Jim Bob, frontman of seminal ‘90s indie chart-toppers Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine is a natural born worrier. In his new book In the Shadow of My Former Self he reveals all about life after pop stardom when the biggest worry of all is the initial, unsettling sensation of feeling like yesterday’s jam while wanting to be “tomorrow’s Marmite – loved and hated in equal yeasty extracts”.
Carter rose from the ashes of defunct, South London C86 band Jamie Wednesday to release seven albums, play hundreds of gigs around the world, have 14 top 40 singles and headline the Glastonbury Festival in 1992.
Since the band’s original break–up in 1998 Jim Bob has, amongst other things, become a successful, award-winning author. Following the success of Goodnight, Jim Bob, his original memoir covering his career with Carter, he wrote and self-published his first novel Storage Stories. There’s a photo of 3000 copies of Storage Stories in the new book, stacked up in Jim’s house, taking up all available floor space “like a million dollars of Mob money we’d found in a crashed plane”, as he puts it.
That led to three more well-received novels getting published too, under the name J.B. Morrison. (Jim Bob, J.B. Morrison, Jamie Wednesday, James Morrison – geezer’s got more aliases than Klaus Barbie.)
It’s no surprise that Jim Bob has made a success of a literary career. Anyone who knows Carter knows that as a lyricist he always had a sharp, funny way with words. How’s this, from Shopper’s Paradise, for an example?
First and second floors, third and fourth world wars
We’ve got a free pair of flares
With every hip replacement
Just take the stairs to the bargain basement
Babies bottles full of the milk of human kind Nestlé
The new, highly entertaining autobiographical book, In the Shadow of My Former Self, covers his post-Carter bands and his solo work, writing songs for Ian Dury and a West End pantomime, appearing in a musical and reanimating Carter for a series of triumphant reunion shows.
It also covers the repeated, unsuccessful attempts of the producers of Never Mind the Buzzcocks to get him on to the Identity Parade round for a public humiliation, his mortal fear of haircuts – which explains a lot – run-ins with Blur, Radiohead, Bob Geldof and Ed Sheeran and the recurring theme in recent years of him bumping into famous people who he used to know and having them not recognise him.
50thirdand3rd caught up with Jim Bob on a day when he was between modes, having just played a solo set at a festival and about to don his author’s cloak for a literary engagement. We talked about Carter, laying himself bare in his latest memoir and his plans for the future.
50thirdand3rd: You played a festival yesterday, how was that?
Jim Bob: Yeah, it was good, it was kind of… not weird, but kind of a very sort of local festival, but a really good one.
Were you playing Carter songs and solo stuff yesterday?
Yesterday I just did Carter songs. If I do a longer show I’ll do half and half but they asked me to do Carter songs, which is easier, it doesn’t require too much thought.
Did it go down well?
Yeah, it did. I’ve done a few gigs like that where I’ve been on with other bands from that era or indie bands, so everyone knows what they’re getting. But yesterday it was people who’d probably never heard of me. There’d be 20 people who knew the songs and everybody else had no idea who I was so it was a question of winning them over.
So not like the Shine On festivals then?
Yeah, so at those, everyone knows what they’re getting and knows the songs and will sing along.
Since writing Goodnight Jim Bob, you’ve become a successful novelist. You say in the new book that research consisted of looking under the bed and emailing [bandmate Fruitbat] Les twice. Was the process for this book much different to volume one of your memoirs?
Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. I’ve got a lot of stuff, old NMEs and Melody Makers around, but I’m quite a disorganised person so I don’t know where everything is and I really have to hunt for it. I did find some things but it didn’t really help the telling of the story. I spoke to a couple of people I was in bands with after Carter split and everything they told me confirmed what I’d remembered, but then also there’s the old cliché about the facts can sometimes get in the way of the story.
The new book seems to be more crafted. Chapters tend to like short-stories in their own right.
I wanted it to be like a music biography where you can pick a chapter and read it and it doesn’t really matter if you’ve read what comes before. And also I left out a lot of things and a lot of people too. In the first book I included everyone I knew in just case they read it and wanted to know why they weren’t in the book. I didn’t do that this time. If it didn’t make the book better I didn’t put it in.
There’s a definite punchline to a lot of the stories. Like the chapter where you’d written two songs for a musical which were subsequently slated on Newsnight Review by Michael Gove.
I mean, I hated him then and I had no idea who he was. He was just a horrible little bloke on Newsnight Review at that point. I don’t know if he was even a politician then or just a journalist. I did have to research that in case I’d remembered it wrong. I couldn’t find a clip of it but he did review that pantomime so it was definitely him.
As a hate figure, he’s as good as anyone.
The new book digs a lot deeper. There’s more insight into your life and personality, like the social inhibition caused by your [self-diagnosed] overactive orbitofrontal cortex – which is something I recognise and empathise with.
