Interview with James Menefee of LONG ARMS


First of ll, it’s great to have an interview with you, How is it Going?

I am getting ready to watch all of Stranger Things, Season Two in one sitting so it is going great. There is a groundhog eating all my flowers in my backyard. It is getting colder and I hate the winter. I am reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Violent Bear It Away.” I highly recommend her short story collection “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

Where were you born and raised, and what kind of childhood did you have?

I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, but I cannot claim being a city resident until my 20’s. I grew up in a boring suburban hell that lacked all culture and substance, but was also safe. I ended up having a lot of freedom when my parents eventually divorced as long as I kept my grades up, so I got to go to shows every night when I was a kid, escaping the boredom of the county life.

What music have you grown up with? What are your most relevant influences back in the days?

When I was a kid, all I listened to was 50’s and 60’s rock and roll. Buddy Holly was my favorite, but I also loved The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elvis, Lesley Gore. I got totally obsessed with Led Zeppelin in the 8th grade for about three months, and it was all I would listen to, and then I discovered punk rock at the end of that three months, and put all my old music away, and started all over again. My favorite punk rock from my early days was mostly poppy punk rock either in the form of the Doughboys and the Descendents, or Screeching Weasel and 7 Seconds or Green Day.

What are your most relevant influences today?

I love the energy and skill of The Replacements, the way they are able to just fall apart as a band but still write the most memorable songs. Paul Westerberg’s lyrics particularly have a way of saying a thing better than if you tried it on your own. Like “All you’re losing is a little mascara.” He could’ve just said “You cry a lot.”

What are some of your earliest musical memories? Were you glued to the radio as a young kid?

My dad played me The Beatles when I was three and that was it. I remember loving The Beatles in way that made my brain light up like one of those MRI’s where people discover cocaine, and I was attracted to them like a magnet drawn through iron filings. I was obsessed with this little tape recorder I had, and trying to record my voice on top of their songs. Then, like now, I was always disappointed with how the recorded version never actually matched up with what I thought it sounded like in my head. I would listen to Beatles songs and write down the lyrics in notebooks, and I was obsessed with how the front and back cover of that red collection LP had them at the same spot but a few years apart. The beards made them look ancient to me. I thought they had to be 100 years only in 1969. None had made it to 30 yet!

First record you bought? Tell us the story behind this record

I saw the video for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s “Grey Cell Green” on 120 Minutes one Sunday night during Christmas vacation. I was able to stay up late on Sunday because there was no school the next day, and I lost my mind when I saw it. I had just discovered punk about two weeks before and had already dubbed a bunch of tapes, so this video hit me at this exact moment when I was starting to look for new music. When school was back in, I saved up my lunch money and by the end of the week I had enough to get the tape for “God Fodder” which had a tshirt wrapped up with the cassette, form this old chain store called “Peaches.”

Long Arms (Pressphoto)

What was your first live show you attended? Tell us the story behind that show!

I saw Chuck Berry when I was in third grade. I begged my dad to take me, and he eventually gave in. I had binoculars and watched him the entire time through those. The first “unsupervised” show I went to at an actual punk venue was Inquisition, at this place called The Metro in Richmond. Inquisition featured Thomas who went on to front Strike Anywhere, and Mark who went on to form River City High with me, and Robbie and Russ who started Ann Beretta. They were amazing. Anyway when I was at this show, I saw A GIRL with a Descendents shirt. I couldn’t believe it.

Did you have any older mentors getting into music when you were a kid?

Lots. First my father, who played me The Beatles. My best friend Allen who played drums in my first band Fun Size played me The Descendents and that was it for me. We didn’t even know what the genre of music was. He didn’t know it was punk, and I thought punk looked like those awful postcards where it says “Greetings from England” and it has two people with mowhawks on it. The Descendents looked like i did, nerdy, and didn’t look punk. Mark from River City High played me Thin Lizzy later on, and that blew my mind also. All these guys would play me something that they liked, and I would just take it and run with it and learn all there was to know. I think in each instance they were a little scared by what I would come back with, and how I would just keep finding more bands. The student learning more than the teacher kind of thing.

Who were the big bands in your area during your teen/formative years?

Avail was massive in Richmond. But massive was 400 people. That was unheard of, to have 400 people at a show. No one did that. Even Gwar would barely draw that much! Inquisition like I mentioned. Four Walls Falling was just winding down, so I missed their early days when they were really big. Again, like 300 people. Everything was so much smaller then.

Your first band you formed with 12. Who was this band and how did you find togther. Tell us something about this band!

