When James Ash started writing music, he hoped that maybe one day, he would get to put a record out. Little did he know that not only would he release four albums as part of the Rogue Traders but that their music would win an ARIA, tour the world and even inspire a ‘Doctor Who’ episode.
James was more than happy to sit down with our #TBT interviewer Brad to reveal all about his time in the Rogue Traders and his new dance project Jealous Much?
James initially started producing house tracks under the guise Union State with fellow music enthusiast Steve Davis. “Steve and I were, and still are, music geeks who just dreamed of putting records out,” he tells us. “We never entertained the idea of being big or even popular.”
In the early 2000s, James and Steve decided to change their group’s name to mark a new chapter in their career. “I remember walking my dog and thinking of other names we could call us,” James recalls. “About that time, Guy Ritchie was becoming popular and it was really cool to be English again, so we thought, ‘Let’s go with a name that sounds like we’re two dodgy dudes’. I saw the movie with the rogue trader, just through the glass of the video library, rang Steve up and said, ‘What about that?’”. The Rogue Traders were born.
James initially resisted the band pursuing mainstream success. “You’ve got to remember that we were serious DJs who had grown up around house music,” he reveals. “The idea of going pop at that stage was quite weird. We wanted a hit, but we wanted a hit like Armand Van Helden had with ‘U Don’t Know Me’, which was a credible crossover track.”
At a meeting with their label Vicious in 2002, such a crossover hit became a serious possibility when their label boss asked if they wanted to remix an INXS song. It was a perfect twist of fate.
“Years before this (in 1999), I was in England with Steve and he has a massive record collection. I said to him, ‘I want you to go and pick a record on the shelf without looking and whatever record you pick off we’re gonna remix it and make it a hit.’ That record turned out to be a 7″ of INXS’ ‘Need You Tonight’”
Consequently, when fate came calling three years later, the boys rejigged that very remix and ‘One Of My Kind’ was born. “When it was a hit (winning an ARIA for Best Dance Release and peaking at No.10 on the ARIA charts), it was a fantastic feeling and I kind of became addicted to that. It changed our mindset very quickly.”
Their mindset wasn’t the only thing that changed. “Suddenly everyone knew us but we were just known as the guys that remixed INXS. We weren’t producers or writers in our own right and we felt very insecure about ourselves,” James admits.
“After that album (2003’s ‘We Know What You’re Up To’), we were in a really low place. I’m not sure if we ever talked about this but Steve was virtually bankrupt and had to go back to England and I was living really close to the margins. It’s hard to really express it because you have this perception of some kind of success and we were DJing a lot, but by the time we took everything out, we made no money off that first album at all.”
The band kept writing music and eventually signed a development deal with Sony Music. As part of the transition, they became a fully-fledged band with a new lead singer in former ‘Neighbours’ actress (now ‘X Factor’ judge) Natalie Bassingthwaighte. Their 2005 album ‘Here Comes The Drums’ ended up going four times platinum and spawned mega-hits such as ‘Voodoo Child’ and ‘Watching You’.
Amazingly, James tells us that the Rogues had total artistic freedom when making their albums (“It might be unusual but in our experience, it just was”), and even had a large say in choosing singles. “I remember (for their third album ‘Better In The Dark’) we led with ‘Don’t You Wanna Feel’, which was us pushing that. I think Sony might have wanted to lead with (second single) ‘I Never Liked You’ instead. So yeah, sometimes we got our own way, even over what they wanted.”
One song the band didn’t get their way with was ‘In Love Again’. “We wanted to put it out as a CD single in Australia,” James tells us. “It ended up being our biggest song as far as radio is concerned. Sony said, ‘Look, it’s driving people to the album’ so they were happy with that. It was hard to fault their logic really.” James also tells us that he hoped to release ‘In Love Again’ as their second British single rather than ‘Watching You’.
In the UK, they released ‘Voodoo Child’ as their first single to rapturous success. Not only did it go top five, but TV show ‘Doctor Who’ even named an episode after it. We ask James what it was like breaking such a difficult market.
“It was tough but it was also glorious,” he happily recalls. “We were holed up in a hotel in West London, we were on the second last ‘Top Of The Pops’ and we were going around in limos. We played the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and there were queues of people at two in the afternoon waiting to see us! It was a pop dream.”
It wasn’t all glamorous though, as a large part of the promotional duties fell into James’ lap. How did he cope with all the interviews? “I’ve never done any media training but before all of this I was on radio (as a presenter on Kiss FM and Hitz FM) and had interviewed hundreds of people, so I was aware of the kind of questions I would be asked and the answers I was expected to give. I always made a point of having a lot of fun with it. Very often, I’d turn the interview on its head a bit because I would get bored. It would do your nut in after a while!”
Did he ever live out any rock star fantasies? “I think the most rock star thing was after we did ‘Top Of The Pops’ and we all piled into a limo, drove to the east end of London and had a curry! That was one of the highest moments. We were No.3, just ahead of Lily Allen, we were staying at the same hotel as Pink, and it felt like anything was possible.”
