We continue our
interview with Portland
songwriter Al James. New album The Unfazed is out this week on Partisan.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
BLURT: How have
you managed to keep Jay and Ben and James in the Dolorean fold?
AL JAMES: I don’t ask anything
of them (laughs). It’s a real fine
juggling act where I try to make them understand that it’s very important for
them to be part of this, and that I want them to be, as much as they can with
families and careers and mortgages, and that they are always on the A-team. If
they can’t do something, I never freak out because they know they’re wanted and
I know they want to participate as much as they possibly can. And we’re lucky
there’s a ton of incredible fill-in people, so if we have to get someone to
fill in, fine. So I try to keep it loose, and give them a lot of ownership – I
don’t put too many constraints on anybody. I never tell anyone how we’re going
to play or arrange a song, and I rarely make us practice. Everyone’s so
talented and good, I just try to channel the energy when we do get together and
be a little bit of a leader. But everyone gets in tune really quickly because I
think playing music with people that you like has become for them less of a
job, or more like a treat, because they’re torn in so many directions with,
like I said, family and career and stuff. So when we do break away and get a
couple hours to rehearse or play live or record something, it’s back to being
fun and really enjoyable for everybody.
Had it not become fun? Or how would you
It was never horrible or
anything like that, I don’t want to paint that picture. We were just on this
path of doing things, and once you get going you don’t really know why you’re
doing some things – someone offers you a show and it’s with somebody who’s
supposed to be a good band, so you rush up to Seattle or wherever to do it, and
you didn’t have that fun of a time, but it was something you were supposed to do. ‘Why are we doing with
this? Why do we keep dealing with this local promoter that we can’t stand, who
never pays us well? Why are we getting yelled at about a MySpace page by this
person because it’s not updated?’ We just needed to take ownership and do things
on our terms. I don’t want to paint a picture that it was horrible or that bad
– it’s never been horrible. I think in order to keep those guys interested and
involved creatively and emotionally, we have to kind of take ownership of it
and feel like it’s ours.
How does Partisan Records play into that?
It’s great. They offer us a lot
of freedom, but they’re very realistic. It’s not like they have blank checks to
write or anything like that. But they’re just supportive of really practical
ideas. They put their money in the right places. I’m beyond the age where I
want to own an eight-passenger van and drive it around anymore – who wants to
do that? So they’ll help us rent a van for the upcoming tour, little things
like that. Let’s spend some of our tour support money so that our drummer can
pay for a babysitter while he’s gone for 10 days, or offset some of his costs
for childcare. Really practical, kind of no-brainer things that a lot of people
don’t do. I think it shows me that they want us to succeed, and reap some of
the benefits that we’ve been working for almost a decade. They offer plenty of
money to make a great a record – maybe compared to our old budgets, this was
quite a bit smaller, but if someone gives you a certain amount, you’re probably
going to spend it.
Well, we all know the Axl Rose story, so…
Right (laughs). Partisan is just a great fit. They’re very easy to
communicate with, they’re having some success, they have a diverse roster, and
they have nice relationships with people who sell the records physically. They’re
on top of it with the digital stuff, too. They’re doing a nice job.
Let me ask about the title, and the
significance of “Al James the Unfazed, Jay Clarke the Unfazed,” etc., in the
liner notes – it’s almost like a patronymic.
Yeah, to me it just comes down
to working at your own pace, and understanding that, as musicians creating
together and individually, we’re going to have a long life and career where
most of us are constantly being creative people and making music, and helping
other people with their music. So it’s just a statement of purpose and,
hopefully, un-shakeability – there’s pretty much nothing worse that you could
do than to take three years off, have another band of young hot Spaniards make
a dance record that’s a Pitchfork Best New Music pick, and then come back and
release an album with a similar name, different spelling. In the world of zeros
and ones and memes, there’s pretty much nothing worse that you could do, but I
So, you are truly unfazed…
Yeah, how could you care? What
does it matter? The people that have been with us have been very loyal, very
patient. We’re just as un-photogenic as ever, but our record is as good or
better – I think better – than the other ones, so it’ll be fine. It’s not
totally a statement against “digital world,” because that’s not the enemy, but
it’s never been more chaotic and noisy. But that’s fine, you just have to deal
with it, you can’t put your head in the sand. You just go, ‘that’s fine,’ and
go the way you want to go.
That may be the wisest route these days,
anyway, in terms of longevity.
I think so, and I admire people
that do. What everyone’s learning is that there isn’t only one way to do it, and
to sort of carve your own path. Certainly there’s a lot of different ways to
fail and flail, and there’s certain things I’m not going to ignore,
technology-wise, messaging-wise, social media-wise. I’m not going to dig my
heels in and fight against things that are pretty much just helpful tools. But within
that you can still do things in a way that is your own. I guess that’s what we
hope to do. Most successful acts out there right now, it’s just their different
way of doing it – it might just be slightly different, but there’s a lot of
ways to do it.
