Memphis musician James Godwin has long been known as the skilled bass player behind such well-known local rock acts as Streetside Symphony, the New Mary Jane, Jack Oblivian, and John Paul Keith and the 1-4-5s. However, in recent years, Godwin has been busy fronting his own fine project, James and the Ultrasounds. This week the band is releasing its first full-length recording, Bad to Be Here, on local imprint Madjack Records, and celebrating that release with a show this Saturday at the Young Avenue Deli. Godwin spoke to the Flyer earlier this week about the new record, putting together the band, and much more.
Memphis Flyer: You recorded a lot of the band's debut EP, Lovers & Ghosts, on your own. . . how did the band come together? James Godwin: The first EP was made around the time that the New Mary Jane was winding down. I was recording at home on 4-tracks, just tinkering with different things. Some of it we cut over at Dave Shouse's (the New Mary Jane/Grifters guitarist) house. The first time I ever played the song "Astronaut" [from Lovers & Ghosts] was actually at a New Mary Jane gig. I really botched it and knocked the mic stand over on accident. As far as putting the band together, John Argroves was already involved because he played drums on some of the EP. [Guitarist] Luke White and I had been hanging [out] a lot playing darts and smoking cigarettes, and we eventually got together to learn the songs from the first EP as a three-piece. We immediately realized that we needed a fourth member to play the bass. At the second rehearsal, Luke brought David Johnson in, and we've had the same lineup since.
Has having a band to collaborate with changed your sound or approach to songwriting?
I don't think that it's affected the way I write songs, really. I typically write songs from start to finish in my head before I even try to play it. Working with the guys has really brought the songs to life. Luke, Dave, and John are all insanely talented.
When did you and the band start working on the songs for Bad to Be Here?
I started doing demos for these tunes around the end of 2013. I had most of the songs written before we recorded anything. Some of them we were already playing live, and some of them the guys hadn't heard before we recorded them in the studio. I didn't work much besides touring at that time, so I had months of free time to write and do demos.
Where did you record it?
We recorded it at Curry Weber's place, Superman Ranch. Curry has a really nice space there and gets good sounds out of his room. It's tucked away and not many people know it's there. There are no windows and time can really get away from you. As with any recording experience, some days went smoothly, and others we were pulling our hair out. This is the first time I've recorded a batch of tunes with a band. Before then, it was usually just me fiddling around. It was a learning experience, for sure. You should've seen the look on everyone's face when I pitched them the idea for a song called "Party Dracula."
What was it like working with Mark Edgar Stuart as a producer? How did he contribute to the project?
Working with Mark was great. Mark is a wonderful person, and he was really enthusiastic from the start. He kind of acted as a coach and referee. When we'd get frustrated about something, or something wasn't coming out right, he'd help us get our focus back and get us to nail it. If we were butting heads or something, he'd get us all back on the same page. He'd also help me get through those moments where I lose confidence in something. He's a big, bearded teddy bear and a really smart musician. He also played the hell out of a Wurlitzer on a few tunes.
How did Mark become involved in the project?
He saw us play a show one night. The next day he contacted me about his idea to be involved and to take a stab at producing a band and putting a record together for us. A few days later he had it all set up, and we were in the studio.
Bad to Be Here sounds a bit cleaner/more produced than the EP - was that your intent?
I think it's just the difference between working with 4-tracks and whatever you have lying around versus going into a studio with professional equipment and people who know how to operate it. I've always been a fan of lo-fi stuff, but Mark wanted me to believe that I'm a better singer than I think I am. That led to the vocals being cleaned up and less fuzzy than the vocals on the first EP. I don't mind the clean vocals. It's like, there it is. That's what my voice sounds like, nothing to hide behind. It did take some getting used to at first. On the next one, I'd like mix it up a little more, maybe bring the 4-track into the studio and piss everybody off.
You've spent a good deal of time as a back-up player for lots of different folks. What did those experiences teach you about songwriting? I've learned a lot over the years. One thing that really benefitted me came from touring with John Paul Keith. Riding in a van with him for as long as I did, each day was like a music history lesson. He showed me so much old stuff that I had never heard before.
Are there ever times you miss being a side-man?
I just love playing music. I love to play the bass, especially with such talented people that I've been fortunate enough to play with over the years. But I won't lie and say I don't enjoy being able to turn my guitar up as loud as I want and go for it. It took a long time for me to be able to front a band. For the longest time, I was terrified to sing in front of people. Every time that I do it now is like a small victory for me.
How did you develop a relationship with Madjack Records?
Through Mark Stuart, who pitched the idea of them putting the new record out while we were making it. He set up the initial meeting with Ronny Russell, and he and I really hit it off. Ronny and Madjack have been really enthusiastic and very helpful. I think it's really cool that they put this record out, because they've never really released anything like this before. I always thought it was kind of funny that the original working title for the record was Kill Americana. I remember Mark telling me about pitching to Madjack and thinking maybe I should come up with a different title.
How do you feel about Bad to Be Here now that it is out?
I think it has some really strong stuff on it. There were some ideas that I wish would've worked out and made the cut, but that's just how it goes. I tend to be pretty self-critical. I usually go through periods where I hate everything I do, then I come back later and listen and think, "I've heard worse." There are always things you wish you could've nailed a bit better, or parts on songs that you work up after the record is finished - I think you've just got to roll with it.
It's really good when played at the appropriate rock-and-roll volume. I want people to listen to this thing as loud as possible. It's a rock-and-roll record. It's got some zits on it. It's got soul. I ain't writing ballads over here. Turn it up loud and drink beer.