In early 2015, I decided to travel to north America, but travelling east and without flying. I had been touring non-stop for the previous two years and wanted some time to myself. I’m a bit of a rail fan and had always wanted to take the Trans-Siberian railway – I like the feeling of idleness while still moving forward. I took a cargo ship from China to Canada for that same reason. When you’re in your studio and you fail to come up with anything good, you feel unproductive, but put that studio on to a moving vessel and you can feel much more positive about your daily progress (even if you barely come up with a melody).
Novosibirsk train station, where we had enough time to venture out into the cold and stretch our legs. As you can see, it’s -28C. After days of stuffy and smelly train cabins it was crisp and refreshing. That’s how my sugar-coated memory recalls it anyway.
Here’s a man smoking a celebratory cigarette having finally arrived at his destination. You could smoke on board only after tipping the car attendant. You would smoke in between cars, where icicles hung down from the ceiling and you could see the train tracks on the frozen ground below. I kept my beer there.
I took a side trip from China to Tokyo where I went sample hunting. This is in the basement of Disk Union in Shibuya. Nearby is a jazz cafe called JBS where I discovered a Grant Green record that went on to be sampled on my track with Charles Bradley, imaginatively titled Grant Green.
Another jazz cafe in Tokyo, this one in Shinjuku. Unique to Japan, these jazz kissaten (jazz cafes) started appearing in the 1950s, when jazz records brought over by American soldiers were too expensive to privately own. Instead you would visit your local jazz kissa, and listen to them communally over a cup of coffee or beer.
China and South Korea
I sailed across the Pacific with the now-bankrupt Hanjin freight company. All I needed was a whole lot of paperwork, double the price of the air fare and an extra 300 hours of time. I was the only passenger, but I certainly wasn’t a surprise for any of the crew. They told me that they often have writers on board who want to finish their books without any distraction.
Many of the crew played guitar or piano and had great voices. They were outrageously good at karaoke, but they had plenty of practice. Some came to record songs in a makeshift studio I set up in my cabin – often heartfelt love songs about their wives who were thousands of miles away.
Berthed in the port of Busan. While the ship loaded and unloaded its South Korean cargo, I sat in the sun and watched dolphins swim past. I remember I was listening to an album by Jürgen Müller called Science of the Sea.
Throughout the entire journey, the ship would roll from side to side. You were told to have one hand holding on to something at all times. All my new songs feature just one half of the piano, never both.
My cabin setup. I had sent all my gear from London to China in time to board the ship in Shanghai. There was a small porthole in front of the desk where I could look out while making music. I was really looking forward to the view but it turned out to be the side of a freight container.
This is on the roof of a studio in Brooklyn with Charles Bradley, who was recording vocals for my Mr Jukes album. I can’t quite explain his facial expression. This was after he had been singing at full throttle for a couple of hours. He’s probably asking why I couldn’t have just kept the first take. I am very particular about things like that.
- God First by Mr Jukes is out now on Island Records