Interview: James Bay & his Epiphone Century

British singer-songwriter James Bay has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, with his debut album entering the UK charts at Number One and going double platinum. He tells G&B how he did it, where he’s going next, and how his 1966 Epiphone Century was nearly the one that got away…

Photography Paul Alexander Knox

Paul McCartney and his Höfner Violin bass. Eddie Van Halen and his masking-taped ‘Frankenstrat’. Jack White and his Montgomery Ward Airline. Neil Young and his ‘Old Black’ Les Paul… James Bay and his red Epiphone Century?

Every era has its own inseparable duo of star and guitar, and while 25-year-old Bay is some way yet from the stellar company listed above, he’s undoubtedly looking up. Three years ago, few people knew who James Bay was. Quite a few guitar players had never even heard of an Epiphone Century. It’s now a very different story.

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James Bay’s talent is the key to such matters, of course. His debut album, Chaos And The Calm, is now so ubiquitous you’d be forgiven for thinking every track has been a single; in fact, it’s ‘only’ six out of 12. Sales and praise have become constant companions: three Grammy nominations, Brit Awards, an Ivor Novello, mentoring from The Rolling Stones, the on-message charity single (Running)… and so it continues.

Today, Bay is playing Portugal’s Festival Marés Vivas, in the same late-night slot played the day before by Elton John. It’s a “fly-in” show, explains Bay, meaning he and his band don’t have their own backline. Instead of his favourite Hamstead head and cab, he must ‘settle’ for Fenders (“That’s fine!” he chirps. “It’ll be a good challenge”). But you can be sure Bay disembarked the plane with his must-have companion: his red 1966 Epiphone Century hollowbody electric. Bay understands these things are important.

“I really believe in aesthetics, imagery, iconography, branding if you want to call it that,” he explains. “From the Stones’ lips logo, to Michael Jackson’s sparkly glove, to Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA cover… so once I had the physical connection with my instrument, in playing and sound terms, I was always going to make it the forefront of what you see onstage.”

“Between that and the hat,” he smiles, “it’s worked out. I can’t lie – in the back of my mind, I thought these things might help me achieve what I want to achieve. It’d be naïve to say, ‘Ohh, it all just happened’. I knew I was going to have to do a shit-load of work to even get a bit to happen for me, and I have… but it seems to be working.”

James Bay, school of rock

Bay is clearly adept at learning the art of a career in music, yet it’s equally obvious he’s no cynic. He simply loves music. Born in the small market town of Hitchin – population 33,000, “famous” for pioneering the use of black bin bags – he started playing guitar, aged 11, on an old nylon-string classical of his father’s. “He couldn’t play it, though. He’d got it off my uncle… he didn’t play either.” Inspired by hearing his dad’s Derek And The Dominos Layla album – not exactly the zenith of cool at the turn of the century – young James discovered he had some talent.

“I still think a lot of even really experienced guitar players appreciate that an acoustic is a good thing to learn on. It was unwieldy, not easy to play… it sets you in good stead for whatever comes after that.”

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What came next was a Yamaha Pacifica electric – but “I wasn’t feeling anything remotely ‘Strat’ in me, so I sold it” – and then an Epiphone Les Paul Special II: “from the money for the Pacifica and pennies I’d saved from working down the market. I suddenly felt a little more like Slash or Aerosmith! Aged 14, that’s what floated my boat.

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“But I painted it. Dunno why! It wasn’t very good…” his voice tails off, diplomatically. “Later, I had an Epiphone EJ-200…” By his late teens, Bay was playing live and was a student at the Brighton Institute Of Modern Music (see also, Tom Odell, George Ezra, The Kooks). BIMM is justifiably proud of its student, but Bay is at pains to point out he’s no production-line popstar: “I left early. I only did two years.

“I do appreciate the time I spent there and all the people who helped me, but… rules, lessons, I just don’t think they should really exist when it comes to music, y’know? It depends what you want out of playing, what you want from the outset, I know that. But I feel that when I’m learning music ‘by the book’, as it were, I start to get worried. It stifles my creativity.

