Our Interview with Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum, jazz-bod extraordinaire, is in the back-lounge of his tour bus driving through rural France.

Where are you, we ask.

“I have no idea!” he replies.

Where were you last that was like a real place, we respond.

“Paris,” he says. “That was definitely a real place. And prior to that, Amsterdam.”

The line goes ominously dead for a few seconds before a crackly Jamie returns.

“I’m kind of hoping wherever we’re going next is a real place too…”

Mr Cullum, I put it to you that your new single Love For Sale is very hip-hop indeed…

That’s how I got into jazz – through samples in hip-hop and record collecting. Sample culture is part of my work, and has been for many years. Basslines and riffs are part of a jazz musician’s DNA and obviously hip-hop is based around that same thing. Roots Manuva’s Witness the Fitness features one of my favourite basslines of all time – that’s probably the same for a lot of people! Hip-hop is, largely, about sex, so singing Cole Porter’s 1930’s song about hookers over the top of this Roots Manuva bassline and turning it back into essentially a jazz song with a jazz piano solo in the middle, made sense in my brain!

Is there a desire in you to throw people off the scent, make them think about you in a different way?

Absolutely – and I totally understand what you’re saying. Obviously there’s a reason the label led with that, too – that song is the first thing a lot of people will have heard from the new record. Funnily enough, there’s a YouTube clip of me jamming out this with a loop pedal about five or six years ago. I’m always looking for ideas that excite me, and then trying not to think about how people will take it, because if I think about that too much, then I’ll wrong-foot myself! My impulse is just to do crazy shit that amuses me, so I do like the idea that people think they’ve got my number, but actually it turns out they haven’t. A lot of my hard-core fans are very accepting of my moves like that. They’ve all heard stuff that I’ve done with Pharrell and stuff I’ve done with Sander Kleinenberg – the ones that really know me expect there to be a few wrong-foots along the way.

What was the first music you were aware of playing in the house?

That’s a good question. My mum and dad played a lot of music in the house, often the Sound of the 60s on Radio Two on a Saturday morning, but I think really it was my older brother, Ben, who really kind of was the one who influenced me with the music. So early on, it was a lot of pop, you know, Jive Bunny and the Mastermix, Housemartins, The Smiths. When he started bringing home Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan we got into blues and those guitar gods and then we started getting really into heavy metal. I was very passionate very quickly about bands like AC/DC and Iron Maiden.

How did you mark out your heavy metal territory?

For me it was about super-heavy musicianship, so I loved Sepultura, Pantera, Megadeath. I wasn’t really into the attitude. I didn’t like adopt any, “Fuck you, fuck the world!” outlook, I was fascinated by how well they were playing the drums and guitar – just the speed at which they were playing. That was really key, because when took the jump over to jazz there was symbiotic feeling to the people who were playing really fast and really technically in metal and jazz. Then I really got into Nirvana and Soundgarden, before it all went rave, breakbeat and electronic, like Roni Size and Portishead…

You are, clearly, a hopeless case.

Oh yeah! I took on the mantle of music nerd early on, so it was all going to record fairs, trying to find old records, serious backpacks and old band t-shirts stuff.

What are the five key hip-hop records that swung you towards playing jazz?

That would be the first two Pharcyde records, then A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes & Life, Guru’s first Jazzmatazz LP, though that’s not aged so well, any of the early Beatnuts’ LPs and Quasimoto’s The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. There’s quite a few of those records that I still go back to – and, you know, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that that first Us Three record was a big one for me as well. That’s where I first heard Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock as well. That, again, has not dated well, so it’s not the coolest reference, but definitely an important one.

It’s easy, years later, to pretend that all you listened to at the time was Grant Green’s Down Here On The Ground and Nasty Nas’ Halftime, but things like Us 3 and Earthling and Ronnie Jordan were big records too.

Absolutely – and it all connects to jazz and the whole acid jazz scene; Incognito, Corduroy, The James Taylor Quartet, Snowboy and the Latin Section, that was really a big starting point for me, the link was there to Roni Size and it wasn’t too far away from what my peers were into. It’s always a bit frightening when you’re completely out on your own…

Does the perfect song exist?

Well, I think Donny Hathaway singing Jealous Guy by John Lennon, the live version, is pretty damn close to perfect song. It may be the perfect performance, but perfect in the sense that it has all the right imperfections in it too.

We’ve touched on hip-hop, but what five albums from the wider world made you who you are?

Certainly Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen is a very key record in my existence. There’s a Harry Connick Jr album called Twenty, which is him playing solo piano and singing with guests like Dr. John and Carmen McRae, that’s pretty essential. New Forms by Roni Size must be in there, as must Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. Then there’s Cinematic Orchestra’s Every Day and Mark Murphy’s Rah! There’s too many…

Who’s the most impressive person you’ve ever worked with?

I think Pharrell. I spent a week with him in Miami, in the studio and just seeing the way he works was very inspiring. He was really going out on a limb working with someone like me, and while we didn’t get much actual suitable work done it was still an amazing experience.

What music can you only listen to when Sophie’s out?

Ha! Well, that would be some of the heavier kind of techno things I listen to – and possibly the new Flaming Lips album, The Terror. I love it, but it’s not entirely suitable for the wife and two children at the same time! I had that on the other day and I seen realised it was definitely something that I should specifically put my headphones on for. Same with this guy, Applescal whose album I really like at the moment.

If you could join any band in history, who would that be?

I would say The Beatles for the music and Led Zeppelin for the parties. Or maybe One Direction. Being Harry Styles right now, would be quite good. Or possibly the biggest nightmare in the entire world, who knows!