Interview: Jim Davies
It's been a really stress free and fun process from start to finish. I didn’t map out the album I just wrote what ever I wanted. I’m into a lot of different styles of music so I wanted to reflect that across the album.
Jim Davies returns with his new solo album Headwars, his first in ten years, and it sees the former Prodigy and Pitchshifter guitarist mixing rock with electronic music in a way that earned him plaudits through his work with those bands. Gavin Brown caught up with Jim to hear all about Headwars and how it came together as well as tales from his time with both the Prodigy and Pitchshifter, his TV and film work and his career in general in an interesting and informative chat.
E&D: Your new album Headwars is out now. How did the creation and recording process of the record go?
Jim: The idea to do this album had been in my head for the past couple of years, I stopped playing in bands almost over night around 10 years ago and decided to focus on writing music for TV and film instead. It meant quite a steep learning curve for me as a musician, as in the bands I played with I was only a guitarist where as in the world of TV/Film composition you have to do everything yourself, production, mixing ect. I must have written 1000’s of pieces of music over the last 10 years and I was quite happy not doing anything commercial as a band or for a solo album. But recently I just felt that a lot of what i was writing was some of my best stuff but it was disappearing into TV world (which is cool as its very lucrative) but at the same time I felt like it would be fun at this stage of my career to do an album I have complete control over. With other projects I’ve done over the years I’ve always had other people helping, whether it be on the mixing side of production, but I felt confident at this stage that I could do this album myself without anyones help and get it to sound exactly how i wanted it. I felt like I’ve written so much music over the last decade that I’d brought myself time to do an album of my own music, I was used to writing sometimes 4 or 5 tracks a week for years! So, I felt I deserved to give myself some time off and write an album of exactly what I wanted to do, rather than to a strict brief which often happens in the TV world! So, I started with just 2 tracks for fun (‘Game of Faces’ and ‘Control Z’) which I played to some close friends who persuaded me that it might be cool to do a full album. It just felt like the right time to do it, theres no pressure on it for me, I’m not relying on it to make me loads of money as I’m in a position these days where that doesn’t matter anymore. So, I played a few tracks to the company who i compose for and they were really into the idea of them putting it out through their artist label so everything sort of fell into place, I knew I had a good home for the album as I was writing it. I wouldn’t have done it had it meant trying to get a traditional record deal, it’s not something I’m going to tour, which probably would have meant most labels not being interested anyway! So it’s been a really stress free and fun process from start to finish. I didn’t map out the album i just wrote what ever I wanted, I’m into a lot of different styles of music so I wanted to reflect that across the album, rather than writing 12 tracks that all sounded very organic and punk like ‘Caged’ or 12 tracks that were more drum and bass like ‘Defector’ or ‘Control Z’.
E&D: How did you feel doing an album as a solo artist a decade after your first album Electronic Guitar?
Jim: Well, it’s VERY different album, ‘Electronic Guitar’ was a instrumental guitar album, I didn’t produce or mix it…10 years ago I was a very different musician to what I am now, I’d not really started writing music for TV so I. still only saw myself as a guitarist. Headwars isn’t a particularly guitar oriented album, there’s guitars on every track BUT they aren’t necessarily the focus point at all, some tracks on there like ‘Now You Know’ have very sparse amount of guitars on. This album is ‘song based’ for want of a better word! To me it’s the first solo album I’ve done… Electronic Guitar doesn’t represent me as a musician at all these days, plus it went under the radar really as instrumental guitar music is very niche! On Headwars, with the exception of the 2 collaboration with Tut Tut Child, I produced and mixed everything. So, for me this is my first solo album.
E&D: You hook up with Pitchshifter members MD Claude’s and Jason Bowld on the album, how was it recording with them again?
Jim: Yeah that was great fun! Mark was actually one of the first people I played any of the album demos to, I played him ‘Control Z’ which he was really into so I said it would be fun to have him play the bass on it. It was just really nice after all this time to do something for the sheer fun of it. With Jase I had lost contact with him a bit as well but as soon as I rang him it was like we’d only seen each other the other week rather than the 8 years, or however long it was since we last spoke. So, he ended up doing a lot of live drums across the album which I blended in with my electronic drums, and the track ‘Caged’ started with him sending me that entire tune as a drum only track! The structure is exactly as you hear it on the album, I added the rest of the music over the top very quickly! Jase knows how I like to structure songs as we’ve worked together a lot in the past so it came together very quickly and effortlessly.
E&D: Who else do you work with on the album and what did they bring to the album’s sound?