All those things seem ridiculous and it’s not a debilitating thing but I do go into Café Nero no matter where I am because I know what to expect when I go there.
And you go to a worse swimming pool, that’s further away from your home just because you’re used to it?
Yeah, and they’ve just put the prices up so it’s now twice the price of the one that’s nearer but I still will go there.
Until you get into the habit of going to the other one.
I think if I went to the other one twice it’d be fine.
But did you have any reservations about anything you’ve included.
Not really, I just sort of wrote it and didn’t think about it too much. It was only when other people read it. I think maybe when my wife, Mrs Jim Bob, she’s only just read it, I was maybe wary of when she would read it because there are things in there that she doesn’t know about me because I don’t talk about these things. So it’s a bit weird in a way that the first time I talk to her about these things is in a book. Either that or she already knew and she’s just let me think she doesn’t.
The chapter about taking creative inspiration from getting mugged is quite moving, as is the resulting song (Victim). Again that a really honest chapter, delivered with a lot of self-deprecating humour and somehow you get the last laugh – creative inspiration and the £30 you had “hidden in the johnny pocket of my 501s”. Did writing the song help to put the experience behind you?
I don’t know if it helped me get through it, it just made me feel that I got something out of it. It wasn’t just a horrible thing that happened that stopped me going out for a while and made me feel nervous in the place where I live when I didn’t before. At least I got something out of it because I still live in the same place. But walking up that road where it happened feels different, whereas I never had any sort of fear about it before, even now – and it was ages ago – I still get nervous. I’ve always been good at avoiding trouble; I’m very much the sort of person who’ll cross to the other side of the road if I think something’s going to happen, but I was with other people who weren’t, we were quite drunk and they didn’t really care.
I think you blamed Les for that?
Yeah, it was definitely Les’ fault. I think he admits to that too. He didn’t handle it well.
But, you know, when you’re faced with children, you can kind of understand it.
Very big children!
Yeah, obviously. Before reading the new book I hadn’t heard Victim, the song that came out of that experience and it’s a really beautiful, touching song and having the context around it amplified that. In a similar way that I hadn’t realised that Good Grief Charlie Brown was based on your own life experiences.
A lot of Carter songs that weren’t just about South London were based on personal experience. There are a lot of songs that that I still haven’t talked about what they’re about and who they’re about, even now, and I probably never will.
I thought it was all laid bare in this latest book?
Yeah, but there are probably still some things I haven’t. There’s always stuff about family, like my mum, there’s definitely another book in there. Two of the novels I’ve written probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for stuff she’d told me about her life.
She lived quite an interesting life didn’t she, your mum?
She did, yeah, sort of almost unbelievable. A lot of the things she used to tell us we used to think, “Is that true?” and you’d find out later on that it was. You’d see someone like Tony Bennett on television and she’d say “I used to know him”, and she did.
I like it in the book when she introduced you to her friends as a famous pop star and they’re disappointed that you’re not Elton John.
She always used to do that, “Here’s my son, the pop singer”, it was incredibly embarrassing! It was a pretty small village in Sussex and they were mostly pensioners and they didn’t have any idea who I was, apart from her telling them repeatedly.
One of the biggest revelations in the book comes quite early on, which is “I really do hate puns”; which is a bit of a shocker coming from you.
Ha! I mean I didn’t obviously before! Just now, since Twitter really, everybody does them.
But nobody does them quite as well as you!
I don’t know. You can pretty much say anything on Twitter these days and someone will make a pun out of it. If you say “I just had a terrible cheese sandwich”, you’ll get a load of cheese related puns in response.
Was it a conscious decision to use humour and puns in your lyrics in the first place or was that just how they came out?
I think it just happened quite early on. I was a big fan of Elvis Costello and he used puns so I reckon it probably started there and maybe with The Smiths and Morrissey using wordplay as well. I think that’s where it must have come from and by the time it got to the first Carter album I’d sort of honed it and refined it.
And you’d done it in (Jim and Les’ previous band) Jamie Wednesday as well hadn’t you?
Yeah, we had a song called We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t for example, so we were definitely doing it with Jamie Wednesday.
I think it was a big part of Carter’s appeal in their heyday.
Oh, yeah, definitely.
For me Carter also tapped into hip-hop which I’d been a fan of, with the samples and drum machine, plus indie guitar pop and also the socially aware ‘alternative comedy’ boom in the eighties. Carter kind of brought all that together.
Les was a big Public Enemy fan and that was definitely a big influence for him on Carter.
And you did seem to knock around with comedians quite a lot – Richard Herring, Miles Jupp, Rob Newman, Sean Hughes, among many others.
I still do too. I seem to know quite a lot of comedians. With Carter all the comedians used to come and see us.
