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James Arthur is a Terminal Boredom favorite for good reason: his guitar playing has appeared on so many solid garage-punk records the list is seemingly endless. He's has had a knack for finding himself in the right place at the right time. After moving from his home state of Texas to Los Angeles—where he helped form the Necessary Evils with Steve Pallow—Arthur landed in Memphis in the early '00s, backing Jeffrey Evans and Jay Reatard. It was in Memphis where Arthur formed the New Memphis Legs with Eric Friedl. A move back to Texas a couple years later found James drumming for Austin favorites the Golden Boys; he also formed Hook or Crook Records with Chris Owen in 2005. At the behest of Australian Richard Stanley, Arthur released his first solo effort, Manhunt (2010). To those paying attention, Arthur's Hawkwind-influenced space rock debut was one of the best albums of the year. James assembled a band around the record, and singles on In the Red, Perpetrator and Spacecase followed.
James: It was what it was. TB: East Texas couldn't have been all that inspiring.
James: Actually it was great when I was a kid. I was like Tom Sawyer, running around the woods without any shoes on. Fishing. It didn't start getting bad until I got older. I was living in an isolated rural area. Once I started getting into things that were outside of the norm, that's when the problems started. I was into skateboarding and punk rock. That shit didn't fly out there in the '80s. TB: When did you start playing guitar?
James: I started playing in East Texas. I can't remember where I got my first guitar, but I bought my first amp from a used car lot. I was fourteen. It was a Crate amp. Like all kids, I'd play along to records in my room. I didn't take any lessons. I skated and smoked a lot of weed. Drank booze. When I was sixteen, my folks moved to Denton. That was cool. There was a music scene there. Denton was close to Dallas, so you could see punk shows in Dallas. You could ride your skateboard in Denton and not get the shit kicked out of you. That would happen in East Texas. This was also back when that "Satanic panic" thing was going on. Geraldo was running specials on Satanism. In East Texas, we got accused of being devil worshippers. It was not a good place for a teenager. TB: Dallas had the Clown Ramp.
James: When I first moved to Denton, the Clown Ramp was still in Dallas and Jeff Phillips was alive. We'd skate the Clown Ramp. Before we moved to Denton, we'd skate ramps in East Texas. I actually had a ramp at my house that I built. There was a legendary vert ramp called the Noonday Onion Ramp that was just outside of Tyler. It was metal and looked like a battleship, with two feet of vert. Ridiculous. We mostly skated ramps because the ground was really soft black tar. TB: You caught the tail end of the mid-to-late '80s vert boom.
James: Yeah. I was basically getting my brain fed through Thrasher. Thrasher helped get me into music. I was also trading tapes with people. TB: I had always assumed Darin Lin Wood helped get you into different types of music.
James: I met Darin when I was seventeen, just after I moved to Denton. He turned me on to a lot of cool shit. I was already going down that path though. I was collecting records by then. I was listening to a lot of generic punk rock — the stuff everyone listens to. TB: Sire Records-type stuff?
James: Mystic Records, baby (laughs). A lot of Bad Brains, Misfits and Minor Threat. When I moved to Denton, my folks had this house two doors down from this used books and record store. I used to steal a lot of records from there. If a record looked interesting, I'd take it. I remember stealing that MC5 live record and thinking it was the biggest hippy piece-of-shit album. I was sixteen. I later got over that. I started getting into rockabilly and old blues. I saw the Cramps with the Flat Duo Jets in 1990. It was fucking amazing. Everything changed for me. I was used to going to punk rock shows and getting into fights. I actually watched the Cramps and the Flat Duo Jets and they blew my mind. I was hanging out with Darin Lin Wood—this was before Fireworks. He was "older" — twenty-five or twenty-six. He had been to New York and done all that shit: Black Snakes and Cop Shoot Cop. He was such a record geek. I was too. We'd party and listen to records. For whatever reason, he wanted me to be in Fireworks. Prior to Fireworks, Darin had this band called the Red Devils. They were kind of cool at first. But then they tried to be this clean rockabilly band, which was ridiculous. TB: Was Chris Merlick in Fireworks before you joined the band?
James: Yeah. Chris and Darin has been doing some stuff. Darin was even playing with Rhett Miller from the Old 97's for a little while. Fireworks used to practice at Rhett Miller's house, which was super weird. That guy is like a fucking pop star now. That was where the first Fireworks practices took place. TB:This would have been around '93?
