Jamiroquai 2017: Automaton
Few but the most iconic acts in music can claim a career that’s lasted 25 years. Even fewer can claim to have marked that anniversary by releasing one of the strongest albums of their career. Longevity is one [rare] thing. Continuing to refine, improve and even reimagine the winning formula that sold a staggering 27 million albums, earned armfuls of awards including a Grammy, an Ivor Novello and five MTV awards, and sold-out five world tours along the way, is very much another. Yet with spectacularly taut electro-funk grooves and inescapable sci-fi floor-fillers, that’s exactly what Jamiroquai main man Jay Kay has done for the band’s eighth studio album, Automaton. From the intergalactic grind of the title track to the handclap disco of first single Cloud 9 and cruising sunshine of Something About You it’s every inch a classic Jamiroquai album, and then some.
“It’s a complete album,” says Kay with a glint in his eye and the slyest of grins. “It’s a proper, finished album. The rule was all killer no filler. There were great tracks that we left off because they weren’t quite great enough. We knew we had to get it right with this one. And if you don’t get it right and don’t make an album that’s cohesive, that you dig, where the rhythms are right, the melodies are right, that just feels good and feels cool, then you know, what’s the point of doing it? It’s as simple as that.”
It’s been seven years since their last album, 2010’s funk-rock leaning Rock Dust Light Star. The pressure to deliver an album worth the wait helped Kay focus on the elements that made Jamiroquai unique in the first place, while the time away helped refresh and re-energise him for the process.
“It’s required real focus to think: what album do we want to make? How are we going to take the old Jamiroquai sound and clean it up, do something to it for 2017? How are we going to strike the balance between the electronic side of us and the live side, between what people like us for and what we like doing? I knew I wanted to write and produce it with Matt Johnson our keyboard player. Matt’s who I work best with. He gets it. He gets where I’m coming from. I said to him: It’s time for us to do this and get it right. And everybody who’s heard it thinks it’s really fresh and sounds like us but moved forward.”
“I think I’d just got to the point where I was tired,” he says of the extended break. “I was tired of the business, the lawyers and accountants, not the music. So I took some time off, played with the toys, the cars, the helicopter, did a few things I wanted to do. But then what? And you know, if you do what I do, it’s in the blood. You don’t just give it up.”
Music is most definitely in Jay Kay’s blood. Having grown-up watching his mother, ‘70s jazz and cabaret singer Karen Kay performing on stages around the world, it’s not surprising he found himself drawn to London’s late ‘80s rare-groove scene, dancing in the clubs of Ealing, West London, were he misspent his teenage years. By 17 the skinny kid with a skateboard and interesting headgear was making tracks of his own and had signed his first record deal with Morgan Khan’s influential dance label Street Sounds. By 1992, a 22 year-old Kay had combined his love of funky music [Jam] and his growing concern for the fate of the planet, expressed in his nod of admiration to the earth aware Iroquois Tribe [iroquai], signed to Acid Jazz Records and released his first single, the attention-grabbing, horn-totting, socio-political anthem that is When You Gonna Learn? By the time the single was re-released a year later by Sony Records, Jamiroquai had an 8 album deal, acid jazz was a sound not just a label, the band’s Buffalo Man logo was everywhere and a new music icon had been born.
Fresh, exciting and full of smart lyrical hooks and danceable grooves, Jamiroquai’s debut album Emergency On Planet Earth  captured a moment and was what a music industry grown bloated with processed pop was waiting for. Kay’s fast paced scatting and sweet soul vocals, matched by sunshine vibes, cool horns and nodding bass, brimmed with a positivity and energy that defined a summer where Too Young To Die, Blow Your Mind and Emergency On Planet Earth blared from every car stereo.
Having got everyone’s attention, Jamiroquai used their follow-up, the four million selling, Return Of The Space Cowboy , to shift attention from the global to the street, its darker grind and jaded inner-city social commentary establishing the band as the face of British urban music. Through a haze of drugs and frustration Just Another Story, Light Years and The Kids drove home the unrest of the early ‘90s, while Half The Man, Stillness In Time and Space Cowboy offered a sweet home-rolled escape. To this day Space Cowboy is Kiss FM’s most played song of all time, and tracks from the album have been sampled by everyone from Tupac and Missy Elliot to Calvin Harris.
