back in 2008 when he was frantically in the midst of producing the 10-year reunion event, “FM Station Live After X” at the former live music venue (now demolished and replaced by The Kidney Wellness Center) FM Station Live! in North Hollywood, CA. Closing its doors in 1996, FM Station had been a vital musical hotspot often credited as “home” for many local bands and musicians during the hair-band heydays of the 1980’s.
“If you were an aspiring band or musician in L.A. from the late 70’s to mid-90’s you played FM Station. A lot of bands claim they “battled it out” on the Sunset Strip, when more often than not, they were “lugging it out” on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. Honestly, it was a much better place to play than most venues in town because you could actually get paid if you packed the place—none of that SS (Sunset Strip) “pay-to-play” horseshit. I played FM many times as a young drummer trying to establish myself. For a lot of us, it was the perfect place for that—a place where the hopefuls were treated as future rockstars”.
His music career has been unpredictable, exciting, musically diverse and in 1995 completely abandoned for nearly ten years to pursue
film production and screenwriting.
At 17, he tracked drums with soon-to-be mega producer, Eric Valentine. At 19, he joined forces with Brand X guitarist John Goodsall and the late bassist/producer Doug Lunn for a project that eventually became Zoo Drive. He’s played in bands such as Monro, (UK) Ashes II Ashes, Kingdom Come, Gods of the Radio, The Weylon Krieger Band, and was a founding member of Black Summer Crush with Oleander frontman, Thomas Flowers and Rival Sons guitarist, Scott Holiday.
He’s gigged with Blu Cantrell, Mozella, Tyler Hilton, Dizzy Reed and spent “the most terrifying 15 minutes of my career” onstage with blues legend, Stevie Ray Vaughn.He’s sat-in with Dixie Dregs bassist, Andy West, Lynda Carter, Dennis Quaid and the Sharks, Jeff Goldblum, performed long-winded Zeppelin jams with VOLTO! guitarist John Ziegler, and did his best “Keith Moon” for Michael Des Barres.
In film production he’s been everything from a Production Assistant to a Second-Assistant Director. As an aspiring writer, he read scripts and ran errands for Producer Robert Evans, assisted Red Shoe Diaries Producer Essy Niknejad with dialogue rewrites, and ultimately co-wrote a project for Lionsgate Films.
In 2007, he founded Subframe Los Angeles, a motion-media company where he builds
custom websites, produces and edits music videos, TV and video bumpers, actor reels and corporate videos.
These days, James seems more focused and present in the moment than he did in the past, despite enduring the passing of several
loved ones within the last decade. Trim and well dressed, his appearance is stylishly retro-rocker: jeans, tartan plaid scarf, t-shirt, trucker jacket, and chelsea boots. Witty and charming, (often hilarious) James carries an endless well of anecdotes only a seasoned professional of the entertainment industry can acquire—and live to tell about.
We sat down recently at the Alley Studios in North Hollywood, CA. where he was the subject of a segment interview for a documentary currently in production about the legendary studio where he was the resident Operations Manager from 2010-2015.
Has it really been a decade since the FM Station reunion?
You know what’s scary? It’s been over a decade. Eleven years to be exact.
Every year life seems to be accelerating much faster than I care to acknowledge.
I’ve always felt Looney Tunes creator Chuck Jones illustrated the complexities of life brilliantly (without a word of dialogue) as Wile E. Coyote follows The Roadrunner over the edge of a cliff armed with only a small parasol—it’s funny, sad, frustrating and desperate but it’ll all be over very soon. (laughs)
(laughs) First off, how are you doing?
You mean, personally?
Well, I’ve still got all my hair and
most of my teeth.
I know you’ve dealt with quite a bit of personal loss over the last few years.
That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in school—there’s never any homework assignments for those deals.
Actually, I’m doing pretty well. It’s taken awhile. I finally moved out of Los Angeles recently.
Had to do it. Unfortunately, my hometown no longer looks or feels like home anymore.
I’m up in Ventura County now—I lived there for a moment as a kid and decided to return.
People are nice—decent. None of the “bigger, big time, I’m a superstar” attitude that plagues Los Angeles.
One of my better decisions as of late.
Los Angeles has turned into a
bit of a mess, hasn’t it?
No. In the 1970’s it was a mess. Now it’s a social and environmental nightmare—at least for me. I don’t want to live in Blade Runner. I’m holding on to Hotel California and Almost Famous as long as I can.
