Jim-E Stack is letting go

Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Keith Oshiro

Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Keith Oshiro

American producer and collaborative wizard Jim-E Stack just released his huge new record EPHEMERA. We caught up with him to discuss the cities that made him and how the album came together.

In an era where major label’s cram star-studded feature lists onto albums, I’ve become sceptical of large casts. Whether that’s to fit into various Spotify playlists or to tap into the featured artist’s fanbase, it’s become a heavy-handed approach to increase streams not too dissimilar to the endless remix approach championed by Lil Nas X.

However, when I saw names like Bearface, Bon Iver and Kacy Hill on Jim-E Stack’s EPHEMERA I couldn’t help but tune in. Weaving a number of big features into a coherent album is no easy feat, but on top of Stack’s future sounds, it feels effortless. What’s more, the collaborations all came together organically.

Growing up in San Francisco, Jim-E (real name James Harmon Stack) played in garage rock groups, joined the high school jazz band and moved all across the country before settling back on the west coast. At just 28 years of age, he’s developed a unique pop-meets-electronic sound that has resulted in collaborations with Charli XCX, Haim and Dominic Fike. Producing work that owes as much to the infectious drums of The Neptunes instrumentals as it does the ethereal chops of Burial, Jim-E’s latest piece sounds like a small-town America coming-of-age film if it were conceived in a club.

We caught up with the west coast producer to talk about his new album EPHEMERA.

I think there is something about getting into jazz, that requires some kind of research. You have to look into who the sick drummers and sax players were.

Jim-E Stack

You started drumming when you were young? could you paint the picture what you making music at that age was like?

It was in high school taking the drums more seriously, through being into good drumming I got into jazz. Then all that being through school meant a lot more accountability. In a jazz band there was maybe 12 people? You had to have your shit together when there are so many different pieces.

Especially the drums and rhythm section can be the rock of any song that jazz band is playing. I think that kind of taught me some accountability, it’s fun but you have to put in the work. At the same time I was playing in garage rock bands in high school and that period of playing in different groups was very all over the place musically. However, I learnt so much from it.

I think the messier times can be good for weeding your way through and finding out what you are actually into.

Totally! Absolutely that’s exactly what it was. I think there is something about getting into jazz, that requires some kind of research. You have to look into who the sick drummers and sax players were. I feel like that planted seeds for digging for records for later when I was DJing. For some reason that is something to do with the playing jazz energy. It provokes a certain curiosity where you are going and trying to find sick shit. Then years later when I started DJing it was kind of the same thing. I had already learned how to dig but for a different kind of music.

How are you feeling about the album ?

Feeling really good because I had a moment where I finished everything and I was anticipating some sense of relief but it didn’t really come. I think just because in some sense I’ve had a vision of this album for so long.

I’ve been listening to it a lot honestly. More than anything it’s just me making shit I want to hear. I’m super proud of it, it is the best thing I’ve ever done.

It feels very visual to me. There is imagery throughout that evokes strong emotions like on ‘Sweet Summer Sweat‘, I get very peachy sun-kissed visions when listening. Are you very visual when it comes to these things?

When making something I always kind of, not intentionally picture of space that it exists in. In ‘Sweet Summer Sweat‘ for example that guitar line specifically but also Dijon’s part it really felt like to me some summertime memory in small-town America or something. I can’t even tell you why.

There is always a kind of setting that comes to mind but it’s never super intentional. I let the track take me wherever. There’s other ones like ‘Lost Man’ that feel like late-night drives through the city. ‘Note To Self‘ feels like early morning sunrise… one has its own visual setting that comes with it. I’m not trying to make this feel like night time or make this feel like a small club. The thing occurs to me and I just follow it wherever.

There are a lot of different influences there, but nothing feels forced. Even in your earlier stuff I heard bits of Jungle and bits of grime. Is it just a result of what you’re into or do you have a deliberate approach to try and mesh stuff?

I think it’s been kind of natural I think just having different influences and letting them all come together. In those early records there was more of a deliberate effort to draw on those influences because I was a little more aware of my place within music – you know DJing in a club. I think that provides a certain template.

Since I’ve left some of that behind it’s just kind of happened naturally, all my different influences show up in different ways. I’d say the funny thing about this whole album, in general, is that the intention with it is an overall lack of intention. Just letting stuff go as it will, appreciating the songs for what they were and then pick them further with that. Rather than saying I need to make the song to feel a certain way. All these songs happened in a collaborative environment and I just let them take me in whatever direction.

I’d say the funny thing about this whole album, in general, is that the intention with it is an overall lack of intention. Just letting stuff go as it will, appreciating the songs for what they were and then pick them further with that.

Jim-E Stack

I watched an interview with Dominic Fike on Beats1 and he said that you were a “conductor” in the studio. Why do you thrive in such a collaborative space?

For me a big thing that I’ve learnt is how liberating letting go is. That’s how the best music occurs. I’m 28 now but when I started when I was 18 basically in college, everything was coming from me and only me. I was very much in that mindset that everything starts with me and ends with me. Even the stuff in the middle is me. All in isolation. After a certain period of time, I just wasn’t enjoying it so I started experimenting and collaborating with a few different people mostly producers.

Letting go and not giving a shit about who is playing this part and who is doing that part – that’s how you get the best results. It’s just letting things be and grow – that’s the conducting Dominic mentioned. It’s just about harnessing something good that is happening at the time.

Just letting go and letting people do their part means sometimes I’m not involved in a song and it’s better. There’s just been instances where I’ve been in the studio with people and then like the singer for example with the person they are working with catch a vibe and I’ve had the self-awareness to step back and let them do their thing. Even though we are all there trying to do the shit together who cares?

Is there any commonalities between the featured artists on the album that made it easy for it all to come together? Were you actively seeking them out because they had certain qualities or what was it?

These songs are made up of these collage scraps from working on other people’s records. Back to the point I made about the intention behind everything coincidently being having no intention, that’s kind of how this shit came together. The Bon Iver song originally was a jam we did in 2017 when I was in Wisconsin with Justin for the first time. We were just making stuff for his last album. That was just a leftover that we really loved, but it never really made sense for his album.

The one with Bearface was from Brockhampton came from doing shit for their new album. That was a track they didn’t use but I had a vision for how it should be.

The commonality would be where it came from – it came from a place of not really thinking about myself. Making music with people I share a musical bond with and then these scraps presenting themselves. That’s maybe when I put my own spin on them. Just people that I work with a lot. That’s the cool thing about the project – it was never manager’s hitting each other up for a feature. It was all just friends who make shit together and inevitably have leftover shit and it was born from those leftovers.

Moving between New York, New Orleans and LA were there any elements to the culture in the different cities that informed how you approach to music?

Definitely. When I talked about my earlier mindset of everything having to be alone in isolation that perfectly speaks to where I was in New York. For whatever reason New York ended up being this very closed off space creatively. Of course I knew a bunch of people making music in New York, but they did their own thing by themselves. That was the energy I got out there.

So when I moved to LA I saw the culture creatively here is so much more social and informal. Of course there are super official major label organised sessions and stuff but for the most part, so much amazing shit is coming together just someone being like ‘why don’t you come to my studio to hang out’ turns into meeting a beat and making a beat turns into making a song then someone else comes by. That very open mindset, the whole letting go thing and just letting shit be and collaborating is the main difference I perceived and fell into.

EPHEMERA is out now: