Graham Reid | | 10 min read
The artist's name on the album is Jim of Seattle. Because he is Jim. And he is of Seattle. And although Jim of Seattle has been making music for more than 30 years, this is his debut album.
It is entitled We Are All Famous.
Jim of Seattle is not famous. Not even in Seattle where he is of. And although, as he says, there has been high approval from those who have heard We Are All Famous he doubts many in Seattle know of him. He doesn't play live so people haven't seen him let alone have heard his album.
From the quirky Overture (like a Thirties palm orchestra) through the driving but bent pop of Everybody Know into the New Wave of Laboratory Rat then it's an orchestrated version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star sung by his daughter when she was two and half year, the beautiful harmonies of an Interlude, orchestrated sections . . .
And don't let's start on the lyrics. The album is as enchanting as the eccentrically surreal cover art by Tyson Grumm.
So we call 51-year old Jim of Seattle at home in Seattle after he has come in from his day job. The surprising Jim of Seattle surprises immediately when I ask what he does during the 9 to 5.
I actually just got laid off on Thursday. I used to work for a small start-up which works with health insurance records for lawyers. It was technology stuff and before that I was at Microsoft for a long time.
So the music was incidental to the day job for all that time?
I've never done the music for a living. I've occasionally made a little bit of money here and there but I've never really pursued it, because if I did then the job would be about finding work and it wouldn't be about making music. And also making music somebody else wants me to make. So I'd just as soon do something else and do the music when I feel like doing it and whatever I want to do.
I see you've written for stage, screen and Disney but you've been making music since your late teens?
Yes, there are few songs on the album from my late teens.
And always in Seattle.
Born and raised.
And you didn't ride that grunge wave, huh?
I didn't. I was really into musical theatre when that grunge thing was happening. I didn't not like it and my wife was a big Nirvana fan. During most of the grunge wave I was on a contract in Los Angeles for two years, so when Kurt Cobain died we weren't even in Seattle.
When you were in young bands you were influenced by what?
Well, I was never in bands. I was influenced by the Residents, Manhattan Transfer and Gershwin and the New Wave stuff going on at the time.
A lot of old school, the lineage of the classic American Songbook?
That, and the rebel in me likes the Residents. I'm still a big Residents fan and now I listen to a lot of Philip Glass and Radiohead. So I like the weird stuff too and I melded all that together on this album.
To me this album could almost sound like a calling card as in, 'Here are all the things I can do, have a listen to this'. Did you feel this was a clearing house?
Kind of. What happened was I got into different styles and I just did stuff I felt like doing, because I didn't have to do any of it. And I would go through phases. So even though I had a few things I thought were really great, I never had a whole album of one particular style.
Then when Tom Dyer of Green Monkey discovered me he said, 'Send me a whole bunch of stuff' so I sent him three CDs of all different things. There were half a dozen songs that had been my most popular and I thought were my best work, which I thought for sure he would choose. But he didn't choose any of those, none of the obvious 'pop hit' songs. But when I looked at what he did pick I thought, 'I can see this all working'
He saw a darker and stranger side of me than I had seen, until I saw that list. I saw this vision of a stranger album and I added a few of my own that he didn't pick and we came up with this list which is almost exactly the list which is on there, then I sequenced it. Once I did that it fell into place, it seemed so right.
You said Tom didn't pick the 'most popular'. How did you know they were popular?
There is an online songwriting competition I am involved in called songfight.org and its a cool little community, I've been involved for decade and they throw out a title and you get a week or so to write a song with that title and everybody listens.
So half the songs on the album are from songfight, so half the titles are songs where the title came first.
Like Dear God and The Martians Are Going to Eat Us?
Dear God I wrote in my teens, but The Martians? Yeah. But that's funny because my daughter is singing on that and she wrote the song. She was seven at the time and I was in the kitchen and she was getting ready for school and I told her the songfight title for the week was, The Martians Are Going to Eat Us, and she laughed and said, 'It should go like this' and she sang the song exactly as you hear it.
May I say when I hear the first interlude it is so beautiful, it reminds of those old songs by the Association and people like that who layered the harmonies.
I love doing that stuff, I was really proud of that. Have you ever heard the Bulgarian's Women's Choir? That's where that came from. I was really into them at the time and wanted to do something like what they were doing.
So the album has been written over decades.
Most were written in the last five years but there are a few – Dear God and Laboratory Rat – which are very old,
And you have written for stage plays? Local productions.
There were some local productions here, but when I moved to LA for the computer thing I joined a music theatre workshop down there and I workshopped a lot of shows with the group. One of them got sort of popular and did a workshop in Chicago and New York, and one up here. It looked like it was going to be a big hit, and that took up a chunk of my life.
It was called?
It was 4am Boogie Blues, it was an a cappella musical and the whole score was six-part harmony. I wrote all that music, it was fun. It was a cool idea, it all took place in real time at 4 o'clock one night. You know when you are stressed at 4am and lying in bed everything in your life seems like the biggest problem in the world. You stew over all the issues and that's what happens to the main character.
I starts with her awake at 4am and her problems take on human form and they all come into the room and represent different parts of her personality, and she goes through all the problem in her life with the boogies.
Ah so it's not like boogie-woogie, it's more like the boogie-man.
