For most bands, recording a debut album is a bit of a rookie exercise. A group of musicians still finding their sound, feeling out their chemistry together, learning what works and what doesn’t. But when New Orleans’ King James & The Special Men entered House of 1000Hz Studio in the city’s 9th Ward to make “Act Like You Know,” released in July, they new exactly who they were: a band that had honed their chops and their connection with an audience built over five-plus years of weekly residencies at some of The Big Easy’s hot music joints; a group that could count Robert Plant and Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli among their fans; a collective of musicians who had been tapped to play with high-profile artists like Sturgill Simpson and St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
“Some of it was timing,” King James & The Special Men frontman Jimmy Horn says in a recent interview with Highway 81 Revisited. “Some of it was we weren’t recording, some of it … Look, honestly, the first couple years we were very focused on our existence here in the city of New Orleans, and basically pretty early on we realized we had an advantage with our weeklies. Pretty quickly we started seeing a crowd where we would see people from movies and rock stars in our little dive bar in the back of the 9th Ward. When you got Robert Plant showing up, it’s weird, it’s strange. We rocked not having an album for a while.”
The residencies — five years at BJ’s Lounge, a year at Sidney’s Saloon and for the past few years at Saturn Bar in Bywater — suffice it to say, paid off for King and his musical brethren.
“In New Orleans, it’s a pretty traditional way to go,” he says. “You have free food for your clients. You have a house band, and you have that continuity. That consistency of every Thursday, every Monday. We have such an influx of people coming into the city. OK, what day is it? On Tuesday, you have to see Rebirth [Brass Band] at The Maple Leaf. Thursday, you had to see Kermit [Ruffins], now it’s Cory Henry over at Vaughan’s.
“Right away, I said, ‘Look, what’s the biggest gap in the calendar?’ So I said, ‘Monday.’ I don’t like to sit in line and wait. I like to find opportunities. So I went for Mondays, and right away that’s red beans and rice day in New Orleans. So it’s pretty easy.”
Horn and his Special Men — Ben Polcer (piano), Robert Snow (bass), John “Porkchop” Rodli (guitar), Chris “Showtime” Davis (drums), Scott Frock (trumpet), Jason Mingledorff and Travis Blotzky (tenor sax) and Dominick Grillo (baritone sax) — draw heavily from ‘50s and ‘60s r&b and early rock ‘n’ roll for a sound that is decidedly a throwback.
Asked if it was difficult to capture a classic sound in the studio this day and age, Horn’s answer was blunt.
“No. To put it simply, we’re not recreating anything. We’re doing what we like. I don’t go to the trouble or the time to make it sound like crap. I was talking to Earl King, and there’s these cars going buy on Claiborne Avenue, and trunks are shaking. And he said if he could have had bass like that in the ‘50s or ‘60s, he would have.”
Horn grew up in Utah, but never lived anywhere for more than five years until he moved to New Orleans in 1993 when he was 19. By then, he was steeped in the American musical tradition, but his “gateway drug” was the same as many music fans of his generation.
“I saw KISS on TV with the fire and the boots. Look, KISS, man, let’s be honest. You have Mickey Mouse on one hand, you have these dudes with fire. I still listen to KISS, not so much though. Gene Simmons seems like a tool to me. The shit was cool when I was 4,” he says. His father, whom he describes as an audiophile, then introduced him to his vast collection of 45s and albums: Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsies. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd. At the same time, he was learning guitar.
“It took a minute to sink in,” Horn recalls. “Basically, I starting listening, and the stuff I liked the most was this American music, this blues. And if I like this guy’s record, I’m going to find out what records he liked and keep going back, going back to early Chinese opera records.”
Now, music lovers like Horn can get their hands on his band’s record, nearly a decade after he started the group. His thoughts as we spoke to him leading up to release day?
“I’m glad it’s coming out. And I hope everyone likes it. There’s not a lot of concept behind it. Hopefully, it’s a good working introduction. We’re solidly in the ‘forget about your hard times and come shake it’ camp.”