In the book you mention how nervous you were about speaking to Isy Suttie [Dobbie] from Peep Show and how years before she’d been a Carter fan nervous about meeting you.
Yeah, it’s weird. She’s read the book and I didn’t tell her that was in there and she couldn’t believe it. She thought that was ridiculous.
Have you ever considered going into comedy yourself?
Before Jamie Wednesday me and Les had a go at a couple of comedy gigs, but they were uh, pretty awful, kind of almost slapstick. We didn’t put a lot of thought into them we were just trying to make money any way we could. But we definitely had ideas of doing something then. And then there was a point when I was doing quite a lot of bits where I do a song at comedy gigs, around about 2010 and I did start to think I could make this more of a comedy set with songs, but then I very quickly realised that this was a bad idea. I think it works better if I just do songs and try and find something funny to say and if works then I stick with it for a bit, whereas if I plan it, it doesn’t work.
More wit than telling jokes?
Yeah, or just saying something mildly offensive and running with it. That’s what happened yesterday actually. It’s a way of winning the audience over if they don’t know the songs – take the piss out of the place or something.
So, you have a short tour in October that looks like it’s going to sell out.
Yeah, the Leeds venue is bigger than last time I played there and that sold out the quickest. The [also sold out] Birmingham one’s smaller than I could’ve done, maybe. Glasgow’s bigger than I’ve done before. The thing is they’ve sold quite quickly. The last tour I did was about three years ago and that’s the first time that I’d sold out quite a few venues in advance. It had always been a struggle to get people to go, so something’s changed.
Maybe the Carter reunion?
Or maybe the lack of Carter reunion. And also half the gig will be with a band. I did a gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire this year and had a band playing about ten songs and realised that suddenly playing acoustic on my own seemed quite boring. That’s something I’ve been doing for a while and everyone’s doing it at the moment. A lot of my peers are all playing solo, acoustic gigs.
Did it surprise you that Carter stuff, particularly the early stuff, translated well to performance with acoustic guitar?
Some of it works better than other things, but I think mostly the songs stand up because of the lyrics or whatever. There are things like After the Watershed, that don’t really work that well on acoustic guitar, but it goes down quite well. It doesn’t work because there are hardly any chords to it and I can only play the guitar in a very basic sort of way. I can’t do little riffs or anything but it seems to work.
Which is something you cover in the book – feeling intimidated when you go into a music shop – which is quite surprising for a successful, professional musician.
The internet’s been a lifesaver for stuff like that. I used to hate it. I used to hate everyone who worked in music shops!
I think everybody does. I bought an amp once, and the guy asked me if I wanted to try it out and I knew he would judge me so I just made him plug into it and he played all these show-off, twiddly bits and I was just thinking, “You dick! That’s not what I’m going to be doing with it”.
You’ve been reflecting on your Carter career in the course of writing this book. So, to paraphrase Falling on a Bruise, if you had the chance to do it all again, is there anything you would change?
Uh, I don’t know. It’s weird isn’t it because obviously, everything happens in relation to everything that’s happened before it – there must be a cleverer way of saying that! But at the same time, there are definitely moments I sort of regret, and it tends to be clothes or haircuts! I suppose there are records that could be a lot better too – like, the later Carter albums aren’t as good as the earlier ones. I’m not as proud of the songs. I think after the first four Carter albums I had to deliberately write songs, if you know what I mean. The last two or three Carter albums, I don’t really know now what all the songs are about, which for me is not a good thing.
A couple of times in the book you refer to Brett Anderson out of Suede and mention having always got along with him. There’s a very funny sequence when you’re walking outside having done a radio show together in 2009 and he’s being asked for his autograph by a group of people and you’re stood next to him, being ignored, so you sculpt your hair into a fringe so that it hangs down in front of your face and start whistling Sheriff Fatman, but still nobody recognises you. And once Brett has finished signing everything, the fans leave, he goes off to his waiting taxi and you go off to get a bus. To me, Carter was a bigger, more successful band than Suede were, so it’s odd that Brett’s found it easier to retain that air of celebrity.
Yeah, there are a lot of bands that we were bigger than, certainly in this country, that we aren’t now. I suppose it’s just that the people who liked certain bands are now editing magazines. It’s like Shed Seven. Whether you like them or not, and I’m not a big fan or anything, but they’re always used as a reference point for shit music. People will write about them in a derogatory way, as if they were sort of a joke band, but they’ve been consistently successful and that gets ignored. They still sell out the same sized gigs as they always have done, but they get written about as though they’re a band that made a novelty record and then went away. And they did that with Carter in a way too.
I don’t know if that’s because of the jokes in the lyrics, but then Suede did that too (Animal Nitrate). And it’s never cheeky, nod and a wink humour in Carter’s lyrics and it’s always delivered with a lot of conviction. The Beatles had jokes in their music and people still think they’re good!