James: Probably a couple of years earlier. I think that first record ('Set the World on Fire') came out in '93. I graduated high school in '91. Darin and Janet (Walker) showed up to my graduation. I remember hanging out with them that night because I didn't have any friends at school — all of my friends were older or had dropped out — and I had made it a point to finish high school because it was so fucking easy to do. We were undoubtedly drinking whisky and listening to rockabilly records that night. I remember going to a party with them.
TB: Fireworks cut 'Set the World on Fire' at Easley's studio and Darin was playing with Jeffrey (Evans) in '68 Comeback. Were you guys effectively based out of Memphis for periods of time?
James: We were going back and forth from Dallas to Memphis a lot. I can't recall when the whole Memphis thing started; it's sort of the chicken or the egg scenario. '68 was happening around the time that Fireworks started. Blacktop formed a little later. My ex-wife (D'lana Tunnell) was doing stuff with Mike McCarthy in Memphis as well. TB: What do you recall about recording 'Set the World on Fire'? Jeff Evans was involved, correct?
James: Jeff was there, twiddling some knobs. Doug Easley and Davis McCain were there. My ex-wife rear-ended Davis' car. We went out to Green's Lounge — a twenty-four hour juke joint — and partied all night with Tim Warren. I got my wallet stolen by some chick I was dancing with. It was strange. Darin wanted the record to sound like shit: "I want this record to sound like we recorded it in a garage." Although I had never been in a recording studio before and didn't know shit, I remember thinking, "Why do you want it to sound like that? We're in a studio." TB: That recording is pretty shitty sounding.
James: (laughs) Yeah. TB: There's a four-year gap between the first Fireworks record and the second one ('Lit Up', 1997). Was Fireworks always an ongoing concern during that period?
James: We never took breaks or anything. Darin and Janet would get fucked up, and they were doing stuff with other bands. It seemed like we were a pretty solid unit for about three years. By the time of the last record ('Lit Up'), we had already disbanded. I think Darin was in jail. TB: 'Lit Up' is great. That record died on the vine which is a real shame.
James: Larry (Hardy) was supposed to put it out (on In the Red). TB: Larry and I talked about 'Lit Up' recently. That's one he wished he put out.
James: It had nothing to do with Larry. It had to do with Darin Wood and his obsession with money for his daily needs. The label (Last Beat) that put it out in Dallas — I mean, nice people — but what a shitty label. I was in California and they flew me back out to Dallas to help master and sequence it with some guy. I was totally spun out. I had been up for a while and then I got on a plane to Dallas. I was out of my gourd in a recording studio. TB: I look back on your catalog and I think that's one of the best records you played on.
James: It's a great record. My favorite songs are the ones I didn't even play on. TB: Merlick plays guitar on that great Suicide cover ("Be Bop Kid").
James: That originally appeared on a Suicide tribute record. Some bigger bands, like Mudhoney and the Flaming Lips, were on it. That's always weird when that happens. TB: How did you make it out to Los Angeles?
James: Fireworks and The Beguiled were friends. We toured Europe together for Crypt. I got to know Steve (Pallow). Darin was in Blacktop and they were having all of these problems; it looked like Fireworks was coming to an end. I kept in touch with Steve throughout that period. I ended up riding with the Cheater Slicks for a tour. We were in their van, listening to these tapes Steve Pallow gave them. They were tapes of a band he had called the Black Panthers. Steve was living in Long Beach then. I just rode around with the Slicks in that fucked up van they had and we'd jam Steve's tapes. We fucking loved them.
Steve and I talked on the phone regularly and we had decided to play together. Larry (Hardy) facilitated the move; he bought my plane ticket to L.A. When I got there we tried to start a band. We looked for drummers. Steve knew some people but they kind of sucked. I found Kyle (John Hall) through Craig Jackman, the guy who was tattooing me. I hit him up for a drummer; he said he knew a guy: Kyle. When I first saw Kyle I thought, "Oh fuck. This dude looks so L.A." But he ended up being a really good friend. Kyle's a great guy. So we had found our drummer. I was going back and forth between L.A. and Texas. I had work in Texas. I was doing a lot of drugs. It was a weird time. TB: You guys were running wild in Burbank.
