DIY is not a spirit, it is not a sound, it is not a style... DIY is something that burns inside the musician or artist or writer. It is the fuel for the sleepless nights, it is the fuel for that project when the money gone and it feels that no one is listening. DIY equals passion. Of course, no one can do it completely on their own. No matter how solitary the process feels there is always a community out there waiting to help, to promote, and to share.
Independent Chicago musician James Eric knows the meaning of DIY and he understands the need for community. He also knows the meaning of the word perseverance. In 1996 he contracted a life-threatening bacterial infection called Blastomycosis which left him in the hospital for over two months. He eventually overcame the illness and became determined to acquire a sense of "self-evolution" ever since. It is that same passion and strength that James brings to his music, his performances, and his friendships.
Recently, James was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
Orange Alert (OA): You recently complied a Magnetic Fields Tribute album which features covers several independent musicians, and two incredible pieces of cover art. Why Magnetic Fields and how did you select the musicians that would appear on the album?
James Eric (JE): For the past year, I've wanted to compile a musical project that involved my friends and the Internet in some kind of collaborative process. Since I'm a huge fan of cover songs, I came up with a list of bands that I thought would be good to cover, but it always came back to The Magnetic Fields since they are my favorite band. I go back and forth between them and Wilco, but when you hear listen to any of their records, you are caught in a web of child-like playfulness combined with sardonic, cynical, yet heartfelt bruised romanticism that can speak to anyone that's dealt with the ups and downs of love. I think if you're going to make a record like 69 Love Songs, you're automatically going to be a hit with me because my favorite type of song is a love song. Stephen Merritt is right up there with guys like Roy Orbison and Leonard Cohen. I think the desire to create can stem from a desire to prolong or immortalize a feeling of closeness that you feel with a person so in essence - a song is an extension of unconditional love. Most of the musicians on the record are folks I've met at shows and have become friends with, but it was as easy as posting a MySpace bulletin and watching the buzz build gradually. Friends of friends were talking about it, and I got submissions from musicians that I've never heard before but grateful to have discovered. I thought that 21 Love Songs was a solid number to pin down as the final track listing. Even if I had to make a few cuts, I still post up any and all Magnetic Fields covers at CLLCT.com. The digital version can probably go on forever, but the CD version is set-in-stone, and I couldn't be more proud of the compilation. I hope people listen to it to discover some amazing new musicians, the same way i did.
OA: You seem to be a part of a small community of musicians, many of whom I have highlighted in the past (i.e. tinyfolk, Real Live Tigers, redbear., Dustin & The Furniture, etc), who all excel in producing quality DIY releases. What role did "new media" (i.e. myspace, CLLCT, blogs, youtube, etc) play in bring this group together? How has new media affected your career, and, in your opinion, independent music in general?
JE: It's definitely a six degrees of separation factor that has played into how I've stumbled into this wonderful group of people. Meeting Tony Presley (Real Live Tigers) in 2004 and witnessing his perseverance played a huge role in why I do what I do now. And then seeing what Pat (Redbear.) has done in the southwest suburbs of Illinois really added fuel to the fire. Through people like them, I've met a lot bands that have become some of my favorite live acts to see when they come through town. New media has a lot to do with the way we keep in touch for sure. But it has more to do with booking and playing shows with amazing musicians like the ones you've mentioned. We're all different types of musicians but with the same mindset that art shouldn't become a commodity and we do this for fun and probably for catharsis as well. The only time I think music should be sold is while on tour, to get you enough gas money to get to the next show and that's why the 001 Collective/CLLCT was erected to give fans and friends a place to download records for free. I haven't been able to tour as much as everyone else, but the fact is, because we're all so passionate about artistic expression, we've become close without living in the same city. And when you talk to these people and see not only how talented they are, but how nice and selfless they are, it gives you the impetus to keep going, but to give back to the community you're apart of as well. I honestly don't think anyone would've probably heard my songs if it wasn't for the MySpace revolution. But record labels like Plan-it-X have laid down the foundation about how to do things right when it comes to DIY tours and record releases. Message boards makes things easier for everyone to book tours, and YouTube has allowed video nerds like me to capture moments in live shows for archival purposes. I also started a podcast called Ear Drugs that does interviews with a lot of musicians I adore, but sometimes technology is faulty or I get too swamped to maintain a weekly show like I promised initially. Music blogs are essentially evolving into what Rolling Stone and MTV once was (sources to discover and read about new music). But I also feel that it's imperative that there is face-to-face interaction, especially if it's just once a year to support your friends when they come through town.
OA: Speaking of CLLCT, these sites allow you to release your music for free. What are your hopes when placing your music on these sites? Is it to gain a wider audience? Is it to share your passion with your friends? Is it to gain label recognition?
