If you ask James Buckley whether he defines himself as a musician or a talent buyer, he will reply with “musician” before you can even finish your question. On his way to band rehearsal with the Blenders, the musician sits in the window corner at Icehouse, a place he has helped curate, and recounts his last five years as the talent buyer at the Minneapolis venue.
Go in on any given night, and you won’t be disappointed. There, you will find established artists or up-and-comers filling the space stretched across genres to feature thrilling talent that clambers all over the stage. The reason that room is constantly abuzz with talent is because of James Buckley. He’s now been named one of the Growler’s Trailblazers of 2017.
As a kid in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Buckley grew up playing upright bass in orchestra and took advantage of free lessons from the legendary Jim Clute while in high school. Not satisfied with keeping his musical endeavors solely to school, he would approach local restaurants to see if they’d be interested in hosting live music and got his foot in the door doing rudimentary bookings in places like Cafe Havana.
When he made the move to the Twin Cities in ‘99, Buckley found his music community on his second day as a Minneapolis resident. He met JT Bates and Mike Lewis through a gig from Adam Linz. He and Bates found a musical kinship and relationship in the bowels of the Turf Club through Jazz Implosion nights in the Clown Lounge for many years until the Turf was sold. “That Monday night jazz series was gone,” Buckley remembers. “All of these bands that existed in that circle had nowhere to play, so I started booking Wednesday night at the Nomad to replace that.”
The Clown Lounge eventually returned, but soon after its return, Icehouse opened and Bates and Buckley found themselves working with Icehouse to fill the nights with music at the new venue. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs. “It was a leap of faith.”
Currently working on a new musical project with Tim Sparks, balancing music alongside his part-time job at Icehouse forces Buckley to compartmentalize everything in his life. Be it music, work, or his yoga time, everything has its time and place.
Buckley spends approximately four to five hours a day answering emails and sending out advancing for shows. Through his experience touring with the Pines, Gayngs, and Lizzo, he found the more streamlined the booking process, the better it is for everyone involved. Proper advancing alleviates show cancellations and helps musicians avoid forgetting their gigs.
“I don’t like talent buyers, so it’s funny I am one,” he admits. “I don’t like artist managers, nor do I like assistant engineers in recording studios. Because I have all of these parcels of information in my head from booking shows, I feel I can do it faster than involving other people. Everybody has been really accommodating to how weird my brain works.”
While venues want sold out shows every night, sometimes building a music community is just as crucial to a growing music scene. (Below, the scene during a typical night at Icehouse in December 2017.) Buckley will often seek out bands that he feels may deserve a chance; his main goal is to provide a platform for amazing artists. He cites a recent Saturday in September with Spank Rock and Velvet Negroni where there was only around a hundred people in the audience, but one that blew his mind with its energy.
Besides a draw or high energy, what’s the biggest factor Buckley looks for when booking? It has to be mutually beneficial for the venue and the artist; the night has to be a good investment for both parties to get the time slot.
Despite being in place in his position at Icehouse for the last five years, Buckley has only felt comfortable in his talent buyer role within the last six months, the reason being his recent sobriety.
“I stopped drinking in May,” he says. “Nothing bad happened. I wanted to spend a few more hours of my day on something, and that something is playing my bass everyday. I get up at 8 in the morning and practice until 11 or noon everyday. I’m getting used to the intensity of dating sober. Being a performer and Tinder don’t mix. That has brought me a new serenity and peace of mind. It’s the same with yoga. Yoga is technique-based. You find alignment in your joints, so they can support more weight. You can also use it to distribute weight and allow blood flow to happen by constricting muscles to let things push through or bring in oxygen. It’s a metaphor for life.”
When asked about the venue, the people behind Icehouse is always at the forefront when people bring up his success. “I have a part time job, and it’s one of the best ones you’ve heard of in your life,” he divulges. “I am not Icehouse. It’s a privilege. I wouldn’t be able to book these shows without what this gorgeous room — along with the food — has to offer. More than half the reason I succeed is because of this room, these people. I’ve only learned that over time. You know what creates a grain in wood? Time.”