“Be perpetually drunk!” Baudelaire implores in Paris Spleen. “With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please.” Bah – syphilitic old pickle! Name me a sober poet and I’ll buy you a drink. Still, it’s a proven formula. Booze-soaked balladeers from Wilmot to Waits have always propped the bar of some tawdry tap house, uncorking all manner of characters and curiosities along the way. Where else doth the priest sup alongside the prostitute?
It’s a charm not lost on MONEY‘s frontman Jamie Lee. Ahead of the band’s performance at End of the Road, Dave Brooks caught up for a few rounds with the musician and poet to talk barstool voyeurism, its creative implications, and the challenges of poetic ambition.
Formed whilst studying at the University of Manchester, MONEY were signed to Bella Union by Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde in 2013. ‘Bluebell Fields‘ followed that May, bleeding woozy Panda Bear vocals and inquisitive Marr jangles over a pistoned Lancastrian patter. Radio 6 spread the word, Cillian Murphy made his directorial debut on ‘Hold Me Forever’, and in June 2013 MONEY’s sold-out performance at The Waiting Room saw Lee return to the capital – his birthtown – a cherubic Rioja-flushed bard: bowl-cut, jubilant and hypnotic. August brought debut album The Shadow of Heaven: an expansive, shimmering collection that placed MONEY as heirs apparent to WU LYF’s red-rosed crown. Channelling the same neo-biblical imagery, Lee chose red wine over Roberts’ red mist, whispers over rapture.
A second album – Suicide Songs – was released in January 2016. “I was disappointed with the songwriting on the first record,” Lee recounts. “I tried to wipe away any desire for success, in the hope of finding something raw.” Beguiled by the sexual liberalism of Jean Genet, Shane MacGowan’s paralytic prophesying, Frank O’Hara’s streetwise romance and a host of other pen-wielding savants beat and beatified, Lee turned to the night.
The pubs of Manchester “offered an opportunity to get close enough to people to hear their stories, whilst still being inconspicuous,” Lee marvels. “I can’t think of any other public space like it. Dangerous that, isn’t it?” A poem published last summer – Sucking an Old Man Off In The Pub – charts his feckless pursuit for ecstasy and enlightenment in Manchester’s piss-soaked underbelly. It’s a provocative, thrilling read: risible, revelatory, but ultimately tender. “After the first album I definitely sought out that kind of experience. It’s shameful, I think, but my mission was never to glamorise anything. It’s the job of writers to shine a light on the unvoiced corners of the world: to give them their standing, show that they’re important and that there’s something to be learned from them which can result in empathy between people.”
Fuelled by the pie-eyed wisdom of writers such as Brendan Behan and John Healy, Lee’s once methodical drinking eventually veered towards the catatonic. “Like people always say: alcohol abuse starts off fun. Then it gets really bad.” Manchester – formerly paradise – became “one big pub,” and those close to Lee expressed their concern, with one trusted friend sighing: “You look like a sad painting mate.”
“Manchester was helpful to me. It’s a romantic place, much more intimate than London.”
It’s clear that his time in Manchester ended unhappily, and when asked about the city, Lee maintains a gracious sense of relieved detachment. “Manchester was helpful to me. It’s a romantic place, much more intimate than London. You can meet everyone, drink with everyone, charm everyone, and piss off everyone too. I wanted to learn and to be around that energy and I found what I wanted to, much to the detriment to my sanity and my liver. The problem is that I had no time to write. I used to go out and get pissed and stay on some grubby mezzanine, and the next day I’d find a pub and scribble down my recollections. I’d end up with floorfuls of indecipherable notes, but I’d never really focus on producing something I might be proud of.”
A move back to his native South London gave Lee the time he needed to concentrate on both his health and his art. Thus, work on Suicide Songs began. “Being in London was great. It lacks all of Manchester’s poetry and romance, but allowed me to focus, and work hard.” With bandmates Charlie Cocksedge and Billy Byron remaining in Manchester, Lee fleshed out the bones of the album before the three reconvened to take his ideas forward.