JE: It's definitely to gain a wider audience and to share records with friends more than anything else. I guess back in the heyday of grunge and being in a high school band, I had this idealized notion that being signed to a record label would be the ultimate goal, but over time, that doesn't seem necessary any more. I think with things like Last.FM, it's nice just knowing that people occasionally listen to my music on their IPODs rather than making a lot of money or hearing my song on the radio. It'd be nice to acquire management to help out with marketing, but there's a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment by doing things yourself. Luke (Secret Owl Society) came up with the 001 Collective/CLLCT, and did the design for the site, and I couldn't be happier with his efforts, and to be a part of this organization that is all about archiving and not about the dollar bill. I feel good knowing that it's easy to get a hold of a song or a cover of mine especially if I'm unable to visit their town any time soon. My role in all this is to provide good songs but more importantly, to get more exposure for my friends' music because they deserve to be heard more than myself :)
OA: I love DIY productions, I enjoy receiving the CD-R in the cardboard sleeve with a handmade image or carefully selected picture taped to the front. For me, it is what keeps music alive. Your products come through as more polished productions, but independent nonetheless. With the availability of resources like cd baby, paypal, itunes, etc., are record labels necessary?
JE: I would say that most of my future products probably won't be as polished as they once were. I still really believe in the 'album' but I'm also aware that most folks will probably just download a song or two of mine that they like and put in their IPOD more than anything. I use to go all out with packaging and utilizing CDBaby, but it's difficult to even afford a pressing of 100 professional discs. So I'm now relegated to plastic sleeves and homemade art copied at a printing press. There are some record labels out there who are catching up with the times and realizing that the digital revolution has changed the way people discover music. Those are the ones that will acquire longevity. Record labels might still be necessary for those who want to turn music into a full-fledged career. I'm not averse to that, but I'm also weary of fame and fortune. I'd rather make just enough money to get by, and rely on music as therapy to deal with a lot of the heavy thoughts that I deal with. I really do empathize with guys like Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson who struggle with self-esteem, mental instability and social anxiety. But they use music as an outlet to say things that aren't always easy to say and to deal with the demons that plague them. I think music should be emotionally confrontational at times, in addition to being an entertainment when performed live. Musicians have to make money on the road without question, so if a record label can help make booking a tour go more smoothly, then I'm all for their existence. Record labels have to meet a quota more often than not, but a lot of indie labels do put the artist first and roll with the times. Those are the ones that will prevail.
OA: What is the James Eric experience like live? Do you enjoy touring?
JE: I always enjoyed it when I'd see a band perform a song from their CD entirely different in a live setting. For right now, it's just me and a guitar with the occasional old-school Yahama keyboard thrown in for good measure. I think the sure-fire reason to come see me perform live, is that my singing is a lot stronger than it is on records. It's always fun to see how long I can hold notes, and when I tell the story of why I only have one lung, it's definitely interesting to watch a crowd react to the tale of my near-death experience which is chronicled in the song "Daddy Don't Cry," off my latest album. Ideally, I'd like to play with a violinist on occasion. I really do enjoy touring if I play mostly house shows. People are more responsive in someone's basement or garage rather than a coffeehouse or bar where it's easier to just ignore the music and let it serve as background noise. I'm worried about gas prices playing a factor in whether I can continue to tour, but with my schedule, I can only go on one 3-week tour, once a year.
OA: What's next for James Eric?
JE: I plan to play locally throughout most of the summer, and then hopefully go on a 2-week tour in the fall with Real Live Tigers from Chicago to the East Coast, possibly passing through Canada. After that and I say this every year, I'd like to take some time off from writing and recording until the spring of next year. I guess my biggest priority would be to get a three-piece band together when the holidays roll around to play through the catalog of songs I've built over the years because I have a good lot of strong songs. I'm of the opinion that I will always be writing new songs, but I'd like to hold off on recording them for awhile. I've put a lot into music that I feel it's also time to focus on helping friends, family, and going on long bike rides through forest preserves. I'd like to cook more, read, and keep myself healthy.
Sexyback (JT Cover)
OA: Coffee? If yes, what is your favorite type of coffee and where is your favorite coffee spot?
JE: I'll pretty much go to any diner to try a good cup of coffee. It's hard to choose just one so I'll cheat and say three all here in Chicago: Pick-Me-Up Cafe, Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, Inc, and Uncommon Ground.
OA: What was the last great book you have read?
JE: I go through phases where I read a lot, but then decide to watch a lot of movies instead. Over the winter I read about four great books in a row, but the most recent read that has really invaded my psyche is VALIS by Philip K. Dick. I'm really interested in books that dip into the "why" of everything, particularly with an existentialist viewpoint. I like his ideas because they're always trying to get to the bottom of nature, consciousness and divinity. I want to read every word that man has written because I love the feeling of having my brain blow up and seeing the world through a whole new light.
Upcoming Tour Dates:
Apr 5 2008 6:00P The Church Of Rock w/The Pharmacy, Arkansas, more TBA Western Springs, Illinois
Apr 8 2008 7:00P The Radish Patch w/ Jon Crocker + others! Chicago, Illinois
Apr 19 2008 7:00P House Show w/Morgan Orion, others?! Champaign, Illinois
Apr 20 2008 2:00P The Backyard Show w/ The GoodKnights, Toby Foster, Shotgun Clash, Justin Boerema Oak Lawn, Illinois
Apr 25 2008 7:00P House Show w/ Toby Foster, Redbear? Valparaiso, Indiana
Apr 26 2008 8:00P Andrew’s Basement Cleveland, Ohio
Apr 27 2008 8:00P The Lilypad Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
For more information of James Eric please visit his website, and to download many of his albums for free visit CLLCT.