So this band was called Fun Size. I grew up across the street from this kid Allen Skillman. he was three years older than me and when he didn’t have anyone else to play with he would play with me. I always tried to be older than I was (but was and am still extremely stupid and immature) so we would hang out and try to not be bored living in the suburbs, catching the woods on fire and things like that. He moved away for a few years and came back when I was 12 and we started playing music together. He came back with punk rock tapes, mostly the Cruz Records/SST stuff like All, Big Drill Car, Descendents and the Doughboys, and we started playing that stuff. We didn’t know what this music was called, we just thought it was awesome. There was no way for us to know even what it was. But it seemed the skaters at our school liked this music too, and one of the kids was this guy Brian, and I had a ramp in my backyard, and we heard he played guitar, so we decided to start a band. We didn’t know how to tune our guitars or anything. I feel sorry for anybody who ever had to listen to us rehearse.

You have been a punk rock musician for a very long time. What are your motivations to continue? Do you still feel connected?

I just like playing music, and I am happy I get to still do it. I do not feel connected at all in the way I did when I was a kid, and I am embarrassed a lot of times when I go to shows and realize that there are so few older folks at shows. I feel like this doesn’t happen as much in bigger cities where there is a large crop of older musicians, maybe where it is more acceptable to be older and “artistic” if that makes sense. For me now though, I am usually the oldest person in the room, and I just have to accept it.

You have a long running history in music with bands like River City High, Highley and Long Arms. In which band did you have the most fun?

Each band provided different types of fun. I was most “Successful” in River City High, and we got to play some huge shows and that was the most fun. Higley allowed me to record a record with Bill Stevenson…enough said. The guys in Long Arms crack me up so much that I am crying when we are driving home from shows. I guess I look for the good in each one haha.

Long Arms (Pressphoto)

Regarding your music career … what do you most regret and what would you do differently?

River City High did everything wrong. I regret the horrible decisions we made, sometimes on a daily basis. We signed to MCA, which wasn’t necessarily the biggest mistake we ever made believe it or not. What made it bad was we went off the road forever and worked on this record, and then recorded it with a producer who kind of tried to separate the band in to factions, which permeated over the entire recording process, and then with the entire band once we left the studio. Then when the label we were on went bankrupt, and our record didn’t come out, all the resentments we had didn’t go away and got worse. There are a couple people we could’ve worked with on that record, and it would have been way better, but we were lied to by the producer, and thank god the label went under because that shitty record never came out haha.

Tell us a little bit about the story of Long Arms. How did this band got together?

When River City High slowed down and all the members were living everywhere else, I had nothing to do and wasn’t ready to stop playing music, because I am an idiot. I was still writing songs, but was broke as hell, and my friend Pedro had a studio in his backyard and he let me come over for about a year and work on them. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I could’ve ever recorded again.

Your new Long Arms Album is called „Young Life“. What is the idea, motivation or meaning of the title?

This record just had more energy than our previous records. I felt kind of rejuvenated playing the electric guitar again. Like a confused fucking teenager all over again. I had seen this documentary about David Lynch called “The Art Life” about how he was also a kid in the suburbs but he wanted to live the art life, and I felt young and excited again playing these songs and thought about how it made me wanna live the “young life. “

Which is your favorite song on the new Long Arms record and why?

Don’t ever ask me this question, because I always like the songs no one ever likes. I can say that the subject matter all had to do with things that I was actually doing at the time, certain movies I saw or books I read…it was all very current to what was happening in my life at the time, and not a vague representation of a distant memory. That is another kind of songwriting, and maybe even a superior form. For this record though, it was immediate stimulus that helped me along.

Imagine your band Long Arms will embark to a new tour. With which band you would love to do start this tour most?

I am happy playing in front of any crowd who is willing to listen. I don’t fucking care who!

Are you proud on the new Long Arms record? Do you think that this is the best record you ever did?

Yeah, there was a few weeks there were I was writing songs everyday, which for me had not happened in years. I was very inspired, it was my own kind of awakening, like when John and Paul would talk about how they just tapped into it, and kind of raised their annenas to the stratosphere and picked up those songwriting waves, in my own bullshit way I was doing that. Waking up from dreams and writing songs, pulling over on the highway and writing lyrics, reading books and writing ideas down…it all happened writing this record. It’s always the best record…until the next one!

Your Long Arms bio says about your new album „IT’S ALSO AN ALBUM ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A ROCK & ROLL LIFER“. What does it mean to you to be a Rock & Roll Llifer?

It’s no secret that being in a band has its share of letdowns. And most people, at this point, have had enough and have gone on to do things that don’t depress them as much. As of this point, I haven’t had enough, and I had a lot of things I still wanted to say. I didn’t want to abandon it yet.

