Graphic Tales from the Road: Interview with James Black, from Finger Eleven

April 2, 2007 4:25 pm

Tags: creative connection, finger eleven, graphic tales, graphic tales from the road, interview, james black, lillian hawkins, music and art

This is the third edition of Graphic Tales from the Road exploring the "Dual Expression of the Creative Mind" as we get to know popular artists that express themselves both visually and musically.

For those that may not know, James Black is a guitar player for the band Finger Eleven and also the artist behind their album covers. Let's start with the obvious introductions...who is Finger Eleven?

Finger Eleven originated in Canada in 1994. Their first Album, Letter from Chutney was recorded under the name Rainbow Butt Monkeys, using money they won from a rock band search contest. The name was just one of those things that was funny at the time, when they were young. But, as the band matured they felt they needed to change and took on the name Finger Eleven. The change was not without its cost. Their Canadian record label dropped them and it took a while to reestablish themselves under the new name.

The meaning behind the name Finger Eleven, explained Scott Anderson, lead singer: "When everything is pushing you in one direction and your instinct drives you in another--that's finger eleven." The name change also marked a change in the band's sound which led to their breakthrough album Tip, released on Mercury Records in Canada in 1997 and re-released by Wind-Up Records in the United States in 1998.
(Finger Eleven - 2007)
Following the release of Tip, drummer Rob Gommerman left the band and was replaced by Rich Beddoe. In 2000 they released The Greyest of Blue Skies. Their 2003 release, of their self-titled album Finger Eleven, was very successful, with the single "One Thing" reaching #16 in the US charts. The band also recorded the song 'Slow Chemical' for WWE superstar Kane (which also appeared on the sound track of The Punisher), and the song "Sad Exchange" for 2003's Daredevil movie. An Elektra mix of the song "Thousand Mile Wish" was featured in the credits of the 2005 movie Elektra. The song "Stay In Shadow" made an appearance as one of the music tracks to the video game, Burnout 3, and "Good Times" in SSX 3. Three of their songs were also featured in the GameCube game 1080? Avalanche.

Their songs "First Time", "Stay And Drown" and "Drag You Down" were featured on the Dragon Ball Z Movies Lord Slug and Revenge of Cooler. Their most recent album titled Them vs. You vs. Me was released on March 6, 2007. The first single is "Paralyzer", which can be sampled at the band's official web site.

The band played "Paralyzer" on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on 14 March 2007 and is now on tour with Evanescence until the end of May. Renderosity caught up with them while there were here in Nashville on March 28th. We wanted to know more about the man behind their album art and a guitar from Finger Eleven, James Black.

Hi James, I would like to introduce you to about 200,000 friends, fellow artists and musicians!

Thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I know you and the rest of the band must be pretty busy with the release of your new album that just came out March 6th. I really appreciate you taking the time to visit with us.
So, let's get this show on the road!

Who is James Black? How would you describe yourself?
Oh Christ! [laughs]...I don't know...I guess, I would say...quiet to people that don't know me. A kind of visual oriented person who happens to know how to play guitar. I often describe things in visual terms rather than musical terms.

Which came first for you, the music or the art?
I think music. I started playing guitar when I was eight years old. I started to take lessons. It was hard, I learned how to play the guitar but didn't really make that connection to the music I was hearing. Like I didn't get the idea that this instrument does this and this instrument makes this sound.

I learned guitar and then after that I really started getting into drawing. My dad used to draw the coolest, styled things that always stuck with me. He did some drawings of some Star Wars characters and other stuff for me and I remember going "Oh my God! My dad's a genius!" Then I started to draw trying to copy what I remember that looked like.
Then I discovered rock and roll and kind of made that "Hey, wait! I know how to do that!" connection to the guitar...and then went back to music. So, I would have to say it was music first. But, it was more like it was guitar first, then art, then the actual music came later. I was a little kid and at first I didn't know anything except the mechanics of the guitar. It wasn't til Guns N' Roses, Appetite for Destruction and Metallica's ...And Justice for All that I made the connection that I could apply what I knew about guitar and said "I can do this".

Do you have any formal training in art or music?
No. In music I had six years of guitar lessons and then I kind of stopped for about four years. Then for art, I took it in school. But, that was just 'cause it was an easy credit. I would think to myself, "Hey I can draw. I can't really paint well, but I can draw! So I could sign up to get an easy 80% grade." I did take classes, but at the time, I was one of those kids that felt "I just want to create, I don't want to take lessons! I don't want the art teacher to tell me how to do things." You know, that whole...spiteful, young artist thinking. Probably all useful information. But, at the time I didn't want to hear it.
I understand that you created all your bands album covers, is that correct?
Yes, but this thing that I do with the art, there is no pressure to it really. The band relies on me to play guitar, so there's this freedom to it. That even if I do it and it's no good, there's no consequence. So, that's what this opportunity of being in a band and actually having to create art work for t-shirts and art work for album covers is so cool. Because if it doesn't work out and it doesn't look good...oh well. We can always go the same route as most every other band and find someone else to do it. But, if it does [look good] 'hey', that's cool, too. I kind of took advantage of the fact that no one was ever really ever counting on me for art. So, I could just do it and have that creative freedom to do it and relax with it.

