What can I say besides looking at the amount of hair on this album cover…I knew I’d be having a good conversation with James with plenty in common between us to talk about; and I wasn’t wrong! I’ve always imagined what it would have been like to have been obviously talented at an early age, like James here or even Daniel Johns from Silverchair back in the day…would I have felt now that I missed out on something then by being caught up in a whirlwind of success? Or would I have loved every single minute and moment. I like to think I would have.
But I can’t answer any of that from actual “life experience” – however James can. He not only found success at an early age with a record deal in his teenage years but he also had the courage to walk away when it was time to choose the music before anything else.
He strikes me as the “travellin” type – the quintessential musician who roams from city to city calling his hat his home wherever that might be. But again, if I had to judge from simply the album cover alone…look at that guitar! And the hair! And the hat! Wherever he travels to…I hope it’s close enough for us to check it out. James Lire is the real deal – authentic through and through. He took time with the answers and it shows on the page with a completely entertaining interview. He even took me right back to music school with a hard lesson in Led Zeppelin and a fact I should have known! As much as I’d like to – I can’t get it 100% right ALL the time and it’s through these experiences with musicians like James that remind me I am but a humble listener and observer…artists like James are so immersed in their craft that they truly know all the details within it.
It has been an honour getting to know James and learn about the life that he has led. For still being a young guy, he has lived a tremendous amount of life and he’s more than willing to share these experiences and insights with you all through this interview.
Interview with James Lire of James Lire & The Crazies
SBS: James you’ve had a more than impressive “childhood.” At only 18 years old you already had a CD in reputable stores like HMV after rapidly both picking up and learning the guitar from when you were only 16 years old. That my friend…is an incredible and QUICK journey…and I’ve got questions about it! Something like that experience can really take a boy and make him a man – maybe even faster than what the natural progression towards that time should be…know what I mean? I guess I’m wondering if being involved with the industry at that early age catapulted you from the playground at school into being an adult with a music career. Do you feel like you missed out on anything growing up or did you simply just lead a different life than most?
James: I definitely don’t feel like I missed out on anything. Some of the best memories of my teenage years are playing in that band. Things definitely progressed very quickly and I think it’s because we did everything ourselves, we didn’t try to get signed and wait for someone else to do it. I remember very shortly after I had picked up guitar, my younger brother started to learn keyboards and we immediately started writing stuff together. Before we really even knew our instruments we found a drummer and started jamming in his garage. I remember from about a month in we were already working on figuring out how to record it, we started off with an old school tape recorder and a cheap microphone hanging from the rafters of the garage. As the band progressed we used the band funds and chipped in to buy a digital recorder. We had no idea how to use it, but we learned by trial and error. We recorded, mixed, mastered and designed the whole thing ourselves and then went out and got it into HMV’s across Canada. It was a quick journey and probably a little quicker progression than some people make but it was something I was passionate about and something we all worked really hard for.
SBS: Now…not so long from this point in your life, you’re going to leave Saskatchewan and move to Toronto… I understand why you moved away from your small town scenario and towards the big city – but what I feel like I’m missing from the bio and notes I have here is this: What WAS the reaction to that first CD being put out? I have to believe that perhaps it wasn’t all that you expected, given that you would have moved on in two senses; not just city, but to a full official band as well. What are the missing pieces of this puzzle James? I feel like there’s more to the story of your leaving than I’ve read so far…
James: It actually had nothing to do with that. I loved that band and I’m still very proud of what we accomplished. After we released the album we did a Western Canadian tour and it was one of the best times of my life. That band wasn’t about making money or being successful it was about having a great time making music, so it was everything I had expected. But I knew that if wanted to improve as a musician my best opportunity was getting out of there. There’s just so much more potential somewhere like Toronto. Although I love the town and everybody in it, it’s such an amazing place; my plan was never to stay.
