British retro-future funk crew Jamiroquai had about three years as American alterna-pop icons. After frontman Jay Kay wriggled around the couch in the iconic 1996 trompe-l’œil “Virtual Insanity” clip, they nabbed four MTV Video Music Awards, a Saturday Night Live performance, a song on the Godzilla soundtrack and a 2:45 p.m. performance at Woodstock ’99. … And that was about it.
However, in the years that followed, Jamiroquai were steadily scoring hits in the U.K. and Japan and – outside the eye of American media – filling arenas around the world. Pharrell Williams, Chance the Rapper and Tyler, the Creator all cited them as an influence. When Jamiroquai returned to America earlier this year – their first show here in more than 12 years – they were listed on the second line of the Coachella poster before War on Drugs and Vince Staples. Twitter’s surprised reaction felt like “Where have they been?” but the real question was “Where have we been?”
Last year, Jamiroquai released the forward-funking Automaton, their first album since 2010. Since leader Jay Kay’s recovery from a spinal injury in May, Jamiroquai will return again to the States to hit Chicago’s North Coast Festival, Florida’s Hulaween and a sold out show at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium. Rolling Stone talked to Jay in Portugal, where Jamiroquai had a headlining spot on the Festival Marés Vivas.
“I’ve always been a bit like what we call over here, marmite, this kind of spread,” says Jay Kay. “You either love it or hate it. So that’s what it’s like with me. The Marmite Kid. Hey, Chris, don’t tell me that’s not what you’re gonna put as your run-in, you know you are.”
First and foremost, tell me about your spine.
I don’t think it’s gonna be the same again. I think my days of 10-foot leaps in the air have kind of gone. And you know, the knees are starting to give out. I’m just getting old, Chris. But [the injury in May] really screwed things up. I had to drop a load of stuff, like big gigs like the O2 [Arena in London]. … I kinda laid in pain for like eight, nine weeks on a sofa, which is pretty dull. It’s kind of only when you lose your mobility that you realize how much I like to move around. … I swore that if anybody ever came to me and said, “I’m not coming into work today I’ve got a bad back,” I would go, “Fine, no problem” [laughs].
Well, I don’t know. I’ve got a feeling that I did the classic, “Hey, kids, I’ll show you what daddy used to do. I’ll show you a back somersault on the trampoline,” and, um, didn’t quite make it. It didn’t hit me at first, and then I started to get this real stiffness in the back and then, wow, I’ve never had pain like it. So, I had two operations on it. … It’s workable now. I’m working through it. I’m still rolling.
Has it been fine during the shows?
The one thing is moving around less has given me more breath for the voice. So, that’s been a bit of a bonus. The voice has been doing really well and it’s been holding up. I’ve been doing better performances than I did 10 years ago.
Tell me about the seven years between Rock Dust and Automaton. You basically went off and were a dad?
That’s roughly it. I think I just got to that point like everybody does when I was just going round and round and round the world and I was kind of getting bored of me, getting bored of the band, we were all bored of each other. … I was just wondering what am I doing this for … I actually asked myself: Who are you going to hand this on to? I mean it’s great, it’s great, go around the world and make some money and drive fast cars and fly helicopters and it’s all wonderful – but what’s in it? What am I really doing? I’m not really doing anything. I’ve not got my head screwed on.
I mean suppose the first couple of years we’d been touring Rock Dust, so the other five, I mean literally, sort of shot by. [Matt Johnson, keyboardist started working on music] and then I got the news that, well, you’re gonna have a kid. … Then everything came to a halt for 18 months really. … I sort of got with the dad thing and then started the other album up and released that. And then I had another one. An heir and a spare, as they say [laughs]. So that’s changed the dynamic of what I’m doing as well … I tell you what, it’s such a wonderful thing. You don’t get cuddles like that anywhere. I never had a cuddle like that in my life. Where else do you hold a four-inch-long foot, eh?
