DBU sits down with James Lee to discuss his music, artistry, and how he learned to ‘enjoy the ride’ after his debilitating accident.
Despite what the traditional dynamic of an interview dictates, talking to James Lee never feels transactional. Sure, for the little over half an hour that we speak, all that binds us is the cadence of our voices, but you could take that slice of time and park it right alongside afternoon tea, and it would make sense.
In fact, let’s go with that. James Lee makes sense, and as his deep voice switches from light-hearted humor to genial laughs to thoughtful pauses peppered between his explanations of personal philosophy, he helps you make sense of the world as well.
By the time you’re done, you feel like you know what there is to know about him, which is quite simple, really: he takes the world in a stride, laughs at what he finds funny, thinks about what he can do right, and doesn’t dwell on what goes wrong.
For a time in his life, however, this clarity had been snuffed out.
Shortly after Lee joined the rock outfit Royal Pirates in 2009, the band transitioned into playing full-time in South Korea. The change was two-fold, however: until then, Royal Pirates had been YouTube sensations gaining steady traction for their inventive music and covers, but South Korea thrust them into the professional circuit. Soon, they were the square pegs in the round holes, playing rock in a largely pop-friendly scene and succeeding at it, despite the drastic change in culture.
“I thought I knew who I was, but I never really monitored myself. I just wanted to be a rockstar.” Lee recalls of the time, laughing at how he would try to be cool by taking off his shirt and dressing in “terrible pants”. “Huge pants that did not look good, but I thought I was a rockstar. I felt good but nobody else thought I looked good. Being in Korea made me realize that there is a way to deliver the message that is more effective.”
Check out ‘Liar’ by James Lee:
Lee’s world turned on its head in 2015, when a freak accident almost cost him his life and rendered him unable to play the bass. While walking into a restaurant in Seoul, a windowpane unexpectedly shattered and cut through his arm.
When he came to, his hand was almost disconnected from his arm, save for a piece of muscle holding it in place. For a while, as the doctors fought to save his life, amputation was a very real possibility. What followed were five intensive surgeries where they were successful in reattaching his hand, but it would be years before Lee would regain any sort of function.
Still, giving up was not for him. He switched the bass out for keyboards, using his other hand to play with Royal Pirates for some time. Eventually, however, his health forced him to quit and move back to America.
“It broke me,” he says, “but sometimes you gotta hit bottom before you can go up. I definitely feel like my experience after my accident helped me prepare for disaster.” Coming to terms with not being able to play the bass anymore was painful, but even more unbearable was the idea of not making music altogether. Of all the perspectives that had shifted during his arduous recovery, his love for music has sustained.
Eventually, it became his first EP, The Light, which he called a “suicide note” on a chat with Eric Nam on the latter’s podcast K-Pop Daebak with Eric Nam. That, for him, was a turning point. Finally, he knew what was important: “I think a lot of people get caught in trying to be No. 1 or trying to be the richest or get the most connections or resources, there is always going to be someone in a better position, and I don’t want to get caught up — I don’t want to be 50 years older and not have enjoyed the ride.”
Don’t Bore Us caught up with James Lee shortly after his set for the second edition of Joy Ruckus Club, in partnership with Sessions Live, talking about his music, life, and his wonderful dog.
Check out ‘CASTLES’ by James Lee:
Don’t Bore Us: How was the performance over the weekend? We were supposed to connect for the Joy Ruckus Club Festival.
James Lee: We had some technical issues because it was my first performance in Asia. Usually everything I have done for Sessions [Live] has been kind of in the same location and that’s kind of important for streaming, so you gotta make sure everything technically and in terms of the internet, everything is smooth. Outside of the once hiccup, it seemed like the fans responded really well. I had a great time.
DBU: This is one of the things that struck me. I was looking through your Instagram, and you mentioned your Patreon at one point. You said that fans are the ones supporting you through this, and I was reminded of something I read earlier, especially in light of COVID, that musicians and [people in the] performing arts industry have been rendered inessential, but we have all been consuming art or music to get through this, which is such a paradoxical situation.
