Rosemary Wagner

Ships is a band that lets its songs go where they need to go. They're proficient and aware enough to let the sounds themselves decide the direction. Part pop, part shoegaze and space drone, Ships have released an album called Compulsory Listening that embraces their disparate modes by separating them into side A and side B. Ships sees Jacob James taking the helm, singing and writing, after serving the role of support player with the Lashes, Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground, Brandi Carlile, and Damien Jurado. James is an experienced musician with a brainy, geek-chic touch and savoir faire. He plays together with his partner, bassist Laurie Kearney, and the band fuses their love of structure and space. We met at Stylus salon in Belltown, where Kearney curates the art. There, I disrobed and entered a steam shower called the Space Shower, and they played me the album. As I sweated like a banshee in an oven, the music seeped into my open pores. Upon exiting, I asked them some semiconscious questions.

What's this side A and side B business?

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JJ: We're releasing it on vinyl, with a download card. Side A is pop and rock, and side B has the space jams. We didn't really plan it like that. In the process of deciding the order, we chose the artwork by Counsel Langley, and the visual for the artwork is separated into two distinct feels. It just made too much sense with the distinctly different sides. It's on two separate wood blocks that hang right next to each other. It's pretty mind-bending. So one half represents the front side, A, and the other half is for the back side, B. I really like thematic programming on an LP. It's an old Beatles trick. I aspire to be a record nerd. Garret [Lunceford, drums] is a huge record nerd.

LK: The artwork we chose is by Counsel Langley. I've been curating at Stylus since 2006 and knew from working with her that she and her pieces were heavily influenced by music. She told me she'd heard demos of Ships and had expressed interest in being involved. Then I curated a show for her at Gossamer last year that included the piece that we chose. It's called Meeting by the Pond. Something about it just clicked.

JJ: When I'm playing a record at home, I like to prop up the cover, like the now playing section. With this piece, I had it up listening to some of our mixes and was thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if we didn't do anything to it all? If that was the front cover, and that was the back cover." And it jibes perfectly with the two things I think of when I think about writing this record: the '60s mod/psychedelic era and the mid-'90s MDMA/heroin Liverpool sound. One half of the art is very stodgy and British-looking, urban and cityscapes. The other half looks like you're looking at a lava lamp from the inside. The mod songs for the mod art, the druggier songs for the spacey-looking side. Once the art was chosen, it was very clear this was how these songs were supposed to be ordered. We're very calculated about some things, but we're also very open, too. It's a balance.

Was it always going to be released on vinyl with a download code? Did you ever consider any other format?

JJ: We did at the beginning, but the more I thought about CDs, the less and less I liked it. I like CDs as business cards or promotional material, but I don't feel like the product is worth the price. Also, I don't like the idea of music coming from plastic. I'd rather it come from vinyl or a weird tin tube.

You did the record in five days?

JJ: Yes, at Toy Box studio with Justin Cronk—two days to do bass and drums, which were tracked live together, and then a day for guitars, a day for keyboards, and one day for vocals.

That seems fast.

JJ: I know. We definitely rehearsed it a lot and tweaked with the arrangements before we went into the studio.

Who does most of the writing?

JJ: It's becoming more and more a group thing. When this project started out, it was just Laurie and I writing songs together, while unemployed. Then I started writing more of the material. Now, it's a good balance. I'll usually come to rehearsal with parts of things done and feel so lucky to have such an amazing band to work with. Garret is full of amazing arrangement ideas. That guy can play every instrument. Chase [Forslund, of Crystal Skulls, keys and backing vocals] has such good taste. He never overplays, and he likes the same things I like from a keyboard, which are atypical sounds. Like really heavy distortion, keyboards that sound like guitars that sound like keyboards. Laurie is incredibly precise. We are an awesome machine.

And you've known Justin Cronk at Toy Box for a while.

JJ: Yes. The Lashes used to live in Wallingford in a house right next door to his band Vendetta Red. I trust his ear. And we share similar likes: catchy melodies, big drums, big guitars, and weird noises. He's such a killer drummer.

It seems like there's great communication within this Ships machine—everyone gets along and knows each other well. How does that correlate?

JJ: It helps. Less needs to be said. Everyone involved knows what it's supposed to sound like. There's trust and respect. We're all working toward a very specific common goal. Even if it's unnamed.

You have a love for the space jam. When you say space jam, what do mean? Where does your want to make that kind of music come from?

JJ: It stems from the types of people who did on-location recordings and found recordings—sounds that are catalogued for posterity rather than enjoyment. Out of that, you have artists that are doing sound collage. Basically, anything where the sounds are more important than the chords. There was a point in the late '80s/early '90s when sounds became more important. Especially within shoegaze, the sounds became more important than the chord progressions. I'm very chordal, very theory heavy, so for me, it's very freeing to have a song where there's not much in the way of chords, like the "Wishing You Well" song. It's just C and C minor, C and minor, but what grabs your ear is the crazy delay ringing and feedback. It's textural. There's a thing happening in modern music, too, where you can talk about how popular garage is now. And it's because they've substituted that aesthetic for the music. It's literally trying to sound trashy and difficult to listen to, to weed out the idiots. It takes some time to get into it before you're like, "Oh, I get it." It can be difficult. I'm put off by certain sounds, but engaged by them at the same time.

LK: That's something that was interesting for us when we started playing together. I come from a very different background as far as my influences. I was into shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, Stone Roses, all the 4AD bands. Jacob would be working with something pretty formulaic; I would come in and sort of destroy it in a way, with darker chords and more drone. I think it turned out to be a beautiful combination. We've learned a lot from each other. I learned how to control the drone, because it's a sound that can easily go awry. And vice versa, Jacob has freed up a lot.

JJ: Again, it's a balance thing. I get impatient with shoegaze sometimes. I love that sound, but I'll think, "Where's the next change? Where's the bridge? Where's your B chorus?" All that nerdy songwriter stuff. Laurie taught me how to listen to and appreciate the drone. The more layers, the better. Where you can keep repeating the same thing over and over, and after a time, it becomes a beautiful thing. You're not ever really listening to it anymore because you're involved in it somehow.

Jacob, you're singing lead vocals here. I've heard you sing in backup contexts, but not lead. What's singing lead and being the frontman like? What prompted that?

JJ: Frontmanning is definitely a different job than just singing. It's easier to talk about frontmanning as opposed to just singing, because whenever you talk about your own voice, it's hard not to sound like a total douchebag, "This is my instrument, blah, blah, blah." That's douchey. But I will say one thing: I've sung harmonies with some amazing people, and I view that as formal training and as valuable an education as going to college. I've sung with the full spectrum of types, from the most totally, completely tone-deaf person to the most beautiful, ripper vocals you've ever heard. This band and these songs give me the confidence to stand up there and be proud and really fucking sing. I've learned a lot from Damien Jurado, who I just toured with, singing all his backups. Learned lots from Brandi Carlile and Sean Nelson, who are two of my favorite singers of all time. Singing with Ben in the Lashes, I learned a ton. We were Beatles obsessed, harmony obsessed.

Is it hard juggling so many projects?

JJ: I generate a lot of material. One of the nice things about being a part of so many things is that my ideas have more places to go. I'll write something and know, "This will be a Ships song." Or this thing is more suited for Kay Kay, or my singer-songwriter thing. I feel like all the projects are far enough apart tonally and sound-wise that they don't get in the way of each other. The Lashes have been writing new songs lately, too. Some of the pop songs on this Ships record are very ear-candy, radio-friendly stuff that I probably would have brought to the table for the Lashes. So we'll see where new stuff will end up. Inertia is good. Multiple projects does make scheduling hard.

I'm mature enough now to have realized that every time you are onstage is not an opportunity for the spotlight to be on you. I really enjoy being in other bands where I'm the third or fourth singer. That's one of the things I enjoy about Kay Kay. They're mainly Kirk's and Kyle's and Thomas's tunes, and everyone comes together to flesh out the arrangements. If I had been in my early 20s, I would have been onstage like, "Pay attention to me, pay attention to me." But that never serves the project or the music well.

That Space Shower really opened all my pores. I was tense at first, but once I started sweating and pores started opening, I took one breath, and it became a totally different experience.

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JJ: I feel very close to this Space Shower. When I started working on these songs, I had this thought and image in my head that I wanted it to sound like a wood-paneled spaceship. That's what I was going for. And with this steam shower, it's that same combination of wood paneling and technology—nostalgia. Like the full-length, there's acoustic guitar on every track, but there's also crazy, futuristic stuff we did to make the effects on Chase's keyboards. He would play, and we had an entire table full of pedals hooked up, dialing in the sound.

Can I have my happy ending now?

JJ: Not so much. How 'bout a cold shower?

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