Soul Searchers: Introducing MONEY

Signed to Bella Union, MONEY preview their pensive, searching debut album with two headline shows at Manchester International Festival this July. Livewire frontman Jamie Lee espouses his thoughts on death, determination, and living in The Shadow of Heaven

Feature by Lauren Strain | 03 Jul 2013

“There are two fundamental things that human beings don't want: one is they don't want to die, the second one is they don't want to be alone,” decides Jamie Lee, dishevelled and devilish frontman of MONEY, as he discusses the title of his band's upcoming debut album dressed in all-black and gobbing a wedge of lemon fished from his tap water. “It can literally be boiled down to those two things, and in a way they're the same. So our ideas of how we create our gods – at least in the West and the Judeo-Christian tradition – is that we don't wanna die, so we create a god that is immortal, and we don't want to be alone, so we create a god that is everywhere.

“And in a way,” he continues, hands paddling, “we pin all our mortal hopes to this point in the universe that, as human beings, we want to reach but can't. Where do we put ourselves on that scale? How do we deal with the fact that we want to be everything and yet we know we're going to die at some stage? That creates a terrible almost insolubility of two things that you have to, to remain sane, combine, and I suppose that is the reason that the record is called what it is: we're always gonna live in the shadow of what we want to be; we're never going to be able to acquire it fully.”

Comprising Lee, guitarist Charlie Cocksedge, bassist Scott Beaman and drummer Billy Byron, MONEY, as you might have guessed, are a band with big ideas (as much as Lee might half-sarcastically, half-sincerely suggest that he doesn't have “the intellectual authority that a writer does – because I'm a musician, remember? It's all about lahv, isn't it?! It's all about lahv!”). But they've a simple sound – combining traditional guitar-band instrumentation with glassy atmospheres and profound, plunging reverb – and a clear ethos: that is, to never compromise.

Over the past couple of years, what Lee describes in a later email as their “obsession for the veracious” has seen them mutate through a number of names including Meke Menete, Youth, Books, and um, Youth/Books, and participate in a variety of live experiments that have taken them everywhere from SWAYS Records' headquarters The Bunker, a caged stage in a semi-derelict district of Salford lit by the gloaming of HM Prison Manchester, to David Lynch's Paris haunt Club Silencio – and this month, they will perform their forthcoming LP The Shadow of Heaven in full for two headline shows at Manchester International Festival.

It's an engagement that feels like an announcement, presenting them to the world on a stage that will attract a global gaze, not just that of the looming Strangeways – though Lee is uncomfortable when it's suggested that there might be anything either grand or neutering about being 'showcased' in this way. “I feel like MIF is hardly a populist or material choice,” he counters, referring to the band's frequently stated intention to “re-create the world on our own terms” – which includes approaching performances in what might be perceived as more straightforward, 'approved' settings by making them their own. “It depends how extreme you want to be,” he says. “Either you can say that all representation is false because it desires to be understood and accepted in some way, or otherwise you can say that the deceitful element of representation is wholly necessary for communication to take place.”

Besides, MIF feels an appropriately ambitious platform for a sonorous, swooping first record that, in its best moments, both dives into close, claustrophobic balladry (Black, Goodnight London) and seems to strive for either a higher state of consciousness or its opposite – a persistently elusive sweet relief (Hold Me Forever, Cold Water). Lee defines the album's narrative, when pushed to identify one for a soundbite to toss to journalists, as that of “a Hell-descent – one into the modern world – where man has been told that he is both God whilst at the same time being told that he is nothing,” and it's this idea that he's exploring on a drab Monday lunchtime in Manchester's empty Night & Day cafe – in between deliberating whether Johnny Marr really has just walked in for a slash, or if he's going to at least buy a coffee to justify use of the toilet.

“Writing music is an attempt to create more time. To stretch it out, weigh it down. To live more” – Jamie Lee

As he describes the existential discord that erupts when we realise – having spent our youth “walking around this wonderfully innocent place” – that life is perhaps not what we've grown up to believe it is, Lee's eyes widen. “Suddenly this voice appears – not literally – and says, you know, you're going to die. And you don't quite believe it at first, and you start to realise that maybe it's the case. And you feel this sense of betrayal, almost. I think the record is still coming out at the back end of that feeling of betrayal, and stepping into the point of throwing off the world because it's not good enough.

