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Gorillaz’ Jeff Wootton

Gorillaz’ Jeff Wootton

By: Ainsley Walker

After growing up in Manchester, Jeff Wootton has had what you could call a masterclass in music education. In his early 20s, Jeff was called up to play with groups such as Gorillaz and Beady Eye after creating psychedelic instrumental demos with Simon Jones of The Verve. Through these experiences he continued to hone his craft until he found himself in the right position to create his first solo album: ‘The Way the Light’.

After growing up in Manchester, Jeff Wootton has had what you could call a masterclass in music education. In his early 20s, Jeff was called up to play with groups such as Gorillaz and Beady Eye after creating psychedelic instrumental demos with Simon Jones of The Verve. Through these experiences he continued to hone his craft until he found himself in the right position to create his first solo album: The Way the Light.

“I didn’t really know how to write a song until I started playing with people like Damon (Albarn) or Liam (Gallagher),” Jeff says. “Damon’s got a mad gift for melody and I sort of picked up that kind of stuff from him. Also, different influences start brushing off on you, African music and stuff like that. You start getting all these different things coming into your sound.

“I just did Massive Attack’s Ritual Spirit EP which put me onto a whole new thing again; it was interesting to see how they work in a studio,” he continues. “I went down to Bristol and they work in a whole new way that I’d never seen before. Each time I work with somebody I definitely pick up things and it shapes the way you approach things for sure.”

After hearing Jeff Beck’s debut LP Truth as a teenager, Jeff Wootton found himself inspired to pick up the guitar and he began exploring the timeline of music that came before and after what he heard on that album. Creating a solo album was something that was always on his mind, however, he wanted to avoid the predicament that a lot of artists find themselves in whereby they create an album at a young age and end up not being very proud of it a few years down the line.

“I was lucky enough that I could develop my writing while I was involved in all these bands and different projects. I got to a point where it just felt natural and the timing was right,” Jeff says. “I started writing for the album and then I did a tour with Damon. Then I had time off and thought, ‘it’s time to do it, it’s now or never’. I guess they always say you work on your first album all your life and then your second one is a bit rushed. I’ve been working on bits and ideas for a long time but in general for this record I’d say I’ve spent about two years totally working on it.”

 

The recording of The Way the Light took place between Manchester and Topanga, California with the assistance of renowned sound engineer Mark Howard. The two of them would set up renegade studio installations in houses with Jeff playing everything on the album bar drums. The DIY nature of the recording sessions is definitely reflected in the sound of the album, which retains grit and plenty of untouched punch that you would get from a live performance of the songs.

“It was all recorded in stages. Mark Heeney played drums, he’s a really great drummer, so it was just me and him on drums and guitar,” Jeff recalls. “And then we had the engineer, Mark Howard, who’s an amazing engineer. I’ve got to give him some credit, he’s been an engineer for 20 years so he’s done all these Grammy Award-winning records and they all sound amazing, I was a big fan of his stuff.

“He’s the first person I connected with sonically for the sound of the record,” he continues. “The drums and guitar would go down and then we’d pick at bits or loop them and build on it from there. I think with the next record it would be good to do it as a band. I think I’m in a position to do that now, whereas I wasn’t really in that position before.”

The Way the Light is a guitar album at its very core, placing instrumentation and sonics before vocals, for the most part. Importantly though, it remains thoroughly interesting throughout with an enjoyable contrast between tracks. The album opener ‘Sea of Sound’ sets the tone for the album with big, fuzzy guitars ploughing their way into ethereal pitch-shifted sections with the two contrasting sonic styles taking turns in the spotlight before coming together in a crescendo at the end.

‘Venus’ and ‘Reverie’ are two of the stand-out tracks and revolve around swampy, hypnotic grooves and muffled vocals which provide a counterbalance for the more serene moments on the album heard in tracks like ‘So Lonely’ and title track ‘The Way the Light Bends Around You’. ‘Sonik Drips’ also incorporates an otherworldly grace. This peace, however, gets an almighty awakening when a huge breakbeat comes in at just over the halfway mark and carries the listener to the end of the track.

“The album is just a result of being turned on to all this different music I guess,” Jeff says. “You just go, ‘ah, I’d love to write a track like that’ or ‘I’d love to try something like this’. What’s amazing is trying to make it all fit and flow and I think with the guitar you can kind of go on that trip and make it work in a way.”

Having collaborated with other artists for the majority of his career so far, Jeff found himself wanting to put out a body of work that would represent what he’s capable of in his own right and where he’s at as an artist.

“I didn’t want to get anyone else involved for this album, I just wanted to do it off my own back to show that this is what I can do,” Jeff says. “But you know, it’s certainly much to easier when you get people on board to collaborate. I think with the next album I’ll be up for more collaborations and for the live shows coming up we’ve got some good surprises in there – for the gig at 100 Club in London (24th March) for example.”

In early December 2015, Jeff put out a ‘reconstruction’ of ‘The Eternal’, the eighth track on ‘The Way the Light’, which featured Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bootie Brown of The Pharcyde. This alternative version takes the original track in a massively different electronic, hip-hop driven direction.

“I am a big hip-hop fan. Through Gorillaz I’ve been lucky enough to play with people like Mos Def and MF Doom,” Jeff says. “The groove from ‘The Eternal (Reconstruction)’ might get used for the second album but I just wanted to stick something out from where I am at the moment and I’ve always wanted to combine this kind of stuff with hip-hop.

“The stuff I’ve got for the second album has kind of got African beats and it’s got some of that groove stuff you hear on this album. I think maybe a hip-hop direction would be cool for doing something different for some of the tracks,” he adds. “I think the main thing on the first album was making a guitar not sound like a guitar, then maybe I’ll just not even use a guitar at all on the second one! I think every artist should push themselves with every record and do something different and varied. This album is a guitar album but I’d like to do something different for the second one, definitely.”

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