Interview w/ Blues/Folk Musician, Kevin James
16 Jul, 2012
Words By Richard Morales, Music Editor for Dig In Magazine
For more on Kevin James visit: www.reverbnation.com/kevinjames33
The hallways are comfortably dim in the Ritz Theatre. The multi-curtained stage is occupied by numerous instruments, which could belong to any one of the five bands who are scheduled to perform. Although the theater is usually home to the production of plays, tonight is reserved for a small cohort of Minneapolis-based acts who are set to entertain with a night of modern American blues/country/folk music. Around the 8 o’clock hour, a thin-framed crooner swaggers on stage clutching his acoustic guitar in one hand while adjusting the harmonica he has strapped around his neck with the other. Youthful in appearance, light in complexion, and dressed entirely in black, he could easily be mistaken for Joaquin Phoenix’s double in Walk the Line. He plugs in his instrument and before a word is even spoken, the up-tempo strum of his guitar cues both the lights and a steady backbeat from the drummer. The sound resonates within the room and the energy suddenly gets lifted exponentially. After a short greeting to thank everyone for coming out, we are taken through a journey of early blues and folk music delivered with sweat, hollers, and a raw intensity that harkens back to a time when rock n’ roll was still very much in its infancy.
The entire performance continues the same way as it began: never slowing down and with minimal amount of chatter between songs. The singer’s stage presence conveys a unique hybrid of naïve exhilaration and self-reflected humility. In the few instances where he does speak directly to the audience, his southern drawl sounds like an embellishment of Bob Dylan’s vocal twang from his early folk albums. This causes the young musician’s words to be delivered in rhythmic fashion, as one could assume is to not let the celebratory mood fall into an unexpected lull. It is obviously a persona that has been consciously adopted and perfected through years of development.
His name is Kevin James, and tonight he is playing with his two-piece project known as the Damper Downs. They come out of the small suburb of Anoka, and James (or “KP” as he is known to locals) delivers a reassuring glimpse of the enduring legacy that acoustic American music has brought to audiences since the turn of the 20th century. James not only exudes his own sense of urgency and passion in what he plays, but also gives spectators an opportunity to share in his love of a style that has lied dormant in this era of digital music—a style usually relegated to out-of-print discs that are found in the hands of collectors.
After the show, as James leans against a wall outside the Ritz conversing with friends and fans, he retreats into a more casual demeanor. When people approach him to discuss the various facets of his inspired performance, he appears quite affable in his disposition and genuine in his response. With slow movements and features that display a sort of modesty—reminiscent to that of a rural folk musician—his ideas and opinions are expressed with stylized articulation.
At 22, the Minnesota native has become part of a small local scene in Anoka; a town with a meager population of 18,000. With its scenic river banks, picturesque downtown, and welcoming Midwest atmosphere, Anoka could have appeared straight out of Norman Rockwell painting (the town even boasts its identifying characteristics as being both “Real” and “Classic”). Not to say the area lacks the appeal of a decent nightlife. The half dozen bars that aligned Jackson Street feature traveling bands looking to attract a small town fan base, but to the crowds that frequent them, James has already become a staple. Along with local musician Alex “Crankshaft” Larson (who also plays regularly on Jackson St. and who will be featured in part II of this article)—James is helping to bring the real roots of rock back to the underground scene via this modest town, one rousing show at a time.
A few days later, on a pleasant late summer afternoon I get a chance to talk with Kevin James at a Main St. coffee shop where he hosts a weekly open mic. As I walk in I notice him standing by the large front windows in distant thought. He turns and greets me with a handshake and asks if we could conduct the interview outside in the back patio so he could smoke. We get our drinks and sit at a corner table shaded by the trees. I turn on my voice recorder as he lights his first cigarette; and with that, our conversation is underway.
Richard Morales: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you first get into music, or more specifically early blues music?
Kevin James: I started getting into older music through my dad, mostly bands from the sixties…Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Bob Dylan. That kind of changed my whole idea of music and what music could be. Then I started looking into the people who influenced those guys; like Bob Dylan, one of his biggest influences was Woody Guthrie. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin really liked Robert Johnson. I kept hearing the name Robert Johnson. So I just started looking stuff up.
