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LAist Interview: Jim Bianco

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Jim Bianco knows how to captivate an audience. You can't help but be drawn in by his charisma, and you never know what to expect when he takes the stage.

Bianco’s new record, Sing, is the first album to be released by the Hotel Cafe record label. Like his previous albums, Sing showcases his playfulness. "I Got a Thing for You" is destined to be a hit with burlesque troupes, and lyrics from songs like "Painkiller" don't disappoint:

Your skirt blew up high enough
That I could see your skin
It appeared as though I was owed
A favor by the wind…

LAist caught up with Bianco during the Hotel Cafe Tour to get the scoop on the new album, the burlesque tie-in and his pie fight with Ingrid Michaelson.

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LAist: In just a few words each, how would you describe each of your albums?

Jim Bianco: Well Within Reason was my first approach to music. It was before I had my band, but I think of it as a fun record. I call Handsome Devil my sex record because there’s a sexual theme throughout the whole thing. It’s about the tenacity of the male libido.

When I perform songs from that record, I always feel successful when people understand that I’m in character. I’m sort of speaking from the perspective of a full-on testosterone-charged male running on a thousand gallons of fuel—saying whatever he wants to without consequences. And now that I’m a few years older, I’d have to say that the new record, Sing, has a little more heart and a little more openness.

Jim Bianco - "I Got a Thing for You"

I’ve read that you compose a lot of your music on the piano, yet you don’t have one at home. How does that work?

Well, that’s where the Hotel Cafe comes in. I go there earlier in the evening or really late at night. A lot of the songs on the new record were composed at the Hotel Cafe. Like in “Painkiller,” track four, I had the first verse in my head, and then when I went to the Hotel Cafe and started messing around, that’s when the music came to it.

Your lyrics are just as strong as your melodies and I was wondering, which do you start with first when you sit down to write?

Each song is different; it’s its own little animal.

What inspired you to sample Gershwin on “If Your Mama Knew”?

It’s really great when you can write a song and perform it live a bunch of times before you record it, because then you discover where the life of the song lives.

That was a song we got to play a lot before we actually recorded it. One time when we were performing it live, Brad Gordon went into that Gershwin thing, and ever since then, we’ve used it. Doing stuff live helps you discover what works, because the crowd lets you know when you’ve hit on something.

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Sing was the first album released by the Hotel Cafe record label. How did that come about?

That was a real matter of timing and family. I was releasing the record on March 4, and the tour was starting two days later. So my friends Marko Schafer and Max Mamikunian from the Hotel Cafe had owned the “Hotel Cafe Records” name for a while without doing anything with it. So I said, “Why don’t we just put the record out on it? It makes sense. I’ve been here for years. Why don’t we each bring to the table what we can bring to the table?”

It was just sorta like holding hands and trying to muster up whatever magic we could to put a record out independently.

Is it true that your songs have been very popular with burlesque troupes?

Yes, and I get e-mails from strippers and burlesque dancers all over the world.

Max from the Hotel Cafe once called me and said, “Jimmy, I just walked past Jumbo’s Clown Room. The door swung open and I heard your song coming out of there!” That was so great.

I did the video for “I Got a Thing for You” with a burlesque dancer named Courtney Cruz. As you can imagine, it was really fun to shoot.

Anyway, I might do something with her—we may put together a show. She does a lot of shows in town that are classy, cool and interesting. It’s just a matter of being sexy without being cheap, and using eroticism as a sense of art without it being corny.

I’ve seen videos of the whole Hotel Cafe Tour group coming together to cap off your set with “Sing.” Has it been that way from the beginning or was it something that evolved during the tour?

It was born during the UK tour last year. We usually go out into the crowd and perform with everyone singing harmonies. It’s just something that’s a nice break for the show. I like to do at least one interesting thing for every song, whether it be confetti, going out into the crowd, or finger-tapping metal guitar solos as a joke.

Jim Bianco - "Sing"

What’s been your craziest or most surreal moment on the tour?

