Andy James (Interview)

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Online guitar connoisseurs will doubtless be familiar with Andy James. Having established himself as one of the Internet’s most fleet-fingered go-to guitar teachers as well as a key member of former outfit Sacred Mother Tongue and current band Wearing Scars, Andy James’ solo output has long been slavered over by legions of six-string fanatics. With his most recent solo outing Exodus available to devour in full – and reviewed here  – I got talking to Andy about the full story behind said long-player’s origins and the assorted intricacies of life in a working band…

Your new album Exodus has been out for a while – what thoughts and feelings are going through your mind right now?

I don’t know, really – I’ve been fairly disconnected from the whole thing. It got a pretty good response, I think – I spoke to my manager briefly about the sales, and he reckons we can call it a success. It’s doing alright, which is cool.

It’s always a bit daunting when you put out anything you’ve worked on, just hoping people like it. It seems like people do like it, and I’m pleased with how it came out.

What’s your earliest musical memory?

Probably bashing on my granny’s piano when I was about 5, not really having a clue what I was doing! I felt drawn to it; every couple of weeks I’d go and visit my dad because my parents split up. He had a piano, so every couple of weeks I’d always go to the piano…I can’t remember if [anything I played] was any good or not [laughs]!

That stuck with me – then I got into guitar when I went to boarding school in Brighton for a couple of years. I was about 11, and they had music rooms with guitars they’d bought for the school. So I started messing around on guitar.

I was into rock music anyway at the time – Guns ‘N Roses, stuff like that – so that was the catalyst for me starting to play guitar rather than exploring the piano side of things.

So it was Slash and Izzy Stradlin who got you into guitar to begin with?

Pretty much – I was about 9 when I heard Paradise City, because they were playing it on the radio, and kids in the playground liked it. I didn’t grow up with an eclectic taste in music, so [Appetite For Destruction] was the only thing I listened to for about three years! Because that was my only exposure to rock music – and Bryan Adams, who my mum used to play in the car all the time, and I liked that as well – I guess anything guitar-oriented interested me. I had a Walkman and one tape that someone had to buy for me because there was a Parental Advisory sticker on it!

It’s interesting you mention Paradise City, because your faster playing now – you know the solo at the end of Paradise City obviously – there’s quite an interesting parallel between how you play and how Slash plays during that song and solo…

It’s weird, because people don’t really associate that sort of thing with me. When people ask what got me into guitar, everybody expects me to say Joe Satriani or Steve Vai or something like that. But my introduction to guitar was not as technical; Slash still influences a lot of the stuff I write now, even though it’s probably buried.

It’s interesting you mention that solo though, because Paradise City is probably one of the crazier moments on that album, where he shows off a bit. But the thing I associate most with Slash is that he’s an incredible melody writer; I always think the solos especially on Appetite For Destruction are so well-written, they couldn’t have been played better or in any other way. I never listen to it and think “…oh, he could’ve done that…”. It’s a perfect rock album, in my opinion.

So what got you into the more technical side of guitar? You mentioned Satriani and Vai…

I got given a pile of records when I was younger, I think someone was throwing them out, and amongst those records there was some Iron Maiden – I remember the covers – but another was Surfing With The Alien. There was someone on TV winning a guitar competition playing Crushing Day or something like that – and when I listened to Surfing With The Alien I heard the same piece of music, so I figured it was a Satriani cover.

I’d managed to get hold of an old record player, and I was listening to Surfing With The Alien and thinking “…blimey…” and thinking there was something wrong with it. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play like that – it seemed ridiculous. Then I realised I was listening to a lot of it on double speed!

I have no idea why they have double speed on record players…

Half speed makes sense if you’re trying to learn a piece of music, but not double speed…

Yeah – why wouldn’t you just keep it at the speed it’s intended if it’s just for people to listen to it? Once I figured out I was listening to it wrong, it started to make more sense.

I had an Alice Cooper album as well, with Poison on it, and I got into Skid Row too. So I had a whole summer of listening to Joe Satriani and Alice Cooper and Skid Row…

I had Surfing With The Alien on tape, so it was portable. I didn’t have a lot of tab books, so I didn’t know how to play any of that stuff – I applied a lot of the Guns ‘N Roses stuff by picking it up by ear, and it inspired me to focus more on aggressive rock shredding. Listening back to it, Skid Row’s first album has a raw vibe to it, like a young band trying to prove themselves, but at the time it had a polished quality to it that I liked in terms of the guitar playing. And it seemed quite off-the-cuff and spontaneous.

