Music Interviews

Alex James and Betty Boo on WigWam: “It’s a really good calling card” – Interview


Wigwam: Alex James and Betty Boo

A video featuring policemen and catsuits has been doing the rounds on the web, showcasing what at first looks like one of pop’s all-time unlikely pairings. Betty Boo, ’90s pop renegade and Ivor Novello Award winning songwriter, has been persuaded out of retirement by space-gazing raconteur, cheese purveyor and Blur bassist Alex James. Together they are WigWam. And with the World Cup and a new Blur record in the works, both had plenty to talk about ahead of the launch of their ridiculously catchy eponymous debut single.

I meet the taller than expected Alex James at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, where there’s an exhibition on the theme of space. Alex has been commissioned to soundtrack it, and has taken the opportunity to showcase WigWam in front of the gallery’s annual patrons’ party the night before. Amongst those in attendance were Tracey Emin and Minnie Driver. Considering the hour at which the party died down, he’s looking none the worse for wear.

“Every year the gallery do this event where they have a party and invite all their fabulous patrons, artists who’ve exhibited here, and it’s a quite glamourous and wonderful evening,” he explains in an accent largely devoid of expected Essex tinges. “They invite a musician to collaborate in some way with images.”

“I’m just a stalking starfucker.” – Alex James

This year, he is that musician. “I’m just a stalking starfucker when it comes to artists,” he declares airily. “My sister always won the pavement drawing competition every summer at the Bournemouth regatta and I never really recovered from that. Then I went to Goldsmith’s and I didn’t do art. All the cool people were doing art. Art was definitely the cool thing to be doing. So it was very flattering to be commissioned by an art gallery to make some art for them. I leapt at it. Then I realised I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do…”

He tails off and muses skyward, stroking his carefully sculpted stubble. “Eventually it comes if you think about it,” he says eventually, striking a pose of the chin-stroking intellectual.

It’s already clear that Alex can spin a yarn, and he’s so engaging that it seems churlish to divert his curious train of thought, even if we do really want to talk about WigWam. Instead, he delves further into the resonance of contemporary art. “I think art’s become a very potent marketing elixir, right up there with youth and celebrity as a means of selling something, or making it look cool. You can’t really expect to make money out of a bar unless you can get celebrities and young people to go there, and it’s got a fabulous contemporary art collection.”

Alex’s erstwhile Blur bandmate Graham Coxon recently held an exhibition of his own art work and was responsible for several of the band’s album covers. Now it seems that Alex has seen the artistic light. “Contemporary art has done very well at reinventing itself as something amazingly cool,” he enthuses. “There’s a lot of interest in it – it’s in the papers every week, about some new ridiculous art prize about somebody who’s got size 13 feet, or Tracey Emin’s latest thoughts. It’s brilliant. There’s a sort of purity, a different agenda to art than there is to the druggery of commerce and trade and the commercialism of music.”

“Keith (Allen)’s been calling… I might this weekend sneak off to a studio and see if I can come up with something…” – Alex James on recording an alternative 2006 England World Cup anthem

Golly. There was me thinking bassists were the quiet ones. And what of this well-documented obsession with space? “I’m very interested in science. All children are fascinated by ghosts, dinosaurs and space. I guess I never grew out of being fascinated by space,” he shrugs. “I’ve always had a telescope. Have you ever looked at the moon through a telescope?” he asks; I sign a regretful negative. “It’s about the best thing to look at. The moon is really knockout, just this big thing floating in space…” He pauses as I consider how I missed out on such things, and try to recall an evidently mis-spent childhood. “I guess everything that inspires you inspires everything else that you do. Inspiration’s a weird one.”

There’s another thoughtful pause – a chance to move the conversation on to matters WigWam, whose eponymous debut single occupies a space far from the lofty intellectual heights of contemporary art and astronomy. This is pop at its purest. Is he expecting a big hit? “WigWam is a gooky pop record,” he acknowledges with a fond smile. “You usually know before (a record) comes out whether it’s going to be a hit or not, but this one… it might get in to the top 100, it might go into the top 10. Radio haven’t really gone near it but television love it. It’s just odd.”

One of the talking points around the record is the welcome return of Scottish-Malaysian pop star Betty Boo, real name Alison Clarkson. She’d been out of the limelight for some years, taking care of her ill mother, but found the time to pen reality TV crooners Hear’Say‘s Pure and Simple, for which she won an Ivor Novello songwriting award, and most of the first Girls Aloud album before falling out with Simon Cowell.

“She’s a lively one,” offers Alex on the other half of WigWam. “I met her in town, and we got drunk together. I didn’t realise she was Betty Boo at first. I met her through her husband.” Paul Toogood, Alison’s husband and manager, also manages Echo And The Bunnymen‘s Ian McCulloch, with whom Alex has been working on a record. “We were working with Ben Hillier, putting songs together for people. We made records for Sophie Ellis Bextor and some TV themes, but we wanted to make a pop record and we wanted someone to front it.” As with so many life-changing decisions, courting inebriation proved to be inspired. “When I realised the next day that she was Betty Boo, I thought, brilliant! We got her down to the studio, and it all clicked.”

