Russell James: the interview

I first met Russell James in the summer of 2018 when I was asked to write a piece for the local newspaper because Russell was coming to Anacortes to perform a couple of shows in support of his record “Wave/Water” (self released, 2018). At the time, he was represented by a big (expensive) PR firm that was promoting (nominally) the record, and him (even more nominally). My piece appeared in the paper, Russell came to town, and almost immediately he and I became friends. Turns out he and I (and in the stacks at the Palace) share a lot of common perspective about bands and records (punk, post-punk, experimental, folk, blues, and ambient). I think we also share a perspective that most of the “music industry” today is more about taking money from recording artists than helping them make a living in what’s become a gold rush for converting (stealing?) a motherlode of creativity by zillions of new artists into “content” (the derogatory product label for free-play music platforms).

Still, Russell remains a devoted record maker and road dog, touring relentlessly, even as he accepts the odds are stacked against him. Russell is on the road many weeks every year, playing every kind of venue, almost always solo, covering hundreds of miles with each foray, usually in support of a new record every year. His commitment to his art and his music is impressive, and runs toward enduro. I barely caught up with him for an interview on the eve of the release of his newest record, “Pay Attention” (self released, 2019). Another blazing summer, more shows, and a major relocation from New Mexico to Oregon. I had questions. I always have questions.

Russell’s world is one of many rooms, with mystery in some of them, tenderness and anger in others — stories and memories around every corner. And I’m a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk….

Russell James, Anacortes, May 2019

I had the typical shitty family experience, shitty suburban family experience.

Russell James

From listening to your records today, especially your new record, “Pay Attention,” most people might not realize that your roots in music began in punk. Can you talk a little about finding punk as a young person and what punk represented for you?

Russell James:
So, when I was young, and we’ll be moving into autism territory right away, I was damaged by a lot of things that happened to me in my past, and that continued to happen to me. There were two things: I was always into stuff that was really heavy, like, I really got into death metal/grindcore type stuff when I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was listening to that all day, mostly because my parents hated it but I also really liked it. When I was in ninth grade I was one of the kids who got into punk because I liked Green Day so much. That was my entry.

In ninth grade I discovered there was this music out there that spoke to the position in life that I had. Inside, internally, I always felt like an outcast. I always felt like things were harder for me. That I experienced things differently than everyone else. Punk gave me this community that didn’t care about that stuff at all.

And the music was great. I was into bands, mostly into local East Coast, Mid-Atlantic hardcore kind of bands, like Inquisition from Richmond, Virginia, where I was at the time. And then I switched over to more of the Bay Area scene. That’s what really got me involved. I started playing in bands. I wasn’t necessarily playing pop-punk so to speak, but it was very similar to that. It was the community I felt I could relate to, and the music catered to the anger I felt, to be honest. I still have a lot of anger, but I had a lot of anger back then. The music was an outlet. Being set apart was a good thing in the punk scene.

But I wasn’t this ostracized punk kind. I don’t want to paint that story at all. I was actually really well liked in high school. I was popular. Like, I know I was popular. Because with autism, you have the ability to use this survival mechanism. You put this mask on. I faked my way through all of it. That’s what created this cognitive dissonance, that unsettling feeling that I’m really out of place here. Because I was out of place in 90% of the environments I found myself in, even though I knew how to respect and act within the norms of the community at the time. But it was an act, so I wouldn’t get picked on, so I wouldn’t be ostracized.

But then when I would return to my community, the punk community, it was like coming home, it was more comfortable. All the kids in those other scenes, in school, those cliques, they all accepted me for the punk I was. I didn’t have to change, or anything like that. But those relationships weren’t always the deepest.

I was also politically active at a very young age. I was very liberal. I never quite understood why capitalism was a thing. [Laughs] Why is socialism so bad? It sounded pretty nice to me. So, I was political, and punk really expanded that. The problem was, when I was a junior in high school, I discovered Jawbreaker, and they’re one of my top favorite bands of all time. Blake Schwarzenbach is the greatest songwriter, I mean, he’s just so great. So that started leading me away from punk rock to look for more examples of this songwriting, and it led me into emo pretty quickly. And then led me out of emo into more traditional songwriters.

So that’s what happened in the course of my senior year in high school and my first year of college. There was this massive migration from punk rock over to more delicate songwriting. But I never lost punk-rock shit. The sixteen-year-old punk rocker is a voice in my head that’s constantly encouraging, or discouraging, me to think a certain way. So, having laid the foundation for my musical career in punk rock was a good thing because it gives me a certain ethical standard to live up to as a musician. It’s a directing force in my life, and I’m almost 40 years old. I don’t dress like a punk, but at times I definitely still think like one.

