Jamie Lenman, the frontman of disbanded hardcore heroes Reuben, surprised his fanbase with the release of Muscle Memory in 2013, a double-album including an entirely acoustic disc. After entertaining 2000 Trees with just his Gretsch Resonator, he chats about influences, Steve Martin and blinding his audience
Words: Sean Reid Images: Olly Curtis
When you’re attending a festival that celebrates underground rock, punk and hardcore like Cheltenham’s 2000 Trees Festival, anyone dressed in a three-piece suit and a trilby hat is sure to stand out from the crowd. Jamie Lenman, here performing with his band and a solo acoustic covers set, is one such man.
Over the past 10 years, Lenman and 2000 Trees have had a unique affiliation with one another. Lenman’s former band, post-hardcore trio Reuben, were scheduled to play the festival in 2008 before going on an indefinite hiatus. “There was nothing we could have done about it,” explains Lenman. “I’m glad it didn’t hurt them and they’ve gone from strength to strength. They don’t bear us any ill will, which shows huge character to be able to absorb that type of thing.”
Since then, the festival’s community have embraced and celebrated Reuben’s existence, christening one of its campsites as Camp Reuben. Lenman is regularly asked to play, with this year’s multi-faceted appearance being his second. His acoustic covers set sees him pay homage to his influences; Nirvana, Madness, Weezer, the Beatles and Queen. “It was really fun. I had never played a covers set before. I don’t know why, I think it’s because whenever I play guitar I see it as a tool to get my own songs out. It never occurred to me to play other people’s songs as I had so many of my own from the minute I picked the guitar up.”
The influence of Queen and the Beatles is something Lenman speaks of in detail during our conversation. It’s the former that encouraged him to pick up a guitar: “We had gone to Bulgaria and they had all these markets selling crap to tourists. They had all these tapes and one of them was Queen’s Greatest Hits. I came back off holiday with this bootleg cassette and I wanted to start playing guitar.
Spearheaded by his influences, Lenman soon took up the guitar: “I progressed really quickly. In the first year or so I got really good. Someone told me at the time I was playing at a 15-year-old’s standard. which, when you’re nine, sounds impressive. I’ve stayed at that fifteen-year-old standard ever since because as soon as I found the power chord, I never looked back.”
His parents encouraged him to play piano, although his preference for guitar remained intact. “My parents, quite rightly, said start with piano because from a piano you can go anywhere. It was just too hard. I was so lazy. I found it much easier to write songs on the guitar. Once I found a guitar, piano could get to fuck really, so I left that behind.”
Having discovered the power chord, Jamie would go on to form Reuben – a band who cultivated a cultish fan base and plenty of critical acclaim thanks to three exceptional abums: Racecar Is Racecar Backwards, Very Fast Very Dangerous and In Nothing We Trust – before calling time on the band in 2008. He spent the next few years away, focusing on his other career as an illustrator, before releasing his debut solo record in 2013. Muscle Memory was a double record that saw Lenman revisit his heavier, hardcore days on disc one, and ditching his electric guitar in favour of a raft of acoustic instruments while exploring folk, blues and jazz on the second.
“After I left Reuben, my musical taste got heavier and I wanted to write some stuff as heavy as that, but then the new thing that came to me was the folkier side of things. I found an appreciation. I had never really understood it before.”
Lenman’s new discoveries revolved around country, pre-war jazz, and acts such as CW Stoneking and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. His interest in the banjo, which features frequently on Muscle Memory, stems from listening to comedian – and master banjo player – Steve Martin.
“Before I didn’t have much patience for things that harkened to the past. When you’re young, you want to listen to everything that is new and out now. When you’re older, I think you have more patience for glimpses into the past. I wouldn’t want to stay there because I think nostalgia is a very dangerous thing. It’s lovely but you can’t dwell on it too much.”
Muscle Memory also saw Lenman expand his set of skills, playing a range of instruments; bass, drums, piano and a variety of brass instruments. “I play all the brass instruments; trombone, trumpet, tube and the baritone. It’s all the same sort of technique. I gravitate to the lower end instruments.”
As for his primary instrument, the guitar, Lenman doesn’t consider himself a gear head, but during his musical career he has become friends with Fender and Ibanez (“Anything that is free I’ll take it”) with the former being his current preference. “They gave me a Stratocaster Blacktop HH which really synced with my sound. I used to play a Cyclone before I smashed it. Since I started doing the folk stuff, they’ve kitted me out with a couple of nice bits. They gave me a lovely resonator guitar: a Gretsch Bobtail electro-acoustic. It looks beautiful. If anything, it distracts people from how bad my performance is. I can shine that reflector plate into people’s eyes and they get blinded and they think ‘it must be a great show because look at the guitar!’ It lets me get away with a multitude of sins.”
As for technique, Lenman reassures us that the power chord is all that you need:
“I quickly learned that I didn’t have the chops or the fingers to be widdling, but as soon as I realised you could write a whole song with a power chord, that was all I needed. It was songs I was more interested in than technique or soloing.”
When it comes to discussing potential new material, Lenman is keen to look for an opportunity that will expose him to a new audience. “I’m always writing but it’s more about the opportunity. I would do another record but only if it was a label that had a bit of reach. Then I would be very excited.”