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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: James Last

1 June 07 interview: Amanda Young

"I like young people. The experiences from them are so positive and that is what I need. I’ve had so many experiences from younger musicians, which really keeps me alive"

James Last has been releasing music since 1965, developing a huge discography of Big Band music spanning four decades. Signed to Polydor records in 1964 he has been awarded over 300 silver, platinum and gold awards. Born in 1929 as Hansi Last, he has toured extensively across the world selling well over 100 million albums. Now 77 years old James Last is planning his final UK tour this year. The James Last Orchestra have played everything from the Rocky theme tune, to Bob Dylan and Nirvana songs as well as featuring in the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1. If you fancy hearing more, you’re sure to find his lively and relaxing records in any vintage or charity shop.

Where did you start out in music?
It started when the first piano teacher I had said I would be nothing in the music scene. Then the second teacher was like a father to me and since then it started really going up, getting more and more.

Do you have a particular approach when you choose which songs you would like to arrange?
I have to like it. I have to like to hear the songs on stage even more than on the record sometimes. I decide we are playing this song and this song… when I go on tour Ijust play songs that I like to play.

When you tour who do you take with you?
Eighty people altogether, including an orchestra of thirty-eight or forty people and forty technicians for the stage and lighting. It is a big party.

What can people take from listening to your music?
There is some old stuff for older people, songs from thirty or forty years ago and new arrangements like U2 for younger people.

How do you feel about working with younger people around you?
I like young people. The experiences from them are so positive and that is what I need. I’ve had so many experiences from younger musicians, which really keeps me alive. I like to go with them and work with some special groups.

Who are the young groups you work with?
Most of the time they are German groups, rap and rock groups or hiphop like Fettes Brot and so on. They ask me if they can do something together and I think yes let’s do it.

How did you find playing with the hiphop group Fettes Brot?
I didn’t find them, they found me! I took them on tour in the UK and people didn’t understand one word of them of course. But it was all fun. It was great to show them the world and how many people can be there to enjoy the music. The audience accepted that I was playing with the young guys. So it was a great gift.

You’ve had some of the best session musicians play for you over the years…
It’s the band, it’s our band. There is the trumpet section with two trumpet players from the States, one, who is the best trumpet player in America. We’ve got the best sax player too… and we picked up an old musician guy from London who now lives in Australia so there are seventeen nationalities in the band. Romanians, Russians, everything...

Would you ever cover something unreleased?
Of course. There are some songs that a lot of people don’t know. I like them and they fit into the programme. We play around thirty songs a night, so we put it together and then play.

What wouldn’t you consider arranging?
I really don’t know, sometimes people come and say listen to this and then it rings in my brain … then it works more and more. I like it and then we play it. I cover everything; you know whether it is like Timbaland or so on. I have to play what fits to me and other musicians.

What do you think of today’s music often using machines to produce sounds electronically?
That is the time now, young people work with this, but then they always come back to instruments and then use them to work together. We have two synthesisers in the band and we need the sound of the young people too. We need it; we can’t go on stage without them. We have six violins in the orchestra and these fit together very well. Young people like to work on the computer, I do my arrangements on the computer too.

What programme do you use?
Cubase.

Big bands always played at music halls and ballrooms. As time has moved on, where is the place for big bands now?
Don’t ask me that. There are so many people in the band so we need really big halls in Nottingham I’m playing the arena, you must come.

I hear you were a former Jazz musician, what did you play?
I’m coming from classical music and used to play piano. I started to learn about composing from the age of fourteen and my parents sent me to Music Academy. I loved to play bass in jazz bands.

Before you made a name for yourself, what were you up to?
I did arrangements for some German artists and international artists from America. I was working on a radio station for ten years and then said to myself I can’t go on for another thirty years, so I went to a record company and asked if I can do something. They asked for an idea so I said ‘Dancing Music for the older generation’. Young people then realised that old people were dancing to their songs.

When and where did you last play Nottingham?
It was at a nice theatre in Nottingham, a few years ago. The Royal Centre for 2500 or so people. It was really lovely.

Where are you living at the moment?
Most of the time in America, in Florida.

How do you think your easy listening music has had an impact on today’s chill-out and lounge music?
I cannot say. What exists even in rock’n’roll, I do not know. Where the beginning of one genre is and end of the next is a mystery.

Now in the winter of your life, what have you got planned?
To go on. When you study music questions arise like why one note is there, why it sounds like that, why this, why that… it is never finished. Some people say go on vacation, but on vacation I hear some songs and start to think about it. I like what I am doing you see.

What do you spend your time doing when you are not making music?
I play golf.

How does Easy Listening affect the audience and the atmosphere?
Watching the faces and bodies of the people, they are happy. I feel I make them better, like the Pope.

James Last is the Pope?
No I am not… I just feel like it sometimes.

Anything else you want to say to the LeftLion readers? Just tell the people to listen to music. It is sometimes better than any medicine you can take. It makes you relax if you listen to it. Maybe that is the good thing for Easy Listening. After a hard day at work put a record on and relax. Music is a good head for the mentality of the people.

The James Last Orchestra plays Nottingham Arena on Thursday 20 September 2007.

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