On all the clicking, Alex has a theory. “I think it works better if you can meet people through a mutual friend, or not the first time you meet is in a recording studio, because it’s mental really, making music.” And then he disappears off along an unexpected tangent. “There are so many parallels with marriage. It’s very intimate and personal and scary and brilliant.”

At the Whitechapel Art Gallery the duo, with a band in catsuits used in the Dom Joly-directed video, played two songs – the single, followed by Rock Me Non Stop. “We could probably finish the album in about six weeks,” says Alex. “We’ve got a whole load of songs, but it’s worth just putting one out to see if it’s worth finishing them off. It’s really easy to start things and really hard to finish them. WigWam (the single) is a really good calling card – you can’t hear this song and go, ‘WigWam, I’ve never heard of them.'”

Making a mark fits with his musical philosophy. “Music that I aspire to make is music that expresses something, but that everyone can get a handle on. Popular is good.”

“The world’s run by maniacs.” – Alex James

There’s a scientific reason for why that chorus sticks in the head, according to Alex. “WigWam is very sugary. Pop music is 90% sugar. And it’s quite knowing. And silly. It’s a jump-around record. It’s a classy crisp. A Jonathan Crisp,” he says, looking delighted with his riff.

He believes art and music have more in common than at first seems obvious. “The main thing about making music is, you’ve got to be confident. It’s 90% about confidence. Art’s probably the same. It’s almost as important to think you’re brilliant as to actually be brilliant. There’s a kind of autistic self-belief about people who make successful music and art. And probably all successful people. The world’s run by maniacs.”

The previous day I’d nattered with Alison, who has plans for WigWam all of her own. “We’re going to put out another single pretty quickly, get it out in the clubs – it’s all very dancey,” she purred enthusiastically through a speakerphone. “The thing with WigWam is, the styles will always change. We might have some new vocalists come in. It’ll be the ultimate pop group, where we do whatever we want.”

Giving up a lucrative songwriting career for another tilt at pop stardom was for Alison an easy decison. “I didn’t find (songwriting for others) satisfying. You’d work with these artists and a lot of the time you’d have to do a lot of work to them… I thought, I have to try something new, and this is what we did. The music we’ve been doing for the last two years I think is sensational. A bit different. I thought it’d be good to come up with something special, not just ordinary.”

As with Alex, Alison has other projects on the go. “I like new challenges,” she says. “A bit like Damon Albarn who just keeps writing. If you do have a discipline it keeps you sane really, doesn’t it,” she rhetorically muses.

“It’s mental really, making music…” – Alex James

The fact that she’s now near-neighbours with Alex has been a help in the creation of WigWam. The two are now country squires in the wilds of Wiltshire. “We visit each other down this old roman road, as opposed to travelling across London,” she enthuses. But she’s happy to return to the capital – not least to finally appear at Jeremy Joseph’s institution, G-A-Y at the Astoria. “They’ve been asking me to do G-A-Y for years and I haven’t done it because I haven’t had any records out,” explains Alison. “I didn’t want to turn up saying I was a pop star once.”

On WigWam’s medium-to-long-term prospects, Alex seems less definite – not least because of the precarious state of much of the music industry. “I don’t know if I’d want to sign to a major label at the moment. But I suppose I’d probably have to,” he reasons.

“Being in a band is one thing and running a record label’s another thing. If you want two jobs, that’s great but I think you want to change the way everything works when you’re young, but you then find it’s actually easier to concentrate on what you’re good at. People in bands don’t tend to be brilliant business people. Americans are much better than we are over here. They’re all very clued up on branding, doing their lines… of trainers. The American music industry’s a lot more showbiz that we are in Britain. We’re a lot more rock’n’roll…”

I put it to him that anyone from Blur can surely enjoy a lucrative solo career without much concern. Alex isn’t so sure. “Ten years ago the bass player in Blur would’ve got a record deal just on the merits of being in Blur. But record companies are so skint at the moment. The industry’s basically shrunk by 25%. I don’t want to talk about business models, but the labels are ailing badly and it’s not inconceivable that a major label could go bust in the near future. The things they relied on, that paid the bills, like rereleasing The Beatles catalogue or repackaging Michael Jackson – who wants to buy a repackaged Michael Jackson record when you can get his whole catalogue on LineWire? The internet’s brilliant for music, but it’s just not great for record companies.”

So what does Alex make of Coxon’s new album and solo career? “I think Graham’s a fantastic guitar player,” he muses, teetering on the edge of damning with faint praise. “There’s always the chance that Graham would write a big record, but he’s not sure what he sets out to do. I’m different. Music’s the most universal, unifying language that there is and the most omniscient, all-prevailing art form. You can’t go and buy a loaf of bread without hearing… what can’t you stop hearing at the moment? Joss Stone today, and KT Tunstall. I like KT Tunstall. That record’s quite prevalent. It’s just everywhere…”

But on the subject of Graham, Alison is more forthcoming. “We did a show with Graham the other day and he didn’t say hello,” she remembers. “I thought, what a weirdo! They’re funny, the Blur boys. They don’t talk to each other. You think that they all live in a big house somewhere together and are all friends, like The Monkees, but they’re not!”

