Guitarist James Stevenson has had a forty year career playing in some of the best known punk, rock and alternative bands around, from Generation X to The Cult, The Alarm to Bowie supergroup Holy Holy and more. MetalTalk’s Mick Burgess caught up with him after his recent tour with Gene Loves Jezebel.
Interview and Pictures: Mick Burgess
MT: You’ve been on tour with David Bowie related supergroup Holy Holy. How did the shows go?
JS: The shows have been awesome. I love doing these shows. When I was listening to Bowie at school, if one of my mates had said that one day I’d be in a band with Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey I wouldn’t have believed them.
MT: What sort of people did you get coming to the shows?
JS: I have noticed a massive cross section of people of all ages coming to the shows. I don’t even think the younger ones have been coming with their parents or grandparents, they’ve discovered Bowie for themselves. Sometimes it’s the kids who bring their parents.
MT: The tour focused on the albums ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Why those two albums in particular from that era?
JS: Tony produced ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and played bass on it and Woody played on them both. You can argue that ‘Ziggy..’ is THE classic album from that period so it made sense to perform that one as it was such a landmark album. That doesn’t mean that we are confined to those albums in the future and we do add in a few surprises during the show.
MT: How did you actually end up being part of the Holy Holy tour?
JS: I think I’m the only one that`s been in Holy Holy since day one. The Institute Of Contemporary Arts had a Bowie week, and they wanted a band to play some Bowie songs. The guy organising it was called Tom Wilcox and he asked Maggie Ronson, Mick Ronson’s sister, to do some backing vocals. She suggested me and I got Steve Norman and Clem Burke in on drums. Woody was doing a talk at the ICA the same week and he heard about it and we were doing the Latitude Festival and he said he’d like to do a couple of numbers with us so that’s how it all started. Woody then became the drummer after that and Clem only did the one gig.
MT: Was Bowie`s music a big influence on you growing up?
JS: I just love his music. Mick Ronson is my hero and he’s the reason I picked up the guitar. I grew up learning all of that stuff. When I was doing these shows I had to go back and learn it properly. ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is quite a challenging album to play. Mick was 23 or 24 when he recorded that. It was absolutely amazing. I also love ‘Life On Mars’. The solo on that is simple to play but genius to invent. It’s perfect for the song and that`s what I love about Mick. I got to know Mick quite well over the years.
MT: Tony Visconti is such a highly rated producer and musician who has produced everyone from T-Rex to Thin Lizzy. What have you learned from working with him?
JS: He’s a genius. I’ve worked with Tony before and have done sessions with him for other artists. He also did a string arrangement on one of the songs from the new Gene Loves Jezebel album called ‘How Do You Say Goodbye (To Someone You Love)’. He scored everything out as he’s classically trained and he has an amazing ear. Working with him is an absolute pleasure.
MT: You’re also joined by Glen Gregory from Heaven 17 on vocals. He has a tough job standing in Bowie’s shoes. How does he tackle Bowie’s unique style?
JS: He doesn’t do it like Bowie, he does it in his own way which I think is the only way that you can do it. He does an amazing job.
MT: It’s also a tough job for you is playing Mick Ronson’s parts. Have you had to adapt your playing to fit his style?
JS: Not really because he was my major influence anyway and had played his guitar parts since I was a fourteen year old kid. I’d like to think I flow into it quite naturally.
MT: Have you had any thoughts of maybe writing original music together?
JS: We have spoken about it but it would totally change the vibe of the band. If we played live, we’d have to play some of the new songs and we might end up playing all original stuff one day but that’d end up being very different from what we are now. When me and Paul Cudderford are at soundcheck we sometimes play a riff that we think would be really good if Holy Holy did it. It is possible, you never know.
MT: A few weeks ago, we saw you were on tour with Gene Loves Jezebel. How did it feel to be back on tour with them after so long away in the UK?