Jim: Tut Tut Child is a friend of mine who I’ve collaborated a lot with for TV compositions, but he’s a very well respected artist in the electronic music scene and I guested on his last album so I thought I’d return the favor! It’s very easy working with him, I go to his studio and we normally come up with something good in a few hours, I like doing collaborations like that, it takes the pressure off me to do everything myself so I can relax a bit more and enjoy it. Abbie Aisleen is my wife! She actually inspired me to start this project by asking me to write her a tune just for fun, so I did (‘Game Of Faces’) which came out pretty moody and glitchy so I thought she wouldn’t be that into it, but she sat in my studio for a few hours and came up with some great lyrics and melodies for that tune which got me thinking about actually doing a full album of my own stuff again. ‘Modify Me’ features her as well, that’s one of my favorites on the album, very cool lyrics! Milly Rodda is a singer I’ve known in the local area for ages. I did a little bit of teaching (like lots musicians do when they stop playing live!) and Milly was a student at the college, she stood out a mile vocally to the other kids so I’ve just kept in touch with her over the years as I always thought it would be great to do a tune with her. I love what she did on ‘Now You Know’. I sent her the instrumental and she came back with these really dark lyrics about murdering her boyfriend and disposing of the body!I thought ‘thats my girl! I’ve taught you well.
E&D: What has the feedback for Headwars been like so far?
Jim: It’s been brilliant, I honestly went into this with no expectations at all. So everything has been a bonus. The main thing to me was that i wrote something that I was was happy and proud of, which I am, so if anyone else likes it then thats awesome! Just doing interviews like this feels very cool! I was prepared for it to go under the radar and no one care! The reviews have been 90% positive, but I’ve been doing this too long to care about any negative ones (which are inevitable). There’s always gonna be a writer out there that wants to make a name for themselves as being that “hard nosed reviewer” that slates everything regardless (Even though they are writing for a tiny webzine with a few 100 followers!). So, I’ve never really taken too much notice! I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how open minded most of the reviewers and magazines have been, because I was really aware that this album falls right into he middle of lot different genres so it may was probably gonna be really hard to please everyone! But on the whole most feedback has been really good, for instance Classic Rock Mag gave it an awesome review which I thought was really cool when you consider that there isn’t much thats ‘classic rock’ about this album, I’m not exactly ZZ Top am I! But it just shows that the majority of music journalists out there take things for what they are and go with it. It does annoy me slightly when people say that electronic rock is dated. I’ve been hearing that since 1999! Personally I think there are tracks on this album that sound very contemporary and production wise I’d like to feel i gave the genre a little update in places but I might be wrong! I suppose i would say that wouldn’t I! Everyone has an option!
E&D: Are there plans to take Headwars out on the road once all the current madness the world is in?
Jim: I have to be honest and say no! I made a decision very early on when I started writing this album that it would be studio based project. I think if id had in the back of my mind the thought that even ‘maybe’ I’d do it live, it would have changed how the album sounded. The beauty of doing it and knowing I wasn’t going to do it live is that I felt complete freedom to write what ever I wanted, without thinking constantly ‘How am I going to play this live and sing at the same time”! Some of these tunes have a huge amount of layers in, so to recreate it live would be a lot of work, I’d have to put together a band around me and to be honest again, I wouldn’t want to do that. This wasn’t an ego project, I had weighed up whether to call it a band and come up with a name for the project, but I decided that this album is just me! There’s no point pretending it’s a band, unfortunately I have a very common and uninteresting name! But I just thought it better to be transparent, it is a solo album. Quite a few people have asked about whether I’d do it live, which is great to hear but I think it would give me anxiety nightmares for months running up to doing gigs! I’m not a front man, I’m lucky that I’ve been in bands with amazing frontman, I’m far more comfortable in the sidelines, I’m not self assured or confident enough to front a band these days! And also, let’s face it, even if i did do a tour theres no guarantee anyone would even turn up (pandemic aside). So, I think i was the right decision for me to keep it studio based.
E&D: Are you working on any new music during this lockdown?
Jim: Yeah I started off really productive, wrote a few new tunes for a potential new EP or my own stuff. But then I made a fateful decision. I downloaded Red Dead Redemption 2, and I’ve been obsessed with that ever since. My wife asked me yesterday what I was doing today and I actually found myself saying “I need to ride into Rhodes Town and upgrade my Stirrups”. It’s become my life! BUT I have been doing some music yes, I’ve been doing guitars for a potential new project with a friend of mine, it’s quite nice sometimes to just do guitars for someone else to produce. The same with vocals, I’ve recorded some vocals for an album of production music for TV. It’s cool being able to just record vocals and then leave it to someone else to produce for a change! There is an exciting new project I’m doing with Jason Bowld and Tut Tut Child, it’s the heaviest stuff I’ve ever done, I brought a 7 string before the pandemic all kicked off so I’ve been using that a lot in some very low tunings. The project doesn’t have a name yet but it’s sounding brutal!