One year for Christmas my uncle got me a box set of Woody Guthrie and through that I started hearing about people like Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, and Cisco Houston; and listening to that music resonated somewhere within. You know, how they were able to portray stories of real life and turn it into songs.
RM: And that resonance took place for you out here in Anoka?
KJ: Yeah, right here in Anoka. I was raised in the Andover/Anoka area; I went to high school in Anoka. I spend most of my time here, so it’s pretty much my home…especially this coffee shop (chuckles).
RM: When did you start playing guitar?
KJ: I got my first guitar when I turned fourteen. My brother had a guitar and would never let me play it and a couple of friends had guitars and wouldn’t let me touch them. So I said screw that, I’m going to get myself a guitar and I won’t have to worry. I started with electric, but then I got an acoustic and that sort of changed the game. I started looking more into the folkie kind of stuff.
RM: And how soon did you start playing live?
KJ: I would do different things at the high school, like concerts and events. When I was sixteen I met this guy named Sherwin Linton, he’s kind of a regional guy, and he does a Johnny Cash tribute show. I met him at a seminar for music/media/technology, and I stayed after and played a couple songs for him and he was like, ‘you should come out we’re doing a Bob Dylan birthday bash; the band from Blood on the Tracks is playing. I’m going to be doing a short set, come down and we’ll have you sit in for a few songs.’
I ended up doing a couple shows with him, here and there. That was good because it got me out into the nicer venues and bigger crowds then just playing for friends and going to open mics. Other than that I’d be playing at bonfires or at parties and stuff, and that was pretty much all I did until I was about 18 or 19, then I started going out and doing full nights. I then got hooked up with my drummer. It was my brother, my drummer, and I who started a band.
RM: Speaking of your brother, you perform a couple of songs that he wrote. How much of an influence has he been?
KJ: He’s always been a writer. I mean I’ve never been a great writer by any means; it’s never really come easy for me. I write here and there, but I have to work for it a little more. He would never learn cover songs because he wanted to write his own. He could sit down in one night and write eight or nine songs, no problem. Out of those, two or three would be pretty good, and it’s only gotten better. As we started playing more shows he kept writing more songs, and since then I don’t know if I’ve heard him write a bad song. For the longest time I was scared to even put pen to paper because I would compare myself to that. But I realize we’re two different people and we have two different strengths, for me it’s being able to hear something and pick it up right away, and for him it’s the writing.
RM: So what about your song “Walking Down the Line”? What really got me was the subject matter, which harkens back to those old tunes talking about things like whiskey and rent. How true to life is that?
KJ: It’s kind of a co-written tune in a way. It’s taken from a Bob Dylan song that my brother re-worked a couple years ago and we had both forgot about it. Then, I was going though some shit a couple months ago, going through bouts of insomnia. I was lying in bed one night and it started coming back to me, but I couldn’t remember the rest of the song except for the very first part. So I just kind of re-worked it and wrote it with what I was dealing with…Yeah, the whole whiskey and rent thing, you kind of go through downsides of things where you got to make ends meet to pay your rent, but sometimes your money goes straight into a bottle of whiskey or whatever. I mean, it’s pretty straight-forward. I wrote it thinking of old folk songs: just keep it simple, straight-forward, and make your point in a few words.
RM: I’ve noticed on stage you seem to appear in an altered state, almost like another person; even speaking with a Southern accent. Is that a conscious thing?
KJ: Well, it’s easier to be someone else; especially when you’re up in front of people. I do kind of throw an alter ego up there. I never really think about it. I think it’s more of a nervous tic and part of the performance, because I want to be able to let loose and not think too much of what I’m doing. I guess it’s kind of acting in a way, when I step out on stage the switch goes on and I’m not in control anymore. It just happens.
I mean, when I’m sitting here at the coffee shop or out in public a lot of the time I’m a little more withdrawn, you know, I don’t say something unless I’ve got something to say—I mean unless I’m sitting around bullshittin’ or something. But when you’re up on stage you can’t be a tight ass. You got to let loose and that’s my way of being able to draw energy from the crowd and have that energy tossed back and forth.
