James Hall Interview(Pt. 1)
May 19, 2005
LiveNewOrleans.Com sat down with Pleasure Club lead singer/guitarist James Hall at Croissant D'Or Friday, May 13th. It was the day before Hall would play a Pleasure Club show in St. Louis, and it was three days before the band would break-up. Two new songs, "Deadbeat Brother" and "Begin Again," were of particular interest to LiveNewOrleans.Com
LiveNeworleans.Com: How do you approach live shows? Do you want to blow the other band off the stage?
James Hall: I want to surprise myself. I want to get to a place where I find myself doing something that I hadn't planned on, hadn't really expected. That's something that's driving and trying to get into the subconscious. And that's really why people do drugs. It's hard to get to that subconscious, creative spirit that has nothing to do with logic or reason...There's a lot more instrumentation going on in "Deadbeat Brother."
LNO: Yeah, definetely. I listened to it and I thought it sounded kinda futuristic. In the background, there were some vibration noises--like atmospherics. It makes it more than just taking from the '80's with computerized synthesizer sounds, 'cause I think normally when I would listen to something like that with the synthesizer, I would think, "Ok, '80's." For one reason or another. It's a good song, but I don't think it's quite as raw as Pleasure Club because the beat is straight.
JH: The beat is straight. It's the limitations of technology. When you have live musicians, you're generally gonna get a rawer performance.
LNO: But, maybe those songs called for a straight beat. No?
JH: For those particular songs, it's definetely what I was going for.
LNO: Michael's(Jerome) gonna come in, and is he gonna play it straight?
JH: I don't know yet.
LNO: But, you probably know your approach. When Michael comes in, do you say, "Hey, have at it," or do you say, "Hey, this is the beat"?
JH: No, I say, "Have at it." Generally, in his case, that's how he starts to try and plug in--he's an artist. He's gotta find out how the song strikes him and play accordingly. Sometimes he'll come back to the original pattern.
LNO: Yeah, 'cause maybe that's what serves the song the best.
JH: On "I Ended Up With You," off Fugitive Kind, it was originally to a drum machine, but he said, "No, I'm hearing more of a Dub thing, where the drums almost have nothing to do with the actual pulse of the machine." The pulse sets the mood for everything. I didn't realize the similarities between "Deadbeat Brother" and "I Ended Up With You." Those are two kind of similar sentiments.
LNO: "One Hand Washes The Other" and "Deadbeat Brother" both have references to a brother. Why is that? Is there a connection there?
JH: Sure, a good psychologist would say that there are serious issues goin' on there. For me, at least in the moment of writing it, believe it or not, "One hand washes the other, my brother" was just a good way to tie that up, tie that line up. Just the idea of someone telling you, "One hand washes the other. Look, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. We're gonna keep each other clean." As ill-advised as that may be, that's the sentiment of that particular song. For the song "Deadbeat Brother," I just liked the way that sounded. The deadbeat brother.
LNO: You let your voice rot in "Begin Again." How did you decide to go for that?
JH: We were looking for a sweet spot. I guess we always kinda are. I may actually move that song down a half step, 'cause it is a stretch singing it in C. It occured to me to write it in C on the piano, but now that it's gonna be worked on guitar, I'm thinkin' B is a better key for it. Maybe it'll be less strained...
LNO: I hope not.
JH: But still have that sweet rasp to it.
LNO: Somehow your voice is able to carry the song without too much instrumentation. I got so much emotion out of your voice that I was with you when your voice was going that high, and you were really pushing it. I'm like, "Man, I wish there was some sort of way"--I was almost sorta surprised, and I guess that's how some of the mystery was left in it, that you didn't just start screaming about whatever it was that was really on your mind.
JH: Well, when I look at a song, there are certain times when I have the opportunity and the occasion to figure out, "Ok, there's the melody, there's the lyrics, there's the music, there's what the lyrics are saying." There's also the sweet spot of the singing. If you take the do re mi fo la ta si do model, and you're able to move it up and down the different keys, and then you can find out the one that's almost outta range--generally, that's the one where you're gonna find the sweet spot. That lesson has occured to me a couple different times. In "Going Out," on Blood, Sex, and Spirit, and on "Should Know Better," on the Geffen album(Pleasure Club). "Begin Again" was just something that--Mike(Blum, Hall's lap steel guitarist) and I had gone out to dinner, hangin' out, maybe wantin' to go down to the rehearsal room and try an idea. We had played the song together live but had never really tried to do a mock-up of it. So, we went and found a beat. Both of us are novices on Pro-Tools, absolutely. We found a beat that might work and just kinda built from there. It's raw. It's a raw energy. It's not refined. Sometimes, in a case like, "Shout! You're Automatic," it's all just live, and at other times like, "High Five Hit Me," it's very much worked out.
