Q&A with James Lumb of Electric Skychurch
Electric Skychurch, appearing July 24 at the Church, is one of the seminal live electronic outfits to rise from American soil in the ‘90s. Inspiring vocals, funky bass lines, and smooth, flowing, trance-like textures are staples of the sound created by Skychurch founder James Lumb and his rotating lineup of musical counterparts. Whatever the lineup that backs up Lumb, layering live vocals and instruments on top of his electronic beats and bleeps has been one consistent factor on this group's musical journey. After the jump, get the lowdown on Lumb’s inspirations, background, and what to expect when he takes the stage tonight in an extended, in-depth Q&A session.
Westword (Jas Tynan): For all the newbies out here that are unaware, tell us a little background about how Electric Skychurch came into being and what inspired some of the early tracks and gigs you played.
James Lumb: Electric Skychurch has evolved over the years as a platform for my work, which has always focused on producing music for every conceivable venue, including concerts, films, and large scale public installations. I began using Electric Skychurch as a moniker for my solo studio work in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 1992 I landed my first (and only) full time job working at Imagine Films in Los Angeles, which is Ron Howard's company. I worked as one of Brian Grazer's assistants, which was tremendously enlightening, and taught me the difference between a Hollywood pro and a
slick poseur. Most importantly, Brian Grazer taught me how to develop a library of ideas, and work with people over a period of years to make those ideas come to life in the real world. He also taught me that in his films, how the characters change over time is critical to the success of the story. I met a lot of people and realized how rare talent truly is, and how that rarity is treasured because so many people have the ambition, but not the talent, we expect from iconic entertainers.
My motto then was "Sound is One Half of the Film." The best films have the best sound, not always the pleasant, or the loudest, or the most musical sound, but a sound that makes the film work with or without a picture. All of the Electric Skychurch records are movies without sound, which means that most people can close their eyes and follow the storyline of the music like it was a film.
In 1994, I was so busy with my job at Imagine Films I started taking on help with Skychurch. I added a keyboardist, drummer, and then worked with several singers before connecting with Roxanne Morganstern. By this time, the "band" was being marketed by the record company and taking off, while I, ironically, tried to hide my music career from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard to keep my job. Eventually, I just left film because I was doing better in music.
My records were doing well, and there was a demand for a live show. It took about a year to work out the details, but eventually I was able to bring my experience playing in punk bands to the stage, mix it with a huge dose of Jungian Imagery, add a couple of super-talented people, and invite 10,000 friends to a secret location in the desert. Yikes! It worked better than I ever thought it would. We ended up on the road for a decade.
WW: What are some of your early and current influences?
JL: I loved Burt Bacharach when I was 4! I still do. I woke up this morning with Bacharach on the brain. Major influences are Brian Eno, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Devo, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Hedges, The Human League, Love Tractor, the Pixies, Dead Can Dance, Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, The Doors, Hendrix and Pink Floyd.
WW: The American dance music scene has undergone so many incarnations since you started making music, how have you managed to survive this long?
JL: Since the dance scene turns over every few years, we have had to learn how to roll with the changes. I'm older now and we have a new baby girl! I don't go out for the same reasons I did when I was 25. I don't consider myself part of the commercial dance scene, but I LOVE the fact that we've been embraced by it.
WW: How has the Skychurch sound evolved over the past decade, and what has remained the same?
JL: My music is about change. Changes in the world, changes within ourselves. In my music, something always changes, and something always remains the same so that you have a storyline. I keep my electronic sounds simple for this reason, it's an anchor for understanding the changes, which typically come from live performers.
WW: What should people expect to hear, feel, see and experience when Skychurch takes the stage at The Church tonight?
JL: I expect to blow it out at the Church! We're going to pull out all the stops. Roxanne and I are working with DJ Wicked Won on the decks and drum machines and Ryan Burnett from Signal Path on Guitar. I've been taking time off with our baby since Christmas, and I am ready to bust out! I expect to thoroughly enjoy myself.
WW: Positivity has always seemed a staple of the the Electric Skychurch live experience. What does that stem from?
JL: If your life sucks, try being nice to someone. If they are not nice back, move on happily. To me, positivity in our live shows comes from a desire to have a good life when I am offstage. The reality of life is that your relationships, with everyone from your family to the people you meet as you go through your day, will be better if you decide to treat people
decently. Experience has taught me that most people in entertainment are narcissistic jerks who are scared out of their wits and generally treat people on the crews and at the clubs terribly to mask their own fear. This is too bad, because in the end the audience, the crew, and the people you meet are there to hold the artists up. No matter how bad it gets backstage, we try and drop it all for the show. It always works!
WW: It seems the promoters were wise and enabled you to bring your full lineup to Denver. How does playing in Denver compare to other scenes?
JL: At the moment, the Denver scene is one of the best in the Americas. This is great time for Denver. Please enjoy it while it lasts.
WW: What gear are you using nowadays? Are you still using the Roland TB-303 Bass Synth, or have you migrated into more software over the years?
JL: Companies have been giving me gear for years, so I've had a chance to use most of the professional software in development but we still fall back on analog hardware most of the time. Onstage I use a Vintage TB-303, Novation Drumstation, a Roland Juno-G, Roland MC-808, and a "C-Thru Axis" Controller. At my studio, we use Steinberg's Nuendo paired with a 24 Channel Trident console. We have Neve, Avalon, and API preamps, eq, and compression for critical instrument and vocal tracks. We record in a John Lautner House in Echo Park, all of the rooms have irregular shapes, and it sounds perfect.
WW: Do you listen to dance music?
JL: Oddly, I do not seek out music made by dance music producers. I have played shows with the giants of the genre, heard their tracks incidentally, but I never, ever, sit down and listen to their records unless they hand it to me and ask for comments, and even then I usually shy away from that situation. I think of myself as a player that used computers to make it all work, not a programmer or anything like that. I love it when a producer assumes I know their work, because I don't. This lets me like people in the scene for who they are, and not for what they do or can do for me.
WW: With legendary San Francisco act Dubtribe having broken up, you seem to be the sole major purveyors of positivity in the American live electronic dance music world. Are you seeing/hearing any newer acts stepping up to fill that void?
JL: There are hundreds of live electronic acts out there in North America - a huge groundswell that has been building for years as computers make production and performing with machines cheaper. The problem is that live electronic music requires both rock sound (open mics, a stage, etc) and dance sound (dj decks, expensive bass bins, etc). Most bands start in the rock clubs, which usually can't handle the dance beat and bass, and in some towns they are not permitted for dancing. Dance clubs have the power and sound, but often lack the microphones, monitors and experienced engineers that live bands need. Rock clubs with dance sound are out there, and once rock clubs figure out how to handle dance bands the current wave of bands will take off.
WW: What have been the best gigs for you this summer so far?
JL: My best gig this Summer has been taking care of our infant, Eloise.
WW: What lies ahead for James Lumb and for Electric Skychurch?
JL: Many diapers, traveling with family, new releases - both dance and ambient - a feature film soundtrack, and a new show to be revealed on November 1 in Los Angeles.
-- Jas Tynan
The lineup for Electric Skychurch's July 24 Denver visit:
James Lumb - bandleader, vocals, keyboards
Roxanne Morganstern - vocals, hand drum
EZKL (Ryan Burnett from Signal Path) - guitar
Cody Wille (DJ Wicked Won) - DJ & Drum Machines
Appearing tonight at The Church
Table reservations: 303-832-8628