Jim Noir

Off the Cuff

Apr 02, 2008 Spring 2008 - Flight of the Conchords Photography by Simon King Bookmark and Share


Despite his fairly flamboyant appearance and press statements—such as wearing dapper bowler hats and claiming to have recorded his newest album at Abbey Road—Jim Noir is almost painfully shy in conversation. Sipping tea and ending every few sentences with an obligatory “I don’t know...yeah,” he’s soft-spoken and articulate, the kind of man who you would figure prefers to write and record his albums in the privacy of his bedroom. “I’m not a very big talker,” he admits.

The latest product of his reclusive working habits, Jim Noir is a continuation and refinement of 2005’s Tower of Love, a collection of the artist’s first three EPs. Now, making his first properly conceptualized full-length album, Noir decided there was no need for baby steps and is writing a concept album about an astronaut who is about to blast off into space, never to return. But unlike most intergalactic journeys, this one is mostly earthbound, with the protagonist’s story told through memories and ending with the returned astronaut offering advice to what sounds like a playground full of kids. What happened in space? Who knows. Noir won’t even admit to having put that much thought into it.

“I don’t write anything out,” he explains. “I don’t write lyrics down or anything. I do lyrics last. When I have to do them, I just sit there with the mic and see what I like. If I like something, I’ll put it in a song. It’s usually about something that’s from the past, a memory or something. Generally, there are no concise ideas. It’s all a free flow.”

Ultimately, words and concepts don’t matter much for the enjoyment of the music, as Noir’s stock in trade is meticulously layered pop music, part Beach Boys, part Kinks, part Electric Light Orchestra, and all pop classicist. Growing up in Manchester, England, Noir (whose real name is Alan Roberts) educated himself by obsessively listening to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and playing guitar along with Stone Roses records. Noir started writing and recording his songs while still a child, finally going public as a teenager. By then, he was fixated on techno, playing his electronic ditties for friends at school. It wasn’t until his early 20s that he realized he could wield the traditional tools of the songwriting trade even better, writing song after song that seemed pulled out of the canon of great British rock bands. People started to pay attention.

“It’s not something that I was expecting,” he admits. “It started just as a personal experiment. I was making a lot of silly electronic music, so this was almost like a joke. And then it picked up. It’s a lot more successful than I thought it would be. Sometimes I think it could be a lot better,” he says solemnly. “But if I start learning piano theory, I might lose the blind, innocent way of just plonking around on the piano and creating the nonsense that comes out when you’re not playing in a trained way. I don’t know…yeah.”

Much has changed in the two-and-a-half years since Tower of Love became a small sensation. For one, he moved out of his parents’ house and transferred his studio to a new Manchester flat, purchasing some better recording equipment. He also mounted a successful tour in support of Super Furry Animals, making fast friends with the band and joining them on stage during their sets most nights. But where Noir typically evokes images of reclusive pop auteurs, obsessively rewriting and rearranging would-be opuses, he differs from them in one crucial aspect: Noir isn’t the type to fidget through endless variations of his songs.

“I usually get a song idea and record everything in one go,” he explains. “If it doesn’t end up sounding pretty much like it’s going to work within a couple of hours, I just ditch it and start again. If I get bored of it after a while, chances are no one’s going to want to listen to it. I’m not good at going back to anything. I think the ones that I do finish are good because I know what I’ve been doing and know how to finish it. Otherwise I’d just be banging my head against the computer monitor. I’ll save that for my double concept album,” he laughs. “That’s not my style.”

All that goes to say that Noir’s style does emphasize the fundamentals of pop songcraft and immediate hooks to the extent that he’s immediately disqualified from “next-big-thing” conversations. Even so, Noir is utterly content to be out of step with his peers. “I hope so,” he says, audibly smiling when posed that prospect. “I wouldn’t care if I was or not, but that’s what I like, and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s up to everyone else to evaluate that. I couldn’t sit and write things that are nine minutes [long]. It’s too easy. It’s really hard to perfect the art of a perfect pop song. A lot of times I think people rely too much on the epic soundscapes,” he says shyly. “I don’t know…yeah. It’s not for me.”



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