James Keenan may seem like a calm, laidback guy on the outside, but brimming under that friendly exterior is a whole lot of passion for the things he loves most. The 29-year-old is a graphic designer by day and a musician and writer by night, extending his professional talents into his musical world through crafting colorful and fun music videos for his band A Life of Science. He’s not just good with a computer, though — Keenan also wrote comic books for the band, too, and came up with the treatment for the band’s novel, The Apneist. He also serves as art director for local label Sundawg Records and deejays as Ex-Ghost, but just because he’s busy doesn’t mean he doesn’t take a breather at Shady’s every once in awhile for a beer. See Keenan play with A Life of Science Saturday, September 29 at Martini Ranch, and keep reading to watch him list five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’ve lived here my entire life. I was born in Phoenix at St. Joe’s and raised in Phoenix and went to Shadow Mountain High School. The only time I left Phoenix was for college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
You now do design work for Spark Design, a local agency. What are your favorite things to do design-wise?
My favorite part is doing After Effects animation. I’m already doing what I love, and I guess to take it further would be to own my own agency one day. My ultimate goal is to put out my own multimedia creations because I love music and creating music. I also love creating digital art of all kinds, and I like writing stories, hence the whole story concept for our band A Life of Science. I love reading and writing and editing, hence helping produce the novel with our drummer. I love writing the comic books — the second comic book is coming out soon. We just received the artwork for it, so it’ll probably come out in the spring, and we’ll hit up some comic book conventions for it. I just love to dip my hand in all kinds of honey pots, so to speak.
What fuels your creativity?
I guess I’m just a right-brained person. I grew up as an illustrator and working with different mediums. I had from a very young age a great talent at drawing and using my hands and stuff like that, which is kind of funny because once I switched over to graphic art 10 years ago, I kind of haven’t produced art with just drawing or sketching like that anymore. I kind of miss it to some degree and wonder if I could still even do it, but I guess that’s the digital age for you. I’m manipulating a lot of elements in certain ways, but it just feels so different doing it digitally. I just remember back in the day, I would sketch all the time, and it’s interesting to see what comes out of a person that way.
When did your interest in music first start?
In 7th grade. I started my first band who would actually, 12 years later, become the first formation of A Life of Science. Zach played drums, and JD played guitar and piano, so it just made sense for me to pick up bass guitar, and that’s how I got started with that. It was a great learning experience to start off immediately playing with other musicians in a rock band from an early age. We did covers back then because we were all just learning our instruments, and it was a foundation for the musician I would one day become. I started singing because no one else in the band would do it, and I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll give it a try.’ I didn’t take it very seriously until after college, when I started A Life of Science. It was the same situation where nobody really wanted to take lead vocals, so I dove right in and started getting lessons and learning to use my voice as an instrument. That’s definitely been the most challenging and fun instrument to date, with the exception of doing electronic music on the computer.
Where did you take lessons?
Originally, Matty Steinkamp with Sundawg Records gave me lessons because he grew up in barbershop music with his whole family, from his grandpa to his father. His father is an internationally renowned coach and vocalist, so Matty was my initial instructor, and once I kind of graduated from him, he took me to his whole family’s instructor at VOICES Studio in Scottsdale with Satyam Patel. It’s difficult to do 30 minutes with him because he pushes you to your limit and immediately targets your weaknesses. Within 30 seconds of meeting him, he had me go to my breaking point on the scale and immediately targeted my bridges and right where I started sucking. That’s what a great lesson is, just getting thrown straight into the fire. He pushes you, and the best part about it is that he records the whole lesson, so when you leave, you have a CD of all the scales and exercises designed to improve your weaknesses, so every week I was getting better and better and seeing results. I think it’s fantastic to learn your voice, your instrument. Even if you can sing naturally, there are bad habits we’ve all picked up over the years, and there are things you can learn you’d never know otherwise. I highly recommend vocal lessons.
Tell me about Ex-Ghost and how that came about.
In A Life of Science, I became the programmer and sequencer as far as doing all the electronic aspects for A Life of Science, and that led me to an intense love of electronic music of all kinds, which led to a love of electronic dance music, which is a huge part of our culture now. I’ve really gotten to study it and learn it and love it and understand it, so deejaying was kind of a national progression.
Who are your favorite EDM artists?
I love Zedd, and I love Dirtyloud. I love Kill the Noise, Darth & Vader. I love the popular ones, too, the Skrillex‘s and deadmau5‘s, but in order to be, in my opinion, a good DJ, you have to hear everything and pick out not only the widely popular ones but the gems you discover along the way. I love house stuff like Kaskade and David Guetta and that anthemic dance party they create — you can’t help but dance and feel happy from that type of music — but I also love the grittier stuff. It started a couple years back when dubstep made its way on the scene, but the sub-genres that came out of that, electro and complextro, are great. Complextro is actually my favorite because it’s 128 beats per minute just like house music, except it’s got that gritty dubstep bass, and it’s super-chopped and skewed to where it’s extremely complex, so it’s like complex electro.
That sort of sounds like A Life of Science’s music.
Absolutely, it does, and the more and more I develop as an EDM artist, the better and better the electronic side of A Life of Science is going to get, so it’s a win-win. Plus, I love dancing and feeling good and partying, so I really gravitate towards that kind of music.
How did the name Ex-Ghost come about?
