Pete Wareham is on a musical crusade: Acoustic Ladyland‘s frontman abandoned the traditional jazz direction to discover his real identity. Frederick Bernas heard all about it.

It wasn’t a typical jazz club crowd. Over 100 standing people, overwhelmingly young, crammed into Dalston’s Vortex to watch four musicians tear through a set of short, thrashy, piercing songs; this definitely wasn’t a typical jazz club performance. No. It is exactly what Pete Wareham envisioned when the sound of his band transformed into a manic punk-jazz-rock hybrid that can be heard on the albums Last Chance Disco and Skinny Grin.

“I wanted to connect with people who were my age, because a lot of the time people were at least 20 years older than me,” he explains. “I reached a point about five or six years ago where I got a bit confused because I’d gone so far down the jazz route and realised it wasn’t really who I was. I grew up listening to Hendrix, Led Zepellin, Velvet Underground and things like that. Playing the saxophone and listening to all that rock music was like two worlds I could never join together.”

These motivations led Wareham to a new journey, looking at how his instrument could function in a non-jazz context: “One of the big things was trying to explore life as a saxophonist outside playing jazz. I wanted to express my feelings for guitars and vocals because the saxophone can do those things as well, but I had to find a way to play in a rock context that didn’t sound like ‘rock sax’, which is quite a dodgy area.” Amen to that.

On the issue of jazz tradition, he admits maintaining a certain element – “I don’t think it’s about turning your back on tradition, it’s just about not letting tradition intimidate you into thinking you can’t be who you are. You’ve got to develop your own personal approach, trying to find the things you like without being a slave to those things.”

Acoustic Ladyland’s profound evolution is reflected in the fact that, technically, the name of the band is now completely misleading – the songs are far from acoustic. Its genre has been widely discussed but remains ambiguous, perhaps due to Wareham’s reluctance to associate with popular pigeon-holing. “I don’t know what genre it is. It’s just all the types of music I like and we’re trying to squeeze them together,” he states hesitantly.

“I think a lot of people have us down as an experimental avant garde jazz band, which we’re totally not, and I don’t really care,” he continues, with a bitter note in his voice. “I don’t really give a shit to be honest; I’m getting so sick of industry bullshit that I don’t care now. It’s all bullshit. People are being lazy, trying to avoid having to carefully describe something based on what they feel. They just want a quick fix.”

Indeed, the phrase ‘punk jazz’ has been frequently touted in connection to the emerging crop of progressive thinkers such as Wareham and drummer Sebastian Rochford. “In some ways the term ‘punk jazz’ makes me feel sick, but in other ways I quite like it. I like the idea of jazz having become such a studied and perfect thing and for it to be combined with trashy, simple, short songs which have real freedom and attitude. That’s what punk represents to me. Jazz needs a bit of that, a bit of opening up.

“I didn’t want us to be put in the little jazz corner, I want to be pitched against the best bands in the world. That’s not because I think we are one of the best bands in the world or anything like that, but just because I want a fair crack of the whip, not to be marginalised in a little cupboard. No, it’s music, and everyone should be allowed to get into it and not think they won’t bother because it’s jazz.”

This question of jazz apathy amongst audiences is an interesting one – it’s clear that Acoustic Ladyland has succeeded in accessing a far broader target group than hardcore devotees of the genre. “There are loads of people who have never listened to jazz before who love us and want to get into it after hearing we’re from a jazz background, so we tell them about Mingus and all these brilliant things. Mingus was more punk rock than anyone around now.”

Wareham has positive thoughts about the British jazz scene’s current health, but speaks scathingly of the music industry in general. “There are a lot of new bands in the rock and pop world which are doing well, but they’re not doing anything like what the hype suggests and they don’t last very long. An awful lot of good music gets overlooked because it hasn’t got the tag of being this or that, and I think this has been going on for centuries. The media and society always feel like it’s new and different, but if you look at the Victorian age the same thing was going on.”

Is there any hope for improvement? “It’s always the same, I don’t think it’s ever going to change. It’s just up to individuals not to moan about it and find a way round.” Acoustic Ladyland’s defiant musical persona certainly comes through in the words of its leader – “My view is that punk attitude. I was listening to The Clash on the way here, Joe Strummer singing ‘If you lock me out, I’ll kick your door in’, and that’s the thing for me: find your own way of doing it, don’t just moan about the inherent problems.”

One problem faced by many bands is currently afflicting Wareham: label difficulties. Despite the success of Skinny Grin, released on V2 in 2006, the company has since been bought by Universal and appears unenthusiastic. “We haven’t got a record deal at the moment and I’m looking for one,” Wareham elaborates. “I’m talking to anyone who can be arsed to phone me back, which seems to be very few people. It seems a standard thing to have a meeting with somebody who says they’ll call you next week, but you never hear back. Apparently that’s just the way it is, so fair enough. It’s just stupid because they could have a really fucking brilliant thing going on if they were a bit more aware.”

This is an obvious reference to recent Ladyland gigs, which have drawn large crowds across the country. Wareham is not overly worried about the next album, even in the midst of the label dilemma – “I’m not going to do it until I’m ready. I did have a timescale, but it’s been blown out by various record companies not doing what they’ve promised. The music has taken on its own timescale and when it’s really firing I think everything will fall into place.

“We’re absolutely full throttle at the moment and the music is the best we’ve ever done. The band feels the best it’s ever felt and we’re really moving forward. Hopefully someone with a bit of nous somewhere will realise and make themselves known.” Any takers?

Published in London Tourdates magazine, 15/5/08.