RM: Tell me about your relationship with Crankshaft. The two of you seem to be at the forefront of this retro style of early rock and folk music here in Anoka. Do you feel either of you can create something big out of this town?
KJ: Definitely. Not to be egotistical or nothing, because there’s a lot of great musicians around here; but there’s not many people in Anoka who are writing their own songs, making their own cds, and trying to get their name out there. I think Crankshaft and I are the only ones doing it, as far as I know. He’s definitely got more of a blues influence and I’m definitely more of a folkie guy. I met up with him a few years ago. There was this bar called the B-side and they would have music every night of the week. Monday was the only night they didn’t have music so I’d go in and play for food. I’d go in and play for a half hour, I mean, I had nothing better to do and I’d rather be playing music somewhere than sitting at home. One week I get in there and Alex (Crankshaft) had brought his stuff in. He had been working on the one-man band thing for a while and this was the first time he was getting out to do it. I went up and played a set then he’d play a set, and we’d just switched up. We’d do half hour sets and play for two or three hours.
This was shortly before I went out to San Francisco and Colorado. The band I was playing with at the time ended as soon as I left and Crankshaft took over the Monday nights there. Then, when I came back the bar had already closed—I think one of the owners was taking money out of the till—and that’s really sad because if Anoka had a chance, that would have been the place where something great was going to start. I think Anoka needs another place like that.
RM: There’s nothing like that now?
KJ: Not really. There’s hope that there can be another venue in the future because it really brought in a lot of people, and they would go there for the music because they knew there would always be a band playing, and it really caught on—but by the time I got back from traveling around, that place had closed down and Crankshaft was still doing his thing off and on. It took me a little while to get back on my feet. I saw him at the music store, and I was kind of in a weird point, kind of depressed, and he pulled me out. He was like, ‘come over man, we’re gonna grill some stuff, bring your guitar we’re gonna sit down and jam.’ We just kept passing the guitar back and forth and ever since then we’ve been playing music. We’ve always supported each other and look up to each other in different ways for the different things that we can do…he’s actually the one who helped me put together my acoustic cd. About a year and a half ago I had a falling out at home, and asked if I could stay at his place for a couple weeks to get my head together, work on writing some new songs. He let me set up a cot down in his basement and I wrote a handful of new tunes. We recorded them right there at his house and he put the money down to get them printed and pressed. He’s just a good stand-up guy like that.
He’s really on top of things as far as his business goes. He’s really good about how he spends his money, and he’s got a lot of merchandise: T-shirts, posters, cds, sunglasses. In Anoka no one else is doing that, and that’s kind of where I’m headed. I definitely look up to him as a musician and a person, and try to learn as much as I can. If he writes a new song he’ll take it to me and ask my opinion, and likewise, if I take one to him I know he’s going to give me an honest opinion. If it’s a shit song he’ll say it, and it’s good to have those people. I mean a lot of our friendship is based around the music you know, but… (pauses to reflect then laughs to himself) it’s a different thing, I guess.
RM: Now the music that you’re doing is not intended for a mainstream audience, so I have to ask; where do you hope to take this? Like are there any specific goals here?
KJ: Well, for one I’m passionate about it. The ideal situation would be to make a living doing it and not be, you know, trying to scrounge a few nickels and dimes here and there. I mean, right now being 22 and having nothing to lose, I’d like to see where I could take it. I know there’s not a huge market for it, but a lot of the stuff in the indie scene is kind of underground; which I think is cool because there’s a lot there to market. Especially in places like Minneapolis, I think everything happening in the underground scene is bigger than the mainstream stuff.
My goal is to get my music out to as many people as I can, maybe travel to some different places and meet different people. Ultimately, just get the music out there and maybe try to create some sort of fan base, and then as soon as I get enough money saved up—take it on the road. Whether it’s around the Midwest first, then, if I’m able to, maybe go down to New Orleans or out to the east coast, or west coast. Then come back and do it all over again. I mean, to be able to get a fan base, not just in one area but to spread out, you have to start a little at a time. If I’m able to accomplish that, it would be awesome; and I’m definitely going to work my ass off to do it… but the main goal is to be content and be able to make a living doing it, if possible.
For more information visit: www.reverbnation.com/kevinjames33