Life has a habit of subverting even the best-laid plans. Once a music obsessed teenager, Jack Steadman initially saw himself more as a jazz bassist than the frontman of a world famous, guitar-centred indie band, but – as everyone now knows – his 10 years with Bombay Bicycle Club, encompassing four albums, several planetwide tours and some notable awards, somewhat got in the way. Now 27 and having taken a couple of years to contemplate his next step, he returns as solo artist Mr Jukes, with a project that both revives his long-standing interest in jazz, soul, funk and and sees Steadman take on the roles of artist, composer, producer and sample-hound, as well as the overseer of some very special guest contributions. The result, God First, is a brilliant album, quite unlike anything he has done before.
What’s this? Another rock star claiming a suddenly convenient gravitas and influence from black music? Actually, no – and, amusingly, Steadman has the t-shirt to prove it: “I was looking at some old videos of Bombay’s recently,” he says. “The first ever video we did, when we were 18 or 19, I noticed the t-shirt I was wearing had a print of Hank Mobley’s album Work Out on it. I couldn’t even remember I had it on… but I do know I’ll be using that example in interviews to come!”
As a budding bass player, Steadman credits a school music teacher with seeding his interest in jazz. The first part he recalls learning to play properly was Bill Withers’ Lovely Day. He soon progressed from admiring Flea in Red Hot Chilli Peppers to wanting to be Jaco Pastorius. “I also befriended a guy at school who was a pianist, and he introduced me to Kentish Town Library, where they had CDs you could rent,” he recalls. “I borrowed a lot of jazz. Playing every day at lunchtime, learning walking bass… I’m sure it impacted my songwriting later on, learning the basics of modes rather than, like a lot of kids playing guitar, getting into power chords on a Stratocaster.”
All changed at around age 16, when began the hectic BBC years. Alongside school friends Jamie MacColl, Suren de Saram and Ed Nash, Steadman suddenly found himself lead vocalist, main songwriter and guitarist in a successful indie rock quartet. Bombay Bicycle Club initially released music on their own label before scoring a deal with Island Records and issuing a total of four albums between 2009-14: I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose; Flaws; A Different Kind Of Fix; So Long, See You Tomorrow. It was an amazing, almost decade-long ride, with BBC achieving all its members’ dreams and more: headline gigs around the world, Ivor Novello and NME Awards victories and chart-topping albums. Eventually, after the release and promotion of their final project, Steadman and the rest of the band decided to park the team bus and ponder some new moves.
For his part, Steadman had always enjoyed the thinking time afforded by travelling: “my favourite state of mind to be in is to be on a train or ship that’s moving along gradually, so you’re going somewhere but you can daydream all day without feeling like a lazy bum. You get to think long and hard about what you’re going to do. And, of course, what you actually end up doing turns out to be not what you had in mind.”
So Steadman hopped aboard a cargo ship in Shanghai bound for Prince Rupert on the west coast of Canada. The ship’s crew, a mix of Poles, Germans and Filipinos, had no idea who he was, but they welcomed his presence as a change from their normal routine and enjoyed invading the studio he set up in his cabin. In between all the daydreaming and occasional music making, Steadman also read the copy of Joseph Conrad’s novella Typhoon he’d packed into his suitcase. That’s where the idea of his new musical persona, Mr Jukes, came from. A tale of the sea, Typhoon tells the story of Captain MacWhirr, who deliberately sails his vessel, the s/s Nan-Shan, into the teeth of a fierce storm. The young Jukes is first mate. “I suppose it wasn’t very imaginative of me,” laughs Steadman, “but, yes, I did bring it on board to read during the most turbulent evenings.”
Back home in London, the new-born Mr Jukes rented himself a studio and went there every day for two years. Listening to a wide variety of music in search of inspirational samples, he began to build a store of new material towards a debut solo album. The demos, he noticed, would often start out in similar fashion to those he’d previously prepared for the band, but it was where they went afterwards that was different. This time there was no requirement to make his ideas fit a band template. And he also started to consider which new guest voices might help take these songs to their ultimate artistic conclusion.
“I loved the challenge of writing songs for the band but as a naturally restless person, after the last album my mind wandered to ideas I couldn’t imagine doing within Bombay. On this project I have the freedom to go right to the end of any idea I might have, so if I want to use, say, a Grant Green sample and have Charles Bradley singing over it, I can do that. It’s been very exciting.”
