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Transvision Vamp - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 21 / 3 / 2005

Transvision Vamp - Interview


Former Transvision Vamp star Wendy James has recently returned after over 10 years away with a new project Racine and single and album. She chats to John Clarkson about them,stock car racing and her long absence from the music world

Wendy James was one of the musical icons of the late 80’s and early 90’s. For three years from 1988 to 1991, her band, vibrant bubblegum pop punk outfit Transvision Vamp, were one of the best known acts in Britain. They also had fleeting international fame across the world. The Brighton-born group achieved massive Top 5 hits with the singles, ‘I Want Your Love’ and ‘Baby, I Don’t Care’. Their debut album, ‘Pop Art’ (1988, MCA) went to No. 4 in the British album charts, while their second album, ‘Velveteen’ (1989, MCA) reached No. 1. James, a peroxide blonde who frequently drew favourable comparisions with Blondie’s Debbie Harry, was voted the No. 1 sex symbol in France. Always media-conscious and reliable for a good quote, she was a regular cover star both in music magazines spanning from ‘Smash Hits’ to ‘NME’ to Vox’ and also in style bibles including ‘The Face’ , in which appeared famously semi naked, and 'Tatler’. As quickly as Transvision Vamp rose, they, however, also waned. When the hits stopped coming in 1991, MCA refused to release in Britain their third album, the less commercial ‘Little Magnet Verses the Bubble of Babble’. Although it did eventually come out in America, the group broke up as a result of internal differences after playing a final gig supporting the Buzzcocks in San Francisco in 1992. James returned briefly under her own name with ‘Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears’ (Geffen, 1993) a collection of songs penned for her specially by Elvis Costello, and which she recorded in Los Angeles with Bob Dylan’s backing band and Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas. Despite the album earning good reviews, James suddenly dropped out halfway through a tour to promote the album and overnight disappeared from the public spotlight. Now twelve years later she is back with a new project Racine, which in tribute to French film director Jean-Luc Godard (‘Au Bout du Souffle’, ‘Weekend’), she has labelled as being ‘Godard Rock’. An album, ‘Racine No 1’, which James has self-performed,written, produced and will release on her own label Pia-K, is due out in April. A single, ‘Grease Monkey’, has already been released. A tribute to the world of drag car racing, the title track merges hazy electronica with a dub sound. The single also features ‘The Last American Hero’, an essay by writer Tom Wolfe about 60’s speedway star Junior Johnson which James has set to music and backed with swirling, discordant sound effects and scuffling, metallic beats. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Wendy James, who is now based in New York, about Racine, stock car racing and her long absence from the music world. PB : Why did you decide to choose to use the name of Racine for your new project rather than simply using the Wendy James moniker ? WJ : I always think of things in terms of bands rather than as a solo projects. Although I wrote everything and played everything and recorded everything on the record, I always knew that Racine was going to be a band, and that we were going to be going out on the road as a band. I grew up in a school of bands. With the exception of Bob Dylan, and a few others, it is on the whole bands that I love rather than solo acts. PB : Yet, having said that, you were a solo act for a brief while in the early 90’s after Transvision Vamp broke up and at the time you did the album with Elvis Costello. WJ : It was my name attached to it, but there were musicians around me. It has never been my intention to be a solo artist. I always have had a band of musicians around me. PB : It’s only recently that you started writing your own material. You didn’t do that at all during Transvision Vamp. Is that correct ? WJ : Yeah, I curtailed the promotion of the Elvis Costello record early because I knew instantly after I recorded that album that I was only going to satisfy my desire for music in the future if I was the author of it and if I was, therefore, able to sing totally from the heart. I wanted the music in future to be constructed from my rhythm, my melody and my lyrics. Nick (Christian-Sayer-Ed) did all the writing in Transvision Vamp and Elvis wrote all of ‘Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears’. I realised then that I could no longer be a conduit to somebody else’s songwriting. It prompted me to stop the tour early, kind of shut the shutters and bury myself in the process of learning how to play lots of different instruments. Not only that but I set up a whole