by Guy Sangster Adams
With music that enwraps, enraptures, and enobles, a stunning visuality in performance that combines elaborate, fantastical costume and make-up, balletic motif, and fabulous spectacle, such as the island stage, gondola, and white butterflies of last summer’s Latitude appearance, the first time, and indeed every time, one sees The Irrepressibles is a magical experience.
My first time was within the entirely appropriate dramatic majesty of the British Museum’s Great Court last November. Where, as part of the Statuephilia exhibition, The Irrepressibles, in tight fitting stone coloured garments and fabric swathes, and barefeet – statues come to life – performed on an impromptu stage in front of the Reading Room to a wonderfully eclectic audience of those that knew and those that were passing by. Everyone, be they friends, fans, PR company invitees, museum staff and visitors from near and far, were taken on a such a transcendent journey which swooped and swirled around the curves and porticos of the entire two acre space and uplifted to the undulating diamonds of Norman Foster’s glass roof, which had it not been there I would have floated off to the stars quite happily!
“Where it began,” explains singer songwriter Jamie McDermott, whose brainchild The Irrepressibles are, “was that I was writing songs with acoustic guitar and performing incredibly cathartic and explorative of the voice song based work that was becoming so intense that it needed something to surround it, and it was either go more to my roots, because I come from more of a rock background, or surround it with classical instrumentation.”
The resultant phantasmagorical orchestrated glamour pop played on guitar, violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, saxophone, and percussion by this elegant 10 piece, is baroque mixed with a flicker book of rock n roll finest stances, via Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio and Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, akin to discovering Jean Genie being played on 17th century instruments in platform boots, tutus and ruffs, in a private audience with Pope Pius X in an ice cream parlour.
McDermott brought the first incarnation of The Irrepressibles together in 2002, which was a smaller group consisting of cello, violin, piano, bass, and McDermott playing guitar, whilst he was studying for a degree in Commercial Music at University of Westminster. The course, which was the first in the country to offer a mixed syllabus of music production and the study of music as culture, had a profound effect on the creation of The Irrepressibles. “It was entering this world of looking at music and also looking at what it can do sociologically, in terms of subcultures and things like that, which really began to fascinate me,” says McDermott, “and I started to read and understand and look at how I could create a project that might be more art based and I got very interested in the KLF, Bill Drummond, and Malcolm McLaren.” With McDermott’s studies coinciding with the relentless rise of the new generation of music talent shows, beginning with Pop Idol, Popstars, and Fame Academy, he realised that his new project also needed to take note of that, as he explains, “I wanted to create something that could take it on from a business level, that could take it on from a PR level.”
Further to that, McDermott says, “For me The Irrepressibles is about two things and one is that really honest catharsis and letting that through, I wanted to try to express something about being gay and about being in love as a gay man in a way that people would understand even if they were straight, or that people would just appreciate, rather than it being sensational or it being a certain sort of style of music, and the other thing is about play, we’re playing and we’re performing, but it’s like children playing and performing, it can’t go to that level where it’s very serious, I’m not really interested in that; I wanted to create something that a child can appreciate, but also something that someone who’s really into music can appreciate, then also someone from the council estate where I’m from can get.”
McDermott grew up in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, where he began piano lessons at 11 paid for by his paper round and quickly began to write his own songs and compose music, as he says, “I’d stand on the beach at Scarborough, or on top of the cliff by the castle, looking out at the sea, and just start to compose in my head.” He expands on this by saying, “my brain tends to work in harmony and the parts are quite polyphonic” which informs the idiosyncratic sound of The Irrepressibles because, as McDermott says, “with a rock band you’ve got a drummer that backs it, and with classical music you’ve got a conductor who leads it, but in The Irrepressibles there’s neither drums nor a conductor, so it’s kind of polyphonic parts that are all feeding into one rhythmical underpinning and often that’s from the guitar.”
After “flunking school”, McDermott went to sixth form college in Scarborough to study art, music, and drama, and in Sadie Parker, his A level drama teacher, met “one of the most important figures” in his life, who introduced him to a wealth of eclectic music and performance inspirations including the Carmina Burana, Bladerunner, Joan Littlewood, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham all of which have influenced the multi-disciplinary style of The Irrepressibles. Unsurprisingly David Bowie is a big influence, but equally many of the singers that particularly inspire him are female, Laurie Anderson, PJ Harvey, Yma Summic, Kate Bush, and the composer and performer Meredith Monk who describes her approach as working “between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema.”
Adding to the idiosyncratic roots of The Irrepressibles, following his A levels McDermott took a detour into “flamboyant cock rock”, having been awarded a scholarship to study rock singing in Guildford, the camp Spinal Tap humour of which is not lost on him as he explains that the course also involved being leather clad, taught to star jump and sing The Final Countdown! But, his singing teacher on the course unlocked the extraordinary breadth of his vocal range which is particularly evident in The Irrepressibles’ live performances when he will swoop through singing styles, up and down the vocal register, sometimes within one song, fusing operatic, choral, crooner, and Elvis Presley-esque.
By the close of his rock school course, McDermott had broken away from the genre and had begun to write the acoustic songs that would form the basis of his two solo albums Newclear Skies and Nude. Both of which received critical plaudits and comparisons to Jeff Buckley. Though the more prevalent Buckley reference that strikes one when listening to The Irrepressibles is Tim Buckley and in particular Song to the Siren which McDermott concurs is a big influence.
McDermott is currently putting the finishing touches to The Irrepressibles debut album, meantime they have been confirmed in the line up for this July’s Latitude, a festival they have very much made their own and are certain to once again take by storm with McDermott’s most elaborate and fantastic creation for the band to date, The Human Music Box. Which will be premiered on 19th June as part of the V&A’s Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificience, an exhibition for which The Irrepressibles are tailor made as they have resolutely brought magnifience back into style.
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