Revelling in wonder at the exuberant talents of James Righton’s Shock Machine, it’s hard to imagine that the origins of his musical journey were, by him, described as “dry and sterile”. Soon realising that he could, in fact, learn how to play the music the cool kids were playing, fuelled by the prospect of a little more attention from the opposite sex, ten-year-old James decided music, and only music, was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
The accolades kept on coming, countless nominations and a Mercury Award for best album, he even got the girl of his dreams. Since then his musical endeavors have taken a new direction, leaving behind the neon nu-rave of Klaxons and focussing on something more personal. His new project Shock Machine is garnering attention from many various spheres of the cultural zeitgeist, including the eye of Alessandro Michele at Gucci who handpicked James to walk in the 2018 Cruise show.
With a sincere tone and an inviting gaze, it is evident that James’ relational approach to creating his art is formed by an utmost respect for others. Willingly talking about the struggles of being in a band, and the long term effects that it has on creative spirit, he’s not shy about how it took him a while to find the right direction and fall in love with music again.
Armoured in a Gucci suit and armed with a microphone, James’ indescribable stage presence is this week gracing Semaine with an inside look on everything that has led to, and that makes him, Shock Machine. We hope you’re okay operating heavy machinery...
Semaine: Your time being a part of Klaxons was long and definitely formative, was it hard to let go of it?
James: Course. It was a mad, crazy, wonderful ride. I think we ticked every box of what a band sets out to do. It was definitely the right time to bow out though. I think Klaxons had peaked, I felt I was in need of a new challenge and needed to do something different. We could have carried on, making an album every few years and touring, but it didn’t feel like we had any further to go. Creatively I didn’t feel that excited about making music in the band again because I didn’t want the battles that you go through creatively, because although we’re still good mates, it does become difficult. Being out of the band is great because now we don’t have to deal with the negative side of the creative relationships that we have.
Semaine: What is your fondest memory with Klaxons?
James: Our first tour around Europe with this incredibly psychedelic Welsh man called Ryan.
Semaine: What made you continue pursuing music independently?
James: Making music is the only thing I've ever done. It's what I love to do and there's nothing else on my CV! There was a brief moment after the band ended where I convinced myself into thinking I was going to become a winemaker. But after that thought passed I went back into my music room and just started writing. I tried to get back into the headspace I was in when I first got into music. I re-listened to a lot of the bands I loved growing up and got excited about writing again. I really wanted to make my own record, I wanted to write what I wanted to write about and have it sound the way I want it to sound. I didn’t want anyone else to tell me what they thought it should sound like.
Semaine: Your new work has been described as “Pink Floyd through the prism of Tame Impala” who would you say are your biggest influences musically?
James: The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Carol King, Harry Nilsson, Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, E.L.O, Elton John, Paul McCartney/Wings. The classics. Mainly songs from the late 60's and 70's. A lot of the music my parents would have played to me as a kid. Nothing too esoteric. Songs that take you back. Like I said, part of the inspiration behind the project was reconnecting with the things I instinctively loved growing up. I wanted to reference these groups but make something modern sounding at the same time.
Semaine: And how about more generally? What have you found has influenced your life in certain directions?
James: On this record, I was completely influenced by the fear and excitement of starting something new. Both in my personal and musical life. I’ve had a lot happen to me in the last few years which, if I'm being completely honest, were initially terrifying, hugely challenging but in the end immensely rewarding. Now Shock Machine is my passion, it’s my number one thing but what’s great it that I can still pursue other things. This year I’ve done the music for a play at The Young Vic with Tom [Rowlands] from the Chemical brothers, it’s a play called “Life of Galileo”. It was a huge cast and crew, and it was so good to be a part of something where everyone was so committed to being as good as they could possibly be. I’m currently doing some stuff for a movie and have recently taught myself to edit, just so many things I couldn’t have imagined I’d be doing.
My daughter Edie came along when Klaxons broke up - being in a band is a relationship, and you have to compromise. One of the things I’ve always wanted is to be there for my daughter every moment that I can. I don’t want to ever be away from her and I hate being away from her. I want her to come along for the ride, so now I’m in control I can say yes and no to anything. Obviously my private life is my priority and it’s my love, and if I’m happy in that then anything else I get to do is a plus.
