An Interview With Guitarist James Stevenson: Guitarist talks music plans for 2013 and beyond, while also looking back on his impressive body of work.
James Stevenson has lent his guitar skills to a formidable list of bands; he’s played in punk rock groups Chelsea and Generation X (alongside Billy Idol), as well as 80’s post-punk groups Gene Loves Jezebel, and The Alarm.
He also plays with supergroup The International Swingers featuring Supernaut vocalist Gary Twinn, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock.
In addition to this impressive list, he’s in the process of making his first full length solo album.
His playing covers a wide range of styles, melding punk riffing and glam flourishes for a sound that’s big on hooks and melody.
He’s currently playing rhythm guitar for The Cult on their Electric 13 tour, making a excellent double threat alongside Cult guitarist Billy Duffy.
Stevenson graciously agreed to an email interview where he discussed the current Cult tour, playing with Gene Loves Jezebel, his current solo work, his influences, playing style and opinions on the current state of the music industry.
The full transcript follows below:
SLIS: So I know you’re currently touring with The Cult. How is that going?
STEVENSON: It’s been great Michael. I played with the band before in 94-95 so I was flattered Billy asked me to do it again when Mike Dimkitch quit. Billy and I are very old mates and go back a long way – 30 years or so.
SLIS: I know you’re playing rhythm guitar but you’re a very skilled lead player. Do you ever have an itch to rip a solo in one of their songs?
STEVENSON: Well of course I love to play lead – but my gig with The Cult is to play rhythm – and I like to consider myself a professional – so rhythm guitar is what they get. I do play one tiny lead part – at the intro of the song Rain.
SLIS: So I was reading that you released an EP in January The Shape Of Things To Come. There is a forthcoming full length as well correct? When can we expect that to come out?
STEVENSON: Release for the full album is March 10. It’s called Everything’s Getting Closer To Being Over. You can get the three track EP/CD sampler from my website www.jamesstevenson.info
I’ll be doing an advance signing of the full album at The Gathering with The Alarm in North Wales at the end of January.
SLIS: You’ve played with such a wide range of bands. I first heard of you through Gene Loves Jezebel, but then traced back that you played in Generation X and Chelsea. And in addition to touring with The Cult, you also play for The Alarm, and The International Swingers. Do you enjoy playing on so many different projects? Do they feed different needs for you creatively?
STEVENSON: Yes I love it. My favourite thing to do is walk on stage and play my guitar so I like to take every possible opportunity. Also it tests you to work with tons of different people. For example when I played with Willie Nile that’s a very different gig to playing with Glen Matlock and the Philistines – but I like to think a bring a bit of myself to every project I work with too. I was having this discussion recently with Clem Burke – he loves to always be busy and play with as many people as possible too.
SLIS: I noticed Gene Loves Jezebel haven’t made a new album in many years. Is there anything new coming on the horizon?
STEVENSON: Well as you know the whole situation with GLJ is a total mess with two versions of the band – it’s a real tragedy because the band was so special.
If Jay, Pete and I made a new record we might not even use the GLJ moniker because the name is so fried.
SLIS: So recently I wrote a piece looking back on Gene Loves Jezebel’s album The House of Dolls. While researching I read that this was a difficult period for the band, and that there were clashes over the production and with the Aston twins. Is that accurate, or is there more involved with it than that?
STEVENSON: Yes, it was a nightmare. But it wasn’t a clash about production – it was just hard to find a role for Michael. Jay and Michael practically came to blows on more than one occasion. In fact Jay said to me the final straw for him with Michael was when we did the video for Suspicion, which Jay sang, and Michael had to lip sync to Jay’s vocal so it looked like he sang it – otherwise there would have been nothing for Michael to do in the video.
SLIS: Of all the lead singers you’ve worked with, whom have you meshed with the best musically?
STEVENSON: Oh, that’s a difficult one. As a writing partner probably Jay Aston, we worked really well together where I would create a whole piece of music and Jay would put a tune and lyrics on top. The song Kiss Of Life was written like that. But I’ve also really enjoyed working recently with Gary Twinn in The International Swingers.
SLIS: Back during the punk and post-punk era, a lot of bands had very rudimentary guitarists, but you showed a lot more technique, and soloing ability. Did you have a lot of formal training before you joined a band?
STEVENSON: No, none at all. I’m not that sure your assumption is accurate anyway. When I listen to the first Chelsea album my playing sounds pretty rudimentary to me. You kind of learn as you go along, picking up influences and stuff. It’s got a lot to do with personal taste – what you decide to put on or leave off a record.
SLIS: You’re definitely underrated in my opinion. Do you feel that way about yourself?
STEVENSON: I never think about that to be honest. Yeah, I guess I wish some of the bands I’ve been in had been more successful and I’ve got a big enough ego to wish more people knew who I was – but I’m getting there – and I’m very proud of my new album so maybe that will change a few things.
SLIS: I’ve read that you were heavily influenced by guitarist Mick Ronson (David Bowie, Mott The Hoople). What other musicians have had an impact on your style?
STEVENSON: Yes – Ronno is my favourite guitar player. Has been since I was fourteen, still is, and probably always will be. I love the way his playing is deceptively simple. The parts he created are always perfect for the song – just listen to the solo on Life On Mars, simple genius. I’m really good friends with his sister Maggi – she sang some of the back-up vocals on my album. I also listened a lot to Paul Kossoff , Robert Fripp, Jimmy Page and Chris Spedding – who’s very under-rated in my opinion.
