Q&A with of Montreal's James Huggins: "Nashville has always been a wild place for us"
By Alex Daly
Published Feb. 18, 2010.
Versus Magazine: How are you? You look tired …
James Huggins: Good, I woke up this afternoon and immediately was whisked away to play this Grimey’s in-store thing.
VM: And how did that go?
JH: It went really well, considering that I hadn’t even had half a cup of coffee let alone breakfast. And [one of our instruments] broke within the first five minutes, so we had to improvise ... but it’s a really cool little venue.
VM: How is the tour going so far?
JH: It’s almost over, actually. Tonight is the last night, and it’s disappointing, really, because I want to keep going. It’s been so short — it’s only been like, ten shows, and it kind of came out of nowhere. We had planned to take the whole winter off and then suddenly these dates popped up in January and we just kind of threw it together. It’s been short but it’s been really fun and super exhausting.
VM: Where were you guys before Nashville?
JH: This is honestly one of those embarrassing moments where I can’t remember.
VM: It’s probably a huge blur by now …
JH: I am totally ashamed to say that I can’t remember.
VM: Were there any gigs that come to mind as favorites so far?
JH: New York was incredible. We played the Hi-Line Ballroom. I hadn’t been there before and it’s relatively new.
VM: How is it doing two projects now [of Montreal and solo opening act James Husband]?
JH: It’s not something that I’m not comfortable with, because I’ve done it before. It’s just different this time because it’s the first real push of my new band, so I’ve had a lot of responsibility there. In addition to that, what used to be a sort of easy job for me has now been redefined, so I’m doing ten times the physical effort during the of Montreal shows, and it’s been physically exhausting me. I used to play the drums in the band for most of the songs for six of seven years, but for the last five years I’ve also been playing guitar, bass, keyboards, trumpet and only touching the drum set for like, four songs out of the set.
And on this thing I turn all of the last four albums which [consists of] electronic, dance-pop, very much drum-machine oriented music into straight up rock tunes. So the only things we have on stage are two guitarists, the bassist and a drum kit, so I’m playing for 90 minutes.
And this makes me sound like some kind of light eight, but I’m just not used to doing that ... I have an hour of cerebral, emotional performance, and then I have to switch off my brain and just bash the drums for an hour and a half, so the physical end of it is what’s really killing me. But every night we’ve done it, and I’m still kicking, so we’ll do it again tonight.
VM: What inspired you to do the solo act?
JH: Well it’s not really a new thing; it’s just newly officially billed. I’ve been doing it for, like, over ten years. I guess things are starting to finally slow down for of Montreal, because in the last few years we haven’t had more than a couple weeks off at a time in a year. We did something like 267 shows in 2007 and roughly the same in 2008, so I just haven’t had time.
But now [I] have time. I went to a couple of different studios, I was living overseas in Sweden, and I had time and I had access to a studio and [went for] it. It was just kind of long overdue, so the time came and I decided to just stick it out there.
VM: Listening to your music, it’s a very dynamic sound and ranges so much from the first song to the last. And it doesn’t sound anything like of Montreal. What inspired you?
JH: Well, it had very little to do with of Montreal. It’s more [about] the timetable and the places where the songs were recorded, because this is very much a collection of scattered recording from all over the place and from different times. So if they sound all over the place, it’s because one might have been recorded in my bedroom in 2002 and another might have been recorded in a proper studio in Stockholm in 2008. It depends on who I might have had with me to record with, or what I had written earlier in the year.
The whole point of it is that it’s not just meant to be an album. Many people have the misconception that it’s a new album and that I just went in with ten hot songs and I recorded them all in a week, but it’s much more like a collection of snapshots, like a scrapbook — like, “Here’s me at summer camp with my parents in 1983,” and “Here’s me at my college graduation” … it’s like that, but with songs.
VM: I was reading about that, about how you crafted this as just a huge collection of snapshots from different moments. And this style really brings diversity to the album.