These years are starting to become magic now. The eldest … she saw the footage of one of the gigs, like 25,000 people there, she said to her mum, “Daddy’s got lots of friends, doesn’t he?” I thought to myself, “If only you knew the truth, kid.”
What did you expect the reaction to the Automaton announcement was going to be?
I felt the reaction was gonna be good. I felt like people were gonna go, “Oh, shit, I thought those fucking guys disappeared and you’re never gonna fucking hear from them again.” And I’ll be honest with you, I think a lot of people thought, “That’s the end of them, you’re never gonna hear from them again.” And in my mind, that was never the case. It’s like an addiction. I’m never gonna stop writing tracks.
Here’s a quote from the NME: “It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment Jamiroquai went from silly bloke in a hat to a cherished musical icon, but a sea change has happened.” What was your reaction to this idea that people were saying this guy is kind of uncool – but also, no, he actually is cool.
I don’t know, I was kinda quite happy, pleasantly surprised. … That was definitely like, whoa, crikey, thank you.
Has that surprised you that everyone is sort of citing you now as this secret influence?
I mean it’s very flattering. It’s interesting, I watched the Eric Clapton Life in 12 Bars documentary. … It’s a fascinating documentary, but listening to that, you also remember that, y’know what, everybody got their shit from somewhere else. Snippets, bits, bobs. From a couple of years now I’ve been admiring that Vulfpeck. … I think they’re magic. I tell you what’s good as well is Jungle, they’ve done some great stuff as well. I’d really like to do some stuff with them. They’re right up my street, y’know?.
Tell me about your relationship with America because it’s very different than your relationship with other parts of the world.
Let’s get something straight, it’s not with the American audience by any stretch, it’s been with the way I’ve been kinda, sort of handled in the past in a way. If you rewind back to Travelling Without Moving, it’s [a platinum album], [four] MTV awards, Grammy. Big kind of thing. And then I got bumped around from Columbia to a subsidiary of Columbia to here, to there. Bumping me around. You think, “Hey, you know what, this is really working!” And then you wander out into Times Square. … In big, massive, great letters. Bearing in mind that these are some young guys that live near me. About 18 years old. And the guy who used to manage me – in inverted commas – managed them. A band called Damage. You’d see ’em in fucking great lights. You’d see this in fucking St. Louis. And then you’re just thinking, “Hold on a minute, if I was looking after me as an artist, I’d have up there – it’s hard to say this without sounding like a prick – but I’d have Jamiroquai.” Fucking [four] MTV Awards, Video of the Year, whatever. And you just think, well who didn’t think of that?
And, I just think, at times, I’m a reasonably feisty guy, there’s no two ways about it. I wanna do what I wanna do. I don’t wanna get kicked around. … I was just getting touchy and tired of it. And then we got the next Grammy nomination. Everybody else whose got a fucking nomination is down in the thing and I’m up 600 feet in the back of the fucking thing [laughs]. I’m just like, well, hold on a minute. It’s still a nomination. It was a kind of weird thing and I was just like, I don’t know whether I’m gonna get anywhere here.
And then we went back round in a circle going back on to doing, like, college circuit. “Oh, you know what, it’s really gonna work this time.” And I’m all like, “But dude, I’ve done this. I already did this! 1993, 94. I did it. I’ve done it! Why am I going back? I’ll get to the point. I’m coming over to the States one time, we did like 15 shows or something like that. I came home with a 100,000 dollar bill. Then I go to South America and do seven gigs then go home with … 4 million fucking dollars. … As you guys would say, do the math. … You’re coming back with the kind of money that pays for you, your band, your freight, your equipment, your stuff, you got 35 people on the road, and you just can’t do it, that kind of thing, that set up, and you can’t turn around to everybody go, “Oh, do you know what, I’m gonna just strip this back, guys.”
Nobody wants to do it more than me, which is why I’m really happy I’m coming. Because it’s great. Because [the American fans have] been supportive and they get it and they’re faithful and they’re loyal to it.
How was your Coachella?
