September 7, 2017 Interview – Jay Aston of Gene Loves Jezebel
No matter how long the span of time, some bands are simply just difficult to forget. Whether it be their image, name, or most importantly, their sound, they engrave a memory in listener’s minds. One such band which falls into this category are the British Rock band known as Gene Loves Jezebel. Originally brought together by twin brothers Jay and Michael Aston, Gene Loves Jezebel celebrated a line of success in the 1980s with memory songs far different than others on the scene at the time. Mixing various styles that were sometimes dark, other times more Pop oriented, and other times heavier, Gene Loves Jezebel were always uniquely their own.
Unfortunately, much like many bands, internal strife would become a factor, thus making the original Gene Loves Jezebel lineup split like an atom. Confused yet? Well, to help clear it up, there are currently two active versions of the band – Michael Aston’s American Gene Loves Jezebel and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel. Jay’s version of the band is arguably the most pure, featuring long-time members James Stevenson, Pete Rizzo, and Chris Bell. Together they bring fans the first proper Gene Loves Jezebel album in two decades in the form of Dance Underwater.
An album full of powerful music, Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel are proudly keeping the legacy of the band alive and kicking. Recently we caught up with Jay to talk the turbulent history of the band, his decision to continue on as Gene Loves Jezebel, the work behind Dance Underwater, future plans, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – Beginning with Gene Loves Jezebel, the band rose to international success during the 1980s into the ’90s and, over 35 years later, the music still resonates with listeners. First tell us, through the ups and downs, what has the journey been like for you as a musician?
Jay Aston – Oh, God, well that’s a long question. That’s a book, isn’t it? (laughs). Gosh, wow, that’s a really interesting question…I don’t know. I guess, I figure that we’re all alone in the end. That’s what I figure. The journey is a singular one, really. You work with bands or musicians and you learn from each other. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re in a band, like our band, where we’ve been together a long time. We just 1, 2, 3, 4 and off we go, we’re probably like U2 or anyone we sound the same in a bar as we do on a big stage. There is just a chemistry there.
The journey for me is ongoing. I’m still learning. As a musician I try to do things on my own. I learned very early on that you don’t have to be much of a musician if you are a songwriter because you can learn the basic chords and you can write a very good song. You can take Bob Dylan, or David Bowie, or any of these people, they’re not particularly great guitar players, but they were all capable of writing very good songs. Having said that, when you’re young you just want to try and make it, so the journey is how do I become successful? For me it was oh, well I look pretty good, and I’m naturally quite a good songwriter I think. People seem to need me. There were all these great musicians around me, but I’m the one that seemed to always come up with the songs, and that’s all I needed. So you were always looking for the quicker routes.
As I got older I realized that it’s an amazing journey being a musician. You learn so much about yourself. It’s just magical; just as you get into playing guitar and all the options you’ve got as a singer—harmonies and different ways of phrasing things—it’s an ongoing journey that never ends, really. So it’s been lonely at times, but then you find that just by relying on yourself and the independence you can get if you put your mind to it is quite incredible.
That’s what I’ve been doing the last couple of years, really focusing on my own journey being on stage on my own which is very scary where a bad lyric screams or a bum note is captured on YouTube for the world to see (laughs). I love playing with a band because it’s this really safe and secure feeling, and we’ve got a long history together, and this album’s re-energized us. But on my own, I still find it a bit of a cliff edge and exciting. Truly exciting.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting, it sounds like you have learned a lot through the years. Well known, it has not always been an easy road for the band through personal conflicts and such. These type of things can often break someone’s spirit. Through it all, what was the key for you to keep moving forward with Gene Loves Jezebel?
Jay Aston – As far as the band goes, apart from obviously one person, we’re great friends. We’ve had our ups and downs, we have our differences of opinions. Politically, sometimes we’re totally on the same page and sometimes we’re not. We’ve all had massive falling outs but we’re still friends. We can still walk up to each other and respect each other and thirty-odd years later still have a great love for each other and there’s a great respect for each other, which is amazing.
It’s that kind of support. Unfortunately, with Gene Loves Jezebel, a lot’s happened. We haven’t worked as much as we should have worked, but we get to get at least once or twice a year. That’s always been magical and we end up making this new album. We do a gig or two and everyone says how great it was and that we must make an album. Then we jump on an airplane and go our separate ways, then we wouldn’t see each other for another year.
