ATX Interviews Music

Nautical Nation Frontman James Keith Chats About His Musical Journey

From deep in the heart of Hill Country, Nautical Nation surpasses all definitions of genres. Though alternative at the core, this eclectic band incorporates elements of all styles of music, from rock to reggae, funk to pop, indie to Americana. If you haven’t given them a listen already, we highly encourage you to check out one of their newest music videos, “Golden Seas,” which will immediately reel you in, warm you up, and have you humming along. Truly a song for the summer, “Golden Seas” is the type of tune that will make you feel at home and leave your worries behind. (I’ve listened to it at least twice a day for the past few weeks and am not ashamed to admit it.)

We had the chance to sit down with frontman James Keith at his second home, Orb Studios, and chat with him about music, his journey, and the band’s upcoming EP. As we’ve mentioned many a time before, one of our absolute favorite things is meeting with artists from our own beloved Austin because of the immediate connection and genuine conversation, and our time with James certainly did not fall short of that.

What’s your history with music and how you got started?

James: I’ve basically always been around music. It’s been in my family for nearly 50 years. My dad has been in 30 to 40 bands throughout his lifetime, and he was an Elvis impersonator for 30 years. I always remember driving around in the truck listening to Elvis Presley, and my dad playing the same song like, 40 times. He was actually Chuy’s Elvis for a little while. I even did a parade one time where I was a little Elvis with the black jacket and everything. It’s always been around my life, and then my dad eventually made a music venue about 20 years ago, so that’s always been around too. When I think about it, I’ve really lived around music and touring artists since I can remember.

When did the formation of Nautical Nation happen?

James: Oh man, that’s a complicated one, but I’ll give you the cut-and-dry. So first off, I went for acting in New York and when I was there, I ran into a band and realized I wanted to play music. So I came back down here to the Hill Country and ended up forming this band, Nautical Nation. We went through a lot of different names – at one point it was Desiring Eden, and then it was Cougar Bait. There was a lot of different facets to it. Eventually, we settled on Nautical Nation because none of the radio stations would play our music if our band name was Cougar Bait, so we were like, “All right, well we have to get another name if we want to be on the radio,” a more appropriate name, but I really do love that name.

Four or five years ago we started this band and a year later we went on tour. And then a year after that, we broke up. The bass player had to spend some time on vacation and we ended up having a falling out. Then fast forward three years, I’m doing solo stuff and wanting to record with a full band, so I just kind of brought the band back. You know, not with the same guys, but we took the old music and my new stuff and kind of combined it all. And here we are.

James Keith Nautical Nation
Photo courtesy of Nautical Nation

Tell me more about the band name Nautical Nation? How did you come up with it, and what does it mean to you?

James: So, Nautical Nation. I was thinking one day about band names because we were sitting there firing back band name after band name. I’ve always been attracted to the ocean. If you really think about it, we are a water people. The majority of the world is covered in water. We ourselves are even made of majority out of water. So that’s kind of where the name came about, that we’re really more a “nautical nation” than we are a “land nation.”

What are your biggest influences when it comes to your music? What are your inspirations?

Obviously, my dad was a big influence, as well as always being around musicians. When I was about 13 or 14, he had this house band called The River Rats, and he took me in and had me sing three songs here and there, and then eventually I started singing full-time with the band for a couple of years. They’re all in their 50s and 60s, so I kind of felt like they almost groomed me to be a front-man from an early age. I really feel blessed to be able to have that influence of all those guys. Just so many different players influenced me. And going outside of that, I would say Incubus and Storyville, which is a local Austin band that was around about 15 to 20 years ago. A lot of Austin musicians, I’m very homegrown.

And thinking about your dad’s music, do you think any of his style carries through to your own music?

James: Maybe a little, but I think it’s different. My dad is a wammer-jammer. You know, he was an Elvis impersonator so his music is very rockabilly, but of course, he had a lot of different styles of music that he played – a lot of rock, like The Sir Douglas Quintet. They were a really big band back in the ’60s and were friends with The Beatles. It was kind of weird actually, because their tape got stuck in the truck while I had to do trash duty at the ranch, so I listened to this band that my dad did renditions of, over and over again. And I eventually found out that the band actually had this member called Augie Meyers, who ended up forming the Texas Tornadoes. Fast forward 40 years, and I had actually just opened for Augie Meyers at The Kessler Theater. It was so weird coming full-circle, first listening to them while on trash duty and then getting to hang out with them.

You mentioned that you lived in New York and were trying the whole acting thing. Why did you start with acting and then how did you eventually come back to music?

James: I’ve always wanted to do something involving music. I did dance for a number of years, tap dance, hip-hop, and so on. When I went to New York, I wanted to combine all the arts. I wanted to act, dance, and sing. In my audition process, the head of the acting department was there and she loved me so much that she denied me the musical theater program, but then turned around and offered me the BFA Acting Program because she was the head of that program. I found out that only 60 out of 2,000 applicants get offered that program, so I knew I had to jump on it. It was such an intense experience, learning how to act like that. I thought they were going to get me a script and be like “do your thing, let’s work on some scenes,” but it was not like that at all. I got there and was told to wear workout gear, and for a couple months we ran up staircases with backpacks, did wall sits and so forth. The idea was that she would strip down our ego and make us so tired that we couldn’t think how to act, until we were just nothing. Then from there, she’d hand you script and say “act.” It was really powerful because she was teaching us to create those circumstances in our heads, and live in the circumstance of the situation rather than just try to act around what we think it is. It was very intense, and nearly 50 percent of the people dropped out in the first year.

