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Liner Notes: Topher James

Chris Shaw is the first to admit there isn’t a damn thing about soul music and video games that go together. But, hey, if a veteran multi-instrumentalist can reinvent himself as a shiny-suit-wearing, falsetto-crooning soul singer, than why not make yourself into a video game character while you’re at it? This month Topher James and [...]
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Chris Shaw is the first to admit there isn’t a damn thing about soul music and video games that go together.

But, hey, if a veteran multi-instrumentalist can reinvent himself as a shiny-suit-wearing, falsetto-crooning soul singer, than why not make yourself into a video game character while you’re at it?

This month Topher James and the Biscuit Brigade, the band and persona crafted as a side note to his multiple bands around town, will release its second record (3.10 @ Strongwater)—this time with an accompanying 8-bit soundtrack and video game. Before you follow Video Game James around the city as he attempts to get musicians together for a gig, get the low-down on him here:

“Blue-Eyed” soul, so to speak, has been in renaissance for awhile. What about it speaks to you?

I love Allen Stone, Mayer Hawthorne, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and many more of what I consider “blue-eyed” soul musicians. These guys pay homage to black music and you know that they truly listen to that music. Also, when you do a little history or see the musicians they surround themselves with it’s typically pretty obvious. It’s about respect and love for the art at the end of the day. If you’re hopping on the soul music trend (or anything really) because it’s popular, I feel like you can usually tell, and it’s just never as good.

Do you ever have any reservations about being a part of a movement like that? Such reverence for musical genre that has been associated with the black community?

There’s always a thin line between parody and paying homage and I try to really study the music, soak it in, and then spit it back out through my own unique lens. My friend Talisha Holmes opened my eyes and ears to a lot of Columbus musicians and venues I wasn’t familiar with before. I would go to these open jams with her and sometimes I’d be the one white dude in there. Mainly I just watched and listened but sometimes I’d play violin or get the courage to get up and sing, and I learned a ton. It was eye-opening being the minority and I truly was able to see what it was like on the other side. It’s amazing how segregated we are in America, and how most white people have no clue … but that’s another topic right? So Talisha sings back up on the first two TJBB records (including the new one) and was in my band for about two years. We were rehearsing one day at her house and listening to a track I had just written, and she said, “You’re a soul writer.” After that, it may sound stupid, but I felt like…maybe I’m OK here.

So, how in the hell do video games and soul music go together?

I grew up in the ’90s playing countless hours of NES/Sega Genesis in my basement. My friend Brian Carroll would beat me at every game but I still loved it. I thought it would be a cool promo piece. I have to run around the city gathering up all the players to get to the gig. That’s the premise of the game, and also my actual life. I start out with a white t-shirt and the power up is my blue suit jacket. It’s fun, hilarious, and super difficult. I did the pixel artwork for the characters (my band members) and then I gave it to Eric Bretschneider who put it all together. The music was locally made by Benji Robinson and it’s all re-imagined versions of my first record Art & Soul into chip tune/8-bit-style music.

Favorite video game growing up? That one that, right now, if someone put it on, you’d have to sit down and take a turn…

I LOVED Ice Hockey and there was a World Cup game. Also this weird game Boy and His Blob where you had a pet blob and you fed him jelly beans. These magic beans would turn the blob into items to help you through the level like a ladder, a trampoline, or a bowling ball (??). Oh, and then when the Game Genie came out, it was all over, I didn’t see the sun for days!!

You’ve been part of the Shaw Brothers for years. What spurred such a drastic rebrand? What has been most interesting or challenging about adopting a stage persona and nickname?

It’s a challenge to become this elevated version of myself. Someone that dresses like I want to dress, someone that has the utmost confidence on stage. The suit definitely helps when I get up there, it’s like a really pretty locally custom made piece of armor, ha. My bro and I play in Shaw Brothers and Andy Shaw Band together and we’ve been working for years in every aspect of the scene. We play country, folk, rock, reggae, and more. TJBB is meant to play big shows once in a while, and fit into more of a solid genre—it’s a lot tighter of a vision. I didn’t feel like I could use the name “Shaw” since it was already in two band names and it gave me a chance to break off and do my own thing.

You could put together the perfect all-local soul tribute night. Who’s playing, what are they playing, and where?

I’m trying to get the Stevie Wonder tribute to happen again which I sang in a couple years ago with Talisha. Brandon “B-Jazz” Scott would play keys again; I would have to have DJ Washington on bass (he plays ’em all though), I’d have to ask Talisha of course and Kyra Currenton (drums) to drive up from Nashville, Monique Mitchell, Jamalia Jackson, Renee Dion all on vocals. That’s almost the same band that did it before and it was great. I think I’d ask Todd Hamric to play keys too, he’s insane, and you gotta have multiple keys for Stevie.

The five most timeless video games and soul songs of all-time are:

Super Mario Brothers (duh)

Sonic The Hedgehog

Mortal Kombat

Dig Dug

Tecmo Bowl

“What’s Going On” — Marvin Gaye

“I Second That Emotion” —

Smokey Robinson

“Sir Duke” — Stevie Wonder

“Let’s Stay Together” — Al Green

“A Change is Gonna Come” —

Sam Cooke

James and his band will perform at the official 8-Bit Soul release party March 10 at Strongwater. For more, visit topherjamesmusic.com.