I want to talk about this magical place we’re in but very quickly, how did the FM Station reunion ultimately turn out?
Commercially and from an overall production standpoint, it went well. The venue capacity was 300, the turnstile count was 910, the pre-sales were healthy and the bar did very well. For the most part, it was fun and a lot of people had a great time. Unfortunately, I was personally disappointed with the end result.
First of all, I never intended to produce what basically became an after-school special because of various ego inflated, self entitled, actions that had nothing to do with Subframe Los Angeles, myself or Filthy (McNasty—original proprietor of FM Station Live!).
Care to elaborate?
Props, musical equipment and various memorabilia that belonged to Filthy were stolen, as well as one individual who actually claimed personal and production credit for the entire reunion. This guy went as far as renting the place out a few months later as
“FM Station” complete with a flickering, neon, “FM Station” sign over the back bar entrance.
I think I remember that.
Ultimately, it failed. It lasted four weeks. Filthy sued the dude for trademark infringement for using his name without clearance. Yes, Filthy McNasty is a registered trademark. God bless him! He passed away in 2016.
Tell me about the Alley documentary.
It’s been in the works in various stages for years. Original owners Bill and Shiloh Elkins had been approached about it long before I was around. I know Bill wasn’t into it at all.
Privacy. Bill constructed the Alley completely by hand as a place where his friends could come and create music. No advertising—strictly word of mouth. If you didn’t know about it, you didn’t need to know about it. It soon became the home for many of the biggest names in music and it’s been that way for over forty years for a reason—low profile. Film crews and cameras were the last thing Bill wanted here.
So, why the change of heart?
First off, Bill and Shiloh passed away a few years ago and secondly, the Alley has quite a story to tell—especially now. The Alley is in jeopardy of being sold and demolished for what this area really needs more of: overpriced, shotty constructed hi-rise apartment buildings! The current owner, John Strand invested a lot of green into updating virtually everything here and bringing it up to current building code standards but unfortunately, a poor business-partnership deal has now left the Alley exposed in the worst kind of way. Our hope is that the documentary will
save the Alley.
It has to! This is an amazing space.
When can we expect it?
Mid 2020, I believe.
How’s your music career these days? Tell me about your connection with Rival Sons.
Wow, that was awhile ago.
Sorry, I googled you—sore subject?
No, it’s fine. I was the original drummer for Black Summer Crush, with (now Rival Sons) guitarist Scott Holiday and vocalist Thomas Flowers from Oleander. We formed BSC back in 2005 and played together for about a year. I played on all of the original album tracks for BSC’s debut release but left the band when Michael Miley was finished touring with Veruca Salt and became available.
Were you just filling in for him at the time?
Yes but I wasn’t aware of it! (laughs)
Basically, I “auditioned” for Scott five times before I got the gig. Thomas was convinced I was “the guy” after my first audition but Scott wanted to continue “jamming” for awhile. Finally, at my sixth “jam” I told Scott I wasn’t coming back—either I’m in or out. That night, Scott called and welcomed me into the band but he wanted Miley all along. I was basically in the band until Miley was available and then I was out—which took about a year. Eventually, BSC found bassist Robin Everhart and released the album and videos as
“Black Summer Crush”. Soon after that, Thomas quit and went back to Oleander. Miley brought in Jay Buchanan and BSC morphed into Rival Sons. I say “morphed” because no matter what the band interviews proclaim on how Miley and Scott formed the band in Long Beach, blah, blah, blah —make no mistake, Rival Sons is Scott’s band and always will be. And Scott is from Huntington Beach. (laughs)
Are you bitter towards Rival Sons
success in any way?
Not at all. They’re a great band and I’m proud of their success. I knew immediately when I met
Scott and Tom that the project would be successful—no question about it.
The music is exactly the kind of classic, American 1970’s rock and roll that we all loved to play. I knew it would take off. The only other time I felt as sure of a band was Ashes II Ashes back in 1990.
Tell me about them.
AIIA was formed by guitarist Sean Carter, vocalist Michael Kelli (ex-Masi, Heretic) myself and bassist Nick Massella (ex—Pair-A-Dice). We all knew after our first jam that we had something special. Unfortunately, after a couple of years and an offer to sign with Warner Bros., the band imploded and broke up. It’s a terrible shame because we had our own sound and a great chemistry.
Hate to say it but it’s not an uncommon story, especially during that time in music—or anytime, really.
