From Elvis to Air, the psych-pop maestros' singer and guitarist James Bagshaw talks Brian Coney through some of his all-time favourite songs.
“This list could have been 150 songs, at the very least.”
So says James Bagshaw, frontman of English psych-pop threesome Temples. With Bagshaw, you just know this isn’t some throwaway remark, nor is it deflection or grandstanding or thinly-veiled hubris. Less than five minutes into our conversation, it’s clear that Bagshaw isn’t merely into the music that he gravitates to. He is, it would seem, savant-like and every bit as fixated with oddity and anomaly as he is with detail.
That preoccupation with the small-print - of the myriad ways in which any given song can be captured and constructed - has long made an imprint on Temples’ slick, lysergic-dappled craft. Since emerging in 2014 via their sublime debut album Sun Structures, their prismatic, intricately-layered music throws back and pushes forward in perfect synchronicity. The band’s self-produced third album Hot Motion thankfully isn’t a freak exception to that rule. From its eponymous lead single to closing peak ‘Monuments’, it’s another stellar collection of carefully-crafted gems that could only really stem from a compulsive musical mind like Bagshaw at the helm.
That only one of Bagshaw’s nine chosen songs was released after 1969 isn’t exactly a bombshell. Pluck any track from Temples’ discography to date - take the snaking spell of Sun Structures ‘Sand Dance’ or the woozy psych splendour of ‘Celebration’ from 2017’s Volcano - and your ear will instantly latch onto a clear love of widescreen production from a true golden age.
But these songs don’t owe a debt, necessarily, to the groundwork of production titans like George Martin, Brian Wilson, Joe Meek and Phil Spector. They marry the timeless purity of the past with the limitless promise of a future in which Temples find themselves. Hot Motion takes that trajectory to a natural peak. These are just some of the songs that inspired Bagshaw and co. to get there.
“’Blueberry Hill’ was one of the first songs that made an impression on me as a child. I remember hearing it at my parent’s friends’ house, along the road where I grew up on. I would have been very young, but my ears immediately pricked up.
“I was brought up with lots of music, but this song captivated me and I asked to hear it again. It was just one of those songs that was a catalyst for me getting into, I guess you could say soul music, in a way.
“My love of this track comes back to the melody, which to me is the most important thing; both the melody and the delivery of the melody. I can’t really fathom the words to describe what it was about this song, but it was always going to feature. From my early childhood, it was either going to be this or ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the M.G.'s. I heard those two songs on the same day and they have stayed with me as benchmarks for what you can do with melody and relatively few instruments.”
“I got my first guitar when I was seven; actually, it was a ukulele, but at the time it was big enough to be a full-size guitar. When I was nine I got a three-quarter size nylon, six-string guitar and with it I had a little beginner’s guide guitar book, which I still have. I went through that and within ten minutes I could play E minor, A7 - you know, some simple chords.
“Then I was at a car boot sale and we found an Elvis chord book and ‘Love Me Tender’ was in it. I was familiar with it, but it was the first song that I fully learned and the first song that I knew the melody well enough to be able to figure out if I was playing the guitar chords wrong or right.
“It was a real catalyst of a song for making me use my ear; in terms of working out what I was actually hearing and then sussing out chord shapes to go along with the melody. I still love playing the song, just very softly. And I still have the Elvis book but it all fell apart, so it’s in a ring-binder now with plastic sleeves that you’d get at school.”
“When I got into psychedelic music in my late teens and early twenties this was one of those songs that left a big impression on me. It’s not a song that would have been on a Nuggets collection or anything, it was quite a big song. It wasn’t a rare find or an unusual one-hit wonder, but the melody in it still blows me away.
“It’s very, very British-sounding. There’s something very whimsical about it and there’s a little darkness in there but it’s incredibly uplifting - just the chords, the way it’s played and everything about it. It’s definitely been an inspiration when it comes to writing chord changes for me.