Last year we did a festival in Portugal which was great—we did a few encores and everyone was really up about it. As usual they all get trashed and say “Jay you’ve got to do another album” as if I’m the one holding out, which I’m not. I said, “Well, guys, you say this to me every year for the last ten, fifteen years” and if we should do something about it. If we’re going to do an album let’s do it with a proper studio and let’s do a pledge music thing. Me being a very lazy person, I’m not a perfect guy to launch all that stuff. But Pete Rizzo being the kind of guy who’s a bass player, guitar player, and singer, and very much a songwriter, too, he just got on with it. He’s very good when he puts his mind to something, he just makes it happen. He called me, I was in L.A. and off we went to get the pledge going.
Dance Underwater was great to make, because as I said we’re all such great friends, we all loved making it. We were all really into it. Sometimes we’ll do songs on other albums and Chris might not like one song and James Stevenson doesn’t like a guitar part. For some reasons with this album, we all loved making it. It was a joy to make.
It’s the friendship that’s kept us together. There’s a unique thing going on when we play. People can recognize who we are as soon as we count in and start playing. Chris Bell and Pete Rizzo have been together since Immigrant (1985), which was the first internationally released album. Promise (1983) didn’t come out in lots of many places for years later. As soon as they start playing James is like, “Wow that’s Gene Loves Jezebel.” That’s why we called it Gene Loves Jezebel. We were thinking of changing the name because of some of the nonsense we’ve had to put up with from another source, but the label went, “No, that sounds amazing. That’s Gene Loves Jezebel.” That’s why we carried on.
CrypticRock.com – It is great to hear new material. Dance Underwater is Gene Loves Jezebel’s first studio record in quite some time.
Jay Aston – It’s the first new material for like 20 years or something. VII (1997) was a lot of my solo stuff which we just put on the album. That wasn’t an easy record to make at all because my brother was involved for a while. I literally spent a day and a half on that record. I sang and left. So this is like all new album of fresh material where Pete Rizzo and James Stevenson has contributed.
CrypticRock.com – Fantastic. Dance Underwater retains the classic sound of the band but it also has a modern sound it to. Being that it has been awhile since the band released new material, was it a challenge to pinpoint that sound you were looking for?
Jay Aston – Well, in some ways we didn’t take any chances. It’s obviously the four of us and we’ve made a few albums together and we used obviously Peter Walsh. We did “Desire (Come and Get It)” and The House of Dolls (1987) and Heavenly Bodies (1993), which is one of our favorite albums. There was a budget and we just wanted to do as well as we could. We went to Barrie Barlow’s studio, he’s the ex-Jethro Tull drummer, who’s an amazing guy.
The challenge was were we going to perform and what we would bring to it. You hear a lot of bands of our age group or whatever, they’ll do records and the singer can’t sing anymore, or the guitar player doesn’t have anything fresh to give and it’s tired. They’ve cut the budget so they can make some money since it’s so hard for people to make money, but that wasn’t what we were looking for. We were just trying to make a great record. We didn’t care about making money because there’s not much money to be made. We just wanted to make something that was special and unique. We think we’re a unique band. There is no one quite like us. We do not really fit into any genre particularly well.
Anyway, the challenge was songs. Peter and I had been working on a thing called Ugly Buggs which we developed together. We talked about musicians developing stuff, this is where I just wanted to sing and I brought a lot of songs in, but Peter had to play all the guitars and he got into learning how to use Logic and all that stuff. It was fun, we wore makeup and wigs and it was all very theatrical. We did a couple of gigs and we wrote songs. There were a couple of songs on there which probably is where James Stevenson came to see us play and said, “You’ve got to do a couple of these songs as Gene Loves Jezebel songs. They deserve an orchestra,” and we said “Sure.” Because it’s very obscure, the Ugly Buggs stuff…so we did a couple of songs from there.
The song “IZITME” was an interesting one because I had other songs, and we literally sit down—again one of James’ strengths is he’s very good at picking my good songs. There’s one song I wrote called “Ain’t It Enough” actually which is a very old song. I can’t remember why I never recorded it. Stuff had happened and I didn’t put it out. James actually remembered some of the melodies I sang, some of the verses which I had just completely forgotten about. He’s very musical. He’s got a great ear.
