Q&A with Maroon 5 Guitarist James Valentine, Playing Bayfront Amphitheater Today
The tall and slender native Nebraskan got his big break stepping in for Aaron Barrett of ska band Reel Big Fish when he broke his arm around 10 years ago, and he never looked back. Through the years he's made lasting friendships with John Mayer and helped Maroon 5 channel their inner AC/DC and Def Leppard for their latest effort Hands All Over. Yes, you read that right.
New Times caught up with Valentine before their show at Bayfront Amphitheater on Thursday to talk endless touring, reaching their peak, and how maybe they want to end up like the Rolling Stones, after all.
New Times: The band has toured pretty consecutively since it began, and now you guys are set to tour for two years. I know you joined the band a little later in the game, but what's the touring life been like for you?
James Valentine: Yeah, pretty much. It's pretty weird. We generally take time off from the road when we're making the record, and that's about the only time when we're not touring. It's strange. It's a lifestyle that you get used to. It's basically all I know now of my adult life [laughs]. We've been doing this since we were 21-22. I've gotten pretty accustomed to it, but like today: It's a day off, and you find ways to keep yourself busy... We did a lot of rehearsing leading up to this tour. We started off with that performance on Fuse -- we did a live concert on Fuse before we had played any of our shows. So we were playing new songs for the first time on live TV, so that's always uhh... [Laughs].
Yeah, I'd heard about that. What was that like for you guys?
Well we're very well rehearsed now [laughs]. Live television is nerve-racking enough when you go on to one of those shows like Saturday Night Live and play one or two songs. But we had to play a whole concert upfront. It was good because it really got us to get the show pretty slick. A lot of times stuff about the show gets worked out within the first few shows, but we came into this tour guns blazing because we knew we had to be ready for live TV [laughs].
That has to be an insane way to start a tour.
Oh yeah, totally. But it was good. It whipped us into shape. I think we're playing some of our best shows that we ever have -- which is an interesting thing for me to say, being in the band [laughs]. But I think we're as tight as we've ever been.
You're definitely experienced in band life, with all of the high school bands you were in. What was it like playing with Reel Big Fish almost 10 years ago?
Yeah. It was kind of randomly. Reel Big Fish is a big reason why I'm in this band. The first time I saw the guys play as they existed before I joined -- it was called Kara's Flowers. I was taken to my first Kara's Flowers show by Aaron Barrett, the lead singer of Reel Big Fish. I'd ended up touring with them when Aaron broke his hand and couldn't play guitar, so I ended up stepping in to play guitar. That was my first real rock tour playing in front of people who were really genuinely excited about seeing a band play. It was my first time on a bus, my first time seeing a lot of things that I guess are now pretty standard parts of my life [laughs].
That has to be a pretty amazing experience because Reel Big Fish was a pretty established band by that point to start your wakeup call to touring that way.
Yeah, I know. It was incredible. I look back at pictures from that tour and just remember how excited I was to finally be a part of that whole world. This is the sentimental part of the interview, but... it was my dream back in Nebraska and that had kind of been what I was pursuing. You just get such an awesome feeling of like... that was the first time I had gone out like to the bigger stages where the lights go down and you hear the crowd just go crazy as you're waiting to go on. That's like the most amazing feeling that I wish everybody in the world could experience, which is really gay. [Laughs].
Speaking of Nebraska, I read somewhere that you once tried to get John Mayer to move to Lincoln to play guitar for a blues rock band Baby Jason and the Spankers?
Yeah. Back in the day I met John in at this guitar summer camp basically that was at the Berklee College of Music. We kept in touch after that, and while I was in college and at the time he was like pumping gas and still living with his parents. I knew these guys and I knew he was an amazing guitar player -- he even was back then. He was an amazing blues guitar player and I knew these guys in Lincoln who were doing pretty well regionally. They would tour around the Midwest and I thought that was pretty cool, so I was like, "John, you should join these guys. They're pretty good and they play like B.B. King's Club in Chicago. You know, they're big time." [Laughs]. But yeah.
What was his reaction to that?
Uhhh I think he had his master plan that he knew along the way. I don't think any of us really saw that coming [laughs]. Well, I think we did, 'cause we knew he was talented.
What's it been like working with John Mayer? You contributed guitar work to his 2006 album Continuum with the songs "Stop This Train" and "In Repair," right?
Yeah. It was an amazing experience, and I was really flattered that he asked me to come in and play. The reason I ended up playing on that... it came about pretty organically. I was hanging out while he was in LA and in this hotel room and he played me an early version of that song. I was just jamming along with him, and when he went in to actually record the songs he remembered that I'd jammed with him and he liked the way I played so he asked me to come in and do it again.
How'd you go from being Maroon 5's guitar tech during recording sessions to their full-fledged guitarist?