“My basic point is, when you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s when people can come up with truly brilliant things. Sorry, tangent there! I just wanted to say it.” Gigging in and around London followed, supported by money from bar work: “Hated it. Mainly because I was working in the hours when I should be doing a gig. So, I finished music college when I was 20, turned 21, and I was looking at my life clock. I thought, ‘Hang on, I’m not some 19-year-old who’s signed a huge record deal like I dreamed about. I’m 21!’ It sounds harsh, because I know you can get into music at any point in life, but I became very aware that I was doing not much more than working in a bar.”

First we take Manhattan

Fortune would have it that a friend had posted a video of one of Bay’s pub performances on YouTube, and unlikely interest was piqued from New York label Republic Records. They asked to meet Bay.

“The last bar I was working in, I told the manager, ‘I quit. I’m sorry this is last-minute, but I’ve got to go to New York and sign a record deal’,” Bay remembers, laughing. “Well, that’s what I hoped. It sounded so cheesy, but that’s honestly what I said to them. Ridiculous, right? The guy who ran the bar was my parents’ neighbour, and he was like, ‘Come on mate, are you joking?’”

Turns out he wasn’t. Bay flew out to the States with his manager – yep, he’d learned he’d better have one – though he insists it was “really just to chat, play them some songs and hang, really. They wanted a better sense of me as a potential artist, I think, and as a person.” There was downtime, and what does any aspiring musical artist do in Manhattan on a day off? Forget Central Park, the Empire State Building, the Statue Of Liberty et al…
“We went down to Bleecker Street!” laughs Bay. “I’d only been to New York once, with my parents. This was more on my own terms. I was sort of obsessed with Greenwich Village, this notion of the beautiful, idyllic, creative place, right? It was potent. We went down to Matt Umanov Guitars there, it’s been there since 1965. And Matt’s still running that place, I think. Anyway, they had a load of Strats, Gretsches and so on… and behind the counter all these old Martins, Gibsons. But they also had this beautiful red Epiphone. An Epiphone Century…” Bingo.

Plugged into “one of those little cigarette box amplifier things”, Bay played the Century and was instantly smitten. “What is it about guitarists and red guitars?” he questions himself. “Just so attractive. But this was particularly special beyond the colour. For a start, you could really see the grain of the wood. It wasn’t just flat red. And it was hollow-bodied, which was great, as I was just one man and an acoustic guitar at the time.

I was coming round to electric guitar again, but I wanted to do shows on my own, still. Well, I had no band. So, I was kinda thinking of hollowbody electrics, plus I like P-90s… and here was this Epiphone Century.”

Regrettably, Bay couldn’t afford it anyway. After a thanks-for-coming dinner with the people of Republic, Bay flew home. No deal, no new/old guitar. “I went back on the Matt Umanov website when I got back home, as I’d promised myself I would buy the Century when, or if, I was next in New York. And there it was: but with a ‘Sold’ notice on it.”
But, hey, you already know this tale has a happy ending, don’t you? It was a few days later when Bay got a call saying a package had arrived at his manager’s office. He immediately went there: “I had the time. I had a lot of time back then.”

The package was “a big box. Familiar shape, familiar dimensions, opened it up, and there was the guitar, sent by Republic.” James Bay had got his record deal. And he’d got his Century. “My life was maaaade [laughs]. And the rest, as they say, is the rest…”

21st Century boy

Bay insists the Century’s visual allure was only part of the package. “I was – and still am – into that whole Jack White and Dan Auerbach [Black Keys] thing,” he says. “Scuzzy/fuzzy guitar tones, going back to T.Rex and Bowie as well. It was funny when I first picked it up, though: I was simultaneously broken-hearted and elated.

I’d just picked up this gorgeous guitar with a wound G string when I thought I was going to be buying this cool soloing guitar, and it wasn’t that at all, really… But I also thought, this could be what I need for my playing, this could give me that more ‘fighting’ approach.
“I think that’s what I’d always loved about Jack White’s playing, y’know? He seems to be fighting with his instrument. Dan Auerbach has the same thing, playing those old Guilds and Harmony Rockets or whatever… I really like that idea.”

Bay’s red (or, officially, Royal Burgundy) Epiphone Century is from 1966. P-90 pickups replaced the New York model pickups in 1960, before the guitar was discontinued in the USA in 1969/70. But its era means his Century is a ‘Kalamazoo’ Epiphone, that is to say, one made in the main Gibson factory of the time. Bay is nerdily proud to stand out from the crowd.

