Photo by T.J. Hansen

Liner Notes: Topher James

Chris Shaw is the first to admit there isn’t a damn thing about soul music and video games that go together.

But, hey, if a veteran multi-instrumentalist can reinvent himself as a shiny-suit-wearing, falsetto-crooning soul singer, than why not make yourself into a video game character while you’re at it?

This month Topher James and the Biscuit Brigade, the band and persona crafted as a side note to his multiple bands around town, will release its second record (3.10 @ Strongwater)—this time with an accompanying 8-bit soundtrack and video game. Before you follow Video Game James around the city as he attempts to get musicians together for a gig, get the low-down on him here:

“Blue-Eyed” soul, so to speak, has been in renaissance for awhile. What about it speaks to you?

I love Allen Stone, Mayer Hawthorne, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and many more of what I consider “blue-eyed” soul musicians. These guys pay homage to black music and you know that they truly listen to that music. Also, when you do a little history or see the musicians they surround themselves with it’s typically pretty obvious. It’s about respect and love for the art at the end of the day. If you’re hopping on the soul music trend (or anything really) because it’s popular, I feel like you can usually tell, and it’s just never as good.

Do you ever have any reservations about being a part of a movement like that? Such reverence for musical genre that has been associated with the black community?

There’s always a thin line between parody and paying homage and I try to really study the music, soak it in, and then spit it back out through my own unique lens. My friend Talisha Holmes opened my eyes and ears to a lot of Columbus musicians and venues I wasn’t familiar with before. I would go to these open jams with her and sometimes I’d be the one white dude in there. Mainly I just watched and listened but sometimes I’d play violin or get the courage to get up and sing, and I learned a ton. It was eye-opening being the minority and I truly was able to see what it was like on the other side. It’s amazing how segregated we are in America, and how most white people have no clue … but that’s another topic right? So Talisha sings back up on the first two TJBB records (including the new one) and was in my band for about two years. We were rehearsing one day at her house and listening to a track I had just written, and she said, “You’re a soul writer.” After that, it may sound stupid, but I felt like…maybe I’m OK here.

So, how in the hell do video games and soul music go together?

I grew up in the ’90s playing countless hours of NES/Sega Genesis in my basement. My friend Brian Carroll would beat me at every game but I still loved it. I thought it would be a cool promo piece. I have to run around the city gathering up all the players to get to the gig. That’s the premise of the game, and also my actual life. I start out with a white t-shirt and the power up is my blue suit jacket. It’s fun, hilarious, and super difficult. I did the pixel artwork for the characters (my band members) and then I gave it to Eric Bretschneider who put it all together. The music was locally made by Benji Robinson and it’s all re-imagined versions of my first record Art & Soul into chip tune/8-bit-style music.

Favorite video game growing up? That one that, right now, if someone put it on, you’d have to sit down and take a turn…

I LOVED Ice Hockey and there was a World Cup game. Also this weird game Boy and His Blob where you had a pet blob and you fed him jelly beans. These magic beans would turn the blob into items to help you through the level like a ladder, a trampoline, or a bowling ball (??). Oh, and then when the Game Genie came out, it was all over, I didn’t see the sun for days!!

You’ve been part of the Shaw Brothers for years. What spurred such a drastic rebrand? What has been most interesting or challenging about adopting a stage persona and nickname?

It’s a challenge to become this elevated version of myself. Someone that dresses like I want to dress, someone that has the utmost confidence on stage. The suit definitely helps when I get up there, it’s like a really pretty locally custom made piece of armor, ha. My bro and I play in Shaw Brothers and Andy Shaw Band together and we’ve been working for years in every aspect of the scene. We play country, folk, rock, reggae, and more. TJBB is meant to play big shows once in a while, and fit into more of a solid genre—it’s a lot tighter of a vision. I didn’t feel like I could use the name “Shaw” since it was already in two band names and it gave me a chance to break off and do my own thing.

You could put together the perfect all-local soul tribute night. Who’s playing, what are they playing, and where?

I’m trying to get the Stevie Wonder tribute to happen again which I sang in a couple years ago with Talisha. Brandon “B-Jazz” Scott would play keys again; I would have to have DJ Washington on bass (he plays ’em all though), I’d have to ask Talisha of course and Kyra Currenton (drums) to drive up from Nashville, Monique Mitchell, Jamalia Jackson, Renee Dion all on vocals. That’s almost the same band that did it before and it was great. I think I’d ask Todd Hamric to play keys too, he’s insane, and you gotta have multiple keys for Stevie.

The five most timeless video games and soul songs of all-time are:

Super Mario Brothers (duh)

Sonic The Hedgehog

Mortal Kombat

Dig Dug

Tecmo Bowl

“What’s Going On” — Marvin Gaye

“I Second That Emotion” —

Smokey Robinson

“Sir Duke” — Stevie Wonder

“Let’s Stay Together” — Al Green

“A Change is Gonna Come” —

Sam Cooke

James and his band will perform at the official 8-Bit Soul release party March 10 at Strongwater. For more, visit topherjamesmusic.com.

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.

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