Interview with Juan Leon of StradaSphere Radio

Live at the Vintage Bar

It's a pleasure (and a goal) of Strada-Sphere Radio to bring you interviews with up and coming Stickists from around the planet.Once and a while you come across an artist whose statements strike a chord like a clear church bell in the early mists of morn'.Jim Kam is one such artist.His debut Stick CD, "Jimmy Nobody", resounds with clarity and passion. Jim was gracious enough to grant me some time and offer up a window into his world.

1. Jim,tell us about your early years with the Stick.

I got my first Stick in around 1982. It was an Ironwood 10 string; Grands were not available in those days. I had read the original interview with Emmett in the mid 70s in Guitar Player magazine and was quite intrigued. It was not till I was on a road trip in California that I actually saw one being played. From that moment, I knew that I had to have one.

My friend and I were in Los Angeles at the time. I gave Emmett a call from a pay phone and went to see him early the next morning.

A couple of months later, I had my brand new Stick in hand. I had sold my prized Gibson ES335 to finance it. In retrospect, I wish that I had been able to keep the guitar as well as get the Stick, but what the hey. I have not had much desire to play guitar in years.

I wish that I could say that I clicked with the Stick right off the bat, but I didn't. Despite years of formal musical training in piano (and to a lesser extent, guitar), I never did get the hang of it during that period. Eventually, the Stick got relegated to the spare bedroom closet where it stayed for about 15 years, taken out once a year or so.

I would have completely lost interest in playing had I not discovered Stickwire (Stick enthusiasts mailing list) on the internet. I started playing the Stick again. I think that this was in 1998. I ended up trading the Ironwood for a Cherry Grand Stick. Not long after that I attended a weekend Stick seminar in Dallas,Texas taught by Greg Howard and Guillermo Cides. Those 2 days of intensive lessons and performances were enough to give me a tangible sense of what I could do with the instrument and how to go about unraveling its mysteries.

Since then, I have made it a point to try and attend a seminar every chance I get. I always come away having learnt something valuable, and made some new friends as a bonus. It's great to put a face to people I have had met via email. I have thus far attended seminars in Abilene, San Diego and San Jose. I look forward to going toDetroitsometime, and perhaps one of the Canadian events.

2. It appears that your association with music and performing started at an early age.How has that helped you as a solo performer on the Stick?

While I started piano lessons at an early age, I was never that focused on being an instrumentalist. Of course, I had to do the obligatory music school recitals etc. I might add that I did not much like them at the time. Later on in my teens, playing an instrument was a means of accompanying myself or other singers I played with. I did this with both guitar and piano. Much of my musical focus in my late teens and early twenties was as a vocalist in an ensemble context. During that time, I performed a lot with the Singapore Youth Choir, the Singapore Youth Choir Ensemble, and the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company. I also played in a couple of bands. I only occasionally performed solo.

So, when I started playing Chapman Stick as a soloist, and as mostly an instrumentalist, this was something new for me.

I should add that being a soloist is quite a liberating experience. It is also a pragmatic choice. Being a parent and a working stiff, it would be hard to make time for both rehearsals as well as gigs, were I in a band. On the other hand, practice time is not a problem. Most of the time, I practice in the wee hours of the evening or early in the morning before work.

3.Taking the Stick out to jam nights is a surefire way to raise some interesting questions from folks as well as a few blank stares.How did you approach the live, solo Stick situations after your performing hiatus during the 80's and 90's?

I plunged into it head first. I credit my friend Jeff Schriber who for years has run the open mike at the Crooked Ferret pub inHoustonfor making me feel welcome enough to play in public. When I first started, I was pretty raw, and definitely not ready. Still, I persisted and practiced. As the fellow in Monty Python said,I got better.

Yes, I do get questions all the time, mostly from other musicians. It does get a little tiresome at times. Still, I always take the time to name the instrument and give a brief description. I sometimes wish people would focus on the music rather than the instrument. The instrument is but a tool. It serves as a means for the performer to express himself / herself. If you close your eyes and do not hear anything compelling, then it doesn't matter how exotic the instrument looks, the player is not worth a darn.

It's a bit of a dual edged sword. Sometimes playing a unique instrument opens doors, other times people do not want to play with you (either in a band context or have you open for them) because they cannot get over how different it is.

I've been lucky. Most people I met have been very encouraging and accepting.

4.Tell us about HAMM and how your involvement has helped you career.

HAAM: Houston Area Acoustic Musicians was started by some friends of mine as a way to network, build clout with radio stations and hiring venues. It has been quite successful, and I am glad to be a member. It largely caters to the singer/songwriter community.

As a Stickist, I am of course not an acoustic musician, but that doesn't seem to bother anybody. I am somewhat shy among strangers, so this has really been very good for me to get to know other players about town. Plus, I have gotten gigs that I might otherwise not know about.

HAAM has it's own radio show. A live ½ hour weekly radio show on Public Radio that is hosted by Chris Collins (HAAM president) and features a different member every week. It's a great way to get exposure and some airplay.

5. Congratulations on your new new album "Jimmy Nobody"! Tell us a little about the music and your recording process.

"Jimmy Nobody" is a 5 cut EP made largely as a demo that I can hand out to club owners as part of a press kit with which to get gigs. Plus, it's nice to be able to sell a recording at gigs.

