Wailing City Spotlight: Interview With James Burke

Published October 19, 2023
Interview by Meghan Killimade

You’ve been playing music in the area for quite some time – having played in rock bands such as Thick Thieves, Incessant Pop Group, Slander and Anderson Family Picnic, before developing into a solo artist armed with synths and drum machines. You’re also currently in the neo-soul/hip hop/synth trio The Look-A-Likes. What has this new musical path been like for you and what was the motivation/influence behind it? 
I took about seven years off from playing music at the end of Slander. In 2020 I ended up with a broken ankle during lockdown. As boredom set in, I realized I could play the bass from a wheelchair. I’d always pondered about the idea of doing a solo set with electronics, but it never fully materialized. Also, since I spend 8+ hours a day in front of a computer for my day job, making music “in the box” wasn’t something I connected with. I started assembling an array of synths and drum machines which evolved into the setup I use today. Tonally the sounds are a lot of the 80’s dance music classics, TR909 drum sounds, Roland Juno Synth pads, 303 bass sounds. 

Despite my love for free jazz and experimental music, when it comes to songwriting I’ve always defaulted to classic pop song formats. Rather than fighting against this, I leaned into it, writing a lot in major keys with classic familiar chord changes, and used the sonic textures of synths/guitar to give the songs a unique flavor. The last missing ingredient was using guitar vocoder in place of traditional vocals. Before this project, I’d always worked with other singers, occasionally singing background. This helped me break out of my comfort zone vocally and now some of my tunes have a mix of traditional singing and vocoder. 

The Look-A-Likes
The Look-a-Likes started as a one off project to record a single song with Kevin, (aka E.Dread). The day he showed up my friend Cody Riggers happened to be hanging out and ended up singing on the track. Everything just clicked and like a whirlwind, it was like our first 8 songs wrote themselves. After spending so much time designing my solo set, where I had to captivate an audience all alone, it was great to just sit back in the pocket and work on grooves and let other incredibly talented friends take a lead on the hooks.

How did you get started in music and how did growing up in this area shape you as a musician/artist?
My dad was a hobbyist musician. We had a piano in the house and a crazy audiofile stereo he got at Robert's. I started playing guitar in 4th grade and Luke Hunter, (Incessant Pop Group, Slander), and I started writing songs in my basement by the time we were 10. The Mystic Disc was essential to my musical development. Dan and Rich gave us an education, from classic rock to krautrock, hard bop to trip hop. But they also fostered a DIY ethos that led us to host parties and shows for our peers who also felt a bit out of place at a high school dance or a football game. I try to capture that spirit in everything I do today, both in my own music and trying to foster a scene where everyone can chase whatever idea they want no matter how weird.

Wailing City Archive: James playing with Incessant Pop Group @ Mystic German Club 2006 

How would you best describe your solo performance/music to someone that isn’t familiar?
Part of my goal when I set out to play live again was to get people back into dancing at shows. As mentioned before, I tend to write pop songs. So my set is somewhere between synth-pop and full blown dance music. I love stretching out instrumental sections, getting folks pumping along with the kick drum, tweaking the filter on a synth, then going back into a hook with a recognizable melody.

Tell us about your recently released solo album ‘Here, Right Now’. What was the songwriting/recording process like and what are you hoping to get across to listeners?
Most of the songs on the album were written during lockdown or when bars/venues had just started to open back up. Some of the lyrics touch on isolation and wanting to be around other people, dancing in a crowd, spilling beer on each other. Once I had finally realized how to do a solo set with synths I got really into programming sounds from scratch. Suddenly, a bunch of simple chord changes and melodies which I would’ve considered too basic when playing in an indie rock band, worked perfectly as a canvas for me to paint with new sounds and grooves. I wanted to make music that can get a dance floor going, but still would provide some introspection in headphones. I’m still working on that balance, but I’m happy where the album landed to preserve a moment in time. 


What’s your favorite track off the new album to play live and why?
The album's title track “Here, Right Now” is probably the one I enjoy playing most live. I wrote the song right when bars started opening up again after the pandemic, but folks weren’t yet comfortable bumping into each other shoulder to shoulder on a sweaty dance floor. I specifically had memories of great shows at 33 and Oasis in mind when I wrote the lyrics, so to see people on the dance floor while I play the melody is incredibly rewarding. It’s also just a super fun major pentatonic melody and I take a shredder guitar solo at the end.

