Lazy Habits talks hip hop, gigging and making films
Lazy Habits are a brass-tastic, hip hop band rocking venues all over the world – Mandy News talks to band frontman James Collins about how everything came together.
James, tell us a little bit about what you do and how you started doing it?
First and foremost, I’m a musician and I run a band of my own (Lazy Habits). Also, through that, I’ve sort of come to being a music supervisor on feature films and I compose music for adverts for TV and stuff too.
Making music came through a love for music really; I loved listening to music. My parents weren’t really into music, wasn’t something that filled the house at any moment. I don’t really remember any music ever playing in my house, but I remember loving music myself and doing the dancing round the front room with a tennis racquet thing. All that nonsense.
I grew up in Spain with my parents, so I was exposed to flamenco music as well, which I really loved back then but never got at home. When I used to visit my grandparents and the rest of my family back home, my grandfather had a music room because he was an organ master at the local church and played the trombone. This amazing music room had a baby grand in it and an organ and a trombone and I used to just lock myself away in there and make tons and tons and tons of noise.
I ended up in an English school abroad and it was the first school I went to that taught music. I didn’t play an instrument and I was doing the first year and they said ‘If you don’t study an instrument you won’t be allowed to take part in the music course,’ so I played cornet for a bit and I learnt how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star which is an awesome repertoire.
Then I didn’t want to play that anymore, so they asked me if I wanted to play drums and I thought that would be a really good thing but they wouldn’t let me anywhere near a drum kit for the first few lessons so I got bored of that. Then I got kicked off music because I didn’t turn up to the drum classes and I didn’t play an instrument so I got kicked off music.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only one out of anyone I knew that did music at that school who actually still does music in any way.
So that’s kind of where I got the bug from and then I came back home to England to study and ended up starting a band that didn’t last very long. They moved to Liverpool and I ended up starting promoting because I’d met a lot of bands and I was sorting out our own gigs when we did them so when my band left I just kept promoting.
I knew a lot of musicians that way, ended up moving to Liverpool to find a band and started another. There were eight or nine people in that and every tune used to have to go through every person. It was this ultra, ultra democratic thing, which I felt was pretty detrimental to some of the songs that I thought were more important than the individuals who made them. That’s always what I thought music was about, you know? The sum of the parts. And it has to be the right parts really.
I enjoyed it, but when I came back down to London to live, which is where I’m originally from, I had this project in mind. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I knew the people that I wanted involved in it, but they were my ideas and they were people who I’d lent a hand to in the past and who I knew I had favours with. I got in a room with a producer and wrote a bunch of songs and then got a band around it.
So it was very much the ethos that everyone is fully able to do these solos and play these amazing technical parts, but we don’t. We keep it locked in - the ethos behind my band was always to sound like a DJ and MC, with decks, you know, where something is interrupted. I’m interrupted and you can play a whole set through without the beat dropping. So the idea and ethos of what we were doing kind of started with that.
Where that branches out into film is a bit of a blur really, because all of the time that was happening, when we were in Spain, my parents had a video rental store, which I used to work in all the time. So there’s a period of time in which I’ve probably seen every single film that was ever released, within quite a short period of time. Then, when I came back to England, while the music stuff was going on, I was working for HMV as a video buyer and Virgin as a video buyer. That film side of me was always there. I was always watching a lot of film, always really involved in film.
In school, I used to write. I did creative writing. I used to hand in stories to my English teacher that hadn’t been set. Just stuff that I wanted to do off my own back and, I know it’s a little tacky, but she gave me my first Stephen King book and I fell in love with his writing. I just wanted to write stories.
So the hip-hop, rap thing. Well I used to sing to begin with. I can sing a bit. I used to listen to bands like Radiohead, which I loved but at the same time I used to think “Oh, I listened to this one song by, say, Busta Rhymes or someone, and it doesn’t say much in the song but he’s saying a thousand more words than there are in an entire Radiohead album,” and that can be used. We use that formula, which lots of people in hip-hop do, to tell entire stories, quite graphically and quite descriptively. It’s something I found that you kind of had to do more metaphorically with music because there were less lyrics and less chance to put that across.
I guess I kind of combined the two, and came to rap through that, but the story stuff never left me. I always wrote, and so eventually we ended up meeting a few directors. My beautiful wife – Jenny Lu – is also an amazing film director. I wrote one of her first films. I wrote the script for her first short, and I helped a lot with her first feature.
