Interview: St. James & the Apostles on family, faith, and incorporating “danger” into music

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Photo by Kate Bracaglia
“We play every show like it’s our last…because you never know. We’re not up there shoe-gazing—I’m jumping around, jumping off kick drums, doing my James Brown shuffle,” explains Jamie Mahon, one-third of St. James & the Apostles, Sunday afternoon from his deck in Northern Liberties. “People that come away are like, ‘wow, that’s the hardest working band in Philly,’ because, we do work really hard. We played probably 60 to 70 shows last year…just slowly chipping away at the East Coast.”

To his left and right, Mike Kiker and Jeff Castner  nod in agreement. There’s a palpable energy, a buzz in the air as the band describes the thrill of performing. It’s the genuine sort of eagerness one might expect of young, unjaded bands…except these guys have been playing together for years. And Mahon’s history goes even further back, including stints in a slew of local psychedelic and rock acts, including The Three 4 Tens, Marah, The Asteroid #4, Mondo Topless, and more.

Now though, he is front man of a new band—St. James & the Apostles, alongside his younger cousin, Kiker, and second cousin Castner. Formed two years ago in the summer of 2010, St. James & the Apostles grew organically as Mahon’s previous band, The Three 4 Tens, began to dissolve.

Mahon is frank about its demise, remarking, “I’ll be dead honest with you: it was mainly drugs. It’s a story that’s been told so many times…and it got to the point where we had to put an end to it.”

Before the old friends parted ways, Kiker joined the band, filling in on guitar and keys during shows; and as soon as The Tens broke up, the pair joined forces with Castner to forge their own path.

“We took the path of righteousness,” says Castner with a laugh.

It’s a fitting path for a band named St. James & Apostles—St. James, of course, being Mahon (“I’m a bit of an elder statesmen,” he jokes)—although the band claims it was more a fascination with vintage-sounding names (“I like the old school vibe to it,” says Mahon. “Like Tommy James and the Shondells or Derek and the Dominos”) than a purposeful allusion.

“There’s definitely 12 years of Catholic school somewhere in there though,” adds Mahon with a grin. “I’m sort of a recovering Catholic.”

There’s definitely a spiritual element that runs throughout much of St. James & the Apostles’ work, from song names like “12 Steps With Jesus” and “Still Waiting for the Son” to biblical imagery and Kiker’s expert organ-playing. Mahon and Castner both describe their religious upbringing as a source of inspiration, and note that while they’re not religious anymore, they have nothing but respect for those who are.

“It’s hard to find strength in this world,” adds Mahon. “You get it from wherever you can.”

For St. James & the Apostles, strength definitely comes from family, and a long family history of music-making. The trio might not have grown up playing air guitar in the garage together, but they’ve been musically intertwined since birth: “My dad is the first drummer that Jamie ever played with,” explains Castner; “—and his dad actually taught me how to play bass,” adds Mahon. Castner’s father was a drummer with Sam & Dave—a fact that Mahon says influenced his “super rhythmic” method of playing guitar. Oddly enough, all three band members were originally bass players—a bond which inevitably seeps into their song-writing. “That’s why we don’t have a bass player now,” says Mahon with a smile. “We’re all always writing bass lines anyway!”

But beyond this affinity, there’s a greater bond among the band that only comes with blood. “We all get along very well,” says Castner.  “There’s no ego when you’re dealing with family.”

“We finish each other’s sentences,” adds Mahon. “When we ride in the van together, we laugh the whole time. It’s the first band I’ve been in in a long time that’s actually fun again.”

The three members of St. James & the Apostles have eclectic musical tastes (an impromptu list of “current and overall faves” includes Tame Impala, Fugazi, The Music Machine, The Doors, Spirit, Air, Philly soul, and early hardcore)—so it’s not surprising that recordings incorporate a wide variety of sounds. On new release Baphomet, this includes bluesy stompers like “Kiss and Tell” and drawn-out slow jams like “St. James Infirmary.”

There’s an unmistakable vintage vibe that runs throughout, which the band creates painstakingly with a huge collection of vintage gear, housed in Mahon’s basement. Unfortunately, they explain to me, the old equipment is temperamental, so maintaining 5 or 6 backups is necessary. This of course leads to challenges loading in and out during shows, and the band admits that “extensive trouble-shooting” is practically a pre-show ritual.

Luckily, the occasional snafu doesn’t faze them. “I very much want to bring danger back into music,” says Castner, explaining that instruments failing is just another part of the rock’n roll experience. “We do this thing, where we’re having a great show, but we’re basically on the verge of derailing at any moment. We like living on that edge. Anyone who comes to more than one of our shows, I want them to think…what’s going to happen tonight?”

Other derailings might be a bit more indulgent: Mahon describes smashing an amp to pieces, taking out ceiling tiles after launching a guitar into the air, and general “Iggy or GG Allin antics.”

“We’ve been banned from a few clubs,” he admits, when I ask what’s the worst that’s happened as a result. “But what happens on stage: we’re breaking OUR equipment; we’re not breaking your place, and we’ll be happy to clean it up at the end of the night.”

Plus, the crowd seems to enjoy the wild stage show just as much as the band. “Philly has really great audiences,” explains Mahon—“when you’ve got the crowd, they’re really, really excited. It goes back and forth. When you’re giving it out, the crowd is giving it out back.”

Live performances are definitely a release for St. James—but coming up, it’s time to part with the thrill temporarily in order focus on their end game. The band plans to spend the winter months recording music, then heading over to the UK for a string of shows. “We just signed a UK management deal,” Mahon tells me, explaining that he’s psyched to get back to the studio.

“We have probably about 20 songs we’re chomping at the bit to record.”

Until then, the band will continue gigging locally, and of course, continuing to write. “We’re constantly evolving,” says Mahon with a smile. “And things are looking good. 2013, hypothetically, looks like it’s gonna be a really good year.”

Looks like the hardest working band’s hard work paid off.

St. James & the Apostles play The Fire 34, 412 W. Girard Avenue, Wednesday, November 21 with iNFiNiEN, September Call-Up, and themuffinmanisaband. The 21 and over show begins at 8:00 p.m. and admission is $8; more information can be found on the venue’s website

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