LNO: Yeah yeah, with the handclaps.
JH: The handclaps, and also just kinda like exactly where I'm going with the lyrics is worked out. "Shout! You're Automatic" is...
LNO: It really sounds like you're on the edge on that one.
JH: I wasn't sure exactly what I was gonna do after a certain point. The passion resonated with me.
LNO: Was that a one take sorta song?
JH: That was a second take 'cause we broke a string on the first take. Marc(Hunter) just stopped it. He was cussin' all over the place. I had told Grant, "Ok, well let me read you the lyric," with me absolutely going through and combing through and everything like that. And he's just like, "I'm not gonna let you do it."(laughter)
LNO: That's awesome. That's great. I'm glad he didn't.
JH: "I'm not gonna let you do it." Because there were some incidentals and I guess some really original sentiments that are in that performance that maybe at that point I might not have let ride, but I'm glad I did because--you know, people who have known for a long time and people who haven't known for very long at all have both responded to it. Responded to the originality.
LNO: I really like the jittery guitar on "Begin Again." Anyway, when we were talking the last time we were together, we were talking about how you had opened up for Rage(Against The Machine) and that you had learned something. What was that? Do you remember?
JH: I learned that the teenage mind, at least the teenage boy mind, is generally capable of handling only two emotions in a 45 minute opener set, and those two emotions are balls out anger and sexuality. I think if you're trying to offer anything deeper or more cerebral than that, you're fighting a losing battle.
LNO: So, you've taken that to heart? You've taken that with you?
JH: Ummm, I think Pleasure Club definetely did. On our albums, we would do more soulful and sometimes spiritual stuff, but live it was pretty much get-up rock. I think that's not a bad thing at all, but it's a different sort of thing when I do a solo show. By myself I have yet to be capable of just delivering those simplified, neanderthal emotions.
LNO: Yeah, your solo stuff seems more soulful. The soul influence, the Marvin Gaye, really comes through. When you started singing first, when you were younger, did you need someone to validate your voice for you, or did you just sing to yourself and knew that it sounded good?
JH: I felt like maybe I was not actually close to the mark as I felt like I was. I felt like I was a lot closer to the mark than a lot of people my age. Again, I found my voice by learning other people's voices. I found my ability to write by learning other people's songs. I remember one person at church telling me they thought I had a nice voice. That was when I was 8 years old or so. Other than that, I kinda had to assert myself. I knew that although I might not be the best frontman in the world, I could at least carry a tune at that stage. Of course, I was playing and singing from 15 years old onward. If you grew up in the '80's and Sting doing "Message in a Bottle" was your measure of good singing, it's not great. It's good, and it worked, but it's not by any stretch of the imagination a great vocalist. It's just a good writer. He had a good vehicle for a song. That's all I really hoped to be. Then, I got exposed to the Smiths and the power of The Cure and Echo and The Bunnymen, and I realized there was a lot more things that we could see, a lot more things that could be done.
LNO: That you could reach for.
JH: I guess so. There was a lot more colors you could paint with.
LNO: What's changed over the years in the way that you approach singing? What are the most important things you've learned?
JH: I still question my ability as a singer in terms--I don't think of myself as singer in the way that Enrique Iglesias is a singer. It's a different kinda thing. I guess maybe if anything--there were some reviews that compared me to Jeff Buckley. They compared me as a person who didn't have quite the range of Jeff Buckley and yet, any time anybody did that, they seemed to be kinda grateful that I didn't have the range that Jeff Buckley did because it's like--just because I have something close to it, I don't have to use it. Maybe that's what I've learned. I've come a long way to say it, but just because you can doesn't mean you should. Just because you can sing high or sing in all different ways doesn't mean you should.
LNO: Yeah, 'cause Jeff Buckley sometimes--it almost can be a little bit too piercing.
JH: He's a...
LNO: It's beautiful, but...
JH: Great artist that's no longer among us. It's like a great guitar player. Just because you can play a thousand miles an hour doesn't mean you should. Just because I can sing the falsetto doesn't mean I should. I did make choices on earlier records that I might not make now based on what I know. It's also been very valuable for me to find the character of the voice, to find the character of the song. What is the saying? Where is the voice coming from? Is it me, or is it someone else? If it's someone else, that's fine. There's no problem with that, but how will I make it work. It's a pretty powerful lesson. Siouxsie Sioux, David Bowie, David Byrne are all able to tap into the character of the song as a more important vehicle than the actual person.
LNO: So, it's not so much about, "Let me show you what I can do with my voice."