SBS: You were from a small town – then all of a sudden you find yourself in Toronto, the city in Canada where EVERYTHING happens; the ONE stop on “North American Tours” when bands can only hit one city. A lot of people, including myself, don’t or wouldn’t understand the adjustment that takes – you know, going from quiet small rural towns to a nearly 24 hour city. Describe if you can some of those first moments when you were taking it all in. How BIG did that place seem in comparison to where you were from? Did it feel like home? Did you know right away that you would find what you were searching for there?
James: That was definitely the most difficult transition I’ve ever had to make in my life. I spent my whole life in that small town of about 4,500 and I’d never even been to Ontario before. When I moved down I didn’t know a single person here, so it was pretty overwhelming. It definitely did not feel like home when I got here, there was such a huge mix of emotions; excitement, fear, curiosity but also happiness that I was finally in the big city. I’ll never forget the first night I went downtown, just standing in Dundas Square consumed by all the lights and all the people. I was awestruck, it was something I had never experienced before and everybody was just walking around like it was nothing! It took some getting used to say the least. That’s actually what the lyrics from the song “The Tourist” off the album were written about.
SBS: So…at this point in your life, the present day where we’re meeting you now…you’ve taken on a band and you’re calling yourself James Lire & The Crazies. Well….shit man! How’s being in a full band?
Tell us about these creative players you’re making music with and how being in a full band has helped expand your own musical horizons. Are there more opportunities for a full band than a solo act?
James: What’s interesting about this project is that there’s no real set “full band.” When I started the project it was just myself. I recorded a few songs myself, where I played everything with the exception of keyboards which my brother Jacob had recorded and sent over to me. I released the project online to see if it would get any response. After I started the project I started playing in a few different Toronto bands and kind of abandoned it for a bit. But people started finding it online and I started getting e-mails from PR firms and different companies who were interested in the music. One day I got a phone call from a distribution company who wanted to work together to put out an album; this really motivated me to try to take the project to the next step and I started asking musicians who I’ve worked with in both Saskatchewan and Ontario to play on the record. No two songs on that record have all the same musicians, which makes all the recordings a little unique. Having different musicians definitely broadened the musical horizons; each one adds their own influence and style to the music. Live I’ve been playing a few show’s solo, but I’m planning a tour right now with Jesse Alarcon (who played on Gunslinger) on bass and Bashar Tayyoun (who played on The Tourist and I’m Just Fine) on drums. They each add something amazing to the songs and although they have a different atmosphere from when I recorded them but it’s definitely a lot more fun playing in the “full band” dynamic. I don’t know if I would say that there are more opportunities, but it’s definitely a more full experience.
SBS: Tell me about Sleeping City, your new EP. I’m a big fan of diversity in songs and it’s an even better listen when there’s still cohesion in the music that ties them together and can still be identified as “your sound.” I think this EP has got that; though the songs themselves are quite different from one another – there’s an element of your guitar style that really is identifiable. You learned to play and then had a disc out only two years after…how was this even possible man? You must have never put that thing down!
James: Haha when you come from a small town there’s not too much else to do. Thanks for the compliments, that’s exactly how I wanted the album to turn out. Five different songs each with different musicians with different backgrounds and influences, that tie together to make one package.
SBS: I’m a HUGE fan of interesting production – and I thought the second track I heard stood out for all kinds of reasons. That song is called “The Tourist” – of which you’ve also got a video for. Can I just say this? I’m gonna… I LOVE this track. When we talk about atmosphere in a song I could use this as the textbook example from this point on. On this particular track, each and every single instrument or vocal element sounds like it comes from its own separate planet. Spacious and nearly hypnotic all the way through as it comes to my personal favorite part in the track where all of a sudden just outside noise and traffic come in, making it feel like we’ve ACTUALLY gone somewhere physically in the song! Samples are always an interesting thing to add, but they could come in the form of many sounds. How did you know you had the right idea by putting that in at the end of the track – what feeling in the track did this ending help solidify, or what purpose did it serve?