James: (laughs) We all ended up in Burbank. We were going ape shit in Burbank, of all places. TB: A lot of rock bands put out hyperbolic press releases about how insane they are. Necessary Evils were the real deal. Luckily no one died. Then Jimmy joined...
James: (laughs) Then Jimmy got involved! Had he been born five hundred years ago, Jimmy would have been a god-king.
TB: There was that first show in San Francisco with Jimmy.
James: Jimmy head butted some motherfucker! We didn't even play the show. We were supposed to play the Kilowatt. We were parked in the middle of the street and the people at the club said, "Don't even bother coming in. You're too late." We were piled in this '77 Pontiac Phoenix. We were drinking in the car, thinking of something to do. We eventually went to a bar, some nonsense happens, and Jimmy head butts some dude. Jimmy just completely drops him. I had never seen anything like that before. I thought, "Man, this guy is good." I'm sure we could have been a better band had we not been so fucked up. It was what it was. TB: Larry has mentioned to me a few times how proud he is to have released those Necessary Evils records.
James: I love Larry. He was just a fan of music. He likes cool stuff. The fact that somebody was that into what we were doing was amazing. There wasn't a lot of money involved, but he helped us out in a lot of other ways. Hell, Steve and Lisa lived in that guest house he had for a while. He had to deal with that. TB: And then Jimmy got the guest house.
James: Then Jimmy took it over. Larry got me out to Los Angeles. Money was and never has been a thing for me, at least with music. We played fucked up music. I never expected to make money off of it and I really didn't give a shit. It'd be cool if one of my songs was used for something and I could make a few grand. But I just don't give a fuck. And like I said, Larry provided the help necessary to get us going. We were the ones who dropped the ball. We were a train wreck. TB: Kyle fell out of a window.
James: He did. Kyle ended up breaking both of his heels. That last record we did ('The Sicko Inside Me') — he was playing in a wheelchair. We fashioned up these shoes for him. He had this bench next to his drum set with a pack of Reds and OxyContin on it. You wouldn't know it from hearing the record. Kyle's a badass drummer. TB: When you left L.A. and moved to Memphis, were the Necessary Evils still going?
James: No. There was talk of keeping the band going. I think I might have gone back to L.A. a couple of times. But we were all pretty fucked up — some worse than others. By the time I moved to Memphis, the band was effectively done. Kyle was in Oregon and I was in Memphis. TB: What was playing with Jay in the Reatards like? He couldn't have been more than nineteen.
James: Jay was young as fuck. When I first moved to Memphis, I didn't like Jay. The first time I met him, I thought he was a little fucker. A few weeks later we were hanging out regularly (laughs). I realized Jay ruled. He was really going for it. I played briefly with the Reatards. We recorded some stuff. I don't know what happened to those recordings. TB: Was (Ryan) Rousseau still on drums?
James: No. Rich Crook. It was me, Rich and Jay. Ryan had already moved out of Memphis by then. We'd party together a lot. Jay would get crazy. Memphis was — and probably still is — a place where everyone would play together. I did my little stint with the Reatards. I remember when we were doing those recordings there was like three inches of water on the floor. I smashed my guitar on one of Rich's cymbals and broke it. I don't recall why I stopped playing with the Reatards. I'm not sure if it even matters. Hell, did I even play with the Reatards? A billion people went through that band. TB: How did CC Riders get going?
James: I don't remember the progression, but I had been hitting Jeff (Evans) up for years to play in a band with him. I was drunk one night at the Bucc and said to Jeff, "Man, you and I have to start a band." Jay and Alicja joined in. It was fun. I was doing New Memphis Legs with Eric (Friedl) at the same time. I was in another band called the Royal Dragons with Nick (Diablo) from American Death Ray and Jeff Bouck. TB: You played on some American Death Ray stuff, right?
James: Yeah. I was just constantly playing music with people in Memphis. I was working some shitty job. At night I'd play music. It was like a dream world. TB: Oddly enough, all of those records you played on — like CC Riders and New Memphis Legs — came out long after you left Memphis.
James: (Laughs) They did. I did a record with Walter Daniels too that Jeff (Evans) recorded. TB: I love Jeff Evans. What was playing and recording with him like?
