James Irvin began his music career as a teenager, playing drums for local bands as well as playing solo shows in various venues. In 2004 he joined Microwave Dave & the Nukes as their drummer and began to tour throughout the states, performing over 150 shows a year. Irvin also performed on two of Microwave Dave & the Nukes’ albums, Down South Nukin’ (2006) and Last Time I Saw You (2011).
In 2011 James became a part-time member of piano-great Jason D. Williams’ touring band. Sometimes as the drummer and sometimes as the guitarist, Irvin has performed with Williams all across the United States in various venues as well as TV and radio spots.
In 2007 Irvin released his eponymous debut solo album on Main Street Music. The album featured all original music and James performing all of the parts by himself. The album received great reviews, airplay on regional radio and XM Satellite Radio.
His follow up solo album Not Safe From Anything is set for release in 2016 on 10 Ton Records. It was produced by Jeremy Stephens at Clearwave Studio in Decatur, Alabama. The album has a strong late 70’s feel to it, reminiscent of bands such as The Cars and Elvis Costello & the Attractions.
Much like his first record, NSFA features Irvin performing all of the parts and with the exception of Nick Lowe’s Heart Of The City, the album is all original.
Irvin was 22 years-old when he got the gig playing drums for Huntsville group Microwave Dave & The Nukes, in September 2004.
"I grew up in the middle of nowhere," Irvin says now. "Went to a tiny school. So to go from that to getting to go all over the place it was really, really exciting. Everywhere I've been, everybody I've ever met has been because of the band. I know a ton of great people in every class there is, in every field you can imagine and it's all been because of that."
Irvin was fortunate to get The Nukes gig. Since being founded in 1989 by ace guitarist and bandleader “Microwave” Dave Gallaher, the band shined in Alabama’s vibrant ’90 blues scene, toured the world and released critically lauded albums. Once they even opened for heavy-metal legends Iron Maiden. The Nukes are the most iconic local Huntsville band ever, hands down. But The Nukes were just as fortunate to land Irvin. Nukes bassist Rick Godfrey says, “He’s really talented and there’s a lot of big-time bands that would love to have him.”
Irvin’s drumming style is multi-faceted. He’s technical, tasty, disciplined, flashy, youthful, classic. The first time Southern rock legend Johnny Sandlin, who recorded and produced the Allman Brothers and produced The Nukes, heard Irvin drum with The Nukes, Sandlin told Gallaher, " Well, you finally found someone who will keep up with you.” Gallaher says, “James brought punk energy, speed and endurance. James could go right with me when I took off. Now I have to work to keep up with him.”
When he was 3-years-old or so, Irvin heard “Up Around The Bend” by swamp rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival, on the radio. “I then became obsessed with CCR,” Irvin recalls. Within a year or so, he had CCR’s entire discography. Yep, at age 4. Irvin idolized Creedence frontman John Fogerty and would build a mic stand out of kids’ blocks and pretend his dad’s mandolin was Fogerty’s Rickenbacker guitar.
At a young age, he also had a snare drum to play. The first time Irvin ever played music in public was accompany his parents on snare, when they sang at the church the family went to. For years, Irvin wanted a full drumkit. He and his dad would frequently visit pawn shops looking for the right deal. Finally, for his eighth birthday, Irvin's dad showed up with a small kit, a brand called Adam. His son was beyond thrilled. "We set it up in my bedroom," Irvin says. "We lived in a very small trailer so it was very cool of him to let me have a drum set. He would jam with me. It was really cool."
Irvin's early performances included performing Nirvana and Sid Vicious tunes at his school's fifth and sixth grade talent shows. "After that, I think I was about 14, my dad would get calls to play guitar in country bands at some of the dry dances and stuff like that in the area," Irvin says. "They'd have him bring me too because they needed a drummer. I started playing out regularly, like that."
Irvin’s drumming can be heard on Microwave Dave & The Nukes albums like “Down South Nukin'” and essential Huntsville disc “Last Time I Saw You.” At live gigs he stands out on songs like ZZ Top-ish raver “All Nite Boogie.”
A couple years into playing with The Nukes, Irvin evolved into more of a visual performer, Gallaher says: “He began to project his personality out from behind the kit, mixing stick-stunts and gestures in with his playing. I told him that as long as I can’t hear those things - extra space left in a beat to allow a movement, rushing or dragging, or playing that’s fun to watch but flat to listen to - it was okay with me.”
