An Interview With James Adkisson
I met James while living in Austin many moons ago and had the extreme pleasure of playing in the psychedelic instrumental band A Five and Dime Ship with him and other extremely talented folks. I have continued to follow his work since leaving and am always joyed to hear what he is coming up with. He has been a part of the legendary Austin psych-rock band 7% Solution, as well as projects such as Headshy, Were-Jaguars, and awesome solo ventures like Dirac C and Blindshore. He has the uncanny ability of turning the harshest guitar noise into something beautiful while maintaining a grasp of compelling composition. James was kind enough to answer a few questions for this here blog. Enjoy!
1. Tell me about your earliest musical influences and when you became interested in playing. What was your first instrument?
My Mom tried me out with acoustic guitar and piano lessons when I was in elementary school. But they didn’t go anywhere. Acoustic guitar was so hard with no reward. With piano I would barely practice the song I was supposed to learn and then just make stuff up. Hold down the sustain pedal and start putting things together. In high school one day I went over to a guy’s house that had an electric guitar an amp and some type of Roland tape delay. He would play the main chords to a song make a loop and then play the solo over the loop. He was playing songs I knew and they sounded like the records. After that I wanted an electric guitar. I wanted to play guitar but I didn’t read music and I had a hard time listening to songs and figuring out how to play them. I was not going to be a virtuoso. I really liked that you could alter electric guitars sound. I dove right into buying effects. I spent a lot of time just playing with sound. I started out listening to what’s classic rock now. Prog Rock. Art Rock. The first guitarists that I was attracted to were Brian May, Steve Howe, Alex Lifeson, Robert Fripp and a bit later Adrian Belew. He was really the spark that made me think maybe I could be a musician. Paying attention to Adrian Belew and actually seeing him play on a TV show called Fridays it struck me that he was using unconventional sounds and guitar effects as song parts. If I just worked at being able to replicate my sounds, pull them up when needed then maybe that was a useful skill.
2. Have your musical tastes changed much? Do you still like music that you listened to growing up?
Alot of the things I liked growing up I still listen to. It’s even fun to hear some of it the way I hear music now. You hear things differently after learning more about recording and mixing. I still listen to some of my old favorites like Queen and YES and Black Sabbath and Rush. Living through the 90s The Cure and Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, U2, NIN, Shoegaze stuff, affected me. Now it’s Radiohead and Portishead, DJ Shadow and Elbow, Spiritualized, Beachhouse, A Place to Bury Strangers, I listen to all kinds of things. Hip Hop. Really experimental stuff
3. What was your first band / musical project?
I tried to get in with a few people early on. Starting up bands. But they usually wanted to give me parts to play. And they were disappointed. I wasn’t good at that. My first songs came from getting a 4 track and doing everything myself. I knew there were solo artists like Brian Eno and Bill Nelson and David Sylvian. I thought maybe I could do something like that. My own singing and drum loops. Being able to mimic things with guitar came in handy. If I wanted cello or violin or bass, synth sounds I made them with guitar. I called it Hollow and made cassettes.
4. What is your favorite instrument / gear to use?
I still really enjoy guitar. Even though a lot of times the sounds I am striving for are very uncharacteristic of guitar. What I always like more about the guitar than a keyboard is the physicality of it. The bending and pulling of strings. Bending the neck of the guitar, leaning into the amp for feedback. I have all kinds of effects pedals. Ever since my first experience watching the guy in high school making loops I wanted to do that. So I have loop pedals. I think two things that really are part of my sound are the Digitech whammy pedal and the E-bow. The whammy pedal lets you change pitch and harmonize. And I use that a lot. I use it like it’s meant to be used but also I like to hold a note while toggling through pitches. That can be really pretty or glitchy and mechanical. The E-bow is hand held. You hold it over the guitar pick up with your right hand and it keeps the string its hovering over buzzing. Your left hand is free to fret. You can play quickly or by moving the E-bow slowly towards the pick up the notes can swell in. You can do really beautiful things with it or you can make a lot of noise with it. When I hand it to people a lot of times they have an awkward experience. Trying to get a nice sound with it. But right out of the box I don’t remember it ever being difficult. I loved it.