As it turns out, God First features guest vocalists on no fewer than seven of its 10 tracks. The aforesaid soulman, Charles Bradley, had been a Steadman favourite for many years. The session, in New York was somewhat memorable, says a smiling Mr Jukes.“It was all over in about an hour – he kinda exited the room with the chair spinning and I was left wondering what just happened! He’s a bundle of energy: he went at it full throttle for about an hour and then he collapsed, and his manager said, ‘OK, we gotta leave now’. I never saw him again. It was great!”
The sample on the tune, from jazz guitarist Grant Green’s cover of James Brown’s Ain’t It Funky Now, on the album Green Is Beautiful, has its own story.“I remember hearing the original for the first time when I was in Tokyo. I was in a jazz kissaten – they’re like a coffee shop/bar where, the owner plays you his record collection through a great sound system and you sit there all afternoon, just listening. Like a library, really. I was there with my notepad, secretly writing everything down, hoping no-one noticed me. Anyway, I checked it out on whosampled.com and couldn’t believe no-one had used it before. When I got back home I finished it really quickly, sang all the parts and got in touch with Charles right away.”
BJ The Chicago Kid, who delivers some gorgeously soulful vocals to the boisterously funky tune Angels/Your Love, was recorded in Los Angeles. The session itself, reports Mr Jukes, was one of the smoothest to capture on the entire album – unlike the sample he used. “No, that was quite an ordeal. It’s by Jorge López Ruiz, an Argentinian musician known for his soundtracks. I just had the record, Bronca Buenos Aires, and didn’t know much about the background at that time. I found his email address, sent him the song and asked if it was OK. He wrote back almost instantly, firmly saying, ‘No – not in a million years’. Thing is, we’d left it really late. BJ was already on the song – in fact, we’d already paid him!
“Anyway, as it happened, my flatmate at the time spoke fluent Spanish, so I thought if I maybe wrote Jorge a handwritten letter – she could translate – it might make a difference. I wanted to try and explain how much I loved the album and how it wasn’t me trying to make a quick buck from his track. He wrote back really sweetly and explained he had misunderstood – and he also explained how making the album had got him exiled from Argentina in the seventies, because it was very political. There is a monologue at the beginning of the song, and with me not speaking Spanish, I didn’t know what it was really about. He was pouring out his heart and I’m missing the whole point, thinking about borrowing the horns!”
Five-time Grammy winner Lalah Hathaway appears on the song From Golden Stars Comes Silver Dew, the only recording for the album not done in person, but over the internet. What you hear, says Mr Jukes, is pretty much a first take/no edit thing: the daughter of Donny really is that good. “Donny Hathaway is a generally big hero of mine,” confesses Mr Jukes. “Reading about him, about his slight discomfort at being at centre-stage, his self-esteem issues… I mean, the music itself is very confident, but if you met him, say, in the pub, he’d be a very different person to that musician. I really related to that. I feel like that’s why you make the music.”
Other contributions to the album come from Lianne La Havas, who sings an uplifting duet with Mr Jukes on the slinky, almost Clintonesque When Your Light Goes Out, from reggae don Horace Andy who adds his unmistakable falsetto to the vibrant Leap Of Faith, from Atlanta R&B/trap star Alexandria who brings her impressive, unexpected Minnie Riperton-inspired higher register to the ballad Tears, and from labelmate Elli Ingram, whose typically Winehouse-meets-Badu sass fits the groove of Somebody New to a tee. “I was very taken by Elli’s confidence and character. I’d started by projecting myself listening to the song in a nice car, with the top down… basically as someone way more confident than me. And then Elli came in and insisted on changing everything I’d done so it suited her better. At first I was horrified, but I did learn something from it. I learned that I need to trust what I loved about people in the first place.”
Taking the Mr Jukes record out of the solitary studio experience and into live performance is integral to Jack, and indeed the path he’s been on since those early crate-digging days. The idea, he says, is to open up the original and allow it to blossom on waves of improvisation – just as all his favourite jazz musicians always did.
And much like these musicians, Mr Jukes is already planning his next moves. “The moment Angels/Your Love was released, I ran back to the studio to write something new. You immediately want to write something better then the last thing you did”. So we’ll wait and see what comes of that and in the meantime, immerse ourselves in an album that both surprises and delights in equal measure; enjoying a window into Jack’s musical odyssey inspired by his love of gospel, church-based and soul music. We’re all the better for him inviting us along on the ride.