JS: We’ve been very non-proactive with Gene Loves Jezebel. There’s been a lot of problems within the band with Jay’s twin brother who is no longer in the band. We ended up in a law suit with him. He owns the American trademark of the name and every time we tour, we have to get his permission. He has sued us but the judge found in our favour on all five counts. We had all of the original members but the law doesn’t work like that. It’s a very strange thing. We won the law suit and he had to pay our legal costs. He’s Jay’s twin brother so it’s a really horrible situation.
MT: You put out your first album in nineteen years, ‘Dance Underwater’, a year and a half ago. Why did you feel that the time was right for a new album?
JS: There was always talk about it and we did the odd gig here and there. Jay and Pete have this other project called The Ugly Bugs and they did three or four songs that I really liked and thought it’d be great to give Gene Loves Jezebel a shot at recording them. Pete suggested doing a Pledgemusic campaign and he organised it. We raised enough money to record it in a good studio and had Pete Walsh producing it who has done three of our albums in the past. We want to get more active again. It felt great to be out there again and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought we might be playing to ten people a night so it was great to see so many people coming to the shows.
MT: What about a new album? Jay said he has a lot of ideas ready. Are you hoping to make a start soon?
JS: He comes up with a lot of ideas and it’s a case of weeding through them. Most singer songwriters think everything they write is brilliant so we have to work through those ideas and pick out the best stuff. Jay did a solo album a while back that I produced called ‘Unpopular Songs’. He sent me the demos of all the songs he’d done then, this was about twenty years ago, and there were loads of songs from that era that weren’t recorded, so we could dip into those but we really need to get on and make another record this year.
MT: You have an extensive career in your own right and have just released an all- encompassing retrospective ‘Forty Years In The Rock’N’Roll Wilderness’. Bearing in mind there’s songs by Chelsea, Gene Loves Jezebel, Generation X, Kim Wilde, Charlie Harper from the UK Subs, Tricky, The Alarm, Glen Matlock and The International Swingers, that’s not a bad wilderness to draw songs from!
JS: Haha! Yes. I’ve had a chequered career. It took me over two years to put that together dealing with licensing issues and the labels. It’s a miracle those labels are in business. It’s not as if they don`t have enough problems. Trying to get them to reply to calls and e-mails was an absolute nightmare.
MT: Were you able to get all of the songs you wanted licensed for the album?
JS: I did manage to get them all but people keep saying I should do a Volume 2 which I`d like to do. Actually, I’d have liked to have had a Scott Walker song on there if I could have got that sorted. ‘Desire’ by Gene Loves Jezebel was such an important song to have on there and Beggars Banquet the label let me have it for nothing which was really sweet of them.
MT: Which was the most expensive song to licence for the album?
JS: That would have been ‘Water On Glass’ by Kim Wilde. The label blamed her mum!
MT: How big was your initial short list?
JS: I had a rough idea of what I wanted. I wasn’t sure which Chelsea tracks to include. I’m not on any Generation X studio recordings so it was going to be limited to a live one. I chose the Bowie track ‘Andy Warhol’ as I thought we did quite a funky punk rock version of that and Billy Idol sang it well. I think I got most of the songs on there that I wanted. When I listen to it, I think it flows quite well.
MT: The great thing about a compilation like this is that among the more well- known stuff you’ve done are songs like ‘Big Tears’ by Gary Holton that many people may have not heard before. Was this a way of shining a light on some of those long-lost gems?
JS: That was right at the height of ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’. We did a showcase at a place called John Henry’s and Muff Winwood came down from Epic Records. This was a Friday night and he said we were absolutely brilliant and told us to ring him on Monday and tell him how much we were going to cost him. He got sacked on that Monday so that was that and I ended up joining Gene Loves Jezebel.
MT: One of the standouts on the album is ‘Susie’s Problem’ from your solo album, that’s got such a great melody and a killer guitar solo that fits the song perfectly. What’s the inspiration for that song?
