Far more outlandish and less successful supergroups have come and gone than the new project from post-punk drumming iconoclasts Lol Tolhurst and Budgie, and super-producer Jacknife Lee. Lol and Budgie had previously interacted due to Robert Smith filling the vacuum of departing Banshees guitarists through the 80s. This band then truly began in late 2018, when the pair of drumming legends lunched in LA with Bauhaus sticksman Kevin Haskins.
Renowned producer Jacknife Lee, formerly guitar maverick of Irish noise band Compulsion, became an organic fit. Besides his production chops, Jacknife has an affinity towards achieving the perfect drum sound: “I’m of the James Brown mentality, that everyone is a drummer, and all music is drums.” The producer was approached by the pair when initial writing sessions at Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee’s studio gave underwhelming results; Lee luckily provided the restart needed for what became the eventual gold.
The ominous energy of new album Los Angeles was also imbued by writing in Lee’s Topanga Canyon studio, and a conversational writing approach: a musical language (sharpened by a bonding weekend in Yosemite prior to the two weeks of recording in Topanga) between the three led to Lee plucking out musical oddities for inspiration, including a Uruguayan psych record; birdsong Tolhurst had recorded in Chile also came from this dynamic too, forming the basis of one track. The album and city’s darkness is also defined by the album’s guests: Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and LA native Arrow De Wilde of Starcrawler just two of the superb artists onboard. These cohesive elements work superbly with the cover’s monochrome derrick, casting a glance at LA’s oil prospecting past.
The trio discuss the new album, pandemic blues, their pasts and more.
Los Angeles had a fairly long gestation – due to the complex matters a global pandemic. Can you take us through this?
Budgie: The stuff we did at Tommy Lee’s, that wasn’t even demos, we thought we’d got what we wanted to achieve. So none of that was carried forward. Then Lol went to see Jacknife up in his nest.
Lol: Me and Jacknife had known each other socially, I knew what he did. We had one great conversation: we were sat at the Topanga hippy festival where John Densmore was introducing Willie Nelson’s sons. We were sat there for about an hour just chatting about things, and I was thinking, ‘this is the guy, this is who we need’. So I took the hard drive up with all the stuff we’d done at Tommy Lee’s studio and played it to Jacknife, and we had a chat for about three hours and he said, ‘why don’t we just rip it up and start again?’. So it went from there. It all worked perfectly.
We would work in a kind of way I remember working when I first started playing music as a teenager. We’d go round Robert’s house, sit there for a few hours, just chat, then one of us would start playing something and we’d join in. That’s kind of how we did it with Jacknife. We’d sit there, listen to records, talk about them, drink coffee, then go, ‘shall we play something?’.
Budgie: Did we know at the time that everything was going to close down?
Jacknife: I’m 90% convinced, and I’m not joking, that you brought COVID to the United States.
Budgie: I didn’t have it.
Jacknife: Well you were very ill, and you said your whole family was ill, then we went to Yosemite.
Lol: I remember taking Budgie to the airport and having problems with the ticket not working for the car park. They were staying back about ten feet back while I waved the ticket at them, because everyone was deadly scared of getting infected. I thought, ‘uh oh, that’s it, it’s the end of the world.’
Budgie: That’s where the song came… ‘Uh Oh’.
So we left, and we had all these instrumentals that we thought were going to polish into gems, because it was going to be an instrumental album. We hadn’t really spoken about anything else, apart from maybe string arrangements, but we hadn’t talked about which vocalists we were gonna get, it was just an idea we had.
Jacknife: At the beginning we were in Yosemite, so before we started recording, we called James Murphy. We were sat around Mirror Lake, which is deep in Yosemite, and asked if he wanted to be involved and he said yes. Even though we didn’t have a song for him, we knew it was a possibility. We thought we’d have one or two singers, and it took off from there really.
Budgie: Some people said, ‘yeah sounds great’ and didn’t reply, some said no. James took a long time; Bobby, really quick.
