American Authors Interview: James Shelley's Peak Performance
He was already living a pretty adventurous life before the success his band American Authors has had with their chart topper, “Best Day of My Life.” That smash hit song has impacted the life of guitarist James Adam Shelley for sure, but he’d already scaled some pretty lofty heights beforehand. Literally.
Check out the social media accounts for the young musician and you’ll see pictures of him doing some really serious mountain climbing (that's him at the peak of Mt. McKinley in the picture at left), not to mention bungee jumping from ridiculous heights, snake charming, and touring to points unknown to most of the rest of us.
On the phone Shelley sounds excited, as well he should be, and eager to continue rolling on down the highway with his bandmates on what has now been more than a year-long touring run.
The four musicians, Shelley, American Authors frontman Zac Barnett, bassist Dave Rublin, and drummer Matt Sanchez met in 2006 at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where each was studying. They formed a band together in 2007 they called the Blue Pages, recorded a couple of indie albums, and gained some experience and notoriety when they hit the road opening for EDM band Cash Cash on their 2010 Robots in High Tops tour.
At that point Shelley and company decided to make the move from Boston to Brooklyn, where they soon hooked up with multi-platinum record producer and label-exec Shep Goodman and his partner, Aaron Accetta. The pair quickly signed American Authors to a production deal with their company, Dirty Canvas. The band soon had airplay on Sirius XM’s “Alt Nation” radio with their song “Believer.”
American Authors’ big-time debut album, Oh, What A Life, dropped in March, 2014, and the band hit the road with OneRepublic. The band’s management also fully embraced exposure for the group’s music through whatever means possible, landing television commercials for Lowes in the States, Hyundai in the U.K., and a telecom company in New Zealand, along with various movie trailers, video games, and in the opening sequence on ESPN’s coverage of the 2013 World Series of Poker. It all built into a big hit, a growing following, and some really good times for Shelley and his bandmates.
In this exclusive Guitar.com interview, American Authors guitarist James Adam Shelley spoke with us about his mountain climbing, his musical upbringing and experiences in a backwoods Florida juke joint, and his days at Berklee, as a lone blues-based player in a school full of shredders and jazzbos.
Oh, we talked about touring, and songwriting, and gear, and guitars, and home studios and all that too. Be sure to check out American Authors eclectic and very cool music at the links below.
Guitar.com: Hello James, it’s Adam with Guitar.com.
James Adam Shelley: Hey how are you? My middle name is Adam...
Guitar.com: I know. I don't meet a whole lot of Adam's in my life.
Shelley: My parents call me Adam. My whole family calls me Adam.
Guitar.com: Why is that?
Shelley: I don't know. They always have.
Guitar.com: Was it a relative's name or something?
Shelley: There were just a lot of James’ in my family...
Guitar.com: Yeah, that was my next question.
Shelley: So people at school called me James, and my family called me Adam.
Guitar.com: Interesting. Cool.
Shelley: So if your middle name is James, that's gonna be really weird.
Guitar.com: It's close. It's John, actually.
Shelley: Oh, OK. (laughs).
Guitar.com: So you're in Seattle today, right?
Shelley: Yep. Beautiful, lovely Seattle.
Guitar.com: Enjoying the American Authors tour?
Shelley: Yeah. It's been so much fun. It's been a really good time. It's our first headlining tour, so it's very good to be on it.
Guitar.com: And who is opening for you tonight?
Shelley: Echosmith, and the Mowgli’s, who are both friends of ours. On one of our first tours as American Authors, we went out with the Mowglis. It's really cool to be back out with them, and to bring them out on our tour.
Guitar.com: You've been playing a lot of shows in the past year, haven't you?
Shelley: Oh my God! It's been crazy. It's more shows than I can even imagine.
Guitar.com: Well, it's an exciting time, isn't it?
Shelley: Yeah, it's awesome! It's amazing when people want to listen to your music.
Guitar.com: I see pictures of you on your Twitter and Facebook accounts doing all kinds of crazy adventure type stuff. Are you into mountain climbing?
Shelley: Yeah, I love mountain climbing. I do it as much as I can.
Guitar.com: There was a picture of you in Talkeetna. Did you climb Mt. McKinley?
Shelley: Yeah, sure did. A few years back.
Guitar.com: Wow! Interesting. I lived in Alaska for a couple years, but I did not climb Mt. McKinley.
Shelley: Where did you live?
Guitar.com: I lived in Anchorage. I could see Mt. McKinley from my living room window.
