James Casey has made quite the name for himself lately. As a previous member of the Lettuce/Soulive family, he’s been an official member of Trey Anastasio Band for the last few years, and is currently wrapping up his first full tour with pop star Meghan Trainor. Hired as a saxophone player for the Trainor tour, Casey now sings John Legend‘s verses for the radio hit “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” in their live performances. The two-time Grammy nominated Berklee graduate, who grew up playing in his family’s church choir, has seen quite the diversity in his accomplishments. A go-to player for all things musical, meet James Casey.
Live For Live Music: Can you tell us about your very first experience with music?
James Casey: No, but my dad tells this story all the time of me … My dad was a choir director at the church that we grew up in and my mom played piano, and obviously when they’re both at choir rehearsals, the kids had to be there too. They had me and my brother and my sister there. I was 2, my brother was 4, my sister was just born, something like that.
They had rehearsal and my dad was teaching a song and apparently I just busted out laughing and couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. He came over and was like, “Hey, what’s wrong? What are you doing? What are you doing?” I said, “The tenors are off.” I just kept laughing. That was at 2. I don’t know the veracity of it, but my dad’s been telling that story since I was a kid.
L4LM: Did they start you on an instrument or were you gravitated towards something in particular?
JC: The first instrument I picked up was drums. I was probably three when I first started playing. I would just sit behind the drummer at church and literally just watch him. My whole goal back then was to be able to play for my dad’s choir. Yeah, I was like a little kid, that’s how it all started! That was the end all and be all for me at the time. That was my goal.
L4LM: When did you finally reach that goal?
JC: When I was 9. Well, 8 really, but 9, I guess. I got my first drum set when I was 9, but I was that kid who would like build a drum set out of pillows and blocks and pots and pans or whatever, and when I finally got my first set was when I first got my first gig playing at a church.
L4LM: Did you ever see yourself becoming a touring musician?
JC: Man, I was supposed to be the best football player ever. That’s what I wanted to be. In my mind, football was it, you know? Music was just something I really liked to do, but football, that was going to be my ticket. I was going to make it and blah blah blah. Then I got hurt my freshman year in high school and all that just ended. Can’t really play football when you’re a 13 year old with a torn ACL.
L4LM: So when did saxophone come into the mix?
JC: I started playing saxophone the same year I got my drum set when I was 9. When I was in 2nd grade, my brother was in the 5th grade and started playing saxophone in the school band. But in 2nd grade I was 6, so I didn’t really have any front teeth at all, so I couldn’t play it. He brought it home to play and everybody, my sister even, got to play it. I didn’t get to play it and I was really really sad about that.
When the time came for me around 5th grade, I had to play the saxophone. I could have played anything, but I really wanted to play the saxophone just because I didn’t get a chance to do it back then. I mean, we were broke. My mom said – I remember this plain as day – she said, “If we rent you this saxophone, you can’t quit.” So, yeah. My brother quit after that one year, so I kept it up.
L4LM: And here we are. The first time I remember hearing your name was when you were playing with Soulive and Lettuce. Tell us how you went from playing in the church band to with some of the funkiest bands in all the land?
JC: Well, there’s this club in Boston called Wally’s. Wally’s is where Lettuce came out of. Up until recently, any instrumentalist who was worth anything that came out of the Berklee, N.E.C., Boston place, they all had a night at Wally’s. When I first got to school there, Sam Kininger had a night at Wally’s. Sam Kininger is the old saxophone player for Lettuce and Soulive, in fact the original- him and Zoidis.
Sam was up there and I had no idea who Soulive or Lettuce or any of that was, so as an 18 year old, people got me into the little small club and I would just stand up right next to the stage because I was 18 and not 21. I’d watch Sam play twice a week every week on Sunday nights and Tuesday nights, never, ever making my 9 o’clock class on Monday or Wednesday because we all were out there until 2:30 – I was taking it all in. I had learned vocabulary there. After I left, I was in a band with Louis Cato, who’s now my brother in law.
So me and Cato went to school together then we worked in a band together called Six Figures and we all lived together in this house in Brooklyn when he had just started playing with Eric Krasno in Chapter 2. Krasno was starting up this new group called Chapter 2 and Cato was playing either bass or drums depending on the situation, I don’t remember which one. They had a show and there was a little after party thing – this was in 2009. There was an after party.