E&D: How did you come to play guitar in The Prodigy in the first place?
Jim: I was a big fan of the band so when they played at the university I was at I made sure I went, blagged into the soundcheck, saw they didn’t have a guitarist and asked the roadie what the deal was. He just said they didn’t currently have one so I legged it home and made a demo tape of me playing over Jilted Generation and gave it to them after the gig. I got a call a week later to ask if i wanted to do some gigs with them, which obviously I did, and that went on for almost a year. I came back and played with them for a while in 2002 as well, which I enjoyed as I was far more clued up by that stage about the music business in general, plus I’d made a bit of a name for myself in Pitchshifter by then. When I first played with Prodigy I was completely green! Straight out of college and not knowing my arse from my elbow! But it opened a lot of doors for me and I probably wouldn’t be doing music professionally today still if it wasn’t for the chance encounter.
E&D: You played guitar on bona fide iconic songs like ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ and on the album Fat Of The Land, how does it feel looking back at the fact you played in music history?
Jim: Yeah of course I’m very proud and privileged to have played on those tracks as they are defining moments in music history, there’s no way round that. But I don’t feel like they define me as a musician, some people get their one big break and then dine off it for life once its over, never doing anything of worth again! I feel like I’ve done a lot of other stuff thats cool, but I understand that people will always gravitate towards asking me about those tunes as they were so huge! But I played a very small role in those tracks, I have to be careful when talking about it as often journalists will get over excited and say things like I co-wrote ’those tunes or that I was a ‘member’ of the band, I wasn’t at all!
I find it amazing that even after all this time there are still people out there that claim in their bio’s or on Spotify to have played on tracks on Fat Of The Land that I played on! I don’t know how they have balls! They can be proved wrong so easily just by looking in the credits on the inlay card! It used to annoy me but I just have to find it funny these days!
E&D: What were the best moments of your time with The Prodigy?
Jim: I really enjoyed the Big Day Out tour in Australia that I did with them, I did it twice, the first time they headlined an indoor room called the ‘boiler room’ it was the most intense gigs I’ve ever done! This is before everything kicked off with Fat Of The Land, I just remember it being so hot and rammed in there (and I was so sunburnt!). But the second time I did that tour the band headlined it so that was incredible. Some of my favorite bands were on the tour (Rage Against The Machine, System Of A Down) so that was a great experience, being around a band at that level of success (nice hotels!).
E&D: You were also a member of Pitchshifter, how did you come to join the band and what were the highlights of your time with the band both in the studio and live?
Jim: Again I was a huge fan of the band before I met them, I used to go to their gigs and stage dive! It was the Kerrang journalist Morat who actually helped me hook up with them, we went to a gig of theirs together and he introduced me to Jon and Mark who gave me a demo of 3/4 tracks from what would be the www. album. I went home and made a demo of me playing over them and they asked me to come to Nottingham and guest on one track (‘Please Sir’), but we got on so well that I ended up staying for a few weeks and played on 6 tracks in total I think! It was brilliant for me as I had so many ideas and sounds that I wanted to get out, I was never going to get them out with Prodigy, but the Shifter lads were really open to me doing my thing over a lot of that album. Hence 1 guest track turning into 6! I was really happy to be on that album, I knew how groundbreaking it was, no one was doing that kind of heavy guitar and beats mash up as well as they were back then. So, when they finally asked me to join I didn’t have to think too long about my answer.
E&D: You wrote a lot of material for Pitchshifter, what are some of your proudest compositions?
Jim: I was really pleased with how W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G. came out on www. I remember doing those mad solo’s in the band’s studio and JS just laughing and egging me on to do another more insane take until he was happy! I felt ‘Deviant’ had some good songs but the production let it down, it was too organic, it went too far the other way from com. As much as I like tracks like ‘Hidden Agenda’ whenever I hear it back i just think what it could have sounded like with a more experimental/brutal/modern production like www. had. On PSI I really like ‘Down’ and ‘Whatever’. In fact I like most of that album.
E&D: How was the experience of working with Jello Biafra on the Deviant track ‘As Seen On TV’?
