it's only rock and roll but james jagger likes it
Mick's son talks us through the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll soaked 70s of new TV series 'Vinyl.'
The son of Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger, it's unsurprising to discover James Jagger wears his good looks as effortlessly as he does his genealogy. All bee-stung lips and caustic cheekbones framed by huge haunted eyes -- attributes perfect, really, for an actor. Currently starring in the new HBO series, Vinyl, produced by Jagger Snr. and Martin Scorsese and co-starring Juno Temple, James plays a rock star with tendencies perhaps not too far from that of his dad and former band mates.
Vinyl is a ten-part, 11-hour HBO series created by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, in which you play the snotty lead singer of snotty British punk band The Nasty Bits. Were you worried about taking a part as a rock star, being Mick Jagger's son?
I found it more difficult to get in the headspace of this guy who was struggling in the 70s -- he was banging head against the wall that was the music industry for so long that he's just jaded. And he's got to the point where he's a hater, that's the best way to put. He really is a hater. But he has this unshakable drive to make it… [But] he's the sort of person you don't really want to do business with. He'd put his kid under the bus to try and get ahead.
Did you study The Rolling Stones from that period as research?
Yeah, well, I did a lot of research. There's a musician called Jack Ruby that was really, really similar to the character -- this proto-punk New York guy who was really angry. The only reason no one ever heard of him is his music is horrible -- he made this really rackety stuff and he passed away really young. But real punk rock guys give a nod to him… It was the most punk rock stuff, but it's just terrible, which is why it didn't get across.
It was really interesting to read historical accounts and news stories of what was going on at the time. [People have] this rose-tinted view of what the 70s was like, especially New York -- like it was this artistic utopia where they had true freedom. Actually I think it was a bit of a shithole, with lots of crime and drug problems. People were really unhappy -- Nixon was the President and he had just been indicted with all the Watergate stuff. So America was probably not feeling very good about itself and had low morale generally, which is why all these counter cultures started springing up. There was a disenfranchisement with the society at large. My character touches on the punk scene, but disco was happening… It was just a really exciting time for music -- well, I don't think it was an exciting time if you weren't in music -- it seemed quite beige and full of naff outfits. There were a lot of chevrons going on, and they were getting really excited by these really nasty polyesters -- 'oh, we've made this nylon material, it's fantastic, we're going to make bras out of it!'
What's your personal relationship with music?
I like to play the guitar and piano, and I've always been a fan of music. [In "real life" he's also singer in a punk band, Turbogeist.] It's something that has been ever-present in my life. I still need to listen to it when I'm feeling a bit low. I think music is something intrinsically human -- we have this beat that is part of our soul or our beings. It's one of the most important things in life. You could get away with not having a lot of other things. If I had to give in silence, or just speak with people for a while, it would drive me up the wall.
Martin and Mick are longstanding friends and admirers of each other. If ever a pair were going to make believable drama about music, it's them.
Yeah... This has been a long-term project for them -- it was mooted as a film as long as ten years ago. I remember reading script for a film probably eight years ago. I think it's much better-suited for television -- you can actually show much more in the long run. We've touched on a few things that happened in the industry in this season but I imagine in the next season they're going to move on to the birth of hip-hop and these other things that were happening at the time. 'Cause it's such an interesting little snippet of years -- if you go from when we start, in 1974, to 1980, it's six years. But it might as well have been another planet by then.
Was it a double-pressure having Scorsese at the helm as well as your dad?
No, no, not at all. Martin Scorsese has an incredible personable manner. He made me feel comfortable from before we even started working on the show. I was very nervous to meet him and actually after I'd done a couple of auditions, I had to go just to meet Martin. I'm fairly sure this was purely a personality test: 'Are you a dickhead? I don't want to work with you if you're a dickhead.' And I was sweating, I was really nervous -- I'm a huge fan, and I was biting every nail to the [quick]. But he's just got this manner -- he has this way, this magic touch, that instantly made me comfortable. And luckily my dad wasn't there all the time. So I didn't have to see him every morning -- he was away working a lot. But he was a very good resource for me, and I found it very helpful to have him around at least by proxy. When I'd get a new scene, if I didn't understand a reference, he was really helpful.
What can we learn about the music industry of the early/mid 70s through Vinyl?
The music industry became so overblown at that time -- there was all this glam rock stuff and it was all getting over-theatrical and less about the music. That's really a theme that runs through the entirety of the show -- Bobby [Canavale's] character has become disenfranchised from music, and he wants to get back to what made him excited about it in the first place. And that's what Kit, my character, is really trying to show: that it's not about your giant inflatable cockerel or your fireworks lightshow, it's about music -- real, visceral music that makes people want to move or fight or fuck or hate. It's just getting a reaction from people.
When did you realize growing up that your dad was a rock star?
I don't think I had a big watershed moment. I just remember being at primary school then being at these big shows. And of course when you don't have any sense of perspective, you don't have any sense that that's not normal. I was there from a baby… he just was dad, who'd scold me if I was bad. I've often been asked, 'what's it like to be Mick Jagger's son?' Well, I don't fucking know! 'Cause it's the only thing I've known. It's just my life so I have no sense of perspective. Sure, as an adult I'm incredibly proud and totally understand his achievements, but growing up I couldn't have cared less. I was more interested in playing pinball backstage than watching the shows. That was my bread and butter.
Text Craig McLean