August 19th, 2011 | Interviews

James Pants is the missing link between Gary Wilson and Prince—well, maybe Giorgio Moroder and Kim Fowley? He’s a producer (in the most expansive sense) who overcame a horrific prom night to sign with Stones Throw and explore the various unexpected intersections between the psychedelic occult and the analog synth. His self-titled 2XLP is out now on Stones Throw and he speaks here of the last place in a wired world to discover real weirdos. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

This might be a little personal but I think the world wants to know: Did you ever get the goat that you wanted to get when you were living in Washington?
Oh, you heard about that? I wish I could have gotten that. We never had the space, of course, and it was a zoning issue. I don’t know that I have what it takes to raise a goat but I’m a big fan and one of these days. It’s kind of my life goal to get one.
Is that just because they eat trash, or because you want to look into those goaty eyes and find a soulmate?
A bit of both, but I really like the cheese too.
If you’ve got a soulmate that can make cheese, you’re living the life. What is the largest animal you’ve ever had?
I had a pretty large tarantula when I was a kid. I was kind of one of those bug nerds. I had a big centipede too.
Did you let them crawl over your naked arms?
I did, strangely, but then I had a bad incident about a year later where there was this spider—not a pet spider, but just a normal spider—that somehow … I was living in a basement in Washington and there are just tons of spiders in the fall. It was a huge one, obviously a very pregnant spider and it was kind of in the center of my room. When I woke up in the morning, I stomped on it and it looked totally dead and then it ran under my bed. So I refused to sleep there for a couple days. It might have been a week. Because it was in my bed and, you know, I was young. When I came back, I pulled my bedsheets open and there were tons of spiders in my bed. Like it had raised all these babies.
This is like a David Cronenberg movie.
From that point on I had it with spiders. Although ten minutes ago, I freed one. We had one in our bathroom and I just let it outside, but usually I hate them. I got bit by, like—I guess we call them ‘hobo spiders.’
Are they carried by hobos or they act like hobos or …?
I think it’s because they just hang out in your house. It’s like a basement spider. It’s brown, big and hairy. They’re slightly poisonous and I got bit by one in my sleep like five years ago.
Can you speak to how slightly poisonous they are?
It starts off like a tiny little mark on your arm that itches and it just grows every day. Five days later, my arm was covered in blisters and it was gross. Just super gross. So I went in and it was a relatively easy fix but it was pretty nasty.
How do you think your robust ability to metabolize poison has helped you as a music producer?
Good question. I guess alcohol consumption, coffee … I like both ends of the spectrum: the depressants and the stimulants. I used to drink a bunch of wine and record but lately in the last year or so it’s just been quite a lot of coffee—almost to the point where you’re getting really panicky.
These images that have been put out into the world of you stepping into a concrete room with a single red bulb and being surrounded by vintage synthesizers—how close is that to what actually happens?
It’s slightly accurate. I’ve always had basement studios. And I used to have a red light. But I started off in the concrete basement and went to a wallpapered basement and I did that Seven Seals record in my house’s laundry room. That was more of a linoleum basement.
You’ve mentioned in a bunch of interviews that you have a lot of affection for the solitary genius kind of guy, like Gary Wilson, Mikey Dread, Joe Meek, Madlib—what is so attractive about the guy who comes out of the cave and just presents his genius to planet Earth?
There’s not really a regional scene you can attach their music to. And that’s maybe because they are solitary. …I’ve always lived in decent-sized cities but not ever, like, the one that’s cool. So there’s really not a music scene I was a part of. I was just recording by myself and so I think that’s what makes my stuff different than other … you know, that’s what differentiates it from other people. I think also that’s why I’ve always liked those guys who just kind of put out a record and it comes out of nowhere and sometimes people hate it but it just sounds totally different. Those are the kind of records I like to buy and hang onto. Just anything that sounds completely different—you can’t pinpoint exactly what it is.
How do you keep your own music from going off the rails into complete insanity?
