Even rappers get the blues: Exploring the emotional mechanics of James “The Machine” Shahan
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Beneath a tent skeleton of string lights on a small stage outside the Arts Factory, sweat and pomade mix to varnish James Shahan’s forehead. Half his audience sits in cliques of plastic lawn chairs, semi-circulating around him. The others stand, dancing the way you’d imagine people who don’t listen to rap music would dance to rap music. And it’s ironic, the way they happily and rhythmically bend their knees in the outfield. Because Shahan’s songs were all written when he was almost too depressed to write them.
Shahan, who calls himself Machine when he stands on a stage (also ironic, but we’ll get to that), started writing Selfish Bastard, his new album, shy of 20 months ago. He’d just moved to Las Vegas from his native California, and was so cripplingly depressed there was a real danger of the album, and its creator, not seeing 2012. “People would tell me to just use that to write,” he says. “But I just couldn’t.” He’d go on to say it was a collection of things. Mom. Dad. Money. Death. The rocks he stood on were chipping off at an alarming rate, and instead of making for powerful music, it made him worthless.
Learning all this gives the surrounding audience new roles. Now Shahan isn’t performing. He’s venting. This is his group therapy, and we’re his psychodynamic support. “I can say whatever’s on my mind, and it gives me the opportunity to be this very energetic, passionate, sometimes angry and sad individual,” he says. “People say when I perform it’s completely different from [how I act]. But it’s not. We all have countless dimensions.”
And therein lies the deeper layer to Selfish Bastard. This isn’t just Shahan’s first original full-length. At least, not totally. It’s a journal. One with pages that get ripped out, scanned, and thrown into an unsuspecting public — which responded a little differently than Shahan expected. “A lot of people have been able to relate to it in some way, which amazes me because when I was going through the things I wrote about, I felt like I was the only person on the planet who could possibly understand. If someone could listen to my music and feel like they weren’t alone, that’s what I was hoping for.”
The idea of a guy called Machine writing his defining material about having feelings strikes on the odd side of the spectrum. But the beats supporting the prose give it roots. Selfish Bastard is, if anything, mechanical. The snare patterns attack like pistons denting garage doors. Anything melodic is fuzzier than a six o’clock shadow. And curiously, the most percussive parts of the new album come from Shahan’s throat. The power and pressure he generates when saying words that start with P and B are the most honest portrayal of the pain he feels to say them. “Under all of it is a feeling of being alone,” he says. “So much of my songs are about wanting to be in love or ending my life and not being sure how I call tell these people who are counting on me.”
But as with a journal, eventually you get to the last page. And that’s what Shahan does here. The post-Bastard music is, comparatively, optimistic. It’s not his natural inclination; for two years, Shahan wrote nothing but sad music. It was his Catch 22: Sadness meant the pen kept moving. But it’s time to tear down the comfort zone and find a new muse. “I can’t keep doing bum-out music, and I don’t want to,” he says. “I don’t really know where I’m going from here, but I’m exploring and finding what sounds and feels good.”