"Play What You Feel In Your Heart": Jimmy James Talks to KEXP About His Love for Playing Guitar

Interviews, Local Music
Josiah French
photo by Dusty Henry

You can’t mention Seattle soul/funk or "great local guitarist" without mentioning Jimmy James, one of the hardest working local musicians. James is constantly playing and recording for several bands, mainly the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio and The True Loves. I saw him live in concert for the first time this previous August at our Concerts At The Mural series, where my mind was blown and my body was sore from so much boogying. His feel-good music stays with him whilst off stage, being one of the nicest artists I’ve met (or interviewed). I had the pleasure to sit down and chat with Jimmy about everything from his guitar strings, amp, and pedal preferences, to the impact of good music and the power of individuality. These are the main points but barely scratch the depth of the interview. Read below to find out more. 

KEXP:  So, for all the gear buffs out in the world, tell us what your setup is like? Like, your guitar or maybe the amp you're running through? 

Jimmy James: Well, I use mixed gauge strings, which you can't really find unless you get them in singles. The other thing is that I just run guitar to amp. 

I remember reading that somewhere. Not a single pedal? 

Yeah, no pedals. There've been times where in certain situations I've had to use it, just a little distortion unit and a wah. Other than that, I don't really use it. I like the sound that you can just control with your hands, you know? Oh, and the amp I use is a Peavey Delta Blues Amp. I just like the sound that it produces. It's not too harsh, it's not too basic, it's just right. You know, it's just like plug and play. Turn the amp on and the rest is all in your control. Because I would say that the tone is in your fingers. 

I feel like you can never get to the best level you always want to be. You're always improving. How much would you say you practice?

I'm always practicing in my head. Like, I'm always hearing different things, you know. There's so much I want to get out of it. Sometimes you'll be in the middle of, like, I don't know... daydreaming, and you hear something you're like, "oh man I'm going to play that." Sometimes you can't always get it out, you know. But I try anyway. I'm still always trying to unlock whatever that is I'm hearing in my head from time to time. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes it takes a while but, oh, I'll figure it out. 

That's awesome. Do you have any advice you would give to your guitar-playing-self five to ten years ago, or any young guitar players out in the world? 

I would just say play what you feel, you know? Play what you feel that is in your heart. That makes more of a difference than gear, equipment, or anything like that because it's more of just you. I guess, in a way, music is a universal language since you're able to talk through it. Whereas right now I'm having a hard time talking but if I was behind the guitar it would be one thing because it's just like having a conversation, you know? You want to emote what you're feeling and that's what I believe to do.

I remember the first time I heard "Purple Haze"... It scared me. 

I feel like some people don't realize that Jimi Hendrix was playing modern blues in a time that blues was dying in pop culture. With funk not being mainstream right now, how do you make it so accessible to all of these modern generations? 

To me, what I felt with Jimi was that he was really free with a guitar. I remember the first time I heard him at about eight-years-old and heard "Purple Haze." It scared me. But I thought it was current, too. He showed the endless possibilities that the guitar could do. Especially when he did the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock like he did. I mean, he had the sounds of Learjets, bombs, and all that stuff going on. I remember when I first saw it, I couldn't believe it. Just wow, this man took six strings and made it sound endless. The way he did blues, he never left the blues. The blues was always there. You could hear a song like "Voodoo Child" but then go back and hear a song like "Catfish Blues" or "Still a Fool" by Muddy Waters and you can be like "oh, that's where it's heard from." The blues has always been there. The blues is a part of American music and he just took it up from there. 

Staying true to yourself regardless of the trend or whatever is mainstream pop music, right. Do you think that makes for timeless music? 

There's a great line in Jimi Hendrix's "If 6 Was 9." He says he's going to "wave his freak flag high." He's like, I'm going to do what I want to do, you know? James Brown did the same thing and a lot of other people did that too. I just always dug that they did those things. I always dug that they were going to do as they felt because if you go around and you're trying to, stay up with the Joneses, well, when are you going to have time to be yourself?

Have you ever got that weird phenomenon of people being surprised you play guitar because you're a person of color? 

Yeah, I used to get that a lot way back when. It's funny because I remember reading my friend Eva Walker from The Black Tones had mentioned something in that, too. I said, oh I can relate to this because I remember people put me down for just playing guitar. They were like, "what are you doing?" Or you get somebody who's just like, "you play music? Well, are you a rapper or a deejay?" You have so much of those stereotypes that are thrown at you. Then for me, I was pretty much the oddest cat in my neighborhood because I was walking around wearing bell bottoms, playing guitar, and listening to everything from Little Richard to Wilson Pickett. All my friends and my peers are like, "Why you listen to that old stuff? Why you look so weird? Why do you play guitar? Why don't you do this?" Again, it goes back to what I said before, I wasn't trying to fool anybody. I was just being comfortable in my own skin and not many people can sit there and say they feel comfortable with their own skin. 