We’ve got a lot of friends who’ve come up at the same time as us from being underground bands, underground directors of music videos or bands that play these tiny stages at three in the morning, and they’ve all come on and now they’re making feature films and stuff so we have a lot of fans and a lot of friends who are quite high up in film. They’ve kind of got us involved in that.
I think that because of my grandad’s side of things – playing all this really grand, vast and wide music in a church – and the films that I used to watch, I always felt like there was a filmic element to what we did. It would appear that a lot of directors seem to think so too, which is how I got asked to start writing for adverts, just off the back of how filmic our stuff is. So that’s kind of how I came to film, but I kind of feel like the two things have always been entangled in one way or another.
Tell us about your most recent projects – Lazy Habits or otherwise.
Well, we’re working on a third album now. Our second album – The Atrocity Exhibition – is just over a year old, so we started work on the third one which we hope will be out by this time next year. We’ll see how that goes.
The project I worked on last year as music supervisor – The Receptionist directed by Jenny Lu – has just finished its cinema run in South East Asia. It did the Asia-New York Film Festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival, Raindance, the Milan film festival and a bunch of other things. I’m super proud of that, that’s my first feature film.
Tell us who’s in Lazy Habits
There’s six of us in Habits, there used to be eight, but that’s just evolution. Things change. At the moment we have two drummers, which is Ross and Flo, and two brass which is Ben and Simon, bass, Tom, and vocals, myself. It’s a different lineup to what most bands do and at the moment, we’re just kind of taking that round all the festivals.
Tell us about your recording process. How do you create an album?
So, for me, when it comes to stuff like that, I have, like, on and off periods of time, so for me when we’re touring, like, a solid tour, it’s pretty hard to write anything with the rest of the band or concentrate on any writing stuff. For me it’s just about getting those ideas down in voice memo form. Whether that’s samples you’ve heard or a piece of music you’ve heard, choruses you make up yourself, little beat-boxes or whistles or anything. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of those voice memos.
When you’re touring period is done and you have a little time set aside, that’s when you decide that you’re going to start writing a record. It’s not so much sitting down with a blank page and saying ‘Okay, what do we do?’ It’s sitting down and opening up a phone that has hundreds on hundreds on hundreds of ideas in it, and starting to pick a number of those to work on as demos.
That’s when the computer comes out, really and we’re working on - I mean, like I say, my role as an MC or vocalist isn’t my role in Habits, as such. I pretty much write most of the songs from scratch and the ideas will come from me and end with me, and go through some people on the way. I fully know what I want when it comes to Habits and so we’ll work on ideas that I like and we’ll get a batch. At the moment we’re working with about 20 of them. I can’t tell you whether any of them will end up on the album, I don’t know whether that’s the case, but we just keep on working and keep working on tracks and some of them start to poke their heads above others and you start to realise a pattern.
When a pattern starts emerging from all of these ideas of a feeling or a trajectory - songs that kind of work together, then the idea for the concept of the album arises. We work in concepts a lot of the time. It all works on its own, but it’s all part of a bigger thing. The third album is going to be, like, a trilogy. The large arc already exists of where it’s going and what it’s doing, but the concept of exactly what it is and what it means and how the songs will be in relation to each other on that album is something that we let happen organically.
I’ve been working on this since Christmas now. Coming into the summer it’s slowed down a little bit, but up until a couple of weeks ago I was pretty much full-on working on this album and I’ve just started finding that pattern. A song’s come out, two songs, three songs, and an idea of the concept of how that works in itself and with the other two albums. For me it’s working on these micro-ideas until they’re demos and once they’re demos then I will play them to the band as a whole.
Sometimes while we’re making the demos I’ll bring some horns in or something to work on an individual idea, but it isn’t until those tunes are demo’d that I’ll take those tunes to the band. They’re not always finished songs, a lot of the time they’re tunes.
I don’t play many instruments particularly well, so when I write the parts they tend to be more simplified. And then we take them to the band and the band turn them into amazing pieces because they’re all great musicians. They change my ideas into songs, which is a really, really great thing and then we road test our ideas. We’ll be road-testing ideas just before we go into studio and then in November we’ll be going into the studio to record them.
Tell us a bit about the period where you’ve got the idea of your act and then how you build up steam and get gigs. If you can rewind to when you didn’t have or couldn’t get any shows, and getting to now-
Never happened, unfortunately, or fortunately, even. The thing is, I never wanted my band to play until it was ready. Ever.
