The following story will appear in and grace the cover of the forthcoming issue of Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 14
Having first risen to prominence over 20 years ago, UK funk/acid jazz band Jamiroquai and lead singer Jay Kay laid the groundwork for many acts that followed, with the likes of Chance the Rapper, Tyler, the Creator, Anderson .Paak and Pharrell all saying Jamiroquai inspired their music. Back after a seven-year silence with Automaton, Jamiroquai’s mad hatter Jay Kay dishes on his storied career.
Like many other people who lived through the glorious decade that was the 1990s, there came a time where I was transfixed by a certain music video. When I happened to catch it on MTV or VH1 (in the days when they actually played music videos), I would stare at the screen transfixed; utterly glued to a seamless visual trickery that my young brain could barely begin to comprehend. The video in question was one entitled “Virtual Insanity,” and it was created by a band named Jamiroquai.
Despite finding international acclaim and renown for the aforementioned video and its accompanying single, no one has really known how to classify Jamiroquai — or even what do with them. They began in 1992, so named for the concept of a ‘jam session’ and the Iroquois, a tribe of Native Americans that originated in Eastern Canada. An element of exoticism pervaded them from the start, no doubt aided by the fact that they must have been one of the only bands of the era to employ a member whose sole instrument was a didgeridoo.
Time passed quickly, and after finding the heights of success, the band entered a quieter phase, producing full-lengths on a less regular basis. The official members of the group proved to be something of a revolving door, with the only constant arriving in the form of lead singer Jay Kay, a performer with undeniable magnetism and charisma. For anyone familiar with the visual iconography of the band, he’s a performer that loves his hats — hats of the wild, stupendously original kind.
Kay and his bandmates could have lived very comfortably going the route of a ’90s nostalgia band, enjoying the ride of their past success, but that isn’t how this crew works. After seven years of silence, they are back with a new work titled Automaton. And though they are approaching nearly 30 years as a uniform outfit of electronic excellence, they are showing no signs of fading in their ability to weave sonic wonder.
We chatted with Kay to discuss bringing his latest project to life, that stint he did on cult British TV phenomena Top Gear, and describing that hat of his in his own words.
What were some of the ways in which you approached this latest project differently than you would have in the past?
This project was different because we had to try and take our old sound and give it a slightly contemporary edge, without it losing what we felt like people liked about us, and what’s always suited the style we always created music in. So instead of using plugins on Pro Tools, we decided to use a lot of old vintage ’70s and ’80s synthesizers in their analogue form as the basis for the music. On top of that, the drum recording was done initially with plugin drums and then embellished on top of the live stuff — sometimes just with live hats — to keep a fluid feel to it. We were also careful about how we use horns because in the past we were criticized perhaps for being too retro, so we decided just to be very careful about how we used them. So it’s a very fine line between having the sound that we’ve had and that our old fans enjoy, and bringing something newer that people who aren’t familiar with the band could enjoy.
What is something we as listeners would find on Automaton that may surprise us?
It’s difficult to say what would surprise people. I think it’s hard to quantify that. If you listen back to albums four, five and six, and film titles such as Titan A.E., you’ll find that actually we’ve been doing some electronic stuff all the way through our career, so I don’t believe that Automaton is the most electronic track that we’ve ever done. The only thing that’s a little different is the fact that I have tried not to — particularly with tracks like “Nights Out In the Jungle” — do a full song type of lyric. Which is difficult for me to do because I just like to write a song; and so in some sense, tracks like “NOITJ” represent a more remix-y approach to working on a track, which is, I guess, something different for us.
What was the most challenging part of creating your new album? The least challenging?
The most challenging part was actually starting up again. I didn’t know whether I particularly wanted to carry on in the business because it can be overwhelming. It’s a little bit different when you’re younger, but the whole industry has changed so dramatically now. Although you see artists who were from an era before me carrying on, they tended to have all their major stuff release long before the whole internet and social media thing ever came along. I still started at a time when you put out one single, an A- and a B-side, and then you had an album and that was really it. There might have been a 12-inch remix as well, but now things have changed so dramatically that you almost have four times the workload and there was no “least challenging” part to that. So it was definitely deciding to start up and debating whether it was worth it, but then again you continue to do it because you love doing it and you love creating music. I love the buzz of starting with a blank sheet of paper then seeing songs come together, especially when you see and know when they’re finished, and when you are overdoing or overcooking them, and when you feel you’ve got it right. The buzz of creating something from scratch and seeing that lyric you came up with in your head go onto a record, and then off to the radio and eventually you end up with 30,000-40,000 people singing that line that you thought of when you were wandering around your garden thinking, “What can I do for a chorus?” — that’s the buzz and that’s why most musicians do what they do.