“The Zombies have an incredible collection of songs so it’s very hard to choose just one, but apart from ‘Time of the Season’ this is a track where I would’ve been “Wait, how do I know this song?” There’s no pretentiousness to ‘Care of Cell 44’. or any of their songs in fact. There’s something very honest about it. Even though they’re very musically-minded and clever, it’s not distracting to listen to. It leaves you intrigued, more than bewildered.
“Some bands get too clever with their chord changes, to the point where they’re not memorable, all of the sections of this song work so well together, but it’s not straight-up. It’s a pop song but there’s definitely some underlying eeriness to it. I don’t know whether it’s just the chords or the way it’s recorded. Maybe it’s something in the reverbs as well - the chambers, they just sound so good.”
“‘Telstar’ is such a unique sounding song. On Joe Meeks’ original version of it he starts off singing in tune, but that all changes. I don’t know whether it was Geoff Goddard or someone else in the studio who translated that into “Oh, that’s the melody that you were singing”, because he’s so in between the notes, you can’t tell if it’s a G or a G sharp or an F sharp or whatever.
“In terms of sound design, you can’t find a song that sounds like ‘Telstar’ - it’s completely unique. The main thing for me is there’s no lyrics in it and to create such an atmosphere in essentially what is a pop song is just brilliant. I wish I could have heard it for the first time in the ‘60s when it came out, because it sounds so ahead of its time. Even though it’s quite lo-fidelity there’s really amazing stuff in terms of production techniques that I steal all the time - like speeding up pianos to make them sound like harps or speeding up whole tracks to make them sound not like real-life or superimposed.
"During the recording of the new album it definitely inspired me as a producer, because when there’s a missing sound you can use a Joe Meek-esque mad idea, or make some conventional sound unconventional. It’s also inspiring in terms of the whole home recording thing. We still make our albums at my house. I've changed from being in my parent's house in a little box room to living in this old chapel-type building and now living in a house in the countryside. I've got a dedicated out-house to music, but it doesn't feel like a studio - it still feels like home recording and obviously Joe Meek had his own studio. Maybe he was inspired by Les Paul and Mary Ford, they always did stuff in hotel rooms, so perhaps he was inspired by that.
“For the way that I work, when you feel inspired it’s incredibly important not to be limited by having to see if a studio is free. Also, you can’t underestimate the importance of having a space for the gear that you have set up, just so nothing holds you back when inspiration strikes.
"For a lot of the tracks on the new album, I’d been sitting out in the storm porch, having a cigarette and then something would come. It sounds so cheesy saying that, but it does happen. At the time you don’t really know how important it is, you sometimes think, “Should I record this?” or commit the idea or the melody to a phone recording or whatever. You don’t know whether it’s going to be any good but when we get a full song out of it, it’s like “Wow, if I hadn’t recorded that, would I have remembered it?”
“With sound design and production, I do the very opposite, which is strange. When I'm getting sounds together - maybe to create a song - I’ll spend maybe three hours just recording some drums and some parts, I don’t even have a song and then at the end of it, if I’ve got nothing out of it, I just delete the project, because if there isn’t a song in there, it doesn’t matter how good the drums sound. I’d rather have the song and build the sounds around it.”
“For me, this is the best guitar fuzz sound on record; it’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve been trying to get that sound and I’ve never got close, I’ve no idea what it is, apparently The Music Machine made their own pedals. They’re well-known to people who are into garage, psych-y stuff and I discovered them via Nuggets or Rubble compilation, or something like that.
“It’s strange, I love that song - I’m not hugely keen on the vocal but it doesn’t really matter to me on this song, it suits its purpose. It’s like the opposite of The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone’s voice. It’s not sweet and melodic, it’s gritty and punky and not my usual sort of thing but it screams attitude to me. It’s the sleaziest thing I’ve ever heard and it’s very, very inspiring for production.
