Interview with Jimmy Horn of King James And The Special Men
Interview by Harry Kaplan
You can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. Jimmy Horn, front man of King James And The Special Men, walks the walk. Although not born in Louisiana, Horn has adopted the culture and speech so well, that you would think he had lived in the Big Easy all his life. He has walked a lot, that is another way of saying that Jimmy put the musical work in. He and the Special Men have become a New Orleans Institution. Jimmy is a philosopher, along with being a tremendous musician. Read what he has to say.
TL = TwangriLa JH = Jimmy Horn
TL: Jimmy, Harry Kaplan. How are you?
JH: Harry Kaplan. How are you? I’m very well, thank you.
TL: Okay. Awesome. I wanted to congratulate you on your new album. I love it.
JH: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
TL: It’s a great title, too. “Act Like You Know.” Pretend like you’ve done it before?
JH: What’s that?
TL: Pretend like you’ve done it before?
JH: Some people take it that way. It’s more of a warning, really. (laughter) Like, you better act like you know.
TL: Oh, I see.
JH: You know what I mean?
JH: You better act right. You better act like you know. It’s kind of like, our music publishing is “Grown Folks Only.” You kind of run into that vibe here, a lot. When you go into some of the clubs that aren’t for the young folks, there is a “you better act like you know” policy—
TL: I see.
JH: If you don’t know, you’d better ask somebody. (laughter)
TL: I hear you. Just act right. Don’t be an ass.
TL: So I think you really captured that New Orleans sound and feeling on “Act like You Know.” It’s clearly New Orleans, but it’s quite original, and in no way a copy of anybody else. How did you pull that off?
JH: Well, we didn’t set out to copy anyone, first of all.
TL: Right, of course.
JH: But really, I’m kind of with Salvador Dali on this one. I don’t want to quote him, it’s a paraphrase, but I remember he said something about, “every modern artist’s secret weapon is tradition.” The way I take that is, we did our time, we learned the rules, we learned all the songs, we speak the language fluently. And now we’re writing in that vernacular.
It sounds silly, but it’s the truth of it. Just put the time in, and were just being ourselves. It’s not a contrived concept, it’s just what we do. We play American rock ‘n roll in New Orleans.
TL: I don’t think it sounds silly at all. I mean, it’s refreshing. It’s old and new at the same time. So you are originally from the Pacific Northwest, right?
JH: I was born in the state of Utah.
JH: I moved here from Washington.
TL: Oh, from Washington. So, New Orleans is quite different in a number of ways. Mainly the climate.
JH: Yeah, for sure.
TL: So, how did you adjust to life in the Big Easy? Did take you a long time?
JH: I was still a kid when I got here. I was still a teenager. I was still very accustomed to taking things as they came. Now, in my older age, I’m addicted to air conditioning and creature comforts. When I was 19, I was fine on a bicycle with a box fan at home on my feet at night. You know, it’s hot, but—again, I was of the mindset, you take things as they come.
TL: Yeah, I was the same way. But now, like you, as I get older—
JH: (laughter) For real, man.
TL: I can’t live without air conditioning. I know it doesn’t—(laughter) I guess you just took it as it came. That’s how you adjusted to the life?
JH: Well, as far as the weather, yeah. The culture of the place, the musicians—when I came here, I’d never been in a place—let’s call it a place—I’d never been anywhere where it was so accepted. The way it functions. In New Orleans, we kind of look at our musicians like we do a carpenter. It’s a worthy trade. Takes time to be good at it. And people are paid to do it.
Whereas, in these other cities that I lived in before, there was a lot more of that whole rock ‘n roll dream, that “One day I’m gonna make it, and I’m gonna practice in my little practice room, and somebody’s going to hear us some day and it’ll be amazing.”
In New Orleans, I got here, there were kids less than half my age blowing my mind. So at that rate, there wasn’t any time to figure out how to adjust, all I could do was try to catch up as fast as possible. Jump in that water and hope I didn’t drown. Basically. And with the help of some of the street musicians, I was introduced to a wide range of musicians downtown. And got to work pretty quick.
TL: That’s awesome. What’s your favorite part of New Orleans? Is it the food, culture, music, or something else?