Being a Luddite is a lonely cause these days,
(Laughs) Exactly. Even people
like Michael Hurley, here, who’s one of my favorites, a legitimate, old-time
Greenwich Village folkie who’s had a long and amazing career, has one of my
favorite websites on-line. And he knows how to deal with it and update it. He’s
not an idiot, he has to get people out to his shows and have people know when
and where he’s playing. There are a lot of great tools, but even within that
you can put your own version of that out there, and that’s what we hope to do.
It’s crazy. I follow this
thread to these kids in L.A., MellowHype, they’re like a young N.W.A., some of
them are pro skaters and stuff, they’ve put out like 10 records last year, you
just rip ‘em off their website, and they all can make videos. For them, it’s
perfect. Their first show in London, they sold
out, their first show in New York,
they sold out, just through all this other stuff. Obviously for us, that’s not
our thing. For us, you find out the ways the folks that are following you want
to connect and the ways that you’re comfortable connecting with people, and you
build a little bit a bridge that way.
Let’s talk about your writing some more — you’re
a big reader, were there any things that affected the writings of these
narratives, or are those separate entities for you?
The books that have really
stuck with me these last few years, I’ve read a lot of Richard Ford, his short
stories in Rock Springs, those are
some of the best short stories I’ve ever read, I can’t believe how good those
are. I love Willy Vlautin’s novels, he’s from Richmond Fontaine, a Portlander.
He’s a good friend, and it’s very odd, every time I pick up one of his books I
go, ‘well, he’s a good friend, so you will probably like it and be pulling for
it for to be good,’ and that’s never the case because it’s flat-out amazing.
His stuff is very direct and simple, but images and parts of the stories will
just stick with me for weeks and months. I try to read a little bit of everything
that people will throw out in front of me, some for fun, a lot of noir and
crime I’ve been reading lately just because it’s fun. I almost feel guilty when
I read now. But I would say Willy’s stuff is a good reminder for me how simple
language can be and still have a lot of impact. You don’t need to pull out the
thesaurus – that’s how his writing feels to me, it’s almost conversational, but
it’s very intelligent and totally thought-out. I love his style. Every time he
has a new one I’m begging for him to give it to me before it comes out.
I noticed “Country Clutter” made NPR’s Song of
the Day a while back — on first listen that one really stuck out, for me, too.
Can you tell me about the genesis of that song?
That was written for a close
friend of mine – this sounds like I’m lying, ‘this friend of mine’ – but it was
written for a friend and it was painful to watch what them go through what they
were going through. They were just going through the ringer, and I thought,
‘let me write a song and give you some words to take some power from,’ so
that’s where it came from. I haven’t gone through a break-up like that in a
really long time, but there was someone close to me that was, and the emotion
there was definitely real. It was kind of a like a gift for someone else;
‘here, let this sort of give you some words, some power, some emotion, because
I know you’re sort of tapped out from this whole process.’
What about “Hard Working Dogs?”
That one was fun. If you were
going to look at the spectrum of all the Dolorean songs from the lightest to
the heaviest, I guess that would be one of the most dynamic, and
electric-guitar heavy ones, we’ve done. That one feels more like, as I said,
upbeat, on the ‘things are kind of weird and hard but things are pretty good
overall’ side. The most important parts of that song are the bridges that talk
about hard-working dogs, and just seeing experiences all the way through,
accepting the bad as well as well as the good. Basically, it’s just a
perseverance song; do the right thing as much as you can, be good to other
people, in the end you can sort of win out. It sounds like an inspirational
poster of sorts, but I like the idea of hard-working dogs and living life to
the point of the exhaustion. A lot of the images in the verses are, ‘out late,
up early, going for it 100 percent,’ and all the good and bad that that
Well, how about “Sweet Boy” — that seems like
a really honest look addressed at the narrator’s self. Slightly ironic perhaps?
I think there’s some irony. It
ties into “Thinskinned,” too, as far as the concept that the narrator might be
easily molded and pushed around a little bit, and maybe a little overly
sensitive. A song like that definitely comes from a pretty honest place. It’s a
neat point of view for me to write from, there is a little tinge of irony. That
one was really fun because we weren’t really getting it, we were running
through all these different versions and then I quit playing electric guitar
and just sang, and let Jay take the lead on piano. For some reason, we hadn’t
mentioned this in the arrangements, and I just said, ‘this is like a John
Lennon song, just let the playing sort of be that way.’ And I thought
especially the way the piano and drums locked in on that it just feels like one
of those more simple Lennon ballads, piano, drums, bass. You only get a few of
those really fun takes in the studio, the rest of the time it’s really hard
laborious work, and that was one of them where we’re we cracked the code and
it’s fun when that happens.
What about “Fool’s Gold Ring?” Is that song
related to the music industry at all?
No, but that could work
(laughs). It’s more about somebody basically only giving part of themselves to
a person or an experience or even a friendship, and that’s been something that
I’ve really explored and experienced a lot more when we were finally home for a
long time. When you’re passing through town because you’re touring a bunch, you
can be kind of non-committal to friendships, to experiences, because you’re already
looking ahead or getting back into the swing of things. That one touches a lot
on trying to be fully present in relationships and friendships and experiences,
and just being 100 percent there in that moment. That’s something I’ve learned
a lot more how to do the last few years.
Go here to read
Part 1 of the interview.