Phantom Squeezing with the Fixx

From the February 1985 issue of Creem, by Laura Fissinger.

2 a.m. A hotel on Central Park West, New York City

Lying awake against his will is Jamie West-Cram, guitar player and songwriter with the four-year-old British pop/New Wave/politico band, the Fixx. In the midst of their second full-length, full-throttle American tour (to promote their third LP, Phantoms), West-Oram has been stuck with the chore of a long CREEM interview; singer/lyricist Cy Curnin has already done his share this time and West-Cram, it was decided, has to start doing 'em, too. Jamie has to be up at 9 or 9:30 to meet the reporter for breakfast at 10. Most rockers can't even walk by 10 a.m. much less talk and eat at the same time. No matter what time of day, West-Oram is not much of a talker anyway, and he knows it. GEEEEZZ. ..He rolls his beanpole frame over to the other side of the bed and calls the hotel desk. It's almost three. He scrunches up the covers and tries to sleep again.

3 a.m. An apartment in New Jersey

The reporter pulls her wrist up to her nose and tries to spot the locations of the big hand and the little hand on her watch. Three a.m. Damn. In order to get to the hotel for the Fixx interview she has to get up at 7:30 a.m. Apparently lyricist Curnin was busy writing songs, and the shy guitar player was being sent in his stead. But most guitar players can only string together a guitar lick, not a sentence. She groans and rolls over. There would be no rock-star-bragging-bullshit, either, she is sure of that--the Fixx are one of the "socially aware" British bands, like U2 or Big Country--if this guitar player couldn't say something relatively truthful and intelligent, he was probably too decent a guy to fill in the empty space with idle chatter. She writes herself a mental note--bring a deck of cards and a cribbage scoreboard.

10 a.m. The lobby of the (posh) hotel

An elderly woman is planted at the hotel's front desk, growling about her missing phone messages and dripping her diamond jewelry. A large, slightly scruffy blond man talking on a pay phone eyes a young woman with a tape recorder. At 10:20, they realize they're looking for each other. "Wait here, I have to do some business. Jamie will be down in a minute." He growls as a worker behind the desk complains: "You can't expect me and the rest of this hotel staff to have everything ready when we aren't sure when your band members are arriving." The blond man tells the reporter again that Jamie will be right down.

10:40 a.m. The hotel restaurant, table on the right

West-Oram is extraordinarily tall. He and the (short) reporter (with a huge backpack) squeeze into a "private" corner table in the hotel restaurant. Both notice immediately that the table is too small to put elbows on, and that there is no railing at their right to lean on, either. Coffee comes for her, tea for him ("actually I prefer PG. Tips. Rupert is the big tea nut amongst us"). Neither is anything close to cogent or awake. A couple at the table on the left is British, it turns out, and polite as well. They notice that the reporter and the rocker are trying to do an interview. Politely, they ask West-Oram where in England he is from and if he would like them to move to another section of the restaurant so that the interview party can have a) privacy and b) a railing to lean on. Everyone is most cordial, even if slightly brain-dead from lack of sleep.

10:50 a.m. The hotel restaurant, table on the left

When the waiter brings all the food. there is no real room left for the tape recorder. Nonetheless, it is turned on and efforts are made to actually do the interview. You look to be about 20, she says. "I'm 30," he confesses. Started on a ukelele because it was the only thing in a houseful of instruments he could get his hands around. Started on a guitar at age 10. Got a houseful of encouragement from parents and their piles of record albums. Was a pretty good student who loved English literature, and still does.

Every few sentences, West-Oram stops midsentence, like a car running out of gas. His voice gets quiet and his eyes cloud over. Obviously, this is not just the fault of exhaustion; quite obviously, West-Oram is one of the most introverted nonverbal guitarists in a world full of introverted non-verbal guitarists. He looks at the reporter with some concern. ' 'I'm not doing very well, am I?" She smiles and knocks against a coffee cup, leaning across the table to reassure him. But she feels like a sadistic villain in a bad war movie, doing a torture interrogation of some poor young soldier brave enough to die for his brothers on the battle lines. Well, how 'bout an easy question: where did you get a hyphenated last name?

"There was a bastard back there in my family." Jamie laughs. "Sarah Oram and John West had a kid but they didn't want to get married, so they said, well, what are we going to call it? How about both names? So it stuck. This was a couple of hundred years ago. I think it's kinda great." Aha! a "friendly" topic! You want kids, Jamie?

"Well, it's taken me quite a while to grow up, not that I really want to grow up. Being in a band you can stay a kid, I guess. You don't really have to conform the way you might have to wise after a certain age. As long as you do your music, you're free the rest of the time to behave as you like. I like the way children react to things; I think they're very honest. I don't want any kids of my own, I just want to be a wise child myself."

West-Oram does seem to react to things pretty honestly, the reporter thinks to herself. Which is why it's so incredibly uncomfortable for him to do this interview.