Even before the flash, Irvin was a very watchable drummer. Gallaher recalls the first time Irvin played with The Nukes at their regular gig at La Fonda Mexicana in Florence, where Jason Isbell performed weekly before Isbell blossomed into a Grammy winning Americana star. “People grabbed me on the first break, saying ‘He’s a star,’” Gallaher recalls. "In the second set during his feature solo, I sat at the front table and the people were saying ‘James needs to be on ‘American Idol’!’”
Tall and lean with hair so spectacular it could make John Stamos jealous, Irvin looks the part. Particularly when Irvin’s doing mid-song drumstick twirls, a la Tommy Lee. But there’s soul behind the showmanship. Gallaher and Godfrey are each about twice Irvin’s age. Yet not only have they been an excellent fit on the bandstand, they’re personally compatible enough to pleasantly share nightlong van rides to the next gig.
After Irvin joined the band, Gallaher and Godfrey hipped him to obscure Ry Cooder and Little Feat recordings. And Irvin heightened their interest in groups like The Police. Personally, Irvin learned a lot from his elder bandmates.
"I think the majority of my growing up has been in the band," Irvin says. "Dave and Rick are both just really good dudes. You can always count on them and just completely honest, completely cool. There's never been an argument in the band. If there's something that needs to be discussed it gets discussed and we move on. There's no egos there. I think I learned that more than anything. Because they're both such total badasses and they treat everybody no matter who it is really kind. No matter what the circumstances are like."
Before Irvin joined The Nukes, Gallaher heard him before he saw him, at a Sunday blues jam at now-shuttered Kaffeeklatsch Bar. “Besides excellent timing and really good grooves,” Gallaher says, “he accompanied each player and singer differently, creating frames for their music and putting in decorations that added without distracting. When I looked up, I was amazed that someone of his youth was playing with that much empathy.”
Irvin recalls his first show with The Nukes being really intimidating. "We did the load in," Irvin says, "and I was like, 'Wow these guys have a bunch gear.' Then all the motorcycles showed up and we had a really big crowd and I was still trying to remember all the songs. I was so nervous about screwing up."
Gallaher himself is a fan of Irvin’s songwriting and fretwork. He even says, “James can play stuff on guitar that I can’t,” quite a statement when you consider Gallaher is an Allmans-esque conjurer. With new tracks on the way cut with Clearwave Studios recordist Jeremy Stephens, including radio-ready cut “Why Waste My Time,” Irvin hopes to grow his career. “I’m not realistically looking at being at the top of the food chain,” he says. “But I’d love to have my band go around the country and have fans in different places and make records.”
Over the years, Irvin's been a member of additional local groups, like sideburns-sharp rockabilly group The Crackerjacks. When Dave Anderson, the Atlanta Rhythm Section/Brother Cane guitarist who's one of the most talented rock musician Huntsville ever produced, needed a drummer for his highly anticipated debut solo album, he called on Irvin.
"First and foremost," Anderson says, "James is an incredible musician, and further than that, anything he does he not only has charisma but it's very contagious energy. It's contagious for the people around him, whether if we're just hanging out before a gig or rehearsing or during the gig. It's just contagious positive energy."
Irvin's second ever gig with The Nukes was a road trip to Myrle Beach, S.C. for another biker event. Motorcycles had been very good to The Nukes. The band's epic, multiple-shows-a-day treks to Daytona, Fla.'s Bike Week have cornerstone gigs for the band for years. Irvin recalls the group's old Thanksgiving Throwdown shows at the 'Klatsch as another fave Nukes gig.
The Nukes’ performances in schools for kids are also special to Irvin. Five years ago, the Microwave Dave Music Education Foundation was launched to help bring more musical performances to area schools. But the band’s brought music to youths long before that. Performing specials sets for elementary school students at Huntsville’s Panoply Festival of the Arts, and at in-school assemblies.
"My favorite thing about it is," Irvin says," I think how cynical I was in sixth grade and I see kids now I can relate to at the age who are like, 'Who the hell are these guys?' And then you get to watch their mind changes and they're bouncing and smiling and stuff. It's awesome."
In 2015, the Microwave Dave Foundation began holding Microwave Dave Day. The all day festival immediately became a highlight of Huntsville's musical year. The lineups are stocked with an array of all-local acts. Microwave Dave Days build up to an all-star jam, putting some of Huntsville's most talented and beloved musicians together to perform - a rare treat since most of those musos are usually scattered around town playing separate gigs.
Microwave Dave Day began as a well deserved celebration of Gallaher, his music, his life and the positivity he brings to the community. But it’s turned into a celebration of Huntsville music and musicians who make it. The event attracts out fans who regularly attend local, shows but since MDD is held on a Sunday afternoon, also folks who wouldn’t be able to make it to a bar gig. It’s a special day here.