And that's the thing, I've had people that have wanted me to draw them a tattoo or something and the minute someone says "Draw this", then I shut down. I can't do it. It's like this carving kind of thing. I don't know exactly what I'm going to do when I start, it just kind of happens and flows as I'm
doing it. I can't sit down and go "I'm going to draw that exact thing right there". As soon as I do, I'm this sucks. Its difference between creation and reproduction? Exactly!

So, to answer your question, no I never really bothered with any formal training for art, because I always felt like it didn't really matter if I was any good at it or not. There was no pressure to it, so why bother.

So there was no pressure for you when you created any of the album covers?
Well, this time was a little more...challenging. Like the last record [titled Finger Eleven] I did the whole thing by hand myself. The one before that [The Greyest of Blue Skies] I originally did in black and white and then I found this guy online who is an oil painter. I asked him to paint the whole black and white scene in color. Then the Tip cover I did as a collage and drew over it. It turned out really cool. But when it came to this record, I was kind of set to do the same kind of thing. And, I dunno, my style of art is kind of darker than our music and sometimes doesn't completely reflect the color or the feel of the music. I encountered that on this record because it is happier and more bouncy. So when it came time for the art work for this latest album, I kind of panicked for a little bit because I didn't know what to do that would fit.

It took a long time to write the record. And, after all that time, it was like what could I put on the cover of it? The cover is the first impression. I wanted something consistent and thought the one thing that is consistent on this album is the five of us. The rest of it is random musically. So, I wanted something that was just about the five of us and for it to be something more artful.
It's interesting, this cover sparked a whole new side of me. We went to do the photo shoot and I started to like direct the photo shoot. I knew what I wanted for the art work and it was amazing! You don't have to actually do anything, you are like a voice, guiding the action. I was exilarated by it. Down the to camera angles I wanted, saying "Do this, do this!" It opened up a new avenue to potentially directing in the future.

You mentioned you have a dark side to your work. Who or what inspires you artistically?
M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali, those are the easy ones. Tim Burton, I don't necessarily love all the movies, but if you turn the sound off every frame of his movies looks amazing. Terry Gilliam, he did that movie "Tide Land", I don't know if you've seen it, but it's awesome. It's this story of this little girl and a rock-n-roll dad. I've been following this director for years. My friend Dean, is an associate artist and he worked on that movie. So it was one of those things where I'm excited because my friend is involved. What else...what else...anything else that looks cool to me. All the old Jim Henson movies, "Dark Crystal" kind of stuff. Tolkien conceptual art. I grew up with a lot of fantasy stuff like that, so I love elves and dwarfs, dragons and all that stuff. Frank Miller and his "300" stuff. That guy is amazing! When you see a frame and most of the scene is black with just the siloette of a face and it looks stunning! I think..."Wow! How do you draw that?!" It's cool really.

Have you been involved with making any videos?
I've done a couple of videos. But, I've never directed a crew of people. I did a stop motion video for a song on the last record. Which was like, done with no money and no budget and we had to put together this video with behind the scenes footage. But, the minute you see a video like that you think "This man had no money and no budget and pieced together some shitty video for himself."

So, I took all that video footage, which was shit to begin with, with crapy shots and I printed that whole video out on sheets of paper...some 3,000 pages worth of paper and placed all over the floor of my apartment. I made a stop motion movie of papers scattering and flying all over the place in my apartment. So, it ended up as a video, but it was choppy stuff.

What software/equipment do you use and why?
Mostly deep black pen, white out and paper. Sometimes a sharpy. I think that's why my work ends up having that dark, choppy look to it. I don't make big, bold lines. I make small, scratchy lines. It ends up looking all dishevelled and unfinished. It's not tidy and stream lined. I guess it's a little bit ugly in a sense, less pretty, less happy.

I've tried acrylic paints and had fun with it. But, it seems to me the pen is the most controlled thing I can use. Everything I do in my life is right handed. I play guitar right handed, I eat right handed, I even write with my right hand. But, I draw left handed. So, when I would try to paint, I would try it right handed, because the paint brush is another thing, another tool. It wasn't until I realized what I was doing that I was like "Wait! I'm a left handed drawer. But, I couldn't really control the brush any better left handed." [laughs]

I also use Paintshop and a Wacom tablet. It took a couple of hours of learning how to draw here, and look there to get the hang of that tablet. But once I figured out the mechanics it made me think that I could be the shitty artist in the world and these programs could make whatever I do look good! The shapes and the strokes of the lines were awesome! It made me feel like I was an amazing artist.
With the Internet, its kind of cool. You can get all kinds of things and put stuff together really fast. I made my own Christmas cards using Paintshop and made a collage, then printed them out and drew on top of that. It gave the whole thing a really cool, unified look.

I also did some animations with Corel Painter. I did this series of this guy on a journey to plant a seed. The last stage of it was the seed growing into a tree. So I used that Wacom thing for that and it was amazing. The was cool. Me and my pal also shot some other videos and shorts. If you go to You Tube, Finger Eleven, The Telephone, you can see them there. There's like eight of them. That's something I've been getting into a lot more...videos. It's because it's like a natural extension. I can draw these pictures, now I want to see them move.

