November 8, 2016 is a day that is unlikely to be forgotten for quite some time, if at all.
Regardless of which side of the political aisle that you sit on, Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in the general election for the 45th President of the United States bears so much weight that it will probably never be too far removed from the center of public conciseness.
But for Seattle-based guitarist, songwriter and singer Jim Allchin, Nov. 8, 2016 means so much more than just donkey or elephant or red states and blue states.
After all, that’s when he was holed up in Nashville’s Blackbird Recording Studios, cutting his newest album, Decisions.
Although Allchin’s current long player is largely ‘apolitical’ in tone, the events of that day still managed to work their ways into the grooves of Decisions.
“The songs on the album are about a bunch of decisions that people make. This album was recorded during election week, so there’s songs that were recorded either on election day or the day after election day. That sort of has an influence on the record, because of how people were feeling then – either positive or not positive. But that did influence the record,” Allchin recently said. “A lot of songs on the album are about ‘should I do this or should I not do it?’ The first song on the album, “Artificial Life,” is about, how should you live your life? It’s difficult, you know? We all have jobs and we all have obligations and it’s good to go back and question them. Am I living my life authentically? Then to actually change that … it’s really difficult to do. All the songs have little connections into decisions, one way or another.”
With all that mind, it seems like Decisions was an apt choice for the title of Allchin’s follow-up to his 2013 disc, QED.
“It (the title Decisions) actually represents a lot. There’s lots of ways you can view this and from a marketing side, you could say this is ‘spin,’ but I don’t believe that at all. I’m a very straight-forward person and for me to get up the courage to do this … I mean, I’m a control freak and like to control everything. That’s how I’ve always been in my career. This was a decision to let loose and let Tom and others help direct where this project goes and the hope was that more brains are better than one brain. That’s what I learned out of this, but that was a big decision for me to make that choice to begin with.”
The ‘Tom’ that Allchin referred to is of course, Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, drummer and wunderkind Tom Hambridge.
There’s a myriad of reasons as to why Hambridge has worked with everyone from B.B. King to Lynyrd Skynyrd and beyond (Buddy Guy once coined Hambridge as ‘The White Willie Dixon”). To put it simply – he’s one of the best at what he does and his track record more than speaks for itself.
But the first thing that Allchin notes about working with Hambridge is the vibe that he gives off when the studio door is closed and the red light goes on.
“He’s the most patient, calming influence, ever. I’m pretty intense and Tom is just so patient and so chill. Yet, he’s hearing it all and suggesting things like trying a song without a metronome or a click track on it. There’s a song on the album called “Friends” and he said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to use a click on this, this is straight-ahead blues and we’re going to just see how it turns out.’ So we did the song without a click or a rhythm track at all … we just played it. And we only played it like twice. I would have felt uncomfortable trying that, but Tom said that it would work out and it did. And he encouraged me. My guitar playing may sound pretty intense, but I’m a pretty timid guy, all-in-all, especially when it comes to the singing part. But he got me to do it all.”
This wasn’t just another day at the office for Allchin. It was more like the difference between night and day.
As he tells it, this was a whole different way to approach recording than the way that he’s been accustomed to.
“This was a whole new experience for me. It was the whole ‘decision’, if you will, to get out of my comfort zone and go play with these incredible musicians. I’ve certainly played with some fantastic ones here in Seattle, but to pack up all my equipment and go there (Nashville) and then be on the spot in one of the best recording studios in the world, it was a little bit intimidating, no question,” he said. “But that was all a part of what I’m trying to do – push myself out of my comfort zone and see what I can do under the gun. I’d been working a lot on new material and when I went to Nashville to see Tom, I had like, 40 songs already. And then he listened to them and said, ‘OK, we’re going to write some and I love these and we’re going to save these for the next album.’ So we got a lot done – 16 songs in like six days, which was clipping along. Then we added some horns and some backing vocals after the fact.”
The end result is a major step forward – in a couple of different ways – for Allchin.
