Local scenesters probably remember singer, songwriter, and guitarist James Hall best for his work in the late ’80s with the Goth-tinged, Atlanta-based alt-rock band Mary My Hope. Some remember his early-’90s solo career, during which he moved to New Orleans and assembled a sharp, mod-rock backing band and earned a splash of critical and commercial success with a terrific rock album titled My Love, Sex & Spirit. Others may remember catching Hall’s following pop-rock project, Pleasure Club, through the early 2000s.
Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, a stack of cool songs, and a fresh new backing lineup, he’s back at it again.
“After my first solo efforts, I started playing new material and collaborating with new musicians,” Hall says of his transitional period between projects in New Orleans. “The Pleasure Club grew out of that. A few years ago, we headlined a bill at the old Cumberland’s with Charleston band Telegram after they regrouped, and it was like 300 people waiting there to see both bands. It was a wonderful opportunity — and one that rarely happens without a ton of work. Consecutively since that time, Charleston has been a great place for us to play.”
While Pleasure Club enjoyed bits of success around the South with their guitar-heavy, electrified rock style, things never quite got rolling the way the Hall hoped. Determined to lead them in a specific music direction, he encountered more obstacles than he would have liked.
“Pleasure Club was a difficult band for several reasons,” Hall says. “One was that two of the members lived out of town. There were other issues about getting along and personalities that were troublesome.”
In the 2000s, Hall resided in Broadmoor, a neighborhood on low-lying ground in New Orleans’ Uptown/Carrolton area. Pleasure Club officially broke up in early 2005, just before the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath invaded Hall’s home.
“Katrina hit my neighborhood in a pretty bad way,” Hall remembers. “In the New Orleans experience, when there are floods, people leave town and then they come back home. This time, we left town, and then there was nothing left to come back to. We had to make plans quick.”
The songwriter and his family had evacuated to Memphis during the week of the storm. After the devastation of the flood, they decided to leave New Orleans to Kennesaw, Ga., just north of Atlanta. It was a strange homecoming.
“We had to forge an entirely different plan,” he says. “I have friends here that I was fortunate enough to fall in with and make music with. I enjoy a status here I don’t even think I deserve. I know I have limitations, and I know not every song I do will be great. There are certain things I’ve done that I like and other things that I’d rather gloss over. I have enjoyed a certain amount of notoriety but I do take things people say with a grain of salt.”
Hall’s current touring band features some talented musicians from the Atlanta scene, including drummer Kent Aberle (who recently replaced Ali Warren), bassist Bruce Butkovich (ex-Heroin, Impotent Sea Snakes), and guitarist Chris Piskun. Butkovich works at Open Sky Studio in Atlanta and runs his own independent record label, 185 Cool Records. He’s recently played with Heather Luttrell and the band Brain Box. Piskun switches between guitar and drum duties with Hall and others.
“Chris actually tried out as guitarist for Pleasure Club at the tender age of 22,” says Hall of his bandmate. “At that particular point, his ability wasn’t near what it is now. I just really like him and his musicianship. He’s probably one of the most intuitive musicians I’ve ever played with. He has a wonderful sense of what’s appropriate and best for the songs — without knowing what he’s doing, what the chords are called or any of the intellect behind it. He’s excellent at anything he can get his hands on.
“Bruce is very similar in that way as well,” he adds. “He’s played with many bands, and he’s actually been chiefly concentrated on production over the last several years. He plays acoustic and electric bass He can be pretty experimental. He and Chris have been a real help because they are very good at programming.”
Hall’s new band’s work sounds like a fully-realized group effort. From recent demos (available on their Myspace page), “Good Times” rocks with a Bowie-meets-Spacehog mix of jangly guitar, Britrock groove, and anthemic swagger. Another gem, “Assassination Row,” moves in a slinky, mid-tempo pace with cool organ and extra high hat work. Hall bends his notes and sings with a deeper-toned voice a bit more than before. The bold rock sound of “Futura Bold” finds Hall singing double parts in double-octave vocals and falsetto. Their reworking of “Whiter Shade of Pale” could make Procol Harem (and the Moody Blues guys) gasp.
“The chemistry between us right now is great,” Hall says. “I’m really open to what we’re working on and that collaborative spirt. I don’t necessarily think that I was that open with Pleasure Club. These guys take ideas and start arranging them, making it easier for me to attack it with lyrics. I’m not so concerned over who gets credit for what anymore. The main thing is the enthusiasm over what we’re all working on. That’s been the big lesson for me.”