Long Arms is a band based in Richmond, Virginia. Are there any local bands which you really enjoy?

Richmond has a lot of awesome bands. Right now I really like Opin, Spooky Cool, Sammi Lanzetta, Blush Face, Positive No

Touring life has ups and downs. What was your worst low and what was your highlight?

One time in Connecticut on tour with the last River City High lineup that some say was our best, someone broke into our van and stole EVERYTHING. It was a terrible time for us already, as we had lost our label, our record wasn’t going to come out, and the future didnt look good for us. They didn’t steal our instruments, just everything in the van, like all our personal things. There was a journal in there that I had been writing in for a year that had all my lyrics, and that was the worst thing ever for me. Hemingway had this happen to him, where his wife Hadley lost this trunk that had all his papers in it, and he met her at the station and she was crying and he felt devastated when she told him what had happened. Not that the lyrics were of equal importance or anything, but on my own scale of devastation I think I could relate. I drove around looking in dumpsters trying to find any discarded notebooks. It was even worse doing that. I still think about some of those songs today.

What does getting older mean to you? Do you feel connected to moder punk rock bands like „Iron Chic“ and „The Menzingers“ or do you prefer classic bands like „Social Distortion“?

I really like both those bands a lot. I think that as you get older, your need to belong or be accepted kind of goes away, because you just start to feel a little more secure. So getting older for me just means not being afraid to do your own thing, which is supposed to be the prevailing ethos of punk rock, but we all know that there are many times in our lives where we still have done what the crowd has done, even if that crowd was full of punks. I don’t prefer anything newer to anything older, because it’s all just taste and how you feel at the moment. 

There is something unique about your songwriting. Do you have certain rituals for writing new songs?

I would like to say that I have a good work ethic, but songs haven’t always came to me easy. I do know that taking a good walk around the block helps me when I am stuck, or taking a walk in general always helps me think about writing songs. Trying to keep your brain exposed to stimulating things helps, maybe not at the time, but you never know when you will use that idea later on.

What is more important for you as a songwriter. Having a descent and catchy melody or outstanding lyrics?

I have always been a fan of great melody. I am famous for completely missing the meaning of a song because I am more focused on the melody than the lyrics. That is completely sacrilegious I know. Great lyrics have their place, and it is most important to nail both, but if all else fails, go for the melody!

You also play in a band with Bill Stevenson (Descendents, All) called Highley. How did you get together?

That is entirely thanks to my friend Pete Nehring who hooked me up with Kevin Carl, who was working with Bill already and they needed a vocalist. Pete, incidentally, is the guy who introduced my friend Allen to punk rock himself when he moved to Wisconsin and then in turn came home and played me The Descendents. Pete keeps popping up at different times in my life and helps me do new things that change my life. I am eternally grateful to him for that.

Which album do you like more. The Higley record or the new Long Arms?

I am really attached to the Long Arms record, and I am not smart enough to separate attachment vs. other strong feelings. The Higley record surprises me because they aren’t all my songs, so I am sometimes shocked that I got to be involved with such great musicians. I am lucky to have done both.

You also played in River City High. What happened to this band? I never heard that you officially disbanded?

River City High burnt the candle at both ends. We toured and toured and when members didn’t work out we would get some new ones and try to keep going. It’s really hard to find people to play with who can live in a van and deal with the squalor of tour and we were never financially successful or anything so that was always a strain in a lot of ways. After our last tour two of the members moved away and we just kind of stopped playing. It wasn’t anything planned, it just kind of happened. We had worked hard for years, but organically it ran itself down. I am proud of what we did in general, even though we made every mistake you could ever make.

Back in the days with River City High… you played a big tour with the Beatsteaks. How did this come together?

We met Robbie, their tour manager, when he was touring in the USA with our buddies Midtown. We got along great, and Beatsteaks needed support for their tour, and we were planning on going to Europe, and the timing worked out well FOR ONCE! I am forever thankful to those guys for taking us out then. Those shows were so much fun.

Do you have any specific or funny memories on the Beatsteaks tour? What memories stick out?