“Well, I really worked on songwriting. Here in town (Seattle), there’s a woman named Sue Ennis who teaches lyrics and songwriting and has done a lot of famous songs (including Heart’s “Dog And Butterfly,” “Even It Up” and “Straight On”). She helped me. And frankly, I think my guitar playing has improved. When I want to go fast, I can go fast and yet at the same time, I don’t feel compelled to do it. I tried to really go for the emotion and just not ripping. And also, I think I’m continuing to refine my guitar tone. I think my voice has improved, as well. I’ve continued to take lessons and get encouraged about that. My mom died when I was in the early part of writing (for Decisions) and there was a year where I just couldn’t seem to do anything. But during that time I went down a different path. Although this album isn’t about it, I got into Flamenco and recorded a whole bunch of demos for basically a Flamenco fusion-type guitar thing. Who knows if I’m going to get that album done, but playing in that style actually helped me in the blues. I’ve really worked to improve – from songwriting to the chords, the feel, the lyrics … and of course, the musicians that I’m playing with are so incredible. That makes me push myself and want to rise up one more notch.”
Allchin’s back story is just as compelling as the tunes on his new album.
He is a former 16-year executive at Microsoft (recruited to the company by Bill Gates, himself) and helped assist the company in creating a host of platform components, including Microsoft Windows. He also helped build the company’s server business and one of the major awards he garnered during his time at Microsoft was Technical Excellence Person of the Year, in 2001. And oh yeah, Allchin also has a PhD in Computer Science.
The similarities between Allchin and Boston mastermind Tom Scholz are striking. Before going on to sell millions of albums with his band Boston, Scholz was a product designer for the Polaroid Corporation and holds a Master’s Degree in Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
So does that make Allchin the ‘Tom Scholz of the blues’?
“I really don’t know him personally, but I know his general history; he was very innovative and I think he had a very engineering mindset. And my path certainly went that way, as well,” Allchin said.
It may not have been totally by default, but Allchin’s first career choice was not to be an essential part of one of the world’s most well-known corporations. Rather, his initial desires were to be what he is now, a working musician. As a young man growing up in Florida, he fell under the spell of the music and before long, he was traveling around the deep south, playing music. However, that plan hit something of a speed bump at one point in time.
“I was in college and was traveling wherever I could on the weekends, playing fraternities and parties because I needed the money to go to college. But then I dropped out (of college) and tried to really make it (playing music). The truth is, I’ve always really loved music, but I’ve also really loved math and computer science – back then it was called engineering. I’ve always loved that. I was on food stamps and the money wasn’t making it through the month and I would have Corn Flakes without milk as my meal, so I said ‘Enough of this.’ The musician’s life is tough. All people are different, but I don’t smoke and never have and I got tired of being in smoky environments and just wanted a better life than what I could see. About this same time, I was meeting a bunch of people who were really phenomenal musicians that were coming in and out of Gainesville (Florida). I met these incredible musicians who were really struggling. So I said, ‘Hum, even if I get really, really good on guitar, I’m still going to struggle, because these guys are.’ It was a question of getting a lucky break. To this day, there are so many incredible musicians that are not discovered and are out there going with their passion and are just barely making it by. So I don’t look back on it (shelving playing music full-time to return to college) as a hard decision; it was one that was pretty clear to me. There was something else that I loved to do (math and computer science) that could earn money, so I needed to think about that. I never stopped playing, even when I was working insane hours and I even taught guitar. I’m one of the fortunate ones … I love software, I love mathematics and I love guitar.”
Even though they may seem like polar opposites, Allchin says there is a connecting factor between playing the guitar and authoring computer codes, even if it may be hard to explain just what that factor would be.
“I think there probably is, but I can’t say that I can articulate just what it is. Obviously, you don’t have to play fast – or even in tune – to get your emotion out on the guitar. To me, that’s what music is about. But there is a part of understanding scales and how things fit together, that is not about programming, but it’s about logical approaches to stuff. If you talk to people who really know a lot of scales, you can tell that they have methodically thought about it. But are those people great at mathematics? I don’t know. But getting emotion across is the key thing.”
In 2002 Allchin fought a bout with cancer. While he ultimately won that tussle a year later after undergoing successful treatment, his battle with the disease served as the push for him to refocus his attention and energy on his music on a full-time basis.