“The guy at Matt Umanov said the red was quite rare,” says Bay. “Epiphone didn’t make many, and he said the single P-90 model was quite rare too. I have been to see Epiphone since, up at the company [now in Nashville], and they had all these amazing old booklets and lists of stuff. I’ve since found out there were 366, I think, made in ’66. 1969 was the last year that Gibson made Centurys… there were 11! So, if anyone’s got one of those, they’re very rare.”

Bay’s since bought another, his brown ’65 Century with dual P-90s and what he believes to be a factory-fitted Bigsby. “The walnut one is a bit of a backup for the red ’66, really. It’s different. I took the Bigsby off recently just to have a closer look, and it’s a heavier body, definitely. It can’t just be the second pickup, an extra P-90’s not that heavy. So it could be the actual wood that’s different. I don’t know.

“And even though the brown one is older, there’s something about the red ’66 that is lacking in lacquer that makes it breathe so nicely. There’s literally something a lot more ‘coated’ sound-wise about the brown one. I obviously don’t play it as much, and the red is so resonant. They look like ramshackle, thrown-together instruments in a way, but they’re really not.

“The brown one was 900 quid in a sale, in England. I thought ‘what’s wrong with this? Why are these guitars not more?’ I mean, there’s no reason to make them more expensive, even as ‘vintage’ instruments, but they are fascinating to me. The brown one responds better to a plain G string than the red one.

“They both originally had a wooden bridge, but I’ve put a metal bridge with individual saddles on the brown one just to mess with it a bit – sort of make it more of an electric guitar.

James Bay
“But I certainly don’t have any problems with them. I’ve always adopted the Keith Richards approach. As soon as the men in white coats come in – I know that doesn’t exist anymore – and any dial goes into the red, they’d turn it down. And Keith would say: ‘turn it up! Crackly, fuzzy, buzzy… give me that’. I have had to change the pickup on my (red) Century, though: it gave up the ghost last year. But I kept the original and had one modelled exactly on it by a guy in New York. I did go noiseless, though, because I want to play that guitar on TV. And TV studios suck for P-90s. It still sounds like a P-90. No-one’s complained. It’s just a bit better.”

An Epiphone Century, like any guitar, isn’t going to suit every situation. Bay himself admits he is very choosy about guitars because, in his head, he thinks “every guitar should be perfect. And that’s just silly, really.” But it is noticeable that, for a player who namechecks Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Derek Trucks as inspiration, he steers clear of solos. Indeed, it was one “rule” Bay did adopt for Chaos And The Calm. “True. Though in my live shows, there’s two or three songs now where there are solos. But that’s enough in a set where it’s not really in the blues ‘genre’. But there will be more overt guitar work on my records in the future, if I can help it. But, for now, I’ve made the concerted effort not to be a ‘noodler’. It’s a balance. It’s a debut album. I wanted to get my songwriting chops across.

“Even the solos I do play in the set at the moment are somewhat written, they’re not out-and-out improvisation. As someone who’s focusing on songs and melody, I can’t get away with that. Yeah, I’d love to be wailing away, improvising over a 12-bar for three hours – that’s how I spent my teenage life in my bedroom! But I can’t.

“It sounds a bit knobby, but I think the crowd deserve better than that. They’ve come for a chorus, a lyric, a melody, a feel… and a fancy bit of guitar if they can take it. I appreciate they’re not coming for guitar solos. Who knows, though, where I’ll be in 10 years? I just hope I’m still here, playing.”

Despite his growing knowledge of production runs and Epiphone Century history, James Bay remains intrigued by his ’66’s uniqueness. “One thing I love, that is so hard to find out about, is that my red one seems to have a particularly narrow headstock. Different to any other Epiphones, LG shape or dreadnought shape that I’ve had. And the base of the headstock on other Centurys I have seen is wider. Like a Gretsch-style – big, wide and square headstock. I really don’t like that look, so I just love mine. That guitar, and me, basically wrote the whole album. The ballad-y songs and the rockier ones like Hold Back The River… all written on that guitar.”

Not a bad return for one man and his guitar. Suffice to say, if he finds another Royal Burgundy ’66 Epiphone Century, James Bay will now be able to afford it.

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