By Blake Maddux
James Force is a tall, curly-haired redhead and self-described “lo-fi bohemian.” He records and performs under the alias Subpar Co-star. His influences run the gamut from writers such as Aesop and Shel Silverstein to musicians as diverse as Tom Petty, Weezer, and Nine Inch Nails.
Force moved to the Boston area in 2007, the year after he graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Southern Maine. In 2009, he co-founded the band Death and the Dance Machine, which stayed together until 2011. During that time, Force recorded Gidgets and Gadgets, his first Subpar Co-star album.
His latest offering is The Idiot, from which he will be performing songs at Bull McCabe’s April 4. Force answered some questions via email about his newfound inspirations, his musical collaborators and the transformation of the Union Square neighborhood that he calls home.
Blake Maddux: Who inspired the title of your new album, Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Iggy Pop?
James Force: I took the title of the new album from Fyodor. I am a big fan of his writing, and [his novel] The Idiot really struck a chord with me when I read it years ago. I loved that the main character’s name, Lev Myshkin, translated to Lion Mouse. I think it is an interesting way to look at a person — the strong and the weak within one’s self. Which wins, the meek or the muscle? The first song I wrote for the album was the last song on the record, The Lion and The Mouse.
That being said, I like to think Iggy Pop would approve.
BM: Who were some of the people with whom you worked on The Idiot?
JF: The Idiot has some fantastic musicians who make up the live band for Subpar Co-star these days. It was a very communal music process and the complete opposite of how I recorded Gidgets and Gadgets. We all contributed in multiple ways, from backing vocals to percussion to glockenspiel to spoken word.
We recorded the album at Adam Sherman’s place just over the tracks in Cambridge, and Adam did all of the electric/melodic guitar. Erik Spooner (a fellow Union Square-er) did all of the noise/ambient guitar that provided a lot of atmosphere and texture to the songs. And the most talented and beautiful violin player I have ever known, Jenée Morgan Force [his wife], did some wonderful playing on Weird and Anya, then got goofy with us and did some of The Lion and Mouse voiceovers.
It was very nice because when I was mixing the album, I had a 30-minute walk from my place in Union Square to Adam’s place, and in that time, I would imagine all sorts of absurdity. Once there, I had three great musicians who were able to give me honest critiques on why we shouldn’t all make pigeon noises for the first half of a song. But when the idea was crazy enough to work, they were a great source of wisdom in making it come out as best as possible. The noise track The Vigil is a good example, as is the rain we recorded for Rogue Sin. I initially wanted it to be a monsoon.
BM: For how much of the finished product were you completely responsible?
JF: I wrote all of the initial song structures – chord progressions and such – as well as all the lyrics. The book of short stories that accompanies the album was written, edited and published by me. I also did all of the mixing on the record. The art was a group effort, with Adam bringing the visual world to life.
BM: You recently got married. How did entering the world of wedded bliss affect your creative process?
JF: Entering the world of wedded bliss was joyful and rejuvenating. Jenée and I got married in late May of 2013. It was very exciting and gave me a whole bunch of positive energy to attack the project with. In practical time commitments, it definitely slowed down the overall timeline of the album, as there was a good month that I was only doing wedding-related activities, and the record had to sit on the back burner. It actually worked out well that way, because we had recorded all of the backbone tracks by that point, and it gave me a month to listen to the rough concept of the songs and just get a feel for what they were trying to emote. When we got back into recording and overdubbing, I felt much more comfortable in just letting the songs be what they wanted to be, rather than demand every song has a solid drum part and multiple harmonies and such.
BM: Why are there several references to sharp objects in the news songs?
JF: It ties into the stories. I think of bleeding as a poetic way of giving it your all, and not necessarily in a positive way. Sometimes it’s just mania; sometimes it is taken from you. Sharp objects draw blood (science lesson), and they can be wielded by yourself or someone else or they are just sitting around, and you don’t notice them until it is too late. In the original book The Idiot, a knife plays a pivotal role, and when I was working on the album the image just kept floating back to the surface of my mind. A knife is a very powerful symbol, I think.
BM: What are some of the changes that you have witnessed on your home turf of Union Square? What are some that you anticipate?
JF: We have definitely been seeing the beginning of some major changes in the area. The Green Line is coming at some point, so I am told, and as such the whole square seems to be preparing to have a facelift. It is neat to see how the area develops, but I fear I am going to be priced out sooner than later. Already many restaurants have been bought and converted into newer, hipper establishments. Unfortunately, it has also been driving out some of the music establishments, as it is getting too pricey to be a dive bar. For the most part, though, the tried-and-true businesses have stayed, and they are some of my favorite: Bull McCabe’s, El Potro (freaking amazing), Bloc 11, Hub Comics and Sherman Cafe.
The one big change that made me scream “NOOOOOOO!” into the sky was Precinct closing. That was my favorite place to catch live music in Union, and I had played some of my most memorable shows there. My first show as Subpar Co-star was at Precinct. It was just me playing solo for three hours for this really nice Somerville couple who was raising money for a charity in India. Also, my last show with my former band, Death and the Dance Machine, was at Precinct.
BM: You say that you are “in it for the art, not the money.” However, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to make a living by writing and performing?
JF: It definitely would. I just find that in the modern times, there is a big push to be creative for monetary means. I feel there is a current view to judge the quality of things by how much money it has made or how much it costs to purchase it. A consumer Calvinism, if you will: It made money, so it must be good. And if it isn’t making money, it isn’t as respectable. Even our activism has a dollar sign attached these days. I just think it is better to focus not on whether something would be popular, but more on if it is creatively fulfilling as the creator. I think if you are working on projects that you find artistically/philosophically/creatively stimulating, you are more inclined to let your own personality shine, and I, personally, love the art that has the most personality. It is rewarding. If enough people really enjoyed my creative output that I could work exclusively on it for a living, I would be ecstatic, but I try not to keep that as a driving force in why I do what I do creatively.
BM: Fill in the blank: “I will that I were half the songwriter that ____________ is.”
JF: Tom Petty/Isaac Brock [Modest Mouse]/Doug Martsch [Built To Spill]/Trent Reznor [Nine Inch Nails]/Rodriguez (sorry, couldn’t decide).
BM: What can newcomers expect from your April 4 show at Bull McCabe’s?
JF: A hell of a fun night that will twist your perception of what a local show is. As a band, we have a lot of creative outputs. At the shows, we don’t just play songs. We have a tendency to add poetic flair in unexpected places. At one show, there was an epic fight with puppets. It was pretty darn rad. You will definitely see an acoustic guitar make noises you never thought an acoustic guitar could make. You will also see a green vest. All in all, you will see lots of stuff, and other than the vest, you won’t be sure what it is.