JH: I’m all about diversity.
VM: Have you guys ever played here in Nashville before?
JH: Oh yeah, many many times.
VM: What do you think of the city?
JH: We love Nashville! Nashville has always been a wild place for us. People love to meet us up here and we tend to get whisked away. We have done probably six or seven other shows with [this promoter] both in two other small venues and twice in this venue. And I have performed once solo at the Ryman, but that was during tour when they just let me stand up there and play. It’s like a dream to play there. Nashville has a million other venues, but they don’t all cater to the kind of show we do. We have gone to very small rooms, as well, and played in Nashville at least 15 times over the last 11 years.
VM: I have personally never seen you perform before, so what are your shows like? What are they like for you?
JH: Well that’s the trouble with people who see us for the first time and people who saw us once even three, five or seven years ago, or even people who saw us once only three, five or seven months ago. We try to do a completely different show every time. And that doesn’t just mean in terms of a set list, I mean in terms of members in the band, different people on our performance crew, different video projects, different stage lighting … and for the past several years we have building our own stages to put on top of the venue’s stage.
And we have been getting bigger and bigger, and now we have these video projection things, because we have these groups of, well, I wouldn’t call them actors, I definitely don’t like to call them performance artists and I certainly wouldn’t call them dancers … but they kind of do something resembling all three. And for the last couple of years, [the show] has gotten really elaborate — we have 19 people on the road and only six in the band. We have tried to blow it out as big as we can get it for the bigger venues and festivals, but now we are doing these smaller shows and doing, like I said, rock ‘n’ roll versions of the grandeur of the past several years.
So in some ways I hope that someone like yourself wouldn’t feel gypped, because there is this legend looming out there that we are always going to put on this outrageous stage show. And we still are, to some degree, but I think it’s more interesting for us to focus on the music and do it in a different way. So if you look at the last four or five albums, what we do tonight will not sonically represent the album very well, but the songs are presented in a very live way.
We haven’t heard any complaints, but in the past it’s always been about totally recreating the record exactly. And we’d have two different computers, two different electronic brains that would control sound effects and drum patterns, and loops that go to our ears, so we’d all be playing along with the grid — it was all very robotic and complex, and it was all about blowing out as much sound and as much of the album as possible. But tonight it’s a much more minimalist approach [than] that.
It’s not some new thing we’re doing, but we decided that since we’re doing a small tour in the winter we might as well do it in a way that’s fun for us. So we’re going to try to play like we’re a live band again.
VM: Is it a collaborative thing, this creative side to the performances? Is it even the band that takes care of that or is there a side team?
JH: It’s all-inclusive — everyone in the band and on the crew has equal say and tends to get equal ideas rejected and accepted. It’s sort of compartmentalized, in a way. I mean, David Barnes, Kevin’s brother, who has always been kind of the sixth member of the band, doesn’t play any instruments, but he’s an artist and does all the artwork (well, most of the artwork — Kevin’s wife started doing some of the late stuff). But all of the imagery and artwork and videos that feature things that have to do with our band are done by David. He also kind of directs the performance bits and is responsible for most of the costumes and one-act plays that take place, so he pretty much gets free reign when it comes to that department.
But as far as the set and stage design, I have had a lot to do with that, and also our sound engineer and video engineer have hand-built everything together. Everything we use is hand-made, and those guys are the carpenters/electrical-engineers. And input for the video screens comes from Nick and also Dottie, the keyboard player’s fiance. We’ve been planning a big wedding party for them in the spring.
And then you’ve got everyone from our tour manager, who is onstage in costume every night, to various road managers and workers who are in costume doing their thing each night. But it’s like I said — I don’t think we have ever done the same show twice.
VM: Do you have any background in art or design? Or did you just figure this all out as the years went by?