This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Microwave Dave Day is being held virtually via YouTube. Set for 3 p.m. June 28, the livestream will feature sets by: R&B singer Victoria Jones; Mike Roberts and Chad Reeves from classic rockers 5ive O’Clock Charlie; roots combo Cletus Puckett Experience; funk-pop talent Lamont Landers and keyboardist Kevin Canada; bluesy duo Chris Simmons and Jesse Suttle; and a headline set by Microwave Dave & The Nukes.
The performances are being taped at Tangled String Studios. An all-star jam will once again close the show. The Nukes set will run 45 minutes, and support sets about 20 minutes each. Microwave Dave Day is a fundraiser for Microwave Dave Music Education Foundation. Normally a $10 donation gets you in the door to show, which the past few years was held downtown on Washington Street. This year, fans can donate online as they tune in.
“There will definitely be something missed from seeing everyone there, but the show must go on,” Irvin says. “And I’m glad we’re doing something.” After the pandemic shut down months of gigs beginning mid-March, a Nukes livestream from local guitar store the Fret Shop drew around 7,000 viewers. “It felt weird but it felt good,” Irvin says of keeping local music going via livestreaming. “And it’s like Dave said, you can feel people watching.” More info at facebook.com/microwavedaveday.
MO: Thanks James, let’s do this.
MO: You’re Huntsville by way of Arab? Is that where you grew up?
JI: “I grew up just outside of Arab in a little community called Center Grove. I’ve lived in Huntsville now for 8 years.”
MO: What’s your earliest musical memory?
JI: “That’s hard to say because both of my parents are musicians and music was constantly around me. The first thing I remember that really hit me was hearing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around The Bend” when I was 3. After that, I took an old snare drum out of the closet and spent most of my time sitting on my bed playing along to CCR cassettes. I was obsessed with them. I had their entire catalogue by age 5, including John Fogerty’s solo albums.”
MO: Was there an album or a concert that pushed you to becoming a professional musician?
JI: “I knew by age 3 that I wanted to be a musician when I grew up. I wanted to be on stage. I wanted to travel. I wanted to be a drummer because I loved drums but I also wanted to be John Fogerty, playing guitar and singing into a microphone. I will say though, seeing Foo Fighters in 1997 when I was 15 really pushed me into trying to make it happen.”
MO: Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins are monsters on the kit, are they part of your drumming influences?
JI: “Dave Grohl has always been a huge influence on me. His drumming especially. Everything he did with Nirvana, then his drumming on the first two Foo records blew my mind… then QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf album…that was just incredible. When I saw Foo Fighters on the Colour and the Shape tour Taylor Hawkins had just joined the band. They opened the show with Dave and Taylor both on drums. They each had a set of Orange County Drums set-up side by side…it was just overwhelming. I love Taylor Hawkins drumming as well, he’s definitely an influence on me. In 2009 I got to see Dave Grohl on the kit for an entire show at a Them Crooked Vultures concert. That was a once in a lifetime kinda thing that I will always remember. Other than those two beasts of drumming excellence, Chad Sexton from 311 is just about as important to me.”
MO: What was your first paying gig?
JI: “I believe my first paying gig would be playing drums in a country band at a “dry dance” in Morgan County, AL. The band called my Dad to play guitar for them, then they asked if he could “bring his boy along” because they needed a drummer too.”
MO: Based on your albums and solo shows you are a multi-instrumentalist, but you’re best known for drums. Did you start out on the kit?
JI: “I started out with a snare drum at age 3, shortly after, my mom bought me a harmony acoustic guitar at a yard sale.
I didn’t really have the patience to learn the chords yet, so I would just strum. Drums came natural to me though, and on my eighth birthday, my dad came home from work with a small red drum kit.”
MO: Your new record has a definite late 80’s early 90’s power pop feel to it. I almost hear some Replacements in there. Did you set out to record a specific sounding record or is that naturally your sound?
JI: “When I write a song…usually part of it just comes to me. I’ll hear it in my head, the entire production, but it will only be a section of the song. I always try to match what I hear in my head in the studio. Sometimes though I just start putting down the tracks and let it become its own entity. I think when someone “tries” to make a specific sounding record, they will fail or at least never be satisfied. You have to keep an open mind when recording and let things become what they are. Embrace the accidents. Let your influences shine through but never get caught up in replicating. Most importantly, never follow production trends. Believe me, 10 years from now people will be making fun of Jack White and the Black Keys for purposefully making bad sounding records.”
MO: So does that mean you’re not on the vintage/analog kick like a lot of guys?