James: Awesome. It was Jeff! Beautiful chaos. You never knew what he was going to do live. It's funny — he'd make these elaborate set lists and then change everything on stage. Hell, I couldn't understand what he was saying half the time: (affects Southern accent) "C'mon now! Let's get going!" TB: You moved to Dallas with your ex-wife because of the lighting business you two were doing, correct?
James: Yeah. We started the business in Memphis. She also had family in East Texas. We moved to Dallas. We were trying to build the business. I went to school again for a while. I did Feast of Snakes. I also played in the Signals — a band no one has heard of. TB: John Wesley Coleman told me about the Signals. He said you guys were great. There was a synth player, right?
James: Yeah. Keyboard, guitar and drums. The Signals were a really good band. The Signals' keyboard player, Sean Kirkpatrick, is in a band called Nervous Curtains. Sean's played with Spoon and the Swans. Sean writes great songs. John Congleton produced our (unreleased) record. He won a fucking Grammy last year for a St. Vincent record. We did a full-blown record and then — poof. We were done. We were all so fucked up. It wasn't in the cards. We recorded in Carrollton, Texas, at the studio King Diamond records at. It was ridiculous.
TB: Working off an $80,000 mixing board?
James: I can't tell you. We weren't paying for it (laughs)! Bro deal. So Dallas — Feast of Snakes did one record on In the Red. I'm not sure if Larry distro'd it. That record is insane. We recorded it in Denton, at Bryan (Schmitz) and Lyle Darrin's house. We partied hard. "What? We need a song?" I'd be in the car on the way to record and come up with one before we got there. TB: (laughs) That's wild.
James: (laughs) That's my motherfucking craft. TB: The way I understand it, the Golden Boys formed as a result of you hiring people for your lightshade company — your employees went on to play in the band.
James: Pretty much. We moved to Spring Branch, Texas. It's not really a town; it's sort of an area. We had the business and we were always looking for dudes to work for us. Schmitz came down from Dallas and worked for me. I still play with Bryan in Manhunt. Wes (John Wesley Coleman) ended up coming down. (Matt) Hoopengardner ended up at my place. I thought he was the biggest fucking douchebag. I put him to work. We got to know each other and I found out Hoopengardner was all right. Wes would come down for a little while and then leave. Bryan would be there for months. But then Bryan moved to Austin. At some point, the Golden Boys was just me and Matt. But we were always jamming. Jeff Bouck would come down. Lyle Darrin would come down. We'd work all day, drink all night and play. Living in the middle of nowhere, we could play loud. Matt and I couldn't find a drummer, so I taught myself how to play drums. It got to where Matt was writing songs, and I was just playing drums. Matt really embraced that. He bought a trailer and lived on these people's land. We were partying with these rednecks, drinking whisky and playing music. TB: That sounds like a good time.
James: It was a really good time. Wes started working for me more, so we got him in the fold. Bryan came back. Nay Nay (Arbietman) got shit on us. The Golden Boys toured and we put out a record. Hook or Crook got started. TB: Did you and Chris Owen start Hook or Crook to release the Golden Boys CD?
James: Me and Chris started the label specifically to release Golden Boys and Killer's Kiss records. Those were our bands. It turned out to be more than that. It actually turned into a job, and I already had a job. TB: You also had the misfortune of putting out CDs when they were on the decline.
James: Yeah (laughs)! So fucking dumb. Fuck it. I was at Trailer Space the other day and there was a stack of those Golden Boys CDs ('Scorpion Stomp #2') with a sticker that read "free" above them (laughs). TB: I've got thirty of those at my house! No joke. Wes just gave them to me.
James: Oh yeah! TB: You recorded and released that great Demon's Claws record. You and Chris were really going at it for a while.
James: We did. Well, Chris Owen is a business man. Before recording that Demon's Claws record, we ate a bunch of mushrooms. We then took them to a giant tunnel to record. TB: You were losing money like it was going out of style. And you were ahead of your time. People are into The Rebel records right now!
James: All of these fucking young dudes I work with tell me, "Oh, yeah, Ben Wallers' a fucking genius." I tell them, "Oh, yeah, I put out one of his first records." We were releasing CDs of shit people weren't ready for or didn't care about. What a fucking business model!
TB: Talk about touring with the Golden Boys.
James: The Golden Boys bought a van. I wrote it off via the business. We did some tours. TB: Wes fell out of the back of the van while someone was driving it?