They invited me and I went to it, you know, and at the after party they had a band setup set up so me and Cato just went up there and wrecked shop. That was the first time they all heard me play. That year from 2009 to 2010 New Year’s was mostly the first gigs that I played with Lettuce and Soulive. I was subbing for Ryan Zoidis, and that was my first foray into Lettuce and Soulive and all that.
Right after that, Sam decided he was going to take a hiatus and I literally got a phone call at midnight asking me if I could fly out to L.A. the next day and then learn all this music on the flight because Lettuce and Soulive were on tour and they needed a saxophone player. That was it.
Learned all the music that night and played it the next day. I was playing with them for the next four years.
L4LM: How did that turn into your gig with Trey Anastasio Band?
JC: Okay. I want to say the third Bowlive … 2012, Jennifer Hartswick was a special guest, and I’d never met Jennifer, I didn’t know who Trey [Anastasio] was, I didn’t know who Phish was, I mean, I had heard rumblings of something called Phish because I had started playing all these festivals with Lettuce, but I really had no idea. Jennifer had never seen or heard me play before, and I’d never seen or heard her play before, so we just kind of kicked it off and I was like, “Yo, you sound great.” And we were both like, “Yo, we should talk and play.” “That’s cool, let’s play.”
That year at Jazzfest, I saw her again. I saw her and I met Natalie [Cressman] there as well, and again, I had no idea who they were and I was joking, I said, “Hey, Jennifer. This is the year of James getting all the gigs. Let’s all get gigs for James.” Like in a joking manner, of course. But she said, actually, I’ve submitted your name for a few things, so I said, “Well, I appreciate it!”
Cut to August, I was in Arizona writing an album and I got a text message that woke me up from Jennifer saying, “Trey’s about to call you.” I didn’t know who Trey was, and then I got a phone call. I was asleep, I was tired, I didn’t answer it. It went to voicemail and it was this dude on the other end, it was like, “Hi. This is Trey Anastasio. I have a band called Phish and I want to talk to you about joining my band the Trey Anastasio Band. Give me a call when you get a chance, blah blah blah blah blah … ” Okay. I woke up, listened to the recording, turned my phone off and went back to sleep. I didn’t know who he was. It didn’t matter.
Later I wake up and then I called up Adam Deitch because I was sure that he would know who this other person was or who these people were. I called him and said, “Yo, who is this person?” He just kind of flipped out. He was very happy for the whole situation.
L4LM: Given the extremity of this offer, was it easy for you to make a decision?
JC: I mean, at the time, nothing overlapped. Any time that there were Trey shows, there were no Lettuce shows, so it was just kind of sure, why not? I wasn’t positive on doing it at first, but then Deitch and Kraz were like, “No, you have to. You have no choice. You have to join this band. You have to, you have to.” To their credit, they’re definitely two of the reasons why I was in that band at all.
L4LM: How did you deal with the transition from touring with a band like Lettuce to going on the road with Trey’s band? Musically, they are different. But also the whole logistical side of it was probably a lot different than what you were used to – getting a phone call and flying across the country to join a funk band.
JC: Well, yes. Everything I had done up until that point, and even through now is just kind of like a stepping stone in a sense that the next thing is just a little bit bigger, you know? Overall, just a little bit bigger.
I was in a pop rock band right after school and we were touring around in an SUV, in a Toyota Highlander. There were five of us and we were carrying a trailer up and down the east coast. I go from there to Soulive and Lettuce and from there to Trey. Those were pretty interesting leaps. It’s not necessarily musicality, because music is music. It’s more just a leap of … without making it sound too fucked up, it’s just a leap of money. You know? Financial backing. That’s definitely a big thing. The amount of people you’re playing in front of, everything. It’s a huge difference.
L4LM: You were on Paper Wheels and Big Boat, correct?
JC: Yeah. I got a pretty interesting story about that whole thing.
I’m on my way to do this Phish record, going to the studio for Big Boat. While I’m on my way there, I get a phone call from a friend of mine who’s a producer asking me if I could put together some singers for a song to go into the studio. We were in the studio for a day already, so we had this one day before I had to leave town the next day to go on tour. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. I can put something together for you. I can’t do it, but I can put something together.” So I put these singers together for this song that needed to be re-cut and what not and it turns out … I mean, I put my sister on it because my sister can sing really well. It turns out that it’s Chance the Rapper‘s new single. It was his new single and is now up for a Grammy, so now my sister’s nominated.
L4LM: Wow. That’s incredible.
JC: Yeah, so, that’s pretty cool. I was literally in the studio with Phish while I was dealing with that.
L4LM: Then you left for Trainor tour. How did that come to be?
JC: I have some great friends, I have some great friends. I went to school with a lot of musicians who are great musicians already, but they’re some great friends too. We all kind of look out for each other. When there are things that we can’t do, we put each other on just so everybody comes out. I have some friends who have been trying to put me on pop tours for years. I’ve always said no for one reason or another, but this time I had no reason to say no. I got a phone call and he was like, “Yo, man, can you do it?” I looked at my schedule and I said, yeah. The things that I have, I can move around, so let’s see what happens. It’s been way more than I was ever expecting it to be, so it’s a pretty interesting scenario.
L4LM: Are you happy with that decision?
L4LM: Did they hire you knowing that you could also sing on top of playing the sax?
JC: About a month into the tour, we were having a soundcheck. We do this thing called soundcheck parties where people who paid for VIP tickets can come and watch us do a soundcheck. We were doing that and the band was playing something and I was messing around singing into my saxophone microphone, and [Meghan Trainor] had her in-ears on and so she could hear it and I didn’t know she could hear it and I didn’t even know she was around. She comes around on stage in her onesie with her arms wide screaming, “Oh my God, James! You sing, I didn’t know!” I was like, wow, that’s what’s up. She’s like, “You’ve got to sing a song with me. You’ve got to sing a song with me.” I’m like, “Ha ha ha ha ha. Sure, of course.” In the back of my mind, I figured there was no way. She’s going to forget this tomorrow.
The next time we had soundcheck, she’s like, “James, you just let me know when you’re ready.” I’m like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll let you know.” Literally the next day, she’s like, “James, I’m serious. You let me know when you want to sing.” I’m like all right, okay. Okay. This is more than enough time for her to be safe, but she’s still bringing it up, number one. Number two, I felt like I would really regret it if I said no.
I watched this movie that Trey actually got me onto. It’s called 20 Feet From Stardom. It’s about all the people who were background singers who wanted to be leads and they never got the opportunity to literally just step on stage, and I’ve had all these crazy opportunities and I’ve always said no. So this time I said, why not? That’s really why that happened.
L4LM: Obviously, the size of the room has increased enormously from the church to these huge stadiums and arenas. I can’t even imagine what that’s like for someone who originally wanted to play football.
JC: Yeah, I mean, I was thinking about this the other day and I actually called my mom to talk to her about it. It’s like everything that I’ve gone through, musically – even the “failures” that I’ve had – really really positive things have come from it all. Everything that I’ve really put my mind to when it comes to music stuff has come into fruition pretty much. Some things have taken a lot longer than others, but it’s kind of nuts. It’s easy for me to not think about it like that, and just say like, okay the day to day to day, what am I doing tomorrow? What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?
A couple of days ago, I was sick in my room, so I couldn’t really do anything. I couldn’t go out or go to the studio or anything, so I was actually thinking back on everything that I really wanted to do musically, from way back when I was a kid from playing in my dad’s church to when I wanted to play a saxophone solo one day in a jazz band to when I wanted to see what it’s like to go on tour to when I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to write my own music, I wanted to be on the radio, I wanted to … It’s all pretty much happened.
L4LM: Today you’re a two-time Grammy nominee (J Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Trey Anastasio Band’s Paper Wheels). Have you received any particular advice that has really stuck with you? Or was there an experience that particularly affected you?
JC: As far as experiences are concerned, every experience changes your course in a little way, whether you want it to or not. I would say to just be open to whatever comes your way, because you never really know what’s going to lead to what. For instance, the trumpet player that I brought with me on this tour, he was a Julliard student, and he played trumpet in my boy Igmar [Thomas]‘s big band, which I mean, we all do it because we love music and Igmar’s a homie and it’s a lot of fun, but it doesn’t pay very much. It doesn’t pay very much, and it’s a nice amount of commitment for something that doesn’t pay that much, but we did it anyway, and we do it anyway, and that’s where I met him. Him doing that one 70, 75 dollar gig made it so that he can do all this other stuff, because I wouldn’t have known who he was if he didn’t do it. So, number one, say yes. Say yes to whatever musical opportunities that won’t be detrimental to your health. There’s a lot of bad music out there too.
The thing that it took me a really long time to understand … or really grasp a hold of … is the concept that failing is fine. It’s okay to fail, you know?
