We recently caught up with Jim Wallis, member of London pop rockers and also the artist behind the soothing folkatronica of Looking Glass.
Jim Wallis of Looking Glass
SXP: Jim, you live in London but somehow ‘Fish, Fowl, Flood’ was released originally on a very limited Italian cassette only label… er, how did that come about, and what appealed to you about it?
Jim: Slightly paradoxically for a label that releases only on cassette, but not that surprisingly, it happened through the internet. A friend told me about the Best Kept Secret label, and I just added them on Myspace one time- they got in touch a couple of days later asking if I'd be interested in doing a tape, so it was pretty quick and easy really.
It seems like, now cassettes are harder to come by, more and more people are releasing things on tape. I guess that now it has completely passed out of mainstream culture, maybe it appeals more to 'alternative' types, if that's not over-analysing it. And they work well for the DIY thing too, as you can easily produce them at home. For me, the main appeal was that cassette was the format I grew up with, when I started buying music. I think the first thing I ever bought was either Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" or Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge" on tape from Woolworths. Maybe a bit of the nostalgia there is for vinyl may now be transferred to cassettes to an extent- I think that's partly the case for me. Having said that, I do buy more vinyl than tapes though, so this is perhaps complete rubbish.
SXP: You perform your first ever live show as Looking Glass on 20th October at the Wilmington Arms...nervous?
Jim: I think I've got the right mixture of excitement and pure terror. There is something appealing, playing in My Sad Captains, about being able to hide out at the back of the stage, sitting down, behind a drum kit, in the dark. But I'd being lying if I said I wasn't really excited about the prospect of playing the songs live, with a full band. It's something I probably should have done sooner, so it's nice to get it up-and-running as a live entity.
SXP: As you mentioned, you’re also the drummer in My Sad Captains. I like MSC but they sound a lot different to your solo material. Do both bands reflect your taste?
Jim: I suppose the Looking Glass stuff is a bit folkier, with more acoustic instuments in there, than My Sad Captains. I'm not sure I would say they sound a lot different to each other, but I guess it's hard for me to be objective. I think if you drew a Venn diagram of the influences behind each band, there'd definitely be a decent-sized overlap in the middle. But both are definitely reflective of my taste, for sure, just slightly different aspects of it I suppose.
SXP: Your material has been compared with Bright Eyes, Badly Drawn Boy, Sufjan Stevens and Adem amongst others. Do you see these in there too?
Jim: Yep, definitely. Adem probably the least, I think from him it's mainly a recording thing- his album Homesongs made me think about how to put together acoustic-led recordings with that kind of homespun charm to them. It's interesting you mention Badly Drawn Boy, as I don't really think of him as an influence, but I was a big fan of his first couple of albums when I was a bit younger. Sufjan Stevens made me learn to fingerpick (not, y'know, personally) and also get better at the banjo. And I developed a Bright Eyes obsession when I was 18 that I've not properly managed to shake off. I met Conor Oberst, at the Windmill in Brixton of all places, and went slightly mad for the evening on all the adrenalin.
SXP: Any new material written?
Jim: Yes indeed. I write more slowly than I'd like, but as Fish Fowl Flood was completed a little while ago, I do have a batch of new songs. We'll be playing a couple in the set for the launch, and I plan to do some more recording in the new year, in a studio this time I reckon, rather than at home.
SXP: You play all the instruments on ‘Fish, Fowl, Flood’. What’s your musical background?
Jim: Piano was the first instrument I learnt, I started having lessons when I was about 6 I think. I can't really remember whether I started playing the drums or guitar next after that- I think I was about 9 and started both at a similar age. I taught myself the guitar, but took lessons on the drums, and I definitely used to think of myself as 'a drummer', though I'm not sure if I do anymore.
From the age of about 15, I would make home recordings, playing all the parts myself; I think that spirit of self-sufficiency is one that I still have- it's nice to be able to do your own thing without having to rely on anyone else. After that, I got a banjo when I was 17 and since then, I've got a lap steel that I can play a bit- you can hear it on a couple of tracks on the record- and I can get by on the mandolin. I did try learning the violin last year pretty unsuccessfully, maybe I should give that another go.
SXP: What’s your favourite instrument?
Jim: For sheer visceral pleasure, it's hard to beat (if you'll excuse the pun) bashing a drum kit and thinking you're Steven Drozd; on the other hand though it can feel a bit restrictive at times. I play the guitar everyday, and I think that would probably be the one I would miss the most. I do miss playing an actual piano too, so that's always a pleasure when I get the chance.