Later on, I got into Nuno Bettencourt and Paul Gilbert – then when I got into college I discovered older Racer X, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Vinnie Moore…when I turned 16 I discovered all these people, and it blew my mind!

It’s been a while since your last solo album [2011’s Andy James]; what’s happened in that time?

It took me a couple of years to pay off my last album! It was the first one I did properly, having been in Sacred Mother Tongue and done [the first of two] albums with them. [Producer] Scott Atkins and I had been talking about doing an album together, and I had a bunch of demos that were either band songs that didn’t get used – and I’d put leads over them – or deliberately-written instrumental songs.

So we did [Andy James], and it came out pretty good – but it was a lengthy process. When you aren’t putting stuff out through a major label you don’t keep track of sales, but it did well – I was just happy I did it, really. It’s a way of getting out that creative bug. I’ve always been interested in instrumental music, and that’s how I started getting my music out on the internet, by doing instrumental tracks.

My main thing was always wanting to be in a band – I wasn’t someone who wanted to be like Satriani or Vai and go touring with a solo band. It’d see me in charge of other people in the band, and I’ve never felt comfortable with that! I don’t want to be the guy telling someone they’re shit, or they’d better play it right or they’re gonna get sacked!

Being in bands, it’s much more democratic – you do your part, and it’s shared with other people. I’m a big fan of vocal music…so in between these solo albums, Sacred Mother Tongue did an album, some tours, and that [band] stopped being a thing in about 2013. We’d had a pretty good album cycle, but as it’d been going so long we decided we’d done enough.

I remember hearing about that – you’d been running low on money, and had to put your own money into the band to keep it going. Is that correct?

Kind of – we felt our popularity had hit a ceiling. The wind had been taken out of our sails in general with finances, I think we stopped trusting each other as well…it all came to a head, we decided to take a break, and that turned into splitting up.

When I turned 30 I decided to say yes to everything, so I did a lot of clinics, a lot of touring…I had an EP out in that time as well [2013’s Psychic Transfusion], which was a collaboration with Canadian producer Alan Sacha Laskow where I wrote two songs, he wrote two songs, then he recorded and mixed everything and I just did the solos. Plus there were NAMM shows, Frankfurt [Musikmesse], a tour of India, China, Europe…a lot of clinic stuff. Then I met Chris Clancy on Facebook – he was the vocalist for Mutiny Within, and still is, and he put a post up saying he wanted to get out there and do some music.

I knew who he was, and that he had a great voice, so I messaged him to see if he wanted to try something. He got back to me, he knew about my previous band and he’d heard of me, so we swapped some demos and within a couple of weeks of meeting we were round his house tracking an album [Wearing Scars’ A Thousand Words, released in 2015]. It was mad, really – but cool, because there’s no real pressure in [Wearing Scars]. We can do the music we like and enjoy listening to or writing – and it’s probably a different vibe from what people might expect from me, having been in a more heavy metal and rock band before.

What we’re doing now goes back to my initial influences when I was 11 or 12 rather than the metal stuff I…wouldn’t say I was forced into, but when I got hired by Lick Library I was doing a lot of more heavy stuff than I was into personally. Megadeth, Pantera, Slayer…I didn’t go that kind of route with my learning or guitar playing, I was more into Van Halen and Extreme, Mr Big, that sort of vibe, the more “rock” thing. And I’m still into that now; I rarely listen to anything that’s extremely metal.

Exodus happened by accident really…I got some clean Kemper profiles from a company called STL Tones, an Australian company who were fairly new, and did a video featuring one of their clean tones. Chris had sent me an Instagram message telling me to check out those clean tones because they might be good for Wearing Scars’ second album, I did this video, only a minute and 30 seconds, and it did pretty well, a few hundred thousand views plus a million on their Facebook and the same on mine, I think. I suppose it was one of those videos, because people don’t necessarily associate my style with that kind of playing and people were probably like “…what the fuck’s this?!”

But off the strength of that, STL contacted me to work on some Kemper profiles. I’m always interested in getting new tones from Kemper because I do a lot of recording myself, and it’s always nice to have decent tones for that. Because of where I live, I can’t crank up an amp with a 4×12 cab – so the Kemper’s a saving grace that allows you to get that sort of sound without getting evicted [laughs]!

It’s interesting you mention the Kemper thing – it’s a real game-changer for the amp world.