You know, the nineties were weird.
The musical landscape was changing by the minute. By 1995 I made a decision to leave the business entirely—I actually quit playing drums for ten years.
You mean professionally, right?
No. I didn’t pick up a stick for a decade. I think once I sat-in at a show in Las Vegas with Roger Cain’s band but it wasn’t good—especially for them. (laughs)
That seems (quitting) a bit extreme—almost spiritually damaging in some way.
Deep down I always knew I’d play again but after so many frustrating years playing in bands that “almost” went somewhere I decided to choose a career that was solid, financially reliable and far less mentally agonizing. I decided to become a screenwriter! (laughs)
Oh, my! (laughs)
Yep, career stability at it’s finest. I actually entered the film industry as a Runner, then a Production Assistant. From there I became a Production Manager, then a Second-AD on the first season of Pamela Anderson’s VIP. After that, I worked for Producer Robert Evans as a reader/assistant and ultimately,
my first screenwriting gig.
Robert Evans—the Producer?
Yeah, not the Bob Evans food company. (laughs) Robert Evans, Producer for Chinatown—Paramount head-chief responsible for Love Story The Odd Couple Rosemary’s Baby The Godfather and many other classics—that guy.
How did you meet him?
An ex-girlfriend of mine was a personal
assistant of his.
What was he like?
A true rebel and a gentleman. I learned a lot from Evans. He taught me the most important word in Hollywood is “no”.
No matter how desperate you may be for work or how badly your Top Ramen couch tours are about to send you to barber college, most of the time it’s better to initially pass on an offer.
Hollywood hates the word “no”.
They’ll offer you a better deal if you pass.
Has that plan ever worked out for you?
Well, eventually, I was offered a project with actor Tom Sizemore, so not really. (laughs)
No, James, no! (laughs)
Wait! This was just before he thought that at 38 years old it was a really good idea to take up drugs and plunge his career right to the
bottom of the C-list.
He was a pretty big deal at one time, wasn’t he?
Absolutely he was. When I met him in 2002, I think he was the highest paid, A-list character actor in town—six million a pop.
The six million dollar man acquires a bionic drug problem.
It’s a shame because he’s such a great actor—
he really is.
What was the project?
“Nationwide” a story based around a headlining, 1980’s Sunset Strip band reforming after twenty years. He asked me to develop it for him.
How did you meet him—
had he read something of yours?
Yes but he was mostly impressed with the reality
I brought to the story as a musician who actually lived and played during those times.
So, did you follow Mr. Evans’ advice
and refuse? (laughs)
Absolutely not. Sizemore offered me
WGA scale and I took it, completely ignoring Evans’ advice. Total sucker. (laughs)
Is Tom a musician, as well?
Well, he and the mirror are quite fond of Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.
Got it. When was this?
2003. It was never produced due to Tom’s infamous legal and drug issues but I don’t think he was completely serious about it, anyway.
People say and do a lot of things when
they forget to sleep.
I took a full-time job as an office manager from 7am-2pm and from 3-10pm I built high-end
hot rods at Hollywood Hotrods in Burbank.
Building hot rods? I’m sorry but what else can you do? (laughs)
I’m really just a rock and roll drummer, I swear!
I’ve always been into cars. I’ve built ten and owned quite a few over the years but at that time
I had never done it professionally. I was tired of dealing with all of the “absolutely maybes” of the entertainment industry—primarily, the agents and executives at all of those meetings and events, unable to make a solid decision about anything. I just wanted to roll-up my sleeves, go to work and build something tangible—something that was either going to work or not and didn’t take an army of “survey screeners” to figure it the fuck out. So, I called up Troy Ladd (owner, Hollywood Hotrods) and begged for a job. (laughs)
Just like that?
Yes but I was by all means the rookie in the place. The talent of Troy, Randy and all those guys far exceeded my skill set. I offered to work there for free but Troy insisted on paying me minimum wage with the opportunity to work on my 1965 Chevrolet pickup after-hours. Those were some of the best days of my life.
How many people can say they worked at a professional hot rod shop?
I don’t know anyone but you.
We were featured on the reality show, Rides
in 2004, building a 1932 Ford Roadster but I left the shop by then. I decided it was time to get back to something I actually knew how to do—play music.
What prompted that decision?
Enduring endless slags and laughs as the shop idiot and having to take three showers a day just to get the grease out of my hair! (laughs)
One day, Troy took me into his office and asked, “Who are you and how the hell did you end up here?” We both laughed but I knew my days of soul-slagging were over—time to get back to music.