Shelley: Yeah. It's crazy when you can see Mt. McKinley from Anchorage and you realize it's still like a four-hour drive away.
Guitar.com: Yeah. It was framed perfectly in my living room picture window in the house I lived in with my dad. You could only see it once in awhile when the sky was really clear. It was 165 miles away, and there it was, big and clear right in our front window.
Shelley: That's amazing. I'm dying to go back to Alaska. I have friends who live in downtown Anchorage, and in, like, June, they take a lunch break -- they have a 45-minute lunch break -- and they walk down to the river that runs through Anchorage, they catch some salmon, there's a grill outside of their work, they cook it, and they go back to work. It sounds so awesome to me.
Guitar.com: That is cool. You've played up there I suppose.
Shelley: No. Never played there. I just went there to climb McKinley, and spent a few weeks on the Kenai Peninsula, then came back to New York.
Guitar.com: Interesting. And then I see pictures of you in New Zealand, bungee jumping off of a bridge. In Nepal. In Turkey. Are these things you're doing while you're on tour?
Shelley: Some are, some aren't. Some are just like a holiday. When I was in Turkey and Jordan and the Middle East, we had almost two weeks off. It was our first two weeks off in -- I can't even remember how long -- and I just always wanted to go to the Middle East, so I just did it.
Guitar.com: Cool. Taking advantage of a little bit of freedom.
Shelley: Yeah. And a lot of those were just from my time off. Like when I was in the Himalayas, we were not on tour at that point. That was awhile ago, like six or seven years ago.
Guitar.com: I see. So this band came together at Berklee College of Music, right?
Shelley: Yep, we're all Berklee guys.
Guitar.com: What did you study at Berklee? Obviously guitar stuff, right?
Shelley: Yeah. I went in there as a blues guitar player. And I studied songwriting. I played blues since I was a kid.
Guitar.com: How did you get turned on to the blues?
Shelley: I had two guitar teachers. I played blues, and I played classical guitar, for two different guitar teachers. I loved Hendrix, and all that stuff: Albert King, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan. All those guys. I just loved, loved, loved the blues.
I had a really great blues guitar teacher, but my dad would take me to this place called Dave's Tiki Club, which was out in the woods, literally on the border of the Florida-Georgia line. It's an old blues club. I used to go out there and watch all these old blues guys play guitar and stuff, which was really amazing. It was really a shack in the woods. An old blues club. And I used to go out there and play, and loved it.
It's closed down now, which is really sad. Dave was this big, old guy. It was really awesome. And they used to have, all sorts of crawfish festivals and blues festivals and stuff. It was really amazing.
Guitar.com: So did your parents play music?
Shelley: No, I'm the first musician in the family.
Guitar.com: But they encouraged music?
Shelley: Yeah, they loved it. They didn't want me to go into it as a profession, because it's a difficult profession to have. I used to always tell them, "I'm gonna do what Stevie Ray Vaughan did. I'm gonna go travel, and sleep in bars, and play music!" And of course that scares any parent.
Guitar.com: Yep. So how did you end up deciding to go to Berklee?
Shelley: It's just an amazing music school. I wanted to meet musicians and be in a band, and I knew in my town that it was going to be close to impossible. In a small town in North Florida it's difficult to find talented musicians. I knew if I was there, then I could meet people who were just as inspired by music as I was.
Guitar.com: And you did!
Shelley: It worked out! (laughs) I feel like I bought a lottery ticket and won!
Guitar.com: Very cool. So when you were at Berklee did you start picking up mandolin and banjo and all different instruments?
Shelley: Actually I picked up mandolin and banjo for this record. I had never played banjo or mandolin before. But I used to play a bunch of slide blues guitar, and when you play slide blues guitar it's all the open tunings and everything. And because I played classical switching to banjo felt very natural, with the fingerpicking. It was a little weird to put the banjo picks on at first, but after awhile you get to used to it. I just sat down with a metronome and learned a bunch of old bluegrass songs, and went from there.
Guitar.com: Do you use metal fingerpicks on the banjo?
Shelley: Yeah. I use metal.
Guitar.com: So now you bring all these instruments on the road with you, right?
Shelley: Yeah. Our stage looks like Guitar Center sometimes. There's so many instruments. On our stage we have synths, and keyboards, and auxiliary drums, and all sorts of instruments.
Guitar.com: What is your main guitar these days? I see pictures of you playing a black Tele.