GP:
When you were younger, did you ever record any of your music as a punk?

RJ:
I did not. I didn’t record anything. I first stepped into a studio in 2008. The Porter Draw was my old band. It was a punk band at first. I went to New Mexico because I wanted to start that band. I wanted a punky bluegrass band. And if you listen to the first record, it’s called “Trouble” (self released, 2009), you’ll hear that punky bluegrass sound. It’s just me and three other guys yelling, singing, and playing really bad bluegrass. That was the first time I recorded anything that I considered punk in the studio. The first time I recorded anything in a studio.

Wave/Water LP art by Russell James

You mentioned why you relocated to New Mexico. One of the things I’ve noticed in your songs, but also in your fiction, your lyrics, and in your photography, is how important landscape is to the vitality of your work. And now you’ve relocated to Corvallis, Oregon, which is a big change. You were deeply rooted in New Mexico. How has your move impacted your work?

RJ:
In a lot of ways I’m really out of sorts right now. New Mexico was the first place I ever felt home. I lived in Pennsylvania and Virginia before that. Neither of those states…it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel I was in my place. Then I got to New Mexico, and I immediately felt…wow, this is where I’m supposed to be, and this is where I was always supposed to be.

Moving up here, to Corvallis, over the month and a half I’ve been here, I’ll just say this right up front, it feels better. It’s better for my mental health. We’re seeing some patterns that are tied into my autism, we’re seeing some of those patters being broken. And that’s wonderful stuff. But, as far as having a sense of place, a community, now we don’t have that. For somebody with autism, it’s hard to make that happen.

So, we’re hoping that, over the course of this first year, we’ll be able to find some people that we can become really good friends with, build a really good community. It’s been amazing for my creative output. I’ve cranked out at least ten songs since I’ve moved here. I don’t know if they’re all going to be keepers by any means, but I’m feeling more creative. I think that’s just changing spaces, getting into a new place, having a lot of energy. As far as how it’s changing us, I don’t know, man.

I feel like the move has helped me in my mental health. The number of gigs I’m getting up here is pretty substantial. More than I was playing in New Mexico already. So professionally, I feel like it’s been a good change. And because my autism doesn’t seem as affected, in our lives, in my wife’s life, she hasn’t had to be in the caregiver role as often. There’s just a lot more peace of mind here.

There’s a lot more noise! I mean, we moved from a mountain environment, where there was literarily no one and you didn’t hear anything…now we live on the corner of two streets. We have plenty of traffic noise. So, I’m getting used to that now.

RJ in Anacortes

When you talk about community, being in Oregon must be a huge advantage, given how much music is happening there. You’re close to several large music scenes now.

RJ:
Yeah, that’s what I think, too. But for a guy like me, it’s a lot harder than it seems. When I’m out, and if I’m playing music, or if I’m out and I’m watching music, which is actually pretty rare because of my sensory stuff, it takes so much of my energy to just handle the environment around me, and that cuts into any social energy that I might have had stored up. Honestly, there’s probably not a lot there in the first place, the social energy.

So, I’m playing, and I’d love to chat with the musicians and stuff like that, start making some friends, start making some musical partners even, and I can’t. Like, I just can’t go up and talk to somebody. That’s a challenge. And that’s a challenge informing any type of community when you have autism. It takes so much for you to get to a point where you feel comfortable enough to go up to somebody and say something.

I had a couple of instances where I went out on a limb, when I first moved here, and I was completely blown off. And that made me feel awful. So that’s kind of dampened any kind of spirit to do that as well. That’s not cool. Of course, I’m stimming. I’m in this environment where there’s a lot of sounds and a lot of people and I’m overwhelmed. So, going up and talking to somebody in that state, people tend to write you off. That’s one of the things about being disabled, people tend to write you off.

So, it’s pretty hard. I think you’re right, I honestly think that’s where my community might lie. It’s just going to be getting to the point where I can actually be friends with these people. Where they can see past this outer autism thing…like, I’m a real person in here, who has real thoughts and real feelings. Someone who has real gifts and is able to actually give friendship. It is what it is. It’s what I deal with on a day-to-day basis. Being written off.

I said to a good friend of mine, ‘I want to make a pop record.’ I literally said that out loud!

Russell James

You’re in a new place, literally and musically. Contrasting your new record, “Pay Attention,” to your previous record, “Wave/Water,” it feels to me like the new record has a more unapologetically pop feel to it. Of course, there’s guitar work on it, but on “Pay Attention,” you’ve set aside (a little) the guitar-driven vibe for more of a synth-heavy, ambient, even dreamfolk approach. Why did you choose to go that way, especially since you’ve laid so much live and studio groundwork with your guitar on past recordings?  