I’d always wanted to do it. Coachella’s Coachella, y’know. … It was like, “Look, guys, we gotta be on point here. It’s a big thing because of the amount of exposure it gets.” So I wanted us to get it right. I think we did get it right. It was just like, we gotta go in at all guns blazing. I kinda wanted people to sort of go, “What the fuck? Who are these guys?” Sort of get a little bit stunned. Bit of rabbit-in-the-headlight kind of vibe. And luckily the crowd were fantastic.
How’d you hook up with Snoop Dogg for the performance?
That was just an idea that got bandied about. … And he’s a lovely fella. Y’know what made me laugh, Chris? They came in the dressing room … And he’s smoking a blunt and I’m thinking, how many of those does he get through a day? It’s just like some astronomical amount. And anyone’s thinking, “How does he hold it together?” And then I get to San Francisco, flick through two channels, the next minute, I see him in a red dinner jacket with a bow tie, doing some kind of fucking game show [laughs]. And I thought, how the fuck does he hold it together? [Laughs] Really nice guy, though. Proper gent. Proper gent.
We had to drive back ’round to the sort of VIP sort of area [at Coachella]. … I don’t get to party or go out these days so I’m thinking, “Hey, y’know what, I’ve got like four days off. I’m gonna go smash it up til about three or four in the morning.” And I got back, walked through the door like, “Hey!” There was nobody there. Everybody had gone. It just shut down. Of course I didn’t realize it just shuts down. My face dropped. My chin hit my shoes. It was like, what the fuck’s going on here, where is everybody?.
When did you first start getting word that a lot of American rappers were into your stuff?
I remember that many, many years ago when Pharrell sort of was kind of banging to it. And I think he sort of noted me out as an influence and what have you. … Missy Elliott years ago. Well, she took, [hums “Space Cowboy”], then of course sped it up, [hums Elliott’s “Bite Our Style (Interlude)”]. I bumped into her with Amy Winehouse. I said, “So you like the track then?” She went, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I hope you got fuckin’ paid for it” [laughs].
The last big show you played in America, before Coachella, was Woodstock ’99.
The video of you at Woodstock ’99 is outrageous.
All I know is that there was a bit of mud-throwing about. … I seem to remember coming off, seeing as I was wearing all white with a white feathered hat, and there wasn’t a speck of it on me [laughs], which just showed how good I was at dodging mud. And I do remember taking off in the jet and then going, “Shit, what’s going on down there?” And going to the pilot, “Just go around one more time.” And I go, “They’re having a fuckin’ riot!” [Laughs] Like burning fucking things and it was just like, whoa, maybe we left at the right time. … It looked like fucking Watts.
The other thing I really remember was … it was like a rolling camera at the front, y’know right to left, left to right, right to left, and I came around and I kinda just jumped onto his fucking thing and we rolled along together. And he looked up, and he went, “Great man, this is the most exciting fucking thing to happen to me all day” [laughs].
How often do people ask you about the bug in the “Virtual Insanity” video?
The cockroaches. Yeah, quite a lot. What they should be asking me is like, “How much did you panic when you realized that this was the only take where the blood would come out and once the blood was coming out of the fucking walls, there was no stopping it. So you better get the take right.” … You know what makes me laugh? Go back and look at it again. A) There’s a continuity thing, which I changed jackets. The two jackets I was wearing. One’s a lighter blue than the other one out of the four takes that the video got to do. Secondly, look at the blood again, coming out. It’s supposed to seep from the walls. And after a while it starts pissing out like somebody doing a fucking Sunday car wash on a hose pipe [laughs].
The hat that you wore in that video, where is it right now?
That hat I gave – and every now and again I kick myself for it – but then again sometimes it’s nice to let things go. … I gave that to a guy called Ken who worked very hard at the Japanese record company at the time, when we were just, like, the fucking biggest-selling non-Japanese artist in the world. … He worked so hard and what have you, I gave it to him. So, Ken, if you’re out here, A) I hope you still got that fucking hat. And B) if you get bored of it and you want to send it back, here’s my address [laughs].