Always A Player – Wendy James Interview
Even when she was fronting Transvision Vamp, Wendy James was the star of her own movie, but these days she handpicks her leading men…
Once upon a perve, it was impossible to depict Wendy James arching boldly on your magazine cover without then throwing stones at her. It was like the Transvision Vamp singer had exceeded the accepted volume of hydrogen peroxide for a pin-up and must be duly punished.
“What is she like?!” Select wondered, beneath a picture of James baring her teeth, clad in a brassiere. The Face began one feature “Wendy James is a woman everybody loves to hate”, then Time Out went one better and made her the cover star for their ‘Hated 100’ issue. NME ran the cover line “Little Miss Misunderstood – Wendy James pouts it about”. In another issue, she topped NME’s ‘gender traitor’ box-out in a women-in-rock feature. Bloody hell, she couldn’t win.
The funny thing is, you’ll never find an interview in which James gets the huff about it. Self-pity is not in the vocabulary. “I’ve got a goldfish memory,” she says airily now, talking down the blower from her apartment in Paris. “I can’t remember what journalists have said bad things about me – it goes in one ear and out the other. I just do what I do and I concentrate on myself.”
Having turned 50 in January, James has lost interest in trash-punk anthems and sending outrage meters into the red. What endures is her love of the Velvets, Dylan and The Stooges, something evident in her third solo album The Price Of The Ticket with its riff-focused rock’n’roll, each song a mini-movie melodrama.
The album covers much ground, variously submerged in New York, the Great Plains and her adopted Paris, the latter of which is inspired by lazy French pop of the Sixties, such as the yé-yé derivative of go-go girls. You can’t listen to a coolly disdainful track such as Love From The 9th (“you and me, we just don’t talk the same language”) and not picture James drinking coffee at Café de Flore, surrounded by the local ‘drageurs’ – the well-heeled divorcées who hone in on lone women. “I’ve got a fairly unfriendly stare when I want to have,” she chuckles.
James is a Bardot in no need of a Gainsbourg. She’s the producer, sole songwriter and even the record label: she funded the recording through PledgeMusic pre-sales and then utilised the site as a one-stop-shop to shift everything from 12-inch test pressings to guest list places.
Being the boss also means being able to handpick her personnel: ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock on bass, Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group on guitar, and James Sclavunos (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds) on drums. A couple of tracks were further recorded with guitarist James Williamson and the late saxist Steve Mackay, both from The Stooges.
James had known Matlock since she was a teenager, but the rest of this studio band were far from session players. “James is one of my confidantes, and Lenny… if you met him, you’d fall in love,” she says. “He plays in a bar every Sunday near where he lives. Obviously he doesn’t need to do that, but similarly I’ve never known James to take a day off. It’s the same with me; I’m a workaholic. Other musicians who were less comfortable in their skin might try to throw their weight around, but they just brought me their enormous amount of ideas and talent and let me keep things on track until it was what I heard in my head.”
Since moving to New York in 2002 (Paris is but a dalliance), James has cultivated a psychogeographical fascination with the grimier neighbourhoods.
“I’m good friends with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads, who knew the Bowery when it was a rat-infested danger zone,” she swoons. “Nowadays it’s an upper-middle class shopping mall for people who want to go to Bed Bath & Beyond and J-Crew, but it’s still exciting that I’m walking in the same Union Square that Andy Warhol’s Factory was in. There’s something about Downtown, with the artists, revolutionaries, activism, Max’s Kansas City, Patti and Lenny, the traffic lights, street signs, the rundown tenements… oh god. I could just eat it every single day.”
Wendy James and guitarist Nick Christian Sayer flesh out London band Transvision Vamp with bassist Dave Parsons, keyboardist Anthony “Tex Axile” Doughty and drummer Pol Burton. They’re signed by MCA
The band’s debut album Pop Art goes gold in the UK and platinum in Australia. Singles include Sister Moon, I Want Your Love, Revolution Baby and a cover of Holly Beth Vincent’s Tell That Girl To Shut Up
A swift follow-up with Velveteen, which reaches No. 1 in the UK album charts. The singles from the album were Baby I Don’t Care, Landslide Of Love, The Only One and Born To Be Sold
MCA refuses to release Little Magnets Versus The Bubble Of Babble in the UK after two singles flop
The band splits, from “fatigue”
James launches her solo career with an album written for her by Elvis Costello and Cait O’Riordan, Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears. It’s not a commercial success and she decides to take time out to learn guitar and find her way around a Portastudio
James moves from West London toNew York
With her new band Racine, James releases the more indie-sounding Number One album. It’s entirely written and produced by James herself
The James-produced album Racine 2 is released. The band splits in 2008
Second solo album I Came Here To Blow Minds is released digitally, followed by a physical release in 2011
The Price Of The Ticket is independently released via PledgeMusic and Cobraside Distribution
James has always been a culture-vulture, and frequently namedropped icons in the lyrics of Transvision Vamp songs. “Even now,” she says, “if I find a picture of Edie Sedgwick, I can just stare at it in rapture. I don’t have the self-destructive gene like she did; it’s not about that. What I like about Edie is her looks and her style.”