JS: For me a guitar solo has to be part of the song not the other way around. The story behind that song was that I was in LA listening to a radio station called K-Rock and they had a phone in with a doctor and a priest and you could call in with problems. This girl rang and bared her soul and just poured everything out and basically it was entertainment for the people listening. I thought it was the most bizarre thing in the world and wondered why she just didn’t go out and talk to her mates. You never know where the ideas will come from.
MT: How did you manage to fit a solo album around all of your other commitments?
JS: It’s just something that I had to get done. That’s four years ago and I really want to do another one soon. There will be another one and it’ll be called ‘The Other Side Of The World’.
MT: Talking of the International Swingers with Clem Burke, Glen Matlock and Gary Twinn. You put out a great album a couple of years back. Did you get the chance to tour much with that?
JS: We played a few shows but it’s on the backburner at the moment as everyone is so busy. Debbie Harry is about 73 now. When she was 69 Clem said that because she was 70 in the next year, she wasn’t going to want to tour as much and we’d be able to do The Swingers more but then, all she wants to do is tour. They do two hundred gigs a year. I’m busy too, but it’s there if the right thing arrives and we all have the time to do it.
MT: What about Chelsea? What is the latest with them? Will you be doing anything with them this year either recording or touring?
JS: They’ve got some stuff coming up but it’s a bit of a juggling act. They have a few gigs and if I can’t do them, they just do them as a four piece with Nic Austin playing. The next thing I have with Chelsea is a European tour in September. They have some gigs in April but I’m in The States with The Alarm. We’re lucky that there’s two guitarists in Chelsea, so it’s not the end of the world if I can’t make it.
MT: You’ve also found time to tour a few times with The Cult. How many tours have you done with them now?
JS: I’ve toured with them twice, in ’94/95 and 2013/14. I haven’t got anything planned with them at the moment. Billy Duffy is a really old mate and we go back thirty five years. Mick Rossi from Slaughter and the Dogs dragged Billy down to London as he said he’d never make it if he stayed where he was and it was then that I first met him. He had long hair down to his waist. He was in awe of me as I’d done Generation X and Kim Wilde and he was this kid, a couple of years younger than me, coming to London to seek his fortune and he ended up being my boss. That’s how it goes. I love doing The Cult. I joke to people that I can just stand at the back playing A and D all night but it`s a good A and D.
MT: You appeared on the video for the classic pop single ‘Kids In America’ by Kim Wilde. How did you get involved there?
JS: I didn’t play on the actual song, I’m just on the video. I was mates with Mickie Most’s son Calvin, and I ended up in a band called Hot Club with him and Glen Matlock. Then he went on to form Johnny Hates Jazz. He just rang me up and said that his Dad had just signed this new girl and needed a band for the video and I got paid two hundred quid or something to do it. The next thing it’s a hit everywhere. I did play on a few tracks on the album and the second album too. Her dad Marty was a lovely man. Kim was lovely too. We used to stay up drinking. She could drink with the boys. I still run into her from time to time. She’s sweet.
MT: As well as performing on all of these records over the years you`ve also written jingles for adverts including one for a Cadburys Wispa bar with Ant and Dec. How did you get into that?
JS: It was through who you know. A friend of mine, Maggi Ronson knew someone in the industry that needed some music for an advertisement and asked me to send in some ideas. I had ten or so ideas that I sent and they listened to the first one and that was it. Years later I was in a restaurant and I saw Ant and Dec and went up to them and asked them if they remembered doing the advert. They laughed and said that they did so I told them I wrote the music for it. We had a good chat about it.
MT: Did you receive a few complimentary boxes of Wispas as a result of doing that?
JS: Unfortunately not. I didn’t receive a single bar!
MT: Once the whole Holy Holy tour comes to an end what have you got lined up for the rest of the year?
JS: Well when the tour ends later this month that`s it for Holy for a while. I have most of March off but I have some shows in America which will be a joint tour with The Alarm, Modern English and Gene Loves Jezebel so I’ll be doing two sets each night and I’m really looking forward to it.