JH: I grew up in a very musical but also very church-oriented, Southern Baptist family in Georgia, and my father is the musical director [of our church]. So not only did he make sing in the church choir and all that crap, but he would always put on the Christmas pageant and the school play etc. and my mom would always design the props, make backdrops and make costumes by hand and stuff. I had this very home-spun, “Waiting for Guffman”-style, tiny town theater experience, and I have always been acting in little plays. So I pretty much started out doing that stuff before we had any money.
In fact, five or six years ago, I had borrowed these huge slide projection screens from my uncle (I had used them for these church productions in the ‘80s). I set up three screens with old-school clips and slides of carousels and projected the whole slideshow behind the band. And then we started to get some money and decided to buy a bunch of new, high-tech electronics, so I turned things over to Nick. I was running this crap while playing drums in the middle of the show … Now, I have less of a hands-on approach and more just suggestions.
VM: You definitely have to come back and play at the Ryman with this theatrical aspect!
JH: We could do at least the most visually stunning show there, but certainly not the best musically, since every legend in the world has played there. Unless The Flaming Lips have played there — they are our one big competitor. It seems like everything we do, they end up doing bigger. But we’re close on their heels, and we’re doing it in a similar spirit but a different way.
VM: What do you foresee happening in the future with both James Husband? Do you see yourself continuing with your solo project?
JH: Absolutely. It’s not like it’s some kind of whim. It’s just a long overdue beginning of something that will be the focus of my attention from this point on. And that’s not to say that I’m going to stop playing with of Montreal — in fact, I think for the rest of this year [I’m] continuing to do both. I think we are going to do another leg or two this way.
But this whole temporary diversion of being a straight up rock band is not going to last very long. I think the plan for the next record, which is not going to come out until the end of the summer, is to totally revamp the whole thing, bring in additional musicians, and expand the band so the musicians are able to more closely recreate the record but without all the previous sampling technology that we were using. The idea is to have about ten or twelve [musicians] and multiple percussionists so we can do complex rhythms, because it’s just impossible for me to do as one man, especially since I’m not using any drum pads or anything. We want to bring in a couple of extra string players and horn players and make it more of a big-band sound, really a ’70s kind of band that would have that sort of instrumentation. But that all depends on us finding all of the right people — we are going to start auditioning people, talking to all of our friends in various bands and seeing their availability.
If we can pull it off it would be something of like a super group and much more focused on the music. I’m sure there will still be some sort of elaborate stage production, but the idea is to sort of scrap everything we have been doing for the last year and a half and create some new characters. We also want to get rid of the more colorful things and instead create some darker settings and lighting.
VM: Do you opt for the same kind of stage shows for James Husband?
JH: No, with that, it’s just about the music. I mean we already have all the [of Montreal stuff] set up there, so we sometimes will throw some of that on for the colors, but I think most of that would just distract you. The point of the James Husband project is for me to feel comfortable singing the songs. We tried doing it like a big rock band to make it more exciting, but the truth of the matter is, you listen to the album and it’s all pretty mellow — it’s all just about my singing. And I can’t sing very loudly or very well when a lot is going on, so I tried to make it a very soft band. I have a cellist and a clarinet player and I play mostly acoustic guitar … so it’s very, very much the opposite of a [loud rock show].
VM: You mentioned that tonight is your last show on this tour. Any idea when you’ll start up again?
JH: Well, I’m doing another run by myself, which is obviously not as easy because everything falls to my own resources. I don’t have the tour bus, I don’t have the crew of ten people … which is why it’s so nice to tour with of Montreal because, sure, I’m a member of the band, and it’s all my equipment and my money in a way (at least a fifth of it), but at the same time I’m looking at it like I’m a new artist and I got an opportunity to play with a band like of Montreal. So you remove the obvious conflict of interest, and it makes things a whole lot easier [to look at].
But, that being said, the five or six of us will jump in a van and do a small club tour in March, and then of Montreal will [start touring again] in June, so I’m doing both worlds for the next few months. Then we have Dottie’s wedding, which we are all taking a month off for, and then ... who knows. Maybe we’ll play some festivals, or something.