Meet: Q&A with Gene’s Matt James

My heart, in the 90’s at least belonged to Gene. The indie quartet appeared out of the haze of The Smiths, were loved by almost crazily obsessive fans, released a handful of albums that touched both the charts and the heart strings, and then split. They set the standard for emotive indie rock, with front man Martin Rossiters pleading, wondrous delivery over this sublimely tuneful, yet continually ebbing and flowing background.

High points of their career included their debut album Olympian, packed with these memorable tunes which reached number eight in the UK album charts matched by the follow up Drawn To The Deep End. Now, Edsel records are preparing to remaster and reissue the bands five albums, so we spoke to the bands drummer Matt James ahead of that.

So Edsel Records are reissuing 5 of your albums – how did the deal with edsel come about?
Through mutual friends really. Julian from Grand Drive who used to play keys for Gene introduced us.

Did you feel it was the right time?
Perhaps more a case of right label than time. We’d been asked before about re-issues, which usually just focused upon Olympian. However, Edsel were keen to do the whole catalogue which included the one LP the band own, Libertine. We’re mighty proud of that record but as it was our last LP & released on our self funded own label it didn’t get the exposure it deserved. This was a chance to put it on an platform with our bigger selling LP’s

Has it made you reassess the records? If so, how have you found that? Has it been a happy process?
Yes definitely. I honestly hadn’t listened to it for many years & was surprised how much of it time had been kind to…IMO obviously! I’m immensely proud of about 90% of it which is not a bad hit rate.

And what memories do you have of the original recording sessions? Do you think that each record has its own personality, or set of memories?
I’ve very fond memories of recording Olympian in Townhouse 3 in Battersea. The Who used to own it & had recorded Quadrophenia there. There’s plenty of footage of them working there & being a massive fan I remember the humongous thrill I felt in crossing the same threshold. Although Steve & Martin were young guys in there early 20’s, I was 30 & it had taken me 10 years longer than I thought it would to get a proper record deal. By the time it finally happened you can imagine I was seriously up for it! Still, Olympian has a huge amount of semi-naive charm about it. Phil Vinal just got us playing really nicely together & captured it. By the time we did the next LP we (thought we) were old hands so we were cutting stuff up & pro-tooling everything which gives a more polished result but perhaps dates the record to where technology was at the time. Olympian definitely feels more timeless to me though my fave Gene song (Where Are They Now) is on the following LP.

How involved have you been in the reissues – did you help to dig out any special treats for the extras? Anything included on them that you’d forgotten about, or are excited about seeing the light of day?
I’ve been pretty hands on. As most of the Gene catalogue is still owned by Universal it really only gave us the opportunity to put unreleased material on Libertine as we had various things lying around that we own & really deserve to be heard. I went through a lot of minidiscs & rehearsal tapes, LP demos & found some great stuff that has never been officially released before for Libertine CD 2. Plenty of boxes of chord sheets & backstage passes for the artwork too. There really isn’t much music from the other LP’s period that hasn’t been seen before except a vast amount of BBC live & session recordings that have been sifted through and included where appropriate. I think we were the most sessioned band on the BBC at one point! I’m also pleased that these re-issues pull together all the b-sides & singles from each period in one place. I’m satisfied they are good collections & Edsel have treated the work with respect & not just bunged them out as a cashcow.

How do you think the records stand up against time?
They seem to be fine but of course I’m very close to it. I think Drawn To The Deep End is the most under threat of dating due to the newness of the technology at the time. But we were careful enough to use real strings alongside string samples so it still sounds pretty lush to me. The most important thing are the songs themselves as great songs always stand the time test. We were all capable of bringing something to the songwriting table & this helped us keep our standards high. There’s a good quota of decent songs on every LP IMO.

Do you think that it might lead to Gene getting the press/critical praise it deserves? Gene never struck me as being the darlings of the press during its time together, more darlings of the fans, as they always seemed to have these almost fanatical followers…
I hope so but I doubt it. In terms of critical acclaim we always had more success with radio than press. If you’re only going to get one, I’d rather it be that but there’s no doubt that If we had both together we would have gone a bit further commercially. There were some pretty unsavoury personal attacks in some papers which were quite upsetting at the time. Interestingly the NME is reappraising it’s review of Olympian in a forthcoming issue…I’m rather looking forward to reading that!!! If you can’t handle criticism your in the wrong biz though. Thankfully there was about as many print journalists that loved as hated us, but they just weren’t always given our music to review!

Which was your favourite album – or is that like being asked about your favourite child or something?
Olympian & Libertine equally I would say…personally, I’m most proud of my drumming on Libertine but Olympian probably has the most charm of all the LP’s.

But it doesn’t stir those feelings to be part of Gene again – I know Martin (singer Martin Rossiter) has been pretty outspoken against the idea of a reformation, but we have to ask…
Well I didn’t want to split up in the first place but none of us would want to do it without all 4 of us bang up for doing it. We each brought something that the other 3 couldn’t do to the party. It was highly democratic art which I’m told is not supposed to work but in this case did. I hope the songs prove that. I think Martin just wants to draw a very firm line under it & I totally respect that. I’m pretty glad there won’t be any ‘old’ photo’s of Gene though as well. I miss writing with them & think we could still come up with some very good new material…but sadly it’s probably not going to happen!

Other than Martins recent record, what are the rest of the band doing?
I’m a wine merchant, Kev is a music teacher & Steve is in pharmaceuticals. Though that sounds like he’s drug dealer or something it is actually a proper job! I love being a wine merchant as it doesn’t rank far behind music as an interest for me. I still dabble in the music industry but my job & hobby swapped places! I still live in Camden where one can’t really escape the music world. I’m happy to be on the sidelines rather than rely on it though.

The reissues are out on January 27th via Edsel Records.

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