I listen to a lot of pop songs. I guess I make pop music at heart really—that’s all it is. So I think it’s the artist that makes pop music but it’s kind of the outsider pop—like it could be a hit in some other world. It’s just for whatever reason—like their keyboard was out of tune and they can’t sing, but the song is there.
Is that the secret to all these guys? ‘I wasn’t trying to be weird. I was trying to be Michael Jackson.’
Exactly. That’s really the key. Sometimes people are weird for weird’s sake and to me, it comes off not as genuine for some reason. It sounds like you’re trying too hard. Which is why some people say my stuff’s humorous—which I guess it is, but it’s serious. Maybe it’s humorous because it’s like pop, but stranger. … It’s probably just because of the music videos. I get so nervous with making those and we never have any budget so it ends up looking like some Looney Tunes stuff. One of these days I’ll do a professional video and we’ll see. In fact, there’s a video coming out for a new song and I’m not going to be in it.
Did you hire an actor to play James Pants?
No, actually it’s even better. The guy who’s directing it is Joey from Airplane, the late 70s comedy movie. The little boy who goes in the cockpit and the pilot’s hitting on him and stuff.
How did you find that guy?
He lives in L.A. and he is a friend. I met him through Peanut Butter Wolf. He did the ‘Cosmic Rapp’ video. And he’s the perfect guy when you have 500 bucks. When you’ve got to make a blockbuster, he’s like the dude to call.
Do you find that you work better with no budget and no time?
For sure. I think I make better songs when I have less time. I technically have not had a day job for four years until the last two weeks. So maybe that’s hard to say. I try to record every single day but as far as the no money thing … for sure, I can’t afford to do anything else but sit around and try to make songs. And money’s such a weird thing with music because you’re like rich for a couple months and then you’re broke and then you’re rich again.
How much of the music you make is based on what was available easily and cheaply? How much of your musical identity is based on, ‘Well, I’ll get ten things from this dollar bin instead of one thing for ten dollars’?
I think that actually plays a huge part. When I was making that album Welcome—I think it came out in 2008, I can’t remember—but I started that maybe in 2005 or 2006, not with an album in mind but just recording. And I was buying a lot of 80s R&B and it was so cheap because everybody wanted 60s funk or really rare Italo disco and I couldn’t afford it. So I was just buying 80s R&B from the dollar bins and I fell in love with the sounds and keyboards and then I basically got priced out of that too.
Is this like in the movie where the evil developer comes in and builds a shopping mall over your playground?
I definitely wasn’t trying to do 80s revivalist stuff but it was in the air at the time and that sound just got wildly popular and it still is. I feel like there’s a new boogie artist every day. So that was when I said, ‘OK, I’m just going to make a psych record.’ I was buying pretty good records, but really beat-up ones. So I just got way off the deep-end into psych and like 70s electronic music. I think for the last record I didn’t really have any specific records in mind when I was buying, but basically my theory is that the next big thing is always the dollar bin. Whatever people aren’t buying will be a new thing when you revisit it. I was even buying a lot of new age records …
And then all of a sudden here comes this whole new age Vangelis revival thing.
Yeah and Oneohtrix Point Never and stuff like that. I remember when I was younger, maybe when I was in high school or university, everybody was after Roy Ayers records and they were very expensive. It turns out they were not that rare and suddenly nobody wants them and you can find them for a buck. So it just goes like that. David Axelrod or whatever.
Can I ask you to philosophically extrapolate this? How much of what’s going on in music and culture can you literally scout out by just checking the thrift stores?
I don’t know, it’s hard to say. If you think of the music right now, it went from whatever they call it—chill wave—to like …
Warbly VHS late-night music?
Yeah, but right now a lot of the thrift store stuff has dried up in the U.S., other than, like, Steely Dan. And I think you hear a lot of Steely Dan in a lot of the records coming out.
Have we hit peak thrift store in the same way that we’re coming up on peak oil?
To be honest, I think we have, unless we want to revisit easy listening. I’ve been buying those records too. But now it’s different because I’m in Germany so there are no dollar bins, but they have really crazy records over here so it’s a whole new world for me.
