Colorado-native James Cooley is the music man behind Mesita. He's been self-releasing his blend of experimental indie folk rock since 2008, beginning with his debut album Cherry Blossom. He’s since released two EPs, No Worries (July 2009) and Living/Breathing (November 2010), and a sophomore album, Here’s to Nowhere (March 2011). Cooley's latest, The Coyote, released in April 2012, marks his third full length. With this latest album, the multi-instrumentalist delivers a slightly shoegaze indie folk record in the same vein as Bon Iver and Shugo Tokumaru.
Take a close listen to the song “Live For Something New” by Mesita, and just try to imagine how many people it took to create the gorgeously intricate soundscape; the way the plucking, tribal-like percussion swirls with a flute, and layers of stunning vocal harmonies. All of these layers are actually the creation of just one person, singer and multi-instrumentalist James Cooley. Though he's only in his mid-twenties, the Colorado-native has spent years mastering the craft, as evident in his latest LP, The Coyote. A bedroom artist through and through, Cooley is in control of every single aspect of his music. We recently caught up with Cooley, who reveals how classic video games like Mega Man are partly to blame for his career in music, why he avoids performing live, and how technology allows him to thrive as a one-man band.
Band of the Day: Question: Who or what do you blame for initially getting you into music?
James Cooley: I've always had an interest in music, ever since I was really little and banging on pots and pans [laughs]. My dad's a musician, too, so it was really nice growing up, always surrounded by guitars. Also, video games. It's really interesting, I used to play video games when I was little but I would play to listen to the music that was in the video games, and some of that stuff is actually really complex.
Band of the Day: What's your favorite video game soundtrack?
James: I used to play a lot of Mega Man. I was really obsessed with it. I was a video game geek! I had the original Nintendo, the one where you'd blow into the cartridges, and that was my first interest when I was growing up.
Band of the Day: And it just developed into inspiring your music?
James: Definitely. I think because I was playing at such a young age, some of that music is ingrained I guess, just like the simple melodies.
Band of the Day: Tell me about the first time you decided to share your music with other people.
James: I've always been pretty private with sharing music. It took me awhile to even let anybody hear it. I'm not really sure why. I've just always been like that. Back in high school I was experimenting with different ways of recording, using whatever equipment was available, just messing around for fun as sort of a hobby. Then I tried to make something more substantial with it and recorded an ambient, weird, spacey album back in 2006. I decided to burn it on CDs and give it to friends, and that was a big step. Listening to it now, it's just me pressing a keyboard note for five minutes [laughs] and I called it a song.
Band of the Day: What made you finally decide that you were ready to share it with your friends?
James: I'd just been doing it for so long alone. It was kind of a disconnect, socially. And I had been putting a lot of effort into it, finally getting to a point where I wouldn't be embarrassed by it, where it would just be something to give my friends.
Band of the Day: Were they aware that you were going off by yourself to record music? Or were they like, “Wow, haven't seen James lately, where is that guy?”
James: I was expressing interest in it, but it was just sort of a hobby that I kept to myself. In high school I was really into theater, that's what I thought I was gonna grow up to pursue, so music was just a fun hobby I was doing off to the side. Anything socially was to do with theater.
Band of the Day: I heard that you don't feel comfortable performing your music live, but what's the difference between performing your music versus performing in a play?
James: I've always been weird with music, in a way that doesn't exist with performing onstage. Music's always been way more personal. To get up on stage and perform my music, it takes a different sort of muscle I haven't been exercising.
Band of the Day: Do you think it's because you're performing your own work instead of someone else's?
James: I think so, performing my own music is more personal. With performing a play, there's pressure being up on stage, but you're performing someone else's work. With improv, it's all off the top of your head so there's not a lot of pressure because everybody knows that if you screw up, it's bound to happen, and mistakes make things even funnier.
Band of the Day: Being a solo artist, do you ever miss that aspect of bouncing around ideas with bandmates?
James: I have a few friends who are also really cool with music and we'll just talk about music, and that helps. But I do think that sometimes I miss out on those elements of bouncing ideas around. It can also work as a positive, though, because if I think an idea's good I can go with it; if it's bad, I don't have to go in that direction. I know if I'm recording and just not feeling it in that moment, vocally, I can go and play a guitar track instead and control that aspect.
Band of the Day: What environment do you feel most creative in?
James: Somewhere private, I guess. Somewhere where I can work at my own pace, maybe play a computer game for 15 minutes to get back on track, mentally take a break. I think I'd be able to record in studio, and the only reason I haven't is lack of resources. Being around open spaces also really helps me for some reason. To get out and go somewhere with really beautiful scenery. In Colorado, there's hiking all over. If something wasn't working, I could take a short drive, take a hike to the top of a mountain, and mentally get ready to go back in and record.
Band of the Day: If you could insert any song of yours into a video game soundtrack, which song would you choose and which video game?
James: I would say “Somewhere Else” [from 2011's Here's To Nowhere], which I've made an 8-bit version of awhile ago just for the fun of it, and it would be in Mega Man 5—I'm gonna geek out here—in Wave Man's level.
Band of the Day: I bet that reference is going to make someone out there very happy; you'll probably have a fan for life!
James: Oh man [laughs]! I used to have a Mega Man website, I was a huge geek back in middle school and high school. It was super lame; I was the Mega Man news source, even though there were tons of fan sites out there already. I'd get like five hits and feel on top of the world. I'd be like, “everybody in the world is going to my page and reading this stuff I got somewhere else about this video game!” [laughs]