"I think the real reason I wanted to play guitar was because of Noel Gallagher"
Interview and photo by Dawn
Teesside's Alistair James has been described by artists he's supported as a "phenomenal talent" (Miles Kane) and "a fucking genius" (Tom Clarke of The Enemy), while 6Music's Tom Robinson has noted his talent for writing "a delicious pop chorus". High praise indeed, and that's not all – for while he is currently living and recording in London, there are still more exciting things afoot for him in the next few months.
I shared a sofa with the boy from Boro before his homecoming gig at Stockton's Ku Bar and asked him to tell all – from what made him want to pick up a guitar, to how he's ended up in living in the capital… and, of course, why 2015 could be his best year yet.
Alistair credits his parents with helping him discover music and says that his tastes were shaped by the artists who were on the stereo as he was growing up. 'There was always music on in the house from an early age – my mam was into Motown and The Beatles and my dad was always into Paul Weller, Oasis - that sort of stuff. And then I sort of backtracked from Oasis and Paul Weller and I fell in love with the whole '60s soul, R&B scene. It just developed from there and then I started playing guitar. I think the real reason I wanted to play guitar was because of Noel Gallagher. The first time I saw the video of Don't Look Back It Anger I was like "I wanna learn that solo!" – if it wasn't that, it was Live Forever. For many people my age it was that I suppose.'
He is full of praise for the flourishing Teesside music scene, its festivals and everyone in and around the area who has helped him in his career thus far, whether it's been offering him advice or helping him to get gigs. 'You just get to know people through gigging,' he explains. 'Mark Simpson [New Age Jam/Acoustic Weller] has been a big help, I can't thank him enough. Whenever I need him I just have to pick up the phone.'
He is also grateful to everyone who comes to watch him play, and counts his support slots with Miles Kane as some of his favourite shows so far: 'The best one was when we played Birmingham O2 Academy,' he says. 'It was just amazing. I mean, Middlesbrough was exceptional but it was a home crowd so in a little way you kind of expect it, but Birmingham… wow! It was my first ever gig in Birmingham and I was first on before the main support. I had half an hour acoustic and I walked out and it was full - people had been checking me out beforehand because the word had spread that I was on the tour, so I had loads of tweets and people latching onto me. It was great, the buzz was just phenomenal – I walked out and it was full. That's the best gig I've ever done.'
In November last year Alistair moved down to London, where he has lived ever since – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. He explains: 'My manager, who found me when I supported Miles Kane, lives down in London,' explains Alistair. 'He had a studio in Newton Aycliffe - that's where he's originally from - so he thought he'd try to put some music back in the area 'cause there wasn't a lot happening, and he was trying to get kids from Middlesbrough, Stockton etc to go and show their talent off and see if there was someone he could work with and develop. Anyway, he found me supporting Miles Kane, 'cause he works with Miles as well, and he asked me to come down to the studio and got me to do a few songs. I was like ok, if anything I'll get a few recordings out of it, and then after about two weeks he just sat me down and said look, I'd like to manage you, I think you're really good, I think we can develop these songs to the point of going for a record deal and really going for it.
'So we did that over the course of a year and then he said how would you feel about moving to London, 'cause you've done a lot in the North East but you haven't really done a lot in the South so why don't we try and raise your profile in the South. So I've been down there continuously recording, still developing songs, but there's also other exciting stuff going on which I can tell you if you wanna know, but it might be in your questions,' he laughs.
Not known for my patience, I immediately jump upon his (unsubtle) hint and insist that he keeps me in suspense no longer. He smiles, clearly eager to share : 'In April I'm going to New York for three months to record an album with a producer – a guy called Mark Plati who produced David Bowie in '97 on his Earthling album. He also worked with The Cure, he's worked with Robbie Williams ['but we ignore that bit,' he jokes], Prince and loads of other people. I didn't realise my manager was sending him my material from the very beginning. When it got to a stage where it was ready to go, he got back and said "I'd really like to work with him. I've seen the journey over the space of a year, I've seen Alistair grow as artist, I'd love to meet him, I'd love to work with him and think about doing an album" - so it was like "wow!". He came over in May last year when I was still living up North, it went really well and we did a demo session there to see how we got on together, so it's got to the stage now where I've got loads of songs and we had to whittle it down to an album.'
Despite these developments, it's clear that Alistair still has his feet well and truly on the ground. He speaks with engaging enthusiasm about his future plans (his sentences are endearingly peppered with "wow"s which suggest that he still can't quite believe his luck) but promises not to forget about his followers back home in Teesside.
'That's why I've been putting videos out - I want people to know I'm still there, I'm still doing it, I've been really busy but I haven't forgotten the people of Middlesbrough and Stockton, 'cause they're my biggest fanbase at the moment. So that's why I've been putting videos out, just to show that I am working hard and I'm still here.
'I think people have got to be prepared for Middlesbrough artists to develop and gain a good following. Eventually they are going to break out 'cause that's what you need to do – you need to go off and try to develop your fanbase, make it even bigger. That's why I've tried to put videos out online and let people know that, although I live in London now, I'm still a Northern lad and I'll always be a Northern lad and these are the songs I want you to hear.'