Weirdly Thankful: Early James on ‘Strange Time’ and the Hammer of Religion

AI- Strange Time To Be Alive, to me, almost feels post-apocalyptic as if you’re looking past everything that’s happened and what could be an alternate reality waiting at the end of the rainbow.

EJ- That’s one way to look at it, I reckon.

When did you go into the studio?

Man, it all runs together! I would say right when we got vaccinated, we immediately started talkin’ about it. By the time the album had come out, it had already been done for six months. I guess we started talkin’ about gettin’ in the studio towards the beginning of 2021.

How many of the songs on the album were written during the pandemic and when you went into the studio? Are the majority of these new or are there some you’d had hangin’ around from before?

It’s about half and half I’d say. [“What A Strange Time To Be Alive”] was written in late March of 2020…

And it feels like that too (laughs)! As if that would be in the deepest throes of the pandemic!

Yeah, that was the weirdest one ’cause I got to write that one with Rob Thomas and Austin Jenkins. It was the very first of many ZOOM meetings I did (laughs)! We’re still doin’ ZOOM meetings! But that was the very first one I ever did. We all were just talkin’ about how, “Ah, this’ll blow over. Hopefully, gonna see you guys out in the real world soon!” We had no idea!

“Racing To A Red Light”, the track that opens up the album, “Internet ideas are all stolen, it took ’em all from Joe Rogan,” “Elon built a hearse in hindsight…” It’s a difficult thing to navigate pop culture in a song in a way that really encapsulates the issues and the benefits of the time that we live in, and I think you do that very well on “Racing To A Red Light”.

Thanks, man! I was worried that people would hear that line the wrong way. And I’m still not completely sure what I mean by it (laughs)! I think I was just so damn tired o’ hearin’ their names at the time that I wrote that line. It wasn’t really anything against the two o’ them, it was just that sometimes it seems that the world’s way to deal with that is to put them at the top (laughs), like, “Let’s build their audience. Let’s make more people aware of them so that they have more power!” It just doesn’t make any sense to me!

I think there’s a difficulty in witnessing any sort of group thinking, especially in this day and age across social media. I think you go at that hardcore with “Dance In The Fire”. That explores widespread ignorance and hate, casting it in a light where it’s chosen rather than accidental.

“Dance In The Fire” has a lot of harkenin’ back to some religious things that had happened in my childhood. I hate to cast any stones ’cause I have a lot o’ religious friends, a lot o’ good Christian friends, but you’ll hear a disembodied opinion on the internet about how children are being pulled into a cult, indoctrinated, and it’s like, “That’s how I felt when I was kid bein’ forced to got to church and all the weird shit that my youth pastor would say to me at some o’ those camps!”

The best way I put it is religion is a lot like a tool just in that way that a hammer’s a tool– you can use a hammer to build a wonderful house to live in; you can use a hammer for truly despicable things.

You do cover a lot o’ notions of faith across the album and I’d wondered if that had come out of existing in sort of an “end times” scenario with the pandemic.

Oh, yeah! I’ve dealt with that stuff, with stuff older folks in my family would say when I was a kid. ‘Cause it was just somethin’ that fire and brimstone Southerners hoped! They couldn’t wait to get to heaven (laughs)! I remember one time, my dad heard turkeys gobblin’ six months before the season. He was like, “Oh, Lord! Animals are confused! It must be time for Jesus!” He told me that as a kid and I don’t know if he thought about how that affected me– ’cause I one hundred percent believed the world was gonna end soon because o’ those turkeys chatterin’ outside o’ turkey season! People have always been hysterical– this is not new, it’s just louder.

Goin’ with that notion of heaven, “If Heaven Is A Hotel”, an upbeat song that’s very deceptive, and it reminded me of the conversation that you and I had about “Blue Pill Blues”, especially when you deliver that line, “Don’t believe it when anybody says they’ve been doing fine, so I guess I’m doing fine.” How was the thick of it for you? Being grounded, being quarantined? Were you still cohabitating with anybody?

I was extremely lucky. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d been alone! I spent the entire time with my girlfriend Cammie [Windley] and my roommates which are musicians. We were able to livestream and still play, still write together, and Cammie and I were able to spend time together. Honestly, other than it appearing for my career to be ending, it was a pretty good time (laughs)!

I remember when it rolled around that [Singing For My Supper] had been out for a year, that was just mindblowing to me that a whole year had passed and we hadn’t gotten to do very much with it. [“If Heaven Is A Hotel”] was an attempt to joke about dark thoughts in my head, to perhaps get me out of thinkin’ about ’em.