That's kind of what I like about that style from a lot of those cats. It's like comfort food. You don't have to put all this extra stuff on it and dress it up. It's just straight, basic, put on a plate, served up to you with a smile. 

I called it a phenomenon because of the fact that some of the most pivotal, innovative, and influential guitar players of all time were black people. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Are there any of these pioneers who you love that you think people should know about? 

I like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, you know the mother of rock n roll. There's a song she did called "Up Above My Head" and all I have say is just go watch the video on YouTube, you'll see what it is. Jimmy Nolan, who played with James Brown. He's responsible for the guitar sound in James Brown's band. Everything from "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" to "Lickin' Stick", "Cold Sweat", "Mother Popcorn", all of that. Pat O'Hare played with Bobby Bland. The people who got me into music were Robert White, Joe Messina, and Eddie Willis, who were the three guitar players in the Funk Brothers. Robert White was responsible for the riff to "My Girl" for the Temptations. Eddie Willis, who just recently passed, he's the one who played the guitar riff on "I Second That Emotion" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It's simple but it got straight to the point. That's kind of what I like about that style from a lot of those cats. It's like comfort food. You don't have to put all this extra stuff on it and dress it up. It's just straight, basic, put on a plate, served up to you with a smile. There are way more guitar players I can think about. I mean, I could go back to the 1920s with people like Blind Willie McTell, Barbecue Bob, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf, Hubert Sumlin who played with Howlin Wolf. I mean, shoot, I don't even know if we have enough time on tape for all these names, but if you really dig into it you'll find out all the guys who are responsible for a lot of the stuff that happened on those records.

You were listening to soul, funk, and all this kind of music at a pretty young age. You said you're driving down the street and your mom remembers you singing Aretha Franklin from the backseat? 

Yeah, I was hearing that from the time I was like, four. I mean, I heard everything, all sorts of different things, everything from soul to funk to country to gospel to pop. My sister was a drummer, and played metal and arena rock stuff, like progressive rock, so I heard a lot of that. But for music, I was always into it, no matter what. Most high school bands, if you've been to bands in the Seattle area, you know they play jazz. Well, our high school band was playing James Brown and Kool and the Gang. And we were 15 years old. But it's because we knew what we wanted to play. 

How do you come about writing a story with instrumental music? 

You know, I don't know. It's funny because I just go with what feels good to me at that point. Anything could have come up out of nowhere. It's crazy how the mind works. I've heard there's been situations where you can hear a beat somewhere, like a washing machine that gets unbalanced. You may hear it and go "hmmm, I like that beat." All of a sudden you might play to it and you're like "oh, I got something here". It could've come from anywhere. Little Richard. When he did "Lucille" he heard a train go [imitates a train chugging], then all of a sudden [sings "Lucille" bass line]. That's how "Lucille" came about. Anything can influence it. 

With all of these big modern bands from the Leon Bridges and Alabama Shakes to you guys (True Loves) and The Dip, where do you see the future of soul and funk music going? 

You know, time can tell. I can never judge what the future is going to be. I just live in the moment now. At the end of the day, you want to make music that feels good, that makes people forget about the troubles of the day. Music shouldn't even have to be that political. It should make people forget about the political stuff that's going on or all the troubles that they're going through. It brings people together of every different culture, gender, race, etc. When you can bring people together and put a smile on their faces and have them feel good going home, that's a great feeling. It's the same as going into a church. Whether you are religious or not. As James Brown once said, "you go to church to lose your troubles." You lose your troubles and forget how bad today was. I believe that we come together as people. Forget who's a Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, or whatever. I don't really care for all these titles. It's more of, let's bring everyone together and play music that feels good. It might not even have a genre or title, It's just music that makes you feel good. Makes you have the endorphins run through you and makes us all feel human. 

"The Dapper Derp / Kabuki, Singles" single is out now on vinyl. The True Loves are playing a Halloween show on Wednesday, October 31st at Neumos with Mother of Pearl and the Emerald City Soul Club. (And yes, there will be a costume contest.) 

Related News & Reviews

Local Music KEXP Premiere

The True Loves Bring a Joyous Sound with New Song “Kabuki” (KEXP Premiere)

The True Loves return with a b-side to their "The Dapper Derp" 7-inch single, out Sept. 14

Read More
Upstream Music Fest + Summit

Upstream 2018: The True Loves at Little London Plane (6/3)

The True Loves kick off Day 3 of KEXP's broadcast at Little London Plane at Upstream Music Festival 2018.

Read More
Interviews Local Music

KEXP Exclusive Interview: Jimmy James of The True Loves

Imagine a pair of bell-bottoms. A suede vest. A wide collar, strutting leather boots. Similarly, imagine sequins and elongated lashes. Pearls and sly eyes. If you can imagine this, you can begin to sense the spirits that inspired the newest record from Seattle soul and funk group, The True Loves. T…

Read More