Habitual readers of Sentinel Daily will have come to realise over the last eighteen months or so that we’ve got a little bit of a soft spot for UK punks Chelsea. Survivors from the original London punk scene of 1976/77, they’ve just released a new studio LP -their eleventh – entitled Mission Impossible, through Westworld Recordings. So of course when the chance to have a chinwag about all things Chelsea with guitarist James Stevenson came up, we jumped at it…
The record came out a few days ago. Have you seen much response to it so far? Are you happy with the way it’s been received? “Yes… I think we’re making the best records we’ve ever made. I took a hiatus from the band for about twenty years after I left in 1980, came back to do something called the Social Chaos tour in 1999 in the USA, we made an album with that lineup (which included Tony Barber from The Buzzcocks), 2006’s Faster, Cheaper and Better Looking. Gene (October, vocalist) then had the idea to get Nick Austin, who was the main songwriter and guitarist for the Evacuate album, back in the band. We’ve now made two albums, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (2015) and Mission Impossible. I personally think they’re the two best albums the band has ever made, and yes, we’re getting a great response”.
You’re in a lot of bands. You’ve made a lot of albums. Does the release of a new one still excite you? “Yes, absolutely. I think it does everyone. It’s just about ego, about people hearing the songs you’ve written and the music you’ve made. You want as many people to hear it and like it as possible. So yes, there’s a lot of anticipation when a record comes out – how it’s going to be received… in the past with Chelsea we’ve had a lot of negative stuff from the media, especially in the late eighties and the nineties, when the band was in a kind of lost, grey area. But yes you do, you look forward to your music coming out and people hearing it, of course”.
How does recording with Chelsea compare to recording with one of your other bands – Gene Loves Jezebel for instance? “They are very different bands. But at the end of the day you have a budget that you have to work to, and there’s a different chemistry because of the different people you work with… but the actual recording process, getting the music down, is the same whatever band you’re in”.
And before you get in the studio, as a writer, do you write for Chelsea specifically, or as riffs come to you do you think ‘that would be good for Chelsea’? “If I’ve got a riff in my head, usually I’ll sing it in to my phone, and then I’ll record it at home and maybe then I’ll think ‘yeah, this’ll be good for Chelsea’. I don’t think ‘right, I need to write something for Chelsea right now’. With Gene Loves Jezebel, (vocalist) Jay Aston will often come up with a complete song, but quite often… our biggest hit in America, a song called Jealous, was a riff that I had which Jay heard and liked and turned it into a song, so it can happen like that. On Mission Impossible there’s a song called Just Like Me that I actually wrote for the first Chelsea album in 1978. It never got used, so I said to Gene ‘why don’t we record this and see how it comes out?’ so we did and it’s on there!”
I’m interested that you say that because the music on the new album really sounds like that early Chelsea material to me. “Yes, well at the end of the day Gene’s voice is still the same as it was then. The thing about Gene is that he’s a ‘proper’ singer. He’s got a proper tone and he can sing. There are lots of other punk bands where the singers just shout and scream but Gene is just a great rock singer. His voice is always going to be a trademark sound. And me and Nick have been around since the early days, so yes the music will be the same. Maybe a bit more grown up because we’re all a bit older! But I’m proud of all the records I’m on – I still like the first Chelsea album. So yes, there is a thread there”.
As you say you’ve done two albums now for Westworld. But before that there was a nine year gap and in that time the recording industry changed almost beyond recognition. “Beyond recognition!”
It’s almost more punk now than when the band started, isn’t it? Bands really can do it themselves these days in a big way. ”Yes, and everyone is doing it for themselves. The new Gene Loves Jezebel album was done as a pledge record. Because you can’t sell your music in the same way you used to, really the music you record and put out there is promo for your live gigs, whereas it used to be the other way around – you used to go out on the road to promote your single, to promote your album. Now you don’t sell music. You’ve got Spotify out there, that people can listen to for nothing, you can create an MP3 and send it to everyone in your address book free of charge! Labels just don’t have the money to say ‘here’s a hundred thousand pounds, go and make a video’. Those days are gone. But you have to adapt to the times. Bands still want to make music, people still want to go out and see bands, so you sit down and figure out how to do it. With Saturday Night, Sunday Morning we got a bunch of fans, the Chelsea Angels, to chip in, and they all got a credit on the record, and that’s how we made that one. Westworld gave us a really small budget to do the new one, which we did. The thing is with pledge campaigns, and fan-funded albums, when you actually come to fulfil them, it’s a massive amount of work. I’ve just been up half the night signing a load of Gene Loves Jezebel vinyl albums, and now I’ve got to send them to the bass player who will send them out to everyone all over the world. It’s a lot of work, but that’s just the way the industry’s gone. But you have to go with it. You can’t fight the trend, because it’s never going back to how it was”.
The last time I saw you live was when you were playing guitar for The Cult a couple of years ago – any chance you might get down here with Chelsea in the foreseeable future? “I’d love to, and we’d love to bring Gene Loves Jezebel down too but it’s all about economics. It’s all about the profile you have and whether a local promoter thinks he can get enough people to pay to come and see you and make it worthwhile. My brother lives in Melbourne, and if I can get a free trip down there with a band to see him I love to do that!”
You clearly still enjoy touring? “My favourite thing to do is walk onstage and play guitar. It always will be”.
But does it get harder to tour at Chelsea’s level as you get older, as opposed to say, playing with The Alarm or The Cult? “I’ve always got about five setlists going around in my head! But the job is very different in different bands – in Chelsea or The Alarm or Gene Loves Jezebel I’m a member of the band, I’ve co-written some of the songs, but with The Cult… Billy Duffy is an old friend of mine and basically they just employ me to back him up by playing rhythm guitar while he’s playing a solo – it’s a totally different job”.
At which point or allotted time runs out, and we make an agreement to speak again in the not too distant feature for another feature on Sentinel Daily. But in the meantime, can I suggest you make your way out to your local record n’tape wxchange and avail yourself of Mission Impossible? We might just get those economics working in favour of a Chelsea tour down under if we all work together…