11:10 a.m. Still the table on the left

The duo try to get the normal interview info out of the way, over the clatter of dishes from the waiter's station directly to their left, over the clatter of people that keep coming to sit at the table to their right, over the dignified din of the piped-in classical music. Yes, the whole band really writes the songs; yes, many of Cy's lyrics are stream-of-consciousness made up right in the studio; West-Oram loves Stravinsky, Black Uhuru, Bob Dylan and Tom Verlaine; for Phantoms, the band tried to pick out strong songs, even if they didn't sound "Fixx-y"; for this tour they tried to create a totally simple stage set-up even hiding the amps and the like) so that the "music would be the total focus."

"Are you shy on stage like you are in person?" asks the interviewer in a tactless bid for personal dirt. "It sure doesn't look like there's any hams in the band."

"No," replies Jamie with a straight face and a tiny glimmer in the eyes. "We're all vegetarians." Da-rut-da. "Now what was your question?"

Back to the facts. The band liked its recent tour in Australia because no one was cheering just because of videos on MTV. There's no lyric sheet in Phantoms because the band felt the audience should concentrate on the sound of the words.

West-Oram gets self-conscious again. "Well, come to think of it, I suppose one might be annoyed if you couldn't understand some of it. Anyway, what should we talk about now?" He blushes and laughs. "I'm sorry, I can't find my words today. But I'm quite enjoying this, you know?"

11:20 a.m. Still at the table on the left

Two bulky men lower themselves into the seats at the table on the right and join in the din of the clanking dishes, talking waiters, classical music pipes and all-the rest. "Let's go to the park," Jamie says, looking like a kid very relieved to get out of school.

11:30 Central Park

West-Oram and the writer settle onto a patch of heroically thin grass and valiantly bright fall sunshine. Within five minutes they notice a group of people with acoustic guitars and loud voices singing old folk songs on a nearby park bench. Two minutes later, a plane goes over. Two minutes after that, helicopters start tracing a path over the west side of Central Park, something they do (loudly) for the duration of the interview. Reporter and rocker begin the interview again when both suddenly hear a sharp slapping sound and some hollering. They watch in concern as a man and woman shove each other around, then realize they're actors practicing a fight scene. Jamie smiles and talks about the stage: "I think people really do change when they go up on a stage.. It helps you to come out in the open, really, It's the time when I feel the most comfortable, assuming that everything else is going well technically with the equipment and such. I feel most at home playing guitar. It's what I do best, it's what brings me out." He rubs his McCartney saucer eyes and squints into the sun.

What about being comfortable with the politics of songs like "Stand Or Fall" or "Less Cities. More Moving People"? "Yes, those views of pacificism are pretty much shared by everyone." Jamie yanks at the timid grass around the space where he sits, groping for words to answer what he obviously considers an important question. "There are bound to be other things in them that are much more personal to Cy. of course. But I think we're remarkably similar in the way we look at things. It might be because all of us communicate so well with each other: we get on. so there's a sort of relaxed atmosphere in the band, and a good number of things we do talk about a lot among ourselves. Some of the ideas developed in those discussions come out later in the songs. For instance--the idea of the title Phantoms had to do with the way people really feel inside as opposed to the facade people quite often use-- which is unavoidable. whoever you are, It's very difficult to be totally honest all the time. Yet you have feelings that you'd like to express, if only you could find the words."

11:50 A.M. Central Park

By this time, rocker and reporter are both relaxing a little. Speaking of acting, the reporter says. what about accusations that the Fixx doesn't do enough of it, that they're a good band with a nonexistent image? West-Oram shoos away a bumblebee with his long lingers and scrunches his nose in concentration. A few people walking by stare at this long stick of a man wearing black leather, splayed out in the Central Park grass.

West-Oram rolls over in the grass like a restless kid--the reporter pushes the tape recorder toward him, worrying he might roll back over on top of it. "The motive at that time was just playing the songs live--I was only in the band a week, and we'd already written six songs together and were getting ready for a first gig that very week. I walked around in a trance, I just couldn't believe how well it worked and that I'd found these people that everything was so good with. Amazing. I knew we had something.

"I guess what we need now is to work on the image side of things. At least that's 'what people tell us. A lot of bands have a very strong visual image that people get to know. But flash clothes and all that can be so boring." The reporter thinks of Cy and Jamie's singing and playing with Tina Turner on a few of her new songs and videos-- apparently she hadn't found them boring in rhe least. Nor had the millions of Americans that had bought their first two LPs, Reach The Beach and Shuttered Room.

West-Oram begins to stammer again and grope for words, so the reporter moves him to facts again. Yes, he spends hours and hours working up guitar parts, writing one and then another and pretty soon there's the keyboard riff and no, wait, there's another guitar part m just sort of going on and on here, aren't I?" he asks. He loves the music--the politics are an evil made necessary by a world that needs some talking about. 'If I wasn't a musician I'd like to work with the groups that try to preserve the environment. They're the real heroes as far as I'm concerned. Who gave the human species the right to push around all the other species on the planet, anyway?"

12:20 p.m. Central Park

It's time for West-Oram to get back to the hotel and pack for a three-hour ride to a Long Island concert hall. The reporter asks one last question about Jamie's shyness and reserve. Instead of answering, he abruptly vaults his endless legs into the air, trotting around on his hands, black leather pants and shoes shining weirdly in the sun. "I usually can stand that way for five minutes." he says. "That wasn't so good, was it?" The reporter leans back on the grass and smiles at him. "No Jamie, you did just fine. Just fine."