The James Duncan interview

Another album I mentioned in a recent post and said I would return to is James Duncan's Hello-Fi. I held off writing about it for a few weeks and recently had the chance to chat to the Auckland-based musician.

Hello-Fi is one of my favourite releases (so far) this year. And I can't say that it did not come without expectations. Duncan has been a co-writer, producer and player in two of my favourite bands from recent years, Dimmer and SJD.

The last SJD album, Dayglo Spectres, Duncan agrees, was a collaboration. "That was our album. It was Sean's [Sean James Donnelly] a lot more than it was mine but it was ours in the sense that we wrote the basis of many of the tracks together."

Shy about being interviewed, at least to begin with (we end spending an hour on the telephone) James Duncan nervously laughs when he tries to explain his role/s in Dimmer and SJD. "They're, kinda, in a way, my day job," and instantly he jumps on the defensive, paranoid at how that sounds, "oh no, I don't want to sound like a douchebag but, you know what I mean, right? They're bands that I like playing in and, well, I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own horn but I think both Sean and Shayne [Carter, Dimmer] knew that I know what I am doing."

Duncan has worked in other bands ("at one point I was in five bands at one time, I think") and has released the Mirror Minor EP and works under the duo-name Punches ("we are slowly working on another record there too; Kelly [Steven] is in Nashville, so I'll hopefully go over there at some stage to make an album"). So it is no surprise to see a full-length solo record. He is certainly not a sideman: the involvement in both Dimmer and SJD has been key to the bands' success - crucial to the sound.

Another album I mentioned in a recent post and said I would return to is James Duncan's Hello-Fi. I held off writing about it for a few weeks and recently had the chance to chat to the Auckland-based musician.

Hello-Fi is one of my favourite releases (so far) this year. And I can't say that it did not come without expectations. Duncan has been a co-writer, producer and player in two of my favourite bands from recent years, Dimmer and SJD.

The last SJD album, Dayglo Spectres, Duncan agrees, was a collaboration. "That was our album. It was Sean's [Sean James Donnelly] a lot more than it was mine but it was ours in the sense that we wrote the basis of many of the tracks together."

Shy about being interviewed, at least to begin with (we end spending an hour on the telephone) James Duncan nervously laughs when he tries to explain his role/s in Dimmer and SJD. "They're, kinda, in a way, my day job," and instantly he jumps on the defensive, paranoid at how that sounds, "oh no, I don't want to sound like a douchebag but, you know what I mean, right? They're bands that I like playing in and, well, I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own horn but I think both Sean and Shayne [Carter, Dimmer] knew that I know what I am doing."

Duncan has worked in other bands ("at one point I was in five bands at one time, I think") and has released the Mirror Minor EP and works under the duo-name Punches ("we are slowly working on another record there too; Kelly [Steven] is in Nashville, so I'll hopefully go over there at some stage to make an album"). So it is no surprise to see a full-length solo record. He is certainly not a sideman: the involvement in both Dimmer and SJD has been key to the bands' success - crucial to the sound.

Hello-Fi is a great album - a short, sharp, well realised record. It has a flow to it, the songs, featuring alt-rock and pop hooks dressed up with electro textures, are punchy and dynamic. Duncan understates it, "Hello-Fi was, to begin with, just a bunch of songs but the track listing shaped it, gave it a form, turned it in to an album."

James says his story is "pretty standard really: it was the 1980s, I was into Duran Duran, my mum bought me piano lessons, from there I moved to guitar and on into bands where I got into writing songs. From there I started to seek out ways to record the sounds I was making and then show more people. I made recordings on computers - capturing the noises - and from there my focus changed. I went from wanting to be a musician to being more interested in being a producer."

He credits Warp Records "in the mid-90s" as being crucial to his development. "Acts like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin were very inspiring; this incredible noise that is also very melodic, full of ideas - and of course it's the idea of the single musician working as a producer too. There were so many cool sounds and for a while I didn't even want to play guitar; just wanted to get involved in making noises."

Flash forward to 2009, there are SJD tours and shows, on the back of Dayglo (released last year), there's a brand new Dimmer album and shows to support it. Duncan's own Hello-Fi album ("we'll get a band together to do a solo-album tour; we'll stretch the songs out a bit and it should be fun") and production duties working with Charlie Ash - it must be a compromise? Things must get lost, pushed to the side?

"I guess it is a compromise, to a degree. But I'm happy to do it. It is work and I treat it as work - if something's got to be done I'll do it, but working alone the whole time it's hard to stay motivated. I'm a morning person, I like to have some coffee and just get stuck in. I treat it like a 9-5, as much as I can."

The penchant for short, sharp songs comes, as far as Duncan is concerned, "as a by-product of working on a computer. You listen to it a lot, editing, shifting shapes around and I don't think a 10-minute outro is that rewarding when working on music alone, but as I say, live, we might look at stretching things out - I do see the appeal of striking a groove as a band and sustaining a mood."

I tell James that he has a signature sound - there are glimpses of it linking his recorded work with Punches through SJD to Dimmer, back to SJD and on to Hello-Fi (in fact my words are that he is, like Prince, able to repeat himself without actually repeating himself; still making it fresh and interesting, while tracing back to the original idea).

He puts it simply, "every musician has their inbuilt melodies".

And that simple line - like one of Duncan's songs (see here for A Obvious) - is perfect in being succinct, also hinting at a depth, at so much more...

James Duncan is also giving YOU the chance to make a video for him.

See our friend-in-music over at Cheese on Toast for full details but basically, as Duncan explains:

"Contestants have until September 24 to make a video on any format they want (my last two vids were shot on a cameraphone and edited out of stock footage from the internet). The winner will receive not only the accolade of making an awesome video and having it playlisted on Juice TV, but also the entire Round Trip Mars back catalogue, including a very limited gold-cover Cupboards Bare 7-inch.

So, go to Cheese on Toast to enter the video competition (scroll to the bottom of the page). Click on one of those Amplifier links or visit any music store to check out the music.

Have you heard Hello-Fi? Do you like it? Are you already a fan of Dimmer/Punches/SJD (any/all) so you know you will probably dig it? Or is it not your cup of tea?

I rate James Duncan as one of our most talented writers, producers and players currently working. I look forward to seeing him live - promoting this amazing solo album - and I hope his audience grows.

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