Multi-talented indie rocker James William Roy could let his music speak for itself, but he doesn't. Active on Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook, he's ready to connect with his fans, and he's also been an interested, enthusiastic participant in the Rock Band Network community. When the Rock Band Network store opened back in March, one of the first songs available was "Paper Valentines" by James William Roy; he (and his track author and collaborator Markleford Friedman) followed up rapidly with "Shiny Dark Bar" in the first store update.
Carolyn VanEseltine (sometimes better known as HMXLachesis) interviewed this intrepid musician for the 'Zine. We're pleased to bring you his perspectives on music, songwriting, Markleford, and the Rock Band Network.
Carolyn VanEseltine: How would you describe your music to someone who hasn't heard it before?
James William Roy: It's Indie Rock, but sort of old school indie rock: not your "indie rock brigade with accordions and hurdy-gurdys from Canada" but more straight-ahead guitar based stuff. It's somewhere between '80s Minneapolis and '90s Northampton or Chapel Hill. A little Replacements, a little Bob Mould, a little New Radiant Storm King, a little Superchunk. Maybe a bit of a mid-fi Guided By Voices thing going on there, so I should give Dayton a shout-out, too.
CV: You sing, play guitar, and play bass in your songs on the Rock Band Network. Did you start out as a singer, or playing an instrument? Which comes more naturally to you?
JWR: I'm a bass player first; I'd been playing maybe eight years before I started seriously writing songs. I picked up guitar later, so I usually write with it first: it's easier for me to do a cool bass line to a simple guitar riff than trying to build guitar around the bass. I always sang, but I couldn't always do that while playing. I'm better at that now.
CV: Do you ever perform live?
JWR: I like being in a band. I've been in a lot of them. The whole "guy with a guitar" thing is pretty boring for me, on both sides of the mic, so I don't really like playing alone. I play bass and share vocals in A Bunch Of Girls, which isn't as poppy as my own work. We all like playing loud and heavy, and not everything I write on my own is a good fit for that. We do a really great, fast version of "Paper Valentines," but "Shiny Dark Bar" might be a little... I don't know, though. We might try it on our next show! We rock hard. If our drummer Jeremy got charted, he'd be "devils" all the way.
CV: How do you write your songs? Do you have any specific inspirations?
JWR: The songs that I write, or that I finish writing anyway, start out with at least a verse and a chorus worth of lyrics done right away. I'll have some idea that will come to me while I'm out on my skates or riding a subway or at work, and if I can just get that down on paper or hum it into my cellphone or something, then I can usually finish it out. I'll sketch out the basic parts on a little digital eight track later on, and then go back and forth between working on parts until they fit. I try to work quickly: if I don't finish a song in an afternoon I'm in trouble, because I'll lose steam and lose interest. I like writing songs with a twist, that sound a lot more positive than they actually are. Like bubblegum with a jawbreaker in the middle, or one of those pretty drinks that tastes like a milkshake but makes you pass out on the bathroom floor after your second one.
CV: What brands of guitar and bass are you using? How did you choose your instruments?
JWR: My usual guitar is a '64 or '65 Sears Silvertone. You used to be able to get them cheap, and they sound really bright and sharp. I record with a little mid-sixties Danelectro bass: it sounds really good, but it's a short scale and a pain in the butt to get in tune. I've got a Dano acoustic, too. The first one I got because it was cheap back in '94. The others weren't so cheap, but my wife got them for me as gifts. I'm lucky like that.
When I play out, I use the same '87 Fender Jazz Bass Special that I bought new when I graduated high school, so now you know how old I am. I play that through an early '70s Ampeg B-15N.
CV: Rock Band tracks for "Paper Valentines" and "Shiny Dark Bar" were authored by Markleford, who also played drums and handled production for these songs. Have you two known each other long? How did you meet?
JWR: We met on the internet a few years ago, through mutual friends, many of whom I'd met on the internet. (Look at us, we're living in the future!) We hit it off: we've both got a kind of dry humor about the whole music thing, and we both work jobs and are married and have cats. He came to see A Bunch Of Girls when we played Boston, and then after that, we started working together with my songs: he's really good at taking my raw, slapdash writing and production and getting me to make something of it.
His drum work is far better than what I can do on my drum machine, and he has a great ear for what can make a song develop better. "Paper Valentines," for instance, would not have the guitar solo at all, if he hadn't kicked my butt until I put it in. The song's way better with that solo than the way it was. He's totally my biggest and best fan: he'd have to be, nobody'd ever do all the things he does without really believing in the music.
CV: Right now, 39 of your songs can be downloaded free of charge from your website. That's a lot of music! What inspired you to make these songs available for free?