5. How did you get involved with 7% Solution? What was that experience
I moved to Austin with a girlfriend. I knew it was a big music town. But I still just expected to make music on my own. One of my first jobs I became friends with a guy named Bob and we shared similar musical tastes. That job didn’t last. Later when I worked at Waterloo records Bob came in with a tape of his band. It was 7% Solution. I really liked it. To me it was sort of Hendrix meets the Cocteau Twins. He said that to play live they would need another guitarist. I did my best to learn parts and recreate tones from the songs on the tape. And tried out. Like usual. My playing someone else’s parts was nothing special. But the wonderful thing was Reese the singer, guitarist asked me to show them what I would play. If I was coming up with parts. That’s how I ended up in the band. Thankfully he saw that I was creative and liked what I did. Later after our first CD we had more attention than any of us would have imagined. It was hard to believe. It was my first band. First time really collaborating with others. First time playing live.
6. You’ve done a lot of solo recording; do you find it more/less rewarding?
I really enjoy recording with a band. Figuring out how to make a song work together and knowing that certain people have strengths you can rely on. Shared enthusiasm is great. When I work on solo songs most of the time there is some idea in my head. Maybe a combination of song types that I would like to hear combined. Let’s say, in my head I can hear a PJ Harvey song combined with Brian Eno. It’s hard to bring that to a group and try to explain it. Anyway it’s something I want to hear. My goal. It’s not that important to others. If I work on it myself then I know what I want to do with the drums and the atmosphere of the piano. How I want the elements to come together to hopefully sound like what I have in mind. So I guess that’s more rewarding. If the song turns out like I hoped.
7. Could you discuss musical projects you’ve done in the last 5 years? What are your plans for the next 5 years?
A few years ago Reese and his now ex-wife Lisa and I had a band called HeadShy. We recorded one CD. It has a lot of good songs. It ranges from trip hop to some very 7% Solution like songs and even some Nick Cave like songs. It’s on Bandcamp. Reese and I have re-mixed and mastered songs from some first 7% Solution tapes and made those available on Bandcamp. We have also worked on new songs. I think we will probably just post them as they are finished. He has been helping me work on my Blindshore songs. I asked him for vocal coaching. I find that’s the hardest thing to do alone. Going back and forth from the mic hitting record. Hard to make good decisions about your own voice. He’s ended up helping with much more. And he sang on one song. I posted three new songs as The Details EP. More songs should come out over the year. I also want to do a project called Jet Black Cat. The idea for that is to do shoegaze songs. Interesting covers plus a few originals. I have a lot of recordings of playing records through all of my effects as well. Messing around with the speed of the turntable and also looping segments. A bit like Christian Marclay. I think about doing something with those. I might do new Dirac C songs. Those are songs where every sound is made with guitar and guitar effects.
8. What is your favorite place to eat in Texas?
Since I am up all night I like a place where you can get breakfast at two in the morning or three in the afternoon. It’s not fancy but I like a diner called Jim’s. There are a few of them in Austin and San Antonio. It’s the kind of place you look for when you are on a trip and you need to pull in hoping they either have a good burger or breakfast. Sometimes I think I am my happiest with something good to read, coffee and breakfast in front of me.
9. How do you like performing live vs. writing and recording music?
I enjoy recording the most. Creating. Hearing something come together. There are many aspects to playing live. Being in a band where roadies had it all set up ready to go would be dream. I don’t enjoy the nervousness and all that goes into the set up before you actually play. Once I am playing it’s great. If everything is going well then it’s a hard feeling to describe. Revealing in a way. I always felt like if someone had seen a show then they knew me better. I have not played live in a few years. But usually when I see a live show it makes me want to again.
10. What are your 5 desert island albums?
My favorite music always inspires me. I would need some way to make music on the island or I wouldn’t last long.
Brain Eno – Another Green World
Radiohead – In Rainbows
Yes – The Yes Album
U2 – Achtung Baby
Sonic Youth – Dirty
11. Closing thoughts?
It may be hard to tell by the bands I’ve mentioned but I enjoy and I am interested in experimental, industrial, ambient, electronic, and just strange music as well. But what I generally take from that is I might be enjoying this ten minutes of feedback, or a recording of a broken turntable but not many people do. A smaller dose of it or combined with something else could make it a really wonderful part in a song. I would like to use something like this somewhere in a song. So I steal lots of ideas that way. Because (at least for me) it’s much harder to make a recognizable song with verses and a chorus than a fifteen minute atmospheric loop. I could churn out looped guitar albums. Maybe five a week. Someone might think they were genius but I would know they came pretty easy for me. And I think that’s the truth with alot of the “far out” things I hear. Song structure is an art. It’s not that easy to do a good job of it. And it’s really amazing when someone can bend it all to hell and keep it recognizable as a hummable song.
Check out some of James’ work at: