Ghost of the Vampire: The James Marsters Interview, Part 1Created on Monday, 05 October 2015 14:45
Written by Joe Kach
You may know him as the charismatic yet conflicted vampire legend named Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But James Marsters, an undaunted thespian, has taken on so much more, permanently cementing himself in American lore. From Buffy, to Smallville, to Torchwood, to being a bona fide rock star, James is a man of many talents. At this year's Wizard World San Jose, the actor sat down with MightyVille's Joe Kach and Sommer K over drinks and coffee-filled thermoses to talk music, theater, movies, and more in Part 1 of our exclusive interview!
MightyVille: We’d love to hear about your music career and your new album.
James Marsters: Ghost of the Robot is my band. We’ve been together for a long time and have been all over the world. We’ve sold out shows in Paris, Barcelona, London, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles ... we’ve done really well, and we’ve just put out what I think is our best album. It’s called Bourgeois Faux Pas. We wanted to get back to the energy and raw power, frankly, of our first album, but take everything that we’ve learned about production and just make it glisten more. The first album was great, and it was raw, and there’s a lot to be said about raw. But we wanted to see what would happen with that energy if we just made it glisten more, so we’ve come up with a really energetic but glossy album.
Has that affected how you’re going to perform the music from the album?
No, you know, live is really about the interaction between the performer and the audience. That’s true in theater as well. The play or the music is really just the conversation starter. So, really, live music is about energy and commitment and if you try to go for gloss in a live show, you’re kind of missing the point. Being so precious, so careful, with that stuff will keep you from actually talking to the audience. So we’re not going to try to do that. I mean, you have to hit together, you have to be clean. You can’t be careless about music. Music is a taskmaster. One of my favorite bands is AD/DC, because they never stop rehearsing and they always hit right, clean together. And they rock SO hard because of that. But that’s because they work. So I’m not saying that live music should be sloppy, but it’s really about trying to connect with the audience.
It’s a really good question ... I don’t think we want to be too precious about it, but try to be as clean as possible. And there are a lot of elements that you can do in the studio that you can’t do live, and if you try, you are basically using a lot of pre-recorded stuff, and I don’t want to go there. Just two guitars, a bass and some drums, man ... let’s go!
How would you describe your music?
It is respectable pop rock. Kind of like Weezer, Ben Folds Five ... it would be radio-friendly, if there were still guitars on the radio, which there’s not so much of any more. But when guitars come back, it’ll be on the radio ... but it’s the kind of stuff where if a professional musician hears it, or a musician in general, they are like, “Wow. Your chord changes are very interesting.” Or, “your lyrics are actually very good,” or, “boy, your lead guitar is actually pretty sweet.” It’s well-crafted, but it’s also designed to be accessible. We go a little bit into experimental, but we pull up. We don’t go full on Radiohead after OK Computer. We go to OK Computer and then are like, “Okay, that’s far enough.” Nothing against Radiohead, they’re awesome. But we like to keep it fairly accessible.
Do you guys do live shows frequently?
We used to ... but they voted my son into the band without asking me. He brought his band from Northern California to Los Angeles to do the first set when we were playing Los Angeles, and they creamed it! It was all stuff that he wrote, and that other people in the band wrote, and the band was just three guitars. They didn’t even have a kit. They were just playing guitars, and it was absolutely amazing!
After the show, my band came to me – this was years ago – and they were like, “Well ... we found our new guitarist.”
And I was like, “Thank God!”, because we really needed a guitarist. “Who is it?”
And they said, “Your son. As a father, you can veto this. But as a bandmate, we already voted, so shut the hell up.”
I said, “Guys, you know that this means we can’t tour as much, because he’s in high school! And after high school, he’s going to college, so...”
And they said, “We’ll work that out. He’s worth it, James.” And frankly, he is. He’s kind of taken over the band – not really, but he’s such a major influence on this album. He was just joining us on the last album, and he’s been touring with us in the interim. That summer we went out to Germany, France, England, and Scotland, and then last summer we toured in Barcelona, Marseilles, and Rome. We basically try to do some west coast shows in winter vacation, and then get in a nice tour in the summer. And on this album, he’s singing his own song, and my only wish for the album is that he was singing two or three of them. His cut is so good. He’s got a great voice.
Any stories you’d like to share from your tours?
I remember we played The Forum in London a few years ago, and that’s like 5,000 people. It’s a pretty big venue. They are all on raised seats, so they are all up in your face. The sound is incredible. It is like the most high profile place in London to play. And all the monitors just dumped out while we were playing. The thing is, when you are playing rock, the drum kit is really, really loud. That’s why the only kids that play drums in high school are the ones with really cool parents, because it is such an annoying, loud instrument to have in the house. So, the kit is always really loud, and you have to turn the guitars and bass up to match that, and then you have to turn your vocals up loud enough to match that. So, by the time you are balanced with the kit, it’s a cacophony of noise! By the time it translates out to the house, it’s all balanced. But on stage, it is very chaotic. That’s why you have these speakers on the lip of the stage blasting the mixed sound that the audience is hearing into the band’s faces so that you can try to hear yourself. Even with great, huge monitors, you can barely hear yourself anyway, but it’s kind of possible if you pay attention. And all the monitors went out about three songs into the show. Metaphorically speaking, it just felt like there was smoke and blood everywhere, Napoleon’s last battle, and we were just trying to find each other through this fog and chaos. We left the stage thinking that they were just going to boo us off the stage, because they don’t know that the monitors weren’t there. We had no idea how we sounded. We just tried our best. And the audience went insane! They were just like, “You guys are AMAZING!”