Jim: Yeah he was hilarious! I was aware of the Dead Kennedy’s and liked them, but the rest of the band grew up on them and loved them ! So they were buzzing to have him work with us. We did a gig in San Francisco and he came on our tour bus after for a chat and I think that’s how he ended up playing on that track. I still think that track came out really tame sounding. In the hands of a producer like ‘Machine’ who did www. and PSI it would have sounded far more mental, but a lot of people seem to like it regardless so it doesn’t matter really. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
E&D: Would you ever do anything with the band again?
Jim: That’s a very tricky question to answer, I left the band back in 2002/3 after our last Astoria gig we did (that became the live album Bootlegged and Distorted). The way I left was a bit messy, in fact I don’t think most fans knew I’d even gone! So, when they did another tour a while after I’d left I had a lot of people asking me where I was, there was never really any formal announcements. So, it was a weird situation and not ideally done from all sides. When the band announced the reunion www. album tour the other year I had no idea it was even happening! My phone just blew up one afternoon with friends asking me what was going on, but all I could say was it’s news to me as well! But since then I’ve reconnected with Mark and obviously we’ve worked together on my album so things are cool between us, but I’ve not seen JS for 10 years, he lives in LA and has a job like the rest of the band as well as kids so it’s hard for them to find time I’m sure to work on new stuff. I honestly have no idea if I’d be involved with them again, it’s not really my decision, it’s Mark and Jon’s band and has been since they were kids! I think from a fans point of view it’s cool to see the line ups that you were familiar with back in the day, but Shifter have Dan and Tim on guitar now who are friends of mine from Essex who I introduced to the band when we were doing PSI (they did some programming on that album). So, who knows, the band has gone through a lot of changes in its sound over the years, so I don’t know what the band would sound like these days as I’m very out of the loop. But if they had some new material that sounded as cool and inspired me like those first www. demo’s did then who knows, maybe it would be fun! But, if I’m not involved and they tour again at some point when all this virus bollocks is over, I’ll be there as a fan boy where I started! The circle will be complete!
E&D: What other bands have you played with and how were those experiences?
Jim: Well the first project I did after leaving Pitchshifter was Flint, with Keith, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about that. I’ve worked with quite a few bands/DJ’s. I did a band with a DJ called Hyper, Leeroy from Prodigy fronted it, we actually done some really good gigs all over the world. It wasn’t something the rock scene would have really known about as we played mostly in clubs and dance music festivals rather than rock venues, but it was a really good laugh. The last gig I did was with that band I think, almost 9/10 years ago which is mad to think! It was through that band that I got into writing music for sync (as in music that gets used on films and games ect.), as Hyper had loads of his music on films, some of which I co-wrote. I also did my own band called Victory Pill shortly after leaving Pitchshifter. I enjoyed doing doing that band but it was all self funded, there was no record label involved or agent to get us gigs so there was a lot of pressure on me to do everything. We did a great tour supporting Static X around the UK, but when we tried to do our own gigs it was hard to get a decent audience. So, I think after coming out of doing such great gigs with Shifter it felt like I was going backwards in terms of live gigs, but forwards in terms of writing my own music, although I had friends in the band who handled the production and mixing (Kieron Pepper and Pete Crossman). The reviews were very cool for both albums, but it was a struggle to get moving, and I didn’t really feel comfortable as a frontman. So, after 2 albums with Victory Pill I’d really had enough of trying to get a new band of the ground and moved into composition for TV/film and became a bit of a recluse for 10 years!
E&D: You have also worked composing music for TV and films, can you tell us about what you have worked on?
Jim: Normally most of the music I write is for albums of specific styles of music which then get marketed out to TV music supervisors, so most of the time I have no idea where the tracks will turn up (until i get my royalty statements). But I have done some custom scores for documentaries on National Geographic and had tracks on promos for loads of films, including Rouge One which was very cool, as that’s the only one out of all the new ones that’s worth watching! I hear my stuff on Sky Sports quite a lot, but mostly it’s on programs that I don’t watch! A lot of reality TV and horrific programs like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent! It’s something that’s taken me a long time to build up, it’s very much a numbers game, having as many tracks out there in the system as possible. There was a time when I was writing hundreds and hundreds of tunes a year, but I’ve slowed that down these days, now I just try to write music that I’m really into, rather than in the past I’ve covered genres that I wasn’t really into but felt I should say yes ill do it, rather than turning it down. I’m a bit more selective now that I have so many tracks out there earning.
E&D: Who are your biggest influences as a guitarist?