So, what are you using for video editing?
iMovie, and lately I've been using Sony Vegas to work on the video for the title track from our album Them vs. You vs. Me. We have this video guy out here with us and that's what he uses, Sony Vegas. I didn't know anything about video editing and just from working with the programs figured them out. But Sony Vegas is much better. In iMovie can have one clip, in Final Cut, Sony Vegas has multiple clips overlapping.

When will we get to see this new video? Is there a release date set?
There's no date really. Just whenever it gets done. My friend works for an animation studio in Toronto and he and I are working on creating our own video. Once I get done shooting the videos sections. He's create the animated sequences. It's kind of a "Fantasia", abstract animation. I can't wait to see what happens with it and how it will turn out. Ever since we were kids, me and my friend Paul, who is now an animator, wanted to collaborate on something and now we finally have a chance. But, it's kind of funny, when we were young, he wanted to be a rock-n-roll guitar player and I wanted to be an artist so bad. And now he's an artist and I'm a rock-n-roll guitar player. [laughter] But, he's a far better artist than I am...but, I'm a better guitar player [grins].

Do you ever listen to music while creating art? If so, do you have a preference of music while you are creating?
Oh yeah, instrumental stuff a lot, a group called "Kronos Quartet." They're a string quartet, but they're not a classical though. They're a little bit out of tune and discordant which makes their music kind of creepy. Then there is "Crime and Dissonance," which is a compilation of a lot of movie soundtracks. There's that and a band called "Godspeed You Black Emperor". Their album, F# A# (Infinity), actually made me stop drawing because I just had to sit back and absorb it all. It was the closest thing I've had to a musical religious experience.

Has any piece of art ever inspired you to create music? If so, what?
Oh...yeah. The movie 2001, M.C. Escher. I suffer from this deal where about 10 minutes into a movie my creative process starts coming up with ideas and I start thinking, hey when this [the movie] is done I can go create this thing I just thought up. I usually can't even watch the second half of a movie because it is constantly sparking my creative process.

It's great seeing people live their dreams. I see you have been recording music and making records for quite some time now, what about 13 years?
Actually, I guess it's been about 15 years all together from the time we very first started. It's weird, because at first I was worried that somewhere, somehow, someone was going to figure it out and say "Hey, get back to real life! Now we've been doing it so long, I guess that's not going to happen. We've done it! We've made this our real life. It's a dream come true. It's awesome.

(James Black holding his RenderWear)
Any parting "words of wisdom" or advice you would like to share with other artists or musicians?
Just do it. Just do it as much as you can. Do it as though there is no consequence all the time, as much as you can and worry about all the other stuff later.

Check out the Finger Eleven's official website at

All images within this article are copyright and used with permission from Wind-up Records and James Black.
Any use of these images without written permission is prohibited.
Music copyrighted by Finger Eleven and may not be redistributed without express written consent.

  Graphic Tales from the Road
Industry News and What's Happening

"Dual Expression of the Creative Mind"
featuring James Black from Finger Eleven
Published: April 2, 2007
Lillian Hawkins
Marketing Manager

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Article Comments

Revelation-23 ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 02 April 2007

Always great to hear from bands I listen to in a different light than the usual music based interviews. Any chance we can get you to show off some of your other stuff here, James?

StaceyG ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 03 April 2007

Great interview:)

Brandi ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 04 April 2007

So excited to see this interview here, as Finger Eleven is one of my favorite bands! Really, really enjoyed reading this! Thanks for taking the time, James! Keep up the great work!

nickcharles ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 04 April 2007

Absolutely fantastic interview, Lillian! Great to see you back with another exciting Graphic Tale From the Road :) James- great to get to know you, and I love your cover work! Great words of wisdom: "Do it as though there is no consequence..." Lots of luck on the tour! I'll definitely be checking out the new CD.

Burpee ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 April 2007

Interesting read about the band and your cover work is excellent and imaginative. Thanks for the interview!

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 05 April 2007

James, I was enthralled by your bands video for Thousand Mile Wish. You mentioned in the interview that your artwork is influenced by M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali I was curious if your interest in surreal art also influenced the Thousand Mile Wish music video? Also, what was the back story for that specific video? Thank you Lillian, for bringing us another interview delving into the magical mixture of art and music. Dee-Marie

Tephladon ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 06 April 2007

HA! Who would have thought! I saw you guys in Brixton London at the Brixton Academy when you were on tour with Evanescence back in 2004. Great show. I immediately went out and purchased your CD. Very animated guitarist :). I now live in Dallas Texas and am waiting the next time you come to town. A act worth seeing. Great music and great fun. It's refreshing to see people whom I've admired from afar here among us. Fantastic art. Looking forward to seeing more.

inshaala ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 07 April 2007

I have yet to find someone who, after i have introduced them to finger eleven, doesn't like their music. I was unaware of the source of their album cover art, and so it was great to read this article... so, james - when are you signing up to rendo? ;)

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