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Jam City
Photography Alec McLeish

Jam City: radical romantic

South London’s electronic artist channels a post-riots optimism on ‘Dream A Garden’, his boldest album to date

It’s hard to talk about the work of Jam City without falling into the trap of talking about his “world”; and yet, the more you delve into it, the more the “world” of his two yin-and-yang albums – 2011’s hi-def Classical Curves, and the lo-fi follow-up Dream A Garden – feels uncannily familiar. Like the best science fiction writers, 25-year-old Latham has built a universe that, when you lean a little bit closer, doesn’t feel all that different from our own.

Having grown up in the suburbs of south London and lived in the city on and off since his student days, the artist has something of a romanticised perspective on the capital; over the sound of sirens screaming down Camberwell Church Street at irregular intervals, he talks about how London life itself is pretty much as surreal as science fiction, if you choose to notice it. “It’s something about the interconnectedness, where everything kind of smears into one another,” he says. “I was walking through Waterloo the other day and there were police with M16s, literally, cocked M16s, walking by billboards with huge gleaming diamond-encrusted watches and half-naked women. To smear it all, to see it all at once, you begin to feel like it’s all interconnected, and it is. Those images you see, the aggression you see in the police force: they are all linked, they are all part of the same system.” That smearing runs through his latest campaign, and particularly the recent video for single “Unhappy,” where chiselled abdomens are transposed over footage of buildings being demolished, headlines about terrorism bleed into Hugo Boss billboards, and Latham sings in a jacket declaring “CLASS WAR” while standing in front of Topshop.

If that all sounds a bit sincere, that’s because it is, and unabashedly so. Embracing ideals – and hell, love – in the face of a grimly oppressive system is the whole point of Dream A Garden, which is why Latham, who once hid behind bionic body parts and swoops of hair in his press shots, now bounds open-armed through the streets singing to camera.

On the surface, it seems like a radical new direction. Back in August 2011, Latham made his debut as Jam City on London’s agenda-setting Night Slugs with Classical Curves: a hyperreal vision of a world made of polished chrome; a world of disembodied designer sneakers squeaking on waxed floors, of purring engine revs and angles hard as diamonds. It would go on to be heralded as a Ballardian vision of an electronic album, gracing end-of-year lists and signalling a new, super-slick era in London’s underground dance scene. An ex-art student and performance artist/designer, Latham made his debut just after the end of a strange period spent spying on corporations for a major athletics brand, and its textures reflect the intensity of that mega-capitalist, mega-impersonal environment.

But right before its release, Latham had his real world upturned as he stood on the high street in his home of Peckham, watching the worst British riots in decades erupt in front of him. “To see that street – which is used for shopping, it’s used to sell people things, it’s used for advertisements – to see it empty and strewn with broken glass, it makes you have a completely different relationship to your environment.”

Flash forward to February 2015, and Latham is sitting in a mixed grill just 20 minutes up the road from the scene he’s remembering, explaining the way his music has evolved since that summer. On Classical Curves, glass seemed to smash around the artist’s electronic contortions with purpose; it was a sharp, clear sound, all edges and shine. But on his second album Dream A Garden, released this March via Warp x Night Slugs, the experience is more like one of walking a street lined with the aftermath of broken windows. Sludgy, half-buried vocals, scratchy post-punk textures and halting rhythms paint a picture of the physical decay and disruption that lurks under the surface of a mega-capitalist world. Made with the same samples, the same audio interface, the same guitar processed in different ways, the album is one that looks at the realm he built in Classical Curves with newly opened eyes, much like how Londoners saw their city transform in 2011. 

But it’s not all decay. The flipside of that transformation is the solidarity that blossomed from it; and that’s not lost on Dream A Garden, whose very title is all about reaching for something purer rather than dwelling on harsh realities. As well as seeing his familiar high street strewn with glass, Latham remembers being instilled with a new sense of community after watching the riots unfold. “It’s obviously a complicated issue,” he says, “but to walk down a street you’ve walked down a million times, and to see it lined with riot police on one side, and then you and a crowd of people who are your neighbours, your community, shouting and screaming at the police for murdering this innocent man, Mark Duggan; you’re feeling that sense of collective rage and anger and unfairness at the situation – but also feeling the connecting of the community. There were people that had lived there for 30, 40, 50 years, and there were people that had just moved there that summer to study. But there was a sense of solidarity in that moment.”

