Carter USM’s Jim Bob on reunions, money and an artistic dilemma
13:15 25 May 2012
Author and singer-songwriter speaks ahead of Folkestone tour date
Jim Bob solo career
Jim’s Super Stereoworld (2001)
Big Flash Car on a Saturday Night (2002)
Goodnight Jim Bob (2003)
Best of Jim Bob (2006)
A Humpty Dumpty Thing (2007)
Goodnight Jim Bob - On the Road with Carter USM
Driving Jarvis Ham
In these cash-conscious days, to sell out a date at one of London’s foremost live venues is a genuine sign of success.
The Brixton Academy, after all, is a venue which has attracted the great and good of the music world for generations.
To sell out a show pretty much every year for the last five years an encouraging sign of longevity and a loyal fanbase.
If you then factor in those 5,000 ticket sell-outs come from a band whose hey-day was 20 years ago, and who haven’t released any new material for 14 years, then you’d be convinced they were something pretty special.
"I know when I was younger I used to hate the idea of seeing bands just carrying on and on. The younger me would be disgusted."
Yet while the fan eagerly awaits the announcement of the shows each year, on the other side of the divide can be a nervous performer.
And perhaps no-one more so than a man whose youthful swagger and lyrical balls-of-steel seem strangely at odds with today’s self-doubt.
But then Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine were never a regular band.
A group whose fast guitars, catchy melodies and pun-powered poetic lyrics tended to focus more on the grubby under belly of south London and British life, made them something of a intriguing proposition.
The duo – James ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison and Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter – stormed the indie world at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, and found themselves catapulted into the mainstream charts.
With 101 Damnations they announced their arrival; second album 30 Something saw them elevated to a new height. Darlings of the NME, they attracted a diverse audience – and sold almost as many t-shirts as they did records.
By the time 1992 The Love Album hit the shelves, they were fully fledged pop stars who could bank on top ten hits and topped the album charts.
They even gave Philip Schofield a memorable clout on live TV during the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party and found themselves on the front of the red top tabloids the following day.
Yet as they jumped on board the juggernaut of the modern music industry, the duo quickly realised they were speeding in the opposite direction to where they wanted to be.
From headlining Glastonbury in 1992, the band’s disillusionment built quickly. The Post Historic Monsters albums showcased a band who had checked happiness at the doors of the big time and feared they’d lost their way as they tried to find it again.
By 1996 they had left their record company and after struggling along for a further two years called it quits in 1998; both feeling the pain had gone on too long.
Both, however, remained friends, both went their separate ways.
Fruitbat would eventually move from his beloved Brixton to set up home by the sea in Folkestone playing occasional gigs with his Abdoujaparov, while finding his way around the building regulations as he established himself as a landlord (make your own ironic Sheriff Fatman jokes here).
Jim Bob, remaining in Crystal Palace, would continue a solo career in addition to penning two novels – the latest of which has just hit the bookstands.
He’s even found time to re-record Mr Brightside as the theme for the BBC Radio 4 comedy series of the same name.
And next week, he heads to Folkestone – home of his former bandmate – for a show at the intimate Googies. There he reads excerpts from his novel and performs songs from his solo catalogue as well as a few old Carter classics.
He admits he’s only been to the café before – the 50-capacity performance downstairs will be in stark contrast to the Brixton Academy
But the Carter ghost did not die in 1998.
In 2007 the band reformed for two one-off shows. They sold out in days.
Since then, shows at London’s Brixton Academy and a venue up north have become – give or take a year – annual events. Sell-out crowds, record bar-takings, and packed with those in their 30s and 40s who remembered the first time and for one night relive their lives before mortgages, children and careers took over.
But for Jim Bob, the shows clearly weigh heavy on his shoulders.
“I think they [the fans] are less keen to come than they were before,” he says of the Carter shows which take place again this year in November.
“You can see the speed of ticket sales. The first time it was all gone in a day and now it’s more irregular.
“That tells me all I need to know about the future. We can’t keep going on forever. We shouldn’t carry on forever.”
