Q&A with James Duke of All The Bright Lights

james duke

I’m not so sure if All The Bright Lights is a band, but I do know it’s the title of probably one of the most tasteful records I have ever heard. I feel like it’s sort of my job with this site to be somewhat balanced with my feedback. Well, if it’s unbalanced that I can’t find anything negative to say about All The Bright Lights (the record), then it’s not because I didn’t try to constructively criticize the work. When John Mark McMillan contacted me about reviewing the record, I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I was familiar with James Duke and his talent, I didn’t know the first thing about his brother Jon Duke and good friend, Jacob Arnold. I don’t know; I guess these three guys decided to just meet up in a basement, write, and record a record that, in my opinion, surpasses genres, classifications, and expectations. Probably not, but that felt good to say that. Masterful in its composition, All The Bright Lights seems so ethereal that sometimes I wonder if it’s too good for this world. Or perhaps it’s just what this world needs. You make the call.

Buy the record (the hard copy) HERE. If you prefer iTunes, then HERE. Either way, as you listen to it, read my interview with one of the three masterminds behind the project. Gladly ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you, James Duke. We talk about everything from his near-full-time job as John Mark McMillan’s lead guitarist to the brilliant combo of Jon Duke and Jacob Arnold as one of the better “rhythm sections around,” in James’ words.  You can thank me later about showing you this. Don’t worry about thanking me now. I’ll be here. Copies of this record may not, as they’re selling fast. You’d spend your time more wisely purchasing your copy of All The Bright Lights right now.

Blue Indian: James, it’s good to have you. Where are you right now?

James Duke: HOME! I’ve gotten to be home most of this month. Which is a nice change of pace.

Blue Indian: You’ve got a crazy cool hair-do. Do you spend quality time perfecting that in the morning? Or is it simply a crawl out of bed look?

James Duke: My wife says it looks like I have a wild animal on my head, and she’s the one that cuts it. But thanks for the encouragement.

Blue Indian: So, you’ve played with some pretty cool bands. Do you have a favorite? I know the John Mark McMillan gig will keep you pretty busy in 2010.

James Duke: I’ve been fortunate to play with some amazing musicians. When me and John Mark get together, though, sparks fly. We will be hitting the road this year big time.

Blue Indian: What’s it like playing with that weirdo, Jason Upton? Gotta love that fella. Do you enjoy the spontaneity of a Jason Upton set or does it drive you insane?

James Duke: Jason is definitely one of a kind.  When I first started playing with him about 3 1/2 years ago, I hadn’t really heard his music. It was quite a learning curve. He has 12 albums worth of back material and up to probably 20 new songs at any time that he’s working on. Then to make it even more interesting, there are no rehearsals because everybody flys in and meets up in whatever city we are playing in. So you show up, set up and play. He plays whatever he’s feeling.

So It’s very spontaneous.  I really enjoy that.  It keeps it interesting. On top of that, Jason is one of the most generous, sincere and caring people I’ve ever known.

Blue Indian: I have a friend in Ernest Greene, who goes by the stage name of Washed Out. He’ll be touring with Small Black and Beach House early on this year. Ever heard of him? Your good friend, Eric Hurtgen, is a huge fan.

James Duke: Eric Hurtgen knows about everything. I have heard him talk about Washed Out. I nodded my head along like I knew what he was talking about. I haven’t heard his music. I will check it out though.

Blue Indian: Yeah, he and I went to high school together. He was a few years older though. Good guy. So, you’ve sort of been the talented guy on the side in so many bands. What gave you the idea of cutting a record of your own? It must have been fun making a record with your brother, Jon Duke, and good friend, Jacob.

James Duke: It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.  I’ve been making demos and playing around with the ideas for some of these songs for years.  I just never really thought anybody cared. I started getting emails and people coming up to me asking if I was ever going to make a record. That was really encouraging.  I started talking to Jon about it.  One day he called me up and said let’s do it. So we started sending each other demos. It was great making this record with Jon. It was a dream come true, actually.  He’s my best friend.  Jon and Jacob are unbelievable musicians. They have played together for a long time so when you put them together it’s an amazing sound.  I think they are one of the best rhythm sections around right now.

Blue Indian: Tell me what it was like in the studio. Oh, and how was John Mark responsible for “good vibes,” as it is stated on the back of the record.

James Duke: We worked on the album off and on for about 6 months.  A couple of days at a time whenever we could all get together. Which isn’t easy to pull off.  Jon has a studio in his basement so I would drive down from Charlotte.  We’d go down in the morning and either work on a song that we had already written, or we would just start playing together until we hit something that we were all feeling. Then we’d record it and work on it until it sounded like a song.

