James Pants has come a long way since the release of his boogie-flavoured debut album, Welcome, in 2008.
Its riveting, seemingly endlessly rewarding follow-up, Seven Seals, was released right at the tail-end of last year, and finds the Denver-residing producer – real name James Singleton – exploring a fuller sound and a darker, more intractible aesthetic. Conceived when he was reading the Book of Revelations and “in the mood to start a cult”, it’s an album shot through with apocalyptic dread, but also uncommon humour, and a surfeit of flamboyant musical ideas, with nods to the fuzz-drenched rock of Sonic Youth, the harsh electronic textures of 80s DIY synth-pop and the reverb-soaked drums of the Spector era. Whether or not you’re familiar with Pants’ previous work, it’s essential and intoxicating listening.
As well as his original recordings, Pants continues to showcase his top-notch DJ skills around the world, and release genre-hopping mixtapes Pants will perform a headline show at London’s ICA this Saturday, 13 February, as part of the Red Bull Music Academy‘s extensive programme of events. FACT borrowed him for a coffee and a chat in Soho last week, and this is what we talked about…
What was your entry-point into music, and obsessing over music?
“My parents weren’t musical per se - my mom sings, my dad plays guitar, but really just for fun – but I was always into music, and their record collection, which was Whitney Houston and stuff [laughs]. I started playing viola when I was pretty young and switched to drums after that and then was doing garage band rock ‘n roll type stuff with friends…I played drums in a school jazz band and all that, but I got bored of playing just old swing songs, and I really fell in love with hip-hop around that time…”
This was around your mid-teens?
“Yeah, a little before – I was buying all the tapes, I had a huge cassette singles collection, but at probably 15 or so I really got into hip-hop – probably because I was into the drums and the beats were fun to play – so I slowly switched to records and turntables and trying to scratch really badly, you know…I was a scratch DJ for a while, and at high school and college that was all I cared about, but that got old quick because it’s like, you know, guitar soloing [laughs]…Then I moved on to more the production side of things, but it was just really terrible…I hooked up with some high school guys in Texas, a rap group, kind of like a black nationalist rap group and I was the white DJ [laughs]. I made their beats; they were pretty bad.
“I was the white DJ for a black nationalist rap group. They were pretty bad.”
“I gradually started learning about sampling, and realising where A Tribe Called Quest got their sound – jazz records – and started buying that kind of stuff for production, liking that music more. I guess through that I just kept going stranger and stranger…”
Your mixtapes in particular show you’re into a lot of disparate things – boogie, psychedelia, old soul, and so on. Is it fair to say that hip-hop was the window through which you first accessed all that stuff?
“Yeah, I got into it through hip-hop, but granted I had quite a rock background. When I was younger, I was a huge Zeppelin fan, Pink Floyd…Now I’ve kind of switched back around to the rock side of things, but still with a hip-hop ear for drums.
“I feel like it’s more true to who I am – I’m really not a singer, I’m not a soulful dude who used to pick up girls all the time [laughs] – so for me to make more music that sounds smooth, as fun as it is, and as much as I love listening to it, it’s really not my forte…A little noise is more up my alley.”
Seven Seals is quite a sung album; your voice is all over it, and singing rather than rapping…was it one of those cases where, when recording, everyone had to leave the room and you had to turn the lights off?
“Yeah. [laughs] And I still have a hard time with it. I’m doing a new record and maybe the singing’s improved a little bit, but I’m not a singer so I have to do what I can to make it work. It’s mainly about the raw feel.”
Is singing live accordingly terrifying?
“When I first started doing it live, I would get really drunk before, and inevitably be shouting a lot [laughs]. And I always thought I performed better that way until one night I wasn’t drinking for some reason, maybe I played early, and the tour manager said, ‘Hey, that was a great show!’ and I was like, ‘Really? I thought I sounded better drunk?’ and he said, ‘No, you’re so much worse drunk.’ So I switched after that.
