James Robert Morrison, aka Jim Bob, is one of the most talented and underrated songwriters of the late 20th century. As lead singer of the energetic Carter USM, he unfurled his fringe and made the world listen, letting loose socio-political yet playful lyrics over a fusion of distorted guitars and drum machines. Fast forward to the current day and Jim Bob is returning down under, acoustic guitar in hand, and will be playing at the Rosemount Hotel alongside Pop Will Eat Itself this Sunday, March 11. MICHAEL D HOLLICK chatted with Jim Bob about headlining for Ed Sheeran, his last time down under and the perils of tweeting about public transportation.
How long has it been since you last came to Australia?
It has been a while, 25 years to be exact. I guess you could say that I like to go every 25 years, you know, just to see if things have changed or not.
25 years ago… was that part of a Big Day Out?
Yeah, and that was a great tour, it was one of the best experiences I had as a member of Carter (USM). I remember the tour as kind of unusual, having all of the acts on the same planes and at the same hotels was quite a novel idea. And the line-up, it almost sounds more impressive now than it did then. Iggy Pop, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth. And then us. I imagine people would say that that was legendary now.
Going back to that time, I would like to know why you think that Carter USM are never included in the story of alternative 90s music?
I can only really answer for here in the UK as I am not sure about the rest of the world, but when they make music documentaries about that time there is always a gap, a noticeable gap, and it’s that period where Carter, Pop Will Eat Itself, the Wonder Stuff and EMF were in the charts, on the front cover of magazines and all pretty successful. But it spoils the story.
The story that there was Madchester and then the Americans came along but then luckily the Britpop bands, Oasis and Blur and Pulp, they came along and saved British music from the dirty, scruffy Americans. Now the real story is that there were a few years in between Nirvana and Oasis, and that’s where we were. But it spoils the narrative and mucks up the story, so they just leave us out. You wouldn’t want facts to ruin a good story, would you?
Do you think this ‘forgetting’ of Carter may relate to the band’s humorous and self-deprecating attitude? Maybe you could have been ‘cooler’?
I don’t think I had a choice. From when I first started making music, there was always a humorous element to it. And you know, with hindsight, I’d love to have been Nick Cave, or you know, someone like that, and be cool. It’s too late to take myself seriously now though, isn’t it? I think the secret is out. And honestly, the only downside of not being dead serious is that the critics have their work handed to them on a plate as they can say you’re not trying or whatnot.
You’re now an award-winning author and a solo artist. How did the writing thing come about?
I wrote the Carter book back in the early 2000s and I really enjoyed the experience. Then having had something published, it made me want to write something else and so that started me on the path that became my first novel. By that stage, I realised I was getting more artistic satisfaction out of writing books than writing songs and so since then it has become just something that I do. And, unfortunately, as is the nature of these things, it has become less fun.
I’m not surprised. Books are hard work compared to a song, right?
In a sense, yes. I was talking to another writer recently and at the moment I’m working again and I was not enjoying the process, so I asked him if I should stop. He replied with something quite clever, that writing wasn’t about my enjoyment but instead it was about other people’s enjoyment, and he was meaning that I shouldn’t expect to get anything out of it. Which, annoyingly, he is quite right about.
And how has touring been in recent years for you as a solo artist?
When I did my last solo tour, it was probably my most successful solo tour that I have done. I was playing to 400 to 500 people each night, which was amazing for me as a solo performer, because I have played to, you know, 12 people, and so on. In fact, I once played to 16 people supported by Ed Sheeran. I was doing one of my solo tours and I played in Lincoln in a bar, near a student campus, there was me and two other solo singers, and he was one of them, and I think there was a total of 16 people there. I mistakenly said on Twitter that “there was 16 people there and they all came to see me”, and I’ve had Ed Sheeran fans having a go at me for, I don’t know, being bitter. But of course, I was joking.
Did the young Ed show any sign that he’d one day be headlining stadiums across the globe?
Not really. I do remember thinking “oh, he’s confident” but I would never have thought that one day he would play stadiums.
Talking about stadiums, do you prefer the smaller gigs like you will be doing here in Australia or the large stadiums, like Shepherd’s Bush?
The thing about me is that I don’t like playing small crowds. I get terrible nerves. Like recently, I did one of those all-dayer festivals and there was 5000 people. I just came on stage, on my own, and played an hour long set. Afterwards people were saying that was quite brave and that it must have been hard, but for me, I didn’t feel that, I have no fear playing to large crowd. I think I’m scared of failure. I always want things to sell out and things to sell well. I have no fear at all playing to a large crowd.
That’s a bit different from your old partner in crime, Fruitbat. I remember seeing him play to four people at the UWA Tavern in 2003.
Oh yes, Les, Fruitbat, he’s more than happy enough to say “oh, I’ve sold six copies of my album” or “there was no one at the gig” where as if there was no one at the gig, I would be pretty quiet about it. He tends to say the gigs that no one goes to are his favourite gigs, where as I would try and erase them from my memory.
Isn’t that what managers are for though?
My manager, Mark, he’s good at trying to making me appear successful. For example, he gets annoyed if I am on Twitter and I mention that I am on a bus because he sort of thinks it spoils the magic. You know, he loves Bowie, and that sort of thing, so he, as a fan, does not want to know that artists he knows or loves have to take a bus. And when talking about record sales, he always at least doubles them (laughs).