studio, and I learnt how to work the entire studio. After a few years of learning how to do that I set about recording the demos for what has eventually become this album. PB : Was it hard teaching yourself to do all this ? WJ : Nothing is hard if it is your passion. It has been a lot of work though. Any musician will tell you that you have to familiarise your body to play the guitar. You have to familiarise your hands to play the guitar, so that you start playing fluently. It really is a craft. You have to learn. You have to practice. You have to be good enough to hold your own on one take. That is why I have been away so long. It has taken a long time. PB : You’re about to release ‘Racine No. 1’ on your own label, Pia-K Recordings Why did you decide to go strictly independent ? Was it because you had had bad experiences with your previous labels, MCA and Geffen ? WJ : I wouldn’t say that I had had bad experiences. I actually see my life as having been quite enjoyable. I didn’t want to spend the time going from one corporate meeting to another discussing every move that I was about to make. I wanted to be able to move quickly, to make decisions and then to act upon them. I wanted to express my music both stylistically and creatively and the way I thought it, rather than as some kind of corporate decision passed down from on high. I am not a product. This is my music, and it’s not to be confused with some kind of backroom consumer strategy. PB : Did you feel that you were made to be a product in the late 80’s and early 90’s ? WJ : Not me, but any corporation which is worth billions of dollars have to make a certain amount of money a year, so, therefore, money becomes an issue over art. While we all need to earn a crust to carry on until the next day, I don’t think that money should dictate the work that you should do. PB : You moved to New York to make this album. What was the appeal to you of New York ? Why did you decide to go there rather than remaining in Britain ? WJ : Every time I have been in New York, or every time I have come in to New York and looked at the Manhattan skyline I have thought “My God, it would be amazing to live here”. Finally when I had the demos for the album done absolutely to my complete confidence there was a window, an opportunity for me to move there, so I decided to go for it. PB : How long have you been there now ? WJ : I am in the second month of my third year. PB : ‘Grease Monkey’ is being released in four different formats, 7”, 12”, CD single and DVD. Why did you decide to put it out in so many different versions ? WJ : I grew up in a school of loving good art work. I know we’re all used to CDs and now if you need a CD you just need to download it, but I am old enough to remember what it like to have an LP or a 7” single in your hand. It is a very tactile experience. I remember the art work on the sleeves of the Rolling Stones’ LPs. You could spend hours looking at them. It is part of the whole experience of being in a band for me. Once the music is done you can follow through your taste in music to the way you shoot your video, do your art work, and also the way you present your band live. That whole thing matters a lot to me. PB : What is the video for ‘Grease Monkey’ about ? WJ: There are two parts to it. I discovered the first stock car speedway race track was in a place called Riverhead which is at the end of Long Island, which is not that far from Manhattan. We went there and discovered that there were speed trials there one weekend, so we phoned up and got filming rights, filming permision, and so we went down there for the day and filmed all the cars, filmed the practice run, the qualifying laps and finally the trials in the evening. We filmed the crowd coming in and all of the crews who would unload the cars and put the tyres on and grease the engines . We filmed all of this wonderful footage, and that was what was the first part of the video. By that time I had formed the band,. We had been in rehearsals at that stage for six weeks, so we brought the film crew down to rehearsals for a couple of days to film the second part of the video. What you get on it is some footage of Racine practising in the rehearsal room chopped in with some live footage from the raceway. PB : Is it true that the band is made up entirely of kids from the streets of New York ? WJ : In as much as they’re not professional musicians. They do know how to play though. I didn’t have to teach them how to play. They’re all cool dudes from the Lower East Side. PB : On the single you have also set a piece of Tom Wolfe writing ‘The Last American Hero’ to music, which is again about drag cars. What was the appeal to you of Tom Wolfe’s work and why did you decide to put that on ? WJ : Tom Wolfe is one of the mainstays in my life. I love his writing. I love his novels, but it is his journalism that I like best. When he was young man