“I use a space echo on stage just to [warbles] drag it out, because…I don’t know, some people are just blessed. I’m sure if I did vocal lessons it would improve it no end, but…I’ve got two settings really, I can do either like a bad falsetto, or a Jim Morrison kind of thing…The Jim Morrison one I can hold a tune on, but it sounds pretty over the top [laughs]…”
On the one hand Seven Seals sound more evolved production-wise than Welcome, but it still sounds quite…submerged. How much is that a product of design and how much happenstance?
“A little bit of both, because Welcome really wasn’t made to be an album. I had about a hundred songs that I’d recorded; I gave them all to Peanut Butter Wolf. They’d been recorded over a period of maybe two years, so there’s a bunch of different styles and sounds, and he kind of picked his favourites and that became Welcome. And a lot of people like that it was quite all over the place and a lot of people didn’t, because it didn’t seem to be a coherent record. So I really wanted to do one that was more focussed. Seven Seals I recorded over the course of about three months, all with the same equipment, and my music interest was geared towards that kind of sound at that time, so I think that’s why it turned out to be much more ‘start-to-finish’.”
“I really like records about Hell.”
What exactly were you musical interests at the time?
“Well, my parents are both ministers, Presbyterian, so I’ve always had a kind of guilt complex, and for some reason I really like records about Hell [laughs], just ‘cos it’s scary and fascinating to me. So I was listening to a lot of that kind of stuff, kind of late 60s and early 70s people like Aphrodite’s Child with 666, Mort Garson’s Black Mass, which is sort of a homemade Moog odyssey and just those otherworldly sounds of wailing and gnashing…[laughs]. I guess I just get really wrapped up in, I wouldn’t say a concept necessarily, but an aesthetic, and everything revolves around that for a while. So that was it was: a lot of religious imagery in my head and trying to have these more proper mass type of sounds, but also hellish stuff…”
There’s a lot of drama going on in Seven Seals.
“Yeah, and I don’t know if that translates, or if that’s what people get out of it, but that was just what was going on in my head when I was making it.”
For all the aspirations to “mass” sounds and so on, it somehow still tends towards a sparser, more minimal sound than Welcome…
“My wife and I were renting a house and I had a studio set up, it was actually a pretty big house – it was really weird, it was in a trailer park. We had a proper house in the trailer park, which was kind of strange. This was in Washington. I had a really huge room for laundry, linoleum floors, low ceilings, but big. There was the washer and dryer over their and then I had the drums set up, and the keyboards, so that was the sound. I only used one microphone, so it was kind of lo-fi, but big sounds.”
“Lots of reverb, that’s my trick.”
Did you use much treatment on your voice?
“Treatment on my voice? Yeah, tons of treatment! [laughs] No autotune or anything, but lots of reverb, that’s my trick.”
There’s definitely more of band feel to Seven Seals. Did other people than yourself play on the record?
“Yeah, I have a touring band, the saxophone you hear is one of the guys from that band. The guitar player is one of my best friends from college; he lives in Seattle so we weren’t in the same room, but shipping stuff back and forth.”
The guitars sound really nice…
“I was trying to go for that sort of David Axelrod sound…”
Are there some other horn parts on there?
“It’s pretty much all sax, a guy called Paul Flores. I’ve fallen in love with the sax recently, because it used to be so overused and cheesy, but for some reason, because of that, no one is using sax now – and there’s something about it, it really is a more emotional horn than a trumpet. So that was fun to do.”
Has the band changed much since the days of touring Welcome?
“Just want guy switched ‘cos he had to go back to school, so it’s pretty much the same, and we were always more at the Seven Seals end than the Welcome end. So it’s a little noisier anyway.
So you grew up in Texas?