Interestingly since I became a father, for the first time my life has become regimented in a good way. I’m now a real 9 - 5 worker, Monday to Friday, I’ve never had that before. I have to be there in the mornings and at night and it’s really nice, I’m writing more, and I’m making more music than I have ever made because of that. Having those rules and those boundaries of life, it’s really healthy, as opposed to the free for all when you’re young and in a band. Where my life is now, I couldn’t be in the studio until 4 am, it’s just different, and it’s working for me!
Semaine: So, do you think structure is important for creative growth?
James: I think it’s a dangerous thing when people think you just wait for creativity to hit you. For me, I think what’s far more valid is that being creative is actually just about working really hard. It’s not a miracle, it’s hard work. The amount of hours I’ve put into working for something... there are hundreds of sketches and demos that weren’t good enough. You have to push through for the gold.
Semaine: How would you say Shock Machine differs from Klaxons?
James: It's completely different. Klaxons was the three of us and the records that we made came out of that alchemy. This is just me. If we're talking specifics, with Shock Machine, I wanted to make songs that didn't adhere to the rules Klaxons inevitably had. There are some slow songs, songs with lots of chords and songs less structurally classic on the record.
Semaine: Do you feel a new degree of freedom now that you’re pursuing something new?
James: Totally. Right now it’s incredibly freeing, I can do whatever, no rules, it all feels totally new again. I often think the best and most interesting time for a band is within the first few years. It's all unpredictable and exciting. It's the time when everything is new and anything can happen when you’re in an established band, you feel like you’re betraying the others if you go off in other directions.
I'm also enjoying the freedom which comes with having a lack of history and a lack of preconceptions. What people think you are and the "what do people want from us?" questions can really play on the mind. If you let those voices in it can be detrimental to making new and interesting music.
Semaine: Is there a specific meaning behind the name “Shock Machine”?
James: It's a title from a book I read called 'Behind the Shock Machine'. It's about the Milgram Experiments that took place at Yale in the 1960's. It's a fascinating read. I thought the name 'Shock Machine' looked cool and I saw it more as two words that I interpreted to mean something to me. It was the way my life felt at the time.
Semaine: Where did the songs on the new album come from? How was the writing process different from being with Klaxons?
James: They came from me in a room on my own surrounded by my instruments and recording gear. It was a fun experiment to see if I could do it all myself. I felt motivated and driven to push myself as a songwriter.
A lot of the songs would start on piano or synth and then the melodies and lyrics would come naturally. I wanted the music to be complex and have interesting, unusual chord changes. It all came pretty fast as I had a strong idea of what I wanted the project to be. I didn't ever question what I was making. With Klaxons the writing process changed on each record but mostly the initial process was about bringing in sketches/ideas for everyone else to work on together.
James Ford, who’s an old trusted friend, and the producer of this record, was the first person I sent my demos to. We went off to the South of France to record and he played all of the drums on the record, he played bass on a few of them too, we recorded it just the two of us. When I started putting songs together it didn't sound like a traditional solo singer songwriter record. The songs sounded like band songs so I made the record and then formed a band around it. I've always liked the romance of bands, but without the politics.
Semaine: Your career has now spanned a decade - what has changed most, or maybe not changed at all, both personally and in your style of music?
James: So much has changed!! What's changed the most is the industry itself! We all know the story, but it was a pretty monumental shift and collapse from where things were in 2006. Personally what has changed is that I understand now, more than ever, what style of music I like, what I'm best at and how I go about making it.
Semaine: How do big life changes effect the art you create?
James: It's hard for what happens in your life not to affect you in any way. Your life is what you are and what I choose to write about. It actually took me a while to figure that one out! I think what's interesting is that we're now living in strange, chaotic times. As a result people seem more engaged and switched on and art is reflecting this.
Semaine: How do you think the industry differs from when you started out? If you were starting out as Klaxons in 2017, what would that look like?