getting his chops in journalism and around about the period he wrote ‘The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test’ (1968-Ed), he was also writing short stories and essays for ‘Esquire’ and ‘The Herald Tribune’ . He wrote an article. ‘The Last American Hero’ about the first real star of stock racing , Junior Johnson. Junior Johnson was somewhat of a maverick and came from a family of a long line of bootleggers. They used to run moonshine across the state line, and so that’s where Junior Johnson learnt his particular gift at driving cars real fast and hard and on the corners. His natural born talent at moonshine running segued into his ability to become the champion of stock car racing. The other stock car racers had big sponsors. They were all sponsored by Pontiac and had lots of money behind them. Junior Johnson would run his battered old Chevrolet and he would always win and he became the people’s hero as a result. I happened to read that piece and when I was thinking about an extra track for the single just before Christmas we had all already been out to Riverhead and the speedway and I thought “ Why not conceptually take it one stage further and actually do the story of the American Hero ?” PB : Have you always been into drag car racing or is this a relatively new thing for you ? WJ : It’s relatively new. It’s never been a case with me of ‘Cor, look at that car”. The appeal to me has more to do with the common man. We’re not talking Grand Prix here. We’re not talking McLaren Formula 1. It’s kids on dusty dirt tracks racing cars to get kicks in the evening. America is the land of the car. They love their cars over there and they have turned it into a bona fide sport. There’s something really visual about being at the speedway with the dirt flying up in your face and the rubber burning off the tyres and the noise and everybody in the stands with a can of beer or whatever. I guess that it is like football. It is like British football in America. PB : Racine has been created with a real DIY punk attitude. You have talked a lot in the past in previous interviews from the time of Transvision Vamp onwards about how you have always tried to adopt that kind of punk approach Do you see drag car racing in some ways as similar to that, again having a similar kind of rawness, and do you think that might be part of its appeal for you ? WJ : Yes, I do. I think that is a lot of its appeal. I was really a baby when punk was happening, but I guess that it is in your blood or not whether you’re inside or outside the corporate view and if you’re outside of it you just get on with it whether you’re an independent filmmaker or an independent artist or a freelance journalist. Some people like Hunter Thompson, whether he was commissioned to write a piece or not, felt compelled to go out into the field and just bring back what he could find. The DIY punk ethic is that spontaneity of spirit really. PB : Do you feel that is something you have managed to do, to live outside that corporate view even though you have been associated in the past with major labels ? WJ : So were the Pistols and the Clash. I think so. Yeah, I think that it either in your blood or it is not. For the most part I would imagine that people are happy to receive a big cheque and end up on a talk show or something, but for me that is not really what life is about. PB : You have described your music with Racine as being Godard Rock. What do you mean by that ? WJ :In a nutshell everything Jean Luc Godard did with film I relate to and believe in in my sensibilities of making music. He doesn’t let it get too indulgent. He introduces you to characters. He takes you to a place, but he never pours syrup on it, and so I have coined my music as Godard rock. PB : You have invited pirate DJs to mix the single. Have you had a lot of response to that ? WJ There was one which I liked and really loved by Bruno Lawton and it is on the CDS and 12”. It is a way for me to get other angles on my music without being in the studio. If I step into the studio, then I am going to have to have final say on everything, whereas if I send DJs the audio files, it is kind of interesting to hear what other people do. These are people who don’t write songs. They’re not songwriters exactly. They’re like musicians in studios. It is another area to hearing your music. It was interesting for me. I am not going to say that it is going to happen every time, but it was worthwhile and exciting to hear. PB : Once the album is out what do you plan to do then ? WJ : Tour it and then make the next one. PB : Will you be touring Britain ? WJ : Yes. From April onwards. PB : Thank you for your time.

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Transvision Vamp - Interview

Transvision Vamp - Interview

Transvision Vamp - Interview

Transvision Vamp - Interview

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