Blowing In The Wind; An interview with Joshua P. James of Yellow Paper Planes

Columbus quartet Yellow Paper Planes is a bit of a musical enigma. They’re indie without being twee, heavy but not aggro. Some will describe them as pop for punks who like country, or folk for people who hate folk. With whatever label they emerge, one thing’s for sure: The band writes songs that stretch the boundaries and notions of any easy genre classification.
Re-forming after Joshua P. James and the Paper Planes’ dissolution, drummer Brandon Woods and frontman Joshua P. James picked up a new bassist, Peter Mendenhall (Go Analog, Hocking River String Band) and keys/guitar player, Jeremy Ebert (The Driftwood Motion) and began charting a newly invigorated course in the fall of 2013. A spiral fracture in Woods’ right hand put the skids on progress leading them into the studio, and after a tumultuous couple of years, the struggles provided James with new insight into his own strengths and weaknesses.
Dayton City Paper caught up with James to discuss Feathers Touch, the EP they recorded the winter of 2014 and self-released this summer and their forthcoming trip to Dayton.
What were your very first musical favorites? 
My first favorite musical artist was Weird Al. I remember being a small kid at a friend’s house and hearing “My Bologna” and becoming immediately enamored. I think that was the first music I was exposed to outside of my own household that really grabbed me, my first epiphany, so to speak. As an adolescent in a small town I was fortunate to have an older sister who was in to musicians so I got turned on to a lot formative music pretty early on via her boyfriends. One would hear me listening to Nirvana in my room and let me borrow a Pixies tape or a Fugazi record. Once she went to college I was being fed mix tapes with Built to Spill and Sunny Day and Sebadoh and Modest Mouse on them before I had a car to play the mix tapes in. I think it was a clandestine plot between my sister and her boyfriends to make me into the most pretentious teenager my sleepy Ohio town had ever seen.
Is Yellow Paper Planes the vehicle where you first found your footing as a singer-songwriter or have you done this before? 
This is probably a question better answered once I’ve found my footing, but to your point, I got started playing and writing pretty late in life, relatively. I didn’t attempt playing the guitar until I was shipwrecked on a couch in Moscow, Idaho, the summer after my junior year of college. Once I moved to Columbus, I performed solo for a couple years before putting out a record backed by my current drummer, Brandon Woods, and an upright bassist, Evan Parker.
YPP has been the first time I’m writing with a band, which has been invigorating and challenging, if at times frustrating because the holes I’m intentional leaving for a band need to be converted by the rest of the band in a way that resembles what I originally imagined. Sometimes that transference from brain to mouth to someone else’s brain to their fingertips leaves a lot of opportunities for leakage. Since the EP has been released, though, we’ve been putting things together really well, not needing to labor too much, which feels a bit like footing.
How does YPP fit into the larger Columbus music scene?
I think that’s also something we’re still figuring out. There’s always a ton of stuff ebbing and flowing in the Columbus scene and there’s room for every whim. I had a certain identity as a solo performer, which carried over into that three piece that made the solo-ish record. We played and toured on that a lot and it ran its course fairly naturally. In thinking about next moves, I didn’t want to make another solo record inspired by the dawn of rock n roll. It was a chance to change directions, let my hair down a bit.
YPP is still my songwriting but certainly our approach is dramatically different. There has been a lot of support for the shift in direction, but it’s taken a while for some to get hip to the fact that YPP isn’t just my solo stuff backed by a band. So all that is to say we’re still navigating.
What were you hoping to accomplish with the EP? Has it been well received by peers, critics and fans?
We took for what seemed like an eon to group and regroup and start to arrive at what I imagined for YPP, so the EP vs. a full length was sort of a move out of practicality. I felt like we needed to get something done and out to start passing around because the only recorded tunes at our disposal were the ones from the aforementioned solo-ish record, which I didn’t feel represented us well.
The plan with the EP was to create a sort of calling card, get some people talking about it and spinning a track or two as we geared up for the full length. That is still the plan, but the EP has gotten some interesting attention from a couple avenues we weren’t really ready to think about. So, that has us shifting the business mind a little and making more of a plan for the proper full length. I think people are going to dig what comes next.
Is there a theme or message you were hoping to communicate?
The theme of the EP is reckoning. Not in a “you tell ’em I’m coming and hell’s coming with me” sort of a way, but a more personal reckoning of themes that had occupied my head space for a while. Each song we chose for FEATHER’S TOUCH contains its own message in that way. It’s all stuff that is much closer to my vest than material I’ve written in the past.
You mentioned to another outlet that one of the songs was inspired by a health scare.  Has that passed?  How did that affect your psyche as a songwriter?
It hasn’t passed, but I’m living with it. The health issues have been around for a few years now, but I think early on I wasn’t ready to talk about how it all affected me. It was too close or too recent or I wasn’t confident enough as a songwriter to feel like I could address it effectively. It has come out in a few YPP songs now, however. Not all too overtly, but there’re a few lines or sentiments here and there that allude to it. It’d be silly for me to suggest that it hasn’t bent me up a little in the head.
How do you hope that people describe YPP to their friends?
I’m always interested to know what people think we sound like. If we’re chatting up folks after a show or the bartender at the end of the night, we welcome the one liners like, “you know you guys kinda remind me of [fillintheblank].” We’ve gotten a diverse assortment of those. Recently someone at a show in Canton pulled “early Neva Dinova” which is an interesting and not entirely inaccurate comparison, I suppose. We haven’t really come up with our own elevator pitch yet. I hope it’s hard enough to pin down, but engaging enough that people tell their friends that they just have to hear it or see it for themselves.

How did the “Ghost” video come about?  Are you pleased with it?
One thing we were missing in our package was a proper video. The track “Ghost” has been kind of a sleeper hit among people who really dig the EP, so I started working out the visuals and the narrative for a video. It may be lofty to assume anyone watches the video that closely or listens to the EP that intently, but there are several nods to other tracks on the EP in the “Ghost” video. Maybe they are super obvious and I overestimate my cleverness. I can’t say that’d be the first time that has occurred.
Josh Howey, the director did a great job editing it. We did all of the filming of the band members in half speed and then double timed the video to sync with the original audio track which gives it this twitchiness that he captured well. Our friends Remi and Teara, the actors, were real pros. Overall, I’m really happy with it.
Will this be your first trip to Dayton?
This will be the first time YPP has played Dayton. We’ve tried several times to tack a stop in Dayton onto small out of town trips, but haven’t been able to sync it up. So, this time we tossed out a few dates independent of any touring we were planning. We got Oct 23 to land and we’re pumped to turn it up at Blind Bob’s.
(Yellow Paper Planes performs at Blind Bob’s, 430 East Fifth Street, on Friday, October 23 at 9:00 pm. Colossal Brother, Pop Goes The Evil and Forage will also perform. The concert is open to ages 21 and up.)