Ethan James is a curious figure, an artist who spent years playing, producing and engineering other people's music before finally finding his own muse. Born Ralph Burns Kellogg, he spent time as a teenager in San Francisco R&B bands in the early-'60s and joined Blue Cheer in 1969, shortly after the group found success with their cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues." He remained with Blue Cheer, touring and recording, until their breakup in 1971. After spending the remainder of the '70s playing in Los Angeles-area country & western bands, he changed his name and rose to prominence in 1980 as the owner of Radio Tokyo Studios. James' partner in the studio, who was supposed to handle some of the bookings, broke his leg and was unable to drum up business. Since the studio was empty, James invited a local band called the Unclaimed to make a record for free just because he liked their sound. The resulting EP captured the band well and brought James to the attention of up-and-coming producer Bill Inglot. Through Inglot's connections, James was referred to many bands in the paisley underground and punk scene and he engineered albums for the Last, the Bangles, Rain Parade, and several other groups.
Once, when things were slow, James decided he wanted to try producing an album himself and he called up the Minutemen and asked them if they were interested in being on a compilation. That was the beginning of The Radio Tokyo Tapes, a series that ran into four full-length releases and one double CD, which documented the L.A. scene like no other project. It was also the beginning of an association with bands on the SST label and with the Minutemen, for whom James recorded Double Nickels on the Dime. By the mid-'80s, Radio Tokyo was a prestigious studio and James had several assistants, many of whom went on to careers in the music industry. It wasn't particularly profitable, though, and James was getting tired of an L.A. rock scene that he considered stagnant and predictable. He had also discovered early music, and after his days of engineering rock bands, he was listening to ensembles that featured medieval viols, krummhorns, and hurdy-gurdies. The curious drone of the latter instrument fascinated him, and he first bought one and taught himself to play it, then built another. He sold Radio Tokyo Studios in late 1989 and focused on creating his own music.
James teamed up with chanteuse Erin Kenney and recorded two albums that are a curious amalgam of medieval and modern music. Both sold moderately well and got appreciative critical attention and the duo toured Europe and America. The pair broke up due to creative differences, and James played several gigs in the L.A. area with an ensemble of medieval instrumentalists playing ancient, modern, and avant-garde music. The group elicited a mix of appreciation and confusion among audiences as they opened for art rock and punk bands, but, unfortunately, they recorded no albums at this time. James did session work with his hurdy-gurdy both for film scores and backing rock artists like Jerry Giddens, Seventeen Pygmies, the Wild Colonials, and the Jackson Del Ray Band. His interest in Middle Eastern music came in useful as he played with Ofera Haza and Nusrat Fatteh Ali Khan on Jonathan Elias' Prayer Cycle CD. He was undoubtedly the only working rock hurdy-gurdy player in Los Angeles at this time, and many people who had never seen one got their first exposure when they saw him cranking away at his instrument in some local club. In 1995 he released an album of original music, Shaking Hands With Kafka, which featured his hurdy-gurdy playing and original songs that were by turns gloomy, mystical, and humorous. Though it was on an obscure German label, it sold well enough that a follow-up was released, 1996's What Rough Beast.
In slack times, James also worked as a street musician and he recorded several tapes to sell cheaply at these informal gigs. At a friend's urging he sent his tape of holiday music to Rykodisc, which released it as The Ancient Music of Christmas. The CD received excellent reviews and sold well for a seasonal piece. In 2000, James began playing with the Terra Nova Consort, a group best known for their long-running association with the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. James played on their 1999 release Renaissance en Provence and toured with the group in 2000 and 2001. In June 2003, James quietly passed away in San Francisco after a brief battle with liver cancer. ~ Richard Foss, Rovi