the whole thing. Whereas back in the day with the band for a long time I wasn’t. I was better off in the eighties and going into the nineties, but in the seventies I couldn’t cope with all that.
If you look at the band there were two who wanted to get their face in the camera and two who didn’t. The idea of fame is very nice. You think that’s what you want but when it comes – well it took me all of a couple of weeks to think hang on I haven’t got a life here. You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t do anything. So a lot of people want that and they want that attention, whereas with me I wanted to go back to how I was before going on television.”
With that in mind I suppose when Slade were less in the spotlight in the late seventies that was OK for you, as long as the band were still gigging and recording?
JL: “That’s right. That was a good blueprint for me. That was great. And, of course, when we started having hits again in the eighties it was much easier to cope with because it wasn’t that mad teenage chasing-you-down-the-street type stuff.”
Lost In Space is a great catchy pop song. But the rest of the EP really rocks out. For me it seems to channel some of the spirit of Slade in the early 80s when the band had a comeback thanks in part to the heavy rock crowd post-Reading. Was it a conscious decision to go for a more rocky approach here compared to Therapy, your previous solo album?
JL: “No. The songs on this EP – I don’t know whether you know I had cancer – and these songs are from pre-cancer. They’re quite old. You can probably tell I’ve got a frog in my throat and I’ve never been able to get rid of that since I’ve had my cancer treatment.
I’m not on the treatment any more but it just doesn’t go away. Luckily I’ve got some vocal tapes from god knows how many years ago that I just re-recorded quickly. Because my brother, who’s looking after me from the record point of view, says do you fancy doing an EP.
He’d been talking to the record company. I said yes – four tracks? He said no, it’s six tracks for an EP these days. I said that’s half an album, when do you need it for? He said next Monday! But I did it because the songs were there. I had a vocal. I just slung everything at it and came up with what you hear.”
You took the stage at the Robin last November for a Q&A session to launch your new DVD (a live recording of his 2002 solo gig at that same venue) but at the end you surprised everyone when you came back on stage with your guitar to blast out some old Slade classics.
JL: “When I went off – we had a bit of a scam me and Paul Franks (radio presenter and interviewer that day) and he said Jim wanted to share something and he’s just going off. But when I got down there the people who are looking after the stage side of things they’re all chatting together. And I said what are you doing I need my guitar. Where’s my guitar?
I was shouting at them and I was really in a bad mood and I said to the sound guy get out the front and get on the desk…. and it was at least three or four minutes before I came out.
And there is some fan footage (and we are going to put that out) but just before I come on you can hear people saying ‘where’s he gone?’ Just coming over the microphones you know. And the audience I could hear what they’re saying. And this one female voice says (adopts exaggerated Yorkshire accent) ‘Do you think he’s gone for a lie down?’ Oh dear, it did crack me up that did. And to be quite honest that’s what I do a lot of these days. I have to go and have a sleep.”
It was his brother Frank who had encouraged Jim to do a few songs at the end of the Q&A…
JL: “You’d see these old singers like Frank Sinatra when they’re past it and their voice just cracks up and I said I can’t do that. And then I got this idea of knocking a few backing tracks up and I did some vocals to see what it sounded like. But I only did four tracks and then I thought hang on I could play along.
And in this day and age that was my justification. I would have loved to have had the same line-up as the Robin in 2002 – just a drummer and bass player and really thrash it out. But that whole complicated thing with equipment for four songs meant we wouldn’t have even got the balance sorted out.”
Playing along to backing tapes it may have been but that didn’t dampen the outpouring of emotion from fans at the event, seeing Jim Lea playing on stage again, fifteen years after his one and only solo gig and some thirty-four years after Slade’s final UK tour. Jim only became aware of just how emotional the event had been for the audience, however, when his brother finally caught up with Jim and the rest of the family some time later that day…
JL: “All the family went for dinner and my brother was an hour late and we were all starving. Well he said he stayed ’til the end. Nobody wanted to go. People were crying. And the boss of the club came over and my brother asked him why is everybody crying? Why won’t they go? And as the boss was walking towards him he saw that he was crying as well!”
While he is thoroughly bemused at the emotional audience reaction it has clearly made him ponder on how much he enjoyed playing on stage.
JL: “I wish I could find some way of getting on stage again. That would be really good. But you know I was very tired when I played the Robin in November.”
From recent ventures we then delve back into the early days. I mention that he was one of the first to bring the electric violin into a pop-rock setting. Given that this was around the same time the folk rock thing going on I ask if he was conscious of what people like Dave Swarbrick were doing with Fairport Convention around the same time as Jim was putting a violin solo on Coz I Luv You.
