ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 31, 1995
Some guys have it tough, and then there’s Colin James. When it came time to record his fourth album, the local blues-rocker didn’t hole up in any ice-encased northern studio. James ended up down in the Bahamas, poor guy. But it wasn’t like he went there to soak up the rays and those drinks with pretty plastic umbrellas in them.
“Little Mountain was down at the time,” says James, calling from Courtenay before a recent Van Isle gig. “I’m kinda partial to doin’ beds [tracks] in Little Mountain because we’ve always done that, but they were down for the count, and there just wasn’t a lot of alternatives. Financially, it’s a lot better for us to do it in Canada, but you wanna be happy wherever you’re doin’ it.”
Vancouverites will get their first chance to hear James’s new, made-in-the-shade material live when he shares a PNE bill with Los Lobos at the Pacific Coliseum this Sunday (September 3). He’ll be reeling out tunes that were layed down with the magic touch of Rolling Stones producer Chris Kimsey, who also helmed the previous Colin James and the Little Big Band release.
“As an engineer, he’s particularly excellent,” says James of Kimsey. He’s just a really good sounds guy. He’s not a trick-sounds guy—he doesn’t like to use many tricks—but he’s really good with just a lot of different stuff.”
The same could be said about James’s rhythm guitarist on Bad Habits, famed session musician and producer Waddy Wachtel, an old friend who James has been running into during the past seven years. “I’ve never played with another guitar player on a record,” says James, “and I’ve always been…not possessive of the spot, but it’s like I kinda know what I want. But it got to the point where—especially if you want to get stuff off the floor—you’ve gotta have everyone playing at the same time. Like ‘Saviour’ on this record is totally live. Basically it was an eight-minute song by the time we finished it, and we whittled it down to 4:40. And apart from the vocals, everything was recorded on one take.”
Anyone familiar with the rowdy, fast-driving party music James first made his name with seven years ago might be taken aback at first listen to Bad Habits. The 30-year-old singer/guitar-slinger gets mighty funky on a coupla tunes.
“I took some funky pills,” he jokes. “Lenny Kravitz was next door, what can I say? But no…it was more of a conscious decision. I just think it’s important to kinda reinvent what you’re doing, and after the Little Big Band record, I didn’t want to just come out and do exactly what I was doin’ before the Little Big Band record, either. I haven’t done a lot of that medium-tempo stuff—I’ve tended to kind of rely on velocity and volume in the past—and it’s interesting doin’ stuff where you just kinda settle in. The proof is in the beat as opposed to the volume, you know.”
One thing that hasn’t changed with James’s recording technique is his paying homage to the blues greats of yesteryear. On Bad Habits, he covers the likes of Howlin’ Wolf (“Atlanta Moan”), Robert Johnson (“Walkin’ Blues”), and Elmore James (“I Can’t Hold Out”). You never know which old blues chestnut he’s gonna roast over his rockin’ fire.
“It’s weird, man. If you could record me this week it would be this, and if you record me next week it’d be that. Really. I like so much of that old stuff, and we did some that didn’t even make the record. We did a really nice version of ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’, real slow, though, with Bobby [King] and Terry [Evans] singin’ and me playing more acoustic.”
Of the blues standards that did get on Bad Habits, the version of Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” is given a particularly sassy bent through James’s use of the bottleneck slide, which he utilizes more than ever before on his recordings.
“Way more,” he stresses. “I think I play slide on like five songs or something. It’s tough for me, though. I play Delta slide no problem—I’m relatively adept at that—but electric slide’s another ball of wax. It’s not my most comfortable place, but I thought there’s no better way than to force myself into it. Hopefully, by the end of this next tour I’ll just be a better slide player for it.
“Plus, it’s always fun when you can do something that’s nothin’ like what’s out there. I dig that. And that’s why I like ‘Saviour’ so much—you just don’t often hear a slide solo on the radio anymore.”
Ever since his first single, 1988’s “Five Long Years”, it’s been pretty easy for Colin James to get on the radio—at least in Canada. Down in the States it’s been another story, though, and that had something to do with James’s recent label move from Virgin Records to Warner Music.
“It was just time to go, man. [Virgin] Canada always did a great job; it was in America that we needed to get more stuff goin’ on. Plus, it’s more complicated than that, because the two guys from Virgin who were the presidents when I was signed got the proverbial boot two years ago when Capitol/EMI bought Virgin America. People were getting fired left and right.”
Record-company problems notwithstanding, James finds it hard at this point to ponder ways he would have played his career out differently if given the chance to do it all again. “Oh ,God, geez, I don’t know—rule some small country in Bavaria? No. Man, you can’t complain too much when you were born in the middle of Canada and you want to play the blues. The fact that I’ve been able to make records and continue doin’ what I do, that’s all you could ask for.”