The reunion – he doesn’t accept the band ‘exist’, simply one which emerges for a couple of shows then disappears again – clearly sits uncomfortably upon the same shoulders where once flopped his trademark fringe; a cut once voted the world’s worst haircut by readers of Smash Hits magazine.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing,” he sighs. “I don’t think it’s good at our age we can still do this. The younger me would be disgusted.
“I don’t feel 51, so in that way it shouldn’t really matter, but I know when I was younger I used to hate the idea of seeing bands just carrying on and on. So I assume younger people must view us like that.”
Carter was exhumed in 2007 when the duo reunited for a charity gig held in honour of Darren ‘Wiz’ Brown, lead singer of contemporaries Mega City Four. His sudden, and tragic, death at the age of 44 after suffering a blood clot on the brain, saw other bands of the era (the likes of the Senseless Things and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin) perform for a show – headlined by Carter.
Explains Morrison: “There was always pressure from fans to reform and we always said no – and I was adamant it would never happen.
“Every now and again you’d get offers to do it from promoters but they weren’t that great.
“But after the charity gig, a promoter came forward and put an idea forward that made it more possible.”
And, as much as the younger Jim Bob would have turned his nose up at it, the gigs more than pay their way.
He explains: “I can totally see why people do it. We’ll make more money from two big gigs then me playing 20 smaller gigs – during which I’m possibly losing money.
“You’d think doing some big Carter gigs would be good publicity for me as an author. But you don’t see that. In fact, it can be the exact opposite.
“If I was doing solo shows and just doing Carter songs I don’t think anyone would come as you’d know you could go and see the real thing and see it done properly.”
All of which means that when Jim Bob tells the crowds at Brixton each year this may be their last ever show, the chances are it very well could be.
Just that the buzz of performing all the band’s greatest hits and the reaction of an enthusiastic crowd can still prove thoroughly intoxicating.
“The other major issue is that the venues are booked so far in advance,” the singer explains. “We play in November but we had to decide by January if we were going to do it this year or the dates would be unavailable.
“What happens to me is you do the gigs and they’re amazing and you straight away think you want to do it again. But after a few months I begin to wish we weren’t doing them because I worry about whether people will buy tickets, about sorting the support acts out, that gets harder every time.
“Then the gigs happen and you’re excited again and the cycle begins again.”
Yet while the return of Carter – albeit only temporarily – can tend to dominate conversation, Morrison believes the more modest fan base he enjoys now are a blend of the former Carter crew and those attracted to his solo music and literature.
Certainly his solo work is far from the raw aggression, driving beats and punk overtones which so characterise the Carter sound. It’s a more gentle ride, his voice singing rather than shouting, but still packed with much of the humour and power which made Carter’s lyrics worthy of repeat listening; 2007’s A Humpty Dumpty Thing a fine example of the heights he can hit.
But while music remains a love, his passion right now is very much with the power of the written word.
Storage Stories, his first self-published book (“I had a one-book deal with myself”) was a well-rounded piece of writing with a deftness of touch which made it compelling.
His latest effort, Driving Jarvis Ham, is out now and the author is clearly a very proud father.
“I get a thrill with finishing a book. I get that more from writing a book than writing an album now. It’s probably why I make less music.
“It may just be that it’s more of a novelty, but I’d rather be writing a book now than an album.
“What’s interesting is that when I write songs I always get the music first and then write the lyrics to the music. With writing, clearly it’s a different method.
“I think it took six years to write Storage Stories. Driving Jarvis Ham is about six months.”
He admits he so far has no idea how the sales are going.
He explains: “I don’t want to shatter illusions, but I couldn’t live off it at all. I don’t think I could eat for a week of a year’s book sales.
“I’m not making any money out of books.
“Doing the Carter gigs helped. It meant I had enough money to do the book myself. It did really well. But I wouldn’t have had the money without the Carter gigs.”
The dilemma facing Jim Bob now is how to juggle his personal artistic integrity with the considerable financial cushion which Carter’s occasional reappearance can deliver.
Judging by the tone of his voice, don’t necessarily expect those annual shows to last much longer.
LIVE: Jim Bob plays Googies at Folkestone on June 1. Tickets are sold out.
BOOK: Driving Jarvis Ham is available now in hardback, audiobook and digital copies.