James: I dread to think. We probably wouldn't have become as big if we started out today. Timing had a lot to do with it. There was a window when the world needed some neon and we just happened to wear it. It’s really exciting because now there are no boundaries of what you can create. Before, in the 60s and 70s, people would have to find you, to record anything, someone or a label would have to invest in you. Gone are the gatekeepers, which is good in the sense that everybody can make something, but only the good things will find an audience.
Semaine: Is there one specific thing you want people to know about you new album?
James: I think when I wrote the song 'Shock Machine' it made me realise I was on a certain path. I played the demo to a few friends who responded encouragingly. At the time I was fairly nervous playing my own music to anyone but this song and the reaction I got from playing it gave me the confidence to write more. It sounds odd but one of the most important things for me is that my friends like the music. I don't want to be in the embarrassing position of making records my friends can't stand!
Semaine: Your performance style is really emulated in the video for Unlimited Love, what is it about performing that you love and wanted to convey?
James: There’s a whole look for the project, we have this really strong vibe, and I wanted a video for people to see that. The performance element is a huge part of it, it’s untamed, it’s wild and it’s theatrical in places. I always try to channel my inner Iggy Pop when I’m on stage. Maybe it’s because I’m older now... there are no inhibitions, I literally don’t care. When we started out I got pretty terrified about performing and I always cared a lot about people liking me, thinking whether I’m good enough… I don’t feel like I’m there to ask people to love me anymore, I feel like I’m there to be as present as possible, to be engaging with the people around me. It’s become a real high for me, the confrontation of the crowd.
I made sure with Shock Machine there is no backing track, it’s something that has seeped into modern performance and I think it’s sad that you’re hearing something that’s not really coming from the stage. My live show is going to be a super stripped back version of the actual record, but luckily I’ve got a really great band of musicians who cover everything and I feel like it doesn’t need anything more sonically. I want to use it to create a moment where the audience feels more alive, for them to feel something. I think that is what the video captures.
Semaine: What was the process of creating the video like?
James: We got the initial edit back and I was really happy about it, but I thought it needed something more. I serendipitously met Sophie Muller and she had a go at grading the video herself at home, she is one of the best music video directors around. I asked how she did it and she ended up showing me how to edit and grade videos myself. I’ve got another video coming out soon that I did myself, I shot and edited it, and I learned how to do everything from Sophie, it was a masterclass. We thought the video needed more cut-aways and whilst I was living in Budapest this summer we decided to shoot some pick up shots. Sophie directed the use of colour and I’m just really happy with outcome.
Semaine: So, now you’re making videos yourself too?
James: What was cool about working with Sophie is that there’s really no rules with video making. I’ve always had the ideas for music videos, but I didn’t have the tools. The one I’ve made will be out in September/October. I shot it in Italy whilst I was there playing a festival - I think Italians are like a nation of actors, they’re a nation of such soul and character. I just filmed it on my little Canon and I’ve kind of got a bit of a bug for it now. I know the music better than anyone else, I’m the one that has the visual references for my own songs! I’m not trying to be a director I just really enjoy it as a hobby. I don’t want to be making anything other than my own stuff!
Semaine: What’s been the biggest surprise of your career so far?
James: That I'm still in it! I mean I'm a musician in my mid 30's. I didn't think they existed when I was 16! I still feel weird writing 'musician' on my passport. I'm always waiting for someone at check-in to catch me out.
Semaine: Completely changing the subject, how did your relationship with Gucci come about? How did your involvement with the 2018 cruise happen?
James: Well I've always been a fan of what Gucci and Alessandro are doing. They have such a strong vision and I think their clothes are inspirational in a totally new and exciting way. I started wearing their suits live and they become a huge part of the visual identity of the project. The suits give you superhuman powers. They help create a persona and I'm a big believer in musicians aspiring to be cartoon characters.
Anyway, I went on tour with the Lemon Twigs and Michela from Gucci happened to be there at the show. I think we surprised her and she apparently sent a picture of me to the PR team during the show asking "Who is this??" Ha!! So they ended up reaching out and asking if I would walk the cruise collection with other musicians, including Jehnny Beth from Savages and Dev Hynes. It was a blast and a total honour!
Semaine: We like to ask tastemakers what their life’s mantra is… What’s yours?
James: Keep it weird