From The Archives: James "The Machine" Shahan
Interview by Jorge Lara Santiago, Photography by Katie Ashman
VIMMAG: Greetings James, I first saw you perform at Human Experience at The Beat Coffeehouse inside of Emergency Arts. What was your introduction to the poetry/open mic scene?
THE MACHINE: I’ve been writing poetry ever since the 4th grade. My teacher at the time gave us poetry writing/creative writing assignments. While I enjoyed it, I didn’t think too much of it until about 6th grade. My teacher took to my writing right away and even put up one of my assignments on the class wall after blowing it up poster size. It was then I realized that I might have something. As far as poetry/open mics in Las Vegas, Human Experience was my introduction to the scene out here. It was the first event I ever attended in Vegas and it is still the one closest to my heart!
VIMMAG: You set a release date for your album on 5/10/12. Can you give us any details on what is in store for us?
THE MACHINE: Well, this project is very near and dear to me. When it is released, it will have been about 2 years since my last release. It’s my most personal release yet. Some might say too personal, actually. It talks a lot about the major depression/suicidal thoughts I endured a couple of years ago. I think people need to hear something like that though. I went through a lot and I felt alone during everything I went through so, if anything, I hope that listening to my experiences will let others know that they’re not the only ones going through their situations- no matter what they may be.
VIMMAG: You've worked with URB Magazine as a reviewer, how did that come about?
JAMES THE MACHINE: I went to recording school in Hollywood and we were required to get an internship. It just so happened that on myspace (yeah, it was back then hah) they posted a bulletin stating they needed interns. I’d been a fan of the magazine, so I replied to the bulletin, wrote something as a sample and sent it in. The editorial staff liked my writing and the rest is history.
VIMMAG: In 2011, you were a part of the Las Vegas Slam Team, what do you think of the Slam scene here and what do you look forward to in 2012?
JAMES THE MACHINE: I’m really proud of the scene right now and am eagerly waiting to see who will be on the new team. I think a lot of people have participated for this year’s slam team- way more than last year. It’s a pretty exciting time for Las Vegas slam if you ask me.
VIMMAG: You have a trailer for your "Passing The Bar Mixtape." For those who haven't seen it, what is it about? (http://www.urb.com/2010/05/11/the-machine-passing-the-bar-mixtape-trailer)
JAMES THE MACHINE: Oh boy! Basically, it’s just a comical video about how I actually made the mixtape. You get to see how small the budget was for it and some of the struggles an indie artist like myself has to go through sometimes. But hopefully people watch it and get inspired to not let anything stop them.
VIMMAG: What has been your biggest poetic inspirations? Music?
THE MACHINE: Honestly, I haven’t considered myself a “poet” for years until I moved to Las Vegas. It was everyone else who gave that title to me. I consider everything I do to be music. When it’s called “spoken word,” it’s just me sharing lyrics without any music. Forgive the blasphemy when I say that I don’t really study up on or listen to/read material from poets unless I’m at an event or reading. Just about anyone I’ve heard read here inspires me though. And musically, I get inspired by everyone from Rakim to Sonic Youth. Josh T. Pearson is a country folk artist who has inspired me a lot lately. In my opinion, he had the best album of 2011.
VIMMAG. You made your debut in 2008 with your first EP "...is Awake."
After that, you followed up with 4 mixtapes and EPs. Can you tell us a bit of how you came about with the songs for your first album?
THE MACHINE: For “…Is Awake,” I just wanted to introduce myself to people. I had been working on my beatmaking skills by remixing other songs and liked some of the beats I came up with, so just decided I should use’em for myself. That was a super personal project too- awkwardly so, I think. I still didn’t totally understand what I was doing hahaha. I’d been writing for awhile by then, but as far as being a musician who would be releasing music to the public, I was very green. It was just a bunch of ideas kind of thrown together on one cd.
VIMMAG: Do you still remember your very first time on the mic performing for an audience? What is different now from then?
THE MACHINE: Oh, definitely. I remember because it was a disaster hah! I was 15 or 16 and performed with a friend and his band. We did an original song and a cover of Rage Against The Machine. Irony, much? Back then I didn’t have a rap name though, so it wasn’t something cute like that- just what they wanted to do. My cousin was there in the crowd and said if he wasn’t my cousin, he would’ve thrown his drink at me. So yeah, good stuff. Very encouraging for a young artist hahah.
As far as what’s different from then to now, I’d say that I’m confident now. Back then, it was really hard for me to accept that this is who I am and what I do because people made fun of me for it. I didn’t fit into their idea of hip-hop. I still don’t, really. I still get the, ‘Oh, I would’ve never pegged you as a rapper’ comments all the time. The difference now though is that I don’t care about what other people think or say at all. Whether James or The Machine, it’s all me. It’s all who I really am. You’re just getting different sides of me at different times. That’s how life is anyways though. It wouldn’t be appropriate to be super aggressive and emotional all the time. Same goes for being laid back. I just am how I am when I need to be that.
VIMMAG: What are you currently listening to?
THE MACHINE: Ummm…not a whole lot. I don’t listen to too much when I’m focused on making music. Quelle Chris is a super dope MC who put out his album last year (which I’m featured on, actually). The Roots’ new album is pretty brilliant too. Other than those, Josh T. Pearson is always good to go back to. Depends on my mood, really. Some days, it’s George Michael and other days, it’s obscure post-punk stuff.
VIMMAG: For those aspiring musicians out there, what do you recommend in terms of performance? What would be the one thing you would let them know?
THE MACHINE: Performance-wise, I would just remind people not to rely on the crowd to determine how you feel about a show. Don’t freak out if they don’t commend you or go super crazy when you think they should. If you are happy with how things go, within reason, that’s all that matters. I mean, if you’re wack, you’re wack but if no one is coming up to you saying you were awesome, it doesn’t make it true. Be confident in what’re doing no matter what because at the end of the day, people are fickle. And if the sound is bad or you forget some words, etc., don’t freak out either. When you mess up, the best thing you can do is to keep going like it didn’t happen. It’ll make the crowd feel the same way.
If I had any advice for aspiring musicians, it would just be not to give up. Perseverance is the hardest thing about this life path but it’s also the most important. Why do you think there are so many horrible musicians out there who are super successful? Because they just didn’t stop. That’s most of the battle right there.