So we needed one more song and I got this song called “Palestine,” but I thought it was political and I didn’t want it to be a political record. We could have made a political record because of the politics that we’re all going through in the world right now. But I thought let’s make an up record. Let’s make something that will make people feel good, make us feel good. So we sat down, all of us…and just went through my hundreds of songs…I write all the time. We were going through and that song popped up, which I thought was just a song. I’ve written most of the songs…and we didn’t think any of them originally because I’m probably too close to them to recognize them as good.
We did “How Do You Say Goodbye (To Someone You Love)” and Tony Visconti loved it! James asked him to do the strings and he said, “Of course.” It was that kind of very positive vibe. The songs were strong. It was good for me because Pete Rizzo, as I said earlier, came in with some songs which he’d written with me which was nice to have someone else have the responsibility. It was a great record to make, and I think that’s why it sounds like a fresh record.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly does, and these are very strong songs. What really stands out are the lyrics. There certainly seems to be a wide range of emotion from pain, to triumph, to trying to keep moving forward. What was the inspiration behind these lyrics? Were they new lyrics or things that have come together over years?
Jay Aston – Well, as I said earlier, “Ain’t It Enough” was a song I’d written a while ago but the lyrics have definitely added to where I am now. That’s actually originally a very dark, dark song. It was more Joy Division or some German bands of the early ’70s. The band liked it and it just turned into more of a Country song, I thought, which I liked. A bit more humorous.
There have been some tragedies that have happened, especially for Peter. Peter had a run of bad luck and some of the lyrics come from that. With “Dance Underwater,” Peter asked me originally to write that song. Pete never sang. We tried to get him to sing but he could never sing. I went through a process where I completely lost my voice. I smoke too much, drank too much, didn’t care. I went through a period of not caring. Then I realized it was a gift so I got it back. I literally taught myself how to sing again…I think singing is an amazing thing. It’s very uplifting. It’s better than yoga, I think.
I would show up to sing—he asked me to sing lyrics for him about things that happened to him…and half of them ended up on some of the songs for this record. There came a point when I told him to sing—he did some vocals for Ugly Bug stuff and he released it and I thought it was me singing! I thought, “Bloody hell, Pete, that’s amazing.” So he found his own voice. If you listened to Pete Rizzo sing twenty or thirty years ago you’d have said, “Keep away from the microphone,” but now he can sing. So he brought things to the table for this record, and some lyrics. Pete’s lyrics naturally can be very dark so I changed them to fit my mood as well so they cover us both.
Some of the lyrics you would not get. “How Do You Say Goodbye (To Someone You Love),” they were my lyrics, but it’s much darker than people realize if you look into the lyrics. “Charmed Life (Never Give In),” that relates directly to “Break The Chain,” which is a very popular song, especially in Latin countries, much to our surprise. I’m always pleased with that song because it’s about my struggle of life, all our struggles with life, really. We didn’t realize it was a popular song. We were asked to play in Portugal and they asked, “Why didn’t you play ‘Break the Chain?’” It’s like a national anthem there. Even in the U.S. we played it and it goes down very well. That was an important song for us.
At an Ugly Buggs gig in Italy we were asked if we could do some Gene Loves Jezebel stuff and we said, “Sure…” and we did “Break the Chain,” but it didn’t sound like “Break the Chain,” to me, and that’s where “Charmed Life” came from. People say the best stuff comes really quickly. The lyrics came really quickly, and I’m very pleased with the lyrics because it shows where I am as a man, as a human being, from where I was when I first wrote “Break the Chain.” “Charmed Life” is very much where I feel I am now, and it’s a very uplifting song. I did it acoustic recently at a friend’s festival. The original bass player, actually, Steve Marshall, who was on the very first album, has a little private festival in his garden and I play acoustically and I played a couple of new songs. I played that one, and it just catches people. It’s one of those songs that comes alive when you do it live I think.
Other songs? Only one song in my entire life I ever wrote that I wrote for somebody else doesn’t include real situations or real people, and that was “Who Wants to Go to Heaven?,” which I wrote for Anne Rice for that movie Interview with the Vampire (1994). I near got it, but they ended up giving a song on the soundtrack to Guns N’ Roses because it was a Geffen Picture, but hey that’s another story. Generally my lyrics are always about real things I can relate to, so when I sing them and perform them on stage, I know what they’re about. Sometimes I tell people what they’re about, but as I said, the album is songs that would surprise people. They think they’re about something but they’re actually about something else. Even if they’re slightly older songs, they’ve all been up to the minute, changed slightly for relevance.
