Centre Stage: JW Blake


Niamh Kitson (she/her) chats to JW Blake about Battle of the Bands, his new single and his plans for the future

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Image by Luke Snell

By Niamh Kitson

After being very impressed by JW Blake and the Renegades of Funk’s performance in both the heats and the semi-finals of Battle of the Bands, I jumped at the chance to speak to James Blake as part of our campus bands Centre-Stage series. I met with him ahead of his performance in the final last week.

Muse - I thought the way you organised your set at both Heat One and the semi-final of Battle of the Bands was really clever and engaging. How did you decide on what material to include in your set?

“The band is so much fun. I’ve gone from being a solo performer to a solo performer with a band very quickly and [the members of the band] are all geniuses, and much better than me in their special ways. We kind of all just bounce off of each other. In the first heat, we did the Wii Sports Theme as the intro and [for the semi-final] we thought how can we keep this going? What do we do next? What’s the next intro song to the performance? So, for the semi-final, I don't even know how it happened. I think Rico, who’s is my guitarist, said that he was going to play ‘Under the Sea’ and I just had to figure it out. We rehearsed very minimally: I think we’re on rehearsal number five now as a group so we kind of rely on everyone’s ability to improvise and to go with the flow.”

Muse - How did you form the Renegades of Funk? Will you perform with them outside of Battle of the Bands?

“I went to Vanbrugh Open Mic Night on a Friday. I highly recommend it, everyone should go, shout out Arek. Max Taylor was there and I asked Max to play a bassline over and over again, and Joe Venables said that he can play that on guitar so we did this performance of one of my songs that we organised in two minutes. I thought “This is cool, this could work”. Max goes to me “James, why don't you have a band? This doesn't make sense. You've got to have a band for the Battle of the Bands''. And I was unsure, I was umming and arring [about it] because, before this, I was doing a lot of live looping so I would loop sounds and build tracks over time, and people find that really cool. Max went “No mate, you're in a band now. We’ve started a band and I’m your bass player”. Max and I came together and then it was just about picking up the dream team, so I asked Rico and then I had to find a drummer, and that drummer was Will Locke.”

Muse - Is the preparation different for the final?

“The band’s priority has always been to have as much fun as humanly possible. In the first heat, we played ‘Crazy Frog’ and that was a crowd favourite, people enjoyed that. We’re trying to keep that energy. I’ve got a lot of songs that situate for the band very well. I’ve got funky music but I’ve also got a lot of singer-songwriter music so we’ve been working out how to turn that singer-songwriter stuff into the funky stuff. That’s been really fun. For me, the final is kind of the reward for the competition more than actually winning. We’re just going in with a really positive attitude and having a good time. My drummer has dislocated his shoulder, which adds to the drama and the suspense of the performance, but we’re going to make it work.”

Muse - With only a week between the semi-final and the final, the competition is time-pressured. How have you dealt with this time crunch?

“For each heat, we managed to squeeze in two rehearsals and for [the final], we’ve only had one and there were only three of us because my drummer was out dislocating his shoulder. The pressure is definitely on, but we’re relying on everyone being good musicians and being really solid. Rico’s been in Gents and Ginger, Max has been in atkrtv. They all know what they’re doing, we’ll figure it out”.

Muse - Moving on to some more general questions, talk me through your journey as an artist. You shared an anecdote about learning the saxophone at Battle of the Bands, is that where you started?

“In terms of classical training, the saxophone is where I started. I started composing orchestral music using MuseScore (shoutout MuseScore – best scoring software out there), and I was having a lot of fun with that. I started doing that on holiday – we were in the Dominican Republic and I had severely sunburned my shoulders so I was inside making music while my family was sunbathing. It kind of just went downhill from there. Everything from then on sort of became a need to make more music. I started learning piano, so that I could write more music, but there’s only so much you can do with a keyboard and a computer, so I needed a microphone, and I needed to learn how to play guitar and bass. All of these things are just a need to a must. It’s always just about having fun with it.”

Muse - You blend quite a few genres in your music. What artists inspire you the most?

“This is a tough one because it changes every week. Right now, my favourite band is a Texas duo called The Oh Hellos and they're [a] brother and sister [duo] who make this like fantasy folk storytelling in their music. I’m sort of into everything, so I was listening to EDM on my way here. There’s this French band, another duo, called Jersey and they have this incredible live video where they’re like playing synths and drum machines but the crowd is literally right next to them – really cool.”

Muse - What is your process for writing songs?

“It comes from everywhere, really. Some songs are very flowy and very natural but some songs take weeks of sitting in front of a computer and painstakingly working out which notes go where. I think all of your best ideas come from singing in the shower. If you can come up with something catchy, voice notes are amazing. My voice notes are full of ideas.”

Muse - What song are you most proud of?

“Right now, it’s the new one, it’s ‘No Chilling’. I know that PR says that that’s the obvious answer but, for me, this song is really a big step in terms of production value and really becoming a polished mix engineer. I think with the band, it’s really given me ideas on the way that I want to go in the future. It’s really fun to play that song live, it’s a workout because it goes from singing, to playing saxophone, to rapping, to playing saxophone again.”

Muse - How important is being part of the band community on campus?

“I think community, especially in York, is really important. I think BandSoc tries its best to foster a positive community. Bands are always encouraged to support other people and it should be somewhere that everyone is welcome because self-expression is a very vulnerable thing, so it’s nice to be in a place where people enjoy it. I really enjoy everyone’s music.”

Muse - One final question. What’s next?

“Right now, I’m working on an EP. I’m hoping to get it out before the end of term and hopefully there will be some merch, some T-Shirts, to go along with it. The biggest priority is collaboration. I’ve been doing some producing, I produced Upstarts’ new single, I’ve been doing some producing for Tom Sheldon, for atkrtv and for Darted. In my final year, I want to play as much live music as possible and try to get music out there with people. That has been so much fun, I’ve had a lot of late nights in the studio with a bunch of artists and everyone’s been really nice. It’s a completely different way of working to what I’m used to.”

JW Blake’s new song ‘No Chiling’ is available on all streaming platforms now.