And we were like, “Really?? Oh, thank God! We got away with it!”
I also remember one time we were playing Tom Jones’ brother’s bar in Wales, and it was like 110° outside. It was a heat wave in Wales. And it was 110° inside too. I think the room was rated for 300 people, and they packed like 800 people in there, and turned the heat on everybody so that they could sell more drinks to the crowd. So it was like 120° on stage under the lights. We played about two thirds of the set when I was about to introduce the next song and I was waiting for our drummer, Aaron, to count off, and nothing happened. I turned around and there was blood all over the skins, which is kind of normal, actually. But the abnormal thing was that he was just passed out on the kit. The drummer is the one that’s working the hardest, and he was out. We had to carry him off the stage. I was like, “If he goes to the hospital, I’m gonna sue!” But he was ok. He was young.
You balance your music with a lot of other artistic talents, like writing. You’ve written some of the Buffy and Spike comics. And, of course, acting – stage, television, film. How do you balance all of that?
Coffee! And don’t forget I also balance parenting, which is the hardest of them all.
I’ve always kind of had my cake and eaten it too. When I was doing stage, I was working a lot for other theater companies, and I decided to start my own theater company. Everyone said, “You can’t do that! You have to do one or the other, James. You’ll have a heart attack.”
But I was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna do it!” So I would schedule the shows so I could direct for four weeks, and then start rehearsals, or I’d be rehearsing at the same time I directed. The shows would open at the same time, so when I had to be gone at 8 o’clock, they didn’t need me anymore. So, it was a bunch of things like that. I’d just kind of fit it together, and I’ve always kind of had my cake and eaten it too.
People always say, “Well, if you had to choose...” and I’m like, “It’s a false choice. Why would I choose?” I live my life kind of thinking that you don’t have to choose. You just follow what’s fun.
What are you following these days in entertainment?
My favorite thing that I have witnessed recently is Mad Max: Fury Road. That was just jaw-dropping. I was a fan of only one of the originals going into it. I do have to go back and watch the original Mad Max, because I saw it a long time ago and I don’t think I appreciated it at the time. So I can’t judge the first one, but I loved Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. I did not appreciate Beyond Thunderdome. I love Tina Turner. She rocks! That was the best part of that film.
I love how George Miller got such a clear, subversive message out to the mainstream with Fury Road. It’s right up on the wall, man: Women Are Not Things. It’s right up in your face. But it’s not an anti-male movie. I don’t see it that way. I guess some people have that reaction, but I don’t see it that way. I think that it’s correct that as cultures get more dangerous, and if you get out of the city and toward more life-threatening situations, it tends to be more patriarchal. And I think that archeologically, that’s really defensible that the Mad Max world would be dominated by males. And I think that it’s just wonderful for Miller to use that backdrop to make the opposite message. A lot of people were offended, but I just loved it.
Another thing I loved about that movie, and movies in general, is propulsion. The sense that you are on a runaway train that cannot stop. And I watched it again just the other night, and it actually does stop. There’s this really prolonged part of the film where they are out in the desert just talking to each other. But when you see it for the first time, it just feels like you are on a runaway train. It’s just a really well-done film. And I’m playing the Mad Max video game now too, so I’m solid into this thing!
Mad Max is an iconic character. You yourself have played quite a number of iconic characters at this point. We have Spike, obviously, but also Brainiac and Lex Luthor. What is that like? What is it like to be part of Americana?
Horrible! [Laughs] No, it’s so great! I have to pinch myself. I think, “Which door did I walk through to get here?” I was a poor theater actor for so long, until my mid-thirties. I couldn’t afford meat for years. I was riding a bicycle to work in the rain for years, and I didn’t care that I was poor. I wore it like a badge of honor. I was like, “I’m a theater producer! I don’t need money. That’s for the bourgeois. I’m free!” And it was great. It worked for me. But then I had a son, and I had to try to make money. So I came down to Los Angeles, and I was willing to whore myself out. I just did not care. I was going to be Alf’s sidekick, or the next Urkel. I was like, “I’m not here for an Emmy. I don’t need to prove that I’m an actor. I was doing Shakespeare and Molière and Chekhov on big stages in Chicago and Seattle and New York. I’m not here to prove myself. I’m here for diaper money.” And then I met Joss Whedon, and I got mixed up into some of the best writing that I’ve ever been a part of! And then that’s just led into a lot of really interesting projects with a lot of other writers with a lot of things to say.
Alright, once you're done checking out all the Ghost of the Robot tracks, check back soon for Part 2 of our all-encompassing interview with the man, the myth, the legend ... James Marsters!