The music is like Bad Religion meets Meat Loaf ... the musical. The persona is somewhere between The Joker and Max Sterner.
Travis James, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for Travis James and The Acrimonious Assembly of Arsonists, has been a lightning rod for controversy since he set one of his wretched feet down on earthly soil.
The thing is, I think that he knows--even he would admit--that he's an asshole," syas Mark Sunman of The Haymarket Squares, who also plays with the Acrimonious Assembly. "But I don't really think he cares. I think it's more about how he thinks people see him and not caring about that, more than actually being an asshole. I think in a lot of ways he's a very good person and a really principled person. But he's still kind of an asshole."
From getting the kibosh put on him at The Firehouse Gallery for egging "himself," to turning off the power at Pub Rock Live during another band's set, to being featured on news reports about Phoenix police's "Operation Safe Summer," when they raided a show at notorious squat "The Mansion," while he was living there, James finds ways to catch flak from just about everyone he comes into contact with.
"It has also been alleged that I was 'involved' in making an 'Ass*ssinate Arpaio' banner at the 'DO@ Bloc' against SB 1070," James himself says, referencing a 2010 protest of Tent City, "and Arpaio himself mentioned the banner in one of his money-asking letters to supporters and called it a threat against his life." All of this is just in Arizona.
Before moving to the desert, James found himself under investigation by the F.B.I. for his involvement with a Washington based anarchist group's activities in 2004.
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"I pled guilty to one of two counts of depredation of government property for vandalizing military recruitment centers. The prosecution was tied to a Joint Terrorism Task Force domestic terrorism investigation involving an Earth Liberation Front-related firebombing of a Hummer dealership in 2004.
"The two charges I faced carried a maximum of 20 years and a fine of $500,000. But with community support, lack of a previous criminal record, and the judge's appreciation for my intellect, I was convicted with three years supervised probation and thousands of dollars in fines and restitutions," he adds. "No one has ever been charged in the Hummer firebombing."
Where most people would take an experience such as James's as a reason to back out of the political organizing spotlight, James uses it as fuel for both his political and artistic fire, which drives him to maintain a certain 'do-it-yourself' aesthetic in all of his performances.
"Seeing a Travis James and The Acrimonious Assembly of Arsonists performance is like being at an anti-government rally taking place on Sesame Street. Everyone is happy and singing along but riled up and ready to smash windows and kick down doors at the same time," says Monty Oblivion of Manual Sex Drive.
James' fans know all of his lyrics and have no problem proving it to the angsty anarchist live, screaming along to all of his songs and moshing to their hearts' desire. But James takes connection with his fans a step beyond most musicians, opting to play his songs amongst the crowd most of the time; when he does choose to be on stage he has no problem allowing his followers to ascend onto the stage and sing and mosh along.
"When nothing is staged, I have to reach an audible volume without amplification, putting me at the same capacity as everyone in proximity," James says. "Even a stage doesn't stop people from running up on to it and expressing themselves in a way that reminds all of us that 'I'm not fucking special'."
Though James may refer to himself as "not fucking special," anyone who has attended one of his live performances can see that to his fanbase he is. Even to his musical peers it is obvious that James possesses more than just a modest amount of musical talent. "I adore Travis James' Music," Oblivion says. "It's not punk as punk has become known today but oppositely what punk was originally intented to be: musical freedom."
Sunman and Oblivion are not the only local musicians who think very highly of James. In 2010 he put together an eight-piece fantasy folk-metal band called Wizard Teeth; the band included James and Sunman as well as John Luther, Tristan Jemsek, solo performer Lauren Farrah and other popular local muscians.
The supergroup was meant to play only one show, at one of James's Under The Bridge Folk Festivals, so named for their location beneath where Central crosses over Margaret T. Hance Park. UTB hosted touring bands like Hail Seizures and Days N Daze and locals like Dogbreth, Haymarket, Mike Little, and Lauren Farrah.
"Wizard Teeth was Travis's creative energy with a lot of input from a lot of different great musicians," said Sunman.
But Wizard Teeth was so well-received that James and crew added some performances including a well remembered set at downtown Phoenix's Trunk Space. "We opted to play the second story balcony of the then-abandoned hotel across the street from the venue," he says. "Out of the venues, into the streets. The mobility afforded by acoustic instruments provides incredible opportunity to play whenever and wherever you want."
But James' affinity for acoustic shows also affords his band and other UTB participants another advantage. "Not using amplification placed these gatherings within the sound requirements of the park rules."
Do not be mistaken however, James's totally acoustic shows lack none of the punch of a standard issue plugged in punk set. "Playing a show with Travis is more like going to battle in a way," Sunman says. "Sometimes, even [during] an acoustic show--totally unplugged just me on accordion and him on guitar--there will be such an insane mosh pit that we're getting physically assaulted during the show."
The third current member of the Acrimonious Assembly of Arsonists, Aaron Hjalmarson--who also happens to be a Haymarket Square--agrees. "With Travis it's just like, 'Fuck it, we are going to go out and get' em and punch them in the face and make sure everyone is dancing and singing along and getting into it," he says. "The fans know all of the lyrics, and they know all of the punches, and that's kind of cool.
"I think Travis James is roughly the same person on and on off of the stage," said Hjalmarson. "When he's off the stage he's going 50, when he's on the stage it's like 150, but he always is who he is."
"When people describe my shows as theatrical, I take it as an accusation to defend against. I'm not playing a fictional role. Has people's reality become so boring, that when it seems more engaging and fulfilling, the first resort is to refer to what's taking place as 'theater?' Get real," said James. "Relative to what 'theater' means, if it is to retain any of its meaning, the word 'act' stands in for 'to fake,' and no cast of characters, no matter how acclaimed, is ever going to muck my mind up enough to conflate 'I act' with 'I fake.'"
Another part of the persona that cannot be faked are the pranks and antics that have made James an infamous character in the Phoenix music and arts community. "Some of the antics I'm partial to and known for could be called 'crazy,'" he says. "Such as hiding out with a gang of friends on the back-alley roof adjacent to the Firehouse in order to rain eggs and vegetables down upon a caricature of me playing a role in a First Friday Night Live sketch. It's such a rare opportunity to be able to throw eggs at yourself."
Between pranks, and when he's not getting the Acrimonious Assembly into shape for upcoming gigs at Aside of Heart on November 2 and Lawn Gnome on December 10, James is working on new songs, a musical, and a book.
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"I would like more people to spend as much energy threatening and admonishing purveyors of power-structures underlying severe detriments as they spend dramatizing and labeling other people's behaviors as deviant," he says. "While Yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater and "Theater!" in a crowded fire are nice gestures, they aren't if it means we miss out on being the ones who set the fire in either case."