While Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel members have regularly regrouped to perform together, it had been 14 years since they released new material. Their new album, “Dance Underwater,” is the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign that allowed them to record on their own terms. Working again with producer Peter Walsh, they built upon the legacy of classic Gene Loves Jezebel. The songwriting is stronger than ever, and the band sounds refreshed. Over a Skype interview, Aston discussed how the new album came about, the creative process behind it, and the status of the band.
Note: Jay Aston and his twin brother Michael each launched versions of the band after splitting. Michael goes by Gene Loves Jezebel in this US and Michael Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel in the UK. Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel uses the name Gene Loves Jezebel in the UK and features long-time members James Stevenson (guitars), Pete Rizzo (bass) and Chris Bell (drums).
What made you decide the time was right to make a new album?
“Well, it wasn’t actually planned, to be honest with you. We get together at least once every year. We’re all still good friends: me, James, Pete and Chris. We usually end up doing a festival in Brazil or Portugal or something like that. It’s usually just a get-together where we plug in and play for an hour or two, do a few encores, and then everyone apart from me gets really hammered and they say, ‘Oh, let’s do another album,’ but it never happens. Everyone just jumps into a plane and goes off into the sunset. But last year, we were in Portugal and they said, ‘Let’s record another album,’ and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t we do a Pledgemusic thing? And if the fans want it, they’ll put the money up for it.’ Obviously, we needed a proper producer, a good studio and to put all our energy into it. And so, everyone agreed, and then Pete Rizzo, being much more hands-on than I am, just got on with it, really. We reached the money we needed quickly, and suddenly it was, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do an album.’ We weren’t going to call it Gene Love Jezebel, we were going to call it Jay Aston and the Jezebels, or something like that because of all the confusion with my brother doing his thing. But as soon as we plugged in and Chris Bell and Pete Rizzo started playing—they’ve been playing together since the ‘Immigrant’ album for a long time—it just sounded like Gene Love Jezebel. And then a label in England really wanted to put the album out; in fact, a couple of labels got really interested, and said, ‘You’re crazy; this is a Gene Love Jezebel album.’ We mentioned all the problems we have legally with by brother and his agents. They are always trying to cause us problems. And they said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got very powerful lawyers. Any nonsense from them, and we’ll sort it out.’”
Creatively, what you think defines the music as being Gene Loves Jezebel?
“To me, if I went to see any band you can mention and it’s got the members of that band … we’re the guys that did ‘Desire’ and so many songs that you’re familiar with. If I lost my voice completely, and James broke his hand and couldn’t play, and the drummer was senile, it wouldn’t matter. That is what it says on the tin. To me, it’s the ingredients that make up the band. We have a long history, obviously, and as soon as you hear it, it sounds like us. Many people have come to see us and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Gene Love Jezebel,’ because that’s what it sounds like. With the four of us together, that’s what you’re going to get. If you like ‘Desire’ or ‘Upstairs’ or any of those songs, that’s what you’re getting. So, that’s what makes it Gene Love Jezebel.”
Had you kept working on music all along?
“I write all the time. For the last year and a half especially, I’ve been working on my own solo things, just getting up on stage and doing things acoustically. I find that so rewarding and so challenging. So that’s what I’ve been working on. I also went through a period where I lost my voice. I had to get my voice back, and that took a couple of years of work. I worked for Apple for a while, six or seven years, just to join the real world. I cut my hair off just to be a normal human being. I was teaching people how to use Logic and Garageband, stuff like that. Teaching the staff how to talk to the public, basically, how to do it. One of the weird things about getting my voice back was that I taught Pete Rizzo how to sing. I was amazed at the progress. We worked on a project called Ugly Bugs together, where some of the songs from this new album came from. It was very theatrical; we’d wear wigs and makeup. Pete got so involved with production and playing numerous instruments. He’s a very talented musician, but the one thing he couldn’t do was sing. He was asking me to sing some lyrics that he’d written, which were very dark because some bad stuff happened to him. He asked me to sing the lyrics, but I said, ‘Pete, it would be much better if you sang these lyrics. They’re yours and there’s nothing better than singing your own lyrics.’ And so, I taught him how to sing, and he just blew me away, really.”
Did you block out time to focus on “Dance Underwater” or were you working on other things at the time?
“I was purely focused. I’m the kind of person who, when I do something, I want to do it 100%. Once I committed to the album, that was it. I’d been living in LA but went back to London for it. Song-wise, it seemed to magically come together, really. James Stevenson had come to see Pete and I when we did a couple of gigs as the Ugly Bugs. There’s a couple of songs, like ‘How Do You Say Goodbye to Someone You Love,’ for instance, where he just said, ‘Guys, you’ve got to do that with strings.’ He’s very friendly with Tony Visconti and asked him to do strings on it. The album came together very quickly. We got the 40 grand together to get Peter Walsh, who did ‘Heavenly Bodies,’ ‘House of Dolls’ and also ‘Desire, ’ the hit song. We just knew that if we got him involved, we were going to get a Gene Loves Jezebel record. I’m a useless judge of my own songs. James Stevenson always seems to pick my songs for me. So, we all sat around in the studio, with Peter Walsh, and we just went through my iPhone full of songs that I’d written to figure out which ones we wanted to do.”
What do you think about the crowdfunding model?
