Music Interview: Russell James

Influential Punk Folkster Is Headed To Oregon

August March
12 min read
Russell James
(Corey Yazzie)
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If you had a time machine and could go back to the Burque that existed just eight years ago, you’d be in for one heck of a surprise.

For one thing, you might just witness the ascent of Americana music, beginning to crest like a twangy and toothsome wave at long-gone juke joints like the Blackbird Buvette.

While there, for instance, you might get to hear the original incarnation of a band called The Porter Draw. Featuring members of the storied Albuquerque rock unit Lousy Robot, the first iteration of The Porter Draw had an intense Rolling Thunder Revue vibe about them, practically rocking it close to the heart while maintaining a punk attitude and subsequent sound flava that drew audiences like crazy to the little bar near the corner of Fifth and Central Avenue.

They also had a guy named Russell James leading the charge.

Possessed of a quick wit, intense energy and songwriting style that always defied the normative and grew exponentially while he was with the band, James gave the band a darkened soul as well as fabulously flight-ready wings.

It was only a matter of time before they all parted ways. The Porter Draw went on—continuing to find success in various forms—as one of Burque’s best Americana outfits. James, meanwhile, began to explore himself, the music he made, even his whole reason for being.

The result was music that was tremulously transparent, lucid yet infinitely dreamlike while maintaining the flair for baddassery that set this folk musician apart from the crowd.

James’ work as a solo artist was always a daring venture, but as he proceeded through the process, his work became richer, more experimental and infinitely more personal as he reached out to the world through extensive touring and recording sessions.

Now it’s 2019 and there’s no need to go back in time to understand the future. The future is here. James, above all, seems to sense that fact.

And through that epiphany, the artist has made a decision. James and his wife will soon be leaving Burque behind. A new life and expanded career—as well as access to the adult autism programs he needs to thrive—await them in Corvallis, Ore.

James stopped by
Weekly Alibi HQ midweek to update our readers about his plans, to say goodbye to Burque. But mostly this meeting served as a reckoning. It marks a passage into a new place of brightness and hope for one of our town’s most accomplished players.

Weekly Alibi: Russell, for readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please tell us some of your story?

Russell James: I came to Albuquerque in 2006 from Lancaster, Penn., where I was born and raised. I came here because I had never felt at home in Lancaster, and I came here for a visit in 2005 and felt at home immediately. By June of the next year, I was out here in Albuquerque, with a goal of playing music. The kind of music I wanted to play at the time wasn’t really in vogue. I really couldn’t get anyone to play with me.

What kind of music was that?

Well, it was a punky bluegrass kind of thing. If you listen to the first Porter Draw album, that’s what it was. Back then it was just Josh Gingerich and Ben Wood and Vince played bass for a brief period of time. We were just this ultimate type of punk rock bluegrass band. We could care less about finesse than we did about attitude. That’s the way it was. The Porter Draw really grew from that [first album], very quickly beyond that punk rock sensibility. I moved out here with exactly that in mind.

Within a year or two, The Porter Draw became one of most popular bands in town.

I was floored because
Weekly Alibi printed up a notice about a show we were going to do at Winning Coffee in August of that year. Then we played an art gallery opening at the old Blackbird Buvette in December. In January, Blackbird offered us a whole night; that was our first real gig. Alibi had caught wind of us because of our little Blackbird show, and they just did a little blurb. But there was a line out the door to see the band at that first show. That show really caught the zeitgeist of what was happening in the bluegrass and Americana movement at the time, which was this aggressive form. The Avett Brothers were really big then. This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb was also a big influence on me back in those formative years.

Did you come into this new type of Americana from a traditional bluegrass or folk background?

I come from a hardcore and punk rock background. I was writing acoustic music, but that the scene I emerged from growing up. It was all punk rock in Richmond, Va. and Lancaster, Penn. Hardcore music. You know, that and dream pop—ironically the other side, dream pop and ambient music, shoegaze—were what I was brought up on. I never listened to country music growing up. I never listened to bluegrass. I came out here and started a bluegrass band with Josh and Ben. It became something bigger than any of us thought it would be. We grew in talent, and we grew in our songwriting abilities, together. Our sound matured. Adding Joe Bolt and Dandee Fleming really solidified the project. For almost 10 years of our life, that was like the biggest thing.

What years are you referring to here?

I’m talking about the period between 2007 through 2016.

What happened to change that situation?

I left. In 2016, my autism became apparent. It was affecting my life a lot more and I could not make it to gigs. I couldn’t make it to practice. That’s when I started a lot of social isolation. And so it ended up coming to a point where I felt it was better for my health and better for the band if I moved on. I had just recorded my first solo record. I was kinda like, “Well, this seems like a pretty good moment to do that.”

