Welcome aboard! Your crew today? Manchester enigma Jim Noir and honey-voiced Soundcarriers/International Teachers Of Pop frontwoman Leonore Wheatley. Together they are Co-Pilot and their new album is a one-way flight to psychedelic pop heaven

“I moved to Manchester after I finished university in 2008 and started working in Chorlton, in a bar called Dulcimer,” says Leonore Wheatley.

“We did not meet in Dulcimer!” splutters Jim Noir.

It’s an uncharacteristically tropical Manchester afternoon, and the midday sun is dancing mischievously on the sparkling waters of New Islington Marina.

“No, listen!” insists Leonore. “I’d been singing with The Soundcarriers for about a year, and…”

“I’ll tell you my side of the story after this,” whispers Jim.

“Yes, but this is my side!”

They roll their eyes at each other, then burst into affectionate laughter. Manchester is boiling over. Insanely hot and sweaty. So much so, our plans to meet in Jim’s DookStereo studio have been abandoned, and instead we’re sipping Mobberley Summit beer by the canal. Well, I am, anyway. Jim’s got a lager and Leonore is on the shandy.

They’re both charming and funny, with the easy-going “shut yer face” rapport of long-term friends, entirely comfortable with each other’s foibles. It’s a warmth that exudes from ‘Rotate’, the new album they’ve created together over countless similarly blissful and boozy afternoons. They’ve worked on it for almost a decade. Their friendship, they are attempting to explain, goes back even further.

“Dulcimer was a place where lots of people from the Manchester music scene came to drink,” continues Leonore. “Through that, he got wind of the fact that I was in The Soundcarriers and that I’d moved to Manchester.”

“I just think it took a lot longer than that,” protests Jim. “I was living in Chorlton at the time, and I remember really getting into The Soundcarriers. You know, who were they? Then [Jim Noir band member] Ian Smith said, ‘One of them actually works in Chorlton’. So I used to go into Dulcimer all the time, but I didn’t have the nerve to actually speak to Leonore. There was no, ‘Hey! Do you want to be in my band?’. It was more, ‘Can I have a pint, please?’. Every five minutes. Then I’d walk away.”

“But one night I got a phone call from him,” says Leonore. “And I joined the Jim Noir band in 2010. It was such a fun time, and we’re all still friends. Being in Jim’s band was my ‘Welcome to Manchester’, and it helped my confidence such a lot.”

Their respective musical meanderings have continued to intertwine since then. By the time they finally met, Jim had already ridden the first waves of fame, being commonly feted as the “British Brian Wilson”. In the cultural maelstrom of the mid-2000s, it was impossible to watch TV without hearing the pizzicato plonks of ‘My Patch’ or the Monkees-style harmonies of ‘Eanie Meany’. ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘Ugly Betty’ licensed his tunes, as did the million-selling PlayStation game LittleBigPlanet. Meanwhile, BBC Radio 4’s comedy panel game ‘The Unbelievable Truth’ has used ‘My Patch’ as its theme music for over 17 years.

Leonore, meanwhile, was finding acclaim as the powerhouse frontwoman with The Soundcarriers, still Nottingham’s favourite psychedelic tropicalia beat combo. Her stint in Jim’s band lasted until 2013, after which she became the focal point of Sheffield synthpop supergroup International Teachers Of Pop. And through all these splendid comings and goings, they’ve been chipping away at ‘Rotate’. Song by song, line by line, they’ve created a summery, sun-soaked masterpiece of harmony-drenched pop with a melancholy streak a mile wide.

The publicity describes it as “a hand-sewn multi-coloured primary school patchwork quilt”. Which begs the question – who the hell made patchwork quilts at primary school?

“I did!” exclaims Jim. “We had to do sewing and everything. I mean, it was a health-and-safety nightmare. There were turds in sandpits as well.”

“Was that you?” deadpans Leonore.

“No, it wasn’t. Although I do remember going on holiday to Llandudno with my school, and in the middle of the night they woke us all up and said, ‘Take your shoelaces off and tie them together – we’re going to abseil down the Great Orme’. They walked us all the way there, then said, ‘Nah, we were only joking’. It was just a trust exercise. But I was only nine or 10, and I was crying my eyes out. Everyone else was saying, ‘This is amazing’, but I was more, ‘Noooo – we’re all going to die!’.”

Leonore, meanwhile, recalls a childhood immersed in classical singing.

“I was in the Cantamus Girls Choir, in Nottingham and Mansfield,” she says. “I joined when I was 10. My grandad was a self-trained opera singer, and he was really pushy in getting me and my cousins to sing. When I was six, he’d line us up in the spare room with his old Yamaha keyboard, and we’d do scales with him and sing ‘I Believe’. He passed away a few years ago, and I sang it at his funeral.”

Are these the grandparents referenced on the Co-Pilot track ‘She Walks In Beauty’, I wonder? It’s a touching song, with hints of a complex family backstory: “She walks in beauty, footsteps sold by duty / It trickles down the rooted line, her tears have hardened over time.”

Leonore nods.

“My grandad was called Peter, but we called him Opa, which is German for grandad,” she says. “Opa and Omi. My Omi was a Hungarian refugee during the war. She was displaced from 1940s Germany and lived in a camp before coming to England and meeting my Opa, who wasn’t German – he was from Bulwell in Nottingham. But he really embraced her culture. They passed away within six months of each other, and that song is about their journey. And ‘She Walks In Beauty’ is a Lord Byron quote. Byron was a Nottingham man, and we’re related to him. My Opa traced back the family tree.”