“Partially [laughs]. I’ve lived in a lot of places, a lot of different climates and areas of the country so I guess that just had a lot of random influence on me. Everything from Hispanic culture to Boston-Irish culture, I lived in Boston for a while. I was born in Richmond, Virginia. I was living in Washington during Junior High and then I moved to Austin, Texas and that’s where it’s all came full force, ‘cos I didn’t know anyone – it was a bad time to move, ‘cos you’re in high school, you have all your friends and stuff, so I really spent all my time working on music, ‘cos I didn’t really know anyone, buying records, and that’s where it all started. From that point on, whatever region I’m in, I get records from that region. But yeah, I guess Washington and Texas were the two places I lived most.”
“I asked him to illustrate something really busy, so you can sit on the toilet and look at it for a while, you know?”
Do you still buy a lot of records?
“Oh yeah, but less than I used to, only because your tastes change and I found myself getting rid of loads of records. As you get older, you get more picky, so now I’m picky and now the records I want are more expensive, so I buy fewer [laughs]…”
Would say that every single place you’ve been, there’ve been record stores worth plundering?
“Absolutely. I mean, there are a few dead ends, but as far as major areas are concerned, yeah. I really like to buy stuff that you can only get in that area.”
The sleeve design for Seven Seals is pretty striking. Do you use the same designer for all your records?
“Well the first record [Welcome] cover art was by Parra. He was really helpful from early on, he loved Welcome and asked to do it, so that was great. But other than that it’s either me or my good friend Liger, who’s kind of got a very…unique mind. So he did Seven Seals and he’s a little on the crazy side, in a good way. He did the ‘Thin Moon’ 45, which is my favourite…”
Another one that I loved, just in its simplicity, was the Egyptian Lover 12″ [‘Cosmic Rapp’] sleeve…
“Yeah, he did that one as well.”
In terms of coming up with the artwork concept, is that collaborative? How does the process work?
“With Seven Seals – to a degree I just think I asked him to illustrate something really busy, so you can sit on the toilet and look at it for a while, you know?. But yeah, he did all that – it took him a year [laughs].”
Is the Liger Vision label [the imprint through which Pants has released several mix CDs] his baby?
“Yeah. He used to work at Stones Throw; when I did an internship there, that’s how I met him, we hit it off. He’s since moved to Tennessee, and yeah, he does Liger Vision. We’re fellow weirdos. ”
“I like to move real quick, ‘cos the longer I spend, the worse my ideas get.”
I didn’t realise until someone pointed it out to me: the Seven Seals artwork references Bruce Haack. Was that a conscious thing?
“That actually wasn’t a conscious thing, for me at least. But you know, there’s actually a ton of great records with that kind of vibe. Bruce Haack is a little more sacrilegious though – he’s got Jesus with horns on there [laughs]. But yeah, that was definitely the vibe, Mort Garson has that kind of stuff too, he’s another of my favourites, that real busy style, not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing going on in the picture…kind of heaven, kind of hell.”
Tell me a bit more a bit about your work ethic and approach to recording.
“I make a lot of ideas, constantly. There’s probably 100 songs again for this one [the album Pants is currently recording]; most of them that aren’t actually songs, but just little grooves or ideas. I get those out and then I always get back to them, weed out the best. The worst is spending a day on a song start to finish and then the next day realising you really don’t want to use it. So that’s it, I make a lot of ideas, and keep listening to them in the car…”
Do you toil a great deal over post-production?
“No, I don’t spend a lot of time on post-production. Usually once it’s done I’ll spend 20 minutes mixing it as best I can…”
So you do all the mixing for your records?
“Yeah. I mean, the mastering is really what makes it sound good, ‘cos when it comes out of my studio it sounds like garbage…[laughs]. I like to move real quick, ‘cos the longer I spend, the worse my ideas get. If the sound’s not right I’d rather have the good idea with bad sound than the other way around.”
“I’d rather have the good idea with bad sound than the other way around.”
Do you find yourself fantasising about your next project when your at the toughest point of a current project?
