Maroon Landing: An Interview with Guitarist James Valentine

November 4, 2009
By Jasmine Marcus

This Sunday evening, Maroon 5 will journey to Ithaca with Fitz & the Tantrums as part of the band’s Back to School Concerts series. Sun Assistant Managing Editor Jasmine Marcus ’10 interviewed Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine and heard all about the group’s upcoming album, got the scoop on a new video game starring lead singer Adam Levine — and secured a tennis date.

The Sun: So are you excited for the tour to start?

James Valentine: Yeah, but I’m totally not ready. There are so many things you need to do before you go on tour. And I have done none of them.

Sun: What do you still have to do?

JV: Stupid stuff like I need to make sure I’ve got enough socks and underwear. That’s kind of the crucial thing.

Sun: Yeah, it is. Kind of like packing for college.

JV: And I need my books that I’m going to read.

Sun: What kind of things do you read when you’re on tour?

JV: Let me look at my Kindle right now — from my Kindle iPhone app. I was actually reading — it sounds pretentious, it sounds like I’m making it up — but I’m in the middle of War and Peace (laughs).

Sun: How’re you liking it?

JV: I’m serious. It’s been interesting, just because my girlfriend was reading it, and I was like, “O.K.” And it just seemed funny to actually read War and Peace since it’s the book people always talk about.

Sun: Are you guys going to check anything cool out while you’re touring all these colleges across the country?

JV: Um, well, days off. Kind of when we’re around New York, we’ll be in New York City, but you kind of never know what you’re going to find when you’re going to these smaller towns like Ithaca. You kind of just have to keep your eyes and ears open, and see what unique opportunities are there. I don’t even know what unique adventures we’ll go on yet.

Sun: I understand the band was just in Switzerland working on your new album. Can you tell me what it’s going to be like?

JV: We’re almost done. I guess we’re more than half. We’ve got eight songs that are mostly finished, and we’ve got a few more written that after this tour we’re going to go back to Switzerland to record. But you know, recording is usually the easier part, writing is the harder part, but that’s mostly done. And you know, hopefully it’ll be out at the end of next winter, early spring. We worked with this producer called Mutt Lange, who’s kind of a legend, and so it’s been a really interesting process working with him, because, you know, every producer brings different things to the table.

Sun: So what is the process like for you guys when you write and record songs?

JV: Well, you know, sometimes it’ll come from a riff or chord progression that one of us had. But you know, on this album, [lead singer] Adam [Levine] has done a lot of the writing pretty much by himself, or he’ll have an idea and sort of flush it out or bring it to us. And then, you know, we’ll each come up with our own parts to play over the song. You know we’ll be in the rehearsal room playing together, and just start building it up in the studio, usually starting with the drums. The drummer playing with the bass player, and just building up the track, and you know, recording nowadays, there’s so many different things you can do with new technologies, which a lot of people are down on. Some people like to just revert back to recording on the tape, they find that process to be more pure. We sort of try to take the best part of that process and combine it with more temporary production techniques, and do what we do.

Sun: What’s this album going to sound like? Will it be similar to what you’ve done in the past?

JV: Yeah, I think you’ll know that it’s Maroon 5. But some of the tracks definitely sound like an evolution, or different from the stuff we’ve done before. There’s a couple of tracks in particular that sound — you know, trying to describe it is pretty hard — but there’s one that’s definitely more of like a rock anthem sort of thing, which we’ve never really done. I guess the closest was sort of “Harder to Breathe,” but this is a different sort of thing that I think might surprise people. This one’s called, “Hands All Over.”

Sun: Your two previous albums were very successful, so when you go to record this new album, was it like, “All right, we’ve done this before, and we can do it again,” or does it make you kind of nervous, like, “How are we going to top this?”

JV: Well, I mean you want to keep doing this, and to remain in public consciousness, and it’s hard to maintain that. So yeah, every time we make a record, we’re pretty cautious. But coming into making the third record, I think there was way more pressure on the second one, because you’re not sure if it was just a fluke the first time around. Now that we’ve got two of them under our belt, we at least have been through it before, so we’re more relaxed. But there’s always pressure. You’re only as good as the last thing you put out.

Sun: On your last album you guys worked with Rihanna, and I know you’ve played with Reel Big Fish in the past. What’s it been like playing with other musicians?