“It’s just how it is now, so it doesn’t matter what I think about it. But I’m quite happy with it. I like the interaction, and I like that we’ve got fans listening before we’ve finished the record, to see their thoughts. I like the era we’re in, because I can write a song or an idea and post it. Which I do, frequently on Facebook or Instagram. I like to get the idea out because that’s the most fun for me. I find going into the studio very difficult. You go into the studio and you’ve got to be an actor, you’ve got to recreate what you’ve already written. Whereas if I’ve got a guitar in my hand and I feel something, it’s just band and it’s out there. I love doing it like that. In the old days, you’d literally get locked away for three to six months, with no interaction with fans, you wouldn’t be on the road. You’d have the A&R guys and people from the record label giving their input, and that would be it. You’d come up with an expensive video and have a few days of press; I didn’t like that model at all. We don’t spend half a million dollars on a video like we used to in the old days; the money is just not there. So, on that side of it, it is difficult because musicians struggle. But if you look at the history of music, there was really only a short period where music made money. We’re just back to where we were before, which actually frees you up because at least you haven’t got some record label saying, ‘Oh, where is the follow-up to ‘Motion Level?’ or whatever they’re looking for, whatever songs that had done well. You can just totally do what you want.”
Did fan feedback influence how the final album turned out?
“I think it can with some bands, but not with us. When we get together, that’s kind of what we do. There’s a natural thing that happens when we create. There’s only been once in my entire life when I sat down and wrote a song based on what somebody asked for. That was for ‘Interview with the Vampire.’ Ann Rice was a fan of the songs ‘Kiss of Life’ and asked me to do a song for that film. But in the end, Geffen used Guns & Roses. I wrote ‘Who Wants to Go to Heaven’ specifically for that film. Generally speaking, I keep a journal and write in the moment, so it’s whatever I feel. All my songs relate to somebody or something.”
Were you thinking about audience expectations, in terms of giving people what they want and/or not repeating yourselves?
“For us, it was important to live up to what we thought were our best albums, like ‘Heavenly Bodies.’ We’ve seen cases with crowdfunding where bands will do it cheaply or the singer can’t sing anymore or there’s nothing fresh at all about what they’re doing. With this, all the songs sounded different and fresh. Doing this new album has just regenerated the whole band for us and made it exciting. We’re mixing stuff we learned with the Ugly Bugs, and James has done stuff with Scott Walker and tons of people, the Cult and the Alarm and these other bands. James is always in demand on sessions and things. Chris Bell also does tons of work with lots of bands. I’ve done a lot of acoustic stuff, which is totally performance and I ad lib most of it. Bringing it into a live context makes it so much more exciting for the whole band, as opposed to just playing 12 of your most famous songs. Sometimes we’re using backing tracks, which we’d never done before. Actually, somebody sent me a thing about Peter Hook in this new book accusing us of miming to backing tracks. That really pissed me off because we’d never done that at all. We’re all very proud of being a live band. I’ve got nothing against bands who use backing tracks. We used them in The Ugly Bugs because it was just the two of us. And we’ve started doing it for certain songs because it adds a certain new element. With ‘Charmed Life,’ for instance, that song couldn’t have been created as a four-piece band, so the backing tracks create the energy for that song. It’s amazing the different colors we have these days.
“It’s great to be able to do a song like ‘Desire,’ for instance, using strings and things. When I wrote ‘Desire,’ I liked having strings behind it. It’s lovely for the singer to float over the top of it. Just playing it with guitars was never enough for me. So, I like the fact that we can color these things more. Songs like ‘Love Keeps Dragging Me Down,’ for instance, work great with backing tracks; it just brings a new palette to the whole thing. I always think whatever works, really.”
How extensively will you be touring in support of the album?
“We’ve had such good feedback on it. Most of the reviews have been really good. We’ve had one nasty one James found on a tiny site. Most people have really liked the album, which his great. More importantly, the fans really like it. We’re going to Japan in November, and we’re doing German gigs in November too. We’ve already been offered US gigs. It’s just a matter of when to do them, and we think that probably the new year is the most practical. We were going to do the UK in November as well, but again, I think we’ll get better venues if we leave it until 2018.”
Does the fact that there are 2 versions of Gene Loves Jezebel present challenges for you?
“It’s difficult on many fronts. We haven’t toured the US in a long time because of my brother. The problem is that even when he goes down to South America or Malaysia, they’re using our music, which is me, James, Pete, and Chris, all those famous songs, my image, and they don’t care, these promoters. They just stick the picture up there and that hurts us. Because people have said, if you look on YouTube, ‘Oh my god, Gene Love Jezebel such’ and that’s our legacy. We never split up, we carried on. Legally in the US, we have to work out when we can tour. It’s difficult when there’s another band with the same name using the same logo and songs to promote their gigs. They’ve been playing around and around with endless 80s tours, with bands who have nothing to do with us. We’ve got nothing to do with A Flock of Seagulls or Bow Bow Wow; no offense to any of those bands. For us, I always want us to play on our own. The only time we played with other bands was the tour with Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order, which was a pre-Lollapalooza thing. Prior to that, we did it on our own, we worked our way up through all these different stages. So it’s a challenge, but we’re still here and it is what it is. It’s beyond the point of worry now. It’s kind of like we’re here, a lot of people have sorted it out, the internet being the way it is lets people be much more connected. They can see what’s going on. Obviously, there are a lot of people who just see a name on a marquee and turn up, but people are generally very passionate about our work. What I like about the crowdfunding model is the way to interact and talk to fans. I never get into slagging matches with my brother online or anything like that, but I do let people know that we’re around and it’s us. James is very active too with Twitter and all that.”