RJ:
Well, it goes back to those teenage years. I was this punk-rock kid, but on the side, I was also listening to shoegaze and dream-pop bands. I guess the original impetus in wanting to make a record like “Pay Attention,” was that EP called “5,” by Slowdive, that came out in 1993. There’s only four songs on it, and there’s not one guitar! It’s all canned drums, and it’s all synthesizer work. That led me into this place where shoegaze met electronic music. I was really into it. Ambient music became electronic, and I didn’t know who these people were back then.

It wasn’t like Harold Budd or Brian Eno music — it was that kind of music but with some downtempo beats behind it. I was really into it back then. I was really into the U2 albums of the 90s, too, like “Actung Baby” (Island, 1991), then “Zooropa” (Island, 1993), and finally “Pop” (Island, 1997). “Pop” was super electronic and dancey. So, I had this groundwork in there for me to want to do this. And I wanted to.

And then I remember, when the Postal Service “Give Up” (Sub Pop, 2003) album came out, and I thought, “This is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard!” It was super pop, super electronic, with these super great words. At that point in time, I thought, “One day I’m going to make that record.” And this is the day that I made that record. I wondered what it would be like. So, it was putting myself in this challenge space.

Some of the work on “Wave/Water,” I had written the drumbeats on a drum machine, and said to my drummer, “Play this!” [Laughs] So it wasn’t unprecedented, you know? So, is this my direction now? No! No!

But I wouldn’t say this is a one-off either. I’m sure I’ll do something similar to it in the future. But I just wanted to do this. I wanted to see if I could make a totally different kind of music than what I’ve been making for the past 15 years. And I did it! [Laughs] I’m really proud of it. I think they’re really good songs! I think for pop songs they have a lot of depth. They’re not shallow. I think that’s what makes it different than a pop album. The words are much more effective, they affect you more than a typical “baby, baby” pop album. Actually, there was a song like that, and I pulled it. [Laughs]

RJ in Anacortes

My take on your new record is that it’s very emotional. And maybe the highlight of that emotion, for me, is the song “My Lullaby.” I’ve always been fascinated by lullabies as a song form anyway.

RJ:
My therapist suggested that I write that song. [Laughs]

GP:
Should I put that in the interview?

RJ:
Yeah, you can say that, absolutely. Everybody should see one. [Laughs]

GP:
I noted that there’s very much a therapeutic effect, in this song. What attracts you to being so disclosive in your songwriting? Many artists choose not to do that. They use more metaphor. They use language to imply things without being as revealing as to the exact meaning in their lives. Why are you so disclosive about your emotions?

RJ:
Well, authenticity is very, very important to me. I’m going to write about some hard shit that I’ve been through. In this album, and this is far as I’ll go with talking about this…this album is very autobiographical. But if I’m going to talk about some tough shit, I’m going to talk about it. I don’t want people to have to struggle to figure out what I mean. My music is not for me! If it were for me, I could use more poetic metaphors, when talking about my mental health, about whatever. I feel if I’m going to authentically speak about my experiences, I’m not going to put a veil of gray on top of it.

My music is for other people to listen to and to figure out their own meanings from it. But I want them to derive some comfort, camaraderie, or commiseration from my songs. I’m not special about what I’ve gone through in my life. That’s probably the saddest truth of the record. There are a lot of other people who’ve gone through stuff like me, or even worse. I want them to be able to say, “Yeah, that song is speaking right to me.” You know what I mean?

GP:
OK, now you’re connecting some dots that I needed to connect. This is the interesting thing for me, Russell. A few minutes ago, you were talking about being at gigs, talking to people afterwards, and sometimes that doesn’t go well for you. Most times that’s really hard for you. But when you write songs like this, it feels like you’re intentionally inviting people to come closer. To me, this sets up the potential disaster, right? You reveal a lot about yourself, your emotional life, your struggle, which pulls people toward you, but then that collides with your natural inclination to have distance between yourself and other people.

RJ:
You sound like my therapist! [Laughs]

GP:
I don’t mean to! [Laughs]

RJ:
No, I used to be a therapist! [Laughs] It all goes back to this guiding principle of having to be completely authentic. I’m not going to hide.

GP:
Does it make you uncomfortable to do that?

RJ:
Yeah! Truth and honesty and authenticity are all wrapped up together for me. And it’s probably the most important aspect of my life. Yeah, that’s a tough question. [Laughs]

When somebody with autism comes to one of my shows, it’s one of the most important experiences of my life. Because any time someone with autism comes to my show and comes up to me and says, “I read about you, you’re autistic, and so am I, and I wanted to see you do this,” that just means a lot to me. It’s my tribe, you know? And my tribe doesn’t really get together very often. [Laughs] Because none of us like talking to people!