Speaking of Pink, does James have any funny stories about anyone he’s met? “We had a few strange ones! I remember we were in the green room with The Veronicas and Ben Lee and we were all sitting around and it was really awkward,” he laughs. “I also remember making a real idiot of myself, getting Nat’s phone, and drunk dialing someone from the cast of ‘Neighbours’, which was a very silly thing to do.”
Soon after the release of the band’s third album, 2007’s ‘Better In The Dark’, things came to a head when Natalie left the band.
“I just think that she wanted to explore other avenues,” James explains. “Obviously I was heartbroken, but Nat and I are still very close. At the end of the day I said, ‘Ok, if you need to do this, you need to do this.’”
That didn’t stop the media from looking for a scandal. “I remember I got a call from Kyle Sandilands going, ‘Come on man, get on the radio with me and tell me what’s really happened’ and I was like, ‘Dude, there’s no scandal.’ It was just something she needed to do.”
Despite being offered a reality show to replace Natalie (“All that would have happened is that people would have gotten really tired of us and our credibility would have evaporated”), James was determined to find someone who wasn’t looking to be found. He eventually offered the spot to Sydney singer/songwriter Mindi Jackson.
Their first single with Mindi, ‘Love Is A War’, was sadly the beginning of the end. “Obviously, it’s a point of history that ‘Love Is A War’ was a big flop and it seemed to be obvious to everyone but us,” James admits.
Their follow up singles, ‘Would You Raise Your Hands?’ and ‘Hearts Beat As One’, also failed to fire. A video for the former was filmed and directed by Squared Division but has never seen the light of day. For the first time, James is able to tell us why it was never released.
“It was really cool; we were in a music box. We had weird kind of mannequin dancers and it looked like a 1970s TV performance. I think what happened was that Sony weren’t happy with Mindi’s look in it. I’ve got that video and it’s a good clip.”
Soon after, Sony informally dropped the band. “It’s funny because we kind of went full circle,” James explains. “We went from being the guys who just wanted someone to hear our music to suddenly being really successful and then just wanting people to listen to our music again. That was the only goal; there wasn’t any money to be made or anything like that.”
Sony eventually released the Rogue Traders’ fourth album, ‘Night Of The Living Drums’, alongside a greatest hits in 2011.
Despite Wikipedia’s claims otherwise, James confirms that the Rogue Traders split soon after being dropped. “It felt like the right time to stop. We could’ve kept driving out records, but musically, times were changing. There’s a great line here… ‘The secret of a great performer is knowing when to get off the stage!’”
It didn’t help that social media had just exploded, and seemed to enjoy exploiting the band’s misery.
“Suddenly I’m being flamed and there are all these blogs that seemed to be delighted that we were finding things hard. I was sick of trying to make people happy. I went straight out and had the chance to do other things and I was very keen to do them.”
One of those “other things” is his new dance project Jealous Much?
“Jealous Much? is about looking at dance music and dismantling the rules of it,” James explains. “When you listen to a normal dance track, whether you realise it or not, there are rules that people follow when they make a track; how it’s arranged, the kind of sounds that are used, the order that everything is put together.
“I find it really boring to listen to most dance music because it’s so sequential and everything fits the pattern, so for me Jealous Much? is about trying to surprise people with dance music and work outside any particular genre. I’m not trying to be obscure for the sake of it but what I’m trying to do is shape the listener and demand their attention.”
James initially kept his identity as Jealous Much? anonymous so as to avoid any stigma attached to his former life in the Rogue Traders. “I didn’t want people to go, ‘What do you know about contemporary cutting edge dance music?’ even though it’s my normal mode,” he says. “Rogue Traders was my life for over ten years but when I began writing as Jealous Much?, it was a relief because I didn’t have to go ‘Ok right, we need a chorus that feels a bit like (‘Voodoo Child’) here because that’s what people are going to be expecting’. I can literally just explore.”
James has fond memories of his time in the Rogue Traders, but there’s one in particular that sticks in his mind.
“I think one of the best moments was getting off the plane in England and my mum picking me up from the airport in her little car and her saying ‘watch this’. She put on Radio1 and within ten minutes they were playing ‘Voodoo Child’.
“We had very devoted fans that would come to every gig that we would do around the country, whether we were in Townsville or Adelaide. That was actually pretty wonderful; they were up the front every show. A couple of them even ended up becoming friends! I also signed my fair share of boobs, which is also a surreal experience.”
Sadly for those fans and their body parts, it’s unlikely that the Rogue Traders will ever reunite. “It sounds like a very nostalgic thing to do, but to be honest right now it’s all about Jealous Much?” James tells us. “You’ve got to look forward. I feel so proud of our legacy but you can’t live in that past. You’ve got to forward a new future and that’s what I’m doing now.”