Jacknife: James took 18 months, which is a long time to wait for a vocal. I was saying, we’ve got to push him a bit, ‘you don’t have to do this, you can just say no’, because he’s kind of a people pleaser; he didn’t want to let Lol and Budgie down. One day I think I’d had enough and sent one of my brusque texts saying, ‘Ok, let’s move on from James’, and the next day he sent the finished vocals.
Budgie: We threatened him with Lol – he was going to travel to New York and sit with him while he did the vocals.
Jacknife: Then he gave us two songs, which was great. He takes his time with words and sounds.
Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse took a long time because he just takes a long time to do things – they have to rest with him. He sent a verse through, and then maybe six months later he came through here (Topanga Canyon studio) and I forced him to do it. So different people work in different ways. When they were here, we got a lot done, but when they’re in their own environment, especially during that period, they work in their own time.
Lol: It was useful if they got up to the studio in Topanga because we wouldn’t let them go unless they finished the track because it’s very difficult to get there.
Budgie: Because we moved all the signs around.
The album has a balance of your individual musical styles – from Budgie’s Middle Eastern influenced drumming to Lol’s synth approach and Jacknife’s production. In this, were the writing sessions fairly democratic?
Lol: When you’re in a band the dynamic is between one, two, three people, and that tends to make the music come out a certain way. After a while you get a certain a way of thinking of things.
But we didn’t have that with this. Because I knew Budgie pretty well, but not necessarily in a musical way to work with him – and Jacknife and Budgie and I, we didn’t really have that connection. So that’s what we did in the studio. We sat down and found that connection; it was easier, because we’d all been through those processes before. We respected each other and understood where each other was coming from. So before, where we might’ve stuck our oar and said, ‘no, that’s not working’, we allowed each other time to make things. Generally, the best stuff came out of that.
Budgie: That’s a very democratic answer really, because most bands will say, ‘it’s a democratic process’. There’s always one member who, maybe doesn’t shout louder, but there’s one who doesn’t say anything; you know it won’t go any further until they say, ‘now I’ve found the magic piece for this that I’ll add to this to make it into a gem’. But I certainly can’t say that for the present company.
As Lol was talking there, I was thinking about what it was like for me during the session. It was brief, there was a lot going on – and I felt like I was in one continuous percussion overdub. That was my fun time in the Banshees. It was great being in the writing process but in the studio, we could say, ‘percussion box! I’ll go to Chinatown and get my tins and Sundae dishes’, set them all up and go (issues a series of eclectic drum sounds). Making little tunes with cabassas. It was like that. It was a falling into, because it was a democratic process, but you knew the parameters you were working within.
Jacknife: There wasn’t a leader, someone steering the way, it just seemed to happen without communicating too much. Obviously, I’m a fan of both of these chaps – and have been for a while – but it wasn’t the primary reason I wanted to work with them. It wasn’t because of their songs – it was more what they brought to those songs. I can say the same thing about drums now, that I said about electronic music, in that they’ve become quite utilitarian, so these chaps brought a musicality and a freshness to the drums in the same way that bands didn’t treat the guitar in the same way as others were treating rock n roll guitar. So we just explored sound, groove, and we didn’t really know where we were going – that would imply a democratic process.
Lol: We got somewhere, even if we didn’t know where we were going. At the end, listening back to it I thought, ‘ok, I’m not sure how we got here, but it’s good’. When I was younger, I always thought of doing stuff as one mountain and then another mountain, but now I see it as more circular, so I’m trying to get out of my own way a lot of the time – just letting stuff happen, not letting my ego jump in and go, ‘I can fix that, I know what it needs’, because most of the time I probably don’t.
As two legends of the instrument, how did you approach the drumming for this project?
Budgie: I enjoyed revisiting some of my old beats because when loops were put in front of me they either suggested something I’d never heard before or they reminded me of a mood. One of the nice things was I was able to reclaim some aspects. I mentioned DAF because I used to love Robert’s boom-cha-boom-cha thing. It was ‘Got To Move’ (the Isaac Brock featuring album track), I think Jacknife said, ‘well, just go out and play something’, and I went back in and he said, ‘I didn’t think you’d play the whole thing’. That’s the point, wasn’t it? 15-minutes or something. A lot of these things were quite long. But it was just intense, each moment. I’d like to think we weren’t precious, about what you just said really: ‘we play drums, therefore’.