James: I’m in no way denying the reality of it because there are doctors and people on the frontlines that need to take care of people that are seriously sick, so I understand that it is deeply essential. But I do also recognise that it is important for us to stay positive. If we didn’t have entertainment, if we didn’t have things to distract ourselves from this cloud that is hanging over our heads, I think that negativity could lead to even more sickness and whatnot. There is a difference between real doctors and people singing songs. We are able to, as creators, continue to create — that’s a huge blessing.
DBU: How has it been working on music during this time? How has the quarantine and pandemic been for you in general?
James: I started a Patreon. I kind of dabbled into it beforehand because I thought it would be nice to kind of flex my creative muscles so I can keep myself as a writer and artist. Definitely, being stuck in my sister’s place in LA forced me to grow in ways that I haven’t before. Ever since my accident, it’s always been ‘look at the bright side, because the negative side is always going to be there.’ There is no point in simmering in misery.
DBU: Did it affect your creativity at all? Personally for me, the first few months of the pandemic were just like a slump.
James: I totally feel you. When you’re not getting simulated by outside resources, it’s easier to fall into that slump, to fall into that block, you know. But like I said, we have the internet. There is no time to waste, and I think I picked up pretty quickly. Like I decided from the get-go: “Okay, I don’t know how long I am going to be stuck here, so I’ll find something that can serve as an outlet.” Honestly, it’s turned into something quite fruitful.
Check out ‘Bad Day’ by James Lee:
DBU: You have this drive to go forward and live in the moment; you have a joie de vivre. How do you live in the moment when there’s no more moments happening anymore?
James: (laughs) Actually, my dog had a lot to do with that. This sounds weird, but I look at my dog and he is always in the moment, and that’s helpful for one. It is so crucial, especially after my accident. I had all these plans for where I was going to be in 2015. I always like to stay prepared, but I understand that even though you’re trying so hard for one thing, it might not happen, but it will help in some way or the other for the things that are to come. You’re going to fall sometimes, but if you stay down, that’s on you. You can’t blame anybody else. I got tired of excuses after a while.
DBU: It must have been really hard to be thrust into something like that [your accident]. Obviously, it couldn’t be helped, but it must have been hard to adjust to this change, especially coming back to LA.
James: It broke me. But sometimes you gotta hit bottom before you can go up. I definitely feel like my experience after my accident helped me prepare for disaster. You see people that are seasoned with battles, and you notice that they have more of a calm demeanor. I understand why now. Everything comes and goes whether you’re here or not, so you might as well enjoy the ride.
DBU: Were you this kind of person before?
James: No, not at all. I still am very emotional, and I think that shows in my music. I care about the details a lot, but after my accident — before, I think I was obsessive about the details. Now, I just appreciate them. It’s not about trying to perfect something: it’s about enjoying the imperfections. If I fail at a project, I just tell myself: ‘Look, I put in 100 percent of what I was going to put in and the result is the result. There is no regret. It’s just try your hardest and whatever happens, happens.’
DBU: I certainly feel like that shows in your music. I re-listened to The Light and Castles yesterday, and there certainly is a difference. The Light was the first EP after you moved back, and that was your story of coming to terms with everything that happened, right?
James: I feel like, with The Light EP, I cared so much about making it this perfect piece of work that I was proud of, and now I enjoy the ride. I think a lot of people get caught up in trying to be No. 1 or trying to be the richest or get the most connections or resources. There is always going to be someone in a better position, and I don’t want to get caught up. I don’t want to be 50 years older and not have enjoyed the ride.
DBU: The thought of someone else doing better than you certainly does take the joy out of it.
James: Yeah, especially when you’re in Korea, everything is extremely competitive. You’re competing for all the top slots, you’re trying to get the radio slots from somebody else, but I see the internet as a place where you’re able to carve your own identity.