We’re all going to fail, but how you respond to that failure is what changes your life, you know? I mean, I’ve failed so many times … There are videos of me playing awful, awful, awful solos, there’s videos of me singing terribly, and it’s all documented because everything’s documented and it’s just terrible. I’ve done shows with my own band that had more people in the band than the audience. I’ve done all sorts of stuff, so I’ve realized that if things don’t necessarily end up the way you want, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing. If you keep at whatever it is you’re trying to do, chances are you’ll get to where you’re trying to go if you put enough work into it.
L4LM: Tell us what’s been the best experience in your career thus far.
JC: The best moment of this past year on stage was in Madrid with Meghan Trainor. We played the Barclaycard Center to like 18,000+ and at the time it was the biggest single room I’d ever played. The surreal part was going out to sing the duet (“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”) with her, and the stage had a catwalk into a big circle at the center of the arena. It’s a ballad, so people turn their phone flashlights on. Having all those people in a room surrounding you and singing all the words to a song that’s not their original language…was amazing. It was one of those times in life where after it’s over, you kinda sit back and log it away to think on later.
L4LM: And what’s the craziest moment of your career been?
JC: The craziest moment of my career came in 2009. The Roots had recently moved to NY to do the Fallon show and they were doing a ‘jam session’ every Wednesday at Highline Ballroom. (I wouldn’t really call it a jam session since there were around 1000 people there every week, with lots of special guests and artists there all the time.) Thanks to Meghan Stabile (founder of Revive Music) and Igmar Thomas, he and I played many weeks with them as the horn section along with others who were either locals or on tour and passing through.
This particular time, Igmar and I were playing with 1 or 2 other horn players who were having a very difficult time hearing and playing back the horn parts I was coming up with (side note: a lot of times, especially in situations like this, we make up horn lines on the spot and play/harmonize them immediately. It’s not something everyone can do offhand, but it is a vital part of being a horn player and a necessary skill). I was frustrated with the horn players who weren’t getting it quickly enough to play, so i walked to the back of the stage, stood next to Questlove and seethed internally while I contemplated the fact that something had to change. Then something did. It just so happened that night was less than a week after Michael Jackson died and everyone was still kinda in shock about it. While I was standing back next to the drums, The Roots went into a Jackson 5 song. I don’t remember exactly which one but I do know that there was no lead player/singer as the whole crowd was singing. Then, they went into “I’ll Be There”. Kirk (The Roots’ guitar player) has a pretty high singing voice and he started the song out singing MJ’s part. I was singing the whole time next to Questlove and when Jermaine (Jackson)’s part of the song came up, he pointed to me to sing it in his mic. So I did. Thing is…it happens twice in the song. When it came up again, he told me to go to the front of the stage and sing it….so I ran up and did it. I had never really sang lead in front of people at the time, but I was too scared to be nervous and it was too surreal to think about, or I would have probably been terrified. Song’s over, and I put the mic on the stand thinking it’s over…then they go into another MJ song. I know the words, so I sing again. And again. And again…I must’ve sang like 5 MJ songs cause I knew the words to everything they played. I remember trying to get both Louis Cato and Gretchen Parlatto (both waaaaaaayyyy better singers than I am) to come up and help, but they waved me off to keep going…..That was the night I decided to be an artist, not just a musician.
L4LM: You’re on the second leg of MT tour right now. Are you going to stick with it? Will you be doing any of the upcoming TAB shows?
JC: After this leg of Meghan’s tour ends, I will be doing the Trey tour. Unless something crazy happens between now and then, I’ll be doing the Trey tour. And that’s where I’ll leave that.
L4LM: I’m curious about the status of your solo project, Animus Rexx.
JC: Okay, so one of the reasons why I took the Meghan Trainor tour in the beginning was because it’s hard funding your own band. It’s extremely hard to fund. Everything’s expensive, everything costs so much money. When you’re taking gigs to pay for other gigs, it’s hard to accumulate. So the goal, as of today, is that I’ll be finished with this tour and everything that I have to do at the beginning of next year. Then, I’ll be putting as much time as I possibly can into Animus Rexx and other projects that have had to go on the back burners because, you know, a freaking 8, 9 month tour.
L4LM: Sounds like next year is the “Year of James Casey.”
JC: It’s going to have to be. It’s going to have to be.
L4LM: Or really, every year is the “Year of James Casey.”
JC: It is, man. Next year, I’m looking forward to it. Everybody’s way more excited than I am. I’m just a little apprehensive about what’s going on, but everybody’s really excited to see what’s coming up and things are coming into place and hopefully stuff gets to a point where everybody knows who James Casey is.