Most musicians go through three phases, according to James Menefee, former bassist and vocalist for River City High. They start a band in their teens, which will last until their early 20s. Then they go on to form another band, which will last until their late 20s. At this critical juncture, they either attempt a third project, or stop playing music altogether and get a day job.
Menefee was at stage three when he entered Detached Sounds Studios with former bandmate Pedro Aida and cut five songs written on his acoustic guitar. Not horrified by the results, Menefee decided to add further instrumentation until he had a completed demo and a new project, Long Arms. With the live lineup solidified, including Greg Butler on drums, Alex Smith on bass and Prabir Mehta on guitar, and a debut record entitled “Long Arms to Hold You,” Menefee can admit he was trying to form a band all along.
Style: Tell us about that one song...
James Menefee: "Waiting to Be Reborn" is about being at a critical turning point in your life and all of the questions that you start asking yourself when you're at that point. It talks about when you're at the peak of all your anxieties. Instead of trying to decide everything at a fever pitch, you lay back and patiently wait for whatever redemption you're looking for. It's the same vibe as "Watching the Wheels" by John Lennon. You're thrust into this maelstrom of all these decisions, but you feel like you have to take a step back and wait for it to organically solve itself.
It was one of the first songs I had written for the Long Arms project. River City High had just gotten off the road and I had a lot of free time and, as people are wont to do when they have a lot of free time, I just thought about too many things. What do I want to do with my life? Should I move? Should I get a day job? Should I go back to school? I sat there trying to answer all of these questions and that was where the idea for the song came from. "Waiting to Be Reborn" is also right in the middle of where I want Long Arms to be (sound-wise). It's a little twangy, it's a little folky, a little rock, a little indie.
What is the significance of the name "Long Arms?"
The whole thing originally was just supposed to be me playing guitar. So, I was making a joke. People would ask, "Who else is in the band?" And I would say. "Just me and my long arms. Noone else." Eventually, I realized I have to play in a band, because I can't be bare and naked and make mistakes without being able to blame them on other people. I can't handle the responsibility.
When did you finally realize you were forming another band?
Everything has kind of happened in such small baby steps that I didn't even have a chance to see what was happening. This last show we just played opening for Jack's Mannequin was the first time we played a show where it wasn't two-hundred of my closest friends. This show was a bunch of people we never played for, a lot of younger kids too. I had no idea how it was going to go over, but it went over amazingly well. It sounded so good. That's when I thought, "Wow, this is a band. People like it. I can't believe it." It was the most gratifying experience I've ever had in my life. It took about two years to get to that point.
Even more gratifying than being on MTV with River City High?
That's a great thing to have under my belt and say I did. I was in my twenties and I was on the jumbo-tron in Times Square. But, going through the entire process to get to where we are now is incredibly more gratifying.
Your new record features Carter Gravatt from Carbon Leaf on mandolin. Are there any other special guests?
Tracy Wilson sang a song called "Strung Out On You." I love Tracy's voice and everything she's done all the way back to Dahlia Seed, which is the band she played with in the nineties. I grew up listening to that band, so I've always been a fan of hers. I wanted to do a duet (on this record). You know, a George Jones and Tammy Wynette kind of thing where they trade off, with one person singing, then the other person singing, and then they join in together and sing. Hopefully one day we can play "Strung Out On You" at the Grand Ole Opry and I can look at her and she can look at me and we can sing it to each other. People in the crowd will be like, "They're singing that about each other, that's so sweet." I would love for that to happen.
We're still adding in new folks for this release show. I would love it if we were like Belle and Sebastian and there were fifteen people up there. We have the core group and whoever else that wants to come along for the ride.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
When I was 5, I tried to play acoustic guitar. I went to a lesson and Buster Bohannon taught my lesson. He's still around, too. He plays guitar in The Jangling Reinharts. At the time, he worked in my local strip mall music store and I went to him, but I was too young and wasn't ready. I took one lesson and he suggested I take piano until I decided what I wanted to. So, I did that and I (played piano) until I was 14. Then, I was a punk rocker and was like, "I'm done with this. I'm gonna start my own band."
What is your most embrassing moment?
One time my pants fell down on stage. I don't know how it happened. I just stopped playing and picked them up and tightened my belt again. Luckily, it was when I was younger and everyone was wearing baggier pants, so I had on boxers. Still to this day, performing in front of people is not the easiest thing. Things like falling, or your pants falling down, are things nightmares are made of. And they've all happened.
What is one thing you would like to accomplish that you haven't done yet?
I've never made a real music video. River City High made this awesome video for our song called "Amy" and it's on Youtube. It cracks me up. It's really funny, but it's not the best quality. We did it years ago with our hand-held video camera. That was supposed to be a sketch for a bigger video that we never did. So, I really want to make a music video and I want to do it with a song on this record, perhaps for "Waiting to be Reborn." It would make me feel like a piece of the pie has been completed, because everyone has music videos now. It's not that expensive anymore, it used to cost thousands of dollars. River City High kept writing that into our contract, we have to get a video, but it just ever happened. We were on three different labels. We were on Doghouse Records, then we signed to MCA and MCA went under, then we were on Takeover. At each stage, we were promised a video, but it never happened.
Based on your previous experience with record labels, would you sign to another one?
I had a terrible experience with MCA. When River City High signed to MCA, we walked through the headquarters in Santa Monica and everyone was telling us we'd be the next big thing. We spent three months in Canada making a record that never came out. Then, MCA went under. It stagnated our career. We stopped touring, we had to regroup, get new members. Some guys were just fed up with the experience. It was a miserable time. It should of been the best thing that ever happened to us. I look back on it laughingly, I was so naiive. I was like "This is it. I'm going to by my mom a house one day." All my friends around me were in big bands, everyone was getting famous, and I thought it was our turn to shine. I look back on it, it was such a disaster. But, I get to tell you I was on a major label.
This Long Arms record is the first thing I've ever been involved with from the inception, genesis, to revelation. From the mastering to the artwork to the production, I've never done the whole thing and I've been putting out records since I was 13. Being involved with every step has made me appreciate being in a band more. This has been a great experience, but I know I'm not capable of distributing a record the way it needs to be. So, I would love for this record to be on a label. But, again, I haven't had any expectations, so I'm letting it go where it goes. I can't wait to see what happens. This is still a learning process, because the whole music industry has changed.
Long Arms will host a CD release party on August 27th at Gallery 5, with special guests Duchess of York and Mostly Dimes. The cover is $5 and showtime is 8pm. For more information, go to gallery5arts.org.