“Definitely. Always. But I somehow get it done. Usually ‘cos I run out of money and I need the rest of the advance…[laughs].”
But the next record’s almost done?
“Yeah, it’s basically done. I just need to get the saxophone [laughs].”
Is the next record you’re working on as conceptual as Seven Seals?
“Yeah, it’s much less all over the please, I guess it’s more noisy, kind of like 50s American diner music – old doo-wop in a way. Kind of classic songwriting but with My Bloody Valentine or Sonic Youth fuzz, and deep bass, but more cheesy sounds. I bought this keyboard that I just love lately; it’s a terrible keyboard, one of those cheap ones you buy from Walmart or something, that has like 400 sounds in it, you know, like the human choir, the oboes, the sea shore [laughs]…It’s really clean digital, but when I run it through fuzz and echoes I get some really nutty sounds.”
Are you always on the look-out for new toys?
“Yeah. Because I’m mostly a one-man band, so a lot of it inevitably is drums and keyboards, and one of the best ways to switch up the whole style is to use a different keyboard, so I try to retire each favoured one after each record. This one’s more like organ and digital saxophone [laughs].”
Tell us about your mixtapes…
“That’s one of my favourite things to do…A lot of times, because I DJ out a lot, there are a lot of songs that I – I won’t say I never get to play, just that I’m generally too scared to play – so what’s on the mixtapes, that’s the music I really like. And it’s important for me to justify to my wife my buying all the records…”
“I like to attempt a different kind of feel for each one, I just look at them like albums.”
“I’d rather have the good idea with bad sound than the other way around.”
Your mixing style is pretty laid-back, uninvasive…
“When I play out I try to do quick mixing, but when I’m doing mixtapes, if the song’s good enough I’ll let it roll. You know, Gaslamp Killer puts out great mixtapes that aren’t mixed at all, the songs just stop before the next one starts [laughs]. I might start doing that. In fact I’d kind of prefer to do that, then at least people could have the whole song on their iPod or whatever…”
Did you and Dam-Funk do the Chart-Toppers mixtape in a room together, or…?
“No, we talked about it on tour, we knew we were both on the stranger side of the boogie spectrum, so we just each did a 30 minute mix each. It would’ve been great to do it in the same room, but I live in the middle of nowhere, so it’s not the easiest thing.”
How does it feel to see boogie become so fashionable and talked-about?
“The whole reason I got into boogie was literally financial circumstances. At the time everyone was buying funk records, 60s and 70s funk, and I couldn’t afford them. Boogie, on the other hand, was always a dollar. It was like, ’80s R&B, let’s throw that in the back, no one wants that’, so I just got what I could afford. A couple of months later I had all these records people wanted…
“It’s crazy to see it take off…I have this weird feeling, it’s only been hitting me lately, people seem to only be making old music now – music that sounds like it’s old. And I just keep thinking that in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, even 90s – no one was doing that, they were all making new stuff. So I don’t know what the implications of people moving to boogie is. But I will say this: big-ups to Dam-Funk, because I think he had a huge role in this. He stuck to it from the original time, so to see him champion that sound way before it was cool, really authentically, and have people respond to it, that’s really good to see.”
“I really find myself gravitating to bands from any era who just have a completely out-there sound. Not necessarily weird, but totally different.”
You mentioned your concern with today’s music trying to sound ‘old’. How do you square that with your own music, which makes much such direct reference to the past?
“With Welcome I was definitely doing that, purposefully without really knowing it – it was kind of educational [for me] in a way, like, we’re going to figure out how they do it. I think Seven Seals definitely owes a lot to 60s psych, but I think that’s kind of a different thing, I don’t really know what is. From my point of view, I feel like Seven Seals has a different sound from other stuff coming out, and that’s really all I want; hopefully the songs can be good too. I really find myself gravitating towards bands from any era who just have a completely out-there sound. Not necessarily weird, but totally different.
