That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

James Goode: Mouthfeel (album review plus EXCLUSIVE bonus interview!)


Musical sandwich
Go ahead, take a bite
It was made with your tongue, teeth, and taste buds in mind

So go the opening lines of “Mouthfeel,” the title track of James Goode’s first solo album, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is also entitled Mouthfeel. I had previously known James Goode for his (rumored but unconfirmed) role as Faxed Head member Fifth Head and for his ambitious but seldom-heard electroacoustic music (more on this below). I didn’t realize that he also wrote and sang songs with actual lyrics and melodies, so when I first came across “Mouthfeel” in my Soundcloud feed, it was both a surprise and a revelation. After all, who else sings lyrics like this…

The eggs come from a factory, where they’re grown from seed
Formed in molds extra-utero – pale albumin, bright yolk
The fat, protein, and cholesterol have all been removed
All that’s left is a thick starch – layers of gray and orange

…let alone makes them work, musically speaking? (That was a rhetorical question, but if you know of anyone, please answer in the comments section below.)

It’s safe to say that if James Goode hadn’t written this song, no one else would have. That’s true of the album as a whole, although this isn’t radically experimental or inaccessible music from way out in outer space. Only about half of the songs on Mouthfeel have vocals, but apart from the palate-cleansing interlude “Japanese Postcard (1966),” all of them have bona fide melodies and chord progressions.

Sonically, the album is a revelry of thick, squishy keyboard tones, the kind one might associate with progressive rock of an early/mid ’70s vintage. The music is seldom explicitly proggy, though. “Don’t Bite,” for example, sounds like warped lounge pop, with Goode crooning the kind of lyrics one seldom hears out of the mouths of crooners (or anyone else, for that matter). Reference points are hard to conjure, although as I scroll through my mental Rolodex, parts of Steve Beresford’s Signals for Tea and Fred Lane’s Shimmy Disc albums come to mind–at least until the song takes a left turn into an extended instrumental with pipe organs and gurgling synths. “Chew or Choke” reprises the food metaphors, synesthetic imagery, and layered vocal arrangements heard on the title track. Some of the instrumentals remind me of Kramer’s Goldberg Variations (which I prefer to Switched-On Bach as far as Bach-inspired synth albums go) or the medieval-sounding keyboard parts on Faxed Head’s Exhumed at Birth.

With the exception of a few instrumental cameos (most notably by former Utopia keyboardist Roger Powell), Goode does it all here, from songwriting, vocals, and instrumental performance to production, mixing, and mastering. There is an attention to detail in the recording and mixing that repays close listening on a decent pair of headphones or speakers. This is the kind of music that one could theoretically tinker with forever, especially given the near-infinite array of sounds at one’s disposal in the well-equipped modern home studio, together with the absence of a studio- or label-imposed deadline. He manages to layer all sorts of colorful sounds and tones without going overboard and overwhelming the listener with gimmickry effects or gratuitous overdubs.

I mentioned something about these challenges in a conversation/interview I did with Mr. Goode in May 2016, which focused mostly on other (top secret!) topics, but which did yield the following quote, which I’m going to take out of context and include here because it seems to fit:

What’s nice nowadays is that you can have a DX-7, and you can have a Prophet V, and you can have a Mellotron—if you can afford it, you know. Or you can have a Moody Blues kind of sound, and you can have a Visage sound, and you can have a Nitro sound—all in the same song. And you can still spend 10 years working on it! It’s completely outside of the time constraints of technology and or the style of the day.

I had that quote in the back of my mind as I started writing this review, but I wasn’t sure whether he actually said “Visage” and/or “Nitro,” as nothing on Mouthfeel resembles either of these bands. I wound up contacting James to make sure I wasn’t misquoting him, and what ensued was the following interview. (You can listen to and purchase Mouthfeel here.)

I have a Nitro cassette, and I have a few Moody Blues cassettes, but I don’t have any Visage cassettes. I don’t think anyone else where I live has all three of those bands on cassette, and maybe five people have even two of the three on cassette.

And I would imagine you’d probably know all of them.

I don’t know anybody around here.

You should get out more.

