James Buckley very well may be the hardest-working musician in the Twin Cities. This month alone, the bassist has 16 shows scheduled with seven bands. Before we flip our calendars, he will perform with groups that represent nearly the full spectrum of modern music. Tonight, the James Buckley Trio will indulge Barbette with a jazz set, as Buckley will in a more experimental fashion when he plays with Bryan Nichols and Chris Hepola Friday at the Dakota. Saturday, he joins new-wavers Mystery Palace at the Kitty Cat Klub. Monday it is mellow electronica when he plays with Chris Thomson and Pete Henig at Barbette. And he rounds out the month with shows by ambient enthusiasts Padhandlers, folk group the Pines, and glitchy noodlers FoodTeam.
Buckley is a man in demand. It's difficult to take in a local show or buy a Twin Cities record without his being involved. Yet he's not the most noticeable figure in local music. Perhaps it's because we are all too busy staring at singers to notice the guy in the back keeping the songs from falling apart. Or perhaps this is just the way Buckley likes it. He shies away from the glitz and opts to be the rhythmic brains and brawn.
Even without hogging the spotlight, Buckley is an integral facet of the scene. When he moved to Minneapolis at 20, he says he planned to focus on jazz. But when he realized the strong rock roots of our scene, he couldn't keep away from the genre. He has played on 12 albums released this year—"so far"—his personal highlight being his trio's Knowing and Losing, released in May. As for how many bands he is currently involved with, he says, "I don't know. Ten or 15 or something."
His popularity is linked to an approach stricter than that of most players on the club circuit. Music is his life. With no day job, he is wholly devoted to it. He recently subbed for the bass player of local country group the Dollys, and learned 44 country standards to prepare for the one-time gig. Musicians know that when they convince Buckley to join their projects, they won't get run-of-the-mill bass playing.
"Every group that I'm a part of, I always try to twist the standard to make it different," he says, going on to note his frequent onstage improvisation. Likewise, standard rock and pop groups fail to lure his attention; the only Buckley band to wield a guitar is the Pines.
He doesn't show signs of slowing down any time soon. A new Mystery Palace full-length is already written and will be released when the band finds the right label. Buckley's main focus, his trio, has a 7-inch in the works to be released by the end of the year.
"I feel like I have to spend every dime I make doing that stuff, though—trying to juice my band up and put more records out," he says.
Yet his fierce dedication to his art nearly stalled the launch of his career. As a teenager, Buckley's incessant practicing led to carpal tunnel. "When I was a kid I would put in 10 hours a day on my bass. And I wasn't done growing, and my wrists got all screwed up. I couldn't hold a pencil for a couple months." He has since scaled back to practicing five hours a day, sometimes more.
And after a childhood and adulthood racking up musical heroes from the likes of everyone from Bach to Bill Evans, Buckley has reached the point in his career where his influence is starting to rub off. That's the most rewarding part of playing, he says.
"People come up to you and say, 'You inspired me to do this.' You don't expect people to literally be influenced by you," he says. "That's like chocolate cake at the end."
The JAMES BUCKLEY TRIO plays a late-night set on FRIDAY, AUGUST 14, at the DAKOTA JAZZ CLUB; 612.332.1010