Well [laughs]... at the time that they recorded this batch of five songs that ultimately would attract the attention of the label that put out all our records. At the time I'd just met them and I was just hanging out with them all the time. They really did not know anything about maintenance of their own guitars -- which I think is just a result of having been signed to a record deal when they were like 16 years old. So when they were making their first record they already had guys there changing their strings and taking care of their guitars. So when they went to go do that recording session and they weren't on a label anymore and didn't really have those extra resources, they didn't really know what to do. So I was around and they asked me to change the strings on their guitars [laughs]. They basically didn't know how to. It was maintenance work and I was of course near poverty at the time. And then eventually I just hung around long enough and they asked me to be a full member.
I read that after your second grammy, Adam mentioned that you guys felt like you'd failed your senior year of high school, and you were quoted as saying that you wish you were in the studio right at that moment because you had a lot to prove. Did your feelings change at all after receiving each of the band's 6 Grammy's?
Well, yeah and no. I think each Grammy has sort of been like a mandate from everybody for us to prove ourselves. So I think winning those was great, but it also puts some extra pressure on us to continue to deliver good records, you know? So I'm always eager to move on to the next recording.
So then right after you get a Grammy, you just want to jump right back in the studio?
[Laughs]. Yeah, kinda. 'Cause then you sort of feel... That was a great moment, but then you already feel sort of... I dunno, I guess the other guys might not feel this way, but you feel sort of guilty. You're like, "Well, no. But there's so much more we gotta do." [Laughs].
Like saying you haven't reached your peak, pretty much.
No, I hope not. That's my biggest fear: That we've done that. 'Cause I'd like to continue to evolve. So hopefully we haven't seen the peak yet.
I read somewhere in an interview Adam Levine did in 2008 that he said that he believes the band is reaching its peak and may make one more album before disbanding. Is there any truth to that?
Yeah, I dunno. Yeah, he did say that. I don't think... I think we'll make at least a couple more records. I think that was something more impulsive that he said. But then again, who knows? [Laughs]. Maybe this is it. I hope not. But if it does happen, then I guess that's what'll happen. But I don't think that's his feeling these days.
Yeah, 'cause he said something like he doesn't want you guys to be like the Rolling Stones, where you guys are still touring in your 50's. So you guys still have a long way to go before you reach 50, I'm thinking.
Yeah, and I thought that a lot, especially when we were younger. I mean we're not spring chickens anymore. We're all like 31 now. When we were 23, it's hard to imagine wanting to do this forever, or seeing how that could even be possible. But the older I get, the more I realize it's like why would I wanna stop doing this, you know? I could never understand the Stones before, but I don't know at what point Mick and Keith would wanna stop doing it, 'cause it's really fun, you know? [Laughs]. I can see how... we'd need to take some longer breaks between touring so we could have some sort of other life outside of the band, 'cause we don't, really. But being on stage in front of people... as long as people want to continue to hear us, I don't imagine that like we'll get tired of playing or ever go away.
What inspired the new album name Hands All Over? What are your hands all over, exactly?
[Laughs]. Well, I guess you can use your imagination for that. All our titles are really hard. That was a song that came out of a session and we were just searching around for album titles and of course we looked through the song titles and that one seemed to just jump out the most as a good album title. It could mean a lot of different things, and that's always good, right? I guess our records have always been pretty eclectic and we tend to jump around stylistically a lot, with the unifying force being Adam's voice -- it kind of makes it possible for us to do a contemporary piece next to a power ballad, and it all sits. I think its our best recording so far. It sounds very much like Maroon 5, like you would expect us to sound. There's definitely some other moments on the record that sound like a different sort of Maroon 5.
So then what were your musical inspirations for this album?
Well, I think we're always... There's a handful of artists that are always really big for us and that are just so deeply embedded in our subconscious that we couldn't escape them like we tried. And that's The Beatles, Jimmy Wonder, The Police, Prince... those are some of the biggest ones. Well, you know and Mutt's [Robert Lange, their producer] influence you can really hear in this record. And I think just as soon as we found out we were working with Mutt, a lot of his influences started to creep in. In a weird way we were anticipating working with him, and I think in Adam's writing he started to emulate some of the artists that Mutt's worked with.
So then you have some AC/DC undertones?
There's one song -- which this seems so weird for us. I would've never seen this coming, but there's some Def Leppard undertones on one of the songs [laughs]. That's on "Hands All Over"... that's an AC/DC, Deff Leppard-esque... I mean there's big guitars, you know real anthemic sing along type of song that reminds me more of that era. And that's kind of new for us, we haven't really done that before.
I saw the video for "Misery" and Adam seems to get the crap beat out of him a lot. Is that a foreshadowing of what's to come in Hands All Over?
Well I think there's always... Adam seems to do his best writing when he's writing about his own personal turmoil. So for some reason, that's just where he draws his best stuff. So yes, there's more emotional beating up with Adam that will be chronicled in the rest of the record [laughs]. I'm not sure if there's any direct references to actual physical altercations, but, you know, these are metaphors [laughs].