I never had this thing of ‘Oh, we’ve got three songs, let’s do a gig.’ I know a lot of people who do that, and that’s fine. That’s a way, but that’s not my way. My way was to write a set, have the right players and be a band that when you saw them the first time you were like ‘Jesus. These guys are sick.’ The show is really important to me.
We were only ready to perform after learning to play these tracks for six to eight months, so I think it was almost a year before we first got on stage. Our first gig was as a support act at a sold out Academy show in Islington, so it was cool for us because I was working with a lot of other musicians. I was borrowing musicians for my project to work on stuff, but at the same time jumping up with other bands and DJing and rapping and singing for some bands and I’d also been promoting for quite a long time before that too.
By the time we did our first show, we already had this little pocket of fans, so we’ve never had to sort of play home and really worry about having to get our mums and dads down to fill the audience at something. We’ve been pretty lucky. I mean, it’s always amazing to have friends and family at shows, but it’s not amazing when they’re the only people in the audience. We’ve never had to rely on that so we’ve been super lucky.
Saying that, when it came to festivals and stuff, I knew nobody. Nobody has helped me get a leg up in anything that I’ve done with regards to music. At the beginning, at least. I’m not saying people haven’t helped me since, but that’s mutual. I’m saying, at the start, no one helped me get a leg into this industry whatsoever. Everything I did, I did off my own arse. So, I found it real difficult.
I literally went onto this website, I don’t even know if it exists anymore, e-festivals or virtual festivals, and went through a hundred and fifty pages of festivals. There’s ten or twenty festivals on each page and I looked at every single festival and each one was different to me. I would find the website for that festival and I would find out the contact address and I would try to find out who the person was and then I would approach that person with my music, personally. No copy-paste jobs. I did this with hundreds of festivals when we first started and that’s how we got festivals. Once we were playing festivals, we got invited back. I knew that if given the opportunity, we could prove that we were worthy of being brought back. I’m not a boaster. I don’t go around saying that my band’s the best thing since sliced bread. I just say, “give us a chance and then you can make up your own mind”. Then I’m quietly confident that that will be for the positive.
That was a lot of legwork to do, but I fully believed in what we were doing and I think that’s something that people want to sidestep and jump so much. They want to jump that hard work and a lot of the time that’s the important part. If you worked so hard to get something then the value of achieving it is so much more enjoyable and easy to see. The reward that comes with the journey and the effort. So for me that was super important. The effort will be rewarded if you put it in. It will.
Tell us a bit about gigging in terms of the realities of it. Many people think it’s just ‘Turn up, get on and wow the crowd.’ There’s obviously a lot more legwork that a lot of people have to do, right?
I’ll give you an example. Tomorrow morning, at 3am, I have to get a cab to Gatwick to get a plane at 6am. We’ll arrive in Italy, Italian time, at about 9am, pick up our hire van and drive about five or six hours to Bern, Switzerland. We will sound check as soon as we get there, and then we’ll get two or three hours spare, do a show and then sleep. That’s all happening tomorrow from 3am.
I will probably be up for about 24 hours tomorrow. After sleeping we then we get up and drive back to Italy, because we’re playing another festiva. Then at 2 or 3am we go back to the airport and return. There’s no weekend in Italy, there’s no week in Bern. There’s a night in each place. At the end of a lot of travel and a gig.
I wouldn’t change it for the world – it’s what we love doing – and I’m sure there are bigger and easier ways to do those things, but that’s it, and the dream is to do that consecutively.
It’s really, really tiring. It’s an hour on stage every night against seven, eight hours of prep and travel for each one. People don’t see that, it’s a full day’s work, with weird hours. Which you’re thanked for really nicely at the end.
Maybe that’s why people don’t like their day jobs so much. Maybe if for the last hour of a working day everyone around you cheered and then cheered again as you left the building, that would make people’s day jobs nicer because that’s a really nice way to end your day [laughs].
Festival season is the busiest time of year for most bands. It’s also the most fun, because the weather’s nice and you’re playing in fields in different places every weekend. It’s all very pleasant and definitely a different side of the spectrum to travelling from one place to another in the middle of November, from night to night, when the weather’s not so nice and you’re playing clubs and stuff like that.
It’s a different vibe completely, but they’re both super enjoyable. They’re both things that I absolutely love doing. The best thing in the world.
