Luke Jenner has attracted interest and controversy over the last year, after it was reported that his band The Rapture had quietly split up without so much as an announcement. The rumour spread quickly, including to this publication, without any real confirmation — at least, not from the people who really matter, namely the band members themselves.
Since then, Jenner has kept busy as part of the star-studded supergroup Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor, headed to Australia for Sydney Festival this week. The group, which includes heavyweights Gotye and Sinkane, are bringing back to life the music of little-known Nigerian funk musician William Onyeabor, who self-released 8 albums in the 1970s then refused to speak about his music again after becoming a born-again Christian.
Music Feeds caught up with Jenner to talk about the future of The Rapture, facing childhood traumas, his solo record, and the mysterious William Onyeabor.
Watch: ATOMIC BOMB! Who is William Onyeabor?
Music Feeds: Hey, Luke, how’s it going?
Luke Jenner: Yeah, good thanks!
MF: So at the moment you’re touring around with Atomic Bomb!, which I must say is a pretty unusual concept. How does Nigerian funk musician William Onyeabor end up being covered by a bunch of such talented musicians?
LJ: It’s David Byrne’s record label so it’s his pet project and then he just invited a whole bunch of people who look up to him. A lot of people that are my friends and people I’ve worked with in the last 10 years have been involved in it. Luaka Bop [the label founded by Byrne] have done a really good job figuring out with such a small budget how to get the word out and it’s not easy. Luaka Bop also reissue a lot of world music from all different places and stuff so it’s not that, like, kooky.
MF: So you were asked to be involved in the project?
LJ: Yeah, of course. Basically, I just sit around at my house and every once and a while I’ll get an email that says, “Do you want to do this?” and I say yes or no [laughs]. For example it might say, “Do you want to go DJ in South America?” and I’ll say, “Yes.” It’s almost like if I didn’t have email I’d have no work.
MF: Do you know a lot about his story, and how would you describe it?
LJ: I didn’t know a lot about it when I got involved. There’s a really nice Luaka Bop documentary that they made about him. He’s a super interesting unique character. I was just roped in through my friends, basically. Which is how my life has really worked for the last 15 years. There’s this vague community of people that I know who I get interested in what they’re doing and vice versa. I rarely make any decisions on my own. It’s sort of like getting invited to a party. You get there and you see who’s there and you kind of figure out what’s going on. But there’s no premeditated plan about getting involved with Nigerian song records from the ’70s.
MF: Do you think you’re able to do his music justice, and tell his story through performing it?
LJ: I don’t care about any of that stuff. I’m not worried about doing it justice. For me the point of any music is just to have fun. I’m me. I’m not a 70s Nigerian funk man. It’s either going to be fun or not fun — that’s the only way I qualify things. I’m not stressing before the show because I’m worried I’m not going to be funky enough.
MF: With that many successful musicians in one room, is it hard to all get along? Are there any creative disputes?
LJ: No, that’s a funny question, though [laughs]. To be honest, I mean we all travel together and there’s probably like 20 of us. If there were less of us it would probably be harder but it’s just kind of like summer camp and everyone’s on vacation from what they usually do.
For example, with the Rapture, I’m the boss so for me being part of something else is really easy for me cause I’m not the boss. I don’t decide anything. I just wear a cowboy hat and sing a couple of songs and hang out and talk to the talking drummer. It’s not my show. It’s got nothing to do with me. They just say, “These are the songs you’re going to sing,” and then I do. It’s really nice for that reason because I’m not responsible. No-one asks me anything, which is great, I’m really into that.
MF: Has it been great working with artists such as David Byrne and Gotye? Do you feel like you can all learn from one another?
LJ: Yeah, I dunno. I always like people a lot so I’m always trying to learn from whoever I’m around. I feel like I can pretty much learn from anybody. I feel like I can. There are always different horn players and I’m always trying to learn from them about what’s a good trumpet to buy. We’ve been all over the place. We went to Denmark and then we’ve been playing with David Byrne, and those guys are old accomplished guys who have had really long musical lives where they’ve accomplished a lot of different things.
For me it’s nice because I’m already a middle-aged musician and these guys are older than me so its nice to be able to see what is possible for what’s next for me which is a rare thing. Normally, I’m the guy who’s been around a long time and people learn from me so its nice to be in a position where I can meet people and learn from them. The band also is a really weird mix of people, they’re all from different worlds, not from an indie rock world. It’s a really eclectic group of people.
MF: Who are the people you’ve gotten especially close to?
LJ: Probably Yale and Eric from Luaka Bop. A lot of the people from the band I kind of knew from the DFA camp. I’ve known Alexis from Hot Chip for a really long time. He’s not coming to Australia but he played a lot of the shows [Taylor was previously announced for the Australian shows but has since withdrawn]. It’s almost a DFA band with some other people involved in a lot of ways. The core of it feels very familiar to me, anyway.
MF: How have the live shows gone so far?
LJ: It’s a fun show, we really have fun doing it and generally the audience does too and the response has been really good. Generally people don’t know the music so they normally come to the show and haven’t heard anything.
Watch: The Rapture – How Deep Is Your Love?
MF: So just to confirm it, has the Rapture officially split?
