Talented sibling singer-songwriters James Combs and April Combs — bandmates in the acclaimed art-rock group Arson Garden — are hitting the road for a short summer tour. From 1987-1994, Arson Garden garnered national acclaim, with a video on MTV, a spot on Lollapalooza and rave reviews from the “Chicago Reader” and “New York Times.”
April Combs is now a design professor at the University of Cincinnati. James Combs is living in California, playing solo shows and composing music for film and television.
NUVO spoke with James Combs and April Combs the weekend before their Indianapolis show.
NUVO: How did this tour come about?
JC: You know, Arson Garden did a reunion gig at Second Story in 2006, and it was so much fun that I think we've been looking for an opportunity to play music together again. I had a new solo record out this year and April has been writing fantastic songs like crazy lately. Seems like every two weeks I get some new great April song in my inbox. So just as a lark, I suggested we try to put together some kind of tour and before we knew it, here we are. It came together really quickly.
AC: James and I played in a few bands together up in Chicago since Arson Garden but it has been quite a while. This tour was a matter of me having amassed enough material to actually have a show and my dear brother suggesting we do one. I think we've sort of longed to play music together again like this for quite a while. It has just finally come about.
NUVO: What can people expect at the Indy Hostel show?
JC: I think the big revelation will be April's excellent solo songs. I'm really excited to hear them live. And for people to hear us perform new music together, which we haven't done since the early ’90s. We'll also throw in a couple Arson Garden songs, just to keep it interesting.
AC: I'm personally planning to have a spectacularly good time. There will be acoustic and electric guitar, a little mandolin and a lot of singing. My dear friend Laurie Burnham is coming along to sing harmony with both of us.
NUVO: What is your songwriting process?
JC: I always like the intuitive approach, playing and just singing out into the room and see what comes out of your mouth. It seems like songs arrive in various states of completion and then the craftsperson in you has to hammer them into something. But some songs — like "Bathing Suit" from my album — just arrive fully realized. You sing them once into a tape recorder and listen back and ... voila. Instant song. Others are much more work. A lot of the key to it, I think, is trying to complete the writing as close to the moment of conception as possible. You have a certain energy in mind for a song and you have to complete it while that energy is still in your head. If you wait to long, you move onto something else and its hard to dial it back in. So its all about speed.
AC: I am passionately in love with writing and singing songs. My experience is usually that I'll be driving or else falling asleep at night and a little melody and lyric will pop into my head. If I'm driving I'll call myself and sing it into the answering machine. I've crawled out of bed many nights, tiptoed into the bathroom with my laptop, and whisper/sung into GarageBand. If I don't capture it when it comes to me it will disappear so I get a little rabid about getting it down ASAP. From there it is a matter of the song relentlessly playing through my head until it morphs into something that might possibly be worthwhile. And masses of notebook pages and scraps of paper with lyrics scrawled all over them. The scraps drive my husband crazy but what can you do?
NUVO: Was it hard to step away from Arson Garden?
JC: We really loved our band and used to rehearse four or five times a week to keep it sharp. We had a really nice run there for a while but after seven years, a couple failed labels and never being quite able to step through the threshold of wider success, I think we just ran out of energy for it. You know, after a while you just want to confront a new set of challenges — so we moved to Chicago and tried to jump into the happening music scene there in the mid ’90s. But the inertia of living in the city just kinda pulled us apart. And being poor. We were all so poor for such a long time, that I think the desire to try to make money other ways finally got the better of us. We were sick of being part-time waiters and retail clerks to have the necessary flexibility to keep our band going.
But I feel grateful that we got so much support during the time our band was together. The Indiana music scene was always incredibly kind and supportive toward us.
AC: Thank you! I loved being in Arson Garden although, by the end, I think I was just really sad about the way things had played out. We were sort of run over by the music industry truck 600 times and that made us lose hope. Can't get very far without that. We broke up because it was just “that time.” Since then I've done everything I can think of to not be a musician. Clearly that hasn't worked out very well as we have this little tour we are playing. I'm very happy to be where I am right now.
NUVO: What is it like playing and touring with your brother/sister? Who is older?