It is – the cool thing about it is, because it’s a digital product people have been asking me why the Kemper is different to other digital modelling things. I don’t see the Kemper as a digital modeller; it’s not trying to guess what an amp sounds like. It’s using an algorithm to recreate the actual amp. Whereas with digital modelling stuff, it seems to me like it’s someone’s idea of what a Peavey 5150 should sound like rather than actually getting the tone from the source, if you know what I mean. They get pretty close, but I don’t think they get as close as the Kemper because it’s getting sound from the source, taking a snapshot of it and then you’ve got the tone with all the mics and EQ you’ve set up going in and everything.

The real difference for me is that [the Kemper] actually feels and plays like the amp you’ve just profiled – and if you put it into a recording session, you can’t tell the difference. If you can, you’ve got a ridiculously trained ear, honestly. The kind of improvements they’ve made now, if you record the real amp and then the Kemper, there’s really fuck-all difference [laughs]!

So you think, why wouldn’t you use something portable where you can go out and gig using the tones you’ve spent ages working on [in the studio]? I use [the Kemper] live, and if you’re doing a festival and dealing with the changeovers there, the stage-handlers are trying to mic up your amp…you can spend 30 minutes in a studio finding the sweet spot on a speaker cone, and they’re not going to do that in 30 seconds at a festival! So whatever gets thrown down the mic, the front-of-house sound guy has to work with that. So why not give them something that’s been very carefully considered as a direct sound? Then [the front-of-house sound engineers] don’t have to do anything – you get the same tone every night.

Going back to the whole STL tone thing, working with them doing Kemper tones…me and my bass player, Craig, hired a studio for a day and did loads of profiles. We came out with some killer tones – and they’re the only ones I use now for recording or playing live, or [the Andy James Guitar Academy], anything like that. There were 30 or so tones in the pack, so we started writing songs as a demonstration for that pack. I wasn’t thinking I was going to record an album; I just wanted to record three or four decent tracks to go out online and demonstrate the tones and hopefully have some half-decent playing on there.

It started to get a good response. The thing with writing is that I have to be inspired in order to do something, and it was also at a time when I wasn’t very well either; for most of 2016 I was getting over a bad medical accident from 2015, a mixture of alcohol and painkillers…it fucked me up for about nine months, and I wound up with weird anxiety and stuff like that. So I wasn’t going out much, spending time learning how to record and mix, and that tied in with doing the demos for STL.

So I kept writing, and those initial demos sounded pretty good right off the bat. I tried to mix them and get them into more of a polished state for an actual release, and before you know it I’ve got ten songs – two of which were old songs that I reworked with new tones, which kind of glued the album together. But most of the songs on [Exodus] have different rhythm tones and lead tones, so it was a challenge to make it sound like one complete album rather than a bunch of demos thrown together.

Then I got talking to Devil You Know’s manager in January, just before Wearing Scars toured with them in the UK. He wanted to work with me, and said I needed to get an album together – and I told him I already had one! I sent it to him, and he said we have to do something with it. He got Mike from Urban Yeti involved, since they were good friends, and they were up for getting behind the record. It all happened fairly quickly, and now the record’s out.

That’s pretty much it – it didn’t start out as a fixed plan, but now it’s a thing and it seems to have gone down pretty well.

What’s the most challenging thing about being a musician? You’ve been through a lot of experiences…

Trying to write good music without getting swayed by what’s happening at the time. With my own band, I don’t feel it’s genre-specific in terms of what’s current at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with being current, but only as long as that’s where you truly are musically. I think my lead playing is firmly fixed in the Shrapnel era of guitar shredding, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s rather than a modern thing, although there might be some modern twists to the things I play.

In Wearing Scars we just try and write good songs with arrangements we like that make sense. I mean, the toughest thing is making a living out of it, to be brutally honest! The sort of music I do, like the instrumental thing especially – which is still probably one of the most popular things I’ve ever done, because I’ve tried to do the band thing but it always seems people seem to be more interested in what I’m doing on my own. It can be frustrating at times, because you try and get people interested in the other projects you’re involved with and you’ve put a lot of work in, but it gets overlooked because it’s not the thing you’re known for…

Yeah – and like you were saying earlier, there’s the difference between band democracy and band-leading. Like a rock band such as the original Guns ‘N Roses versus someone like Steve Vai, who’d have very intricately detailed ways to manage people who play for him…

It’s hard to know…I’ve never met Steve Vai, so I can only surmise what he’s done from what I know of him, my own viewing experience of his career, but he seems like a colourful and flamboyant character who’s very passionate about what he does. That’s great, and it works given the theatrical nature of what he puts out – but I’m not like that! So it’s probably that idea that’s kept me from doing the guitar solo tour thing – it’s kind of a weird double-edged thing, because the nature of my solo music is “…look at me, look at my guitar playing,” that kind of thing, and the focus is only that thing and nothing else. But the personality I’ve got is very much the opposite of that. It’s kind of “…look at me, but don’t look at me,” that kind of thing [laughs]!