Shelley: I play a black Tele. I usually play Tele's all around, but I have two babies: I have a 1954 Custom Shop Reissue Strat, and I have an '89 Gibson 335. I love those, but I actually don't bring those on tour with me. I keep them at home and play them.
The '54 Reissue Strat is awesome. I love it. It has that traditional Strat sound. Since I love the blues so much, when I play that it feels like I'm right in that realm.
Guitar.com: So what do you bring on tour with you?
Shelley: I bring American Tele's.
Guitar.com: A couple of them?
Guitar.com: Are you tuned standard on most songs?
Shelley: Yeah, on guitar, it's all standard. And obviously with banjo it's banjo tuning and with mandolin it's mandolin tuning.
Guitar.com: What is banjo tuning? I'm not even really aware. I play mandolin a little, but I've never played banjo. What is a banjo tuning?
Shelley: Banjo tuning is open G.
Guitar.com: And is it a five-string or a four-string?
Shelley: Five-string. I literally, last week, just got a brand new Deering banjo, which is awesome.
Guitar.com: Cool. So does it plug in?
Shelley: Yep. It's a really nice banjo, and it plugs in and sounds so good. The pickups on it are amazing.
Guitar.com: And what kind of mandolin do you have?
Shelley: I've got a Gold Tone mandolin.
Guitar.com: I see a cord coming out of it in pictures...
Guitar.com: So what do you do at home? Do you have a home studio?
Shelley: Yep. Everybody in the band, especially in this day and age. All you really need is a few things and you can set up a studio in your house. Everyone in the band has a home studio in their house to record songs and write music.
Guitar.com: What kind of studio setup do you have at home?
Shelley: I have a new Mbox. I use Logic Pro. And I have a couple of simple XM-58 microphones, and a condenser mic, Macbook Pro. And all my instruments.
Guitar.com: Do you use a plug-in, like Amplitube, for guitar sounds?
Shelley: Yeah, with Logic Pro there's a ton of them that come with it. And I have Amplitube, and bunch of other stuff.
Guitar.com: Do you do a lot of writing at home?
Shelley: We're never at home these days, but we do write on the road. We set up a studio in the back of our bus.
Guitar.com: Is that a Logic setup as well?
Shelley: Yep. We all use Logic. I would love to get into Pro Tools. I actually, originally used to use Pro Tools. But at Berklee, when you first get there, they make you learn Logic. So I got comfortable with Logic at Berklee.
Guitar.com: I'm getting ready to move -- actually today. After I get off the phone with you I'm turning off the computer and packing up. And I'm planning to upgrade my home studio in the new place. And everybody is telling me to go with Logic.
Shelley: It's a great program, especially if you're using MIDI, then Logic is great.
Guitar.com: Everyone has been telling me that if you're more interested in songwriting, you want to go with Logic, and if you're more of an engineer kind of guy you might want to go with Pro Tools.
Shelley: That sounds about right. Where do you live now?
Guitar.com: I'm in Chicago.
Shelley: Oh, I love Chicago. We'll be out there soon.
Guitar.com: You will, yes. I would love to come out to see your show.
Shelley: Yeah, you gotta see it. This tour is one of the first tours I've ever done where I'm tearin' out some guitar solos.
Guitar.com: All right! Because you have a little bit longer set as the headliner, right?
Shelley: Yeah, we play for an hour and 15 minutes, so I've got a few guitar solos, which is great.
Guitar.com: Now this band is largely based on songs and songwriting, so what kind of solos are you taking? I know you said you grew up as a blues player, but did Berklee turn you into a shredder or a jazz guitarist?
Shelley: No. I love pentatonics and I play in the pentatonics. When I was at Berklee, that was the thing. I don't really know jazz or metal, just blues, so I always felt a little bit out of place at Berklee because I was always playing the blues. But we fit it in there. You'll see. There's a couple spots where we can put in a guitar solo.
Guitar.com: So what are you using on stage as far as an amp and effects?
Shelley: Sometimes I use a Vox. Other than that I have a Fender Deville.
Guitar.com: The Vox, you mean an AC30 or something like that?
Shelley: Yeah. I love the AC30s, hand-wired, and I love the Fender DeVille. The DeVille is the amp I use the most.
Guitar.com: So is the Vox that you use an AC30?
Shelley: Yeah. Sometimes I use the AC30s that are hand-wired.
Guitar.com: Why do you switch?
Shelley: It just depends. I don't know. I'd say 90 percent of the time I use the Fender DeVille.
Guitar.com: And then what are you using for effects?