There was no pressure, so you were free to explore and exhaust all the possibilities for a sound or a part.  Sometimes a single chord would be played after an hour of experimenting and you could feel it that something special was about to happen.  “The One That Gave It All” happened like that. Jon played the idea for “Walls”  on his acoustic one afternoon and we worked out an ATBL arrangement. It all came together really fast.  I think that might have been the last song written during the sessions.  That’s probably my favorite track.  Other songs like “Wilora Lake” took the full 6 months to fully work out and finish. It was a really creative time.  I felt so alive. We also had some amazing musicians help out.  Joel Khouri, a producer from Charlotte, played rhodes, wurlitzer, and moog.  Our brother in law, Carlos Torres, did some programming. Micah Lother added a beautiful ambient vocal on “The Door”. The amazing Jeremy Griffith, who mixed the album, Sang some killer bgv’s and played a lovely string arrangement on a song as well.

John Mark came down and hung out for the first couple days of recording.  He was great to have around. He’s got such a great sense of melody.  He was really encouraging throughout the whole process.  We were webstreaming while we were in the studio, so he was our celebrity host. We really wanted him to play or sing on the record, but it never ended up happening.  When he recorded his first independent release I came up and got to be in the studio with him. We talked about it a little, but I never ended up playing on it.  When I got a copy of the album I was listed on the credits for the “good vibes”. So I did the same for him.  I thought it would be funny or clever or something.

Blue Indian: So, you’re from Georgia right? Now living in Charlotte? Is there a big difference?

James Duke: I’m from Neptune Beach, Florida.  I moved to Charlotte around 6 years ago.  There is a huge difference between the two. There is for me anyways. I wasn’t happy in Florida. I was always depressed and there was nothing there for me musically.  I moved to Charlotte and felt like I could finally breathe. There is a really good creative atmosphere in Charlotte with a small, but great, music community. I don’t miss Florida. I do miss the ocean. If Charlotte had the Ocean… oh man…

Blue Indian: So, you’re not from Georgia. I feel like a ra-tard. How many guitars do you own? What are they?

James Duke: I’ve got guitars everywhere. I’ve probably got about ten, give or take a pedal steel. A couple of favorites would be my Gretsch 120th Anniversary Hollowbody and my hand built ’61 Stratocaster replica built by Revelator Guitars.

Blue Indian: Who are you crazy into right now musically? Reading anything interesting?

James Duke: I’ve been listening to a lot of Elton John and The Cure. U2’s The Unforgettable Fire is getting a lot of plays. That’s an amazing album. The Delirious album, Glo, was blowing my mind a couple weeks ago. That album was way ahead of its time. I wouldn’t say I’m crazy into anything at the moment. That could change in an hour, though.

As far as reading. I have an obsession with Dave Eggers. He wrote A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. That book changed my life. The way he writes is really inspiring to me.  If you haven’t read it, I’d love to get you a copy. You have to read it. I’ve read everything he’s written, and I’m not much of a reader. I wish I was. I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago.  That was a beautiful book.  I didn’t see the movie because the preview gave me the impression that they ruined the story. I could be totally wrong about that. I might have just been in a bad mood when I saw the trailer…

Blue Indian: Wow. You put in some strong words about Eggers’ book. I’m gonna have to check that out. Who’s been some of your biggest influences over the years musically?

James Duke: When I was 10 years old my older brother, Josh,  would drive me and Jon to school every morning and we would listen to U2. Every day it was U2.  The Joshua Tree had just come out and was taking over the world.  I still remember sitting in the back seat listening to Where The Streets Have No Name.  That was probably the first band that really made an impression on me.

the Edge is definitely my biggest influence. Some others would be The Cure, Elton John,  Ryan Adams, Buddy Miller, Led Zeppelin, Daniel LanoisButch Walker, Nick Drake,Jack White, The Beach Boys, Kevin CadoganCraig Ross, and Paul Moak.

Blue Indian: Can we expect to see you and JMM on the road a lot in 2010?

James Duke: Yeah. We have tours scheduled for the next 3 months and will be busy through the summer.

Blue Indian: Probably an even greater question: Can we expect to see you and the rest of All The Bright Lights on the road in 2010? Surely you guys have got to be thinking of ways to produce this stuff live…?

James Duke: We are working on that now. We definitely want to get out and play.  We are all so busy, it’s going to take some planning out. Jon has lots of ideas for the live shows…

Blue Indian: Last question before we wrap up. When can me, Drew, you, and Jacki do a double date in the Atlanta area?

James Duke: Have your lady call my lady.

Blue Indian: Drew, call Jacki. James, it’s been awesome, brother. Keep me in the mix with all you’re gonna have going on this year. Thanks for chatting.

James Duke: Thanks for the support, Luke.  We really appreciate it.