Nick from MSC likes to remind me of being at a gig once, a bit pissed, watching a band with a pedal steel player and saying that the pedal steel is 'the most beautiful sound in the world'. I'd definitely like to get one of those, if they weren't so ruddy expensive, but I don't think I'd stand by that statement in the cold light of day.
SXP: Did you know there’s another Looking Glass out there?
Jim: Yeah, I do know. I was planning to change the name before the CD came out, but I couldn't think of any non-terrible band names, so I'm working on the policy of keeping it until someone tells me to change it. From what I've seen they were a kind of psychedelic American one-hit-wonder in the seventies. They've not been in touch yet.
SXP: You’ve appeared in session on Marc Riley’s show. How did that come about and is he as lovely as he seems?
Jim: When the tape came out at the end of last year, I was aware that an Italian DIY cassete-only label wasn't going to be doing a big promotional push. Or any promotion at all, as it turned out. So I did it myself, just sent out some promo CDs with a press release I had written. I was thinking more that it might produce a few webzine reviews, but Marc Riley was the first person to get in touch, and offered a session right off the bat, even though I'd never done anything live as Looking Glass before.
He is amazingly just as friendly as he seems, and I think his show is the best on the radio these days, though I guess I may be slightly biased. We've been up for a session with MSC too recently, and I hope I get to go back again at some point, as it's a very fun thing to do, if a bit scary.
SXP: Earlier this year, My Sad Captains performed at SXSW? How did that come about?
Jim: Well, it was something we had planned to apply for when the album came out anyhow. When we signed to Stolen though, they had already been offered a label showcase, so then it was no-brainer to go. Going out there to play with Pete & the Pirates, Let's Wrestle, Artefacts for Space Travel and Screaming Tea Party was really cool, and was also the first time we'd met a lot of those guys.
SXP: Was it a lot of fun? Any rock n roll stories to tell? You know, smearing jello over each other, overdoing the Coors lite, etc…
Jim: It was totally great, and I would really recommend going. The weather, the food, the sheer amount of bands, the variety of venues, the atmosphere in Austin, the not having to sleep in a tent- it's definitely the best festival experience I've ever had.
We stayed with an incredibly generous, huge Texan guy called Jason George who treated us amazingly. The day after the festival had finished, we went out to his brother's ranch, with our friends in Fanfarlo, for a bit of a hoedown. The family enjoyed the novelty of having some vegitarians over, a concept they seemed to find pretty incomprehensible, especially enjoying making my brother Ed hold a frozen duck that still had all its feathers and stuff on. Then after we ate, it was time to get the guns out. As Jason's brother explained, they only have one rule when handling firearms: only handle them when you're drunk. So we all got to shoot some pistols, before they got out rifles with telescopic sights, to shoot at increasingly large bundles of explosive.
Does that count? Are firearms rock n roll?
SXP: Your brother is also in My Sad Captains. Any sibling rivalries to report?
Jim: Boringly not I'm afraid. Ever since we started playing Britpop covers at home when I was about 10, it's been pretty plain sailing. We're also doing a brotherly role-reversal for Looking Glass, with Ed playing the drums.
SXP: What does the long term future hold for Jim Wallis?
Jim: I guess all I can do is work on the short and medium term, and hope that the long term falls into place. For the rest of 2009, I've got the Looking Glass CD release coming up obviously, and a couple of shows with that, and we've also got our first decent-sized My Sad Captains tour coming up at the end of October / early November, with a couple more dates in December.
Going into next year, I'd definitely like to get another Looking Glass EP or single out, maybe both. MSC are going to do some dates in Italy, then hopefully another trip to the States, then before too long it'll be time to record Album 2, which I'm already really excited about. Also on my to-do list for next year is to start a label myself, if I can find the time, but we'll see. I think that's another product of the whole self-sufficiency thing.
The ambition, of course, is to be able to devote myself to doing this full time. At the moment it feels like both My Sad Captains and Looking Glass are on an upward trajectory, so hopefully if I keep working hard that will continue and I'll get there before too long.
SXP: Cheers Jim!
Fish Fowl Flood by Looking Glass is out on our Sounds eXPerience label on 19th October. My Sad Captains have some tour dates coming up soon:
17/10 Windsor The Firestation
28/10 Chelmsford Bitterscene
29/10 Leicester Firebug
30/10 Birmingham The Flapper
1/11 Manchester Dulcimer w/ Bowerbirds
2/11 Sheffield The Harley
3/11 Wakefield The Hop
4/11 Cardiff Buffalo Bar
11/11 Portsmouth The Edge of the Wedge
13/11 London Twee as F**k
12/12 Brighton The Lectern
13/12 Bristol Start the Bus