I’m gonna have to go listen to some Visage.

I will too, actually, because I have absolutely no idea what they sound like, other than they were around in the ’80s and used a lot of synthesizers. I’ve seen their records in record stores. I’ve just never had the impulse to buy one of them.

Would they be anywhere in the same ballpark as Erasure?

I can’t even really place them. I like the name because it reminds me of tape recording.

I listened to Mouthfeel a couple of times today, and it finally dawned on me that there’s no percussion on the album, except on the interlude (“Japanese Postcard (1966)”).

It dawned on you now?!? [Laughs.] I think it’s a pretty glaring omission. It’s something I’m painfully aware of. It does give the whole album a weird quality that makes it a little bit more like a demo. It makes it more intimate in a way. Drums can be very noisy and take up a lot of space and be very distracting and very oppressive. I mean, drums can be a lot of things. But it’s kind of difficult to make anything resembling “rock” music without drums.

Rock music—you know, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, even classic rock—is definitely a big influence on me. It’s music I grew up with, and it definitely makes its way into my music. But not having drums precludes my music from being perceived as rock music in a way.

But it also creates this weird effect where the drums that aren’t there—let’s just say they’re subliminal. That’s kind of a copout. It’s not really true. [Laughs.] But you can say that, I suppose. It’s almost like the drums that aren’t there are like the vocals that aren’t there in a karaoke song. It would be a great karaoke album for a drummer to listen to, because then they could just tap along to the inaudible drums—tap on a table like you used to do when you were a kid in school.

Not that all of them necessarily need drums, but there are certain ones—like “Chew or Choke,” “Don’t Bite,” “Night Surf”—that, to me, sound like there’s something missing. There should be some kind of percussion. Maybe not a rock drum set, but at least some kind of rhythmic element.

Right, I think that’s why I didn’t notice, because they really are sort of subliminal. Because it isn’t like ambient music. There are songs that have rhythms. Plus, the bass and a lot of the keyboard tones are percussive in their own way.

The majority of these songs were done with a click track in Logic. Some of them were done with an old windup metronome, like “Chew or Choke,” which I did before I was working in Logic. It’s a lot easier for me to overdub that way.

So there’s certainly a suggestion of a rhythm. The foundation of the songs are tight because I’m following a click track. And like you said, the bass and a lot of the keyboards are pretty percussive, but it’s not as percussive as a full rock drum set. There’s nothing that aggressive or upfront.

With the keyboards, how much of it is hardware versus software?

It depends on which song you’re talking about. There are certain songs that are almost all hardware, and some that are all software. And then there are some that are in between. I have the same model of Hammond spinet organ that Keith Emerson used in The Nice, an L-101. He would stick knives in the keys to get them to sustain and then jump over it and all this shit. He treated it like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend treated their guitars. It doesn’t have a built-in Leslie, but it does have a reverb spring! It’s all electromechanical. I use that on “Tubular Monople Canon” and “A Fifth of July.” And then I have a Rhodes 54 electric piano. I use that a lot. But when you hear sitar and pipe organ and bassoon and orchestral instruments—I mean, I don’t have any of that!

What about Roger Powell? Which ones did he play on, and did he bring his own gear?

I have a Prophet-10 synthesizer that a friend lent me. Speaking of Visage, they used Prophet-5 a lot, I’m sure, and then Ultravox with Midge Ure—the stuff that I’m not as familiar with. I’m more into the earlier Ultravox with John Foxx. But basically, it’s two Prophet-5s in one chassis. It’s really heavy—it’s almost 100 pounds. It’s an incredible synthesizer. It’s the one John Carpenter’s used on a lot of his film soundtracks, like Escape from New York and Halloween. He either used a Prophet-10 or a Prophet-5 for that early ‘80s horror sound.

Anyway, I’d been corresponding with Roger Powell because he did the music for this other project that I did—this radio play based on 13 short stories by William F. Nolan, who co-wrote Logan’s Run. It’s called William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe. Powell had done this album in the early ’70s called Cosmic Furnace. The guys who did this project with Nolan—R.W. Hessler and Tom Lynch—really liked that album. That was the album that got Todd Rundgren to ask Roger Powell to be in Utopia.