James: Again, thanks for the kind words, I’m really happy with the way that one turned out. That song was written with one of my good friends Bashar Tayyoun, who I met playing in a Toronto grunge band. He’s really a master of layering guitars and adding extra dimensions to the music. The songs about the first time I witnessed downtown Toronto. The overwhelming feeling of a city that is truly alive, the lights, the people and the atmosphere consumed me. Being from a small town I had never seen anything like it, but everyone around me seemed to be so used to it that they weren’t enticed at all. My good friend Dylan Banow from back home mixed the song and couldn’t have done a better job. He asked if I wanted any effects in the song and I suggested the idea of a moving a city, putting some moving cars in the background. He really took it to a level that I hadn’t expected. When I got the song back I listened to it and I was blown away, it was exactly what I wanted. When I listened back to it, it felt like I’d gone back to that day, the whole song felt like it was moving. I’m really happy with the way that one turned out.
SBS: Again, appreciating the diversity of this EP here…it’s absolutely impossible for me to nail down your influences here – I am LOVING that my friend. I can hear elements of post-punk, and I can hear the acoustics and worldly sounds of Iron And Wine or Calexico; but when you take a track like “The Gunslinger” and commit to the synth change in the middle of the song you add a completely new dimension yet again. You’ve CHALLENGED yourself as a musician James – I dig that immensely. Go into this track for me a bit – as diverse as the EP is, this still sounds like a departure for you somewhat. How do you keep it interesting for yourself…this whole songwriting thing?
James: I think the key to keeping it interesting is simply working with as many people as possible. Every musician has their own taste and can teach you something, which is why I decided to record this album with a number of different musicians as opposed to a set band. That song in particular was written with members of my old band from Saskatchewan. It was written with Stephen Rogalski who definitely has his own unique style and my brother Jacob Read on keyboards. The three of us wrote that song in a few hours while we down in Kelowna B.C. Jacobs one of the best pianists I know, so I always try to incorporate piano into the music where it’s possible. The song originally had a piano solo and we took it down to Dylan Banow, who was working with us in a studio down there, and he had the knowledge and technology to add a string part to it. When we recorded the song for this album Jacob recorded his version of that string part on his synthesizer. When I was mixing the song I tried to, as you said, add a new dimension instead of just making it blend into the song. The song goes from a very acoustic western sound to an over the top synth part, which I know some people don’t like but when music gets predictable it get’s boring.
SBS: And brother, have you ever done your OWN thing on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole!” This is certainly a version with merit – and believe me over the years my beard has grown I’ve heard plenty enough Zep covers that don’t! I liked the trade off in the vocals between the male and female and that extra dimension that adds to both the lyrics and the song itself. I’ve talked a lot lately to bands and artists that have gone after the BIG one – you know, like choosing “Stairway To Heaven” instead of “Gallows Pole” in your case I suppose. The song you chose was certainly still a hit and recognizable instantly as Led Zeppelin – but to me this route is both a better and safer choice. I think covering the BIG one by bands in the past can lead a band into obscurity and kill the chance at longevity, becoming known as the band that covered that song and having no identifiable sound or writing of their own. It’s true that it’s an incredible way in the door for sure – but rarely do we see these bands continue on with any real credibility. I think choosing a more minor hit allows for the artist or band to cover the song with more freedom and less stones thrown at them by passionate fans of the original bands. Give me an idea of why you chose to cover this particular song, and why Led Zeppelin overall. A recorded cover tune is actually much more rare than people realize and you obviously have to choose incredibly well. How did you know that you could adapt this to your sound the way you have?
James: It’s funny you ask that, because that’s a question I’ve heard quite a few times since releasing the album. But the truth is, it’s actually not a Zep song. Although that’s the version that most people know, it’s actually an old traditional folk tune. Lead Belly recorded a version back in the 1930’s. That question is one of the reasons I chose the cover, although most people have only heard the Led Zeppelin version, I wanted to do a rootsier idea of the song, one resembling older versions more closely than theirs. I wasn’t originally going to put that song on the EP, I had recorded about ten songs for the album and only chose to release five of them for now and save the rest for a full album when the time comes, but after I had started recording the album I had met a great female vocalist by the name of Sarah Monay. When I heard her voice I knew it would be perfect for the song so I went back and rerecorded to suit her voice better. I completely agree with you on the point about it being risky for bands to go after a hit and it’s something I wouldn’t personally do, I figured a new version of a very old song would be more interesting.