And it shows me…what I’m doing can be an inspiration to people who are hurting. And if there’s a possibility of that, being there, of somebody finding any healing in the space that I’ve created with my songs, then I’m going to do whatever I can to make that happen.

Russell James' single "Meltdown"

You bundled a lot of unreleased demos, bonus tracks, and a few acoustic versions of the songs from “Pay Attention” on Bandcamp, with this release. I think these tracks reveal a lot about your process as a recording artist. But there it is again: these tracks are raw, just you and your guitar, some tracks almost feeling like they could go more toward punk in terms of expression. But on the record, those songs that made it to the record, you’ve smoothed them out, softened them, made them feel lush and layered. Do all of your songs arrive…raw and punky…I don’t understand how this works. [Laughs]

RJ:
I know you know this! Most people don’t notice. There’s such a difference between writing and crafting a song, to recording it, to putting a record together. You get this rock, and you throw it in a tumbler, and after however many hours of tumbling you pull it out and it’s smooth. I wouldn’t say that my songs all start punky, they definitely all don’t start punky, but they’re all very raw. Yes, they’re very raw.

GP:
I guess that’s what I mean, using the term “punk.” Not in style, but in voice.

RJ:
Yeah, like the first time I sing a song I’m not really focusing on what my voice sounds like. And I don’t manipulate my voice in any way when I sing, but I try to sing softer than my voice wants to go sometimes. I try to reign it in because sometimes my voice goes to this very loud place. It gives me a headache.

So, when you hear the first recordings of one of my songs, they’re much more aggressive vocally. A lot of those demos included with “Pay Attention,” they were literally right after I finished the song. Right after I finished the song. They’re so fresh and so raw. And some of them don’t ever get played again.

On the record, the closest thing to that would be the song “Sixteen,” which is definitely punky. Which is about being a punk, when you’re a kid. But then you have another song, “1994,” which is on the top of the album, and that’s super smooth, very produced.

GP:
So how did you decide what would make the cut?

RJ:
Some songs I abandoned because, right off the bat, this is for another album. Like the song “Sixteen” could end up on an album. But I don’t think it would fit on an electronic format. So, I put that aside, even though I knew that song is a good song.

You know, it’s really instinctual for me. There are two songs in the bonus tracks: one is called “Bloom,” and the other one is called “The Throes.” “Bloom” is unfinished, but both of those songs were recorded for this session, for this record. Initially, I intended for them to be on the record. I didn’t think “Bloom” was a good enough song, in the end, to make the record. I had been playing it live for a year before I started recording it, because I really like to play it. And with “The Throes,” it was on the record, it was on my playlist that contained the order so I could listen to it, and the more I listened to it the more I realized that song was out of place. It’s long. So, I pulled it. Some of the other songs never even made it even to that stage.

I have folder right now with about 17 songs that are ready to record for my next record. [Laughs] That will balloon up to more than 30 by the time I feel like recording another record. You just realize some songs don’t belong on a record.

GP:
I always think it’s interesting when an artist reveals their process. When I listen to your work, I always feel like memory and anger sit side by side, and not always in comfortable ways. Record after record, song after song, I feel that tension, if you will. Competing (parallel?) forces in your songs. Do your songs change you?

RJ:
No. No. No. No. [Laughs] No. There’s nothing therapeutic about me writing the songs. Nothing whatsoever. That discourages me, honestly.

GP:
What does?

RJ:
That there’s no real catharsis that comes from writing about this shit. Because that’s the myth of songwriting, right? You hear so many songwriters say it. You hear so many poets, whatever. “That…such and such really helped me heal.” Fuck you! That’s bullshit. That’s musician bullshit-musician talk, you know? I’m sure there are tons of songwriters who would argue with me.

Even playing the songs, over and over again in a live setting, you would think some type of immersion therapy mechanism would work. The more you expose yourself to it, it would affect you less and less. I would say the song becomes easier to sing, but the issue in my life, in my heart, in my mind, that doesn’t change whatsoever.

Like that Mount Eerie record, “After” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2018), like Phil Elverum wrote those songs and all of the sudden he felt better about that shit? It helped him heal? You can’t tell me that. You just can’t tell me that. Well, he could tell me that, and I’d be like, OK. [Laughs] I just feel like it’s a platitude. The cathartic healing from songwriting is a platitude.

Music playing? Yes, absolutely, it can be cathartic. You can pour a lot of stuff into your instrument. It can purge some stuff. But the words themselves are less healing to me than the music is, for sure.

I’ve written about some of the most awful things that have happened to me in my life. Things that should not happen to anyone, and I haven’t even shed a tear.

Russell james in Anacortes, Washington
RJ in Anacortes