The Jameses' Psychedelic, Alternate Reality Tops Zitfest Lineup

The Jameses gang.
Ian Witlen

In front of Lake Worth's Little Munich, the Jameses' Dan McHugh politely endures one of the longest conversations he's ever had about his band. While smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes in the sub-50-degree air, he seems less than eager to unpack the influences behind the whirring delight of organ samples and his echoing vocals on his band's "Fifth Dimension."

"I don't think you should ask an artist to editorialize what they do," says McHugh, who sings and plays guitar and keyboards. He records his band's sample-fueled anthems in his mother's garage (Casa La Madre). "There's the message and the reception of the message. Good bands are the ones who don't concern themselves with the second part. It's going to render you impotent."

Over a game of pool inside the German restaurant and music venue, however, linking premier NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin to West Palm Beach's surging indie-rock scene comes far more easily. You see, McHugh played defensive tackle for the Cardinal Newman High School football team in West Palm Beach. Given the numerous nicknames he's attained since then regarding his undeniable bigness, this is no stretch.

But back to Boldin, once a breakout quarterback for the Pahokee Blue Devils and the Florida Mr. Football Award winner in 1998.

"He was an amazing athlete to play against," McHugh recalls and excitedly describes watching a lightning-fast Boldin effortlessly throwing a touchdown pass past the hapless Newman squad.

This is not the first or the last time that an earnest conversation about the dense, psychedelic songs created by McHugh, bassist Jesse Bryan, and drummer Danny Hitchcock has shifted to games in a competitive setting — Risk, the board game of world domination, is also a favorite. This lack of a concentrated media strategy has proven to be an excellent media strategy thus far, though.

With almost no self-promotion and even less ego posturing — the guys don't even have a press photo of themselves — the Jameses enraptured this publication as well as online music tastemakers like Pitchfork and Impose Magazine ("If this is the sound of West Palm Beach, I'm ready to retire").

Bryan splits time generally in monthlong increments between a Brooklyn apartment and crashing in Lake Worth. He has done his part to distribute copies of the band's "The Haunted Rider"/ "Rat People" seven-inch in New York earlier this year. He says that the Jameses' current record deal with Brooklyn label Captured Tracks came strictly from label owner Mike Sniper hearing it playing during a visit to Academy Records in Williamsburg.

"To me, it had that pop/psychedelic sound of the early Zoo scene in '79-'80 in Liverpool, like early Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen," Sniper writes New Times in an email. "Later found out they never even heard Teardrop Explodes, but I still think of [Teardrop singer] Julian Cope every time I hear that voice. To this day I have no idea what their primary influences are. I bought 2-3 copies of the single, asked to hear some demos, and realized I had to have this band. YouTube live footage of them being generally great cemented that."

The Jameses' second seven-inch release via Captured Tracks was "Caribou"/"Fifth Dimension" earlier this month. A full-length album release is planned for early next year, and the Jameses are working hard to make the most of Bryan's availability, which ebbs and flows because of his job at an executive headhunting firm and fiancé Krista Manrique back in New York.

"One thing it does is create a sense of urgency," Bryan says while leaning on the bar at the Diamond, a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with a table shuffleboard game nearby that will come in handy later. "We gotta get some shit done. I have a set timeline when I gotta go back to Krista. We're late-20s; we're getting old. It's time to make some songs and record. We've been playing music since we were 13, and that seven-inch was the first thing we really released."

During Bryan's December stint in West Palm Beach, another project is taking shape this weekend in the form of Zitfest. The admittedly unseemly named two-day festival ("a scene ready to explode like a zit") features the Jameses and more than a dozen other local fringe acts. The idea grew from conversations the Jameses had with local friends Jordan Pettingill, C.J. Jankow, and Jimmy Bradshaw, who record lo-fi mythos as Cop City/Chill Pillars. After Jankow secured the Orange Door, a Lake Park venue best-known for its blues bookings and low-priced beer, the guys recruited acts from Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tampa in addition to area staples like post-punk quartet Guy Harvey, the Band in Heaven, and electronic artist Sumsun.

"It felt lonely down here before we knew that those guys existed," McHugh admits. "Everybody's talking about this great scene down here, but this is really new to us too. We didn't have this sense of community before this year."

Aside from a couple of one-off shows the past couple of years, the Jameses began a new chapter as a band splitting a bill with Guy Harvey in January at Propaganda in Lake Worth. The gig introduced the Jameses to other bands in the area and opened the doors of Casa La Madre to record several of them. But the lengthiest sessions are devoted to perfecting the trio's own material — two months of work in the converted garage to layer the gorgeous soft-punk track "The Haunted Rider" and the cosmic "Rat People" right.

Patience and dedication of this sort in closed quarters can originate only from a tight trio of friends who played in punk bands and drank Schlitz in the parking lot at West Palm Beach's bygone Happy Days club as teenagers. Later, they briefly experimented with post-Anticon, post-MC Paul Barman hip-hop as Funkhauser ("My shoulders are square and I've got gum in my hair/I sleep in a church with an untucked shirt"). For the past few years, though, it has been all Jameses (James is both McHugh and Hitchcock's middle name), first as a duo and now with a third.

These days, Hitchcock plays drums in a live setting ("out of necessity," according to Bryan) but is also discreetly triggering many of the samples he created for the band in the process. All the while, McHugh and Bryan alternate between keyboards and guitar and bass, giving nearly every song a different configuration.

"We're just hanging out onstage," Bryan says. "We're not trying to create a sound; we're just trying to play music that we like. We're not trying to fit into a genre, just writing songs that we think sound cool. We're not about anything, but that's exactly what we're about."

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The Orange Door

798 10th St.
Lake Park, FL 33403


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