“I was diagnosed with cancer and I went to my bosses at the time (at Microsoft) and said that I wanted to leave. Well, I ended up hanging around there for a while (he left Microsoft in 2007) after my treatment. But it was very clear to me that I wanted to spend time with another one of my loves – playing and creating music. That was the impetus for me to leave … it sure wasn’t like I didn’t love what I was doing. It was sort of a major wake-up call, like, ‘OK, 14 hour days … how long am I going to do this and then look back and regret not investing in some of my other passions?’ That was what triggered me.”
Allchin also developed melanoma in 2015, but once again, he topped that for another full recovery.
Part of his problems with melanoma no doubt stem from his days as a child, growing up in the bright sunshine of Florida working in orange groves from a very young age. Due to growing up in modest conditions, Allchin learned to work from a tender age, doing whatever he could to help earn money to support his family. That work ethic is something that would go on to help shape his adult life and is something he continues to value to this very day.
“I think that would help shape anyone’s adult life. It certainly got me to believe I didn’t want to be a farmer,” he laughed. “I have incredible respect for farmers, but boy, that’s one hard life. We didn’t have much, but I had a great childhood. My family was really close and if I wasn’t out hoeing orange trees, I could go down to the river and jump in it and swim or fish or whatever. And I had lots of time to think and to tinker. But did it shape me in terms of hard work? Probably. I do believe people feel good if they get stuff done. That helps me … it could be something simple like just washing the dishes, but when I get something done, I feel good.”
After starting out on trumpet when he was young, Allchin quickly ditched that instrument in favor of the guitar.
The two have been inseparable ever since.
“In the early days, Jimi Hendrix with “Purple Haze” completely blew me away. The first song I ever learned was “Wipeout.” My brother played the drums and so I learned to play that song. Here’s an interesting story that goes to show that if people can take guitar lessons, it would be good for them. I learned to play by only picking down, because I was on this farm and had bought a little Montgomery Ward acoustic guitar with my savings. That’s the guitar I learned to play “Wipeout” on and I learned by picking with just downstrokes. But you couldn’t play that song too fast by just picking down. It was years later when I was in college and was out gigging and somebody said, ‘You know, you can pick backwards (upwards) too?’ So for six months, I spent my time relearning how to play guitar by picking it back-and-forth. But I had never had lessons or anything. I have a lot of respect for people that play upsides down or backwards or whatever, because that’s how they learned. That relearning was tough.”
After getting bit by the Hendrix bug, Allchin soon discovered a love for a host of other players.
“Yeah, guys like Carlos Santana and guys like Albert King, who is among my favorite blues players. And to this day, Eric Johnson is still one of my all-time favorite heroes on guitar.”
It was Johnson that also gave Allchin a bit of advice pertaining to the vocal department.
“Eric Johnson said, ‘It doesn’t matter (how you sing), just try to get across the emotion. So I’ve taken that to heart and try to work with and improve on what I do have,” he said. “I’m really impressed with singers like Etta James, even though I’ll never sing like her. I’m just humbled whenever I hear her sing. It’s mind-boggling some of the things she did with her voice. I have a high voice and that’s never going to change, so I can’t do some of the stuff that I’d like to do.”
Allchin’s acumen on guitar is such that he could play any style of music that he wants to.
But the music that he chooses to play … his ‘decision’ to play, if you will, comes straight from his heart and is really something he has little control over at the end of the day.
“I just know that it (the blues) calls to me. I can’t explain it, but it’s always called to me. So it’s like, why fight it? It calls to me and so that’s where I go. My son says, ‘You can do this electronic music (dance-oriented pop),’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s not my passion, it’s not speaking to me.’ I would do anything I could to help the blues from deteriorating any more. I still believe it is a cry from the soul, if you will. I think it’s important that we honor where it came from and also continue to expand it and open it up by making sure we’re not rigid on ‘what is the blues.’ I think we will attract new people to the blues and I do think people can see how modern music has been dramatically influenced from the blues.”
Visit Jim’s website at: www.jimallchin.com