But here I am on the weekends, hanging out with one of my buddies who was in this band called WeatherStar. I went to a lot of their rehearsals and kind of started getting integrated into the band, playing keyboard and singing a little bit. Then all of a sudden, Cameron, who was the lead guy, was getting some interest and started getting managed by the band Never Shout Never’s manager. So we went through this whole thing where we were going to meet Never Shout Never, but then it all kind of backed out and we found out that Cameron was actually getting all new guys. Kind of unfortunate, but looking back on it, that’s probably what made me realize that I wanted to be in a band and play music instead of running up staircases. That’s kind of what did it for me and when I decided to come back home and try my hand at music. And so I did.

James Keith Nautical Nation
Photo courtesy of Nautical Nation

So you’re working on a new album. Can you tell us about that process and its creation?

James: It’s kind of an interesting thing, the EP. I basically had this album that I started on Kickstarter about two years ago. I recorded 10 tracks that I really liked, had this guy at Hidden Creeks Studios in Mountain Home, Fowler Carson, who is a really cool guy, end up giving me all the recording for free. It was really nice. So he gave me all this recording, and I started this Kickstarter, and then met everything that I needed to raise. I ended up getting into Orb because I really liked the studio. I did a lot of looking around, but the thing I loved about Orb Studios was that the equipment is obviously top of the line, and I also talked to Matt Noveskey, who is a highly respected musician working for Blue October. So I knew that this place was going to be a great experience and that we were going to get lots of good stuff done here. You know, when musicians actually own the studio that they’ve designed so that they’ll be happy, so you know you’re going to be happy.

Matt popped his head in and out from the sessions that I was doing, and I asked to pick his brain for five minutes or so. He ended up talking with me for about an hour, listening to my material, and one thing led to another, and he said he’d love to produce some of my stuff. Fast forward a year, I wanted to do some more material, so I took some investment money and asked Matt to produce some of my music and he was all about it. That’s actually where we are in the EP, and that’s how that came about. We put these songs together, and he actually played bass on some of them which was really cool, and CB Hudson, the the other owner of the studio who played guitar for Blue October, played some on my song “Birdcage.” I kind of took that first Kickstarter album and then combined it with my new songs, and that’s what makes the EP.

How would you say that your music has changed and progressed over the years?

When Nautical Nation started, we were very much like Jimi Hendrix and Guns N’ Roses, street rock bands. I love that music, and it will always be my favorite – Van Halen, AC DC, Lenny Kravitz and Incubus. I think a lot of the stuff that I’m better at singing, that is just more natural for me is kind of like John Legend, very soulful. So a part of this album is very chill, almost like a Lenny Kravitz, chill vibe going on. There’s definitely some rock in there; I can’t take that away. But I think it’s almost like the ocean. It has like very still, chill parts, and then has its storms.

What’s been your most memorable show or favorite venue that you’ve ever played?

James: Oh man, I would say there have definitely been a couple. Number one, we played at Dia De Los Muertos last year. We played the Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater and got to open for Grupo Fantasma, and it was so much fun and such a great venue. I remember it was for Easter Seals Central Texas, they were starting a Disability Awareness Day, so we got to play and be a part of that inaugural day, and it was just amazing. Another one in there would have to be the first time we played SXSW in 2017, and we actually ended up playing at the Paramount Theater, opening for Gina Chavez and Richard Yo, and Super7 – again, awesome musicians. We shared a green room with Grupo and got to hang out with them, and they’re all super cool guys and really chill. They weren’t like, “we have to share a green room with these amateurs!” Jokes aside though, they were super casual and it was great hanging with them. In April 2018 we played Mission Fest for Fiesta in San Antonio. I think that was about 3,000 people, which was the most people we’ve played for so far.

So if you could collaborate with any band or artist, who would you choose?

James: That is a great question. I definitely want to collaborate with Incubus; I mean, I love Incubus, but there are so many good bands. The Foo Fighters would be really cool just because Dave Grohl is a badass and he’s so talented. I’d also love to work with Malford Milligan, he’s actually an Austin artist. A lot of people don’t know that, but he’s probably been my biggest influence. I can’t believe I left him out earlier! He was the lead singer for Storyville and he’s doing his own thing now, and he’s just so soulful and unbelievable. I’d say those artists, and you know, John Legend obviously, John Mayer would be great. I mean, shit I could go on, but that’s a hard one. I love so many styles of music that it’s not like I have that one artist.

I know you’re working on your album and have some release parties coming up, but what’s next for you after that?

James: I think the big thing for me is I’m unsigned at this point. I really want to shop around for some labels and see if we can’t get some sponsors. I’m kind of a workhorse; I want to be on the road 300 days a year, so my goal is finding a label that can accommodate that. So we’ll see what happens.

Thank you for your time, James! We enjoyed hanging with you and will certainly take you up on your offer to come hang again at Orb Studios!

Be sure to catch one of Nautical Nation’s EP release shows and check out more of their music and tour dates at http://www.jameskeithmusic.co

Featured image credit: Courtesy of Nautical Nation

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