SBS: Gotta throw my first impression at you as well…saw that picture of you with the double-neck acoustic and immediately had to know just how much that bad boy factors into your sound! Is it actually played on the EP? Tell me all about that James – I wanna know everything that you know about the specifics and also WHY it’s an instrument of choice for you.
James: Haha I love that thing. I bought it for $300 off a guy who used to play in big KISS tribute band that broke up so he didn’t have a use for it anymore. To be honest I don’t know any of the specifics of the guitar asides for the fact that it’s made by a company called Tennessee. I’ve tried to find it online but the company doesn’t exist any more and I can’t find a single piece of information on the guitar, or pictures of any others. It’s definitely a unique instrument. It shows up on most of the songs on the album, I think it adds a bit of a unique sound. It’s an instrument of choice for that reason…it’s different. The unfortunate thing about it is although it works great for recording, it has some issues and doesn’t work so great plugged in live, which is really disappointing but I’m really glad I got it.
SBS: Incredible. It took me this long to finally figure it out – but I think I’ve got it. I’m watching the video for “I’m Just Fine” and it occurred to me – your music reminds me of Beck! Not NEW Beck, where he’s gone all electro-d out and plays his Gameboy live Beck – but the one that existed before all that…pre-“Loser” days and all…. After thorough listens to the full EP – it really feels like there’s a conscious attempt to approach this your own way; that each track has its own separate and organic life. There’s people, many of them musicians, who believe that when it comes to the guitar – it’s all been done in one way or another. Personally, I’ll never agree with that – but what do you think? Are there still new and innovative ways to approach that instrument?
James: I’ll definitely take that compliment! Haha I love Beck. I agree with your comment one hundred percent, there are only so many notes on a guitar but there will never be a shortage of new things to do with them. I do try to give each song an organic and unique life as opposed to using one formula. It makes it hard to put a name or specific genre on the music, but that’s exactly how I want it to be. I think I’d get bored of my own music if it all sounded the same.
SBS: Alright – chances are James, you’re new to our world. I am by no means any kind of an expert – just a guy with an insatiable need for MORE music and curious as all hell about the personalities that make it. There is one question that I just can’t avoid when I see a band titled something like (Insert Full Name Here) and the (Something Or Others) – I find it automatically comes to mind that I should ask about the control dynamic that exists in the band…specifically yours. Your name is at the helm – is this YOU and YOUR band? Or is it a band as one solid entity? Why put the focus on yourself?
James: It’s something I would never have done if there had been a solidified line up. But when I started this project it was just me. I played everything on the recordings, but I wanted to give people the impression that there was a full band incase I wanted to book future gigs not just as a solo artist. At the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this project as a solo performer or as a full band so I left myself both options by naming it that. This way when I’ve done solo gigs, it’s just under the name James Lire as opposed to whatever band name I would have chosen, so when people show up their not expecting to see a full band. When I recorded the EP, there was still no full band. I recorded each song with a different set of musicians, to make each song have a life of it’s own. Like I said if there were a full band, I would have never named it that, I’m not nearly as narcissistic as the name implies! I was a little worried about that name for that exact reason, but it’s worked out, now I can perform solo or with a full band without changing the name.
SBS: Is it important to you to break through to a new music style? It’s kind of difficult really…to bust out of a traditional style of playing and derail into new and unknown musical territory. I guess what I am asking is, is it enough for you to simply write new songs well and have them EXIST – or are you after something more elusive…like a track that changes the direction of music altogether?
James: What an amazing concept. That’s honestly not something that’s ever popped into my head, but it sounds like something that every original band should be trying to do haha. I don’t write songs with the goal of trying to break through to a new musical style, but I do try to write something that people haven’t heard before. I think it’s important to break traditional style and try to find new territory as opposed to piggy backing all you’re songs off something that already exists.
