Livestream Superstar: Clash Meets James Righton

Domestic bliss and pandemic anxiety...

James Righton is a man who can’t sit still. After reaching unfathomable heights with nu-rave originators Klaxons, he transformed into pop sensation Shock Machine, releasing an acclaimed 2017 album before his first solo adventure under his own name, 2020’s lounge lizard-y ‘The Performer’. In 2022 Righton is reinvesting himself yet again, via the stunning synth sounds of ‘Jim, I’m Still Here’. On this third post-Klaxons release Righton downs his family man tools to embody a lavish, rockstar alter ego; Jim. Think Prince transported from Paisley Park to North London. The Islington Bowie. The Dalston David Byrne.

Yet despite his need to constantly shapeshift, a lockdown was a time where everyone, even James had stillness thrust upon him. Jim is the man James escaped into for an hour every evening during lockdown; as venues were shuttered and tours cancelled, in March 2020 James found himself entrusted with promoting ‘The Performer’ – released just three days before lockdown 1.0 – entirely online.

James shares: “It was all a bit surreal seeing the release come out a day into lockdown, it was one of those moments where you just have to adapt, embrace it for what it is”. Each night James would have dinner with his wife and kids before retreating to his basement studio to slink about over a livestream feed for a digital audience. “It was a nightmare,” recalls James, who’d be fielding increasingly intricate requests asking for multi camera set-ups and fancy lighting arrangements, unaware of the fact that the songwriter was attempting to do everything alone and with an iPhone. “I’ve never been more terrified in my life,” he says of this brave new world. Not having that face-to-face contact with a crowd and not actually being in the room with anyone was really, really odd. I felt so self-conscious. It was like a Charlie Brooker sketch.”

But it wasn’t long until James got rather into the swing of being a Black Mirror popstar. He got better and better as the livestreams went on, embracing a showmanship that is without doubt here to stay, being present in his post-lockdown persona. “I remember by the end doing an interview with an Italian magazine over zoom, it was just so surreal”.

Speaking to James Righton over Zoom, he seems incredibly comfortable with a gleaming smile that radiates even over a virtual interview. Such confidence didn’t come overnight, it’s taken years of hard-work and perspective to develop. “Being in a band you never really are thinking for yourself. Even an idea you might have come up with, you still end up running by your bandmates. I loved my time in the band, and what we achieved – but there comes a point where it can start to feel like you are in a cult. Before you know it, you follow a pattern of what to wear, how to act, that you end up forgetting how to think for yourself. Initially I felt so worried when the band ended about how I’d be perceived, but I feel like I’m definitely in a place where I can really feel comfortable with life as a solo artist.” 

The question regarding a Klaxon reunion comes up. “A Klaxon reunion… I’m not quite sure, but I’ve certainly been flirting with the idea of joining a band again. Even in Klaxons I didn’t write the lyrics, I wrote melodies, I was never a lyrics person. But now I’m even more confident. The solo endeavour has been incredibly rewarding, giving you things band-life never could, but I certainly miss the camaraderie of being in a band and wholeheartedly chasing your dream.” 

Pondering on the current nature of bands James shares: “I think that competitive nature amongst bands doesn’t feel as present, I think that really helped us as a band, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with healthy competition.”

And so, the roots of album three were born. It was a steep learning curve, but James had become a Livestream Superstar. He employed “I was making a story before I’d make the music,” explains James. “My wife is an actress, her job is to create someone and embrace that creation. Watching what my wife puts into the work to create a character is amazing. Just to see someone build something from nothing, so I had plenty of inspiration to draw from.”

On the sparkling opening track, ‘Livestream Superstar’, we hear how this “domestic god” morphed into a digital pop sensation “coming direct to you live from my garage”. “I can be an exaggerated version of myself on stage,” explains James. “I can go to places I can’t when I’m at home, but during the first weeks of lockdown it became even more extreme and even more interesting for me to be here in my studio. Upstairs we were doing zoom school and looking after a four-month-old and then there was me trying to stay sane, stay healthy and trying to figure everything out.”

As he figured out how to exist he started working on a batch of brand new material inspired by his dual life – upstairs dad and downstairs pop star. At home with his drum machines and keyboards, James began drawing on Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian’s Japan and Yellow Magic Orchestra to create a fresh sonic palette, weaving in tales of the pandemic and beyond alongside an extremely special guest; ABBA’s Benny Andersson in his first ever featured guest performance.

Of course, for an album created during a global pandemic, there are moments of melancholy. The reflective ‘Day At The Races’ is a heartfelt tribute to a friend of James’ who died after catching COVID at Cheltenham Races. “It was just so shocking and so unexpected,” remembers James, who wrote the song as soon as he heard the news. “I just needed to write down what was happening – I still wasn’t really processing it.” 

The shimmering ‘Release Party’ is another call to the dancefloor, written by James as an imagining of the huge post lockdown parties that people could only dream of during the depths of the pandemic while the contemplative groove of ‘Pause’ is one of only two tracks written after lockdown; a joyful slice of optimism and a drum-machine driven celebration of coming through an 18-month global hold-up. Sometimes, standing still can really help you move forwards. 

Having just supported LCD Soundsystem in London, James Righton is high on confidence. “Out of all the shows I’ve played, that has to be most nervous I’ve been in a long time. But once I got up there it was just incredible, the turnout was great, it was incredible seeing people sing the songs back. It’s just left me so excited to head back out and start touring again”.

‘Jim, I’m Still Here’ is out now. Catch James Righton at London’s Moth Club on September 14th.

Words: Josh Crowe
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz

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