What is your reject pile like? You know, all the dollar records you bought that turned out not to be good records at all?
Oh, I’ve got a lot. But it’s always worth a dollar gamble and I’ve come across some really good stuff that way too. Although lately I’ve just been buying—it’s so terrible, I feel like I’m a sell-out—but I’ve just been buying stuff on iTunes, getting stuff on blogs, and if I like it then I try and find the record and pay way too much for it. There’s still one area left relatively untouched, and that’s CD Baby.
CDbaby is the thrift store of the internet?
There is some crazy stuff on CDbaby. A lot of them are burned or hand-drawn or not even drawn. I bought one that was just a CD-R with Sharpie on it.
So this is where the private press records of the 2000s are?
Oh definitely. I went on a spree not that long ago and got a bunch of really bizarre—and I stress ‘bizarre’—Dirty South, like, gospel music? It’d be like Mannie Fresh-style drum programming really badly recorded with a lot of rapping and singing by little kids and older ladies. You know, really nutty stuff. A lot of bedroom guys recording on their boom box. And you can sample all the music, so it’s really cool.
Do these people ever write to you? Do you get little notes or stuff since they’re stoked that some guy in Germany is ordering their record?
I wish. Sometimes cool stuff happens, like I put this one late 70s soul song on a mix and the guy’s son found out about the mix and said, ‘I’ve got all his other 45s and I’ll send you some.’ That kind of stuff.
That’s everyone’s dream. The mixtape comes to life and it’s friendly.
Actually, one of my favorite bands of all time is the Seeds and I put them on some year-end list of my favorite records and Sky Saxon’s wife—he’s deceased now, but she sent me a note saying how happy she was and included these three crazy posters from the 60s of each member of the Seeds. I was like, ‘Man, how the heck does that happen?’ I would imagine Beck or someone would give a shout out to the Seeds as well. I don’t know why she sent the posters to me.
Maybe she sensed something Seeds-esque about you. Wasn’t he in that cult for a while? Not the Rainbow Family but …
Father Yod. You did the whole Seven Seals thing and your Music for Cults mixtape. Do you think the next natural step would be becoming Father Pants and setting up a commune in Germany like Faust did?
It’s possible. I’m still developing my theology. The whole cult thing is so fascinating because during that time—I wasn’t alive; I wasn’t born until 82—but to me it’s, like, mystical. Like, there are all these weird cults and they’re making records and, like, what is going on? Kenneth Anger movies … wow! I like the whole aesthetic of it.
Who is your favorite ‘never made it’ guy?
I have to say my main homeboy, Gary Wilson. He continually impresses me in that he does relatively the same thing he’s been doing since the 70s and it still sounds crazier than anybody else. Luckily I’ve been able to tour with him and play drums for him and stuff.
What is Gary Wilson like when you have to drive 500 miles in the van with him?
He’s actually a really normal dude.
How would you quantify that normality?
Well, he’s definitely not ‘normal,’ I guess. I guess no one really is. But socially, he’s fine. Very friendly and quiet. He really likes hamburgers.
What’s his fast food restaurant of choice?
I think any one will do, but I know he only eats hamburgers with nothing on them. No cheese, no mayo. Just the patty and the bun. That was kind of an issue in some cities where they didn’t have regularly available hamburgers. But yeah, he’s definitely the obvious choice for me but there’s so many.
You were talking in interviews about how you like to retire your keyboards after doing records so you’re not always using the same sound over and over. What is the James Pants retirement home for vintage synthesizers like?
Oh, I sell them.
You’re kind of a ruthless guy!
I think I was keeping too many records and too many synthesizers and it was a pain to move. I had to have all this extra space in whatever spot we rented just to have my stuff and I just over time got fed up, sold most of my records, almost all my keyboards …
Was this in one cathartic day or was it gradually?
There were a couple cathartic days but yeah, I had a lot of records. Like, walls. And I have maybe 600 now.