So being in a band always appealed more to me, a band as collective kind of thing that would never just be on me. But the most frustrating thing about that, like with Sacred Mother Tongue, everybody used to joke that it was just my band and they were just along for the ride, and the main focus was me. But that’s not how I see it, although other people might see it like that.

And you can’t control other people…

Yeah. But now I think I’ve got slightly more comfortable with it. I’ve realised you don’t have to have a ridiculous ego in order to put yourself out there; you can still be normal about it. I think with that realisation I might actually consider doing more solo touring, get a band together, and do it.

I’ve never done that before – I think it’d be a new thing to go out and do. Plus I get emails every day from people asking me to tour different places. I’ve done it to backing tracks as a clinic, but that’s the extent of my solo touring – just me with an MP3!

Would you ever consider doing something like Guthrie Govan does with The Aristocrats? Like a collaborative trio situation, instrumental but with a balance between democracy and bandleading…

Well, I know they improvise a lot of their stuff…so I don’t know if my approach would be the same. A lot of my stuff is written the way it’s played – although I can improvise and jam, I don’t know if I would feel it was good enough musically if it hadn’t had some sort of written direction.

That’s not to say [The Aristocrats] haven’t written great music, because the collaboration between [Guthrie, Marco Minnemann, and Bryan Beller] is amazing. Guthrie on his own is a great guitar player – all three of them are accomplished musicians in their own right anyway, so when you get them all together you’re gonna get something good!

But I don’t know…I’ve only ever been in bands with friends of mine. I’ve not sought out any professional musicians to work with, mainly because in the back of my mind, I wonder why they’d want to work with me when they’ve got other people they could work with…it may be a slightly defeatist attitude, but I haven’t really tried it. So maybe at some point I could ring up Mike Portnoy one day and be like “Hey, do you want to get a band together…?” [laughs]

Then you’ve got the approach that Misha Mansoor took with Periphery, where he was online to begin with, then recruited more people to help him out…

Yeah…I remember the start of that, because around the same time I was posting demos on the John Petrucci forums, which at the time was a great hub for guitar players where they could share music and stuff like that. A lot of really good guitar players came out of that [forum].

Misha was just known as Bulb on there, and I saw the djent thing emerge from the demos he was doing. I remember his tracks sounded incredible, the drum sound was so aggressive and heavy…I think Juggernaut was shared on there way before it ever became an album. He did a lot of instrumental stuff as well, and that progressed into Periphery, where he’s been through a few different singers and band members to get where it is now. It was cool to see it develop from where it came from. There was a really good buzz around it, and I remember thinking it was pretty fresh.

It’s a massive thing now…

Yeah! So what advice would you offer to someone just picking up a guitar now and thinking about getting a band together?

Play music that you like, rather than getting pulled along by a current trend and trying to sound like another band. You’ll have more of a genuine impact if you just do what you do instead of trying to do it like someone else.

It’s the same with guitar playing – people say they’ve been playing for ten years, playing in these different styles, and that’s a problem. If you spread yourself too thin over too many styles in one go, you’re gonna end up a jack of all trades, and a master of none. You’re not really gonna master anything.

I’ve always been into rock playing and aggressive playing, so I’ve not focused on anything apart from that…but then although I can do what I do fairly well, if I turned up to a jazz gig I’d probably fall apart! And I made peace with that a long time ago; problems tend to come when people want to be really good at everything, and it’s really only a select few that manage that.

It’s hard to make that point without sounding like you’re saying “…don’t do this, don’t try that, only learn that,” but if you’re going to stick with anything, not just a musical instrument but anything, you have to enjoy it. If you’re being forced to play in a style you don’t like, you might be well into jazz but you’ve got a guitar teacher who’s teaching you rock music, you’re not gonna stick at it because you’re not into it. So don’t bother! You might as well get fully into jazz and stick to that route, and that’s that.