In addition to running sound at 33 Golden, you’ve also been assisting in the booking and promotion of shows there since the untimely passing of owner, Craig McCalister earlier this year. You’ve been doing a fantastic job and I know Craig would be so proud! How has this been for you and what can we expect at 33 in the future?
Thank you! I don’t take the responsibility lightly. So much of what we’re known for at 33 and New London in general, is being open and welcoming to anyone passionate about their music. I’ve tried to stay true to Craig’s legacy, while thinking about how our scene will continue to change in the future. Punk Rock will always be our bread and butter, but we’ve been branching out to many more genres. A lot of the punk kids my age are expanding their horizons, getting into psych, noise, hip-hop, and experimental music. It’s awesome seeing a punk band, a psych/noise act, and a doom/sludge band all on the same bill and all of the scenes collide. 33 has a history of being a diverse place socially, and in the future I want to be more intentional to use the space to inspire folks to dig outside their comfort zone, and most importantly get loud and have fun. 

You’re a passionate political activist and also served on the New London City council -- what are some things you think this area needs, (or that folks can do), to help our music and arts scene thrive?
I haven’t been shy about my support for the local arts scene, and specifically how local music needs to be better nurtured to thrive. Shout out to Rich Martin and all the folks at the New London Cultural District and the Arts Council. Yes, we need more housing for artists, rehearsal space is harder and harder to come by. But most critically in my opinion, are more all ages shows. I’m where I am today because of cool shows the older kids, or eventually older young adults threw. We’re lucky to have The Telegraph and the Warehouse in New London and once the new community center is open I plan to book all ages shows there. 
 
What can “we” do? Go to a show, pay the cover. If your friend's band is on first, stay to support the other bands. If you dug it, buy some merch. If you’ve been thinking about starting a band or finishing that project of songs on your laptop, do it! Our scene thrives the more we have to offer. In the short term this means supporting all the killer bands and venues we’re lucky to have. In the long term it means making sure we’re a place where the next generation of punky guitarists, artsy synth nerds, or lo-fi beat makers have the support, education, and infrastructure to take the reins someday. 

You just walked into the Telegraph or the Mystic Disc to flip through some vinyl – what section are you heading to first and what are you hoping to find?
I keep a google sheet of my want list ready when I arrive! Always start with recent arrivals. Lately I’ve been bulking up my jazz collection, lot’s of Oscar Peterson and Pharoah Sanders. I’m always on the hunt for Japanese stuff like Yellow Magic Orchestra and peaking at the the disco 12” section is a must. One of my goals musically is to not be the old guy who doesn’t get what the kids are into, so I’ve been big into hyper pop recently, especially Jane Remover and the Frost Children.

Any memorable stories or shows from the area over the years?
Too many! Here are some highlights: 
  • My first ever German club show ended early during the Facelifter’s set when someone punched a hole through a bathroom wall. 

  • First time “doing sound” (I was just a 16 year old with a crappy PA system) and needing to protect my speakers from the mosh pit when my generation of Mystic kids saw the Can Kickers for the first time.

  • Ferocious Fucking Teeth at the Workshop in Mystic with the Ravie Gravie liquid light show. 

  • Getting to play with Anderson Family Picnic at the Depot House Reunion show. It was great to see the 1990s Mystic scene I’d heard stories of. 

  • Also, one of the most fun I’ve had on stage, Girl Talk’s set at the first I Am Festival was the most epic time I’ve had at a show in NL. Shout out to Wailing City for this epic photo so I can cherish the memory forever:
Wailing City Archive: Girl Talk performs at I AM Fest New London 2006

Any local musicians or bands that you’re really digging these days?
Fam Stoned have been killing it for years but I especially dig their last album cycle ('IS HEAVEN SWEET TO THE ONES WE LOSE') and the new tunes they’ve been bringing out live this fall. I think Xenos is the most exciting new local band in our scene right now. Can’t wait to see how they continue to grow. Also more people should be as big of Russell Linder fans as I am. The synth set he’s been doing for a year or so now is magical. For hip-hop, Dos Vatos have been killing it recently, their sets are always a blast.

What about a local band or musician that’s not active anymore that you wish still played?
Society for Rational Dress, T Wreck 

What’s coming up next for you?
The Look-a-Likes will be taking some time off gigs to work on recording this fall/winter. I have three solo shows coming up - 10/20 at Redscroll Records in Wallingford, 10/27 at the Warehouse and 11/11 at the Oasis with Revenge Body. Plenty of new tunes to share at these gigs coming up. 

Anything else you want to include or wish we would have asked?
Wailing City has been keeping the calendar up to date since I first started going to shows 20 years ago. We’re lucky to have Meghan volunteer her time to help keep the scene going!


FOLLOW


CATCH THE SHOW
  • Fri 10/20 @ Redscroll Records, Wallingford w/ Hexx Head & more
  • Fri 10/27 @ The Warehouse (3 Blackhall Street), New London - w/ Fam Stoned, BOG & more
  • Sat 11/11 @ Oasis, New London w/ Revenge Body 


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