I am definitely older now, so I feel like a lot of younger artists are able to get away with the creativity and inspiration that hits them right out of the womb (laughs). They’re in this environment where creativity is not festering. It’s just all around them. Now, I have already passed that stage for myself. Now, I get to create what I want to make. I’m sure 10 years later I will be in a different mindset. Maybe I’ll look back and think I was foolish now, but it’s more about really enjoying myself.
Check out ‘Over Us’ by James Lee:
DBU: You said that a lot of young artists are getting outlets for their creativity, even in K-pop. This is very different from when you were involved in the scene, because not being able to create or have the freedom to do what you wanted was stifling, right?
James: The fact that we had a pretty big company investing a lot of money in us, they wanted to hedge their bets. Every time an artist is releasing a single, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into it. You gotta have this perfect music video, you gotta have this choreography, you have to get the artwork and the design and the style, and even the way that you speak is taken into consideration.
But nowadays, I feel like we can’t really hide the imperfections. The days of really polishing an act and putting it out there are coming to a close. There are a few major acts that are able to do that: I feel like BLACKPINK is such a great example. YG has done a fantastic job of carving and sculpting these beautiful pieces of art in their music as well as their music videos, right down to their demeanor.
But if you look at someone like BTS, you see along the way, they have been building who they are. Especially because their company wasn’t a major company when they debuted. They have developed into who they are, which allows a lot of fans to feel closer to them.
DBU: I think it happened in the past couple of years that we started looking at our idols and artists with a more human lens. That is something we really needed.
James: From my background, I just remember trying so hard to find out who I was. More artists will find satisfaction if they are helped to find out who they are rather than trying to fit into something else.
DBU: When did this moment of finding out who you exactly are come for you?
James: It came out after my first EP. Before then, I thought I knew who I was but I never really monitored myself. I just wanted to be a rockstar. I think the training that I went through in Korea helped me become a better musician. There is a different discipline that was required. After I left, I was able to fuse what I wanted to do with the training that I had.
DBU: You grew up in America and moved to Korea: that must have been a culture shock to you. You wanted to be a rockstar but even with bands in South Korea, there is always a certain showmanship attached to it. Was that a lot different than what you wanted to do? There were a lot of elements involved in addition to just creating music or just playing the bass.
James: I think before, I was kind of fooling around trying to find out what I loved, which was just playing songs on stage. I wasn’t very good, but when I went to Korea, I realized the standard was much higher. What Korea really taught me was discipline. I would practice bass like eight hours a day, so within a period of three months, I really improved my ability to be able to record on professional, high-level songs. There was a sense of competition that wasn’t there before. Before, there was just love for the craft. I think the competition really put things into perspective.
If I listen to the music that I wrote when I was 15, it just feels like trash. I really hope that next year I look at the songs I’m writing right now and be like: “Man, these songs are trash.” (laughs) I’ll think that I have improved. It just represents my mindset and my ability at the time.
DBU: What is your relationship with creative inspiration like?
James: I listen to a lot of music, and I have been producing for a lot of different artists. There are so many people born with so much talent. I kind of have my own style of production and writing and I know what that sound is now. So, I hope to just combine the best parts of the people that I am able to work with, with the music that I create. I just love hearing the fusion of that.
That sounds a little narcissistic (laughs) but I really like seeing people take the music that I create to different levels. I know my limitations and strengths as an artist, and I just hope that I can continue to expand the horizon of my ability. Without writing music, I’ll lose sight of everything. I will become a shell of myself.
DBU: How is James the producer different to James the artist?
James: Well, James the artist can sing up to like an A-flat (laughs). I am able to see people do things and involve different emotions than I am able to do myself. I feel like my voice and lyrics and the melodies that I write are naturally quite emotional, but the artists that I am working with are able to carry it to different levels. They are able to express it in a different way. You get to color the music in a different way.