I wondered if I’ve been missing anything by not listening to Utopia.

I’m not sure how serious they were about trying to be a progressive rock group. I think it was kind of tongue-in-cheek in a way. I think Rundgren was maybe making fun of progressive rock a little bit. There’s this one live album that I had that was literally an hour long. It was 30 minutes a side. So when it comes to mastering, the grooves of the record are too close together, so what you have to do is cut out a lot of the low frequencies. And then on the record, you have to tell the consumer, basically, to boost the low frequencies on their stereo system. You have to compensate for the lack of low frequencies in the grooves. If you have too much low frequency in the grooves, especially towards the end of each side, the record will just skip. So some of those records sound really, really bad. I’m not sure what he was thinking, making these hour-long albums.

It all comes full circle. That sounds like some of the Caroliner LPs.

There was one—I think it was Cooking Stove Beast—that was 50-something minutes. I remember how bad the mastering was on that one. It was just mushy; it didn’t have any detail—all the things that I listen for in music, generally speaking. When they’re not there, the music is just a big blob. You can’t really distinguish anything.

I was surprised when I first heard the song “Mouthfeel” because I only knew your more abstract music, like the eight-channel tape piece [Spatio-sensory] and the Brailles in the Foment of Zoopsia excerpt that’s on a Bananafish compilation. And there, the spatial aspect is very central. It’s not just left and right; it feels like things are moving forward and backward. They’re not really “rock” production techniques. So to hear that kind of a production applied to songs is pretty unusual. In a certain way, you could almost hear Mouthfeel as an electroacoustic album that happens to have songs. There’s a lot more attention to the timbre and, again, the spatial aspect of it, for lack of a better word.

Right. Yeah…. But you know, those are things that I thought about a lot when I was doing eight-channel music. Spatio-sensory, which I did at Granny’s, and Foment in the Brailles of Zoopsia and some of the more experimental things that I was doing. It was much more abstract, less melodic. Not necessarily less rhythmic, because I would use tapes and electronics and non-musical objects to make the sounds, then I would loop things, and I would edit them and create rhythms. Whatever the sounds happened to be, I would take the parts that I wanted and make weird rhythms out of them.

But yeah, I think doing a lot of multichannel, immersive audio—I’ve always been interested in doing that. Or at least, I’ve been doing it as long as I’ve had the technology and the equipment to do it. When I first moved to San Francisco, all I had were monaural tape recorders. So with a lot of the early Faxed Head stuff, I didn’t even have a means of multi-tracking. I’d had cassette four-tracks when I was in college and even high school, but that was as far as I could go in terms of experimental music. They were basically just tapes. I finally moved up to stereo, and that was a huge step forward for me.

So no matter how organized my songs are now—and they’re much more recognizable as “songs”—I’ll always be interested in having those elements. They’re just not as dominant as they used to be. That used to be the totality of the music—all of these weird, unrecognizable sounds. “What am I hearing? What is the context for this?” So some of those techniques carry over. And sometimes they’re even the foundation for the song. But instead of it sounding experimental, it’s much more familiar. I mean, after all, far more people are familiar with Motown and the Beatles than they are with Xenakis and Stockhausen and Berio and Tod Dockstader.

Was Brailles… recorded in its entirety? And where was the recording of that excerpt made?

Well, I did it twice. It was actually my thesis concert at Mills, so it was done in the concert hall there. And I’m pretty sure that’s the excerpt that’s on the Bananafish CD. And then I did it at the Lab a year later with different musicians. I only did it twice. It was long. The thing at Mills was 70-something minutes, and then the show at the Lab was like 90 minutes, which was way too fuckin’ long. Way too long.

Which might explain why I’m doing songs now. I’m doing three-minute songs. I don’t want to be doing these epic things where people just walk out. Because that’s what happens. People just think, “Oh my god, this is never gonna end.”

