In 2004, when Sonic Cathedral opened its doors, James Chapman was still holed up in his bedroom in Northampton writing songs. He’d been a keen musician since he was a kid, but when he liberated a four-track cassette recorder from school he realised the possibilities of making music on his own. He’d broken cover in 2003 with an EP under the name Short Break Operator, but settled on Maps because it reflected his own relationship with music. “I always used it as an escape, or to take me to a different place,” he explains, “so Maps just seemed to fit with that idea.”
In October 2005, he emerged with his debut single ‘Start Something’. Inexplicably, it passed us by, but the follow-up, ‘Lost My Soul’, floored us. Musically somewhere between Spiritualized and Caribou, it hit that sweet spot of euphoria and melancholy that made us fall in love with The Radio Dept and start Sonic Cathedral in the first place. We fired off a message on MySpace, begging him to play a show.
“I thought Sonic Cathedral was a venue at first,” he laughs, all these years later. “I was confused.” Suffice to say, the show didn’t happen. Instead, having signed to Mute, James spent most of 2006 working on his debut album, We Can Create.
The following year we almost killed him. A couple months prior to the album’s release, in February 2007, we finally got to arrange some Maps shows. But, as James and his band were returning home from Nottingham, their van crashed into the central reservation on the M1 and the remaining dates were pulled. “It was crazy,” James recalls. “I somehow came out of it unscathed, but it could have been nasty.”
But nothing could stop Maps that year. The album was nominated for the Mercury Prize (losing out to Klaxons’ Myths Of The Near Future) and it was a thrill to see someone from ‘our’ scene accepted into the mainstream. He didn’t mind being labelled a shoegazer (or even a nu-gazer) because “there are worse things to be called” and, anyway, he was still pinching himself.
“It was just an unbelievably exciting and crazy time,” he says. “It was a whirlwind. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic, but I went from an unknown kid making tracks in his bedroom to being signed to my favourite label and having a Mercury nomination in the space of a few years.”
The following April we snuck out a limited-edition 7” featuring Maps and M83 reworking each other’s songs before the curtain fell on the first phase of Maps’ career on the Sonic Cathedral-curated Barn stage at Truck Festival in June 2008. “We had some great times,” James recalls, “but by then I was beginning to feel like that incarnation of Maps was coming to an end. I had a whole new album to write and it was a natural thing to do at that time, I guess.”
The resulting album, 2009’s Turning The Mind, was co-produced by Tim Holmes of Death In Vegas and had a more electronic feel, but it was met with some unnecessarily vicious and vindictive reviews that were compounded by an uncertain new two-piece live set-up. It seemed like a swift fall from grace.
It is endlessly frustrating how singular British artists like James and the late Nick Talbot of Gravenhurst are consistently overlooked and underrated by the media, especially when compared to some of their American peers. Is it the appeal of the ‘exotic other’, a stupidly British sense of self-deprecation, or just because a free press trip to Northampton isn’t quite as appealing as one to Nashville?
“I don’t actually feel that way,” counters James. “I was lucky to have such big exposure early on and I’ve always been grateful for that. The press I’ve had has been fairly balanced. I used to take reviews to heart, but I don’t now. I’ve been lucky to be able to stay on the outside of all the current trends and just do my own thing.”
But there was a lot more going on than a 4/10 kicking in NME back in 2009. “It was a difficult time for me, personally, so I took a bit of a break,” reveals James. “I had been addicted to tranquillisers for over 12 years, so the end of that year was a very dark time and I had to make that change. I got the help I needed from some great people and took some time out.”
He resurfaced in 2013 and hit the reset button with a brilliant third album, Vicissitude. “In terms of making music, it was literally like starting again,” he explains. “When I started writing songs for it I was still in quite a fragile state of mind and a lot of that album touches on those themes. Ultimately, though, getting sober was the biggest thing I’ve done in my personal life in these past 15 years.”
There followed a remix collection (Realigned) and a collaboration with Polly Scattergood as onDeadWaves. Then he started work on his masterpiece.
Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. came out in May of this year and it’s a stunning record; a more mature take on the original Maps sound that we fell in love with, but with strings and horns and backing vocals and kitchen sinks. “I feel like I really pushed myself with this one and I am extremely happy with how it turned out,” says James, proudly. “I just decided to be as ambitious as I could in terms of the making of it.”
The luscious strings that are draped all over the record were played by the Brussels-based Echo Collective, but the arrangements are all James’ work.
“I had never written scores before so it was a steep learning curve,” he says. “I wanted the arrangements to become part of the music, rather than being ‘stuck on’. It was a relief when it all worked and it was amazing to hear the scores come to life when they performed them.”
Despite being backed by Belgians and the clear influences of The Beach Boys and Ennio Morricone, the album retains a very specifically English kind of melancholy. One that can be traced from Vaughan Williams and the albums John Betjeman made with Jim Parker in the early 1970s through Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With It’ to Blanck Mass’ collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
“I have a bust of Vaughan Williams on my desk in my studio,” reveals James, “so I’m not surprised that he was an influence. It definitely has a chamber feel, which probably adds to the Englishness. Robert Kirby’s arrangements for Nick Drake, which I love, were another inspiration.”
The lyrics, too, find James in a reflective mood. It’s no coincidence that this is the first album he has released since turning 40 and, while in no way political, there are hints to events in the wider world.
“I think all my albums are personal, really,” explains James. “But they reflect themes I am dealing with at the time, and the world around me. So yes, there is a sort of ‘questioning’ in some of the lyrics, but ultimately I want to aim for escapism.”
We wonder, if James was to reflect on his time as Maps, what would he change?
“I have been really lucky to be able to make music for so long. Honestly. The album touches on themes of memories and how they change over time, so there was a lot of looking back to childhood and the innocence and sense of wonder that gets lost along the way. In terms of Maps, I try not to have regrets. It’s just a ride, man.”
Maps play a special show to celebrate Sonic Cathedral’s 15th birthday at Bush Hall in London on November 4, with support from Mark Peters and special guest DJ James Holden. Buy tickets.
Below is a Spotify playlist of some of our favourite Maps songs and remixes.