That kind of fetishisation rears up on tracks such as You’re A Dirtbomb, Lester (a reference to music journalist Lester Bangs). “I just lay there/ With new wave rockers and graffiti and music and kicks in Gramercy” she sings, over a two-chord Velvets-meets- Voidoids chug. Much of the album is stripped back in this way. With King Rat, James plays one guitar riff from start to finish, inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, allowing the melodies to change around it. Every Transvision Vamp song was built up from a killer riff, and now she’s taken on that mantle herself.
Elsewhere, she’s explored her love of country, with the Rawhide-like Cowboy Rhythm and the June Carter Cash-inspired Farewell To Love. “When Keith Richards writes for the Stones there are these close harmonies, right on the edge,” she says. “He was a great advocate of Gram Parsons and I love, love, love those blended harmonies.”
Even at its sweetest, The Price Of The Ticket has a sting in its tail. There’s a definite don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out theme, indicating at the very least a lack of tolerance for fools.
“I put my gold records out with the trash. 10 minutes later it was all gone”
“These days I might be more equipped to be more philosophical before I bite someone’s head off,” she laughs, “but on the whole, I haven’t got time to waste – I have a black-and-white decision-making process and you know where you stand when you’re with me. I suppose if I’ve learned anything, it’s that before you burn all your bridges you should take a deep breath and look at the whole picture.”
That philosophy’s come too late for James’ stash of Transvision Vamp paraphernalia, which she metaphorically burned to a cinder. “In my attic in West London I had platinum records, gold records, every accolade going,” she recalls. “When I decided to move to New York I just put it out by the trash. It was a radically pragmatic decision. I looked out the front window 10 minutes later and it was all gone.”
She’ll concede that’s quite annoying now. “I put a couple of test pressings for this album up on the Pledge site and they went like hot cakes. I emailed Nick from Transvision Vamp and asked if he knew where our old test pressings were. He said, ‘I’ve got no idea, probably in the vaults of Universal.’ But what are you going to do? Move to New York with a bunch of gold records under your arm? The idea of carrying loads of luggage was irritating to me.”
This lack of sentiment about the past has been a running theme in James’ life. She was adopted – she’s of Norwegian stock – and has never tried to track down her birth parents. Neither did she gel with her adoptive parents, who raised her in a well-heeled corner of East Sussex. As she told Michael Aspel on Aspel & Co in 1999: “I started thinking as though I had created myself.” It brings to mind the magpie eye Patti Smith describes in her memoir, Just Kids: of being young and hungry, and constructing the self out of little ideas thieved from here and there.
“I’ve been unfettered,” James says now of her upbringing. “I think it’s a tremendous advantage. A lot of people start having the same habits as their parents and I don’t have any of that, nor do I have any hang-up about illnesses. I haven’t got any of those preconditioned fears in my mind about illness or genetic failings. I have no roadmap.”
Ever the escape artist, James left home on her 16th birthday and moved to Brighton, where she saw her first gig – The Clash – and decided she needed to carry on the good work of Joe Strummer. She also met future Transvision Vamp guitarist Nick Christian Sayer, and the pair moved to Ladbroke Grove in West London.
“I’d been up and down to London since I was about 14 as quite a naughty young girl,” she recalls. “I was listening to the Pistols and dreaming of freedom.”
Life’s a movie, baby
Betty Blue director Jean-Jacques Beineix might have come knocking during Transvision Vamp’s heyday and asked – rather unnecessarily – if Wendy James would be comfortable with nudity, but the singer has never held aspirations to be an actress. “I like saying my own words, you know what I’m saying? I have a vivid imagination, so I write little movies with my music.”
Paloma’s Downs: “There’s a horse-racing track in California called Paloma Downs. If you’ve seen The Grifters, it’s where Angelica Huston is collecting for the mob. I changed it to a girl’s name and her moods, her downs.”
Indigent Blues: “I was watching Georgy Girl. The theme tune by The Seekers sums up that naive pre-Carnaby Street explosion, or at least before it reached the suburbs.”