James: Wes fell out of the van. We beat up Nay Nay a couple of times. TB: You left Hook or Crook. But Chris kept the label going, right?
James: Chris kept doing it for a while after I left. I quit the Golden Boys. I went to rehab. Adopted a kid. I stopped playing music. I tried to start again. I got sober and I think during that period I was still doing Hook or Crook. We did a South By Southwest showcase with Ben Wallers, Haunted George, Cheater Slicks and the Golden Boys. It was a pretty fucking epic show. Pat Troxell, who's in Creepoid now, was playing drums for the Golden Boys. I remember he punched Spot (from Trailer Space) in the face that night. It was an epic night. I was drinking Red Bull on tap and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. I played with the Golden Boys for a while again but realized I couldn't do it. I stopped playing music for the most part. I was recording at home. TB: That's what lead to Manhunt.
James: Yeah. Steve Pallow was doing a movie that he wanted me to do some music for. I was doing all this weird shit. Steve would send me these clips from his movie. It was some strange shit. I mean, it's Steve. There was footage of him running around the desert with a goat head on. TB: Doesn't he live in Mojave?
James: Steve and Lisa live above Victorville. TB: So Steve was sort of sending you dailies of the film as he was working on it?
James: It was something like that. So all of that music was geared toward being a soundtrack. It was more atmospheric — not necessarily rock. It was cool though. I was out there by myself in Spring Branch. I didn't have shit to do except go nuts and make noise. Steve's movie didn't end up panning out. I don't recall what happened with it. Richard Stanley — from the Ooga Boogas, the Onyas and Aarght Records — he'd come visit us whenever he was in the States. I played him some of the stuff I was recording for Steve's film. Richard said, "You need to put this out." I gathered twenty or thirty tracks and sent them to Mikey (Young). He sort of pieced that record together which was cool because his ideas were better than mine. TB: So Mikey effectively edited and sequenced it?
James: Yeah. I sent him the tracks and told him, "Pick the songs you want to use." There was some interaction though. TB: You got Tom Potter to play on the record.
James: Tom played on a couple of songs. He was in town so I definitely wanted to record with him. We did those recordings with Tom in Bryan Schmitz's garage. Every once in a while a train would blow by and we'd have to wait for it to pass to record again. Bruce Saltmarsh was in town. He played drums on a couple of tracks. But I played most of the instruments on the record. I also recorded a lot of it myself. Aarght eventually put it out. We did an Australian tour. After that I put a band together. TB: You did a single on In the Red.
James: Got a single on In the Red, a couple of Italian singles and a New Zealand one. We did Goner Fest. TB: You were building some momentum. And then it dropped off.
James: Well my personal life went to hell. I got divorced. I've moved six or seven times in the last couple of years. TB: You were the unofficial mayor of San Antonio for a while.
James: San Antonio. I was down there for a little while. I wasn't playing tunes down there. I was living hard. TB: You didn't do anything for a couple of years.
James: No. My brain was fucked. I had to sell all my gear and motorcycles. I sold over a thousand records. All the cool shit went away. TB: You moved to Austin recently and have been really active. I know you just recorded with Stuart Sikes.
James: Yeah. TB: So it looks like that record on 12XU is finally going to happen.
James: Yeah. But it's like everything is just chaos. Always. I'm dealing with trying to survive and still play music. It's all me and I don't have anyone to lean on. It's hard sometimes. It used to be easier when I was financially more secure. We're all older. Orville (Neeley) is touring all the time. Everyone else has babies and wives. I always run into the problem of booking too many shows that we can't do. That's kind of where I'm at right now. I want to start playing more. But it's all about surviving. TB: What's on the horizon?
James: I'm supposed to go to Australia in October. Apparently me and Jack O are supposed to do a tour down there. I've got to map that out.
"MannTT" 7" (Perpetrator - 2009)
"My Gawd!" 7" (Goodbye Boozy - 2009)
'Manhunt" LP (Aarght! - 2010)
"It's Working" 7" (In the Red - 2011)
split 7" w/Alicja Trout (Spacesase - 2012)
V/A 'Bring Beer' comp LP (12XU - 2012)
Manhunt live at Gonerfest here.Photos by Mor Fleisher-Leach
Interview by Ryan Leach, 2015. To read other TB interviews, go here.
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