By Drew AIles
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We all love music, and we all love all kinds of music," notes James and the Devil frontman Jim Campbell. "I guess that rather than fast-tracking ourselves into a genre, we just decided to make songs for what they were. If we heard a metal song that we liked, it was like, 'Well, let's replicate that style.' If I'm influenced by a rap, I'm like, 'I want to write a rap song.' Or if our fiddler hears a down-home country bluegrass song he wants the band to learn, it's like, 'Well, let's write a bluegrass song.'
"We started just trying to write songs of different genres," Campbell continues, "and I think now we're kind of evolving toward mixing those genres to where it's like, 'Okay, now we're going to write a bluegrass song, and I'm going to incorporate some rap in there,' and just try to blend all the stuff we like together, and just basically use all of our strengths."
As anyone who's heard the act's music can tell you, fusing styles is something in which James and the Devil clearly excels. You can hear it in cuts like "Last Call," which feels like Primus meets Rage Against the Machine, or on "Jekyll," a funk-laden cut on which Campbell raps with auctioneer-style quickness. The band's new disc, Sample This, a followup to 2011's Altitude Sickness, includes some of the band's best songs, among them "All These Years," a collaboration with Green River Vibe that mixes reggae and rap, and live tracks from the Bluebird.
The decision to put live material on the disc was a conscious one, intended to show just how energetic the band — which features the sturdy rhythm section of bassist Adam Carpenter and drummer Matt Stoner; violinist Dave Ross, who makes up a large part of the group's sound; and proficient lead guitarist and percussionist Buz Crutchfield — is on stage. "As far as live shows go, we try to cater to the live audience," Campbell says. "I've written so many songs it's not funny. But as a performer, you get to see what songs really get it going. You might even only get to play one or two of your ballady-type songs in a live show."
Campbell says two of the band's tracks, "Generic Love" and "Jekyll," along with studio versions of "Last Call" and "No Big D" (live versions are included on Sample This), will be remixed, remastered and redone for a new album, tentatively titled Checking for Signs of Life and slated for a fall release. "And then we're going to have a whole other side of the new record that people haven't even heard," he adds.
One of the biggest differences between the newer material and the older songs, Campbell points out, is that he and his bandmates are trying to put more into each individual tune while maintaining a single theme, whereas in the past, they stuck to one style per song and that was it. "But now, as we've grown," he explains, "it's more of seeing like, 'What can we bend? What can we cross? Can we play a reggae song with a fiddle? Can we do a bluegrass song with rap lyrics in it? Can we do...just basically stuff that we like already, and try to build on top of what we've already accomplished?'"
Whatever kind of genre-bending results, Campbell says the band has intentionally steered away from radio-friendly pop. "We learned to try to avoid that, because we realized that not being a specific genre band, you're either going to appreciate what we do or we're not going to be your cup of tea," he observes. "So rather than embrace the cookie-cutter pop format for radio, or for a public ear to hear, we're swaying more toward just making sure the content is solid in each song."
Campbell, the band's rhythm guitarist and chief lyricist, says he got interested in playing guitar after listening to a Dave Matthews album that his brother gave him when he was nineteen. "I actually changed my whole life direction," he says. "I was at school studying computer programming and audio engineering, and all of a sudden, that dream was altered. I picked up a guitar and started playing, and started writing songs immediately."
For Campbell, Matthews's songs weren't just songs; rather, they resonated because Matthews poured his soul into them. Same thing with Sublime, Campbell says. "You can tell they weren't just making music to be making music," he points out. "They're not making radio commercials. They're putting real messages in there, and they're helping people. They say that music is the universal language, and if you get into every kind of music, you can start your healing processes, if you have any."
James and the Devil began as an acoustic duo made up of Campbell and Adam Herman in 2007, with the two sharing lead vocals. When trying to come up with a name, Campbell says, they knew they didn't want to be known as Jim and Adam; instead, they decided that "James" was a really good everyman name, and that Adam would be the Devil.
But after Herman left the band, Campbell took it upon himself to be a stronger singer. At the same time, he says, the name took on a new meaning for him, an internal yin-yang kind of concept. Fittingly, that push and pull also applies to the band's songwriting. Not every song makes the cut, evidently.
"A lot of the songs that get chopped are the ones that don't cater to the live audience as much as the studio audience," Campbell explains, "the reason being that the songs with more meaning are really great for studio audiences, but live, the energy really shines. You don't really need to hear what's being done as much as you can feel it. So I would tend to get really deep, and all the deep songs that I write are usually tossed to the wayside, and the more novelty and fun songs are put in the forefront.
"Don't let the name scare you, because we're a wide variety of messages," Campbell concludes. "Almost any demographic can find a song that they like from us if they look hard enough."