Interviews > James Steele
James Steele
Interview by Athena Schaffer

About five days before November 11, guitarist James Steele got the idea to do a song and video in honor of that legendary guitar god and Stonehenge authority, Nigel Tufnel, to be released on 11/11/11. It was a crazy schedule but James was driven to get this finished. In five days he wrote, recorded, and with the help of Jim Watson who played drums and mixed, got "It Goes To Eleven" finished and up on iTunes and Amazon.

Check out the video.

“It Goes To Eleven” is such a fun song! This Spinal Tap tribute came to you pretty quickly?

Thanks! With 11/11/11 looming I wanted to do a tribute song for Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist character in the Spinal Tap movie. In the past when I had sat down to write one, nothing would come. About five days before the big day however, the idea just came to me—the song "wrote itself" as the saying goes. I do wish I had started earlier though, as I had to rush through the recording and video shoot to get it out in time for 11/11/11 and in the end there was very little time to promote it adequately.

You did a marathon session to record the video?

Yes, because the music had to be finished prior to shooting the video, all the instruments and vocals had to be tracked and then the song mixed in just a couple of days. I played all the instruments and sang the vocals. I don't play drums however, so my friend and co-producer, Jim Watson, who is a drummer and film and television composer in Los Angeles tracked real drums over my placeholder "fake" drums and then mixed the song. We finished the final mix the afternoon of the video shoot, which started at 6pm and ended at about 9:30pm. Then a friend, Robert Concha, and I edited the video from 10pm until noon the next day! I took it home, uploaded it to YouTube, and then basically passed out!!

Any fun moments during the video filming?

Due to the rushed nature of the project, and because I don't have my touring band yet, it was a simple affair with almost no budget. It was shot on a green screen stage (provided by my friend, Richard Fox) so we shot in black and white to avoid seeing green. We made the room totally dark and just set up two lights: one for me and another one pointed at my Marshalls. For three hours I just pranced around and felt silly while we got different angles. A "fun" moment I suppose was me forgetting the lead guitar parts during the shoot because I had quite literally come up with them the day before so it wasn't as if I'd performed the song many times. There'd been no time to even rehearse what I would do or how I would move before shooting. On top of that, I'd not slept for two days! But, by gosh—it got done!

Will you be doing a video for “A Christmas Jam” for the holidays?

I would like to, but given the difficulty of working around people's schedules this time of year, I'm not sure I can pull it off since we're now in December. I'm trying to focus on finishing the last two songs for my CD which has been taking way too long to this point, but because I'm playing pretty much all the instruments except drums things don't move as quickly as when you’re recording with other musicians.

Tell us more about how “Can It Be The Same” came about?

The song had been on the back burner for years and was original called "Diamond Ring" but I hadn't been happy with it. Finally I just grit my teeth and worked and worked on finding a better melody and chorus. After hours of pounding away, I had a breakthrough. If you heard the original version you'd be shocked at how different (and better) the version that was finally released is. Then, to have Brad Gillis from Night Ranger agree to play the solo was just awesome! Brad is an insanely great guitarist. Of course, my problem now is I have to learn Brad’s solo so I can play it when I perform the song and that won’t be easy because Brad is… well… he’s one of the best rock guitarists there is.

You’ve composed music for videos and film? Tell us more!

Many years ago I worked at a video production company. Back then people having computer-based recording studios in their homes was rare, but I was one of the people who embraced the technology from its very first days. I began composing music for live shows, films, TV commercials, and the like. It was interesting and enjoyable work but I started feeling like I was having less time to write the music I wanted to write and decided to step away from it. Besides, by this time there was more competition. Everyone now had a home studio and was trying to break in by undercutting on price and it was becoming more difficult to make decent money.

Do the lyrics come first? Does the music come first? What is the songwriting process like for you?

For me, the music almost always comes first. I'll start with a musical idea and start developing it. As a song takes shape, the music starts to suggest a particular emotion and storyline. For example, we all know a major key feels "happy" and a minor key feels "sad." (D minor of course being the saddest of all keys.) That’s a very simple example, but it becomes much more nuanced. Once the music is developed sufficiently, it will tell me what the song should be about, because only the perfect words and story line will feel "right" for the music.

You’ve only recently gone solo?

I've been solo for a few years now. I've played in many different bands over the years, both original and more recently cover bands. I always found myself frustrated by unwittingly finding myself in situations where there were conflicting agendas, varying levels of commitment and sometimes even substance abuse. I was also "too nice" as a band leader (a problem that plagues my personal life as well) and was slow to learn that you must fire the "bad apples" the second they show their true colors. I decided to take my fate into my own hands and go solo and record the music that I wanted to play and see what happens with it. Thus far I've gotten a great response and I think things will explode once the touring band starts doing shows!

You have your own label, Pale Black Records?