Ingrid Michaelson and I were backstage in Boise after a show, and the club had given us a chocolate mousse pie that tasted really good. But at the end of the night, we were feeling frisky, so I said, “Let’s get the video camera and throw pie in each other’s faces.”

So Allie Moss, Ingrid’s fantastic backup singer, has footage of us walking up to each other and just slamming pie in each other’s faces for five minutes.

Oh my! Well, in addition to throwing food, I have heard that you are also fond of eating it and are quite the foodie. Have you found some good places to eat during the tour?

Definitely. What’s been really cool about this tour is that rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll, but when you’re on the road for an extended period of time, you can’t eat poorly because your body won’t make it. It’s just bad fuel. So a lot of people on the tour are hip to that and we try to find good food.

What are your favorite places to eat in LA?

That’s such a dangerous question. I’ll just rattle them off: Apple Pan, Zankou, Matsuhisa—when someone takes me out, that’s where I go. I like this place called Chicken El Dorado, which is outstanding. Mario’s Peruvian & Seafood Restaurant is amazing. I go to Molly’s for cheeseburgers.


Have you ever gotten a chance to perform with any of your heroes?

Not yet. I’m trying to get on Loudon Wainwright III’s show, but he never has openers and I’m bummed about that. I have seen him on the street before, and that’s a fun story…

So I heard this song of his, “Your Mother and I,” which is about divorce. It’s hardcore and it pulls no punches. So I heard that song and it took me, like, a month to figure out who it was.

And then I found out that he was playing at McCabe’s that week. I went there to hear him play, and it was sold out. So I headed home and at one point stopped to tie my shoe. Right then, I looked up, and there was Wainwright walking toward me.

So I said to him, “Hey man, thanks for that song ‘Your Mother and I.’ It’s just really really beautiful.”

And he said, “Cool. You coming to the show?”

To which I replied, “You’re sold out, man. I’m bummed. I should’ve bought tickets.”

Then he smiled and said, “Come with me.”

So he walks me about a quarter of a mile to McCabe’s and says to the guy at the door, “Tommy?”—and he grabs me and whispers in my ear and asks, “What’s your name?” And I say, “Jim Bianco.”

Then he says, “We’re going to put my friend Jim on the list tonight.”

I got front row seats. It was so beautiful.

I’ve seen him since then and I’ve been a dork every time. He’s one of the living examples of why I don’t talk to people I admire because I always end up embarrassing myself.

Well, speaking of people you admire, I know you look up to a number of authors. You included so many great quotes in your bio that I get the idea you’re a voracious reader. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, though I’ve found it’s really hard to read anything while you’re on tour.

What’s one of the best books you’ve ever read?

Anna Karenina by one of the greats, Leo Tolstoy. There were times in that book where I had to put it down and say to myself, “That’s one of the most incredible sentences…”

I’m grateful for that outlet. To be able to sit down with someone who has sat down by themselves and written something—it’s like Woody Allen movies because he was in it, directed it and wrote it. Those early films were genius because no one got in the way of watering it down; it’s just him doing his thing.


Do you have any hobbies?

I like to read at the beach. I just got in my car today for the first time in a month and it smelled like the beach. I must’ve gone before I left for the Hotel Cafe Tour. It made me look forward to summertime.

Any plans after the Hotel Cafe European tour?

I’m doing a “Deep in the Heart of Texas” tour. Strangely enough, there’s a circuit through some yoga studios in Texas. There’s this place called Bend Studio in Dallas and it has sister studios in Houston and Austin.

I’m friends with a girl there and she books people like Loudon Wainwright III, Bob Schneider and others. It’s obviously different from a rock club because it’s the most intimate show you can possibly play because it’s in a yoga studio. I’m looking forward to it.

Jim Bianco will return to the Hotel Cafe for a show on May 30, and will perform at Zoey’s in Ventura on May 31. In June and July, he will be touring around the country with Shelby Lynne. His new album Sing is available for purchase via CD Baby, iTunes and other retailers.

First photo by Bryony Shearmur, album cover photo by Bethany Dwyer, vertical Hotel Cafe Tour photo by Bich Ngoc Cao, and remaining Hotel Cafe Tour photos by Koga