LJ: Well, that’s a weird story. So basically, Jonathan Galkin from DFA basically just told some music journalist that we had split up and we never as a band made any official statement. We’re not doing anything at the moment and I’ve been working on some other stuff but there was never… It was just something that Jonathan Galkin told a journalist and that Pitchfork picked up and then that was that.
MF: I see. So the news was just spread without actually having any confirmation. So is there any intention that you guys will split or how much time do you think you guys will have off?
LJ: Oh geez, I don’t know. Right now I’m just working on making my own record and touring around with the Onyeabor thing and DJing a lot. So there’s not any intention to make a Rapture record at the moment.
MF: But do you think in the future you guys will make another one?
LJ: I don’t know. I just… I don’t know [laughs]. There are no plans and I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Rapture.
MF: I know previously you left the Rapture for personal reasons, for a time. Was there any of the same motivations this time around for having a break?
LJ: Yeah, basically I think you just sometimes need a bit of time off from a personal relationship. Me and the drummer, Vito, we grew up together since we were 9-years-old or something. I just went through some personal stuff and then at the end of the last tour I started dealing with a lot of childhood trauma stuff like sexual abuse and just different things and it didn’t go down that well. And then I wanted to start talking about some of the problems in the band and no-one was really ready to start having those conversations so I just sort of said, “OK, well, I’m going to go do some stuff on my own and we’ll talk later.”
MF: So that’s what’s happening currently?
LJ: That’s what happened after we finished touring. Last tour we played about 140 shows. I mean, pretty much every record we put out we play around 140 shows. I don’t know what that number is but that’s generally what happens and then it’s like, “We just played 140 shows. That was a lot of work and so I’m going to go do something else for a while.”
MF: Do you think the band reminded you of the traumas that you experienced, and you just needed to get away from it from it for a bit?
LJ: No, I think for me it was more about facing these traumas and then getting new information and confronting that stuff made me want to have more clarity in the band. A band is a relationship — it’s a marriage or a close relationship. For me, my relationships with the band is more important than the band. If my relationship with Vito isn’t straight then there’s no point in trying to write and make music together. I can make music on my own, I don’t need to deal with Vito. But if we’re going to make music we’re going to have to talk about some stuff, and that has to come first.
MF: So it’s more of a family kind of vibe?
LJ: Yeah, I’ve never really been interested in being business partners or anything, especially with Vito. I grew up with Vito. Me and Vito were the only two that were there when the band started and are still there. We have to get it together and talk about that stuff. And also, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with being in a band together for 15 years.
For me, facing trauma from my childhood, I went back to my family and talked to them about it and said, “We need to talk about this stuff” for us to move forward in a healthy way. It’s the same thing with the Rapture. It’s like there’s been 15 years of stuff that’s happened and for us to move forward in a healthy way we need to talk about all of that stuff too in a way that makes sense for everybody.
Watch: Shit Robot – Feels Real (ft. Luke Jenner)
MF: So if you don’t mind me asking, what were the traumas that you had to face?
LJ: With family or the band?
MF: Both, I guess.
LJ: I think it’s more about when you have a relationship with someone, they have to be willing to deal with their own stuff. How any healthy relationship works is, whether it’s band or a marriage or in your family, everyone has to deal with their own stuff so it doesn’t spill onto anyone else. If not all parties are willing to do that then the relationship gets messy. For me, I felt like, “I’ve gone and cleaned up my stuff and I need you to do the same.”
I’m good now. I went and faced whatever it was I needed to face and now I’m ready to have a relationship with you but to do that you need to go and get your stuff together. If you do that then we can continue, but if you can’t do that then it’s going to be hard to go forward, it’s not going to work.
MF: In terms of the future, where do you think you’re headed?
LJ: I made a solo record, so I’m basically just trying to figure out what to do with this solo record that I’ve made, and I’m going to be playing some shows soon and taking DJing more seriously. Also collaborating with some other people, I think. We’ll see what happens. I have a lot of things that I want to do, I don’t know how many of them I’ll be able to do but I’m not lost for ideas. I’m not bored. I’m not thinking, “What do I do today?”. I’m busy every day.
MF: Did you enjoy making your own record? How did the process go?
LJ: Yeah, really good. Basically it came down to, “Do I want to make another Rapture record or do I want to make my own record?” It didn’t sound fun because my relationship with Veto wasn’t quite clear. I wrote all the songs anyway for the Rapture so I thought I might as well.
Plus, also, when you work with someone for so long I think it’s important to… In the beginning you’re kind of like a gang and you need everybody else, but as you get older you learn how to do more stuff and you’re more confident. “Why don’t I just try and do this myself just to see what it would be like – just for shits and giggles?” Also to grow, you need to stretch out a bit, even if fails or it’s not as good. None of that really matters. I guess I’m just trying to change my process around.
You were asking before if I was worried about how the audience reacts. I think I’ve changed a lot from asking how the audience is going to react to, “What do I want to do?” and “What sounds like fun?” I think that’s what I learned from David Byrne or the others. They just do what they want to do. They don’t do stuff for other people. They don’t really care what you think. They’re happy if you like what they do but at the same time they’ve reached a point where they are happy to do whatever they’re into and I think that’s a lot nicer place to be.
‘Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor’ plays as part of Sydney Festival on 16-17 January at the Enmore Theatre. Details here.