Our guitar player Bob accidentally ate a piece of space cake when he was drunk that somebody had on the bus (of course nobody in the bands did any drugs or anything like that so I HAVE NO IDEA HOW THAT CAKE GOT ON THE BUS) and you can imagine what his night was like. The next day, all the Beatsteak guys put pieces of tape that went from Bob’s bunk all the way to the stage that said “This Way Bob” and when we got out of bed finally at like four in the afternoon it was very helpful for him. I tried to stagedive during “Summer” and Robbie wouldn’t let me and I’m still mad about it. On the last night of tour we all got onstage and played “Territorial Pissings” by Nirvana! We got to watch them film their video for “Let Me In” in Amsterdam, and when we were too annoying and wanted to give them some space we got to walk around Amsterdam and I got to see “The Night Hunt” which blew my mind. And just getting to hang out with those guys. They were so fun. Torsten used to always say I was his house wife because I would help him load his bass gear. He would yell “house wife” whenever it was load time. Those guys worked really hard and deserve every bit of success they’ve had.

How much touring did River City High?

The amount of touring we did is insane. We played 250 shows one year, 200 the year before. I am not saying it hasn’t been done before, but it is still a lot. I was watching this documentary last night about a band and it said “We were required to play 80 shows a year and still be a band” hahaha We did all of this touring mostly in a van and we just didn’t stop. It worked at the time I think. We were able to get our name out, and what the hell else are you going to do at that age? When our van got broken into I lost a notebook that I had written every show we had ever done, so I started losing count, but those are the numbers I remember.

What is the biggest difference between playing shows in the past and present?

Everything is much more organized now. This is good and bad haha. Pay to play is not that rare these days. In the past, unless you in LA on the Sunset Strip in the 80’s, that did not exist. Now it’s just called “ticket buys.” House shows, which were a thing a couple decades ago, really fell off for awhile, but came back stronger than before a few years ago. You could do a legitimate tour of houses now, and it would be a great tour. Handing out paper fliers is a thing of the past. That’s good for the environment. I used to love standing outside of shows and handing out fliers though. My favorite would be when someone would look you in the eye and ball up your flier and throw it on the ground.

With River City High you appeared on a live show on MTV. How did this come together?

It’s a great story actually. Mountain Dew had this energy drink called Amp, and part of their marketing plan was getting in with touring bands and sponsoring them, and in turn that would sell their cans of energy drink haha. They would sponsor certain venues, and if you played a show at these venues, they would give you a check from their company in addition to whatever you made from the show. It was awesome! And they threw all this money away haha. So they had some type of contest for best bands they sponsored, and the top twelve bands would get to compete on MTV in a kind of battle of the bands, just in Times Square. Apparently we were number 13. Always one step behind. Well, as fate would have it, someone dropped off, and we were then number 12 haha. And we ended up winning the thing, which was kinda great because there was prize money, and we were so in debt that my credit card company was getting ready to take me to court, and we owed money EVERYWHERE.

After releasing a record on Doghouse, River City High signed a deal at MCA Records, the former label of Blink 182. How did this come together?

It’s one of those classic stories where someone who worked in the mailroom passed our CD on to someone who worked at the label, and that guy liked us and wanted to sign us immediately. We had actually just signed with Doghouse about a few months earlier, and we agreed to do a record with them. The guy from MCA stayed in touch with us and when we were ready to do the next record, flew down to us and talked us into it. At the time, all our friends were on MCA so we figured why not. Plus, it was nice he kept following the band.

But you never released this record on MCA records. Why? What happened?

We get on MCA and we make this record that we took loads of time off to write and record. All our friends have songs on the radio, and we are thinking, “this is it! Here we go!” So we get out of the studio and realize that people are starting to leave the label, employees I mean. And then we start to hear rumors that MCA is going out of business. We figured there was no way, that it had been around forever, and that we would never have a problem with that aspect. So we are driving to LA to actually play a show in Hollywood that would be for a lot of the label people, and we call the label, and it goes to a recorded message: “you have reached a non-working extension at Geffen Records.” WHAT? Overnight, MCA had been absorbed by Geffen, and everyone was fired. And once your point person leaves the label, and you are new like we were, who had sold modest numbers on an indie, but laughable numbers in terms of a major, we just didn’t have a chance. The new label decided the would only keep the top sellers, and they decided to shelve our record. It ended up being the worst experience of my life. In a way though I am happy the record never came out. Because of the producer we picked.

We went through the process of picking a producer. We ended up going with this guy who just wasn’t a good fit for the band for many reasons. There were a lot of promises made before we got to his studio, but it was a sad day when we realized we were fucked. And we couldn’t get out of it. Looking back, I would’ve done so much differently. We should’ve left immediately, and just done what we wanted. But at that point we had lost so much focus. Everyone had an opinion, and I’m not talking about the band. And even inside the band we had a million different opinions. There was no clear leader at the time, and that hurt us. Someone needed to be the main voice. But the record is not very good, and it clearly suffers from this lack of direction and energy.

How would you describe your Doghouse years?

