The band took its name from the word "jam" and the Native American Iroquois. Jamiroquai and its fascinating lead singer, Jason Kay, made its first mark on England in 1992 with a debut single on the Acid Jazz label. That single, "When You Gonna Learn," became an underground classic and British media began predicting the singer, known simply as Jay Kay, would be a star.
Kay's life has always revolved around the stage. His mother, '70s cabaret jazz singer Karen Kay, performed in places as native as Nigeria and as showbiz as Las Vegas. Traveling with his mom on the entertainment circuit piqued Jay Kay's interest in dramatic arts and music.
Kay started concentrating on music at the age of 17. By the time he was 22, the band's first single on Acid Jazz had been released and the live shows began to be lauded. Reviews of early shows described "stark-sudden brilliance" and "a stunning display of ensemble musicianship."
At the time, the Acid Jazz sound was at its peak. But the genre's players weren't known for quality musicianship. When Jamiroquai began performing its funk with an attitude, it virtually crushed those observations and it didn't take long for major labels to notice. A fierce bidding war ended with Kay signing an eight-album deal with Sony. The band's major label debut, Emergency On Planet Earth, shot straight to No. 1 in England. However, the hype and buzz didn't come without backlash.
The band's influences range from Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock to Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd. And Jamiroquai is considered a funk band in the vein of Earth Wind & Fire, Sly & The Family Stone and Parliament, so some criticized Kay for ripping off African-American soul music and taking advantage of its painful roots. The word was, "Kay is white and hasn't suffered enough." And the fact that Kay's voice is uncannily similar to Stevie Wonder's left many calling the singer the greatest imitator, a "Wonder Boy."
The Jamiroquai's penchant for self deprecation cannot hide the fact that they've evolved into a real band. Pop, along with guitarist Lupus, bass player Evil Jared, turntable master Q-Ball and drummer Spanky G, can actually simultaneously rock and goof off. Their stage antics range from juvenile slapstick to borderline psychosis. Pop careens about the stage like a hyperactive drunk, and has been known to take a lighter to his body hair, while Jared endures some truly pointed physical abuse.
Kay was amazed at that "nonsense" and he didn't let the backlash keep the groove down. The band's die-hard fans positioned Kay and mates in the midst of the hottest trend in Britain. That was fine for Kay because he simply has to be a star.
Kay thrives on being the center of attention and he's righteously committed to his cause of the day. Whether it be ecological causes or pro-marijuana stances, the soulful singer wears his heart on his sleeve. With exposure, Kay began to be known as a cocky star, "a bit of a wanker" with a snobbish taste for Lamborginis and Ferraris. (He has, at last count, nine high-speed, high-priced cars.) He once told a reporter, "I'm a show off. I always was and I always fuckin' will be. I need a stage. I need to do this business, for now anyway, until I decide that I can get out in a dinghy and be a militant environmental terrorist ***. But until then, I'm driven by the need for the buzz."
With a dynamic frontman like Jay Kay, it's no wonder people still ask: "Is Jamiroquai a band or a he?" The band's video on MTV for the song "Virtual Insanity" from the current release, Traveling Without Moving, features only Kay, lending credence to the "He Theory." But that's not exactly the way it is.
Keyboardist Toby Smith has been working with Kay since the band's inception. He told POLLSTAR, "It's sort of a grey fuzzy area. Jay is signed to Sony and we're signed to Jay, so it's actually somewhere in between." Kay said the label wanted to get rid of the band, thinking, for example, that Didgeridoo player Wallis Buchanan's "wooden pipe" wasn't important. Kay said he could have worked with other musicians, but there was no point. Jamiroquai's members (Kay, Smith, Buchanan, bassist Stuart Zenter, drummer Derrick McKenzie and guitarist Simon Katz) connected. Kay kept that intact. Smith said, "When everybody has equal power and equal say, most of the time, bands fight and split up. [Our band] is much more of a democracy led by Jay."
Jay Kay takes the point on Jamiroquai's business. He works closely with ITB in Europe and Cara Lewis at William Morris in New York. He also works hand-in-hand with manager Kevin Simpson from Long Lost Brother. Smith said, "Jay has a very hands-on approach to everything.... He doesn't let his manager basically do anything ... without him knowing fully about it." Smith said the books are open to every band member, however. "I think that's good," he said. "If people don't know what's going on, they start to think that they're not getting what they should be getting. I don't think that happens. Everyone is pretty clear about what's going on."
For the past five years, Jamiroquai has gone into the studio, finished a record and toured straight away. Smith said they haven't stopped for more than a month, ever. Jamiroquai's last tour of the U.S., a brief outing in January, drew packed houses of young and old, ravers and hippies, college kids and drop-outs, Deadheads and funksters, skaters and bakers.
Jamiroquai (which is an 11-piece touring band) just finished an arena tour of Europe. Smith, speaking from a cellular phone atop a tour bus in Bordeaux, France, said the band has gone up the ladder a rung in Europe. "We're now doing arenas, all between 10,000 and 15,000 people, which we've never done before.... But of course, America is different because we're just trying to pry open the shell and get in there." The band's next U.S. outing, starting May 13th in Seattle, will play houses holding between 500 and 1,200 people. "It's kind of like stepping back again," Smith said. "You have to regress for us coming back to America and go to a 10th the size of the venues, which is actually quite nice in a way because you get much more vibe at those smaller venues. It's like going back to how it originally was in the UK."