“We can find love and compassion in acts of kindness, or in appreciating art or music, or in being generous and sharing things, not living a life dominated by greed” – Jack Latham

On the waxed floors and metal limbs of Classical Curves, Latham skirted close to fetishising a kind of heightened accelerationism: literally revving and speeding up the process of capitalism to its inhumanly pristine end. Afterwards, he didn’t just want to flesh out the more human underbelly of that world – he felt he had to. On the single “Crisis,” the violence of the riots ruptures back into the picture it was Photoshopped out of on Latham’s debut album: “do you remember?” he sings, “the burnt-out shell of a car? The black batons under the stars?” After feeling the very real turmoil of the world he lived in, he felt he had a responsibility to voice it in the world he was creating. “There’s a dangerous fantasy aspect to Classical Curves, so that I think it becomes necessary to tell part two of the story,” says Latham. “When you represent that reality – that glossiness, people maybe call it ‘hyper-consumerist’ or something – you’re perhaps speaking to a very privileged few. It’s a world of being pleasantly depressed by their iPhones. And that isn’t reality.”

For Latham, raised on a mish-mash of punk, soul, hip-hop, metal and whatever else he could get his hands on at the local library, that kind of pleasant consumerist ennui wasn’t a factor of his childhood. “When I was growing up, those advertisements, those things only brought me anxiety, because I couldn’t afford anything like that. It’s situating all those things within a larger context...Behind those aesthetics, behind those glossy sheens of luxury, is disgraceful human suffering globally. And I don’t think it’s okay to just represent without talking about the other.” 

It’s an aesthetic that’s rife in today’s underground, where we’re seemingly obsessed with the impact of growing up under capitalism: labels like PC Music proliferate uncanny photoshopped beauty and advertisements for fictional energy drinks, while Sweden’s sad boys rattle off list after list of brand names over deadpan, hollow-eyed beats. Where Latham’s approach differs to that of these accelerationist scenes is in one crucial consideration: if you’re going to replicate the tropes of capitalism, he says, you also need to “situate them in a context of global violence and oppression.” When you ironically riff on these images, according to Latham, “you’re in danger of replicating a lot of the real ideologies of hatred that goes into the production of those images. So you’re replicating violent images of women being objectified, you’re replicating racial stereotypes, or a hierarchy of whiteness, where you privilege white beauty over all else. And you’re making an assumption that this world of glamour is something that we all partake in equally.” 

Instead of an ironic or playful replica, Latham wants to offer a way out of a depressive cycle by posing an alternative. Dream A Garden, with its swirling guitar licks and its dreamy light-touch vocals, attempts to recapture the feeling he got as a 13-year-old hearing Curtis Mayfield’s aching lyrics for the first time, or finding a reading list hidden in the liner notes of a Rage Against The Machine album in the library to be a “lifeline.” In the hope that some kid will feel similar pangs of identification with the angst of this record, he’s included a monochrome lyric booklet along with his new release.

While they’re muffled in the mix, once you reach them, the words of this album are where Latham’s message really rings through: on “Unhappy,” the song that incessantly asks “are we unhappy?,” the final answer given is “I was unhappy; until I met you.” “Crisis” urges you to “hold your best friend, he’s low.” On the closer “Proud,” the final words of the album are a simple statement – a direct stare into the eyes of the listener – “I tried to make a deal, to show you I’m proud.” It’s not just the lyrics: the liner notes themselves bear the words “LOVE IS A FORM OF RESISTANCE,” as well as a very personal thanks to Latham’s “partner in crime” C. A. Blue Roan.

“We can find love and compassion in acts of kindness, or in appreciating art or music, or in being generous and sharing things, not living a life dominated by greed,” Latham tells me. “I don’t know quite how to realise the world that I perhaps would want to live in. I don’t know how we’d get there. But I think you can make a start by reclaiming dreams of closeness and sensitivity and understanding.”

It’s not a new idea, but rather one Latham is forcibly re-inserting into a world obsessed with iterations and reiterations of consumer culture. After our interview, he sends me links to two Curtis Mayfield songs to check out, after I asked for recommendations of his favourites. The first, “Blue Monday People,” floods out of my headphones with a sentiment as clear as if it had been recorded yesterday. “The system needs us, but it’s trying to mislead us. They know this money don’t feed us,” Mayfield sings. Latham’s closing of his album on a declaration of self-love and pride is in conversation with a direct truth Mayfield and others have been singing for generations – the idea that love can pull you through – and proves that this album, no matter how scruffy or dilapidated its sounds might be, is the utopian half of Jam City’s coin; Classical Curves the dystopia. “Sometimes life don’t get along,” Mayfield goes on. “But when the cupboards are bare, our love we can share.”

Dream a Garden is out on March 25 on Warp x Night Slugs