So, now, in retrospect, was that a good move?

Yeah, it was. It was the right thing to do. I’ve never thought otherwise.

How was your first album received? What is that work about?

Rise was received well. I didn’t put much publicity behind that record, really. I didn’t work that angle. I just wanted to get something out there in the world that was independently mine. It’s a good record. I just got a new batch of CDs and I listened to Rise. I hadn’t listened to it in a long while. I think that, when you listen to that record, you see the progression of the songwriter that I was in The Porter Draw toward the songwriter I became as Russell James. You see the atmospheric change in songs like “Walk On” and “Well Met.”

What happened next?

I immediately released another recording, an EP called Seasons. That one was really well received.

Yeah, that record really took off and resulted in media notice and a lot of well-attended gigs.

I had been the artist in residence at Big Bend [National Park] and things were looking really nice. That album took me all over the country. I started touring all over the place.

How did those on-the-road experiences affect your mojo, your vision?

It was fucking hard. It was completely fucking hard. And you know that experience is a big deal to me because this is the first time I’ve made eye contact with you. [Laughs]

Wow. That’s cool, man.

Touring across the country has been a blessing and a curse. I haven’t made a damn bit of money but I’ve gotten to play in front of crowds all over the place. I’ve had really amazing shows in places like New York City and LA, you know. I’ve gotten to see the world. In my opinion, looking back on the past three years, the takeaway is that I got to see the country in a way that had been limited before because of the disability side of my autism. I’ve pushed through that in order to drive around this country and live out of my Honda Element. This gave me the opportunity to see things that I don’t think I would ever have seen otherwise.

Is that something you’re still exploring?

At this point now, I’m tired. It’s hurt me, beaten me up quite a bit. I’ve been settled here for a long time.

But now you’re moving to Oregon, que no?

The thing about the move to Oregon is this: There are no services for adults, for autistic adults, in the whole state of New Mexico. And I’m at the point in my life—my wife and I are at the point in our lives—where we really need some assistance with my treatment.

I know that lack of services was an unfortunate and unfair political outcome of the Martinez administration and we’ve made a point of saying so in the paper. We’re hoping that will to change with our present Democratic administration.

I hope so. Here’s the thing about autism: According to the system of treatment that’s common in this country, it’s like autism doesn’t exist after the age of 18. You age out of the system and then there aren’t any type of services or treatment available. But we have found a lot of services up in Oregon. We’re going to be moving to Corvallis. We’ve gotten to a point where—and who knows if the touring has exacerbated this—it’s like we need some help with symptom management. I have no trouble with you writing about that.

It’s all good. I understand.

I think it’s important because people don’t understand autism.

Is understanding autism important to understanding your music?

No, I think you can listen to my music and not give a damn about my mental health.

But does it affect your work?

Oh yeah. I mean this whole new album, it’s an autobiography. I’ve been through so much trauma, and I’ve had a really hard life. It explores the themes of autism and how that diagnosis makes things difficult for me. So the move to Oregon is for health purposes. It’s the same reason I left The Porter Draw.

So is this another step towards fulfilling your artistic mission?

Yeah. I mean, you’re never going to be able to pin me down as this or that sort of artist. I’m not a genre artist. I think one can see a common thread in all my work, like on my second album, Weave Water, which is much more synth-based, with much more effects-laden guitars and walls of sound. The one that’s coming out, Pay Attention, is a fucking synth-folk album. There’s only one track with live drums. There’s a song without any guitar on it. That’s really crazy! That’s where I found myself musically, though. I really wanted to write that record. I wanted to use my dream-pop influences to explore a particular kind of darkness. It’s really dark, but it doesn’t sound dark. It’s kind of like bluegrass in that sense. You know how bluegrass sounds happy?

But those tunes can be all about death and murder, yeah.

Yeah, awful stuff. My life has unfolded in such a way that I think the authentic human experience is dark.

I’d have to agree, Russell. But I also believe what Wayne Coyne told me, which is that, in that brutal kind of existence, you have to make your own beauty.

Or at least recognize them. You’ve got to be mindful to recognize beauty.

Doesn’t that give you a sense of triumph? You’ve done what some have only dreamt of doing.

Oh yeah! It’s insane that I’ve been able to do this. I feel privileged, like I’ve been able to move forward with this life, and I’ve been able to say, “You know what, I wanna play my guitar so fucking bad that this storm in my brain is not going to stop me. That idea would not have presented itself in my life had I not moved to New Mexico and discovered myself here in Albuquerque. There’s something about how big the sky is here. How accommodating the space is. That has done something to the way I see things; it broadened me. That opening of my mind allowed me to shed the mask I’d been wearing for so long before I got here.

Russell James Rocks

Russell James

Corey Yazzie

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