I tell them I can also hear the folk-tinged melancholy of 1970s children’s songs in the grooves of ‘Rotate’. All those weird ‘Play Away’ albums with Toni Arthur singing winsomely about witchcraft.

“I do like that contrast,” nods Leonore. “Singing innocently about topics that are quite serious. ‘Brick’ is actually about my brother, Joe. He wasn’t having a very good time when we were recording, and he passed away a couple of years ago. I wanted to make something that was reassuring for him. From a sister to a brother – just make sure you’re all right.

“When he passed away, it was, ‘Oh, let’s just finish the album now’. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I lost my sister Amber in January this year as well. They were both 27 when they died – there were only 20 months between them. She was fine when we were recording, so those songs were definitely about Joe. But I wanted to mention her today, because otherwise I’d come away feeling guilty that I hadn’t.”

We’ve settled down now, and there’s a respectful hush around the table.

“It’s great that Leonore is here,” says Jim. “She’s written the lyrics and she knows what they mean. I think that’s beautiful.”

But there’s an elephant at the canal side. I confess that I don’t know what to call Jim. To the record-buying public he is resolutely Jim Noir, genius producer of no little enigma. The name is a deliberate play on Vic Reeves’ real-life moniker, Jim Moir. In his civvies though, Jim is Al Roberts. Leonore calls him “Al” to his face, and “Jim Noir” is how they both refer to the actual band. The co-writing and production credit on the ‘Co-Pilot’ album, meanwhile, is for “Alan Peter Roberts”. Not to put too fine a point on things, it’s an absolute fucking minefield.

“Jim is just Jim,” says Jim. “And Jim music is Jim Noir. Always has been, always will be. But I’ve started to call myself Alan Roberts on the albums, because I want people to know that it’s not Jim Noir, it’s me!”

Are they two different people, then?

“Yeah,” nods Leonore. “He’s got two personas. The Jim part and the Alan part.”

“Jim likes to be a very cheeky man,” says Jim. “If I’m on tour, and someone calls me Jim, I immediately know who I am. I’m Jim. But if someone calls me Al across the street, then I’m just Al. They’re two different things.”

So who is he right now? Alan or Jim?

“I feel like Jim, actually,” he says. “Because I’ve had a couple of pints. But if I was sitting here not drinking, I’d be Alan. I’d be very pleasant, but I wouldn’t have much to say.”

“You are quite shy,” adds Leonore.

“I am shy,” agrees Jim. “I remember when I did my first radio interview in 2004. It was so embarrassing – I couldn’t say a word. And worse than anything, my dad taped that interview and sent it to the whole family! ‘My son’s famous!’ They put me between two comedians, and I sat there going, ‘Erm…’. I just had no idea how to talk. My brain was saying, ‘I’m so much funnier than these two’, but I just couldn’t get it out.”

It’s easy to forget how young he was back then, though – just 22 when he first started getting noticed. I tell him I saw the Jim Noir band in the summer of 2006 when they played an all-day free festival in Middlesbrough. The stage was festooned with garden gnomes. Literally dozens of them, all different sizes.

Some of them were bloody enormous. He chortles into his pint as I relate the story. Did the gnomes have some special significance?

“We’d been paid to do a corporate gig,” he recalls. “In the countryside somewhere, this massive estate. But literally nobody watched us. They were all networking with each other and not listening to our music. So we decided we’d steal these fucking gnomes. There were thousands of them, all lining the path into this mad place. On the way out, we just grabbed the lot and drove off. Then, at our last gig, we chucked them all into the crowd. And we got sued by someone who got in touch with my management and said, ‘You’ve broken my finger with a gnome’.”

“Why have you never told me this story before?” gasps Leonore.

“You never asked.”

The conversation twists and buckles in the afternoon heat. We discuss the enduring importance of the music we loved at the age of 11, and how – even though we may live in denial – that love never really fades. For Jim? The Prodigy. For Leonore? The Spice Girls. I suddenly start to feel very, very old.

‘Rotate’, meanwhile, features a sample of the late Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 1978 track, ‘Thousand Knives’. Looped and lavished with Beatles-esque adornments, it becomes the gorgeous ‘Motosaka’. Jim, it transpires, is a long-standing Yellow Magic Orchestra fan, and both he and Leonore were keen to clear the sample through official channels.

“Sakamoto personally cleared it himself,” says Jim. “And everyone wanted it to be the single, but then he died and I just thought that would have looked naff. But I do have a six-foot framed poster of him in my flat.”

“Which I smashed one night,” confesses Leonore. “I was doing a weird monkey-grip spinny thing with one of my friends, and I accidentally let go. There was a 10-second silence, and my friend was sitting in the glass thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’. But he took it very well.”

“I’m a pretty chilled-out guy,” shrugs Jim. “I was going through a phase of spending as much money as possible. And now I haven’t got any.”

With that, it’s time to leave. As we slowly wend our way back along the canal towards the studio, they tell me enthusiastically about the album’s sleeve photos, which were taken in the cockpits of the historic planes at the Avro Heritage Museum down the road near Macclesfield.

And the name itself? Co-Pilot was inspired by Jim’s fascination for playing Microsoft Flight Simulator on his new laptop.

Fasten your seatbelts and secure all baggage… Co-Pilot are taxiing for take-off and we’re all invited along for the ride.

‘Rotate’ is out on Dell’Orso

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