“I think that [if] we could comprehend the magnitude of our own disappearance, we would certainly re-evaluate the nature of being alive in varying degrees,” he expands. “I think this is one of the things that the mad understand near perfectly – that they are going to die. Most people would rather not think about death. In British society death has lost its place in our way of life. We try to hide it, we feel awkward talking about it. It is a kind of taboo to even give it internal credence. With the loss of religion, we have lost a cathartic dialogue with mortality. Science suggests that our death will be so total that we would rather forget it's ever going to happen. This is the state that I think most people find themselves [in] – in a kind of temporal immortality, a place where everything tells them that they will lose absolutely everything, and yet they suspect or trick themselves into thinking that they will never really die. To admit it, to understand the totality of their own death, would be too much to live with.”

Finding a way to navigate this schism is a preoccupation that clearly fuels Lee both personally and artistically: “writing music,” he says, “is an attempt to create more time. To stretch it out, weigh it down. To live more. So it is both an acceptance [of] and a vehement attack against death and the cruelty of reality.” In both conversation and the texts he publishes to the band's sites, which can take the form of rambling mini manifestos, flashes of imagery or quotes from admired writers, Lee's verbosity careens wildly from the consciously meandering (“that doesn't make any sense does it, I'm just babbling on, you're looking at me like, God, what the fuck”) to the concise.

It's this seemingly genuine lack of fear of fucking up in the pursuit of something lucid – something essential, something that finally hits the nail on the head – that has earned his band a devoted following; as well as detractors who, with Lee's abstractions and dramatic behaviour as ammo, are swift to shoot them down as lyrical looseness dressed up as poetics, as all gesture and no, erm, gonads. (There was some kerfuffle over the cover of their debut single, 2012's Who's Going to Love You Now?/Goodnight London, which featured Lee stark bollock naked clutching a rifle. “Lots of people who see that picture think it's stupid and provocative and isn't very thoughtful,” he comments. “I think it has merit, y'know? I wanted it to say, I'm gonna show you what I am.”)

But it's the fans that seem to be winning, with word of gigs having gained traction outside of Manchester – the band have a number of European festival appearances lined up – and hyperbole spewing from breathless blogs like that of the anonymous Atrocity Boy, apparently founded solely to document the nascent SWAYS 'scene'. Lee is well aware, however, of the rapidity with which something once authentically exhilarating can be commodified; he's mortified that the promotional spiel surrounding The Shadow of Heaven describes him as ‘a fallen angel with a Macbeth haircut,' and expresses frustration with the way external commentary attempting to eulogise something before it's even properly begun can misunderstand the true origins or energy of a moment. “With the Bunker gigs, we did want to provoke, but we also wanted to do something very genuine,” he says. “Any band could play, people could express themselves freely regardless of how extreme that was, because there wasn't a place like it in Manchester if not in Europe if not in the world. So when people would come from the outside and try and understand it, they would always do a bad job of it, I thought.

“Our name tells you everything you want to know about us in a way,” he offers, as concession. “What is value? What do we find valuable? You go to see Van Gogh in any capital city in the West that would have a painting or two by him, and there's this big crowd of people, and they're engaging with the tragedy of the story... and they're the ones who killed him, really. They kind of represent the static values of mainstream society. That's a crude way of looking at it, but what I want to know is, regardless of all the social or financial value that those paintings have or where you see them, what is their essential value? What does it actually mean?” To try to grasp this as an artist, he suggests, “you have to try and represent a person, a moment, whatever, as well as you can, and that mythologises it, rather than [you] imposing a mythological status on it.

“I would like to be able to get to that stage with lyrics,” he says, admitting that, having barely listened to The Shadow of Heaven since its recording, he's restless to pick up his pursuit of this idea of capturing the ineffable. “I've been quite lofty; not lofty in my ideas, but I've been looking at things from an elevated point rather than right on the surface, and [on the next record] I want to be able to describe the surface.”

“We want to make something powerless, really,” he surmises, “but that, at the same time, still has value and meaning. We don't want to follow the same kind of conventional lines of success that a lot of people want. I think we all want to create a genuine experience – not for other people, but for ourselves, primarily. What is at the heart of the individual?

“What would you say is at the very bottom of yourself? At the very bottom of the world?”

MONEY play the Pavilion Theatre at Festival Square as part of Manchester International Festival, 12 and 13 Jul, 8.30pm, £12

The Shadow of Heaven is released 26 Aug via Bella Union