Jim: In my early teenage days I was massively into the shred type guitarists! People like Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert. Vai was always like an alien form another planet though, a completely different level to most other guitarists in that field. But Paul Gilbert did some really cool tuitional videos that I watched over and over again! I became quite obsessed with practicing at one point, around 6 hours a day! Hendrix was another idol, he completely broke the mould! Before him everyone was happy noodling away on pentatonic scales, Clapton was ‘God’ and then Hendrix arrived and just turned everything on its head! The sounds he used, the way he played, the songs and riffs, everything was incredible. I used to watch hours of footage of him playing live, it was just amazing to watch someone in complete control of his instrument! He could make it do anything he wanted! Most of us normal guitarists have to fight the guitar to get it to sound how we want, with Hendrix theres no fight! The guitar has completely surrendered to him! As I got more into heavier style of music I got really in Dimebag Darrell from Pantera, for me he is the ultimate metal guitarist, he had the lot, the riffs and the lead. He was a virtuoso lead guitarist, I remember learning some of the solos and they are insanely hard! Most bands have a rhythm guy and a lead guy (Hetfield and Hammet), but Pantera didn’t need 2 guitarists with him! I did the Ozzfest tour in the US for 3 months when they headlined and I watched them every night from the side of the stage. It was mad to see how much those guys drank on stage and still played perfectly! That was a very cool tour to be on, again I was the fanboy trying to act cool around these people but failing mostly!
E&D: What bands have influenced you the most?
Jim: Depeche Mode, the album Ultra is incredible. In fact all of their albums are. It’s funny because they started as such a poppy band in the 80’s, but very quickly became incredibly dark! I think in terms of dark electronic music they cant be touched, just incredible melodies and vocals. I’ve seen them live so many times and it’s always an amazing show. Tracks like ‘In Your Room’, ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and ‘Walking In My Shoes’ are just perfect pieces of music in my humble option.
The Cure. Another band that could effortlessly move from upbeat almost pop type tracks into the realms of darkness very easily! The album Disintegration is a classic. I was lucky enough to have met them all when they were in the same studio in London that I was in for a few months so I ended up in the pub most nights with the bass player Simon, trying desperately not to come across as a fanboy, but as usual failing miserably! Rob Smith’s vocals are so distinctive and his lyrics really clever, I massively respect bands that are that versatile. It’s amazing to think the same band who did ‘Lovecats’ and ‘Friday I’m In Love’ also wrote an album as dark as Distinigration.
The Jam. I loved the anger in Paul Weller’s lyrics and delivery. So many classic songs with lyrics that cut to the heart of what it was like being an angry young Englishman in the 70’s. Name me another song with better/cleverer lyrics than on ‘That’s Entertainment’ and I’d love to hear it!
The Sex Pistols. Lydon is was such a clever bloke, I loved his sarcasm and how everyone thought he was just some idiot punk, but underneath all the image he was such an intelligent man with brilliantly cutting lyrics. And Steve Jones is such an underrated guitarist, the sound he got on Never Mind The Bollocks was amazing. Plus those songs aren’t basic at all, not like other punk bands of the time who’s songs were just 3 chord tricks. Bodies’ is one of my all-time favorite tracks.
E&D: What have been some of the most memorable moments of your career so far?
Jim: There’s been quite a few, from a gig point of view I’d have to say the reading festival gigs with Shifter (the year we were in the tent on the Warped tour stage) that gig was insane! The time we played on the main stage at Reading (opening up the main stage at midday) is probably my favorite gig of all time, I still watch it on You Tube! It’s fun to look back at stuff like that, at the time you tend to take it all in your stride but after all this time I can look back and appreciate how cool those times were and what was achieved. I really loved the big long 3 month tours we did of America, in a shiny flash tour bus playing in every place you can imagine around that country. I have really fond memories of sitting up front with the driver overnight as we drove through ‘Cowboy’ country looking at the cactus and canyons! I really loved America back then, I was like a kid in a sweet shop! I often thought I might end up living there one day but I think I’m too English, I couldn’t move there now. And of course the Prodigy tours I did were amazing, to be around a band at that kind of level was very cool. The Big Day Out tour of Australia was such a fun tour, I met so many cool people over there. While I think of it, the time Shifter played in Japan was mind-blowing, we did tour sold out gigs, fans following us around everywhere we went, it really felt like things were about to blow up for us over there. But we never went back which was a real shame. But I loved japan, the culture is like nothing else and the people so friendly and happy to have you there. But it’s funny how you tend to remember the tours like those and block out the ones where you where in a shit tour bus that was leaking fumes into your bunk as you drove around Germany in the winter, desperate to find some vegetarian food! There were a lot of grim tours like that! But that’s all part of the game I suppose! It’s not all fun believe me!