Danny James on PEAR, His Death-Defying Ordeal, and New Projects
The 2013 album PEAR by Danny James, Etc. is one of our favorite releases in recent years, and we've been delighted to share our take on this anti-genre masterpiece with you in the past. The background to the remarkable album and its creator(s), however, remained fairly obscure to us. Fascinated as we are with this gem, we wanted to find out more from the source. It turns out Danny James has upcoming shows at Burger Boogaloo 5, Deathstock III, and more, so we were thrilled to finally connect with him. Danny graciously shared his in-depth thoughts on PEAR, Oakland, his year-long hiatus after a harrowing accident, and perhaps most importantly - his upcoming projects.
Bobby Weirdo: You’re in Oakland, which I definitely want to talk about. It seems like Oakland permeates everything you do, both musically and personally. You’re really an Oakland guy.
Danny James: Oh, don’t remind me. I’m trying to forget. It’s like a divorce - Star Wars: Divorce Awakens. I slipped that in – good. To put it mildly, I hate everybody who’s moved here within the past five years and I want them all to go away.
BW: Who’s moving there? Is it just the trend of gentrification that’s happening in big cities in general?
DJ: It’s happening everywhere. The other side of this problem is that these cats buy tickets and go to shows. The problem with Oakland being gentrified vs. San Francisco being gentrified is that the majority of Oakland is one-story buildings. You just say “go”, and they’ve got the bulldozers going and there’s nothing left. Then up spring the most inane businesses – everything with “&”…like, “Barry & Rod”. It’s just ridiculous, super yuppy, and not what I grew up with. I forgot the other benefit of gentrification--the Bay Bridge is made out of pretty patterned lights.
There are good things that come with that – for example, the park a block away from me where the drug dealers wouldn’t even meet me when I was a kid now is hosting an Iggy Pop show featuring John Waters, and I get to play the after-party at the Starline Social Club down the street. That wouldn't have happened [in the past]. It’s worth it for the new kids, but it’s not worth it for me because all my people are either gone or being pushed out.
BW: Are they going to the outer edges of the Bay Area, or are they going somewhere completely different?
DJ: My ma has to live in Lafayette, which is like the sticks, and my brother lives in El Sobrante. So my people aren’t around to enjoy it unless they’re in the tent cities that are sprouting up everywhere. They’re just turning the city into Dubai. That’s what they want, and that’s the end result of capitalism.
BW: Is the show you just mentioned in passing a Burger Boogaloo show?
DJ: Yeah. A Burger Boogaloo 5 after-party show at the Starline Social Club in Oakland on July 1.
BW: You were scheduled to do a show with Gary Wilson on the bill there this past spring, right?
DJ: Yeah, exactly. They’re still trying to make it happen, so I hope it does. I love the song “Chromium Bitch”. It’s so great.
BW: I agree! I wanted to talk about Oakland because I do see references in write-ups about you to ELO, Queen, and Harry Nilsson, but I also hear influences of Tower of Power, Cold Blood, Sons of Champlin, and other Bay Area groups on PEAR. There’s a lot of history up there. Do any of those references mean anything to your music, or is that just me finding what I already know from Oakland music history?
DJ: I don’t listen to records – I just surround myself with nerds so I can vicariously groove off of everything they have. I collect records to smash over my head. No, you’re absolutely on the mark, but I would also put Larry Graham in there.
BW: Is it possible for cities to still have a unique music sound, like Oakland has had in the past, or do they not have time to have something like that incubate?
DJ: Yes - it is possible. Particularly when things seem terrible, that emerges. That’s good – you’re cheering me up, because it’s true. You can go through a very easy existence just ignoring things, the climate gets too comfortable, and people will become too complacent. There will be no real correlation between the people and art. Then – all of a sudden – when things get so hectic, crazy, foreboding, and awful that you’re too busy to notice, there’s a cohesive thing around you that you don’t notice, because you’re there and part of it.
BW: And who are these people? Does that include your band, Once and Future Band?
DJ: Yes – it’s a linear narrative, like fate. The cat who writes 80% of the stuff in that band, Joel Robinow, gave me what is probably the second-best science fiction book after Gulliver’s Travels, The Once and Future King. I thought of the name Once and Future Band and told him if he didn’t want it, I would take it. The guys didn’t want it at first, but then took the name, got the band together, and backed me up. Once and Future Band just sheds one member and becomes the Danny James Band when they back me up.
