Just in time: one day before Jim “Kimo” West will release his new album More Guitar Stories, I had the opportunity to chat with him about that new record. Jim became well-known as the guitar player of the band of Weird Al Yankovic He is, however, also a great musician with his solo projects and other collaborations – not only as a composer. I for example featured his Hawaiian-style Christmas songs. One of his biggest success stories was being nominated for the Grammy Award for his solo music (on top of awards he won with Weird Al). His new album More Guitar Stories will connect to a 2015 album, Guitar Stories.
Flyctory.com meets Jim “Kimo” West
FLYC: Jim, what many people might not know is that you are in fact Canadian citizen. You were born in Toronto and then moved to Florida. You started playing the guitar at the age of 12. Why did you choose to play the guitar?
Jim: My older brother had a guitar and played folk music, just for fun. One day I saw his neglected guitar in the closet and started fooling around with it. It was missing two strings. He saw that I was interested so he went out and got some new strings, a chord book and a capo. From that point on I was hooked!
FLYC: During your teenage years, you already played with Steve Jay, who is today still joining you as part of Weird Al Yankovic’s band. Any favorite memory from that time?
Jim: I didnʻt play with Steve until I was in my 20ʻs. We had a great band called Zazu and worked a lot at rock clubs around Florida, Later we had a house band gig at a big club in Tampa called Robicontiʻs.
A lot of famous musicians would come in when they had a night off. Frank Zappa came in once and complimented us on the band. He actually asked for our phone numbers!
FLYC: Since 1983, you (and Steve) are backing Weird Al musically. How was it like when you met him the first time?
Jim: I had heard Another One Rides The Bus when the DJ at Robicontiʻs played it. I remember saying ”What the hell is that?” Otherwise I didnʻt know anything about Al other than he had some gigs and was looking for a guitarist. Once I started learning his tunes I realized how talented he was at his craft. He was very well organized and we all hit it off.
FLYC: Was there a certain occasion when you felt that the collaboration with Weird Al Yankovic could last longer? Are there specific reasons you would name why it works out so well?
Jim: I think we all though that we might have two or three years of success if we were lucky. The odds were not heavily in our favor but after five or six albums, Al had become a household name and we realized that anything was possible. With new pop music hits every year there was of course and unlimited amount of subject material for parodies.
FLYC: Very often when you are on tour together, Steve or you explore the area you are playing in. Your photo sets have even been an inspiration for founding Flyctory.com to me. Al cannot walk on the streets so easily, due to being recognized and due to promotional dates. How often are you happy that you are “just” a band member?
Jim: Yes, Iʻm quite happy with being a “behind the scenes” band member. I get recognized sometimes in the city we are playing in but itʻs never a problem. At Alʻs Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony, some one yelled, “Jim, Jim!” and I was flattered they recognized me. Then they said, “Jim, move back, youʻre blocking my photo of Al”.
FLYC: I don’t want to focus too much on Weird Al, but more on your music and its background. You nowadays spent significant time of the year in Hawaii. How did you get attracted to the islands?
Jim: I went to Maui in 1985 with my friend Bill Anderson who had been out on tour with us on the Dare To be Stupid tour. He had a friend there in Hana and invited me to join him. I loved it and started going back often. It was there that I first heart slack key guitar, on some vinyl there at the house.
FLYC: In 1999, you decided to release your first solo album, Coconut Hat. What lead to the decision to also push for your own albums?
Jim: For a number of years I just listened to slack key a lot but wasnʻt really trying to play it. One year we had a good friend of mine who was a chef come to stay. We had a great time but a few weeks later I got a call that he had passed away suddenly. I was very heartbroken and turned to my guitar for comfort. I started playing in the slack key style and wrote my first song, A Lei For James. My friends in Hawaii loved it and encouraged me to write more which I did. I would record them so that I wouldnʻt forget them and eventually I had a dozen or so songs. Some one said that I should put out a CD which had never crossed my mind as I played slack key for enjoyment and not for commerce. Another friend offered to do the cover art and soon I had my first CD. It was a great feeling!
FLYC: Most of your solo projects feature the slack key guitar. Can you tell us a bit what is special about it and why you love to play slack key?
Jim: Slack key is all about using different open tunings. Each tuning has itʻs own magical resonance and musical possibilities. I get inspired when I discover new tunings and always write a new batch of songs. Playing slack key is very relaxing for me, almost a meditation of sorts.