That's right. Most independent musicians do these days. It's entirely possible to distribute your music this way, and extremely easy when you're talking about digital downloads and the like. I'm finding though that it is a lot of work and at some point, when things take off, I'll be thrilled to let someone else handle that so I can focus on the creative side of things. For now though, it makes sense to do it this way so that I can be patient until I can negotiate a fair deal if and when I decide to go to a larger, more established label. Besides, established labels cannot afford to speculate and take risks like they once could. Today, musicians have to go out and prove there's a demand for their music and performances before any label worth signing with is going to talk to them.

On your Amazon page, there are some songs that sound more like musical theatre? And a Reggae selection?

Looks like you've found the other James Steele! There's a (quite talented) saxophone player with the same name who released an album of religious music a few years ago and this has probably caused much consternation for both of us as our music gets jumbled together. iTunes has a method to avoid this using unique artist identification numbers, but that's not true for services like Spotify and others. I'm not sure about Amazon. Having a somewhat common name is problematic. For example, recently, without any notice or my permission, Facebook turned my official musician page (that I created myself) into a "community page" about an author named James B. Steele. Months later I’ve had no success in getting them to correct this.

Any CD distribution plans yet?

Not specifically. I'm in a zone now to just "get 'er done" to quote the great philosopher, Larry the Cable Guy. When the last song is in the can, I'll figure that out.

You’re currently getting a touring band together?

I'm starting now to contact musicians that I already know to see if they'd like to be part of a band to perform my music. I've been quite pleased to find that without exception, the musicians I've approached have responded positively and want to be a part of it. In fact, word has started to spread in the San Diego area where I'm based, and musicians are approaching me and expressing interest whenever I go out to see bands play. So, I’m confident that I will be able to get very talented musicians on board.

Any confirmed tour plans yet?

No dates yet. I'd honestly prefer to have at least the members of the band nailed down before I book shows.

What is your live show like?

Well, I’m still getting the band together, but I can give you a bit of a preview of what it WILL be like. Firstly, even though I played ALL guitar parts on the CD, a second guitar player is going to be mandatory to be faithful to the recordings. I will likely delegate some of the lead guitar to the other guitarist so I can better focus on what will be my most important role in the band—connecting with an audience as the lead singer and frontman. I’ll also be using a headset microphone. I started using one years ago because it freed me to sing from anywhere on the stage. I didn’t have to worry about having to dash back to a microphone stand, after a solo for example. Audiences like it too. I like to go to the edge of the stage and have fun and interact with people, and the mic stand was just a barrier that separated you from the crowd not just physically, but psychologically.

How did your custom Dean V Guitar come about?

I had been a big fan of Dean guitars and remember drawing pictures of the ML model in high school. I couldn't afford one then and ended up playing something else that was cheaper. In 2005 I connected with Eddie Carlino who is a Dean dealer and ordered a Dean V built to my personal specifications. I wanted something that was a cross between a Les Paul "black beauty" and a Flying V—a guitar that conveyed an aggressive rock and roll attitude, but did so with maturity, elegance and grace. I was thrilled with the result. It is personally signed by Dean Zelinsky (the founder of Dean) and the serial number is actually hand painted! One other great thing that came from this is that a man named Jon Puhl at Dean Guitars heard my music and was impressed enough to make me an official Dean artist. I am eternally grateful to Jon, as there’s not a better guitar company and group of people in the world to be associated with.

Outside of your MP3’s on iTunes and Amazon, what other merch do you have available?

Nothing at the moment. All that stuff will have to be ramped up prior to touring obviously, and I've just been too busy with songwriting and recording to think about that yet.

Any long-form DVD plans yet?

Not yet, but seeing how everything is becoming geared toward the visual medium and my background and connections in the video production community, this is something within my grasp and certainly inevitable in the long term.

How Hands-On are you with your Website, Facebook, and Myspace pages?

More hands on than probably anybody. I interact with my friends there daily. I also update my own website having known how to code HTML since the very early days of the web. As for MySpace, it's sad to see what has happened to it. It used to be a great place for musicians. I still have over 50,000 friends on my MySpace, but hardly anybody goes there anymore. Again, a real shame.

Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you want to tell our readers?

Firstly, I’d thank them for their support for me over the years. Secondly, I’d ask them that if they like old school metal or any independent music for that matter, PLEASE do not download music illegally. Help support musicians by buying a song or album, either in physical form like a CD or a download through iTunes or Amazon. Out of the 99 cents that they might pay, Apple or Amazon takes 29 cents right off the top, leaving the musician with 70 cents. Even with having my own studio and cutting costs to a minimum, I and most other musicians struggle just to break even and most don't. So again, if you like a band or musician's work, please consider parting with four quarters for a download every now and then. It’s the fans that do this that are quite literally keeping the music alive.