JV: Well, it was through the Reel Big Fish guys that I met the guys in Kara’s Flowers, which was the band that would become Maroon 5. That was like 10 years ago now, which is crazy. And, in terms of working with other people, I don’t know, we’ve all had some things going on on the side. I’ve had a side project called JJAMZ, which is the name that comes from the first initial of all the members: James; Jason Boesel, who played in Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes, among other things; Alex Greenwald, who was in Phantom Planet; Michael Runion, who’s got his own solo thing; and Z Burg who’s in a band called The Like. So we got together at the beginning of this year, and played a couple shows, and recorded some, and hopefully are going to finish a record before next year, although that’s going to be difficult to do (laughs).

Sun: I understand that it was your friendship with John Mayer that sparked some of the band’s popularity at the beginning.

JV: Yeah, that was a lucky break. When I was 17, I went to the Berklee College of Music for essentially a guitar summer camp, and I met him there when he was 17 or 18, so we became friends, and then I sent him the Maroon 5 demo when it was done, and he gave us some of our first tours, opening up for him, because it was right around the time that he was sort of exploding. So that ended up being good for us — it was really nice of him to give us those breaks.

Sun: What kind of things were going on your mind in those two years between when you released the album and when it finally got really big?

JV: Yeah, those were interesting times because we were working really hard. We were touring constantly in a van and it was not the best of conditions, but every week when we went out, things just kept on moving forward for us. Like more people were showing up to the shows, we were slowly starting to get some airplay here and there. People were starting to buy the record in patches all over the country. It was great. There was always positive momentum to keep us going. And then at a certain point, it just reached that critical mass point where it sort of exploded.

Sun: So how has it been different now that you guys are so famous?

JV: Um, it’s great. You know, we try not to take it for granted. It’s just a privilege to play music for a living. It’s awesome. We spent so much time working to get to this point, we have to remind ourselves not to take it for granted.

Sun: When I was checking out your website, I noticed that Maroon 5 is putting together a video for the Harlem Children’s Zone. How did you get involved with the group, and what are you doing with them?

JV: Well, actually, [keyboardist] Jesse [Carmichael]’s dad has come out with us on the road many times, and sort of documented the tours and our travels, and he’s a really great photographer, so we have these photos, and we figure, “What can we do with all this? Because it would be something our fans would be interested in.” So we put together these really cool sort of movies, and so Jesse — I guess he’s the one who had heard about the Children’s Zone — just figured it would be a good charity to benefit since they do really great work. I think focusing on children — it sounds cliché, but — that is the way to go — it’s the way to really affect positive change.

Sun: Switching gears a little bit, I’ve read that you guys play a lot of video games during your downtime on tour, so I wanted to know if you guys are going to play Band Hero when it comes out with Adam’s character in it.

JV: Oh yeah, well, Adam is really the guy who plays video games in the band, although I just got addicted to this iPod app called Drop 7 after sitting next to this woman on a plane who is a video game designer. It’s kind of like Tetris, but a little more complicated, and now I’m actually worried that I’m addicted. But yeah, those Band Hero and Guitar Hero games are fun every once in a while. That’ll be funny playing with Adam’s avatar. But with those games — some of my nephews and nieces are getting into them — my whole thing is like: Some of these kids play these games so much, I just want to be like, “If you spent that time, even half the time, that you spend playing Guitar Hero actually playing a guitar, then you could actually really play in front of people, and have like the real deal experience and learn songs.” But I don’t know — then I sound like a crotchety old man when I start talking like that.

Sun: Are you guys excited to be playing in front of Cornell with your opening act?

JV: Yeah. Fitz & the Tantrums is this band that Adam sort of discovered — well he didn’t discover them — he discovered them on behalf of the band — which is cool because Adam doesn’t really ever like new music, but he really likes this band. Frankly, I haven’t heard much of them yet, but Adam’s really excited to bring them out, so it should be really cool. Also, you can put it out to any tennis players in Ithaca that I’m looking to play tennis.

Sun: I play tennis, actually.

JV: Are you on the team?

Sun: No, I’m not at that level, but I’ve been playing since I was five.

JV: No kidding. Dude, let’s play. I put it out on Twitter that if anyone beats me, they can have free tickets to the show. Because I’ve been playing for the last year, and I mean, I’m O.K. So let’s play!

Publicist chiming in: Ok, I can set this up.

JV: Yeah, so set it up! Sweet. Let’s hit. Perfect. Well, nice to meet you — over the phone, and we’ll see each other on the court.

Check out Valentine’s shredding skills Sunday night at Barton Hall. The show starts with opener Fitz & The Tantrums at 7 p.m. Advance student tickets are $20 and can be purchased at cornellconcerts.com.