“But yeah, it is something which you grapple with, because for the most part I’m buying old records, and that’s what ends up inspiring me..I mean a song is a song. There’s only a handful of types of song that are written. The chords are much the same throughout the decades, it’s just the sounds that change, it’s different sounds.”
From the sounds of it song-form is increasingly important to you?
“Much more than I used to be. I guess I would say I go for more ‘emotional’ things now. I used to buy a lot of records that were just 12″s that would go on for 10 minutes, and I just can’t do that anymore, I have like a two minute attention span.”
And those 12″s are the ones you end up selling…
“Right. And so many songs back in the day, particularly the 50s and 60s, they would be literally two minutes long: two verses, three choruses and a bridge. And if you can cram that much into two minutes and not make it look too rushed, that’s incredible.”
Do you feel a nostalgia for that era when musicians, bands, maverick producers had large budgets and personnel at their disposal? More and more people seem to be making music on their own these days…
“There’s a couple of reasons, really…One, we have the technology now. Two, there’s just not the money they’re used to be for records and for people paying for bands to tour. Having toured with a band and toured solo, I can say that I much prefer touring with a band, but financially it’s a nightmare. So I guess I do this out of necessity. I wish…You know, you hear about the Phil Spector days, people hiring 60-piece orchestras to cut one 45, that would be incredible – but they were selling mad units. They could justify it.”
“Imagine a Silver Apples version of disco and early rap, it’s noisy, it’s recorded in the garage, the drums are huge, there are weird voices in the background all the time, girls yelling, rapping about women with mushroom hair-dos, and it’s insane.”
You’ve done some work with Gary Davis, right? Can you tell me more about him?
“Gary Davis is now a filmmaker in Florida, he specialises in – how do I say this – kind of period-piece, martial arts vampire thrillers. He makes them himself.”
Are they short films, features?
“Short films and features. I don’t know if you can see them anywhere, but…[laughs]. He did a lot of disco records for Patrick Adams; you know, Patrick Adams has some good stuff, but I guess I gravitate towards Gary Davis because he’s kind of a strange one. I guess if you imagine a Silver Apples version of disco and early rap, it’s noisy, it’s recorded in the garage, the drums are huge, there are weird voices in the background all the time, girls yelling, he raps about women with mushroom hair-dos, and it’s insane. He did some other stuff, early drum machine things with really deep bass, and it’s really off-time, the edits are all messed up…and then he started doing Miami bass…So I was just like, ‘Everything this guy touches is gold!’ His mixing is horrible, but in a good way, it’s just perfect. So I guess he kind of embodies the aesthetic I like to strive for whatever the genre, that kind of production and energy, you know? Definitely check out his stuff; probably his most famous record is called Chocolate Star.”
What was the story with All The Hits, your ‘library music’ record?
“Stones Throw has a licensing arm where they get stuff on TV commercials, and they approached me about doing a library record – they have a series – so I just did a ton of one-minute songs, just little ditties (of which I have many, ‘cos a lot of them are album ideas that didn’t turn into anything). It’s funny though, some people thought it was a real album and reviewed it as such, and said, well, there’s no vocals anywhere, and the songs are too short…[laughs] We probably should’ve made the cover art more library music-style…
Are you much of a buyer or a fan of library music?
“For me, Delia [Derbyshire] is the ultimate. I don’t like all [British library music], a lot of it is what I’d call a kind of slow, funky stuff – not really my thing – but the Delia stuff, wow. I came across that pink BBC Radiophonic Workshop record [BBC Radiophonic Music, 1971] in Spokane, Washington, for like five bucks…and I just found out last night that it’s worth some cash [laughs]. Anyway, there’s a track on there called ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO’ and it’s like reversed vocals and all [imitates the sound of the record]. That shit is crazy. I really like it.
“I also like the band Broadcast, who have a lot of library kind of sounds. But really, there are so many good library records, especially the more electronic stuff.”
“I want to make good records that a variety of people like, not just me.”
