Back after a
four-year drop off the radar, Al James knows what he wants. Oh, and sorry kids,
but he claimed the band name first.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Al James, leader of Portland’s
long-running country folk-rockers Dolorean, concedes that there are few poorer
career moves in today’s gigabyte-paced music world than dropping off the grid
for four years – let alone returning with a new release shortly after a “band
of young hot Spaniards” drop a Pitchfork Best New Music dance record under
essentially the same name (Delorean).
“In the world of zeros and ones and memes, there’s pretty much nothing
worse,” James laughs. “But I don’t care.”
That zeitgeist-free sentiment, expressed without bitterness or Luddite
rancor, sums up the mindset percolating throughout The Unfazed, Dolorean’s fourth full-length and first since 2007’s You Can’t Win, released this week on the
Partisan label. It’s also what gives the record more zest than any previous
Dolorean release, though the music still hits all the band’s strong suits: honest
and astute narratives enveloped in James’ wistful, everyman vocals; simple but
elegantly textured arrangements where accents like pedal steel and fiddle
magnify the warm weave of keys, guitars and harmony vocals; and sneaky chorus hooks
that reverberate long after their run-time.
The music is still roots rock, but The
Unfazed‘s palette has more and brighter colors (and way more electric
guitar). The 10 songs extend from the familiar – the sublime break-up kiss-off
“Country Clutter” and plangent folk of “Fool’s Gold Ring” – to the more assertive
country rocker “Hard Working Dogs” and two of the band’s more adventurous
outings, the slinky space blues of “Black Hills Gold” and near-hymnal “How Is
Just as decisive, there’s a sense of renewal both in the music and
lyrics that suggests The Unfazed is a
comeback record — though there was never any break-up to come back from. But four-year-waits
are geologic eras in today’s music strata. So low was Dolorean’s profile that
you could be excused for believing the band – James and original members Jay
Clarke (keys), Ben Nugent (drums) and James Adair (bass), as well as newcomer
Jon Neufeld (lead guitar) — had called it quits after their three-record deal
with Yep Roc Records expired.
And in a way, that Dolorean
had run its course. Band members had children, bought homes, and generally
behaved like an outfit that had given it a game shot, made some really pretty
records, and then got on with their lives. But that wasn’t the case, though you
pretty much had to live in Rose
City to know that.
Instead, the band lowered their expectations and got back to basics, a scaling
back that helped them rediscover the simple joys of making music rather than
conquering the world.
Blurt talked at length
with the always amicable James about the band’s recording and touring hiatus,
and his subsequent reassessment about where Dolorean fits in the ever-shifting
music cosmos. The songwriter elaborated on how the band’s turn inward – toward
friends, family, and hometown pleasures – resulted in more optimistic, though
still realistic, narratives, and generated more excitement in the studio. He also discussed how, through that new
mindset, Dolorean has emerged rooted and renewed, and determined to remain unfazed
by anything the crazy industry side of music-making might throw at the band.
BLURT: Good to
talk to you again, Al. It was great to learn you were releasing another record.
Tell us what happened after You Can’t Win — did you make a conscious decision to step away?
AL JAMES: We’re slowly crawling back out of the grave. More than that,
we, and me especially, just needed to kind of catch a breath. I needed to check
my attitude and desire and interest level. We were done with the three-record
deal with Yep Roc, we’d worked really hard on those, made them in only about
four years, and did a lot of touring. So more or less we just needed to take a
break, and we weren’t in a big hurry to make the next record. It felt like we
could do it at our own pace. We took longer than I thought we would take, we
had about half of it done, but then we scrapped it and started over. So there
were a number of things that added up to the break. But I’m happy with it. For
us, we’re going to keep plugging away at our own pace.
Three records in four years is a fairly
frantic pace these days; was there a level of burnout involved?
I think for me the general
feeling was that the pieces that we had were not really working in harmony. It
felt like we were sort of fighting ourselves. I definitely wanted to finish the
relationship with our label, I feel like I gave them three pretty good
long-lasting records, and I tried to create every opportunity that I could and
also succeed when opportunities were presented. But it often seemed like all
the pieces weren’t fitting together well. So the general feeling for me was,
‘okay, I just need to stop, reassess, maybe form some new relationships, and
try and get the thing working a little more efficiently.’ Because if it wasn’t
going to work in a better way, with some better relationships, then it probably
wasn’t going to last, at least for the guys that I’ve been able to bring along
this far, and I definitely wanted to keep them involved.