Shelley: I have a huge pedalboard. It would take me about 30 minutes to go through all the pedals. Initially I didn't know that much about pedals. I liked to play guitar, turn a little bit of distortion on and play. But now, because we're touring, and we used so many different sounds on the record, over the last year I built a big pedal board.
I have compressors, delays, multiple different kinds of distortion. I use octave pedals a lot, I really like those. A bunch of stuff.
Guitar.com: You covered a lot of ground, sonically, on the album. So you've got to re-create a lot of different types of sounds.
Shelley: Yeah, exactly. I built my pedalboard around that. There's two pedals on there I only use for one song.
Guitar.com: So when you guys write -- I hear so many different influences on this album, and I read that you guys all sort of come to the table with ideas equally, and so you never know where it might go. You've all got eclectic listening tastes, right?
Shelley: Yeah. Everybody writes. Sometimes, like, Matt -- our drummer -- will come to the table with a guitar part. And I'm happy to play his guitar part. And sometimes I'll come to the table with a drum part. Or sometimes Matt or I will come with a melody or lyrics and say, "Here's my song." And sometimes Zac will have drum and guitar parts. And we'll play each other's stuff.
We've been writing together for seven and a half years, and we all respect each other's musicianship. It's a really special thing to have. Because we all play each other's instruments, and we're all songwriters, so it's really special to have that.
If Zac or Matt come up with a cool guitar part, I'm like, "Great, I'll play that. I love that!" Or if I have a melody, or lyrics, or drum parts, they're all like, "I love that!" It's a really special vibe to have that with these guys.
Guitar.com: That is very cool, and to be open to each others' ideas like that is very special.
Shelley: Yeah, and it keeps things creative too. I personally feel like music is meant to be shared with people. It's so much fun that way. And other musicians and other people you write with will think of ideas you could have never thought of. Everyone's brain works a different way, and they come from different backgrounds, so it's really cool to see that.
Guitar.com: So you listened to a lot of blues. What did Zac listen to?
Shelley: He is always on to whatever the newest music is. He's always finding new bands. When I want to find new music, I go, "Zac, what should I listen to?" Matt majored in composition, so he's an amazing musician. He's a great piano player, good singer, great drummer. He brings a really cool complexity. To watch his brain work, when he thinks about how music should be written is always interesting.
Guitar.com: And what about Dave?
Shelley: Dave listens to everything. He's really into DJs and electronic music.
Guitar.com: So he brings a little bit of that touch.
Guitar.com: That's cool. So you're the one who kind of keeps it a little bit grounded in rootsy music then.
Guitar.com: And you said Matt plays piano too?
Shelley: Yeah, he's a really great piano player. We all play piano, but not like he plays piano.
Guitar.com: And does everybody in the band play some guitar too?
Shelley: Yeah, everybody plays guitar, everybody sings, everybody plays drums a little.
Guitar.com: That probably helps for everybody to be more open-minded, since you're not just locked into your one instrument.
Shelley: Yeah. Sometimes in rehearsals or sound checks we'll all switch instruments to play on stage. When we have time.
Guitar.com: Do you play any acoustic guitar on stage?
Shelley: No acoustic guitar on stage. I used to play acoustic guitar on stage, but ever since I started playing banjo and mandolin came along, my acoustic guitar sits at home. When I'm writing on the back of the bus I use a little acoustic Taylor we have.
Guitar.com: Is it one of their small-bodied travel guitars?
Shelley: Yeah, it's one of their small travel guitars.
Guitar.com: I see a picture of Zac playing acoustic. Does he play acoustic guitar during your shows?
Shelley: Yeah, he plays acoustic guitar on stage.
Guitar.com: What kind of guitar?
Guitar.com: And so what do you work on when you have a little time to yourself?
Shelley: I play acoustic guitar and piano and just write songs. We have a hired musician, his name is ZT. His name is Zachary, but he just goes by ZT. He's been one of our best friends for a long time, so as soon we could bring on another musician we brought him on. He plays a few instruments. And he and I have big epic blues jams. He's a great guitar player from Atlanta, Georgia. We jam on the bus. So when I'm not jamming or practicing, I write songs.
Guitar.com: Well hey man, congrats on the success of this album, and many more. And thank you for your time today.
Shelley: Thank you.
Guitar.com is a free website, with an active and friendly forum community, lesson videos, guitar news, and the most in-depth interviews in the guitar industry. Join the community: Register for a free account today and post some pics of your guitars, videos of your band, or whatever you think other guitarists will find interesting.