“It’s the whole groove of it, the whole thing, but it all comes back to that guitar fuzz sound. With bands like The Beatles there’s so many books that go into the recording techniques, but not so with The Music Machine. Personally, I’ve learnt that the problem with fuzz tones is that, for example, people say you can get the fuzz sound from The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ by buying a Maestro Fuzz-Tone pedal, but I’ve seen countless demo’s of them and it sounds nothing like it, because it all depends on all the elements, like whether the guitar went straight into the board or if it was played through a broken speaker, or any number of things. There’s no way of knowing for sure.
“Maybe it’s because it was the ‘60s. Things weren’t documented but I still do it now, I get a sound and I won’t make notes on it because it’s like, “Why would I sit there and make notes on exactly what I did?”, so it becomes kind of lost and when people ask, “How did you get that sound?”, I don’t remember.
“Maybe it’s something that’s meant to happen - almost like you’re not meant to know, for ‘Trouble’ maybe it was the sound of the leather gloves they wore. The Music Machine had a very strange look, I think the singer wore a single leather glove and the rest of them wore roll necks and medallions.”
“This was probably the first Scott Walker song that I heard, other than Walker Brothers’ songs.
“I was in a friend’s car in London around eight years ago and ‘It’s Raining Today’ came on. At the beginning I thought it was unnerving, this weird cluster of notes. At the end of it I turned to my friend and asked, “What was that? Is it modern?” When he explained it was a record from the ‘60s I was like “Are you kidding me?” The production and vocal sound is so clear and hi-fidelity.
“I fell in love with the sound of it from a production point of view first of all. I’ve always been interested in the crooner vocal and all that sort of stuff, but once I got into the songwriting it blew my mind, because this is stuff that you can’t sit down and play on an acoustic guitar.
“There’s this theory that you should be able to sit and play any good song on an acoustic guitar and ‘It’s Raining Today’ throws that theory out the window. You couldn’t do that song, and songs like it, justice on a guitar, because the orchestration and the chord changes are more psychedelic than any psychedelic record I know. I literally can’t work out any of the chord progressions, and I’m usually decent at sussing them out. I still don’t know what these extended chords are. Maybe if I was a piano player, I would. So, I find that very, very inspiring.
“I absolutely love the string arrangement to the song too, it’s so harmonious, even though it’s totally inharmonic. I don’t know how to do that. It’s so brave to have that ominous thing going on underneath these beautiful cadences. There are moments where it’s just on the cusp, but because it’s an orchestra playing it they’re all moving together. If you did the same thing with electronic music or all of it separately, it would be very hard to get that movement and that swell and modulation.”
“This is another one that really stuck out when I got into psychedelic music. It’s got all the elements. It’s got the distorted, orchestral thing, you’ve got flangers, tape phase and various other production techniques. Again, the vocal is just slightly twee and whimsical, but the rhythm section is like hip-hop. It’s got all of these weird elements, even though, being the late ‘60s, it was way before all of that.
“There’s stuff in the ‘50s that has phasing and flanging unintentionally, with tape speeds and certainly when they started multi-tracking there was definitely some cases of accidental phasing. But there’s a lot of talk about ‘Rainbow Chaser’ being one of the first examples of a phaser being intentionally used throughout a song. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to that though.
“As much as I like this song, I didn’t delve too far down the rabbit hole with Nirvana. It’s very hard with stuff that’s on compilations, because you will go down avenues, but you can’t go down all of them, especially if you’ve got a boxset like the Rubble one, where you’ve got something like six CDs with twenty-odd tracks. I don’t have enough time in the day to do it, and some of it you just can’t get hold of.
“There probably are pressings of that single with a B-side, or maybe they didn’t do an album that was released. Because, believe it or not, not everything is on Spotify or Apple Music!”
“This was very, very hard to put together and I’ve left out so many great songs. I could do a list of 150 songs at least, but ‘La Femme D’argent’ really leapt out. It’s the most electronic of the songs that I’ve selected. To this day, every time I listen to Air, it makes me fall in love with electronic music but in a way that reminds me that you can marry electronic music and, let’s say, traditional instruments, especially the bass guitar. Air are absolute geniuses with basslines, they have a great tone and it’s such a good homage to Serge Gainsbourg and stuff like that.