Raj Ojha [drums] is untouchable - I've got my claws in him. I found Raze Regal the guitar player, and he actually played his first show with me where I am right now in the basement of Vacation, which is sort of San Francisco’s premiere weirdo rock ‘n roll boutique. A lot the weirdos you’ve interviewed come in here. It’s like Seditionaries, but we don’t design anything yet. You should come in when you’re in town – it’s great.
BW: Absolutely – I can’t wait. So, while we’re on the subject of band names, I’ve seen the name Danny James, the album PEAR, and then variations of Danny James, Danny James and Pear, and Danny James, Etc. as your artist name. Is “PEAR” an album, or on-going project? You’ve also mentioned to me that Mike is the “funk,” and you’re the “punk.”
DJ: The best way to answer that is to go back to the narrative. When I was a kid in junior high, this group of kids came up to me because I was standing in the rain. They were tough kids, and wanted to know why I was standing in the rain. So they came up and literally asked, “Why are you standing in the rain?” I told them I liked it, because I did, and still do [to this day]. They, called me a “crazy ass white fool,” walked away, and I flipped them the bird. Some kid was watching and narced me out, so they came back and grabbed my backpack.
Out of nowhere, this straight-out-of-1969 suedehead kid came running down the hill and told them it was his bag. They said he was cool and gave the bag back to him. He gave it to me and asked what kind of music I liked. By this time, a rudeboy a rockabilly kid, and a peace punk were there. They were all different but impeccably dressed. I told them to guess, and they guessed punk, and I told them yeah, so they all hi-fived, and that was it. Those kids are the same kids that I’ve played with in bands up until now. There’s a connection between that group and every band you can think of in Oakland.
One of them – Mike – and I came up with an idea after I was in the band The Cuts. We came up with an idea for a band named Pear that would be like Chad & Jeremy combined with pork pie hats and newspapers under our arms. You know, paperboy Chad & Jeremy was the concept. I don’t know why – it was ridiculous, but we were going to be a bubble gum version of that. It’s a play on words, because it’s two of us – pair.
My brother was already getting invited to Prince’s house and playing with Lalah Hathaway, Dave Chappelle, and getting top-tier gigs. He was basically a child prodigy. He heard one of my songs and thought it was really good. That was a huge compliment for me, and if you heard this cat play, you would understand. So he came into the project too, so that’s why there are two Mikes [associated with PEAR].
BW: Is that Mike “General Luau”?
DJ: Mike “General Luau” is the Mike that came up with the name PEAR with me, and then my brother is they guy who takes all of my Euro-centric pop songs and makes them funky.
BW: And is that Michael “Tiger” Louis?
DJ: Michael Louis, yeah. I just gave away the secret recipe, but that’s what it is. Did you ever hear the story about Stevie Wonder playing table hockey and beating everyone, hands-down? Well, I read it in Rolling Stone a week after my brother told me the same story – how Stevie Wonder whupped his ass at table hockey [laughs]. And he got to play [music] with him, so that was cool.
BW: So is PEAR you and General Luau?
DJ: No. General Luau got married and is somewhere in the city. He’s somewhere, and I think we’re still friends.
Me and my brother are writing and recording, and that’s one side of it, and the other side of it is the Danny James Band. We just wrote a bunch of stuff the other day. That’s how the last record was – half me and Mike [Louis], half with whatever guys were hanging around. But now I have The Danny James Band, and they’re the best band in at least…the United States.
BW: I was late to the party on that album, just discovering it last year after Jason Falkner turned me onto it. We were having a discussion about cycles of music, because his music is so rich with harmonies, song form, and hooks. I was suggesting that the craft of that kind of music had perhaps gone away, but he refuted that and used your album as an example, calling it a “fully realized” album. I understand totally, because it sounds like an album where you did exactly what you set out to do, and have a perfectly finished statement. It’s sort of surprising that it’s on Burger Records –as great as that label is- because it’s aesthetically different than much of what is on that label.
DJ: Well, those guys at Burger are old friends of mine. Lee [Rickard] roadied for The Cuts. It’s the first time I’ve heard that compliment actually – thank you. I usually get the opposite: genre schizophrenia, the usual stuff they throw around when they can't pigeonhole you.
BW: You met David Loca [of Part Time] when you were in The Cuts, right?
DJ: [Hesitates] Um…yes. Right, David Loca
BW: A man of many names.
DJ: Yes – that’s what I was going to say.
BW: Were you having extended stays in Texas at that time with The Cuts, or were you living in Texas?
DJ: When I was eighteen, we went out to El Paso to kick hard drugs. No! There was that rumor going around, but it’s not true. I was eighteen and not doing that yet. We went out there to write and get away from parties, and we were young and wanted to do something else. So we went to El Paso and lived in an ancient house with a staircase, two fireplaces, and a foyer…I think it was five bedrooms for $400 a month, and a girl in El Paso paid us another $100 a month to be able to have parties there whenever she wanted. It was a creepy house where if you turned off the lights, there was glow-in-the-dark poetry about roses on the walls – really weird.
But yeah – we lived there, rehearsed every day, and wrote another record. And while we did that, David and his friend would basically just be there, sitting and watching us. That’s what I remember, David!
BW: Which album was it that you were writing during that period?
DJ: Some of the writing probably turned into PEAR, and some of it I know turned into what I’m doing now. But the record by The Cuts was 2 Over Ten, which is the name that the same group of kids - those delinquent snobs I told you about - gave ourselves when we ran around vandalizing things. It’s an old hobo graffiti warning sign that means “two hands, ten fingers”. That’s the name of my production company now, too.
BW: Some of the tracks by The Cuts like “Lemonade” and “She’s in Love” don’t sound a million miles away from PEAR.
DJ: Right. Actually, I want to do “She’s in Love” again, which isn’t the title of that song. That’s the main reason I want to redo it. Dave Katznelson of Birdman Records mixed up the titles. That’s the song that made my brother want to work with me. It’s not like we were estranged or I worshiped him – it’s just that he was this genre, and I was that genre. His genre required a lot of chops, and my genre required a lot of style. That’s what it was.
We just met in the middle and we realized that genres are inherently racist, greed-based, and ridiculous. If you want to be in that boys club, that’s OK, but as far as art goes, we don’t need any artificial boundaries or payola schemes – we’re not getting rich off this anyway. So that’s how we came together.
BW: What’s the process like when you’re working with your brother or working with Once and Future Band? Do you write on bass or another instrument, or do you wait for someone else to bring in an idea, or is it always different?
DJ: It’s always different. It changes with the technology. I used to carry around a little tape recorder which I didn’t actually use that much because I’d always lose the tapes. It’s better to memorize your shit if it’s good, but you don’t always have time. Basically what I’m trying to say is that I have to sing my ideas into my cell phone, like every other jerk.
BW: When you’re actually working on a record, do you record at home, or do you work in an outside studio?
DJ: I go to Michael’s house. Burger Records coughed up some microphones and gear, so we’re doing that. I want to work with the band somewhere – I just haven’t figured out where. I’m working on the new record right now.
BW: Do you have a rough release date for that?
DJ: No, because in the information age, records take five years to make. They take five years to press, because we’re in the future.
BW: Speaking of pressing, are you the one who gives the care to the mastering? I see that PEAR is mastered and re-mastered differently and specifically for each medium that it’s released on: cassette tape, vinyl, and CD.
DJ: It’s not me [mastering] - It’s Patrick Haight. But I definitely asked him to.
DJ: You mean the Mr. Tea thing?
DJ: I called him up the way authors do, and asked for a quote. He’s a really old friend. One time we were camping and he asked me and Ben Brown - who’s the guitarist for The Cuts - to be his backing band before he got it together. Matt Fishbeck is in here all the time, so I guess it’s a California thing. Fishbeck’s music is great, and it’s the same thing – anti-genre.
BW: Please don’t be pressured to answer this if it’s too personal, but I’ve seen a picture of you and it looks like you had a head injury or some sort of procedure done on your head.
DJ: Right. Well, it’s as good a time as any to let the cat out of the bag…I’m not pregnant. That’s why this interview is so jolty – I haven’t done this in a long time. I had to do my 1966 Bob Dylan motor cycle accident – everybody has to do it.
The more expensive things get in Oakland, the weirder the alternatives are. There are these trendy, underground parties where you literally are doing urban exploration for the prep work, and then you go and almost die….several times. It’s fifty percent cool cats, and fifty percent stupid techy bastards, and Burning Man type people. It’s like LARPing, but you don’t have to [LARP].
BW: So these are like semi-secret meetings?
DJ: No – they’re secret parties. You'll have a group of two hundred in dark clothes walking to the site in complete silence. They’re happening in New York and everywhere because they’re fun, dangerous, and illegal.
BW: It sounds kind of ravey, without the music.
DJ: Exactly – there is no music. But there are, for example, sex rooms [laughs], which my friend was in charge of organizing, much to my chagrin. At one point he asked if I’d been in the sex room, and I said I’d rather not.
BW: So where did the head injury come from?
DJ: I went to one of these parties on Treasure Island. It wasn’t a big bash, but it got broken up by the cops. I had brought an 8-track silver boom box from the 70s that had Lou Reed's Berlin in it that I had to leave that behind, as well as a reversible Japanese souvenir jacket the Korean War-era my wife Lacey got me. The next day, Lacey went back with me to find the jacket. I’d had two of those shitty Bud Light Mangoritas after work, and no sleep, because the party was the day before. I got her to go on the roof, because I wanted to show off the building, which as an old Army barracks they were going to tear down in a matter of days to make way for George Lucas’s museum. So we were walking along the roof, and she said, “Honey, be careful!” I answered “I am, but it doesn’t matter baby, because you know what? If I die, I’m happy.”
It sounds like I’m making this up for the interview, but I’m not. Within seconds of saying that, I disappeared. I was out, and didn’t know what happened. I fell three stories through the roof of the building onto a concrete ramp. My wife had the worst of it. I had my head open up and my leg bent behind my back, but she had to find me and decide to leave me in order to get help on Treasure Island, which has no police or hospital. At that point, she thought I was dead.
BW: How long ago was this?
DJ: Just over a year ago. It was in March [of 2016]. So I had to take my obligatory Bob Dylan motorcycle accident year off.
BW: So we’re just coming out of that period now?
DJ: Yeah, it still hurts. Everything is hard. I broke my scapula, my ribs, the ligaments on my spine… I had vertigo for a long time. The thing is, everything is crazy, and that was just the crown on the thunderstorm.
But a lot of good stuff has come from that. After that happened, I wrote “cushy job wanted” on the Internet, and that’s how I started working for Kristin [Klein] at Vacation. Lace came with me, and now we’re going to expand the business and become partners. We have all this stuff lined up.
BW: There seems to be so much care that goes into your albums, but then you seem quite casual and nonchalant in your social media approach. Is it just fair to say that you’re not into self-promotion?
DJ: I don’t like the Internet. I’m definitely into self-promotion – I’m not too humble [for that]. But the thing about it is that 25% of Americans don’t even have a computer, and 50% of those who do can’t be bothered with it and are still avid TV watchers and channel surfers. When I had a public access TV show with that same group of kids, I got stopped more on the street for that than any band [I’ve ever been in]. And those are people I want to connect with, because they are my people: drug addicts, cancer patients, quadriplegics, freaks. They just flip through channels until something catches their eye, so [the show] is another thing I’m going to get back to. It’s called It’s Crazy Time. I prefer that to the app-happy crowd. I wouldn’t call it “future shock” – it’s just “future fatigue.”
BW: The show is an actual public access show?
DJ: Absolutely. There’s no public access channel in Oakland, and there never has been. There used to be a station in Oakland called Soul Beat. They had a VJ named "Night Dog" who would be high off of his ass, taking calls all night. It was the equivalent of black-owned radio, but it was television. It had video jockeys and cats who would just talk into the television screen. Com Channel Clear Cast Reptilian, Inc. shut them down, and instead of replacing them with any alternative, they just shut them down. So the only public access we’ve ever had is in Berkeley – Berkeley 25. I want to do a lot: a soap opera, a talk show, and a live music thing.