And the Sex Pistols. There are loads of examples.
So, tonight you’re doing a book reading in Brixton?
Yeah, it’s a thing where loads of authors read a five minute bit – which is really short. So I’m reading the court case chapter from the new book.
Ah, yes! That’s a good chapter. [Jim does jury service on a case that last nine weeks and ends up having to explain who he is/was to his fellow jurors] So, playing an acoustic set last night and doing a book reading tonight, seems like quite a nice way to spend your time?
Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, I’m quite lazy and I say no to a lot of things and feel quite bad about it. Seems like every day someone emails me or contacts me on Facebook asking me to do a gig – “Do you want to come and play my pub”, that sort of thing. Or “Do you want to play my birthday”, and I have to find a way to politely say no.
There goes my next question then!
Yeah, I’m doing something that day. I do like doing things, but when they come around, I dunno, I’m not very good at leaving the house. I think it’s that nerves thing. I’m doing a five minute reading in a big room in a pub tonight that’s not that difficult to get to, and I know I can make five minutes entertaining, but I’m going to be quite nervous most of the day about it. And then it’ll probably go really well.
So you’ll retrospectively enjoy it?
Yeah, and when it’s done I’ll be glad that it went well. I listened to a podcast the other day and it was Thom Yorke saying before he went on stage he had to sit on his own in a room for hours to prepare for it, then get together with the band half-an-hour before they went on to be sure he was ready. Whereas Michael Stipe, someone would just tap him on the shoulder and say, “You’re on”, and he’d go on and he’d immediately be in that zone. Les was always a bit like that, “Oh, we’ve got a gig? Oh, OK, we’re on now”.
Whereas you brood on it a bit more?
Are you able to pick and choose what you do these days?
I mean, I’ve done things that have luckily done quite well. Like purely on a financial level, with the last two novels I did they were translated into different languages and that sort of thing pays quite well. And doing the Carter gigs too. But I’m at the point where I probably need to do something next year.
And are you in the author mind-set rather than a songwriter one at the moment?
Well, purely because I’ve got two unpublished novels I’m working on and probably something’s going to happen with them. So that’s what I’m currently doing, going through both of those just re-reading them and tidying them up. That’s where I am creatively. I definitely want to do some more songs; I just don’t know how, almost physically how to do it. What would they sound like and would they be acoustic songs or whatever? I’ll hear things, like, I went to see a film the other day, Eighth Grade and the theme music to that, it was sort of electronic and I thought “I’d quite like to do something like that”. And I got home and I thought, “How do I do that?”
Sounds like you need a collaborator.
I think that might be it, yeah. I need to find somebody new to work with.
Does it worry you that you can’t translate these ideas into songs?
It doesn’t worry me. It’s more that I feel sort of guilty that I’m not doing it. The other thing is – it’s not purely financial – but if I managed to write 12 songs and make an album, then what would I do with it? Because people don’t buy records anymore, so you’d have to do the vinyl thing and that’s difficult to do. That whole thing of what to do with recorded music now is a problem for people. You get people now releasing cassettes. I don’t want to do that – cassettes sound shit, don’t they!
So, polishing your novel transcripts is what’s next for you?
Yeah, because I couldn’t get the last two published and that’s frustrating. And I know I could do it myself but there’s a real snobbery about self-publishing in the book world that there isn’t in the music world – I mean it was there in the music world, but not anymore because everyone does it. But if you self-publish a book everyone thinks it’s not a real book – they don’t take it seriously. For example, there are bloggers who review books and they’re pretty good and most of them say they won’t review self-published books. But really, what’s the difference between me publishing my own book and Cherry Red publishing it?
Well, I suppose the advantage is if someone else publishes it you don’t have to have 3000 copies of it piled up around your house until they’re sold!
Yeah, there is that!
Jim Bob is an absolute gentleman and In the Shadow of My Former Self is a frank, self-deprecating, and at times, strangely personal book. It’s also extremely funny. You don’t have to have been paying attention to Jim Bob’s recent career, or even be a Carter fan to enjoy it either. It’s a rare, entertaining look into the real post-fame life of a pop star, full of relatable insights and his theories on stage fright, the sustainability of comeback gigs, and the highlights of being in a band – “In an ideal world I’d like to come up with a name, design the logo and split up”. There are regular humiliations and reminders of Jim’s reduced circumstances along the way but it’s good to know he’s doing well and, like Alan Partridge, he has the last laugh. And anyone who scoffs at the successes he had with Carter at their height needs to remember that they came along entirely on merit.
Jim Bob from Carter, In the Shadow of My Former Self is available now from Cherry Red Books. Part one of his memoirs, Goodnight, Jim Bob: On the Road with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine is back in print too.
A limited edition, luxury vinyl box-set of Carter USM’s output is also just about available and Jim Bob is on tour in the UK in October.