EMF interview: “The days of going out clubbing on a Friday are well behind us”
By Steve Harnell | July 3, 2022
EMF frontman James Atkin talks raving in the Yorkshire Dales, his other life as a schoolteacher and meeting Alan Bennett down the shops…
EMF – they of the knee-length shorts and clubcentric headgear – have been regulars on the live circuit for the past two decades after an initial split following third LP Cha Cha Cha in 1995. Now the band have solidified their comeback with their first studio album in nigh-on three decades, Go Go Sapiens. Packed with party-starting bangers and the punk pop ‘tude that made them famous, it’s as if they’ve never been away. Unbelievable? Not in the slightest…
It’s been 27 years since your last album, what prompted the return to the studio for the new LP?
It always felt inevitable, EMF wasn’t something we were ready to put to bed just yet. In those 27 years we’ve all respectively gone off and lived our own very different lives, but it has never been the case that we’ve thought, “Oh I’m not in EMF anymore.” It’s a lifetime commitment and we’re lucky to have something so positive in our lives.
Were you all working together in the same room on Go Go Sapiens or was it recorded remotely?
The initial writing sessions were conducted between my place in the Yorkshire Dales and Ian [Dench’s] studio in Finsbury Park, quite a contrast in locations. By chance, we discovered this little hidden away recording studio in the next valley from mine in the Dales where we recorded the drums. We mixed the album at mine – the first single was mixed by our friends Vladimir Komarov and Atsuo Matsumoto in New York City.
It feels like a true EMF album as we created it solely between us – it was actually completed, mastered and ready before anyone apart from Ian and myself had heard the finished product. Not sure that was healthy, but it definitely gave us the benefit of seeing our vision through without any outside influence.
You made the album without any record company assistance. Liberating or scary?
Both, but we live in a world now where being your own producer, record label, distributor etc is achievable. It’s a little daunting but we have a fantastic team. There’s very little pressure, it’s just a joy to be able to share some new EMF songs without expectations and the need to be successful. Although it would be obviously nice if people dug it.
Give us an insight into the 2022 version of the band’s sound. Have you reinvented yourselves or stuck to your essential EMF-ness?
I guess whatever we do is going to sound like us. We can’t get away from Ian’s unique guitar style, and once I’m singing on it, it automatically sounds just like an EMF record. We’ve still incorporated our synths and electronics, though.
There’s a Happy Mondays-esque vibe to new album track We Are The Free. Do you feel any affiliation with the Madchester-era dance-rock bands?
I’m an old raver from the 90s. My wife badgers me with new music and, bless her, she tries to introduce me to happening stuff. I’m happy listening to my old New Order or Smiths records, so I guess that still comes through in the music we’re making at present. We’d perhaps feel like frauds if we followed new trends and came out with some kind of urban grime album.
Johnny Marr recently told Classic Pop that it’s harder to write bangers than ballads, but Go Go Sapiens closes with a top-drawer EMF dancefloor filler, Sparks And Flashes. Do you still keep in touch with your clubbing roots?
I wish! I still adore dance music and will quite happily listen to four-to-the-floor beats and techno basslines all day long. The days of going out clubbing on a Friday and returning home in bits on a Sunday are well behind us, though. I think I’d be a bit lost in a club now, having the energy to throw shapes all night might be pushing it a bit. The closest we get to raving these days is turning the PA up loud at home. Thankfully, there’s only a few farmers about half a mile away that complain – they have several times you’ll be glad to know.
Unbelievable shot you to instant fame. How did you cope with the success – did it come as a shock or did you manage to ride it out with your sanity intact?
That whole time was a whirlwind. Personally, it was all a bit overwhelming, I hadn’t developed the tools to cope with it at such a young age. If I’d have had that success again, I’m sure I’d enjoy it a lot more. I kept it together mostly back then, I felt a certain responsibility being the frontman – being hungover, wasted and losing my voice wasn’t an option. The other members of the band loved every moment, they partied hard and had a riot. I think I was just a little too self-conscious and not comfortable being a singer at that time.
I shied away from any interviews and withdrew whenever I possibly could. It took me a long time to get over the experience. A few of the band members struggled and this led to them having difficulties adapting after all the madness. I think moving out of London, starting a family, going back to university, getting a degree and getting a normal job totally sorted me out. It grounded me and now my sanity is intact.
It’s still got an incredible hook – did you know straight off the bat that it would be a hit?
Not particularly. Ian arrived with the song pretty well formed and had the vision of what it was going to be. The first batch of songs came very quickly. I’d catch the bus to Ian’s mum’s in Gloucester and we’d sit around a piano bouncing ideas around. Unbelievable just appeared from nowhere but quickly became a favourite amongst the fans at our first handful of gigs. Credit to Ian, he knows how to write a song.
If you had your time over again during that first era of EMF would you do anything differently?
Yes, enjoy it more, not take it so seriously, be firmer on direction and not succumb to other people’s questionable ideas. We had a fantastic thing going on, but the momentum got derailed by people’s negativity in the band. I wish I’d had the confidence to stand up to people when I was younger. Thankfully, Ian has always been a guiding light and we have developed deep mutual respect and love for each other.
You’ve had a parallel career outside of EMF as a school music teacher. Is studying EMF on your pupils’ curriculum?
Ha! They are clueless to my past, it has no relevance to my students. It’s kind of cool, though, and brings you back down to earth. Parents evenings can be funny when they make a beeline for you and ask for autographs. But even the parents are looking a bit young these days.
You’ve also been in Bentley Rhythm Ace and released solo albums…
I love playing with BRA, it came in my life just at the right time. I’d kept my shiz together for so many years singing with EMF, now I was in a band touring the world where it was the law to party hard, take drugs, be as rock’n’roll as possible, and never go to bed. The amount of shows we did where we’d been up all night from the gig the night before were legendary. We still go out and play now but have calmed down considerably. I love making music and have also released five solo LPs to date. I seem to have got a bit prolific since moving out of London. I have a simple studio set-up with no distractions, I’d happily spend every hour in there making records to my wife’s dismay.
Tell us about the Tonight Matthew…? YouTube series of collabs you put together over the pandemic.
It was borne out of the need to still connect with people and musicians when that first lockdown hit and everyone’s tours got cancelled. It grew from asking a few friends to contribute to pulling in people like Keith Allen and Rick Wakeman. I’m chuffed that I can now say I’ve worked with the likes of Horace Panter, Steel Pulse, Black Grape, Lindy Layton and UB40 as well as The Wonder Stuff, Space, 808 State, Leftfield, Jim Bob and many more. We raised a lot of funds for the Help Musicians Charity – at that time they were giving out grants to help fellow artists. It was nice to do something worthy and kept us occupied during those strange, uncertain times.
You’re planning on hitting the road to promote Go Go Sapiens, right?
We’re doing a small UK tour and a bunch of festivals. For the last 30 years we’ve always started the live set with the song Children, we now have a few new contenders as opening songs that we are rehearsing up. Thankfully, the new songs lend themselves to being played live.
Finally, have you seen your neighbour Alan Bennett down the shops recently?
Ha! Yes, often. It’s always my wife who sparks up a conversation with him, usually about potatoes.