What advice would you give to an MC, musician or person wanting to work in the music industry in terms of just getting stuff off the ground-
For me, it was something that I never really had a lot of support from my parents for. Not in a bad way, but it’s not something that they considered to be a job, until ten years later and I’ve done an advert and it’s on TV and they know the advert, because they’ve seen it. Now it makes sense to them. The advert was on in the break during X-Factor and suddenly it means something to them.
I never gave up and nothing that anyone told me changed my mind. It’s almost a curse sometimes, because it’s not a choice. It’s really not a choice. I’m deeply affected by stuff, and the way I output that is musically. It’s not something that I choose to do a lot of the time. When I’m trying to write something, obviously it’s something that I’m trying to do and it’s quite annoying when it doesn’t just come straight away, but at the same time, I remember waking up at four in the morning, climbing out of bed, and my missus going ‘What’s going on?’ and I say ‘I’ve got an idea.’ She knows not to question that.
I’m the same with her being up all night working on a script. When it hits, it hits. You can’t help it. Whenever it hits, do it. Write that idea down. Don’t forget it. Don’t go ‘Oh it’s the wrong time to get up. It’s 4am, I shouldn’t be up doing this now.’ If you’re working, you’re working. I’m not saying stay up all night playing video games and shit like that, that’s not what I’m saying. If you’re working you’re working. If an idea hits you at that time of the morning, just write it down.
Work on it, and never give up, but don’t expect people to come to you either. You really need to get out there and everywhere is out there. There are so many opportunities available for people now; the ability to link up easily socially, the workshops and panels. There’s millions of labels. To put your own music out now takes five minutes to do online and a day to learn about if you know nothing about it.
There is so much out there for you that I don’t really have much more advice than: just use the things that are there that people didn’t have before. Make friends with everybody who you appreciate, musically. If you appreciate someone musically who’s on your level, locally, it doesn’t matter if they’re the same genre as you. You approach them, you create a scene.
It’s about this cross-media association with everybody on your level. You all grow together and one or two of you will go up. I mean, the people from our crews who’ve gone now are ridiculous. Jamie Woon, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and Nick Mulvey are from the Chai Wallahs crew that we played for or from OneTaste. There are a lot of people coming out from the scene that we were a part of, and I think that everybody should be able to associate themselves with a group of people or a scene.
Wherever you live, there’s a music scene. Get involved with it. Don’t be a solo band on your own without the support of the network that you can have around you, because there are millions of promoters and film-makers and PR companies and people.
Everyone wants to be something. We’ve met social media gurus who at the age of 15 want to be social media people. If you’re a 14-year-old guy in a band out there, make friends with a 15-year-old who wants to be a social media guru. All of that shit is so important. Keep, keep, keep, keep going.
You were music supervisor on The Receptionist. Tell us what a music supervisor does.
Okay, so a music supervisor, for me, works on two levels. First of all, between myself, the composer and the director. We agree on the film’s musical palette and find out exactly what the director wants. A lot of the time I’ll communicate changes that the director wants with the music from the composer, so I’ll often act as a middle man. I also had quite a lot of input with the direction of that within the remit of what the director wanted as well.
The score is all music that doesn’t exist within the world of the film. That’s all music that the characters can’t hear within the film. It marks emotion and changes and all of those things but it isn’t part of the actual world that the characters exist in.
That’s more my job, to get involved in the lives of these characters and find out what kind of music they would listen to and what music would be playing around them in bars and supermarkets. You give the film a bit of life, sonically, a bit of hidden depth to some of the characters sometimes. You only get so much on a screen, or so much written on a page and if you can attribute a certain musical taste to a character, it lends you a bit more information about them.
There are a lot of subtle nuances you can create with music to denote what’s happening at any given point or time. It’s just a really, really fun job for me to get stuck into the world of those characters and just invent all their playlists. Every time you’re in a certain character’s world, it’s their music that’s playing and it’s completely different to the music that you would find in other situations and other places within a film. It’s part of my job to bring to life those characters a little more after the film’s already been shot and edited.
Is there anything that we should be looking out for from you that’s coming out?
We’ve got two more videos coming up off this album. Then we’ve got a tour in November. We’re doing Scotland and Wales and the UK at least and hopefully heading over to Europe for some more. The double A side of the single is going to be The Crossing and Feed the Brass. Crossing’s got an amazing singer on it called Baby Sol who we work with a lot and Feed the Brass has the Hackney Colliery Band on it and a hip hop crew called Born Ina Barn, so I’m really looking forward to people seeing those videos.
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