Take the train to Dalston Station, cross the street and you’ll find yourself outside a beauty salon called God First. It’s a small, unassuming place, but its soft block colours and simple décor grabbed passing Bombay Bicycle Club frontman Jack Steadman’s attention so strongly he decided to use it as both the title and album art for the first record released under his new guise of Mr Jukes.
“It’s a beautiful shop,” the bespectacled singer assures me, “but there were a lot of other reasons (for choosing the title) after that. Firstly it’s a barbershop and I’d just shaved my head for this project, and I realised that all this music that I’d been listening to, sampling and now playing comes, when you think about it and trace it back, from the church.”
As he says, ‘God First’ is filled to the gills with soul, blues and jazz, all musical forms which developed out of the Sunday morning gospel of black American churches. “The shameful thing is that you never even realise!” he exclaims when asked about the record’s potential religious connotations (searching #godfirst on Twitter will give you some interesting results).
“One of my heroes is Donnie Hathaway, who learnt his chops performing as an adolescent in church every Sunday with his family, just like every other kid.” The appearance of Donnie’s daughter Lalah on ‘From Golden Stars Comes Silver Dew’ brings this lifelong obsession full circle, and elsewhere tenderly treated samples from music legends like Grant Green and Jorge López Ruiz demonstrate the skinny white Englishman’s deeply held respect for the roots of the music he now creates.
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But Steadman is no late convert to jazz music. Back at school, even before he formed Bombay Bicycle Club, he was playing bass in jazz groups with friends and improvising far looser compositions. “It’s been so much fun playing this kind of music again,” he enthuses when comparing the flexible process of developing his new songs with his new ten-piece band to his old group’s tendency to almost over-rehearse. “With Bombay everything’s very well-rehearsed and there’s not much deviation from show to show. So it feels really cool to not be worried about sticking to one way of doing things.”
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There’s a memory I haven’t brought up in a long time!
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Originally Mr Jukes was intended to be an expanded bedroom project, a chance to enhance his long-standing hobby of building up J Dilla-esque backing tracks with some real resources and allow him bring in a few guests and achieve a more expansive sound . “I used to produce beats on the back of the tour bus for people to take turns to MC over,” he warmly recalls; “There’s a memory I haven’t brought up in a long time!”
Unfortunately releasing music under his old hip-hop pseudonym J. Stiller was off the cards, so the appropriately eclectic-sounding Mr Jukes was created. Aiming to keep the project confined largely to the studio was a reaction to ‘So Long See You Tommorrow’s exhaustive touring schedule, but Steadman’s resolve to stay at home didn’t last long. “I’d spent so much time on the road,” he sighs, “but as soon as I played my first show with the band the other week I was just like ‘Argh! I want to get back on the road. Let’s book more shows!’”
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The live iteration of Mr Jukes is very different to the one you can hear on record, taking the songs of a one-man band and transplanting them onto a ten-person ensemble. “We don’t want to use any computers or samples,” he explains, “so there’s a real freedom. The talent of the band is such that you don’t need all that other stuff because there’s so much imagination there to fill in all the gaps.”
Somewhere in this process of stripping down and rebuilding, the tracks take on a different feel to the fun but relatively inorganic versions on the record, “Yeah, we’re kind of mixing up all the tracks. ‘Angels/Your Love’ is definitely a lot faster and a bit more wonky, there’s a bit more of a groove to it. We get into the rehearsal space and we just kind of start playing and see what happens naturally.”
Electing not to attempt to recreate the sound of the record is a savvy move, as any note-perfect rendition would draw attention to the absence of ‘God First’s pretty peerless guestlist. To get the powerhouse voices Steadman knew the music needed he travelled to studios in Los Angeles (BJ the Chicago Kid), New York (Charles Bradley) and Paris (Horace Andy, off on a European bender apparently).
“I spend so much time in this tiny studio,” he explains, “And it’s incredibly inspiring to get out and travel to a different country and meet someone new for the first time. There’s all this adrenaline and you’re slightly nervous because you’ve never been in this studio before, which can inspire some really cool things.”
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I know I’ll start to crave being a bit more heart on sleeve and personal…
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Bringing in the ever-dependable De La Soul in to lay down a few verses on ‘Leap Of Faith’ was always going to invite comparisons to their most famous collaborator, one who similarly revealed his skill as a musical chameleon after finding fame as the singer of a well-loved British indie band. But the omnipresence of Damon Albarn’s name in just about every review of ‘God First’ couldn’t bother him less.
“I expected that anyway,” he insists, “even just for the fact that I was a singer in a band and have now gone on to take more of a producer/arranger/collaborator role. I’ve got a lot of respect for Damon Albarn, I’ve done his Africa Express tour a number of times and I get on really well with him. I mean, I think it’s flattering to be honest. I’m a huge fan!”
The cartoonish bounce of his releases as Mr Jukes’ are a million miles away from the emotive guitar strumming of Bombay Bicycle Club, and some fans pining for the fragility of ‘Still’ and ‘Flaws’ may find the good-time groove of ‘Somebody New’ and ‘Tears’ un-fulfilling. But they shouldn’t worry. If ‘God First’ is indeed Jack Steadman’s ‘Gorillaz’, then there should be an ‘Everyday Robots’ round the corner.
“I do still love folk music,” he assures me, “I think for me my life has always been about balancing things out. So I really wanted to go down this electronic production thing and take a backseat now. But once I’ve done that I know I’ll start to crave being a bit more heart on sleeve and personal.”
Ultimately, it seems, he’s just in too good a mood to go back to bleeding his heart out into his guitar. For the time being anyway, “When you’re writing music it’s about what you need, whether it’s therapeutic or you’re just having a great time and want to write feel-good music. We’ll see.”
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‘God First’ is out now.
Jukes Special: An Interview With Jack Steadman