JI: “I’ve always been analog and vintage long before that was the cool thing to do. In the 90’s, analog gear was cheap because everyone was going digital. My dad and me have a huge collection of old Japanese guitars that we either paid $30 dollars for or pulled out of dumpsters. My new album is on 2 inch tape, mainly because my producer wanted to practice using his tape machine. I have nothing against digital though, it’s a great useful tool… I just believe that the technology gets abused. Digital, analog…it doesn’t matter. A good record is a good record. This whole “analog is best, digital sucks” thing is bogus. One of my favorite records is Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. It is digital… early digital and brilliant.
MO: You’ve been with Microwave Dave & the Nukes for 10 years now. How did you hook up with Dave?
JI: “I had been playing solo gigs around Huntsville since I was 17, but never really broke into the local scene. I really didn’t want to work a day job anymore, so after being fired from a factory job I decided to get to town and start making my presence known as a drummer! I noticed there was an overwhelming amount of incredible guitar players but not many drummers. I secured my first two weekly drumming gigs, one of which was as the house drummer at the legendary Kaffeeklatsch Sunday Night Blues Jam. It was there Dave heard me play and offered me the job as a Nuke.”
MO: Dave Gallaher is an institution in the Huntsville area, is there anything about working with him that we don’t know, that you’d like to share? He has to be a walking encyclopedia.
JI: “He is full of knowledge, and not just about music. Dave is a wonderful human being. He never settles and always strives to be better at what he does. He’s in it for the love. He’s in it to spread the joy and lift spirits. He’s the real fucking deal! Anytime I see some big time rockstar acting like a big time rockstar I always think to myself that they need to spend a month working with Dave and see what it’s really about. He works hard and constantly…and for all of the right reasons.”
MO: Dave doesn’t use setlists, as a Nuke how do you stay on your toes and has he ever thrown you a curveball?
JI: “Even though we don’t use setlists, we are able to read each other’s minds. I really can’t believe it sometimes myself when I think about it. I would say 80% of the time we know what Dave is going to play next. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve played thousands of shows together. But yes, every once in a while I get thrown a curve ball…usually when he pulls something out from the deep Nukes’ catalog. It might be something they recorded or performed long before I was in the band, or some kind of jam Dave comes up with.”
MO: I saw you recently recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, who were you recording with and how did that come about?
JI: “Actually, I was playing with Jason D Williams. We were filming something for PBS called Sun Studio Sessions. Our performance will air during the next season of the show which starts in January.”
MO: You also play Rockabilly, so which is it: power pop, rockabilly or blues? Is it possible to inhabit all 3?
JI: “Hell yeah! They all came from the same place. Buddy Holly invented power pop 20 years before it was power pop!
In a way, I’m thankful when people have trouble categorizing my style. My music is what it is. I’ve got a ton of influences in a lot of different genres. I don’t try to sound like anyone. I’m a product of what I’ve listened to.”
MO: I see you playing somewhere almost every night, what do you think about the North Alabama music scene?
JI: “It’s kind of sad, tons of great musicians and great bands but unfortunately, a lot of music venues are closing. I’m so lucky and fortunate and grateful to play music for a living so maybe I don’t have the right to bitch, but I will. I feel like I’m living in a disco era. A club with a “DJ” (which is not really an accurate term because they all use laptops and don’t spin records) will be full of people dancing to “shawty in da club” music. Then you get these tired-ass butt-rock bands like Saliva, Shinedown or Saving Abel and the county folk will come out and gladly pay 20 dollars to see them. Then you have some of the awesome guys I know, playing great, fresh music to a handful of people in a bar looking at their phone. You hit a nerve there, Jerry.”
MO: I see that! The Birmingham scene is experiencing a renaissance, maybe with your help the Huntsville scene will do likewise, are there any artists up there we need to know about?
JI: “You know, Huntsville has a bunch of great musicians. Really, pro level, outstanding musicians. It’s rare though that I see or hear any bands that are doing something different. You have your established bands around here then when something new happens it’s always just following a dated trend. Boho girls with ukuleles and banjos, beards playing roots music, indie/punk bands sounding just like indie/punk bands from the 90’s. Where is our well-polished rock band? Is there even a market for a well-polished rock band around here anymore? Give me a band like The Cars or Cheap Trick that play catchy rock/pop who take their talents and use them for an incredible rock band rather than some sleepy jazz! One band from Huntsville that completely gave me a musical boner were THE 911 REPORTERS…but I think they have since moved on to another town.
MO: Thanks for your time James.
James Irvin’s new record, Not Safe From Anything comes out this fall and can be purchased at any of his live shows or online at 10 ton records.