JL: “Well I used to play the violin on stage. Really it was the band trying to stand out and I think it was about the end of the sixties and you are quite right about Fairport Convention and Dave Swarbrick and there was East of Eden and Dave Arbus. And that guy played on The Who’s Baba O’Riley on the Who’s Next album.
In the studio Pete Townsend came walking through. I was there messing about with my violin and he said here mate can I look at your violin. And I said I’m not giving it to you. You’ll smash it up. No mate that’s just stuff on stage. I don’t do any of that. Can I have a look? I want to play a violin. And the next thing I know it’s on Baba O’Riley with Dave Arbus playing.
But with Coz I Luv You we’d had Get Down And Get With It as our first hit and it was about coming up with the next one. Because Get Down And Get With It was an everybody-join-in type thing I thought to write something like that is just going to be a cop-out.
So I thought about bridging the fact that we were going to make a pop single with trying to make it a bit gritty as well. So I came up with (sings melody) and I got my acoustic guitar and I went over to Nod’s.
I’d never written with Nod before and really it was like trying to get the singer on board so it’s kind of political in case it was a ‘well I don’t want to do anything with a violin’. That’s what could have happened but it didn’t.
And we worked on the ‘I just like the things you do’ bit and obviously I knew that this was going to be really big. And it was and it got to number one within three weeks. And it’s only recently where people have said I saw Jim Lea from Slade with an electric violin playing on Top Of The Pops and that’s why I started playing violin. And you know it’s really edifying to think that you might have set some trail for something that happens in the future.”
While Jim is not exactly comfortable with his former band’s often outlandish image, there is clearly pride at what the four of them achieved together back in the day…
JL: “And the other thing with the band was because of our sort of wacky image which we kept going on with for too long. Well not we, but Dave did. You know look at Quo back when they did Ice In The Sun and they changed the way they looked to do a different thing. Same as the Beatles changed but you know that never happened with us. But there was something from the wacky side of it and because we were having hit singles.
Back then if you were having hit singles you were a pop band and we weren’t a pop band. I mean we could always blow off anybody we were playing with. OK there wasn’t the musical virtuosity in the band but it was a fantastic band.
And together – you can forget the recording and all that because you can always mess around with that and try to make it sound a bit more sort of credible – but there was something about the four of us playing when we were on stage.
And we went to that big studio at Olympic. Get Down And Get With It was the first thing we ever recorded in that studio. And we always went to that studio because it was like doing a gig and we were comfortable with that because we were really bloody good. And I look at people now and you know big names and so on and they all came out to watch us… But we were something special right from the first few notes we ever played.”
With so many insights we then get on to the topic of autobiographies. We’ve seen tomes from all the other three members of Slade but I put it to Jim that many Slade fans would say that the most fascinating and revealing of all would be a Jim Lea autobiography.
JL: (Laughs) “At times I thought about doing it. In fact, I was probably the first one to think about doing it. That was back in post-Reading days. But there seemed to be a reaction that I shouldn’t do that and that if there was going to be any book it should be a Slade book, not me. So I just left it and then Nod did one – which I’ve never looked at and Don did one which I’ve never read either but it’s supposed to be very good I’ve heard.
The thing is I’d want to write it myself rather than sitting down with someone with a tape machine. You’d have to be able to taste it and smell it. If I’m talking about the smoke-filled rooms you’d have to be able to visualise from the words what that was like. The way it used to hang in the air in these grey layers.”
Jim also emphasises that his life hasn’t just been about music, particularly in the post-Slade years.
JL: “My musical career has been punctuated by having to look after my father to save my mother because he was driving my mother mad. He’d got dementia and then there were two or three years with my (older) brother the same thing happened and I was on care duty for both.
So that’s six year’s gone and now my mum herself is housebound. I’ve just come from her now and I’ve always thought being of service to others is a big thing to do in life. It’s hard work because you have to give up your own wishes and your own life. You have to hand over what you want to do in order to help the person that needs the help.
So being of service it’s a big thing. So with my mother as well it’s probably seven years gone. She became ill about a year ago and so put it all together you’ve got a whole chunk of life that’s nothing to do with music.”
For all of his musical legacy it’s clear that family is very important to Jim and you get the idea that there is no way he would not have been there for those who needed him most.
But it’s also clear that Jim Lea still has something to contribute musically and is enthusiastic about his latest EP. He doesn’t even baulk at the round of promotional interviews that need to be done these days as long as, given his current health, there are not too many of them.
“I’m alright with you today, Darren, because I’ve only got you today – but the other day I had fifteen!”
Interview: Darren Johnson
Lost in Space EP is released on 22nd June 2018 by Wienerworld
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14:00-16:00 BIRDSONG AT MORNING Signs And Wonders (Blue Gentian Records)
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