SBS: At the point that we’re meeting you at now – how much experience has James Lire & The Crazies had playing live? We’re a long way away from you – so give us an idea of what we would see if you ever made it over here to play a show! What happens onstage?
James: I’ve personally played all across Canada, but as for this group it’s still in its growing stages. This group started out as an online recording project by myself and has only recently blossomed into what it now. There have been a handful of shows, mostly house parties, some solo and some with various band members. We hit the road in September and that’s when we’ll really develop “our” onstage show. But it’s very stripped down, I’ve played in bands with the light and smoke and it’s exciting, but not what this group is about. Just a group of musicians on stage feeding off each other’s energy and doing what they love.
SBS: I suppose technically your time on the guitar could still be considered short. You’ve learned a lot in an incredibly short amount of time – has that branched out to any other instruments? What else do you play? I think I saw a picture of you with a banjo on your official site?
James: It has branched out into other instruments. I love playing and I’m always excited to pick up a new instrument and try to teach myself how it works. On the album I played guitar, harmonica, banjo and lap steel. I also play in two other bands; with one I play electric guitar and the other bass. It keeps me always learning new things. I find that no matter what new instrument you pick up, you’ll learn something that applies to all the others.
SBS: As far as the guitar goes – is that more of a vehicle for you being a singer/songwriter? Obviously any of us can choose which instrument we want to play – you chose the guitar. Was it simply the ability to be able to write and create songs with one instrument that drew you to it or is there a different connection you have with the guitar?
James: I actually ask myself a similar question all the time. What if I had picked drums, or keyboards, or anything else? I don’t really know why I chose guitar; I guess it was just the most convenient of the instruments at the time. It doesn’t take up any room, you can play it without plugging it in and as you said it’s an easy instrument to create songs with. But whatever it was that drew me towards guitar when I was younger, I sure am happy for!
SBS: Alright brother – I want to know your opinion. You can hand out some awards to some of the guitar-greats right here and now. But it terms of your own influences and what you like to listen to – give me a winning guitar player for: Most Authentic, Best Tone, Most Unique and Best Overall Player. And you KNOW I want to know why!
James: Man you sure know how to ask a tough question. When I was younger it would have been an easy question, in my mind I knew who was great and that’s what I was standing by. I now realize that just because I don’t like someone’s style it doesn’t mean they’re not a great musician, everyone has their own taste and all music is great in someone’s ears. Nonetheless I’ll try this…Most Authentic – I’ll have to go with Neil Young. He’s not the most technical player, and he certainly doesn’t have the most perfect voice to boot, but when you hear his music it moves you. There’s just something so real, so heart felt, so “authentic” about his playing. Best tone…that’s a hard one. As much as people make fun of me for saying this one, I’ll go with Slash. There’s just something about his sound, his old “appetite” sound anyway that just gets to me, it makes me want to pick up the guitar every time I hear it, I don’t even know what it is about it I just love it. Most unique would have to be Jack White. I’m sure there are much more obscure players out there who I could say, but I love what he does. There’s just something unexpected and different about all his songs. I truly think that guys a guitar genius. Best overall I can’t answer. Just can’t do it haha, there’s so many players that are great for their own totally unique reason.
SBS: How about “playing the game” versus being yourself? The music industry can be a nasty place for both professionally signed and independent artists alike, and some might argue that you have to change or compromise your dream somewhat to attain the overall goal. What about you James? I don’t get the sense that you’re the kind of guy to step on a stranger to get ahead – but is it ever REALLY ok to compromise the vision of your art?
