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The Ballad of Skyway Man

James Wallace, wearing a blue jumpsuit, takes off a pair of sunglasses against a fluorescent red backdrop.
Angelina Castillo
Mama Bird Recording Co.

James Wallace discusses his space-rock project's Richmond-rooted new concept, Flight of the Long Distance Healer.

The new album Flight of the Long Distance Healer is the third offering from Skyway Man, the project of musician and producer James Wallace. Centering on a treasure trove of found letters and a psychedelic alien mythology, the project seeks internal answers among the stars, featuring influences from glam rock and future folk, along with a roster of supporting musicians that includes Erin Rae and Vetiver’s Andy Cabic.

Now based in Oakland by way of Richmond and Nashville, Wallace came home to start the record, beginning the process at Montrose Recording with members of the Spacebomb house band.

I caught up with Wallace to learn more about the new album, his work on the Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks With You, and his fascination with dreams and flying saucers.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Annie Parnell: What is long-distance healing?

James Wallace: It's supposed to be a spiritual form of healing. So, there's spiritual healing where one lays hands on an individual, and then there's long-distance healing, where one does it from afar.

I don't know so much about it, but the individual where it comes from — this man that I met through discovering his letters — he advertises himself as this being his profession. He does in-person healings and long-distance healings.

I really like the idea of long-distance healer. I mean, I just like what it what it conjures, and it felt like a really cool way to hang a story arc of an album.

You mentioned the letters that you discovered — there is a really rich mythology around Flight of the Long Distance Healer. Can you tell me the story behind it?

I can give a little introduction; a really short version of an introduction of that story. At some point there will be a more broad telling.

I think it was the summer I'd graduated college, 2006. I discovered, through snooping around an abandoned motorcycle shop, a box of letters that were all written to a woman from a man. They all discussed a really strange type of UFO religious mythology, which isn't completely unique to the letters — ufology is a cult movement in the United States and the rest of the world. It's basically a form of the Judeo-Christian religious theology, but if you sort of swap it out for aliens and spaceships coming in. You have to prepare your mind for the fourth dimension to survive the frequency of light and get beamed up onto the craft.

I loved all of it. It was just really exciting. It felt like I was discovering something that no one else had discovered, and literally, I had. The wildest part of the story is that that same evening we found those letters, we searched for the author on the internet and we found his number. We called him and he answered, and we talked to him. That is where things got wilder, but I'll save that for another time.

Who or what else was inspiring to you for this album?

It always takes me a long time to make records. The songs on the albums I put out often span over a long period of time. There's songs on this album that are 15 years old, and there's some that are a year old. That's kind of true for all my records — it just sometimes takes me a long time to finish processing a tune.

Thinking about that, about collecting the songs over a period that almost encompasses the amount of time that I've known of this guy and been in his orbit, this mystery of the discovery of him has existed in the periphery of my mind.

I had this cool thought: What types of influence have he or I had over one another, over the course of this interesting period of my life? From getting out of college and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, to now, realizing, “Oh, I guess I'm doing what I want to do with my life.” Just thinking of what sorts of ways we've potentially influenced each other from afar.

We've spoken over email, we met in person once, and we've spoken on the phone once or twice, so we definitely don't have an intimate relationship. He's a very interesting guy, he still lives mostly in seclusion. I just like the fantastical mystery of sending messages across space and time. That always gets me. 

You say some of the songs are very new, and some are a lot older. What are the oldest and youngest pieces on this record?

The youngest song is “The Holding On;” the first song. I wrote that just last year, and it came together really fast.

The newer songs on this album, it sounds almost cheesy or cliche, but they're songs that I learned in dreams. I woke up from a dream and made a voice memo of that song. It could have been that it was a time when I wasn't actively trying to write songs, but there's something that would happen. If I hear a song in a dream and wake up, somehow it feels like it already exists or it's important. It allows me to not brush it off. I'd save a voice memo, and then months later, come back to it and turn it into a song.