CrypticRock.com – It is fascinating that you say the lyrics show where you are and where you have been. As consumers, we look at that as well. The music, as they say, is a soundtrack to your life. You live through music, and you relate it to points in your life—good and bad memories.
Jay Aston – Totally. A song will bring back so many memories, it’s unbelievable, really.
CrypticRock.com – Yes! Now you mentioned you were playing dates around Europe. Is there possibility of some North American dates in support of the new music?
Jay Aston – We hope so. We’d love to! The problem we’ve had in the U.S. is there’s another Gene Loves Jezebel, which my brother has been touring around for the last 14-15 years. He’s been around so much people don’t realize that it’s not us. He does a lot of these ’80s things with A Flock of Seagulls and those kind of bands that have nothing to do with us. We’ve never done those kind of festivals. The problem is people don’t realize it’s not us and the name’s been touring round and round and round. That hurt us. For this album, we were actually going to change the name, but as soon as we started playing, it was Gene Loves Jezebel. The label just loved the album and asked if they could put it out.
They said, “Look, any problems…we have very powerful lawyers, we will sort it out, but you must keep the name. That’s the sound.” They’re a big independent company in the U.K., So yes, we will come. We think we can work it out because we have people looking after us that can’t be bullied by American lawyers (laughs). We will see how the album sets in. There are definitely plans for us to be coming. It might be more likely in the early part of next year, but you never know. You can’t forecast these things.
CrypticRock.com – That is a positive thing to look forward to. That has to be frustrating. These types of things happen more than you would think. There are a lot of two versions of bands coexisting, which can be confusing to consumers sometimes.
Jay Aston – It hurts us because obviously they tend to use our image constantly. And obviously use “Desire” and all my songs and my voice. We get upset when we got these hired hands hashing up our music. It’s very frustrating. We’ve never split up. We’ve been together a long time. As you said, it’s not uncommon. There are tons of horror stories out there where there’s not one original member of the band and there’s cousins singing (laughs). There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say.
Hopefully the label will get it out there that it’s us – Me, Pete, James and Chris. The same guys that did all those records and toured the U.S. We all like playing. As I said, we’re all friends, we have great fun when we do it, and we’ve got a lot of material. This record has re-energized us. To be honest, when we used to get together we never even rehearsed because we know the songs so well. We’d just go and do them and you know the reaction you’d get. To be doing all these new songs—we’ve done some gigs in Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and a London gig, half the set we were doing the new album. We were finishing the set with “How to Say Goodbye to Someone You Love,” which is pretty unprecedented to play a song that no one’s ever heard; plus, it being a ballad as your last song.
The way we approach the music, the whole band just feels fresh. All things I’ve learned from doing my own thing, all the things I’ve learned from Ugly Bugs and my solo stuff, it all comes into play. Obviously, James Stevenson and Chris Bell, they play in lots of bands. They’re involved in music and recording all the time…The Alarm, The Cult, etc. Not working that much with Gene Loves Jezebel has actually helped them grow because they’ve really branched out into all kinds of other music. I was stunned that James could come in and add all these amazing guitar parts to songs in such as short space of time.
We reached the pledge amount we needed, the budget was tight, and we had a good studio. Luckily Barry Barlow gave us some extra time, but there was no time for messing around. James literally had to deliver this fabulous collection of guitars he has—he’s a guitar dealer, too. He deals in vintage guitars. He brought them all down and amazed me that he could just plug in and do all that amazing stuff. They are all great musicians. That’s what people deserve to see and this reinvigorated Gene Loves Jezebel. It’s an interesting set.
CrypticRock.com – Fantastic. Well it will be exciting to see fan’s reactions once Dance Underwater officially hits the North American market come September 15th. My last question for you is pertaining movies. On CrypticRock, we cover music as well as Horror/Sci-Fi related films. If you are a fan of the genres, what are some of your favorites?
Jay Aston – You should talk to Chris Bell, he is a huge fan of comic books and Horror movies. I don’t watch too many Horror movies. Just the obvious ones like The Exorcist (1973) and The Evil Dead (1981) I enjoyed. I thought The Blair Witch Project (1999) was amazing. Generally speaking, I am much more of an outdoor person. If I am not playing guitar at home and singing, I am outdoors walking for 20 or 30 miles. The last thing I watched with any depth was Breaking Bad and that was amazing. It really gripped me. I should watch more, I am sure if I get a girlfriend who is into it I will (laughs).