So in some little record store in Spokane there’s still a giant pile of your records waiting for some guy to come in with a van and completely score?
Definitely. In fact, Spokane has a really good record store.
This is the kind of solid info I like to put out in the world. Do you want to give the name?
Sure, it’s called Unified Groove Merchants and actually, Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys stops by there quite often because I guess his college roommate lives there and he runs a magazine there.
I had no idea Spokane was this hotbed of music and insanity.
Well, it’s not really, but it’s a good spot. It’s one of those hostile cities where no matter what you do, people won’t like it so you have to earn your way. I didn’t know anybody liked me in Spokane until I moved away and now it’s super fun to play there.
What is your best personal strategy for dealing with that kind of hostility?
I kind of embrace it. I guess I get a little more antagonistic. I think every show I do is a little bit not professional. I always imagine myself like a bad cruise ship entertainer.
I heard you talking about playing in the South Seas.
Oh, yeah, I’m going to Australia and all that. I’ve been in a South Seas mood. I did a remix for Daedelus the other week and I was kind of envisioning this ‘cruise ship stuck in the entertainment galley for all eternity’ thing. That’s kind of my new thing. Like, fun music gone wrong. Anything for eternity sounds really horrible.
Is this like that Twilight Zone episode where the gambler finds out he’s going to win forever and ever and that’s his hell?
I haven’t seen that one but that sounds really, really good.
Based on Seven Seals, what would be your personal conception of hell? Basically, I always think of 2001 with the guy in the box at the end. That’s probably the single most inspirational thing for me. I think anything carried to eternity. I just like the really creepy paired with the smooth or the happy. It makes it extra creepy.
I’m surprised you haven’t grown the kind of facial hair that would accentuate that because when I think of creepy-plus-happy I think of a certain kind of a mustache.
I’m actually working on it but I get to this point a week or two in where the hair starts turning blonde kind of towards the end and it just looks like early high school.
That in itself is kind of creepy.
I know that anytime you grow a beard you have to muscle through that first time and just deal with it, but I just can’t look at myself in the mirror so I chicken out every time. I tell my wife every couple of weeks that I’m going to do it. One of these days I’ll do it.
How often have you not been able to look at yourself in the mirror throughout the course of your life?
Well, usually after a tour I am very bloated with grey and yellowish skin.
You had an interview where you were talking about how you feel that a lot of people making music now are consciously trying to sound old, whatever that means. What did you mean by that?
I don’t like it, frankly. I think that’s maybe the problem with our generation. I was reading some article that talked about how this is one of the first cultural moments where the new generation hasn’t really added anything new as much as taken from other eras and blended them up, which I think is very fascinating and some incredible stuff comes out of that, but I think—especially when you’ve got people literally trying to sound like 1983, the same set of sounds, the same kind of vocals—I think it’s cool and it sells records in that moment when all the stars are aligned, but it’s just a bad business move. It’s not really helping anything. Of course stuff comes back in vogue and that’s a good thing, but when you’re really trying to carbon copy stuff, that’s not very interesting.
Something I found interesting about that is that a lot of times the whole craft becomes how well you can reproduce that sound. It’s not exactly what the song is like but, ‘Oh man, that’s exactly what the synth sound would have been!’
Exactly. And I have to admit I’ve been guilty of that for sure, especially with my first record and I think overall it’s a natural progression for people who make music. You really learn by copying at first, but I think in general that as a trend—whether it be a soul revival or a boogie revival or an 80s metal revival or whatever—in the end as soon as it comes out it’s already digging its own grave.
What feels new to you? And makes you think that planet Earth still has a few good years left in it?