FLYC: One of your very special albums is the 2007 Hotel Honolulu, Hawaiian-style interpretations of songs by The Eagles. How did you develop this album, which you recorded with CMH World?
Jim: I was approached my CMH originally to do a record of Hawaiian version of Sublime songs, called Livinʻs EZ. It was a fun project and they asked me to do the Eagles one next. I played everything on the Eagles project but had a few other players contribute to to the Sublime one.
FLYC: A quite popular collaboration was Slackers in Paradise, which you recorded with Ken Emerson and also performed live a couple of times. What is so special about the combination of slack key and steel guitar?
Jim: Well, steel guitar evolved from slack key. In the late 1800ʻs a young man named Joseph Kekuku discovered he could play his slack key-tuned guitar with a steel bar and that became “steel guitar”, later called ʻHawaiian guitar”, Small Hawaiian ensembles featured it when they toured the mainland (and the world) , introducing the sound to blues musicians in the South and Western music groups.
Slack key and steel guitar use a lot of the same tunings and have a real musical consonance.
FLYC: Do you feel it is harder to write instrumental music compared to music with lyrics? Lyrics are definitely an “easy” way to transport the story you want to tell to the people, aren’t they?
Jim: I used to write lyrics but I donʻt consider myself a singer. Iʻve always written instrumental music and have composed much for film, TV, animation etc. I like music that is “visual”.
FLYC: Of course, we need to talk about Moku Maluhia: Peaceful Island. You won three Grammy Awards with Weird Al at that time already. But how was it like when you received the nomination? Do you get a phone call, “You’re at the Grammy’s!”? Could you believe that from the very beginning?
Jim: I had submitted my last three projects to the Grammyʻs and of course had zero expectations. I was reading the newspaper one morning and kept hearing my phone buzzing. Eventually I went to check it, thinking that some one really needed to talk to me. Then I saw hundreds of “congratulationsʻ”messages – it was hard to believe, thatʻs for sure!
FLYC: As said you know the Staples Center atmosphere already from your previous nominations / awards. Nevertheless, have you been especially nervous on that 10th February 2019, during the ceremony?
Jim: I guess there was a bit of a heart flutter as my category was called and I saw my CD cover up on the screen but itʻs also much to do with seeing all your music biz friends and celebrating each othersʻ success!
FLYC: Finally, when Opium Moon won the Award for the Best New Age Album, have been very disappointed?
Jim: I wouldnʻt call it disappointment really – my expectations were very low to begin with! More of a relief that I can now relax and enjoy the rest of the day.
FLYC: Looking forward: Your 2015 album was Guitar Stories. On 14th August 2020, you are presenting some sort of follow up, More Guitar Stories. What will that album be like?
Jim: This new record is music like Guitar Stories as it a genre-hopping, acoustic guitar-based collection of original compositions and I also have some wonderful musicians adding to the mix.
Iʻm using the slack key tunings but stylistically itʻs a Hawaiian/Celtic/West African, Americana, Indian mashup!
FLYC: Is there maybe a song you would already like to point out – something to look out for?
Jim: Iʻm fond of Birimintingo where two slack key guitars intertwine in the improvisational style of West African kora playing. And The Lydian Sea explores the Indian Classical style using slack key as the main instrument
FLYC: At the moment, it is very hard to predict any future events. But can we expect you being on tour again soon? Solo or with Weird Al? Do we have any chance to welcome you in Europe again?
Jim: Gee, itʻs possible we might start touring next fall but we will have to see. Hopefully this will be another world tour so you may see us!
FLYC: My final one: you produced quite a lot of albums, even including jazz albums like “Stepping Out” by Diana Krall. Was there any song or album you composed / produced, which was even weirder than a Weird Al song?
Jim: I actually did not produce a Diana Krall CD – not sure where that info came from! I have co-written songs with an amazing lyricist / composer named Brian Woodbury – who Al is a big fan of. He has some amazing songs and his latest is a four-CD set called Anthems and Antithets. And he has some extremely “weird” songs! I believe Dr. Demento has played his music.
Concert Pictures: Flyctory.com. All other pictures: Artist Material – TItle picture: (c) 2015 David Bergman / www.DavidBergman.net