Folklife Q&A: Al James of Dolorean on recalibration, recession and the Portland PR machine
There’s a consensus that if bands wait too long between album releases, they run the risk of being forgotten. But if the album is great, it doesn’t matter whether you waited ten months or ten years. Portland, Ore.-based Dolorean’s 2003 debut “Not Exotic” got an enviable level of press attention from, among others, The Sunday New York Times, which nestled Dolorean’s singer-songwriter Al James snugly into the rural, indie-folk jigsaw puzzle, next to Sam Beam and Will Oldham. I need hardly remind you that things have changed since then — that era’s signature melange of bucolic hipness seems a bit precious now, in light of the subsequent recession and incessant declarations that the music industry was dead. It’s no surprise that after the markedly dark outlook of 2007′s “You Can’t Win,” burnout and business compelled James to rest. One scrapped record and a new label, Partisan, later, the result is “Unfazed,” on which James’s ’70s-style country rock hooks are hearty but languid, murmuring of weary lovers, small-town juke joints and lake resorts in November. Talking to the thoughtful James, an aspiring fiction writer who praises the loyalty of his band’s consistent lineup, it seems clear that this is a fundamentally grown-up album. However, James’s breed of grownup is the confused, recession-scattered grownup of his own generation, no longer flush with college delusions that whatever had meaning could be profitable. “Unfazed” is for those of us who have been forced to embrace poverty, cling to our friends, and somehow retain hope for love.
Define “folk” in ten words or less.
Great stories communicated through music.
Where did you grow up? Did you play music when you were young?
I grew up in Oregon, a little southeast from Portland, but in the vicinity, in Silverton, a small rural town. I didn’t really pick up music until a little bit the last year of high school. In college I put a lot of time into it. I went to Lambert University, a little liberal arts school in Salem, Oregon.
Tell me about how Dolorean has progressed through the years.
We’ve been together about a decade. It’s been more or less the same group of musicians the whole time; it’ll change up a little for tours. It’s just me and the same bunch of musicians in the studio, recording and playing together as much as we can. We’ve kind of been on a break between the last record (“You Can’t Win”) and this one, and starting off with the new label and a fresh start.
Four years is quite a bit of time between albums. What was that interim period like for you?
We released records at a pretty good pace for two albums. From 2003 to 2007 we had three records and tours for each. We were at the end of our record contract and wanted to catch our breath. I just needed a little bit of a break and a recalibration. We started and finished half of a record and weren’t happy with the way it turned out, so we scrapped it. We weren’t feeling any sort of timeframe, [it was] up to us. We weren’t feeling rushed. There didn’t seem to be a reason to rush. We’re not part of the maniacal chaotic sort of release of music, or trying to one-up people.
Any particular reason why you scrapped the first album?
At the core the performances [on "Unfazed"] were a lot better. There’s more life in the performances. We knew it would help in the end when we had it mixed. Everyone was playing the right stuff, and we knew we could get it better.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album with such a consistent, pervasive mood. Where were you, mentally and emotionally, when writing the songs on this album?
Compared to our other records, “You Can’t Win” has even more of a mood. It’s pretty foggy and dark. This one is a little more upbeat, and getting closer to seeing the good in things. [There's] a little bit of a tinge of melancholy. The performances are upbeat; the dynamics are good. The mood is definitely different from the other three albums. I was just starting over with a new business plan, a new team of labels, a new team of people helping me out. i kind of needed to clear the books and start over, hook up with new people who appreciated the music for the right reasons. That sort of optimism is present. I can work with people that I think value the right things about what I’m trying.
There’s a line in “How Is It” from “Unfazed” that goes “the richest kids without a dime/our bank accounts are filled with time” that seems particularly appropriate to the current economic situation. To me, it sounded like a “we may be poor but we’re still in rich in spirit” kind of thing. Did that have influence on this album or your life in general?
Being a musician that never has any money, that’s sort of been a constant. Whether people talk about it very much, there’s a lot of risk in trying to make something creative and sharing it with people on tour, and racking up a huge number with lots of zeros as far as the thing that you’ve made with your record label. [You have to] prioritize the right things, I guess. There’s a lot of people in a similar spot as me, scraping up enough to do things.
Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that hard economic times make people more creative? Is it true for you?
Not having money is sort of paralyzing. If you want to make something and make a good record, the case is rare when you can just sort of will it to happen. A lot of people try to cut corners, and the energy and the passion is there but in the end it’s hard to say what’s going to last. [When you're broke], it’s hard to be creative, and be a good friend to people. Luckily, I don’t feel like I’m in that position anymore.
Do you have any tour details worked out for this album?
Three to four weeks in Europe in January and February, and SXSW in March.
What’s your most bizarre tour moment?
One time, we played in Lubbock and it was in between shows in Austin and Albuquerque. A local booker set it up. It was off the route and we had an extra day. We went in and played to make some gas money. It was a huge crowd for us. People knew the words to the songs; it was really, really weird. It turns out there was this deejay at Texas Tech, and he’d been playing all three records over the years. A fan base [we] never knew existed.
If you could play with or collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
[I'd love to have] Levon Helm play drums on some songs, or play backup. The drummer that we have is soulful and always behind the beat. Playing with Ben [Benny Nugent], I’ve been really spoiled.
Where do you want to be ten years from now? Where do you not want to be?
I’d like to keep making music, have another four or five records under my belt, and some sort of written thing done. A book of short stories. [I've been writing] on and off, for maybe ten years now. I wouldn’t want to still be in Portland, but we’ll see.
Really? Everything I’ve read says Portland is the world’s greatest place to live.
No, that’s The New York Times PR machine. [I want to live] anywhere with sunshine; somewhere where there’s some actual heat. There were only six weeks of sunshine in Portland last year.
Photo courtesy Press Here Publicity.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook