In recent years James Duncan has made strong contributions to both the live sets and albums of two of the country’s pre-eminent musical movers and shakers – Shayne Carter and Sean ‘SJD’ Donnelly. As Punches, his side project with bass playing singer Kelly Sherrod, he also not long ago released a trans-continental album ‘Etheria’. (See NZM August/September 2011.) Now he’s back in the frame with his own album ‘Vanishing’ landing in May. Mark Bell caught up with the busy Auckland guitarist/producer as the final mastering touches were being made to his second solo record.
It’s a curious thing that such an in-demand and highly capable guitarist and producer, when asked to describe his approach to guitar playing in three words, should come up with “…not very good”. But that’s James Duncan for you, self-effacing to a fault, charting his own edgy and highly individual sonic path through a music scene clogged with the safe, the brash and the endlessly re-hashed.
It’s a really unsettling, ugly/beautiful kind of record, with Duncan’s natural melodic sense and languid vocals playing off against darkly detailed and at times downright disturbing soundtracks.
“I’m not really thinking about the end game when I’m writing, about what people’s reaction is, he says as we seek shelter from the vigorous southerly on Auckland’s Mt Eden. So he’s not on a mission to take people out of their genre-based comfort zones then?
“I think a lot of it was kind of deliberately made to kind of freak people out to a degree, and to freak myself out a little bit and try and come up with…” he abandons that train of thought to the wind.
“A lot of the songs are kind of based on loops, and I’ve just like built upon them. And instead of nurturing those loops I just made things that were kind of dissonant and worked against them.”
In the style of expressionist painter Jackson Pollock there is quite a bit of throwing stuff at the canvas, but with the added advantage that judicious editing can completely change the nature of the finished piece.
“I think if I’ve got too much of an idea of how I want it to sound I’ll invariably be disappointed with it and my ability to get those sounds. There’s a lot of throwing random stuff at it and seeing what sticks, and then editing out the bits that are way too crazy or too dissonant, and then kind’a just leaving the ones that are just crazy enough.”
It’s a technique Duncan admits to picking up from Sean Donnelly, though he confesses; “I’m probably not as good as him at stripping it back you know? I kind of tend to get attached to stuff that doesn’t need to be in there.”
That’s not to suggest that James Duncan is a hit-and-hope kind of producer, because it takes a lot of talent to do ‘random’ well. I contacted Don McGlashan, who guests as a horn player on the new record and also used Duncan’s magic on recent movie and TV soundtracks, to try and get another angle on this elusive musician.
“He’s one of those players that listens to the track, then reaches deep into himself and pulls out something quite simple, but exactly right. For the scores for ‘Matariki’ and ‘This Is Not My Life’, I got James to layer up lots of screeching and droning – all really unpredictable stuff made by scratching the E string at the bridge, then getting delays to feed back on themselves. I ended up able to use that as the foundation for a lot of pieces.”
McGlashan goes on to point out that you can’t play SJD’s music if you don’t know what you’re doing.
“But he seems to have that blessed ability to turn off his mind when he feels like it, and plug his lead straight into his subconscious. That’s what makes him such a cool player.”
It’s interesting too that a guy, rightly or wrongly, perceived as a guitarist should make an album that leans so lightly on the guitar to carry the day. Duncan tell me he’s tending to think of himself as a producer more than as a musician these days.
“Guitar is a really good band instrument, it’s really good for playing with people. But when it’s just you and a computer, you’re kind’a thinking, ‘How can I build this song, and what’s the most interesting sounds I can use to make a song?’ Sometimes with guitar I can get a little bit bored with all the sounds I can kind’a pull out.”
For sure he had plenty to get on with outside of wailin’ on his guitar, what with also playing nearly all of the drums, bass and synths himself, engineering, mixing and availing himself of a very skeletal guest list (McGlashan and Tom Watson on horns, with Chelsea Jade for some vocals), making this a solo record in the true sense of the word.
There are many perils associated with real solo recording, some of which are having too many choices and no deadlines, eventual loss of objectivity, momentum and possibly mind – problems Duncan says he did his best to combat with a regular routine and workman-like attitude.
“When I was making the record I had a nice studio in Newton Gully and I just kind of treated it as a job, you know? Go in there at 10 in the morning and leave at 10 o’clock at night, and after that tried really hard not to think about it too much!”
Nevertheless you can get a sense of the difficulty of maintaining objectivity when he says he kept some drum takes as entire warts-and-all performances, yet agonised over other smallest details for a year.
The first time I encountered James Duncan was at a Dimmer show at the Kings Arms, where he was laying down some incredible Memory Man loop pedal soundscapes. I came away really impressed. I ask if he sees his role in Dimmer as the atmosphere guy to Shayne Carter’s edgy angularity.
“I think so, yeah, because like I said, I’m not that good a guitar player, and it kind’a comes back to that working with a computer and trying to think about the whole sound and everything. I mean Shayne’s a killer guitar player, so if I can just back him up and put some dynamics in there, some atmosphere in there, then it’s sweet.”
With Punches’ and Dimmer sidekick Kelly Sherrod now based in Nashville and original plans to record there on hold, Duncan still pressed on with producing ‘Etheria’, once again doing the hard yards solo then sending files off to Nashville.
“It did have limitations,” he admits. “I mean I wouldn’t want to do it too much like this again, it just being one sole producer. It’s quite hard trying to make decisions by yourself without someone… even a little grunt from behind, just going, ‘Aaaah, I’m not too sure about that’. Or someone going, ‘Ah yeah, do it’.”
Talking gear, he says he had pretty much everything he needed to make the record – “… which wasn’t that much” – although an England-bound friend did entrust his synths to him.
“That was quite handy, but I pretty much had all my own stuff and locked the doors.”
One amplifier which does rate a mention alongside the beloved Memory Man, and noticeably stamps its character on the album owes its origins to an old tube radio.
” got it customised so you can put a guitar into it – it’s got the craziest sound, it’s just like beautiful distortion sound. And you can change little speakers – I’ve got a bunch of little radio speakers. I’d find I’d just be sending stuff out, guitar parts or drum parts through that and re-recording it. It gives things really good character and cool textures.”
This kind of fearlessness in exploring unusual and occasionally abrasive sonic terrain is an aspect of this challenging, detailed and slightly disorienting album that Don McGlashan observes.
“There’s a great temptation in recording to give everything a showroom polish. James isn’t afraid of a few dents and scratches – and the result is always something more real and interesting.”
Interesting is a word I’ve tried to avoid so far in talking about James Duncan’s music. It can be interpreted as a diversionary device to avoid saying what you really think, but McGlashan is right, it is interesting. And in the case of this latest effort from one of New Zealand’s most original and hardworking guitari- sorry, producers, interesting is very good indeed.
Photo by Chelsea Jade