Twenty years ago now, Radiohead blew the lid off of pop with Kid A, a much anticipated album that refused to be confined by the neat lines drawn between genres. In the two decades since, musicians have increasingly gravitated towards sounds that blend together a dizzying array of influences.
“A lot of bands that I’ve been in or heard or produced say ‘well, we can’t box ourselves into a specific genre because we play funk and jazz and rock or whatever,’” Hunter James & the Titanic guitarist Taylor Marvin told BandWagon. “It’s nice to be in a band that says, ‘we play rock and roll 109% of the time.’”
Hunter James & the Titanic refuse to be lured into the post-genre vortex despite that impossible percentage and their lineup of eclectic players. They play Americana — no caveats. Well, maybe a couple.
“I really wanted to have this band feel really focused.” Hunter James explained. “But, there’s something inside of me that won’t let me just write like that. I always have to have a song or two on the album that’s a little psychedelic, or maybe the harmony is a little bit strange or maybe there’s something fucked up going on with the guitars. But, we always sound like us no matter what.”
In just three years, the band has put out an EP, five singles and two full-length LPs. Their latest album, 2021’s La Liberté, finds the band settled even deeper into a roots rock sound. Songs like “Over the Line,” “Adeline,” and “See You Again” are sprawling country rock ballads with the full force of the seven-piece band behind them, while “The Way I Remember You,” “Too Different Pictures” and “Tight-Walkin’ Man” are subdued singer-songwriter tunes with expansive instrumentation.
The Titanic’s prolific output stems from James’ enduring dedication to songwriting. When he is working on new material, he writes for hours every day. Though there was once a time when he relied on heartbreak and angst for creative inspiration, these days he draws inspiration from the practice of writing itself.
“It’s really dangerous to be chasing that mood around,” James said. “I think if you just sit down and write for four or five hours, you can find your way into so many different places in your heart and soul that you maybe weren’t in the mood to explore. It’s a conscious choice of ‘hey I’m going to sit down and write.’ Then you let those feelings come to the surface.”
Perhaps it is this habit of letting his mind wander while he writes, that gives many of James’ songs a nostalgic quality. On “Take One Minute,” he reminisces on an old flame.
“Isn’t it funny how your laughing knows no time. I can still hear it at the corner of my mind,” he sings.
The moment that James captures is beautifully wrought and devoid of melodrama. He’s not asking for much.
“Come on, just take one minute and remember how good it used to be.”
When James founded the Titanic in 2017, he put his name on it. It would be a band with one songwriter — one man steering the creative ship. In his former band, the prog-pop project Petals of Spain, an abundance of songwriters had led them to release albums with wildly different vibes from track to track.
“I always loved that we were such different writers coming together to play on each other’s songs,” he said. “But, it was almost too spread out. There was no central focus.”
Now, after a few years at the helm of the Titanic, James is loosening his grip on the songwriting mantle. And he’s glad to do it.
“In this band, we’re really all on the same page as far as the sound we’re going for,” he said.
While writing “Head On,” a hard-driving country tune from La Liberté, James got stuck, so he called in for back-up.
“Hunter came to me and basically said, ‘I’ve got the whole thing written except for the break-up verse and, ‘hey, you just got dumped.’ Want to take a swing at it?’” Marvin recounted.
In addition to Marvin, James now shares songwriting duties with vocalist Lizzy Gogolowski and slide guitarist Jason Brazzel.
“It’s become far more of a cumulative group. I had always wanted that in a band,” James said.
No matter who is writing them, Hunter James & the Titanic’s songs go through a very specific selection process: they have to make you feel something. James says that he knows something is worth pursuing if it either makes him cry, or gives him goosebumps.
“If I can have a real visceral reaction when I’m writing it — that’s how I know it’s a good song. If I can’t feel that, it’s going to be hard for other people to feel it too.”
This emotional litmus test is evident in the band’s music. Some songs are sad while others are joyful, but each one is rooted in the emotion of a specific moment — a devastating breakup, a bankrupting poker hand, or just a nostalgic daydream.
Hunter James & The Titanic release La Liberté on vinyl at two concerts, brought to you by BandWagon presents: Thursday, February 10 at HQ in Denver (with Anthony Ruptak and Mlady) and Friday, February 11 at The Moxi Theater in Greeley (with Mike Ring). Tickets at BandWagonPresents.com