Man, that’s a good question. I mean, I’m definitely an optimistic person but I can’t really pinpoint anything. Honestly, I read old books, I don’t watch TV, I really only wear clothes with single colors. Maybe I’m just ridiculous, but I guess I’ve come to a spot—and I’m not even that old—but it’s such a difficult time, people have such a difficult time keeping up with whatever ironic neon lizard print is cool on a T-shirt this week. It’s a lot of work to keep up with. Definitely when I was younger I was more into it. I’d be like, ‘Oh dude, I found a hypercolor shirt!’ I think if you can detach from that and make your own thing… I think I saw that in Broadcast’s music or Ariel Pink. I think even Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma record is really impressive because he transcended that beat music. I THINK WHENEVER YOU CAN GET OUT OF THE MATRIX, THAT’S WHEN THE REAL FUTURE BEGINS. I don’t know, that sounds really corny.
I’ll put it in all caps so it sounds really intense. [See above—ed.]
What was the black nationalist rap group you DJ’d for as a very young James Pants?
The group was called Ballistix with an X on the end.
The name’s got a lot of impact.
It was circa 1998 so that was the move. I was all about that stuff. Basically, I think I forced my way in because they definitely were not … I guess they weren’t exactly black nationalist, but definitely every song was kind of about how the white man’s system has them down, so it was just funny that I was in the back DJing.
Did you get to shout stuff?
I didn’t shout. I didn’t have the courage.
Did you have the courage later in your life to shout about things?
I did, yeah. We opened for a lot of people in Austin. I remember I didn’t do anything because we would just play the music off a CD Walkman and I would have the prerequisite scratching on the chorus but I remember I would just stand there and look awkward during the verse. … My DJ name was ‘The Brainchild Solomon,’ so how about that?
Do you find looking back that it’s actually a little inspiring that human beings are willing to pay money to see a guy shouting over a CD Walkman?
I think that sometimes, but I think that everyone was just brainwashed at the time. The whole hip-hop thing … That was right when there was the retaliation against the commercial stuff. If you were an underground hip-hop fan you supported it and went to the shows but really you should have just saved your money because we encouraged a lot of rappers to continue a career that was just more and more depressing every year.
So what you’re saying is the revolution needs a better PA and a lot more self-editing?
Ah man, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I really like rap, but to me it’s the funniest genre right now because it’s totally, completely lost.
Who has achieved the Spinal Tap level in modern hip-hop right now?
I’d definitely go with Gucci Mane, but I like some of his stuff and not in an ironic way. I like all of the Dirty South stuff because they’ve got energy and that’s exactly what rap is. I mean, if the beat’s halfway decent and the guy’s energetic, it’s probably way better than any of these, like, Premier knock-off kind of beats with some guy rapping about ‘taking it back.’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, spare me.’
You have this famous story about you and Peanut Butter Wolf meeting on prom night. And you’ve also talked about later that night, driving around with your girl looking for the right moment … and at one point you’re hanging out in the car and a van pulls up and a guy opens the door and all these cats come out. So … what?
It was creepy. It was one of those situations where I probably could have … It was this girl from a different high school who went to my church and I thought she was really cute and way out of my league, but I asked her and she said she would go and I probably in retrospect should have taken some clues that she was having a good time, you know? I probably could have made out or something, but I was so nervous that I didn’t know what to do so we would go to these make-out spots and kind of sit awkwardly and then something would go wrong like some kids would start throwing rocks nearby so we’d be like, ‘OK, well, let’s just drive around a little more,’ and we’d stop somewhere else. And then this van pulled up with cats and I think it was at that point she was like, ‘Well, it’s getting pretty late. I think you should take me home.’
Why would a van be driving around with a ton of cats?
I have no idea. This was in the middle of the deep hill country suburbs of Austin by some bridge. Just a dirt parking lot in the middle of nowhere and this van pulls up and unloads a bunch of cats.
Did they just spill out all at once?
It was probably like ten or something.
That’s still more cats than I’ve ever seen in a car in my life.
I’m sure they were just dumping them, but it kind of freaked her out and it just ruined the mood, whatever magic we had going. It was a little disappointing in that respect but I’m glad a record deal eventually came out of that.
You’ve got the swarm of spiders, the swarm of cats … You’re like a swarm magnet. Just watch out when you go in the ocean.
Oh God, that’s my nightmare.