Right, it's not blues like blues music either, it's because she has the blues. That was a big marketing problem because a lot of people thought they were going to hear boogie and blues . . . and they didn't.
You wrote for films?
I haven't done any professional film stuff. I took a two year film scoring course and I've done some short films. I'm not quite sure how that got into my bio!
Is it true that you've written for Disney then?
Yeah, that was a game called Nightmare Ned in the late Nineties. It was a Disney interactive game. They actually did make an animated series although they didn't use my music in that, but they had a video game that went with the show and that was a big project. They gave me these bizarre ideas on songs they wanted me to write based on the character in the story-game.
You were this little boy and you had nightmares so the whole game was very dark and cool looking. There would be a nightmare where he was at school and trapped in a blackboard and another he was at the dentist, all these different nightmares, and you had to get yourself out of them. So they wanted songs at certain places.
Was that like Nine Inch Nails-meets-Hans Zimmer?
Not at all, it was very close to what you hear on the album. If I'd owned any of those songs they would have fitted right in. I worked for hire so I didn't even get royalties. But it's on You Tube and you can hear these songs.
Now that you are gainfully unemployed as of Thursday does that mean you will look for something in the computer world again, or is this an opportunity to do more with the music?
I would love to do something with the music but realistically there is no money in it. People like you and me are the heart of the music culture now. Lady Gaga and those people are like the Big Macs and there are a lot of people who buy Big Macs.
But there are a lot of little folk who make way better hamburgers. They don't make any money but they do make better hamburgers, and I think that's what the music world really is now.
It's more about folk music, and not like hippies with guitars but music like it used to be, music made by folks. People in their living room doing music, and that's what it is now again, just people in their home studio doing it on the internet for each other.
You are Jm of Seattle, but are you known in Seattle?
Not at all because I don't have a band, I don't play live and I don't do it for money.
So I can't turn up to Starbucks and say 'I'm looking for Jim of Seattle. Anybody know where I might find him?'
If you do that it might be cool, they might go 'Who's that?' and Google me.
So the album title We Are All Famous is ironic?
What has the reception been for the album. Was it reviewed locally?
They haven't got on it but Tom of Green Monkey is harping on them. It's gotten half a dozen reviews and they have been very positive. I'm batting a thousand so far for positive reviews. So far so good.
I hear a degree of freshness and
surprise about it because you don't know what is going to come next,
and that is a rare commodity these days. Albums are so generic or
people make an album of the same song rewritten seven or eight times.
True, and that's because people nowadays don't sit down and listen to music, they put it on while they are doing something else. And they want that. I knew that going into this. I knew that they might turn this one and hear that overture and go 'Oh my god' then there's Laboratory Rat and then Twinkle Twinkle . . . and they will be completely confused by about the fourth or fifth song.
I was certainly bewildered by Twinkle Twinkle. Couldn't predict that coming.That said I heard a beautiful Interlude and One Beautiful Summer. That's why I heard it as a surreal calling card.
Yeah, other people have said that too. Like a survey or a best of. I really tried not to make it like that but people are hearing it that way, and that's cool too. I don't mind.
It is cohesive it's not a perplexing diversity but an interesting diversity that makes you go “Wow, I want to know more'. Does Jim of Seattle have a follow-up album?
Of course. If I can get past this one and it does okay then absolutely. I've got a lot of music and this was just what Tom and I picked.
I was talking about people putting on music while they are doing something else and I've been thinking a lot about that. Our cultures have changed and we can have music all the time, it's the way things have evolved. Even modern music is a vestige of the way music has always been.
You feel like you are in a Stereolab mood so you put the album on and you hear first track first and the second song second . . . and even if you shuffle it, once the song starts you are into that song in the exact same way for the next three minutes.
That's fine, but I thought my album doesn't let you do that because you can't say I'm in the mood for We're All Famous because . . . what part?
I thought I would go the other way and I'm not sure I'm gonna do this but I'm running it by people because I think it's cool.
My idea for my next album would be a collection of several hundred pieces, all of which are about 15 to 20 seconds long. All orchestral instrumental and you are instructed to put it on shuffle every time you play it. So that when you play it, it is shuffling several hundred tracks. So you are never going to get the same experience twice.
That is the album for people who have stopped taking their medication, Jim.
Oh yeah. But it would all be very gentle and was actually inspired by the Cloud Cuckoo Land [orchestral] pieces on the album because I was really happy with the way that turn out and felt I could hear a whole album of that.
And the Residents did that Commercial Album [of one minute songs] and you are a fan of the Residents?
Oh, yeah. It is still meant to be in the background and would be gentle and would not surprise you in the way We Are All Famous surprises you. It's going to be like Cloud Cuckoo Land in that gentle way. Because there would be so many pieces and you shuffle them, it would be a new experience every time you heard it. That's the idea.
Have you broken the bad news to Green Monkey on this?
I did. Tom was not excited. Some people think it's a great idea and some are not so sure. We all multitask now. The truth is that's what we do. You can badmouth it all you like but we're not going to stop it, so you might as well embrace it.
When you multitask it's hard to stop and pay attention to one thing, unless it is so engaging it takes away everything else like a great movie or sex. But if it's not all encompassing you are going to start to fidget, because that's the way our brains are wired now.