Wendy James Will Blow Your Mind
Where does the sex kitten lead singer of one of the most critically reviled pop acts of all time go when her band breaks up? Why, to A.P.C., of course. Wendy James was hard on the heels of her first album post-Transvision Vamp when A.P.C. honcho Jean Touitou offered her his recording studio, which he keeps tucked away at A.P.C. headquarters in Paris. “It was just to play around in, really,” explains James. “The album I’d released, I’d worked on with Elvis Costello. It wasn’t mine, exactly. I needed some time to find my footing as a solo artist.” That was about 12 years ago. This spring, James returned to Touitou’s studio (the place where Jarvis Cocker and Wes Anderson recorded the music for The Fabulous Mr. Fox) and laid down the tracks for her forthcoming solo debut, I Came Here to Blow Minds. Here, James gives Style.com an exclusive preview of the song “King Hoodlum” and talks to us about Sonic Youth, Surface 2 Air, and selling T-shirts at Colette.
I Came Here to Blow Minds is the first “Wendy James” album, but since leaving Transvision Vamp, you’ve actually released two LPs under the name Racine. I’ve always been under the impression that Racine No. 1 and Racine 2 were solo projects. Not so?
Well, those albums were all me, certainly. Racine No. 1 came out of my building a studio at my house in London and teaching myself, you know, the technical side of things. Other than the guitar parts, I played every instrument on that album—it wasn’t until I was going on tour that I got a band together. And those folks came along and recorded the second album with me. But this one, I’ve moved on again. I think the name Racine served as a way to separate myself from Transvision Vamp—there’s that thing, when someone goes solo after being in a band that’s had some success, where the legacy of the band kind of trails off after them. Racine was kind of a useful disguise, and a conduit to what I’m doing now, owning up to my name. Sometimes you have to be quite brutal and walk away from everything you’ve previously achieved.
You live in New York City now. How did you wind up making this record in Paris?
The obvious thing would have been to find a place in the East Village, or go back to Sonic Youth’s studio in New Jersey, where I’d laid down the demos. But I wanted a change. A different city brings a different energy, no? I feel like, the French musicians, there’s a nice mix of influences—they know their Television and their Richard Hell, but on the other hand, there’s a pop sensibility at work, too. So I e-mailed Jean [Touitou] to see if the studio happened to be available—it’s private, you can’t book it commercially—and then when he said it was available, I e-mailed him again to see if he if he could point me to some of the hip young artists on the Paris scene. That’s how I found my guitarist, and then from there it was easy, no auditions or anything, just friends of friends and word-of-mouth. Which is always the best way to get a band together.
The studio is housed at A.P.C. headquarters. Was that a strange working environment?
Not at all. It was a nice little perk, actually, to take a break and snoop around and see what was coming to the A.P.C. store. And Jean would poke his head in from time to time and nod sagely.
As you say, you had demo’d the songs before you left for Paris. Did they change much in the studio?
When I say I had demos, I mean I’d sketched out all the parts. And then I sent the MP3s to my boys in Paris, so they knew what we’d be working on. You know, a guide—here’s the chorus, this is the hook, and so on. By the time a song is at that point, it ought to be able to write itself, in a way; it’s already got its own substance. I’m not someone who lets a song leave my bedroom without feeling like the substance is there. And you know you’re working with the right musicians when you’re in the studio together and you don’t have to explain anything—the guitarist comes in with a nice little Tom Verlaine guitar sound, because he just gets, deep down, that that’s what it should be. And when you’re working with the right musicians, you feel free to experiment, ‘let’s try this,’ ‘let’s try that.’ So the short answer to your question is, yes and no. The songs became themselves.
Surface 2 Air is doing the cover art for I Came Here. Was that another Paris connection?
No, a New York connection, in fact. Gordon Hull, from Surface 2 Air, was deejaying an event at the Annex with me a while back, and I liked the flyer he’d made. I had no idea he was part of this “thing.” I just commented, oh what nice artwork. And then through Gordon, I met Kai Regan, who’s shooting me.
You seem to be awfully lucky in the collaborators you stumble upon.
Some of it’s luck, undoubtedly, but I genuinely feel like the best way to get something done is to work with the people you meet who are interesting. It’s like, the girl who’s making my T-shirts, Ellena Gallen, she was just a fan in Spain who was making shirts on her own, and she showed me one after a gig in Barcelona and I said, go ahead, godspeed. You want people to bring their own energy and references to the table. At the end of the day, it’s a Wendy James result, but the process is nothing like, oh, the marketing department at Sony is going to run something off, we’ll send it to your team for approval.
Those T-shirts you mentioned have attracted something of a following
I know, it’s crazy. They’re selling out of them at Colette. Ellena’s going to do new shirts for my tour, after the record comes out, and re-release the old ones, too. I like the idea of having something to sell at the show that’s not, like, a picture of me on the front and tour dates on the back. I mean, when I’m a fan of somebody, I want that nice thing to have—I want to hear the music, I want to touch it, in a way, I want to wear it, I want to live it. I suppose that if things go really well, we’ll have to make those standard-issue tees, too. Inevitably, there’s a tradeoff between big and special. But I like to aim for special, first.