JH: Honestly, it’s very practical and pragmatic, but the lifestyle that I’m afforded here is my favorite thing about it. The spirit of the place, the identity of the place, is of course what makes it the kind of place where I can do what I want to do. Along with the lifestyle I have. And you can’t separate that out.
Of course, you get to know any great culture, or any culture for that matter, you get to know their cuisine, and their language, and their music, first. A little surface. And of course, our surface is distinct in that regard. It’s one of the few places in the United States of America where you have a very distinct local culture. With its own architecture, its own—you find towns in the United States that have it. A dialect. New Orleans, we’ve got like 12 of them. Just between uptown and downtown. Across the social classes—
That’s in our rider, when we travel. Our main thing on our rider is, don’t give us your idea of Louisiana food. (laughter) We’ll roll with anything else, but don’t try to serve us jambalaya, man, don’t do that. (laughter) So yeah, I love our food, I love our music, I love our people. I love everything about this city.
But really, it’s the fact that I can do what I dreamed of doing as a kid, and it doesn’t involve some Michael Jordan or Rolling Stones-type dream come true. It’s just a place where I’ve been able to do the work and then to get to work, after having done the work at home. That’s literally my favorite thing about it. It’s the reason I don’t live in the country. That’s the reason why.
TL: So, for lack of a better term, you’re a blue-collar musician.
JH: Yeah. You could say that, I suppose. Yeah. That’s the way I look at it.
TL: I didn’t mean that as a slight. I’m just saying, you’re a musician of the people.
JH: I don’t take it that way either. You’re really kind of clueing-in on something that is at my core, the way I feel. I’m not after fame. You have bands like Aerosmith and Metallica getting all mad because they’re losing royalties. The way I see it, I don’t think anyone that had ever made a record deserves $80 million a year because they took two weeks out to make a nice record.
TL: (laughter) Right.
JH: I don’t think it’s worth it, man. You know what I mean? So I’ve never felt bad for those guys. I don’t mean to even single them out by name. The idea of a band getting a 20-album record contract; well, that died in the 60s, by and large. And then with the CD boom in the 80s and 90s, that was the bubble of the recording industry. That was the most money any of those people ever made, and will ever make. And now that the industry itself is catered toward people that are so young that the idea’s just, “Mommy, buy me this.”
TL: I know.
JH: I’m on the low end of being just a peasant musician, born on a farm in Utah where we shit in an outhouse until 1984. For me, it’s all up. And the focus on people playing music with instruments—I don’t mean to take anything away from electronic music. I look at it like the difference between oil painting and collage. I’ve seen some very thought-provoking and beautiful and amazing collages, and I’ve seen some totally terrible oil paintings. Terrible. It’s really up to the artist. The difference of medium, alone—you know what I’m saying?
TL: I certainly do.
JH: I’m not here to be like, “Everyone should play the banjo,” or some crap like that. But I do think that people are trending back toward music being produced by musicians. Of whatever type. And for the actual reason that we have music on this earth at all. It’s because we love it, and we’re made of it.
Just like the math that goes into walking, we don’t think about it so much. Music is part of everyone’s life. Even the people that say they hate music. They have music that they listen to when they cut the grass. You know what I mean?
TL: Of course. I totally agree.
JH: I just want to be that plumber, like, “Hey, you need a plumber? Call my friend Joe. You need a band? Call me.”
TL: Right. (laughter) Those are the artists, like you, that I gravitate toward. The people that are really doing it for the love of their craft, and not for any other reason.
JH: Granted, I’m definitely trying to make some money here. If I wasn’t, you wouldn’t have even heard about me. Definitely out there trying to pitch my wares and whatnot. But again, it’s with the idea that you put in a lot of work. We have these skills that you don’t just pick up at the grocery store. It’s a value, it has value to a certain market. It happens to be a large market. You know, the Koch brothers, they sell toilet paper. They’re smart. You know what I mean?
TL: Because everybody needs it.
JH: I’m selling records. Of the music that was largely, became unpopular over 50 years ago. (laughter) People are selling artisanal cheese. I’m selling artisanal records.
TL: (laughter) I’ve got to tell you, though, I really think that since the music industry is splintered and fragmented, that people are going back to grassroots and doing it themselves.