Visual aesthetics were a key part of your success earlier in your career, would you say they still play an important part in your role as an artist?
Yes, absolutely, and yet although the landscape has changed for videos, it has been something that I have always been involved with, which I consider as the part B to the part A. Every video has been important and I have always liked to do my own stunts in my videos and have a lot of control over them, even with the editing. I like to have a lot of control over the process, partly because you know that you’re always the guy that has to live with it, unlike the guy that sits in the editing room who just does that and then does the next one, like being on a conveyor belt. It’s important, as every time it gets played you have to live with it right down the line, so it’s important it looks good after 10-15 years and retains its quality. It’s important to me, and dare I say, it’s not manufactured poppy stuff, which is not where I have come from. I started off on my own at 17 and got my first record deal, and from there I have done around 30 or so videos, I think, so the visuals were very important. It was imperative that the visual was right for Automaton, particularly in regards to how I was going to move the headgear forward from where it had been in the past, such as with the feathers, carbon fiber and now a lit electronic piece. I’m pleased that the visuals match the tune directly. I think it works, we’re very happy with it — and to still be dancing at 47!
How would you describe your visual style?
It’s difficult to describe my visual style but I suppose it’s a bit of ’70s old-school driver with a touch of ’70s B-boy thrown into it.
Can you tell us about your experience with Top Gear? Did you always know you were such a speed demon?
Yeah, ever since I was a little boy I’ve always been into aircrafts, cars and anything that shifts, so that’s something I’ve been lucky to indulge. I managed to, how can I put it, get some of the “toys” that young men want when I was younger, as opposed to as a balding old man, which makes a lot of difference. It also needs to be taken seriously, though: if you’re going to be a speed demon and get it wrong, it can literally kill you. As for Top Gear, the experience was just a little bit of fun, really. I know the guys from the show and they’ve been around to the house a few times. We have a little event called Motors and Rotors every couple of years, where there’s fly-ins with helicopters and we all get the old cars out, have a barbecue, and we sit around and talk about classic cars. So yeah, I’ve always been a speed demon and don’t see that changing anytime soon (laughs).
What was your life like before adopting the hat? Did you feel complete after adopting it?
When I was a kid I used to skateboard a lot, and I always had a hat on my head. After a period of time, and once I started doing music, I realized that having a hat was quite good because no one could recognize me, and I just felt more secure underneath a hat and like I could hide away. I also felt just like I do now, that I could get into a completely different alter ego on stage with a hat on my head. In some ways, I become a different person — I become Jamiroquai, not Jay — so it’s an intrinsic part of what I do and it’s never really going to change because I always feel complete when I have it on. It does make singing a bit more difficult and it certainly makes you a lot hotter on stage (especially when you are in places like Bogota, Colombia and South America in 38 degree [Celsius] heat), but it’s part of what we do, always has been and probably always will be.
If you had to give up music forever, what do you think you would be doing?
It’s a short answer, because I would probably be living a very quiet life nowhere near the public eye at all.
“I love the buzz of starting with a blank sheet of paper, then seeing songs come together, especially when you see and know when they’re finished, and when you are overdoing them, or when you are overcooking them, and when you feel you’ve got it right.”
What would you say is one of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your time in the music industry?
The biggest change is the advent of social media and everything from YouTube to Spotify. It’s a completely different landscape and totally different from what it was in the past with vinyls, CDs, etc. It’s almost bewildering to me how much it has changed and I think it’s perhaps like that for a lot of artists. I mentioned before, but I think the workload outside of just creating music has gone up drastically and that’s by far the biggest change in the music industry. The record companies haven’t been able to keep pace with it. It’s taken them ages to get around to it, so yeah, it’s changed enormously.
Who were Jamiroquai’s initial audience? What were these people like? How has your audience evolved over time?
The initial audience for me were probably those who rejected the pop music of the early ’90s and who were into jazz and funk and wanted to see something a little bit different and wanted to see somebody do it live. They were kinda cool and young; we did all the student stuff across Europe where the audience were 150-200 people in the cooler clubs, particularly in France, the UK and Japan, and they were great times. Over time, the audiences evolved because at some point we hit the mainstream, with maybe not the second but certainly the third album, Traveling Without Moving. Suddenly there was press and, certainly in the UK, attention from the tabloid media, and that created a sea of change in how many people were exposed to me; some not necessarily for all the right reasons. Certainly not for the music but just for who I was, what was going on, what nightclubs I was stumbling out of, and so on. Yeah — as Tony Montana says, “That’s history!”
For more of our music features, revisit our Q&A with Future right here.
- Photograhpy: Hayley Louisa Brown