As far as recording, I tried doing it at home by myself, but did not have much success. I eventually went to independent producer Mike Thompson of Ivory Tower Realizations for help in the process. As we were only doing Stick and vocals, there was no need to book time at the larger studios that he often works in. We did the recording in his home (Mac Pro-Tools based) studio. Thus we were able to keep the costs down. He gave me a package deal which was reasonably priced, so that it did not matter how much time it took. We continued on till I got weary, and it sounded half way decent.

Since it was primarily meant as a demo, I had several goals. I did not want to do anything that I couldn't do live. Hence, no instrumental overdubs. That does not mean that we did not do punch ins. We did. Unlike Greg Howard's most excellent "Stick Figures", none of the tracks were done in a single take. Actually, the vocals were recorded after the instrumental, so there were obviously overdubs. Also, a sampled drone was added to "Remembering Allison" so I guess it is technically not a "Stick only" CD either.

Mike was able to give me great feedback on where it worked, and where it didn't. I deferred to his judgment often, and am so glad I did. He has impeccable taste and a great ear. It is hard to be objective with your own efforts. Consequently he helped my refine my material. The choice of material was dictated by the goals of the project. I wanted to have some originals, but also tunes that the intended audience might be familiar with.

6. You seem to stay pretty busy around the Houston area. Where are your favorite places to perform?

I like 'em all, especially the ones that pay. Seriously, the venues that I play at are all good, and I am always grateful to be able to perform for an audience. My favorite event is the annual Spring "Craw Jam" in Anderson,Texas that I have played at for the last 4 years. It is a hoot! There are generally at least 300 people there at any one time, and music goes on fromnoontill the wee hours. It's a party that has grown to be an annual event that an awful lot of people look forward to. There is lots of barbecue and crawfish. People bring their families and pets as well. It is a total blast! It is held on a 75 acre spread about 60 miles out of Houston. I generally get to do a 45 minute set.

7. What is your gear setup these days?

My stage setup is kept pretty simple. My Stick is a 10 string graphite model (PASV4 pickups) tuned in matched reciprocal with medium gauge strings. For amplification I use a Bose PAS. I use a Raven Labs PMB II as a preamp for both Stick channels. The preamp mixes the Stick to mono. From the preamp, it goes via an XLR cable to one channel of the Bose. A Shure 58 microphone for vocals goes into the 2nd channel. I generally do not use any effects. I find the tone of the Stick through the Bose rich and expressive enough that it needs no further embellishment.

For tuning, I use a Boss TU-2 chromatic tuner. The great thing about the Bose PAS is that I can load all my stuff onto a dolly and make it from the car in one trip. I can generally set up and be ready for sound check in under 15 minutes. That would never happen when I was using a conventional PA. The Bose sounds wonderful with a Stick. I don't think that there is a better way to go for a solo Stick player.

On small gigs where I am just providing instrumental background music with no vocals required, I will use my SWR California Blonde. It's a great little amp suitable for smaller coffee house type gigs. Again, I do not use any effects other than the built in reverb.

I own a RANE SP13 as well, but don't take it to gigs much because it means that I would have to bring my rack. Since I don't use other effects, there is little point in hauling the rack around. I did use it throughout in recording my CD.

My Stick was retrofitted with a midi pickup, and I do own a Roland GI-20 midi interface and an XV5050 synthesizer module. I am quite fond of, but currently do not use them very much, and almost never in a live context. It doesn't fit well with my material. Perhaps if I got a looping setup, I might be more inclined to do more with synthesized sound. Right now, more gear acquisition is on a very low priority. I'd rather improve my chops than get distracted with new toys.

8. I see you are a big fan of the "D" (Tenacious D,for the uninitiated).Very cool! I like their music and Jack Black is a genius! They need some Stick in their music.Do ya ever cover any of their tunes?

I first saw the "D" on HBO years ago. That happened to coincide with when I first started going to open mikes, so it resonated with me. Plus they are so dang funny. Since then I have become an avid fan of Jack Black who reminds me of a young (and smarter) John Belushi. My kids like him too.

I once covered "Kyle Quit the Band" on a request. It was a hoot.

9. What's next for Jim Kam?

Who knows? I am glad to be playing music, and somewhat relieved that I don't have to make a living doing it. It makes it fun, without the stresses that the full time pros inevitably have to face. At some point, I would like to do a full length project of originals. However this time, I likely will not set limits on instrumentation. In other words, I don't necessarily want to do a Stick only project. Plus, I have no particular need to go it alone. So I will likely have other musicians sit in.

10. Ahh... the 10TH Question! Are ya ready?
Election Year! What presidential candidate do you think would make a better Stickist and why?

I am not particularly impressed with the Republocrats, and it would be just as well if neither of the major party candidates picked up the Stick. One less thing for me to be PO'd about. On the other hand, I think Ralph Nader would make a great Stickist since is smart and ready to look at alternatives.

Thanx Jim. By the way,your site is fantastic!

Thanks Juan. And thanks for doing this. I am indeed honored to be the subject of your interview.
Copyright © 2006 Jim M Kam, All rights reserved. Chapman Stick is a registered Trademark of Stick Enterprises