As polished vehicles for Lee’s writing, Suicide Songs is a distinct improvement on The Shadow of Heaven. Permeated with slurred stories lived and relived, it’s a Guinness-stained parcel of love letters from the edge. Arguably standing as MONEY’s most timeless accomplishment to date, its triumphant final call ‘A Cocaine Christmas and an Alcoholic’s New Year’ sketches a tableau far more vivid than any song on The Shadow of Heaven. Blending bruised trumpets, closing-time keys and bleary-eyed romance, it’s a brilliantly evocative piece of songwriting, tacitly acknowledging that for many Christmas is not a day of jubilation, but a piss up just to get through. Vulgar, beautiful, real and captured, it’s a commendable societal observation.
It’s been over six months since Suicide Songs’ release, and MONEY have just polished off the album’s European tour. Looking ahead, it’s hard to see Lee willingly embark upon future projects with the same hedonistic thirst that predicated the second album. In his mind, the aim is clear. “I’m desperate to be a great poet and writer,” he admits, a wicked smile burning it way across his face. “I just happen to have found myself in a band. Songwriting is tricky, because unless you’re Bob Dylan the form doesn’t really allow for the complexity and viscera I want to give to my writing. I think the songwriting form will go out of the window for the next album, and it’ll just be a series of rants to music.”
Playful as ever, it’s hard to know whether or not Lee is completely serious. Still, poets of yore have certainly made a good job of putting their work to music. Kerouac’s 1959 appearance on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show sparked off a recording career that produced three spoken word albums, which featured collaborations with Allen on piano, as well as jazz saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. “I find the sound of someone speaking over music very appealing,” Lee continues. “The spoken word is arrhythmic; you can’t score it out as would with a conventional vocal melody. When you put that over music it’s intriguing, because it breaks the basic rules of melodic interaction.”
Besides touring with MONEY and writing poetry, Lee is the founder of an independent publishing house, PARIAH PRESS. He has also been busy penning an account of some of his experiences from his ten or so years spent in Manchester. “I want to share some of the funny things that happened, but also express how it felt to be an alcoholic,” he outlines. “Over those ten years I lost it. I lost any interest to engage with life except to try and make myself a better writer. My highest hope is that people reading it will feel and understand the excitement and misery of it all, through my writing. I want people to see the faces, to taste the air.”
“Say I one day become a great writer…with all the trouble I’ll have gone through to get there, there’s a good chance that it may not even be worth the effort.”
Still, “writing a book is fucking hard work,” and Lee is brazenly aware that the costs could outweigh the benefits. “Say I one day become a great writer, a revered literary presence: with all the trouble I’ll have gone through to get there, there’s a good chance that it may not even be worth the effort,” he says. “Look at Kerouac, or Berryman, or Bukowski. They all came to that realisation. Writing is a lonely art form and you prioritise it above anything else. Your friendships, your relationships, your health, they all come second place, and if that’s not the order then you probably won’t get to where you want to be. It’s not an enjoyable way to live your life.”
So what drives him to keep writing? “It’s like a sickness,” he muses. “You have to learn how to deal with it. If you’re not living up to your own expectations then you take it out on other people, which is unfair. But on the flip-side, when you write something half good you feel like the king of the fucking world.”
A product of intense experience, melancholy, and artistic dedication, Suicide Songs has rightly attracted widespread acclaim for its refined lyrical portraiture. Whether there will be a third MONEY album isn’t entirely clear, but it’s still early days. What is clear is that whatever Lee turns to next, his writing will be the priority. “I’ve been too afraid for too long, but hopefully that is changing. Milkmen, barristers, poets; anyone can sculpt language in such a way as to be personal and profound. It’s one of the most common materials we have. Imbuing it with maturity, character, self-belief and self-awareness is what transforms it into art.” Lifting an ale to his lips, he pauses. “There lies the challenge!”