James Blonde Are True Chameleons
Every band’s story is different, but James Blonde has a particularly singular origin story. Between a long-held place as a house cover band, to their unique advantage as a Niagara band, to evolutions (and at least one name change), the band has found more opportunities for unique gigs than you’d expect. We spoke to bassist Neil Carson ahead of the band’s set at LIVE! On Elgin on Friday, September 29 to talk their new record Chameleon, coffee and how they scored an amazing first show ever for their band.
OLM: How do you feel being the house band for Spyce Lounge in Niagara shaped your dynamics as a band, and have you kept up that gig?
Neil Carson: I think it helps us as a band and everything, doing a covers side of things. For some reason a lot of people choose to keep that part of their career more undercover, because they feel it takes away from, I don’t know, maybe the integrity of the originals side, which I don’t understand. But I think at this point the band is pretty open to talking about it, and that is still something we do. Because we’re full-time musicians, so if we’re not touring, we are playing private events and that sort of thing. And it does help keep our chops up, right? So, there’s that.
OLM: A lot of bands’ latest works feel like reactions to pandemic life. Do you feel like Chameleon was really informed from that time?
Neil: I think our one lead single, “Back to Life” was more about the time around the pandemic, and “Phil” the drummer, wrote that about coming out of covid. So that was more of a positive song about being excited about trying to put all of that in the past. Some of the songs were definitely written during covid, but I don’t think that’s a theme on the record at all, and we didn’t feel the need to write about that too much. Even our previous record with Gus van Go had more anger in there just from writing in that period, dealing with the world at that point. But Chameleon felt a little more introspective, and there’s still some fun stuff on there.
OLM: Was the angrier nature of that work with Gus van Go part of the reason it was kept separate from the LP?
Neil: Some of the songs that are on Chameleon were written around the same time as that EP, which was a little more rock. We had a bit heavier stuff in us at the time, and also Gus van Go wasn’t interested in helping us make this unified sound. To help break out, it’s kind of helpful to have this consistent sound a little bit, so we tried that with the EP. But the timing of it being released during covid, budgets got cut a lot, and it didn’t go as far as we thought, even though I think the songs were all there. Going from that to Chameleon, we decided to break out of just doing straight-up rock songs, and it was almost kind of a return to form, like when we were writing together not even as James Blonde, it was quirkier and more fun, and sort of all over the place. So that’s how Chameleon got that vibe, and got the name.
OLM: How did you guys end up scoring a coffee collaboration with Black Sheep Coffee for your song “Back to Life,” and how involved did you get in the process for picking flavour, packaging and other details?
Neil: It was super fun. The owner of Black Sheep had been a part of the music scene, so we kind of always knew him. I’m not sure who approached who, but, yeah, we just both thought it was a cool idea. And he totally had us involved, Phil and I went and sat down, and he gave us all these different coffees to try to create this blend. We got closer and closer to it until we had this product we thought everyone would like, whether you like drip brew or espresso. I always thought the cross-promotion was a cool idea, and it just worked. It was also something different to do a band coffee, and people have been buying it while we’re on tour. I enjoy it too, it’s nice to have your own coffee.
OLM: I know you guys are also a rare band that has three lead vocalists, so do lead choices usually come down to the writer of a particular song or is there a lot of jostling for who ends up singing any one song?
Neil: For the most part the lead vocals do come down to whoever wrote it, sings it. We all write melodies for each other as well, so it ends up as a mixed bag. It’s cool though, I think that’s what makes a band fun, it’s just writing stuff you wouldn’t expect because of all the other helpers. And having us all three be songwriters and singers, it really becomes something unique that none of us would be able to write on our own. But if you hear a lead, it’s most likely that person wrote the bulk of at least the lyrics, because that person will have a sentimental connection there, so they’re probably going to get the message across best.
OLM: How did your recent single “Miss You” come together, you can definitely hear a bit of the Black Keys mixed in with the synths?
Neil: “Miss You,” I wrote the bulk of during covid, and I didn’t know how to picture it. I was playing it on piano at first in a singer-songwriter way. But Phil’s not so into those kinds of ballads, so he likes to have a groove to keep interest, which makes sense for a drummer. That’s a great perspective to have, because I’m more singer-songwriter-y, so to get that more rhythmic input brought it into a whole new space. It’s got a melancholy in it from the original idea, but now it has this cool band groove which we’re excited about.
OLM: I read your first official show was opening for Serena Ryder and Sam Roberts on New Year’s Eve, how did you swing that?
Neil: It would be crazy to do that on your first run ever, and that’s because we’d just changed our name, and we had a new album out. Living in Niagara was a huge help as well. When we were a four-piece under a different name, we had opened for Keith Urban, which was a huge New Year’s show. So, a few years later we were asked to come out again for another New Year’s show, I’m not even sure if it was the same people who asked us, but we had this new name at the time. So, it worked out really well to have this as the first official gig for James Blonde. There was a bit of history with our working relationship to get there though. It was super exciting because most first gigs do not have that kind of attendance, for sure. And to also have a new crowd of people from probably all over the world with Niagara’s tourist draw, it’s like doing a tour without going anywhere, and having all the new ears listening to your new record.
Band Photo: Janine V Photography