Twelve months ago, Jake Bugg was just another teenage songwriter. Now, he’s the self-appointed saviour of real music, inciting riots wherever he goes. Jimi Famurewa joins him on the tour bus
The recent loyalist protests may have rendered the streets of Belfast strangely empty, but in one sweaty, cramped corner there is still a serviceable riot going on. Arms are extended so smartphones can capture a succession of dreadful photographs. Grown men raise watery pints aloft and loudly serenade each other.
A girl in a white dress – who’s been tipsily trying to tell me the same story about accidentally deleting a picture for the past 30 minutes – nearly topples a rickety barricade as a telltale clearing forms in the centre of the crowd.
With that, the events supervisors are off, bearing an expression of weary hopelessness, to break up the third drunken punch-up of the evening. A pink-faced kid with ginger hair is bundled through the 900-capacity crush and roughly acquainted with the reinforced fire doors. White Dress Girl is still trying to tell me that story.
And at the heart of it all? Jake Bugg. The diminutive 18-year-old – guitar in hand, fringe covering his eyes, low-slung jeans halfway down his backside – is manfully trying to play Someone Told Me (the least raucous song imaginable, by the way) as the bouncers grapple with the other culprits.
“What the f*ck’s going on?” asks Bugg, hushing his band and looking out at the audience as boos send the scrappers on their way. It’s a fair question. And one Bugg chews over backstage after the gig, while pouring himself a healthy measure of Irish whiskey.
“It’s a ballad,” he says, shaking his head. “Why start trouble to that? Although, to be fair the other night in Leeds they were moshing at the end and about eight people got chucked out. Just because they could, basically. And in Newcastle we had about seven crowd surfers at once.”
Plenty of ink has already been spilt documenting Bugg’s rapid journey from unheralded teenage troubadour to anointed, chart-scaling saviour of guitar music. But here it is in a nutshell. When your gentle, country-tinged ballads excite your fans so much that they’re compelled to punch each other in the face, you’re on to more than a winner.
Stepping out after hours
Born Jacob Edwin Kennedy (his stage moniker deploys his dad’s surname) in the sickeningly recent year of 1994, Bugg started young. Having learned to play on a guitar his uncle bought him, he contacted pubs in his native Nottingham about playing gigs before he could legally drink in them.
“Some of them would be like, ‘Don’t be daft. You’re 15, you’re not coming in the pub,’” explains Bugg earlier that day, partially obscured by a thick cloud of weed smoke on his sleek new tour bus. “But then some places gave me a couple of slots, and people saw my face a bit more. I did that for a couple of years before I got signed. The crowds were hit and miss, but it gave me that experience.”
Having decided that alternative careers as a footballer (“I played county football and I was good.
I still have a top goalscorer trophy at home,” he grins) and heating engineer (“Let’s just say they needed me to start too early in the day”) weren’t for him, he threw himself into music. A spot on the bill at Glastonbury (in small font, admittedly) and recording sessions for his eponymous debut album soon followed.
Further reward came when Noel Gallagher, not famed for his open-armed acceptance of new acts, booked him as the support on his North American tour. If Gallagher imparted any sage words of rock god wisdom, Bugg is keeping them to himself.
“He’s just a nice guy, exactly how you imagine,” he says. “He came backstage after [we did a show] and was like, ‘You all right? Who’d you get them trainers off?’” I soon learn that this unfazed response to meeting a stated hero is fairly typical for Bugg.
From receiving the news that he’d scored a surprise No1 album last October (“I made a couple of phone calls and went to the US the next day. May have snuck a few glasses of champagne into my hotel room”) to a British Breakthrough Act nod at the Brits (“That show’s too long though, innit?”) there’s a shrugging indifference to much of the glamour and pomp of rock stardom.
This Gallagher-esque sheen of gritty “authenticity” (something we’ll come to) has rankled with some. And at times, especially with his bandmates Jack and Robbo quietly playing Gran Turismo in the background, it can feel like badgering a sullen nephew about how school is going. But you do get the feeling that, unlike those stars nervously tapping their names into the search box on Twitter, he’s genuinely not bothered about critical hubbub.
“I’m not looking for any compliments or comments or anything like that,” he says sleepily.
“I don’t read [stories about me], I don’t pay attention and I’m not much use [to newspapers] as there’s not much to find out.”
There isn’t a single piece of dirt tabloids could uncover?
He thinks hard.
“Well, I do listen to jazz on the bus,” he says with a light Muttley-ish laugh. “‘Jake Bugg: My Jazz Shame.’”
Kicking against the pricks
Three hours before Bugg’s show starts – the seventh gig of his first major European tour – we’re ushered from the smoky sanctuary of the bus past a huddle of autograph-hunters already idling by the gate, and into the venue for a soundcheck. I’m privately warned that it’ll be a mostly tedious bit of microphone-tapping, guitar-swapping and pedal-fiddling but, undeterred, I find a spot by the shuttered bar and watch him rattle through a few tunes.
