The Atlanta rock scene has always been a mercurial beast, but singer/songwriter James Hall is the rare veteran who’s managed to stay relevant on both a local and national level for the better part of 20 years.
He first made a name for himself with late ’80s alt-rockers Mary My Hope, who combined elements of classic rockers such as Led Zeppelin and The Doors with the goth-influenced post punk of Bauhaus and Echo & the Bunnymen. The band signed with the UK-based Silvertone Records (also home to The Stone Roses) and landed high-profile slots touring with Love & Rockets and Jane’s Addiction, but eventually called it quits due to the usual “creative differences.”
Disillusioned by the experience, Hall moved to New Orleans in the early ’90s, signing to Amy Ray’s Daemon Records for his 1993 solo album My Love, Sex & Spirit, then to major label Geffen Records with a new band for 1996’s Pleasure Club. But despite the fact that all of his creative efforts earned widespread critical acclaim, Hall never achieved the fame and fortune of peers such as the Black Crowes.
Returning to Atlanta in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Hall formed a new band called the Futura Bold with guitarist Chris Piskun and bassist/producer Bruce Butkovich. The trio recently released their self-titled debut album, and we were delighted to get an hour of Hall’s time to discuss everything from his breakthrough band to what keeps his musical heart pumping after more than 20 years in the business.
How would you describe the Atlanta music scene back in the mid-’80s, when Mary My Hope first came together?
Mary My Hope was basically four kids embarking on a journey into a very adult world. This was 1986, and there were a lot of older bands that had been on the scene a lot longer than we had and were clearly a lot further along as far as progress and experience. I remember showing up at these parties and seeing the full-time musicians’ lifestyle for the first time, and we were pretty wide-eyed about it all. “You mean these girls want us?!” We couldn’t quite get our minds around it, but we indulged ourselves in whatever ways we could. If you remember the party scene at the beginning of Boogie Nights, it was very much like that—really open and free. Monster Is Bigger Than The Man
You guys weren’t like anything else happening in the local scene at that time. Do you think it was more difficult if you were perceived as “alternative” back then?
Yeah. We alienated a lot of the bands that were worshipping at the altar of Pete Buck and company. The landscape back then was filled with bands that were doing jangly, Byrds-influenced power pop. We were serious R.E.M. fans, but we were more of a product of growing up in the ’70s. We took some of the sonics from Ted Nugent, the spirit of Iggy & the Stooges, and the conceptualization of bands like Pink Floyd, asking ourselves how we could speak that sort of musical language. I was also listening to The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain and Echo & the Bunnymen, and soon we were jamming on that stuff as well.
Mary My Hope released a great debut and got to open for Love & Rockets and Jane’s Addiction, but within a few years you’d disbanded. What happened?
Personally, I hadn’t really learned how to be an adult yet, as far as paying my own rent, making a budget, sticking to a schedule and working hard. Being immature, I was angry at the system, at my bandmates, at anybody but the actual source of my problems, which was myself. I made my bandmates out to be my enemies. We also ran out of resources: We got signed, made a record and went out on the road, then we came home and the album didn’t really sell that well and we had to go back to the drawing board. At a certain point you either start to sell records, which didn’t happen for us, or the record company starts trying to pair you with producers who do sell records. When we started working on the second record we had no money to tour, no van, we were in debt and we were starting to shoot each other’s songs down as opposed to doing what we could to make them better. It just felt like a losing proposition, so I was like, I gotta get out of here!
Is that part of what inspired you to leave Atlanta and move to New Orleans?
I felt, perhaps unjustifiably so in retrospect, that Mary My Hope had a bigger footprint than we actually did. I didn’t want anything I did musically to be compared to Mary My Hope. I didn’t want to be tied down to that sound. I wanted to free myself from that whole scene, because I felt like I’d learned every rudimentary lesson that classic rock or post-punk could’ve shown me. I wanted to go somewhere where I was basically a schmo and Mary My Hope had maybe 10 fans in New Orleans, so the likelihood of me running into anybody who knew me at a show was slim to none. I’d also discovered James Brown’s deep funk stuff that summer after hearing “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” at a bar in Nashville, and thought it was an interesting “other universe” to the psychedelia I’d been into. My friends turned me on to more of his stuff and albums like Funkadelic’s Free Your Mind & Your Ass Will Follow, and I went to New Orleans consumed by this cool sound I knew nothing about. I didn’t know what to do with it or how to incorporate it into my music—it was like learning Arabic for me, because it was so far outside my frame of reference—but it had a huge impact on me when I moved to New Orleans, as did local acts like The Meters, Dr. John and Lee Dorsey.