Riding a wave of confidence and success, and with world domination in his sights, Kay decided to take Jamiroquai and turbo charge it for third album, Travelling Without Moving . Everything had to be bigger. The grooves, the choruses, the dance moves, the hits, the videos, the sociological concerns, the hats. The result was a breakthrough album that took the band to the masses and delivered timeless songs, iconic moments and a slew of awards. Virtual Insanity, an irresistibly catchy warning against genetic engineering with a logic defying video of moving floors, moving sofas and Kay’s unique footwork, led the charge. Cosmic Girl’s intergalactic boogie and video staring a purple Lamborghini, along with horn filled party anthems Alright and High Times made it into a 12 million seller.
Synkronized , A Funk Odyssey , Dynamite  and Rock Dust Light Star  took the formula for slick disco floor-fillers, interstellar grooves with a conscience and feather-light sunshine sways, and ran with it while racking up the hits: Deeper Underground, Canned Heat, Little L, You Give Me Something, Love Foolosophy, Corner of the Earth, Feels Just Like It Should, Seven Days In Sunny June and White Knuckle Ride.
And so it is that Automaton lands as Jamiroquai’s most focused and danceable album since A Funk Odyssey. It packs on-point club tracks, layered with precision beats, hip-jutting bass, space-invader synths, disco strings and infectious hooks which have more than a touch of the Little Ls about them. Shake It On, Superfresh, Hot Property and Cloud 9 are all made to set dance floors alight and have everyone singing along to the chorus. Something About You and Summer Girl add a little riviera glamour with their sunshine sways, before Nights Out In The Jungle and Dr Buzz take turns to the darker side – the former being a hypnotic bass track inspired by Amy Winehouse and his own experience of excess and photographers in the 90s; the latter a desolate groove lamenting the lack of racial equality in America, a subject Kay first visited on Emergency On Planet Earth.
If Kay turbo charged Jamiroquai for Travelling Without Moving, for Automaton he’s attached a hyperdrive and sent Jamiroquai straight to another galaxy. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the title track itself. Virtual Insanity’s natural successor, in subject matter at least, it’s a cyber-funk attack with a robotic Kay taking aim at the digital world via laser beam synths, an alien melody and a post apocalyptic video.
“It’s about the rise of artificial intelligence and technology in our world today,” he says. “It’s about how we as humans are beginning to forget the more pleasant, simple and eloquent things in life and in our environment, including our relationship with one another. We’re all becoming automatons. We’re all controlled by our phones and computers. We’re forgetting about the rest of the world around us and all the lovely natural things that are there, really simple things.”
Jay Kay’s lyrical obsession with the future of the planet has long been a Jamiroquai hallmark, but now his preoccupation with the future is more immediate and personal. In his seven years away Kay become a father, twice, to two daughters. The mention of the album’s final track, Carla, a super cool ‘70s shimmy full of light and love written for his eldest, whose arrival put the album on hold for a while, has the 47 year-old former party animal uncharacteristically coy.
“It’s quite an emotional track for me. It’s simple. It comes from the heart. It’s not over the top, it’s just very simple and exactly what I wanted it to be. It was imperative that it wasn’t sickly sweet, that it was about the joy of it. Getting the lyrics together wasn’t difficult, but it wasn’t easy either, because there was so much that I wanted to say. I think it’s a really nice way to end the album.” He smiles at the though of it and adds, “and there’s nothing like having kids to suddenly focus the mind, no two ways about it.”
Having children, time off, missing music [but not the business] or not wanting to be spoken of in the past tense, whatever it is that’s brought him back, Automaton is Jay Kay bringing his Jamiroquai A game with him.
“You want people to get it,” he says of the thing that after 25 years is still driving him and the band. “You want to make something singable. You want to make hits. But not at the expense of your sound. I hate it when artists who did great stuff on their first album are unrecognisable by the third because they’ve gone off trying to sound like the latest thing. It’s hard to hold onto your own thing. You have to nurture it and fight for it. You have to keep striking the balance between what people like about your sound and keeping it fresh. That’s what’s kept us here and what this album is about. What I’m trying to say is, If you hear our stuff, you always know it’s me.”