So you’re talking about the business end…
Yeah, the business end.
Booking, or lack of booking, labels, press people – we weren’t all working
together, and it really takes everyone to kind of share the vision and the
excitement to get anywhere and break through the white noise, because there’s
just so much going on and so many people that do have that synergy going. We needed to capture it somehow, and I
think we’re getting that now. It’s great to have [publicist] Angie [Carlson] back
on the team, I love Angie – she worked so hard for us and she gets us, kind of
understands where we fit into things. I love working with Partisan Records, Tim
[Putnam] is an old friend, he’s always been a huge fan of mine, and believes in
me. So it’s like a great start over for us.
Tell me about the time in between, regrouping
— what did that afford you from the creative side?
We did a lot of fun things. We
sort of quit playing the indie rock clubs that are part of Portland’s scene, we
played them a little but got more involved in another scene that is just now
starting to cross-pollinate. I don’t know why, it’s probably this way in a lot
of cities, but the bluegrass, folk and sort of like jazz people, they don’t
always commingle with the stuff that’s viewed as ‘indie,’ whatever that means.
But there’s sort of this gap. We did two months of shows where we played once a
week at this club called the LaurelThirst Pub, and it just has a more
country-folk-bluegrass vibe, and our music had been getting further away from
that. We’d do two one-hour sets, from 6 to 8. One acoustic set, one electric
set, and we were drawing great crowds, and a lot of the time the crowds were
people that hadn’t been able to see us for a long time because we were always
playing in clubs where we went on at midnight. So people were coming after work
and grabbing a beer and watching us play for a couple hours. And for us, it was
a shot in the arm, a really, really fun atmosphere. And it was really fun to
learn how to play two hours worth of music. We don’t ever do that when we
headline, that’s way too much Dolorean for anyone. It was fun, really low key
and casual. That helped me loosen up and not take myself so seriously.
In the meantime, we counted
like four or five babies were born, none of them mine. But everyone else is
putting down pretty serious roots here in town, and I am more or less, too. But
they’re doing it in maybe more tangible ways. For me, also, I explored the
other side of my life here in Portland,
because I was here for longer periods of time — reconnected with friends and
enjoyed some of that aspect of town. It was just feeling like you’re part of a
group of friends and community a little bit more. I think it was a good time
for us, definitely.
Do you think the initial splash that Not Exotic made, considering it was a
small record from someone most people hadn’t heard, wound up as a burden? Did
you find yourselves having to live up to the expectations, in a business sense?
I don’t think that really
crossed our minds, because I think the record was received well critically, but
it definitely wasn’t making anyone a lot of money. But [it fit in with] the
stuff going on then, just a little bit after the Iron & Wine stuff, even if
it really wasn’t anything like that. I think it was a pleasant surprise for
people. But we just, for whatever reason, never really found the perfect fit
for touring and booking in the U.S. We had some great tours, the one with Damien
Jurado and Richard Buckner was a real memorable one, and we had some nice
strings of shows with Crooked Fingers – so we had some good ones. But then a
lot of times we’d be pretty far out in the weeds trying to tour on our own. So
I think that was also part of trying to release albums quickly and not thinking
about it too much. Once you do two or three, you’re just a band or a musician,
and either you make a good one or you don’t. So I don’t feel any pressure, I
don’t think anyone else did, either, because we didn’t make anyone any money,
really (laughs). If there was pressure, it was critical: To continue to write
good songs and arrange them in beautiful and intelligent ways. So that was the
pressure, and we continued to always have some good songs on each record.
Why did you scrap half of this album?
We didn’t scrap the songs, just
what we recorded. We got about half-way done, then went in to do the second
half, and it sounded so good, the energy, the takes that we had, the set-up,
just how we even arranged ourselves in the room. It was like two different
halves of an album, so we knew we had to go back and re-do the first half and
get the same energy. So we quickly booked some more time so we could keep
things at the level they were at. It was just a big difference, it would’ve
been like a slow side and a fast side, not speed-wise, just the energy. We were
really locked in the second time we went in to do tracking. It was pretty
unanimous, everyone knew it by the time we got the second batch of songs mapped
out and tracked. We listened and went ‘oh, we gotta go back, don’t we?’ And
everyone agreed, so it was an easy decision to make.