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Arts & Culture

Live music allowed again in restaurants and bars: how will these establishments respond?

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A major step forward in the return of live music in Ohio took place over the weekend. The Ohio coronavirus guidelines were updated to reflect the new COVID-19 Dine Safe Ohio Order.

The order outlining the guidelines on live music in restaurant and bars is as follows:

Musicians and bands may perform in restaurants and bars as long as the individuals who are performing maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from all other people including, but not limited to, fellow performers and restaurant and bar patrons and staff.

DJ's are included along with musicians and bands in the order.

Something that was on the mind of a lot of musicians with the reopening of restaurants and the indefinite closing of large venues was how restaurants and bars were going to respond to the immediate venue demand. Places like Woodlands Tavern that already have an infrastructure for live music will have no problem complying with the updated order, but will restaurants and bars that depended on jukeboxes before pivot to a live music model?

With a lot more space available in restaurants due to capacity cuts, does this leave more room for a live music set up? Or will restaurants have to get rid of even more tables if they want to make room for a performer?

The thought of live music in a venue setting is alone enough to get excited about. How these places that now have the ability to host live music execute freeing up space for a band to set up or a DJ to bring his rig in while practicing social distancing is what makes this situation a tricky one.

Not being able to get down in a MojoFlo Soul Train line will be pretty tough, but it’s a tradeoff we’ll have to accept for the return of live music.

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Arts & Culture

(614) Music Club: Sarob

Julian Foglietti

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Every week (614) Music Club teams up with your favorite local artists to build a playlist of what they’re listening to, and what’s inspiring them. This week’s playlist is brought to you by the R&B artist Sarob.


Photo by: Wyze

Tell me about some of the songs you’ve selected.

"The first one is Sobeautiful by Musiq Soulchild. So every week with my vocal coach, I have to learn a song. And I've been trying to figure out how to do vocal gliding. Which is not a strong point for me, and I remember hearing that song and being like, OK, this is it. The song is just beautifully written and composed, so when you add the technique to it, it’s just great. The other song was Workin On It by Dwele, who is one of my favorite artists of all time. Workin On It uses this J Dilla beat that just feels really timeless."

Have the past few months changed the direction or mood of the music you're creating. 

"So I have been making stuff here and there, and then I'll go into something creative for like two days. I'll just be making like a bunch of songs and then I'll stop for two weeks, not even want to look at a microphone or anything. I mean, it's a lot more inward, so I’m learning how to better communicate the things I'm experiencing, and set the scenes for people and talk about what is going on. Also not having my band has been a challenge. I’m more of a thinker, I play the keyboard, and I can build a song, but I’m not the most gifted musician so having to build a lot of it on my own is tricky."

Do you have any plans or releases coming up? 

"Yeah, so I had a song Pleasures U Like that was made for my last album, but it didn’t quite fit the story of the album. So I just forgot about it until recently and I finished the vocals just before the lockdown, and now I’m releasing it on Bandcamp as part of a fundraiser for The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. All of the proceeds from the song are going to go to support their Pandemic Emergency Fund, and it just felt like a good way to do something that would impact everything going on."

Sarob's Playlist

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Coronavirus

Breakaway Music Festival will not take place in 2020; to return in 2021

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Those in the music festival community have continued to rally their broken spirits behind live streams and classic archival sets in lieu of the live event industry being put on indefinite hold. 

With each passing day, though, hopes for any large concert gathering happening in 2020 seem incredibly bleak and unrealistic.

News from Midwest college market concert and music festival promoter Prime Social Group on Thursday further confirmed the modern hippie’s greatest fear: a summer void of camping out in otherworldy open fields and following their favorite musicians across the country. 

PSG operates a network of festivals under the Breakaway Music handle that take place annually in Columbus; Charlotte, North Carolina; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Washington D.C.; Nashville; and San Diego. The promotion company made the difficult decision to cancel all six of its 2020 editions of the EDM and pop-focused Breakaway Music Festival with a fully-committed plan to return in 2021. The decision was made due to health and safety concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Tickets to the event can be carried over for the 2021 edition of BMF. For those who choose this option, you’ll receive an extra ticket and merch bundle. PSG will also provide refunds if transferring tickets for 2021 is not an option.

Columbus has been making its claim as a music festival destination over the past few years. Breakaway, along with events like Sonic Temple, Wonderbus, and Buckeye Country Superfest, has been bringing quality acts to Columbus consistently. The festival’s presence will be greatly missed this upcoming August.

“Now more than ever, we could use that special sense of unity achieved through live events and music festivals,” said Prime Social managing partner Zach Ruben. “We cannot wait to Leave it All Behind and make memories with all of you again. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and be kind to one another.”

In the meantime, Breakaway plans to release exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from past editions, new digital content, and various live streams. Visit breakawaymusicfestival.com to keep up to date with what PSG has in store.

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