The below feature was originally intended as the cover-story for Hardbeat Issue 6 back in January, with the magazine on hold for a little while, here’s the full planned article to coincide with the upcoming release of Lenman’s new EP and tour this May.
Before becoming the man who would inspire the title of this very magazine, Jamie Lenman was chief songwriter and frontman of seminal post-hardcore heroes, Reuben. While most in the know are fully aware of the band’s famed three album run beginning with Racecar is Racecar Backwards, now the re-issue of the little know Pilot EP recorded when the band were still in school looks to add a new opening page to their story, something that Lenman is keen to emphasise as he speaks to us today. “I see Racecar is the middle of that band, rather than the start.”
Back then things were very different. Not only were the band recording under the name Angel, but also Guy Davis (drums) had yet to join Lenman (vox + guitar) and Jon Pearce (bass), with Mark Lawton sitting behind the kit instead. Someone who Lenman is still close friends with to this day.
Acknowledging Lawton as Reuben’s own ‘Chad Channing’, Lenman hopes the re-release helps to reframe the narrative around the band slightly, emphasising the years of foundational work that went into the band with Lawton before the release of ‘RCIRCB’. “That band didn’t start with the three red skeletons. It started with this scratchy little EP. Like how Bleach is a great record, and Chad’s a great drummer. I think Mark deserves his place in that story, which I want to give him back.” These links back to Nirvana are no coincidence either, Lenman describes the Seattle superstars as Reuben’s ‘bedrock’ and the main reference point all members agreed on over the years even though a multitude of other influences would creep into the band.
Lenman delights in recalling how Angel initially funded the Pilot EP as winning £100 through a local Battle of the Bands in rather humorous fashion gave the high-school trio the chance to head into the studio and ended up being the unlikely launch-pad for all that followed.
During one ‘particularly outrageous stage-move’, Lenman would end up tripping over a monitor and breaking his guitar strap leading to an impromptu ending. “I managed to stand back up still holding my guitar, but instead of continuing with the rest of the song, I just yelled the phrase; ‘I AM THE CAPTAIN!’ again and again into the microphone in a state of pure shock.”
Unfortunately for Angel though their first recording experience wasn’t quite the wondrous start they’d hoped for. “I remember it very well because it was incredibly traumatic. We were sort of conned into making the record by some unscrupulous people that would regularly take a young band that didn’t know what they were doing and they would stretch that experience out. So it’s only x pounds a day, but all before you know it, you’re twenty days in.”
Complicating things further, Lenman lost his voice during the recording, causing further pain. “For a long time, I blamed myself for extending those sessions.” He reflects, “But now I look back, I realise it’s because of the stress I was under. We were just happy to get out of there alive, let alone with five serviceable tracks.”
However it was still three years between Angel’s Pilot and what would become Reuben’s debut album Racecar is Racecar Backwards. Unable to secure a record deal, the band eventually became fed up of waiting. “For young kids, for teenagers, it was lifetimes,” Lenman laughs. “We should have made a record between Pilot and Racecar that would have been our debut. To me, it sounds like a second or even a third effort because we had been going as an entity for four or five years.”
Listening to Pilot today you can hear the kernels of the band Reuben would become, but through a more melodic, emo-tinged filter. There are hints of the more complex and building song structure on ‘Alpha Signal Seven’ and a clear ear for interesting vocal melodies and the use of double-tracked, duelling vocals which would later become a huge part of ‘Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin’, one of the band’s biggest tracks.
However when Lenman reveals the band’s biggest influence at that time, a missing link is illuminated. “By the time we did Pilot, I had gotten heavily into Water And Solutions by Far. We bought Mark a copy when he joined the band as if to say, ‘This is the fucking manual, read this, and then you can be our drummer.’”
One listen to ‘Words From Reuben’ reveals just how true that is both from a sonic and songwriting point of view, with the main refrain sounding like it could have been penned by Jonah Matranga himself. “I hadn’t realised quite how much we’d ripped him off.” Lenman laughs.
The real interesting moments on the re-release of Pilot come with the inclusion of an additional five tracks recorded with Lawton before he left the band, which Lenman feels provides a good indication of where he would end up twenty years later with upcoming record The Atheist. “Reuben were always like a post-hardcore band, but every now and then we’d have something like Scared Of The Police or Freddy Krueger. We had these pop songs dotted in and out; and that started with what you hear on the second side of Pilot/Angel with those demos. And I have now made that the focus of The Atheist.”
To finish up our chat we pose a simple question: ‘What would a young Jamie who had just recorded Pilot think of The Atheist?’ Lenman takes a moment to reminisce on his times having record company cabinets thrown open with executives attempting to woo his band with free CDs, exposing him to indie-rock acts like Gemma Hayes and The Webb Brothers who would go on to directly impact on his work today. “I think the kid that that had just brought out Pilot, who had also just received these new influences, would be like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s like these things I’ve got here, you finally fucking did it.’”
With distinct three-way harmonies, and a certain level of showmanship Lenman has also finally embraced the influence of his very first musical love on record, making for a different sounding album than what we have heard from him previously. “Before everything, before Far, before and Nirvana, my first love was Queen…It’s only since going solo that I’ve been more willing to embrace those sort of more showy elements,” he confirms. “If I put a guitar solo on a Reuben track, it would always be a sort of ironic, scrunchie Nirvana thing. Whereas now, I’m very happy to say ‘Hey, look, there are elements of showing this off and elements of pomposity.’”
However all these disparate influences are held together by the strength of Lenman’s songwriting which is as brilliant and refined as ever. In this respect the heartbreaking ‘This Town Will Never Let Us Go’ is the record’s highlight. It’s the first time we’ve really heard Lenman explore any broader political themes, looking at the awful situation many in the UK find themselves in by being let down by society around them. “I just wanted to explore that socio-economic ceiling that people hit. That is a world outside my own privilege. I haven’t really ever had to tackle because of my position by sheer fucking luck. Loads of other people are really struggling and I wanted to put that in song.”
Yet despite this slight evolution into broader themes, The Atheist is still predominantly an introspective and insular record just like Pilot. This isn’t the first time Lenman has confronted his spirituality on record. ‘Personal’ from 2017’s Devolver seemed to suggest a complete disillusionment with the Christian faith and Lenman also reveals there is a never before heard Reuben song which he considers to be part one of the tale.
“In truth it’s only the first and last track that deal directly with that subject matter.” He begins, but on considering this more he explains the links further. “All my records from even Racecar and before have had loads of love songs for my wife who’s been with me since then. If you want to get philosophical about it she replaced God for me. All the subjects between those two bookends do need to be seen in the context of there is no God, you know; talk hard, stick up for yourself because no one else is going to do it for you.”
This was a lesson which Lenman and Reuben appeared to have learned early on through the tough circumstances they found themselves in while recording Pilot. That experience, while clearly traumatic, would eventually end up leading to the formation of one of the most beloved British underground bands of the 21st century along with being the launchpad for where Jamie Lenman would end up today.
Although the sonic similarities are slight, Lenman offers another insight into the surprise the young kid who just finished recording with his school band might have when listening to his work today. “Having just released a record where maybe the last person he thanks in the credits was God, that this new record was called The Atheist. Maybe that’s the end of a long journey that I’ve been going on since that point.”