The sight of a lad who, without wishing to overstate it, really wouldn’t look out of place loitering outside Londis asking you to buy him alcohol, silencing hardened roadies with a spine-tingling, bourbon-gargling voice is quite something. Bugg clearly takes his music and his songwriting seriously.
So his response to conspiracy theorists that have looked at the co-writers on his album (including former Snow Patrol member and Example collaborator Iain Archer) and held him up as an example of a different kind of cynical manufacturing is robust.
“You’re always going to get that,” he says, back on the bus. “The people I’ve written with are mates of mine. You have a cup of tea, sit down with a couple of guitars and make a tune. If you look back through time, people have always written songs together. And you learn things that you wouldn’t if you were writing on your own. Some people will have a piece of music put in front of them and they’ll just sing it. They don’t care what they’re singing.”
Now if there’s something that can prompt an animated reaction from someone as blissfully catatonic as Bugg, then it’s this; the idea of singing something you haven’t written. He dismisses my comment about bumfluff-sporting 15-year-old sensations The Strypes making him look geriatric (“When they write some f*cking tunes we’ll talk, eh?”) and lets rip when I vaguely mention that some people are saying One Direction are the closest thing to rock stars that we have these days.
“Who the f*ck is saying that?” he splutters, sitting forward. Well, I say, among others, Paul McCartney called them “the next terrific band”, while Mick Jagger said they remind him of the Rolling Stones in their earliest, world-shaking incarnation. Plus, plenty of people have noted that, rather than anyone in an indie band, it’s Harry Styles that’s always being pictured staggering from one party to the next, daubed in lipstick, living the dream.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure they have a good laugh,” says Bugg dryly. “But it’s easy to, isn’t it? When you don’t have to write any songs. People [call them the new Beatles] because they broke America, but that don’t mean a thing. I mean, [One Direction] must know that they’re terrible. They must know... Calling them the new rock stars is a ridiculous statement. And people should stop making it.”
Not a rock’n’roll star
Bugg’s aversion to the glitz of rock star life isn’t to say that his fledgling career hasn’t had its wilder moments. There are those rowdy crowds for starters. Plus he was pictured leaving a Burberry party earlier this month with model Cara Delevingne, and he joyfully recounts blunders that David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel would be proud of.
“I had a proper Spinal Tap moment the other day,” he laughs. “I pulled up outside Radio 2 in a car, because I had to do something and all these paps were outside taking pictures and going, ‘Jake Bugg, Jake Bugg’, so I posed for a picture, signed a few things. Then I spotted that these girls were holding CDs and just standing there. I went, ‘Who are you waiting for?’ And they went, ‘Jessie J’. My manager came out with my guitar going, ‘Wrong building, it’s the wrong building...’”
He also got a slight taste for ostentatious style at a recent photoshoot, where he wore a coat with buttons reportedly hewn from rocks taken from the top of Mount Everest. “How mad is that?” he beams. “It’s funny, because I looked at it and thought, ‘I’d never wear that.’ I like my trainers, my jeans and if I’m lounging about I’ll wear a tracksuit. But when I saw it on camera I quite liked it. I’m always up for [new] things.”
Plus, while he’s not made any symbolically outlandish purchases and still officially lives at home with his mum in Clifton, he has spent money on a gleaming handmade guitar that he reflexively reaches for as soon as we finish chatting. Basically, no one should expect glitter cannons, fire-breathers or a miniature Stonehenge at his next show. But you get the feeling that he’s testing the waters and, given the opportunity, would quite enjoy dabbling in some of the dafter elements of rock heroism.
However, as band talk turns to the possibility of going for a few drinks in Belfast after the show, his interest visibly wanes. In news that will shock people acquainted with teenagers to their very core, this 18-year-old quite fancies skinning up, staying in and playing some computer games.
“I take it pretty easy,” he reasons. “I’ll have a few beers after the show, but being out all night’s not me.” And to be fair, he has a winning streak on Fifa to maintain (“I play online and if someone tries to be a dickhead I’ll give it right back to them.”)
Once the tour is finished he’s planning on going to Nashville to record and write in the stomping ground of heroes such as Johnny Cash, Don McLean and the person behind the first album he bought – Buddy Holly.
But before that, there’s a show to play. Bugg departs his beloved bus again and hauls on a floppy-eared hat to throw off the growing huddle hoping to catch a glimpse of him. He takes off his shirt and irons out the creases, paces the backstage area and sings to himself. Then it’s time. A deafening roar and a forest of raised arms greet him as he bounds up to the stage and Iaunches into the opening song, Fire. There are spilled pints, singalongs and charged bits of elbowing already. He’s a natural.
I’m reminded that earlier I asked him if he’d ever want to play at Meadow Lane, home of his beloved Notts County. He doesn’t miss a beat. “Yeah man, upfront.” A massive, bus-shaking laugh. Cockiness, laser wit and a sense of the absurd. Who says he’s not a born rock star?
The new single Seen It All is out 4 March on Mercury Records. Jake Bugg tours Europe until 10 March; jakebugg.com
Images: David Clerihew