Ex-Ghost is actually the name of one of the songs on an upcoming A Life of Science album. I thought it sounded cool. It’s almost as if a spirit has finally found its home. The first mix tape I put out as Ex-Ghost, I found some Casper the Friendly Ghost audio, and for my DJ sets, I have a trigger pad that is all loaded up with sounds from like haunted houses, ghouls and ghosts and maniac laughing I can trigger during my set at different intervals, just because I thought it’d be fun and campy and kind of run with the theme.
Camp abounds at comic book conventions, which A Life of Science performs at. What got you interested in performing at those?
Growing up, I never really got into comic books or any of that stuff. I’ve always loved sci-fi movies, but for some reason when we started writing for A Life of Science, the whole robot apocalypse theme really appealed to all of us, and that’s what we decided to go off of. That kind of brought us to comic books and to comic-con’s. It had a lot to do with who we thought the best audience for this project would be, and that’s comic book type people. We ended up learning a lot about the culture along the way. We’ve met so many great people, and we’ve done comic-con’s as far as New York and Baltimore.
How’s the music at comic-con’s?
One thing we’ve noticed is that they’re trying to incorporate music into after-parties and stuff like that, but there’s not a whole lot of music-driven events at comic-con’s, which is something we’re trying to change. When we contact comic-con’s, that’s what we pitch. We try to give away our musical performance for booth space, and that’s our whole approach, is to try to bring music to comic-con’s, because it’s not like comic-con people only like comic books. In this day and age, it’s not enough to just do comic books or just do one thing. People are looking for an experience, and they’re looking for a big series to get lost in. That’s why something like Star Wars has been so popular in comic-con’s, because you can watch Star Wars, you can read about Star Wars, there are comic books for it, there are video games for it. You can dive so far into this world that you’re not even a part of this world anymore.
You’re making a movie in conjunction with A Life of Science’s themes. What’s the status of the film?
The screenplay is done, we’re just shopping it. It was written by a local named Levi Chambers, who is the perfect fit because he’s a commercial-minded screenwriter, and we want this to be a huge blockbuster. We don’t want this to be a little indie film — we feel like this is such a big project, a blockbuster is the only way to go. To do something as crazy as a three-movie, robot apocalypse story isn’t going to be good unless you have top dollar CGI and the right directors and the right producers and the right everything behind it. We’re going to shop it to every contact we have in Hollywood and reach out to our network as far as we possibly can.
Why do a movie trilogy versus one film?
We made a three album trilogy, and it’s all linear. The first album was kind of created on the fly — I was writing the lyrics as I was writing the story and kind of doing it all at once, whereas with the next albums, I had the story treatments done before I even wrote a single lyric, so I was able to organize it exactly as I wanted it on the second and third albums. But really, it’s all about this story. Especially with the second and third, I wrote them with Hollywood in mind, the scenes that I wrote, I tried my best to just close my eyes and picture a scene from a major blockbuster.
We’re doing your interview at Shady’s. Why’d you choose here?
It’s the closest bar to my house, and we’ve just grown to love it because it’s got a great staff. It’s a small, dive-y place with a pool table and a jukebox, and it’s always relaxed. It’s almost like a safe haven — it’s not a super-loud club, it’s just a simple, calm, laidback bar, and I like it.
What’s your favorite venue to play in your Valley?
As far as playing big shows, which is an occasional thing, Marquee Theatre. It’s one of the best and biggest places we could ever play in Arizona. We opened up for Mindless Self Indulgence a few years back, and we got to play for a huge crowd with a massive stage and great sound system. Plus, it’s in Tempe, so it’s still kind of a college music venue. As far as playing fun local shows, I love playing Yucca Tap Room and Long Wong’s, places that are within the Tempe music scene where people can go for free and see and enjoy live music and be a part of the community and get to know each other. I think that’s something special that a lot of people don’t know is going on in Tempe.
How would you characterize the Valley’s music scene?
Growing, and it’s very tight-knit. Now that A Life of Science is in its 6th year, I would say it’s 100 percent better than it was 6 years ago. A lot of bands have grown together. You’ll have bands like Future Loves Past, Dry River Yacht Club and Doctor Bones that are always playing shows together and bringing fans out and making friends and new fans, and it’s exactly what the music scene should be. I’m so proud to be a part of it and see where it’s going. The Tempe scene, more than any scene in Arizona, is really starting to make its mark on the Southwest. That’s where the students are at.
What are your favorite bands?
Doctor Bones and Future Loves Past because they’re doing what they’re doing really well, and they put on good, high-energy performances. As far as bands I like to see when they come to town, believe it or not, I love post-hardcore music, especially electronic post-hardcore, like Woe, Is Me and I See Stars and some of those bands that are a mishmash of super-heavy breakdowns and super-bubblegum choruses.
Does your job as a graphic designer help you when creating material for A LIfe of Science?
Absolutely. Day in and day out at work, I’ll be creating projects where I’m forced to do animation and work in After Effects and Premiere, as well as create graphics for various things, and that definitely plays a part in everything I do with A Life of Science. The recent lyric video I did for “Welcome Lights” was all done with After Effects skills I picked up while working. Being able to see what other musicians are doing out there online internationally and being able to replicate those techniques because of the hands-on knowledge I’ve had in my work has been a huge asset. I’m very grateful I can apply my skills I’m getting paid for to my music.