And I love some of the early blues guys, especially Elmore James and Robert Johnson and also the funk singer Johnny “guitar” Watson. His guitar playing really had an influence on me – because although I grew up playing punk rock and rock I always loved funk and Motown too – I think that shows on my album. There’s a track on my album about all my favourite guitar players and how insignificant I feel next to them – it’s called I’ll Know Where I’m Going When I Get There.
SLIS: Do you have much interest in modern music? Do you enjoy any new artists?
STEVENSON: What surprises me is how the last couple of generations haven’t found their own voice or style – with the exception of rap – which I don’t like anyway. Loads of new bands, apart from the production, are using the tools and soundscape of my generation. It would be like all of us in the 70s and 80s playing Glen Miller music – they haven’t done their own thing like every generation from the 40s, 50s, 60,s 70’s and 80’s did.
By the time you get to the 90s with Brit-pop etc those records – some of which are great records – actually could have been made in the 70s. I’m waiting for something new to come along – something as radical as Glam was in the early seventies or Punk was in the late seventies.
(SLIS: I wholeheartedly agree with this statement!)
SLIS: I saw on your Facebook page where you posted an article about artists making money in the Internet age and you wrote; something has to change! As frustrating as that must be for musicians these days, do you enjoy any aspect about social media and keeping an online presence?
STEVENSON: Yeah – it’s a great tool for staying in touch but a lot of it really annoys me. For example on this tour with The Cult every day there’s fifty versions of the show on YouTube the next day. Did they get my approval or permission to use my image? – no. And there’s the advert in the corner for Lexus or something – and the band gets nothing. The band is the reason people tune in – they’re hit with an advert – and YouTube just keeps all the money.
It’s actually completely outrageous what’s going on in my opinion. I saw this chart the other day about making the US minimum wage, which I believe is around $1200 per month, as a musician. So you could sell 120 of your own CDs at $10 each. Or to make the same amount from Spotify you need to get played over four million times!
The problem is soon there’ll be no financial incentive for creative people to be creative anymore and then everyone loses. I know there’s suffering for your art etc – but you have to be able to make some sort of living from it. And YouTube etc are actually exploiting creative people massively – and laughing all the way to the bank.
SLIS: And you’re working on a book correct? How far are you along in that process and what will be the focus?
STEVENSON: Yeah, Twenty Five Years In The Rock And Roll Wilderness – I’ll have to re-title it Thirty-Five years now! I’ve run out of steam with it right now – but I will get it finished – one day. I think what’s interesting about my story is it doesn’t encompass just one band – I’ve worked with tons of interesting people.
SLIS: So when you sit back and look at your body of work. what are you most proudest of playing wise or songwriting wise?
STEVENSON: Well I think a lot of the GLJ stuff. I particularly love Heavenly Bodies, which kind of got lost because the label went bust. I’m really proud of my solo record – it was like a huge exorcism to get it out of my system.
SLIS: I’m glad you mentioned Heavenly Bodies. I love that album as well. In particular the track Josephina. I like how the song goes from a very goth verse to a very heavy chorus, and I think it’s one of the heaviest riffs you’ve done with GLJ. I also love that little minor key bit you throw during the chorus. Do you remember the process for writing it?
Own Heavenly Bodies on iTunes:
STEVENSON: Yes – the main riff for Josephina was something I was working on with Dave Martin the rhythm guitarist from Chelsea when we were in a band together called The Smart around 83-84. Then as the song was in E minor I added chord IV for the link, which is pretty standard – which is the A minor riff and the middle 8 – bridge if you’re American – has the stops with the C major 7 part.
I was messing around with the main riff in rehearsals one day and Jay noticed and liked it and we built the song from there.
SLIS: What is your favorite guitar to play, and what are your favorite characteristics of the instrument?
STEVENSON: I’m a Les Paul player and always will be – I’m pretty spoilt and have a lot of guitars. Every guitar has its own personality. On my album for the cleaner rhythm stuff I did use a Strat though. There’s like a history and pics of all my guitars on my “tools of the trade” page on my site.
(SLIS: And it’s a very impressive list! Click here to check it out.)
SLIS: I’m sure playing in bands in the late 70’s and the 80’s had to give way to a lot of crazy moments on the road. Are their any incidents that come to mind that you remember fondly (that you can talk about)?
STEVENSON: They’ll all be in my book – just so many. I mean the first time I toured America I was twenty years old and up for anything, and got up to everything! Same all through the eighties with GLJ – crazy, fantastic times.
The first Gene Loves Jezebel tour of the US when I took over early on because their guitarist, Ian Hudson, had a nervous breakdown will stay with me forever. I’m still here and having as great time, doing what I love, I’m very lucky.
SLIS: Well I’d like to thank you very much for your time with doing this interview. Before we wrap up is there anything else you’d like to discuss or promote?
STEVENSON: I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who’s supported and encouraged me through the years.
For all things James Stevenson, click here to visit his official website. Gene Loves Jezebel will be releasing a 5-CD box set in November which you can learn more about by clicking here. And click here for ticket info for the Electric 13 tour.