I’m glad you brought up your girlfriend. I feel like many of the songs deal with relationships, particularly “Pigsty”, which I love. That’s one of the most clever iterations of the love song, the “Baby, Please Don’t Go” idea that I’ve heard, certainly, in recent memory. And then “Straightjacket For Two” is such a cool concept. That time that you got to spend with Cammie, obviously had things not gone the way they did, you’d have been out on the road, you wouldn’t have had that time– do you feel like you got a second chance, or maybe the first chance to really make decisions about how you preceded with your career? Did it give you some breathing room to decide how you wanted to go forward when you weren’t necessarily being thrown in?

To have that little bit– lot o’ bit– of time to think about everything and what was happening definitely helped. I never thought I would be saying this now, but I’m definitely a whole bunch more relaxed about what it entails to do this for a living. Right now, we’re about to do the very first headlining tour and if I had been pushed into that early on, I’m not sure how I would’ve handled it. But yeah, I’m definitely in weird ways thankful for the time off within my romantic relationship, within the band and us havin’ some time to get tighter. Communication goes a long way in life. I’m weirdly thankful for that.

When you and I had spoken about Singing For My Supper, you talked about makin’ the record and how it had forced the band to change– because you didn’t make that record with your regular band. Going into this one, how did your thinking change when it came to arranging the songs? Did you have it in mind for these to be able to translate more on stage this time around?

I knew we’d be able to do it. Honestly, that first record was harder to do as a four-piece band than this new one for whatever reason. Adrian [Marmolejo], first of all, who’s been playin’ with me for years, he was the bass player on the new record, so that was nice. I think Adrian and I were both all the way through recording, we talkin’ about, “Ah, that’s gonna be fun to do with four and pedal steel or four with mandolin!” It’s nice with four ’cause he plays three different instruments.

This time around, even with “Pigsty”, I was like, “I’m not even gonna play guitar. We’ll figure out a way to make a live version and an album version.” I think I let that die in my head– I used to think that you should sound exactly like you do on the record ’cause that’s what people are expecting. For whatever reason, I don’t know why I thought this. Eventually, I realized, “Why would you wanna give the people what they expected?” So now I’m like, “Cool, let’s do whatever we want in the studio, and then with whoever’s in the band at the time, we just come up with a new way to play it. We don’t really stick to time signatures or sometimes not even the same chords. That’s a lot o’ fun for all of us to put our heads together and figure out how to make it work with a four-piece band instead of an eight-piece band in the studio.

I read an interview you did mentioning video games as an influence on your work and I hear that on “My Sweet Camelia”. That’s just a wonderful hybrid murder ballad and lullaby!

I wish I knew more of their names, but specifically, the early days of Nintendo and Super Nintendo, some o’ those songs were so complex. When you hear how hard it was to get all those parts to play– you had to be so creative because you only had so much space on that cartridge. Not all o’ that was for music. I’ve always heard when you have a detriment or a setback, you’ll become more creative to get the job done. Take Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath, you know, he had his fingers lopped off, Django Rheinhardt [had his fingers burned], and they ended up legends because of it. The video game music, I’m still stealing from songs that I heard in 1996 from Super Nintendo and the Nintendo!

Tell me about gettin’ Sierra Ferrell on the song “Real Low Down Lonesome”. How did that come together?

I think Dan [Auerbach] just had it in mind. I think Dan just thought our voices would go together.

Well, they do!

I guess.

It’s kinda like a tango between two, it’s cool.

I had never met her and I knew that Dan was tryin’ to get us to write. I met her at the Newport Folk Festival and I was like, “Hey, I think I’m s’posed to write with you in like a month,” and she was like, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure…” Of course, at this point, we’d been drinkin’, so we just had a couple ideas, threw ’em out on the table, and by the time we got there to write, we’d completely forgotten what we’d said we were gonna write about!

I’m very slow in the studio, and her and Dan work very quick. I felt like the bones o’ that song– she already had the chorus, I think that just came out– kinda written in front o’ me, And then they moved on to the second song and I was like, “Man, I got two words in that first song!” So I went back home and really tried to dream up a narrative to make it more… I think when it was initially written very quickly, it was pretty predictable, so I was like, “Let’s make both o’ these people suffer instead o’ just me,” who would’ve been the disembodied dude in the song. I was like, “This song sounds like two narcissists that both think a lot o’ themselves.” So I went home and rewrote it. But it was hard to keep up with her, honestly! She’s very quick in the studio!

I watched the video of you at the pressing plant watching your vinyl get made– how cool was that?

Man, that was awesome! I never thought that would happen! The one that I took home, that I got to listen to on vinyl for the first time at my house– I was the one that pressed it! I figure that was against the law, honestly (laughs)! Might be! Don’t tell anybody!

Strange Time To Be Alive is available now from Easy Eye Sound!