It was my first experience with a label, of signing a contract even. We had to get a lawyer…we had never done anything like this. Dirk, the guy who owned Doghouse at the time, was always happy to have us stay at his house (he grew up in the scene and totally got it). He always made us feel welcome when we would show up at 2 am and their dogs would try to eat us.

With River City High you made a video called „Amy“… who is she?

Who Amy is will always remain a mystery. The Amy video, however, is insane. So we never actually made a real video. Our last record was on a label called takeover, and it was written into our contract that we would finally make a video. All those records on Doghouse, and we just never did one. So we decide to make a sketch for what would be the actual video. Well, as things always went with RCH, the label never paid for the video, and we certainly had NO money, so it never got made, and we put the sketch on youtube for fun. It is so low budget and stupid that it is actually funny. I’m so happy that was our final gift to the world. I’ll watch it right now I think. It still makes me laugh. Comic gold at 1:18 in that video.

If you had to pick one song from your entire discography that you are most proud of, what would it be and why?

Oh man, I’m terrible at this stuff. The song I want to pick is one that never got released of course. When RCH made the MCA record, we did it in Canada, and one of my favorite bands of all time is the Montreal band The Doughboys. The singer, John Kastner, does not live in Canada but was visiting, and I begged him to come in to the studio to sing lead on one of our songs. He gave in and took a car down this remote location and hung out for a few hours. I couldn’t handle how happy I was. And, of course, that version of the song was never released. Fun Size re-recorded it and it’s on the “Mallcore” record, a song called “It Just Takes Time.” Just imagine John’s vocals on the chorus. It gave me chills when we did it.

Is there a chance that River City High will get active again somewhere in the future?

There’s always a chance! I have bass. Will travel. The other guys are so busy though. Mark is Ryan Gosling’s stylist now. He goes away for six months at a time to make a movie with him, so he would never have time to do it. I’m so proud of him. I just used this question only so I could brag about him.

I heard you have a strong love to vinyl. What is your favorite record in your collection?

It would have to be my “Milo Goes To College” by The Descendents on New Alliance Records. This is the record that started it all for me, and it’s so great to have it in its original format. I also have that collector’s dilemma where I have a couple records still sealed that I have never opened, that are favorites. Doughboys “Happy Accidents” is one, Jimmy Eat World “Clarity” 2X10” is another, both are recordings that mean so much to me. The Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat” single on Stiff is another favorite. I am not a massive collector in terms of rarities, and I am not afraid to ever buy a reissue. I love vinyl, but, except for a few rare cases, I just want to listen to the music.

Where do you buy records and which ist the most expensive record you ever bought?

We have three vinyl shops in our town that I go to, and I also know a couple serious collectors that know what I like, and they will tell me when they have something I want, and they are always right, those bastards. I try to go for quantity and not spend it all on one specific record, but every now and then I will just get the stupid $100 record because I can’t stop dreaming about it.

Best record for this year and why?

This year I really loved Pete Dello and Friends “into Your ears” reissue on Got Kinda Lost Records. This was just a wonderful folky pop record that I couldn’t get out of my head. It sounded to me like Belle and Sebastian heard this record and started their band because of it. The first side just makes me cry like a baby. I love it so much.

What is your all time favorite movie? And what is the best movie for this year?

I absolutely cannot pick a favorite movie of all time. It’s like picking a favorite song, a favorite book, a favorite band. It is asking too much. So many films are so good for so many reasons. Favorites include: Spirit of the Beehive, The Third Man, Annie Hall, Late Spring, Breathless, Talk To Her. I could go on forever. I can say this year I was blown away by “Wind River.” I thought “Sicario” was awesome, so I was happy to see Taylor Sheridan make his own film, and it didn’t disappoint.   “The Lure” by Agnieszka Smoczynska came out this year on DVD in the US and I got to see it finally. I wasn’t even sure what was going on and I didn’t care. You have to see this movie.  I CANNOT TELL YOU THAT ENOUGH .  YOU HAVE TO.  There are a couple movies I still really want to see this year, but I don’t want to list them in case they suck and I am very let down.

Outside of the music stuff, what else is keeping you busy these days?

I came across an author named William Gay this year and I really love his books. I read everything he published this year, and I strongly recommend “The Long Home” since it is his first published novel, and just go from there. I’m just trying to keep the house clean, read some books, make some records, see some movies, and try to not think about how bad off things can get in the world. I apologize to the rest of the world for our insane country, and if I could change it, I would.

Thank you very much for this interview… any final words to our readers?

You are welcome, thanks for wanting to talk to us….hope to see you soon in place near you.


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