JC: It was great being able to be that close to April for such a long time. Most people don't really have the opportunity to do a seven-year creative project with their exceptionally talented sister — so I feel lucky to have had the chance to do that. I think it really gave us a deep bond that we still have.
AC: James is much older! OK, just a little older.
It is nice to have someone around who, no matter how much they disagree with you, is still looking out for your best interest because he has our parents to answer to.
NUVO: Did you grow up in a musical household? What is your earliest music memory?
JC: It wasn't really a musical household, per se — although there was always a lot of singing in the car. Our parents are school teachers, but we did have older sisters who were into the cool music of the ’60's/’70s and there was a lot of music on the radio. So if you're a musical person, it seems like you'll find your way to music one way or another.
AC: James and I have three sisters who are a bit older than us, so their influence on our ears is strong. Beatles Beatles Beatles. Also, when I hear anything from Fleetwood Mac's “Rumors” I'm sent straight to the AM radio of my big sister's blue ’69 Mustang — waving my hands in the breeze through the open window. Lastly, I'll confess that I watched a lot of Lawrence Welk with my parents so I've got a big thing for the accordion and Cole Porter.
NUVO: Do you have any good Arson Garden road trip stories? Favorite bands that you toured with? Any "whoa, we've made" it moments?
JC: Well I think our Peel Session for the BBC was a really big moment for us — when we walked into the studios at the BBC and there was the house producer and we were there in the room with the ghosts of a thousand amazing bands ... that was an exciting moment. Or recording our first record at Paisley Park with Prince right down the hall. When you see Prince walking around between cutting your guitar parts, you think, "Wow ... that's some pretty good company we're keeping."
AC: I don't know. I feel Springsteen's song “Glory Days” coming on here. We had so many great experiences and met tons of talented, cool people. It was always wonderful to come home to Blomington too. I feel really lucky to have spent eight years of my life in Arson Garden.
NUVO: What was playing Lollapalooza  like? How about seeing your video on MTV?
JC: It was really cool — another one of those moments where you think, "I can't believe we're doing this; I hope we don't screw it up."
AC: Lollapalooza was incredibly fun. It was thrilling to be part of something that felt so significant to us and our world at that time. We played on the same stage as the Jim Rose Circus. You'd never believe how sweet Matt the Regurgatator (ate glass and sent it back out — very bad skin as I recall) and Mr. Lifto (lifted a suitcase with his, uh, member) were. I also remember being extremely nervous.
NUVO: James, what is it like hearing your music on television?
JC: It's always a little thrill to hear your song dropped into a TV show that you really like. I had been a big fan of “Six Feet Under” so to hear "OK It's Sunday" dropped into a scene with Claire, who I always liked and identified with, was a funny moment. It's a cool way to "collaborate" with a show's producers ... you feel like you're a part of it in a tiny way. Like you planted your little musical flag into something culturally iconic.
And then when it goes to home video, you get another check which you weren't anticipating, so that part is nice too!
NUVO: Arson Garden has had a significant number of downloads on Musical Family Tree, which is way cool, by the way. Any thoughts on social networking sites?
JC: I'm thrilled that there still seems to be so much interest in our music. You never know if what you did had any lasting impact, so it’s gratifying to think that all the hard work we put into making our songs distinctive managed to reach some people in a lasting way. And I love musicalfamilytree.com. I've done a lot of moving around and have never come across a Web site that has documented a regional music scene so well. Those folks have created something exceptional and it's nice that it seems to be so well supported.
AC: I love Musical Family Tree. Indiana has an amazing music scene and I am a bit in awe of the way that Jeb Banner and Small Box created a Web site/archive/network that has real impact on music from the past and present.
I think artists today are lucky that anyone who is curious about them has access to their music. It was so very much not the case when Arson Garden was around. That change alone makes the possibility of being a musician a much more interesting option than it was even five years ago.
NUVO: Anything you'd like the fine folks of Indianapolis to know?
JC: Well ... mainly we just want to say thanks to everyone for their ongoing interest and support for our music. It’s amazing to still be able to tap into our old audience and we're excited to bring our music to Indianapolis for the first time since the early ’90s. And God bless Musical Family Tree!
AC: I'm very happy to have the opportunity to play for them. It is a good life.