JH: That as well as--they're not so much concerned with being Siouxsie Sioux or being David Byrne or being David Bowie. They're concerned with the actual songs--the voice in the song actually being served. When you think about "Scary Monsters" and when he's(Bowie) singing in that East End accent--(Bowie impersonation)"I love a little girl and I love her 'till the day she dies." That's not really Bowie persona, but he's learned how to tap into something in order to get that point across. When I sing, "Honey" and "Sugar" and all that stuff, that's not who you're dealing with across the breakfast table, but it can work for the character of the song. It's ad-lib, it's off the cuff, it's not thought out. It's just finding yourself in that spot.
LNO: That's worked time and time again for the songs you did with Pleasure Club.
JH: Yeah, I got more confident in the succession of making albums with Pleasure Club. Part of it is due to the technology. Being that much easier. There's less red light fever in a home studio as opposed to a proper recording studio.
LNO: Where you have to get in and get out.
LNO: Almost all of your solo songs are four minutes or longer. What's the reason behind that?
JH: With Pleasure Club there definetely was a concerted effort to edit things down to have the songs have their maximum impact. With the solo stuff, and this is not with all my solo stuff, but with the solo stuff there's less people bearing down on that, so you're more free to take your time with what you want to say. But I think both mentalities have their advantages.
LNO: Definetely. I liked "Deadbeat Brother," where it's got that 45 seconds at the end where it's all instrumental. I love how it's able to wind down that way. It's a really nice way for that song to wind down.
JH: Absolutely. It's more of a soundtrack and a cinematic vibe as opposed to being a Pop single. And I say Pop single with the utmost respect. I didn't know No Doubt's "Hella Good" would be my favorite thing on Pop radio.
LNO: I love that song, too.
JH: I didn't know Fiona Apple's "Criminal" would be saving Pop radio for six months.
LNO: It's weird, 'cause I know my friends don't like that song("Hella Good"), but I just love it.
JH: Well, your friends don't play bass.
JH: If I played bass, I'd love that song, too.
JH: It's not a high-fallutin' type of song. They're saying absolutely nothing and they are absolutely coked out of their minds...
JH: But as long as it sounds good on the speakers in the clubs, who the fuck cares?
LNO: Exactly. There's something about that song(Subconscious reference: Pixies' "Subbacultcha").
JH: Well, think about Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" as well. It's got that same drive. It's got that same '80's-cocaine-drum machine spirit. Start the drum machine up, do a couple lines, and see what happens. Gangsta rappers have got this reputation as being hedonists, but it was actually the Pop stars that were more hedonistic than the people bringing about the rap music. The people bringing about the rap music were true artists.
LNO: And then they went off into--maybe that's where the hedonism came in. Later on.
JH: Well, let's just put it this way--if Eazy E and Dr. Dre really were slinging drugs, guess what they would be doing? 'Cause it's far easier to make money slinging drugs than it is to make music. And look where they ended up. Look where their career paths have taken them. Dre just did Burt Bacharach's album. When I listen back to "Straight Outta Compton," these guys were not as tough as they wanted the press to believe. Did they come up in a tough area? Absolutely, but what they chose to do with their time and their energy was not always the subject matter.
LNO: Maybe they were more packaged than everyone was led to believe.
JH: I think the deal is this--they were real writers, they're real artists. I'm not gonna sit here and say none of 'em ever sold drugs, but at the same time, what they ended up doing says a lot to me about what they chose to do with their time and energy, which is rhyme and rap and create. Even if the subject matter was South Central.
LNO: Maybe they knew that the subject matter was gonna be so provocative that they were gonna get more press outta that.
JH: I don't think they thought that through. I think that's where they came from. I think it was interesting to them and that it was fuel for anger, which is an energy in and of itself. I applaud them for trying something different.
LNO: It really made a difference.
JH: For me, in my life.
LNO: Do you have any old songs from Mary My Hope or the solo days that you're thinking about dusting off?
JH: It's funny you ask that 'cause I was listening to some of the older stuff last night, and it would clearly be something I would have to consider for the show. Again, the show has to be looked at as a one time thing.
LNO: Really? Why?
JH: At this point, I can't afford to do this anymore than maybe once a year. It is truly--it's a celebration and we're getting friends in to do this show. Other than that, there is--I've learned that live is my canvas, but I can't continue to work that way anymore. I have to make albums, and then based on the success or failure of that album will determine how much of a life I have to tour and play. In the past, I used to do everything based on the strength of live shows. That's not to say I don't wanna turn in good live performances anymore, but just the way that I have to go about my life--my life is dictating a different set of circumstances now. I have to turn in great songs and great albums in order for me to get enough money and momentum--momentum is just as important as anything else. I've done a lot of things with no money and a lot of momentum that I never thought I would do. I accept that that's where things are for me and that's what I've got to do in order to do what I really love, which is to tour and play and write. I can do this show, but I've gotta go back to the drawing board.
LNO: And basically make another album before you can say, "Hey, let's go out and tour."
JH: Right. It's not feasible at this point.