JWR: Yep, and that's not even counting the stuff from my old bands!
I'd love to have a proper CD, or even vinyl, but I can't justify pressing records. It's too expensive unless you plan on touring - and I work a full time job, so it's not practical. The real issue is promotion: either you need someone getting your music out there where people can hear it, or you need to bring it yourself. So rather than have a bunch of boxes of CDs that nobody knows about cluttering up my apartment, I'd rather have my music up on The James Rocket for free where people can hear it, and share it. I figure if someone like Markleford can decide my music's good enough to sweat over it, (and he does sweat over it!) maybe someone can decide it's good enough to blog about it and spread the word. Maybe someone will decide it's good enough to put out a CD after all.
CV: How did you find out about the Rock Band Network?
Markleford heard about it, and immediately signed up. (He was already working on cleaning up some of my songs for the Paper Valentines EP.) He told me about it, and I said why not, and totally forgot about it. All of a sudden he's sending me a video of the rough draft for "Paper Valentines." Blew my mind.
CV: Why did you pick "Paper Valentines" and "Shiny Dark Bar" for the Rock Band Network?
JWR: I think the iPod, and the Walkman before it, have a lot to answer for. I don't like how solitary music is now. Music should be shared! You shouldn't have to be all alone with it. So what excites me most about Rock Band overall is the idea of four friends, or even more if you have a party going, sharing a song together - banging away at it, and singing it together. We thought that "Paper Valentines" would be a great yo-ho-ho fun song for a bunch of friends to get together and play. Besides, it's pretty much my best pop song, so we'd given it the best production overall.
"Shiny Dark Bar" was the next song in line that we'd given what I'll call the Full Frontal Markleford Treatment, so in terms of keeping quality on par with "The Pape" it made sense. But also I like that it's a little off-kilter as a song. I like that it tells a story, not so much in the lyric but in the arrangement, it starts out isolated and alone and then turns into a big old party with your friends. The more I think of it, it's a pretty unique song. I'm pretty sure there's nothing like it on Rock Band. I'm pretty sure there's nothing like it on your iPod. I don't think I'm being too cocky in saying that.
CV: Are you planning to release any more songs on the Rock Band Network? If so, which ones?
JWR: Yep! We've got a few on the short list: a couple songs from The James Rocket, like "Summer Calendar"; a couple from the Paper Valentines EP on Amie Street. We'd like to do "The Clothes Make The Man." And there's some totally new songs that I haven't released at all yet, and they're in the running. [ed. note: All songs are available to listen to at TheJamesRocket.com.]
CV: Have you tried playing your own songs on Rock Band?
JWR: Nope! Markleford doesn't want me to start playing: he wants me writing songs. I mean, seriously, you got Apples in Stereo, you got Kristin Hersh, you got New Pornographers, Pixies, Dinosaur, the DKs! You got Lady Gaga, heck, I'd never leave my room.
CV: Do you have any advice to share with up-and-coming musicians?
JWR: Tour, do it cheaply and do it constantly. Look at how Mike Watt does things.
Don't use credit cards, because once you owe, you get stuck having to have a job and you won't be able to tour.
Do as much on your own as you can: you have more recording power on your laptop than most musicians in the '60s did in full-blown recording studios. Don't go into a big studio unless someone else is paying the bill.
Put out a good song recorded poorly before wasting money on recording a crap song well.
Every year that I think of myself as a successful musician, is every year that I don't quit.
CV: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the Rock Band community?
JWR: It is beyond awesome to know that there's a few hundred people out there, right now, who have learned the lyrics to songs I wrote, and can sing them. There are people who have learned songs I wrote well enough to play the charts along with them perfectly. That's wild! That's a whole different level of involvement with the music than downloading an mp3 and forgetting it forever on your hard drive. That's a few hundred people who have those songs in their heads somewhere forever, even if they don't listen to a single other song I wrote. (Which would suck, but you know what I mean.)
There's some bands, and a whole lot of music writers out there, who are pretty snobby about Rock Band. You know the ones: they're all, "eww, plastic guitars." They need you people to change their minds for them.
Show them that there's something new and cool happening here: get Rock Band out of the den, do parties around it, replace karaoke nights with Rock Band nights. Get this thing seen, so people outside of the regular gaming community can get a taste of it.
It's cool to be part of this at the start. It'll be awesome to see where the rest of you can take it.
After speaking with us, James wrote a song on the fly that he wanted to share with the Rock Band community - "My Bartender's Boyfriend." It's a fun narrative song that provides a good look at his raw lyrical and musical inspiration, and it's available at TheJamesRocket.com.