Are you into the Ghost Box label at all?
“Oh yeah, definitely – The Focus Group, Advisory Circle. That’s the kind of stuff I’m into, definitely, that’s my favourite, I’d love to do something with them.”
Who were the prominent American library music guys?
“There weren’t many in America. I don’t know why, I guess we just licensed more songs. Raymond Scott would definitely be the biggest, for sure…Mort Garson you can kind of count as a library musician as he did a lot of commercial work early on. I might just be ignorant, but there the only two that I can really think of. Bruce Haack did a lot of similar stuff, but for children…Then there are a lot of weird Italian and French library guys too…”
Tell us about your relationship with Stones Throw.
“Their base is of course underground rap fans, and that’s how I got into them too, but there’s definitely more of a mix of stuff coming out of them now, more like garage-rock, minimal wave, soul stuff, my record – all kinds of things. And I think that’s really encouraging, the branching out. Peanut Butter Wolf has, in my opinion, the best ear of anyone I know, so he really is mad for continually finding stuff. Even if everybody who turns up to his shows is an backpacking underground hip-hop dude [laughs]!”
“I have a great relationship with the label, I’m so happy to be on there – it’s a bit of a dream.”
How much editorial control does the label have over what makes the final cut of the album?
“Well, I have the freedom to say ‘I want this to be the album’, however, I really like [Peanut Butter] Wolf’s ear – even if I don’t agree with him in the short-term, I know that a lot of the songs that he wants on there and I don’t, I know would end up being people’s favourite songs [laughs]. I like to make quite a bit more than necessary for the record, and to some degree let him choose – I mean, it’s collaborative, we go back and forth, but I really trust his opinion. Sometimes it’s good to have someone other than yourself to pick, because sometimes you get tied to certain songs that may not be the best…and ultimately I want to make good records that a variety of people like, not just me.”
“I’ve been obsessing over mid-late 50s and early 60s stuff, Frankie Avalon, Dion, Roy Orbison, The Ronettes – that vibe. The creepier sound of the 50s. Sweet but creepy.”
You mentioned minimal wave; that’s a sound and aesthetic that fed into Seven Seals, isn’t it?
“Oh definitely. I’ve been liking that stuff for a while. One of the songs uses a sample from – actually, I probably shouldn’t say [laughs]. Oftentimes I get pegged as kind of 80s guy but I really don’t like most 80s music, most of it is too – how should I say – too 80s. I mean I like The Cure but not nearly all of it, I like a couple of Smiths songs but most of it just sounds too…kitschy. Minimal wave stuff, a lot of the songs just sound very unique, kind of dark. I like the ones with bigger bass…Those really early drum machine sounds I love.”
Do you use vintage equipment or do you use newer kit to try and replicate those sounds?
“Both, I mean, I do have a couple of drum machines that would fit that era. Mainly it’s the songwriting that influences me, it has that kind of trance-inducing quality that I look for in all music, you know, just one chord the whole way through…
What are your plans for the rest of 2010?
“Turning in this new record is going to be the main priority, and there’ll probably be a few 45s too. Hopefully the new album will be out late summer. I’m going to do another mix soon, a psych mix, a couple more tours. After the summer I’m probably going to lay low and spend some time with my family, get that record out and coast for the rest of the year.”
Lastly, what are some of your current obsessions?
“Well, I’ve been into curry for quite a while [laughs]…Musically– and this goes hand in hand with the record I’m working on at the moment – I’ve been obsessing over mid-late 50s and early 60s stuff, Frankie Avalon, Dion, Roy Orbison, The Ronettes – that vibe. The creepier sound of the 50s. Sweet but creepy. That mixed with some 80s goth, and I’ve been cleaning up on the Cocteau Twins while I’m here…All that, and then My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and I’m still buying some minimal wave…Basically goth, industrial, shoegaze and doo wop – that’s my whole orbit at the moment.”