I was at the Spatio-sensory installation/performance at the Pencil-Vania house [circa 2005, I believe]. I have a recollection of the experience of being there and lying in the dark and listening to it. But it’s not like I could just throw it on the stereo—if it were actually available to consumers—and say, “I want to listen to Spatio-sensory and hear how that one part went,” because I don’t have an eight-channel sound system. I mean, have a few CDs that have 5.1 surround-sound mixes, but I’ve never even been able to listen to them, because I don’t have that kind of stereo configuration.

I have stereo mixes of Spatio-sensory, but I’ve been reluctant to put it out, just because it would betray the very title of it. I mean, it’s called “Spatio-sensory.” The whole idea of it is a specific speaker arrangement. Each speaker represents a different sensory organ. You have this image of this deformed human head, where each speaker is either an ear or an eye or a nostril, and the sounds correspond to various types of sensory stimuli. It still sounds fine in stereo, but it’s not true to the concept of what the piece is. I would really have to release it as four stereo tracks and give people very specific instructions on how to set it up, and it’s just—who’s gonna do that?

It’s a very idiosyncratic arrangement of speakers that I came up with just because it made sense in the room I was in at the time. Two of the speakers are actually on the ceiling, facing down. Even the way that the speakers were arranged at Jaina’s—it was the same basic idea as how I had it in my bedroom when I wrote the piece, but the dimensions and the volume of the room were quite different. She had a higher ceiling and a longer room. My room was more square, with a lower ceiling.

It was a very interesting experience doing that kind of thing. I set up those speakers in such a way that you’d have so many more combinations of speaker movement than you’d have with stereo. With stereo, you have left and right, and you have center. And then there are a number of different effects you can get with phasing and with reverb and with having some sounds closer and some farther away. But then when you have eight speakers, you have all these vortices that cross. You can create the illusion of sounds being almost anywhere in a room. You can even create the illusion of the sounds coming directly through the listener’s head—you know, through their ears—and you can really pinpoint sounds to where they’re in different parts of their bodies. It’s a lot of work, and it involves research and a lot of trial and error. But it’s a very different experience than just working in stereo.

This gets back to some of these issues about making music in a perfect world versus the world we actually live in. And that kind of gets back to a rambling comment I made that preceded your quote about Visage and Nitro and spending ten years to make a record. Because on the one hand, there are so many tools at one’s disposal—especially with digital recording—that it can take forever to even finish something. You can always keep tweaking it and trying to perfect it. That makes me think of the Secret Chiefs. Trey was going to put out three albums in a year, in 2004, and so far, one and a half of those have come out. So that’s more than ten years—which would encompass the entire career of the Beatles, plus their first few solo albums. That’s a lot of music and a lot of change. Whereas I don’t feel like there’s been anywhere near that kind of shift from, say, 2005 to 2015. It all seems very … post-historical, in terms of there being any kind of trajectory in rock music.

Yeah. I mean, a more extreme example would be to take Revolver, which came out in ’66, and the White Album, which came out in ’68. You’re looking at all the music that came out in ’67. It would take hours to even talk about it. It’s just insane.

You compare that to taking 10 years to do an album. There’s just absolutely no comparison. Maybe thousands of great albums came out in 1967, or 1971, or whatever year around that time.

So yeah, it’s true. The Beatles went from ’65, when they were starting to write more serious songs like “In My Life” or “Yesterday.” There’s quite a few Beatles songs from ’64 that I like, but ’65 is really when they got a lot more serious. And then they broke up, basically, in ’69. Abbey Road was the last thing they did, pretty much. I mean, that’s a lot of music.

Right. Plus, you can put something on the stereo, and you can hear whether it was made in ’67 versus ’69, or even ’77 versus ’79. But anyway, there is something really interesting in terms of how you’re using technology. You have these combinations of sounds layered together that recall different elements of the past, but elements that would not (or could not) have been put together in those ways in the past. It has timbres or sounds that one would associate with ’70s prog, just because of some of the keyboard sounds, but it doesn’t have what I would think of as a prog sensibility. Especially in terms of the lyrics. If you were to put together the “Mouthfeel Ensemble” and play at a prog festival…

