Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman has adventured to America to experiment with jazz and collaborate with a diverse cast for the debut album under his Mr Jukes moniker.
For Jack Steadman, his new solo project has been a long time coming. Before finding fame as the frontman of indie favourites Bombay Bicycle Club, he had a huge passion for jazz, funk and soul: three styles of music that combine perfectly on his debut album as Mr Jukes.
Having just arrived at his studio in north London, where he has spent much of the last two years, Jack describes his surroundings as “very chilled. I've actually got one of those essential oil things that fills the room with nice smells,” he reveals, setting the scene. “There’s fairy lights and a bit of greenery, too. It’s very relaxing.”
It was about two years ago that Jack “went away for a bit” - soon after Bombay Bicycle Club decided to take a break from being a band. “I just spent some time decompressing and thinking about what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I was already writing but also collecting a lot of records.”
Inspired by his new discoveries – mainly funk, soul and world music “rather than just going and buying the latest alt-J album” - Jack thinks ‘God First’ is defined by the records he’s been buying over the last four or five years, even while on tour with Bombay.
Ever since picking up his first instrument though, jazz, funk and soul have been instrumental in Jack’s musical upbringing. “I started learning the bass guitar when I was about 13 or 14 at school, and my teacher was heavily into classic soul music and jazz,” he says of one of his major inspirations. “That's kind of the direction that he put me on...”
Taking part in “little lunchtime jam sessions” with friends at school every day also fuelled his passion for instrument-led music and “schooled” him in live performance. “We’d get together, hang out and just play. It was very informal but a lot of fun; and you do actually learn an incredible amount by doing that rather than just taking lessons all the time.”
Though over the years, and especially since he was at school, Jack thinks the idea of jazz music seems to have changed. “It's a very broad term actually,” he considers, before giving his take on how it is sometimes misunderstood. “I think when a lot of people hear the word 'jazz' they think elevator music. But, for me, it was more deep and spiritual jazz, artists like John and Alice Coltrane – it’s very extended, inward-looking and reflective jazz.”
But the one element that stood out most to him growing up: improvisation. “I suppose that’s what appealed to me,” he considers. “Especially more recently, having been in a band that would rehearse every note perfectly for their show, and the shows were very slick. If you made a mistake you would feel bad about it, and that was great, I thought the shows were brilliant, but I was interested in another type of making music where mistakes are okay, and you don't plan ahead…”
While jazz is an inspiration on the record, Jack feels that it’s mostly funk and soul influenced. “Jazz is still something that I listen to as time away from what I'm doing,” he says, “but I don't necessarily play it anymore. If you put me on stage at Ronnie Scott’s tonight, I’d be freaking out, to be honest.” Rather than a reinvention of musical styles, Mr Jukes is more an extension of what he was trying to “subtly inject” into Bombay.
“Like when we would do radio sessions, we’d play Afro-beat versions of songs,” he recalls, “and we would tour with a brass section.” Sticking to the band’s ethos of “if it feels good, let’s do it”, it’s something that Jack has carried on with the new record: “even if it’s cheesy as fuck!”
“They’re really into it, as am I of what they’re doing,” he says of the support from the rest of Bombay, adding that it wasn’t a dramatic break-up at all. “It was very positive, actually. We all just made a decision that there were all these other things that we’ve dreamed of doing, and why don’t we just take some time off and explore them?”
Recording the album, Jack says, has been a process of two halves. “The first half was very solitary and introspective in my studio, just digging through samples and writing the tracks,” he says. “And then the second half – collaboration - was a new thing for me that was very exciting and interesting... and sometimes scary.
“It’s very different to what I had been used to - making music by myself. But, as corny as it sounds, I have learnt a lot from doing this record; about working with other people and the beauty of collaboration.” After crafting the songs with a “definite vision” for what he wanted each vocal to sound like, Jack started getting into the ears of his hopeful collaborators, taking several trips to the States.
At the top of his list was American funk and soul legend Charles Bradley, a singer whose joyful vocal makes ‘Grant Green’ the album’s standout track. “It was incredible, really,” Jack begins. “Charles was like no-one I have ever met before: full of energy and just a really beautiful human being, very humble.” The one thing that struck him most was how much Charles wanted to “get it right: he really was so respectful, asking me, ‘Are you happy? Is that cool?’”
The amount of energy he put into their studio session left Jack stunned, too. “I’ve never seen someone give so much in such a short amount of time. The session was about 60 minutes long, and then he was exhausted and just left. For those 60 minutes, though, it was full throttle. He was singing his heart out, and the engineer and I were left there thinking, ‘Woah, what just happened?’ and we went through all the takes and just had to try and make sense of everything. It was incredibly surreal.”
Working with Chance the Rapper-collaborator BJ The Chicago Kid was another memorable experience. “It was the first session I did for this record, so it was quite nerve-racking, thinking ‘what's this going to be like?’ But he was super friendly and really open,” Jack enthuses of the young soul sensation who mainly improvised his vocals on the euphoric, brass horn-led lead single ‘Angels/Your Love’. “I respect that so much,” he considers, “because as much as I can talk about jazz, I still get nervous doing it in front of people - whereas he wasn't self-conscious at all. He just went into the booth and started trying out in-front of me. I thought that's something I should do more.”
One of the more unexpected collaborations on the album, though, sees Jack enlist the flawless vocal of trap-R&B starlet and one of Awful Record’s most buzz-worthy signings, Alexandria. “She’s based in Atlanta, so I went over there,” Jack begins, gushing that he loves the ultra-cool US label before revealing his first encounter with the taste-making collective. “I turned up at their HQ in Atlanta looking like this white, nerdy, bald guy… I didn’t know what to expect,” he laughs.
After spending the day with “sweetheart” Alexandria, Jack was floored by her vocal on ‘Tears’, a modern-sounding electronic-led lovesick soul ballad. “I’d heard all her records and this one sound of hers, but then after hanging out with her, I realised she’s got this whole other side of her; like she could be a Minnie Riperton or a Mariah Carey with an amazing high-pitched voice.”
Their encounter became even more memorable when Alexandria let out one of the most impressive high notes Jack has heard. “There is a part of the song where she does this really high octave note, I stopped the track and ran into the booth and said, ‘Where did that come from? That completely surprised me’, and she said her mum had called her that morning and said, ‘You know this guy has flown all the way from London this morning, so you better get out that high note for him’. I thought that was really sweet.”
Back in the UK, Jack teamed up with friend and collaborator Lianne La Havas. “I knew her fairly well from before, and she came over to the studio,” he recalls, adding that the setting was a complete parallel of his trip to Atlanta. “It was really chilled and relaxed - kind of the opposite of going to America. But I felt really comfortable with her.”
Working with reggae icon Horace Andy was “an interesting one,” Jack says. “I went to Paris, and he was there for the day. It was very last minute, and I literally hopped on the train and was waiting in a hotel lobby for him, which I couldn't believe because I’ve been a big fan of his for a very long time.”
Such a range of collaborators reflects the idea behind ‘God First’. “It was just listening to each track and deciding what would suit it. For me, I’ve made a record of the music that I’ve been listening to. And rather than having the architecture of it set in stone because of being in a band, this record is what happens when it’s completely out in the open and whatever crazy idea you have, you can just do it. That’s what it represents to me: freedom.”
Taken from the August issue of Dork. Order a copy below. BMr Jukes' album ‘God First’ is out now.