He was letting you go—gently.
No, he and the crew would have loved kicking my can around the shop forever but I think everyone knew I was running from something—and it wasn’t a plasma cutter or a Panhard Bar. (laughs)
I haven’t a clue as to what a Panhard Bar
or a Plasma Cutter is but they sound a bit scary. (laughs)
I had attended a Dregs concert and witnessed the great Rod Morgenstein on drums, doing his thing—it brought me to tears. I thought,
“I need to start playing again. I love playing drums.” So, I basically devoted all my time to getting back into drumming. It was rough.
It took me about eight months to get back to where I was, physically and mentally in 1995. Shortly thereafter, I got the call from Thomas about Black Summer Crush. By then, I was ready.
James and I decide to break for lunch. As we drive down Ventura Blvd.
I can’t help but notice a certain sadness illuminating beneath his usually sly, demeanor.
“You know, we’re close to Freddie’s old house”. The Freddie James speaks of is the late, drum-guru Freddie Gruber —the same man Rush drummer Neil Peart came to for a “complete overhaul” with his drumming after years of holding the title as the world’s “greatest rock drummer.” Gruber has also taught and worked with Dave Weckl, Steve Smith and Vinnie Colaiuta—to name a very few.
“Freddie was not only my teacher and mentor, he was my friend. We both shared a love for cars and I got Freddie’s 1971 Pontiac Firebird back on the road after it sat for almost a decade in his driveway. I’ll never forget the day he got behind the wheel and floored it onto the 101 Freeway as we headed to Malibu for a cruise up Pacific Coast Highway. That was the last time he drove a car. It was a great day… I miss him”.
We pull into Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, “the valley’s number-one rock and roll cantina” James affirms. As we make our way in, I’m overwhelmed by the surprisingly busy atmosphere and the number of patrons sipping on slushy margaritas—a dark but cozy contrast from the unassuming exterior and nearly vacant parking lot at 1:45 in the afternoon.
A pretty and flustered hostess leads us towards a cozy booth in the back, fanning our menus towards her face. “It’s so busy today” she adds. James offers to buy her a margarita and relax for a bit. “Maybe a very big glass of tequila—I’m kidding!” she laughs.
Headed towards us a dapper, older gentleman with a great head of hair and a dark, semi-familiar face smiles as he makes his way by. “Alfredo!” James exclaims. “Jimbo!” the man fires back. They hug and then it’s clear—that face!
James introduces us—“Toni, Alfredo. Alfredo, Toni.” “I hate when he calls me that. I’m Al”.
The “Al” in question is Al Pacino, personally one of my all-time favorite actors. I muster a somewhat quivering smile and sit down. As James and Al catch up for a moment, I order a stiff Irish whisky on the rocks.
“It was pleasure to meet you”, I nod and take Al’s hand as (I’m sure) my face turns as red as the booth I’m seated at.
“Gotta go”. Al leaves us, heading for the door.
“Right. Ok, James—how and why do you know Al Pacino?”
“Evans” he responds. “I met him and Beverly (D’Angelo) at Woodland (Evans home in Beverly Hills) a few times. We spoke a lot about music, actually. I met a lot of interesting people at Woodland —it was surreal.
I’d often ask myself, “how the hell did I end up at this table?”
So what’s next for J. Harley Gilmore?
I’d love to play with Elton John—even for five minutes. Joe Satriani—great riffs and catchy melodies. Heart! God, I love Ann Wilson!. I really dig what Grace Potter is doing—you know, I just want to play with great artists who actually know how to write great songs—I know that’s a lot to ask for these days.
What advice would you give a young musician aspiring for a career in music in the days of "Blade Runner" as you say.
Well, I’m not going to be the one to say “have a back-up plan” or “go to superhero school” or anything like that. I feel that you have to go for what makes you happy but it’s tough—you have to really love what you’re doing and do it for the right reasons, Because of this ridiculous philosophy I have, I’ve turned down a lot of gigs (laughs).
Yes. I have to really love the material or I can’t do it, although I’ve done a few sessions and gigs I wasn’t absolutely in love with but not many.
Yep. Subframe Los Angeles is a day job.
Granted it’s my own company and I get to be very creative, building websites, directing and editing music videos, etc., etc. but nevertheless, it’s work.
Just a rock and roll drummer, then?
Damn right, I am.