I’ve often referred to the “musical blender” when attempting to disentangle genres and sounds from artists who seem hell bent on creating a storm of their influences. You can toss pretty much anything into the proverbial musical appliance; sometimes the results are little more than pulp, and other times they’re messy beyond all reason.
Sometimes what gets ground up and churned out is just as good, and perhaps even better, than what went in.
The 2015 rerelease of the album PEAR, courtesy of Burger records, is the latter variety. The blades are kept sharp for a recipe that borders on overflowing.
Seventies coke-fueled electro pop? Check. A healthy dose of P-Funk style bass whallops and groove? Toss it in. Hit blend.
There are also elements of R&B leanings, synth-fed glam, psychedelic squabbles, and sounds that seem like the ghost of Freddie Mercury is twisting its way through the madness.
If all of this sounds like some overtly schizophrenic, deranged-pop clusterfunk, then you’re right on the money. But that’s what makes PEAR so damn good.
So what kind of bull-goose loony, basement-dwelling mad-scientist, you might ask, is responsible for such a beautiful mess?
The many frenetic voices and seemingly endless layers coalesce inside the brain of Danny James. He’s the mastermind behind the album, along with his band Etc.
But he’s also far from an isolated neurotic. James stakes his visions on the harmony and feedback of the artists he both respects and works with.
“I think you need to be able to bounce ideas off a network of cats,” James tells BTR.
“Even some very talented people who seem like they are in isolation are actually surrounded by a bunch of luminaries. I look for those people; that’s how the band is now. It’s people that are better than me.”
His penchant for excellence is a byproduct of a family where cultivating unreachable musical boundaries has always been the norm. The experience was growing up with a “gang of weirdos,” as James puts it, where he quickly understood everyone was better than him. They were hyper ambitious, but not in a financial sense.
More so, the sentiment of competitive creation was always at stake.
“I can draw better than you!”
“I can sing better than you!”
“Get the hell out of here!”
Words like these spoken by a loved one might deliver the lasting haunt of trauma for some, but for James this kind of artistic comeuppance was exactly what the songwriter needed to excel. Sure, such put-downs probably aren’t the best route of encouragement to employ on a societal level, but they can be a good catalyst for creativity in certain personal spheres.
While citing his development as a musician, James tips the hat nearly clean off his head for his brother Michael Louis.
“He’s a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination,” James says.
“It sounds funny, but he can do things that he doesn’t do. We have a lot of other musicians on the record, but they’re through the filter of his arrangements. I did four of the tracks by myself, but only because he was too busy playing with Stevie Wonder, Lena Hathaway, and playing hip-hop cruises around the world.”
No joke. In the liner notes for PEAR, Louis is credited with guitar, bass, keys, backing vocals, percussion, and drums. He also arranged and produced eight of the 11 songs on the album.
The concept and writing, however, are all James. Following the disbandment of his garage-rock group The Cults, James and songwriting partner/rhythm guitar player Mike “General Luau” decided to embark on a project decidedly less restrictive. Like a computer or artificial intelligence, James explains, when a band becomes too self-aware it’s time to call it quits.
The new idea started off as a play on words, a pair because there were only two of them. However the duo soon realized that the songs were becoming too ambitious for two people, so they needed another double entendre. Before they knew it, the ensemble had expanded to include six, and sometimes seven, members.
“It started off with us saying, ‘let’s be a band with two cats who carry newspapers under their arms and pork pie hats,’” laughs James. “But it couldn’t work. We didn’t want it to be some yacht rock, Depression, KISS thing.”
Truth be told, a lot of what got tossed into the blender that cranked out PEAR was music the duo loved that most people thought to be square before the revival of record collecting. James cites The Beach Boys as a prime example. People didn’t think they were hip in the late ‘90s; if The Beach Boys were your favorite band you were still an outsider.
So how can anything not be hip now?
“If you’re not thinking for yourself and you’re a schmuck, you’re probably not hip,” reasons James. “But that’s the way it’s always been.”
James and Etc. are gearing up to hit the studio sometime later this year, with another release on the way.
To hear the rest of our interview with Danny James, tune into this week’s episode of Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the music for yourself by clicking here.