That first song happened like that: I was in New Orleans, recording an album for a band called The Lostines with a few other friends. I was sleeping on the floor of this music studio. I had this dream that I was in a dive karaoke bar, and a friend showed up and pulled the mic from whoever was singing and was like, “I have a new song to sing.” Then my friend sang me this song — some version of it that doesn't sound anything like the record, and may have different lyrics, etc.

Whatever that was, I was like, “Well, that's a great song.” I tried to remember the gist of it when I woke up, and found that that was enough to get me inspired to write it and finish it.

The oldest song on the record is “Backwards In Time.” I know that one's old, because I think I had only been living in Nashville for a couple of years when I started writing it. I never really was sure what I would do with it, but I was in Richmond with Cameron, Pinson and Alan, sort of the rhythm section of Spacebomb. I always wanted to do that song with an upright bass and a narcotic jazz–type feel, because it has a sort of Randy Newman sound. Knowing that I could get that sound with them forced me to be like, “Well, this song could do that, and I should finish it, and figure it out.” I really love how that one turned out.

That leads pretty nicely into another question I had, which is that Long Distance Healer sort of has roots all over: Oakland, Nashville and right here in Richmond. How did that affect the recording process?

I don't know how it affected it, because it's how I've always made records. It's always a slight game of chance, because you're mixing a lot of unknowns. It has ways of augmenting and potentially diluting the process.

I do think that starting it in Richmond gave it the direction that the rest of the album took on. Everything else, from that point on, I felt would have to either intentionally sound connected to the other songs or be a purposeful outlier; a way to change course in the middle of a record. I had the most fun and excitement recording in Richmond, because the team are all my musical heroes.

I had never worked with Adrian Olsen before — he engineered it. That was the first time I've worked with an engineer that was consistently 10 steps ahead of me. Anytime we would go into the control room to listen to something, it would sound like it should sound — and that's not saying that I even knew what that was before going into it. But it sounded like what it was supposed to be.

“The Holding On” was recorded in Oakland. It was definitely more fly-by-night, because there were people in town that were only in town for one night. We recorded it on an old tape machine, a track tape machine. We had to just get it done, and that had a very different energy.

Of course, in Nashville, one of the songs was basically a home recording, and the other one was a really quick afternoon session.

It kind of goes all around, and then when I get all the pieces, there's still lots of little overdubs to add. I do that at home in this room in Oakland.

“Backwards In Time” mentions Powhatan County, which is here in the Richmond area. Is there a connection there?

That's where I grew up. I think I left when I was 17, which is the age I mention in the song. It's that point in the record that I chose to be the crux of the album, it's the end of Side A.

I don't know exactly what the specific story is, but I was trying to writing that song, to have a conversation with myself over the course of time. I was speaking to myself as a 17-year-old version of myself talking to a nine-year-old version of myself, sending messages back and forth. What would that look like?

You’ve also done some soundtrack work as part of the Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks with You, which in contrast to Skyway Man has a very everyday, pastoral tone. Is there anything that links those projects in your mind?

The song “Days on Earth” is sort of an example of what I would do if I were trying to combine those two worlds. I even brought in the same woodwind player from one of the songs on the soundtrack, and just tried to paint with those same elements.

I love writing prompts and experimenting with writing very different styles. Over the years, Skyway Man has sort of become its own thing: there’s a particular arrangement of sounds that I try to keep as broad as possible, but it's still a concept, still an idea, and there are guidelines to it.

Getting to do the Joe Pera soundtrack was very much serving an end goal, but trying to do it through the lens of what I would truly do. Like, “how can I actually get my voice on it?” It ended up being so different than most stuff that I've recorded as myself, but I have found that it has begun to influence and shape what I might want to do on the next album.

What's next for Skyway Man?

I'm gonna not go anywhere for a month and a half, and hopefully get out on the road in earnest this next year — maybe going into the summer. There will hopefully be a long Skyway Man circle.

Skyway Man’s Flight of the Long Distance Healer is available now.