A famous British music journalist once stated that guitarist James Stevenson “has now played in 72 percent of all known bands.” Although the statement was amusing, it’s also apt. After 40 years in the business, Stevenson has played countless sessions, launched a career as a solo artist, and has hit the road with Chelsea, Generation X, Gene Loves Jezebel, the Alarm, Kim Wilde, Glen Matlock, the International Swingers, Holy Holy, and many others.
“Few bands today are really all-the-time things,” explains Stevenson, who has “72 Percent” imprinted on his custom picks. “Artists understand that most people play in several different groups. The way the industry has gone, you’re not getting any income from selling CDs anymore, so you constantly have to go out on the road in order to make a living.”
So how do you manage being in all those bands?
I have six completely different sets in my head all the time, and it’s a juggling act with the live shows, as well. At the beginning of a recent tour with the Alarm, for example, I had to tell [frontperson] Mike Peters that I couldn’t do a show because Holy Holy had a television taping in London that I couldn’t miss. Mike was cool about it, and I literally flew from New York to London, did the TV show, and got on a plane to Atlanta the next morning to rejoin the Alarm tour. So that was pretty brutal, but that’s the way it is at times. You just have to go with it.
Is there a strategy to being such an in-demand session and tour guitarist?
In a way, it’s like any business—it’s who you know. I’ve been playing professionally for 40 years now, and I’ve made a lot of connections. Through my first punk-rock group, Chelsea, I ended up meeting Gene Loves Jezebel. I’ve known Billy Duffy a long time, and that’s how I ended up in the Cult. With Holy Holy, the original promoter knew Mick Ronson’s sister Maggie—who I also knew—and she said, “You should talk to James about playing guitar.” You play in all these bands, you see, and people get to know what you can do.
What are the typical travel arrangements when you tour, and how do you manage the physical and mental pressures?
On the Alarm tour last year, we were living in a bus all the time. That’s just how bands can afford to tour these days. But my favorite thing to do is to walk onstage and play my guitar, so if that entails sleeping on a bus for seven nights at a time, I’m more than happy to do that. Even when I go out with Chelsea, and we’re playing smaller venues and sleeping three to a room in a hotel, it’s fine with me. I used to be really fussy about that stuff 30 years ago, but now I don’t really care. I just want to play. But if I have a couple of weeks off, I stay at home and chill out, because it often feels like I’m on the road 11 months of the year.
You’d think as we add more numbers to our ages, we’d get crankier about creature comforts.
Sure. But all the people I talk to—they don’t care either. They’re just glad to be out playing. Even someone like [drummer] Clem Burke. When he’s out with Blondie, they get treated like royalty. He doesn’t get treated that way when he’s with one of the many other bands he plays with, but he’s still happy, because he’s out there playing his drum kit. We’re all a lot less spoiled than we used to be, because there’s so much less money around. When I was touring with Gene Loves Jezebel in the ’80s, you’d have a tour bus for the band, one for the crew, and a semi for the gear, and we’d stay in the best hotels every night in our own rooms. It cost a fortune! The money we threw away is just unbelievable.
In order to ensure your solos delight the artist and/or producer, and make the cut in recording sessions, how do you approach them?
Well, I can’t stand it when you hear a song, and the solo has nothing to do with it—it’s just some guy showing off. You have to learn that crafting memorable parts is so important. That’s what was so great about Mick Ronson. If you listen to “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, the solo is easy to play, but to invent that solo is genius. It’s so perfect for the song. In fact, I don’t know why Bowie didn’t share songwriting credit with him. Mick’s riffs and arrangements are essential parts of some classic Bowie songs.
That brings up the thought that, if you come up with a signature part to a song, is it appropriate to ask the songwriter or artist, “Hey, what’s my percentage of royalties going to be for my contribution?”
Do that and you’d probably get fired straightaway [laughs]. It’s very hard to argue with the hand that feeds you. Back in the day, I did a lot of sessions for [producer] Mickie Most when I was playing for Kim Wilde. Once, I billed him 600 pounds at union scale for an album project, and he told me, “I’m paying you 200 pounds.” But I didn’t disrespect him at all. The last thing I’d do is go to the Musicians Union and start a battle with him, because he’d never use me again. It’s a lot of politics, and you have to feel your way around.
I can imagine that personality is a huge part of being sought out for band lineups and sessions.
Oh, yeah—that’s the other thing. I try not to be an asshole, and I know about being on the road. It can be stressful. People are in a confined space, and you have to know how to chill out, and get on with people. You can be a great player, but if you’re also a pain in the ass who drives everyone crazy, your employment is going to be brief.
STEVENSON’S FUZZY FRIENDS
> “I like funky effects,” says Stevenson. “I have a lot of cool pedals that you could afford to buy in the 1980s, because no one knew what they were. Now, I see something on eBay that I paid 100 pounds for back then, and it’s going for 5,000 today. For example, I’ve got this desktop thing called the Psychedelic Machine, which was made by Shin Ei in the late ’60s. I have a ’70s CBS/Arbiter Doubler octave fuzz that was created by the original Tone Bender designer Gary Hurst. It’s one of my favorite pedals. I also have an original Uni-Sound fuzz pedal, some original Fuzz Faces, and a Foxx Tone Machine—one of the original furry ones with “octave” misspelled on the top. How I use these pedals is up to my gut. The thing with these old fuzz pedals is that they all sound a bit different. You can never really tell if they are going to sit in the track just right until you actually try them.”