James: That’s definitely something I learned when I moved down here. This industry is a very nasty one and it feels like the ones making money had to step on someone to get there. But fuck playing the game and being someone you’re not. I’d rather not make music than compromise who I am to be successful. That’s not what music is about. It’s about doing something you love and sharing it with the world, not being someone else and singing songs a group of writers made for you. I feel that if you compromise the vision of your art it’s no longer really art, it’s just a vehicle to make money and fame. When I came to Toronto I was so in love with music and I thought all I wanted to do was work in this industry but I soon learned how evil it was, and it’s disheartening to see how many people get stepped on and are forced to compromise to get anywhere. But you can’t give in; you have to be true to your own music. That’s exactly what I wrote this project’s first song “I’m Just Fine” about.
SBS: What’s next for you & the Crazies? Now that the EP is here – what does the future hold for you and the band? How will you continue to challenge yourselves in the upcoming five years?
James: I’m currently lining up a Canadian tour to support the album. We’ll be heading out in September, which is the next challenge. I can’t wait to be out on the road again, I’m looking forward to it. When we get back I think I’m going to start on the first full length album, the EP was kind of a test to see if this was going to go anywhere and it really took off so I definitely think that’s the next step. As for the next five years? I have no idea, but I want to take this project as far as possible.
SBS: Spread some LOVE James! We always like knowing about who has been there for you and supported you all along. Who encourages you to continue making the music and what makes it so awesome for YOU to have them with you on this journey?
James: My family has always been there for me. When I look back it was probably pretty tough on my parents, watching their kid take this path instead of the safer route, but they’ve always supported me doing what I love which I really appreciate. I don’t know how they didn’t go nuts haha, having to listen to me and my brother try to figure how to play these instruments and bringing people over all the time to jam. They’re support has gone a long way. When I started out there we’re a lot of people telling me I should give up, that my music wasn’t any good and this wasn’t my thing but I had a handful of high school friends who supported it, decided to learn instruments and went on to be my first band. Those guys helped me look past all the negativity. It was hard moving half way across the country to a city where I didn’t know a single to person to chase a crazy dream and having the support of my friends and family back home really helped. My girlfriend Jamie also really supports the music, which is helpful because being a musician leads to a bit of an abnormal lifestyle, but it’s nice to have some down here on my side.
SBS: Websites brother! Shout’em out! Where do you want your new fans and the brutally-curious to come and find you online? What kind of stuff will they see from you posted?
James: jameslire.com I have links to all the other sites and forms of social media on there. It’s got all my music on it, as well as some photos, videos and contact information. Hopefully some cool stuff from the tour soon!
SBS: Lastly James…cause you said I could ask you anything at all that came to mind… I simply want to know WHY, WHAT & WHY. WHY do you make music? WHAT is it about the pull of this lifestyle that makes you want to live it for the rest of your life? WHY is it something you NEED to do, rather than just WANT to do?
James: Because it’s what I love. I strongly believe that everyone should do what ever it is that makes them happy, as long it’s not harming anyone else.
SBS: Ok James – if you’re reading this you’ve survived my rambling-style interview. Congrats! Even though I talk a shit-ton, I’d never be able to magically bring up EVERYTHING you’d want to talk about. So here’s the final spot for you to say anything at all that you want to express to the people; anything we missed or that you just want to say. Anything at all – freedom of speech! James – THANK YOU very much for introducing me to you and your music. Continue blazing that trail and making the music that you love and the others will follow. Best of luck to you all in the future, and stay in touch!
James: I don’t want to add anything but I do want to say thank you! I apologize that it took so long to get back to you, it’s been a crazy summer. But I’ve done a lot interviews and it’s nice to get one where you can tell the interviewer actually has a passion for music. I had a lot of fun doing the interview – you ask some great questions. I’d love to stay in touch man, I know how much dedication goes into this. I’ve checked out the rest of your site and you’ve got something great going man, if you ever come down to Toronto and need anything let me know! All the best man!
– James Lire
SBS: James – you NEVER know my friend, I might just take you up on that offer one day! Again, thank you SO MUCH for taking as much time as you did with this interview – the effort shows and the information you’ve passed on here to us all really shows what a free-spirit and all-about-the-music guy you truly are. I wish you nothing but the best of luck on your journey James – keep on travellin’ wherever the music takes you.
– Jer @ SBS