We did approach everything from a drummer’s sensibility but, as Jacknife just alluded to, a drummer sensibility includes hooks, an allegiance to the melody, and it gives the vocals somewhere to lock into. These are all drumming decisions, but they’re not so common. So the drummers I like listening to – I still say John Bonham, but also Ringo Starr, and Robert from DAF, Michael from NEU, Jaki Leibezeit from Can; but thinking with machines. So I think we created that environment.
Lol: Me and Budgie aren’t very traditional in that way. To me, Budgie’s the greatest drummer of our generation: he’s got a rhythmic sense that’s second to nobody. A lot of the time with The Cure – because I grew up with Robert primarily – my focus was always to fortify the vocal. I was listening to the beat but mostly my attention was on the lyrics, because I had a hand in the words as well. So we had a different approach, we just needed somebody who could help us knit it together, which was Jacknife. It’s like the Johari Triangle, where others see things you don’t know about yourself; he brought things out that we didn’t know about ourselves.
Jacknife: Well, drums are my favourite instruments. I can’t really play, even though I fake it, like a lot of things. Drums are my focus though. People like Tony Allen from Fela Kuti, amazing; he was the musical director for Fela Kuti’s band and had no problem holding down the same beat for 20 minutes. There’s something about the ability to stay in the beat, because a lot of guitar players can’t do that, they find it too boring to play the same thing over and over again; I find the repetitive quality works. There is something about live repeating, rather than a loop repeating; there’s something mesmerizing about that, and very ancient. In the West, we got away from that and we got overly excited about harmonic changes rather than groove. So the West is more enamoured with chord changes and modulations – they’re a good device, but they’re not it for me. I’ve worked with so many artists and said, ‘why are you using so many chords’. Their hands are bored, they just want to play another one; whereas someone playing something over and over again, they’re telling me they’re not bored.
But once we got the singers on, you can’t really maintain the length, so a lot of our longer pieces we cut down for vocals. Primarily that’s what we did, playing these long pieces for as long as we could.
The album has a foundation of incredible, very contemporary sounding electronics. However, the press release quotes Jacknife as saying that electronic music has become very formulised in recent years. Do you still admire sections of the genre today?
Jacknife: Oh, loads. Caterina Barberieri, she’s fantastic. I like Mount Kimbie. James Holden. There’s a lot of good stuff but I find a lot of chance is gone. Although certain programmes like Ableton are good, there’s so many guides and shortcuts that people are taking that lead to less moments of discovery and I’m interested in things not being quite right or being very wrong. The chances of that happening when things are so aligned for you are less possible. Electronic music is pretty formulaic in that four on the floor’s become very dominant, so if you listen to a lot of African music, they don’t need four on the floor there, there’s a lot of good stuff coming from there, especially Uganda. It’s club music without having to rely on four on the floor to make sense of it. So I feel like that’s become a problem – for a long time. It was good during disco, but it’s just become too formulaic.
Budgie, you were part of one of arguably one of the best covers recorded, with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Dear Prudence’ – what are your memories of that single?
Budgie: That leads onto this album very nicely, because that was the biggest single we had in the charts: thwarted by either ABBA or Culture Club.
But on the B-side is a track called ‘Tattoo’, and it was like putting voices on Hong Kong Garden – I remember Severin saying to me, “at least we got voices into 250,000 homes”, because it went silver. Tattoo’s a bit like that, because it’s pretty dark, it doesn’t really have a structure that you’d recognise, but it would clear the pub at 11 o’clock.
Then someone like Tricky gets hold of it and turns it into an even darker thing. You don’t realise what’s going to happen to the things you make — when we did quick recordings for B-sides you have limited time. You’d just have to come up with the ideas; record them, mix them; and we’d put them on someone’s desk on Monday morning, and that’d be your B-side. There’s a lot of that feeling when we’re talking about restaurants and music Jacknife’s pulled out from the shelves behind him.
‘Los Angeles’, from Lol Tolhurst x Budgie x Jacknife Lee is out now on Play It Again Sam.
Words: James Kilkenny