“Their sense of melody and structure and building up a song is quite something. They make the best background music that you want to play louder than the conversation that you’re having. I love it for driving, if I don’t know what to listen to, I’ll probably stick on Moon Safari or Premiers Symptômes, which is an EP that’s not talked about that much.
“So many of their tracks - ‘La Femme D’argent’ being a strong example - are really inspiring from a production point of view. It’s all about the little world that these tracks live in, where it couldn’t be anyone but Air. Bands like Zero 7 have copied Air, but it’s just not as good.
“You know something has a really unique quality when if you were to try to write a song in that style, people would know straight away; it would be like, ‘Oh, that sounds like Air.’ I think there’s other bands that manage it, take The Strokes when they did Is This It - you can sound like Is This It, there’s a world that that record is in. I could literally go downstairs right now and make a song that’s like Air and people would definitely say it sounds like Air, but if I recorded a song in the style of a band that doesn’t really have a unique quality in terms of recording or production, people would say, ‘Oh, it just sounds like an indie band.’
“I never go out and want to copy anything. Rather than listen to it, I basically fast on music when I’m writing and recording, because I’m afraid of subconsciously taking inspiration from somebody else. I mean, you do that any way - you can’t help it - but when I’m asked, ‘What music were you listening to when making this album?’ I tend to reply, ‘No one, really.’ Again, you can’t not listen to music as it’s everywhere, but it’s different in terms of immersing oneself. Like when I got into Scott Walker, I would just listen to his albums, Scott 1, 2, 3 and 4 all the time, but I don’t think you should do that when you’re recording your own music.
“A while back, I was listening to a song off the most recent Arctic Monkeys record, ‘Four Out of Five’ and it occurred to me that they obviously had been listening to Lou Reed, because there’s that one melody that sounds exactly like ‘Satellite of Love.’ The bit that goes, “Take it easy for a little while…” that’s very obviously “Satellite of Love”. It’s like, come on. They are very open about what they listen to, but that’s just lifted. I think it’s their best record, but in terms of that particular lift they were either aware of it or they were listening to Lou Reed on the tour bus or obsessed with the Bowie/Lou Reed partnership or something.
“Generally, I do worry about that, because people compare our songs to things. The worst is when people say ‘Shelter Song’ is just ‘Ticket to Ride’, it’s nothing like ‘Ticket To Ride', it’s got a twelve-string guitar on it, that’s like saying any guitar song sounds like Robert Johnson or the Edge or someone!”
“Again, this song is totally inspiring from a production point of view. It’s hard to choose just one song from Les Paul and Mary Ford, but this stood out. It’s a great song, despite not being a Les Paul and Mary Ford original. When people think of Les Paul they tend to think of the guitar the Gibson Les Paul, but Les Paul basically invented multi-track recording and a lot of recording techniques that so many of us use today.
“The stuff that he did on ‘How High The Moon’ and anything from the early ‘50s is just so, so far ahead of its time. It’s all guitar, even the drums are just him tapping his guitar and not in a cheesy, Newton Faulkner kind of way, it’s serious musicality. He was basically recording in hotel rooms, using bathrooms as echo chambers and the like.
“The arrangement on this track is crazy. It is a bit silly, a lot of the stuff sounds silly because it’s all plinky-plonk, all very high-pitched, mandolin-like guitars, but you’ve got to remember this was in the ‘50s. It makes Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was often just three chords, sound very unimaginative. This kind of track was jazz chords and guitar orchestra, basically.
“I’ve definitely robbed some of Les Paul’s techniques over the last few years. On the new record there’s some sped-up guitar, half-time drums and things like that, where you basically slow down the tape and create a whole different instrument almost.
“If you haven’t seen [the Les Paul documentary] Chasing Sound, I highly recommend it. It’s about how he invented the first electric guitar, using a telephone microphone and putting it on a bit of old railway track, putting and stretching a string across it and amplifying it. That was literally the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”