JH: You have to. For the largest Walmarts of the world, the music world, for the little guy it’s great. Everybody’s complaining that you don’t make much money from Spotify. Well, guess what? How much were you making off of radio play, Jack? Radio didn’t have a link to buy your album on iTunes, either. Spotify does.
I’m not here to sell Spotify; I don’t Spotify. My tastes are too developed for Spotify. It’s too pedestrian for me. It’s not because I’m opposed to it conceptually. Change is the only thing that stays the same in this life, it would appear to me. If you can’t adapt, you’ve just got to mutate it.
TL: I couldn’t agree more. Off your latest album, I love this song, “The End Is Near.” It reminds me of—
JH: And I’m glad to hear that.
TL: It reminds me of a little bit of a cross between Fats Domino and Sun Ra.
JH: I love that. That’s kind of where I live, right between Fats Domino and Sun Ra.
TL: Then I guess I’ve pegged it pretty well, huh? (laughter)
JH: (laughter) You’ve pegged it pretty well, bro. And I’m glad that’s the song you like. I almost didn’t put that song out. I added that song at the last minute. I had the whole record mixed and mastered. It was going to be even shorter. I didn’t care. I said, “You know what? I want to put this song on there. I’m not putting this record out until it’s done.” And so we waited a handful of more months. I’m glad you like it. We’ve got a video for that song coming out pretty soon.
TL: Nice, I can’t wait to hear it. Yeah, I really do. And I like all of the songs. It’s not just that one. For some reason, that one grabbed me immediately.
JH: I thought about two songs. I thought about “Dancing in the Streets,” and I thought about “1999.” (laughter) Maybe that’s revealing too much? Of my process? But I wanted to call out all the cities in the world. And I wanted to talk about partying, even though the world’s about to end.
TL: I really enjoy it. You’re right, there’s nothing else to do except to party and have a good time at this point.
JH: I’m trying to get as much out of this life as I can, right now.
TL: Absolutely. All we’ve got is the here and now.
TL: So this album, it was quite a long time in the making. What took you so long to finally put out an album?
JH: It’s two-fold, actually. The first part is, my main focus in the first couple of years was establishing ourselves properly within the New Orleans context. Didn’t care about—not that I didn’t have that in mind, but the way I understood this working for me, and for my family, the band, it was that we would establish ourselves at home. So that when we went out of town, it was with that under our belts. Or behind us. We wanted to be accepted at home first.
And the other thing is that, New Orleans is unique in the fact that we have a fresh shipment of bright-eyed music lovers shipped into town every couple of days. And so, where a lot of people are losing their hats renting vans and touring, doing the opening slot here and there, we’re staying at home and letting people come to us. And it builds.
It’s not a braggadocious thing, more than it’s a matter of practicality. Why am I going to chase this idea of acceptance on the road, when all I’m really trying to do is live a good life here at home. Where our children live.
And again, back to why I live here in the first place. Because I can afford to have the lifestyle I envisioned for myself as a young person. You know, those dreams have come true for me here. And it goes back to the fact that musicians are of a certain caliber here, so we’re appreciated outside of here. And here at home, it’s a way of life that commands a certain amount of respect, much like a good carpenter or a preacher or a good mechanic.
TL: Like any craft, right? You have to have an initial talent to do it, and then you have to pay your dues.
JH: Talent is just getting your foot in the door. Talent is nothing but a 10-second head start. Talent is a handicap. You know what I mean?
TL: I agree with you, in a lot of ways.
JH: Work. The rest is work. John Coltrane practiced for eight hours a day. That’s wasn’t talent. Talent, if you really want to examine it, was probably in his ability to stay focused. (laughter) The music, that’s work, man. And again, here in New Orleans, people acknowledge that, and they accept that. That’s part of why it’s taken a while. Because it was all about a lifestyle here at home.
Secondly, the other reason why it took a while to get the record out, is because we’re not just putting a record out, we’re launching a label. And, Special Man Industries, I didn’t want to just come out with one record, and go, “I have a label.” Because we’re one band with our first record. Some people get some shirts silkscreened, and claim to have a clothing line. I just didn’t want to do that.