Bad Intentions And A Bit Of Cruelty: “In the opening scene of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, Ellen Barkin is throwing Tom Waits’ clothes out of a lovely old New Orleans house. It’s also inspired by Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, that mixture of high manners and bad intentions.”
Cowboy Rhythm: “I used to have a recurring dream which was set along the Mekong Delta. I’m a mercenary in the undergrowth, but I’m cornered. That dream is mixed in Cowboy Rhythm with the way the huge prairies were filmed in The Assassination Of Jessie James By The Coward Robert Ford, and also Black Diamond, when Leonardo DiCaprio sits down behind a rock and watches the hunters close in on him.”
When James started dating Mick Jones of The Clash – which turned out to be a long-term relationship – Transvision Vamp were often to be found hanging at Portobello’s Warwick Castle, along with Big Audio Dynamite and various other faces, including Neneh Cherry, Jock Scott, and members of The Clash, Westworld and Curiosity Killed The Cat. The joint was even immortalised in a photo book, 3000 Hangovers Later.
Unlike some of her peers, James was unapologetically ambitious, which must have been rather unfashionable, let alone un-English. “I was blinkered, and I mean that in a positive way,” she confirms. “The people that make it are the people who live and breathe it 24 hours a day, right? They’re not worried about getting married, having children or having enough money. They’re just focused on what they’re doing. I wanted to be famous, rich, on Top Of The Pops. I was in a big candy store.”
“There’s not a single man on the planet that can judge me for anything”
And how did that go down with the Warwick Castle scene of seasoned musos? “I didn’t notice any of the jockeying going on around me, or the politics of climbing up the slippery pole, because I was absolutely winning,” she laughs.
“But this is a funny little anecdote – Mick was my boyfriend and obviously he had Big Audio Dynamite, but Transvision Vamp had No. 1s. I remember one of the music papers asking Mick, ‘So, what do you think of the other bands in West London?’ Mick said something like, ‘I’m not aware of any other bands in West London.’ He was more advanced than me in years and success, so he probably knew the politics of Machiavelli better than I did. I was just ‘me me me me me me me’.”
Jones did have his uses – when James was being hammered by the press, he taught her to take no shit. “Mick had gone through all that before me, so he was the best counsel to have,” she acknowledges. “If I’d had a boyfriend who was fussing around me, maybe I would have dwelled on it, but I was surrounded by people who said, ‘They can go f*** themselves.’
She’s still in touch with the other members of Transvision Vamp. “Nick emailed me the other day to say he thought the singing on one of the new songs was beautiful,” she says. “I don’t know where Tex lives… I believe it might be Hong Kong, but every now and then he pops up on the Twitter feed. Dave, I hadn’t seen for about 15 years, but when we were playing Bristol last year he walked into the dressing room and went, ‘All right, Wendy?’” She laughs throatily. “It was so nice. When you’ve gone through so much with a gang of friends, it really doesn’t matter how many years go by. We’re not regular phone talkers by any means but there’s good will between all of us.”
James neither dwells in the past nor fantasises about the future. “It’s all about the present,” she says firmly. “I’m not the world’s greatest planner. I don’t have… what’s that thing you build up for when you’re old? A pension. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what might be happening in six months’ time. My guiding principle is I want to make music.”
And while the hunger for fame may have dulled, her competitive edge has not. “If I don’t play the Super Bowl my life’s not going to be a tragedy,” she reflects. “On the other hand, if you put me in any situation where I’m going toe-to-toe with anyone, of course, I will play to win.”
The self-adoration James practised back in the days of Transvision Vamp wouldn’t garner much criticism in this age of social media narcissism. In fact, it comes as little surprise that Miley Cyrus and James have expressed mutual admiration for each other. The latest album cover, though, showing James reclining topless on a sofa, has been mentioned as frequently in reviews as the content.
“I can read philosophical and political bias into why my album cover is of great virtue, but the truth is my body was looking fit,” she says. “I was with a girlfriend, Kym Ellery, who’s an Australian designer. She got the beers in for breakfast and said ah, just take your top off.
“It’s not a ‘hello boys’ pose. I’m not looking at the camera or inviting anybody in. There’s not a single man on the planet that can judge me for anything. Their opinion literally doesn’t count.”
She continues: “I’ll tell you one thing that does irritate me – it’s when girls pout into the camera with the latest designer clothes on, and that’s their album cover. Maybe there’s a wind machine and they’re trying to look deep and meaningful as they wear $5,000 of Gucci, which in a year’s time is going to look like the most embarrassing thing ever. I couldn’t be bothered to figure out ‘which outfit really exemplifies where I’m at right now’.”