So just re-recording them?
Basically. We changed the
arrangements of some, too. At the time, we felt really good about what we got
down, and I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but overall it was just
night and day and we wanted everything to fit together.
What about the songs on the EP (Anticipation Blues, released in November
2010)? Which session were they from?
They were from the second
session, too. For some reason they didn’t fit for us. There was one song, “All
Over This Town,” that’s been floating around for a really long time. And
sometimes when you have those songs that you really like and you play them live
over the years, and it takes a while to get a good recording of them, by the
time you do, you’re kind of over it, you’re sort of sick of the song. It’s
still a fun one to play live, and we did an okay job recording it, but it’s
lost a bit of its luster over the years, so it didn’t make the final cut.
This idea of rediscovering this other side of
yourself and the band in Portland,
being away from the fray — did it affect the songs that you wrote for this
It’s funny, because in our
minds you get really sensitive to what you do and what you’ve done. So there’d
be like a drum fill that we’d listen to over and over, that Ben Nugent would
play, and we would be like, ‘oh, that’s just too extreme for us. That’s just
such a crazy drum fill.’ And it would sound like Rush or something to us. But
then when you get a little perspective and compare it to other things, it
sounds like us, it’s fine. It came from our heads and our playing. So this one
does feel like a Dolorean record. I think we had more fun in the studio playing
electric guitars, and Ben played sticks on the drums all the time instead of
brushes – and we were in a different studio set-up, where we had a big
isolation room for him. So I think the tempos picked up in good ways. I think
dynamically, because we had the sticks, we could dig in a little bit more, and
add more and more electric guitars than we’d been able to.
I think some of the feel,
some of the subject matter – I’m slowly getting away from content that has to
do with failed relationships and that sort of thing. I’m working my way out of
it, maybe consciously. I’m trying to write about other stuff, even though that
seems to be a really big theme that is inescapable for me considering the three
or four records that are out there. But we’re moving in other directions,
slowly, but I think that’s kind of the way to do it. Small steps, incrementally.
What would you say on this record is sort of
new narrative fare for you?
I think “Thinskinned” is cool
in that the verses are very short, the chorus is basically one word, but I
think we ended up making a really cool song. It’s fun, but it still paints a
story. I think things are a little more economic. “The Unfazed,” that track in
general is not really too down-and-out, it’s a little bit proud and sort of
resilient. I think that’s a good direction for us to head in, and me personally
as a writer — to keep realizing how many good things are going on, and writing
about those. There’s always going to be a balance of dark and light in there,
but I think that’s just what I’m learning to do, is still tackling that
dichotomy, but maybe highlight the positive more. Where before I would maybe go
a little bit further into the negative.
Do you think it’s harder to write a happy
I think it might be hard to
write a real genuine one because I think there are always nuances to that
happiness that might be harder to explore, or communicate. It’s pretty rare
that we feel pure, ecstatic joy because in the back of your head you still know
that it’s always short-lived, or that the other shoe’s going to drop (laughs).
That’s just real life, that’s just truth. I think that’s the thing, is how do
you still explore that happiness but acknowledge that it might be sort of
That’s the flipside as well, right? It sounds
as though you’re still exploring hardship and difficulties in life, but you’re
focusing more now on the part that says, well, it’s dark now, but it’s going to
get light later…
Yeah, I hope so. The more I’ve
been thinking about it, the more I think that the biggest similarities that we
have with country music is not really in the arrangements, we have more pop
going on these days, but more in the feeling that if we write a sad song…I
think country is infused with that, ‘yeah, it’s pretty crummy, but it’ll be
fine, you’ve got family, you’ve this beer in front of you, these simple pleasures,
so it’ll be okay.’ So that’s where I’m trying to come from. If it’s something
on the dark side, there’s still an acknowledgement of, ‘yeah, you know, but it’s
going to be fine.’ It’s not just a pure blanket of hopelessness, of blues, that
sort of thing.
To be continued…
Tomorrow, in Part
2 of the interview, Al James talks about life in the Dolorean and Partisan
Records families, about some of his songwriting inspirations, about being a
Luddite, and more.