So we were stacking recordings. So I’ve got singles from Alynda Segarra coming out, from Hurray for the Riff Raff, next month. Got singles with Lost Bayou Rambler’s front man, Louis Michot. I’ve got a full-length Mardi Gras Indian record from the Young Seminole Hunter Gang coming out early spring. I’ve got Corey Ledet’s zydeco record in the works. Leyla McCalla single; did some production work, just produced her whole next album, for her, with her, which was a delight.
So I wanted to have all of those things lined up before I put the first record out. Some of these recordings are a few years old. I’ll admit it, I don’t mind admitting it, because the idea was that they hold up over time. That’s the real reason.
First, we wanted to establish ourselves at home for the sake of our families. Second, when we want to come out, we want to come out hard, with a handful of records within the first year. That’s what we’re finally prepared to do. So we’ve released the first recordings.
TL: That sounds great. (laughter) You had a plan.
JH: We’ve got the songs, we’ve got the band, we’ve got the studio, we’ve got the label. We’ve got a city full of great collaborators. With our connections from the Caribbean to say, Lafayette, Memphis, as the northernmost point, we’re focused on putting out a lot of new music that is, like I said, new music but that is firmly rooted in tradition.
TL: Perfect. Makes perfect sense to me.
JH: I’m an old man. As far as a rock ‘n roller coming out with his first record. I’ve always been a long-haul kind of guy. It’s a big boat I’m trying to get to float here. I happen to have a taste for big boats. (laughter) I guess.
TL: (laughter) Nothing wrong with that.
JH: What influenced me the most, producers, and bandleaders, and songwriters. And I just want to do all of that. Like when I heard the Hasil Adkins story, about how he would listen to the radio and hear Hank Williams on the radio, and they would say, “Well, that was Hank Williams.” And so he was left with the impression that it was one man making all that noise.
And so he set out and played the drums and the harmonica and the guitar, sang. He thought he invented the idea of the one-man band. Because he was trying to be like Hank Williams on the radio. He had no idea that it was (laughter) an entire group of musicians.
I don’t think about music and recording as two separate things. You make music, you record it, you make records. So I’ve always wanted to make records. More than I’ve wanted to be in front of a crowd.
TL: That’s pretty neat. Also because it seems like your live show is pretty dynamic.
JH: What we’ve got is intensity, man, you know. You wouldn’t want to come and fall asleep at no rock ‘n roll show. (laughter) You know?
TL: No, I hear you. But what I’m saying is, most people, I’ll ask them the question, “Do you consider yourself a recording artist? Or would you prefer to play in front of—a live peformer.” So I’ll ask you the question. Which one do you consider yourself? Or a little bit of both.
JH: I definitely consider myself all of the above. And I prefer production. Because, the production, I get to perform, I get to write, I get to call the shots, I get to do arrangements, I get to use my creativity in ways that aren’t limited by my own abilities. And so, to me, doing anything less than full-blown production at this point, is just taking away some of my toys.
TL: (laughter) That’s a good way of looking at it.
JH: I’ve gotten used to these toys; I want all of my toys now. (laughter)
TL: I don’t blame you.
JH: I have people, really neat people throwing in the hat, “Hey, can I produce your next record?” Like, no, you can’t. There’s no way that will ever happen. It’s the reason why I do this.
TL: Right. That’s great, it really is.
JH: I love a party. I love what music does to people. I used to paint floats, for Mardi Gras. It’s a very thankless job. No one knows who painted those things. Or who designed them, or who built them, crazy props on top of the floats. The people that pay for them kick holes in the side of them so they can pee on the ground before they’ve even left the warehouse. So it’s a very thankless job.
But when you’re on the street, and you see that joker coming down the street with all that gold leaf and lights shining, and the way it affects all the people, it’s a very gratifying feeling to be a part of it at such a level, so inside of what’s happening. I get that feeling performing. I do. And I don’t get that from production. But if I had to choose, definitely it would be production.
TL: I got you.
JH: I’m just trying to say that I do enjoy performing. I don’t want people to think that I don’t enjoy it. But it was born of necessity. I did it because I didn’t know anyone else who could do it better. Of course, now I know plenty of people who can do it better than me. But it’s my job. (laughter)
TL: Now you’re too far invested. (laughter) I understand. So give us a little bit of the flavor of what a King James and the Special Men concert is like.