Yeah, I’d probably get booed off of the stage. [Laughs.] But if you hear of any festivals that wanna put me on there, I’m game. Putting a band together would be a huge challenge. That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I mean, writing the music and then playing it and doing all that stuff—that’s great, and I enjoy that a lot. But trying to get other people interested enough…</

Now and then I’ll get one person to come in and play some parts. Sometimes it’ll be, “Play a solo over this chord progression in this one part.” Or, “Play this melody,” and I’ll sing it for them or write it out or something. Or, “Improvise along these lines, with these ideas.” I did that with Roger Powell, where I would just have him improvise with very minimal supervision. He would just kind of do what he wanted to do. And then, over time, I would listen to those things and cut them up and use them in different songs. But putting a band together is something I know I have to do. And that’s the really hard part. Anybody who would have the time to work with me at this point is probably not financially independent. They’re already struggling. They might have five jobs and be in 10 different bands if they’re even halfway decent musicians. So it’s something I know I have to do, and I’m looking forward to it. But at the same time, I’m kind of looking forward to it.

In a way, I’d rather do everything myself, but that’s so antithetical to what music is about. Having no social dimension to music whatsoever—it’s very hard to maintain any enthusiasm. “Oh, I’m just gonna sit in my studio and write another song. How fuckin’ exciting is that?” I know I can do it—I know I can write another song—but it’s just kind of like, “No one’s gonna hear it. No one’s gonna listen to it. No one’s gonna play it. I have to do everything. What’s the fucking point?”

And playing live is very exciting. With Faxed Head, I would always be kind of nervous before a show. And then you’d get up there, and there’s something so inevitable about it. Once you start the set and you’re playing, what are people gonna do—tell you to stop? You go up there, you play the songs, maybe you fuck ’em up (and hope nobody notices). And then you’re done, and then you have people come up to you and ask you crazy questions and ask you to sign autographs. It’s fun.

I don’t even know what to make of it anymore. The new releases that I pay attention to are usually by artists I’m already familiar with. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true. I can’t keep up otherwise. And then making music, for me, is something I do with total awareness of the fact that nobody’s going to care, nor should they. I’m hesitant about adding more music to a world that’s overflowing with music that people don’t listen to.

You do it because you have to, though.

Yeah. I mean, for me, it’s a hobby. I mean, I have a day job, and my day job is there to fund recreational activities like playing music or writing about music. Whereas trying to earn a livelihood doing music—I can’t even imagine at this point.

It’s hard for me to imagine at this point. But some people do it. Willie Winant seems to do it. I mean, he teaches at Mills and at Santa Cruz. Trey does it. Neil Hamburger does. Greg from Deerhoof does it. There are people who do it, who don’t have temp jobs, or who had temp jobs and quit them. I don’t know. I hope one day I’ll be there. It’s not gonna happen if I don’t put a band together and get some lucky breaks and tour incessantly and all that stuff.

Is your next album going to be self-released as well?

[Laughs.] It sure looks that way. Nobody’s approaching me.

What about Tzadik? Are they even putting out albums anymore? I used to follow them.

Yeah, Tzadik is. I was thinking about sending Mouthfeel to Zorn, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing he would have put out.

The album I’m working on now—it definitely has drums, definitely has percussion. It’s got a ways to go. I pretty much have all the songs. Some of them are finished, actually, but it’s a little too instrumental at this point. I want to have more songs that have vocals.

So with Mouthfeel, I’m thinking, “What should the ratio be?” 50/50 sounds about right to me, like Tuxedomoon’s album Half-mute.

A lot of my ideas begin as instrumentals, then I develop them to a point where there’s no room for vocals; it would just be redundant. Plus, it takes me so long! There are several factors for me to consider; it’s not just, “Am I singing the right notes?” A lot of it has to do with emotion. It has to be completely sincere. And it has to be the right kind of voice. Psychologically, it has to work with the song.

With a song like “Mouthfeel,” the lyrics are weird, synesthetic and hallucinogenic, and there are multiple interpretations. So it can’t be too flippant. Usually my first impulse is to be casual and spontaneous, but with my voice, it doesn’t always work. I listen to it and I get too self-conscious. It’s just obnoxious if you end up sounding like you want to sound clever or you’re trying to sound smart.