You’ll probably find you become a way better player if you just focus on that.

If you want to be in a band, I’d seriously consider diversifying, which means trying to write for loads of different projects and getting your own stuff out there; you can also teach and do other stuff like session work. A lot of my own income comes from loads of different sources – I don’t get just one wage packet from one thing. In order to make a decent living, it’s best to have your fingers in loads of different pies rather than just concentrating on being in a band.

Also, if you are in a band, don’t expect someone to come along and do it all for you. It’s all very well having labels and managers, but they’re not going to do everything for you. You still have to hustle and do your own thing, get yourself out there, do your own gigs. It’s very rare that someone comes along with a cheque for twenty grand and says “…here you go, I’ll promote your band,” so you have to put in a lot of hard work.

If you had to pick one moment as a highlight of your career so far, which would you choose and why?

To be honest, it’s not so much a playing thing, but being acknowledged by heroes of yours…that’s an ongoing highlight for me. Meeting someone like Zakk Wylde and they know who you are, or John Petrucci asking me to go and do his guitar camp…you feel like a lot of the hard work has paid off and people are starting to recognise what you’re doing. That’s a pretty cool thing.

Getting to Number 5 on the iTunes metal chart for the release of an instrumental album…there’s probably loads of things I could get to if I had half an hour some other people sitting around me reminding me of things we’ve done.

Plus being able to do music for a living and not having to do what I was doing before in jobs…I don’t know if this is going to continue for the rest of my life or it’ll dry up one day and I’ll have to get a job, but I’m thankful and lucky that the things I’m involved in do relatively well, and I can afford to live rather than struggle. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a multi-millionaire, not even close, but I seem to be able to get by okay.

A lot of it comes down to hard work, like I was saying before. I’m not a person who just sits on my arse and waits for things to come to me. I used to be like that [laughs], but one day I was at my job and I was like “…fuck this, I have to do something with my life…”

Was there a particular moment when that happened, or was it a cumulative thing over time?

It was one moment. I was working in insurance for Norwich Union one day, and I just read about this guitar competition in a magazine. I was like “…fuck it,” it was sponsored by Ernie Ball and I knew it’d be in a national guitar magazine, so I went in for it.

I applied, did different heats, mostly in Birmingham, and it came down to the final five. I think they were doing national auditions – it was the same year The X-Factor started, so it was a similar thing to that. Fortunately I ended up winning it and got to know some new people, most notably Jamie Humphries, who was instrumental in getting me to work at Lick Library…he’s done loads of stuff, like We Will Rock You and obviously Pink Floyd…he ‘s a respected online teacher and guitar player.

It was lucky, because I was unemployed, I’d quit my job soon after the competition and had no job, a couple of students, and one day the phone rang with an offer from Lick Library. So I went in and did Get The Funk Out, my first-ever lesson, they were pretty happy and the response was pretty good, and Lick Library offered me my own column. I did a Full Shred Ahead column for them for a while, technical lessons and stuff like that, and after the response was improving and they were getting involved with YouTube – the response there was great too, a lot of interest – they started offering me some “Learn To Play” stuff. So I had to learn a lot of different bands’ material, and some of those videos have had views going into the millions.

I’m lucky that whatever I did, or however I came across, it seemed to be popular with budding guitarists who wanted to learn. So it’s all stemmed from that…

What’s exciting you about the future?

It’s funny, because the title of Exodus was going to be the title of an EP, not an album. “Exodus” is kind of a final departure, and with the artwork that was done for it it would’ve been wrong to change the title at that point. I don’t know if it’ll be the final instrumental album I do, but weirdly enough over the last week or so I’ve been thinking about doing another one!

Maybe that’ll be Exodus Part 2, and that really will be the last one…

Some sort of return, maybe…

Yeah – or if I do get my shit together and get a band going, start touring as a solo artist, maybe this’ll be the beginning of something else I hadn’t planned on. As it stands at the moment, Wearing Scars have just finished tracking all the drums for album 2, and we should have most of it done by October, with Colin Richardson mixing that. That’s going to be awesome – the songs are great and we’re really into it.

We’re currently putting together a crowdfunding campaign, as we’ve had enough money to get the drum tracking done, but we need a push to get the rest of it done. So hopefully we can get interest from people and make it happen!

What do you think of Andy James and Exodus? Leave a comment, follow me on Twitter, and let me know!

Posted on 04 June 2017

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