JH: Well, there’s two versions of that, right? There is the at-home, in our club, on a Monday night. And that’s the kind of show where people say, “I met my wife at your show.” Sometimes it’s not a spouse, but, “people be hooking up.” I cook for the crowd. I cook red beans and rice for everybody. Sometimes I make gumbo instead. Basically, if you’re in New Orleans for no more than three or four hours, and it happens to be on a Monday night, I’m going to see to it that you get as much of this city as you can.
What we do, on a Monday night, is we go through, and we select, and we let the old-timers know how rooted we are, and we play all that old stuff from the late 40s and 50s, 60s. Something for the OG’s and something for the heads, to be like, “Okay, yeah, I know where they’re coming from.”
But if we’re going to fly all the way to Denmark, or New York City, or LA, I’m not going to waste my time playing anyone else’s music. Even if it does let them know how rooted I am. I’m going to get their heart rate up and I’m going to hit them, back to back. Our shows outside New Orleans tend to be on the scorcher side. Whereas our hometown shows are more of a slow burn.
JH: Like, the first time we went overseas, somebody told us, “Y’all look like a gang when you walk into the room.” (laughter) We don’t, of course. It’s great to be perceived that way. Like, here come these bad hombres and they’re about to raise a ruckus. I enjoy that.
TL: That’s great. Speaking of a song that really gets my heart rate up, “Ninth Ward Blues,” track six, is a total sweat sub jam.
JH: Yeah, you’re right.
TL: It sounds like it was recorded live.
JH: (laughter) That’s awesome.
TL: It does.
JH: It was very much not live.
TL: But it has that live feel to it.
JH: Me and my boys have been playing together for some years now. Me and Chris, Davis, the drummer, he’s pretty much my right-hand man with this band. Him and I have been playing together, shoot, the better part of 20 years, at this point.
TL: That’s awesome.
JH: And so the rapport, as far as doing overdubs and stuff, we pretty much know where the other’s going. None of that’s live, bro. (laughter)
TL: No, I know. But it sounds, it has that live feel to it.
JH: I love it.
TL: Parts of it sound a little bit like—you ever hear the song “1969” by the Stooges?
JH: Oh, of course. That was a very blatant nod. In fact, I’ve always kind of enjoyed the way they borrowed Bo Diddley. And R&B, in general, and turned it into punk rock. I just wanted to take some of that—because I’m an old punk rocker, from around the way, I just realized that the common thread in all the music that I was into was American rock ‘n roll and blues.
Yeah, I kinda want to just take it back. You know how that Stooges jam is really just Bo Diddley? But Bo Diddley is really just a Congolese street beat? Bo Diddley and the Mardi Gras Indian rhythm, and the clave, it’s all related. And so let me take a little of that and put it back where y’all got it from.
TL: I like that.
JH: Kind of like how Jamaicans would take American songs, and mess with them, to make them their own. I’m kind of trying to do the same thing, only in the reverse fashion. “Hey, I know you did this stuff, with this these American things and whatnot, and I’m gonna go ahead and take it back.”
Remix it up. I was trying to explain this to someone else. We’re not trying to reinvent anything. Or to make it happen from scratch. It’s not a sprint that we’re trying to run here. We’re using the same color palette that has ever been used. We’re just hopefully trying to get a few new colors. Same brush, same everything. We’re just combining them in our own way.
TL: I think you’ve made some new colors here. I’ve got to be honest.
JH: Thank you, bro.
TL: No problem. So where can people buy your album, and the stuff on your label as well?
JH: All of our releases are available, and will be available, on iTunes, Amazon, and about 25 other online platforms. And the hard product, the vinyl? Online straight from us, straight from the website: www.Specialmanindustries.com.
TL: Okay. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. It’s been a pleasure.
JH: Thank you, man. I appreciate it.
TL: Gosh, I love your album. I’ve got to come down and see you guys. I’m going to be in New Orleans in January. I’m going on the cruise—the Outlaw Country Cruise is leaving from there. Yeah, this time I don’t think I’ll be on a Monday. I’ll have to come back. I need to sweat off some of this— especially down there—the last time I was there, I gained eight pounds in a week, no lie. (laughter) I know. Slow and steady wins the race.
Thank you so much for your time. I wish you a lot of success in the future. Have a great evening.