Like many songwriters who spend most of their time developing ideas behind closed doors, James Nee hit a creative wall in the middle of making his debut album as Dream Shake. (In case you’re curious, the name’s a Hakeem Olajuwon reference.) So he did the first thing that came to mind: he put his pen down, ignored the incessant calls of his guitar, and spent a couple weeks watching the Summer Olympics.
“So many athletes do so much work only to end up in fourth or last place,” says Nee. “That idea made me feel really lazy and redundant; I said to myself that the best thing I can do for these Olympians is at least finish my record, so that I too can share a feeling of being judged.”
Which isn’t to say he walked away wanting a gold medal of his own or an album full of anthems about going the distance in that game called life. In fact, Dream Shake’s self-titled record isn’t as autobiographical as you’d think considering its tracklisting looks like a collect-‘em-all compilation of women who broke his heart over the past couple years. Since Nee is more of a pop culture junkie than the kind of indie rocker who refreshes Pitchfork’s homepage at least 10 times a day, the singer/multi-instrumentalist let Dream Shake’s songs connect the dots between his own personal experiences and the all-too-real storylines of characters from shows like Degrassi Junior High, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“It’s a concept record, but no one will get my references,” says Nee. “They’ll just think it’s a love album…I did it because TV, anime and videogames are all I know now. I’m too nerdy for real girls.”
Not that you’d know simply by listening to tenderized pop tunes like “Stephanie,” “Buffy” and the fuzz-engulfed “Samantha,” tracks that address universal themes like trust, fear and growing up way too fast through chromatic chords, elusive lyrics and a cracked TV screen. All of which are rounded out by the robust rhythms of Nee’s longtime friend Elliott; ask the Dream Shake frontman what their recording relationship is like and he’ll explain it in comic book terms. (Of course.)
“It’s more like Alfred and Bruce than Batman and Robin,” explains Nee. “Like if you take Robin away from Batman, Batman still kicks ass; if you take Alfred away from Bruce Wayne, Batman still exists physically but not mentally.”
The other thing that’s kept Nee’s current project more focused than his last one (We Are Trees) was the perspective-shifting act of helping his parents move back to Taiwan, a place the Virginia Beach native hadn’t been since his grandmother’s funeral many years before.
“All I did in Taiwan was connect with distant relatives and watch The X-Files,” says Nee. “I didn’t have time to worry about other things, so when I went back to Virginia, I sort of took that mentality with me. And now I feel like I’ve blocked a lot of trivial things from my mind that would normally really bug me. I’ve definitely evolved into a better James.
He continues, “I feel like I tried too hard with We Are Trees, like I had to be some ‘acoustic’ artist rather than just an…artist. Now I just want to make whatever music that I want.”