Spokane is a town of mystery and wonder. Former home of crooner Bing Crosby; site of the ecofriendly 1974 World's Fair; scene of Washington state representative Richard Curtis's recent misadventures with that seedy-looking rent boy, some ladies' lingerie, and a stethoscope.But these highlights only scratch the surface. The jewel of the Inland Northwest is more than a pit stop between Seattle and Missoula. And if you drop by Baby Bar—a living-room-sized drinking hole where daredevil Evel Knievel liked to unwind—on the right night, local DJ and producer James Pants might point you toward some of the other regional attractions. Heck, were he not so busy promoting his new Stones Throw album, Welcome, he could serve on the city board of commerce.
"There is this thrift store, called Drop Your Drawers, run by this aging hippie, that blows my mind every time," he starts in. Stuffed beavers, silk kimonos, empty turtle shells, and battered harmoniums fight for display space. "It's all the weirdest stuff, and almost nothing over $10." In the nearby Russian neighborhood, old-world toffee and hard candy is cheap and plentiful. And over in Riverfront Park stands the majestic garbage-eating goat, a remnant of Expo '74. "It's this big, metal, satanic-looking statue," Pants explains. "You push a button, and the goat sucks up your trash."
Against this curious backdrop of second-hand pelts, exotic sweets, and inventive waste-management solutions, Pants's musical aesthetic makes perfect sense. Throughout its 16 tracks, Welcome celebrates vintage styles and unconventional recycling. Dubbed "fresh beat," his grooves incorporate '80s R&B, electro-boogie, early hiphop, underground disco, and more. For a dude weaned on his parents' Whitney Houston LPs ("I remember jamming out to 'My Name Is Not Susan' a lot") and the Footloose soundtrack, Pants has made significant strides.
The playful punk-funk of "My Girl" sounds like legendary NYC sister act ESG jamming in a video arcade. "We're Through" takes an elastic bass riff à la the Emotions' "Best of My Love," and slides it over some shuffling beats and clanging cowbell, yielding a grubby, midtempo dance track reminiscent of the Balihu Records bedroom productions of Daniel Wang. Vocals are barked, grumbled, or processed to resemble robots... anything but sung. Rough edges abound, yet warm synthesizer textures lend a neon-suffused air of urban sophistication.
Not bad for jams generated on a load of second-hand crap. "I have a pretty meager setup," Pants confesses. "I record on a computer from 1998. I have some random old synthesizers, and a lot of '70s and '80s drum machines... things that just turned up here in Spokane. All my gear is failing, some only works half the time, but I feel like I get pretty good sounds out of it." Friends have offered to teach him ProTools; he remains disinterested.
High-school jazz band was the cornerstone of his brief formal education. "I can really only play the drums," he demurs, although he generated almost all the sounds on Welcome single-handedly. "I make it sound like I can play other instruments, but I can't. All of the music I make could really be played by a kindergartener. By themselves."
Vintage musical instruments aren't the only items Pants picks up secondhand. He has also amassed a vast library of used vinyl, with an emphasis on the platters that other people pass up. "I only buy cheap records," he says. "Originally, I was purchasing a lot of '80s R&B and '60s psych, but eventually, those things got expensive." Now he concentrates on the cheapest fare possible. "The next revolution is always in the dollar bins, because that is the stuff nobody is looking for." Lately, he has even taken to snapping up homemade-looking demo cassette tapes, and transferring them to his computer.
This fascination with cultural castoffs, combined with an attempt to shake off the stress of a day job managing 401K plans, gave birth to his earlier 2008 release, a mix CD titled Ice Castles: The Coming of a New Age. The mix fuses square fare like Tangerine Dream, exotica vet Dick Hyman, and even jazz fusion giants Weather Report into a mesmerizing yet soothing sonic trip. Despite the title, no Peruvian flutes, treated harp solos, or cameos by Yanni made the cut. "I hate all that," Pants grimaces. "I only like the really strange stuff, that technically probably isn't even New Age."
Cheap rent and a penchant for making his own fun keep Pants in Spokane. But the city's biggest selling point is how uncool it remains compared to most cities, including other towns he's called home, like Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Virginia. "Spokane is a weird place. It's a magnet for strange people. One of those cities that looks pretty downtrodden—and it is—but within that you'll find strange pockets that wouldn't exist in other metropolitan areas."
Of course, this overlooked urban fantasyland has its downsides, too. Like a paucity of late-night eats. "It's all just fast food and a burrito stand," Pants laments. But if his career in music falls flat, he has a foolproof backup plan. "I was in Chicago recently, and there was a guy out on a bike at 3:00 a.m. selling tamales. I had to buy a dozen. So I was thinking of opening up my own mobile tamale cart." And when they finish eating, customers can go feed the discarded corn husks to that darn goat.