“They’re becoming a bit like Bond films…” – Alex James on Blur albums

Yet, like the Monkees, Alex James knows a thing or two about popular music, and not just from Blur’s string of hits. He is, with fermaldyhide fetishist Damien Hirst and actor Keith Allen, one third of football anthem touters Fat Les. And the news is, 2006 sees their return, following the announcement that Embrace will write England’s official world cup song.

“Keith’s been calling me. I think I might this weekend sneak off to a studio and see if I can come up with something,” says Alex. He’s always been a football fan, quite apart from the stargazing. “It’s a wonderful thing, football. Football songs are hard things to write because it’s got to be really simple. Three Lions is a good football song.” He hums it. “It’s genius! Really, really good. But it’s the hardest trick. Vindaloo was like a terrace chant that was fiddled about a bit. Football terraces are where people just spontaneously break into song and it’s a wonderful, brilliant thing when people sing something you’ve written like that – I can’t think of a better feeling,” he says, musing skyward again. “Apart from my birthday in Sao Paolo in 1998, but we won’t go into that.”

Creating an alternative football anthem suggests an unhappiness with the official choice: Embrace. “I can’t see that working,” says Alex as many, many Englanders nod in agreement up and down the land. But he’s not taking a shot at the McNamaras. “The official one rarely does work anymore,” he explains. “We thought after Vindaloo that we should do the official one next time round. So we thought we’d do something posh. We got a 200-piece orchestra and five choirs… and cannons… and spent 200K making a single – it was the most expensive single ever made – and it did alright. But people were asking when we’d make another one of those cheap and nasty ones, (saying) they’re much better. Cheap and nasty pop music. You can’t beat it.”

He remembers the making of Vindaloo fondly. “Vindaloo took 15 minutes to write. We recorded it in Townhouse the following week and made the video the week after, then it was released the following week. And Keith’s good at football words. He’s a man of the people and he’s on the terraces.”

Keith Allen’s daughter is about to hit the big time too. Signed to Parlophone’s Regal imprint, Lily Allen has already built up a sizeable following in MySpace and plays her first gig proper in May. I ask if Alex is involved with her album. “I don’t think she needs me,” he replies. “She does exactly what she wants. She’s very talented and has her dad’s drive.”

All the signs are that whatever happens with WigWam, Alex is going to be very busy this year. He tells me that Blur have booked time in diaries for the studio next month. “Damon’s on fire at the moment. He’s a genius. I’m so proud of what he’s achieved with Gorillaz. Demon Days was the best record of last year.”

“Cheap and nasty pop music. You can’t beat it.” – Alex James on the return of the alternative England World Cup anthem…

But Damon’s on record as not wanting to make another Blur album without Graham, I point out. “Yeah, but he also said ‘This’ll be our last ever tour’ before every tour… ” So he won’t be on this one? “I don’t think Graham will be involved in this record. The door is open, but I think he’s got his own fish to fry. Damon makes records on his own, I make records on my own… it’s not like we need Graham to make a record.”

Whether or not Coxon is on board, the remaining Blur boys are looking forward to the next album. “They’re becoming a bit like Bond films, Blur albums,” he offers. “They’ve all got these exotic locations. There was the Icelandic one, the Moroccan one… I don’t know where we’ll go next. I guess I’ll have to read some Bond books. Damon said Baghdad – I’d be well up for that. Or there’s supposed to be a really good hip-hop scene in Pretoria…”

Why all the far-flung locations? “Going somewhere else works. It takes you out of your life and you’re not thinking about bills or everyday stuff which is a good thing for the creative process. That tricky bit of the record, when you’ve got to finish it and it goes from being a bunch of good ideas into a solid, finished thing, that’s the hard bit. But it’s good to remove yourself from your existence and go somewhere new.”

Now in his late 30s, Alex isn’t yet tired of travelling. “It’s very grounding,” he insists. “You become someone else a bit. To go somewhere where music is different and means different things. Travel is the best thing in the world. Being at home keeps the wanderlust at bay, you become absorbed by your life. You stop thinking about it. But as soon as you do take yourself away there are whole possibilities that suddenly occur to you, and there are a million ways to live your life. You’ve just got to keep yourself alive when you’re making music, and travelling is a good way to stay alive.”

On Morocco, where Blur’s last album Think Tank was recorded, he has mixed feelings. “It was very good, but I don’t think we’d go back there. It’s impractical and it’s just easier to make records in Shepherd’s Bush than it is to make them… in the desert! It’s very dusty and hot – and it took weeks to get all the gear out of customs. But it gave the album a dimension that it wouldn’t have got from Shepherd’s Bush.” He pauses. “And I went out there single and came back engaged, so it was quite a momentous time…”

He’s married now, with twins due in May. “I’ve got to get a few things done before all that happens,” he says with masterly understatement. Alex James is a man on a mission.

WigWam by WigWam is out now through Instant Karma.

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Alex James and Betty Boo on WigWam: “It’s a really good calling card” – Interview