By 1996 you had signed to Geffen Records for the release of Pleasure Club, which made three albums for you in six years, with three different bands and three different record labels. What do you think it is about you that makes you such a musical nomad?[Laughs] I’ve been wondering about that myself. It would appear that I have a great inclination for making the first record and a second record or EP, then either having a need or finding a reason to start from scratch. Bruce Butkovich of the Futura Bold noticed I’d never made a third record with any band, so he said that was his goal for this group. I think that’s as spirited a goal as any grown man could have!
Is it just boredom? A need to keep challenging yourself?
I think a lot of it was just life circumstance getting in the way. Some of it over the years was ego—“I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing!”—then realizing at the ripe old age of 42 that, you know what, I have made the same two records over and over again! They’re great albums, but there’s a lot of similar stuff being touched upon on all the records. To realize that offers its own special blend of humility.
What prefaced your move back to Atlanta a few years ago?
It was Hurricane Katrina. We’d been living in New Orleans for 15 years. My wife and I had a son there and he was going into third grade when we were evacuated to Memphis. I was able to call a friend in the neighborhood named Brian and his fiancé told us, “It’s absolute bedlam here. There’s a river running down our street and
Brian is out in the canoe collecting abandoned pets, then we’re getting out of here.” As news reports started filtering through, we realized our house was flooded, my son’s school was flooded and everything sat under water for a week. There was this realization that there’s nowhere to go now. There’s no job to rush off to. There’s nowhere to be but right here. My wife started getting calls from her sister-in-law in Kennesaw, who said a principal at the school there was keeping a spot open for Liam. So we started wrapping our minds around being back in Atlanta again. In October of 2005, we loaded up what little belongings we had left and moved to Kennesaw.
How did you hook up with Bruce Butkovich and Chris Piskun to form the Futura Bold?
Chris auditioned for Pleasure Club back in 2000, but he was pretty young. Chris has what I’d call a wildly inspired talent: He’s so creative he could cough, and it would still fit the song just right. When Pleasure Club played Atlanta he’d come to our shows, and he started to seem more like a grownup and less like this bug-eyed kid. He told me the show where Mary My Hope opened for Love & Rockets had changed his life. So when Pleasure Club folded in 2004 I got bitter, angry and sad, but my friends wouldn’t let me go there. So I got Chris to come down to New Orleans to hang out and play music together. Three weeks later I was booking a show, and it was everything we hoped for. After Katrina hit, I gave away all my guitars I didn’t need and started a wonderfully liberating discipline of simplifying my life. Chris and Bruce had been close buddies for a long time, and Bruce offered to play bass and help me record what little material I had at that point. We got to work right away, and some of those songs actually made it onto the Futura Bold record. The greatest thing about a garage band is that it’s idiot proof. [Laughs]
You’ve consistently danced around the fringe of a mainstream breakthrough throughout your career, yet never become a household name. Is that sort of success something that interests you or scares you?
Well, I’ve had a certain fear of failure and screwing things up along the way, but I’m not really experiencing that at the moment. So many of the lessons I’ve learned have come on the back of bad art, and those lessons have proven extremely worthwhile. I’m not always the best judge of my work: I recall hearing my wife listening to something I thought was the coolest take on alternative rock, with soul-style harmonies and great basslines, only to realize it was a demo I’d forgotten I had done. At the time I’d considered that stuff to be a poor man’s Echo & the Bunnymen, but it was actually pretty good in retrospect. I was genuinely shocked to realize it was my song. So I don’t really know where I fit into the whole household name thing, but I don’t know that I’m ever gonna sell loads of copies to teenagers. And I’m OK with that.
Now that you’ve hit 40, married and have a kid, what drives your passion for music?
I think it’s the awareness of how little I truly know about the world. I’ve known about guys like King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti for years, but I only heard their music for the first time this year. There are young bands that feed my passion, too, like TV On The Radio, MGMT and Portugal. The Man. These guys are doing stuff at such a highly functional creative clip so early in the game, it gives me the passion to continue doing it as well. For me, newness reigns supreme, and exploring new territory is inspiring for a guy who has basically made the same two records over and over again. [Laughs]