When he's onstage, James Hall looks as if he's experiencing exorcism via electrocution.
The singer and gifted iconoclast is on fire, with ants in his pants and a heavy dose of James Brown in his shiny shoes. Occasionally, the executioner turns down the juice, and Hall stands still long enough to wail the line "I'll take off my skin and roll around!" while Hall's longtime musical co-conspirator, bassist Grant Curry, slides his fingers up and down his fret board with a hypnotized and wonderfully satanic look in his eyes. With Hall as the eye of the maelstrom, the band members writhe and pulse, creating a black velvet backdrop for Hall's voodoo-cum-bad-preacher musings.
Welcome to Pleasure Club, the most recent musical venture for the criminally underappreciated Hall. Rounded out by guitarist Marc Hunter and drummer Michael Jerome, the Club, named after a polite term for a whorehouse, is a rich musical patois. The New Orleans band plays heavy, swampy blues-rock that is at once hook-laden and kinda scary.
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Vocally, Hall calls to mind what Karl Wallinger might sound like if he were being tortured -- while actually staying in pitch. Hall's voice is incredibly versatile, ranging from a high-pitched scream to a subtle, whispered croon. But Hall and company are at their best when they go balls out. And they usually do.
While Pleasure Club translates fairly well onto tape, the real deal erupts during the live show. Maybe that's why the band's most recent release, Here Comes the Trick, also features a companion live disc, Out of the Pulpit. Recorded at the Howlin' Wolf club in New Orleans, the live disc offers a tasty sampling. There is no going back once you attend a Pleasure Club show: Either you have joined the cult, or you are a heretic.
The converted swear that Hall should be famous. Hall's trippy, goth-tinged alternative rock band Mary My Hope enjoyed moderate success in the late 1980s, touring at one point with Jane's Addiction. Hall, though, didn't really hit his stride until he left Hope and began a solo career in the mid-'90s. Hall signed to Geffen in 1996 and soon produced a well-received solo album, Pleasure Club. He and many other worthy artists, however, got caught up in the infamous 1998 merger between Polygram and Universal Music. In the ensuing months, executives at the newly swollen Universal, owned at the time by the Seagram spirits empire, acted as if they'd been drinking the parent company's product; their judgment cost Pleasure Club and scores of other promising bands their deals. Since then, Hall and bandmates have continued to tour.
We catch up with Hall before his Pleasure Club began yet another West Coast swing that will bring him to Phoenix this week. He's talking from his cell phone in New Orleans two days after Thanksgiving. He is distracted, and activity and other voices surrounded him. Strangely, it sounds like friends and family left over from the holiday.
In fact, Hall is shopping for some warm clothes for his 6-year-old son, who is by his father's side.
James Hall: We're going to go up to Georgia for Christmas and so I'm trying to get my son a little hat and a little scarf.
New Times: Do you want me to call you back?
JH: Nope. I'm just going to check him out and be done with it. In fact, it's crazy if you go anywhere public right now just as far as lines and stuff. I'm happy to wait in line and talk to you.
NT: Oh, you're somewhere in public.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. So again, I'm happy to be talking.
NT: Are you at a mall?
NT: Oh my Lord.
NT: Black Friday was yesterday. Did you go out then?
JH: No, I didn't. I purposely avoided yesterday. It's just getting so close to cold weather time for us. So I didn't want him to freeze.
NT: So you're on a domestic journey right now.
JH: Yeah. He tends to not to like to wear coats -- kind of like his dad -- so getting a hat is important. It's an important part of the process.
Once convinced that he really doesn't mind talking while in line, we segue to other areas of Hall's world.
NT: It's sort of hit and miss with your success, what makes you keep going?
JH: I think the work is extremely rewarding. Just being able to enjoy the process in the present tense and enjoy the process in retrospect. Every aspect of it. The future, looking forward to working on things, actually working on things and then actually getting to enjoy some of the things in retrospect, it's all worthwhile, so that definitely keeps me going.
NT: Just wondering if someone of your talent would be frustrated, that for whatever reason your music hasn't quite clicked with the universe, does that frustrate you at all?
JH: You're talking about commercial acceptance, and that's an entirely different definition of success. Success for me is a little bit more. I guess I am competing with myself and competing with history. Most of our favorite artists, everybody in the band, most of those artists have had their time of either ups and downs or just [persevered] a long time before things really hit. Leonard Cohen didn't make his first record until he was my age.
NT: (An alarm rings in the background.) Did you try to steal something just now?
JH: No, no. (laughs) It's just one of those security things going on.
NT: You do have a small but very loyal fan base, and it seems to be growing.
JH: I can't explain what it is. I know that we do get fans one at a time. I also think that we keep getting back up, even after we get knocked down. We haven't won a lot of battles but we keep getting up, kind of dusting ourselves off ready to fight, and I think there's something that people can identify in that, whether or not they are musicians.
NT: Do you feel pressure from your fans, journalists or people in the music community that hold you in high esteem?
JH: Not really. Because I feel more of a pressure from the history and the growth that I feel I have made. To be quite clear, [being hailed as] the next best thing and the next best whatever, there are far better next best things than me. Because I do feel successful already, so it's not like that really has an impact. If things work out for us commercially, I think that's fantastic, it's great, but at the same time, it's trading in one set of problems for another.
NT: Are you happier on an indie?
JH: Absolutely. I think that by and large artists should own their masters. . . . There are very few bands on major labels that are able to retain control or that are able to do licensing deals. By and large they are not able to. It's a crime because my personal belief, well, my personal experience, is that the songs that we make have outlasted anyone's job at the label, have outlasted the label in some degree. And so why is it important for us to give up the rights to that?
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NT: Why are you so committed onstage? What do you want people to get from a Pleasure Club show?
JH: Enjoyment, absolutely. I think I want people to be inspired, and I think inspiration can take all shapes and forms. People can be inspired to dance. People can be inspired to hook up. They can be inspired to go work on a song they haven't thought about in a while or needed finishing. When people come back to me saying, you know, "I was really inspired," I know what it feels like. Inspiration is its own life form, its own energy. And to be part of that cycle, that's an amazing thing, and, you know, do I get to be a part of the cycle every day of the week? Absolutely not. But boy, I sure do enjoy it once in a while when it happens -- when I'm on the receiving end of it or the giving end of it.
NT: (Bad piano Muzak begins to play in the background.) Are you inspired by the music in the mall?
JH: No. It's Christmas music, man. Fuckin' Christmas music!